Coach Spencer Runs in the Woods

Coach Spencer Runs in the Woods

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

73 Miles of Appalachian Trail in 3 Days

OK, now for the proper report.

I made it around 73 miles on the Appalachian Trail in 3 days- 71 of which were with a fractured rib. My goal was 110 miles in 4 days, but I'm OK with what transpired.

There are 2 main ways to the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia- a 8.8 mile approach trail or USFS Road 42. Doing it the second way, you drive a rough gravel road that isn't marked very well for 30-45 minutes & then end up in a parking lot 1 mile north of the top of Springer Mountain. This is what I did & Jennifer dropped me off at 10 AM- a little bit of a late start as I knew I had 29 miles ahead of me. The Georgia section of the AT is considered to be the hardest state besides Maine & New Hampshire, with Vermont, Tennessee & North Carolina closely following. Most of the trail in Georgia hovers around the 3,500' mark. There are lots of ups & downs & the trail is relatively rocky (I've yet to run on a section of the AT that isn't!).

I ran/hiked to the top of Springer Mountain and came back down the rocky section of trail. The top wasn't what I expected after seeing pictures. There's just a small rocky outcrop, a plaque & a pretty good view off to the west. Certainly not as grandiose as you might think. I would imagine a southbound thru-hiker would almost want something more. I don't get that impression from the northernmost point in Maine, Mt. Katahdin.

I passed the parking lot and wondered why I hadn't just left my pack in the parking lot while I went out & back. 50 meters after passing the parking lot- 2 miles into my 4 day trip, I fell and fractured a rib. It was a fall I would easily regain balance on if I didn't have the pack, but with it, I landed flat on my chest. At that point, I considered calling Jennifer to come pick me up, but how could I bail out just 30 minutes into a 4 day trip?! "Maybe it'll be OK," I thought & continued on. "If it's really bad, I can call from Woody Gap (20 miles into the trail) or Neels Gap (30 miles into it- and right at the beginning of Day 2)."

I really enjoyed the first few miles through the hemlock groves along the streams of the Stover Creek/Three Forks area. Though it was a lowland area with no views or anything, it was one of my favorite sections of trail. Some of the hemlocks & some poplars later on seemed like they could be old growth, but I would imagine this area was cut extensively in the early 20th century.

Things went well for the first 5-6 hours and were relatively uneventful. I was making good time, getting through the pain of the rib and enjoying myself. I passed a group of day hikers every 45 minutes or so. The first real view I came to was Ramrock Mountain & soon after it, Big Cedar Mountain which was wonderful. I had to climb several mountains the first day- Springer, Hawk, Sassafrass, Justus, Ramrock, Big Cedar, Burnett Field & part of Blood. On paper & objectively, Day 1 was the hardest, but Day 2 felt worse. My watch has an altimeter on it & tells me I climbed over 21,000' this first day. It's been know to be off, but it's usually very close. That sounds like a brutal day, but it wasn't until late in the day that I faded, the rib hurt more & I wanted to be done.

I pulled into Slaughter Creek Campsite on the side of Blood Mountain at 8:30 PM, so I was out for nearly 11 hours including breaks to treat water, take pictures, talk to people, etc. There were 3 guys at the campsite & I was glad. There have been routine reports of bear activity on Blood Mountain and to the north. There was a bear at the shelter on top of the mountain (1/2 mile from where we were) the night before & one at our campsite two nights before. Having other people there was comforting. They didn't believe I'd come as far as I said I did in one day, which was a common response I got from people. "No, but where'd you stay last night?" These guys really thought I was lying when I told them I'd come all the way from Springer Mountain that morning. Counting having to go back to get something that fell off my pack and short side trips for water, I went about 29.5 miles the first day. I met a woman the first day who was only able to cover about 3-4 miles a day and was planning on getting to the Smokies. I don't even want to do the math to find out how many weeks that would take.

I regret getting to camp so late. I rushed to get my tent up, down a Clif Bar and protein shake, hang my bear bag & go to bed. Sleeping didn't really happen because of my rib and because I was just waiting to get mauled by a bear! I slept a total of 90 minutes probably & during that time, I was awoken by a crash. I yelled out, "Hey! Hey!" and heard several more loud crashes down the mountain. I'm 90% sure it was a bear & would say it was 200' from me. I've already seen two bears this year & they both ran away quickly. Black bears aren't a huge risk in most situations. They're not out to get you, but they will certainly steal your food & defend themselves when they feel threatened.

I was very happy that the rib was tolerable the second morning. I got up, took a long time to pack up & was on the trail at 9:00 AM. The climb up Blood Mountain wasn't bad and the views at the top were spectacular. I spent 20 minutes looking around at the top & had the whole mountain to myself before coming down into Neels Gap. The only store I'd see all trip is right there on the trail. It's an outfitter called Mountain Crossings & I bought some food & mailed my stove, fuel & pot home, deciding I could get by on Clif Bars & protein shakes for dinner. I enjoyed a Cherry Coke & Corn Nuts at the store, talked to some people & was on my way. I was scolded a little by an older guy who I think worked there.

Him: Did I hear you say you went all the way to Blood Mountain on the first day?
Me: Yeah, it was a long day.
Him: Why would you do that? That's too much like a job.
Me: Eh, that's what I do. I run these crazy long races & wanted to see this part of the trail. I only have a few days, so why not pack in as much as I can?
Him: These mountains are sacred. You should enjoy them, not push through them.
Me: Well, I am enjoying them. Instead of just seeing one or two mountains yesterday, I got to see 8 or 9. This is enjoyable to me.
Him: It's like a job. Relax and respect the mountains or you'll get hurt.
Me: Actually, I did get hurt yesterday...
Him: See! Everyone I've heard of who tries to push through gets hurt. That's the mountains way of slowing you down.

I mean I see his point, I guess. This isn't a race and I maybe I shouldn't be as rigid as I was with the planning. When I asked most people how far they were going for the day, they'd say, "As far as I feel like," or, "Until I get tired," or "Until it gets dark." I didn't feel like I was racing the clock, but I did feel like I was racing the sun & trying to get to my predetermined destination at all costs. Maybe I could stand to relax a little. But this trip absolutely was enjoyable to me. No one can tell you what pace is enjoyable for you.

I left the store with a new supply of Clif Bloks and Gu and was ready to go. I was cruisin' along just fine over Levelland Mountain, Cowrock Mountain... & then hit Wildcat Mountain. I'd never heard anything about this mountain and I don't know if it just happened to be situated where I was going to lose it that day or not, but I hit that thing like a brick wall! It's a short, incredibly steep climb I wasn't expecting. I was prepared for Blood Mountain, Tray Mountain, and some others to be tough, but this little 400' climb killed me! After a steep descent, the trail leveled off a little and went steadily downhill to Low Gap, where I met two young guys from Alabama that had come to the AT after 250 miles on the Pinhoti Trail in Alabama. They said they had no backpacking experience & were planning on doing a thru-hike. They'd have to flip it- hike north, then go to Maine before it got too cold & hike south to the point they left off at. I joked about how ambitious they were that they needed an extra 250 mile warm-up.

I got water again at Blue Mountain Shelter & felt fair. Then, I dunno... I completely fell apart all of the sudden. 2 minutes after filling up with someone & telling him about my trip, I was on the phone home telling Jennifer there was no way I could make it. I had to go 27 miles today I wasn't going to make it even after leaving at 9 AM. I couldn't make 27 miles in 12 hours. What was I doing out there slogging through this pain? Why did I think this was possible when I couldn't even lift my left arm over my head or pick up my 14 pound pack with my left hand? I called my mom next who was supposed to pick me up on Wednesday & asked that she come on Tuesday instead. She tried talking me into camping at Unicoi Gap (2 miles away) & getting picked up there in the morning. I didn't tell her, but I considered hitchhiking from there & sleeping in a motel in the nearby town and assessing the next 2 days then. I told her I was going 4 more miles in the next 90 minutes before nightfall & camping at the top of Rocky Mountain. We arranged for me to be picked up at Dick's Creek Gap the next day after a 15.5 mile run/hike (which turned into 17.5). Up until I called home, I was able to jog the downhills and easier uphills and walk the steep stuff. Those 4 miles took forever though. I ran little. I was done. With this rib pain- every step- every inhale hurt. It had for 2 full days. I couldn't sleep. The pain was right at my sternum strap on my pack so that made things worse. And running at that point didn't seem like something I was able to do. I felt pretty pitiful. To top it all off, the last climb of the day was a quad-busting 1100' climb up Rocky Mountain. I almost cried when I came to what I thought was the nice water source someone had told me about. It was a mud slick with no water flowing at all. I was empty and had to spend the night on this mountain with no water... and I wouldn't have it for the first 4 miles the next day. Then, 1/4 mile up the trail was a nice creek! Whew! Saved!

I arrived at the top of an empty Rocky Mountain by the light of my headlamp. "Hello?!!" "Anyone here??!!!" I yelled. No reply. Just then, my headlamp crapped out. I could get it to work for 3 seconds at a time and then it would go off. So I put my tent up, got some food, and all that in the dark. I didn't waste any time, but didn't get to bed until 10:15 PM. I listened to my ipod until 1 AM and then slept pretty well from 2 AM-7AM.

I felt great the morning of the 3rd day! Spirits were up, running was easier. Pain wasn't as bad. Much of that, I think was that I knew today was a shorter day & the last day. I kind of regretted making the call now! I thought I could make it, but then again, what really kept me going was knowing I didn't have to sleep on the ground with a broken rib that night. That I could have a drink with ice in it. That I wouldn't have to have a pack jostling all day on that rib...

Day 3 wasn't bad at all. I flew up Tray Mountain. Killed it. I passed a group of 15 Boy Scouts strewn across the mountain, many of them doubled over and getting out of my way. Tray Mountain is a long climb, but it's relatively gradual until the last 3/4 mile when it kicks upward. On paper, it might be the toughest climb I did, but I felt the best on it.

Another thing that made Day 3 feel better was knowing I could eat more since there would be no Day 4 but I had food for it. I was really only eating 100-150 calories an hour while I was running, which isn't enough.

Overall, Day 3 went downhill more than uphill, but there were some good climbs too. I felt good for 4 hours and not so great for the last 2. I got a little lost at Indian Grave Gap and the water in this section is way off the trail, so I ended up going about 17.5 miles. Two miles from the end at Dick's Creek Gap, I was shuffling along as I had the last 2 hours (Had to think, "Now is this a run or a walk? I have both feet off the ground at once, so it's a run."), when I came 1 step away from a timber rattlesnake. It wasn't in the trail, but right before I stepped down, it thrust itself a foot or so & started rattling like crazy! I jumped back quick & didn't give much thought about bypassing it through the poison ivy thicket on each side of the trail. The day before, I came close to stepping on a coiled rattlesnake that just looked at me. Had to crawl through the briars to get around it.

I was happy to see my parents & get picked up when I did. I honestly believe I could've made it another day for a total of about 95, but I'll take my 73 in 3 days and knowing I could go home to heal up. In actuality, the 2 days I spend laying around the house after coming home hurt the worst! Maybe I just got through it on the trail because I knew I had to. I didn't complete as much of the trail as I wanted to, but I'm happy about what I did accomplish and doing so through adversity. More than that was that I got to see a lot of great stuff- mountains, views, 2 rattlesnakes, family of turkeys, chipmunks, wildflowers, etc., etc. I wish I'd been able to meet more people, but I was on the go too much. Most people that run the trail just take what they need for the run & get picked up at night or have someone meeting them at every road crossing giving them water & food. Carrying the pack made it different. I wasn't used to it & wouldn't have been so ambitious had I known how 14 pounds on your back would feel. 15-20 miles/day would've been challenging, but manageable and allowed me to have some downtime each night. How much did I run? I dunno. It's hard to say since it changed throughout each day. I ran a lot on day 1 & early on day 3. I'd say altogether, probably 40-50%, I ran. I'd planned on more than that, but I was just happy to get through what I did in the shape I was in.

I'm supposed to run on the AT (or some other long adventure run- we never set the details) with Hannah in 10 days. I haven't run in the past 3 days, but I think I'll be OK. I'll test it out tomorrow. I'd like to go back once more this summer and do 20-25 miles.

The single biggest question I got from people on the trail was, "HOW MUCH DOES YOUR PACK WEIGH? IT'S TINY!" I had hoped it would be a little lighter, but it ended up at 14 pounds at the heaviest with water and food. I almost left my 2/3 length Thermarest pad at home because I thought it was too bulky. If I were sleeping directly on the ground, I can't imagine the pain! Here's what I had out there:
REI Jet UL pack- I think it's right at 13 oz. & 1850 cu in.
Deuter Dreamlite 500 sleeping bag- 13 oz. Packs down to the size of a Nalgene bottle. Never really used it except as padding under my rib. Would need something more in other seasons, but lows were around 60.
Eureka Solitaire tent- 2.5 lbs or so. I could've saved some weight on this sleeping in shelters or under a tarp, but I didn't want stuff crawling on me.
1 set of running clothes (P.U.! Smelly.)
1 set of sleeping clothes
1 set of Patagonia capilene long sleeves in case it got cold at night. I wore the shirt to sleep in part of one night & used the bottom as a pillow.
1 rain jacket- never used
Small first aid kit
ipod Nano- seemed frivolous, but I listened to it both nights & it's tiny, so...
Tiny still camera
Tiny Flip video camera- just got it. Will post videos one day.
Laminated list of landmarks & distances between them
That's about all that was in my pack.


Jason said...

Thanks for the review & gear listing. I hope you have a quick recovery - you deserve it!

I am looking at August 1st - 2nd for the Eastern half of the Smokies run if you are still interested. I hope to have it in concrete soon. I will let you know when I do.

Take Care!

Wendy said...

I've enjoyed reading your blog for the past several months. You're stories are quite inspirational!

I have a question for you. Which is harder: Ironman, 100 Mile race, adventure race, or a multiday running trip like this?

Coach Spencer said...

Jason- If you don't mind the company, I may be in. I'll let you know soon.

Wendy- Glad you've enjoyed it. That's a good question. I've never done an adventure race. I've always wanted to, after seeing the first Eco-Challenge on TV, but I'm too much of a chicken on a mountain bike! Which of the other three is harder?... They're all different.

Even though it's a long one, I really felt like the Ironman races I did were races. I planned meticulously for them, trained hard, and pushed myself as hard as I could for 12 hours. The swim was always easy for me to finish (though I'm slow). When you get to the run, you know you'll finish & just have to get through as quickly as possible, but the bike was hard for me. Such a long time to be in the same position.

A 100 mile running race could be taken as seriously as I took the Ironman races, but I didn't. It's at least as big of an accomplishment to me. I'm not sure which I'm more proud of. I'm a little sheepish about the 100 miler since I puked my guts out after 80 and only had finishing as a goal after that. It is, of course a longer day than Ironman, but I didn't push nearly as hard. An elite finishes an Ironman in 8 hours or a flat 100 miler in 14 hours. Most would argue that just doing one discipline all day & night is harder. The walking almost everyone does makes it easier. I barely walked in my Ironman races & did the marathon in one in around 4:30 when my stand alone marathon PR at the time was 3:31. So it's hard for me to say which is harder. In one, I'm working to keep my HR in a certain zone & pushing for 12 hours. In the other, I'm just trying to keep moving, finish & survive.

A multi-day run where you're carrying your own gear like I did can be tougher than either. I went 10 hours, 12 hours & 6 hours in 3 days. Had I run more, I could've gone with that being harder than either. With a broken rib, I was certainly as miserable on this trip as I was in the 100 miler or Ironman races. I don't feel like I can truly answer it though since I walked 50% of the way.

Eh, I might say, 1. 100 Miler 2. Multi-day 3. Ironman. Ask me tomorrow & I might reverse it.

David Ray said...

Good report. I had to laugh when you got to the climb up Wildcat Mtn. That's called the Elevator. :) And I thought you made a good call to cut it short. Save the rest for another day.

Coach Spencer said...

David- Yeah, I'd heard about Blood Mountain, Tray Mountain & some others, so I was expecting them. Then I come cruising down Cowrock Mt, across Tesnatee Gap & get smacked in the face by Wildcat Mt., which looks like just a little bump on the elevation chart.

I still have a hard time carrying things or rolling out of bed, but my running is back to normal now.