Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Plan B

This weekend had spiraled out of control. At first, Scott and I had planned a casual, July Fourth weekend of cragging. Then we asked ourselves: Could we do 2,000 feet in a day? Then 3,000? And when rain scrubbed any hope of climbing, Scott suggested an idea he'd being toying with in recent months – tagging the highest point in five states, specifically, North and South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and Georgia. Then I suggested we run to the top. Not to be outdone, Scott stated it could be done in less than 24 hours. The race was on.

Oh, and did I mention it would require 14 hours of driving and nearly 50 miles of running… But the challenge had been presented, the gauntlet had been laid, and I, in particular, had talked too much trash for this not to succeed. So, on Sunday, Scott and I sat at the Raleigh/Durham International Airport after dropping off his wife and son, ready to begin our 24-hour epic.

The Scary Truth About Endorphins
Summit #1, Mount Rogers, VA

Three and a half hours of driving brought us to the Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia. Four and a half miles of steep, rocky trail stood between us and the summit of Mount Rogers (5,729 feet, or 1746 meters for all our beautiful Canadian readers). We started running up the trail and within a half mile, I was breathing heavy… really heavy. I was worried I would start walking before we even reached the first summit – and I'm sure Scott was in the same boat – but within a mile, our bodies adapted and we cruised along the wet, rocky trail.

It was raining hard as we wound our way toward the summit. We passed a herd of semi-wild horses and numerous wild hikers that we shied away from. We kept running and 54 minutes after we set out, we reached our first summit. Handshakes and photographs, but no summit view – there were just too many trees and way too much fog. I guess they call them the Smoky Mountains for a reason. On the way down, my endorphins were really pumping. It was probably the best runners' high I'd ever felt. My legs felt strong, my lungs felt full of O2, and my spirits were high. Now, I'm not a sports scientist, but I'm pretty sure that at some point, endorphins just aren't enough. That point was coming soon…

The Hill that Whupped the Alpinist's Ass
Summit #2, Mount Mitchell, NC

On Mount Rogers, we gained a measly 1,100 feet of elevation in 4.5 miles (335 m, 7.2 km), but on Mount Mitchell we would gain 3,600 feet in only 5.7 miles (1,097 m, 9.2 km) to reach its 6,684-foot (2,037 m) summit. That translates to steep! But our plan was to run to the top, and run we would.

We were still feeling good as we pulled into the parking lot, and we were still feeling good when we asked directions to the trailhead… Fast forward a mile up the trail: "Dude, let's walk." I'm not sure who said it, or if it was even said, but we walked. At first I was angry at myself. I'm a freakin' climber, a would-be alpinist, and I'm letting this hill kick my ass, I muttered. Oh no, I said, as I tried to run up the next steep, rocky, technical section of trail. But within a few meters, I was walking again. Damn! Beaten by a hill. But we soon developed a sustainable system of running the flat and moderately steep sections, while walking the steepest portions of the trail. I could live with this, as it would allow us to reach our goal of five summits without having a massive heart attack.

The rest of the 5.7 miles went quickly. We reached the summit in the rain, again – the fog afforded no spectacular view – snapped a few soggy photographs, and began our knee-jarring descent. Just over an hour later, we were stripping off our wet shoes and clothes, putting on dry stuff, and tearing off down FR 472 toward Clingman's Dome, TN.

Are We There Yet?
Summit #3, Clingman's Dome, TN

The answer was no. The answer was always no, even though I asked myself this question at least a million times on the 7.5-mile (12.1-km) ascent to the summit of Clingman's Dome. At 10 p.m. we had pulled into the parking lot at Newfound Gap in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Our original plan was to run the 7-mile trail to the Dome's summit, but it was dark and raining and, really, who wants to break an ankle in a fictitious race against imaginary opponents. We sure didn't. So we elected to run the 7.5 mile paved road to the summit. It was our race, we made up the rules, so it wasn't even cheating.

On this summit, walking was less of a threat – in 7.5 miles we would gain only 1,600 feet (488 m). But pain and fatigue reared their ugly heads at around mile six, and by mile 6.5, I told Scott I needed to walk. Being a good friend, he slowed the pace, though I'm sure we were both happy to slow down for a few minutes. By this point – 26 miles into our epic – my right knee was throbbing, and the top of Scott's foot was giving him hell, but we pushed on, running and walking, to the 6,643-foot (2,024-m) summit.

We reached the summit at around 11:30 p.m. on Sunday. The fog had lifted, but it was dark. Foiled again! Our third summit, but still no view. Oh well, I thought, as I slammed a Clif bar and thirty seconds later we barreled downhill toward the car. We reached the parking lot at 12:45 a.m. on Monday. Nine hours and 55 minutes to go!

How Pavement Saved My Life
Summit #4, Brasstown Bald, GA

It was my shift to drive. We changed clothes and loaded up the car in preparation for the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Georgia. Scott climbed into the passenger seat and fell asleep, as I put the car in gear and pointed the car south. I'm pretty good at a lot of things, but I can admit that driving isn't necessarily one of them. An hour away from Clingman's Dome, I was really falling asleep. I needed a nap or Scott to drive. I knew Scott was too tired to drive, though, because I'd hit the rumble strip four times in the last mile and he hadn't even woken up, so I pulled the car off the road and closed my eyes. Twenty minutes later I woke up and steered back onto the road, but an hour later my head was bobbing again. This time I asked Scott to drive. Thankfully, he consented and drove us the last half an hour.

We again elected to take the road, driving to within a mile and a half of the summit before parking and starting our run. We had originally planned this to be a six-mile run, but we were both hurting badly and knew the last summit would be a steep five miles on trail. Six miles in the dark probably would have killed me. But, thankfully, a wide, paved road led right to the summit. (I guess it won't be that easy when we climb Denali, eh?)

It was misting when we began our march to the summit, and it was still misting when we reached the lookout. Add another tally, that's four summits with no view! Twenty minutes later we were back at Scott's car and lighting sparklers to celebrate Independence Day…

Slim Jims Are No Way to Fuel an Ultra-Marathon
Summit #5, Sassafras Mountain, SC

I'll be totally honest. No fish stories here.

We had just ran (with just a pinch of walking) 39 miles. We were tired, hungry, and in pain. We were also almost an hour ahead of schedule and the sub-24-hour goal was well within our reach. So on Sassafras Mountain, we didn't run a single step. Nope. We never even thought about it. Instead, we enjoyed the first sunny weather of the trip and a leisurely 2.5 mile stroll to the summit (albeit a steep stroll).

Despite our pleasant pace, we were both gassed. Somehow, neither of us had given much thought to fueling this madness. I had brought several boxes of Clif bars and a bag of almonds and Scott had brought GU gel packets and a crapload of Slim Jims. Bon appétit, right? Even though our culinary skills were sorely lacking, we made it to our final summit with 46 minutes to spare – our total time was 23 hours and 14 minutes. Not bad for a couple of guys who ate almost nothing but Slim Jims and energy bars. With the clock stopped, we pulled out the camera to get that all-important summit photo. We looked around for a good view. All we saw were trees. Trees, bushes, and more trees. Our final summit, during the only good weather in 24 hours, and there was no observation deck, no fire tower, to rock outcropping on which to get a good summit picture. Alas, maybe it was fitting. This was, after all, our Plan B, our rainy-day adventure. We hadn't really planned anything – our directions and maps were drawn in pencil in my Russian notebook, our food could have been bought at a gas station, and we hadn't really trained for such an epic. This wasn't a cookie-cutter weekend, and it was never destined to end with a postcard-perfect view. We were both happy and tired, we had found adventure, and that was the real goal.

We stashed the useless cameras and began our last descent for this trip. An hour later we were sitting in the Sunrise Café in Brevard, NC eating $20 worth of breakfast food: waffles, eggs, potatoes, sausage, bagels, and coffee. Fourteen hours of driving, 44 total miles (71 km) on foot, and 8,800 feet (2,682 m) of elevation gain deserved a lot of delicious food. We could hardly walk, but we felt damn good.


  1. Sounds like a blast. Thanks for the heads-up on the slim jims. It's good to hear that you still have the energy for adventures outside the job!
    Take Care!! (and answer your phone sometime!)

  2. Hey Nick,

    Sorry I'm so bad with answering my phone. When was the last time you called, because I've been gone a lot. Anyway, give me a call again. I'll be sure to pick up. Or at least what's your number and e-mail address?