“Woah man! I wish I had your energy” the thru-hiker said excitedly as he sat perched against a fence post on the opposite side of the dirt road leading up to the Max Patch parking lot. I was running out of the woods at a good clip on a slight downhill and I think we both caught each other off guard. Neither of us expecting the other to be there.
“Oh, hey. Let’s hope it lasts, haha...Does the trail go this way?” I said as I pointed into the trees on the other side of the road. Little did I know that it wouldn't, well, not exactly.
“Yes, right over here” he confirms.
“Thanks…oh...by the way, do know where the next water source is?” I ask hesitantly, revealing my biggest fear on this run. My water bladder was empty and I needed to refill it. I was hoping there would be a water source here or on the other side of Max Patch. I was 19 miles into 40, knowing that I would need to refill my water, and soon so the water purification tablets would have enough time to kill the nasties before I needed to drink it.
“Yes, I think there’s a stream right down the trail before the summit.”
“Thanks!” I yell as I take off down the trail in search of water.
For spring break this year, we rented a cabin on the top of a mountain in North Carolina north of Asheville and east of Hot Springs and the family drove down for a week of relaxation and adventuring. I have to admit, I was selfishly excited to be able to spend some time in the mountains and hopefully get some running in. As a midwest trail and ultra runner I don’t get to run on sustained long climbs very often. In West Michigan the longest climbs are probably 150 feet over a quarter mile. So, long sustained climbs is the biggest unknown I have before some upcoming races this year like UTSM 100K (Portugal), UTMA 100K (Canada), Marquette 50M (Michigan UP), and StumpJump 50K (Tennessee). This will be a good test to see what it’s like and how to pace these long sustained climbs.
The cabin was at the top of Caldwell Mountain Rd, so the first day I took the dog for a run down down the mountain and back up and then I did it a second time on my own. A total of 7 miles for 1,800+ feet of elevation gain. The downhill running was good and the uphills were a lot of power hiking. I think I was a little too aggressive on the pavement downhills and my left inside quad right above my knee was a little sore, but otherwise things seemed good.
Then next day, we took a family hike up to the top of Max Patch. The actual hike is pretty short, maybe 1/2 mile and 350 feet of elevation gain to the top, which is a bald so it has amazing views in every direction. Most of the drive was gravel roads, and on the drive home I did the math and figured it would be a good 17.5 mile loop from the cabin with about 2,700+ ft of elevation gain.
The Max Patch loop turned out to be a nice little run. The sustained elevation wasn’t too bad and the downs were solid. Everything was good until I ran past a driveway at mile 16 and two dogs (a Rottweiler and a black Lab) came barreling down the drive barking and growling. They were literally nipping and growling at my heels for what seemed like at least a 1/4 mile as I sped up to a 5:30 mile to try to get away from them. Finally they stopped their pursuit, but I didn’t slow down until I reached the final half mile climb back to the cabin.
After this trial run up Max Patch I was confident (maybe overconfident) about my upcoming 40 mile run on the Appalachian Trail (AT) from Davenport Gap to Hot Springs. I got the idea of the run from Jobie Williams who made the run a few weeks earlier.
I wasn’t worried about the distance, but I was a little nervous about the climbing, 10,000+ ft of gain over 40 miles. The other thing I was worried about was making the mileage self supported and being able to supply my own hydration and nutrition. My plan was to carry enough calories for the run and refill (and treat/purify) my water as I ran.
My wife and kids woke up early to drive me to the Big Creek ranger station where I would start my 40 mile solo run. The kids were still in there pj’s and the drive took about an hour from our cabin. It takes a long time to drive anywhere in the mountains with all the twisty-turny roads. Many thanks to them for cooperating with my running obsession.
I took the Chestnut Branch trail about 2 miles up to the AT connection about another 2 miles south of Davenport Gap. From there I would follow the AT north to Hot Springs for about 40 miles. The plan was for the family to go on a 3 hour horseback ride and gem mining expedition while I was running and meet me in Hot Springs at the end of the day.
In terms of nutrition and hydration, I had a bunch of GU’s (planning to take one ever 45 minutes, figuring I could finish between 8-12 hours), and I was carrying a Salomon vest with at 1.5L bladder and two 50 mL soft flasks up front. I figured I would need to refill my water from natural streams and water sources and treat the water before I could drink it. I also had some GU waffles as well as a couple PB&J sandwiches and some trail mix.
The initial climb from Big Creek to the AT was just a small taste of what was to come. It was immensely gorgeous with the trail running along side the river with thick rhododendron on both sides. About halfway up, the trail turns away from the river and continues to climb to it’s connection with the AT. Once you reach the AT, the trail levels off and starts to make it’s decent down to Davenport Gap.
On my way down to Davenport Gap I passed my first of many thru-hikers. Most were super friendly and I learned to try not to startle them as I approached more rapidly than they were used to.
The views of the mountains were amazing, and I passed a few waterfalls on my way down into Davenport Gap.
I passed a few more hikers as a I started the 5 mile climb up to Snowbird Mountain. These AT hills in TN/NC are no joke. 5 miles of sustained climbing with lots of roots and rocks. Needless to say most of this was power hiking, trying to keep a quick pace without completely relaxing into a casual walk. I’ve found you can lose or gain a lot of time with your walking speed. There were a couple times I stopped throughout the day for various reasons and had some hikers pass me, and I was always surprised how much ground they covered walking while I was stationary and catching back up to them.
I was really happy to reach to top of Snowbird Mountain and took a couple minutes to take in the views and eat part of one of the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I packed for myself.
After to long climb up to Snowbird Mountain the downhills were a nice change of pace before heading back up to my halfway point at Max Patch.
I’ve always enjoyed the gaps or low points between two inclines. They are typically green, moist and shady despite some of the end of winter barrenness to the rest of the vegetation higher up.
After another up and down I passed what looked like it could be a Native American Trail Tree on the climb up to Max Patch. Although, I can’t be certain.
On the run down to the road crossing leading up to Max Patch I passed another thru-hiker with a bunch of wild onions tucked into the back of his pack. Despite the difficulty and slowness of some of the climbs, it was difficult to not enjoy the day. The weather was gorgeous and the views were amazing, both the immediate trail view and the expansive mountain views.
After the brief interlude with a thru-hiker on the road to Max Patch I recounted earlier, I found the water source and a few other thru-hikers huddled around filling and filtering water. It was nice to chat with people for the first time today outside of the passing comments as we moved past each other on the trail. We were both genuinely amazed by each other. They were shocked I was running 40 miles in a single day (this section of trail usually takes most hikers 3 days +/-1 day), and I was in awe of there non-stop effort being out there day after day in all sorts of weather carrying their packs and continuing to move relentlessly forward. At this point on the trail, the thru-hikers have about 250 miles under the shoes with thousands of miles ahead of them before Maine.
For some reason I had some trouble getting the slider bar off the top of my water bladder. After much effort by both me and one of my water hole thru-hiking companions, I borrowed his multi-tool and with the help of the pliers was able to get it off. I’ve never had this happen before or after, but it was a little disconcerting in the moment.
Refilling my water was a necessary part of the adventure. There was no way I could carry enough water for the full 40 miles without refilling. However, refilling in the back country comes with risks that were new to me including water borne viruses, bacteria and parasites like Giardia and Cryptosporidium. You can basically do two things, filter the water or treat the water. I chose to treat the water with a chlorine based (as opposed to and iodine based) method so I didn’t have to carry the extra equipment needed to filter the water. However, these chemical purifiers need time to work. At least 30 minutes to kill common viruses and bacteria and the Giardia, however the product said it needs 4 hours to kill the Crypto. I still had 2 50mL soft flasks I hadn’t touched yet, that I figured I would use while the chemical purification did it’s job. However, this would be less than the required 4 hours. I had to take the risk. If I caught Crypto, it wouldn’t affect me today, but maybe a week later. Even as I write this several days after the run, I’m still nervous and watchful for diarrhea as the first warning sign of a parasitic infection. Keeping my fingers crossed for another week or so until I’m in the clear.
After filling up with water, I said goodbye to my water hole companions and made the climb up to Max Patch for the 3rd time this week, however this time I was coming from the backside on the trail and not from the parking lot like the other two times. Once on the top again, I took a few moments to eat the rest of my sandwich and take in the views before heading down the other side of the peak.
Again, it was nice to be on the descent for a while instead of the relentless climbing. I made my way down and passed a few more hikers on the way. But here is where I made my first big mistake of the day.
The AT crosses another road north of Max Patch after a couple miles. I remembered looking at a map and it looked like the trail might follow a road for a little bit. This part of the trail was on a descent, so I was moving along at a comfortable pace. I came out of the trail onto the road, looked around. I didn’t see another trail head, so I took off running right (northeast, which was my general direction) down the road. After several minutes I didn’t see another trail head or any white blazes on the trees. I started to get a little concerned, but kept going. The road basically ended and there was a trailhead, but not the standard AT trail markings. I continued on, but grew more and more concerned that I had made a mistake back where the AT came out onto the road. After another couple minutes of running and not seeing any white blazes, I stopped and pulled out my phone. Not knowing what type of signal I might have out here, I opened the map on my phone and hope for a gps signal and a map tile (I had decided out of laziness to not download any routes or offline maps to my phone, which I was really regretting now). Luckily, the map and gps popped up before too long and there was my little blue dot in the middle of a bunch of green with no trail on the map in sight. I zoomed out and saw I was significantly off the AT. I put my phone away, turned around and started heading back uphill to the road crossing where I had emerged. I made the 1/2 mile climb back up the road to where I emerged and there I saw, right across the road the AT trailhead. Oops. However, it could have been worse, and will be…
I short bit down the trail, I crossed another stream. My first soft flask was nearly empty, so I decided to finish it off and refill it here, not knowing where the next water source might be. After filling my water, I made one of the best decisions of the day, which was to rinse off my face and head with the cold mountain stream water. It was so refreshing and cleansing that I gave me both a physical and psychological boost for the next couple miles. I was feeling clean, refreshed and renewed. This was good, because I had a couple more climbs over the next 5 miles before the final 10 miles from Bluff Mountain down to Hot Springs.
Somewhere around this point, I started losing track of my timing, which resulted in me not taking my GU’s on schedule or eating any additional food. I was also a bit nervous about the purified water and I think stopped drinking as much as I should for how much I was sweating on the climbs.
Reaching the top of Bluff Mountain was a great relief. I knew I had about 10 miles to go and there was more descending than climbing. It was getting to be mid afternoon and lots of the thru-hikers were starting to make camp for the day. I stopped at the top Bluff Mountain to clean out my socks and shoes from some debris that had gathered and was starting to bother me. However, other than this, my feet were holding up fine. I had a new pair of Altra Superior 3.0 that I was running in for the first time although I had hike a couple miles with the kids in them. This was there first real test. I had loved my previous pair of Superiors and have had great success running long mile in Altras straight out of the box without a concern for foot problems.
Heading down from Bluff is where my problems really started. I tried to eat some more of my second pb&j sandwich, but I was having a hard time chewing and swallowing the sticky, doughy combination. I felt tired and run down, however my legs still felt alright. I didn’t realize it at the moment, but I’m pretty sure I was dehydrated and needed to take in more calories than I was. I started walking more and not just on the uphills. It was killing me, but my body just felt tired. I continued this way for the next several miles. Running most of the downhills, but stopping to walk more than I liked. I passed a couple thru-hiking and they caught up with me as I filled my water bladder for a second time (more for insurance than thinking I would actually need it). I asked if they knew how far it was to Hot Springs thinking I should be somewhere in the single digits left at this point. About 8-9 miles was the reply. The home stretch, or so I thought.
I passed them again and made my way down to Garenflo Gap. According to the sign I had 6.6 miles to go, and there should be a little bit of climbing, but nothing like earlier in the day. At this point, the distance is the same as my morning run. I used this to keep things in perspective and keep going.
A quick text from my wife came through saying there were on their way to Hot Springs and would get some dinner and keep an eye out for me.
My text correcting her time estimate didn’t go through, so I kept moving forward. I could tell the sun was getting lower in the sky, but still feeling confident that I would be into Hot Springs in the next 90 minutes.
After the climb, the downhills continued. My legs felt good, but I started feeling nauseous and couldn’t remember the last time I had something to eat. I still had lots of GU’s left. I knew I packed extra, but I definitely missed some of my feedings. I tried eating the rest of the sandwich and some trail mix, but neither seemed good and couldn’t get down more than a bit or more.
I missed having more fresh/real food in the middle of a run. Having to pack and carry everything myself, definitely changed the dynamic of what I was eating, or not eating.
My nausea continued and I could feel myself slowing down. Finally, I sat down on some moss on the side of the trail to catch my breath. I may have had some water, I really don’t remember. After a few moments, I got up and continued down the trail trying to at least keep moving forward even if I was walking the downhills at this point. After another 100 meters, I stopped again on some moss. I put my head between my knees and felt like I was going to puke. Nothing, but waves of nausea and a couple of dry heaves. I just wanted to lie down and take a nap, but I knew that was a bad idea. I couldn’t be more the a couple miles from Hot Springs at this point.
Then it happened. I little liquid came up. I quickly shuffled to the other side of the trail so I didn’t puke in the middle of the trail. I laid down on my side and continued to vomit on the side of the trail. After several times, that post-vomit wave rolled across my body and felt a renewed sense of energy. I got up and continued down the trail with what seemed a little more energy in my step. Then nausea was gone, but was still pretty run down.
I came around another corner on the trail, and before you make it into Hot Springs, you can start to see the town from the trail. This gave me a huge boost and my pace picked up on the final descent as I knew my day was almost finished. I made the final mile descent into town and emerged out onto the main road just west of town. Before I even made it into town, I saw my kids walking towards me on the sidewalk. I was relieved and excited to see them.
There was no finish line, and no medals, and no after party. Just a quiet reunion with my family, which quickly turned into stories about their day horseback riding.
My wife got me some water and gatorade from the Dollar General in town. I was relieved to just sit down in the car. I couldn't think about eating. I quickly downed the water and 2 bottles of gatorade which helped revive me. Definitely conformation of my dehydration.
What an awesome day in the wood! A huge thanks to my family for supporting my running adventures with their time, energy and emotional support.
In the end, my legs felt great and I learned a lot about pacing up and down the hills. However, I still need to figure out how to get more hydration and nutrition in on these longer runs, so I’m not getting dehydrated or run into such a calorie debt. There is always something to learn.
I also learned that I really like this type of self supported adventure running. It’s different from racing and very appealing. I can definitely see more of these types of runs in my future.