The Smokies Challenge Adventure Run (S.C.A.R) - a 70+ mile traverse of the Great Smokies Mountains National Park via the Appalachian Trail. Backpacking along the AT in the Smokies is a very common activity, but there is a small subculture of ultra runners that attempt this traverse all in one push. For backpackers, it is a 5+ day trip. Our goal was to try to finish around 22 hours.
There were six of us that drove to the Smokies for this adventure run. Jeff, Jim, Ryne and myself came from Nashville. Daniel came from Chattanooga. And Hunter came from Birmingham. Jim, Daniel and myself were the runners. Jeff, Ryne and Hunter were the crew.
We decided to start our run from Fontana Dam, ending at Davenport Gap. The total elevation gain for the route is around 18,500'. Almost 13,000' of that are in the first 40 miles. The one spot that we were going to be able to see the crew was at Newfound Gap at approximately mile 40. Other than that, we were on our own.
We all arrived at Fontana Dam from our various locales around 1:30PM on Friday. We couldn't have asked for better weather for March in the Smokies. The highs were around 50 degrees and the overnight lows were in the upper 30's, even on top of Clingman's Dome. The plan was to start early afternoon so that we could finish on Saturday in the daylight rather than a more typical early morning start and finishing early morning (or very late night) the next day. We took about 45 minutes getting ourselves organized at the Fontana Dam. From there Jeff and Ryne dropped us off at the trailhead and just like that, we were off.
Official start time of 2:26PM on Friday, March 24th.
The climbing began immediately from step number one. There was 2000' of elevation gain in the first 4 miles up to Shuckstack fire tower. We settled in to a power hiking pace for the first few hours as we climbed and climbed and climbed. The sky was mostly overcast and it was cool, perfect conditions. The majority of the first 12 miles were in the proverbial 'green tunnel' so there weren't a lot views, even with the leafless winter trees. That changed once we hit Russel Field Shelter. The tree canopy started to open up as we were on a series of balds for the next couple of hours. We got very lucky with our timing and got to experience a hazy sunset from just below Rocky Top and Thunderhead Mtn. This was very rejuvenating as we prepared to enter 12 hours of darkness for the overnight section.
The headlamps officially had to be switched on just right around 8PM so we enjoyed 5 1/2 hours of great visuals of the Smoky Mountains. From here a mental flip switched for me. I could no longer distract myself from the distance by simply enjoying the scenery. Now it was time to dig in and really enjoy the process and time with Jim and Daniel. This is also where story time with Jim and Daniel really started to pick up. There are lots of quiet stretches on the trails when running with others but there is also plenty of time to discuss almost any topic that you can come up with...especially when you are on the trail for almost 24 hours. Kids, relationships, favorite recipes, opinions on diet/nutrition, favorite trails, hobbies outside of running, parenthood tips and tricks, etc etc. I am very thankful for these conversations on the trails. The time together provides a place of great community.
The overnight hours all tend to blend together. We were all feeling good physically and mentally for the most part 25 miles in. We filled up on water for a second time at Double Spring Gap Shelter at mile ~26ish. At this point I hit a real low spot for the next couple of hours. I'm not exactly sure why or what caused it. I had kept up with my nutrition and hydration but had a real lack of energy for the entire 6 mile climb up to Clingman's Dome. Possibly because this was at a time that my body was typically used to going to bed so it was revolting against the idea of staying up all night? Once we got near the summit of Clingman's, the temperature dropped significantly and it became very foggy, wet, and windy. This was the only time during the entire run that I was uncomfortable due to weather. After a couple hour climb up the steep, rocky trail, we made it to the summit and descended down the backside as quickly as possible to get out of the wind. The views from Clingman's are typically phenomenal so being up in the dark with visibility no more than a couple of feet due to the fog was a completely different experience for me.
From the summit of Clingman's we had roughly 8 mostly downhill miles to get to our crew at Newfound Gap. Thankfully I started to feel much better as we started the descent. This portion was almost as slow as the climb up due to all the wet, slippery rocks and very steep trail. This was also the first section that really dragged on for all us because we were all expecting to make it to the crew point sooner than we did. Finally, around 3:30AM, approximately 13 hours after we started, we made it to Newfound Gap. Jeff, Ryne and Hunter were there awaiting our arrival. They had prepared hot coffee and soup for us and had all of our gear and food out and ready for us to grab whatever we needed. We spent about 15 minutes or so at Newfound taking in some hot calories and preparing for the final 30 mile push to Davenport Gap. The crew team was very efficient and pushed us out as quickly as possible so we didn't have time to get comfortable and not want to continue on to the finish.
I have ran and/or hiked the majority of the trail from Newfound Gap to Davenport Gap so I mostly knew what to expect. Fewer long, steep climbs than the first 40 miles but lots of technical trails and rolling climbs and descents that are a tough on tired legs. Spirits stayed pretty high and conversation continued to flow as the miles continued to click off in the darkness. We were in pretty heavy fog for the rest of the night after leaving Newfound Gap. Finally around 7:45AM the sun began to fight through the fog and we were able to shut our headlamps off for the first time in 12 hours. The sun came up just in time for us to get to experience the thick, green tunnel of ferns, moss and pines around Tricorner Knob.
Around Mt. Guyot we all began to hit a low spot. We were nearly 19 hours into our adventure and we were all beginning to get really tired. The technical trail was wearing us down physically and the lack of sleep was wearing us down mentally. At this point we were all ready to be finished but we still had about 15 miles to go. Our pace dropped considerably on the last 15 miles. We were on pace to hit our 22 hour target up until this point. We kept thinking we were closer to the finish than we actually were which was very mentally taxing but we continued to trudge forward. We stopped for one last water fill up at Cosby Knob shelter. Jeff and Hunter had run in from Davenport Gap to look for us and run out with us. They were expecting to see us at Mt. Cammerer but found us at Cosby Knob three more miles up the trail. We were behind schedule. They delivered the tough news that we still had eight miles to go but it was a bit of a boost having a couple more people to "run" with. There wasn't much running happening at this point. We hiked the last couple climbs to Mt. Cammerer and from there it was five miles all down hill to the end...three of those being very rocky and technical. Once we navigated our our way through the rocky section we hit Davenport Gap shelter and knew it was a smooth two miles to the end. These were our fastest two miles of the entire trip. Finally Ryne and his dog Dany came into view sitting by the final trail sign. We had made it.
23 hours, 45 minutes, 57 seconds.
Ryne was waiting for us at the finish with cold drinks and ready to prepare any food we wanted. It was a great feeling to be able to sit down. The adrenaline associated with finally being finished jolted me back to life a little bit. I suddenly didn't feel quite as tired and my body didn't feel as run down. This was my longest run since Stillhouse 100k in December and the longest I have ever continuously been on my feet by over 10 hours. What an incredible adventure.
I am very thankful to have found this community of runners/friends. I couldn't be more humbled that Jeff, Ryne and Hunter decided to make a 4+ hour drive to the Smokies to spend a sleepless weekend making sure that Daniel, Jim and myself had as good a run as possible. We owe you guys one. Thank you to Daniel and Jim for the miles and miles of stories, knowledge, laughs and wisdom.
My mental capacities weren't firing on all cylinders and I completely forgot to get a picture of us at the end. But here is one from the following morning with our eyes still half closed...
I get two questions all the time: What do you eat? and Why do I run such long distances? I will try to explain.
WHAT DO I EAT?
Short answer: As much as possible. With an early afternoon start, I ate breakfast and lunch basically how I usually would. Oatmeal for breakfast and a chicken sandwich for lunch.
On the run I carried:
- 800 calories of Tailwind (electrolyte drink mix)
- 800 calories of trail mix
- 3 packs of peanut butter crackers
- 800 calories of GU energy chews
- 600 calories of salami/turkey/cheese rollups
At the crew point at Newfound Gap I ate:
- A bowl of ramen noodles
- A cup of coffee
- An oatmeal cream pie
- Three pieces of cheese pizza
All this totals to roughly 4000 calories. I typically eat very little solid food while running but the pace of this adventure run and the nearly perfect temperatures made it possible to be able to eat these heavier foods.
1- There is a lot to be learned about yourself and others while pushing one's self to a very fatigued state. I make the choice to do these long endeavors. I want to know what my boundaries are; what my limits are. When you think you have reached your limit, physically and mentally, you can always push further. This knowledge/experience extends into daily life and into situations that are completely out of my control. And I think I am a much better person for it.
2 - I have met a lot of fantastic people in the running community. The friendships, adventures and the stories that come from them are memories that I will treasure forever.
3 - God has blessed me physically to be able to do these types of runs. I want to get out and explore all of the beauty that God has created on this planet while I can.