SCARred for Life! Jack Sayles on the Trails
SCARred for Life!
Jack Sayles on the Trails
The Ford truck sits in the parking lot of Percy Warner Park before I arrive at 6:45 a.m. The truck remains there four hours later when I leave. It is Jack’s truck, the rear window tattooed with the stickers of an ultra trail running man: The Stump Jump 50k and the Cloudsplitter 100. But, for what Jack trains for on this day, no official sticker exists. That is because the run itself does not officially exist. Yet it is there, the SCAR, the Smokies Challenge Adventure Run, 71.6 miles of mountain single track stretching across the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Those trails beckon Jack like 71.6 sirens, luring him with their twists and turns. But Jack will tag and bag them all, completing 73.2 miles (he will add a bit by starting too far back😊) in an impressive 28ish hours. Of course, he will. He is Jack, a.k.a. Poncho Blanco, an Ultra Dirtbag and a total gentleman.
He and I recently met over a beer to discuss what trail running means to him.
Headlamp: So tell us about SCAR, Jack. Why did you do it?
Jack: Just this thought in the back of my mind – could I ever do that? The SCAR is a kind of rite of passage for Southern trail runners. I want to be considered a Southern trail runner.
Headlamp: How did you prepare?
Jack: Preparing for SCAR was a year’s worth of thinking – and training. I was putting in 70-mile weeks for about 6 weeks. Doing 13 miles 3 days in a row. Doing 4 to 6 hours on a Saturday followed by 3 to 4 on a Sunday. There’s really nothing around here [Nashville] to prepare you for the climbs and descents. Adventure runs don’t have aid stations. They don’t have drop out points. You’re all in. You’re either going to make it or die trying. I determined I was going to do this. I got stubborn.
Headlamp: You distinguish between training runs, races and adventure runs. Give us your definition of an adventure run.
Jack: An adventure run is going someplace for a run that you don’t normally go to train, is challenging, and you have to carry everything you need.
Headlamp: When did you start running?
Jack: It’s been about six years. Peggy [Jack’s wife of ten years] wanted something that we could do together. That was the first year of the Ultra Dirt Bags. I was not into road running at that time – and I’m still not into road running! It’s not on the road then I’ll go!
Headlamp: Do you remember your first trail run?
Jack: Yes, we suffered through a loop of the white, all 2.5 miles.
Headlamp: And what about your first loop of the red, the 4.5 miles?
Jack: I cried. There were two climbs on Dripping Springs and I thought, “what have I gotten myself into?”
Headlamp: What do you think about when you trail run?
Jack: Nothing and everything all at once. Sometimes I trail run just because I like being out in the woods. Sometimes to destress or declutter from the day. Sometimes to remember things I’ve been taught. For example, a recall of scriptures, hymns, promises.
Headlamp: Has trail running made you more spiritual?
Jack: No, but it has provided me an opportunity to reflect upon the relationship I have with the God of Abraham. I don’t view it as spirituality, but as a relationship. A relationship is an interaction. It’s peaceful. It’s a lot of fun.
Headlamp: Your transition in only six years from a trail runner who weeps on a loop of the red to a man who bags a seventy plus SCAR despite the wind and the rain and the creatures who go bump in the night is truly remarkable.
Jack: My wife Peggy says that she has created a monster.
Headlamp: Who are some of your trail running inspirations?
Jack: There are four people I can point to who are instrumental in my trail running expansion: Jerod Reynolds, Jobie Williams, Joel Meredith, and Scott Bell. Jeff Davis was also a huge resource to go to for advice: “I like to do a distance three times before I step up the next level.” That just clicked with me. I took that to heart. I listened to someone more experienced. Heard what they had to say, and then followed through.
Headlamp: So tell us about your first marathon.
Jack: That was the Cumberland Gap Ridge Trail Marathon in June of 2014. At that point, it was the hardest thing I had ever done. I just went ahead and jumped in. The marathon was a test to see if I could handle it. I got to 15 miles and wondered “Where is the end? When is this thing over?” I hadn’t figured out nutrition. I hadn’t figured out hydration. I did discover that gels do not work for me. I have now switched from the gels and goo to more whole foods.
Headlamp: Any other takeaways from that first marathon?
Jack: One of the things I learned from Cumberland Gap was how to understand an elevation profile. When I looked at the elevation profile for Cloudsplitter, I was like “oh, crap.”
Headlamp: You’ve now bagged a number of 50k races, right?
Jack: Six. I’m really comfortable with that distance. It’s like putting on a favorite pair of boots. I enjoy it.
Headlamp: What about 50-milers?
Jack: I’ve done 50 milers. My first 50 miler was Lookout Mountain in 2015. Couldn’t ask for better conditions. It was a bluebird day. Had a shot of whiskey of at 45 miles and it worked out great.
Headlamp: Tell us about your efforts to help new trail runners get on the path.
Jack: One of my joys is helping people enjoy the trails. That evolved into me facilitating the Dirt Bag on Thursday nights. At 6:00 p.m., We meet at Deep Wells and runners have their choice, red or white. If somebody new shows up, I’ll suggest that they try white. If nobody else is running white, then I’ll take them myself. I want folks to feel comfortable and enjoy what I enjoy.
Headlamp: Any advice to trail runners trying to push their own endurance envelopes?
Jack: Walk all the hills. Stop and talk to your friends at the top, and then run down. It’s more about running with friends, having a good time, and getting whatever the task is done.
For those readers who would like to run with Jack, a great place to find him this fall and winter will be Percy Warner Park, particularly Thursday evenings, as he prepares for the mighty Massanutten 100 Miler this spring.