Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Smokies Traverse

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Fontana Dam to Davenport Gap
72 miles- 14hr50min22sec

For years I've contemplated the possibility of running the AT through the smokies in a single attempt. I'd hate to know the amount of time spent gazing at the Smokies map, wondering if it is even possible, much less a good idea. For quite a long time now its been just that; a day-dream... a notion... something I'll do "someday" when the time is right.

The route: Fontana Dam to Davenport Gap

These things are somewhat like having kids or buying a house I suppose, if you wait until you absolutely know you're ready you'll probably never do it. With this fact in mind, I finally convinced myself to attempt this absurd journey. And no, the timing wasn't right and I didn't feel ready either. Or so I thought.

For weeks my friend Brian had tossed out several possible attempt dates. I would agree to a date, flake off, and then try to re-schedule sometime later. He wouldn't have any of it, finally I gave up and gave in, settling on May 19th. My physical preparations weren't perfect either. For the week prior my roommate from college had been in town. Meaning my life had consisted of pizza, pretzels, and other more dubious forms of carbs. Top all of this off with a strange pain in my left foot that began three days prior to the run and you can see where I may not have began this attempt with great confidence.

Well, here's how events transpired:

An absurd journey begins at an absurd hour. We woke at 1AM and left the house about fifteen til' 2. We reached Fontana Dam a little later than planned, but still managed a respectable start time of 4:15AM.

No Donny, these men are nihilists

And away we go...

Running from the morning dark to dawn was one of the most enjoyable parts of the journey. I spent most of the dawn bird chorus doing a little birding on the fly, naming off species and natural history as we went. While the bird action was exciting to me, all my talk about birds eventually led Brian to jokingly (I think) ask if I planned on maybe listening to the i-pod I brought. In short, shut up about the birds Dave.

Near Russell Field shelter, Brian had to hang back due to some gastrointestinal problems. The rest of the day I would run alone, but morning views from places like Rocky Top, Thunderhead and Silers Bald made for good company. The first leg of the journey to Clingmans Dome was mostly smooth (except for dropping my headlamp down an embankment when trying to put away my gloves), with my water and food supply running out only about two miles before the aid station (my Dad) at the Dome.

I knew quick exchanges at the aid stations would be critical for a fast traverse time. In reading others reports, it seems this is where the most time is lost. At Clingmans Dome I gladly traded Dad my 100oz camelbak for two bottles of gatorade, an odwallla bar, and an ibuprofen. Within three minutes I was on my to Newfound Gap, with my time for the journey so far totaling 7hr2min52sec.

The downhill section to Newfound was a welcome change from the mostly uphill running that had occurred so far. Nearing Newfound Gap I passed former Smokies Traverse record holder Will Harlan heading the other direction. Upon realizing who he was I blurted out something like "Are you Will Harlan! Oh cool. I'm going to break the record today!" Tact and modesty are obviously my strong suits.

Reaching my second aid station at Newfound Gap was awesome. Dad already had the rear hatch of the Jeep open in a spot right next to the trail head. I stuffed my face with potatoes and mountain dew, then reclaimed my camelbak and began walking towards Davenport Gap. Thanks to Dads willingness to refill my nasty running pack with food and water while I ran from the Dome, I only had to halt my forward progress for about seven minutes at Newfound Gap. For the first 40miles I was sitting on a total time of 8hr40min.

Mmmm... mountain dew and boiled potatoes

All smiles for Mr. Williams

Leaving Newfound Gap, I knew I had a little over seven hours left to lower the previous record of 15hr57min. About a month ago, Brian and I had ran this same section in a little under six hours, if my legs would hold up I knew it was possible. As I left Newfound Gap though, my competitive side got the best of me. I decided that I not only wanted the record, but I wanted the next record setter to have to work for it. My goal became to go sub six hours for the final 30miles.

The running was a little awkward until I passed Charlie's Bunion. Reason number one being that I had only seen a dozen people all day and was now passing what seemed like hundreds, receiving many confused glances along the way. Reason two had to do with chugging a mountain dew and eating three potatoes, to say I had the bubble guts would be an understatement. Finally I again settled back into a smooth run/walk routine and resumed methodically ticking off the miles.

Reaching Peck's Corner my energy levels were still high and dancing along the crest of the Smokies was still surprisingly fun. Unfortunately though, all good things must come to an end. The section from Peck's to the summit of Guyot was nothing more than a forced march, with the cumulation of about 60 miles of rugged trail taking its toll on my body.

After a long walking break to the summit of Guyot, I knew it was time to get down to business again as the last twelve miles are mostly downhill. I ate yet another increasingly unappetizing energy gel and began opening up my stride. After doing some very confusing basic math in my depleted runner brain, I realized that a sub fifteen hour finish was possible. Making this happen would hurt.

Luckily as the evening light settled in my body began to feel rejuvenated, I would even go so far to say I was in some sort of strange Zen state. The excitement of a long held dream soon to be realized was overwhelming. As I closed in on Davenport Gap, I continued to push myself harder. Near the Davenport Gap shelter I met Caitlin who had hiked up to run out with me. I greeted her with a nod and I believe I said something like "gurfgh." She stayed with me for a few strides, but the excitement of being so close pushed me into what was an unsustainable pace for her on this steep technical trail. I hit Davenport Gap at 7:05PM, a little over my goal of sub 6 hours for the final 31miles, but good enough for a 14hr50min22sec overall finish. Effectively lowering the old record by a little over an hour.

One lucky guy
After a trailside dinner and a little nap, I woke up to see Brian Williams come striding into Davenport Gap. Brian posted a 16hr45min run, one of the fastest times for this most hideous stretch of trail. I was super excited to see him have such a strong run and owe him credit for pushing me to even attempt the traverse.

Both of us were fortunate to have such a good crew. My Dad especially deserves a big thanks for getting up at 1AM, driving to Fontana Dam, Clingmans, Newfound, and Davenport Gap all in one day just so some goofballs can go for a run.

The breakdown:

And now that this is over, I can't help but wonder... What's Next?


  1. incredible job!! congrats! :-D

  2. That is quite the feat. Congrats. I think I could possibly beat the record for longest time. :P

  3. Congrats! Amazing, thanks for blogging\sharing this. Read about it from the LeConte Lodge blog. I've only wanted to hike the AT through the Smokies. I couldn't imaging running it.

  4. You're crazy for doing it, but CONGRATULATIONS on setting the bar so high for the next challengers!!

  5. love it. wish it was a group run, i would join. although i wouldn't make it as fast as you did :) congratulations!

  6. Was thinking about this, as I have hiked it several time. I am not sure I could slowly jog 70 miles on flat pavement with a slight down hill grade in that short of time. GREAT JOB!