Total distance: 17 miles Total time: ~3.5 hours Pace: ~12 min/mile
Wilderness ranking: 4.5/5 Ruggedness ranking: 5/5 Enjoyability ranking: 5/5
Wildlife: several deer, birds, signs of bear, one large black dog
Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.
My Greatest Challenge Yet
Every facet of this endeavor was a challenge unto itself. From the logistics to the execution, the planning to the actual doing, nothing was easy. Perhaps that is partly why it meant so much to complete this trail run. But only partly. The run itself was rugged, wild, and beautiful; unlike anything I had ever done to date, and exactly what I have been searching for. It began last august after serendipitously coming across an article in Runner’s World called “The 20 Best Trail Runs in the U.S.” (http://spr.ly/60118vR9d). One of the trails described seemed to leap off the page as it was described as one of the hardest trails in the southeast US. I was in the process of planning a trip to Charleston, South Carolina so my wife could spend a weekend mentoring with a premier newborn photographer. As good as she is already her desire to improve her craft is limitless, and I wanted to run trails while she worked. The Art Loeb Trailhead in Brevard, North Carolina is a mere 4 hours away, but my window of opportunity was only Saturday morning through Sunday evening. I began plotting my potential demise…scratch that, adventure. I left at 5 a.m., arrived at the Hub and Pisgah Tavern for a trail map and my last coffee for about 36 hours, then parked at the Davidson Campground and loaded up my pack and running gear. My exact plan was still uncertain, but I knew that to get back to my wife on time I would have to return to my car by late afternoon the next day. Despite my desire to travel light, my North Face 65L pack was bulging and heavy. Fortunately, the adrenaline and excitedness I felt outweighed the strain on my shoulders, at least for a while, and I darted across the paved lot and down the hard-packed trail towards the Davidson River.
I had decided to hike as far as I could go on Saturday, my sights set on Deep Gap shelter fifteen miles away. This particular section of the venerable Appalachian Trail is not particularly picturesque in its views, but the setting itself is truly captivating. Dense green tunnels of vegetation open sharply to towering hardwoods and rocky ascents. A mere hour from the campground and I barely crossed paths with another hiker for the remainder of the day. In fact, after passing a young couple and their friendly yet somewhat unnerving black dog that leaped out of the woods to greet me, I hiked without any signs of life until coming to a junction at Cat Gap loop trail. A small group of southbound hikers were resting and my antisocial tendencies got the better of me as I very quickly passed by with just a nod and slight smile. It wasn’t until I had descended about a half mile that I realized I must have taken the loop trail instead of staying on the ALT and I had to back track and return to the trail crossing, where of course they were still relaxing. This time I stopped to talk, as a sort of penance, and they pointed out the steep incline where I should have turned to continue my climb. I paused every hour or so for a quick snack, but otherwise hiked continuously and rather briskly for about ten miles, and I admittedly felt quite accomplished for an inexperienced hiker. All that changed as I began to tackle the ascent to Pilot mountain.
I had already breezed through twelve or so miles of trail and several smaller peaks, but the seemingly never-ending climb to reach this summit was harder than I expected. Still, I pressed on and pushed through the tiredness to accelerate to the top, where I was abundantly rewarded by the 360 degree panorama of the Pisgah Forest, Nantahala, and Smoky Mountains in the distance. I lingered long enough for a few pictures and a smoked meat snack, then continued down to finally reach Deep Gap shelter and spring, where I found a nice secluded area to set up my tent. Fifteen miles of constant elevation change carrying a heavy pack was as much as I could imagine doing in a day, so my plan for a trail run finally came into focus. The next morning, I packed up, ate some less than appetizing yet very fulfilling freeze dried granola cereal, and continued on for two more miles up and down one more small peak until I reached the point where the ALT crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway. I left all my gear except a hydration belt, and prepared to run 17 miles back over Pilot Mountain and the other smaller peaks and shoulders down to the trailhead where I had begun the previous morning. I had three snacks, three 8 oz water bottles, and my life straw mini to help refill the water bottles, except I actually didn’t have the water filter. I didn’t realize that omission until I reached the first spring back at deep gap. Luckily, that spring was running very cleanly right out of the mountain so I felt comfortable drinking it unfiltered, but I knew after that I wouldn’t be able to refill anywhere else. I was finally running wild.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of pushing up a mountain, then almost uncontrollably flying down the other side except that every sense you have is both supremely focused yet let loose to simply be in the moment. I ran every step that the trail allowed me, slowing to climb up or down the steep, treacherous boulders dotted throughout. I didn’t travel very fast overall, but it felt great to just keep moving for so long. I never felt truly tired or sore, much less so than hiking the previous day at least, and my anticipation of the accomplishment kept pulling me along the trail. There was less time to take in the beauty of my surroundings and more focus on the task and my purpose, however I felt just as connected to the mountain. It felt great to keep up some speed and it definitely helped that the trail was overall a descent from the peak of Pilot mountain down to the campground. Sometime around 3:00 p.m., much earlier than my deadline, I finally reached that same cold river I had lightly bounded across the day before. This time I stopped, found a good entry point, and waded out for a celebratory ice bath, nature style (fully clothed for the record).
In all I had hiked seventeen miles, ran seventeen miles, camped deep in the wilderness, and emerged from the shallow river about 28 hours after I had first crossed it’s footbridge. I still had to drive up the parkway to get my pack, then make it back to Charleston to pick up my wife so we could drive back to Tampa. I also had to shower before she would even think about giving me a kiss. Upon reflection, it’s difficult to separate the enjoyment of simple immersion in such a pristine area of wilderness and the pleasure of overcoming such a difficult challenge. Perhaps both were integral for me. What I can be sure of is that the experience was simultaneously the climax of my entry into trail running, and a stepping point for everything yet to come.