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An unidentified runner participates in the No Business 100 in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area on October 12, 2019. Photo: Nichole Newport.

STEARNS, Ky. — By ones, twos and threes they came, more than a hundred of them in all — runners, ultra-marathoners who were pushing their bodies to the limits to complete some of the most extreme race conditions in the eastern United States.

Some were male. Some were female. Some wore short shorts. Some wore spandex. Some sported long beards, some sported long hair. Some had no hair.

They came from all walks of life — from metropolitan areas and rural places few have ever heard of. The youngest was 22. The oldest was 63. But they all shared a single goal: to finish the grueling race course.

Over the course of two days — beginning Saturday and ending Sunday — they ran. They departed from the Blue Heron Mining Community near Stearns, Ky. and jogged into aid stations in the Big South Fork back country at places like Ledbetter, Duncan Hollow and Bald Knob. They ran through the long-abandoned No Business community that was the race’s namesake, then to Station Camp. Up and down the plateau they went, eventually winding up at Bandy Creek, then turning back north towards Pickett State Park. From there, it was on to Peter’s Mountain and, ultimately, back to Blue Heron.

There were runners fording the Big South Fork River in the dead of night, guided only by the head lamps that illuminated the way before them. There were runners who bore the battle scars of the unforgiving terrain — scraped knees, bruised foreheads. 

If the Big South Fork has garnered a reputation for adventure recreation, there is perhaps no adventure more extreme than a 100-mile ultra-marathon through what is arguably the toughest terrain east of the Mississippi River. No wonder the race is quickly growing in popularity.

Organized by Brian Gajus, a developer and ultrarunner from Knoxville, this year’s No Business 100 was booked to capacity. The National Park Service limits how many runners can be registered, basing it on how many they feel the trails — which are often little more than narrow footpaths through dense forest growth — will support. In all, more than 130 runners took part. But that was just the start. Each runner is allowed volunteers to aid them along the route, which causes the race number to swell. Throw in all the volunteers manning aid stations along the route, and the number was all the larger still. Those involved say that it is quickly becoming one of the national park’s premier events.

One of the 113 runners who finished the 100-mile course was Oneida’s own Shane Foster. A long-time running enthusiast, Foster has been participating in ultra-marathons for four years. This year’s No Business race was his first 100-mile run. He finished in just over 32 hours.

Merely getting from start to finish in the allotted time is an incredible feat, but the race winner — Brian Bauer from St. Charles, Mo. — finished in an incredible 18.5 hours, setting a pace of one mile about every 11 minutes.

Jessica Jones, another local long-distance runner, accompanied Foster in the late stages of the race as his pacer — a volunteer who keeps runners focused after both mind and body have begun to give out.

“They’re not allowed to help you with much, but just to make sure that you’re following the course and don’t make a wrong turn, and remind you to keep hydrated and eating, because after that long of continuously running you can become very confused,” Foster said.

Jones completed the last 36 miles of the race with Foster as his pacer.

“The pacers are volunteers,” Foster said. “They basically run that many miles for nothing; not even a free t-shirt.”

Foster has been running for 25 years. The No business run was his seventh ultra-marathon of 2019, and he hopes to do one more in December.

People came from all over to run the No Business 100. Some were from Knoxville and Nashville, but most were from other states. Foster — the only local runner to complete the 100-mile course — was glad to see it. The race allows an entirely different segment of users — not just the whitewater paddlers, the horseback riders and the paddlers — to see what the Big South Fork has to offer.

“I feel like Oneida is struggling, and the Big South Fork is very important to our county,” he said. “It’s truly amazing. I never realized that until I ran through it.”

The 2020 No Business 100 has already been set for October 17-18. There will be a couple of major changes, which will accommodate the race’s growth. It will move from a Saturday-Sunday event to a Friday-Saturday event, and the start-finish will move from Blue Heron to Pickett State Park.

“Running the race out of Blue Heron has been memorable but not without its challenges,” Gajus said. “With this move, we feel not only will it make things easier for our race staff but more importantly, create a more community feel before and after the race.”