I stopped to catch my breath and gazed out across the valley to the surrounding mountains. The autumn leaves glowed in the light of the setting sun. The scenery would have taken my breath away if I wasn’t already gasping for air. I had joined the local running club, the Spa Pacers, for one of their weekly group runs. Our route, mapped out by Ken Freeman, trails coordinator for the City of Hot Springs, took us along various connecting mountain trails in Hot Springs National Park, for a total 4.75 mile run.
While I’ve hiked these trails many, many times, it had been a decade since I last ran them. Back then, I was training for a 5K road race – organized by the Spa Pacers as part of their annual Spa Running Festival. I’d written about the event for a local magazine and felt inspired to participate. Around that time, I’d also written a story about author Stephen Altschuler and his book, “The Mindful Hiker: On the Trail to Find the Path.” A resident of California, he was coming to Hot Springs to lead a “mindful hike” in the National Park. I’d considered going along but ended up training that day and inadvertently zoomed right past them as they stood studying the moss growing on a rock (or presumably something like that.) I wanted to stop and introduce myself, as our interview had been by phone, but I felt a little embarrassed that I was racing through the woods as he was encouraging people to slow down and observe them.
All of that was running through my mind during my recent run with the Spa Pacers. As we ascended the mountain, I noticed the ground change beneath my feet from hard and rocky to soft and grassy – something I’d never noticed while hiking – and it occurred to me that running itself is a form of mindfulness and mediation. Lulled by the cadence of our breathing and our bodies in motion, our minds become free to wander, to examine our thoughts and our surroundings. As I ran through the towering trees, past ancient rock formations and expansive views, I couldn’t imagine any surroundings better than this.
Hot Springs’ quaint and historic downtown is surrounded by nationally protected forests that offer miles of trails and endless natural beauty. The area also hosts high quality racing events that attract runners from all around the country who come to compete and enjoy all that Hot Springs has to offer – like post-run soaks in our thermal pools!
A family-friendly, nationally-recognized road racing event, the Spa Running Festival is held each November with multiple races through downtown and the Hot Springs National Park. The festival began with the Spa 10K in 1981 and has since grown to include a half marathon, a 10K, a 5K walk/run, a 5K for junior and high school students, a 1K for children 2-10 years old. It kicks off with an expo on the day before the races and wraps up with a Finish Line Festival area that includes hot soup, pizza and a beer tent.
About 1,800 runners from more than 20 different states are expected to participate in the 2019 festival which will be held Saturday, Nov. 16. Race Director Cindy Baswell credits the festival’s growth to several factors including the tourism industry of Hot Springs, the opportunity to run through a national park and the calibre of the races.
The “Summit 2 Summit” Half Marathon takes runners over both North Mountain and West Mountain in the National Park and through Hot Springs’ historic neighborhoods and downtown. A challenging but beautiful course, it’s a great way to see the Park and the heart of the city.
“There are half marathons in Arkansas that are much easier as far as the course, but ours provides something different because they do get to run through the National Park which is pretty special,” Baswell said.
A longtime member of the Spa Pacers, which organizes the Spa Running Festival, she began running just before turning 50 and has since competed in over 20 half marathons and a couple of full marathons. She has been race director since 2014.
“We put on a fantastic race,” Baswell said. “It’s a coordinated effort among many different groups – the city police, the National Park and our volunteers that make it happen that day.”
The Spa Pacers is a nonprofit running club and member of the Road Runners Club of America. In addition to the Spa Running Festival, the club hosts two free running clinics each year and a variety of weekly group runs with something for all levels of experience. There are walking groups, easy runs, long runs, trail runs and pub runs. The group has been active since the early 1980s and comprises over 200 households.
“Running with a group makes you more accountable,” Baswell said. “[It] makes you want to show up when you know someone else is going to be there to run with you.”
In addition to their local members, the Spa Pacers are sometimes joined by visitors, she said.
“We get calls frequently from runners coming in on the weekend and wanting to run,” Baswell said. “We welcome all visitors to come run with us and we get to show them our beautiful downtown.”
Another run through the National Park, this annual 18 miler takes place on the park’s network of trails, including the full length of Sunset Trail. The event, held each October, is organized by the Arkansas Ultra Running Association (AURA), a nonprofit running club dedicated to promoting ultra and trail running in and around the state of Arkansas.
Ultra races are typically categorized as anything longer than a marathon, or 26.2 miles. AURA races range from half marathons up to 100 milers. AURA’s Ultra Trail Running Series comprises a variety of races throughout Arkansas including the renowned Arkansas Traveller 100. One of the oldest 100 mile races in the country, it is held in the Ouachita National Forest about an hour north of Hot Springs. Other ultra races in close proximity to Hot Springs include the LOViT 100M and 100K both located on the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail.
“Arkansas has a good ultra running scene,” said AURA President and Hot Springs resident George Peterka, who has been an ultra trail runner since 2004 and has participated in 100 milers all across the country. “This is kind of like an ultra runner’s dream.”
Peterka is the race director for the Hot Springs National Park Trail Run which has been held since 2015. He is also a volunteer for the Park, helping maintain the trails. Hot Springs National Park is home to 25 miles of trails which make it a popular spot for trail running. Other local spots to check out include Cedar Glades Park, the Hot Springs Northwoods Trail, Lake Catherine State Park, and the Ouachita Trail.
“There is plenty of opportunity right here,” Peterka said.
With my legs still aching from my 4.75 mile jaunt, the thought of a 100 mile (or even an 18 mile) race is incredibly daunting, but the physical and mental challenge is enticing. So too is the idea of spending more time outdoors, surrounded by the natural beauty of the Natural State.