SCAR 2003 – 22 March
The acronym SCAR, brainstormed by Matt Kirk, stands for the Smokies Challenge Adventure Run. The run consists of a traverse of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park via the Appalachian trail. The trail is approximately 70 miles long with 18,000+ feet of climbing. As if this weren’t tough enough, there is only one point at which you can be met by a crew. The only road crossing of the entire traverse is at the 40 mile point at Newfound Gap. The amount of climbing to this point is about 12,000 ft. Our goal was to do the run in a single calendar day which works out to a bit less than 3 mph. Well, 3 mph is pretty slow. That should be easy, right?……Wrong, not easy.
The SCAR victims were to be myself, Mike Day, David Kirk, and Matt Kirk. Supporting our efforts were Melinda Day (Mike’s wife) and Pat Kirk (David’s wife). I can't say enough how important this support was and how much it's appreciated. Thanks a million Pat and Melinda! We all carpooled together and arrived at Fontana Dam, the western end of the traverse, in time to cook up a pasta dinner and to prepare for out midnight start. Shortly after 10pm everyone bedded down to catch a bit of sleep. I think most everyone slept for an hour or so but I was too keyed up to sleep so I just enjoyed being motionless for a while.
With the war going on and the heightened state of security alert I thought that we might have trouble crossing the Fontana Dam but we saw no one as we started across the Dam. Soon we were across the dam and at the park boundary. A quick group snapshot and we were off up the first of many hills. Having finished a very large spaghetti dinner only two hours ago I was feeling pretty bloated and Mike said he felt the same. I was glad we were starting with a long uphill as I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been able to handle much sustained running. It was quite enjoyable rising through the night with the lights of Fontana dam sinking into the distance below. After an hour or so we were up into the clouds and it was very foggy with condensation dripping off the trees. The temperature was comfortable and our pace was good and steady. Our first water stop was at the Mollies Ridge shelter 10 miles in.
This was my first time in the park so I was a bit surprised when I looked at the shelter and saw that the “open” side was enclosed with chain link fencing. It was a standard 3 sided AT shelter but had this chain link fence and gate which made it look more like a stockade or prison than a hiking shelter. The reason they do this to all the shelters is to keep the many black bears from snuggling up with the hikers at night. We didn’t actually see any bears this trip but did see a fair amount of bear scat on the trail. I didn’t need to pull water at this stop because I had started with about 80 oz in my camelback and still had a bunch left so I just squatted down to wait for Matt and David. There was a bit of a breeze blowing and in no time I was getting chilled. Throughout the nighttime hours it would happen that a stop of more than 5 minutes or so would result in chills and shivers. It didn’t seem worth putting on more clothes as they would just have to be removed again so I just suffered and looked forward to getting moving again to warm up.
Sometime between this first water stop and dawn everyone started talking about how this “wasn’t their day” or how “things just weren’t going well.” It seemed that everyone, looking forward to another 15+ hours of this hilly and tough single track, was starting to give up on completing the run. This was way too early for such talk! I was still upbeat and optimistic. My stomach had settled down and emptied and my legs were feeling good. We were a bit off the pace we needed to keep to finish but it was early and I knew that we could do it. David and Matt had tried this traverse twice before but ended up bailing at the 40 mile mark due to bad weather so they knew what it was like to do 40 miles and 12,000 feet of climb and face a further 30 miles and 6,000 feet of unsupported rocky single track. I tried to keep alive the hope of finishing and especially worked on Matt who I was certain had the ability to finish the run if only he could maintain the right mindset. At one point Mike suspected that he had developed a hernia which was quite worrisome but seemed not to bother him so much after a while. With that worry though, it seemed unlikely that he would go past 40 miles.
Just before and just after dawn Mike and David were starting to slow some and we ended up having to wait more frequently for them to catch up. We had agreed to all stay together for the first 40 miles but David and Mike urged Matt and I to go on ahead as we rested at, I believe, the Derrick Knob shelter. Matt was reluctant to split up for safety reasons but since no one was going to be left alone he decided to press ahead, though he was still doubtful that he would want to continue past the 40 mile point. Matt was in the middle of a crazily busy semester at school and mentioned worrying about all that he had to do next week. I think he was also worried about our pace and thinking back to his last two attempts. The weather was looking to be great and I told him that he’d regret it if he passed up this opportunity. I was still very keen to finish and even said at one point, somewhat callously, that “I didn’t come out here to run 40 miles!”
Matt and I took off and were able to pick up the pace and shorten the rest breaks. Matt is a stronger runner than I am so he set the pace and I was able to maintain it. At least I was able to maintain the pace until we got to the climb up Clingman’s Dome, the highest point of the traverse. On this climb I eventually lost sight of Matt though I was pushing myself quite hard to keep him in sight. By the time I got to the top I was really struggling. In hindsight, I see that it was stupid of me to push myself so hard on this climb when there was so much of the run to go yet. By the time I had finished the climb and was running down and past the dome I was whipped. All the fight had gone out of me. Now I too was contemplating getting to Newfound Gap and calling it a day. The skies had cleared and it was looking to be a glorious sunny day but I was just not having fun anymore.
I was plodding along not even running all of the flat sections but trying to push the downhills to save my quads. I hadn’t seen Matt in quite a while but suddenly came upon him sitting in the sun on a grassy hill. He got up right away and took off. I looked longingly at the grassy hill, wanting to take a load off for a bit but turned and followed Matt, telling him how I was struggling after pushing the climb to Clingmans. I think he could also tell by the look on my face that I was hurting. At this point we were at about 35 miles but Matt described this part of the trail as one that seems to go on and on much longer than you think it should. After only a mile or so I noticed that while I was working hard to keep up with Matt I was finding it much easier to keep up a good pace. Just having him in sight seemed to have made a big difference in my energy level. Reflecting on this as I ran I figured that much of my own struggle was psychological and the fact that I hadn’t slept the night before was probably contributing to the difficulties I was having. It’s amazing the power that attitude can have on one’s performance.
Though I was doing better in this last stretch I was still struggling and I had made up my mind that I would not be continuing past Newfound. Finally we had reached the parking lot and saw Pat and Miranda with the truck and our long awaited aid. I ran up, said hi and plopped down on the grass next to Matt, obviously beat. The next thing Matt said belied wisdom beyond his 22 years. He just looks at me and says “Don’t say anything yet!” I didn’t and was able to read clearly between the lines of what he had said. He was saying that he knew I wanted to quit, and that he wanted to continue and he wanted me to continue with him. Up until he said that I was finished. I had thought that he still wanted to quit and I was more than happy to oblige. I decided to eat and drink like mad, rest here on the lovely soft grass and see how I felt in a few minutes.
We ended up sitting there for 40 minutes eating drinking and changing socks and shoes. I had a hot spot on one instep so I taped up the instep of both feet. Pat and Melinda took great care of us, bringing on an amazing array of foodstuffs including hot potato soup that Pat had made the day before. Not having them there might well have changed the outcome of this little adventure. Thanks so much to both of you! Finally Matt and I were ready to go. While I was rather doubtful of the wisdom of setting out on this last 30 miles my attitude now was that I wanted to finish and just hoped that I had the physical stamina to do it. We had a big hill to climb out of Newfound Gap so we figured if it hurt too much we could turn around on the hill and just run back to the truck. So at about 1:40 in the afternoon we set out up the hill, clutching handfuls of homemade chocolate chip cookies.
The period from our aid station break until dark will remain with me as one of the most amazing periods of trail running ever. While I was really worried about being too trashed to run at all I found that I was re-energized and was able to fairly fly across the trail. I led during much of this period of the run and I believe that I was actually pulling Matt along at times. He was always able to keep up but I got the feeling that he wouldn’t have wanted to go much faster. I’m sure that a major factor in my renewed energy was the trail and the views. It was absolutely gorgeous! If you’re ever in the Smokies and want to do a long training run go to Newfound Gap and run east on the AT for 15 miles and turn around and retrace your steps. If the weather co-operates I guarantee you won’t regret it.
Much of the time when running in the Appalachians you’re running through a green tunnel. Scenic vistas can be few and far between. Not so here. Not having the leaves out yet helped on our run but even with the foliage the views would still be spectacular. Much of the time you’ll be running along the top of a ridge with views on both sides. In this section of trail there were even long sections of beautiful soft dirt trails with only the occasional rock protruding. This allows one to enjoy the scenery and run at the same time. Who can resist the long gradual downhills on good singletrack through gorgeous scenery? There were a few places on this section of trail where we were running along the top of a ridge that dropped away steeply on both sides. In some of these sections we would be running along a trail that was a foot and a half wide with only another foot or two of ridge on either side of the trail! It was amazing. Someone afraid of heights might even feel a bit of vertigo going across these sections. This was some of the more spectacular trail running I’ve ever done.
This section of the run was, for me, pure pleasure. I was feeling strong and was able to run pretty hard for long sections at a time. Given the walks up the hills and breaks to pull water we were only averaging 4 mph or less but it felt like we were really flying. As sundown approached we set a goal of reaching the 55 mile point by dark. This would be 15 miles since the aid stop and would leave about 15 miles to cover in the last 5 hours. It turned out that we weren’t able to make this goal but a nice runnable stretch just at dusk let us get pretty darn close. Just as the sun was reaching the horizon we were running on the west side of a North/South ridge and were able to enjoy a beautiful blood red sun setting in the cloudless sky. It was like frosting on the cake of an amazing afternoon. What a turnaround from Clingmans Dome!
The glorious and enjoyable afternoon served as a striking contrast to the decidedly unglorious and unenjoyable nighttime hours. Just after dark wasn’t too bad but soon the trail turned vicious. We had a few more climbs to do after dark but had a big drop to the finish in the last 7 miles. After so much climbing, the uphills were not getting any easier but it was the downhills that really started to take their toll. Part of it may just be from running with headlamps but I’m sure the downhill trails got nastier in the last 12-15 miles. It seemed like all of a sudden whenever we had to run downhill we would be on a trail that was rutted and/or littered with loose stones anywhere from baseball to basketball sized. This was not fun. Tired legs and an inability to make on-the-fly adjustments and absorb shocks meant that we were stumbling and slipping, and tearing up our feet and legs more than any other time that day. And this went on for miles and miles.
Enjoy yourself, suffer, rest, enjoy yourself, suffer, no time for rest. Is this what ultrarunning is supposed to be like? This sport sure would be less popular if we were better at remembering the suffering parts. Or maybe that’s what differentiates us from the non-ultra people. That is, they are able to remember more vividly past pains while we, blissfully?, forget and put ourselves out there again and again. Whatever the explanation, you’ll see me putting myself in suffering’s way until I can’t do it anymore. The miles just seemed to go on and on now that the sun had set. As I recall we only took one break after dark, wanting to get done and worrying a bit about finishing before midnight.
Before describing our glorious and triumphant return to civilization I want to talk a bit about hallucinations. I’ve only experienced fatigue-induced hallucinations once before, after my first big wall climb in Yosemite. (We won’t talk about the non-fatigue-induced hallucinations.) That time in Yosemite I had been without food for more than a day and without water for almost a day in sunny and hot conditions while working hard. The hallucinations mostly consisted of just thinking that I would see things out of the corner of my eye. There were no attempts to introduce myself to Crusty the Clown or trying to drink from dirt “puddles.” The hallucinations in the latter parts of this run were much the same but did go at least one step beyond.
Running with the headlamp resulted in my thinking that I would see things off the side of the trail. At one point I even thought I saw Saddam Hussein. Usually though I just thought that I saw some animal or something scurrying away from my light or crouching just off the trail. These were just shadows moving as a result of my movement or light colored rocks alongside the trail. There were several time where it seemed as if the mountain laurel leaves were closing up and reaching up to my face. In all of these cases, except for Saddam, it wasn’t so much that I saw this stuff but rather that I had some visual sensation that my addled brain interpreted as something other than it was. I was still rational enough to know that I wasn’t really seeing anything and that the laurels weren’t really reaching towards me. All of this was mildly disturbing but like I said I was rational enough to know what was going on so I didn’t worry too much other than worrying about it getting worse. There was another class of “hallucinations” though that were a bit more troubling. I think they were equally troubling when I related what was happening to me, to Matt. I hope I didn’t frighten him too much.
This other class of hallucinations were quite odd and I’d be interested to hear if similar things have ever happened to others. At one point we were making the final long climb and this particular climb went on for nearly two miles, though it usually wasn’t very steep. As we were walking up this hill I had it (somewhere) in my head that we were walking up this hill because there was a baby in a baby carriage at the top. What was especially weird about this is that I sort of had this as a goal at the very same time I realized that there was no baby carriage and that I was simply really tired and really sleepy and perhaps, just a little bit, losing my mind. I felt perfectly rational and even related this to Matt as we headed up the hill. Nevertheless the feeling persisted and I was unable to shake this idea that there was this baby carriage at the top of the hill until we were finally headed down the final descent. Very strange. But there’s more….
Earlier on, even before dark, while we were running on the very nice trails I started to become very well acquainted with a particular type of trail. Remember that most of the trail through this park is pretty technical single track. So we had been many hours looking intently at the trail. The particularly nice type of trail was sometimes more and sometimes less rocky but characterized by being about a foot to a foot and a half wide, quite level, and slightly cut into the ground, say by 2-5 inches. I was gazing so intently for so long at this type of trail that I came to know the trail’s name. This type of trail goes by the name Ann. Don’t get me wrong here. I didn’t name the trail. It just became apparent to me that that was the name of this particular type of trail. Now I didn’t engage in any kind of conversation with Ann. I’m not crazy, after all. Sheesh! But it was quite obvious to me that this was the trail’s name. (I describe this as an hallucination but who knows, maybe I reached a heightened state of consciousness and really did connect with the trail in a deeper way than normal. Nah, that’s too New Age. I’m sure it was just delerium.)
After running down some the aforementioned hellacious downhills late in the run I also became apprised of the name of this type of trail. This type of trail goes by the name Joe. Now before you get the wrong idea, not all of Joe is bad. There’s bad Joe and there’s good Joe. Good Joe is like bad Joe but without all the loose rocks. I also told Matt about my discovery of the trail names and I think it’s probably a good thing that it was dark so I couldn’t see the fear in his eyes. I just hope he wasn’t fearing for his own safety. I wouldn’t blame him if he was worried that I might be teetering on the brink of madness and that I could easily turn on him and try to take his life by attacking him with a vanilla Clif Shot. Though this all sounds really crazy, I really was completely rational the whole time. Really! I can remember everything clearly and I even realized at the time how weird this all was. In fact I was quite fascinated and was taking a kind of clinical interest in what was happening. It even served to keep me entertained for some of that nasty, painful, and tedious final descent. Also, I do realize that I post this story at the risk of finding it hard to find anyone to run with at future ultras. I might have to start running in disguise.
Ok, enough of the hallucination digression. The final mile or two were thankfully fairly free of loose rocks so we were able to run much of this final bit. Perhaps I should put the word run in quotes though, since we had trail signs with mileages at the end, according to which, we were running downhill at about a 20 minute per mile pace. I really do think that those mileage signs were off. I can’t imagine that we really were going that slow. No matter though, because we finished the run about 45 minutes faster than a 3 mph hour pace would have given us. Suddenly we could see a light ahead and I thought it was a house or some other building but as we approached we could see that it was David, Mike, Pat, and Melinda all camped out right at the edge of the park saving us the additional half a mile to Davenport Gap. They were even all awake! What a great way to finish the day. It was great to see everyone and to be able to sit down for good and to be given the kind of hero’s welcome that we received. We had done the traverse in 23:12 by Matt’s watch, easily attaining our goal of doing the run in less than 24 hours.
Did I say “easily”????????
Postscript: This was a really tough run. The pure physical aspects of the run make it tough but the psychological factor of only having that one place for aid at 40 miles makes it even tougher. Having just that one point at which to bail out also makes it very difficult since it is very easy to come up with excuses why you shouldn’t or don’t want to continue. The only thing that I would (will????) do differently is to get a decent amount of sleep before starting. I think starting at midnight with little or no sleep really ups the difficulty factor. I think the ideal starting time would be about 3 am after at least 6 hours of sleep.
I know that David Horton and probably others have completed this traverse straight through in bad weather conditions. That’s really impressive. I don’t know that I would have the cojones to go out past Newfound Gap in a rainstorm or snowstorm. This past January, David Horton completed the last 30 miles alone in a snowstorm. He had done the run before but that is a truly impressive feat of perseverance.