So it's been a tough couple of weeks since the run and since I'm too busy looking ahead rather than reflecting, this report has taken a back seat. Hoping to be finished sometime this month but who knows? Quitting a job and moving is hard work.
The Foothills Trail. 77 miles. 16,000 feet of climbing.
The summer after my freshman year of college I tried to hike it in a week. I went home after 20 miles of being sick from the massive heat wave I tried to hike through. I used to drive my truck around all of the fire roads on the east side of Jocassee and dream about actually finishing the trail. Those dreams turned more ambitious when I realized people had actually run the trail. Now I wanted to do it in a day.
It was late summer 2011. I'd been running college track and cross country for the last 3 years and I was hating the fact that I was running without the team. I joined an email list of people who were interested in running the trail. Through that list, I met Jon and actually started putting in miles on the FHT. Then I realized I was being way too ambitious to think I could actually run that trail... But I kept running and found I really enjoyed trail ultra running and kept on doing it.
I found out back in January that I was moving up to NH for grad school later this year so I knew that this was in fact my last realistic chance to conquer this trail. That gave this more meaning and meant there were no second chances if I decided to drop.
The week leading up to this run was probably one of my most stressful weeks ever. First, this run takes a TON of logistics. There's crew, pacers, parking, shuttling, food, camping, and on and on... Everything down to how to line up the numbers on the park gate lock had to be checked the day before. Second, I had a crappy schedule and was loaded down at work. Third, I had to plan a trip to New Hampshire the next week. I was stressed pretty bad by the time Friday night rolled around.
Got to bed around 10 with 3 alarms set for 2 AM. I knew it would take me 25 minutes to get to Table Rock State Park which should allow me to leave around 3 AM.
I spent the last 2 months running every inch of the foothills trail in sections, and using a handy Excel spreadsheet I got from Jon, I had a good idea of how long it would take me to string it all together. A 3AM start should allow me to finish within an hour or so of sunset which was at 8:30 PM. Since there's quite a bit of technical running in the last 28 miles, and I'd be drained from already running 11+ hours I needed every last bit of sunlight I could to finish quickly. This early start would also force me to run the toughest section slowly in the dark and prevent any chance of going out too hard in the first 14 miles.
Jon had gotten to Table Rock with his daughters the night before and they were camping in the van because of the on and off drizzly miserable rain. I parked my car at Jon's campsite and spent about 10 minutes putting on various pieces of tight fitting tech fabric. All of a sudden I was caught in a spot light. I started rehearsing my "I'm sorry ranger, I'm starting a through hike" spiel but it ended up being some campers walking their dog.
So there I was, jogging through Table Rock State Park in pitch black (so that I wouldn't alert any rangers to my presence). I went ahead and powered on the Spot tracking device I had borrowed from Carl Laniak and let my watch try to find sattelites. When I got to the trailhead I had to wait an agonizing 3 or 4 minutes before I could get sattelites on my watch but I looked at the chrono watch I was wearing (yeah I had 2 watches on, get over it) and it was about to click over to 3:20 AM. So as soon as it clicked I started running.
I ran for about 400ft. The trail is a nice paved gradual climb for the first couple hundred feet but once it switched to dirt and started getting steep, I started power hiking. I reflected on how anti-dramatic the start was. Then I started reflecting on how anti-dramatic getting eaten by a bear would be. I remember the first half mile went by in 6:12. The first mile was 13:20. The rain had stopped but the sky was still very overcast with no moon. Scary dark. Scary quiet. I kept hearing owls and trees squeaking in the wind. I stopped for a second at the rock outcrop just before Pinnacle Mountain and admired the view. Thousands of streetlights as far as you could see. That was definitely a cool experience. From there until daylight it was more of the same: run the flats and downhills, hike the climbs.
9.5 miles into the run is the first access point. Sassafrass Mountain, the highest point in South Carolina (3600ft). I saw a headlamp across the parking lot from the trailhead which turned out to be Jon who appeared to be running away from his daughter. I guess she just wasn't as enthusiastic about seeing me so he had to go pick her up and carry her back to the van. I dropped off a couple of spent Shot Block wrappers and grabbed another pack for the long, fun descent down Sassafrass and I was away. I doubt I spent 2 minutes there.
Jon left to pick up Barry Burns who was going to pace me through the next section, and I jogged/blasted down the descent in the dark with 3 headlamps all set to their brightest settings. I continued my eating schedule even through here: 2 shot blocks every 20 minutes and an S cap every other hour. The descent flew by in 58 minutes, which included a bathroom stop.
Picture of Barry and I starting the infamous Laurel Valley section.
At the bottom of the hill I switched to my bigger Nathan pack (70 oz) and grabbed a ton of shot blocks, a few clif bars, and a banana. The banana was a terrible idea and I spend the first 3 miles of Laurel Valley sick to my stomach from it. I hate the first 3 miles of Laurel Valley. After that initial climb though are my favorite miles in all of running. You drop down into the true Laurel Fork Valley and follow a small creek that slowly turns in to a large creek/small river. This is the greenest lushest most runnable section of trail ever. The only place I've ever seen come close was Muir woods in the Marin Headlands (but that place is much less cool cause it's trying WAYYY to hard to be nice. Seriously, who needs trees 4 feet thick?). Anyways, we mostly just soaked up the sights and sounds of the gorgeous overcast day and enjoyed the section which caps off with a 50ft waterfall which feeds Lake Jocassee just a few hundred feet downstream.
The next few miles are up and down with a few good views of the lake from the ridges and some fun blasts down some old fire roads. We hit the Toxaway suspension bridge about 10 minutes behind schedule, but because I had forgotten my cue card at the last aid station, I had no idea what my splits were supposed to be from here. After some fun running by the lake we ascended the hellacious hill that seems to never end. I remember venting about the government and wasteful spending and stuff like that with Barry through here. After what seemed like forever we made it up to the power line cut and tried to send out a few text messages. For whatever reason this is the last point that I have any real memories of this section. I remember getting super bored but feeling good and making good time pretty much the whole way.
With 2 miles to go to Whitewater Falls (mile 46) we ran into Lester Farmer who was awesome enough to come crew me for a few sections in the rain. Seeing Lester was a boost and got me moving pretty quickly up to the parking lot. The climb out, which is supposed to be a monster, again failed to live up to reputation. We hit the parking lot in 11:39 (8:03 for Laurel Valley). I hadn't seen anyone but Barry and Lester for 32 miles and it was great to see the Allen family, my parents, and Kory (my pacer for the last section) all there waiting on me.
It was now steadily raining and the temperature was starting to drop. I started to put on an ultra lightweight jacket and Jon told me to take his wool jacket instead since I was shivering pretty hard. I downed a McDonald's hamburger pretty quickly and started towards the trail on the other side of the road. Lester was right behind me as we head up and up and up the trail for the next 2 miles. I was mostly shuffling up the hill at a brisk walk. Every time we'd get a break from the up's I didn't have any trouble breaking back into a run. The rain kept coming down and clouds kept rolling in but before I knew it we were back down to the Sloan Bridge trail head. I covered that 5miles in 1hr 12min.
Lester and I coming in to Sloan Bridge:
I blazed through the access point grabbing a few gels from my parents and Kory while Jon drove Barry back to his car. Lester kept me moving quickly but I could tell I was starting to hit the hard part. We didn't talk much on the trail from Sloan Bridge to the Fish Hatchery. This section is notoriously root and technical (one section requires you to suck in your gut and bend in some strange ways in order to make it through a rock outcrop) and the rain was making it incredibly difficult to even walk through here. Add that technicality with my fear of breaking my ankle again... It was a slow miserable 3 miles that went by in 59 minutes.
Me and Jon at the Fish Hatchery. (fun fact: This was the first trail I ever ran with Jon)
I think at this point I made a joke about quitting which my mom took all too seriously. Lester continued on with me down the hill from the Fish Hatchery to Burrells Ford. This section went by a little quicker since the trails were more runnable and enjoyable. That 3.5mi took 1hr 6min.
I knew at that point that 18 hours was out of the question but I could still go for sub 20. To be honest I could've cared less what the finishing time was. I was on a mission to get this over with and I was also incredibly hypothermic. I changed shoes
and ate another hamburger and some fries
and then picked up Kory as a pacer and got moving again.
Almost immediately after we started the LONG stretch from Burrells Ford to Chiquapin Rd I hit a low point. It was harder to keep eating just because I'd have to stop (get colder) take off gloves (get colder) and take my pack off (get colder). The temps were in the mid 40s and I'd been in the rain for about 6 hours at this point. I was FROZEN. I had on Jon's wool jacket still and donned a water resistant layer on top of that. I remember most of the conversations Kory and I had through there. I had told him to keep me talking so we discussed everything from ex girlfriends to sports. As the sun set I started to panic and get restless. It felt like this would never end. This section has done this to me before, but knowing what I'd go through didn't help me get through the endless hopelessness that is Chatooga in the dark.
Luckily, I cant remember much about that death march other than ankle deep water over tons of roots and rocks. There was an opossum at some point who I cussed at. Eventually we worked our way away from the river and up towards the road until I could see Jon.
You can really get a feel for how massively fast I was moving in that picture. Unfortunately, my Garmin was dying so I tossed it in the car without recording a time here. Timing was my last concern. My first was not freezing to death. I got under a blanket in my parents jeep with the heat on for somewhere between 10 minutes and an hour. I think it was closer to the former. Jon was out of warm dry running clothes now and I was woefully unprepared for the cold. He literally took the blue jacket he was wearing in the picture above off and gave it to me with an Underarmour shirt. I downed another burger and hit the trail with Kory.
Not long after we started running(ish) the rain stopped and I started getting hot so I had to strip layers off while barely conscious enough to move. But as soon as I removed them, it started pouring and I started freezing. So I took the time to put them back on. This time the storm was relentless. The wind was gusting hard and it managed to dislodge a branch from a tree which hit me pretty hard. I shouted some profanities and kept slogging. I remember 5k to go. Then an eternity passed and Kory said 3 miles to go. Just kept slogging. Then we crossed the old road bed that goes down to hidden falls trail inside Oconnee State Park. Almost there. It was raining so hard it was tough to stay on the trail. I knew I was almost out when all of a sudden the marked trail had trees and branches strewn all across it. I chocked it up to the storm until I looked at Kory to my left who was on the newly cut but unmarked last 100yds of trail. I cussed some more and worked my way over to him and we jogged to the sign where my dad was waiting.
I hugged my dad and asked Kory what time it was. 11:40 PM. 20 hours and 20 minutes. FHT done and off my list.
Conclusions: The first 50 miles of this trail are my favorite trails I've ever set foot on. Joccassee has a special spot in my heart and I feel blessed to have gotten to experience that and make it out alive. The last 27 ish miles aren't bad trails, just nowhere near as memorable. Add that with the conditions I endured, and I don't have any interest in seeing them again. Ever.
Honestly I feel like I lost 2+ hours because of rain and I hate the fact that I left that time out there. My legs felt great the entire way. I was nowhere near as tired and beat up as I was just 6 months before at San Francisco. My fueling strategy was spot on and I had everything going until we came out of Laurel Valley.
BUT I did have an unforgettable experience. I endured close to the worst imaginable conditions and still came up with a finish. I had the BEST pacers and I will never be able to thank them enough. Barry ran a strong 35 miles and kept me from going insane with boredom. Lester kept my spirits up for 15 or so miles and kept me moving well enough that the weather didn't get to me. Kory endured the WORST possible first pacing scenario. He had to deal with a runner who had hit a low. Weather that was disgusting. Barely moving through the night on some tough trails. And somehow he managed to not come out the other side hating me. Last but not least Jon dealt with it all while herding todlers around. I owe every bit of that finish to all of those guys plus the dozens of others I've put miles on the FHT with.
I was asked yesterday if I'd do it again. That was an incredibly easy NO. I've got a long to do list and other boxes to check.