Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Ouachita Switchbacks Trail Race Report

Yes, Oklahoma has mountains!  Big, beautiful mountains.  2013 was the inaugural Ouachita Switchbacks 25K and 50K trail run and lucky me, I got to be a part of it!  Tommy Brennan put the race together and did a wonderful job.  There wasn't enough time to secure the necessary permit with the National Forest Service to call it an "official" trail race, so this ended up being a Fat Ass style race.  It was free but donations were taken to help cover some of his expense in stocking aid stations.

The Ouachita National Forest covers 1.8 million acres in central Arkansas and southeastern Oklahoma and is where you can find one of the prettiest trails I've ever seen, the Ouachita Trail.  The Ouachita Trail is 223 miles long and stretches from Talimena State Park in Oklahoma to Pinnacle Mountain State Park in Little Rock, Arkansas.

View from our cabin before the race

We drove up on Friday night and rented a cabin about 5 miles from where the race would start at the Pashubbe trailhead.  The cabin was cozy and it felt great to wake up Saturday morning after a full nights sleep and know that we only had a 5 minute drive to the trail head.  Most of the time I arrive at a trail race half asleep after a 3am wake-up and then driving for hours, so this was nice!  I could get used to that.
Waiting for the race to start

The 25K race course takes you from Pashubbe trailhead and heads west for about 9.4 miles (according to my Garmin).  The entire route is run on the Ouachita trail and is marked by Ouachita trail blue blazes.  25K'ers run an out & back for about 18.8 miles total.  The 50K'ers do this out & back and then once back at the start/ finish take off down a different trail running that heads east for an out & back.  There were 30ish runners signed up for both races Saturday morning and it was a mellow, friendly atmosphere.  After some  directions from Tommy we were off!  The combination of being in the mountains and smelling the fresh pine scented air, having perfect running temps (38 at the start climbing to 62 degrees in the afternoon with TONS of sunshine) and being healthy had me feeling blessed and I was on a total running high.  The first 6 miles or so was a blur of pure happiness.  :)

Miles 0-4 were rolling, pine needle covered trails. Pretty technical in spots, but almost all runnable.  At about mile 4 is the only road crossing.  We crossed over highway 259 and hit the first aid station.  After the aid station we had the largest river/creek crossing.  I almost managed to cross with dry feet!  Ended up with one foot soaked and one dry and realized my Kinvara Peregrine II's and Injinji socks do a great job of draining and dry fast.

Miles 4-7 After the river crossing the trail starts heading up Winding Stair Mountain.  The views become more expansive and the trail gets more varied.  There are views of the river/creek down below, a rock glacier to traverse, HUGE downed trees to climb over/under, very technical sections and soft groomed pine needle sections.  There was even a little snow up here which was fun to see.  At mile 7 we descended to a small saddle and  I knew this was where it was about to get real.
River/creek crossing after first aid station

View of the crossing while climbing Winding Stair Mountain

Photo courtesy of: Russell Bennett
Yep, that' s the trail!

Cindy crossing boulder field

Cindy working her way up the switchbacks

Miles 7-9.4  The climb up Wilton Mountain is a series of 33 switchbacks (hence the name of the race) and it's a doozy.  Cindy and I kept meeting back up during the race and would run sections together which was fun.  I like running solo but love the companionship of a good friend during hard sections and it really helped during the tougher sections to be able to run with her.  We kept chipping away at it climbing up, up up. Finally at the top, we took a few pictures, ate a few cookies and started to head back down.
Me at the tippy top of Winding Stair Mountain!  Halfway through.

View from the top

Snow on the mountain

Miles 9.4-11.8 We made good time going back down Winding Stair Mountain and before I knew it we were back in the saddle again and heading back up.  This is where I started to feel my lack of any recent mountain or hill training and began to slow.  I was also dealing with some gallbladder pain, probably from eating the cookies at the turnaround.  Cindy went on after a few minutes.  Once the pains eased,  I started running again.  Nothing too memorable here in this section, it was just head down, relentless forward progress.

Miles 11.8-14.8 I felt pretty relieved to see the aid station and highway 259.  Made it feel more like I was on the home stretch to cross that highway!  Ate a few more cookies and headed for the finish.
Descending Winding Stair for the final time. Almost back to the aid station!

Miles 14.8-18.8 Gallbladder pains again.  (this is when it finally entered my brain that HEY, cookies are probably causing your struggling gallbladder to freak out so STOP eating cookies!)  After only a few minutes of sitting on a rock and breathing through the pain, the right-side ache once again eased off and I was back to running.  Knowing I was on the home stretch pepped me up and kept me going.  Although tired, I was still enjoying every second out there and marveling at just HOW beautiful the Ouachita National Forest is. (If you haven't been there, GO!)  Felt good to get to the finish though and be done and was VERY glad that I was running the 25K and not the 50K.  My legs were toast.

I haven't looked at my Garmin data yet to see what the elevation was for the race, but it was much more significant than what I'm used to.  I can't wait to start coming here more to train, it's rugged and beautiful.  The Ouachita Trail is well-marked with blue blazes and I would love to explore every inch of it.

Tommy had chili, chips, cookies and other goodies after the race and even gave me a shirt for finishing.  Great, GREAT race and I hope it becomes an annual event.

The next day, hiking at Cedar Lake with Dave

Hiking Old Pine Trail at Cedar Lake with Dave, Ladybird and Trixie

Old Pine Trail and Cedar Lake


  1. Larry and I had run exactly on these trails - and yes, OK has mountains, indeed! The trails were beautiful and thanks for the pictures and a reminder why. I am looking forward next year...will be difficult to pick, Athens marathon and that are both on the list!

    1. Athens Big Fork has been on my list too! I love that part of the country. I'd move there if there were more jobs. Let me know which one you decide to run next year!

    2. Yes!! Now you're talkin'! :) I was thinking the same. I want to venture to Arkansas and eastern OK to run more. I just love that terrain.

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  2. Looks beautiful. I look forward to running there one day. Congrats on your race!

    1. Thanks! Hope Jemez training is going well for you!

  3. Beautiful trails indeed! Well done with your finish. Looks like a really great event.

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