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: Dennis Cove, USFS 50, TN                         
End:  Watauga Dam Rd., TN
Today's Miles:                      13.1
Cumulative Miles:             420.5
"Everywhere is within running distance if you have the time."
- unknown

Laurel Falls, 40 feet high, in the Pond Mountain Wilderness area

Farther downstream, the AT is at the very edge of the Laurel Fork River (look closely to see two white blazes on rocks).  5-27-05

Today I was afraid I'd run out of time (daylight, in particular), and I bailed out early for the first time on this adventure run. Of course, in hindsight I wish I hadn't. So I'm beating myself up tonight with regrets.

This was supposed to be a 29-mile run. However, the first 13 miles took nearly five hours because of the difficult footing and steep climbs in the Laurel Fork Gorge area and Pond Mountain. I was only getting slower and slower, especially on the climbs. And there were plenty more climbs in the last 16 miles.

So I called Jim and asked him to pick me up at the Watauga Dam Road crossing. It thoroughly messed up his planned run today and made for more driving, but he came to get me. It was a difficult road to find and took him over an hour from Damascus, where he was when I called him.

The morning started off badly. For the first time, we both slept through the alarm, set for 5 AM. We had our earplugs in, and simply didn't hear it. I woke up about 6:10, noticed that it was light out, and jumped out of bed in a frenzy. Fortunately, we had most things ready to go: clothing and gear and breakfast items laid out.

We had an hour-plus drive from our new campground east of Damascus, VA to the start at Dennis Cove in TN. It was closer to our last campground, but we moved yesterday in order to ensure a spot at this national forest campground for the busy Memorial weekend. Jim ended up driving about 400 miles yesterday and today, ferrying me to and from trail heads, moving the camper, and running errands in town.


So it was after 8 AM when I began my run this morning. I took an extra flashlight (in addition to the little Photon light I always carry) in case I had to finish in the dark. I never know how long each day will take. The elevation profile and guide description didn't look too horrible today, so I thought I could do 29 miles.

What I didn't consider was how tired I was from that 16,000 feet elevation change I did yesterday. And I didn't know how tough the Trail was in the Laurel Fork Gorge and up Pond Flat Mountain at the beginning of today's run. My legs just couldn't go any faster.

I quit early. I gave it my best shot.


Today's run started out flat for a change, right alongside the Laurel Fork River. Because I'd just eaten my breakfast in the truck on the way to Dennis Cove, I couldn't run right away. My stomach was too full. I like to walk until my muscles warm up anyway, so I just walked fast and enjoyed the river and the cool morning air.

In less than half a mile I came to the beginning of the noisy gorge, as rocks rose hundreds of feet high to the left of the Trail and the river started dropping down, down, down. The Trail soon followed it down, too. I came to an alternate "high water" trail marked blue. I followed the white-blazed "real trail" down a steep, rock-step cliff to the bottom of the gorge. I was afraid if I followed the high-water trail, I'd miss the falls. (That was correct.)

I would have been better off wearing my Montrail Hardrocks today, instead of the Vitesse; the Hardrocks have better grip. As I dropped precipitously to the river, I was oh so glad that the rocks weren't wet. They were dangerous enough dry, and tough on my knees and quads with the large drops.

The 40-foot falls was right across the river at the bottom of the descent. They're the highest falls I've seen on this trek so far. Scenic, noisy. I was glad I went down the "real trail."

Then it started raining. Oh, no! I knew what went down would have to go back up, and probably over a lot of rock, since that's exactly what this gorge was made of - solid rock. The Trail stayed low for at least half a mile. Soon after the falls, I encountered the rock wall in the second photo above, where the "trail" went right next to the edge of the river. It was slick and very narrow. In the rain, it took me a while to negotiate. I was happy when the Trail turned sandy and smooth enough to run for a few minutes before the steep ascent on wet rocks back up to the high-water trail.


The next section of Trail was high above the river, pretty with laurels and rhododendrons in bloom. The Trail then descended to the river again and I could run the broad sandy path. There were three large bridges over the river as the Trail went from side to side before starting a tough two-mile ascent to Pond Flat.

This series of climbs is what finally did me in today. Although there was one "relo" that eliminated part of the steep climb, most of it was at an angle where you could almost reach out and touch the trail in front of you without bending over! I was one whipped puppy at the top, and hoping like crazy that the descent on the other side wasn't similar. As bad as it was going up, it would have been murder on my knees and quads going down.

The summit of Pond Flat was just another undulating ridge run. I have no clue why it's called "flat." There were occasional views of Lake Watauga through the leaves. Just as I started to descend 3.5 miles to the lake, a young couple day hiking came up the trail. I asked them what the trail was like, and they said it was smooth and gradual all the way up from the road.

YES!!! They were right! I was able to run the entire distance down to the road, probably the longest distance I've run on smooth, gradual switchbacks in over 400 miles on the AT. I was so glad I was going north and not south on that mountain.


I crossed busy US 321 and ran through a picnic area next to the lake. I stopped and took a couple photos of the geese swimming in the lake, with the mountain ridge to be run later in this section in the background. I hurried through this section because of the road noise. The only pleasant thing about it was the intoxicating fragrance of shrubs with white blossoms. The butterflies liked them, too.

I passed up the shelter in this section because I was in a hurry and it wasn't right on the Trail. (I also missed the first shelter at Laurel Falls because it was on the alternate trail.) Other than the young couple on Pond Flat, I saw no other hikers today.

AT hikers are the only folks allowed to walk/run over the Watauga Dam. I didn't see any workers there. I'd been in deep shade all morning, so going out into the bright sunshine across the dam was a bit of a shock (the rain ended about an hour after it started, then it was just hot and muggy). I had to walk up an access road for another 3/10 mile before going back into the woods. I walked and ran the Trail for another 1.2 miles until crossing the dam road where Jim eventually found me.


It was another long ride home, only a little shorter than the ride this morning. I was beaten down physically and mentally. I'm not giving up. Hardly. But I hate not finishing what I started out to do today. I've been figuring out a new tentative schedule, icing my quad (which didn't hurt much today), and writing, hoping for a better day tomorrow.

I thought of something today that I should have realized before I started this adventure run. My recent frustration over daily mileages finally prompted me to look to see when my AT Data Book, which is full of numbers, was printed: 2004. The distances I've been using are from the 2001 guide books, and they are short.

So when I get to Virginia in two days, I'll re-figure the total distance for the first three states. The recent sections I checked are all low, which is what I've suspected because of the numerous relocations in NC and TN. I haven't checked the GA book yet.

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

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2005 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil