[Warning to sensitive readers: In case it wasn't clear from that sentence, this report contains way to much information about butt chafing. Ultrarunning is gross, and I'm not here to sugarcoat that fact. You have been warned.]
|Blue skies and thick thighs|
PC: David White
The Smokies Challenge Adventure Run, or SCAR for short, is the delightfully melodramatic name given to the 72 mile section of the Appalachian Trail that traverses Great Smoky Mountain National Park. One of the highest and most remote routes on the east coast, SCAR boasts a formidable 18,000 feet of climbing and descending, tags multiple 6,000' summits, and has just a single road crossing near the half way point, which forces most runners to carry 10+ hours worth of supplies at all times.
I've had this route on my bucket list ever since vacationing in the Smokies in 2015, so when my Michigander-turned-Tennessean friend David White invited me to run it with him, I jumped at the opportunity.
After 13 hours of driving over the course of two days, I found myself at Fontana Dam, which is the southern terminus of the route. I stuffed a duffel bag of clothes and a pair of trekking poles into the trunk of David's little Ford Fusion, and then stuffed myself into the back seat alongside our soon-to-be pacer Sammi Stoklosa and a mountain of clothes, food, and running accessories. Up front were David, our soon-to-be crew Cofer, and another (slightly smaller) mountain of running gear. Thus began our cozy two hour drive to Davenport Gap, which would be our starting line the next morning.
|Left to right: myself, Sami, and Cofer discussing either Greek philosophy or dick jokes over dinner. I can't remember which.|
PC: David White
We checked into a little thru-hiker cabin a few minutes from the starting line and immediately set to work doing all of the essential pre-race preparations: eating pizza, drinking beer, sipping whiskey, drinking a little more beer, and fussing with our mountains of gear.
After a rock solid three hours of sleep, our alarms went off at 4:00am. With a planned 5:00am start time and a 15 minute drive, that was just enough time for me to visit the porta potty and wolf down the gourmet breakfast that I had picked up at a gas station on the drive down: a pack of strawberry Pop Tarts and a can of Starbucks cold brew coffee. Treat yo self!
Miles 0-20: Sunrise and smooth sailing
|David's artsy shot of our starting line.|
PC: David White
At precisely 5:01am (close enough!), we left Davenport Gap and began the long climb up to the 5,000'+ ridge where we would spend the rest of the day. David took the lead and, using trekking poles for the first time ever, charged forward at a solid pace. It was a lovely 59 degrees outside, but the humidity ensured that we were drenched in sweat within the first mile. The narrow trail was lined with fresh mountain laurel blooms and crisscrossed with even fresher spider webs, which David reluctantly deconstructed as he hiked.
A few miles in, the sun peaked out and we were treated to an orange sky over the blue haze of the mountains. Life was good!
|Sunrise over the Smokies|
Around the two hour mark, we passed our first of many (we thought) water sources of the day. David filtered a bottle, but I still had a liter and a half left and didn't bother to stop. If you were watching a movie about our adventure there would be an ominous organ chord played over this moment, but since that's not possible to do in a blog post I'll just inform you that we had, in fact, just passed the last available water for the next seven hours.
But that was for future David and Ryan to worry about. In the present, we were riding high on good weather, good views, and good company. As the trail climbed steadily higher, verdant rhododendron tunnels gave way to mossy old growth boreal forests.
|The Smokies at 3,000 feet vs. 6,000 feet|
We took dozens of pictures between the two of us but generally kept chugging forward at a steady pace, keeping our rough goal of 24 hours in the back of our minds. 24 hours is the finishing time that most runners shoot for on this route, and on paper it seems pretty easy. Just three miles an hour - barely a fast walk.
I don't remember where we were at this point in the journey, but I distinctly recall hearing David say "that's not a good sign" as he crouched over a dry creek bed. We had apparently reached one of the more "reliable" water sources in the first half of our journey and it was nothing more than a damp patch of dirt. As most of the Smokies are classified as temperate rainforest, it had not occurred to us that water sources could dry up during the spring, but in retrospect this might have been worth checking.
Miles 20-40: How is a rainforest this dry?!
It was now mid-morning and the sun was climbing in the sky. Traversing ridgeline at the same altitude as Boulder, CO, we had the benefit of cooler temperatures, but with 17% less oxygen in the air we noted that climbing uphill was noticeably harder than usual. Upon writing this paragraph, I also just remembered that running at altitude requires greater water intake than running at sea level. Live and learn.
|View from the ridge|
PC: David White
After hours of rationing water, we were down to one last 500ml bottle between the two of us, and a couple hours of exposed ridge line still separated us from our loyal crew. David sent a text (hooray for cell reception on ridges!) letting them know that our situation was desperate and that we needed water asap. They responded that they could run out and meet us a few miles from the road crossing at Newfound Gap. With the promise of reinforcements on their way, we slowly sipped the last few milliliters of water and did our best to keep moving forward. We weren't going to die of dehydration, but if things got much worse we would have to make the difficult choice to drop out and protect our bodies.
As the water dried up, so too did our conversation, which to that point had been pretty lively. As ultrarunners are wont to do, we slipped into silent death march mode. Tried to conserved energy. Tried not to complain about how hot and uncomfortable we both were, as if acknowledging those facts would make them more real. It was just as well, since my tongue was glued to the roof of my mouth from dehydration. I vaguely remember offering to sell my soul in exchange for some cold water to splash on my salt encrusted face.
|This desiccated corpse of a tree seems representative of our current state at this point in the story|
Somewhere around Charlies Bunion, Cofer came bounding into view with a handheld bottle. We gulped it down voraciously. A few minutes later David's friend Lea appeared with two more full bottles. Those were also gone in seconds. We thanked them profusely and then sent David ahead to get more. We would need at least a few more liters to properly unfuck ourselves.
A few minutes later, we arrived at Icewater Spring, which is aptly named. Good lord that water was cold and rejuvenating. We each chugged a bottle and then filled up several more for the road. I splashed a few handfuls of water in my face, the salt stinging my eyes as it ran off. I'm pretty sure I owe someone my soul now, and honestly it was worth it.
With renewed spirits and some great conversation from our pacers, we made quick work of the remaining miles to Newfound Gap. David and I staggered into the tourist-choked parking lot feeling much better, but still in need of some calories before continuing our run. The human body needs water to process food, so seven hours between water sources meant seven hours of insufficient calorie consumption. Sammi was waiting for us a the car with a buffet of food options.
"I got cold soggy noods!" she said while gesturing to a Nalgene bottle of chilled ramen noodles.
"Yes, send noods!" I responded. David similarly indulged.
Thus began a whirlwind 15 minute pit stop during which I may have eaten the biggest meal of my life. I inhaled the entire serving of noodles in two bites, unhinging my jaw like an anaconda eating a capybara made of pasta. I devoured two slices of cold pesto pizza left over from the night before. Cookies? Sure. Pickles? Why not? I chased this all down with a few big gulps from the Kentucky mule that I had prepared the night before. Cofer put a cold beer in my hand, and just as I took the first sip someone offered me a shot of whiskey. This was happy hour and a five course meal at NASCAR pit stop speed.
|Left to right: Cofer, David, me, Sammi, and Lea at Newfound Gap|
PC: David Cofer
"Ready to go?" said David, who was suddenly wearing a different outfit. Somehow he had found the time to change his clothes while I was eating my body weight in junk food.
"But..." I said as I gestured widely at all the uneaten food that was still out, and then realized that 15 minutes had passed in the blink of an eye.
Beer still in hand, I waddled lazily after him and back into the woods. Much to the delight of my stomach, which indeed felt like I had just eaten a capybara, we immediately started to climb and I was able to digest the thousands of calories that I had just inflicted upon myself. The trail was rocky and frequently off camber in this section, but we were still relatively fresh after "only" 31 miles of running in ten hours.
After just two miles, we again saw our crew at a little parking lot in Indian Gap. I wasn't hungry, but I stuffed another cookie in my mouth for good measure. This stop was very brief, and from here we just had a "quick" 8 mile traverse to the summit of Clingman's Dome, where we would see our crew for the third and last time until the finish.
But as I would go on to learn about the Smokies, nothing is ever quick. Sure, there is no all-fours rock scrambling like the Catskills or the Adirondacks; there are no 1,000 foot per mile slogs like the San Juans; no knee deep river crossings. No, instead the SCAR is death by a thousand cuts. Each section is pretty rocky and pretty steep. And if, through a series of poor choices, you're pretty dehydrated to top it all off, you might find yourself suffering without really knowing what hit you.
All that is to say that the wheels started to fall off in the eight miles between Indian Gap and Clingman's Dome.
|Somewhere on the slog to Clingman's|
We weren't particularly sore or tired. We were no longer dehydrated or calorie depleted. But the trail was just rocky enough and we were just tired enough that we started to lose motivation.
We summitted Mount Collins, one of the numerous 6,000 footers on the route, and on my elevation profile it looked like we had a leisurely three mile traverse to gain the remaining 500 feet to the summit of Clingman's Dome. And from there, the trail went primarily downhill for the remainder of our journey. Despite our struggles, things were starting to look promising!
Then, much to my surprise, we started to descend.
The thing about relying on a low resolution elevation profile is that it smooths out a lot of little climbs and descents. So instead of our leisurely 500 foot climb in three miles, we instead had a 500 foot descent in the first mile followed by a 1,000 foot climb over the next two. Needless to say, that was bad for morale. Our crew texted asking how far out we were, and I responded that we were at "mile thirty-fuck-point-fuck," which they thankfully thought was funny.
At long last, we summitted Clingman's Dome, where we spent another 15 minutes trying to put the shattered pieces of ourselves back together. As luck would have it, we ran into Hunter Leninger, who had just set the fastest known time on the 288 mile Benton McKaye Trail. This put our adorable little 70 mile adventure into perspective, and after a few minutes of self reflection we were back on the trail.
Miles 40-60: Angry starfish and the giardia flavored water
Fourteen hours had elapsed since we had started our journey. We now had 10 hours to cover the remaining 31 miles, which were primarily downhill. Despite our struggles earlier in the day, this seemed doable. Adding to our optimism was the company of Sammi, who would join us for the rest of the journey.
|Sammi leading the charge|
Our enthusiasm somewhat restored, we began our assault on the southern half of SCAR. Between Sammi the science teacher, David the nurse, and myself the research scientist, our conversation naturally drifted to extremely nerdy topics. Perfect! I can talk anyone's ear off about electrons and photons and the perils of grad school, and will gladly do so when the opportunity presents itself.
Despite the welcome distraction, I became increasingly aware of a sense of discomfort below the equator. The accumulated salt from 14 hours of sweat had resulted in a burning ring of fire, to borrow a phrase from Johnny Cash. I went to grab a lubricating wipe from my pack and realized with horror that I had used them up and hadn't restocked at our last supply point. This was going to be a long 31 miles.
With the boldness that only comes from many hours of running, I loudly informed my two companions that my butt was in the process of sanding itself apart. David confirmed that he was dealing with the same issue. Sammi, who teaches teenagers, was unperturbed by this news.
Quick sidebar: Why the hell are the Jim Walmsleys of the world sponsored by running lubricant companies? You know for a fact that his skinny little thighs have never once touched each other during a run. Want to prove that your lube works? Sponsor a thick legged runner, you cowards!
Thank you for listening to my Ted Talk.
|Last little bit of daylight|
We crested Siler's Bald just as the last few rays of sun disappeared from the sky. The narrow ridge was dotted with stunted trees and offered a nearly panoramic view. We were about to run through the darkness for the next nine hours. This is what ultrarunning was truly about!
As if on cue, the terrain grew rockier. Our pace slowed and the conversation became less enthusiastic. Sammi was using this run as mental preparation for her first 100 miler, and she was about to get a front row seat to a full fledged death march.
We reached Derrick Knob Shelter, where a very helpful Ridge Runner (Appalachian Trail steward) directed us down a steep side trail to a wonderfully cold flowing spring. Once David and Sammi had filtered their water, I sent them back up while I crafted a makeshift wet wipe from a paper towel and ice cold spring water, and attempted to do some damage control. My apologies to the confused woodland creatures watching this bizarre human bathing ritual. This offered a few minutes of relief, but I would be back in chafe city within a mile. Worth a try.
|Filtering water at Derrick Knob Shelter|
PC: Sammi Stoklosa
We trotted on through rolling terrain. Our elevation profile insisted that we were gradually descending, but it certainly didn't feel like it.
At some point in the middle of the night we heard a crashing sound just to the right of the trail. We had spooked some kind of large creature. Or at least it sounded large. Then again, a squirrel sounds large when you're running in the dark. The amount of bear scat on the trail was enough evidence that we should proceed with caution though. We yelled and sang loudly to scare off the animal, but as luck would have it, it kept running away in the direction we were traveling. A half dozen times over the course of a mile we heard the same crashing sound just out of sight. These are the times when you really appreciate running with other people.
With cooler temperatures, I was able to stay on top of my hydration and nutrition. My legs felt strong, and the altitude no longer seemed to affect me as much. However, there was nothing I could do about the horrific chafing that I was experiencing. I experimented with different running forms, even attempting a hands-on-buttcheeks approach which worked for a few steps at a time (and presumably looked really cool too). I would periodically fall back from David and Sammi while I attempted all of this and then hobble-run to try to catch up. I once again offered to sell my soul for a little bit of Vaseline.
"You still back there, Ryan?" I would hear from David.
"Yeah, just working through some things," was my honest response.
About 15 miles from the finish, we reached our last spring. We decided to fill all of our water bottles since we anticipated these miles going rather slowly. As David lifted his water bladder out of his pack, a small container tumbled to his feet. Vaseline! David had forgotten it was in there. For the second time in 24 hours, I owed someone a soul. Thankfully I bought a 12-pack of souls the last time I was at Costco.
We slathered our naughty bits with reckless abandon, while Sammi politely turned away and pretended not to be entirely grossed out. Like I said, ultrarunning is disgusting. I make no apologies for that fact.
Miles 60-71: The anticlimactic finish and aftermath
Onward, and upward. Then downward. Then upward again (it was still rolling terrain). I vaguely remember summiting something called Devil's Tater Patch and being annoyed that there was not a single goddamn potato to be found. What kind of clownshow tater patches do you cultivate, North Carolina!?
The sun came up and the 24 hour mark came and went. No matter. We just wanted to get to the finish. Time was a meaningless human construct, and our human forms were just a vibrating mass of particles cooperating for an infinitesimal moment in the grand scale of the universe. Wow, did someone slip LSD into my water bottle or was the sleep deprivation really getting to me that much?
After way too many surprise invisible-on-the-elevation-profile climbs, we reached Shuckstack (or as I had been calling it in my head, Fuck Shit Stack). We climbed up to the fire tower and then just had a few downhill miles to the finish, and -
Wait a minute - where did the trail go?
We were standing at the base of the fire tower and there didn't seem to be any way forward. I pulled up my map and realized that we weren't supposed to climb up to the tower at all. Our only missed turn of the day, and it came four miles from the end. At least we didn't go very far.
Our self pity didn't last much longer, as we ran into Cofer and Lea just below the summit. They perked us up with stories while Cofer blasted classic rock from his phone. David asked Lea to run ahead and grab some drinks for us. A few minutes later she bounded back up the trail with a ginger ale in one hand and a beer in the other. David grabbed the ginger ale, which left me to suffer through an ice cold IPA. We all have to make sacrifices sometimes.
We reached the parking lot after 27 hours and 18 minutes of nearly continuous movement through the mountains. As I left the trail, Cofer informed me that I needed to touch the trail sign. I complied by heaving both trekking poles at it and flipping the double bird to the entire mountain range. Then I regained my composure and we posed for a nice finish line picture.
PC: David Cofer
We flatly refused to run the extra mile across Fontana Dam, as some people choose to do, so our crew loaded our sweaty corpses into a car and shuttled us over to the bathrooms.
I took one of the most satisfying showers of my life, then spent a few minutes reflecting on the adventure with David. Or, I should say we attempted to reflect on the adventure, but we mostly sat slack jawed with thousand yard stares on our faces. I wondered aloud if it were possible to chafe a butthole completely off and whether I would need some kind of transplant. Ultrarunning is a silly sport.
I slept in the back of my Subaru for a few hours, then woke up at 3pm with an insatiable craving for breakfast food. As I was in the south, there was an easy solution: Waffle House! A short drive later, I was sitting in front of the most beautiful view of the entire weekend.
|Three sunny side eggs, triple hashbrowns smothered and covered, side of bacon.|
I ate every single bite.
Now with the benefit of four weeks of hindsight, I can say that I got everything I wanted out of this trip. I got to explore some new mountains for the first time since the pandemic shut everything down, I spent time with a good friend, I made a few new friends, and I scratched that long adventure itch that haunts all ultrarunners. Aside from a random Achilles twinge that has lingered around since then, my legs held up well and my nutrition plan (summarized as eating everything in sight) worked to perfection.
A week later, I received a small package from David. Inside was the coolest buckle I've ever gotten from a run, featuring a vintage map of the Smoky Mountains. I don't usually condone belt buckles for sub-100 mile runs, but this was so cool that I immediately made an exception. As I type this report, I am proudly wearing it.
|Buckles: For 100 mile races and 71 mile runs that feel like 100 mile races|
This concludes my Smoky Mountains adventure. I have now done a handful of long runs in the South, and the mountains down there never disappoint. I can't wait to go back!
Next up: Manutou's Revenge 54 miler.