Adventure Report - 2018 Foothills Trail 76 Mile (Unsupported)

3/18/2018 05:49:00 PM

View from suspension bridge crossing creek feeding Lake Toxaway.
I already had a pretty packed 2018 racing and training schedule when my friend and running buddy Rick Rawls told me about the invitation he received from PA runner Larry Creveling, whom he'd met a couple of years ago at the Never Summer 100K. Larry had invited a few PA and NC runners to travel to Oconee State Park to attempt to run the entire Foothills Trail from Table Rock State Park to Oconee State Park, all 76 miles and 16,000ft of vert in a single push.
The entire crew of PA, NC and AL runners prior to our Foothills adventure.
Rick asked if I wanted to join and when I checked my calendar, I realized that this adventure would fit perfectly into my plans, 5 weeks ahead of my first goal race of the year, the Hellbender 100. The Foothills Trail would be my last long effort and allow me to test out some nutrition and gear selections.
Table Rock State Park, location of the Foothills Trailhead.
Rick and I loaded up our gear and left Huntsville, Alabama around noon on Friday to make the 5 hour drive to Oconee State Park. Larry had taken care of all of the logistics for this trip and rented out two cabins at the park to house ten of us just a short quarter mile walk from the Foothills Trailhead, our unofficial official finish line.
Sign in station for Foothills Trail thru-hikers.
We arrived somewhere between 6 and 7 PM. The PA gang and Tin Ha from NC had already arrived. Larry met us at the car and assigned us to a cabin, where we were able to pick a bed and drop our gear. I had brought a cooler with some food items as vegan options are usually scarce when you travel for races or runs in remote locations. Thankfully, a couple of the PA runners, Mary and Renee had kindly prepared a lavish carbo dinner buffet that included plenty of vegan options. The potatoes were amazing, guys!!!
Small waterfall on Foothills Trail inside Table Rock State Park.
The Friday dinner buffet gave all of us an opportunity to introduce ourselves and discuss adventures past as well as the adventure that lay ahead the next day. It took no time at all before I felt I’d known all of these guys forever. While everyone had different plans for the next day, all of us were excited to get going. One universal truth for 99.9% of trail and ultra runners, we love craft beers and don’t mind a shot of bourbon or whiskey, before, during or after a run, it does not matter, so it was in that spirit that I carb loaded with a few beers and a couple of shots of bourbon.
View from Bald Knob.
Rick and I headed back to our cabin around 9:30PM to triple check our gear and get some much needed shuteye before our 24+ hour adventure the next day. I don’t do well with sleep deprivation, so I try to make sure I get sufficient sleep the week leading up to a long event. In fact, I’ve been pretty diligent about getting 7:30-8:30 hours of sleep just about every night to compliment my training.
View from Bald Knob.
All of us got up around 5AM the next morning to make sure we’d have enough time to get some food and to make the 60 minute drive to Table Rock State Park, the location of the other trailhead of the Foothills Trail, the start line of our run. On the way, we would drop off another bail vehicle at mile 50 of the trail. One of the runners had already left her car at mile 35 of the Foothills Trail the previous day as she planned to stop her run at that point.
View from Bald Knob.
Even though we all got up and left in time, our short detour meant that we didn’t arrive at Table Rock State Park until shortly before 8AM. Who cares, this was not a race, so everyone still had plenty of time for one last bathroom break as well as for final gear adjustments. More importantly, we had time to take our obligatory pre adventure group photo and sign in to the hiker registry at the trailhead.
View from Sassafras Mountain.
At 8:05AM, we were finally off on the adventure of a lifetime. I had attempted the Smokies Challenge Adventure Run just a short 10 months ago, but had to call it quits and self-extract after we covered half the distance due to a freak snowstorm in the middle of May that made running the Appalachian Trail traversing the entire length of the Smoky Mountain National Park unsupported impossible. This was my attempt at actually completing an unsupported adventure, weather and other conditions permitting.
Add View from Sassafras Mountain.
While our group of runners would likely stretch out over the course of the day, Rick and I had decided to stick with the group until we’d peak Sassafras Mountain, the highest point in South Carolina, about 9.5 miles into our adventure. After that, we figure we’d continue on together but at our own pace. This would allow us to enjoy the fellowship of our new found running friends from PA until we reached the highest point on the trail.
Creek crossing and our first stop to refill and filter our water.
We eased into our run by hiking the uphills and run walking the flats and downhills. To be honest, there really weren’t any significant flats or downhills as the first 9.5 miles were a continuous climb to the peak. When we did arrive near the peak, we almost didn’t get to enjoy the spoils of our labor (read: summit after 3 hours of uphill running). The trail section to the summit of Sassafras Mountain had been closed due to construction/reconstruction of the viewing platform atop he peak. However, there was no way I was going to be denied possibly the only opportunity I’d ever have to summit this peak. I decided to scout out the summit anyway and was able to find a nice footpath around the closed off construction site allowing us to summit after all.
View from Sassafras Mountain peak.
Everyone took the chance to break out some food and take some awesome panoramic pics from the summit before we gathered our things and continued on. Rick and I took off down the mountain ahead of the main group only to catch up to Tin Ha and David Walker, who had already gone ahead and were now waiting for the group.
View from Sassafras Mountain peak.
David, Rick and I continued on ahead of the pack at our own pace. We would continued to more or less run together for the next 35 miles, catching up to each other at some of the many creek and river crossings where we would refill our water containers.
View from Sassafras Mountain peak.
I had opted for two Katadyn BeFree Water Filtration bottles and they worked perfectly. It took me a mere seconds to fill up my bottles and drinking from the bottles and through the integrated filters inside the bottle tops was effortless. I plan to do a more detailed review in a separate blog post as I feel that these bottles are a true game changer for through hikers and unsupported solo trail runners alike.
View from Sassafras Mountain peak.
Running completely unsupported required all of us to bring some type of filtration device that would allow us to collect and clean out drinking water along the way. Thankfully, there were tons of water sources along the Foothills Trail. Aside from the filtration devices, we also had to be prepared for any popup storms and other unexpected inclement weather by carrying the necessary safety gear one may require. For me, that meant a waterproof jacket, wool gloves, waterproof gloves, a buff and a headlamp.
Trail tunnel of Mountain Laurels.
We also needed to carry all of our food. While some decided to stash some food at a trailhead somewhere near mile 50, Rick and I wanted to go completed unaided, so we carried everything. For me that meant 12 Honey Stinger Gels, 5 bags of Honey Stinger Chews, 4 CLIF bars, two bananas rolled up inside a tortilla and covered in honey and Justin’s Chocolate Hazelnut Butter as well as a small bag of Swedish Fish. I ended up eating everything but 3 of the CLIF bars. I ended up not eating anything for the final 3 hours of the journey. Thankfully, we were moving slow, so bonking wasn’t a factor.
Waterfalls are one of the impressive features of the Foothills Trail.
The Foothills Trail offered lots of spectactular views with its many suspension bridges, creeks, rivers and waterfalls (see pics in this post). By the time we reached mile 50, the trail was dark and we had been wearing our headlamps for an hour or so. We hadn’t seen David the last few miles, but before we lost sight of each other he had told us that he’d call it a day at mile 50.
Waterfall in the Jocassee Gorges.
Rick and I continued on. After leading us from mile 10 to 50ish, my energy levels had dropped quite a bit. I was feeling fine physically, but mentally I was having to work a bit harder than I’d liked. Around mile 35, I had my only physical challenge of the day. I had developed a couple of hotspots on the edges of my heels that required attention.
Entrance sign to Gorges State Park, NC. The trail would lead us into NC on two occasions.
I normally develop issues with hotspots much later in an event, so this was a bit of a surprise. I also had opted not to tape my feet prior, but I had brought a footcare kit that consisted of 2 precut striped of KT tape that had worked wonders for me ever since I ran the Everest Trail Race last November. I cleaned my feet as best I could before stretching the tape across my heels. The beauty of KT tape is its flexibility, allowing me to stretch it across the edge of my heels without creating creases hat would result in more hotspots.
One of the many climbs on the course.
I continued on without the spots getting much worse, but they didn’t feel much better either, making me think that they had become full blown blisters by mile 50. When Rick was clearly enjoying a bit more energy at this point of the run, I gladly handed over the reigns to him to hopefully pull me along for a while. That way, I could just focus on following him and not much else, because Hallucinations were already in full effect for me.
Lake Jocassee.
He did a fantastic job, even though the next miles felt more challenging than before. Unexpected rain showers would periodically pop up with varying strength. By now, I was wearing my Altra Wasatch jacket that had arrived in the mail just a couple of days earlier. I am glad to report that it worked perfectly. Unlike other older models of different rain jackets, that can feel stiff and plasticy, the Wasatch jacket is not only seriously waterproof, it does so while being soft and stretchy and conforming to your body’s movement. Another blog post reviewing this particular gear piece will follow as well.
Suspension bridge across a beautiful creek.
In addition, most of the lower trail sections along the river inside the gorges were now extremely muddy. Couple that with lots of exposed roots and you end up spending most of your energy watching every single step rather than enjoying your surroundings.
Many creek crossings provided us with plentiful opportunities to refill our water bottles.
Miles were harder to come by as we got closer to the finish. In fact, Rick and I started to really question reality. It seemed trail posts were no longer actually reflecting mileage accurately. We’d “run” for what felt like an hour only to see that were barely covered a mile. It went on like this until we got close to Oconee State Park. With a trail sign indicating 6 miles to the finish, I finally got my second wind. I was ready to get this done. It would be daylight soon and I was determined to break 24 hours.
One of the many impressive wooden bridges crossing one of the creeks.
Rick and I continued on, but our progress continued to slow. We were wondering if we could even break 24 hours. Why didn’t we get any closer to the finish/ Where is the finish? What is going on? Add a few expletives here and there and you get this gist of our conversation. Finally, daylight had broken. Just a couple more miles and we would be at the finish.
Creek crossing near Lake Toxaway, were we refilled our water.
Finally, we arrived at the Foothills Trailhead at Oconee State Park. There was no finishing shoot, no Race Director high fiving finishers, no medal, no refreshments, just a beautiful trail sign. Rick and I had done it and it was sweet! 76 miles, 16,000ft of vert that felt like 25,000ft covered in 23 hours and 40 minutes. Our net running time according to Strava was 20 hours and 16 minutes, not had at all. We were now unofficial official finishers of the Foothills Trail.
Small creek crossing, where we refilled our water.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Larry Creveling to inviting us along and for taking care of the logistics. I’d also like to thank all of the other runners that joined for the adventure. I truly consider you friends for life. Finally, I’d like to thank Charles Raffensperger who maintains the amazing Foothills Trail website that tracks everyone’s attempts and finishes at the Foothills Trail. Ultra runners are a special breed of people and I am glad to be part of this tribe. Another bucket list adventure completed.
River crossing at Lake Toxaway.

One of the many bridges and staircases on the trail. 

Massive boulder along the trail.

The final stretch of Foothills Trail inside Oconee State Park.

Rick Rawls (on right) and I all smiles at the finish, but clearly sleep deprived.

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