Jim, Sue, Cody, and Tater at Springer Mtn., start of the Appalachian Trail Adventure Run


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Runtrails' 2005 AT Journal
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Start: Nantahala R./Wesser, NC                           
End:  Stecoah Gap, NC
Today's Miles:                      13.6
Cumulative Miles:             149.0
"Toughest section yet from Wesser to Stecoah Gap . . ." 
- David Horton, describing this section in A Quest for Adventure

Here we go!  Sue and Cody crossing the Nantahala River on the official AT course (see the white blaze?)

I saw Santa today. And Big Foot, too!

It was even better than the hallucinations I've had during the early morning hours of 100-milers!

These guys weren't figments of my imagination, however. They were real, live hikers, two of eight people I met along the Trail today (that's a week-day record for me).

I think it was thru-hiker Dave Kelly back at Winding Stairs Gap who asked if I'd seen Santa that day. Both men started their thru-hikes the same day I did, April 30. Nope, hadn't seen him. Dave assured me I'd know immediately who he was talking about.

I did. I was admiring the view from the 5,062 foot summit of Cheoah Bald just before noon today and this slim, Santa-like apparition came up the Trail.

I said, "I bet you're Santa!" 

He laughed and asked how I knew his Trail name. I mentioned Dave and his comment that I'd just know. He laughed again. He was a jovial guy and we talked a bit. His real name is Jim and he's from Pennsylvania.

Santa petted Cody and said he missed his Labs, which he left at home. It is much more difficult to take a dog on a traditional thru-hike than it is to do it our way, staying in a camper. Other section and thru-hikers have enjoyed Cody's presence because they miss their dogs. In fact, no one has shown any fear or annoyance at Cody's presence so far. I try to keep him near me as we approach hikers, and make him sit or lie down in the shade when I stop to talk to folks.


Gotta love a guy who gives himself the Trail name of Big Foot. He was taking a break part way up a hill about two miles from Stecoah Gap today. Big Foot recognized Cody right away - he met him Monday when Cody was walking up the Trail near the Nantahala River with Jim to meet me as I made my painful way down with Lynn DiFiore. But I hadn't met Big Foot (Gene) before.

He's a section hiker from Knoxville who has completed over half of the AT so far by doing a week-long chunk at a time. This is the only way many folks can do it because of work. He's 53, but doesn't look it. He walked up the remaining hills today faster then me, then I'd run by him going down. So we got to chat several times.

I asked Big Foot how he got his name. His trail shoes (not hiking boots) didn't look so big to me. He said he was tired of getting black toenails all the time (sounds like an ultra runner!) so a few months ago he went to an outfitter who put him into shoes two sizes larger than he was accustomed to wearing. He went from size 12 to 14, and hasn't had a problem with black toenails since.


It's a lesson most ultra runners eventually learn. In 25+ years of road and trail running, I've gone from a women's 9 to a men's 10 or larger running shoe. I can't wear women's trail shoes any more because they don't come large enough.

For this trek I bought several pairs of Montrail Hardrocks and Vitesse in men's size 10 1/2 because I knew my feet would appreciate the extra room. When I've worn these down, I may have to order even larger ones. I'm grateful to Montrail's sponsorship of my adventure run because I'll be going through at least five or six pairs of shoes with all the rocks I'm running over.

I wore the Vitesse today, a good choice for the 70% of soft trail I was on. For the other 30% that was rocky and slick from yesterday's rain, the Hardrocks would have been preferable. They aren't as cushy, but they have better grip. Each day it's a toss-up which model to wear because the AT guides don't tell you much about the Trail surface. But there's usually enough variety that either model is suitable.


The closest I came to making an itinerary for this trek was projecting the first three weeks of mileages so we could get an idea about where to camp, when to go home the first time, etc. It was never intended to be a strict schedule, because I've never done an extended run like this before and had no clue how much mileage I could do continuously.

I've already mentioned how amazed I am that guys like David Horton and Regis Shivers not only made detailed schedules, but actually stuck to them for two to three months!! How did they do that??

In my original schedule, I was going to run the 29.4 mile section between the Nantahala River/Wesser to the Little Tennessee River/ Fontana Dam in one day, take a day off, then tackle the difficult first section in the Smokies (32.4 miles until the first road).

Then I re-read the section in Horton's book where he wrote how difficult this section was (see quote at beginning of this page) and revised my plan to do the Wesser-to-dam section in two days. Now since I also have to factor in my trick knee, it was a good decision.

So before I hit the Trail today, I've been referring to these two sections as "easy" days before I enter the Smokies.


Only an ultra runner would consider today's 13.6-mile section an "easy" day. I laughed about this up several steep inclines today and over the boulder sections.

First thing this morning I faced the ascent from the Nantahala River (1,740 feet) to Swim Bald (~ 4,700 feet) in six miles. Most of the Trail was good, but it was unrelenting. I could run some of the switchbacks that were at an easy grade and not too rocky, but there were plenty of straight-up-the-mountain grunts.

Then I had a nice mile of gentle downhill running to the Sassafras Gap shelter trail intersection. This was the last available water of the day. I thought I had enough water for Cody and myself, so I by-passed the shelter.

As I ran past it, I heard someone yell "Hello." It turned out to be Santa, who caught up with me in the mile to the top of Cheoah Bald, today's high point at 5,062 feet. Although the first 1/2 mile was an easy grade, the last 1/2 mile turned more grueling. I truly enjoyed the vista from the top as I caught my breath.

The remaining 5.5 miles were down, up, down, up (in ad finitum) but mostly down to Stecoah Gap at 3,165 feet. The longest drops were 1,262 feet from Cheoah Bald down to Locust Cove Gap and about 600 feet down the last unnamed mountain to Stecoah Gap.

So on my "easy" day, I covered over 7,000 feet of elevation gain and loss in thirteen miles!


Since I did only a portion of this section today, and was out from only 8:00 AM to 1:38 PM, it did seem easier than some previous days. When Horton did this section, it was only part of a tough 41.5-mile day for him. And he did it on his 4th day on the AT - here I am on my 12th day!!!

The section obviously wasn't "easy," but it didn't kick my butt either. I thoroughly enjoyed today's run. Although it got hot by afternoon, the morning was quite tolerable. It's the earliest start I've gotten.

Cody and I walked across the flag-adorned pedestrian bridge over the Nantahala River at the Outdoor Center and headed into the lush forest above the river gorge. The valley was totally fogged in, but we could see about 400 feet in either direction, at least when my glasses weren't too fogged up from the 101% humidity.

The mist was cooling and ethereal. I love running and walking in fog. It wasn't raining, but I could hear yesterday's raindrops falling from the leaves all around me, and I was soon wet from brushing against wet leaves drooping into the Trail. Until I got up to 3,000 feet at Grassy Gap, I felt like I was in a tropical forest. It reminded me of the rain forests in the Pacific Northwest.

I'm glad some other folks were out ahead of me and got all the spider webs first! I saw plenty of webs glistening in the mist along the side of the Trail this morning, but didn't get any in my face. Jim did, running a beautiful trail in the Tsali Recreation Area adjacent to our campground.

About 1/2 mile up the lush trail above the Nantahala River Gorge, I rounded a bend and had the first of two "drop-dead beautiful" views of the day.

There were several large flame azaleas in bloom. I'd already seen a few pink azaleas just beginning to open this morning, but they weren't as brilliant or in such profusion as these bright orange flowers. Of course, I had to take several pictures. If I'd been running downhill and saw this gorgeous display of Mother Nature, I would have come to a screeching halt and taken just as many photos.


If I were writing a book about this experience, which I'm not, that would be the title. Sort of a take-off on Lance Armstrong's, "It's Not About the Bike." This adventure run is at least half about experiences like these - the views, nature, history, the people I meet. The other half is the athletic challenge.

Jim has told me several times he admires what I'm doing, but he could only do a long trail run like this if he were attempting a speed record or going for a certain time, like Regis did. And he has no desire to do it. I, on the other hand, feel sorry for anyone running the AT so fast they can't enjoy the experience the way I'm doing it.

I feel like some sort of weird "hybrid" runner-hiker. People hike and run this Trail in a number of ways, from purist thru-hiking where folks think it's a sin to go into town more than necessary to pick up their drops, to thru-hikers who love the town experiences and sleep there as often as the shelters, to hikers who are crewed to various extents, to fast-packers who try to run or hike the Trail very quickly and sleep in shelters or town, to someone like Regis or me who is running-hiking AND crewed/camping, and to speed-setters and wannabes who do mega-miles every day to get from Point A to Point B in the shortest time possible.

I'm on the scale closer to the running end, but no one I have heard of has done the Trail like I am, at a more leisurely pace than Regis did it. I think more people would do it like this if they had the time and other resources.

I'd venture to guess that many ultra runners are physically capable of running-walking the Appalachian Trail the way I'm doing it.


Somewhere on the long trudge up to Swim Bald (which isn't bald, so I never was sure when I got there), I stopped to read and photograph a nice memorial to Wade Sutton, a forest ranger who died suppressing a fire nearby in 1968, so "that you might more fully enjoy your hike along the Trail."

It made me think about all the time, effort, and sacrifice the forest service folks and trail volunteers make to keep this long, linear Trail open all the way from Georgia to Maine.

I saw the usual mix of flowers as I ran and hiked up and up, especially above 3,500 feet.  The sun began penetrating through the fog around 9:30 AM, about 3,700 feet, but it took me another 40 minutes to climb up to a clear vantage point above 4,500 feet where I could look down on it.

My second "drop-dead beautiful" photo op came near the top of Swim Bald when I finally found a rock out-crop to look down into the valley above the Nantalaha River Gorge. Wow! Just what I love about being in the mountains after a storma range of mountain tops poking up through a sea of white clouds!

I took about five minutes to fully absorb the beauty of this scene and take photos. No matter how well the photos turn out, they won't do justice to what I saw. The only thing that ruined the drama was the noise of traffic below in the Gorge, penetrating up through that thick blanket of clouds.

I thought I'd escaped civilization by then!


My sore quad/knee didn't bother me until the last mile, and even then I was able to continue running with only a little hobble to protect it. My knee isn't swollen a bit. I'm continually icing it following my runs. It appears that I'm good for about 12 to 13 miles, then it starts to hurt. I should be able to get through tomorrow's 14+ miles, but might run into problems on the lengthy first Smokies leg Friday.

Back to the people I met today: I saw one 60-ish male day hiker, a young couple hiking for the week, and three middle-aged section hikers along the way, but just exchanged courtesies with them. Only two of today's eight hikers were female. I've seen very few women out here, even on the weekends. Female thru-hikers are even more rare.

I again had good cell reception all day, and called Jim a couple times to give him a better idea of my progress so he wouldn't waste time sitting at the pick-up point too long. When I got to Stechoah Gap, he was reading Horton's book in the truck, which he'd parked in the shade. Cody was as happy to see Tater as I was to see Jim.

Jim got to meet another thru-hiker I've sort of been chasing since April 30, a young fella named Andrew who I haven't seen yet (I'd remember the lip ring!). Santa was looking for him today, but was several miles behind. Jim scored big points by offering Andrew a cold soft drink, and we gave Big Foot plenty of cold water to last him another hour or more. Both were hiking further today.

I should see those two, as well as Santa, again tomorrow even though they are staying in shelters closer to Fontana Dam and will reach it before I do. How?

Because the downhills are a problem for me right now, I'm reversing direction for tomorrow's section and eliminating the huge downhill to the dam. I'm deliberately going UP a 3,310-foot ascent over the first five miles and another 1,000-foot ascent later on (plus the inevitable other ups and downs every day) to avoid having to go DOWN them with a sore knee.

So by going "backwards," I'll cover the same territory, see my new friends again, and save my knee some agony.

My momma didn't raise no dummies!

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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2005 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil