Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Great Smokies Traverse (SCAR FKT)

For several years I’ve wanted to run a traverse of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Appalachian Trail, (AT), bisects the park and creates a footpath which follows the North Carolina / Tennessee border along the high ridges of the range.  The 72 mile route runs from the park’s southwest corner to or from the northeast corner depending on direction of travel, and only has one road crossing near the 41 mile point.

The following is a description of the SCAR route from Peter Bakwin’s Fastest Known Time website, (http://fastestknowntime.proboards.com/thread/128/scar-tn-nc)  which tracks speed records across the country.

The Smokies Challenge Adventure Run (SCAR) is an unofficial 70+ mile traverse of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park along the Appalachian Trail, starting at Fontana Dam and going to Davenport Gap. The total elevation gain is 18,660', 12,800' in first 40 miles and 5860' in last 30 miles. On course aid and bail-out is only possible at 40 miles at Newfound Gap Road, and maybe not even there. All food and gear must be carried and water must be pulled from streams. The trail is technical, and there are a lot of steep climbs and descents all on singletrack.

This route rivals even the most mountainous ultramarathons in elevation gain. During the first 50 miles the elevation climbed per mile averages approximately 300’ per mile. Colorado's Hardrock 100 for instance, has 330’/mile. Virginia’s Grindstone 100 has 240’/mile. California’s Western States Endurance Run has 180’/mile. For non-runners, this means that for every mile you run, you must climb the equivalent of a 30 story building.

The course is challenging not only due to the elevation gain, but also because of the lack of road crossing to get support or water. Runners must descend from the actual route/trail and add in off-route mileage to find springs from which to pull water, then they must climb back up to the route/trail which straddles the highest ridge of the Smokies crest and proceed on their way.

I started at Fontana Dam at 6:00am sharp and the sun provided just enough light to run without the aid of headlamp. If my plan went according to schedule, I would finish before 8:50pm and not need a headlamp for the duration of the venture. The current speed record, or, Fastest Known Time (FKT) is held by David Worth at a time of 14 hours and 50 minutes, hence the 8:50pm finish time goal.

The route technically begins (or ends depending on direction of travel) at the south end of the Fontana Dam.


A one mile road run after the dam leads the way to the geographical border of the park, and the up the mountainside to the trail-head, where the real climbing begins.

I paced myself on the first ascent and didn’t worry about speed. My main focus was to set the rhythm of the day and make sure I kept a disciplined intake of nutrition every 20 or 30 minutes. Adequate hydration was also an important variable to success since temps started off warm and the high was forecast to be in the upper 80’s. Water availability was not only scarce, but time consuming to acquire. I reached Mollies Ridge shelter 11 miles in, a little over 2 hours into the run which was a tad bit faster than record pace. I put that out of mind… It was however nice to know I had a small buffer, especially since I knew the tail end of the run contained nearly 14 miles of downhill. My legs and energy didn’t feel 100% but I was enjoying a day in the mountains and what the body lacked, the mind eagerly made up for in the early miles.

The climbing didn’t abate after Mollies Ridge. I assumed the grade would lessen from steep to rolling once on the crest but it never did. The occasional downhills were really nice to stretch out the legs, but they were steep and rocky. Running down the descents at full speed was mildly sketchy. I almost fell a few times and constantly had to balance beating up my legs with the free speed the gravity afforded. While thru-hiking the AT, I remembered a lot of smaller ups and downs of the Smokies, and my memory served me correctly. The climbs weren’t particularly huge. They were just relentless and incessant. 500’ here, 1000’ there… it adds up! I tried to force a slow run on the milder grades and allowed power-hiking occasionally on the steepest grades.

I got water at AT shelters that were close to the trail. They typically had springs that I was already familiar with from previous ventures and I knew they were only .2 miles downhill usually. They all flowed well and got me what I needed! To save time I didn’t bring a filter and instead I used tablets to purify my water. The downside of this meant that I didn’t get to drink for 30 minutes after I refilled my 1.5 liter water bladder while the tablets worked their magic. It was worth it to not have to pump or treat the water in more time consuming methods.

The run over Thunderhead Mountain was as beautiful as it always is…

I should’ve refilled water at Double Spring shelter prior to climbing Clingmans Dome. I ran out of water on the climb. I hadn’t planned on getting water at Clingmans dome as it meant a 0.5 mile steep descent to the trail parking lot, and then a return to the trail via a paved path to the summit. I called my crew and notified them of my trail plan change. In David’s FKT report, he mentioned that he saw his crew at Clingmans as well. I’m not sure if he took the bypass trail or the paved path both ways. Semantics maybe, but I didn't want to skip anything. I told Stephanie, (my crew), I wasn’t excited about this add-on in mileage but I was going to do it because I needed water, and I was ready for a long day in the mountains. She was having car problems however and she couldn’t make it to Clingmans to get me water. When I reached the main parking area, there was no water, only large crowds and hot exposed sun.

The Clingmans Dome debacle added about 20 minutes of wasted time, and I still had no water. After getting back on the trail I eventually found water at a glorious raging trail-side spring. I should have treated it first, but I just filled up and guzzled! I then treated the remainder. It was deliciously crystal clear, cold and refreshing and as far as untreated water goes, this was as safe as it gets. Low risk.

In the descent of Clingmans Dome, my legs and body felt like they had more than 42 miles on them but I was really excited for the remainder of the journey. I was enjoying a bluebird day in the mountains. The climbing was taking a toll, but I was still on pace, and after a big climb out of Newfound Gap, I could then cruise more downhill stretches, and my downhill legs felt rock solid.

That wouldn’t happen though.

Upon reaching Newfound Gap a situation unfolded. I learned Stephanie’s car had blown the turbo. The check engine light was on and she barely made it to Newfound Gap. She’d press the gas, the engine would rev… but nothing. No power to the wheels. Cars climbing the road behind her grew impatient. Stephanie tried her hardest while waiting for me at Newfound Gap to find a vehicle to meet me at the finish, she even offered to get a taxi or an Uber. I informed her this was greatly appreciated but unrealistic, if not impossible. We weren’t in a large metropolitan area. The AT leaves the park and the route finished at a VERY obscure location without cell service in the middle of nowhere on a mountain road. I didn’t know my exact finishing time. I didn’t want to bank on these unknowns, and even if these things were possible, I definitely wasn’t going to leave my crew stranded while I went for a run! We had to find a way to get her car to a shop and get ourselves to a rental car center which wasn’t closed on a Saturday. How the hell were we going to get home?!

We made it to the Knoxville airport after some masterful logistical finagling and got a car. En route to the airport Hilton I tried to balance the mild taste of defeat, with the feeling of success that came with just showing up and making the attempt at all. It was a great run overall and a good learning experience for next time around. I made plans for this run to include backups and safeties, but with no car it was just futile. Her car is pretty new with only 40k miles, so no regrets on my part. It was just unforeseen...but so goes life! It was a rewarding long day in the mountains, in which I attempted a daunting run. It was topped off with a salmon dinner and a cold beer at the Hilton. Not too bad a day really.

Below are a few additional pictures...

Thunderhead Mountain.

15 Hours of fuel!

How nice of my toenails to fall off the day before the run! No worries about nail-bed pain!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Dark Sky 50 Race Report

Have you ever heard how loud a Turkey can be when you startle it?!

Greenery was a blur as I let my legs fly out in front of me down the rocky and steep descent. Mud would splash with each touchdown and my eyes would quickly dart to the next safe place to let my foot land as I flew down the mountainside nearly airborne in the misty mountain morning. I was 20 miles into the inaugural Dark Sky 50 held at Pickett State Park in the Big South Fork, TN. “Gobble! Gobble!” Flap! Flap! Flap! Making my way around a blind corner I startled a turkey and it took flight to avoid collision in a mess of guttural sounds and feathers flying. As my eyes moved to where my foot was about to land I noticed a tiny chick directly in the path of my front foot in mid-air stride. I somehow pulled that foot up defying gravity and did a jump step with the opposing foot and managed to miss the baby chick.

I drove down the night before the race after working a pretty crazy shift at the Urgent Care Center. Rain was patchy on the drive down and occasional rays of the setting sun would highlight the water vapor rising from the rolling lush green hills in southeastern Kentucky. The forecast for race day looked comfortable with a high in the 70’s and plenty of sunny blue skies after inches of rain fell the previous day.

The name “Dark Sky 50” comes from the recognition of the races location as a certified “Dark Sky” area meaning it’s so remote that it’s ideal for stargazing. There are only 37 certified Dark Sky locations in the world. Being so remote, this meant I had to break one of my pre-race rules of not confusing camping and racing… I always try to sleep in a hotel prior to a race, but this location was just too perfect as the campground was within minutes of the start, and there were no hotels nearby. There are cabins onsite for rental but I planned on packing up right after the race to get home to my 8 week old son. The skies were still clearing when I arrived so I wasn’t gifted the view of the stars that evening but… maybe next year.

I started training seriously again 12 weeks ago after taking off for nearly a year to regroup after a solid 10 years of pretty frequent racing. I still ran often during this time but didn’t put much focus on high mileage with the exception of running the Grindstone 100 in October just to get my Hardrock qualifier. The time off provided a lot of much needed clarity and the passion is back. When I started training again what really pushed and motivated me was the prospect of a road marathon PR as it’s a great indicator of aerobic strength. There is a marathon next weekend I was shooting for but 13 weeks just wasn’t enough time to get into sub 2:40 shape. So, a month ago I decided to race Dark Sky 50 in lieu of the road marathon as it was more in my wheelhouse and it would give me more time to get into marathon shape. While training for Dark Sky, I didn’t do any trail runs over 15 miles. All of my 20 mile runs were faster road runs. I didn’t do anything over 3 hours. Training resembled marathon training. I ran a long run each week of 20-22 miles and did mile repeats each week and tempo/threshold runs on the road of 7-16 miles. This was an interesting way to train for a surprisingly technical and long trail 50 miler, (er...52 mi.) but I knew I needed aerobic power more than anything. I had plenty of trail experience in the bank and needed to grow the aerobic engine back to where it was.

I’m going to get on my soapbox for a moment… When I take on a new client as a running coach they often say one thing they want to do is build their aerobic engine, burning more fat as fuel (to increase their lactate threshold.) Many runners want this and then get misled into believing philosophy over science and some buy into this keto adaptation fad. Speedwork and higher intensity workouts create the physiological stimulus to spur mitochondrial growth and development, it’s not about fat intake. This allows you to operate closer to maximum intensity for longer periods of time, and this is what forces your body to burn more fat as fuel, raising your lactate threshold.  Sure, you can eat mostly fat and survive, but you’re probably not going to meet your potential. Alas, I’ll spare the novel on that for now and get back to the race…

The course circumnavigated the wild and scenic Sheltowee Trace and John Muir Trail, (not to be confused with the JMT in California.) This provided many good views as we danced along cliff lines and outcroppings high above the Cumberland River. We crossed under several impressive natural arches formed in Sandstone and darted around and under some magnificent overhanging rock shelters.

Aid stations were about every 4-8 miles and were well stocked with tons of standard ultra fare and plenty of Huma gels. I raced this race solo with no crew and although gels were available at Aid Stations, I stuck to my stinger products and my own nutrition for the most part just because that way I knew what calories were available and I wasn’t leaving anything to chance. I did try out a few Huma Gels along the way and they were pretty tasty and went down well.

My two week pre-race taper provided plenty of energy come race morning. Although the week leading up to the race was stressful outside of running, it all worked out on race morning. In the opening miles I was surprised to find myself leading from the first step. There were some solid runners there! The first 15 miles was spent chatting with Tommy Doias about the Pacific Crest Trail and various other running and life ongoings and it was nice to pass the miles with such an easy flow of conversation. Tommy and I chatted about directing races as he has experience with some 100 mile events, directing them and winning them too! (The marathon I direct, The Backside Trail Marathon, was two weeks and I’m just now decompressing from it!) He also told me about he and his daughter doing her first half marathon together. I thought about how awesome it would be to do a race with Denali someday! Fingers crossed… I think she’s going to be a runner. She told me last week after I asked her if she wanted to learn a musical instrument, ”Daddy, you know I’m not patient enough to learn a musical instrument! I’m going to run like you, (because I’m faster than you), and play ice hockey like Mommy.” She’s a nut.

Directly behind us was the highly respected Greg Armstrong. Greg is a beast at the 100 mile distance and routinely clocks 100 mile splits in the 15 hour range and also owns the course record at the Vol State 500k race across tennessee. Greg has too many 100 mile and 24 hour wins to list! His feat at Vol State is the stuff of legend.

I was really impressed that this was the inaugural event of the Dark Sky 50. The course was marked flawlessly and the aid stations were spot on. Beth and crew at Nashville Running deserve some accolades for putting together a top notch event.

You never know what to expect going into a new course. I thought on an easy mountain course I could’ve knocked out a 7:00 50 mile split. (This was based on the posted elevation and course descriptions compared to other 50’s I’ve done with similar posted elevations. My LBL 50 PR was a 6:25 with several other times close to that. Dark Sky was posted at 5k’ climbing compared to 4k’ at LBL. Winning times from the technical and rocky Iron Mtn 50 with 9k’ climbing where it’s usually 90 degrees are just under 7:30)  Ha! This course was HARD! And Long.  Much harder than anticipated. It’s not that the climbs were huge. The course just held a lot of blowdowns and creek crossings and really rocky/muddy double-track along with small little hitches to constantly eat the flow of speed and continuity. The storms from the previous day compounded this. It’s a great course and I recommend it highly… It’s just not a fast course, even by mountain standards. Perhaps less mud/standing water would make a huge difference.

My 8:56 was a far cry from what I thought I’d finish in, but I was still running the climbs and felt good at the end. At the Aid Station with 6.2 miles to go I heard I was opening up a lead on Tommy in second place and I knew I was pretty locked in for the win barring catastrophe. I chilled and rolled in, just trying to break 9:00 on the clock. Luckily there were plenty of fire roads in the closing 6 miles to finally get to run unobstructed. It was a great ending to a gorgeous day in the mountains! The finishers award was some sweet hardware I’d been dreaming about all day and I was stoked to be the proud owner of such a gorgeous piece of art!

The Dark Sky 50; The Race I Almost Killed A Turkey Chick.