In the fall of 2016, Matt Ankney, an avid hiker and advocate of the Missouri outdoors, contacted the Ozark Trail Association (OTA) to share his vision of a new event that would offer a distinctly different option than the typical 5k or trail running race. Having completed over 1,000 Missouri miles and many long days on the Ozark Trail, he envisioned the beauty, competition and uniqueness that a hiking contest could offer. Inspired by Mark Burnett’s television show, Eco-Challenge, featuring a premier adventure race, Ankney hoped to bring a similar experience, on a smaller scale, to the Missouri Ozarks.
On June 10, 2017, that vision became a reality. After several months of planning and coordinating, the OTA unveiled a new and exciting athletic competition: the Taum-A-Hawk Hiking Race. The event, which would take place on the most picturesque and rugged section of the Ozark Trail, consisted of co-ed teams of two vying for fastest time from Taum Sauk Mountain State Park to Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park — a true test of hiking endurance, teamwork, technical skill, trail/map reading and outdoor abilities.
The race, in which jogging or running is prohibited, simulates a long-distance scenario where teams hike as fast as possible from one trailhead to another — a not uncommon occurrence when a group must deal with an unexpected injury or illness in their party, lack of supplies or a bad break in the weather.
On the Course
Located in Missouri’s ancient St. Francois Mountains, the 13.5-mile Taum-A-Hawk race course begins at the state’s highest point on Taum Sauk Mountain. The trail descends through open igneous glades with scenic views, past the effervescent beauty of Mina Sauk Falls, through the towering, lichen-covered rhyolite sentries of Devil’s Tollgate and across Missouri’s deepest valley along Taum Sauk Creek. It then ascends the rough, talus slope shoulder of Wildcat Mountain and finally traverses the entire crescent-shaped peak of Proffit Mountain.
This difficult section of the Ozark Trail slows hikers down, and most find their average speed drop a mile-an-hour from their normal pace as they negotiate the rough terrain.
On a hot, sunny race day with a high temperature of 92 degrees, 31 teams, some from as far as Jackson, Miss., checked in with their mandatory safety equipment: backpack, water, headlamp/flashlight, proper footwear and trail map. Race officials took their place on the trail, equipped with satellite phones.
“When we arrived early race day morning, sizing up the competition on the shuttle ride up to Taum Sauk Mountain, I realized some serious competitors had showed up. My concern was keeping good pace during the length of the rugged race course and meeting our team goal of finishing in under eight hours,” said Harlan Steele, member of team Trail Mixers.
As teams left the start line in a time-trial format with one-minute intervals, the field stretched out along the path. A sweep team followed the last couple across the start, ensuring all participants finished the grueling course. State park personnel stood by with motorized vehicles in case of potential emergencies. A first-aid station was positioned halfway along the course on Proffit Mountain.
Resembling a cycling race, the strongest hikers coalesced in a small lead group ahead of a main portion of the field in a peloton, with another group at the rear. The winning team finished in just under four hours. Team Trail Mixers finished in six hours, 28 minutes. The final team arrived a few hours later.
“We were relatively new to hiking, but when I saw the advertisements for the race, I knew my husband and I had to participate,” said participant Katie Martinez. “Our team name was Two Tortoises, knowing easy and steady would win the race, but we came out like two hares! By mile 4, my feet had already begun to blister. The rest of the race you could find me leaning heavily on my trekking poles just trying to survive.”
“It was no easy ‘walk in the woods’ and was grueling at times,” Martinez continued, “but the beautiful Missouri views and triumph of completing the course made it all worth it.”
Festivities took place at the finish, including a barbecue, an awards ceremony and live bluegrass music by Ozark Mountain Harmony. The Hwy N trailhead at Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park was filled with lawn chairs and coolers as competitors and volunteers, including visitors from the Ozark Highlands Trail in Arkansas, celebrated with new friends.
After months of planning and preparing a new event from scratch, with no past examples as guide, the OTA made Missouri history by hosting the first-ever hiking event of this kind. The race was meant to bolster friendship and awareness among groups and provide inspiration for adventure.
“Despite all the challenges, we’ve decided that the Taum-A-Hawk race will be an annual event for my husband and I,” said Martinez. “I can’t wait to see how we finish in this year’s race!”
Author: Matt Ankney is the founder of the Taum-A-Hawk Hiking Race. Abi Jackson is the chief operations officer at the Ozark Trail Association.