History of the Athens-Big Fork Trail Marathon

by David J. Samuel

View of Big Tom Mountain from Brushy Mountain

The Ouachita National Forest (and running) has been a big part of my life. My first assignment as a forester with the U. S. Forest Service was at Mount Ida in 1966. The next year I transferred to the Ozark National Forest for tours at Clarksville and Russellville before heading to assignments in Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina. We returned to Arkansas in 1979 when I reported to the Caddo Ranger District, Ouachita National Forest in Glenwood. At that time there were only short hiking trails within the recreation areas at Albert Pike, Bard Springs and Crystal. During the late 1980's, I had an opportunity to apply for a grant with the Student Conservation Association (SCA) for trail construction using high schools from across the country in an eight-week summer program. We received the grant and started to work on the first segment of the Little Missouri Trail from Albert Pike Recreation Area to Little Missouri Falls. Tim Ernst, Arkansas' Wilderness Photographer, served as my SCA Crew Leader for the first two years. The third year we extended the Little Mo Trail from the falls upstream along the Little Mo River and connected to the abandoned Athens-Big Fork Trail where it crossed the river. The following years we extended the Little Mo Trail from Albert Pike Recreation Area downstream on the river to where the Viles Branch motorway crossed the river. The Little Mo trail passes near Greasy Branch downstream from the Albert Pike Recreation Area where General Albert Pike had a cabin in 1862. Finally in 1986, we began reconstruction of the old abandoned Athens-Big Fork Trail. It was completed in 1993 and thus the 26.8-mile Eagle Rock Loop was opened for use. Additional manpower had become available through the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) program using local high school students, volunteers from the Bayou Chapter, Ozark Society, along with continued SCA grants. Forest Technicians Dewey Watson, Gary Monk, and Tab Horn, spent many days locating the abandoned trail and flagging the best routes. The Athens-Big Fork Trail was constructed by the U. S. Postal Service approximately 120 years ago along game and Indian trails though the Ouachita Mountains. Mail carriers on horseback crossed eight mountains to and from the communities of Athens and Big Fork. This historic trail was also used by others on horseback since this was the best route across the east-west ridgelines through the saddles when possible. Many locals say this route was used by the Jesse James-Younger gang, Belle Starr and other outlaws. General Albert Pike is also thought to travel along Blaylock Creek from his cabin to the Athens-Big Fork trail when traveling to points west such as Fort Smith. Charley Peyton and I continue to look for his buried treasure along Blaylock Creek three... beech trees in a triangle (eight arrows and a cross) on each tree. Retracing History in the Arkansas Woods

I began running on the Athens-Big Fork Trail right after the restoration began in 1986 with my son, Chris. We ran from the south end to Road 106 (Blaylock Creek) and back on his birthday (February 28) for three years. We always dreaded Brushheap Mountain (both sides). During my career with the USFS, I hiked that trail many times by myself. Whether it was supervising the trail crews, looking for illegal ATV use, posting or marking the trail, it was always a good day regardless of the weather just as it always has been on the first Saturday of the last 16 years. I know this trail like the back of my hand. Several of the AURA members may remember my National Trails Day runs, the Tall Peak Marathon, and the Eagle Rock Loop. After many years of trying different routes for my annual contribution to the ultra-trail series, I was driving to Mena for a meeting and passed the Big Fork Community Center...bang, what a neat meeting place. The A-BF Trail Marathon was born!

The first A-BF Trail Marathon was run on January 2, 1999. It was very cold and windy. There were only four runners and three volunteers. I started John, Michael, Kim, and Lou down highway 8 and told them I would see them at the other end. Charley Peyton made his initial trip to set up the Blaylock Creek aid station and Carrie DuPriest volunteered to go to the Little Mo River crossing. When I got to the turnaround, I parked my truck, put a water can on the tailgate and started hiking north. I flagged parts of the route on my way to tie in with Charley at the Blaylock Creek aid station. I can't remember where I met everyone but they seemed to be doing just fine and glad to see another human. I still remember Lou saying something like "David, what have you gotten us into?" One of the others just said "Wow!" Here the four charter members of the A-BF Trail Marathon Club:

-            John Jones 27 Conway, AR 5:35:58
-            Michael DuPriest 42 Little Rock, AR 7:43:00
-            Kimberly Pavelko 37 Conway, AR 7:45:00
-            Lou Peyton 54 Little Rock, AR 8:17:50

Do you think they enjoyed the challenge in 1999??? Would you believe they were all back in 2000 along with 14 new runners? Carrie DuPriest joined Kimberly and Lou. Kim has run many and was back this year. Stan Ferguson and Pete Ireland ran their first one and returned for many more. Stan has run 14 of the last 15 and Pete ran 11 A-BF's in a row. The 17-Mile Blaylock "Fun Run" was added and I ran my first one. I still remember running along with John Knapp...he loved his annual trip from Benton to Big Fork to Blaylock Creek to Big Fork and back to Benton.

2000 A-BF Trail Marathon - OVERALL MALE
1 John Gaston 43 Fort Polk, LA 4:53:07
2 Stan Ferguson 36 Conway, AR 5:01:39
3 John Jones 28 Conway, AR 5:40:12
4 Raton Parmain 47 Tulsa, OK 5:50:26
5 Steve Lee 44 Claremore, OK 5:55:29
6 Rickey Utley 32 Conway, AR 5:58:52
7 Michael DuPriest 43 Little Rock, AR 6:48:35
8 Jim Sweatt 44 N Little Rock, AR 6:59:00
8 Ron Gimblet 52 N Little Rock, AR 6:59:00
8 Randy Davidson 44 Little Rock, AR 6:59:00
11 Pete Ireland 59 Benton, AR 7:38:30
12 Don Higgins 53 DeQueen, AR 8:47:00
12 Steve Chaney 57 DeQueen, AR 8:47:00

2000 A-BF Trail Marathon - OVERALL FEMALE
1 Kimberly Pavelko 38 Conway, AR 6:25:00
2 Carrie DuPriest 42 Little Rock, AR 7:38:00
3 Lou Peyton 55 Little Rock, AR 8:00:56

2000 Blaylock Creek 17-Mile "Fun Run" - OVERALL MALE
1 David Samuel 56 Pearcy, AR 5:47
2 John Knapp 66 Benton, AR 5:59
3 Henry Osterloh Little Rock, AR 6:14

The third year was the one to remember. Anyone that went to Big Fork on January 6, 2001 will never forget the run on the ice and snow under, over, and around fallen trees from the Christmas, 2000 ice storm. Many of us had been trapped in our homes for about five days without power and unable to run. The highways cleared by January 4 but the forest and mountains were still covered with ice and snow. I drove over to Big Fork on January 5, parked at the north trailhead and took four rolls of flagging with me. The trail was full of trees. I flagged the best route through the mess over Missouri Mountain, hit Road 25, and headed west flagging to Road 38 and then north back to the trailhead. I estimated it would be about 15 miles in case anyone showed up. I was shocked that 18 showed up. I started the group and drove to the trailhead and placed water coolers on my tailgate. After everyone passed through, I fell in behind and made sure everyone made it around the trail/road loop. Here are the runners who braved the toughest conditions in the 16-year history of the A-BF Trail runs:

1    Stan Ferguson           37   Conway            2:09:34
2    John Gaston             44   Springdale        2:11:26
3    Tom Brennan             29   Monroe, OK        2:18:55
4    Tom Aspel               45   Russellville      2:22:33
5    Bill Coffelt            41   Fort Smith        2:32:49
6    Jim Sweatt              45   N Little Rock     3:11:41
7    Michael DuPriest             Little Rock       3:11:42
8    Gary Welchman           48   Little Rock       3:20:17
9    Pete Ireland            60   Benton            3:39:39
10   Greg Bourns             61   Waldron           3:59:15
11   David Smith             52   Cabot             4:16:28
12   John Knapp              67   Benton            4:42:44

1    Chrissy Ferguson        40   Conway            3:00:56
2T   Patty Groth             45   Cabot             3:59:54
2T   Carrie DuPriest              Little Rock       3:59:54
4    Sandy Tull              31   Waldron           4:10:09
5    Vicki Ingram            54   Cabot             4:19:54
6    Lou Peyton              56   Little Rock       4:31:59

NA   David Samuel            57   Pearcy            10 Miles

I coordinated the A-BF trail runs from 1999-2008. Steve Appleton agreed to take over directorship of the event after the January, 2008 run. He has done an outstanding job in not only maintaining this tradition on the first Saturday of the year but also by making many improvements. Thanks to Charley Peyton, Lou Peyton, and Stan Ferguson (AURA), Don Higgins and Steve Chaney (SW Arkansas Striders), Team Texarkana (Brady Paddock), TATUR (Brian Hoover), Big Fork Community Center (Raymond Hayward), Ouachita Mountain Amateur Radio Association and the Polk County Search and Rescue Team for their great support during my coordination of the event.

10/29/14 Note: Brady Paddock will be the new race director on January 3, 2015. Brady and George Peterka (AURA President) were out last weekend pulling maintenance on the trail. Come join us in Big Fork, Arkansas for your first run in 2015!

Happy Trails,

David J. Samuel