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: Newfound Gap, NC/TN                                
End:  Davenport Gap, NC/TN
Today's Miles:                      31.3
Cumulative Miles:             233.8
"A thing of beauty is a joy forever."  - John Keats

  Charlie's Bunion, Great Smoky Mountains National Park (above); before the storm (below). 5-16-05

Friends who have run or hiked this section in the Smokies say it is one of the most spectacular sections of the entire Appalachian Trail. I've really been looking forward to experiencing it.

I'll just have to take their word for it. The biggest disappointment of my adventure run so far was deciding to run this section today instead of waiting one more day for good weather. I had only one little window of time, maybe 30 minutes out of twelve hours, when I could see the awe-inspiring panoramas I knew were out there.

The rest of the time, I couldn't see more than a hundred feet in either direction of the Trail because of the fog and rain. What a shame.

This section traverses the wildest and most difficult portion of the Smokies. There are many deep gaps and several peaks over 6,000 feet, with eleven major climbs and descents. Since my knee/quad is fine now, I was happy to be traveling south to north with a net elevation loss. I had a total ascent of 4,608 feet and descents totaling 7,678 feet.

The Trail is very rocky in places, as well as extremely narrow on some of the ridges. My left foot was literally in Tennessee and my right foot in North Carolina on some of the skinny ridges. Cool, huh?

This is not a section to run if you want to go fast or if you are afraid of heights. The drop-offs on either side for several miles along the ridges are potentially fatal. Because I'm not known for my grace or agility, I did a lot of walking, especially since it was either foggy or raining most of the time I was on the most dangerous ridges. The rocks and roots were very slick and there was a lot of mud once it started raining.

It took some tough individuals to build this Trail on the narrow ridges. There is simply no place to put a tent or sleeping bag except on the Trail itself for several miles! There are huge drop-offs on either side. Farther along, it's too steep up or down on either side to camp. I have no idea how they got in to this area with the tools necessary to carve out a trail.


Because of the distance, I again started out early (about 6:40 AM). I was optimistic about the weather because the forecast was for clearing by noon. It was very foggy when I left Newfound Gap, but I loved being up high in the misty spruce-fir forest that reminded me of being in the Cascades in the Pacific Northwest or Olympic National Park.

Jim prefers the crystal-clear views one can enjoy most days in the mountains out West. I love them, too, but I also love the green and hazy bluish mountains in the East. Some of my favorite views are after it rains, when the clouds hover in the valleys and the mountains peek out above them.

And I don't usually mind running in rain, especially if it's warm. But when it started raining today about an hour into my run, it just angered and depressed me because I knew I was missing out on so many spectacular views.

It was ironic that on Friday, when the weather was perfect, there weren't nearly so many panoramic views. Today's overlooks provided great views much of the way, but the fog and rain totally obscured them.

The sun came out just before I got to Charlie's Bunion, about four miles into the run, and I was able to take the photos above. Charlie's Bunion is a rock outcrop that was named by Horace Kephart, who thought it stuck out like the bunion of Charlie Conner, an early hiker in the area accompanying him on a hike to Mt. LeConte.

I just love some of the names of the places along this section of Trail: Sweet Heifer Trail, Icewater Spring Shelter, Wooly Tops Lead, Hell Ridge, Camel Gap Trail, Snake Den Ridge Trail, and the ironically-named "Boulevard Trail," which follows a very rugged ridgeline similar to the one the AT is on.


Although I saw about thirty people on the Trail today, including seven equestrians and additional pack horses, I had conversations with only one pair of 30-ish men that I saw several times as we headed north. They were doing a male-bonding weekend of hiking together, having a lot of fun despite the rain. We spent some time at the Tri-Corner Shelter during the hardest rain. One of the guys is a runner, and had lots of great questions about my trek and trail running in general.

I met the equestrians about seven miles into the section. Since they were going south, I had one more trail hazard most of the rest of the way to Davenport Gap: horse poop every quarter mile!

I had my third fall after hours of rain. My mood was as gloomy as the weather, so I was trying to think of something funny.

I remembered something I'd read recently in Neal Jamison's latest book about adventure racing. One of the contributors, Kristen Dieffenbach, talked about having the "umbles" several days into one of her adventure races mumbles, grumbles, fumbles, stumbles. It fit my day perfectly!

And then I fell. My right foot caught under a rock and I went down on my left knee into rocks. Although my knee bled a little and the fall hurt more than when I fall on dirt, I had to laugh. As another contributor to the book, famous ultra runner/adventure racer Marshall Ulrich, observed, "Humor is the antidote to misery."

At least I didn't fall down in horse poop!!


This run was harder mentally than physically. I felt pressure to go, go, go since it was a long run. I had to focus very intently on the footing most of the way so I didn't drop down into oblivion. The rocks and roots were very slick, and I slopped through ankle-deep puddles and mud that sucked off a shoe twice. Jim spent a lot of time cleaning up those shoes afterwards!

The sun came out about two hours before I completed this section. By then I was down lower into trees and the ridgetop views were gone. The last five miles were great: mostly smooth trail, mostly gradual downhill. 

I felt good physically most of the day, although I was carrying so much water that my shoulders were sore. There is very little water up on the ridges. Creeks start from springs that are farther down. After running out of water Friday, and not being sure of the sources for today, I carried two bladders (100 oz. and 70 oz.) in my pack and a 28-oz. hand-held UD bottle with my concentrated Perpetuem and Sustained Energy mixes. I didn't drink anywhere near all the water because it was so cool and wet all day (it even sleeted some).

Despite the rocks most of the way, I completed the run two hours faster than Friday and went about a mile farther (it was a net downhill, after all). Twelve hours out on the Trail seemed a long time, though. I'm getting tired.

After getting back to the camper, I just vegged out and watched the "Survivor" finale on TV. It's taken me four days to find the time to write this entry. I'm still bummed out that I didn't wait a day to run this section!


I've got to say, despite the weather and lack of views the day I ran this section, this is one of the most awesome trails I have ever run/walked. I want to return some day when the weather is good and run it again, perhaps in the fall when the leaves are colorful.

I highly recommend that other ultra runners tackle all or part of the AT in the Smokies. Several friends have done this in groups. You could do it in one, two, or three segments, but you need either two vehicles or a crew for a point-to-point run.

It's a tougher workout going south to north for the whole 70 miles. If you want more uphill or more downhill training, you could determine which direction to run by looking at the profiles of each section. For example, going north from Fontana Dam to Clingman's Dome or Newfound Gap is mostly uphill, while Newfound to Davenport Gap is net downhill.

I think completion of the AT in the Smokies, even done over two or three days, would be great training for many "technical" 100-milers like Massanutten, HURT, Superior Trail, or Big Horn. The only thing you're missing is altitude over 7,000 feet for some of the Western 100s.

The Smokies are great for the whole family. There is no entrance fee to the park (how many national parks are free??) and you don't need a permit to hike if you're not camping out. There are numerous side trails for shorter runs/hikes for other family members, and you can devise various loops that wouldn't require a crew or two vehicles.

Unless you can float over rocks and roots, I wouldn't count on a fast time. This isn't a good trail for a speed workout. Take the time to enjoy the views and the geology. If you want to run really fast, or you're afraid of heights, find another trail!

I'll opt for better weather when I do it next time. Be prepared for wintry weather at the highest elevations even in the summer, just as you would in the Rockies.

Have fun!

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

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  2005 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil