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Breathless from running a river.

It is cool, brisk morning while you put on your lucky running shoes in the warmth of your tent. You take a few seconds after you're laced up to stretch the morning stiffness out, then you step up to the starting line. In no time your heart gets the pre-race jitters as you brace for the gun. Two miles in, you feel the warmth from your pumping legs as you ascend the first few switchbacks of the trail just past the starting line. The race route is designed in a way that the hardest is over with early on, but there's no time to think about that. You reach the second water station at Cossatot Falls, gulping in more air than you anticipated. It's a tough stretch to the top of Falls Vista, but you push on, taking just a second to see great rock formations bracing a torrent of a river. At the last water station the staff tells you your time is--What?! That was 20 seconds slower than last year! I had better ride my second wind all the way through! You pick up the pace in the final miles.

Crossing the Low Water Bridge below the visitor center and running across a river you've been seeing by your side during the entire race, you know the end is close. There's a quarter-mile incline to the top of the visitor center and then the finish line. Struggling to find the air and energy, you hear cheers on just the other side of the curved road. It ignites you and you push to the end. Gasping for wind, you kneel down as the staff gives you your final time. All the while you think, "That was a hard and beautiful trail." You lie on the ground, thankful for being breathless, from running a river.

Every year Cossatot River State Park-Natural Area (CRSPNA) in Arkansas hosts a half marathon. As it grows in popularity, we have been able to max out participant numbers for the past three years. Runners from surrounding states and some not so local gather for this all-day event. Participants have come from our home state of Arkansas, as well as Oklahoma, Louisiana, Iowa, and Texas. One hundred eager runners start at the north end of River Corridor Trail at Brushy Creek Recreational Area and finish 13.1 miles later at our visitor center.

There is so much more to this half marathon than meets the eye. This event is about connections. It offers a spectrum of opportunity for interpretation in a "high adventure" environment. What makes this run special to me as an interpreter is the opportunity to show people of all walks (or runs) of life why CRSPNA is here. That said, as great as it would be for me to run alongside each runner and say "Look at that!" *breath*, "Isn't that neat?!" *breath*, I would be a bit tired at the end of the day, so we get creative about how to get our interpretive messages to runners.

There is one thing, from my eyes as an interpreter, that I know makes this event great, and that is the location of the trail. This half marathon is a journey--not just on a trail, but through the heart of a resource. The trail is magnificent in ways no writer great or small could describe.

As with any program, park, or event, there has to be something special--a genus loci that sparks curiosity and connection. I believe, along with many other runners, that our half marathon does exactly that. Our River Corridor Trail goes through areas of the park (some of which can only be accessed by foot) that are of great significance to the park, staff, and visitors. Runners during our half marathon get to see all of those areas. The big question for our interpretive staff is, How do we get runners to do more than just run past those areas? That is quite a tall order for an interpreter. Trying to get someone to have emotional and intellectual connections while they are running up and down terrain, looking down to watch their footing, and maintaining a pulse of 160 beats per minute is not exactly a great recipe for an interpretive moment.

What I knew the staff and I could do is create the greatest opportunity for remembering these wonderful places. There were some things about the trail that we obviously couldn't change. The way the trail runs, the geographic formations it crosses, and how rugged the terrain will always be constant, but we could (and do) try to draw runners' eyes to the scenery. One of the ways we tackled this was marking the trail in a way that emphasized the coming terrain and made it easy for runners to look up instead of at their feet. On one area in particular, there are five evenly spaced oak trees with bright blue markings at head height. The positioning of the markings helps runners get their bearings, but also accentuates the landscape.

Scott Vacca is a local from Mena, Arkansas, who has attended every year since the half marathons began in 2011. In a way, he represents our prototypical visitor and the target audience for this event. He had some great insight on his thoughts about the trail, how, and why he stills runs it. "With the half marathon, you have to always stay extremely focused," he said. "You have an acute awareness for not only the terrain but the view as well. You have an appreciation for each section. You can't describe the trail by the mile because it would take away from the experience."

The moment he said "acute awareness," I about screamed I was so happy. Many runners, including myself, have experienced "tunnel vision" during a race. Your heart is pounding, you're gasping for oxygen, and the last thing on your mind is, What will I remember about this place after the race? When I run, there is a lot of linear thinking that my mind resorts to for simplistic reasons. Breathe. Your next marker is the mailbox. Take bigger strides. One way I have coped with this is a trick my high school track coach taught me. He would write "Always Look" on my hands. This was to help from my mind going "stagnant," as he called it. In a way, the placement of the trail markings are the "Always Look" message for the runners.

The half marathon course runs the entire expanse of the park. Runners get to see the river, the very reason why CRSPNA is here, in a very different way than most visitors do. I asked Scott Vacca, does that change how runners view the trail while running the race? "You take ownership of it," he said with enthusiasm. "Being a local, when I run the marathon, I keep in mind that I get to see a part of my home. That's one great thing I have loved about the trail-running community and this park. Their first priority is ecology and not just running to win."

"Those 'Always Look' moments are ultimately the goal of the half marathon," said Susan Andrews, the park's office manager and organizer of the event. "We want people to know that this is as much their park as it is ours."

It's one thing to have an "Always Look" moment, but what is the goal of interpretation? Is there a way we could get our runners to grasp a memory and a sense of place? The interpretive answer is of course, yes! As small as it may seem, we had the opportunity to create memorable moments for our runners at our water stations. During the marathon, we spaced out three water stations manned by park staff, all of which would give a runner their time and say what the next big land mark would be. With most half marathons, a runner would barely listen while gulping down a cup of water, but because of the terrain and markings at this event, there is great potential for instilling a memory. With interpreters at water stations offering an encouraging smile and saying, "Your next big land mark is ..." runners are reminded throughout the event of the specialness of the place--and they're given a welcome distraction from the fact that their heart feels like it might pound right through their chest.

Just as my track coach would yell my lap time during a race to remind me that the next needed to be a little faster, I hoped these subtle reminders from the staff would not only encourage runners but spark those connections that create a sense of place.

I had the pleasure of interviewing a Little Rock resident who has been running the half marathon for three years. Karen Call has been running marathons for 20 years and says this is one of her favorites. I asked what the most memorable part of Cossatot's half marathon was to her. "There are two that come to mind," she said. "One would be the vista overlooking Cossatot Falls. That part of the trail is a really tough part, but it makes you want to stop running and enjoy the view. The second is the Low Water Bridge right below the visitor center. You finally get to run across the river that you have been seeing the whole marathon. Even talking about it makes me picture the river."

Whether it be swimming, biking, or sprinting up to a finish line, there is always an opportunity to open one's eyes--to have a snap shot of "the big picture." We have a 13.1-mile chance to do that, but we aren't the only place to have that sort of potential. No matter how breathless or tired our visitors may be, we never miss a chance to remind them to "Always Look."

Andrew Rawlings is a park ranger at Cossatot River State Park-Natural Area. He is an NAI Certified Interpretive Guide as well as Project WET/WILD/Learning Tree and Aldo Leopold Foundation Facilitator and a BSA Eagle Scout since 2009.
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Title Annotation:interpretive programs at Cossatot River State Park-Natural Area in Arkansas
Author:Rawlings, Andrew
Publication:Legacy Magazine
Date:Jul 1, 2015
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