(A Story of Triumph at the Arkansas Traveller 100)
He sat quietly in the cab of his pick-up. The smoke from his half spent cigarette curled from his hand and twisted to escape through the crease in his sliding rear window. The new spring sun that had shown so dimly just months before now blinded him as he studied a sheet of paper. He squinted and slowly mouthed the words he read, "The Arkansas Traveller 100." He had shyly accepted it from a scantily clad runner named Suzi. He had seen her and her friends many times on the back roads. He worked the roads, you see, picking up cans. Oh, he didn't do it for the money, he had a wife. Kate was a young school teacher in their small community, Perryton. They had been high school sweethearts and married soon after graduation. She with a gift for books; he with a gift for sports. This was before things unraveled on him. Now he didn't spend much time at home. He drove the back roads picking up cans and thinking about how things should have been. That's how he met Suzi and her friends. He had stopped at a lonely spot on a deserted road when a group of trail runners dropped off the mountain side. He wouldn't have spoken but the cheerful one, Suzi, asked him if he had any extra water. Jimmy was not an unfriendly type, not even quiet to those who knew him. But these people were different and he had felt uncomfortable with their giddiness. After all, he had fallen short several times in his 28 years and it haunted. Somewhere he had taken a wrong turn in life. He was born of good stock. His mother was strong; his father hard working. He had won a football scholarship to State U and, with much fan fair and promise, they left the farm for the city life. I'm a "university man", he proudly told Kate as he packed his truck for the trip. But, by late fall he was back home in Perryton, a victim of a freak football injury. He moved back home with his family while Kate continued her education. Not a word was spoken. He only sensed disappointment at an opportunity wasted and found solace in being alone and staying on the road. When the local Guard Unit was being formed, he and his remaining friends went down to enlist. Not so much for the pay but for the camaraderie. "I'm a fighting man" and he proudly saluted Kate. Three weeks later a letter arrived from Jimmy. "Basic training has been tough but my football knee has been hurt again", he wrote, "They're sending me back home." Humiliated and hurt, the bus brought him back to Perryton. After that first meeting with Suzi, he started to carry a water igloo in the bed of his truck. It made him feel important when he came upon these runner on his back roads. They seemed to appreciate the pause and refreshment. Over time he learned their names: Suzi, Max, Otis, Linda and Lou were just a few. He even learned to identify them from a distance by how they looked while running. Their trusting nature eventually put him at ease albeit from a distance. On one such trip he was given the application that he now held in his hand. Taking another draw on his smoke he felt his life at a cross roads. Should he continue his life of loneliness thinking about times when things were good or take a step towards his new companions whom he barely knew. Failing again would hurt too much. Thinking about Kate he asked himself, "What would she want me to do?" Taking one last look at the application he started his truck and put in gear. Slowly he rolled down the window and flicked his cigarette into a puddle of water by the side of the road. Then he reached for his shirt pocket and brought out the remaining pack. Crumpling it up, he thought to himself, "I'm a running man."
(In our first chapter, Jimmy, a good man but one whose life has been filled with misfortune, meets Ultra Runners in the National Forest and decides to enter the Arkansas Traveller 100.)
When Kate heard the big news, she was both thrilled and apprehensive. She had seen Jimmy this excited before. College and he Guard, you know. But she was not one to be negative and she gave him her blessing. He respected that. This was the type of relationship they had. Despite his short comings Kate always stood by her man. Reading over the application for the tenth time, he still had four months to prepare and to get up his entry fee. Selling the pig was out of the question. (This was an inside joke between he and Kate.) Oh well, he thought, a way will be provided. So early Monday morning before Kate had left for school, Jimmy was in his pickup heading for the secluded roads of the national forest. Going to be a running man! He was very self conscious of his gym shoes, having seen the bright colored running shoes of Suzi and Tom. That would be another expense. Maybe the pig will have to go after all, he laughed to himself. The first morning out was not good. After an hour he was tuckered and turned back. Walking now he stopped along the road side and picked up cans and deposited them in the bed of the truck when he finished. Resting in a lawn chair he reflected on how far he had to go. He settled on a training routine. His plan was to run as far as he could then walk back to the truck trying to increase the distance every time out. He figured if he was going to finish a 100 miler before the cutoff, he must be able to run 30 miles without stopping too many times. That was his goal. To run 30 miles on Labor Day. The weeks of training solitude rolled by. His initial six mile run had now turned to 15 and he was spending all day on the forest roads. Running to his limit then walking on the return. Picking up cans and road litter. In mid June he finished his first 20 miler. Getting back to the truck he reached for a cool Pepsi and unconsciously felt into his pocket for a cigarette. Boy, he missed his smoke. But this was not the Jimmy he was back in the spring. He now was Jimmy, the running man! Over the 4th of July weekend, he took Kate out to show her his training grounds. Passing by Lake Sylvia camp grounds, he drove into the parking lot and there were the Traveller crew, Suzi, Tom and the Gang. "YO, Jimmy", a bearded one yelled as Jimmy pulled to a stop. Kate was a little uneasy at the scantily clad runners but she was soon put at ease by their joking and helpful nature. A balding one who later admitted he was an accountant, chided Jimmy about the amount of aluminum cans he had in the bed of his truck. "I bet you have enough aluminum for a new pair of Nike's and your Traveller entry fee." A light went off in Jimmy's head. He knew where the recycle center was in Perryton and he would be there the first thing tomorrow. All the Traveller Gang was interested in Jimmy's training and at first he was reluctant to share it feeling a little self conscious. But once he told them they all seemed impressed and said that he was ahead of schedule. He felt good about himself and so did Kate. Soon they departed but not before they had agreed to meet the following weekend for a training run over a section of the Traveller course. Jimmy and Kate laughed as they drove off about how the Gang frolicked at throwing their cans in the bed of his truck. Monday morning Jimmy had bought himself a new pair of Nike's just like the bearded one wore. "I'm walking on springs," Jimmy yelled to Kate and he bounced out of his truck. Next Saturday would be the test, he thought. At last Saturday came. Every one was there and a few he had not seen before. He met them all and they all seemed to be pulling for him. Before the start a new one with a white goatee who seemed to be in charge gave a trail briefing and explained the route and where the water was stashed. As it turned out where they were going to run was the very spot where he had been doing his training all along. His confidence soared. With the run underway, Jimmy ran! With his new running shoes it never felt so good. He crested the hills running with the thin guys then backed off to run with those who were rather portly. This was his test and he had made the grade! So it went for the rest of the summer months. Jimmy and his new running friends. After the Labor Day run he noticed that the runners were quieter than usual. Those who normally left early stayed and talked in hush tones. Finally Suzi broke the ice. "Jimmy", she said, "we want to talk to you. You've inspired us with your dedication and discipline. We have all pitched in to give you a token of good luck for your race coming next month." She handed Jimmy a neatly wrapped box. Opening it, a tear of gratitude came into his eyes. It was a running pack with two water bottles. Just like he had seen the goateed trail briefer wear. "We'll be pulling for you at the Traveller", Suzi said. "You see we're all Aid Station Captains or soon to be. We'll see to it that you have everything you need to get to the finish line. You tell Kate that when the starting gun sounds, she will not have to worry about a thing". He would not let them down. Not Jimmy, the running man.
(In our first two chapters we meet Jimmy, a man of misfortune, who attempts to turn his life around by finishing the Arkansas Traveller 100.)
Sleep had not come easy and when he awoke it took longer than usual to clean the cobwebs from his mind. Three A.M. will do that. He was thankful that he had taken Suzi's advice and had laid out his running clothes and needed things the night before. The drive to the start took a short 20 minutes but it gave him enough time to think about all the things he had learned in the last four months. Things like dropbags, water bottles, electrolytes, and pacing. Things that he never knew existed. Suzi and the ultra gang at Lake Sylvia had opened a new world to him. Arriving at the start, the atmosphere was surreal. There were bright lights blinking, generators humming, and runners scurrying about carrying dropbags trying to check in. Some of the runners were joking while others sat with glazed eyes thinking about what lie ahead. Several runners even asked Jimmy where the check in was, and the bathrooms and the placement of the dropbags. Jimmy who had been around the ultra gang all summer knew almost as much as an aid station Captain himself and was able to tell them with confidence what he didn't know last year. There were some last minute instructions by the goateed one that no one seemed to hear or pay attention to. Jimmy was hugging Kate when he heard – "Boom!" A gun shot pierced the predawn and brought him to attention. It was time for Jimmy, he running man, to run. Most of the runners and crews hooped and yelled as they set off into the morning. Jimmy included. "Good Luck", he heard someone say, and when he turned to look there was Suzi and some of her friends waving small American flags. Easing into the run he felt like he was on a cloud. But he hadn't forgot the words of his training companions – "Hold back." He heard the first aid station before he saw it. Everett, the Captain, was directing and giving orders to his crew. As if on cue all the workers cheered Jimmy when he gave his name and number to Ellan who was handling the clipboard. Giving his water bottle to one of the Aid Station apprentices, he stepped back from the action and watched and listened to the proceedings. He later recalled that it was like watching a Broadway show. Mary would offer runners cookies and tell them "My mother made them for you." Alice would add, "You'll love this next section, it's my favorite." Hitching up his waist pack Jimmy smiled when Everett spoke to him and said, "I'll see you at the finish." With that Jimmy was pumped. At the next aid station he was patted on the back as he filled his water bottle. One of the workers folded a couple of candy pieces in a napkin and placed them in his pack. "It's a long way to Mule Shoe Gap Aid Station. You'll thank me later." And so it went. By noon Jimmy had made the Lake Clinton Aid Station at 32 miles. Checking over the food table the cookies and candy lost their appeal. Peg, the Co-captain, asked, "How about a ham and cheese sandwich." Jimmy thought to himself "That Peg sure has a way with words." Sitting down, Peg produced a cup of coke. Jimmy said out loud for all to hear, "It doesn't get any better than this." The next three or four stations passed quickly by. They all wished him well and told Jimmy that they would be waiting for him on the return. By the time he reached the turnaround point and checked in it had begun to mist and the weather turned windy and cool. "I've got your dropbag, Jimmy" the worker yelled. At that moment he heard the radio man talking to the Headquarters at Lake Sylvia. He overheard him say that "he" had reached the halfway point in good shape. A voice on the other end said, "ROGER" and signed off. He told Jimmy that Kate had asked for a status check on him. Slipping off his wet shirt, the worker helped him with his longsleeve and found his gloves. The soup at the station was the best he had ever tasted. At this stage of the race he wanted something hot. Soup, coffee, Cocoa, anything hot. Jimmy was really thankful that he had held back now. He still felt good. A little weary perhaps but no hurts or blisters. The aid stations all did their job. At the weigh station Jimmy's weight was up three pounds. "Great shape", a corpsman commented. "No problem here, Sir!", as she turned to her superior. Jimmy's journey took an unexpected turn in the wee hours of the morning. A strange sensation came over him. "This is so strange", Jimmy thought. The aid stations are coming too close together, too quickly. For the first time in a long, long time he felt like somebody. The aid stations had taken good care of him and made him feel so important. "I DON'T WANT IT TO END." Alas he was at the last aid station. Only six miles to go. He remained seated as others came and went. He asked for a blanket and another cup of hot soup. The younger workers talked and kidded with him. Oblivious to the passing time. Realizing what was happening, a seasoned worker moved in. The younger ones moved quickly to the sidelines. In muffled voices she and Jimmy talked. They saw the pleading look in Jimmy's eyes. Then they heard the seasoned work say, "If you can finish a 100 miler, you can do anything. Now hurry off! You can still get under 24 hours." With that he was off down the darkening road to the cheers of all the aid station workers. Down the road to the finish line went Jimmy. Jimmy, the running man!
Postscript-Shortly after finishing the Arkansas Traveller 100, Jimmy with Kate assisting, formed a running club in Perryton and will have an aid station in next year's race. He continues to train on the forest roads, however his hours are limited by his new business, The Perryton County Recycling Center, where he proudly wears his sub-24 hour belt buckle.