In 2003, I ran my first trail race, the Nantahala Outdoor Center Bartram Trail Challenge, a 21 mile run starting at the NOC put-in and climbing to the top of Wayah Bald. The race was held in January and featured crossing the Nantahala River in the first few miles. That was my first big challenge and it is altogether fitting that almost 8 years later, my newest greatest challenge was running the entire length of the beautiful, but difficult 110 mile Bartram Trail.
This year, as I began to focus less on racing and more on adventure runs, I began thinking about the Bartram. To my knowledge, no one had been able to successfully run it from end to end. I thought about a summer attempt, but after running a few sections in the high heat and humidity and discovering how overgrown some sections had become, I decided to wait. The Bartram Trail folks cleared several sections of blowdowns over the summer and I took a hand saw with me on runs and cleared out whatever else I could to make the attempt as easy as possible. I decided to try it in November, after the first frosts, but hopefully before snow and ice set in.
I ran sections I had not done before or did not remember clearly and decided to run from north to south, to get the worst part out of the way in the first half of the run. I feel like I trained well and prepared effectively. I ran a number of long semi-supported runs this year (105 at NMAR, 77 at Foothills, plus several races 40-90 miles). As I ran sections of the Bartram, I carried as much weight as I could get in my pack to help strengthen my climbs. My mom and dad agreed to help support me, along with Tony, and Alan was going to run it as well. A few days before the run, Scott Brockmeier and Liz Bauer, ultrarunners extraordinaire, offered to come help, too. The long range forecast looked great and everything looked like it was working out perfectly…until I got sick a week before. I still felt bad the night before the run and was on the edge of cancelling it, but everything had come together so nicely, I decided to give it a try.
Stecoah to the Put-In
Alan met me at my house at 4:30 a.m. and we drove to Stecoah Gap near Robbinsville to start the run. The Bartram Trail rather inconveniently begins/ends at Cheoah Bald, which is 5.1 miles from the nearest road. We decided that of the options available to getting to the start, we would take the Appalachian Trail from the north, for 5.5 miles. It was a long uphill climb, but we took it slow and easy. At 7:50 a.m., we topped out at Cheoah and then started down the exceptionally steep first leg of the Bartram, the 5.1 miles down to the Nantahala River. The leaves were treacherous the entire run, especially on these steep descents. The Bartram is not heavily used and a thick layer of loose leaves covered up rocks and roots and turned the trail into a slip and slide.
Put –In to Lakeshore Store
Mom and Dad helped crew for the first time and met us at the power plant. I was already feeling not all that great after only 10 or so miles. Alan and I left and began the climb up the mountain, where I told him to head on, as I was having issues. I sat down for a couple of minutes to allow him to get far enough ahead so the dust from the leaves wouldn’t aggravate my asthma and make me feel even worse. I was feeling light-headed, dizzy and lethargic. I trudged on uphill, and when I blew my nose, discovered I had a nosebleed, which has never happened during a run before. After getting that under control, I continued on, feeling miserable. At Appletree Campground, Mom and Dad were waiting along with Alan. I sat on the tailgate of the truck, deciding whether or not to head on. Dad reminded me that the trail would still be there and I could try again. After eating a cold hamburger, I felt a bit better and told Alan I would go to the Lakeshore Store, since it wasn’t a difficult section and then decide from there. On the way over, he and I decided we would end the run there and try again another day.As we got closer to the store, Liz and Scott came running up. They had camped up near Wayah and had run down the mountain to find us, so I told Alan I would head on up at least to Sawmill Gap with them. Alan I think probably hated me at that moment, because he was feeling bad and planned to lay down in the back of dad’s truck, but instead we were going to do the most difficult section of the run, a nearly vertical climb from Nantahala Lake up to Sawmill Gap. Alan and I climbed slowly but steadily, with Liz and Scott following us up. A mile or so from the end, Alan’s projectile vomiting episode one occurred, right on cue (usually somewhere around 25 miles) and when we hit the gap, he decided to stop.
Wayah to Wallace Branch
Tony was there, along with mom and dad, and I decided to head up to Wayah, since Liz and Scott had come all this way and were camped up there. Once I hit Wayah, I decided that I might as well head down to Wallace Branch. Liz and Scott would meet me down there and run with me to mom’s house if I decided to go on. Alan was feeling better and went with me to Wallace Branch,This section was very difficult. It is very steep, with no switchbacks and was very deep in leaves. Despite the fact you are travelling down over 3000 feet, there are many extremely steep uphills in this section as well. It was beautiful, however, as you follow ridgelines and have an extraordinary view of the lights of Franklin on one side and of the valley where I live on the other. The sky was crystal clear and the stars rivaled the lights below. Unfortunately, Alan experienced PV#2, but recovered and we successfully made it down to Wallace Branch, where Tony, Liz and Scott were waiting. I decided to head at least to Mom’s house, about 5 miles down the road section . I had been concerned about running on the 14 mile road section, alone at night, but Liz ran with me with Scott following behind in the car. I enjoyed this section, as I have never spent time with Liz and running on the road was so much easier after what I had already done. The conversation made time go by fast and we were quickly at my parent’s house. I packed up my pack, changed clothes and we headed out again. Liz finished out the road section with me and then accompanied me up the mountain to Jones Gap.
the first night section of the run.
the first night section of the run.
Buckeye Branch to Hale Ridge
The climb to Jones Gap is the longest of the run. It is very narrow, rocky, leafy and steep. I was feeling bad as we climbed and midway through I decided that my virus had finally got the best of me and I would finish my run out at Hale Ridge Road, completing the North Carolina Bartram. Liz was very encouraging, but when we got to Jones Gap, I announced I was done, right then and there. I felt awful and didn’t want to face the next section, which featured the climb up Scaly and the roughest footing on the trail. Scott had been sleeping in his sleeping bag in his running clothes and was planning to run the next section with me. The sun was just starting to come up and I ate another cold hamburger. Scott didn’t seem to be really giving me the option to quit, so I told him I would run the next section with him (as if I were doing him a favor). He knew that the sun coming up would make all the difference, and of course he was right. The miracle hamburger worked, and off we went. Mom and Dad were meeting us at Osage Overlook, where I figured I would stop. Again, good conversation helped the time go by and distracted me from the climb up Scaly. We talked about Liz and Scott’s incredible 200 plus mile 48 hour race earlier this year, which made me feel a little bad about wanting to quit.
At Osage, I decided that since I was only 4 miles from the NC/GA line, I would go there and stop. I ate a donut that Mom brought and Tony showed up right before we left, which made me very happy. Scott would run to Hale Ridge with me, where everyone would meet us.
Hale Ridge to Warwoman
I had decided that Hale Ridge would be my stopping place, because after Hale Ridge, there is no crew access or dropping out for 18 miles. I had felt so bad earlier, that I knew I should have postponed my run. If I started out on the Georgia section and got sick again, that would be bad. However, Scott used logic on me and convinced me to continue on. He said that I was still moving strongly, the weather was great, and I had great support and those elements wouldn’t come together like that again. He and Liz would run with me and carry much of what I needed, so all I needed was my pack with water. Fine, I decided. They really need to see the view from Rabun Bald, so we would head that way.
The day was beautiful and although I wasn’t burning up the course, I was moving steadily. I made the climb up Rabun Bald and was glad that that was the last really long climb. Scott and Liz continued to distract me with conversation and our limited repertoire of jokes and time went by quickly. On the backside of Rabun Bald, however, the outer back side of my left knee began hurting. I continued on, but the downhills got more and more difficult. The day went on and around 4:30 or so, we came into a valley, where the sunlight was golden, illuminating a forest of beautiful fall leaves. The reds, oranges and yellows were so spectacular that I forgot my fatigue and pain for a bit.
As we got to Warwoman, however, the pain had become excruciating. I could go uphill and level fine, but downhills were undoable. I tried to gut it out and forced myself downhill, but it was like there was a knife in my knee. I hopped/slid/hobbled down to Warwoman and spent a bit of time crying on Tony’s shoulder. I had come so far and was only 18 miles from the end. I was moving good, feeling fine, but my knee wouldn’t work.
Warwoman to Russell Bridge (with one knee)
Liz and Scott gave Tony some tape and Alan had some Biofreeze. Tony taped my knee and I decided I would head out and see if that helped any. The first mile or so is uphill, which I could do, although I was now hobbling some on uphills and flats. The first downhill, I was able to sideways shuffle down, which was extremely slow, but I could make forward progress. I decided to try the six-mile section to Pool Branch Road. Liz and Scott stayed with me, although I was now mainly power-hiking, as running in any form was hurting my knee. The downhills had become almost undoable again and very, very slow and unfortunately, there is more downhill on this section than uphill. I decided though, that I would do everything I could to get to the end. Others will finish the Bartram much faster, but my Bartram Challenge will make everyone do the last 18 miles on one leg.
Tony met me about a half mile from Pool Branch and helped me down the steep narrow trail. I walked backwards, which did not hurt and he held my hands and guided me. After warming up and reloading my supplies, Liz, Scott and I took off to Sandy Ford, another 3 miles down the trail. The first part was a steep climb, and my knee was not hurting as badly. When it leveled out some, I was able to shuffle-run for the first time in hours. When we hit the downhill, I was able to use both legs, rather than dragging the left one. I wasn’t pain free, but it was not excruciating anymore. Walking backwards must have stretched or rearranged something in there.
At Sandy Ford, Tony decided to go with me. My knee was feeling better, but I was feeling bad again. I was cold and we had to cross a creek and then the lights were bothering me and making me nauseous. When we got to Earl’s Ford and into the truck, I was shivering uncontrollably, nauseous, and extremely fatigued. I had been running for over 40 hours and had a seven mile stretch left. I have never run longer than 37 hours or 105 miles and I wasn’t sure what my body was doing. Before I (or Tony) could think about it, I left. I stuck a couple things in my pocket and grabbed a water bottle. Alan was “running” this section with me and I took off before he had gotten his stuff together. We were along the river when he caught up to me and I told him I needed him to get me through this section and get me away from the river as quick as possible because I was so cold and still shivering despite having three shirts and a shell on. He took off up the hill and I followed.
I was so tired that I focused on bodily functions to get me through. First I focused on getting warm. I pushed hard uphill and did little shuffles to generate heat. Then, for awhile I focused on my nausea. I backed away from Alan some, so I could shine my lights farther and hopefully not continue to be motion sick. After that, I focused on my fatigue. Okay, so my fatigue focused on me. I yawned uncontrollably, and walked several steps at a time with my eyes closed. It got to the point, that I had to stop to yawn because I was afraid I would fall off the edge of trail. Then I focused on trying to keep my eyes open. I tried to look at the woods around me, but Alan would think I had stumbled off the trail when he saw my light shining in the woods, so then I began looking at the leaves in the trail and focusing on following the reflective markings on Alan’s back.
This section took forever. My knee still hurt, so there was no running, and it was getting pretty sore on the downhills again, so it was slow going. It felt like we were going in circles and I tried not to think about how much farther we had to go. When we hit the river again, I got very cold again and Alan gave me a space blanket, which improved my mood dramatically. I was warmer, knew we were getting closer (although not as close as I thought), and I felt like one of the old stove-top Jiffy Pop popcorn aluminum foil containers. (Hey, I had been awake for 48 hours at this point).
Finally, I saw Tony heading down the trail towards us and knew I was almost done. (He had walked out the trail and heard two mountain lions screaming and coyotes howling on the ridgeline between him and where we were. If I had heard it, I would have assumed I was hallucinating).
The finish was non-eventful. Liz and Scott had been sleeping while waiting and gave me a hug. Alan took a picture and we all climbed into vehicles, exhausted. I had run with a virus, a nosebleed, nausea, and an injured IT band to cover 110 miles of the Bartram in an excruciatingly slow 44: 36. I had been awake over 48 hours, moving for 47 of it, including the initial 5.5 miles to get to the Bartram. I’m going to leave the 24 hour plus runs to Liz and Scott and I’m going into groundhog mode for the winter. (Building up some body fat and doing a lot of sleeping).
In retrospect, postponing at least one day would have been smart. Still being sick made me weak which made some sections very slow, and I spent a lot of time at “aid stations” trying to rest and regroup. Pushing through the bad IT band was not a good idea, either. I had thought it would take around 40 hours and if I hadn’t had to do the last 20 miles at less than a 2 mph pace, it would have. However, unlike the Foothills Trail, I still love the Bartram and although I don’t feel the need to do another traverse, I will be back out soon running on it.