Sunday, May 7, 2017

Race Report - 2017 Smokies Challenge Adventure Run 70+ Miles (SCAR)

71 miles of the Appalachian Trail (dotted green line) to traverse the entire Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
It all started simple enough. I received a FB message from Jobie Williams in early April: "Hey, any interest in doing SCAR next month or so? Would be great Fat Dog 120 training, but it wouldn't be pretty." "Sure", I relied and the seed was planted. Fast forward three weeks, I was in the midst of the final stages of planning my SCRA attempt. Jobie had to bail due to other commitments, but I had convinced Jerry Abbott to join me, Thankfully, his wife graciously volunteered to shuttle and crew us during our adventure in the Smoky Mountains.

There are 18,000+ ft of elevation gain over 71 miles in order to complete the traverse, 12,000ft in the first 40 miles.
The premise of SCAR is simple, traverse the entire Smoky Mountains National Park on 70+ miles of the Appalachian Trail in under 24 hours, starting at Fontana Dam and finishing at Davenport Gap. Oh yeah, you have climb over 18,000 feet in the process and only have potential access to a crew at mile 40, if you're lucky enough to have a crew. This means carrying everything you need, both food and clothing. It also means carrying a water filter and a method to carry extra water as this very remote area only has water sources like creek crossings and natural springs along the AT.

I wore every single piece of clothing in this picture plus rain pants and another windbreaker.

The logistical planning for such a self-supported event is both fun and nightmarish at the same time. I wanted to use this opportunity not just as a training run for Fat Dog 120 in BC, Canada in August, but also to test some of the gear I'd have to potentially use there. However, checking the weather a week out from our SCAR attempt, it started to look rather bleak. Lots of rain, high winds, potential snow and severe windchill. I kept telling myself that it would probably not be as bad as the weather forecast made it out to be. After all, the weather man on the local news never got it right and this would be no different. As our go day approached, Jerry and I started to obsess over the weather. I was monitoring both weather at low elevation and at high elevation along our route, but rather than improve, it seemed to get worse and by the time we drove up to the Smokies, the forecast called for 100% rain both Friday night and Saturday turning into snow late in the evening paired with highs of 45mph winds on the ridge line and a windchill factor of 16 degrees. We did not let that deter us. Instead, I just made sure I packed a few extra layers of clothes.

I carried everything pictured, except the trail maps and a third of the food supplies.

I also made the decision to order a two-way satellite GPS device that would allow us to be tracked along our route and provide a way to communicate via messaging in case of an emergency. This would provide peace of mind for friends and family, who could follow along on an online map that would live track our progress and pinpoint our location every 10 minutes. In addition, we had the knowledge that we could call for help in case of emergency even without cell coverage. This device was not cheap, but it was well worth the investment considering the conditions we were dealing with.

Our pre-race meal was perfect, thanks Wonda.
We left Huntsville early Friday afternoon. Considering the 4 hour 30 minute drive along with the hour time zone difference, we wanted to make sure we got to Fontana Dam before dark. The plan was to eat near the AT trail head and to start our adventure at 8PM. If our timing was correct this start time would allow us to finish the run before it got dark again. It should also allow us to see the most beautiful parts of the route in the daylight. However, when we arrived in Fontana Vilage, the restaurants were closed due to a powerful storm the night before that knocked out the power and even though it had been restored, they were unable to serve any food. Luckily, Wonda had packed plenty of food for our 40 mile "aid station", so she was able to whip us up some amazing potato soup and egg & cheese tortillas, before we changed into our running clothes and made final gear adjustments.

Jerry and I posing in front of some of the trail signage before starting our adventure.
At 9:15PM, Jerry and I posed for a coupe of pictured before ipping up our jackets and heading across the dam to start our "run". We knew that we'd immediately start climbing one we crossed the dam, so we took it easy on our pace. It had started to rain even before we set out and it would continue to rain. Initially it was a nice misty type of rain, but after a couple of hours it had turned into a relentless and cold rain that also turned the trail into a sloppy mess.
Proof that we started at Fontana Dam:-)
We cotinued to climb. We knew this would be the longest somewhat sustained climb of the day, so we tried to settle into a speed hike pace. The higher we climbed the colder it got. Our hands and feet stayed wet and got colder by the minute. By mile 10 we had started to worry about the continued wet and the cold had started to get to my fingers and toes. When we came upon a shelter, we decided to dug in to put on our remaining layers of clothes. The shelter was full of sleeping hikers. Two of them had stayed up to keep a fire going. I used this opportunity to dry my gloves and shoes near the fire. I put on my rain pants and my last layer of clothing, a wind breaker that i put on underneath my waterproof rain jacket. I was now wearing a short sleeve tech shirt, a winter running jacket, a wind breaker and a rain jacket as well as short with rain pants over it and gloves with waterproof overmitts. My Mountain Mist beanie and a buff kept my head warm all day. 
One of the beautiful AT trail markers.
After we got warmed up, we knew it was time to get back out there and continue on. The conditions had steadily been getting worse and we kept losing time. As we continued to climb, the wind gusts would keep hitting us hard whenever we ran on the west side of the ridge. As soon as we crossed over the ridge line onto the east side, the winds would be calm and we would warm up. It would continue this way for the next few hours as our feet stayed wet from the mud that had now turned to slush. My so-called waterproof gloves had long ago stopped keeping my hands dry and Jerry was pretty much in the same boat. We would alternately ave pain or loose feeling in our fingers and toes. 

The only picture taken during the early night hours.
Around mile 20, we stopped at another shelter a quarter mile off the AT to find a spring to fill up our hydration bladders. When researching trail maps and apps to use on this adventure, I came across Guthook's AT Guide. this little app was fantastic. A small fee allowed me to download the AT section we would be running on. It provided a downloadable map with important waypoints like water sources and shelters along the way. It worked like a charm. 

First early morning picture.
I struggled the most between 4 and 6AM. I was getting sleepy and once again I had forgotten to bring caffeine pills. By now, we had been moving for nearly 9 hours. We were moving slow as the trail conditions had been worsening and pretty treacherous, making running nearly impossible even on the downhill sections. Jerry would get a cell signal on and off, so he got in touch with Wonda to find out about weather and road conditions. It did not look good at all. All access roads near Newfound Gap, our only possible crew access point, had been closed due to snow and ice. This meant we would have no possibility to warm up, to get on some dry clothes or to get some type of warm food for however long it would take us to complete this challenge. That meant possibly another 12 hours in freezing temps with more nearly another half foot of snow. 
We had started the adventure running in freezing rain that had turned into snow and ice overnight once we got above 4,000ft.
Jerry and I were playing out different scenarios in our heads. To be honest, nether one of us could see us complete this challenge in these conditions without some type of assistance. As it stood now, we would have no support or shelter whatsoever and no reprieve from the conditions at all for another 40 miles once we reached Clingman's Dome. We really didn't have many options. Even if we decided to bail at Clingman's Dome, there would be no help for us. All access roads were closed, which meant at least another 8 miles on an access road to hike out and then hoping to find a car that could give us a ride. This was also unlikely since all roads were closed.

A quick selfie during the early morning hours.
Regardless, with the weather continuing to worsen and the snow starting to pick up even more, we felt the safest option would be to abandon our plans at Clingman's Doe and to make our way down the road until we would find someone to give us a ride. This could mean several more hours on foot, but still better than being out on the trail without any hope for assistance. As we made our way down the 8 mile access road, we passed a couple of hikers who would later catch a ride with a snow plow. We had no idea what lay ahead, but as Jerry tried to contact Wonda again, we received some much needed news from her. The highway below had been opened up for her to meet us at Newfound Gap.

We enjoyed sun for about 2 hours during our run, allowing for some amazing photos before the weather turned again.
We finally arrived at Newfound Gap trail head a couple of hours after leaving the lookout tower at Clingman's Dome. Snow was now falling heavily and covering the roads. Wonda and their two daughters were waiting for us and we were thankful to be able to jump into the warm car. We made it just in time as both Tennessee and North Carolina shot down the roads again shortly after we left the trail head.


I was disappointed...not in myself, but in how our efforts and determination were greeted by relentless weather conditions, ultimately causing us to give up on or goal for the day. However, Jerry and I were in agreement right away tat we would soon be back to complete this adventure from start to finish and in under 24 hours. We now know what to expect and I am looking forward to redeem myself...in more favorable conditions.


One thing is fore sure, these weather conditions allowed us to get some amazing photos of the Great Smoky Mountains and the Appalachian Trail.




Probably my favorite view and pic of the day.


Some images cannot be put into words.

The weather turned just as we made our final approach to Clingman's Dome.


By the time we arrived at the lookout tower at Clingman's Dome, the thick fog and snow had returned.

Our final pic at Newfound Gap after self-extracting 8+ miles.

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