I was born and raised on a lush and muggy 700-acre farm in Missouri. It was a big backyard for an energetic boy to explore. Hiking down to the pond to swim, running to meet the neighbor kids at the creek, cutting across the pasture and fields to my best friend’s house — a quick mile jog as the crow flies. There was the neighbor’s territorial bull and a few barbed-wire fences to navigate, but it was all part of the adventure that immersion in nature provides. The scents, the wind in my hair (yes, I had hair once), the crunch of leaves in the timber, the stoke-factor of freedom. Those feelings — those familiarities — all come flooding back when I return to run in the Ozarks. I’m that wide-eyed youngster again, running boundlessly.

Once or twice a year, my wife and I load up our three kids and point our Tacoma east on a long road trip back to the Midwest. It’s a chance to visit family and give the kids a glimpse of where their parents grew up. Happily, this spring’s journey included 24 hours hanging out with the Terrain Trail Runners group and competing in the Ozark Foothills trail race.

Classic rock-and-root-hopping Ozark single track

Ozark Foothills is run in Greensfelder County Park, just southwest of St. Louis, and gives runners a terrific tour of some classic rock-and-root-hopping Ozark single track. Runners can choose from 50-mile, 50k, and 25k options. The 50-mile course starts with a short pre-dawn loop of Dogwood Trail, followed by three laps of a gorgeous, wooded 25k loop that links up the Deer Run, Eagle Valley, Green Rock, Overlook, Beulah, and DeClue trails. The 50-miler has a consistently rolling elevation gain of 6,000 feet. The course ranges from a few scattered steep grades to runnable rolling hills of roots, rocks, and creek crossings that keep your focus.

In the few days leading up to the race, thunderstorms blew through and gave the woods a solid drenching. On race morning, as the 50-mile field took off under the glow of our headlamps, the sky was mostly clear. Soon, a beautiful pink and orange sunrise greeted us through the fresh buds of springtime. With the added moisture leading up to this year’s race, the course had some muddy, slippery sections — especially after the whole pack had circled the course.

The loop-style routing gives the race a solid social vibe. Faster and slower runners ebb and flow past each other throughout the day. It was easy to soak up and give back the encouraging well-wishes between all of the runners as we battled the technical, muddy terrain.

Upon completing the early Dogwood loop, four of us settled into a lead pack consisting of Zach Merrin, Justin Stewart, Sam Wells, and myself. By the end of the first lap, we’d whittled our pack down to Justin and I chasing Zach. On the second lap, Justin gapped me and surged ahead to try to reel in Zach’s lead.

Much to my chagrin, I’d contracted a cold earlier in the week while visiting my parents — both had been sick before our arrival. Sometimes the lead-up to the race goes smoothly, and sometimes acceptance of the cards you’re dealt is the only option. I had to roll with it and attempt to stay in the mix as long as I could. It was definitely putting a damper on my pace as the fatigue of higher miles set in.

By the third lap, Zach, Justin and I had solidified our gaps and we each fought our own issues trying to deal with the increasing temps and one of the first warm, humid days of spring. Luckily, the well-placed aid stations were about only 5 miles apart and equipped with enthusiastic volunteers ready to get us what we needed and get us back on the trail.

As I tried to push the second half, I never got that extra something needed to reel in the two guys in front of me. Justin ended up running a well-executed race and caught Zach around the 50K mark, slowly increasing his lead to finish 6 minutes ahead of him. I was 9 minutes back in third. Given the circumstances, I was happy to stay on the podium.

After a quick hose-down to rinse away the caked-on mud, salt, and sweat, and a change of clothes, we all sat around basking in the gorgeous sunny day. We shared battle stories over BBQ and a few local St. Louis-brewed hoppy beverages.

For the past 19 years, the Rockies, Cascades, Wasatch, and many other locales have been my playground. I’ve spent countless hours pacing through wild places with the global trail running tribe — a roving band of wildwoods single track searchers. We all agree: Dirt don’t hurt (unless, of course, you don’t pick up your feet). It’s this trail tribe that continues to inspire my love of training, traveling, and racing after nearly two decades. Giddyup.

Author: Jeff Browning is an elite ultrarunner.
Photo: Rick Mayo/Mile 90 Photography