As you can see, I chose Option #2 (see end of yesterday's journal entry).
The weather report sounded great. My bum knee/quad didn't bother me at all
yesterday. I had no excuses NOT to start this difficult Smokies section,
long because there are no intersecting roads or bailout options.
I wasn't afraid of the distance, the longest section I've done this trek.
I've gone 30+ miles in about 50 ultras up to 100 miles, and numerous 30-mile
training runs over the years.
I wasn't even too intimidated by descriptions of the course in the AT
guide book or from friends who have run the Smokies sections (David Horton, Neal
Jamison, Scott Brockmeier, David Kirk).
No, what scared the heck out of me was my knee. If it blew up again like it
did last Monday, I'd be in for a much longer day than I already was (this
section took me just over 14 hours, from dawn to dusk).
Here are some excerpts from the AT guide: "This section . . .
includes the longest roadless stretch of the Appalachian Trail, and it leads up
and over the highest point on the entire Trail, atop Clingman's Dome (elev.
6,643 feet). . . The climb south to north is about 6,800 feet. The section's
many deep gaps and high peaks involve considerably more climbing than a casual
inspection of the route on a map would indicate. Allow extra time and exertion."
Indeed. And they might have added that water would be very scarce, too. But I
had to find that out the hard way.
I was a tired but happy puppy when I got done.
PREPARE LIKE AN ULTRA
Jim and I prepared for this section like we would a tough 50-mile or 100K
mountain trail race, which it resembled. We got to bed at 9 PM on Thursday
night, set the alarm for 4:30 AM, and got out of the camper by 5:10 for the
drive to Fontana Dam. I carried enough supplies for 18 hours on the Trail in
something went wrong - including lights.
It was still dark when we got to the dam, which was beautifully lit up along
the roadway. We both worried, "Great target." Again, no security guards stopped
us. If you're ever running or hiking this section, be aware that the nice
bathroom and showers at the visitors' center are open 24/7.
Since I'd already run across the dam two days ago, we went directly to the
trailhead and I started the first 2,000+ foot climb up Shuckstack Mountain in
breaking daylight. I needed my light only five minutes.
This was my first morning on the Trail so early, so I got to enjoy the
sunrise. Although the lake was misted over, the Trail wasn't. It was a beautiful
sunny morning, then partly cloudy afternoon. Fortunately, it didn't get as hot
as the last few days. I realized soon after starting that I'd forgotten to
resupply with enough Endurolytes. I made about 15 last the day, and never had
any swelling. I'd have preferred two per hour.
Parts of the AT in the Smokies are shared with equestrians, but dogs aren't
allowed. I didn't see any horses all day, and only one pile of horse poop.
Part way up the Trail from the dam, I found some dog poop and flicked it off
the Trail with my trekking pole (I told you those poles have a lot of uses!). I
thought it was mighty stupid of someone to take a dog up there when there were
signs all over warning "NO PETS" on the Trail.
I saw more and more dog poop. What's going on? Then I knew, because I rounded
a bend 30 minutes into my run and saw not one, but two, little black bear cubs
on the Trail not fifty feet in front of me! I've seen bears along the road,
driving through Yellowstone National Park, for example, but never on a trail.
What a thrill!!
One cub immediately ambled off into the woods. The other just looked at me.
He was so cute, about the height and length of Cody (our black Lab) but much
more plump. I didn't even consider getting out my camera, though.
Self-preservation became my immediate goal. Where was Mama Bear?
So I started yelling, "Where are you, Mama Bear?" and blew my whistle a
couple times. That scared the brave little cub off the Trail, and I never did
I was so pumped I called Jim. It was the only cell connection we had all day.
I ran the next mile or two with a heightened sense of awareness, blowing my
whistle every time I approached a bend or heard a rustle in the woods. I
probably traumatized more than a few squirrels.
I continued to see bear scat (not dog poop!) the rest of the day. So my
question is, why do bears have to poop on the trail when they've got millions of
acres of woods to use???
I went through several different ecosystems during this 30+ mile run. The
first twelve miles were typical southern Appalachian hardwood forests, with lots
of the same flowers I've seen the last two weeks. I was pleasantly surprised to
find myself in an area with numerous birch trees. I felt like I was in
Minnesota. In other areas, the forest floor was covered in spring beauties and
other white flowers - acres and acres of flowers.
The Trail was pretty smooth through the forest, but since it was
predominantly uphill, I wasn't able to run much.
Although I was above the deciduous leaf line, I never did have any good
panoramas of Fontana Lake or the surrounding mountains until I climbed to the
first balds in the middle of the "course."
BALD IS BEAUTIFUL
The balds were beautiful! The first one was like an apple orchard, with
beautiful, twisted flowering trees and lots of grass. The Trail became rockier
and the deeply cut trails were very narrow, reminding me of part of the trails
at Big Horn. I call them "squirrel trails." They are hard to run or walk in
trail shoes, so I can't imagine hiking them in boots like most thru-hikers do.
Some balds are overgrown with rhododendrons and other shrubbery. As I was
making my way carefully down Thunderhead Mountain, dancing among the rocks and
roots, the rhodies had nearly overtaken the Trail. The maintainers had recently
whacked them back vigorously. What a mess!
Another thing I noticed all day were the changing rocks. There were numerous
large white marble rocks along the Trail, as well as quartz and slate. I kept a
small, rounded piece of slate as a memento. I read in the guidebook about the
geological history of this area, which is fascinating. There have been many
upheavals over billions of years.
Most of the day I was running on the North Carolina-Tennessee state line, which
This section and the ridges were what I expected it to look like through the Smokies.
I loved the hardwood forests and, later, the fir-spruce forests as I got
above 5,500 feet in the final quarter of the section. However,
as I neared Clingman's Dome
it was sad to see all the damage to the fir trees from wooly adelgid
insects. Many trees were stripped bare of their needles.
I had two other animal "firsts" - my first grouse and the first deer I've
seen in two weeks. I see deer all the time on our property near Roanoke, and at
the regional park where we train the most, but I just haven't seen them in the
wilderness. Guess they don't want to be near people here. (Maybe because of
One of the reasons I carry a cell phone with me when on the Trail is to give
Jim periodic updates re: where I am, so he can plan his day. Today, he had to go
back to the camper, prepare it to leave, move it to a campground in Cherokee, do
laundry, and get groceries. He did much more than that, but you get the idea. He
had a lot to do.
So he asked me to call him about noon, which we predicted would be about the
half-way point; my goal was to finish in twelve hours. Jim was to run in to meet
me and back out to the truck at the end.
I was in the balds around noon, with five bars (full signal) on my cell
phone. But I was unable to reach Jim in Cherokee, about 15 miles to the south
and in a valley (this has been common on the trek). Plan B was to call my sister
in Philadelphia and relay messages through her. Our connections were clear
Isn't it ironic that we couldn't call each other 15 miles apart in the
mountains, but we could each talk to a person in Philly, hundreds of miles
My message to Jim was this: bring water and electrolyte caps in with
you at the end. There isn't any water up here (unless you count scum with
mosquito larvae in it).
The other bit of conversation with my sister involved obtaining Celebrex from
a relative who is an M.D. and gets the pricey pain killers free from Pfizer
reps. It will be arranged! My sister also has arthritis and uses the drug, so
she knows how much they can help me during this trek if I need them. I used one
today, and had no pain at all (lots of fatigue by the end, but no sore muscles).
I have Tylenol 3 at home, but deliberately didn't bring it with me. It'll
kill about any pain I have (I got it after my foot surgery last fall, but didn't
use more than a couple pills). If anything hurts, I just don't care with
codeine in me. But it makes me so nauseous, especially when I run, that it
isn't worth it. I learned that lesson the hard way at the Vermont 100 five years
ago. I finished, but couldn't keep anything down the last 14 hours. Most
miserable night of my life!
So, no Tylenol 3 during this trek, no matter how bad I hurt. But I'll take
all the Celebrex I can get hold of. It's the first time in eight years I've had
no arthritis pain.
Maybe I should ask Pfizer for a sponsorship!
IT'S A SMALL WORLD
I passed by six shelters in this section, five of which had chain-link
fencing across the front to keep the bears and sleeping hikers apart! Each also
had elaborate cable systems to keep food about 25 feet up in the air. Signs
warned campers not to cook any food at the shelter, because it would attract
So, where do they eat??
I signed the registers at three of the shelters, and got contaminated water
at two of them. My second tactical mistake of the day (the first was not taking
enough Endurolytes with me) was not filling my bladder completely full of water
from the one good source on the section. I ran out and needed more at another
shelter where the water was terrible and I had to use the "leaf trick" to even
get it into my bladder. Fortunately, I was about four miles from the end and Jim
came along to save me with a full bladder of good water.
I saw that Warren Doyle's crew of nine hikers stayed in the Derrick's Knob
shelter two nights ago. Maybe I'll catch up with them in a week or two. Doyle
signed the register here, but he wasn't with the hikers or crew van when I saw
them last week.
I saw only one NOBO thru-hiker, an amiable man my age named Larry Devine. He
lives in New Hampshire and started a few days before me. His trail name is
"Hippy Dippy" because he's "from that era."
The other thirty or so hikers I saw were all going south or were in shelters
in the afternoon. None were thru-hikers, to my knowledge. Only four hikers were
I talked with the second hiker I met in the morning. He commented on my
running, so I told him what I'm doing. He asked, "Are you an ultra runner?"
Since most people don't know what ultra runners are, I was a bit surprised!
He's a runner but doesn't do ultras. His name is Tom DuBose, and he lives in
Birmingham. He knows ultra runners Scott Parker, Dewayne Satterfield, and Dink
Taylor and encouraged me to run a 50K trail race in the area. Small world!
Jim and I got back to the camper about 9:30 PM, both very tired from our long
day. I feel a sense of accomplishment as I write this the next day - too tired
Friday to do this recap!