The Smokies Challenge Adventure Run, SCAR, follows the Appalachian Trail along the spine of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The route is 72 miles in length with around 18,000 feet of climbing. It’s a classic route that I’ve wanted to do the past few years.
Depending on which direction you go, the start and finish locations are Fontana Dam and Davenport Gap. Crew spots are minimal with the popular stops being Clingmans Dome and Newfound Gap.
I would be traveling north from Fontana Dam to Davenport Gap and see my crew at the Fork Ridge Trail junction (mile 36), which is right off of Clingmans Dome Road. The Fork Ridge junction would be much less crowded, and I wanted to make things as easy as possible for my Dad and Kyle. I would be solo for the first 36 miles, and Kyle would join me for the last half.
After thorough split analysis from previous SCAR completions by other runners, I settled on a goal time of 18:15, which meant I needed to average just over 15 minutes a mile. That time would be on the faster side for SCAR, and I wasn’t sure if I was entirely capable of such a goal. I would have to work hard and could not afford any mistakes in pacing, hydration, nutrition, or mindset. As each day neared, doubt crept in that I was in over my head with such a lofty goal. I told very few people my time goal in fear that their surprised reaction would create more unease within my mind. I had to remind myself that it’s just running. Finishing in 18:15 would be awesome. I would be disappointed if I didn’t come in around that goal, but a finish regardless of the clock would still be incredibly satisfying.
Kyle and I drove over to Fontana Friday afternoon and camped at Cable Cove Campground. The plan was to leave the campground around 3:45 am and start at 4:00 am. Kyle knows me well and suggested we leave a little earlier if I wanted to start on time. I have a propensity to double check things and am often fiddling with my pack, tying my shoes, or shuffling through my car while my friends slowly inch towards the trail ready to start a run.
Kyle took a quick picture at the sign marking the park boundary, and as I turned around to start, the enormity of what was about to happen flooded my mind. Wait, I’m doing what? How many miles? How long will this take? This is stupid. Before I could change my mind and convince Kyle that we should abort the mission, call Marcelle and Sara and tell them to meet us at Dollywood, I muttered, “Oh, God,” hit start on my watch, and took off.
The early morning song of a whip-poor-will punctuated the early morning quiet as I ran up the brief section of pavement before entering the forested tunnel. Upon hitting the trail, I quickly settled into a steady hike. My mind was calm and content. I was no longer overwhelmed by the fact of traveling 72 miles through heinous terrain from sunup to sundown. I was about to traverse my favorite place in its entirety and that was thrilling.
I had broken the route down into various sections and carried my goal splits with me. The average distance between sections was around 6 miles. It’s much easier to comprehend an ultra-distance when you compartmentalize (notice the word mental in compartmentalize, this ultra stuff is mostly mental) it into shorter segments rather than thinking, 70 miles to go… 50 miles to go… etc.
The day was beginning to break as I neared Mollies Ridge (mile 10.3) and I was already 24 minutes ahead of pace. I figured fresh legs and cooler morning temps would put me somewhat ahead of pace in the earlier sections. But not that far ahead! I felt that I was not working hard and keeping my effort honest. I told myself to take the next section even easier.
The temperatures were perfect and remained pleasant all day with surprisingly low humidity given the forecasted rain in the afternoon and it being the Smokies. My two brief wildlife encounters for the day, a pair of wild hogs and a black bear, occurred separately on the section between Mollies Ridge and Spence Field. Both were ideal in that they heard me coming, and all I saw were their rumps trotting off in the distance.
I reached my first planned water stop of the day (mile 17), which was a piped spring a few hundred feet down Bote Mountain Trail. I was now 29 minutes up on pace even after intentionally slowing down after leaving Mollies Ridge. I began to think this could be a special day as I honestly felt like I was keeping my effort comfortable despite being so far ahead of my projected pace.
Hiking Trails of the Smokies describes the section from the Jenkins Ridge Trail junction to Miry Ridge Trail junction as such, “It involves very strenuous climbs and constant losses of altitude. Nearly everything you gain you will ultimately lose, except for the wonderful views and the experience of traveling one of the least hiked portions of the Appalachian Trail.” Based on this description and the accounts of other’s, I expected the absolute worst for this section. It did not disappoint. Steep pitches of trail, exposed roots trying to snare a toe, loose rocks of all size, and knife-edge strips of ridgeline trail make this section especially ornery.
The terrain was relatively smooth from Derrick Knob to Silers Bald Shelter, and I was able to mix in some sustained running. I stopped for a quick water refill at Silers Bald and then began the climb up to Clingmans Dome. I hit Clingmans at 7:56 and was now 43 minutes ahead of pace. I would see crew in 4 miles. I felt amazing and was looking forward to some coffee and a cheese quesadilla.
I arrived at my crew stop where they had everything prepared for me. I spent 12 minutes (felt a lot shorter at the time) eating and reorganizing my dry bag of emergency clothes. Scattered thunderstorms were supposed to roll in around noon but the day was clearer than forecasted. I was prepared for rain and cold but decided to ditch some layers that were overkill to shed some weight while keeping only the essentials. Kyle and Dad worked to refill my pack and water bottles while I ate a heavenly cheese quesadilla and drank a cup of coffee.
My nutrition and hydration had gone according to plan up to my first crew spot at mile 36. I arrived with only a handful of chips left in my pack when I reached my crew. Getting food down had been easy and my energy levels never dipped. I ate 21 various Spring gels, 7 Electroride, one cheese quesadilla, and about 300 calories of potato chips in the first 36 miles. That’s about 3,100 calories and an average of 350 calories an hour. Ultrarunning is really just an eating contest.
The original plan was for Kyle to start running with me here. But he suggested that I leave my pack, so they could get it refilled with gels and emergency clothes, and I run the next 4 miles to Newfound sans pack. He would then start running with me there for the last 31 miles. That sounded like a great idea to me, and the next 4 miles were bliss without the extra weight.
I rolled into Newfound 42 minutes later, took a bathroom break, changed socks, finished my coffee, and took off with Kyle for the last 31 miles. I left Newfound a little under 10 hours overall and 40 minutes ahead of pace feeling great and would now have the benefit of Kyle running with me. I thought I could make up more time on the “easier” section. The climbs in the last 31 miles are much more moderate in grade compared to the first 40 miles. It’s essentially a 50k with around 5,500 feet of climbing from Newfound and a big downhill to the finish.
I don’t know if I was going too fast from the start or that 40 miles and 12,000 feet of climbing were starting to catch up to me. My level of energy over the last 31 miles had more lows than highs. My power output on the climbs was no longer there. I had been hiking the hills with relative ease but now my heart rate would noticeably spike and my breathing become labored.
Jeff had sent me a text of encouragement the day before with the last note saying, “Nothing is permanent.” I had repeated that to myself incessantly throughout the day knowing that what felt like my all-time high of running over the first 40 miles would eventually come to an end. I wasn’t disappointed or didn’t have a pity party now that my level of perceived exertion was higher, I just kept working and repeating, “Nothing is permanent.” The lows would also not last forever.
Kyle and I had run this section two years ago going the opposite direction so I sort of remembered it. What I didn’t recall was the lush green moss lining the trail for extended stretches and the many views.
Claps of thunder rang off from the North Carolina side of the mountains and brief periods of rain came down. The rain was pleasant to cool us off, and we never needed our raincoats or became cold.
I kept stuffing gels down my gullet in hopes of restoring the steady flow of energy, but it would only come in waves. I resorted to music for a pick-me-up. I didn’t want to be rude and ignore Kyle with my ear buds in, so I played my music out loud. I turned my music off when we passed a few hikers. I get annoyed when other people have their music blaring on the trail. Best not to be a hypocrite!
My run playlist is rather eclectic. A Kesha song came on and I asked Kyle not to make fun of me. Being a gracious friend and pacer, he only laughed and passed on teasing me. The music helped for a bit but my phone eventually died. I thought about asking Kyle to sing for me, but I think I already knew what the answer would be.
It was a slog on the climb up to Mt. Guyot. There were brief stretches of downhill that I could shuffle, but my pace was slowing. I knew there would be a long downhill after cresting Mt. Guyot and was able to manage a decent pace going down following Mt. Guyot. I was so thankful that I still had legs to run the downhills.
My last landmark on my split chart was Cosby Knob Shelter (mile 65). Kyle let me know I was still up on pace by about 40 minutes. I had stopped checking my split chart in fear of seeing all the time I had lost. I was moving better than I thought!
The downhill to Cosby Knob started a pattern of waterbar step-downs on the trail that were extremely disrupting to sustaining a downhill running rhythm. On fresh legs, it would be easier to get in a groove and sort of flow on such a section. But my legs were no longer fresh, and there was no rhythm to be had. Take a step, slow down, gingerly step down, repeat. I knew if I could lengthen my stride and keep myself from braking with every other step that it wouldn’t be near as bad. But I just couldn’t override my brain to take the risk.
We reached the junction with the Low Gap Trail, and I could faintly smell the barn. I’ve run up from Cosby out to Mt. Cammerer several times to watch the sunrise and am very familiar with this section. Steady climb for two miles with brief stretches of flat and then all downhill to the end. That downhill is littered with more annoying waterbar step-downs but at least each step would be closer to the finish.
Being on a familiar stretch of trail and nearing the end, I had to fight the dangerous “you’re almost done” mindset. It would be around two hours until the finish, and that’s still plenty of time for things to go wrong. It started raining on us again briefly, but it stopped after a few minutes. The rain was once again refreshing. We hit a flat stretch of trail, and I told myself to go faster than a walk. I started “running” and couldn’t hear Kyle’s cadence quicken behind me. Am I going so slow that he can walk and easily keep up? I turned my head, and he was merrily walking along. I couldn’t help but laugh.
It was time for headlamps about 6 miles out. I kept glancing at my watch and realized that if I stayed on my current pace, I would lose almost all of the cushion I had maintained all day. I wasn’t too worried because we had been climbing for a couple of miles and my pace should have been slower. I was hoping to gain some time back on the downhill. But, waterbars.
I was moving so slow in the first mile of the final descent. The waterbar step-downs were significant, there were loose rocks of varying sizes everywhere, and traveling by headlamp made for tricky navigation. I cautiously moved downhill for the next mile and stole another glance at my watch. If I didn’t pick it up, I would lose nearly all of my cushion and come in close to 18 hours. That would have been fine. Great, actually! But after being ahead of my goal time all day, I really wanted to go under 18 hours, dammit. A switch flipped, and I took off. I didn’t care if my knees hurt. I didn’t care if I tripped and fell. I didn’t care about anything except getting to the finish as quickly as possible. Thankfully, there were very few waterbars left once I decided to just go. Everything started to feel better as I could lengthen my stride out and stop braking with every other step.
I kept glancing at my watch counting down the miles. 3 more miles, 2.5, 2, 1. Come on, where is the finish!?
I thought we were close, and I asked Kyle to go ahead so he could get a picture of me finishing. He darted around, and 30 seconds later I was finished. 17:41:28.
Ecstatic and relieved to be finished, I sat on a rock and all the memories of the day flooded through in an instant. Starting at the other end of the park in the dark. Climbing up by headlamp. Sunrise. Bear. Rocky and steep trail. Smooth running. Clingmans. Coffee and quesadilla. Flying down to Newfound. Slow climb out. Thunder. Rain. Moss. More rocks. Slogging away. Waterbars. Dark. Downhill fun. Done. “Isn’t it crazy when we do this long and stupid stuff, that when it’s over, it all felt like it happened so fast?” Kyle laughed and agreed.
Thank you, Dad, for driving over from Knoxville to help shuttle the cars. That was a big help! Thank you, Kyle, for giving up a weekend away from your beautiful family to get me to the finish. And thank you for running an extra mile and a half to get the car at Big Creek and drive back up to get me (I was worried about leaving the car at Davenport because of vandals). Thank you, Marcelle, for always encouraging me to get out the door for a run and never making me feel bad for being gone to train and chase my goals. Thanks to everyone for all the encouragement and well wishes. Thank you, Nashville Running Company, for supporting my gear obsession and building a great running community in Nashville. Thank you, Spring Energy, for real food products that work. 39 various gels and 12 Electroride. No stomach problems all day!
It was a near perfect day I’ll never forget!