APPALACHIAN TRAIL ADVENTURE RUN

   
       

 

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Runtrails' 2005 AT Journal
 
 
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POST #19: IF WE KNEW THEN
WHAT WE KNOW NOW . . .
       
DECEMBER 4
 
"Over the last few years I have had a dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail.  I had started reading different A.T. journals on the web when I came across
yours . . . Some journals are more interesting than others but I have not been able to stop reading yours.  I have read about half and read some every day [this was November 10] . . . It will keep me inspired over the cold winter months and help me get through until Spring when I can hit the trail again."
 
- Eric, "Moose from Maine," AT section hiker
 


Scenes from the White Mountains, New Hampshire, in early November, 2005:  Dream Lake with Mt. Madison in the background (above)

and Webster Cliffs Trail near Rt. 302 at Crawford Notch (below). Photos by Eric, "Moose from Maine." 

Eric wrote his first letter to us about three weeks ago. He was sorry he didn't find our journal before we were in his neck of the woods (Maine) so he could have hiked with me some there. We hope to meet Eric and his wife when we return to Maine in the future.

In his mid-30s, Eric is unable to hike the AT all at once but he's been gradually chipping away at it in Maryland and Pennsylvania on his one- to three-week vacations and on weekend forays in New Hampshire and Maine where the AT is closer to his home. Eric is unable to sleep on the ground or in shelters because of his bad back, so his wife has graciously offered to crew for him at trailheads like Jim did for me. That's one reason he is so happy to have found our journal - our MO's are similar.

Eric sent us some beautiful photos (two of them are above) along the AT in New Hampshire and Maine, sections still in their fall splendor when I ran them in late August and early September. They look gorgeous with snow!

Although I'm not really ready for winter yet (I mean, where did July go???), Eric's winter wonderland photos make me a bit wistful for the first snowfall in Roanoke so I can enjoy the AT near our home with a blanket of soft snow, too.

A couple days this past week were downright blustery and frigid for Virginia - 30s Fahrenheit with headwinds so strong I chose to do my main workouts indoors. (I'm not a total weather-weenie. I lived in Montana for five years prior to moving here last year, and I ran outside most winter days there.) As I enjoyed my nice warm indoor pool run, my thoughts strayed to Mt. Washington and I wondered just how cold and windy it was there. I was grateful that I saw Washington on two good-weather days that were in the 40s and 50s!

And then I remembered that our AT friend, "Tread Well" AKA Dave, recently sent us a photo (below) of a winter hike he did on Mt. Washington. This was only a few minutes after a clear-blue-sky photo shot next to the summit sign, proving that the weather in the mountains can turn to crap on very short notice (true even in the summer).

The rocks on Mt. Washington are tough to negotiate. I'm betting it was easier to hike that day than it is when there is no snow.

Brrr!!! That photo just looks cold.

20-20 HINDSIGHT

OK, back to the purpose of this entry: things we learned along the way that we wish we'd known at the beginning of the AT Adventure Run -  reflections and recommendations.

Although it's too late for us to use this insight on this particular trek, it may be of use to others contemplating an AT run or hike - and we've learned some things that will help us if I can ever talk Jim into crewing for me on another long trail.

These are the things I wish I'd known before starting the run:

1. Just how doggone rocky the Appalachian Trail is!

If you read even a few of my daily entries on the Trail you know how much of a challenge the rocks were for me. Despite all I'd read about the AT and my limited experience running on the Trail in Georgia and Virginia, I was not prepared for the extent of the rockiness - and the many variations in which rocks exist.

Obviously, some folks are good at running on rocks, like the men who hold the fastest times on the Trail. I'm not one of those people.

Finally by Day 51 I "came to peace" with the rocks and promised not to whine about them so much. I honestly tried to understand the geology of their formation and their beauty and uniqueness. Normally an optimistic, upbeat person, I tried very hard to put a positive spin on the rock situation the rest of the journey.

Because of my inability to skim over rocks easily, I had to lower my expectations of how long it would take me to run end to end. That was  frustrating for both Jim and me because we had planned to be gone only four months, not another three weeks beyond that.

I've mentioned perspective a few times since I came off the Trail. Both Jim and I have broadened our perspective of several trail concepts since seeing the AT north of Virginia: our concepts of "rocky" and "steep" in particular have changed. Keep in mind that we have run on trails in about thirty states, many of them out West in the Rockies, Sierras, and Cascades. Even that didn't prepare us for everything we encountered in New England.

What we once considered "rocky" around Roanoke is NOT, and we won't ever complain about our local trails again. And now we know that "steep" means you can reach out and touch the trail in front of you - without bending over! We hadn't encountered much of that before, either.

2. That I would need bouldering and rock climbing skills in most of the states from Virginia northward.

Again, reading other hikers' journals and books didn't adequately prepare me for these obstacles. Nor did reading about them in the AT guides - because I'd never experienced them to this magnitude before.

Yes, there are boulders on top of Mt. Massive in Colorado. If you've been up there, imagine several miles of hiking over large chunks of rock, and you've got the AT from Mt. Washington north to Mt. Madison (see photo below from Day 126).

 

I hope my vivid descriptions and some of the photos give readers better clues than the ones I had. But if you haven't yet experienced boulder "rivers," over a mile of house-sized rocks (like in Mahoosuc Notch), or vertical rock walls where you have to use finger- and toe-holds, you just aren't going to understand what they are like until you encounter them yourself.

If I'd realized I would literally need rock climbing skills I would have sought some training before I began my AT Run.

3. Just how dangerous bog boards can be.

Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever thought that "bridging" over bogs and swamps and mud and fragile tundra could be so dangerous! Even if the boards and logs were in perfect shape (which was rare), they were treacherous when wet.

Add the fact that many bog boards were either very narrow, broken, rotted, no longer nailed down, canted to one side, or covered in moss or slime and you can maybe begin to understand why I slid off the #%$& things numerous times. They couldn't have been any more slick if they were covered in ice.

I'm not sure how I could have prepared myself for bog boards, since they are basically unheard-of on trails where I'm likely to train. I rarely ran over them since even walking was so tricky. I developed some skill as I got farther north, but never really mastered bog-boarding.

Consider yourself warned.

4. The extent of the elevation gain and loss in GA, NC, and TN.

I looked at the profile maps for all the states before starting out. I added up some of the elevation gain and loss in the South and thought, "Oh, my." But I didn't realize just how much it was until I got out there. Sure, I've had experience with long and steep mountain trails in training runs and races, but not day after day for over four months.

This photo of North Carolina mountains was taken on Day 10:

Because of my foot surgery six months before starting my journey run, I was limited in the number of miles I could run in only four months of training without getting injured. I couldn't ramp up the mileage too much or I would have gotten injured.

In retrospect, what I would do differently is to run more of those miles on steeper trails, i.e., more elevation gain and loss in the same number of training miles.

The first over-use injuries I had were to my quadriceps just above my knees, indicating the need for more downhill training. After about three weeks my quads were fine the rest of the way. Although my knees were sore from the steep downhills in NH and ME, my quads didn't hurt.

5. How rugged New Hampshire and Maine are.

Yes, I read other hikers' accounts. I read the AT guides. I read articles and books on the subject.

But my experience running trails all over the country didn't prepare me for what I encountered in these last two states - the difficulty of route-finding in New Hampshire, the cumulative effect of steepness of the climbs and descents day after day, the huge boulder maneuvers necessary, the large roots and slick bog boards, the long distances between road crossings, the water everywhere (bogs, swamps, mud pits, lakes, streams), the precarious water crossings (like beaver dams as "bridges"), the drops into oblivion if I slipped off a ledge.

The Trail was so rugged that everyone had to reduce their mileage here, even though we were all physically fit after 2,000 miles on the AT. This photo in the Kinsman Range on Day 117 illustrates that if the rocks don't trip you, the roots will:

I knew the dangers of sudden weather changes in the mountains, especially above tree line, and I handled that part well except for Day 121 on Mt. Madison. I don't know how I could have trained for the other challenges listed above without going up there before the actual Adventure Run.

I would recommend you prepare yourself in whatever way you can before doing that section of Trail. If you can't get up there to train before doing a thru-hike or run, read everything you can find and talk to others who've been there so you know mentally what to expect.

And allow more time than you think you'll need to cover any given distance. You'll be needing it.

6. Just how many creeks and rivers I'd have to ford in Maine (and some in other states), even when flooded.

Reading about this gave me little preparation for the real thing on Day 141. I'd already been through some knee- and thigh-high creeks and ones with very slick rocks on the bottom, but they were easy compared to the streams I encountered in Maine. This state just doesn't believe hikers need bridges. I don't know if they can't afford to build them or if it's a macho thing for bragging rights. I'm guessing the latter.

I suppose if I'd realized more clearly what I'd be facing in Maine I could have sought out some flooded creeks and rivers nearby last spring and tried fording them instead of using bridges (we're more civilized in the South, building real bridges over streams and trying hard to keep them in good shape after flooding damages them or washes them away). But I didn't think of that until after the fact.

I recommend you force yourself to do this (with your pack on and with a companion nearby in case there's trouble) before hiking the whole AT.

7. That I wouldn't be able to have Cody accompany me on the Trail as much as I thought I could.

This was partly due to the difficulty of the Trail in some places (sharp rocks in PA, vertical walls in several states, rattlesnake territory, etc.), partly the lack of water on ridges, partly the weather (heat in the summer), and partly my need for speed.

OK, so I wasn't going that fast!!

Regardless, almost every day I felt self-induced pressure to hurry up and get done. In the first six weeks I actually thought I might be able to beat the women's record on the Trail. Later, it was a matter of cranking out the miles so I could finish in four months. Then it was a survival shuffle to just finish in this lifetime!

I enjoyed 95% of the time I was on the Trail. Some days I wished I could be out there longer, but most of the time I wanted to get done so I'd have more time to relax and write and sightsee.

It was evident early on that Cody slowed me down. He didn't get tired. In fact, he had more energy than I did. But he required more water than I did and we couldn't carry enough for his needs. The first couple weeks there was plenty of water from creeks and little springs along the Trail. But we soon got up on ridges most of the day where we were above the water sources. It took time to find him water, and got worse as water sources dried up in the summer.

I missed having Cody along. He's a lot of fun to run with. I loved seeing Jim come in with one or both dogs at the end of my sections many days. Having my whole crew there was motivating.

8. That finding trail heads would be such a hassle.

Jim spent many hours trying to find trail heads from Georgia to Maine. We had the AT maps, state maps, Topo and Streets software, DeLorme atlas for Maine, and some local maps. However, not all the roads were included on the maps, many little roads weren't marked (especially in Maine), some detours were necessary, and often the trail heads weren't obvious from the road.

Jim overcame these shortcomings by scouting out routes and trail heads a day or two before we needed them so I could get on the Trail early and so he'd know how to find me at the end of the section. We had some snafus, but most of the time this prevented major problems. I strongly recommend that trail maintaining clubs keep in mind that many people use trail heads to get on and off the Trail, so please make them accessible and visible.

9. That finding campgrounds along the AT would be so difficult in some areas.

This was a problem to us because of the size of our camper. If you're using a small RV or large van, you can park it at many of the trail heads. If you need real campgrounds or larger spaces to boondock, you'll often have to drive quite a ways to trail heads.

It was most difficult for us to find campgrounds in New York and Connecticut. You'd think a wilderness area like western Maine would be a problem, but it wasn't. Jim found the very best spots there, often by scouting them out a day or two in advance. This was one of his coups, in the shadow of Mt. Katahdin on Day 147:

We had several sources of campground information, like Good Sam, KOA, and other campground guides; state tourism information about camping spots; information from Diana and Regis and Shivers, who ran and crewed the AT in a similar manner in 2003; and internet sources.

Jim also found some good places that weren't in our books just by seeing them along the road when he was going to and from trail heads.

The main reason we had problems finding campgrounds was that I was unable to stick to a tight schedule. There were too many variables, from terrain to weather to how I was feeling. It was nearly impossible for me to say, "OK, we'll be there on such-and-such a day, so go ahead and make a reservation at a campground."

That drove Jim a little crazy and was particularly a problem on the three holiday weekends. On Memorial weekend and Labor Day weekend we made reservations early enough but Jim had to drive unbelievably long distances to and from trail heads. On Fourth of July weekend we had problems making a reservation where we wanted, and again he had to drive many miles from the campground we got.  

10. How many miles Jim would have to drive.

We put about 15,000 miles on our truck during our AT Run. One reason, of course, was going home three times and going up to Vermont for the race while we were on the Trail in Pennsylvania. Still, Jim had some long miles some days to get me to and from trail heads, as noted above.

Sometimes it would have saved mileage if he had crewed me along the Trail instead of returning to the camper each morning. But Jim would have wasted a lot of his personal time that way. Besides, he had to move the camper every couple days on average, do laundry, get groceries, run, etc. I really didn't need him during the day, either, because I carried enough water and supplies for the whole day.

THINGS WE DID RIGHT

Considering we had no detailed "blueprint" to follow, only our ideas of how we wanted to manage this trek, I think we made mostly wise choices as we planned and executed it.

1. Timing when to start.

I always wanted to go south to north, which meant starting any time in the spring. April 30 turned out (this year, at least) to be an almost-ideal time to start in Georgia. We missed most of the spring rain that discourages many hikers in Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. I missed all the snow in the Smokies. And I had great views from the ridges in the first three states because the leaves weren't out yet.

The disadvantage of starting that late was hitting the summer heat in northern Virginia when I came out of the mountains (cooler at higher elevations). It remained hot until I got back up higher in New England. I was also able to finish in Maine well before the snow started to fly. Some hikers had to do a flip-flop to beat the winter weather, then finish up farther south in October.

2. Selecting gear that worked well for me.

I made very few gear modifications along the way. I can't think of anything I'd do differently gear-wise. See Prep #10 for my gear plan and Post #1 for my gear review.

Gear is very personal, of course. These products might work for other runners, but obviously some of them wouldn't do for backpackers.

3. My choice of a nutrition plan.

Again, the products I intended to use and how I planned to use them (Prep #9) worked great with little modification (Day 66 and Post #2). I had the steady energy I wanted, got enough calories, and saved time with a liquid diet during the day. Because of staying in the camper I was able to eat a more normal diet for breakfast and dinner than if I'd been eating out of foil packets or in restaurants or convenience stores.

I'm very pleased with my nutrition plan and will continue using it in ultras and any future adventure/journey runs - even if Hammer Nutrition stops giving us a nice discount!.

4. Determining daily mileages.

Admittedly, I made this up as I went along but most days had about the right mileage. There were so many variables to consider, including the terrain, road access at trail heads, weather, and how I felt. It was impossible for me to follow a strict schedule, although some people who are more disciplined, faster, and less prone to injuries than I am have been able to do it.

Once I determined it was improbable I'd be able to beat the women's "speed record" on the Trail, I deliberately slowed down and took off more time for R & R.

My dream scenario would be to take about six months to run the AT. That would allow more time to sit along a beautiful stream or on a mountain summit, socialize with other hikers, and do off-trail activities in interesting areas.

If we'd planned the trip that way from the beginning, I think both of us would have been less stressed. That will be my MO on any possible future long-trail forays.

5. Carrying cell phones.

We were able to use our cell phones a lot more than we expected. They came in very handy several times, especially when I was able to let Jim know I had to come down to a different valley the day I ran into bad weather in the Presidential Range (Day 121) and on flood day (141) to let him know I couldn't get across Big Wilson River and had to finish on another road (although we didn't have a connection after that, when Jim was looking for me on a different trail).

Many days it was just plain convenient to let Jim know about when I'd be finishing so he could plan his afternoon better. It was also fun to announce that I'd crossed into a new state or just saw a bear!

Two years ago we got our first cell phones and Verizon service when we sold our house in Montana and had no idea where we'd end up living. At the time Verizon seemed to have the largest nationwide network of service. We have our complaints about Verizon, but I think it was the best provider for the entire AT. There were several times hikers told me they had no service, but I did.

I was able to get good connections more often than Jim. I was up higher on mountains! He was usually down in valleys where the signals were blocked by said mountains. I'll never forget the clear connection I had with my sister in Philadelphia in the Smokies, but I couldn't reach Jim down in Cherokee only ten or fifteen air miles away.

Some hikers think it's sacrilege to carry a phone while hiking the AT. They are trying to be self-sufficient and eschew technology while in the wilderness. Phones can also destroy the solitude if you come up on someone using them (even though I was carrying one, it annoyed me to hear hikers talking loudly into their phones several times).

To each his own. I respect a person's right to forego technology on the Trail but encourage respect if others choose to use it. I did my best to use my phone only when I was out of earshot of another hiker.

I encourage hikers/runners to carry a cell phone on the Trail for emergencies. It saved my butt on the two occasions above, and could possibly have saved my life in an even worse emergency.

This is true whether you're a man or woman. For example, "Kokomo" could have saved a lot of miles and worry on Day 141 after almost drowning in the Big Wilson if he had a working phone. His was damaged in the river. We tried mine, but had no signal at that particular spot. Another mile along and he could have called his crew - and saved two days' grief trying to find each other.

6. Keeping a detailed web journal.

Writing this journal every day was well worth the sleep I lost! I spent from two to three hours each evening (or on rest days) downloading photos, choosing the ones I wanted to use, editing them, writing the journal entries, and quickly proof-reading them. Jim often helped with the proofing before we uploaded the entries to the internet.

I didn't have the luxury of researching facts much or letting the text gel a day or two. I had a daily deadline and little chance to made corrections until after I got home (the only things I've changed are typos, formatting glitches, some mistaken identities, and some information about the hiker who was killed by the train in Duncannon, PA).

Writing the journal gave me a lot of pleasure. Based on the feedback we received, I achieved my goals of helping to inspire, inform, and entertain readers. We never dreamed so many people would find the site, and we are grateful for everyone who passed on the information by word of mouth, through print publications, and via web links.

Jim was probably the most surprised about the world-wide readership. When we laid out the format in January, and as I wrote my prep pages, he would sometimes guess at the number of people who would be interested. We figured just a few dozen ultrarunners, friends, and relatives would occasionally tune in. We were very wrong. Jim finally put a counter on the topics page in August and we were blown away by the numbers and locations of readers.

We loved your letters of encouragement and support. You were also an inspiration to us. Jim would tease me about my "fan mail." I would constantly point out that nearly every letter was also addressed to HIM! You guys knew I couldn't have done the run without him crewing. I wrote back to everyone who wrote within a few days.

After we returned home we discovered that we haven't been getting all of our mail from AOL and some of it has been up to ten days late. I don't know if that was a problem during our trek or not. If you wrote to us and we didn't respond, it means we didn't get your e-mail.

7. My choice of a crew person.

Jim was a fantastic crew person and I'll expand on that in another entry soon. I never considered doing the adventure run alone. I could not have done it "my way" without a crew, and he was gracious enough to tackle that role.

He's known about my desire to do the AT since we met. When the time came to "just do it," he was right there with me, literally and figuratively. He sacrificed several months of running and volunteering and other activities to help me realize my dream and I will be forever grateful for that.

WHAT I'D DO DIFFERENTLY

Other than what I've mentioned in the first section above, there is only one main logistical thing I would do differently if I'd had the gift of hindsight during this adventure run: I would have done a flip-flop like several of the thru-hikers did.

My unwavering desire to finish on Katahdin blinded me to the advantages of that plan until it was too late to flip.

This is the scenario that would have worked better for me: start when I did at Springer Mountain and run to Harper's Ferry, arriving at the ATC headquarters at the end of June, a bit before the halfway mark. Then drive up to Maine, climb Katahdin, and head south to Harper's Ferry. The ending wouldn't have been so dramatic, but it would have been satisfying to end at the ATC office, pictured below:

The advantages?

1. I would have had cooler summer weather in New England than I had in the mid-Atlantic states. By the time I got to the lower elevations in the mid-Atlantic states in September it should have been more comfortable there.

2. I would have had significantly longer daylight hours in New Hampshire and Maine, where the rugged terrain dictated shorter mileages. Two of the three days I ended in darkness were up there. I could have done more miles some days if I'd had more daylight in New England.

3. It would have been easier physically. I dreaded coming down out of the Shenandoah Mountains because I knew the next several states were at lower elevations and I'd lose my conditioning for steep terrain. I was right. It would have made more sense to tackle the Whites, Mahoosucs, Berkshires, etc. soon after the Shennies instead of almost two months later.

Yes, the finish wouldn't have been so dramatic and we wouldn't have gotten our photo on the cover of Ultra Running Magazine, but our trek would have been less "eventful," I could have probably finished earlier, and I undoubtedly would have been stronger at the end.

Next up: the "crew view" from Jim's and my perspectives - the difficulties, the rewards, the challenges. We hope the information will be of use to others like Eric who want to do the AT or other long trails assisted by a crew person.

Hoping we get the six to ten inches of snow predicted for Virginia tomorrow,

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

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2005 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil