More than three days into his historic run of the Ozark Trail in southern Missouri in March, Rik Denicke had already trekked 30 miles more than any previous run.
“I had a decent groove going and was getting closer and closer to the 200-mile mark, which was pretty exciting,” he said.
The 46-year-old Wildwood, Missouri resident had tamed everything the path had thrown at him: remote forest, hardscrabble climbs, disappearing trail markers, injury concerns. He entered the final phase of the 230.8-mile route “feeling fantastic, like I’d gotten my 37th wind or something.”
But, as any ultramarathoner will tell you, a lot can happen in 30 miles.
“You could hear rumbling in the distance, and it started raining. There were a couple creek crossings, and some of them were pretty deep,” Denicke said. “It was worrisome, because I knew there was still a large creek called the Courtois Creek ahead. That’s where the danger comes. You can get caught in a flash flood, and it kills you in a second.”
To compound matters, some miscommunication on where and when he would next meet his support crew left Denicke feeling anxious.
“The weather was absolutely conspiring against me. The temperature had dropped to the 30s, with a strong wind, and I was drenched,” he said. “I knew a half-mile down the creek was where my crossing was, but it was going to take me 7 miles of trail to get there.”
Denicke spent the next two hours negotiating the steep, rocky ascents and descents to reach the point where the Ozark Trail traversed the creek, even though it would have been much closer if he’d simply followed the course of the water. But that would have meant he diverged from the trail, and he had a particular record in mind.
“I had to hike every part of the trail for it to be official. I climbed down, down, down to the river, and I got there, and it was just raging,” he said. “At that point, there were 12.5 miles or a little less to go.”
Spend a little time with Denicke, who works as director of operations for an ultrasound company, and you’ll gather he seems to like grueling challenges.
There isn’t much of his 3,600-square-foot home that he hasn’t renovated. He tore down his cedar deck after it started to rot, built a new one, and repurposed parts of the wood as tables.
Before meeting his wife, Shelby, and helping raise their two sons, he spent almost a decade cycling professionally in other parts of the world. He’s also finished five ultramarathons of at least 100 miles.
And then there’s the project he was working on in March: registering the Fastest Known Time (FKT) on the Ozark Trail, meaning he would run about 230 miles over just a few days.
Ironically, Denicke said he hated running as part of his cross-training when he was cycling competitively. But he’d heard about the Leadville 100 ultramarathon through the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and started glancing at it.
“I’ve always gravitated towards long-distance stuff,” he said. “In cycling, I loved nothing more than going out for a six-hour ride and just kind of suffering that way.”
The first time Denicke tried the Leadville race in 2012, he reached the 60-mile mark around midnight, an hour after the cutoff time. His IT band was in bad shape, and he was forced to drop out. He returned in 2013 and started vomiting at the 62-mile mark, and again had to stop.
Yet his mentality was still, “It can be done. So, go do it.” In 2016, he finally finished the race.
Around the same time he started doing longer runs, he began taking a greater interest in his natural Missouri surroundings.
“I always ragged on Missouri when I was a kid,” he recalled. “I wanted to get away and go to Colorado and Alaska.”
But when he and Shelby purchased the home in Wildwood, next to Babler State Park, he started exploring local trails.
“You can do some amazing runs here that feel remote, where you don’t see or hear cars or people,” Denicke said.
And he started to do races on the Ozark Trail, a path in southern Missouri that has been in the works since the 1970s. Organizers have made significant strides over the last couple decades, with the founding of the Ozark Trail Association in 2002 and the route’s designation as a National Recreation Trail in 2008.
“There are beautiful, spring-fed rivers and huge bluffs. It’s really wild. You don’t expect that kind of terrain in Missouri, and I don’t know if people in St. Louis even know about it,” Denicke said.
The more he “got into the rabbit hole,” the more he started to consider that distance — 230 miles — and think that it was something he could run. If he was able to achieve the FKT, Denicke would be the first to do so on the Ozark Trail. He said it would rank near the top of his accomplishments.
“It’s definitely the biggest undertaking that I’ve ever considered, that I’ve ever tried,” he said.
But beating the Ozark Trail was not a certainty.
When Denicke decided to attempt the FKT the first time in March 2018, he declared his intention online. He wore a GPS tracker so that others could follow his efforts, and to prove he’d actually done it.
He, Shelby, and Shelby’s father, Bob, drove from Wildwood to the starting point near Alton, Missouri.
“It’s hard to find the start,” said Denicke. “The only marker is a sign that says, ‘Western Terminus.’”
“It’s like if you went through our backyard and started driving through the woods to where there’s no road whatsoever,” Shelby added.
Denicke had spent hours studying trail maps and doing recon runs in the area. He knew the route started with a hill, but he immediately was having issues with his watch. He fixated on that rather than paying attention to where he was running.
After about a half-mile, he realized he was on the wrong track, so he immediately had to double back.
“That’s not insignificant,” Denicke said. But 1 mile among 230 isn’t a whole lot, unless you make the same sort of mistake 10 more times, which is what happened.
“Literally, [I would] just lose the trail, or loggers had completely decimated it,” he said. “I’d have to pick through and find the tread or the blaze marks on trees that had been knocked over.”
Once it was dark, that became even more difficult. Denicke uses a phrase from Jeff Browning, a preeminent ultrarunner, to describe the task: “You’re running by brail,” meaning he was often forced to use his feet rather than his eyes to detect the path.
After about 50 hours and 130 miles of running, getting lost, “dirt naps,” and refueling stops with his crew, Denicke could no longer lift his feet. He used his GPS device to text a foot specialist to see if there was something he could do. If he could make it to the next improvised aid station and recover, perhaps he could finish.
When Denicke and his crew reunited about a mile farther along the trail, everyone was tired and concerned. Shelby didn’t have much time left before she needed to return to work, and Denicke was clearly injured. His wife convinced him to stop and try again in a year.
“The same way with Leadville the first time, you know he’s going to try it again, and the next time he’ll do it — and there will always be a next time until he does it,” Shelby said.
Denicke gave the Ozark Trail FKT another shot this year, starting on March 26. He made several more scouting trips in the weeks leading up to the attempt to prepare. He felt like he was in better shape this time, and his wife gave him a 95-percent chance of finishing.
Shelby and Bob again joined him, as did four friends who served as pacers. By all accounts, the run started out great.
“Everything was pretty much going to plan. I was eating well, and the weather was decent,” Denicke said. “I was ahead of schedule for a little while, by 15 to 25 minutes at each stop. I was excited and enjoying the sounds of all the turkeys calling.”
That night, he picked up his first pacer, Jason, and they started the Current River Section of the trail. “The sky was absolutely clear, and the stars were amazing,” Denicke said. “A couple times, we had to unplug our headlamps and just stare up into space.”
He slept a bit at one of his crew’s aid stations, maybe 20 or 30 minutes, and rolled out fresh and fast the next morning. But, as day two wore on, Denicke started to feel the tiredness seep in.
“I was a little delirious at times,” he said. “My feet were killing me. I couldn’t spring off my toes anymore, so I had to change my gait to accommodate.”
When he got to the next aid station, Denicke sat down on a cot and immediately pulled off his shoes. “My toe was just huge. There was this big, fluid-filled thing on my toenail,” he said. “So, we had to do some minor, trail-side surgery there.”
That night on the trail he felt “really, really sleep deprived, like I was asleep while I was walking. It was a really difficult section of climbing, with some creek crossings,” he said.
“I found that the utility of sleep was better for me. You have to judge: is being sleep deprived and plodding along at a slower speed better, or just going to sleep for 30 minutes or an hour and then getting back out there at a faster pace? It was better for me to get some sleep.”
Day three started out well in the early half-light. Then, right in the middle of the morning, another injury stopped Denicke in his tracks.
“It was terrible! My left leg just seized up. I couldn’t bend my knee. I couldn’t walk in a straight line. I thought, ‘This is it,’” he said. “I used my trekking poles to roll my legs out. I was there for about 15 minutes in the middle of nowhere.
“Then, I stood up, put everything back in my pack, took a few steps, and it was this warming feeling,” he continued. “I felt this rush, and everything was back to normal. I just started running down the trail.”
It rained hard that afternoon, and Denicke was cold and miserable. He slept an extra two hours that evening to recover, then awoke in the darkness, put on his rain gear, and took off into the night.
As the sun came up on day four, he got into a groove, but “it was just a gray day where there was always that threat of rain,” he said. “I knew there were showers all around.” And then the rain started, and Denicke found himself at Courtois Creek, which was flowing dangerously fast.
“I decided to hike back up this two-and-a-half-mile climb to where I was supposed to meet my crew, which was just brutal,” he said. “I was feeling hypothermic. I got lost because my head was down to shield against the wind, and I missed a marker and started trundling down this other road, completely oblivious to where I was.
“I eventually looked up and saw the foundation of this burnt down house that I’d never seen before,” he said. “I thought, ‘Of all things, of all times, the first time I walk off the trail, it’s here.’”
Denicke made his way back to the trail, shivering uncontrollably, and found his crew. The decision was made to drive to the other side of the creek and pick up the trail where he had left off on the other side of the roiling water.
“I put on fresh clothes, and we drove to the opposite side of the creek. I walked back down to the creek, and I literally got back in the water, so that I left at the river and came back to the river, so I didn’t advance myself,” Denicke said. “Even in that relatively short period time, the creek had risen a couple of feet and was just raging and raging.
“It was really tough to get moving again,” he continued. “At that point, it was like, ‘OK, there are 5 miles left. You can do 5 miles, even if you have to crawl.”
Shelby was with him, and they talked the rest of the way. With not quite a mile to go, Denicke looked up and saw one of his sons running toward him in galoshes. Denicke’s mom had brought the couple’s two boys to the finish.
He had arrived at the Onondaga Trailhead, the northernmost point of the Ozark Trail.
“We had a little family gathering there and took some pictures and video and stopped all the watches and stuff like that,” Denicke said. “It was cool. It was, I don’t want to say anti-climactic, but at the same it was like, that was amazing, but now it’s over.”
The final record-setting Ozark Trail FKT tally: 230.8 miles in four days and 10 hours, with nine total hours of sleep.
That afternoon, the family drove home to Wildwood. The next day, Denicke cleaned out the truck. One of his sons had a soccer game at 12:50 p.m.
“It was just another normal day,” Denicke said. “You have a family. You gotta get back in the life.”
The FKT Phenomenon
The Fastest Known Time (FKT) phenomenon started around 1998 when two men, Peter Bakwin and Buzz Burrell, decided to attempt to do the 500-mile Colorado Trail as quickly as possible, according to Trail Runner magazine. Bakwin dropped out after 330 miles because of an injury; Burrell finished in 11 days, 16 hours, 13 minutes.
They next wanted to try the 223-mile John Muir Trail in California. They read a story about another runner, Blake Wood, completing the trail in just under five days. But there were incomplete notes about other efforts. Was Wood in fact the quickest?
Burrell and Bakwin invented the phrase “fastest known time” and eventually launched a website for others to record their times and experiences on various trails, and in doing so, gave birth to a movement.
FKTs have exploded in prominence in recent years alongside the growth of ultrarunning and social media. The attempts typically come on trails that are too long or remote for a traditional race and offer the unique opportunity to test one’s mettle against nature and the limits of the human body.
“I experience what I would call transcendence,” Bakwin told Trail Runner. “You run and run and run until you fall down, and you’re either done, or some kind of miracle occurs and all of a sudden you feel good. I want the website to be a place where people can share these stories.”
Aside from the possibility of another runner negating Rik Denicke’s time (see “Hot on His Heels”), there may also be a change in the significance of his FKT. The Ozark Trail Association is finalizing a new 30-mile section near the Current River and will soon start working to add 60 miles at the trail’s northern entry, the Onondaga Trailhead, to connect it with Meramec State Park southwest of St. Louis.
A new distance will require a new FKT, or at least an asterisk. In the meantime, Ozark Trail officials are supportive of runners’ efforts.
“I can’t imagine myself even trying it,” said Ken Kurtz, education outreach chair for the Ozark Trail Association. “I think it’s awesome…and it gives attention to the trail.”
Author: Eric Berger is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.