“I feel foolish for trying.”
“I think you’d be foolish not to try.”
“I don’t want to let you or anyone down.”
“You won’t be letting me or anyone else down. I know you will give it your all.”
“I’m wondering if I’m playing with fire here.”
“Are you playing with fire? I have to say yes, a little bit. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.”
Those are snippets of conversations and messages exchanged with my support crew and coach in the week leading up to my FKT attempt of the Smoky Mountains traverse (SCAR). In all honesty, I was a mess. As I mentioned in last week’s letter, my knee started hurting following a three-day recon of the entire 72 mile route. It felt better after a day or two, but then it bothered me a little while running downhill at the end of an easy trail run. I assumed the worst, that I had messed up my knee beyond repair, and that I’d better prepare to call everything off.
I imagined the pain setting into my knee during the attempt, growing worse to a point where I could barely walk let alone run, and with no opportunities for bail-out or crew support until over 32 miles into the run, I imagined myself limping and whimpering up to Clingman’s Dome well after my expected arrival time, then having to face my crew and utter, “I can’t go on.”
One of my great strengths is my ability to compartmentalize and focus. It’s a useful, and even crucial skill to have in endurance running and hiking. The downside is that when I turn my focus to a negative thought, I really focus on that one negative thing and it becomes my entire world. It’s a pattern that’s shown itself over and over again before a big race or event. I kept trying to replace the negative thoughts with rational thoughts, like “It’s probably just a little irritated,” and took some actions like massaging, icing, and elevating my leg. The MT I saw didn’t seem too concerned. But it’s hard not to imagine the worst when you’re concerned about something and don’t know how things will turn out.
My mindset began to shift on Friday, three days before the attempt. Warren Doyle invited me to share about my Appalachian Trail experience at Trail Days, an annual gathering celebrating the Appalachian Trail and bringing together thru-hikers past and present. After the talk I got to hang around afterward and meet fellow hikers, answer questions, and take pictures. Everyone was so friendly, welcoming, and forgiving of the fact that I got so nervous during my talk. I met ultrarunners Meg Landymore and Celia Eicheldinger, who were in the midst of their own AT journey, running and hiking the entire trail in sections. I learned that Meg was the only woman in history known to have completed “Double SCAR”. With Celia’s support, she ran the 72 mile route through the Smokies, then immediately turned around ran back the way she came. Celia ran the second half with her. It was as if I had stumbled upon two SCAR unicorns!
While we had only just met, I felt like I connected with Meg and Celia right away. It was like I had found “my people” that knew exactly what I was about to face, plus I could relate to their current experience of running and hiking long days on the AT. They had just completed a 50 mile day into Damascus. I ended up giving them a ride to their hostel, picked them up the next morning, then spent the first part of Saturday exploring the Trail Days fairgrounds together. We talked all things running, fast-packing, defying the nutritional narrative of counting calories, and the Trail. After giving them a sendoff as they hiked out of town, I hurried back to the Appalachian Folk School where I was staying to meet Adrienne Mitford and Jen Henry, two members of my three-person support crew (to be rounded out by Warren) who drove down from Pennsylvania that day. After they pulled in and parked I ran up to give them big hugs, squealing with excitement. It hit me that we were about to embark on a really cool adventure together. We went back to Damascus so they could get the Trail Days experience. For us that included plenty of people watching, chowing down on enormous slices of pizza accompanied by live outdoor music, walking around licking melty ice cream cones, bird watching, and generally just having fun. I completely forgot my knee, which in reality hadn’t bothered me for days despite my constant worrying.
Later that night, we sat down with Warren in his book room to review exactly how the next two days would go. Between our combination of personalities–Jen’s curiosity, Warren’s dad jokes, Adrienne’s quiet amusement, my (over) seriousness–and the palpable giddiness for what was to come, the conversation was full of giggles, groans, and eye rolls. There was an energy in the room that made me feel like we were in the scene of a movie, like when in Ocean’s Eleven they bring together a motley crew and plan a big heist.
The next day we caravanned down to North Carolina, stopping in Bryson City for a sit-down pasta dinner and swinging by McDonald’s for an ice cream dessert, and finally arrived at the beautiful Fontana Lake right at sunset. We parked at the visitors center, just across the bridge from where I would start my run. Jen and I pitched our tents in the grass and Warren and Adrienne parked nearby, as they would sleep in their cars. It was a calm, still evening with stars twinkling up above and silhouettes of mountains all around us. A whippoorwill nearby sang its song well into the night, its call all-too familiar after hearing it many times while night hiking the Appalachian Trail last summer. In my sleep-deprived state, I pretended that the bird was cheering me on, singing “Mer, cur-EE! Mer, cur-EE! Mer, cur-EE!” I took its presence as a good omen as I drifted off to sleep.
Despite my 12:30am wake up call, I felt energetic, excited, and very ready to roll. I had my road trip breakfast of belVita cookies and a couple canned espressos. By the time I finished getting ready and hopped in the car with Warren, I was practically bouncing off the walls. With Adrienne and Jen following, we drove to my starting point, the north end of the bridge. Upon arrival, I got out of the car and did a last-minute gear check. Headlamp and flashlight? Check. Extra batteries? Check. Trekking pole? Check. Food? Water? Phone? GPS Tracker on? GPS watch on? Check, check, check, check, and check. Adrienne took my photo, Jen gave me a big hug, and Warren looked on nearby, surely running through a logistical checklist of his own. The digital numbers on my watch flicked to 2:00am and off I went!
Stage 1: Fontana Dam to Clingman’s Dome Side Trail (32.5 miles)
I ran at a light clip up the paved road leading to the AT trailhead, carrying my hiking pole in a gentle clutch so it was pointing ahead and behind me, since I didn’t exactly need it yet. The night air was cool, yet humid, and I broke a sweat almost immediately. Adrienne, Jen, and Warren raced ahead in their vehicles so that they could wait for me at the end of the road to see me off. With their car headlights, headlamps, and flash from Adrienne’s camera pointed my way, I gave them a smile and a wave and disappeared into the woods.
I followed the ribbon of dirt trail up, up and up, winding my way around switchbacks, running on the little bits of flat trail, and taking care to hike, not run, the steeper inclines. In my practice run the week before, I attacked the same section with zeal, feeling a self-imposed pressure to match Liz Canty’s record pace. By the time I reached Clingman’s Dome, I was 45 minutes behind what Liz ran, totally spent, and couldn’t imagine running an additional forty miles. It would be crucial in my actual attempt that I conserved as much energy as possible while moving as efficiently as possible. No stopping to chit chat with hikers, no taking photos, and always eating on the go. I tried to relax and keep my effort light and easy. Run the runnable sections, don’t sweat the technical stuff or the uphills.
The forest was especially quiet as there was no wind, plus it was just so early. Without a breeze, the air felt stagnant and I continued to sweat profusely. I told myself not to worry, that the higher up I went, the cooler it would be. Occasionally a little mouse would scurry across the trail ahead of me, or I’d hear the occasional rustle in a bush. Several times I saw bear scat on the trail, so every so often I calmly but loudly exclaimed, “Heeeey, hey!” to alert any nearby creatures of my presence. Not that my two shining lights piercing through the night weren’t already an obvious giveaway.
I continued my light and easy groove, keeping my headlamp pointed straight ahead of me, and my flashlight pointed down at the ground in front of me, so I wouldn’t stumble on one rock or root. I glanced down at my watch occasionally to check my elapsed time, since I was holding myself accountable to eat on the hour every hour, at least. My hands were full with my hiking pole in one hand and my flashlight in the other, so anytime I needed to eat I tucked my hiking pole under my left arm, keeping it pinned to my body, and held the gel packet (Spring Energy) in my left hand and flashlight pointing forward in my right hand, eating the gel in about three sips total, all without ever breaking my stride. It was a goofy technique I had picked up last summer on my AT thru-hike, and though a little awkward, it’s worked for me.
Overall I was feeling very calm, positive, and confident. Then 7.5 miles in I approached the trail junction at Doe Knob, made the sharp right turn to stay on the AT, and suddenly SNORT! Growl! huff, puff, shuffle shuffle. I immediately stopped in my tracks, with my most commanding voice yelled, “HEY!”, and backed up a few steps back to the trail junction. I shone my flashlight and headlamp into the woods where the noise had come from. I heard maybe one or two twigs snap, some rustling, a couple more snorts, and then nothing. I stayed frozen in place, unsure of what to do next. I had to go that way, but whatever was out there certainly didn’t seem happy about it. After about a minute of deliberating, With the deepest most scariest voice I could muster, yelled “HEY! I’M COMING THROUGH! GOING THIS WAY NOW!” …..crickets. Continuing to shine my lights in the direction of the noise-that-was-no-longer, I marched in the direction that I needed to go, continuing to yell and make noise, and once I was maybe fifteen or thirty feet past the spot, still with no more snorts, growls, or any signs of the animal (which I’m guessing was a boar, since bears tend to run away and make ton of noise crashing through all the brush and branches), I broke out into a jog, then a run down the trail, adrenaline pumping. I stopped every so often to turn around, shine my flashlight down the trail, and make sure there weren’t any beady little eyes shining back at me.
I took some deep breaths, shook off the nerves and adrenaline, and continued into the night. Still on high alert, my eyes darted to my left and right into the darkness surrounding me. Every so often I thought I could see eyes peering back at me, but since I was following a ridge with the night sky wide around me, I was merely seeing the bright stars peeking out behind the trees. Mile 16 marked the start of one of the first bigger challenges, the rolling climb from the Spence Field Shelter side trail up to Thunderhead Mountain. For the first time I looked up and noticed the sky slowly lightening from a pitch black, to a royal blue, to a deep purple. As I ascended the steep climb it became light enough to click off my headlamp and put away my flashlight. When I reached the first of three summits, Rocky Top, I gasped at the stunning views all around me, accompanied by a dramatic sky painted deep red in the east and hazy peach and purple in the west, with sloping mountains all around and Fontana Lake way below. I paused approximately two seconds to take it in before continuing on to the next two summits before navigating the tricky, technical, rocky descent toward Derrick Knob Shelter.
Now, in my conversation back at Trail Days with Meg (the double SCAR unicorn), her take was, “Oh, the climb to Clingman’s Dome really isn’t that bad.” I beg to differ. From Derrick Knob Shelter, it is a cool, rolling-but-steady-upward 9.8 mile jaunt with 3,400 feet of climbing and 1,600 feet of descending. Maybe that’s not so bad on its own (or maybe it’s not so bad if you are Meg!) but with 7,500 feet of ascending and 4,400 feet of descending already under my belt, I knew I had to be smart with how much energy I expended if I stood any chance of performing well in the 40 miles remaining past the Dome. As I mentioned, in my practice run of this section the week before, I was completely wiped out at the dome and couldn’t imagine continuing on.
What made all the difference in how I approached the remaining mostly-uphill miles to Clingman’s Dome was simply being more efficient with my time (the only reason I ever stopped my forward momentum was to pee), eating and drinking often to prevent bonking, and keeping my effort really easy.
The trail led me through a beautiful spruce-fir coniferous forest which meant I was getting very close to the first crew checkpoint, the side trail to Clingman’s Dome. I did a mental check of how I was feeling–pretty good!–and ran through a list in my mind of what I would need to do when I met them. First, my sweating was out of control and my left underarm was beginning to chafe badly as a result. I would need to utilize my super high tech personal chafing remedy, Secret Deodorant, to take care of that. Next, I knew there was a lot of downhill running in my future, which I worried would aggravate my knee, so I wanted to take some Ibuprofen as a precaution. Lastly, I would ditch my hydration pack and swap it out with a handheld water bottle for the next short section.
I could hear some voices echoing up the hill, so I shouted, “Hey!!” and in response I got some hearty cheers from who could only be my crew waiting for me at the side trail. I hiked confidently up (Jen said I looked laser focused), gave everyone a big smile, and made a beeline toward my gear, which they had laid out nicely on a moss-covered log for me. Deodorant. Ibuprofen. Handheld. In addition to my gear, they had laid out several snack and drink items, most of them very sensible and nutritious, but what caught my eye was a gleaming can of Mountain Dew. Now, I can’t say Mountain Dew has ever been my favorite of soft drinks, but WOW, in that moment it tasted incredible. Warren cheered and did a little dance since that was his personal contribution to the aid station stockpile. After three minutes, I had done all I needed to prepare for the next section, and was off! Both the crew and I were all smiles as I trotted off into the next section.
Stage 1 Summary:
Elevation gain: 11,000 feet
Elevation loss: 6,000 feet
Time: 8:35:40 (record time: 8:16)
Pace: 3.8 mph (record pace: 3.9 mph)
Stage 2: Clingman’s Dome Side Trail to Newfound Gap (7.8 miles)
I remembered from my practice hike that the descent from Clingman’s Dome was quite rocky and technical. I also knew that my legs would be tired- and they were definitely tired. My mantra for this shorter section was “efficient recovery”. I didn’t need to be a super hero, and I didn’t need to take any unnecessary risks on those steep, slippery rocks. There were many downhill, runnable sections to come in the last thirty miles, and I would need enough energy for those (not to mention keeping my knees and ankles in one piece).
When I practiced that section the week before, I really took my time. I walked most of the technical downhills and stopped often to take photos. When Warren met me at a side trail to the Clingman’s Dome access road about 3.5 miles in, I stopped and chatted with him before moving on. At an easygoing pace with plenty of stops, I finished the section in 1 hour, 57 minutes. This time, on the actual FKT attempt, I was extremely focused and didn’t stop at all. When Adrienne, Jen, and Warren met me at the same side trail halfway through, I quickly swapped out my handheld for another full handheld, and continued on my way. So when I arrived at the parking lot at Newfound Gap in 2 hours and 5 minutes, nearly eight minutes behind my previous section time, I became worried. If I continued to lose one minute per mile, or worse, hit the wall and had to shuffle it in, the whole thing was over.
As I hiked into the Newfound Gap parking lot, I said what I was thinking: “It’s about to get real!” Jen ran up to help me grab my second hydration pack which I had filled up with water and pre-stuffed with plenty of Spring Energy gels the day before. She let me know that David Horton had called and wanted to tell me that he thought the FKT was within my grasp. I started to bemoan the fact that I was eight minutes behind and she immediately cut me off and sharply said, “Nope! This is your day and this next section was made for you. Downhills are your strength. You can do this!” Warren reiterated, “You’re still in the game.”
After a total stop time of one minute, I darted across the parking lot to cheers from my Mighty Crew (who I wouldn’t see again until the end) in addition to a crew of construction workers who had been filled in on what we were doing. I was told later that one of the workers exclaimed, “72 miles? I would die!”
Stage 2 Summary:
Miles: 7.8 (40.3 total)
Elevation gain: 1,200 feet (12,200 ft total)
Elevation loss: 2,700 feet (8,700 ft total)
Section time: 2:04:39 (record section time: 1:58:45)
Section pace: 3.8 mph (record section pace: 3.9 mph)
Overall time: 10:40:19 (record overall time: 10:18:50)
Overall pace: 3.8 mph (record overall pace: 3.9 mph)
Stage 3: Newfound Gap to Davenport Gap (30.4 miles)
Heading into the last section, I knew every moment would count. While conservation was the name of the game from Fontana to Clingman’s, it was finally time to put those energy reserves to use. I knew I could run the plentiful downhills in this section no matter what, so how well I could move on the remaining uphills and technical bits would determine how this would all play out. It was no longer a “coast along and try to feel good” kind of situation. It was time to lean into the discomfort, try and run the “less runnable” sections, like those annoying gradual uphills that are just hard enough that they’re not fun to run, but just easy enough that walking wouldn’t cut it. Or those bits of fifteen or twenty feet of runnable trail that don’t seem worth changing your stride for, but running them might save a second or two in the long run. Essentially the plan was to nickel-and-dime every moment.
I’m honestly having trouble remembering the finer details of this section, which either speaks to how hazy my brain was getting or how focused I was, or maybe both. What I do remember was being really, really uncomfortable. As I tend to do, I started whimpering and moaning as my way of coping with physical discomfort. Several times I tried to do an honest self-evaluation of what exactly was so bad that I was audibly whining. Was I in pain? Well, no. My knee seemed to be holding up fine. My feet were starting to get a little achey, but not bad. I wasn’t having trouble keeping food down, and my stomach was okay. There really wasn’t anything definitively wrong, except that I was really tired and really uncomfortable. I simply felt ready to stop.
I kept an eye on my watch each time it automatically buzzed, marking another mile run. I was losing time. I had less than eight hours total to complete the section. I knew that I could do it in 7 hours and 30 minutes on fresh legs, which meant I had approximately 28 minutes of wiggle room to account for tired legs. Every time another mile went by I’d say out loud to myself, “8 minutes behind, 20 minutes to spare”; “12 minutes behind, 16 minutes to spare”; “20 minutes behind, 8 minutes to spare”. I was slowing down. Not good.
What was good was that it was Monday with very little foot traffic, because A) I love chit-chatting and I’d be tempted to pause or slow down if someone wanted to engage beyond hellos, B) In a mostly downhill section I’d have to yield in most situations, and all the little stops could add up over time, and C) because I was talking to myself out loud a lot, which would be obnoxious for anyone within earshot to witness.
With time continuing to slip away, I tried anything to convince myself that I cared about this and that it mattered. See, when you’re fatigued, your brain will do anything to try and convince you that what you’re doing is a silly waste of time. That you’re foolish for trying. That you might as well just pack it in and say, “Oh well, I did what I could.” I really tried to reject those thoughts, continuing to run wherever and whenever possible, and saying out loud to myself, “This matters. It matters.”
Another sign that my brain was foggy: I knew there was a tricky turn coming up, where there’s a rock on the ground with painted arrows directing the way, except it’s hard to tell whether the arrow is pointing straight or right because of the shape of the rock. I kept looking and looking for the turn throughout this section, but it never came. I was still definitely on the AT and not lost, so somehow I must have made the turn a while ago while being on complete autopilot.
The turn I was most excited about came at the Mt. Cammerer trail junction. I remembered from my practice run that once I made that hard right turn, it was “game on”. No more uphills, just five miles remaining of pure downhill and an opportunity to make up a ton of time. It certainly isn’t an easy section; the trail is strewn with rocks and it has tons of large, built-in steps, making for awkward strides and landing harder than I’d like because of the big drops, maybe 1.5-2 feet per step. I was worried about tripping and falling on the uneven terrain, but it was also a situation that required some fearlessness and just going.
My watch buzzed with the next mile split and my heart sank when it only read 15:17. I felt like I was moving really well, but at 66+ miles my perceived effort was way skewed. My elapsed time was 17 hours, 38 minutes and the time to beat was 18 hours, 37 minutes, and 38 seconds. With 4.3 miles to go and 59 minutes remaining, the math was clear- fifteen minute miles weren’t going to cut it.
From there to Davenport Gap I tried to focus on the trail in front of me, since clipping a rock or root and falling flat on my face was a major concern, while simultaneously trying to relax, let loose, and flow down the trail. I goaded myself on, “C’mon… c’mon… c’mon…” every fourth step. The next few miles clicked by in 14:14, 11:38, and 10:59. It also helped that the trail was starting to open up with the big steps behind me, fewer rocks and roots ahead of me, more soft dirt, and even a nice, flat section before dipping down again. At the lower elevation the trees were a brilliant green. I smiled when I saw a freshly painted white blaze on a tree that I had taken a photo of the week before.
The sun was beginning to set and daylight was waning, the growing darkness accentuated by tree cover and the occasional rhododendron tunnel. It was that dusky time of day when it was getting difficult to see, yet light enough that a headlamp wouldn’t have made a difference. I concentrated on the ground ahead of me, picking up my feet and remembering what my coach had told me about lifting my knees, almost emulating a bicycling motion so as not to trip.
I heard some voices echoing in the woods down below me: hikers setting up camp at the Davenport Gap Shelter. My final checkpoint before the finish! When I passed by the side trail to the shelter, I glanced down at my watch. I had 22 minutes to cover 0.8 miles of very easy trail. I smiled. I knew I had it.
Feeling relief that I didn’t have to book it at light speed down the darkening trail, I trotted down at a quick yet careful clip, eager to meet Jen, Adrienne, and Warren at the road. As the trail wound down and down, I knew I had to be getting close, so I started to shout, “Hey!!”, hoping that they’d hear me coming. Nothing. I waited another 30 seconds or so and tried again, “Hey! Hey! Hey!” Still nada. Then a few seconds later, almost imperceptibly, I heard the soft murmuring of some voices. “HEEEEY!” Almost immediately, I heard Warren’s voice, “Hey? Hey!!!” and then still before we could even each other we all erupted into joyful cheers, “Yeah!! WAhooo!!”
Finally the end of the trail came into view. Adrienne and Jen cheered me in, both with their cameras out, and Warren urged me toward the tree by the road with a painted double white blaze, exclaiming, “Slap that blaze! Slap that blaze!” I ran over to the tree, touched the double blaze to another eruption of cheers by all, stopped my watch, and just about keeled over in happy exhaustion.
18 hours, 27 minutes, and 7 seconds. As a team we had accomplished our goal. It was wonderful to share that moment together. So many things had to come together exactly right for me to reach Davenport Gap with only ten minutes to spare. That is only a difference of 7 seconds per mile! We made a good plan, carried it out, and each person fulfilled their role. We knew our routes: for me it was the AT through the Smokies, for them it was the few, but crucial, road and side trail access points along the way. We showed up to where we needed to be on time. We had fun! It was a supported effort in every sense of the word.
Stage 3 Summary:
Miles: 30.4 (~70.7 total)
Elevation gain: 5,800 feet (~18,000 ft total)
Elevation loss: 8,800 feet (~17,500 ft total)
Section time: 7:46:48 (record section time: 8:22:48)
Section pace: 3.9 mph (record section pace: 3.6 mph)
Overall time: 18:27:07 (record overall time: 18:37:38)
Overall pace: 3.8 mph (record overall pace: 3.8 mph)
For more fun stories from the day and a behind-the-scenes look on how everything unfolded from the crew’s perspective, check out our live recap as told by the crew and myself on M1ndurance. Check out also this fantastic one minute photo/video compilation Adrienne put together, complete with our joyous celebration at the finish. If you haven’t seen Warren’s reaction at the end yet, this is something you’ll want to see.
Thanks to Fastest Known Time for naming our effort the Women’s FKT of the week!
Thank you for reading and to everyone who offered well wishes and followed along! If you connected with my writing or feel inspired in some way, please consider buying me a coffee! It will give us both the warm fuzzies. It would mean the world if you shared this with a friend or family member that would enjoy it too.
Til next week! ~Mercury