Friday, February 18, 2011

FHT WINTERFEST 2011: 77-Mile Foothills Trail Attempt

It Ain't An Adventure Unless There's A Chance of DYING!

There are certain elements that combine to turn an otherwise typical run into an actual story. Danger, adventure, tragedy, love. Exuberant joy and connection. This most recent attempt at the Foothills Trail comprised just such a story.

We all knew going in to this run that we did not have optimal weather or trail conditions. Yet there we were, big grins on our faces, eager to run for the sheer hell of it- ready for the challenge of crossing streams, scrambling over rocks and climbing up and down thousands upon thousands of stairs, all of which is par for the course when it comes to the Foothills Trail. I think Scott called it, "Getting our stupid on."

The following quote, more than any other I could find, sums up this most recent attempt to finish the Foothills Trail.

“To break the moulds, to be heedless of the seductions of security, is an impossible struggle, but one of the few that count. To be free is to learn, to test yourself constantly, to gamble. It is not safe.”

-Tracks, Robyn Davidson

For the month leading up to this run, no one was even certain it would happen. The weather looked ominous right up through the week of the run, and most of us decided to only run if the temps remained above 20 degrees and the weather did not call for icy rain. As luck would have it, we got our wish. So, on the afternoon of February 4, we all set out to meet at our cabin at Oconee State Park where the run would end.

Foothills Trail google earth map. Just one week prior to the run, there is still plenty of snow at Table Rock and Sassafrass Mountain

So the plan was to gather our things at the cabin at Oconee, get our drop bags ready, then drop aid at each of the sections along the way up to Table Rock State Park where we would start the run. Byron, Abi, Charles, myself, and Greta and Scott all planned to start at 6:00PM Friday night. Chad Henderson, Lester Farmer and Anne Lundblad (who planned to run only tto WWF) were going to start early the next morning.

On Friday afternoon, Leopold and I arrived at the cabin at around 2:00 PM. Soon, Greta and Scott arrived followed by Chad and then Byron and Abi. It was a literal mess of running gear and food as we all gathered our stuff in drop bags.

As I watched everybody, it occurred to me that running any distance over 50 miles suddenly seems to require a huge increase in the amount of stuff you need.

Charles is a blur of motion as he gets his drop bags ready

Hardly room for Scott and Greta with all this running gear!

It was after 5:00 as we headed out to make the aid drops. We had planned on a 6:00 PM start, so that was obviously off the table, but with so many people to coordinate, you just have to do the best you can.

As is with a lot of things, sometimes it's the small memories that make a trip. As we headedup to our first stop, we passed the lookout as we headed to the Whitewater Falls parking lot and got a fantastic cloud-covered mountain view that was jsut breathtaking.

Charles, Greta, Scott and Leopold are "wowed" by the stunning view

Overlook on the way to Whitewater Falls

We dropped our aid along the way to Table Rock State Park and after arriving in the dark and a little car sick from the windy Rocky Bottom road, we were finally at Lester's cabin where we had a nice visit with Lester, his friend Chris, and Anne ("Dixie Cat") and Mark Lundblad. It was a pleasure to meet the Lundblads for the first time (officially).

Mark, Abi, Chris, Charles, Leopold, and Lester (the Breeze) all enjoying Base Camp 1.

As we chatted, we had a bite to eat, and tried to organize Leopold's crewing efforts with Lester, Chris, Jon Harrison and Rob Rives (who would be arriving early the next morning). It was awesome to have Leopold on this trip and I'm really grateful for everyone who looked out for him. And I suspect Leopold had a better time than he's even let on (wink).

Moment of Truth
Instead of a 6:00 PM start, we ended up starting at 8:48 PM. As usual, we drove over to the start of the trail, took a few pics, and off we went, up Pinnacle Mountain into the cold, dark, rainy night. Abi and Byron took off as they were running a faster pace, and the four of us never saw them again until the finish.

Smiley happy people who have no idea what's gonna happen in 5 miles.

For those of you who have been on this journey before, you know the first section of the trail is about 14 miles long and takes us from Table Rock State Park To Laurel Valley parking area on Hwy 178. The four of us were braving the elements and finding we were all overheating from the ponchos (or as Leopold called them, "Ponkos").

Trying to figure out how to take good pictures in the rain

Somewhere near the Pinnacle viewpoint, about 5 miles in, we came upon a large expanse of flat granite with water running over it. As Charles was in the lead, he took the first tentative step across, but was abruptly swept off of his feet. It happened so fast- and he landed directly on his wrist.

Charles crawled across the water to the other side, but we all knew he had fallen with all his weight directly on his wrist, and by the way he was holding it, it was almost certainly broken.

When it happened, I had to fight the urge to go out there to help him, otherwise there would be two people that needed help. I tested the ground to try to walk across and was amazed at how slick it was. I would fall, too, if I tried to cross. Before starting over, I threw my amphipod across the water to the other side, so it wouldn't be a distraction. It took flight and the hand strap caught in a branch of a tree far above our heads. Really? I couldn't re-create that throw if you gave me a million tries!

I got on hands and knees and tried to cross, and was shocked to see that the water was pulling my knees down stream because the material on my pants was fairly slick. Luckily, my gloves held and I made it on all fours across the water, with Greta and Scott behind me. As Scott used his Trekking Stick to unlodge my water bottle from the tree, we all checked out Charles' wrist.

Love how we're not shy of photographing each other's gnarly injuries:)

Not looking good- it's definitely broken

We were about 5 miles in, so the decision quickly became do we go back 5 miles or forward 9 miles? Charles decided that traversing the rocky, technical climb back down would be more difficult than facing the easier route that led to the Laurel Valley Entrance. We had another 4 miles or so to the top of Sassadrass Mountain, then the nice downhill section to Laurel Valley.

At the top of Sassafrass Mountain

As we made our way down to Hwy 178, I noticed that it took us about five hours and 15 minutes. This was only about 15 minutes slower than our usual pace for this section, which surprised me. I really expected to hear voices and see signs of life as we made our way I hoped that Lester or someone would be there to take care of Charles. Unfortunately, we arrived and there was no one there. It looked like Charles was not going to have a choice of dropping here.

We got to our drop bags, and this was where I encountered my first problem. I had expected to have aid here, and so I had only brought Cup 'O Noodles soup and instant coffe. But now we had no hot water, so I really didn't have enough food going in to this section. There is no bail out point or crew access through here. Once you are in you have to either get to the end at Whitewater Falls or turn around and head back to the parking lot.

Laurel Valley Entrance to White Water Falls 34-mile Section

As the four of us headed into the Laurel Valley section, it was still raining, and Charles was expending a lot of energy just to make sure he didn't fall again. I think we were all in a kind of shock about what had happened.

After Laurel Falls the trail gets really difficult and takes you through a lot of steep climbs and descents. This section is called "Canebrake" and home of many bad memories for Charles and I. This is where Ken Sturm rescued Charles from in the July FHT attempt. I imagine this stretch of trail was a difficult trek for him.

Maybe we were looking at yet ANOTHER set of freaking steps

Charles is running pretty good for a dude with a broken wrist

Slippery, wet steps from Hell. Again.

You're My Hero
Finally, we all made it to White Water Falls at around 5:00PM. One of the highlights of the run was getting near White Water Falls and hearing Jon and Rob call out to us. Crew members have no idea (unless they've been on the other side of things) how good it makes you feel to know someone is waiting for you. I It was just awesome knowing Leopold was up there, too.

Rob and Jon were excellent crew members. They fed us, helped us with everything and even ran with us. Thank you both!!!

I was certain Charles was going to stop here, as Greta and Scott were. Yet, somehow I was not entirely surprised when Charles said he was going on and we'd just take it section by section. I think he'd figured he'd made it that far, why not keep going?

As we headed out of WWF, I realized that my food was not settling well and my stomach was producing a lot of acid. Towards the top of the mountain, I went ahead and made myself get sick, having learned from previous experience not to wait until it's really bad. I did feel better afterwards, but I also felt really light headed and like I couldn't take anything in to my system without risking getting sick again. It was a terrible feeling that I just prayed corrected itself.

Rob was rolling easily along with Charles and they seemed to be having a good time while I slowly died a miserable death on the trail. By the time we pulled in to Sloan Bridge, I was dizzy and nauseaus and felt like I desperately needed food. I actually remember laying down on the pavement and just staring up at the stars praying the nausea would pass.

Jon Harrison came to the rescue with soup and bread, and as I sat there trying to eat, I saw Marmot Traihead pull in to check on us. I was so happy to see him, but also completely out of it at the same time. I was really worried that I wouldn't come around in time, and I was aware that the longer we stayed there, the less chance we had of getting back on the Trail.

I think I knew I was done, I was just hoping against hope I still had a shot of feeling good enough to get back out there. Finally, I said OK, enough. I was done.

Sorry, Scott!
I got a ride back to Oconee State Park with Scott and Greta. However, as soon as we started driving I began to feel carsick. Greta must've seen this coming, because as soon as I
started to say something, she pointed to the Hefty Bag on the floor. I pretty much puked all the way back to the cabin. I was just too sick to even care...until I thought about it later.

When we got back to the cabin and I went in the bathroom and looked in the mirror, I had to laugh when I saw how bad I looked and how I had puke in my hair. It was a definite "mug shot" for sure. Ultra Runner OR... Binge Drinking Weekend In Tijuana? Hahaha!

And Then There Were 2 Finishers!!
At Whitewater Falls, we had heard that Byron was on fire and had come through hours earlier, looking really good. We assumed that he had finished and left already. So, after hanging out for a while at the cabin, we were all surprised to see him come in the door! He said he had faded badly at the end, but had just finished. His time - 24:44.

We were all so happy for him, but disappointed that we weren't there at the sign for him.

I gave him his BMF wallet, and we talked for a short while. Congratulations, Byron!! Finish #3, done!

At this point, Chad was the only one still on the Trail. Charles and I decided to get a few hours of sleep and wake up at 5:00am to go out to the FHT sign to wait for him. We figured he would finish around 6:00 AM based on his starting time.

5:00AM came really early, and as we were leaving the cabin, who strolls up the driveway but Chad!! It was so weird- he looked so good. His finish time: 23:44!! Awesome time and he looked great!

Chad Henderson- looking too good to have just finished a 77-Mile run

This was yet another incredible adventure on the Foothills Trail, made better by all the friends who joined in. For me, the Foothills Trail lives as more than just a line on a map. It has become a thread that reaches back through time, connecting places, times and people from my past to those in my present.

The Laurel Valley "Outkasts": Jason Sullivan, Dave Wood, Sherrie Marie Carr, Byron Backer, Lester Farmer, myself, Terry Hayes, Charles Raffensperger

Chattooga Night Run: Charles raffensperger, Sam Weigand, Dave Pryor, Jason Sullivan, myself, Chad Henderson, Dan Hartley

JULY 2010 FIRST ATTEMPT: Dan Hartley, Chad henderson, Jim Cobb, Charles Raffensperger, myself, Jason Sullivan

SEPTEMBER 2010 SECOND ATTEMPT: Jason Sullivan, Denise Davis, myself, Charles Raffesnperger, Scott Hodukavich

NOVEMBER 2010 ATTEMPT: Marmot Trailhead, Richard Lilly, Byron Backer

FEBRUARY 2011 THIRD ATTEMPT: Byron Backer, Abi Meadows, Greta Dobe, myself, Charles Raffensperger

I'm not done with this trail by a long shot.

P.S. For all documented attempts made on the FHT, including DNF's, please visit Big Easy's website. There, you will see all things FHT. Enjoy!


  1. Well you are all BMFs in my book... I am intrigued to join one of these attempts... maybe a goal for 2012?

  2. I've been waiting for this report. Well done. I was wondering how FiddyK/RaffDaddy/Scalawag broke his wrist...stupid granite rock & stupid rain!

    I've enjoyed the traffic on the FHT listserv and like The Sean, look forward to getting in on a FHT attempt...

  3. I'm telling are my hero! It truly sounds like an adventure. And it sounds like an adventure I would totally like to get down with in the near future :)

  4. Thanks for sharing the adventure. I love the picture of yall looking at the stairs.

    Can't wait to do it again!

  5. Ideally, I would love to get involved with these type of races. Great job! Sounds like a blast.