I set two alarms and curled up in my bright orange emergency bivy, prepared to take a 60-minute nap. It was over halfway through a 12-hour night. I was laying down on a small, narrow bench on top of Bear Mountain, the highest spot of the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail (LOViT). What would normally be a stunning, expansive view of Lake Ouachita’s southern bank was obscured by darkness. With a steep drop-off down the mountain a couple of feet away, I wedged myself against the back of the bench. I was just warm enough to relax but far from comfortable. I was happy to know that the LOViT was a substantial net downhill from here, followed by 15 paved miles back to the finish. I shut my eyes.
The Race Route:
The Ouachita Triple Crown (OTC) route is markedly different from the 1,000+ mile gravel/road loop the Arkansas High Country Race is founded upon. Linking three different IMBA Epic trail systems, the OTC is a singletrack-heavy route that traverses through the Ouachita Mountains of Central Arkansas all the way around Lake Ouachita. The three IMBA Epic trails, Ouachita Trail (OT), the Womble Trail, and Lake Ouachita Vista Trail (LOViT) are each challenging in a unique way. The OT is a backpacking trail designed for hikers but open to bikes. The OTC features a rugged and remote 40-mile stretch of the OT. The route also includes 36 miles of the Womble featuring loose rocky climbs and descents, ridge riding alongside steep drop-offs, and flowy sections dotted with bridges and creek crossings. The 40 miles on the LOViT are everything from smooth, fast flow trail to steep, relentless climbs with plenty of rolling hills in between. The 185-mile lollipop-style loop begins in Hot Springs, Arkansas and has about 18,000 feet of elevation gain. The non-singletrack miles are roughly half pavement and half gravel.
My name is Ari Khu, and I’m 26 years old. I am from Texas and live in Little Rock, AR. I committed to the Ouachita Triple Crown in Spring 2022 when race director Andrew Onermaa announced the route would be an option for the 2022 edition of the Arkansas High Country (ARHC). I raced the Ouachita Challenge, a supported 60-mile mountain bike race covering a section of the OT and Womble trails in March of 2022. I had never ridden either trail before. I came back from that race craving more, and a couple of weeks later, the ARHC announced the OTC route!
Bikepacking was something that had been on my radar for the distant future. This race was the catalyst that pushed me to find some faith in myself and commit. My athletic background is in long-course triathlon racing. I stopped racing triathlons in 2019, but I was lucky enough to find mountain biking in the fall of 2020. In October 2019, I raced the Ironman World Championship in Kailua Kona, Hawaii. I did well, placing in the top-25 in my age group. However, I immediately had a serious mental health episode that took me completely by surprise. It set in as soon as I crossed the finish line and progressively got worse over the next two weeks until I had to seek professional help. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before – or since. Consequently, this resulted in me taking a year-long leave of absence from my graduate program and changed my approach to cycling. The experience made me extremely hesitant to do anything that pushed my body to that extreme again. I wanted to do the OTC more than anything though, and I was craving the flow state of racing and riding for hours on end.
Almost exactly three years after I raced the Ironman World Championships, I was at the start line for the OTC route of the Arkansas High Country. I had done many long seven to 15-hour days on the bike, but I had never ridden through the night or bikepacked before. I was relying pretty heavily on a decent familiarity with the route and trust in my mental toughness and stubbornness. Living in Little Rock, AR, I’ve ridden parts of the OT as well as the whole Womble and the LOViT — albeit in sections. My goals were pretty simple: finish, enjoy the beauty of a state I love so much, and stay safe mentally and physically.
We took off in a mass start at 7 a.m. on Saturday, the 8th of October, from downtown Hot Springs. I shared the first 10 miles of the route with riders from the 1,000-mile ARHC route and this year’s 500-mile South Loop. It felt like a group ride with very happy, excited people on heavy, loaded bikes. If anyone was nervous, they didn’t show it. We rode down a long, winding hill a few miles onto the route. I remember thinking that those miles were going to suck going uphill to the finish. I quickly put that thought to rest. If I was already worried about the end of the race within the first half-hour, it was going to be a never-ending mental battle.
After mile 10, I split from the main group and started the 160-mile loop section. The ARHC is unique in that you can pick the direction you ride a route. I opted for counterclockwise to get the most remote, technical and hike-a-bike-heavy trail out of the way first. The route would end with the same 10 miles back into Hot Springs. I rolled up some steep paved climbs into Lake Ouachita State Park. One of the singlespeed OTC racers, Larry, passed me on a climb. I assumed I would not see anyone else until I ran into racers going the opposite direction. Seeing Lake Ouachita to my left while going up a steep climb on a loaded bike was when it hit me: I’m going to be on my bike, by myself, with all my things in the mountains for who knows how long. I was filled with optimism and excitement. I had the biggest smile on my face as I rolled through the state park and hit the gravel road around mile 15 with the OT section another 15 miles away. Right before the OT trailhead, I heard someone call out from behind me. It was Scott, another rider. We chatted, rode together for a few miles, and took selfies at the start of the OT. We would leapfrog a couple times over the next couple hours, but we didn’t see each other after the first day.
The Ouachita Trail:
The trailhead of the OT gave me some trepidation. I had a few liters of water with me, but it had been uncharacteristically dry in Arkansas for the last few months. Typical streams and creek crossings would be scarce if not completely dry. I hoped I could carry and filter enough to get me through until the next town, an estimated 20 hours away at this point. The first stretch of the OT was what I expected: ride for a couple minutes, hike a chunky technical section, and repeat for 20 miles. There were a couple of rock staircases to climb up. Going up those stairs, I realized the extreme front load I packed my bike with was awesome when riding but terrible when hiking and pushing my bike. It weighed the front end down and wouldn’t carry momentum over anything when pushing it. I also started to notice some hot spots on the back of my heels from hiking. Not good. I took a moment to take my shoes off and applied some body glide to my heels. Luckily, nothing developed into anything more than mild hot spots.
I continued to trek through the OT, over some bridges and dry creek crossings with a bit of standing water in them. Around mile 70, late afternoon of day one, I crossed over a gravel road and plummeted down a short hill into a rocky, slab creek bed that had flowing water! I quickly realized I had taken a short detour off the trail when I saw the blue blazes marking the OT up on a ridgeline to my left. I took some time to dunk my head in the water, refill my hydration bladder, and mix an electrolyte drink before backtracking to where I had veered off the trail. My navigational intuition is sub-par at best, and there were a few times throughout the race when I would be searching for the OT for a minute before spotting a blue blaze. I got a bit of a mental boost after refilling at the creek. I had about four hours of daylight left to make as much forward progress as possible. I had set a lofty goal of finishing the OT section before sunset — 70 miles in 12 hours. I hit another creek crossing, where I saw a water snake a few feet away from where I was filling up, about an hour before sunset. It would take me about two and a half hours in the dark on the OT until I turned on to the Womble.
The ARHC allows friends to post up on course if they do not inform a racer in advance or provide support. A couple guys from Jackalope Cycling were hanging out at one of the OT highway crossings. I passed them after sunset, and it was great to see friendly faces after being alone in the darkness for a bit. I was only stopped for a few minutes, and Johnny assured me the most technical sections of the OT were behind me. I sipped on some drink mix and had a snack, and one of them saw lights coming through the woods. “Is that Jeff?” I asked. I hadn’t checked the tracker at all yet. I knew service would be close to non-existent, and it wouldn’t do me any favors to check so early on. “Yep, he’s crushing it. He might not stop.” Jeff pulled up and expressed he was ready for a post-race beer. The Jackalope guys congratulated him and commented on how impressive his progress was. We rolled on in opposite directions. I wouldn’t see anyone else for a few hours.
I hit the Womble trail around 9 p.m. I was a little nervous for the skinny, bench-cut ridges ahead. I told myself to be cautious and just enjoy being in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night riding, hiking, and eating candy. I walked some of the skinny bridges and other sections I would’ve typically ridden. Some of the bench-cut sections were super loose and covered in leaves. In a couple of areas, I opted to walk my bike rather than risk slipping and sliding off the edge. My rear wheel spun out on a few climbs. It was slow progress. Thankfully, the sections at lower elevations were quicker and flowy. I savored moments where I could just relax and pedal. I took some time while hiking to eat the BoBo bars I had stuffed into my fork bags. Every hour or two, I would see another rider going in the opposite direction. It was so encouraging to see everyone over the course of the night! I passed Robert who mentioned there was a trail angel camped out about two-thirds of the way through the Womble. I hoped she would still be there by the time I made it that way.
Around 1:30 a.m., I heard a voice in the distance say “another human?!” I answered back. It was Lindsay, the only other woman racing the OTC! We chatted for a few minutes and took some selfies, excited to see each other doing well. The meeting was the highlight of my night. I continued to ride super cautiously. I just kept asking myself if the lines I was taking and choices I was making were in support of a safe and happy finish.
The second half of the Womble was less sketchy-chunky-leafy, and I was able to ride quite a bit more. I rolled up on an SUV parked at the Highway 298 crossing. The trail angel a couple riders had mentioned was still there! With chocolate! I took an unashamed handful of Ghirardelli chocolate squares and sipped some iced tea. We talked for a bit about the OT, hiking, and the moonlight.
I rolled on knowing there was only a couple hours of darkness left. The sun came up as I was going through one of the more mellow, creekbed areas, an hour or two out from the end of the Womble. Watching the sun coming up over the mountains and expanse of trees, I admired the stunning view. I passed a few guys who had camped out for the night and took in some incredible views after a long 12 hours in darkness. I flowed through the rest of the trail, feeling like I was on autopilot and enjoying the sunlight.
The trail ended at North Fork Lake, and a 25-mile stretch of gravel and pavement was ahead. It was mid-morning, and I felt like I was flying through the gravel sections. In reality, it was closer to 12 to 13 miles per hour. I felt so strong, and my legs felt fresh and happy. My boyfriend, Eric, passed me in his car with one of our dogs in tow, another great boost.
The short section on a busier highway was warm, and mental fatigue was setting in. I saw a convenience store that was closed, but there was a vending machine outside. Said vending machine ate my dollar, and I had to laugh at how absurd that was. I rolled into a rock and gem shop next door, and the owner gave me a water out of his personal fridge. In hindsight, I had enough water to make it to the LOViT trailhead, but I wasn’t sure if there would be an easy place to get water there.
The Lake Ouachita Vista Trail (LOViT):
I rolled up to the LOViT trailhead a little warm. I’d let myself get somewhat dehydrated, and I had run through the pile of electrolyte pills I’d packed. I could feel my lungs tightening up throughout the morning. I was already wheezing and hacking.
At the trailhead of the LOViT, there was a toilet and water fountain. I took my time filling up my pack and bottle. I cleaned off a bit, threw away some trash I had accumulated, and took a trailhead selfie. I started the undulating climbs that make up a good portion of the LOViT but was wheezing badly. I realized I had to be careful of how far I pushed up the uphills. I have mild asthma, and it had been a dry and dusty day and a half so far.
I stopped at a gas station and large convenience store just off the trail about 10 miles in and scooped up a couple ice cream Snickers, allergy pills, and Gatorade. I ordered a burger with no bun and fries. Sitting there, I took a moment to check the tracker for the first time. A few people had finished, and Lindsay and I were both 40 miles from the finish. Realistically, I knew she had much faster miles ahead than I did, but I told myself I could make a big push and still finish close behind her. I threw my fries in a ziplock bag to eat after sundown. The allergy pills helped tremendously with the wheezing, and I started hacking up green mucus. My lungs were clear enough to push my physical limits. I just told myself to push as hard as I could for the three hours of daylight I had left. The hike up Hickory Nut Mountain felt never ending, but I descended the backside with more speed and confidence than I thought I’d have so far into the race.
I got to the Crystal Springs trailhead about an hour after dark. I was starting to get really worried that my lights would run out of batteries. I had two 1300-lumen headlamps and one 700-lumen headlight in addition to two cache batteries. I had been using them sparingly, but I was starting to get tired and needed the light. The sun setting on night two was a big blow to my morale. I stopped in Crystal Springs for almost an hour. I called Eric and let him know if my dot stopped, it was because my lights had died and I was okay. I knew I’d have to find a place to hang tight and stay warm if I had to stop. I ate my fries and some refried beans while doing some math based on the status of my lights and cache batteries. I decided to try to make the push to the top of Bear Mountain. I would stop there and get some sleep at the bench at the top of the overlook if needed. I was worried about the steep climbing ahead, and I was starting to get sloppy in my line choices. I couldn’t keep my momentum to get up the climbs. There was a lot of on-and-off the bike. I was so thankful I’d run a dropper post. A trail runner came up behind me at about 10 p.m., and it scared me so badly I screamed, then laughed when I realized he wasn’t a bear.
I finally made it to the top of Bear Mountain. I curled up in my emergency bivy for a little over an hour. I had been going for 39 hours at this point without a true break. I was just comfortable enough to get some rest, but I was definitely cold. After my nap, I took my time packing up, inspected my bike and gear, had some more food, and rolled on. The rest of the LOViT was much quicker and flowed so well. I got happier and happier as I was able to ride more and do almost no hiking. I was flowing and feeling so free and happy. It was like I was watching myself ride and cruise through the woods. I was picking some good lines and making relatively quick progress.
I reached the end of the LOViT around 5:15 a.m. I approximated it would be an hour for the 15-mile ride back. I hadn’t realized how much warmer it was in the woods than on the road. I had leg warmers tucked away in my handlebar bag, but I kept pushing through and told myself I’d be finished soon. A couple of dogs chased me, leading to bursts of adrenaline that kept me awake, but they never got too close. In the back of my mind, I knew there was a steep one-mile climb ahead. As I approached it, my mind started to wander as I was moving slower and slower. I had some minor hallucinations. I saw a skunk standing on the side of the road that looked like it was five feet tall. I just willed it not to move, and it didn’t.
The paved climb near the end was no joke. I had to laugh when I got off my bike to walk one of the switchbacks. I was sure all the walking was over with. I got to the top and was ecstatic – only a few flat, easy miles to go!
I rolled into the finish and saw Andrew, Lindsay, Judy Rusch, and a couple others! I was beyond elated. I felt so thankful. I grabbed my car and a change of clothes down the block and went back to catch up with everyone at the finish. There was so much I wanted to say and unpack, but my brain was on a different wavelength completely. In all, I couldn’t be happier with the physical and mental states I raced and finished in. I have done a lot of races fueled by negative, hurtful thoughts towards myself. One of my aspirations for the OTC was to be mentally positive. I did my best to view any forward progress, no matter how small, as an accomplishment. I continuously assessed my situation, questioning if I was taking a good line, eating enough, drinking enough, using lights efficiently. On the singletrack, it was easy to stay engaged and focused. But on the short sections of pavement, my brain had more space to dwell on negativity, and it was the only time I regretted leaving my headphones at home. I gave myself as much grace as possible throughout the race, even at the expense of taking extra time. Although I did not develop any specific mantras prior to the race, when I had a positive thought, I clung to it and repeated it. “You are moving forward in a way that supports a happy finish” were the words I echoed most frequently. That approach kept me positive, kind, and focused throughout nearly the entire 46 hours and 44 minutes I was riding the OTC.
I have a lot of takeaways for better efficiency off the bike! Definitely better lights and not wearing a one-piece kit (although comfy) would have saved a bit of time. In all, I’m planning to be back next year. Hopefully someday I’ll be starting at UME, AZT or another amazing singletrack-heavy adventure.
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