It was back in August when I reached out to my favorite local running buddies to take on the Quad state challenge - a 42 ish mile stretch of the Appalachian trail from PA-MD-WV-VA. I've done it before and intend to make it annual. Amidst that planning, my friend Dave mentioned S.C.A.R. and having no idea what he was talking about I quickly Google searched and learned that the Smokies Challenge Adventure Run (SCAR) was a tougher 72 mi Stretch of the AT in the TN/NC chunk of the trail. I thought it sounded fun but with the logistics of 2020 I did not think much more about it. I did however mention it to my friend Celia, whom I also coach and was preparing for Pinhoti 100 as her first 100mi run. What I did not expect was what came next.
Celia let me know immediately that something like SCAR was much higher on her to do list than Pinhoti- especially being 2020 with COVID-19. It didn't take me long to get on board and offer to come down for this adventure. We chatted a bunch and thought we'd just drive up and do it, but I questioned logistics, "If we run unsupported for 72 mi, how the heck do we get back to our car?" Celia without hesitation said " We could run back..."The dream was born.
As I began to research, this route was not easy, not even a little. Runners I respect for their grit and strong races had done it according to the website "Fastest Known Time" so I reached out to them. They explained why this route was so challenging and although no one said a double SCAR was impossible....every single person said "I can't even imagine"...and each of these ppl were hard,, strong tough ultra runners. I was beginning to think I was crazy. Around this time Celia decided that 144 mi was in fact crazy for her and she'd love to do single SCAR. The more SCAR runners we spoke to the more wild the adventure became. It turned out on the FKT website that only 3 ppl had completed and posted a Double SCAR, all of which were Men. I was lucky enough to have a fruitful conversation with at least one of them. It occurred to me that our little adventure was more than an adventure...I'd be setting a record, no matter how temporary or good or bad I actually performed. This made it even more special and meaningful as a woman. Via the FKT website I also came to a lucid understanding of supported vs unsupported and although Celia and I were thinking of being unsupported we found that just having one another made us both supported and that's when we opted to create a crew and search out pacing.
Long story short, another friend Robin was beyond excited to support us. Celia and I gathered 2
pacers and 2 more individuals to help support us out there. The plan
came together and in no time it was mid October.
October 16, 2020:
0230am....I wake up, I know it's way too early but I toss and turn and try to turn off my brain but I'm already thinking about Liz Canty starting her SCAR FKT attempt at 4am and imagining my next 48+ hours... By 0300 I did something I'd never dream of doing, I woke up my crew and said "I'm so sorry, but I can't sleep anymore- anyone want to go run 144 mi?"
Although very supportive I was asked to wait 30 more min. I agreed and rested a bit more. At 0334 I got up and contemplated how to be gently obnoxious, to wake everyone up. It didn't take long. The energy was high. The morning was fluid as we dressed, ate and made final preparations.
0512AM I began to run across Fontana Dam with Jeremiah. The wind was intense but we know in a few more yards we'd be climbing for hours and we'd be plenty warm. We hit the trail and dropped to a fast hike with some jog thrown in on the flats and descents. I thought that I was going slow but Jeremiah let me know I wasnot. I asked him to pace from the lead and get me on track. We hike d and trotted for hours sharing running tales and injury stories, family, life, everything... I hardly noticed the terrain I felt completely comfortable. We were bumping into Sarah at mi 16 in no time. We refilled bottles, ate a quick snack and we were off on our way to Rocky Top. Again the climbs felt so easy I didn't remember them at all, then at Thunderhead I only recall the steep descents that we went bouncing down. The hours ticked by with ease. The superfuel from Skratch nutrition, Spring Energy gels and Perfect Bars combination I had going on was perfect. The climb to Clingman's Dome didn't even phase me. By now Jeremiah had broken a pole and a calf injury he'd been fending off for the prior week was screaming at him. I didn't think to question when our ascent to Clingman's started to become a descent.
The signs to the parking lot made sense to me, so we kept on going. Jeremiah had expected the crew to be at the a specific intersection where I now know is where we went the wrong way. When they weren't there we were headed to the parking lot. Once there, my crew wasn't. I was out of water but otherwise considered going on without aid. I managed to call Robin and find that she and Stephen and Celia were on the AT... Wait? What?! I was confused- so were they. Fifteen min had already passed before Robin and Celia were running down to me in the lot. None of us were sure how this could be. They were sure they were on the trail but as far as I knew... Jeremiah and I were sure we were.
I was in a bustling whirlwind so I didn't even think to pull up my map. I got what I needed and confirmed with Jeremiah that I just head down the steps we came up and turn left to go down the trail... He confirmed and had told me the next section was mostly descents - a good section to push the pace a little... So I took off down the trail... But I didn't see any markers, I kept looking...and looking and then the doubt set in.
I pulled out my phone and looked at the map... We'd screwed up! Four letters played across my mind. I'd already lost 30 min at a 10 min pit stop and now I was 1 mi down a steep trail that was an off shoot from the AT- Forney Gap Trail.
I tried to hustle back to the AT as swiftly as I could but I couldn't push too hard either....with 31 mi down I still had over 100 to go. I found our wrong turn and could hardly imagine not missing it... Despite the marking the actual trail didn't look like a trail from the angle you come from. When I finally saw Stephen and Robin I was so frustrated... not with anyone just disappointed. Stephen who had driven hours to be at this check point for me said "What do you need, I've got everything you asked for?"
I felt a twinge of guilt and disappointment that I had just gotten everything in the parking lot and now I was a bit stressed as I mentally tried to shake off the extra 2 mi... I said "I'm so so sorry, all I need is an ear to vent for a minute" I sat on a rock and spewed off my complaints. Stephen gave me all the kindness he always does and Robin too and sent me on my way. I bounced down the long descents, right knee twinging a bit. I stopped and checked the map many times as markings on this stretch were very spread out.
I could feel the temperature start to drop but I was moving so well I was able to keep enough body heat to avoid stopping to add layers. I came out to Newfound Gap at 12 hrs and 45 min. The wind was intense, again. The sun disappeared behind clouds. I changed into tights and added two top layers and gloves and hot hands. I slurped potato soup but turned down coffee. I'd not yet had any caffeine that day and I thought I could get through the first 24 hrs without. I had caffeinated Spring gels in my pack in case I got desperate.
James, who'd pace my next section was itching to run as it was freezing standing still. I tried to hurry and pack all chargers for the night and be ready. Finally after a 15 min stop I was ready. We took off at a good clip, things were going pretty well except I couldn't communicate. Moving through the cold took my attention. I listened to James and wished I could find an ounce of the joy I'd felt in the first 42 mi but the simple added stress of the cold made me quiet. I'm not great in the cold, I don't like how it feels, the fear of being very cold consumes me... I remain in a fighter kind of stance...fighting the cold, lacking any ability to relax into it. My paces dropped as we continue to climb and climb. Without that internal joy it went from playing in the woods to work. I worked hard, never quit but I grew fatigued. I started to get very sleepy. Moving forward on the trail was tougher and tougher. I was set on getting to Davenport Gap and getting warm. I couldn't go too fast though as Celia was supposed to get a full nights rest before starting with me and if I was too fast she'd be starting exhausted. I let this be a guide to keep my pace steady but not push at all. My right knee was angry on the descents and my left achilles was unhappy...I assumed from all the climbing I certainly hadn't trained for.
Finally, after a 7 mile descent...Davenport Gap 23hrs 19 min. I jumped in the car prepped for a long break. I was tired and since I wasn't caffeinated I thought maybe I could rest. Within 5 min I knew I wouldn't sleep and started on my list. I'd spent the last 30 miles making a mental list of what I'd have to do to get out of the car and do SCAR again.
1. my phone had died...in the newfound bustle the wrong white charging cord went into my pack so I needed to charge that.
2. My coros Apex watch which I adore to no end is in fact a pain in the butt to charge while bouncing down trail- so that needed more juice
3. I needed to change to compression socks and change into to my 5mm drop shoes to help my achilles.
4. I wanted to use the theragun to feel good
5. I needed to be warm, hot even before leaving the car and needed to be dressed warmer for the next 10 hrs than I'd been
6. I needed to eat, drink and refill my pack
7. I needed to get out the poles to let my upper body assist in the heat production I needed or I wasn't going to make it through the cold
8. I needed coffee!
9. I was ready to start with some advil
That was it! After 45 min to 1 hr I was hot, cozy, fed, talkative and happy. I thanked James and apologized that I wasn't more fun on the trail.
Celia and I took a pic and headed out on the 7 mi ascent I had just finished coming down. We climbed straight through till sunrise and then kept on climbing. My muscles were warmer but my face was wind whipped and my brain was begging for warm weather... None would come.
We continued, I knew I was working hard still hiking strong and keeping a solid shuffle. I waxed and waned out of complete exhaustion. I took a 3 min rest laid out a this gorgeous moss covered log. Then another a few hours later. These short sits/ rests would revive me for another hour or two. We passed through moments of warmth and cold that had us taking gear on and off what felt like every 10 min. The time had slowed. The mental fatigue of being cold was wearing me down, but other than my feet starting to hurt a lot I felt completely fine. I was getting sick of eating and wanted to get back to Newfound gap...I wanted real food and I wanted my altra olympus to help my feet. I was really feeling hopeless as we hiked on and on.
Only 3 mi out from Newfound, a group of hikers around a spring looked at my exhausted face and said, "You look like you're doing something serious." The simple words of a stranger recognizing the exhausted determination in my face was the gift I needed... Someone to recognize that I wasn't just out for a day hike but I was in fact trying to do something really hard. I felt so blessed. This powered me on as I chased after Celia with all my might, she was in a hurry to get to Newfound and I knew I could hang on. We'd finally made it to Newfound gap again, 106 mi into my adventure. Shoes, charging, layers, food and coffee. We spent too long here too but we needed to be ready. We had 42 mi to go and it was obviously going to be too cold a night for sleeping. If I chose to dirt nap on the trail even for 5 min it could be too much for Celia or I to get moving again from getting that cold. We talked it through and were ready for the night. There would be no sleeping.
We left Newfound smiling for the video camera for our friends and family but as soon I we turned to go I started to cry. I was terrified to go into the next section. It was cold, still...again... It didn't get warm all day and now it'd be colder, windier and I'd be twice as tired and my muscles... There was no more bail out, we had Clingman's for a last pit stop, but there was no where to quit after that. One way, one step at a time I'd get back to Fontana Dam.
The climb to Clingman's Dome was great, we were moving smoothly but when the route markers were more than 1/2 of a mile apart I freaked. I didn't want to be lost, I ran back to the last marker to confirm, as I'd left my phone with Robin to charge fully. We weren't lost and luckily only backtracked a little bit. We arrived to Clingman's in a strong very very cold wind. We drank coffee and filled our water/ superfuel for the last 30 mi. We rushed out of there and onward with frozen fingers and faces from the 5 min stop. We went hard the next 10 miles. We were cruising. We both felt so good. We rambled on and climbed up and down. The climbs kept are avg pace fairly low and after 3 hrs my caffeine had run out and my hunger returned, we still had 20 more miles. So few, yet so far.
I took in a couple of gels hoping the caffeine would be enough but it was minimal and temporary. The movement from Mile 122-135 was insanely slow. The wind, the climbs... Multiple times I had to sit, whine, regroup while being blasted by the wind. This section was an absolute blur between the dark, windy hours and my exhaustion. I freaked out about the map because I quite literally didn't remember climbing or descending so much on the way North bound. Yet we seemed to be working very hard and making very little progress.
We eventually got to the top of Thunderhead and began the endless descent. The rest is so so blurry. It was filled with very slow hiking climbs and desperate trots on the flats and ascents, looking at my watch way too much. With only 16 to go we thought or dreamt about being able to hold a 4mph pace but at best my shuffle was getting me a solid 3.8 mph pace and then inevitably there would be another up or down that would slow me back into the 2mph zone. I felt so hopeless, but knew the only way to stop was to keep on going. There were tears, moans, silent prayers and pure exhaustion. I stood against a number of trees just wishing I could sleep for a moment but it never came. I begged for the morning sun.
The sun finally broke across the trees and Celia and I tried to pick up the pace. The down kept going and going and going.... And going...I was completely astonished as I still didn't recall climbing any of this. My feet ached to stop. The morning brought hikers and I knew I must be close. When I couldn't believe I was still on the trail I asked a couple who was hiking up, "The trail ends soon right?!" - they likely thought I was crazy but I was feeling pretty crazy at that point. Anyways they said yes and within 5 min I was running down the paved drive on my way to the Fontana Dam sign- the Finish Line. I immediately laid down in the grass and stop moving. 147.64 miles completed, 51hrs, 54min, 50 seconds; 37,474 ft of elevation gain and 37,890ft of elevation loss.
Celia came in a few minutes behind me. She did not make the 24 hr SCAR, but mostly because she chose to stay with me and pace me on the much slower second SCAR. We'll have to get back out there to knock that out ;).