Three Days in the Smokies

Greetings from the Appalachian Folk School in Mountain City, Tennessee, where I’ll be posted up until next week when I attempt to run a women’s supported fastest known time of the 71 mile traverse of the Great Smoky Mountains, AKA the Smokies Challenge Adventure Run (SCAR)!

I spent this past Thursday through Saturday doing recon of the entire traverse with support by Jupiter, aka Warren Doyle. It was my first time visiting this section of the Appalachian Trail since my record attempt of the entire trail last summer.

I started to write a recap of my trail adventure, but honestly I found myself getting bored rehashing the finer details, which surely would have been boring to read. In a nutshell, I had three absolutely wonderful days on a section of the AT that I adore.

Psychologically, the three days were full of ups and downs. The first day I hiked and ran the 32.5 miles from Fontana Dam to the Clingman’s Dome side trail. I kept my effort relaxed and easy, and had a mostly enjoyable day chatting with thru-hikers along the way and taking in a ton of beautiful scenery. However, in the last ten miles or so, the long, continuous climb really took a toll on me. I became decidedly less cheerful and chatty and felt totally wiped out by the end. And to think, when it comes to the actual FKT attempt, I won’t even be halfway through at that point! I got really down on myself about it afterward and felt completely foolish for thinking I could run a fastest known time through those mountains.

After a decent meal, a night of sleep, and going back and reviewing my run, I started to feel a little less bad. In those 32.5 miles I had climbed over 11,000 feet in cumulative elevation gain! Of course I was tired. And even with all of the stopping and taking photos, chatting with hikers, walking some sections I might normally run, I was only 45 minutes behind record pace at a little over 9 hours. Of course, that didn’t change the fact that I was totally zonked by the end, with a theoretical 38 miles to go.

My next day was a recovery day, where I hiked and ran the 7.9 mile section from Clingman’s Dome side trail to Newfound Gap. Despite how warm and sunny it was in Cherokee, North Carolina where I was staying, up at the Dome it was cold, windy, and threatening to rain or snow. I saw just a few thru-hikers out that day, and when I greeted them and asked how they were doing, their response was, “COLD!” There were some bits of technical trail throughout and I took my time, stopping to take pictures of the pretty snow and say hello to Warren, who met me twice along the way, where the trail goes close to the Clingman’s Dome access road. My time for that section, including stops, was right on with record pace; of course, that was just a short section after a full night of sleep.

The third and final day I ran and hiked the 30.4 mile stretch from Newfound Gap to Davenport Gap. I carried more water with me than I did the first day, and took care to eat on the hour every hour–not just whenever I felt hungry, which was what I did on the first day (which might have played into my bonk toward the end). It ended up being an incredibly pleasant day. I felt upbeat, energetic, and finished feeling like I could have kept going. It was one of those “runner’s high” moments where I felt extremely present and at-one with everything around me. I was reminded of how much I just love being out there, and had this sense of, I was made for this. Like the first day, I kept the effort light and easy, chatted with thru-hikers and day-hikers, and took plenty of photos. The majority of that section was runnable, much more-so than the section from the first day. There were plenty of rolling hills throughout, though the majority was downhill with a net elevation loss of around 9,000ft. I finished around 50 minutes ahead of record pace, though of course that was with fresh legs.

To reiterate, going into that final section I had not one, but two full nights of sleep since the grueling hike up to Clingman’s Dome. My pleasant outlook on the last 30 miles will probably go out the window when it comes to the actual attempt. As much as I love running downhill, going into 9,000ft of cumulative downhill is probably going to really, really suck after already being over 40 miles in. I feel that if I can fuel and hydrate well, keep the effort relaxed without pushing really hard up to the Dome, and be extremely efficient with my time–no stopping and taking photos, no chit-chatting with hikers other than, “Morning! Pardon me! Have a nice hike!”–I think I stand a chance of lowering that FKT.

While I’m here being candid about my goals and thought process going into this FKT attempt, I’ll go ahead and name my current concern which I feel totally sheepish about and a bit embarrassed to admit, which is my left knee has been unhappy with me following that last big run, no doubt from the extreme amount of downhill running! It was a risk to do a full recon of the trail just a couple weeks after the Promise Land 50K, and just ten days before the attempt. I got what I wanted out of it, which was a giant confidence boost in my ability and knowing all of the turns on the route, but hopefully the price wasn’t too high. My agenda between now and next week is to rest and recover, make best friends between my knee and an ice pack, and get out on the trails for some short, light hikes to keep moving and aid with recovery. After taking two days off, I went for a six mile hike yesterday with a tiny bit of running mixed in. My knee certainly felt better, though not 100% perfect, so we will just have to wait and see. If this attempt gets derailed due to a runner’s-high-induced busted knee, well, I certainly will feel foolish in the end.

I’m planning to wait a couple more days to double check that the weather looks good for my planned attempt date, the 17th, and of course to ensure my knee feels better, before officially declaring my attempt on the FKT website and social media and such; though of course at this point it’s not like it’s a secret or anything!

I created an info page for the attempt here. Since things could change after I send this post out, be sure to head there for the most up-to-date info on the attempt! Here are the basic details as of now:

Attempt date – Monday, May 17th in the wee hours of the morning (the weather looks good as of now, but if it turns bad we will push back to the 18th). I’ll post an exact start time as it gets closer.

The Mighty Crew – Warren Doyle, Adrienne Mitford, and Jennifer Henry

For official live updates, photos, and videos, follow @m1ndurance on Facebook and Instagram.

Live tracking can be found here.


As always, thanks for reading! If you connected with this or feel inspired in some way, please consider buying me a coffee! It would also mean the world to me if you shared this with a friend or family member you think would enjoy it too. Feel free to hit comment below to share your thoughts or say hello.

‘Til next week! ~Mercury


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Who is Mercury?

Liz Derstine, trail name “Mercury”, is a distance runner, endurance hiker, writer, and musician residing in Boston, MA. She holds fastest known times for women on the Appalachian Trail (supported, northbound), Long Trail (self-supported), and Pinhoti Trail (self-supported).

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