SCAR is the name for the “Smokies Challenge Adventure Run,” a runners’ challenge that involves running the entire 72 miles of the Appalachian Trail that go across the Smoky Mountains, all in under 24 hours. I had been itching to try this for several months and finally, this weekend, it was time to give it a go.
The route certainly lived up to expectations. I started at Davenport Gap, the northern border of the Smokies, at 3:48 a.m. I had decided to go southbound for two reasons–one, it would give me a more gradual descent off the mountain ridge at the end of the run, and two, it would get me past the Charlie’s Bunion area before the tourist crowds became too intense.
I set off to warm, muggy weather and a peaceful, still forest lit up by a pretty sliver of moon. After 8 or 9 miles I popped out a nice section of ridgeline just in time for the sunrise. From here until mile 31 would be one of my favorite runs ever. There was the perfect morning light on the ridge (my photos do not do it justice), the views off both sides, the many sections are perfect trail for runing.
My legs were still feeling heavy and sluggish from Lake Sonoma, but it didn’t really matter as I knew I didn’t need to run quickly for this day; I just needed to keep moving steadily.
Around mile 29 I got an exciting surprise: my friend Julien! I knew he was going to be at Newfound Gap to pace me, but I wasn’t sure where on the trail I’d find him. I got into Newfound Gap, which is mile 31.5, in 7:55, which was also a surprise as it was 35 minutes ahead of schedule. I was especially pleased as I had taken most of those miles conservatively, pacing myself as if I were doing a 100 miler rather than a 72 miler. After a slightly longer-than-ideal stop at Newfound Gap, Julien and I set off for Clingman’s Dome, about 8 miles away.
Heat is my kryptonite, and it struck with a vengeance at mile 32. After Newfound Gap you drop off the other side of the ridge and run along the hillside below the ridge. This meant I lost my cool breeze and gained direct sunlight. And the hills on this section are surprisingly difficult, even though they’re not the biggest on the route. Julien aptly named them the little steep monsters. Ouch!
Julien did an impressive job keeping me moving at a good pace after I started to slow. We met Divesh just south of Clingman’s Dome and did a quick swap of my food and gear for the final 32.5-mile stretch.
My original goal for SCAR was to run it in less than 22 hours. But when I left Clingman’s Dome with 10:15 elapsed, I realized that if I had a great second half of my run, I could possibly run under 20 hours or even under the women’s course record of 18:50. On one hand, I had some significant nausea already starting, and I knew I was behind in my water intake. On the other hand, my legs were still feeling strong, and I actually managed to get ahead of what I needed to run for an 18:50 between miles 40 and 50.My stomach didn’t do well during those miles, though. I barely drank and I don’t think I ate anything until I was able to barter with a hiker for his Snickers bar at mile 50 (I gave him a bag of peanut butter pretzel bites). Then the weather turned. The occasional showers turned into a steady downpour that would last the remaining 22 miles.
When you haven’t been eating or drinking, you’re stopping often to throw up, and it’s raining heavily and windy, it’s almost impossible to stay warm, even with good rain gear and warm tights on. I shivered my way along, feeling cold and miserable. The trail was flooded and after it got dark it was almost impossible to see, since my headlamp wasn’t quite cutting through the dense rain and fog. From miles 55 to 59 I slowly lost my cushion on an 18:50 finish, and at mile 59 the large hill up to the Mollie’s Ridge shelter took away any remaining chance I had at the record.
The one thing I had to look forward to in the final miles was that Divesh was planning to run in 5 miles from the finish and meet me. He actually made it 6 miles in, and I was thrilled to see him and have some company in the cold. Those last 6 miles took so long that I was convinced I must be nearing the 24-hour mark (I hadn’t looked at my watch in several hours since it was under several layers of rain jacket and gloves) but I had to laugh when we emerged from the trail for the last mile on the road and I discovered that the clock was at 19:41. I had planned a sprint finish down the last mile, but an attempt at sprinting quickly led to an especially painful bout of throwing up stomach acid, so I decided that a fast walk/shuffle would have to do, and I finished in 19:54.
Other than the bad weather, my SCAR was basically a summary of everything I love about running: great trails and views, a classic point-to-point route, pushing myself to a time that I wouldn’t have thought was possible, and even getting to see friends and family in the process. A perfect day!
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