A cool breeze carries the collective and distinctive odors of the Appalachian ferns, rhododendrons, mosses, evergreens, and last season's rotting foliage on this crisp first day of spring. I run almost one mile along the narrow, gently sloping gravel road that leads up to the Big Creek Campground and Picnic Area. This road serves as a great warm-up for a run up Mt. Sterling via the 6.2-mile Baxter Creek Trail, which is regarded as one of the most difficult climbs in the Smokies.
When I cross Big Creek on one of the finest trail bridges in all of the GSMNP I hit the lap button on the Garmin. While I have no intentions of pushing the pace on this climb, I do intend to run every step. I want to know my current level of climbing fitness. Both of the 50's I've entered this summer involve significant climbing - at altitude. At 5820 ft, Mt. Sterling will not prepare me for the CO altitude, but the 4200 feet of vertical gain in 6.2 miles will serve as excellent testing/conditioning for my climbing legs.
I've been to the summit of Mt. Sterling more than a dozen times dating back to 1990 when I first explored the east end of the park by "speed hiking" 131 miles in four days with a 25-lb pack on. I've slept on the summit seven times, with six of those nights coming in the month of December. My love and obsession with reaching mountain summits is, in some part, due to the challenges I've faced when climbing this peak with a backpack in the snow. If you have read my blog post titled "Winter Solace" you know that last December I finally realized a longtime goal of running to the summit with significant snow on the ground.
It is said that climbing such a mountain in the southern Appalachians will allow the climber to see changes in flora that are equivalent to traveling one thousand miles north. So, I am moving southwest while experiencing a northern journey. I tell myself to relax as I begin the run between a Catawba rhododendron-covered cliff on the left and Big Creek on the right. While the mountain scenery changes every time I visit, there are numerous landmarks, like this cliff, that serve as progress markers. I know that not far from the end of the cliff this trail will bend left and enter a steep watershed where the real climbing begins.
Though I try to keep my eyes on the trail to navigate through the countless roots and rocks, I cannot help peeking up to identify the trees close to the trail. Their bark allows me to recognize birch, hemlock, tulip, maple, and oak trees. The forest floor, which was completely white in December, is now turning several shades of green as the lichens, mostly clubmoss, and ferns are quite prevalent. I am surprised at how quickly I arrive at the first crossing of the trail namesake, Baxter Creek. This is the area where I saw the large bear tracks in December.
I check the Garmin from time to time in order to monitor my heart rate. Though I have several "gadgets," I am really only addicted to the comparison of my heart rate to my pace as a measure of efficiency. Improving running performance is really that simple. I intend to run every step of this climb, but I expect the pace to vary significantly with the changes in slope and the challenge of the obstacles along the trail as I try to maintain a comfortable heart rate.
As the miles pass by I drink from the tube of the Nathan 1.5-L pack I am testing. This should be plenty of water on this day in which I will experience moderate temperatures ranging from the mid-40's to the upper-60's. I drank a 16-oz bottle of water and some orange juice before I started. I also have a gel and some Gu Chomps to add to the organic blueberries and banana I ate when I woke up.
On several occasions I pass backpackers who are on their way down the mountain after sleeping on the summit. It must have been a busy night up there! I also pass two young men who are on their up to the summit. Each group of climbers I encounter reacts similarly. Heads swing around. Eyebrows raise slightly. We make eye contact. It is difficult to gauge their responses, but it seems that more of them are amused than impressed. Am I just another half-crazed runner who is trying to be bear bait? I greet each group with a hearty "good morning" as we squeeze by each other on the narrow trail.
When I first glimpse the summit knob I have to look up several times to convince myself that it is actually the summit. A couple of peeks at my watch convince me that I have not, indeed could not, be approaching the actual summit. I am not tired. I am as agile as normal - not much there, but I still possess what I came in with. My legs are still quite springy. And I have only been climbing a little more than an hour. Furthermore, I have not tripped or stubbed my toe one time, so I am not bleeding. I focus once again on the forest. Most of the trees I see are evergreens, namely spruce and hemlock.
Knowing this overhang is near the summit, I get an adrenaline rush and pick up the pace - significantly. Then I pass the signpost for the spring that I have often used to refill my water bottles. A half-mile to go. I cannot believe how fresh I feel. I accelerate and find another gear and soon pass through a small patch of evergreens that I know are a gateway to the summit.
Then I see the iron legs of the old fire tower right in front of me. I stop the watch as I pass the stone bearing the summit marker in the sunlit patch of grass next to the fire tower. Several young men who are leaving to refill water bottles ask me if I ran all the way up the mountain. I say yes. One of them asks how long it took me and I look at the watch. I have run up Baxter Creek Trail, the trail I refer to as the toughest 10K I've ever encountered, in just under 1:19.
I climb the steep tower stairs while discussing the ongoing NCAA basketball tournament with these Ohio State students. Once inside the tower cabin I eat a package of Gu Chomps and drink water before taking several pictures. I also call my friend, Jeremy who is visiting Chicago with his father and a friend. The tower is about ten feet taller than most of the surrounding trees, so the 360-degree view on this sunny day is breathtaking. Yes! This is my reward.
My descent from the tower after only about five minutes is encouraged by the goosebumps created by the stiff winds whipping through the broken cabin windows. I yell "Take care, Buckeyes" to the young men hidden among the evergreens and smile after a "Boiler Up!" comes back to me. Then I hit the watch and begin the descent.
Descending the Colorado 14ers is almost always much faster than ascending. That is partially due to the altitude, but it is also due to the fact that, other than being relatively steep, many of those trails do not have many obstacles to impede motion. Appalachian trails, to the contrary, are rarely smooth. There are roots and embedded rocks all along the way. And these toe grabbers are usually partially or completely hidden under fallen leaves. The southern Appalachians do not have tree lines, so the smooth sailing alpine descents found on many 14ers simply do not exist in the Smokies. As a result, the differences in my ascent and descent times are usually minimal, so I expect to make it back to the Big Creek Picnic Area in about 70 minutes.
After descending more than halfway down the trail I encounter two young men I had passed on the way up. One of them asks how far I had made it up the mountain. "To the top of the fire tower." They look at me in disbelief. I stop and we talk for several minutes. I learn that they are students at Taylor University in Indiana. One is from Fort Wayne, IN and the other is from Grand Rapids, MI. Like the Buckeyes on the summit, these two backpackers are polite and respectful. Talking to these two young men is one of the highlights of my day. I love meeting people who share my love for the mountains.
It is not long after parting ways with the Taylor students that I find myself flying along on the less steep slope of the lower portion of the Baxter Creek Trail. I catch my right toe (almost always my right toe!) on a root and stumble forward for several strides before regaining control. That was close!! Focus and slow down. The greatest reward you can earn today is the satisfaction of not falling down.
Both of my hands fire into the air a la Rocky Balboa as I cross the bridge at the trail head. I am completely intoxicated by the experience. My legs feel fine. I have descended in 56 minutes. I HAVE NOT FALLEN DOWN!
Only briefly do I entertain the idea of turning around and going back up. The mere thought of the upcoming monster round trip run from the Blue Ridge Parkway to the summit of Mt. Mitchell erases any ambition to test my limits on this first run. I run back down the gravel road at six minute pace in a state of euphoria.
A post-run meal consisting of organic cereals, fruits, and two protein/veggie smoothies is followed by a quick change into cycling clothes. I find it impossible to suppress the excitement as I drove back to I-40. The windows are down, the sunroof is open and I am singing along with the Avett Brothers.
After leaving the interstate I drive through a dilapidated and somewhat depressing Maggie Valley. The recession seems to have had a huge impact on the economy of the area. Within minutes, I cross under the Blue Ridge Parkway and take the ramp up to it. There is no plan here. I am simply looking for a place to ride Faith, my beloved old Kestrel.
I grind Faith's 21/54 gear (hey, I've never owned anything smaller!) for a little over a mile up to Waterrock Knob. Then the fun begins! I go into wind tunnel mode as I adjust my position to reach maximum speed - 40, 43, 46, 49, 51, 52 mph. What an adrenaline rush! The rapid 6-mile descent into Balsam Gap allows me to click three successive miles in 1:19, 1:21, and 1:16. Then I come to my senses. I've got to ride back up this mountain!
I turn the bike around and begin the six mile grind back up to Waterrock Knob. The grade varies from 7-11% on this climb. I can only smile as I mash the pedals, propelling the bike upwards and into the wind. While I may have descended slowly enough on Mt. Sterling to save my quads, I am finding that they are quite fatigued. As I climb I notice something I had not noticed on the way down. There are dozens of varying sized boulders lying on the edge of the road at several places where the road path had been blasted from the side of the mountain ridge. And now I look up constantly as I believe that I am moving so slowly that I am an easy target.
On the way to Asheville for a well-earned meal I reflect back on a day that has gone much better than I had expected. I ran well - faster than I ever have on that "strenuous" trail. My hands, knees, and face never kissed the trail - a FIRST! And my tired quads and glutes managed to keep pushing those pedals at the same rpm for miles up the BRP. I have climbed more than 4200 feet on foot and 3900 feet on the bike. Amazingly, I am not very tired. And what a difference this feeling is than the one I felt after my last run, two days earlier, which was one of the worst running experiences of my life.
The pizza and beer in Asheville are going to taste SWEET! ST