SCAR attempt #2 is a success!

scar_clouds.jpgSCAR stands for the Smokies Challenge Adventure Run, which is a name apparently conceived by Matt Kirk around 2003. The run follows the Appalachian Trail all the way through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, covering approximately 71 miles and 18,610 feet of cumulative elevation gain. Ernie and I made our first attempt in November of 2005 without realizing that anyone else had created an “official” name for this beast. That year, we had to bail at Newfound Gap after being caught in nasty weather, and not having appropriate clothing, gear, and food supplies to safely continue. We took an alternate set of trails down the mountain, towards Cherokee, and called Vonda to pick us up at the bottom.

We decided to try it again this past weekend, and use it as a tune-up for the Umstead 100. Our primary goal was to “just finish” it this time, but we also decided that a sub-24 hour finish would be nice. A 20 minute per mile average pace should be easy enough to obtain, right?

We planned for a Friday afternoon start. I went to work that morning while Ernie drove over from Durham. We met at my place, and left around 1pm to drop off a car at the Big Creek Ranger Station, near the Davenport Gap finish. Then, Vonda shuttled us to Fontana Dam for the start of our adventure. The weather forecast was looking bad, so we packed extra clothing and gear. After I added food for 24+ hours and a full water bladder, I think my backpack probably weighed 15-18 pounds. I knew that much weight would slow things down, but it was necessary since we were entirely unsupported.

We jogged across the dam and hit the trail around 4:30pm. The weather was mild, and we were comfortable in shorts and short-sleeves during the multi-mile ascent at the beginning. After about an hour, we had to put on rain jackets due to light, but continuous, rainfall. As we continued into the night, the temperature started dropping, but things were still relatively mild for mountain weather. Then suddenly, as if someone flipped a switch, I was slammed by wind, sideways rain, and hail. I immediately started digging though my pack for rain pants and extra layers, but I was soaked before I could get them on. I waited for Ernie to catch up and discovered that he was also caught off-guard. We had no choice but to keep moving. The high winds almost seemed to penetrate my waterproof shells due to the damp layers underneath, and stopping for even a minute caused uncontrollable shivering.

The nightfall had also coincided with a dense layer of clouds and fog developing around us, reducing visibility to less than 15 feet. It was so dense, that we couldn’t even maintain a walking pace while wearing our headlamps. The entire night was spent holding our headlamps at hip level, in order to see where we were going. Even so, it was impossible to run because we could only see a few steps in front of us, at most.

At one point, I reached a small clearing that was approximately 20-30 feet in diameter. In the middle of this clearing was a boulder, with a painted blaze and arrow, indicating a 90 degree turn on the trail. I briefly looked back, and could see the glow of Ernie’s light, so I continued for a short distance until I found a spot that was sheltered from the wind and stopped for snack. A few minutes passed, and I had not seen Ernie yet. I assumed that he may have stopped at the clearing, so I backtracked to see what was up. When I reached the clearing, Ernie was no where to be found! I searched the perimeter of the clearing and found another very small trail, which sent me into a panic. I thought he had taken this trail by mistake. I started down as fast as possible to catch him, but it immediately dead-ended at a small overlook. I went back up and searched again, but there were no other trails. I could only think of two possibilities. Either Ernie had gone completely crazy and started bushwhacking into the unknown, or he had gotten turned around and was going in the wrong direction. After several more minutes of shouting and backtracking, I finally found him. The fog had been so thick that he had circled the clearing and started back the way he had come, without realizing it! Luckily, we had passed a shelter a half mile or so before the clearing and it was enough of a landmark to give him pause. I think we were both a little shaken up after that experience, but still in good spirits, and continued on towards our goal.

In addition to the lack of visibility, trail conditions were also degrading due to the continuous rain. What were once foot trails, started to look more like small, rocky streams, with mud bogs and slick boulder fields occasionally thrown in for variety. Keeping our feet dry was impossible.

As we approached the final climb up towards Clingmans Dome, the fog tricked us again. This time, we both walked right through an intersection without noticing it. After descending a couple hundred feet, we realized something was wrong and turned around. I slowly hiked back up while carefully scanning the trail and found the intersection. Once on top, we decided not to go up the tower, because the wind was howling, we were still struggling to keep warm, and we wouldn’t have been able to see anything at all.

The descent on the other side of Clingmans is extremely technical and rocky, and on that night, was also covered with sheets of ice. What was already a painfully slow pace, became even slower as mother nature had decided to add a new challenge and set of hazards to our journey. We knew that Newfound Gap was not far away, however, and kept plodding along.

At Newfound Gap, I took temporary shelter at the public restroom. It smelled strongly of urine, but blocked the wind and provided some degree of warmth. I desperately needed to dry out my feet and give them some first aid. I think the perpetual wetness had softened my feet and made them more susceptible to damage. I was also trying out a new pair of shoes that wasn’t providing nearly enough rock protection for this type of terrain. My poor feet were getting thrashed.

It was almost 9am, and I think several of the early morning tourists were startled and scared by the sight of a battered, soaking wet hiker who was sitting on the restroom floor applying duct tape to his feet. I wish I could have captured the expressions on their faces. That was probably one of the highlights of this unbelievably masochistic adventure.

After generous duct taping and lubing of severely chaffed areas (you don’t want to know) we continued on our quest. Although neither of us mentioned it at the time, I think we were both a little hesitant about starting the second leg. It had taken us almost 17 hours to go a little over 40 miles, and we still had 30 more to go. But, it was now daylight again and the rain had temporarily subsided, so we kept our reservations to ourselves and concentrated on the long ascent in front of us.

The break in the weather only lasted for about 3 miles. As we were approaching Charlie’s Bunion, I heard the first sounds of thunder in the distance. The storm quickly caught up with us, and set the tone for the remainder of our trip. The temperature dropped to 41F, and the rain never really stopped from that point on, it just varied in intensity. At times the wind was so strong that I was getting wet from rain pelting my face and forcing its way though my hood, even though I was also wearing a wide-brimmed Gore-tex hat for extra protection. I also got wet around the waistband from blowing rain coming up under the jacket.

This section was more mentally and physically taxing than anything I can remember. I was constantly shivering, and struggling to maintain dexterity in my fingers. I had one dry fleece top, pair of tights and pair of gloves left in my pack, but I wanted to save them for the night when the temperatures would drop again. Since I was already having a hard time maintaining warmth during the day, it seemed like a good idea to save those as insurance against hypothermia later on.

Some day, I’d like to go back out on the first 10-12 miles on the east side of Newfound Gap. There were many sections of narrow ridge lines with clear views on both sides. I bet the views would have been spectacular in good weather. I think an overnight backpacking trip would be a lot of fun on that section.

We stopped briefly at the Tricorner Knob Shelter to take refuge from a particularly heavy period of rainfall. We had 16 miles left, and I finally gave in and put on the last of my dry layers. This allowed me to keep reasonably warm for the next several hours. Once or twice I even had to open the pit zips on my jacket to keep from sweating! This extra little bit of comfort did wonders for my state of mind. I was still miserable, however, because this just gave my other pains a chance to take center stage, while the shivering took on a secondary role. At least I could think about something else for while.

As we passed though Low Gap and made our way up towards Mt Cammerer, the mountains decided unleash all of their rage upon us. It was almost as if they were trying to stop us from escaping. I have no idea what the actual wind speed was, but I liked to think of it as a “sustained howling speed”. It was strong enough that I was concerned that trees might be blown down on top of us. The wind was accompanied by another surge of rain and drop in temperature that would have been a serious morale killer, had we not been so close to the finish. We just put our heads down and tried to think of the 5 miles of downhill that would greet us at the top.

The miles seemed to go by more slowly as we went on. At times, I thought I was running relatively fast down the hills, but according the mileage on the trail signs, I was barely maintaining a 20 minute mile. We both were thinking that the signs must be wrong. How is it even possible to “run” a 20 minute mile!? I can only guess that the previous 28+ hours of battling the trail and the weather had severely beaten us down and clouded our judgment.

I had been awake for more than 37 hours and started experiencing some strange hallucinations during that last 5 mile section of downhill. I had been having mild visuals since the late afternoon and seeing weird images in the rocks and hillsides, and mistaking moss-covered trees for cushioned park benches. Those types of hallucinations fall into the category of “eyes playing tricks on you”, though, and occur fairly often in ultra events such as this. What happened to me during the last couple of hours was very different.

As I was running down these very technical hills, my consciousness seemed to become detached from my body. It was like I was experiencing everything from a third-person perspective. This third person view of myself quickly morphed into a video game, where I was steering myself down an obstacle course and trying to collect all of the white, rectangular “points” (the trail blazes) and get to the bottom as fast as possible. Ernie was behind me, and I started viewing him as a competitor who couldn’t be allowed to collect the white rectangles first, or else he might win. A short time later, another element was added to the game. I started imagining that I was carrying another person, or perhaps a spirit of a person, down the mountain, and that their well-being was dependent upon my winning the game. I became very focused on winning.

After some unknown period of time, I started realizing that I was hallucinating, but my awareness of it did not immediately make the hallucination go away! My “real” brain wanted to know who this spirit person was and couldn’t get an answer from the “fake”, hallucinating brain, so it declared B.S. and informed everyone that it was just me running on the AT and nothing more…No video game, no spirit people, and no life or death consequences to finishing first. The fake brain then said something like “screw you, this is fun” and started making airplane noises as I swerved around a few boulders in the trail. I’m not sure if I held my arms out as wings, or not. This internal debate between the real world and my hallucination continued for a while, before the real world eventually won the argument and I came fully back to reality.

We finally reached the car after 30+ hours of hiking and running, which equals a 2.4 mile/hour average pace if the distance is accurate. It is hard to fathom that such a tremendous amount of effort and suffering resulted in such a slow pace.

The adventure was a success, however! We could finally mark SCAR off of our lists and make shallow promises to each other that we would never make another attempt at this brutal “run”.

We quickly loaded up the car and safely made it back home, where Vonda had frozen pizza and a growler of Wee Heavy-er Scotch Style Ale waiting on us! She totally kicks ass! Even after 9 years of putting up with my crazy adventures, she still supports us with style! (though, she does call us stupid when we whine about the pain afterwards, but I can live with that)

If anyone else is thinking of attempting this, my first piece of advise is “don’t!”. If you decide to ignore that warning, then at least make sure you are prepared for any kind of weather and allocate much more time than you think you’ll need. Newfound Gap is the only reasonable bail point, so you need to be entirely self-sufficient and prepared for anything along the way.

Happy adventures! Maybe I’ll see you at the next one!

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