AT RunVenture Project: Segment No. 1
Celia and Meg finally set out to start the Appalachian Trail! The first segment covers the approach trail and the first 105.8 mi of the AT.
Finally! After six months of anticipation and training, I was finally sitting at the airport ready to fly to ATL, Atlanta airport, where Celia would pick me up and we’d drive to the Appalachian Trail (AT) and start our adventure which has now been shared fairly wide (definitely beyond our social comfort zones).
5:45am Friday March 26, 2021Celia texts me something along the lines of, “So I have a proposition to change our plans.” Up to now the plan was that I would fly in nice and early, drive back to her home in Athens, GA and repack post flight. Then we’d pick up her boys from school and drive to Amicalola State park where we’d hike the 8.8 mile approach trail. There at Springer Mountain, we would camp, sleep and begin the actual AT in the morning around 5am and run the 105.8 miles in one shot.However, we’d of course been watching the weather and it wasn’t great. Friday was now gorgeous and Saturday had gone from questionable to likely good weather but Sunday remained a cold, rainy and truly yucky looking trail day. Apparently, the way Celia tells the story, around 1am Friday morning she had awoken to a large thunderclap that made her mind start spinning about our plans and reworking them. I was so glad she had!
As she texted, I knew the new plans were better. I immediately agreed knowing that we’d both be starting tired and we’d only become much more tired with the new plan, but with the new plan we would also limit our exposure to the cold and wet conditions which was obviously quite ideal.
We were in agreement and we were very ready.At roughly 3pm Friday we arrived at Amicalola State Park to find that the storms from the night prior had broken a part of the stairs up across the waterfall, a portion of the approach trail and that we were highly suggested to skip that portion. We parked and questioned a few day hikers about the damage and it seemed if we were careful enough we could potentially make it up the stairs and take the true approach trail. So we decided to try. Right around 3:30pm we set out for our first 40 miles (8.8 miles for the approach trail and then 32.2 miles of the AT) which would take us to Celia’s ex-husband, (Bronson who’d already driven us to the the start) and her kids who had set up camp for the evening which included a small tent and sleeping bags for us.
When we began the sun was shining and it was a very nice, warm afternoon in the mid 70s. We started to sweat almost immediately (both Celia and I love hot weather running) and we moved so well. There was enough flowing water on the trail we were able to drink to our hearts’ content and we needed to. The trail was perfect! We arrived at Springer Mountain around 6 o’clock and shared the view with a few other folks who aided in capturing this epic moment through photographs. Springer Mountain is fairly unexciting, it certainly is not a momentous climb and the simple plaque letting you know you’re now on the Appalachian Trail is meaningful but surely doesn’t appear to be anything too special. One of the simple wonders of the woods. Many things that may not seem too special can come together to form epic endeavors, stories and memories and this is where ours begins.
The Appalachian Trail started as friendly as you could imagine. At the very first parking lot we met Mountain Squid and Doc Holiday, two prior thru hikers offering trail magic. We shared a bottle of water and chatted with them both. For Celia and I, the biggest loss to “running” or “fastpacking” the AT in sections is losing the epic stories and friendships that thru hiking offers, but we hope that we can move swiftly and still take these moments to meet people and hear some of their stories. We already felt blessed! We continued up and down the rolling AT terrain, jogging the flat and running the downhills, gliding through the very wet sections trying to keep our feet fairly dry. The weather could not have been any more beautiful.
Somewhere in here I noticed I was being stabbed in the right foot. Only here and there, I thought perhaps it was rock stuck in the sole but I saw nothing. After I was stabbed the 4th or 5th time we opted to stop and sit and see if I couldn’t clear it up or out, whatever the issue was. I removed my shoe and the sole and shook everything out including my socks. I was confused to have found nothing but placed the pieces of my shoe back together and off we went. I thought I was okay but not 20 minutes later I was stabbed again and then 10 min after that again. The sun was nearly setting now and I knew digging around in the dark wouldn’t work so we’d better sit down again now and deal with it. So I did. I pulled my shoe apart again and ran my hand along the internal bottom of the shoe more thoroughly than the prior time and... there it was! I don’t know how or what but there was something sharp and stick-like stuck in my shoe and sticking up 1/2cm, just enough that it only sometimes poked past the insole of the shoe to my foot. It was really in there, I started trying to think of something I could use like tweezers but after a few good tugs it came out. I dropped it before I could see what it was but I was thrilled to know I could move in more comfort. I ate a Snickers bar to celebrate the moment and we collected ourselves and took off down the trail.
Our energy was really good, straight through 9pm, 10pm and then sometime after 11pm I began my first round of the ‘sleepies’. I was able to keep moving pretty well through this sensation but the ‘sleepies' as I call them, cause an overwhelming mental sleepy feeling that creates a little disorientation and a lot of mental woe. I begin to imagine myself sitting and sleeping or simply falling and sleeping right where I am. The simple act of moving forward feels quite difficult, like moving under water. At this point it was just me, Celia was moving so well in front of me and she kept pulling me along behind her. I’ve had quite a bit of practice with the “sleepies” on the trail so I was able to pull myself through by drinking more water and eating a bit more food. Caffeine helps this too but seeing as we were hoping to find sleep as quickly as possible when we reached camp I opted to suffer through until we had a ‘bed’ in a few more hours.
By 2am Saturday March 27th we were both sleepy and struggling. We climbed Blood Mountain which Celia had trained on and warned me was tough one. I wasn’t feeling badly at this point so going up seemed pretty easy. “Psshht, that was nothing” I thought, until we started to descend. The mountain, like most, was all rock but it was wide open slabs of wet rock and in the dark it surely appeared that if you fell you would slide right down off a cliff into the abyss. I still have no idea what it actually looks like but it was treacherous enough to keep us awake, on our toes and slow us way way down. Nonetheless, we were still holding a 3.4mph pace which we were thrilled with but we were ready to get to Neels Gap where we’d have only 1.1miles more to Bull Gap where we could finally rest.
We arrived sometime around 3:45am, roughly twelve hours after we started out. We both took off our shoes, put nice dry and clean socks on our feet and climbed into our sleeping bags and fell right to sleep.
We’d planned for three full hours of sleep but we both woke up naturally at 6:30am and decided to get up. It was at that moment that I realized I was unlucky enough to have started my monthly cycle this morning, here on the trail, in the shorts I’d be wearing for the next 45 hrs or so. I was immediately disgusted and a little freaked out by it. Being a trail runner or hiker, there’s a lot of gross and questionable things you deal with but this was beyond my comfort zone, this was gross! Celia messaged our crew, Cera, and she would stop at a pharmacy on her way to us to get me taken care of, which was a relief but I still had to get to her 2.5hrs of hiking away!
I was ready to rock and roll and just get moving but Celia was moving a little bit slower. We had plenty of time so there was no reason to rush really so neither of us stressed at all. It was during this period of time that other folks camping around us at Bull Gap were all very awake and packing up. A group of women who were doing weekend hikes through to Maine had heard a bit of our story and the connection to them being a group of females on the trail was like a light bulb for me! I scurried over to them and asked if they had any women’s products and Hallelujah! They did! I was grateful to be at “camp” with a full pack of baby wipes. I was feeling much more put together and could now enjoy my cup of coffee with Tailwind in it and morning protein bar. Now I was ready, and again excited!
It was 7:40am before we took off up the trail and Celia was feeling a little stiff from the prior day. We moved judiciously through the morning. I felt extremely well and kept pulling ahead of Celia but she’d always catch up with a brief jog. We came into Hogpen Gap and had a snack while we waited for our crew to arrive at the lot. We ate sandwiches and drank protein shakes and restocked supplies. I took enough hygiene products to not have to mention my issues again on the trail. Just like that we were off for a 12 mile section to Unicoi Gap, where Cera would be waiting.
We were rocking, but I could tell Celia was starting to have some trouble. She was moving fine and nothing was hurting but the tone she spoke in and the words she was saying, I cannot quote them as they’re blurry but you could tell she was doubting herself and her abilities all while still moving very well, hydrating and eating. I tried to keep things positive and remind her how amazing we were doing to get her through the low. She did of course snap back into a high in no time at all.
We made our way over a few mountains and popped out at Unicoi Gap a little after 2pm I believe. We had made a mental note that we would need to leave here with headlamps already because the next 20 miles would take us past sunset. I started in on some caffeine at this point. My body was feeling very well but I was fatiguing now for sure. Celia was too, you could see it on her face that she was pushing and tired. I didn’t realize at this point and I’m not sure when it started but she spent a lot of the day nauseated (by the way she kept on going, you’d have never guessed).
We left Unicoi Gap stiff and chilly from sitting around a bit too long but we were fully stocked up for 6 hrs of hiking. It was climbing Tray Mountain that it occurred to me for the first time really that I was much more experienced at this 100 mile plus distance thing. Not only had I run double SCAR for 147 miles, but I had been running 100 mile races for nearly 10 years and Celia, well this would be the first time she’d cover 100 miles and she’d do 114.8. I was almost disappointed that we’d never really discussed this part. My training was so…lacking for the trail and Celia’s was so absolutely on point that I had spent the better part of the last 3 months worried about my own ability to keep up with her.
Now, this part is hard to put into words, but the way the body adapts to new distances is absurd and somewhat beautiful. It tortures you as if they are growing pains, each time you do a new distance it's harder than before, but it's never that bad again. I was suddenly so excited for Celia and the growth she was experiencing right in that moment. She was low, she was nauseated but she was stubborn and committed. She was consistently behind me but she showed no signs of quitting or even the slightest hint of a bad attitude. I was in awe and pretty damn proud as not only her friend but her coach. We hiked on and I continued to feed positive lines of thought into the air around us, hoping this would keep us both afloat.
We hiked on into the darkness grateful the weather had held out for us. We were definitely beginning to get tired but neither of us mentioned it. We arrived at Dicks Creek Gap around 8:30pm Saturday night to meet Cera and another of Celia’s friends, Mitchell. We’d cycled through a couple lows in the section but we were okay. Celia was exhausted, mostly by her nausea which she seemed to be trying to eat away. I suggested she try a Coke as the caffeine, sugar and bubbles can have an amazing effect on a tired moving body. It took us a while here to get dry socks, restock and shove more pb & J into our mouths but we thought this might be our last aid until Rock Gap the following afternoon so we took care of what we needed to, and then we got up and left out.
Celia felt good after the Coke but around the two hour mark it wore off and she was moving very slowly as she felt pretty sick and tired. We were 3 miles from the NC/GA border and 6.3 miles from the nearest shelter. We spoke for only a few minutes about crashing in the dirt before the sky opened up and the rain began to fall. It was brief and not cold so we were grateful but we were now both actively scanning for places to rest our body, but there were none.
Cera and Mitchell were able to get to Blue Ridge Gap about a mile from the border and gave us one last resupply and best wishes, which we both really needed at that point. We knew how much longer we had at our current pace and that felt nearly impossible at just after midnight on Sunday morning, still running off of that two and a half hours of sleep. We took off ready to fight our way to the shelter at mile 81.
This was one of the toughest sections, we were both just tired and the rain kept falling. There was no good place to stop and our pace was officially dismal. After happy pictures at the border we climbed out of Bly Gap to the top of Sharp Top mountain. It was like it sounds, we climbed up a very steep climb, the steepest we’d seen yet and climbed up three foot boulders in the dark and rain and just to make it more fun my waist lamp was dying. I finally hit a solid low. I’d fought off my ‘sleepies’ and I’d stayed positive but at this moment I was frustrated that my emotions were eating me alive. Celia was steadily climbing, I felt so weak and had to keep reminding myself that it was the fatigue talking and all I needed to do was move forward, and so we did.
At mile 81.0 we arrived at Musktrat Creek Shelter. We were wet, cold and oh so tired. The shelter area was packed with camping hikers in tents and sleeping hikers in the shelter. We arrived at 1:30am with headlamps a lit and desperate to rest. We immediately felt bad but knew we had to take care of ourselves.
Here’s where it gets funny.We hadn’t planned to sleep. In the original plan for this segment we’d have been okay to move through the night but this was not how it worked out. All we had with us was emergency bivvies. We pulled these out and opened them up, (which sounds similar to someone unraveling a full roll of aluminum foil in your bedroom while you sleep and with their bright lights attached to them)… the embarrassment was real. Then, since there really was nowhere to go we laid on the seats of the picnic table. Celia moved to the ground for fear of falling and we both attempted to sleep, both knowing we were already getting colder.
Neither of us is quite sure how long we were there, whether either of us actually slept at all but we know we were shivering, damp and had to get up. It took us much too long to get out of our semi protective bivvies and put our wet socks and shoes back on. During our second racket made by trying to pack up, a hiker came out of his cozy sleeping bag and made it clear in a truly fitting and civilized way that we had totally ruined his night’s sleep. He lit and smoked a cigarette while watching us shiver and rush out of the shelter and as we took off he said, “Thanks for stopping by!”
Don’t get me wrong those words will hang with us forever as a memory of that time we completely humiliated ourselves in an attempt to sleep on top of a 4900’ mountain, we failed at hiker courtesy 101 and we knew it.
It was now nearly 3:45am Sunday morning and it was quite cold and very wet. We hiked on, dreary and sleepy as ever. Our feet and bodies had appreciated the rest, and it did wonders but our minds were just as tired as they were before. I chugged a red bull and felt almost no effect from the high dose caffeine and sugar shot. Celia on the other hand ate a pouch of tuna and seemed like she was doing great! We climbed and climbed until finally morning came, yet even then there was no sign of the sun or warmth coming. Celia was warm enough moving but I was not getting out of my chill. I hiked harder and faster and then would wait until Celia caught up. I started to eat a bit more to try and get warm internally but that didn’t help much. I wasn’t suffering by any means but just uncomfortable.
Somewhere in this section I recorded Celia completing her 100.00th mile and we hiked happy and grateful for our adventure. Around 10:30am that morning the sky opened up again and the thunder clapped loudly through the trees. We were now hiking in a thunderstorm and the 40mph wind gusts whipped at us. It was intense, it finally woke me up! I was moving fast, even running to try and make some heat. I was in the zone. I do not like being cold and wet and I refuse to train in it because it never gets better and I know darn well, that in the moment, there is no option. When you’re on trail in those conditions, the only option is to keep on going. So that's what we did. Celia gave me the okay to get way ahead and wait at the next gap, so I took off running and hiked into a thru hiker who was determined to get somewhere dry by day’s end. We walked and chatted for a half an hour or more, he was inspired by our story and I, of course, was in absolute awe of him. He’d been out in this weather for nearly 2 weeks, I’d been in it for 9 hours and was within 3 hours now of getting in a warm car headed to a hot shower. It was so uplifting to share these moments, it was such a feel good moment to have felt that community connection the trail offers.
The rain let up and we had 10 more miles or so. The thru hikers had all seemingly stopped for the day and the trail up to Albert Mountain was quiet. This section was amazing, a cliff side trail with water streaming down the rocks leading to steep wooden stairs and then bouldering up to the lookout. It was glorious. We ate a snack at the top of the mountain and then we began our final 6 mile descent to Rock Gap. It was here that you passed the 100 mile mark on the AT, sticks laid out into “100” marked the center of the trail. We took a photo and then opted to enjoy the last few miles at our own comfortable pace. About 1.5 miles out from Rock Gap mile 105.8 rain began again and I hustled making it to the parking lot to Jessica and her fully decked out back seat with towels, chips, guacamole and chipotle made to order. Celia was less than 10 min behind me, we sat, dried off and settled in for the ride home.
HUGE Thank you to Bronson, Cera, Mitchell and Jessica for their support on this section!