FKT: Joe Miller - Ozark Trail (MO) - 2020-11-19

Gender category
Route variation
Standard route
Start date
Finish date
Total time
3d 16h 17m 42s

I have to give a massive shout out to the Ozark Trail Association for the amazing work they do on maintaining the entire Ozark Trail system. Also, they and many of their members provided me with so much useful information and support during this endeavor. They work to maintain and expand over 400 miles of trail in the Ozark region. Please consider supporting their work monetarily or through trail work and maintenance here.

The purpose of this run started as a somewhat intrinsic exploration of my physical and mental limits, which in my view is a somewhat selfish/privileged opportunity. Many people do not have the privilege to take four days off of work, purchase the gear or put the training time in to dream this sort of thing up. This is partly why I attempted to fundraise $15,000 for Food and Water Watch. This organization is at the forefront of countless extremely important issues that affect all of us and have been specifically fighting to prevent water shut offs during the pandemic. Please, if you have the means to contribute to their worthwhile efforts to make a more livable planet for us all to share, you can do so here.

My good friend Zach drove me down the 4 hours and 30 mins to the Greer Recreation Area campground on Sunday November 15, 2020. I slept in my tent and Zach in the back of his Subaru. The night was a cold 31 with a beautiful clear and starry filled sky. The other campers around us were mostly hunters taking advantage of the ten days of open rifle season in the Mark Twain National Forest. We awoke around 4 AM, broke down camp and drove to the western terminus at the Eleven Point Trailhead of the approximately 230 mile continuous section of the Ozark Trail. At this point, I was extremely stoked to get out there and get to work. My pack’s final weight was around 33.5 pounds, which was heavier than I had planned but was still confident about the unsupported effort. It was 21 degrees at the start, and was colder than expected but the sky was clear and the only noise was the sound of leaves blowing through the woods. I started at 6:52 AM on November 16, 2020. 

Ozark Trail - Eleven Point Section 29 miles - finished 8 hours and 15 mins - Nov 16

Feeling confident of my plan and training, coupled with the chilly morning caused me to go out a little faster than I anticipated. I tried to keep the miles solidly under 18 minute mile pace, I had 80 oz of water so I didn’t stop for a while. Around 3 hours and 30 mins I did stop to refill water and reapply anti-chafing cream on my feet. I took the upland route as it was my understanding that was the standard route. I was carrying over boots that were waterproof and used by motorcyclists to keep their feet dry during long rides, I put them on at every creek crossing where I could potentially get my feet wet. This saved my feet and kept them dry until the last day, but came at a cost of a couple of pounds of extra weight. I was eating a 370-410 calorie Pro-Bar every 1 hour and 20 minutes, and was feeling strong.

I had done this section about a month before and loved it minus all of the bugs and spiders. It’s remote and feels wild and somewhat untouched, except for the sounds of rifle fire that were kicking off all day. Rifle hunting season had opened on November 14. I saw about 6 hunters through this section, and most were friendly and appreciative of my blaze orange attire. I also ran into a couple of hikers around McCormick lake who I would see later at Klepzig Mill in the Current River section. Still felt strong through this section. Finished around 3:30 PM at the 3152 Trailhead and saw Zach there and got a couple of photos next to the sign and then continued along to Between the Rivers section after some foot care and a bathroom break. 

Ozark Trail - Between the Rivers Section - 29 miles - finished in 11 hours 30 mins on Nov 17

I had also run this section on a previous training trip before the leaves fell and knew there wasn’t an abundance of water. I made sure to fill my hydration bladder at the last stream, around 2 miles from the beginning of Between the Rivers section. After seeing Zach and taking care of my feet and other life necessities, I continued on with confidence and still felt strong, albeit a little weary of the pack at this point. The wheels completely came off around mile 42 or about 12 hours in… I had some patella knee pain before I started but thought it would be fine. However, as I was moving over a downed tree I slipped and twisted my right knee, there weren't any noises, such as popping or anything but it didn’t feel great. This wore me down and then my right shin started providing pain and slowed me down to a crawl through this section. I got turned around countless times because of the leaves (the trail was extremely well marked the entire time and these navigational hiccups are because of my poor night moving skills). 

All of the backtracking, bushwacking and the weight of the pack really wore me down physically and mentally. I would say the pack broke me. Perhaps I did too much running with it in the Eleven Point section and now I had serious doubts about continuing at all after mile 42. A pattern has developed in my ultrarunning where I tend to bite off more than I can chew and I was seeing what that was like again. I ran out of water and couldn’t find or didn’t stop for water for around 4 hours. When I got to the highway 60 trailhead at the end of the section I saw Zach, took off the pack, laid down on the ground basically, told him I couldn’t go on and made a big mistake thinking I was strong enough for an unsupported effort and that I needed to stop. He suggested sleep. I decided at this point to stop the unsupported effort and took a drink of water and used my zero degree bag to sleep on the ground at the Hwy 60 Trailhead for 4 hours. 

Current River Section with Peck Ranch Bypass - 34 miles - Around 8 hours - Nov 17th

After what I think I can characterize as a tough night, I awoke and still felt like quitting as I thought I was too beat up to continue. My friend Zach made a comment that would become a mantra over the subsequent days, “plans change, goals don’t.” After talking to Zach and my wife both of them thought I should continue in an unplanned supported effort. Zach had only really planned to be there a night or two but told me he’d stick around and meet me at the remaining trailheads for the next 6 sections. I took in a bunch of calories. Two of my Aunt’s who decided that they would be in the area for the duration of the unsupported effort in case I needed to push the spot tracker’s help button showed up to the Hwy 60 trailhead and reiterated their support for me to continue. I reduced the pack weight to enough calories to get me through the 34 miles of the Current River and set off through the tunnel, not sure if this was the right decision.

Honestly, it was strange to experience the massive change in my well being once I lightened my pack (more heavy pack training is needed or carrying less stuff next time). I tried to make sure I shuffled my feet a few minutes every mile and then that became more sustained as I progressed through the section. By the time I reached the Peck Ranch Bypass most of the pain from the prior night was negligible and I was moving at a good pace. Coming through the bypass I was rewarded with a large solitary Elk in the field. We made eye contact, acknowledged one another's presence, he determined I was no threat and we both continued on our separate paths. I had done the bypass the weekend before this effort and very much disliked the experience of bushwhacking along the fence but this time it wasn’t so bad and I got through the approximately 4 miles to the road. While running on the road a few different hunters had slowed their cars and told me it was dangerous out there because of rifle season and that I was frightening the deer, I gently reminded them that these are public lands that we share. I had mostly positive encounters with hunters except for a select few who were critical. I stopped at the place where the water is flowing over the road to filter water, reapplied chafing cream and then got moving again. At this point I was super excited for the Stegall Mountain climb in daylight and the remaining section as I think it may be the most scenic part of Missouri! 

The climb up Stegall was great and near the bottom of the other side I ran into a bikepacker named Myles (I think that was his name - he had a tremendous amount of thru hiking experience and we chatted about various things), he was great and provided a little boost to the already dramatically improved day. I continued on, and ran into a couple of hikers from the Eleven Point section and chatted with them briefly right before the Klepzig mill crossing. The water was flowing at the crossing but with my over boots I managed to keep my feet dry (they would stay dry through to the last day). I had been diligent about my pro-bar eating regime of one every 1 hour and 20 minutes or so and this continued through the Current River section.

I also took some S caps as it was hotter during the day. Minus the frigid temps the first night I was spoiled with warm sunny days and cool, clear nights through the remainder of the run. I finished the section by crossing the Current River bridge and descended the spur trail to the defunct Powder Miller visitor center where Zach, Patty, and Marian were. I told them I wanted to sleep for 3 hours and then get back out and do Blair Creek through the night. I hopped in Zach's car and we went to the campground. I initially forgot to pause the watch and then midway through the 1 min long drive remembered and paused it. I slept on the ground in my zero bag next to a fire Zach built, slept for 3 hours and woke up in a pool of sweat. Started getting ready for the night by eating a bunch, getting the headlamps and other night necessities ready, then Zach dropped me off at the spur trail and I headed out into the night up the bluffs along the Current River. 

Blair Creek Section - 27 miles - around 8 hours - Nov 18th

Starting in the dark around 8 PM with the full knowledge that I was in for a long night but I had done this section the weekend before in around 6 hours and 30 mins so I thought I could make decent time as long as I stayed up on the calories and continued filtering enough water. At some point relatively early on in the night I rolled both my right and left ankles, pretty close in time to one another. I thought perhaps it wasn’t bad at all until the last 11 miles. The last 11 miles were from 1 AM to 4 AM and every step hurt. I didn’t think about this at the time but since I was wearing Hoka Speedgoat high tops it was a high ankle sprain. There seemed to be so many more leaves than the weekend before and I lost the trail countless times. It almost felt like I was postholing through the leaves at many points. This section was my first introduction to the feral hogs that roam the hills. I seriously thought the 6 hogs were a group of black bears and freaked out until I realized they were hogs. Still they were big, loud and all over the Blair Creek section. Getting water at the various points was straightforward but it felt cold and my hands would freeze up everytime I dumped my Sawyer squeeze into any body of water. This would eventually lead me to put on all of my layers as I started shivering. I was ready to be done with this section and the last 5 miles were exhausting. I was wiped,  I was also constantly yawning and tired.

I think this section would be very fast north to south instead of south to north as it feels like an uphill grind the entire time, which of course I very much enjoyed until I didn’t… I got to the car around 4 AM and knocked on the window of the Subaru. Zach was sleeping in the back. I told him my ankle was messed up and that I needed to sleep but I didn’t want to sleep on the ground again so I slept in the front seat for 2 hours. I spent an hour or so taking in calories and Zach made me hot coffee, which was a game changer. I hadn’t had caffeine in a couple of days and it acted like rocket fuel. 

Karkaghne section - 29 miles - around 7 hours - Nov 18

Wednesday morning started the Karkaghne section, which was new to me and is the start of the Ozark Trail 100 mile race, which occurred the weekend before. A lot of trail work was done by volunteers and the Ozark Trail Association from here to Bass River resort, 12 miles from the end. I thought that the following section would be more runnable. The nap really helped my ankle pain and the multiple protein shakes probably also helped but this section flowed well for me and I think I had some of my best running sections of the whole trail. Zach kept reminding me that this is not a 100 miler and that I shouldn’t be dropping sub 9 min pace but some of the trails were too amazing and had to be run! I would pay for this later, but it was a blast and no regrets. Just a really beautiful section, like all of them! Best parts were the Black River and Sutton Bluff. Ran into a really nice thru hiker who had started on Nov 9th and chatted for a bit. Saw a couple of friendly hunters. Also ran into a couple of mountain bikers. This section went really well and I felt strong at the end. Took in enough calories and made sure to filter plenty of water the whole section. Ended at highway J in the light where Patty, Zach and Marian were waiting. Zach had BACON, grapes and avocados ready for me which was amazing!

Middle Fork Section - 23 miles - 5 to 6 hours - Nov 18 into Nov 19th

Again, all new to me, saw the John Roth Memorial. What a cool guy and very appreciative of his work to build, expand, and maintain the Ozark Trail into the world class trail that it is. I had downloaded the GPX files for the sections I hadn’t run and plugged them in to my Garmin and the elevation topo looked great with decent climbs and long descents. I pushed the descents and power hike/jogged the up hills. This was a great strategy until the last 11 miles, which were gutted out through the dark. The ankle pain returned with a vengeance. Multiple times I stopped and laid in the leaves as I was so tired and the ankle pain made me want to lie down. There were a ton of feral hogs in this section and some were very close. The first 12 miles of running bliss were followed by a difficult movement to the end but I knew that my wife, her friend Shawna, and our rescue vizsla’s Buck and Peanut would be at the highway 32 Trailhead. The dogs greeted me at the end, Zach had a small fire built, Val had made me soup, and Shawna (who is a nurse practitioner) taped my ankle and told me that I should take a couple of ibuprofen and elevate it while sleeping. I told the newly formed crew that I needed a bunch of sleep, around 5 hours, they said 4 hours and were militant about it. Most likely because they were all operating on less sleep than me. I remember waking up with both my dogs surrounding me trying to negotiate another 15 minutes. Valerie was polite but forceful that I needed to get up and get back out there. I ate more soup, protein shakes, cold brew, water, and then repacked the bag for Trace Creek, which was only going to be about 17 miles to Hazel Creek.

Trace Creek and Courtois - about 48 miles - about 14 hours - Starting around 4:45 AM

Was difficult to get moving this morning but finally got back on the trail around 4:45 AM. The plan was to have the crew meet me at Hazel Creek campground around mile 17 where the Courtois section begins. I only took enough calories for 4 hours or so and filled my bladder halfway as I was trying to lighten the load. Right after I got started one of my carbon z trekking poles broke when it hit a rock then around 20 minutes later the other one snapped in half. The rest was beneficial to my ankle and body in general and after a slow start began more sustained running. Started feeling really good around 3 hours in and was on pace to get to Hazel around 9 AM. When I got there, only hunters were there. I decided I needed to continue on and took a bathroom break, reapplied anti-chafing to the various hot spots, then continued on. At this point and for the next couple of hours I just ran on anger, mostly directed at my ad hoc crew and then myself. This made for a solid improvement in time but I wouldn’t take in calories for close to 4 hours. By the end of my rage running I realized it didn’t matter if I didn’t meet them at Hazel Creek. They were a part of an impromptu, unplanned supported adventure in an unfamiliar part of rural Missouri with little to no cell service and were operating on less sleep than me. So, I guess I'm saying it took me 2 hours of harder running to develop an even stronger appreciation for my friends and family who took a tremendous amount of time out of their lives to help me achieve a crazy goal. Got to highway 8 and saw my Aunts Patty and Marian. They immediately began forcing calories on me and I took in around 1200 calories, then Zach and Val showed up and told me about how lost and turned around they were getting to Hazel Creek. They missed me by 5 to 10 mins. Took a minute here, to plan the pack for the final push to Bass River then to the end and Shawna kindly rewrapped my ankle. 

I took off up the trail to Berryman with Valerie, Shawna, and the dogs. We hiked together for 30 minutes, then parted ways. This was my first time on the Berryman section and I LOVED it. Very runnable and again probably pushed some sections harder than I should have but it was enjoyable. Saw a couple of hunters and a bunch of deer. I got confused about the distance and when and where the three sisters' climbs were and pushed hard earlier than I should have. Came down the road into Bass and Zach was there with the car. I ran alongside and opened the leggos up a bit on the road to a solid 8 min pace for the mile or so to the trailhead. My crew had a chair set up for me! I packed in some batteries, took a bunch of stuff out of the pack mostly because the weather was so warm that I didn’t need much additional clothing. 

Courtois - Bass River to the End - 12.5 miles about 4 hours 

Left Bass River, excited and determined to finish. Pushed it the entire time. Was supposed to see Zach at Courtois Creek as I was unsure how high the creek was but he wasn’t there yet so I crossed and it felt AWESOME, almost waist deep. As I continued through the Huzzah conservation campground, I passed bluffs overlooking the creek, climbed up out of the bluffs and my head lamp flickered its warning light. I had packed another rechargeable battery so I thought I was good but should maybe push the pace if it died. It died around 10 mins after it blinked. The other battery was good for a mile then flickered as well and it too died with 3.75 miles to go… I had taken out my third battery pack unintentionally to save weight.  I had my phone but it had 1% battery so I decided to use the flashlight to sprint along the trail. I did this as long as I could, then would quickly turn off the flashlight and catch my breath then repeat. Definitely wouldn’t advise doing strides at the tail end of a 238 mile run. The phone died around 2.25 miles. 

Thankfully, my Garmin has a great navigation feature and I used it to march blindly through the woods. Eventually, my night vision improved and since Zach had given me his carbon Z poles at Bass River I was using them to find the harder packed trail to differentiate from the leafy ground cover. I fell probably a dozen times and ran into a bunch of trees but finally found the road that descends to the bridge after the road that leads to the end. I saw a couple of headlamps. It was Val, Shawna, and Zach! I told them that I was having a blast navigating at night, they were unimpressed and we hiked the 1 mile or so to the end. I couldn’t stop talking about all of the night navigation skills I had acquired, this was probably because I had ingested 300 mg of caffeine in the last 20 miles and was amped up. The finish was great and anticlimactic. We all congratulated each other then all hopped in the car for each of our 4 to 7 hour drives home. I happily slept in the back seat with Buck and Peanut. 

My final time was 3 days 16 hours 17 mins and 42 seconds. The impromptu supported nature was cool in hindsight because of the lack of planning. I really only saw Zach, Val, Shawna, Patty and Marian every thirty miles or so and was on my own in between each section. I continued filtering water for the entirety of the run except for the last 12 miles and the occasional drink from a gallon jug in between trailheads. Happy I decided to continue with the supported effort after failing at the unsupported attempt.  The weather was amazing the entire time and even got sunburnt on Thursday while running shirtless! Happy to answer any questions about the route, water sources, conditions, etc. It really is a ruggedly special place and filled with so much natural beauty. Thanks to Zack Dicken, Valerie Moore, Shawna Harney, Patty Shafer, and Marian Adame for being the best crew EVER. We Run the OT and the Ozark Trail Association are amazing and were very helpful in planning. Rick Denicke, Brandon Vaughn, David Stores and all of the other runners and thru-hikers who have completed this trail provided me a great deal of inspiration.