Appalachian High Route: Setting a Standard
The newly named Appalachian High Route connects the 6000' mountains in the southeast via the AT and MST trails. As it's fairly new, officially, I went out to set a standard route with a speed record attempt as a Supported Female contender.
I dropped off my two boys with their Aunt for the day and headed to work. My mind was trending towards the trail but I fought for focus. After work and a brief meeting I got in my car and drove the 6.5 hour drive to Mountain City, TN and the Appalachian Folk School, the home of the one and only, Warren Doyle. I pulled up about the same time he had from his busy Contradance schedule and we sat for a talk. We went over logistics, mindset, goals and more. After that I went to bed.
The next morning Warren and I had breakfast at his local spot and we talked more deeply about the upcoming endeavor. My goals were clear yet lighthearted. I wanted to complete the Appalachian High route. I wanted it to be a great adventure. I hoped I could put down a serious time on it that might withstand time, at least for a bit. I was open to mild failure though and if it was a soft record in the end, that was ok too, so long as I had given it my best.
After breakfast we arranged and packed my things appropriately for “Pegasus” Warren’s van. Then we stuffed it all into Terry’s car as Warren would meet up with me near the end of my first day.
Terry Doyle transported me from the Folk school to Hot Springs, NC. We ate lunch with Sarah and her husband, Jonathan and then went to the Trail-er to get prepared and rest. I hugged Terry goodbye, thanking her for the drive and good company. Then, Sarah, Jonathan and I chatted away the next hour or so tinkering with our hydration packs and such.
Celia arrived and I went to take a nap. I fell asleep easily but woke up 90 minutes later. I lounged and rested but I was awake and done resting by 6pm. Sarah, Celia and I agreed I would move my start to 10pm.
Once I was ready and at my “start line” my watch glitched as I tried to utilize the gpx, we went back to the start and tried again and failed again. I was now nervous about my watch and decided to forgo using any mapping.
At 10:03 pm I hit start without the gpx and Sarah and I took off through Hot Springs.
I hiked hard in the damp heat through to Tanyard gap where Celia and I quickly exchanged trash, water and snacks. Then we were off to Allen gap. Sarah began to feel the heat and ran short on water and electrolytes. She had to back off the pace and manage herself. I shared a bit of water and then she stopped pacing at Allen gap to get herself back on track.
I continued on. The next 21 mile segment would be long and take me up to the ridge line and over Big Butt mountain. I moved swiftly and made great time. I took two slip & falls on the ridge line rocks reminding me to bring at least one pole for support going forward. I also made a note to take more caution and time. It was much too early for getting hurt.
At Devils Fork Gap Sarah rejoined me and we continued onward. We cruised through the day passing through Sam’s Gap and topping off over Big Bald reaching the goal spot of 58.8 miles north or Spivey Gap by mid-afternoon and I was lucky enough to have a quick thunderstorm to clean off the day’s dirt and sweat.
At Spivey Gap Warren was waiting and I took a few minutes to eat a sandwich and snacks. From here I continued onto the Burnsville Connector alone. 1.6 mile North on the AT I turned off onto an old Fire Service road, which means 1.7 miles of brush and grass. I moved as smoothly as I could through the scratchy undergrowth but found the grass wrapping around my feet. Finally, I made it to Devils Creek trail. Only 2 miles in length, this little… gem of a trail tested me. The unstable rocks, the terrible canter of the trail, the downed trees made for a frustrating trek. I knew it was short-lived though and soon dropped onto Lost Cove trail for a 1.7 mile long rocky ascent. I actually love this little trail but with the fatigue of the day all I was thinking about was getting to Warren for my first nap.
It was 5pm and I took a 1 hour nap to compress my legs with my Normatec boots and sleep. I woke up and debated trying for more rest but I knew it wouldn’t come so I got up, dressed and fed myself and began the 20-ish miles of road walking.
Only a mile or two in,Celia joined me and we hiked through Burnsville NC to the base of the Black Mountain Crest trail. My watch had me 79 miles in at 24 hours and 87 miles in when we stopped at 26 hours. Here I rested for 3 hours and closed out day 1.
I was awake after a 90 min nap but rested until 2:30am then got ready. Celia and I began the BMCT at 3:15 am and climbed through the sunrise, although we remained in the cloud cover on Mount Mitchell. This hike was grueling. It is always a very hard hike but after an 87 mile day it was soul sucking and painful. I pushed through knowing this was potentially the toughest 12 miles of the entire loop and once it was over I’d have 100+ easier miles.
At the top of Mount Mitchell I was emotionally trashed and physically exhausted from the climb. I took 20 minutes to reset my mentality and then off I went down on the Mountain to Sea trail.
I moved swiftly through the section but found myself getting very drowsy already. The sun was shining, the breeze was blowing and the grassy trail looked soft. I wanted to sleep but knew I had to move forward. I was happy to get to the van and find Sarah ready to hike. We continued on upward to Walker knob, Graybeard Mtn and Elk Mtn. I was feeling the elevation gain on my legs. Sarah seemed to hike with ease where my every step seemed heavy and hard. I wanted to perk up but my energy was low. We got some running in through another afternoon thunderstorm and made back some time. My feet were tenderized after the rain but we kept on hiking. Warren had gotten us some hot food for dinner and we ate that prior to the day’s last segment. My stomach was unhappy though, burning and reflux had begun. We hiked on through sunset and finally arrived to my goal location for the day 51.2 miles further in.
Jenna arrived with French fries and Frosties and Celia took care of my hair and feet. It was a long hard day that would quickly blend into the next.
Day 3 day started at 1am after another quick nap. Jenna would be hiking with me! I knew as soon as I woke up that I was behind on calories, my stomach burned as it had since dinner the evening before and my energy was low. I tried to eat and be smart but my stomach protested.
Jenna and I hiked a section and then another and it was already getting worse. I sat at the overlook pass and waited to pack in some ginger, ramen, snacks, mango, chocolate…. It all tasted rough but I knew from enough experience the only way out of the hole I was digging was to force feed myself.
Jenna was finished as she needed to get to work. Celia was leaving for home. I cried to Sarah as we began to hike again. Celia knew me better than anyone there and she had to leave. I knew I was in great hands, but I’d still miss my friend.
As Sarah and I hiked I struggled to move well but pushed through, I continued to put food in but it just seemed not to be enough. As we pushed midday I was dry heaving from stomach pain from lack of calories. I just couldn’t keep up with the demand. I was sinking deep into a Low.
We arrived to Warren and I kept eating. Sarah took a break here and I was determined to be strong in this next 6.8 mile section. I left out ready to push and be positive, to try and squelch my “low” but the harder I tried the more complicated the trail became. It was a hard section with large ups and sharp downs and lots of twists, turns and rock hops. I drove on until my watch said I’d gone 6.8 miles but FarOut said I still had 1.2 miles to go! I fell apart. I was angry and confused.
I called Celia and cried, I talked with Justin and I vented. All parties recommended a nap and to regroup. I eventually made it back to Warren and I crawled into my sleep spot sad and irritated. I slept for an hour.
I needed more sleep but I was still miles behind for the day, I got up and Sarah came out with me for a long poorly marked complicated section. I was grateful to have her with me. It took me nearly 22 hours that day but I completed the 49 miles I needed to stay on track.
Day 4 started at 4am out of Haywood Gap after a cold nearly sleepless "night" for a long 16ish mile start. I packed up with lots of food and my headphones. I was intent on having a good day. I set out strong and listened to my audiobook until the steady voice made me sleepy. Then I switched to the collection of a few songs I had downloaded. I was transported to my first high. I was dancing and singing and acting like a complete fool because, why not?
I danced and sang up the trail and into the sunshine. I had a quick call with my husband and children as I snapped photos. I knew I could ride this high for a while. I made it to Warren and Sarah and had some snacks before going back out for a pack free 2 miles. After that I put my hydration pack back on and completed another lengthy section that I found errors in the MST map vs the actual trail. Suddenly the extra miles seemed more real and less imagined. The actual dirt trail did not match the provided mileage. There were only small variations, a few tenths of a mile here and there but they added up.
Next time I saw Warren and Sarah they had cheeseburgers and fries for me. I ate while I used my compression boots and prepped for the afternoon. After eating however, my energy sank and I was very very sleepy on the trail. I called Celia again for company and although I was still weaving sleepily I managed to move well enough. The rest of the afternoon would be gravel road and paved roads up to Waterrock Knob and then down into Cherokee, TN.
At Waterrock Knob Jenna came by with Topo Ultraventures I’d begged for and delivered them to me. It felt like an angel had brought sneakers from the sky, I was high and happy, laughing and giggling with my crew. I played my music over and over to keep on with my good mood.
Just as night fell the rain rolled in, catching me off guard. Sarah joined me for a rainy road descent and I struggled to judge my pace without hurting my knees. My feet were screaming in pain from all the road and gravel of the day. Then it happened, I felt one of the blisters sear open and the dull aching and throbbing was now accompanied by a sharp stinging. I moved even slower, being more careful not to tear the skin further or my tape. I told Sarah I’d need to take the time to fix the foot as soon as we saw Warren. It was torrential and I felt a little beaten at the moment. Then finally Pegasus appeared.
I fixed up my right foot and we continued on down the road. The rain subsided and we walked and talked until the Cherokee junction where Warren had cheeseburgers for both of us.
We then drove to the visitor center parking lot to catch some sleep. I panicked about my watch in that instant trying to determine the right thing to do since I was getting in a car, I paused it on instinct but then knew the time would be inaccurate. I was worried but restarted it once we’d stopped at the lot. I laid down for 3 hours of sleep and woke up about 2 hours later. I rested and got ready for morning. I’d be hiking up to Clingmans Dome. I was excited and nervous.
Day 5 was exciting! Justin was there and ready to hike with me. Justin has been coaching me for a few months and we’ve been running friends for a while, following one another’s endeavors and efforts but in reality we’d never truly met before now. We drove back to Cherokee where I’d stopped the prior night and walked the 1.4 miles back to the visitor center where we’d slept. From here, Justin and I would have a long 21 mile section with nearly 5k’ of elevation gain and for fun, a guarantee of thunderstorms at some point.
We took off hiking strong, realizing quickly that there are no trail markers on this section. We checked at every intersection to make sure we were on track. Then the rain started and poured on us. The thunder and lightning were glorious. The trail turned to a river as it usually does. I walked carefully so as to keep my tape on my feet intact and in place. The higher we hiked the cooler it became. The first chance I had I changed from just a plastic poncho to my rain gear and a long sleeve shirt.
The rain subsided fairly quickly and morning seemed to come right behind the storm. We took note of the flooded creek beside us, that was until the map said we had to cross it. We stared at our maps and back on the gurgling flooding water as it hurled downstream. I hesitated briefly not seeing a trail on the other side but then took off onto a log across the water. The first branch I grabbed snapped and I fell back onto the bank. I tried again and Justin climbed into the water to support me. We made it across, but where was the trail?
I tried to climb through these downed trees but saw nothing, then I heard Justin say he found it. I crawled back out and we had to sort of triangulate across another portion of the creek. He had noticed a tiny pink ribbon on a tree, thank goodness! We were back on track and the trail took us across the creek a couple more times but mostly we remained side by side with it through deep mud and slippery rocks. It was challenging but exciting and fun. Finally though, we began to climb, to really ascend.
Finally we popped out onto a road and I was done with the MST. After a short pause Justin and I were off to tag the dome and head back down. 4 miles of climbing later I marched around the Clingmans Dome circle and then we trotted back down the AT, 75 miles left to my journey.
This time back with Warren I was feeling more out of it. I was okay and eating so I didn’t stay long. We took off for Indian Gap and there Sarah joined us for the remaining 3 miles to Newfound Gap. During this stretch my system felt done. I was sleepy, in pain, and weakened. I felt so “out of it” that I just lagged behind the other two. At Newfound Gap I just wanted to lay down. My bed space was full of food so I took to the pavement and rested there in the parking lot. Warren cracked jokes, everyone seemed happy, I felt like I was in another dimension all together.
After a team picture I went to lay down and slept for my usual 60-90 min. When I woke up I continued to rest and laid there for a bit. I stared out the van door up at the sky and noticed specks in my vision, like seeing stars, then beyond those specks the clouds were shapeshifting into glorious works of art. I stared as the dancer twirled and then a lioness and her cub played together. It was strange and miraculous, the closest to visual hallucinations I’d ever experienced.
Only a few minutes later I realized my feet needed significantly more work so I got up and removed all the tape and mole skin as the tape wasn’t drying fully and so I tried to allow them to dry. I asked Sarah to cook me this big camping meal so I could slurp down 800 calories. I had what seemed like chemical burns on my tongue from the sodium and almost everything hurt to eat. I knew I wasn’t where I should be heading out for 31 miles from Newfound to Davenport, but it was an FKT effort and I was pressed for time. The next 90 min went very quickly as I dressed, packed, taped up, massaged my legs and K-taped my knees. I tried to keep eating and get everything done by our 9pm start time.
When it was time to go, the plan was to go for the rest, 67 ish miles back to Hot Springs. I was still gunning to come in just under 6 days, so I had to hustle. Sarah and I Ieft Warren right on time. I don’t think I made it a half of a mile before I was crying and wanting to turn back. There was so much fear and anxiety going into this stretch of the trail. I’ve run it before, I’ve hiked it before, I’ve nearly crawled it before and each time it was the hardest 31 miles in the Great Smoky National Park. My brain reeled, my feet ached, throbbed and stung. Sarah listened and tried to be positive but I could tell she was exhausted and tired of listening to my drama.
I fought to dig deeper, I tried to think about my pain cave and what that actually means, I tried to imagine a cave I could enter in my mind where the pain would cease to be so awful, I tried to be “one with the pain” and I tried to understand how the runners out there with blistered, infected feet kept moving. My feet had exactly 3 blisters, 2 on my heels already healing and one the ball of my foot but it was well taped and managed. My pain was not the skin but the nerves, the intense tingle, burn, stab and aching. I know I am not alone. I just could not manage it well, I felt like such a wimp.
Then there was the fatigue, it came in waves but it was getting stronger. I found myself weaving on the trail as I fought to stay conscious. Sarah was tired too. She apologized plenty for being so tired but I couldn’t see how she could have managed and supported me any better even if she was bright eyed. We fought through the darkness together, allowing only short rest and dirt naps. Time ticked by so slowly, but worse, the miles were slow too.
When sunlight finally came and we began to warm up we hoped the fatigue would lessen. For me, it did not. It continued to worsen. I slipped off the trail once, fell over a few times. I was just blacking out mid stride and losing time. As we began the long descent to Davenport gap I was terrified by my state of being. The pain in my feet torturing my mind and my mind trying to give up completely to a state of unconsciousness. Sarah gave me her pole to use with mine to steady myself more and I followed the trail down, down, down until eventually we got to Davenport Gap. Jenna was there with Warren. I climbed into my bed spot and sobbed. I drank the entire chocolate milkshake Jenna brought me and laid there. The pain in that moment was so intense, physically and emotionally. Spiritually I was destroyed, I knew Jenna was waiting on me and Warren was frustrated to see me in such a low. I wanted to pull it together so I tried.
I climbed back out of the van and my knees cried out, my hips screaming from the long 7 mile pounding descent, I was miserable but determined. It was 2.1 miles of easy trail for the next section, so I thought I’d try to loosen up some of the pain.
Jenna and Sarah behind me as we hiked slowly. I grimaced and groaned. I was also still falling asleep walking. They were both quiet. I couldn’t go on like this. I had to nap. After the 2.1 miles I crawled back into the van and fell asleep hard and fast.
When I woke up I was improved, but very out of it. My determination got me up, and I continued to prep to go. My mouth stung and my feet, ugh, my feet; but at least my knees had calmed down. The three of us left Warren and hiked up and up and up.
I was fighting for every step by now and trying on some level to be “fun” for Jenna and Sarah. I was really struggling with having support as I felt like I was such a nuisance to be around. The miles passed slowly and the day passed quickly. It was getting towards sunset as we reached Max Patch, one of my favorite places on the Appalachian Trail.
As we began to descend from Max Patch I broke into a jog and continued to press forward as hard as I could. Back with Warren he was delighted and surprised by my turn around. Sarah needed to stop here but Jenna would continue the remaining and final 14.5 miles. I downed more caffeine and a few tablespoons of cinnamon sugar butter on a mini croissant or two and we were off. We climbed hard and descended jogging, then climbed hard and pushed the descent again. 8 more miles done. The clock had just hit the 6 day mark with 6.5 miles to go.
Jenna and I hustled the remainder of the miles until I crossed the pink ribbon finish line Warren and Sarah held up for me across the sidewalk where I’d started 6 days, 1 hour and 40 min earlier.
It’s hard to express in words what the support out there felt like but I know it made my heart full. These friends of mine: Warren, Celia, Sarah, Justin and Jenna made me believe in myself in moments of doubt, they loved me through the pain and tears, they literally kept me above water at times. I hope I can bring that same gracious joy to others. To me, that was the best part of running 350 miles to set some standard on the new Appalachian High Route. It blew my mind as I’ve never been supported like that before.
I have deep drive and interest in persuing self-supported adventures but this experience made me think twice about that as well. I got it done, sure, but I don’t think I could have done it so well without my amazing team! We got it done and set a solid record!