{Half}-SCARed, but Smarter

a li’l Preface: so, I’m sittin’ here feelin’ like everything is right in the world. It’s a beautiful, sunny day and the trees that surround my sun room are in full, luxurious bloom. Reggae music, and I mean molasses-smooth crucial reggae, is streaming melodically through my speakers and I feel a physical sense of completeness.

…even though I missed “completion” by a mile.

make that, …30 miles.

But I now have one of those stories. One of those experiences. Like surfing the raw expanse of Costa Rica, or paddling out at dangerous Pipeline on the north Shore of Hawaii, or being chased by waves the size of strip malls off Diamond Head, or the hundreds of stories in my head from teenage years of traveling the country skateboarding, …I now have another adventure notch that has made a significant and life-long impact on who I am as a runner and a person.

Yup, it was that cool. Check it…


Photo (left to right):
Vic’tah, Three-kids-Tony, Suwee, C$ (that’s me), and Rockgut. Both Jeff (of Jeff and Nancy hiker support fame) and a thru-hiker were taking photos, hence some of us looking a different direction.

First of all, what is the SCAR?

From the email I sent to friends and family the day before leaving for he run:

“Five us are attempting to cross the Smoky Mountain range section of the Appalachian trail [AT]. The run is known in the trailrunning, ultramarathon world as the SCAR

The route is 71 miles, with 18,800+ feet of total elevation gain, with various summits as high as 6,700 feet (Clingman’s Dome). The run is completely self-supported since there is no way to bail out along the way except for Newfound Gap at 41.3 miles. This route is sometimes popular with hikers who usually carve out 5-7 days for this – we are going to try to run it 24 hours.”

Here’s a little more about SCAR if you’re ever considering it.

Whaddya want, signs?

“Dude, what time is it?”

“11:30″

“What??!! We need to get some sleep”

Five guys, hyped to the max, but a little lost on the edges of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. Our goal was to drop my car at end of the 71 mile route, at Davenport Gap.

Finding a “gap” along the Appalachian Trail proved to be much more difficult than us “city geeks” had anticipated. Dashboard Garmin navigational toys are great for helping you find a Starbucks, but they can’t help much with trail landmarks.

We had to resort to good ol’ fashioned map reading …which whittled a group of business “professionals” down to collection of drooling, sleepy, stumblin’ dopes looking like they were trying to read braille.

Ok, so maybe not that bad, but I promise, before this year is over, I’m going to take an orienteering class. I learned, very succinctly, just how “resourceful-lame” I truly am when outside the comfort and convenience of the city.

In bed by 2:00, up by 4:30

We eventually stumbled upon Davenport gap in the pitch black.

“dude, shine your phone on that sign”, Jason yelled as we jumped out of the truck in the pitch black of a mountain road somewhere on the edge of the Smoky Mountains.


photo: Appalachian trail sign at Davenport Gap (which is really nothing but a mountain road crossing)

We found it.

But there was nowhere to leave the truck.

We found a ranger station about two miles away, transferred all of our gear from one truck to another, and set out for Gatlinburg, TN to get some sort of sleep before continuing preparation logistics, and hitting the trail by 9:30 a.m.

But we got lost. Sorta.

Bailed on Gatlinburg, found the nearest hotel, and tried to crash.

But who can sleep knowing that the adventure continues in about two hours? (well, that and the fact that two of the guys snored like buzzsaws – but let’s keep the stoke going)

Riding with Jeff

Up at 4:30a.m. and back on the road to drop off the “bail out” vehicle at Newfound Gap, and catch a ride from Jeff Hoch, co-owner of the well-known Hike Inn and friend to hikers and trail runners of the Appalachian Trail.

We hired him to drive us 40 miles to the start of the trek, Fontana Dam, a HUGE dam about one mile from the official start of the Appalachian Trail in the Smokies. This was a highlight of the trip. Dude was a character with a strong side of giving spirit coupled with an equal amount of grizzled, mountain-man rough edge.

He had great stories of hikers and ultrarunners, some who fared well, and some who experienced year-after-year of total smack-downs, only to keep coming back for more.

He warned us of bears and wild hogs, the latter of which had proven to be a real problem lately and he was especially cautionary with regards to them. Apparently these feral hogs (?) are nocturnal animals and not as easily scared away as the bears were supposed to be.

He says that he mostly discourages hikers from hiking at night, but said, “but you runners, …well, …it is what it is, I guess.”

Good answer, Jeff.

Giddyup boys

And just like that, we’re off on a nice, easy trot across the dam, up a short hill, and onto the Appalachian Trail.

…and immediately start climbing.

Two took the lead, two of us settled into the middle, and our “tracking” man brought up the rear. Vic’tah was carrying the SPOT tracking device for both safety purposes, and to test the device’s tracking capability. More on that later…

The first landmark was Shuckstack Firetower, at about 4,500 feet, and we must’ve climbed almost 3 miles to that Firetower, and it took us roughly an hour getting steeper and steeper as we got closer to the tower itself.

Rockgut already started getting blisters.

But alas, no Goldie Locks

We had settled into a series of rocky ups and downs when a crackling came across our radios we were all carrying.

“Guys, I gotta stand-off going on over here with some bears”

Three bears crossed the trail in front of Vic’tah and because we were all ahead of the bears, he was there all alone.


photo: Vic’tah takes a little souvenir parting shot as the bears moved on.

Being the self-centered friends that we are, we answered with,”Yell and scream and throw things”, and continued on.

Up one mountain, then down, nope, up, another mountain. Short downhill, then up another mountain.

“How is it possible to go up so much, but rarely go down?”

Can anyone really run this entire route? Really?

Even 75% of it?

I just don’t think so, but maybe I’m naive. This felt more like a fast-pack to me, than it did a run. I feel like I was power hiking ridge after ridge, running when I could, but in really small increments.

Early into the run, a few things became apparent to me for which I did not consider during preparation:

  1. I’m not sure how heavy my two running packs were, but I had too much stuff, and all this added weight really increased the physical impact of each foot fall.
  2. Just about every water stop involved a sharp descent, significantly off the trail; and also take note, just because there’s a wooden sign pointing to “water”, there’s no guarantee.
  3. Heat. Temps shot well up into the 80′s and none of us were a single bit heat acclimated.
  4. Food. I didn’t bring enough because I never imagined in 1000 years it would take me over 16 hours to go 42 miles. I’m not super fast, but seeing as how I did the hilly Pine Mountain 40-miler in 8:40-ish, I couldn’t imagine it taking me TWICE as long on the AT.
  5. SCaps save lives. {this I already knew, but they saved me}
  6. Talking to thru-hikers is very interesting and inspiring. I got jealous a few times.
  7. My head lamp sucks.

Between miles 5-10, a section I’ll call “the shelters”, there were sections of run-ability within some really beautiful, rolling ridge lines. The footing would get pretty rocky and “dug-out” in sections, and of course, climbs would end up in the mix as well, but it was nice to open up a little and get my Tarzan on.

Through the trees I could see these wide-angle views of the huge, steep mountains and wide-open valleys, as far as the eye could see. This was pretty much the case all day.

Sometimes I’d just stop. Stand there. Think about taking a photo, but realizing that there is no way my little point-n-shoot could capture the scene like I was seeing it.

…so, I’d just take a deep breath, thank the trail Gods, and move on…

It reminded me of being surrounded by the loud silence of the huge Redwood trees in Humboldt County, California.

Sometimes nature has a presence that commands attention and respect.

“Welcome to the Terrordome”

After Spence Field shelter, the scene opened up into these sort of mountain top meadows with tremendous climbing.

I had no idea where I actually was, but I had a “feeling” I was approaching Thunderhead Mountain. It was an interesting mixture of incredibly steep climbing, but with mountaintop rewards of incredible views, easy, breezy winds, and bright sunshine.

Hard and hot, but heavenly.

By the time I got to the summit of Thunderhead, I could barely breath. The open summits had baked my skin in the 80+ degree heat and sucked the life out of me. I tried to radio the others, but no one responded.

I was all alone on the mountaintop, but really wanted to share, so I broke out the cell phone and Twitter’d a message to the world:

“…I’m sittin’ on top of Thunderhead, 5,527 feet…”


photo: Marker on top of Thunderhead Mountain – one brutal climb.

And then started down the other side.

Talking to myself during the steep, technical descent, I kept trying to remember the name of the mountain I just crested, and was now descending, but the name that kept popping into my head was “terrordome”, so I started singing Welcome to the Terrordome loudly and aggressively, as I tripped and stumbled down the northern side of the mountain.

Finally, some decent running

At Buckeye Shelter (or maybe Derricks Knob shelter), I learned that I was only 22 miles into the run, but had chewed up almost eight hours.

{sigh}

I caught up with Suwee and he was not doing very well. He was having trouble eating and was feeling very low. He decided to stay at the shelter and wait for Vic’tah who was a few miles back.

As quickly as I had found someone, I was alone again. I ran 95% of this run alone.

But after this shelter, the trail became incredibly nice. I was glad to finally get some good running in here and running actually lifted me out of this funk that developed from the constant slow grind of excessive technicality with relentless climbing.

I continued to sing, this time 80′s hip hop, and had a nice smooth trot going. I figured if I could keep this up, I could make up some of the time for this second half of the run.


Ten hours in, only 25 miles or so… from christian griffith on Vimeo.

Ran through a few shelters where the greeting from thru-hikers was generally the same:

“Are you one of the runners?”

“yea…”

“well, your buddies are about an hour ahead”

“yea, I know …keep an eye out for two more coming up behind me”

“ok, are you guys gonna run through the night too?”

“that’s the plan.”

“you’re crazy”

“I know, …where’s the water?”

Clingman’s Dome: My final breaking point


.
It was already dark when I rolled into the final shelter before the three mile climb to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the entire Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine, at 6,643 feet.

I had all kinds of moments here that are really funny looking back. During this three mile, brutally long, technical climb, I experienced the following:

Finally, I arrived at the top of Climgman’s Dome, and thinking I was vey close, like less than a mile from the finish, I rejoiced and plopped my butt on the ground for a rest.

As I was resting and feeling beat-up but satisfied, I looked over at a trail sign:

“8.7 miles to Newfound Gap”

WHAT???????????

I don’t know what I was thinking, but I thought Clingman’s Dome and Newfound Gap (where our car was) were almost side by side.

They aren’t.

It was almost 10:00 pm, my light sucks and was already starting to dim, and doing the math, I realized that I was still going to be on the trail for 3 more hours.

I broke down.

I spent 10 minutes sitting up there trying to figure out a faster way to get out of this. Considered trying to descend the road to Clingman’s Dome and hitch-hike, but it was dark, no one around, and would have no assurance that I’d end up where I needed to end up.

I had no choice but to descend Clingman’s Dome, and make my way almost 9 more miles to Newfound Gap.

Out of water, out of food, in tremendous pain and the mountain just didn’t let up.

The last stretch was even more technical, more gnarly with steeper drops and step-downs, loose rocks, and twists and turns that confused the hell out of me since my whole world consisted of a dimming circumference of light.

Mentally, I just checked out and kept moving. Surprisingly, when presented with tiny stretches of runnable terrain, I could move pretty well, but they would last for maybe 20-50 yards max, and the trail would again become sharp rocks, drop-offs, or fallen trees.

Newfound Gap

At 1:30 a.m., I reached Newfound Gap. The first sign of civilization since hitting the trail 16 hours earlier.

I found Three-kids-Tony sleeping my sleeping bag on the concrete next to the car and Rockgut piled into the front seat with heat on inside the car.

“wow” was pretty much how I greeted the boys. It was pretty obvious that no one was in any condition to continue to Davenport Gap.

I knew Vict’ah and Suwee were still out there and I felt for them because the dark was really creepy in the Smokies – especially alone – but about 1.5 hours later, they arrived, having completed the last 20 miles together.

At about 3:00 a.m., we piled into the van, drove to a Gatlinburg hotel, and slept like babies for a few hours before heading home.

Success? Failure?

Well, we failed at completing the entire SCAR; but, I still feel awesome!

I wish that I could truly explain what I experienced out there. All alone, relying on myself for total survival in some of the most unforgiving terrain I have ever seen in my life.

It was really that gnarly.

You hear this alot, “tough terrain”, but until you’ve actually been out there and experienced it, you are probably not prepared for just how gnarly it really is.

We’re going back.

Like most who attempt SCAR and bail out early, it becomes that monkey on your back and you realize that 80% of getting through it is proper planning and preparation.

Logistics analysis

Next time, we’ll be better prepared and most likely will discuss some changes before the next attempt. I will mention these items both for my own reference as well as for others who may be interested in attempting the SCAR.

What I did wrong or can improve:

  1. Packs: I need to figure out a way to carry less weight. I wore two packs, a Nathan and an Eddie Bauer 2-litre water pack. This was too much gear on my back and became a problem very early on.
  2. Train: This is the wrong kind of thing to do on a whim. Next time, I will train with a pack before heading out for something like this without any pack experience.
  3. Sleep: I really did not get any sleep the night before. Not one wink. This was a problem for me and most likely contributed to my early attitude decline.
  4. Map: Vic’tah made maps for us complete with water locations, but I lost mine before we even started. I had to walkie-talkie the guys every time I was running low since I was clueless where I was and I ran 95% of the run alone.
  5. Food: Like an idiot, I didn’t plan food properly at all. Throughout the entire 16 hours, I only consumed two beef jerkys and two small single-servings of Combos pretzels. What the heck was I thinking?
  6. Route: I’m just not sure, but I have to believe that north to south would be easier. We climbed much, much more than we descended, so it stands to reason that coming the other way would offer more downhill sections – but, that being said, terrain is terrain, and that terrain is uber-gnarly whether climbing or descending.

What I did right or felt good about:

  1. Water: Having both a handheld water bottle and bladder was a good idea for water management. I would drink the bladder dry, since I never knew how much water I had left in there, and then used the handheld to manage remaining fluids until the next creek.
  2. Shoes: NB 800s was the right shoe choice. I never had foot issues, other than fatigue from the rocks. The terrain required the ‘bite’ of the 800 tread, and 790s would have been really tough for me at my level of minimalist-shoe development.
  3. Shuttle: Three cheers for Rockgut for setting up the shuttle to the start. That made things easier and now that I know “Jeff”, I will use his services exclusively

So when is SCAR v.2?

Tomorrow.

Just kidding, but I’m going back soon. This is in my blood now. This was one of the most incredible journey’s of my short three-year ultra career.

So it’s back to the grind.

Back to training.

Back to the trails.

The Florida Keys race is up next – and I’m not underestimating a thing.

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Comments

Looks like you all had fun in that adventure! Those pictures are really worth to share. It made me think of trying to go outdoors with my friends and family for a new perspective, and a breath of fresh air. Thanks for your sharing! Nice one!

this was absolutely incredible!

Congrats on your half-SCAR! Now you know what to expect for the next go-around (pepper spray works great on bunnies). I don’t know which direction would be easier- I’ve turned that over in my head a lot since I finished. That 42 mile section sucks after you’re already tired from the first 30, even if (on paper) it looks like a lot of downhill! I guess when you finish it one direction, you can come back and do the other way and let me know. Or better yet, how about a double SCAR? : )

Awesome! That is a killer outing! I have backpacked that section several times over the course of a few days. Every time I ran up on at least one bear. One was easily over 200 lbs. I was so scared I lost my lunch and once I was away from it I must have ran a half mile with a 50 lb. pack on screaming like a baby. Thunderhead is pure madness – every time. I have backpacked that section several times over the course of days. It is much easier to start at Newfound Gap and head to Fontana. I can’t vouch for the other side of the park though. Thanks for the report – you are the man!

Christian -

Great site! Great videos. Thanks for taking the time to put it together.

Wow, fabulous!!!

@Johnny – I actually think it went pretty well; I just think I was a little out of my league.

I need to know there’s stuff out there that I’m not ready for yet. Drives me.

Good job guys, as usual I couldn’t wait to read about it. As w/any extreme adventure, if all goes well it’s awesome, if not it’s priceless experience…Oh and even then it’s still awesome huh?!

Great report! I have carried children in a pack on my back from the parking lot to the top of the tower at Clingman’s Dome. Pretty tough at the time, but no scary bunnies. I would love to attempt something like this in the next couple of years. Great blog as well, I really enjoy reading it.

@Janice.

Man, you’re just humble. You guys crushed it.

Although, I do sorta wish you would have had to climb Clingman’s on the trail. I want to know if I’m just crazy or that climb just an outright meat grinder…

Y’all did do smart. You’re mature and grounded.

I go off half-cocked 95% of the time – but it makes it sorta interesting I suppose.

oh, your report brought tears!! of laughter! :-)
you guys crack me up. it is a very tough section of trail, not to be taken without lots of planning. i agree with Robert that if folks like Horton half to drop, it is a serious trip
that’s why i planned for the easiest possible way to do the whole thing! I’m not sure you will ever convince me and Sally to do the whole thing at once (vs our 2 day version), as we actually had fun both days and no real issues finishing. but we didn’t get to see bears or hear wild hogs at night or anything fun like that. maybe next time….

Wow, sounds great. Tough, but great.

@David – it was most likely NOT 30 pounds, but it felt like it.

15 might be more like it, …maybe twenty

Great report on an awe-inspiring run. I love that you guys tried something so bodacious, didn’t make it, and now already planning next time.

That’s good info on your planning, so keep letting us in on what you learned. I couldn’t believe you were starting with 35 pounds on your back.

I wanna do/try this one.

I am one of those people that took 6 days to finish the entire 71 miles and found it to be quite a challenge just too leisurely hike it. My hat is off to you guys for the great accomplishment…And knowing you, I believe that you will earn that imaginary SCAR “finisher” buckle in the not to distant future…Good luck in the Keys…….

@spurgeon – thanks brutha’… and yeah, Tony started with the bleach but I think he said “screw it” after the first couple of creeks

Great training run. I warned you it was tough. When folks like Dave Horton, Clark Zealand, Andrew Thompson and other hardy ultra-runners drop out of a run like this you know something must be up! Don’t be discouraged! You learned a whole lot to help you in the future. 16 hours? That’s about par. It took Kathy and I about 13 1/2 hours to do the same route you did, but we cut up the park road at Clingman’s!! ;) Of course that was in January when we spent half the time on the trail post-holing through the snow! It is these kinds of adventures, more than any races I’ve done, that I cherish most of all. This will be one to remember!

Great report Christian. It was a valiant effort. BTW – I think Tony said he put bleach in his water.

Nice training Christian! 16 hours on a 43 mile trail just shows how tough it was. Definately take that as something to keep in your head for the next event.

For the sleep thing, I bought a bunch of No-Doz and I’m waiting to try it out at my most exhaustive state like Matt Mahoney mentioned doing…although the idea of CHEWING a single No-Doz just sounds nasty.

Good report. I know the sudden heat had to be difficult. I did 40 miles on the AT/BMT on Thursday and heat HURT. You lived, you learned and the trail is still there for next time. Chip is correct – Southern ME and NH north of Glencliff are very tough. Lots more adventures out there.

Josh

Good report, Christian…
and sounds like a good idea to quit while you’re ahead. There is a tomorrow!

@Chip — really??? I just can’t imagine anything much more difficult.

@Stu — I did not treat my water along the way. As far as I know, no one did, but I could be wrong.

Some had plans to, but scraped those plans early on for convenience.

Great “run” report. Sounds like an adventure for sure. You definitely have to watch out for those bunnies… they’ll get you every time.

Did you guys use filter systems or UV pens or what for water purification?

~stubert.

Where’s the group shot at Newfound Gap?

Welcome to the AT. Before we moved to CO I had ran and hiked over 800 miles on the AT from the DE Water Gap to the Rangley’s in Maine. You have not experienced anything yet compared to the AT in the Mahoosuc’s. 31 miles with over 10,000′ of elevation gain. They have the hardest & worst sections of the entire AT- Mahoosuc Arm and the Notch. For my fiftieth birthday I did the one day traverse from Gorham to Grafton Notch. It took as long as my second lap this year at Barkley- 14:30. You are experiencing REAL trail running now. Have fun & be careful out there!

Wow Christian – I really enjoyed the RR. What an adventure! I posted a question on my blog the other day asking what other runners ‘White Whales’ were – I guess you found yours. Can’t wait to read about your victory next time :)

Nice bear picture…we saw none…but then we were singing too much. Janice and I half expected to see you at Newfound Gap Saturday morning to run to Davenport Gap with us!

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