Thursday, March 26, 2009


SCAR is the acronym for the unofficial Smokies Challenge Adventure Run, a one-day unsupported 72 mile run on the Appalachian Trail across the crest of the Smoky Mountains National Park. It gains over 18,000 feet in elevation and you only have one opportunity for aid or to quit. What first got me interested in this run was an article a friend had sent me years ago, about a woman who had run across the Smokies in two days, stopping at Newfound Gap and then coming back the next day to finish it. This was before I started trail running and I knew most hikers took five days or more to cross the Smokies. I was impressed and that article stuck with me.

Fast-forward seven years or so and I have run most of the trails in the Smokies, including all of the AT, although not at once. After discovering ultrarunning, I understood that that woman’s feat, while still impressive, was not all that unusual for some ultrarunners. What was unusual was the fact that some runners had done the whole AT in one day. I really wanted to do it, but I run solo and I knew trying to do SCAR solo would be pretty risky. Last summer, though, I found other runners who were going to run it and I joined up. After being rained on for the first half of the day, however, I opted to stop halfway and try again during better weather. Adam Hill went on to finish SCAR that day in less than 18 hours!

I decided this year that I would try SCAR as a training run for the Massanutten. After I finished it yesterday, in retrospect I realized that I should have done the Massanutten as a training run for SCAR.

My husband, Tony, drove me to Davenport Gap last Saturday morning (the first weekend of spring). The plan was for me to do the first half solo and then have a friend run the last part with me. I am very comfortable with the Smokies and have been on that section of the AT many times, so running solo was not a concern for me. And as it turns out, it is AT through-hiker season and I quit counting the hikers I passed after I reached 35. I even met a woman who recognized me from when I was running on the AT near home last weekend.

I love the section of the AT between Davenport Gap and Newfound Gap. You are at over 5,000 feet elevation for most of the time and the views are spectacular. There are several sections of “narrows,” where you are running along a steep ridgeline, which is only about a few feet wide and the views open up on both sides of you. The vegetation varies with the elevation. There are some areas with hardwoods and grass, some bald areas, and others with balsams and mossy rocks. The shady sides of the ridges were noticeably colder, especially along Mount Guyot, where there was still a dusting of snow. The trail for the most part is pretty runnable, although there are some very rocky and rooty sections. Some parts of the trail were still icy, as well, particularly at Ice Water springs. I am glad I chose to do SCAR north to south, so I could enjoy this section in the daylight while I still felt good.

Tony and Alan Buckner met me at Newfound Gap at 6:00 pm. It took me nine hours to do the first section, a little slower than what I wanted, but still much faster than the run last summer. My asthma was better than last time, but in the last couple hours I started to have some issues and I ended up slowing down some.

After spending over a half hour at Newfound Gap, changing clothes, resupplying, and eating the hamburger Tony brought me, I set off with Alan to do the last forty miles. I knew the section between Newfound Gap and Clingman’s Dome would be more difficult. It was getting dark and colder, it was uphill for eight miles, and the trail was at 6000 foot elevation (an issue for my asthma). Plus I had already run 32 miles. Alan was fresh and enjoyed the first part of the adventure. I can honestly say I really didn’t enjoy much after Newfound Gap.

I forgot how the trail profile made this section look deceptively easy.

After Clingman’s, it does go more downhill than up. But there are constant short steep climbs and long steep descents. Up, down, up, down, up, down, all night long. The trail is very rooty and rocky which is even more difficult to run in the dark. Some areas were covered with leaves, disguising the rocks and the roots. It was difficult to run at any speed on the downhills, thus negating the usual advantage of being able to make up time. I was having major problems with my asthma- my lungs ached and I was breathing hard walking uphill. Now that I have gone to the doctor, I found out that I was also running sick, with a virus.

It was not all bad, however. The lights from Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg were beautiful and you could see lights highlighting the entire horizon on the Tennessee side. North Carolina was pleasantly dark- just a few scattered lights here and there. The night started out with a cloud cover, but that eventually lifted, revealing a canopy of stars. (Unfortunately, I spent most of the night slightly dizzy, I guess from the asthma, and I couldn’t look at the stars and remain upright). The open balds near Rocky Top were beautiful, as you had a full panorama of stars and city lights. When you passed shelters, you heard snoring and envied those asleep as you passed quietly by. We scared a bear, some deer, and some other unknown creatures.

But back to the bad stuff. Getting water is a pain on this section. There are no springs and the water sources are off short, steep side trails near shelters. In the end, my Suunto recorded 75 miles rather than 72, some from wandering around the parking lot and bathrooms at Newfound Gap, and I guess the rest from going up and down side trails looking for water. In the dark it was sometimes hard to find a pipe and the water was too shallow to fill a bladder. I gave up at Russell Field shelter and ended up being out of water for a long time. (On the positive side, if you are out of water and can’t eat for a long time, your stomach settles down. You have no energy, but you feel pretty good!)

The worst part is that there is no aid and no opportunity to bail out. This became painfully evident when Alan started projectile vomiting around 4:00 in the morning. He pushed through his illness and lack of energy, and we were well prepared for emergencies, but this run is not for anyone who is not self-sufficient. This is also what makes SCAR and other such adventures worthwhile- being able to push past what you thought your limits were.

Once the sun came up, I was able to call Tony, who snickered at our miserable 2.5 miles per hour we were averaging at that point. That is what was so frustrating. We felt like we were moving okay, given the circumstances, but we were crawling uphill, and our “running” downhill was really just a shuffle. I used to hike faster than I was running.

It took me 26:16 to finish and although I was hoping for under 24:00, I am satisfied with completing it. Could I have finished it under twenty-four? Take away all the time I spent at Newfound Gap, the long rest break when we finally found water, projectile vomiting and asthma, maybe. But I guess I’ll never know. For at some point around 8:00 am, I decided first that I was dropping out of the Massanutten. A little while later, I decided I wasn’t going to run Crowder’s Mountain in two weeks. By the end of the run I vowed never to return to the Smokies again. I was going to make a trip to Wal-Mart, buy some needles and yarn and take up competitive knitting. I was never going to run another step.

But, then again, I really did enjoy that first half. I might do that part again soon. Maybe sometime between Crowder’s Mountain and the Massanutten.

Notes to anyone planning this run: It is very hard. If you are not used to long, self-supported runs, this is not a run for you. The Smokies really are a remote wilderness area once you get away from the main road. Be prepared for rapidly changing weather, the much colder temps on the ridgelines, the difference in running at 6,000 feet elevation, the very real possibility of being injured, spending the night and then having to walk out. In all the miles of trail I have run in the Smokies, I have only seen a couple of rangers out on trail. You can’t get a cell signal in most of the places. The side trails off the AT, especially the southern part, do not lead you to civilization. Some of them, although shorter, require multiple stream crossings. In the summertime, there are timber rattlers up high and copperheads down lower. People have died from getting lost in the Smokies. Bears generally don’t bother you, but two people have been killed in recent years in the Smokies. There are wild hogs, which have been aggressive. I carry pepper spray.

Notes to self: Carry more water. Yes, getting water at places like Mollie’s Ridge is a pain, but suck it up and do it anyway. Take some different things to eat. Luna and Lara bars get old. Take rest breaks once in awhile. (I didn’t sit down until about 12 hours in). Don’t try to eat while moving. Bring something to put in the water. Water doesn’t taste good after awhile and there are no aid stations to get something different. THINK POSITIVE