Monday, May 28, 2012

Smoky Spine Dream Run

Last Friday I was able to realize a long-time goal of running the Appalachian Trail from Davenport Gap to Newfound Gap. This run along the eastern spine of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park had been on my mind for many years. I simply had not "made" it happen. My preparation for the upcoming Bighorn 100 provided an urgent and just cause for action.

The AT through the eastern half of the Smokies contains the highest sustained elevation east of the Rockies. The AT enters the GSMNP at Davenport Gap (1975 ft) and climbs Mt. Cammerer (5000 ft) in the opening five miles. After dropping to Low Gap (4200 ft) the AT climbs over Inadu Knob before ascending and staying above 5000 feet for the next 36 miles.

Highlighted elevation profile of the run.
My journey to Newfound Gap took me near the summits of six mountains as the AT meandered across an unbroken ridge line. It involved about 9200 ft of ascending and 6200 ft of descending over a distance of 31.4 to 32.8 miles, depending on which sources you adhere to. Even the signs within the park disagreed with each other. The Polar G5 gps unit I wore would have put it between those two if it had enough charge - I did not see the charge cable so I started without it fully charged. So glad it was not tied to the heart rate data when it died!

This rugged section of the AT is also the most remote section, having several 4 to 6-mile stretches in which there are not even intersecting trails. Heliports are located in a couple of these regions for emergency evacuations which, coincidently, did not make my to-do list.

Along the way I encountered numerous vistas of haze shrouded mountains, a couple dozen backpackers, a small rattlesnake underfoot, a far off bear, blooming Mountain Laurel and Catawba Rhododendron, dozens of black muddy bogs, and countless knee high wood and stone obstacles.

I used a finicky UV light to purify 8 liters of cold, great tasting water from springs along the way. A pack used for summiting 14ers carried the light, 2500 calories, and emergency supplies. I started and finished with a Polar tank, but it was too warm to wear it throughout the run. My weak and taped ankle caused me to go with the stable La Sportiva Skylite 2.0 that has given me peace of mind during my three 50-mile mountain runs.  And, of course, I wore the Polar RCX5 to track my progress. I opted not to carry a camera, since I knew the haze would be thick and the warm air would cause excessive sweating.

Polar RCX5 data file
The run went better than I expected. I climbed steadily and slowly in the early miles, keeping a curious, judicious, and calculating eye on my average heart rate. I let it climb during that ascent, but then slowed on the high ridge to gage how fast I could go while keeping the metabolism in the idle mode. My final descent into Newfound Gap found me energetic and elated. The only issue all day was a slight turn of the right ankle at mile 23. I am still dumbfounded as to why I didn't fall down because falling has become a normal part of my mountain running.

This was a practice run aimed at slowing my butt down for a long haul. Tortoise or hare? Survival or death? Finish or DNF? 100 miles is out of my league, beyond my range of motion, and certainly beyond my sense of logic, my rational faculty. I don't normally move 100 miles in a month, let alone in a little over a day. So, this run was my attempt to get a grip on the pace that I will be capable of maintaining for a long, long run.

New friends Jim (master brewer) and Donna (teacher) from AK
Sweat and mud, but no blood!


  1. Awesome, Shane. Makes me want to go out and log some epic miles in the mountains. Good luck at Bighorn. You still planning on being in the San Juans on the solstice?

    Continued best wishes.


    1. Thanks, Doug! That means a lot coming from you. You WOULD like traversing such an beautiful ridge line. Yes, I will be in the San Juan range a week after the BH100. I am signed up for the SJS50, but I doubt that I will be able to walk again, let alone scale and descend those steep mountains. I will likely give up my spot and volunteer. Take care!

  2. that is a nice report Shane, sounds so beautiful, I actually turned my ankle on a 27 mile trail run last week and am babying that ankle and jogged walked 32 miles a week later on a very well taped ankle. my point is I was NOT sore at all the next day from going slower !! Good luck to you on your quest for Big Horn it is 75% Mental, 15% Training and 10% the bling bling, take care of the ankle my friend.

    1. Thanks, Suzy! You are one of those athletes I'd like to grow up to be like someday :) I hope to take a big step forward in ultra running by actually slowing down(mental) to a pace my non-trained body can handle for more than a day. It will be epic and it WILL be fun. I've got three weeks to get this ankle near normal, but I will still tape it soundly as a precaution.