For those that want the short version. I went, I ran, I managed to finish. I earned my BMF wallet* and my name on the Foothills Trail Ultra Running Blog, and for that I am extremely grateful and happy.
For those of you with longer attention spans or have nothing better to do while you surf the internet at work instead of doing your job (that's right I can tell but we will keep it our little secret) please read on.
In The Beginning
To understand why finishing the Foothills Trail Run is so important to me you first have to understand the context in which I came to this run. I ran my first ultra marathon (Enoree Passage 40 Mile) in May. At the end of Enoree, I knew that up until that point I had only experienced shadows of what I had been looking for in running. In my heart I know running is ultimately a vehicle for finding enlightenment and truth; for finding and embracing your role in the cosmos. With Enoree Passage I made the connection that if you are ever to find any of these things, you have to make it to the starting line of a great challenge and be open to the possibility that they're out there. Ever since then, I've been looking for the next ultimate spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical challenge.
The Foothills Trail
The Foothills Trail meets my need to "seek inner revelation" through making that which is most difficult or unattainable my goal. It's been said that although the Foothills Trail may not be as "difficult" as completing the SCAR (Smokies Challenge Adventure Run), based on the ratio of failures to successes it is harder to finish. As evidenced by my last attempt, I must agree.
Two months ago, Dan Hartley, Jim Cobb, Chad Henderson, Jason Sullivan, Charles Raffensperger and myself set off to finish the Trail. We started at 4:00 A.M., and the weather was very hot- 100 degree heat index. Jim, Dan, and Chad began the run together. Dan dropped from heat exhaustion around Canebrake. Jim made it to White Water Falls before dropping, and Chad made it 71 miles to Cheeohee Road before deciding he'd had enouugh. Jason bailed out at Bad Creek after 18+ hours and walked out through the guard gate. Charles left the course up a spur trail while vomiting with heat exhaustion. I went off course near Hilliard Falls and ended up running bonus miles through the night on various logging roads. I made my way out at Bad Creek after 29+ hours on the trail and after Search and Rescue had been called.
Try it again? Hell to the YES!
Foothills Trail Run Redux - The Plan
The runners for this attempt were Denise Davis, Scott Hodukavich, Jason Sullivan, Charles Raffensperger, and myself. This time, our plan was to start from Table Rock State Park on Friday night (9/24/10) at 7:00 P.M. We wanted to run the Table Rock & Laurel Valley sections of the trail while it was dark & cool and then face the remaining 29 miles in the daylight on Saturday.
Byron Backer was also there to help us. He provided support for us at every possible juncture- Sassafrass Mountain, Laurel Valley Parking Lot, Whitewater Falls, Sloan Bridge, Burrell's Ford, and Cheeohee Road (although he was running with me by that time).
Charles, Scott, Jason and I were to meet at Oconee State Park Friday afternoon. The plan was to set up camp and cook a meal that would serve as both pre-race dinner and post race food. I arrived and set up around 1:30, and Jason joined us shortly after 2:00. We soon decided the site we were at was one of the worst sites in the campground, so we headed over to the office and switched to a more remote site.
We watched out for Scott, and got a bit worried as it got closer to our 5:00 departure time. Cell service is sketchy at best, but we left him several messages. Finally, we headed for Table Rock without him, hoping we hadn't already lost one of our runners before the run even began. I'll be honest, on the drive to Table Rock, I began to feel less and less excited as the task before us seemed to get more and more real.
When we arrived at Table Rock, Scott pulled in the gate right behind us, which was such a relief. We found Byron and Denise waiting for us inthe parking lot, and after a few group shots, our adventure began.
From left: Jason Sullivan, Denise Davis, Psyche Wimberly, Charles Raffensperger, Scott Hodukavich
From left: Byron Backer, Scott Hodukavich, Psyche Wimberly, Jason Sullivan
Table Rock to Laurel Valley Entrance
The run started as planned at approximately 7:10 PM. Denise took the lead heading up Pinnacle Mt. while the rest of us fell into a speed hike as the sun began to set. We hit the overlook at Pinnacle in about 1:20 and were making great time. A beautiful orange full moon appeared behind a mostly clear sky and we were in great spirits.
The disposable camera does not do the view justice! The way the orange moon cast light on the clouds made me think I was looking down on Gotham City.
Denise Davis takes in the view.
As do Scott Hodukavich and Charles Raffensperger
Psyche likes the view the most!
But Big Easy is super stoked as well.
We were still having a great time as we met up with Byron at the top of Sassafras and refilled our supplies. Although I wasn't sure how he got up there, it was geat to see Byron. Just knowing he was "out there" looking out for us had a tremendous impact on our confidence.
Trail run or night of drinking? You decide.
Nice pic of Scott, Byron, Charles, and Jason
After hanging out with Byron for about 15 minutes we headed downhill to the Laurel Valley Parking area. Charles, Jason and I ran mostly together through this section as Scott and Denise went ahead. Charles took his one and only spill through this section. As we arrived at HWY 178 at the Foothills Trail crossing our split for this section was 4:40.
We met back up with Scott here who was waiting on us and Denise had taken off into Laurel Valley just as we arrived. This would be the last time we would see Denise during the run. Byron had a great spread of food put out for us again along with ice cold drinks. We all loaded lots of calories into our packs for the long 33 mile unsupported section through Laurel Valley.
Laurel Valley To Whitewater Falls
The four of us stuck together closely through the Laurel Valley section. As midnight came and went we pushed on & on as a group of four through the darkness making the best of the night with some jokes and ramblings.
Dawn began to break around 6:30 AM as we closed in on the Bear Camp creek section which was getting close to the halfway mark of the run. All our spirits were lifted as we enjoyed a beautiful sunrise together on some nice downhill sections of the trail. This was myffirst experience of literally running through the night, and my body was craving sleep.
Scott got ahead on this section and we eventually made it to Hilliard Falls. Charles and I decided to take the short spur trail to the falls and Jason made the decision to keep pressing towards Whitewater Falls where Byron & aid were waiting. Scott had decided to visit the falls as well so we got to visit with him for a few minutes.
Hilliard Falls ended up being a much needed foot-care break. By this point, my feet were aching and it was heaven to dip them in the cold water, then put on a pair of fresh socks.
As we headed to Bad Creek, there are some very gnarly climbs. My legs were beginning to complain about moving for 15 hours at this point, but I was also enjoying the cool fall morning listening to the forest come alive.
The steep climb out of Whitewater was tough, and it seemed to last forever. Charles and I kept hoping against hope that Scott and Jason would be waiting for us at Whitewater Falls, as it would be fantastic to start the next section as a group. We tried texting Byron to let them know we would be there soon, but Charles' phone was dead. As the climb began to get ridiculously long and frustrating, I began to laugh at Charles' rants. It wasn't what he was saying, but the way he was saying it that just made me completely crack up. I felt like this much-needed tension reliever saved my sanity. Thanks, baby!
Finally, we climbed our way up to the gravel parking lot on HWY 130 and were greeted by Byron, Tony (Denise's husband), Jason and Scott! Yay!! We were a group again!! Wow, was it ever great to see them. We heard news that Denise was doing well and we were all glad to hear it. It looked as if she would finish in 25-26 hours.
We spent about 30 minutes here and packed up heading towards mile 53 at Sloan Bridge. Scott had gone ahead as I think he had arrived a bit earlier and was ready to move. At this point, our spirits were lifted and we all felt so excited to be getting closer to the finish. The toughest part of the trail was behind us and we were all feeling secure in a finish.
Upper Whitewater Falls to Burrell's Ford
As we crossed the highway and began to climb, we were all feeling good. we stopped at the benches along the trail for a minute to enjoy the amazing view and take some pictures.
The next 5 mile sor so were not memorable, except for the fact Jason was running in to problems with severe chafing. I gave him my Glide, but I don't think anything was helping by this point. The section from Sloan Bridge to Fish Hatchery was very technical , with lots of roots and downed trees that made for tricky footing. The three of us reached the Fish Hatchery off HWY 107 around 6:45 PM which was about 23:50 hours into the run. We were about to face our second night on the trail.
Here is where we put our lights on and turned them on about 2 miles down the trail as we headed towards Burrell’s Ford. We all lost our minds a little as dusk settled into darkness. I'm not sure what happened here, but I went from feeling fine to feeling a bit disoriented, weak and out of it. Running along the ridge line was frightening as I felt like I couldn't count on my balance.
The three of us stumbled slowly downhill towards Burrell’s Ford. We tried to keep talking some, but we all had a hard time making conversation. At one point, I got in to a rhythm where I would aim my headlight at Jason's feet and let the flourescent lights on his shoes just pull me along. Strange mental tricks began. For instance, if Jason got a few steps ahead of my light, it made me think the ground dropped off where the light ended. I would actually start to stop myself so Iwouldn't "fall off the earth". At the time, that seemed perfectly reasonable.
We finally rolled into Burrell’s Ford around 8:15 (25 Hours Into the run) to find Byron patiently waiting for us once again with a truck full of aid waiting at our disposal. I ate some excellent hot chicken noodle soup, some potato chips, and had some coffee in hopes of getting another lift up.
Upon eating the food, I could not believe how fast I came out of my funk. I had no doubt I could continue on, but suddenly I became worried about Charles and Jason both. Charles did not look good- his breathing was fast labored. He had come in to this run sleep deprived, and we had both worried about this moment- that it had caught up with him. Then, Jason told the group that he was finished and Charles also said that he was dropping as well.
I had flashbacks from 2 months ago, when I had made a mistake by continuing on. But this time I was assured that Byron was ready to run with me. So, after arranging to get Byron's truck to Cheeohee Road, we geared up and headed off into the night down the technical Chattooga river.
Burrell's Ford to Oconnee State Park
As we began the 10 mile stretch to Cheeohee Road, I felt good, certainly better thanI thought I was going to. We began to run a little, and I continued to feel good. Once Byron and I started talking, the time seemed to really move by fast. The sounds of the river would come and go, come and go, and I was reminded f how much I love this stretch of trail.
I could not believe it when Byron said we had about 1.8 miles to Cheeohee Road. It had gone by so fast!
The sight of Cheeohee Road really hit me. I thought of Chad. I was so happy to be feeling good. As we left Cheeohee Rd, Byron did some figuring, and thought if we ran 13-14 minute miles, I could break 31 hours. I remember thinking that I didn't really care about the time, but then I thought I might care tomorrow. It might make a difference to me what number goes up on the blog so I better go for it. Just the fact that I was 70 miles in and prepared to run faster if I had to was an amazing feeling. We began to run more and more and I was hanging in there, although barely.
Only as this trail can do, we reached what should have been the end to find that it wasn't. It loooked like we had one or two miles left, and my watch said 30:48. I was not disappointed, but I did switch gears and was relieved to not have to concentrate so hard. Of course, the minute I did this, I went down on a root. Hard. First fall at 75 miles. Not bad.
We came to an intersection and started to follow signs that said Hidden Falls. We both were thinking it did not seem right to be heading downhill at this point. Byron said he'd been down here before but couldn't remember if he had gone back and seen it was the wrong way, or if he turned around again because it was the right way. I totally got this, and then it also occurred to me how funny it was that I was getting lost with 1 mile to go! Like I just had to squeeze getting lost in somehow!!
It started to rain, and I did have a moment where I wondering if I were ever going to finish this damn thing, but then we saw it- the sign at the west end of the Foothills Trail.
I was done!
I have to say, there is a great amount of satisfaction from having accomplished something that has proven so difficult to so many runners greater than I.
Current Finishers (Under 48 Hours)
03/05/2005 Matt Kirk 16:52
03/15/2008 Matt Kirk 18:40
09/05/2009 Byron Backer 20:14
05/26/2006 Brian (Phreak)*** 22:40
03/31/2010 Jennifer Davis*** 23:00
09/05/2009 Joe Sauerbrey*** 23:11
11/22/2008 Richard Lilly 23:50
11/22/2008 Byron Backer 24:03
09/25/2010 Denise Davis 26:58
09/25/2010 Scott Hodukavich 30:37
09/25/2010 Psyche Wimberly 31:40
Here is how the run turned out for the group:
Denise Davis – 1st Female to ultra run the Foothills Trail and she finished on her first attempt in 26:58
Scott Hodukavich – Finished on his 1st attempt 30:37
Psyche Wimberly – Finished on her 2nd attempt 31:40
Charles Raffensperger – Dropped at Burrell’s Ford Mile 59.8
Jason Sullivan – Dropped at Burrell’s Ford Mile 59.8
* the ultimate gift for all bad mother fuckers who can find their way to the west end of the FHT.