Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Foothills Trail Attempt 2010

Wherein 6 brave souls face great physical, mental, and emotional challenges in an attempt to complete the Foothills Trail but are foiled by extreme heat, humidity, and fatigue*.

From left: Dan Hartley, Chad Henderson, Jim Cobb, Charles Raffesnperger, myself and Jason Sullivan

Months in the making, this epic adventure run was set for Saturday morning at 4:00 a.m. So all the logistics went down on Friday, and it got complicated.

Long story short, we all met on Friday afternoon at Oconee State Park, the end point of the run, to set up our campsites so they would be waiting as we finished. After setting up at Oconee, we then headed to Table Rock State Park, to set up camp, spend the night, and be ready for a 4:00 a.m. start.

Between setting up 2 camps and driving to the Laurel Valley entrance, Burrell's Ford, and Cheeohee Road to leave food, water and supplies, my head was spinning. I couldn't remember what (if anything!) I had at each point.

The comic relief of setting up the "elephant tent" was a much needed distraction. Seriously, what is wrong with this tent? (In less than 100 words).

Also under the heading "comic relief" would be the ever-goofy Jason and Sam. We all had a blast driving out to the Laurel Valley parking lot, Sam sharing her fine taste in music with us while Charles and I tried to catch glimpses of the beautiful orange moon while Jason snapped pictures as if his camera were going to die before he could reach his goal of taking 100 pictures or something.**

Jason practicing mug shot face (in case BMF Park Ranger wins Round 2).


It goes without saying that 4:00 a.m. arrived too soon. We gathered and nervously began our walk to the Foothills Trail head. Unspoken, but in the back of all of our minds, was the fear the Park Ranger would show up and ruin any chance we had at this run. As we walked quietly through the darkness on the road which leads to the trail head, we suddenly saw a car slowly approach us. It slowed, then pulled over, and my heart dropped into my stomach. I was sure we were done.

Luckily, it turned out to be Scott Hodukavich. He was there to introduce himself and let us know he would be providing us support and aid (and HOW!). Scott drove on down to the trail head and snapped a group photo of us at the start. He also said I had just missed Denise Martin, who drove down for the "start". I was really disappointed I didn't get to connect with Denise after all she did to make the trip.

In fact, before I go on, I have to say that a defining characteristic of this run has been the generosity and selflessness of people like Denise, Scott, Ken, Walter, Terri, and the many others that joined us, through their choice or not, as things unfolded.

As you'll soon see, this is pretty much just what Charles, Jason (for a part of it) and I experienced, as we all experienced very different things over the course of this adventure... I'm still finding out about everyone else's individual and group adventures...amazing.

I had our start time as 4:23 a.m.

Table Rock to Laurel Valley Entrance

The first section of the trail starts at Table Rock State Park and takes you to the Laurel Valley parking area on Hwy 178. Jason, Charles, and I all ran this section together.

We all agreed that the first five hours of the run seemed to fly by. Charles, Jason, and I were having some great laughs as we hit the top of Pinnacle Mountain at about 6:00 a.m. We took a brief sit down break to enjoy the start of an incredible day.

Soon, we were off to climb Sassafras Mountain (South Carolina's highest point), and before we knew it, we were descending to HWY 178 where we found Scott waiting for us with an aid station to beat all aid stations. Can you say frozen towels and watermelon? Thank you Scott! These smiles are the real deal.

I wish I knew what we were laughing at!

Jason's fondness for Nicot cookies knows no bounds.

Laurel Valley to White Water Falls
Laurel Valley has 34 miles of the most beautiful section of the Foothills Trail. It is somehow beautiful, simple and mysterious all at the same time. Adding to its allure (and danger): there is no bail out point through here. Once in, you have to get to the end at White Water Falls or turn around and head back to the parking lot. Or do what I did. But seriously...don't.

Unfortunately, as the 3 of us began climbing the first of the many, many stairs that define Laurel Valley, the temperatures climbed and the humidity rose.

Temperatures in the 90's plus high humidity meant the triple digit heat index was in the critical zone. At best, we were all going to fade. A lot. The reason is simple: if your body is unable to control its core temperature, it uses fatigue as a defense mechanism. Fatigue forces you to stop what you are doing immediately, thus (hopefully) lowering your core temperature.

As I did from the start, I continued to drink 20 ounces of Accelerade every hour and tried to take 2 S! Caps every 2 hours.

Luckily, I seemed to be able to catch the occasional brief break from the heat now and again from a slight breeze or a quick dip in a rushing stream or river. Charles did not seem as lucky. He was losing sweat at an alarming rate. In fact, it seemed to me that I could actually see him losing weight. That got my attention and I was hoping against hope he wouldn't succumb to the fatigue and cramping I'd seen him go through on earlier runs through this section.

We slowed down and took every opportunity to cool off, but it was not enough. Before Charles would make it out of there, the heat would have him totally beat, toasted, roasted, fried, baked, rocked, trashed, whipped out, and spanked.

As Charles' condition continued to decline, I looked at the map to see how close we were to Cane Brake. I was not actually concerned with his safety at this point, but Iwas trying to think ahead. I suggested that I go on ahead to find Ken and bring him back. We decided against this idea. Then, Ken suddenly appears as if out of thin air. Apparently, he had noticed that too much time had passed without seeing us come through, so he started hiking in to us***.

The timing could not have been better. Within a few minutes, Charles got worse. He began throwing up and he seemed a bit disoriented. It seemed to me he was getting worse fast. Ken's manner had taken on that way professionals have when they are handling a crisis situation. He was cool, but definitely in charge. I think that scared me the most.

The three of us made it to Toxaway Bridge and Ken was able to get a text out to Walter, to ask him to come up to Gorges National Park to get Charles and take him back to Oconee.

At the bridge, Ken and Charles would make a right and head to Gorges National Park. I would make a left and head to Whitewater Falls. I felt exremely good, and assured that Charles didn't need additional help to get out. I made the decision to go, on my own, at least to Whitewater Falls. (Afterward, I heard it was a difficult 5-mile trek to get Charles out, and Ken called in Scott Hodukavich to assist).

I knew it wasn't good common sense but then , according to Oscar Wilde, "common sense kills people everyday, one lost opportunity at a time", right? I could tell Charles wanted to say something but didn't quite trust his own ability to think straight in that moment. So, full of "go big or go home" attitude, I set off at 5: 50 p.m. to complete the 19 miles to White Water Falls.

I felt strong, I was not dehydrated, was running most of the way, and calculating what time I should be at the Falls. I kept coming up with different answers, but I thought it should take me about 6 hours if I made 3 miles an hour. (I know that sounds slow, but my god this section is hard). That put things at midnight. I'll admit, I was hoping Ken called ahead and told them when to expect me. If I was still standing at White Water Falls, I wanted to try for the next section.

What I definitely underestimated was the mental toll fatigue was taking on me. It was subtle at first, then more and more pronounced. I missed a double white now and then, but always turned back within a short time and got back on course.

But then, even on trail, I was thinking that parts of the trail looked wrong. I would have thoughts like, "I thought this part was way back there at the start of the section?" and I would have a little panic attack about it. I was also obsessing on the bridge you get to right before climbing up to the Falls- the one you have to scale the big rocks to get to... I kept trying to figure out where that bridge was, yet at the same time I knew exactly where it was. I felt like I was losing it a little bit.

When I came up to the Hilliard Falls sign, I definitely thought that the last time I had been there we had approached the sign from a different angle. But i couldn't be sure. That really bothered me, because I knew I needed to go left of the sign to be on trail. But that wouldn't be true if I somehow had come up to the sign from the wrong direction. It was becoming very hard to think things through and I was feeling panicky.

At this point I just became more and more disoriented. There's a double white here, so it's tricky already. I knew I was looking for the trail to start climbing. But no matter which direction I took, it didn't climb, and didn't seem to be right. I kept back-tracking and somehow going over the same bridges and sections over and over again.

I finally felt so exhausted I knew I had to rest for at least an hour. I lay down in the middle of the trail and dozed/ rested from 3:00- 4:30. I stared at the beautiful orange moon as it sunk lower and lower in the sky.

I had some pretty deep inner conversations with myself in those 90 minutes. Not the usual chit chat, either. More of a communion with the still part of myself, the part that always knows what to do, what is right, what is truth. If nothing else, I am grateful for being in that extreme situation as it forced me to lose all but my essential self, if only for a short time. In doing so, I was able to gain a certain clarity about my life. If the price for that experience was a 30 hour trail run, I think I got off cheap.

At 4:30 a.m., I tried to get up but could barely move I was so sore and my feet hurt so bad. I was crying and swearing it hurt so bad just to shuffle down the road. But eventually it got a little better, and eventually I did find the correct trail from Hilliard Falls. It was so close- I just hadn't gone far enough down one of the trailheads. Unfortunately, I faced several mammoth climbs on feet that were swollen, blistered, and tender.

I got near White Water Falls at about 9:30 but even then, I was not 100% I was on trail. I was still disoriented and now I was getting desperate. I was seeing things (houses, people, forestry service trucks parked down the trail) and I was afraid I'd get some crazy idea in my head and do something really dangerous. At one point, I was convinced I should bush whack up the ridge because Hwy. 107 was right there. So, when I saw the sign, "Bad Creek Parking Lot 1.5 Mi.", I cut down that trail and within moments found two hikers who helped me by calling the sheriff.

The rest, they say, is history. There was a search party waiting for me. Everyone was so relieved I had been found (including me). I was so tired, I just wanted to sleep. So, that's what I did.

I later learned that several people went back into White Water Falls looking for me, including Scott Hodukavich****.

* And possibly Wood Nymphs.
** Official time of death: 6:10 a.m., July 24.
*** Ken Sturm is a rock star. I hope you never need saving, but if you do, I hope you know Ken.
**** Scott Hodukavich is also a rock star, and I will be forever paying him back by coming out and supporting him in adventures.

Note: Thanks to Scott Hodukavich and Jason Sullivan for all the great pics!


  1. You, Ken, Scott, and Walter are all *rockstars* in my book for getting me out of there alive!!!

    What an incredible relief for all of us that you were ok after your ordeal :) Next time you have a "go big or go home" thought, well, you know...

  2. You remind me I should amend this post to include the fact that I have learned my lesson!

    On something like this, I will never abandon the 2 golden rules: stay with someone and stay where you're supposed to be.

  3. I'm glad the time you spent in the darkness lying on the trail was "what it was". I believe that you are very fortunate to have survivied, but I also believe that you are very fortunate to have "lived out there". The costs were massive.

    Ken, Scott, Terri, and the many others were incredible. I don't think that we can thank them enough. Big props to the professionalism of the search & rescue team up there too.

    We all learned tough lessons out there, but your spirit of determination, perseverance, and survival is extraordinary.

    I'm very proud to have you as a friend and fellow runner.

    I'm with you on not breaking the two golden rules again!

  4. Wow. I really don't know what else to say. I would have been petrified to be lost in the woods, at night, and especially after a tough day of running. YOu are one strong individual to come out of that situation unscathed! I feel like a total whimp to have a whinned a little bit about how hot Landsford Canal 50K was. If all goes well, I will see you at the FATS 50K in October! Good luck with LV.

  5. What a sobering story. Thank you for sharing this one! There are valuable lessons for all of us here! Thank God you all are safe!

  6. WOOOOOOOOOW. This is amazing. I'm honestly not even sure what I would have done in your situation. Taken a nap? Wondered around aimlessly getting further lost??

    At the end of the day, you'll live to run another day. But you'll have the pictures to document the occasion - all of which you are smiling in!

  7. You found the essence of the trail in your quiet moments. So happy you had a succesful and safe run.

    The distance in the soul surpasses any measurement.

  8. Psyche, those are two pretty good rules to follow! Definitely safety first.

    But if it makes you feel any better, Teddy Roosevelt says it better than I could. You were what he would have called "a woman in the arena".

  9. Holy crap Psyche! What and the hell are you doing? I am reading this just freaking out for you! This is another reason why I don't think I could do the night time Ultra races....I suck with directions and I know I would get lost! I am so glad that you are fine and that everthing turned out to be okay:) What would I do without my bad ass trail running blogger friend?

    Take care of yourself and have a wonderful weekend!

  10. Um, wow! At least you have great pictures and you'll always have a story to tell. Glad you are safe.

  11. What a story! In the future, choose safety first!

    How many miles was this run? I'm sorry if the mileage is listed somewhere in the post. I read and read again, but I guess I missed it.

  12. Hey, Ken! 77 miles. Chad made it to mile 71 before collapsing. It is an awesome story...and we all learned a lot about safety on this kind of adventure.