Arkansas High Country, day 11: Witts Spring to Fifty-Six

June 18, 2019 ~ Witts Spring to Fifty-Six

I'd convinced myself that yesterday was the last hard day, so this was the day I faced that lie. After reaching Witts Spring I'd made the mistake of looking closer at my upcoming route and realizing that the 100 miles to my intended destination would cost me another 9,000 feet of elevation gain. It's just like riding day 2 of Tour of Hermann, I told myself, but the reassurance rang hollow.

The story of my race was grim determination and an infinite capacity for self-deception, but even so I had a hard time leaving Witts Spring in the morning. I drank a lot of coffee, ate a lot of food, and finally stopped stalling and headed out a little after 8.

8:22 a.m.

I spotted this guy within minutes of leaving the community center. I hadn't seen a single turtle until day 10, so their frequent appearance in my last few days seemed like a thinly veiled message: Remember how you wanted to finish in 10 days? That had been the original goal, but after Rebecca Rusch took just over 8 days to finish the route (in far worse conditions) I realized I was probably overreaching. Extrapolating from our Dirty Kanza times, when she finished in 2/3 of my time, I figured 12-13 days was a more reasonable expectation.

The morning pace had a lot in common with my turtle friend until about 8 miles in, when I hit a screaming descent to Lick Fork Creek. I remember it as being one of the sketchier downhills and one that gave lie to my belief that the race had made me a braver descender. Overall ARHC mirrored my other long races: timid in the beginning, growing confidence in the second quarter, fatalistic disconnection in the third ("if I die on this downhill at least I don't have to ride my bike anymore"), and then a return to conservatism at the end ("I didn't ride 900 miles just to break my neck before the finish.").

I was probably looking ahead at that mountain wondering if I'd be climbing it later.
9:41 a.m.

The race route followed part of the Ozark Grinder Trail, a multi-surface 150+ mile trail that I'd first heard of when a friend suggested we bikepack it. I was open to the idea, but driving all the way to Arkansas just for a short 150-mile ride seemed well beyond my ideal drive time: ride time ratio. I quickly realized how silly that thought had been. This was no easy ride, but what it lacked in gentleness it made up for in its scenic beauty.

Buffalo River Overlook
10:44 a.m.

I spent some time hanging out here, appreciating the view, and avoiding riding my bike.

Past the overlook was a 350-foot drop down to a creek crossing before climbing right back up.

I'm pretty sure this is Calf Creek. It was, fittingly, about calf-level on me, but some of the guys who'd attempted the route counter-clockwise had crossed it when it was more like chest deep. Thankfully by the time I got there the flooding had subsided.
11:14 a.m.

My next landmark was the town of Marshall, on the outskirts of which I stopped to say hi to Dana Treat, a local photographer who was out on course. She got some amazing pictures of me and met me in town for lunch.

Photo credit: Dana Treat

I stopped at the first gas station I saw to fill up on water and some snacks, having long ago learned my lesson about not waiting for some potential later source, then crossed the street to a Mexican restaurant. Dana had asked if I wanted company or preferred to just stay focused and eat on my own. After spending so much of the past two weeks alone, I definitely wanted company and enjoyed talking with her about the race, Rebecca Rusch's FKT experience, and their efforts to build tourism in Searcy County.

1:07 p.m.
Marshall, AR

We said our goodbyes after a leisurely lunch, and Dana's presence on route helped me stay on my bike for as much of the next big climb as I could manage before giving up and hiking up the rest. I'd been spoiled by Arkansas' gentle weather, but as I neared the end of the race the state stopped making things quite so easy. This was a hot day, and even if it wasn't "typical Arkansas summer" hot, I struggled.

On top of that, I was chased by what felt like every dog in Arkansas. I was SO sick of sprinting away from dogs, and the term "sprint" by then was most definitely a relative term. After getting my first dog bite back in April, I'd developed a real fear of loose dogs, and every chase both exhausted me and brought me to tears.

My next stop was Leslie, where I stopped at a gas station to fill up on water and buy more food. Though I'd sworn off chicken after smelling a multitude of chicken farms during the race, I couldn't resist the chicken strips there.

Sitting in the air conditioning with a cold drink, I took stock of my progress. It had taken me over 7 hours to cover the 50 miles to that point. Riding another 50 miles to Mountain View seemed impossible. I readjusted my plan and made a reservation for a room in Fifty-Six; thirty more miles seemed barely achievable.

4:29 p.m.

So I rode on, the route mercifully more gentle than the last half. Even though I felt like I was dying and even I was sick of my own crybaby demeanor, I tried hard to appreciate what a gift the race was. So many men I'd met during the race had told me, "I'd never let my wife do something like that", so I knew how lucky I was to have a husband who'd set aside his own reservations because he knew how much it mattered to me.

That said, pre-race had been a real balancing act between telling him enough that he'd understand what I was doing and not telling him so much that he'd change his mind. Even days before I left he'd asked, "So if you have to drop out someone will come and get you, right?"

"Yes. You," I'd replied, not knowing just how likely that would turn out to be.

5:33 p.m.
Even though the sun didn't set until around 9, I rode into Fifty-Six in full night. Thankfully my lights worked great as I turned onto the paved highway in the dark. I was on high alert, scared that I wouldn't see my motel when I got there, but my fears were groundless. I hauled my bike up the porch steps and into my room, where I showered myself and my kit in the shower, prepped for the upcoming day (the last one?), and ate the last of the chicken strips I'd bought thirty miles previously.

Hoping desperately to finish out the race the next day, I set my alarm for an early start, posted an update to facebook, and went to bed.

I know I'm lucky to have the opportunity and ability to spend almost two weeks on my bike -- and to have friends who are willing to pitch in and make it more meaningful than one person's adventure. And I recognize that next week, the dogs will be in the trash and I'll be picking up shredded packages and diapers off the floor and people will complain about what I made for dinner and I'll wonder just what was so awful about pushing my bike up every hill in Arkansas. 

But for now, I want to go home. 80 miles today, 135 to go.

Strava data for the day


  1. Ok. Waiting on some more. I am thinking of doing this and u r my inspiration


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