AT RunVenture Project Segment no. 5
AT Segment #5 June 4-7 Massies Gap - Pearisburg, VA miles 502.2-637.5
Three weeks had passed and finally we were approaching Pearisburg, VA (our finish line) where Celia and I would leave our cars parked at Giles Farm Bureau and then receive a ride (from Keith) to our start line back at Massies Gap. I had a five and half hour drive and enjoyed catching up with a friend and my Dad. Celia had a six hour drive and Keith about three and half hours. We all arrived safely and Celia and I got to work packing and repacking ourselves before getting into Keith’s car at 11:07am.
The two hour drive to Massies Gap had me fairly nauseated as a back seat passenger. I was looking forward to getting out of the car and enjoying the fresh air. Nonetheless, Celia and I spent the majority of the drive planning and scheming our future sections and how we are getting to Katahdin. We are forever thinking about the next section, even before we start the current one. The pace of this project insists we stay on top of it...and truth be told...we love it. We love the planning part (as well as the time on the traill). Once we parked Celia and I topped off our calorie intake and our caffeine, used the privy and then, we were once again, ready.
Keith followed us up the path for a quick photo and then we were off. We’ve begun to try and use the evening of our travel day to get ahead a few miles, this time we were lucky to have most of the afternoon too so we planned 24 miles.
We had a nice steady start, no big climbs, just chatting away. Both Celia and I felt that we’d done a bit too much “training” in between this time, having that third week allowed us to push our miles a little but we could both feel it in our legs. The other thing was the pack weight, it really wasn’t heavy, 8-9lbs at worst but adjusting to the weight after three weeks was mentally tough. I had to admit I just wasn’t into this section. I’d been dealing with a lot at work and felt pretty stressed, so I hadn’t put the mental prep into this section that I should have. I knew though, if I just kept moving my feet I would do what I needed to do.
We continued onward, just having a pleasant time, chit chatting and catching up. There were no big climbs or mountains, the views were not vast but the plants were lush and green. Then we passed Comers Creek Falls and simply enjoyed the beauty, neither of us prepared for photos.
In no time, we arrived at the Trimpi shelter at mile 524. Hiking into the shelter, as it’s about 0.3mi off trail,we met “Boomshakalaka”, a very tall thru hiker also headed to the shelter area and hiking north after having to take a couple weeks off trail. We enjoyed one another’s company briefly until she walked past the shelter to make camp and we stopped. The shelter was small and had plenty of space divided by the fireplace so that there were split level beds, enough for three people on each side. The top level was similar to a bunk bed, but a bit scary to imagine being on inside of a slippery sleeping bag. The lower level, each side was consumed by one hiker, both who seemed to know one another, neither offered to move over or together. So Celia and I opted for the floor space between them. I swept the wooden planks and we prepared our beds while finishing off “dinner” and packing up our bear bag. We then hiked down to fill our water bottles for the morning and we headed to the warm fire where I sat and enjoyed the banter of a father, daughter and her grandfather. Soon enough it was bedtime and we headed into our sleeping bags for our first warm night on the trail.
We awoke pretty early, 3:30 am or so, Celia was asking about time and about getting moving. I was not ready and suggested we wait a bit longer. For once, I was comfy and cozy, but I was also awake and pretty done sleeping or so I thought. We both fell back to sleep and it was 4:30 am already! We got up and got ready to take off. We weren’t freezing or suffering in any way, it was a nice change.
We had a light 32ish mile day ahead, an easy day for us but still long. This morning we were meeting Celia’s friend Justin who had agreed to bring us some breakfast and take our sleep gear since we wouldn't need it any longer during this segment. We had 10 miles to go to get to him and we started later than usual. Celia was moving super smooth for the morning coffee hour, I joked that we should have her friend’s every morning for support. We both were holding well above a 3mph pace and just enjoying the gentle VA terrain. A lot of this stretch was very runnable but it’s a general rule of ours that we don't run until the sun comes up. It guarantees a gentle start to the day and we get to chat until we run out of thoughts.
At sun up, we took a gorgeous photo and then as usual on one of those descents I broke into a jog and then a run and Celia fell behind a little ways. Just then I heard some crunching a ways off in the trees and I always stop in the daylight to see, and this time the view did not disappoint. Black little furry bodies scrambling up a tree, two bear cubs and then I saw Momma bear who ran further away (the family was at least 300m off trail) and then two cubs scrambled down to follow their Momma. Celia caught up just as their tails disappeared into the forested background.
I was delighted to have seen the bear from a good distance away and continued down the trail happily. The terrain got even easier and the miles went by fast. I arrived at Mt Rogers National Recreation area parking lot and felt lost for a moment. Luckily, I had just passed a very nice shelter with many hikers. I went back to the hikers, who were just getting up and they verified I just needed to go right on through the lot, so I did and there was Justin at mile 535, VA route 622, parked in a white car.
For a brief moment, I realized he had no idea who I was but figured there aren’t too many other runners out this morning with poles and packs like Celia and I so I introduced myself and he confirmed himself and the coffee was On!
For whatever reason, I carelessly didn’t check my watch that I let charge overnight, prior to driving down to start this segment and it clearly hadn’t charged, so at 20% I stopped my run and used Justin’s car to get some more juice in my Coros Apex (thank goodness it's hard to drain those batteries, even starting at 35% the day prior I got another 34 miles and >10 hrs of use on 15%). When Celia arrived she also charged her phone which no matter what she tried, just would not hold a charge very well.
We enjoyed our meals. I ate a McDonald’s bacon, egg and cheese for the first time in my life and I wouldn’t say it was good by any means, but it did what it was supposed to do. Then I ate a bear claw donut, also a first for me, it was disgustingly sweet and I enjoyed every bite with my perfect cup of coffee. I felt ready for the day, definitely a solid chunk of calories on board. Celia had her standard--sweet potato, banana, tuna, and tailwind recovery mixed in her coffee.
In no time, we were off again. I’m not sure how long until we split off but we spent most of the last 20 miles that day on our own. We passed through gorgeous green fields and farm land. The sun was up and was warm, very warm really, but it was nice and there was plenty of water to start out. I did get to run past a rattlesnake, my eyes caught it very quickly and I stopped to go back and look at it, he was not rattling at all until a hiker came up behind me and started taking pictures. I opted to stop annoying the poor thing and headed on down the trail. Celia noted that by the time she got to the snake she could hear it 6 feet away and it definitely quickened her step, though, she snapped a picture anyway.
Somewhere in here I ran into 3 hikers, one of which was “506” and when I told him I’d met him back near Damascus he immediately remembered the two crazy runners who got up at “like 2:30 in the morning to run” and insisted we take a picture. I spent a solid 10 minutes with these guys: the other two, “Devil Dog 7”and “Firestarter” just talking and catching up on the trail. Then the grassy trail pops out on a big road near Interstate 81 and there’s no obvious markers in sight. Here I wandered for a few minutes before pulling out guthook again and following the map up the road to the left under the overpass and back on trail.
Not long after this I passed the “¼ GA-ME” sign and waited there for about 10 minutes in hopes that Celia might catch up but she told me later, she had gotten lost adding 2 miles at the I-81 trail junction and was further behind. I texted her in hopes she’d see it and then I moved on.
The heat was now uncomfortable, I was definitely hot and there was much less water, I had to stop and let my heart rate drop. I made a short video clip where I noted the temperature was probably in the mid 70s or so, only to find out later it was closer to mid 80s and in the open meadows the temps had reached 110 degrees by 2pm. So, I think for not having had much summer heat, I fared very well, but I was definitely feeling it. I was nearing the hostel though and just took my time. I didn’t want to get there before 3pm.
Luckily, about a mile before our destination there was a perfect creek to stop and “bathe” in. I soaked my feet and legs and washed my shorts and body. I sat and relaxed for about 20 minutes before walking the last mile to arrive at Bear Garden Hiker Hostel, mile 558.5. When I arrived at the road I walked to the hostel which was easy to find, I was greeted by small, red farmhouse style buildings with a bunk house, privy and shower/ laundry house. Bertie, the owner, arrived in no time to greet me and show me around.
Ben, was another thru hiker who was finished for the day and we chatted and did some repacking of our packs. He was doing big miles with a pretty hefty pack. While Bertie was talking with both of us she invited us to go to town to enjoy a donation-based community meal instead of the frozen meals in the hostel freezer. That would be later though, for now I snacked on a fresh salad and charged all my electronic things while I waited for Celia.
Celia arrived a little over an hour later, followed by Sonja, another thru hiker who would be camping at the hostel that night. Then another set of hikers, one named “S.A.M” who spent a good deal of time chatting with us and sharing her story and trail knowledge. Then there were showers, snacking and hiker clothes to fill our free time. Around 5:30, Sonja, Ben and I went to town, Ceres, VA. Celia stayed behind and enjoyed S.A.M.’s company and a safer meal (for her the unknown’s of a community meal could result in serious digestive stress).
Bertie and her husband Bob really enjoyed sharing the history of their town, and the community. The community meal was wonderful and strange, coming out of COVID, to see everyone gathered together. Sonja masked up, as she had not yet been vaccinated. It was really pleasant to come off the trail and see the kids playing and the friendships in town. Bertie showed us the town cannery where people come together to can, everything from apple butter to salsa and even meat from hunting. Then we headed back to the hostel and got ready for bed. It was a really pleasant afternoon that I didn’t think could be topped.
Celia and I had a long 47 mile day ahead and we were up and ready to get going right around 3:00am. We had been warned many times now to be very careful about water with the heat. Apparently many of the water sources were dried up. We’d start out with plenty of water crossings but then we’d ascend and be on the dry ridgeline for 12-14 miles before our next water. We were ready to heed the advice and took off full of liquid, both coffee and water. We filled and drank often, prepping our bodies for the long stretch, just in case.
The climb up to Chestnut Knob was unbelievable! The sunrise, the blueberries, the views, the morning was perfect. After Chestnut Knob the rolling rocky ridgeline descents quickly pulled me ahead of Celia. It was a very long 12 miles. The trail twisted and turned with sharp rocks and steep short climbs and descents. Some brief sections were runnable but mostly it was tough to move at even 3mph.
On a fairly runnable 0.2 mi chunk my toe caught a rock and I laid there, face down in the dirt for a moment navigating the sharp stabbing pain in my hamstring. The pain eased enough that I got up slowly and started to walk. It was fairly intense but I was definitely still mobile. I continued on judiciously, hoping that I would be more careful, injuries could halt our journey for a while and I didn’t want that.
Eventually, I did feel better and the trail opened up to a smoother section. By now though, my water was running low. I knew from Guthook I was getting close but it was hot and water was still 3 more miles away. After crossing VA route 623 there was water left by a trail angel. I filled up and drank a little. I didn’t want to take too much, especially since I knew I was getting close to water but it was still so good to have extra water. Not long after I came to Hunting Camp Creek and then to Suiter rd, VA 615 and Laurel Creek where I almost ran right by. Luckily, I stopped to peak at Guthook where I saw this would be my last water for 10 miles, or about 3 hours in the heat of the day. So I stopped for 10 minutes to eat lunch, chat with “Trouble”, an older female hiking as far as she could North. I took some pictures and then packed up and headed back out on the trail for the remaining 20 miles.
This next section was hard, probably only due to the heat, it was lovely ridgeline running. A lot of the trail here was runnable but keeping my heart rate in check meant slowing down and being very smart about salt and water. The clouds moved in and teased early thunderstorms but then would pass and open back up to hot sunshine. It was a beautiful section that dropped you out onto paved roads 10 mile later for a long downhill section until you cut back into the woods just after crossing Interstate 77. Here, there is a small creek, known for its petroleum quality taste due to the highway runoff, it is suggested to avoid drinking it, even filtered, but when the weather is what the weather was, you drink the water and pray your filter is catching most of the disgusting chemicals. Celia admitted to filling up here too.
I hiked on, I only filled my filter bottle ⅔ of the way trying not to drink the water, which tasted off, but also knew I had another long stretch until more water. I probably should have gotten more, despite its quality, I didn’t really have enough on me for the next 12 miles. I climbed up and then it was more ridgeline, very smooth runnable ridgeline. I had fun trying to up my pace here. The heat and lack of water were the control factors that I needed to continually counter my pace and efforts for.
Finally though, around 4:00pm the thunderstorms rolled in and water came down, slowly at first. It was so pleasant but gave me the feeling of “water water everywhere but not a drop to drink” and it seemed to be another 30-40 minutes of dribbling before the rain really came. It felt so good! I pulled out my camping blanket poncho I’d created to keep my pack dry more than anything, it was perfect, I had great air flow and was free to sweat and move quickly while staying mostly dry. Still, the rain was fairly light, compared to what I’d expected and I was grateful we weren’t getting dumped on.
I was watching Guthook closely awaiting a spring that was supposedly still dripping. I was very thirsty and had a few ounces left as I was drinking very carefully. I crossed the 600 mile marker and took a quick picture but kept moving, water was close! I was thirsty, as stated, but also not dry or dehydrated by any means. My mouth was still plenty wet with saliva, I was running smoothly, I knew I could make it the last 6 miles to Lickskillet hostel if I had to. Just then though, after crossing a parking lot, a trail angel had left gallons of water, 10-12 gallons of water. I almost cried. I was so happy! I drank some water and filled my two front bottles and left the rest for others.
The final 5 miles to Lickskillet hostel were very pleasant. The rain picked up and the temperature was amazing, I had water and the terrain was fully runnable. I enjoyed ticking off a few 10 min miles. Then I came to the road. I had intended to walk the 0.6 mi to the hostel but “Mongo”, the owner, was driving down to pick up two hikers that I’d finished the section with and insisted I get in. I didn’t put up much of a fight and the ride was nice.
At Lickskillet hostel I was in awe. This place was hiker heaven. The bunk house was this huge room with plenty of space, couches, TV, kitchen area and dining room table. Celia and I had bunks reserved so I claimed mine and got to work on taking a shower, washing my clothing, eating and going through our resupply pack to get ready for the 32 mile day we had coming up next. I ended up having a great chat with Nathan from Pinhoti Outdoor Center who now has me totally hooked on going for a Pinhoti FKT. He was out there on the AT with his wife supporting a very well known hiker, “Nimblewell”, on yet another thru hike in his 70s, I believe. Pretty amazing stuff!
Celia let me know when she was close and “Mongo” went and picked her up. Once she’d had a chance to shower and change into some hiker clothes we headed to town with “Mongo” and another hiker, Scott. We dropped Celia off at Dollar General to find her standard dinner of canned fish but this time she had a serious craving for corn chips too (she had been craving corn chips for hours on the trail). The other three of us headed to pick up pizza and salad. By the time we got back to Celia I was nearly done eating my pizza and she was working on her corn chips.
Scott, was a retired general surgeon and he and I fell into medical talk pretty quickly. Back at the hostel Scott and I talked medicine while we finished eating. We quickly prepped for bed after this and asked “Mongo” to brew us some coffee for the morning, we were happy to have coldish coffee over no coffee. We also figured we’d be walking the road back to the AT, but “Mongo” insisted he was driving us, “It’s part of the deal” he said. Even after noting we’d need that ride at 3:30am he insisted. I thanked him and told him we’d see him right about 3:30 the next morning. After this we settled into our beds and “Mongo” turned on a sound machine! Such a little thing, but between the sound machine and the spinning ceiling fan it was feeling very luxurious. It really was my favorite hostel experience yet.
The next morning, Celia was feeling a bit rough. She was nauseated to start and getting through breakfast involved a pepsi. We had our coffee, water and calories and at 3:30 am I knocked on the door of “Mongo’s” RV, hoping he hadn’t forgotten. It was a minute, but just one, before he opened the door and reported he’d turned off his alarm in a daze a few minutes ago but he was ready to go. Once at the trailhead we said goodbyes and we took off into the darkness.
The day started with some really gentle terrain. We hiked comfortably but a little slow, Celia was doing ok but once the pepsi wore off she was still pretty nauseous. We had so many water crossings in the early part of the day, but we knew we didn’t have many closer to our finish line in Pearisburg so we made a solid effort to drink a lot and carry extra. Both of us struggled a bit the prior day.
We passed Dismall Falls and not long after that the sun came up. I had a time goal in my head of getting to my car by 12pm, in hopes of getting home by 5pm. The more I considered this goal the more hopeless it seemed as I’d be headed for the DC metro area right at traffic hour. I was just going to do the best I could.
When Celia and I took our daily photo and hugged goodbye as I’d not be waiting this time at the end, we were at about a 2.8 mph pace, well below a 12pm time goal of 8hrs. I didn’t know how it would be if I pushed hard so I decided to try. I took off running and was able to maintain an hour of 12 min miles. This boosted my confidence but there was still a long way to go and it wasn’t hot out yet.
Around 16 miles into the day I was feeling pretty confident and wanted to push to hold 4mph. Based on the pace I’d held for the last couple hours at the point it seemed plausible, but surely not a guarantee. Guthook is a great app, it tells you the climbs and the descents but it surely can’t tell you when the gentle slopes are coated with endless small to medium boulders. The rocks made running nearly impossible and the heat was starting to build. I was feeling it by 20 miles in, but also knew I had more in the tank.
I’m not totally sure how or why I felt the need to time trial myself, but sometimes, this is ultra running. You inspire yourself to do something crazy, a little amazing, that usually matters to no one but yourself. I wanted to know if I could push the 31 miles, the time goal was irrelevant since we had our morning coffee hour hiking slow for the first seven and half miles, so I know an 8 hour 50k is not amazing, but what was amazing, was the ability to keep pushing smart. I never hit “redline”, I never bonked or ran out of water. I did however, take one more awesome fall that made my already angry hamstring livid, but by then I was minutes away from my car. I just kept going and came out to the parking lot just before our cars, I knew I had a little under half a mile and I continued to jog until I popped out at Giles Farm Bureau. It was a strange but elated feeling of success. It was 12:10pm and I knew I had worked hard. This is where my story ended for this segment. Celia’s story did not.
All the while I was running as hard as I could and getting to my car, Celia was chatting it up with some hikers and taking her time fending off nausea at a solid but easy pace. She met Justin, her friend who had helped us earlier in the segment, and hiked it in easy with him and thoroughly enjoyed her day. By the time she finished I was almost home to Maryland.
There's a whole other component to this story as the recovery from the heat and mild dehydration took a toll on both Celia and I, but that's an off trail story I’ll try to share soon.
Thank you Keith and Justin for all of your help!!