A single street light illuminates our zombie faces in a gravel parking lot. My head rests on a pillow, but the rest of my body is splayed on the gravel. I am the most comfortable I’ve been in 12 hours with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in hand and my legs finally at rest. It might not be ultra racing, but it is definitely ultra running.
John put together this idea a couple of months ago and kept the event list small given the Covid situation. I think we were all hungry to do something adventurous, but not at the cost of being completely reckless. In retrospect, I don’t know that I gave my body enough of a proper taper, but I think I was also disillusioned because it wasn’t a race.
As we got closer to the date, we started to nail down some of the key details. Katherine got us set up with bunkhouses at the NOC so we didn’t have to try to stealth camp and/or add extra hiking into our day. Chantal and I mapped out water to make sure we didn’t dehydrate. We coordinated carpools, car drops, dinners, and post-run plans. Katherine’s husband became the weekend MVP with an aid station setup at mile 28ish (more on that later).
I picked up Chantal and Katherine on Friday afternoon and we made the drive up to the NOC together, talking about anything and everything. Chantal had a job interview at 5pm over the phone so we left her in the bunkhouse and headed down to the river with Jared, Cassy, and eventually, Aaron and his daughter Madison.
We got takeout from the nearby restaurants and sipped beers bellied up to picnic tables. Rain came rolling through halfway through dinner, but we were protected under a large tarp and the air temperature was plenty warm. Once there was a break in the rain, we fled to the bunkhouse and settled in for the evening. The thunderstorm raged on as we climbed into our bunks and though we were dry and safe, I couldn’t help but feel mild concern if the rain continued to pour well into the morning.
John came in late and I don’t think anyone was actually asleep yet. I tossed and turned for what felt like a long time before eventually drifting off to sleep. An alarm went off and I only mildly stirred knowing that I still had plenty of time to get ready. Cassy started making coffee and Chantal started giggling and we all came to life shortly thereafter. I boiled water for oatmeal, drank a cup of cold brew, and suddenly, it was time to head out.
The group walked down the hill from the parking lot and across 100 meters of train tracks to reach the start. We took a bunch of pictures of the sign and ourselves and then headed out on our adventure. The climb to Cheoah was reminiscent of every race. We were all in good spirits, laughing about our impending misery, and everyone chatting wildly. My non-morning person was evident in that I was not incredibly talkative myself, but rather, soaking in the conversations around me.
Though the trailhead was in bad shape and completely overgrown, we were all relieved to find that the rest of the trail was fairly well-maintained. This section from Cheoah to the road near Nantahala was a highlight of the adventure. There were water crossings galore and though it was often rocky and muddy, it was absolutely beautiful. We were mostly descending in the section and able to make up a little bit of time in the more runnable parts. Our group would accordion out a bit and then shore up at potential turns or picture-worthy spots.
I was eating early and often and stayed on top of hydrating. My pack was full of gear so it was an incentive to continue to lighten the load as well. We stopped to filter water and I was relieved that we had plenty of good sources throughout the route. Given that it was August though, I always got more than what I thought I needed just in case.
Along the Nantahala River, we ran along the bikeway which felt odd after so many miles of single track. I wasn’t feeling particularly perky at this point so I just hung on bringing up the rear. The bikeway spit us out onto a bridge and then a parking lot and after a few circles, we found ourselves climbing a forest service road to the top. Because we started so early and it was a partially cloudy day, I kept thinking it was later than it was every time I looked at my watch.
We took photos at the top and clowned around before beginning another descent on single track.
This one was definitely more runnable and I enjoyed the parts that we could open up and move our legs. As we neared the river, the marathon mark, and the middle of the day, it definitely became warmer. The trail was overgrown quite a bit near the river and we had to do a considerable amount of bushwhacking through brambles in the heat of the day.
Eventually, we reached another forest service road and started wondering how close we were to David and the aid station. Once we hit the pavement, we knew he had to be close. Katherine had sped ahead, likely tired of waiting and anxious to get to her family. No one had cell service so we hugged the hairpin turns of the road and hoped that they would be easy to spot. At last, we spotted the open hatchback of a Subaru and the wallops of children. It was like finding an oasis.
David made grilled cheese, quesadillas, bacon, ramen, and PBJs. Plus, he had millions of other salty and sweet snacks, a cooler full of Coke, and all of our drop bags. I ate some solid food, chugged a Coke, and drank veggie broth straight from the carton.
I opted to change my shirt, sports bra, and hat. Though my feet felt tired, I didn’t feel as though I had any blisters or major malfunctions so I left my shoes/socks alone. My shorts were iffy (re: wet and potential chafe disaster) so I stuffed a dry pair in a plastic bag and tucked them in my pack. I refilled all my nutrition, topped off my bottles, and then it seemed like everyone was ready to head out around the same time. We said our thanks and goodbyes and got on with it.
The next climb was utterly stupid. I actually love climbing because I feel like I’m a better climber and it hurts less than the impact of descending. But this just seemed to go on and on and on with nary a switchback. The only good news about this was that it gave us time to digest our aid station stop and that we were getting a wonderful breeze the higher we climbed.
From Jarrett Bald, the route had beautiful sections of open fields of wildflowers and ridgelines. I’d stop pulling my phone out so much for pictures at this point, but luckily, some people still were snapping away.
Things were definitely getting silly and one of my favorite pit stops of the day involved Jared and Oliver lying on the pavement while the rest of us got our dance party on.
Cassy and I got into a great conversation in the section where the Bartram Trail and Appalachian Trail follow each other. I recall thinking how surprised I was once we reached the parking lot of Wayah.
What a gorgeous evening to be on top of Wayah. The weather was absolutely perfect. It was breezy and warm, but not at all hot. Oliver planned on “only” going to this point so we stopped for a short time and raided his snacks, water, and Coke supply at his dropped car. Cassy and Jared decided to call it a day as well and I think everyone was jealous of the other person’s choice. If you were stopping, you wanted to be going on and if you were going on, you really wish you were stopping.
We took photos from the top of the tower and then moseyed on down the trail towards the final push to the NOC. I felt invigorated from the sugary caffeine and the short rest. We were in a really runnable section and knew that darkness was coming so we tried to keep moving as best we could. Katherine, John, and Joe took off ahead of Chantal and myself. We made a pact to stick together to the end, at first silently, but later, aloud. Both of us are strong runners and were overly prepared for the day/night to go sideways, but staying together was the smart and let’s be honest, more fun choice.
The hour or so before we had to turn on our headlamps was quite magical despite the fact that we had been moving for 15 hours. The air was almost cool and we caught glimpses of the sunset through clearings in the trees. We refilled our water one last time at the Cold Spring Shelter and I remember that this was about the time we started to lose daylight. Chantal turned on the world’s best playlist and we laughed-cried that there was no other choice but to keep moving.
Despite having it on a charger, my watch still died so I had no real semblance of time or distance. In some ways, this made it better because it really didn’t matter anyway. I pulled out my phone a few times to look at the map on Trail Run Project, but it was hard to discern distance on the map without mile markers.
I was feeling much better on the ascent to Wesser and though my feet were feeling extremely beat up, my legs and everything else were holding steady. Chantal was in a rough patch and wobbling all over the trail. However, on the descent and the last 4ish miles to the NOC, we traded places. The descents were extra painful on my feet and my dimming headlamp and lack of poles because more and more of a pain as we traversed narrow sections and huge rocky outcrops. I definitely had become team grumpypants.
Bits of nausea came over me and I was just tired of eating trail food. At one point with just a few miles to go, I asked Chantal if I could have some of her Oreos. I remember thinking that I was hoping she wouldn’t be mad if I asked her and/or if she was saving a few for the end herself. She pulled out a package to share and I think I would have cried if I still had any emotions left.
We were in search of the Rufus Shelter in the last section, knowing that we had just over a mile to go once we spotted it. But as we rounded the turns and kept descending, we never saw the shelter. I knew my water was now getting low and was hoping that we had just missed it in the darkness. The first lights of the NOC came into view and I said something about don’t get too excited, it could be just a house light. But then more lights came into view and the river got even louder and we could actually see where we picked up the bunkhouse passes.
The incredible relief of stopping was within reach.
We walked over the bridge together, deliriously mad and laughing. A random guy in a pickup truck asked if we were okay which just further solidified the fact that town people are generally weirder than trail people. We took a photo at the start sign, 57ish miles miles complete.
Then we wandered like two drunks to the parking lot. It was there that Katherine and John met us for our finish line party. Lying in a gravel parking lot has never felt any better.
Eventually, we knew it was time to try to make our way home. Chantal volunteered to drive and I gladly let her take over the reins. We got about 30 minutes down the road and she knew she was getting too tired to keep going. A rest area sign popped up right after we started looking for a place to pull over. I thought I’d have a hard time nodding off sitting straight up in my seat, but I didn’t even unbuckle my seat belt and I passed right out. An hour and a half later, I woke up feeling much, much more alert and offered to switch places so I could drive us home.
As we drove into the Sunday sunrise, I couldn’t help but feel incredibly grateful per usual for these kinds of things. Yes, they are tough and gritty and we swear we’ll never do them again. But as time wears on, we forget the pain and remember the best parts. The belly laughs, the crazy encounters, the songs, the deep conversations, the incredible scenery, and the joy of exploring places on foot. There’s just something really special about the friendships forged at the highest of highs and lowest of lows. We were cut up, bruised, covered in dirt, sleep-deprived, sore, beyond smelly, and I wouldn’t trade these kinds of weekends for any other.