Dr. Carl Touchstone was a dentist by profession but I think he made a
fine poet, too. That's an inspiring message for anyone, not just ultra
Carl died an untimely death of cancer at age 59 in 2000. I
had the pleasure of meeting him only once, at the 1998 Ice Age 50-miler
in Wisconsin. He had a private plane he loved to fly to races all over
the country, and often invited his local ultra running friends to
accompany him. You can see photos of him and read tributes on
the Mississippi 50
His widow, Brooke, still (wo)mans an aid station during the race.
The "Mississlippy" reference in the title regards the mud for
which this race is notorious ̶
even in a "dry" year:
Cody-pig inspects the second biggest mud hole on
this year's course (note that it was a "dry" year).
Jim and I refer to a wet year we ran Sunmart as "Mudmart."
That was before some of the bog bridging was constructed. The Chucknut
50K in Bellingham, WA is usually so muddy that we call it "Muckanut."
You get the idea. We like to use nicknames for courses with mud up to
As our race plans evolved during January and February Jim and I were looking
for a race for one or both of us to run after
Rocky, something between the 50K and 50-mile distance that would be sort
of on the way home.
We were also looking for an excuse to prolong our
trip a few more weeks!
Research on our favorite internet race schedules (
http://www.run100s.com/) turned up the venerable Carl
Touchstone Memorial Mississippi 50
trail race to be held on March 7, one
of several opportunities in the Southeast during the late winter.
The date and location of the MS50 were perfect for our schedule:
We went through Laurel, MS on our way back to Virginia from Rocky last
year; it is literally "on the way home" without taking a detour.
Three distances are offered: 20K, 50K, and 50 miles, with very
generous cut-off times for slower runners like me in the two shorter races.
I could run the 50K and Jim could do the 50-miler. Each would be good
training for the summer races we have planned. (More about that in another
We'd also both get a new state in our never-ending quest to run a
marathon or ultra in all fifty states.
- Finally, the
undulating, multi-loop course has soft pine needle and dirt trails with some
roots, as well as wider dirt fire roads through the pine forests.
What does that configuration and terrain sound like? Huntsville State
Park! We were already in the perfect place to train for the MS50. The main
differences in the MS50 course are streams to ford (no bridges or bog boards),
more potential mud, and hills that are a little steeper.
This is one of many races in the Southeast that I never got around to
running when I lived in the Atlanta area. It first came on my radar about ten
years ago after a "wet" year. There is mud even in "dry" years, but when it's
been raining a lot ̶ which isn't so unusual in Mississippi in March
̶ this course is a total mess.
That makes for better post-race stories from the survivors, of course. I
remember reading vivid race reports about runners losing shoes in deep
mud and having to swim or cling to ropes to cross flooded creeks that
were chest-deep on the tallest runners.
And those weren't just the writers who were taking literary license to
entertain their readers!
Two times since 1996 the 50-miler has been cancelled or shut down early
due to flooded creeks that were deemed too dangerous to cross even with ropes.
I don't think I mentioned these possibilities when I told Jim the MS50
would get my vote for which race to do next. <grin> I dislike mud but
flooded streams don't faze me that much after my adventures in Maine on the
Appalachian Trail. In fact, streams are great to wash off any mud I've
accumulated to that point.
Many miles of dirt roads and trails -- and a gator
We read everything we could find on the internet about the race, e-mailed
some friends who have run it previously, and
researched our camping options before applying for the race. It fills up before
race day, so it's not like we could wait until a week out to see what the
weather prediction was. We're relatively tough ultra runners (!) and we'd deal
with whatever happened . . .
Turned out, the National Forest Service was a bigger threat to the race this
year than Mother Nature.
MONDAY: THE ROAD TO MISSISSIPPI
After camping in one place for a month it was a little weird to be on
the road again but we were looking forward to one last adventure before heading
back to our house in Virginia.
Remember all that nice warm weather we had at Huntsville State Park in
February? Seventies most of the month, even 80° F?
Well, by the time we were ready to leave on March 2 another cold air
mass was dipping down into southern Texas and wreaking wintry havoc on several
Southeastern cities and on up the East coast. Birmingham got slammed with a
surprise six inches of snow. Atlanta and Roanoke also got a good dose of
the white stuff.
Good thing we weren't going that way quite yet, eh? Or maybe not.
By the next weekend it was about 80° in the
same cities. Such is the fickleness of Mother Nature in the springtime in the
South. We missed the snow between Huntsville, TX and Laurel, MS but we
did have a couple very chilly nights before the heat wave hit us on race
Logo on race
It was a brisk 35° when we left Huntsville State Park on
Monday morning. Bright sunshine warmed our leisurely excursion through some
scenic sections of southeastern Texas on two-lane highways that avoided the
entire Houston metro area and took us to I-10 in Lake Charles, LA. We passed many
idyllic farms with ponds and bright green fields that contrasted beautifully
with numerous purple redbud trees growing wild in the woods and along the road.
We made good time on these "blue highways" despite the slowdown through several
We really should get off the freeways more!
The second half of that day's 408-mile drive through southern Louisiana on
I-10 from Lake Charles to Slidell went faster although traffic was much
heavier. My favorite part of that section of freeway is the bridging over about
twenty miles of wetlands and waterways between Lafayette and Baton Rouge. Lots of yellow
wildflowers brightened up the swampy terrain. This year's trip was much more colorful
than last year's because we passed through the area several weeks later. It was
springtime, not winter.
The temperature sure felt like winter, though. We spent a chilly
night near 30° on Monday in the relatively
quiet parking lot of a Sam's Club in Slidell, LA, which is north of New Orleans.
We have found that Sam's Clubs are just as accommodating to overnight parking
as Wal-Marts but much quieter because customer traffic ends by 9 PM;
they aren't open all night. Trucks still come and go with deliveries 24/7 so we
while we're at the service desk asking for permission to park overnight, we
also ask where is the best place to park to be out of their way.
That was our last night with decent Verizon cell phone and internet
connections for almost a week. I think I missed being "connected" to cyberspace
more than Jim did. If you know our computer histories, you'll find that ironic.
TUESDAY: CAMPING @ TURKEY FORK RESERVOIR
Tuesday we had a relatively short drive of 131 miles to reach
the campground at Turkey Fork Reservoir in the northern (Chickasawhay)
unit of DeSoto National Forest near Sand Hill, MS. We stayed
there our first night in the area. We weren't sure if we could
get into the other national forest campground, Longleaf, at the start/finish area
for the race. We did know most of the twenty sites at Turkey Fork
would accommodate us.
Turkey Fork Reservoir near the campground
Only three sites in the loop with twenty water and electric hookups were taken when we arrived so we had a
good choice of sites. We can recommend Turkey Fork for camping,
fishing, boating, and swimming. The park is open year-round and
has a beautiful lake/reservoir. The camping sites are spacious,
shaded, and most have lake views.
Reflections on the lake
There is only about a mile of dirt trails to hike and run, plus
paved roads in the area. I did a
short out-and-back run before lunch to stretch out my legs and
see what there was to see in the park.
WEDNESDAY: LONGLEAF TRAILHEAD CAMPGROUND
Nice as the Turkey Fork campground is, we wanted to be closer to the race
site, if possible. We unhooked the truck from the camper Tuesday afternoon and took
a drive of about 25 miles to the primitive Longleaf trailhead
camping area farther
north in the DeSoto NF.
There are two ways to reach it
̶ from the south (Hattiesburg or
Richland) and from the north (Laurel). We determined that the
little dirt forest roads were better for hauling our camper in
from the north than the south. We were pleased to see just how
large the camping area is (it was empty until Friday) and
decided we'd move there on Wednesday morning.
Not only is the Longleaf Trail campground right at the
start/finish of the MS50 race, we also saved the $20/night camping fee
charged at Turkey Fork. The National Forest Service has an
interesting twist here: trail users have to pay a $3
fee to use the trails each day but camping is
Don't expect electric and water hookups, though. It's
boon-docking. There is a primitive restroom (i.e., pit toilets;
no showers or sinks) at the trailhead but nothing else, not even
a water pump or dump station. We used solar and generator power
for four days, got water at the forest service headquarters
south of Laurel, and dumped at a Flying J farther up the road on
our way to Virginia. The main downside was "extended" Verizon
service and a weak signal that made phone calls challenging for
us and internet connections impossible.
We had the campground and trails virtually to ourselves until
Friday afternoon. Like Huntsville State Park in Texas, there
were a few day-use visitors on weekdays (equestrians, cyclists,
hikers, runners) and then the campground suddenly filled to
capacity for the weekend.
This time the campers were more entertaining, though
̶ the people as well
as their rigs. Most were horse folks, despite neon yellow signs
announcing over 200 runners and 100 spectators would be running
the MS50 races on Saturday. This is a very popular horse trail,
which explains the horse and rider on the entry sign in one of
the photos above.
This is an interesting bunch of people and they were all
friendly to us, even though runners camping in the forest were
in the minority. It appears they are a cohesive group of local
riders who frequent the Longleaf system of trails most every
weekend in the warmer months
̶ and this was apparently their first really good weekend
to congregate. When the first couples arrived
on Friday morning we could hear them calling their friends to urge them to get
there soon so they could get their usual spot (we never heard
whose "usual spot" we got!). They made use of every
available square foot of grass under the tall pine trees. I took
the next photo before everyone squeezed in:
The rigs ranged from a rather new 45' horse trailer/camper combo that
parked across the little road from us (wouldn't want to have to
back that puppy into a space; it's 13 feet longer than our rig!)
. . .
. . . to an old converted bus hauling a mule/horse trailer and wagon:
Which somehow morphed into this (I took a stealth photo from behind our
That was the first couple to arrive with an unconventional (to
us) set-up. After that, we wondered what was next!
Some pulled into circular formations that reminded me of old
cowboy movies with wagon trains. Horses and mules were tied up
to their trailers or nearby trees. Several dogs had the run of
the campground, just as they do on their own farms. Cody was
barely fazed by all the critters and activity. The humans
spent Friday and Saturday nights around their campfires, kept
their big generators going all night (we never do that), and
rode all day Saturday. Many were still there when we left Sunday
At least half a dozen of the families brought wagons and offered
rides (and lunch) to their friends. The wagons were as varied as
the camper-trailer combinations.
There are a lot of dirt roads
through the DeSoto NF that are suitable for these horse-drawn
wagons. They may be common in this area, but they were new to
us. Reminded me of the Pennsylvania Dutch. Very interesting.
I thought I'd see horses all over the race course on Saturday
but I passed only three riders in one group as they were taking
a break. The equestrians knew which loops the runners would be
using and apparently rode on other trails in the forest. That
definitely made it easier on both groups. I did see several
returning wagons on the road near the finish line after I got
done running the race.
THE LONGLEAF TRAIL
The 26-mile Longleaf Trail system is named for the very tall
pines which dominate the DeSoto
National Forest and are common throughout the Southeast.
A stand of longleaf pine reaches for the
These long-lived trees can take 100-150 years to reach mature
heights of over 100 feet. Some are 500 years old! The needles
("leaves") can reach 18 inches in length. Their pine comes get
big, too. I collected some of the larger ones but didn't bring
them home. They are as big as any pine cones I've seen in
The Longleaf Trail is comprised of three loops ranging from 5.6
miles (Middle Loop, marked in green on the map), 11.2
miles (North Loop, marked in yellow), to 15.1 miles
(South Loop, marked in red). I couldn't find a map quickly
online so I took a picture of the map in one of the brochures we
picked up at the ranger station:
This year's original course for the MS 50-miler was three X
the loop at the top (yellow on this map) and two X the loop
small loop (shown in green). The 50K runners were supposed to do
the top loop twice and finish on the smaller loop. But that plan
changed, testing the adaptability of the race management,
volunteers, and runners.
About ten days before the MS50 race the Forest Service did a
controlled burn, necessitating a course re-route. Jim and I are
familiar with the whole concept of prescribed burns and why they
are necessary to protect soil, water, wildlife, and timber from
But what were the rangers thinking when
they burned this forest right before our race??
Trail about a mile from the end of each
They were thinking about the long-term health of their forest
and its wild inhabitants,
We talked a while with Ranger Dave Barons at the
Chickasawhay HQ when we went
into the office on Tuesday to get trail maps, camping
information, and water. Prescribed fires are conducted under a
stringent set of conditions including wind speed, relative
humidity, temperature, and other factors. The timing this spring
just happened to be ideal right before the MS50 race, so we got
to run through a lot of burned-out forest.
Even parts of the Longleaf camping area were burned. We chose
our particular site not only for its length, but it also had the
most green grass around it. When we corresponded with RD Dennis
Bisnette in late February about camping for the race he wrote
back, "The USFS yesterday
[2-25-09] control burned the campsite/trailhead where the race
starts. I would suggest you look at the site and possibly visit
the USFS office for alternative campsites within the forest if
you just can not stay there . . . We usually have some burned
areas each year. We have no control over what happens."
Race management understands the drill and took quick,
appropriate measures to re-route the traditional MS50 courses
to ensure the safety of the runners. Registration director
"Running Bear" (Elmer?) sent an e-mail to all the runners with
a new course map five days before the race:
" . . . Below are some final instructions and reminders. Note that one big
change this year is the temporary course change for all runners! The NFS
burn program has turned much of the usual courses into a bleak war
zone! Print out a copy of the course map enclosed and look it over.
Bring questions to the Friday night briefing . . ."
Revised 2009 course map
About half of the course wound through burned areas, some of
which were still smoking on Wednesday and Thursday. That
was pretty weird but since all of the fuel on the forest floor
had already burned I didn't worry about getting caught in a
One of the characteristics of longleaf pines is their ability to
withstand fires, both controlled and not. So while the accumulated under story brush and
some other trees are burning, the thick, scaly bark of the longleaf
pines protects them from the flames. Although there are other tree
species in the DeSoto National Forest, the dominant one is the
After we moved to theLongleaf campground on Wednesday I went out alone for
an 11+-mile run on the North Loop, which is yellow on our Forest
Service map but designated the "Orange Loop" on the race map.
On this training run I didn't do either of the two out-and-back
sections that we ran in the race but I saw where they were.
Any concerns I had about my ability to follow the trail were
quickly dispelled after a couple of miles when I realized the
intersections were well-marked, the configuration of the loop
corresponded well with both the NFS and race maps, and some
flagging was already in place. The numbers posted on some trees did not
correspond to the mile post markings on the NFS map, however.
I was pleased that many sections of the loop were runnable for
me; even though the time limit in the 50K is very
generous, this gave me more confidence before the race
There are more miles of rather smooth dirt road and double-track
trail than single-track, which has some roots but fewer than at
Rocky and Sunmart.
Despite relatively dry weather recently, there were some muddy
sections and I could see where this course would be a real mess
after a good rainfall. When the mud dries out, hikers and runners get
to dance around the holes left by horses. The numerous streams were all
very low and I could hop over all but one. I noticed several rather steep little ups and
downs but figured they wouldn't bother me that much in only two
loops for the 50K.
Jim and Cody came out on one of the dirt roads (201C) to greet me near
the location of the second aid station that would be set up during the
race. That was a nice surprise!
Bottom line: during my training run the weather was warm (mid-60s) and
sunny, I had an interesting run somewhere new to me, I didn't get lost,
and I was able to take photos of the majority of the course so I
wouldn't be tempted to take the camera with me during the race.
Jim also took a few pictures of a different section he ran. I'll
show more photos of the course that we took on these training
runs in the next entry about the race itself.
I wasn't bothered physically on Wednesday by the lingering smoky
sections through which I passed. That concerned me
after the breathing problems I had from allergic reactions to
something growing at
Huntsville SP the previous two weeks.
Thursday the smoke was a BIG problem, though. The air was fairly
clear early in the morning when Cody and I explored the little
lake at the campground (it's called a "gator pond" on the NFS
map). What a pretty place in the early morning
and late afternoon light!
Mid-morning Jim and Cody went out for a six-mile run part way
down and back on the new section of the red trail (South Loop)
on the race course. I had planned to walk or ride out bike that
direction in the afternoon but by then the wind was blowing a
lot of smoke to the campground from another burn taking place
farther south in the national forest. We both ended up staying
inside our camper with the doors and windows shut all afternoon
and evening, it was so bad.
The good news is that the air cleared up significantly on
Friday and we were able to stay outside as much as we wanted.
Second-worst mud hole on the race course;
it's best to just plow right on through these.
The bad news is that neither Jim nor I saw the very
worst mud hole on the course until we were running the race.
Maybe that's actually good news! The red (South) loop
isn't normally on the course. Jim and I really didn't care for
the it, and from what I heard I don't think most of the other
runners liked that section either
̶ and not just because
of the mud hole.
Next entry: pre-race activities on Friday and the race
itself on Saturday
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the Ultra Lab
© 2009 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil