Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Foothills Trail - A Rippedtents.com Production

It was near 10 p.m. on Friday night and I was lying awake thinking about how odd and wonderful it was to know 4 other people who were within 20 feet of me willing to take on the same challenge as me in the morning. Doing a big adventure run solo is always an option, but sharing in the beauty, the suffering, and the entirety of the experience is always better with friends.

I rented a campsite at Table Rock State Park over a month ago as the spots were filling up and I snagged the last one. Unfortunately, I thought it was a spot that you could pull into with a car and have restrooms nearby and not a primitive campsite that you had to hike into. That led to a bit of a snafu Friday evening as I couldn’t find the campsite when we arrived at dusk and ended up pitching my tent in grass next to the parking lot. 

Aaron and David were sleeping in Aaron’s truck bed tent. Cassy and Jared brought a tent, but decided to car camp instead. Which all worked out okayish except for when the park ranger drove through at 10 p.m. and shone a flashlight on my tent asking why I was set up in the parking lot and not at my campsite. Luckily, she was okay with me keeping my tent there for another few hours as we were headed out early and even gave me a hiking pass that we neglected to secure the day before. 

I didn’t sleep well which is unusual for me, but I think I was just nervously excited to go suffer. I had my alarm set for 3:30 a.m., but woke up at 3:20 a.m. and started to get ready. Once everyone broke down their camps, changed, and loaded up their gear, we drove over to the trailhead. It wasn’t a race and we thought we’d miss the sunrise (re: rain) at the summit, but we did want to make sure we got going fairly early. At 4:49 a.m. we left Table Rock State Park and began our journey.

The weather was perfect for the first couple of hours. The forecast showed rain early on, but it held off until after sunrise. We reached Bald Rock Viewpoint and though it was dark, it was cool to see all the lights in the surrounding towns after climbing 2,000’.

There were some nice, runnable sections before the final ascent to Sassafras Mountain and though it had started raining, it was just a drizzle and we were all in good spirits. We laughed at our terrible luck of running with good views on mountain summits as we straddled the South Carolina/North Carolina border.

There was a nice long descent into Laurel Valley and we were making good time. Though the goal was to get it done and not linger too long in the rain, I never felt as though we rushed nor lingered unnecessarily at any point. We stopped to filter water at mile 14 or so and then kept it going. I was warm enough as long as we were moving and had on multiple layers including a vented rain jacket. It wasn’t too bad for a few hours, but by the time we reached midday and the rain never really let up, we were starting to crumble a bit mentally.

Naturally, I said something about how I was pleasantly surprised that the trails weren’t too riverlike right before the skies truly opened up. When we were at some of the lowest elevation points, the trails were incredibly sloppy and it was almost like just running through a creek for miles at a time. The only saving grace would be when the trail would sporadically veer straight up from the water source for a few hundred feet with slippery 6x6 blocks offering climbing support.

Jared was doing a spirit check on everyone and it was hard to not be in a negative state of mind when the conditions were just ugly. There was no cell service, the rain was unrelenting, and our next closest chance for dry clothes and bailout was in the early evening. I was trying to appreciate the fact that while I was not happy with the weather conditions, I felt good otherwise, was eating well, and hydrating enough that I had to pee (a rarity for me on a super long run). The trail was actually quite beautiful as well. Ferns were popping up, wildflowers were in bloom, red salamanders and slugs were hanging out in the rain, and holy waterfalls Batman, this trail had all the water sources. 

We filtered a couple more times in this section, each of us motivated to keep our stops quick so as to not drop our body temperatures even more. There were a few campsites with tents along the way and a few groups at forest service roads hovered under 10x10 canopies, trying to stay dry. But we saw only 5 other moving people on the trail for the entire 76ish mile route, 4 hikers and 1 runner. 

Katherine was meeting us at the Upper Falls Overlook and was exactly where we planned for her to be. Except that none of us had ever run this section of the trail and while we could see that we were still on course according to Trail Run Project, we had no cell reception to give an ETA. I thought I had erred on the side of conservative when I said 6 p.m., but the rain and trail were tougher than we thought. Those nice flowy downhills were actually just a bunch of steep stairs and rocks. And any flat sections were just rivers at this point.

David went ahead of us when we thought we were getting near the aid station, but then the rest of the group came to an intersection with just his pack lying on a log. No one wanted to run any extra miles at that point, but we all had different ideas as to why he would leave it. I was happy to sit down for a few minutes while we debated about what to do. Just when someone (Aaron or Jared, I cannot remember) decided to go towards the Lower Falls parking lot, David popped out and said that we needed to keep heading towards the Upper Falls Overlook. 

The east side of the river wasn’t too bad as we made a gentle ascent towards the falls, but the rest was a complete shitshow. My Garmin died right in this section and my charger was at the aid station so I couldn’t even estimate how far we had left any more. There was a partial manmade bridge across the river and then anyone wanting to make it to the other side had to leap boulders the size of large cars across a raging river. Our legs were definitely feeling quite toasted at mile 45 or so and I feared my ability to propel my body and land upright was very much lacking at this point. Once I was climbing down a wooden ladder propped against a boulder and nearing the land of the west side, I was able to breathe a sigh of relief.

The last mile to the car was a gnarly climb and we were all panicked that we weren’t going the correct way and had no cell service to confirm we were near. I

It seemed counterintuitive that there was a short downhill section for a few hundred feet and we feared that somehow we’d missed a sign or intersection that would bring us to the aid station. Jared climbed all the way to the top parking lot and saw no one so we continued on to what we hoped was the correct spot. There was never a more joyous noise than hearing kids shrieking as we came into earshot of the car. 

Katherine handed me the best grilled cheese of my life and I sat down on the gravel, soaked to the bone and shivered while I ate. I knew I needed to get out of my wet clothes quickly and grabbed my dry gear bag. At this point, I was still erring on the side of stopping, but something inside me told me just to change into my dry running clothes and not my done clothes. The liner in my shorts had been wet for 10+ hours from the rain and while it wasn’t bothering me during the run, I was all of a sudden in a ton of pain once I switched to capris. My Squirrel’s Nut Butter was too stiff to spread, but Cassy came in clutch with her tri-glide and saved me from additional pain.

Everything was in slow motion, but at some point, I knew if I was even going to consider going on that I needed to refill my water, my pack, and make sure I had everything I needed for the next 30 miles. Someone said something about an impending thunderstorm and I had a minor meltdown as I layered up. I didn’t know if I could handle being in the dark cold rain for hours after the day we just had. I slurped a bit of communal ramen and then there was a rush to make sure I had all of my stuff.  

With Cassy’s knee bothering her since the early double digits part of the run, she knew she was dropping at the aid station. Jared had been cheery all day, but his foot had been bothering him in the last few miles and given that he had done a 50 miler 2 weeks prior (!!!), he ultimately decided to call it a day as well. I saw the overly packed car and while I was uncomfortable from the cold and chafing, my legs were okay and I had no major malfunctions. Plus, I had been hyping myself up all week to not let the discomfort keep me from going on. If I had to do a bunch of walking or rest for a while, the goal was to finish, not go after some arbitrary time. That being said, I did say at some point on Friday that I thought it was going to take us 26 hours….  

Aaron was game to keep going as well so with the thunder slowly rumbling nearby, we suited up with Katherine and stepped across the road to continue on our journey. There was some back and forth with David about having him come rescue us at a road crossing in 5ish miles so I felt game to at least try. Spoiler alert: he came to rescue us about 60 seconds after we had left the road crossing and ended up sleeping in the car for like, 5 hours. <insert cringey I’m sorry face>

I normally run warm, but I left the aid station with a short-sleeve, long sleeve, half-zip, and a puffy jacket. Plus, I threw a rain jacket in my pack as an extra precaution. It was probably in the 60s, but I was frozen. Katherine was a welcome add to our pathetic duo. Even though she’d been up all day with the kiddos and running around in the rain to crew us, her mental state appeared to be 1,000x better than ours. Once we got going and I was warmed up, I could take off my puffy jacket and actually felt a little better with food in my belly and the distracting conversation. The rain never came in the way that we expected. It drizzled a bit for a short while near midnight, but I never felt the need to layer back up. 

The trail was much easier by comparison in this section and though we weren’t moving fast, it was very runnable. That is, until we started to head down towards the Chattooga River. The river was raging from all the rain and we could hear it as we descended down to the banks. While the trail was no more wet than what we had been dealing with all day, it was super technical with slippery rocks, sections of sand, and constant up and down. I was feeling very defeated at this point because we could not even keep a steady walk. 

I never was really worried about running out of water because we were constantly surrounded by it. At the final fill up, we took a few minutes to sit down on a wooden bridge, eating a bit of food. I’m not really sure what time it was or what mile we were at, but I remember it being peaceful. We still had hours left to go, but it gave me a bit of life to just exist for a few moments without movement.

There wasn't much to look at in the complete darkness and so we only stopped a few times in the last 30 miles for gear shifting and a couple of times to just collect ourselves.

Once the final few climbs came into view on the map, I started to feel a sense of relief that we were going to get it done. I power-hiked ahead a bit on the climbs, knowing that Aaron would catch me on the downs. We had all become more quiet as the night wore on, but when we got to around the 10k left to go mark, there was a bit of excitement that we’d be done soon enough. 

As we watched the sky slowly lighten, the trail became easier again and we shuffled along, motivated by finishing. I was so ready to take off my heavy pack full of food that I didn’t eat and gear I didn’t wear. Plus, while I didn’t have any blisters, my feet were very sore from the 26 hour effort. All I could think about was sitting on the picnic bench back at the RV without my pack on.

Shortly after we clicked off our headlamps, the trail widened as they do near trailheads and we started craning our necks for signs of the park.

As soon as the asphalt and trailhead sign came into view, I could feel the sense of relief wash over me. We were done.

Katherine took a few pics of Aaron and I near a few of the signs.

Then the 3 of us made the additional trek to the RV from the trailhead. At that point, I was happy to walk on unobstructed pavement and that picnic bench was minutes away.

The gang all came out to check in on us and I was feeling even more grateful for this crazy group and their support. I took a shower, powered through a giant muffin, and passed out on the sofa in the RV for one of the best naps I’ve ever had. David, Jared, and Cassy went back to Table Rock to get Aaron’s truck and allowed us to sleep for a couple of hours. Then, it was time for hugs and good jobs and we were headed back to the real world with tired legs and full hearts. 

Random  gear tidbits: Hot Hands don’t work very well in the rain, trucker hats absorb too much water, peppermint Tums and ginger candies are game-changers, loosening my shoelaces make the bottoms of my feet hurt less, KT tape across the sport bra line = zero chafing, Squirrel’s Nut Butter does not work well in cool temperatures, venting my rain jacket was super smart, a tight base layer is clutch, and a variety of snacks kept me from getting snack fatigue too early on. 

Snack situation: Various GU gels, Honey Stinger waffles, Nature’s Bakery fig bars, cheddar Goldfish, peanut butter pretzel bites, Uncrustables, Rice Krispy Treats, fruit snacks, and oatmeal raisin bars. I drank a mini Coke and a Starbucks double shot pre-run and the caffeine definitely helped. The grilled cheese and ramen at the aid station were PERFECTION. I only wish I had enough brain power to remember to drink another Coke.

Trail tidbits: Plenty of water along the trail to filter nearly the entire way, very well-marked and following Trail Run Project in airplane mode all day confirmed we were headed the correct way, hardly any foot traffic on a yucky day (I would imagine it to be very crowded near trailheads on nice weather days because it was very, very beautiful), and potentially lots of places to crew on FS roads. 

Thankful for this weird group of people. Thankful for a body healthy enough to do these things. Thankful for saying yes when it sometimes feels really scary.

(Shoutout to Jared & Katherine for most of these amazing pics!!)