Debbie and I rolled up to the Lakeshore Trailhead just in the nick of time. We were shocked, in a good way, to see Tara power walking down the road toward the parking lot we’d planned to meet at, well before her predicted time of “no sooner than 8:00pm” (it was presently around 7:00pm). She was over 57 miles into her fastest known time attempt on the 289 mile Benton MacKaye Trail, and didn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.
Tara Dower is still on the trail, with a goal of finishing in five days (which would be by 3:00am tomorrow, Sunday morning). The current record is held by Hunter Leininger at 5 days, 15 hours, and 33 minutes. Her story is not mine to tell, but I can share a little bit from my perspective as a crew member and pacer in her first 30ish hours on the trail.
Miles 0-16.4 – Baxter Creek Trailhead to Beech Gap
After seeing Tara off in the wee hours of the morning, disappearing into the darkness of the night with her headlamp lighting the way, her designated support crew (Tara’s mom, Debbie, and her friend Will, AKA Flipper) and I caravanned to our next meeting point 16.4 miles down the trail. For Tara the path was direct, but for us it involved lots of winding roads, most of them gravel, complete with bumps, potholes, and the occasional wild animal scurrying out of our path, including a black bear!
Upon arriving at Beech Gap, Debbie and Flipper got right to work preparing Tara’s next hydration pack filled with food, electrolyte drinks, and supplies to her specifications laid out in a printed crew manual. We were parked at the point where Tara would re-enter the trail after a gravel road walk, so I decided to drive up to the point where Tara would exit the trail onto the road, so she’d be reassured we were there, plus I could point her in the right direction toward the crew.
It was still dark out, and we had been awake since 1am. I positioned myself in the driver’s seat with my legs to the side and up on the dash, facing the trail so I could look for Tara. For the next couple hours, I rotated between nodding off and jumping to alertness every few minutes, looking for any sign of light or movement from the trail, just in case she arrived ahead of schedule. After a couple hours, the sky lightened up. She would be there soon. I threw on my flip flops and left my hair in a tangled mess, and jogged down the trail hoping to greet Tara. No dice. I found a spot in the woods to pee, hopped back in the car, and waited some more. The “hurry up and wait” adage when it comes to crewing is so true. You have to be ready for anything at all times!
Finally, a figure appeared down the trail, which could only have been Tara. I jumped out of the car, gave her a little cheer, had her toss a shirt to me that she was holding, and pointed which way to go. I hopped back in my car and slowly passed her on the gravel road, and gave a little honk to alert Debbie and Flipper that she was coming! They were already waiting outside with everything she needed; her new pack, a checklist of reminders before she took off, and a hot cup of oatmeal. Not wanting to waste any time, Tara took her oatmeal to go on the trail. I followed behind for about a quarter of a mile while she ate, and took her oatmeal packet and spoon once she was finished so she wouldn’t have to carry it with her the rest of the way.
Miles 16.4-31.2 (Beech Gap to Smokemont Parking Lot)
Her next section was 14.8 miles from Beech Gap to Smokemont parking area, just outside of Cherokee, NC. She wanted some company on this leg, so as soon as we parked at the trailhead, I threw on some running clothes and trail running shoes, grabbed my handheld water bottle, and took off down the trail to meet her. It was 8:37am. The weather was very warm and muggy, with thunderstorms in the forecast. While I probably would have been happy in a tank and shorts, I felt extremely aware of how important it was to be cautious and take care of myself, because ultimately I was responsible to take care of Tara if she was in distress. If it downpoured, even when the weather was in the 60s and 70s, I could risk getting really cold and hypothermic without proper layers. I set off in long tights and a lightweight long sleeve shirt, and a lightweight rain jacket tied around my waist that I could offer to Tara if she needed.
I always feel a tinge of nervousness on trails I’m not familiar with. Also being in the Smoky Mountains I was aware of the higher chances of running into bears, as I have in the past. I ran and hiked northbound on the trail, as she was heading southbound. My progress up the long ascent was pretty slow and I felt tired from the early morning, plus the muggy weather was draining. It felt so silly and trivial to feel that way when of course, Tara was the one out there doing the hard thing. I slowed my roll a little bit on purpose, wanting to make sure I had enough energy to keep up with Tara when I found her. I called out every so often, “Heeey bear!” to alert any unseen bears to my presence.
After 5.5 miles, I was happy to see Tara jogging down the trail with a big smile on her face. At our first meeting at Beech Gap, she seemed a little stressed, but now she looked cool, collected, and relaxed. I took a few pictures, stepped aside so she could go by me, then followed her on down the trail. We chit-chatted most of the way back down. She was moving great. There were some rocky and technical portions of trail that she just skipped right through, while I did my best just to keep up. As predicted, the heavens opened up and rain started dumping on us with a few miles to go. Tara took it all in stride and even outstretched her arms as she jogged toward the trailhead, welcoming the downpour.
Miles 31.2-57.6 – Smokemont to Lakeshore Trailhead
By the time we arrived at the Smokemont parking area, we were soaked to the bone. Tara’s next section was 25.7 miles (well, thought to be- it was actually 26.4) and she’d be by herself. Debbie and Flipper helped get Tara everything she needed for the long stretch ahead. I remembered she’d told me she needed her watch and phone charged, so I rummaged around her electronics box to find the right cords and get everything plugged in. Knowing she’d do well to have real food, Debbie sent her off with a gallon freezer bag filled with pasta, which she just carried by hand, making a funny sight- it’s probably not often you see someone walking down the trail with a big bag of pasta!
We had a lot of time before meeting Tara again, so I excused myself to check into a hotel in Bryson City and load out a bunch of the stuff in my car. I’m still in the middle of my big move to the east, with most of my earthly possessions in boxes and suitcases. I probably should have slept a few hours, but ended up catching up on the email piling up in my inbox and figuring out logistics for the rest of the summer and my living situation as everything seems to be in constant flux. Even out on trail adventures, “real life” calls.
Before I knew it, it was time to meet Tara at the next stop, Lakeshore Trailhead. Debbie picked me up at the hotel at 6:30pm and we zipped over to the parking area where we planned to meet Tara at 8:00pm at the earliest. She had hoped to be there sooner, but the section was taking longer than she anticipated, so she called to inform us as much. To our surprise (and delight, and relief), about a quarter of a mile from the parking lot, there was Tara on the side of the road, hiking a part of the BMT that shares the road. It was very good that we got there when we did!
Tara’s next section would be 36 miles, from the Lakeshore Trailhead where we were, to the visitor center at Fontana Dam. While packing and planning, I had no idea when Tara would arrive (other than her predicted time, but of course anything can happen), whether she would want to sleep, and if so for how long, or if she would want to keep going. I would be joining her for that section and had to be ready for anything. I had a hydration pack stuffed with a variety of snacks, water, a water filter, salt tabs, a rain jacket, and a few other odds and ends, ready to go. In another pack that I’d leave in the support van, I had a chicken wrap that I didn’t know if I’d need to eat sooner or later depending on when we left, a book to read in case Tara took longer than expected to arrive, a sleepy-time cherry juice in case I wanted to sleep for a few hours if that’s what Tara decided to do, and a couple Starbucks double shot espressos in case she wanted to keep going right away.
Once Tara arrived, she took some extra time to eat a proper meal (Subway sandwich), tape up her toes, run through checklists with Debbie of what she’d need for the next section, and lay down in the van for a little bit. For her sake, I sort of hoped she’d lay down for a few hours and rest, but I think she was too wired to go to sleep. Once it became apparent she’d want to keep going, I jumped into action, throwing on my trail shoes, scarfing my chicken wrap, and downing a canned espresso so I’d be ready to go when she was.
Miles 57.6 to 93.3 – Lakeshore Trailhead to Fontana Dam Visitor Center
Tara and I left Lakeshore Trailhead at exactly 8:01pm. I already had my headlamp on for when the darkness would come. It was hard to wrap my head around what we were getting ourselves into. At a pace of 3mph, this section would take us 12 hours. Which meant by the time we stopped it would be tomorrow, which seemed like an unfathomably distant time from the present. I just had to not think about it. I can’t even imagine what was running through Tara’s mind; perhaps she was just choosing not to think about it either!
She caught me up on everything that had happened in the last leg, including hiking through some heavy rain for a long period of time, and getting extremely cold. She had remembered to pack a jacket, but forgot she had it with her, which was unfortunate. Thankfully, the sun came out and she got warmed up again.
Just then we stopped for a bit as she had some tummy trouble, not even a mile from where we had left. That made me a little nervous, and I had cell reception so texted Debbie to let her know. Of course my mind was racing, wondering, what if this keeps happening and we’re miles and miles away from help? However, Debbie assured me this was pretty normal for her, and what helped was continuously eating small bits of food at a time. Tara had also packed a bunch of Tailwind, essentially drinkable calories in case she had trouble keeping solid food down.
She seemed to feel better after that, and we found a nice rhythm on the trail. To that point, we were purely walking and not running, which I thought was smart, considering she had been on her feet for many hours to that point. For the first couple hours we chatted away, but as the sky dimmed and the moon rose, the conversation faded and we just focused on the task ahead.
Our route essentially traced an outline on the northern end of Fontana Lake. It was interesting to think about how our destination was Fontana Dam, and we were already at the lake… but it just so happens to be a very large lake. It was this strange feeling like we were already at our destination, yet still so far away. The lake was to our left, and I knew way up to our right, running parallel to the Benton MacKaye Trail, was the Appalachian Trail; a section through the Smokies that I’d done three times over.
Unlike the more open, gusty ridge line, topping out at 6,643′ at Clingman’s Dome, we were way down lower 2,000′. The air was completely still and very humid. I was sweating buckets, but was glad I had worn a long sleeve and tall socks because the trail was overgrown with stinging nettle in many sections, not to mention spiderwebs everywhere! I suddenly remembered why I often opted to wear clear, non-prescription glasses on the AT.
Every so often I glanced down at my watch to check on our progress. Four miles, seven miles, nine miles… on the one hand, progress! On the other hand, we still had so far to go. It wasn’t even midnight. Again, I just had to kind of not think about it. We had been quiet for a bit, and Tara said to me, “Hey Liz? I’m getting really sleepy and I don’t know what to do.” Oh boy. Think! I quickly racked my brain to think of something that could engage her. I asked her if there’s a song she knew all the words to, even if it’s embarrassing. She thought for a second and said the first thing that came to mind was, “I get knocked down! But I get up again. You are never gonna keep me down.” I giggled and we both started singing Chumbawumba together as we continued marching down the trail.
I started to think about how in general, I am totally not a night person. I get kind of grumpy in the evening, I don’t love staying out late, and things like going to clubs and parties sounds horrifying and not fun to me. But when I thought about what Tara and I were doing, two women on this late night mission in the middle of the woods alone, well that seemed pretty exciting! It’s like a switch flipped and somehow my normal habits didn’t matter and time didn’t exist. You simply couldn’t think about the time out there; only the present.
We fell silent again, approaching the darkest hours of the night when dawn seemed so far away. We had to make little stops every so often; sometimes to switch out batteries in our headlamps, sometimes to pee, sometimes to collect and filter water from streams. We entered a long stretch of trail that was etched right into the side of a steep incline, so the trail was always tilting down to the left. We climbed up or around countless blown down trees. It seemed like they had been there for a long time, then I thought of how what a pain it would be to carry out a bunch of equipment out there to saw them down. I think the maintainers can only use manual saws out there, no chainsaws, since it’s in a national park.
Tara was feeling sleepy again, then she remembered she had a canned espresso in her pack. I helped her get it out and she drank it down. It helped for a little bit, but the urge to sleep was clearly becoming overwhelming. A little later she said, “Hey Liz, I think I need to lay down for a little bit, just like two minutes.” I said, “Sure thing,” and she laid down on the trail right then and there, instantly falling asleep. I glanced at my watch to note the time, then took the opportunity to remove my shoes and shake some dirt and rocks out. I gave her an extra thirty seconds then said, “Okay, time to go.” And she got right up and kept moving. We would repeat this a few more times throughout the night. I remembered that sleepy feeling well from the AT. I never slept on the trail, but remember that feeling like my eyes just couldn’t stay open. At points I was truly, practically sleep walking. So I understood how even though two minutes didn’t seem like a very long time, when you’re desperate to close your eyes, that would feel like a luxury!
As we approached 1am, 2am, 3am, I felt myself starting to lose it a little too. I couldn’t lose it, because I was there to help Tara. I wasn’t desperately sleepy like her (I also didn’t have 70 miles under my belt like she did), but I could feel my mood souring, and overall just feeling dull. I took that as a cue to eat more and drink more, and keep taking care of myself so I could be my best self for Tara.
Out of curiosity, I pulled out the Far Out app to see how far we had to go until we reached the trailhead, the junction where the BMT meets the AT. My eyes lit up. “Hey Tara, do you want to know how far we are from the trailhead? I don’t know how you’ll feel about it, but this seems exciting to me.” Tara said “Sure!” And hoping that she would feel excitement and not dread, I announced, “19.9 miles.” Thankfully, she did seem excited about this news. It could have gone either way. Learning you have less than twenty miles to go, depending on your mindset, could sound like the best news ever or the end of the world. But 19.9 miles to go sure sounded like progress compared to 36 miles to go.
We were a little over halfway to our destination, and were maintaining a slightly under 3 mph pace, including stops. I asked how she felt about running a little bit, and she said “Sure!” So we started jogging the flat and downhill sections of the trail. It was a small adjustment, but it made a meaningful difference in our overall pace over time.
Our jogs were interrupted often by more blowdowns. Sometimes the downed trees had big, wide trunks that we’d have to hoist ourselves up and over. Other times it would be a series of small, gnarly branches that we had to gingerly step and pick our way through. As we were going along, I heard Tara suddenly gasp and turned around just in time to see her foot getting caught on a long, skinny branch. She went tumbling down sideways, and rolled once before hitting her head––hard––on a tree trunk. Shit.
I rushed over, trying not to panic, and knelt down and asked if she was okay. Likely in shock, she laid there for a second, but then sat up. I asked if I could see her head, worried that she might be bleeding. There were a few minor scratches on her temple, but no blood. We sat there for a few more moments. I remembered the concussion training I’d had to take as a high school coach. If a kids hits their head and you have any suspicion of a concussion, you take them out of the game. Well, I couldn’t take Tara out of the game when we were in the middle of the woods. She said she felt okay to get up and walk, so we started walking. I started to rack my brain trying to remember the symptoms of a concussion. Dizziness, nausea, feeling “off”. She said she didn’t feel any of those things. I told her to let me know if she started to feel weird or notice anything off, and I’d keep an eye on her. What else could we do?
We continued on, though feeling pretty rattled. Tara threw in her headphones and put on an audiobook to help herself calm down. We continued our pattern of running the flats and downs, and hiking the ups, still making good time. When I checked in on her, she said she felt okay.
Birds began to chirp, the first sign of dawn. Seeing the sky begin to lighten up was a huge relief. We had made it through the long night. The trail dipped in toward the mountains for a while, but then it took us right out by the lake again. Fontana Lake was glittering, it was a beautiful site. Tara said, “Wow,” and kept glancing over to the lake. It really felt like a triumphant moment.
We went past a campsite with plenty of signs warning about bears in the vicinity. The trail was surrounded by dense rhododendron thickets. We called out, “Heeey bear! Hey bear!” Just to be on the safe side. We never saw any bears.
The trail wound up and down, went around a few bends, and suddenly we found ourselves emerging at the trailhead and junction with the Appalachian Trail. We cheered and congratulated ourselves with elbow bumps as we continued down the road that shared both the BMT and AT.
As we walked across the bridge at the dam, Tara looked calm, happy, and at ease. She commented that her body felt good, other than being tired, with no nagging aches or pains. The scare with her head seemed like a distant memory, and I felt so glad that she was still feeling okay. Debbie and Flipper cheered as we approached them at the end of the bridge by the visitor center. They took our packs, offered us bagels with cream cheese and cinnamon on top, and whisked us away to the nearby Fontana Lodge. Flipper brought us both the “Hungry Hiker” breakfast from the restaurant, and Tara would get to take a hot shower and sleep a few hours before continuing on. Flipper took me back to my hotel back near the Lakeshore Trailhead where we had started the section. It was a long drive, which only accentuated just how far we, and especially Tara, had come.
As I mentioned above, Tara is still out there on the trail with fewer than 50 miles to go! For her to reach her goal of finishing under five days, she needs to finish by 3:00am Sunday. To beat the overall record set by Hunter Leininger, she needs to finish by 6:33pm Sunday. For updates, be sure to give her a follow on Instagram @tara.dower. No matter what happens, I’m proud of my friend and so happy we got to share some miles together. I left this experience feeling so inspired by her. Big kudos to her mom, Debbie, and her friend, Flipper, for doing a great job crewing. I know she received more help from other fantastic people (including Hunter himself) after I left as well.
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Since helping Tara, I’ve been making my way up the east coast, and will be landing somewhere pretty special next week (hint: it’s not Boston… yet). More to come. Thanks for following along. ‘Til next week! ~Mercury