The SCAR was a tough challenge, but one that I enjoyed every minute of. I came away from it with a whole new appreciation for the Great Smoky Mountains, and barely snagged the unsupported fastest known time. The run traverses the length of the national park on the Appalachian Trail, a 72 mile stretch with close to 18K feet of gain and loss. Most of it is right along the border of the two states that mean the most to me: Tennessee, where I was born and raised along with 6 generations of Kellys before me, and North Carolina, where I went to college, met my wife, and where her family calls home.
I also once again owe her a huge thank you for dropping me off in the middle of nowhere before proceeding on her own the remaining 1.5 hours to my parents house with all 3 kids late at night. On the other end of the run David Abraham, part of my extended family, was incredibly kind in driving out and waiting around in the middle of nowhere for me to show up a bit later than anticipated. And without the awesome community of trail runners in the area I probably wouldn’t have even known about the SCAR, much less known enough to attempt it.
My 2018 Ultra Capstone
With my 2018 goals, my normal winter ultrarunning season was abbreviated to just a few months. It had been packed, though, with the Lookout Mountain 50 Miler, Bandera 100K, the AT 4 State Challenge, TWOT 100, and now another FKT attempt. I had never had a stretch like this, with so many race efforts packed so close together, but it was a lot of fun. Without a single event to focus everything on, there was less pressure at each one and less to worry about with training. And with a particularly busy few months at work, these events themselves basically became the bulk of my time running over the winter. Fortunately there weren’t any injuries or real concerns that popped up, at least none that weren’t squashed by Terrel Hale.
Originally, I had my sights set on the Benton MacKaye Trail, a 300 mile trail that parallels the southernmost section of the AT. I still have my sights set on it. But with the busy work schedule I needed something doable in a day, and I came across SCAR. It was a perfect goal: personally meaningful, a solid challenge, and I could fit it in on our way down to TN to visit family and crew at the Barkley Marathons. Since I wasn’t running Barkley for the first time in 4 years I had to do something to get my fun in that week. 😉
A Shaky Start
The plan was to leave home in the morning, and Jessi would drop me off that evening at the Standing Bear Farm hostel near Davenport Gap before continuing on to my parents’ house. Unfortunately we got a later start than anticipated and didn’t arrive until after dark, leaving her to manage the remaining drive by herself with three toddlers past their bedtime. I didn’t know who had the more harrowing journey ahead of them.
After finding my way to the bunkhouse I was instantly transported back to when Jessi and I had last thru-hiked 5 years earlier: the atmosphere, the awesome people, the omnipresent scent of body odor (and I’m sure they thought the same thing of my soap and shampoo odor). I had a great chat with them, momentarily fantasizing of the adventures that they would be having in the coming months, before suddenly snapping back to reality with the realization that I had left my phone sitting on the hood of the minivan before Jessi drove away.
I ran back up to where it had been parked and found nothing in sight. I borrowed another phone and called her… it definitely still wasn’t on the hood. Somewhere between me and a few miles down the interstate my phone was sitting on the road in an unknown condition, and I had already turned it off to save battery. I began jogging down the gravel road towards the interstate… guess I could use a little shakeout run anyway after sitting in the minivan all day long.
Eventually I came to a sharp curve in the road and began searching thoroughly, thinking the turn must have surely flung it from its perch. After a few minutes, I spotted it. I hesitated to pick it up – like Schrodinger’s cat my phone was simultaneously alive and dead at that moment, and I feared that once I observed it it would collapse to a permanent state of a completely busted screen. I picked it up… and just a little scratch! No cracks and it still worked perfectly!
I headed back to the bunkhouse to catch what sleep I could. Not long after, I was back up and on my way to Davenport Gap to get started.
After a bit of time trying to make sure my new satellite tracker was working, I got started just after first light at 7:32 AM. It was a brisk morning, but not overly cold. With a 3,000 foot climb in the first 5 miles, it was not long before I was stripped down to a single layer. As I went up, though, the fog came down. Fortunately I had a trail to follow, and I continued along enjoying the morning mist.
The end of the climb took me all the way through and up above the fog. As I climbed out of it dense trees and enormous mountain laurel formed walls on both sides of the trail like a grand entrance hallway approaching the crest, with the morning sun piercing through at just the right angle to create a beautiful mosaic on the ground.
When I reached the top, I was immediately met with a spectacular sight, looking over Tennessee to my right and North Carolina to my left. I spent much of the rest of the run along this ridgeline enjoying these views.
Unfortunately, though, reaching the higher elevations also meant that patches of ice left from snow earlier in the week would become commonplace. Starting at about mile 8, up until Clingman’s Dome (about mile 38), long stretches of otherwise runnable sections were turned into ice rinks.
No matter the conditions, the trail itself was incredible. The slower pace at least gave me more time to enjoy it. I watched as the fog slowly lifted. First, it disappeared from the eastern North Carolina side that received the morning’s first direct sunlight. The Tennessee side, protected from the morning’s sun by the mountains themselves, lingered in fog until nearly midday.
As I enjoyed the views, a more pressing problem than the ice slowly crept up on me. My water was running dangerously low, and I hadn’t been crossing any good sources. I pressed on, thinking that I would surely come across something before it became an issue. I had initially planned my water stops from a list of sources provided on the SCAR Facebook group. Had I stuck to that plan, I would have been in good shape.
The night before at the hostel, though, one of the thru-hikers told me there had been plenty of stream crossings. It seemed perfectly reasonable to me. I grew up exploring these mountains, and water sources had always been abundant in the spring. But I grew up in the valley, where great rivers, streams, and lakes are formed from the runoff that starts at the peaks where I now ran. I was too high for the water to have started forming reliable sources. The snow runoff would have worked for a pump filter, but I was using Aquamira and needed something deep enough to fill a bottle.
I had been bypassing the AT shelters, which had water sources nearby but were a diversion from the route that would have cost significant time. Finally, after about an hour with no water I was desperate. I hadn’t been eating either, as there’s not much my body could do with food if I’m dehydrated. I ended up filling up in a tiny muddy pool of snow runoff. As the disgusting, murky water filled my bottles I added a few extra drops of Aquamira and hoped for the best. (It’s now 3 weeks later, and fortunately I appear to be fine). I waited impatiently for the treatment window to pass, before eagerly sucking it down. It tasted awful, and I could feel the grit from the mud getting stuck in my teeth as it went down, but it was water.
When I finally crossed a legitimate stream (the only one I crossed all day) just before Newfound Gap at about mile 30, I tore into it like a Thanksgiving feast. With the hydration, I was finally able to get some good calories down as well. Freshly energized, I hurtled my way towards the highway crossing, a constant stream of warnings, thank yous, and apologies coming from my mouth as I tried to get back on pace and blew through bewildered day hikers who had parked at Newfound Gap.
On the other side of the highway I had a small additional descent, and then I began the climb to Clingman’s Dome. This sounds odd to say for a run on the east coast, but the altitude really started to get to me. Less than 24 hours earlier I had been in DC, essentially at sea level, and most of the day was spent above 5K with my current climb taking me to 6,644 feet. Climbing is my biggest strength, and I just absolutely was not able to attack the ascents like I usually would. My legs were fine, but if I put any sort of intensity into it I would get out of breath and a bit dizzy and nauseous. All I wanted to do was lay down and go to sleep (perfect, a situation I’m experienced with handling!).
Once again I was afforded a worthwhile distraction as I struggled. The trail passed through a dense forest growing out of a fertile, muddy basin that likely collected water from the peak. Planks were laid down to pave the way, and at any moment I though I might find an Ewok around the next bend.
Unfortunately I once again found that none of the water was deep enough for a bottle, and my supply did not last the climb. I was scurrying up an icy trail with water all around me and not a drop to drink. Finally, I reached the top. I paused briefly to appreciate the achievement and the irony of the moment. Here I was, a trail runner who had grown up hiking in East Tennessee, and this was my first time at the high point of the state. Check that one off the list… only 40 something more to go.
My water needs had grown critical again, and this time I turned to a nice patch of snow just past the peak. I stuffed my bottles full and took off down the descent, periodically massaging the slush to try to accelerate the melting. The views on this section were some of the most amazing of the run.
I had been enjoying my slush water, until a few miles down the descent when I came to the first AT shelter that was actually directly on the trail. An old man was sitting there, who promptly asked me if I knew what day it was. In envy, I answered before asking him excitedly about the shelter’s water source. He pointed me down the hill a little ways, where I found a pipe that had been stuck into the side of a spring, with clear beautiful water flowing continuously out of it.
My eyes lit up like a kid seeing Willy Wonka’s chocolate river. Over the first 9 hours, which saw 11K-12K feet of climbing, I had had about 80 ounces of water. Concern for 2-3 weeks later me (thanks jerk) went out the window. I began guzzling the delicious spring water as quickly as I could fill my bottles with it. With my fresh supply, and newfound knowledge of the shelters’ amazing water sources, I began moving along nicely.
For the first time, I also began to encounter really runnable sections of trail. I was mostly on southern slopes now, and the snow was all but gone. I regained hope of making my goal: the overall FKT of 14:50.
I came across another AT shelter on the trail, and was quickly directed down another short hill to its water source. Another magical pipe shoved into the side of the mountain! From then on I regularly came across shelters, and was more than willing to sacrifice the small diversion from the trail to get good water.
I was making good time, but still unsure if I could make it and the sun was also starting to go down. Just before it did, I caught a glimpse of my goal in the distance: Fontana Lake. It seemed like a simple, straight descent to get there, but of course trails are pretty much by definition the scenic route.
I started asking backpackers I passed if they knew how far it was to the dam. I repeatedly got answers that included +/- a number of miles at the end. For them, estimates like that are great and perfectly appropriate. For me, a difference of 1-2 miles would be enormous in determining whether I could make the time.
I continued along under the only reasonable assumption I could make: that I still had time. Then, with what I thought was 4-5 miles to go, I finally came to a sign: 6.8 miles to Fontana Dam.
It’s amazing how much of a mental aspect there is to endurance sports. Up until that time, my legs had felt fine all day. Sure, I had had other issues, but my legs had been fine. Then in that moment, as soon as my mind realized there was no possible way to make the time, they just quit. It’s as if they just said, “alright, we’re done. This isn’t worth it anymore.”
I struggled along for a couple of miles before a new thought entered my head: what if I could still get the unsupported FKT? I had no idea what the time was, but just the possibility was enough for my legs to come back to life. I barreled down the final descent and made it to the park boundary sign. I was beyond fortunate and grateful to have David Abraham out there waiting for me.
My final time was 15:31 (Strava link). It took me a few minutes to get to my inReach to turn it off, and then I grabbed my phone to see if I had any service (nope). It occurred to me that maybe no one knew if I had broken the unsupported FKT. I didn’t know what the previous time was, and anyone watching the tracker would have been off by a bit on my time.
A Late Arrival
It was an hour from Fontana Dam before I finally had cell service and could check on whether I had actually broken the unsupported FKT. I had done it, by just 14 minutes. It was not the time I was originally shooting for, but I was thrilled. At that point the worst case scenario was that I had just spent an awesome day in the mountains, so the FKT was a pretty great bonus.
And a few weeks later, it came with an even cooler bonus. Nick Horvath, an ultrarunner in Chattanooga and part of the community that had been so incredibly helpful leading up to my attempt, sent me a belt buckle with a 1955 map of the Smokies on it. I don’t care if it wasn’t 100 miles (although it almost felt like it); this is one of the coolest things I have, particularly from a race. I love maps, I love the Smokies, and I love history. It’s perfect.
David drove me back to his house in Knoxville, where Jessi met us to go the rest of the way to my parents’ house. We did take a slight detour, though, as I had built quite the calorie deficit and I was starting to feel it. Due to the water situation I had not eaten much during the run. My calorie count for the entire 15.5 hours was about 1600. I usually go pretty low on calories, somewhere in the 150-180 / hr range depending on the intensity, but that’s really low even for me. Fortunately, my favorite college restaurants have made their way into East TN now, and there was a Cook-Out nearby! And of course it was still open at 2 in the morning.
Overall, it was an awesome day and it’s an incredible route. The terrain and conditions were much tougher than I anticipated, and to be honest I didn’t prepare for them the way I should have or go into it giving the route the respect it deserves in terms of difficulty. To put it in perspective, TWOT was 40 miles further and 13K feet more climbing, but my pace was actually slower doing SCAR.
Sure, part of that is from the ice and from me being an idiot about the water (no one to blame there but myself), but the elevation and the general runnability of the trail I think are pretty big factors as well. There are large parts that are runnable, but not where I could really open up for long stretches. Compared to other things I’ve done there’s not as much “reward” for the climbing in the form of fast descents. For the most part rocks and roots prevented me from really opening up on descents. I only had two sub 9 minute miles, with the fastest at 8:41 (not counting the final section where I hit 6:38 pace running down the road to the boundary sign). TWOT, on the other hand, has three 2-3 mile smooth gradual descents for each of four loops where I could really fly and put down some low 7 minute miles.
I’d love to try again sometime in the future (who knows when) and prepare for it properly. I don’t think you can do anything your best until you’ve done it at least twice, and I really want to put down my best time possible on that route. I’d like to shoot for sub 14, supported or not. There’s not a ton of support that can be given on the route due to its remoteness, but one thing I realized is that the value of support is not just in what they can give you, but in what you don’t have to carry with you just by them being there. I had so much stuff in my pack that I never used, but that was absolutely necessary to have just in case something happened and I had to spend the night up there alone.
Gear and Nutrition
Speaking of what I had in my pack, here’s what I took with me. The nutrition obviously didn’t go as planned due to the water situation, but I was once again amazed by how well things did hold up and how resilient a good plan can be. I started with a bottle of chocolate Perpeteum, and then went through a flask of tropical Hammer gel and about half a bag of salty maple nut bites. Calorie wise, that’s pretty much it. I did also start adding Fizz to the water from some of my more questionable sources, just for the flavor. Endurolytes, anti-fatigue caps, and endurance amino were used as needed every 1-2 hours.
For my shoes, I went with the new La Sportiva Lycan. I had been looking for a solid shoe to fill the gap I had for runs in the 12-18 hour range, and they worked really well. They feel fast, have good protection, and their toe box is a bit wider than most La Sportivas, which accommodated swelling nicely.
For my pack I used the Ultimate Direction Ultra Vest 3.0, which worked perfectly but I think this was at the upper end of what I would use it for. With the final weather forecast I ended up not taking the shell (La Sportiva Grade Jacket), which would have forced me to step up to the Mountain Vest 4.0 (also pictured below).
My XOSKIN base layers and socks (4.0 shorts, 2.0 long-sleeved top, 5.0 compression socks) did the job for me as they did in all of my other ultrarunning races and adventures this winter. No chafing or blisters, and although I did remove the top as things heated up on those climbs, they adapted remarkably well to the changing temperatures and conditions.
I took my Garmin Forerunner 935 with me, which made the entire run on a single charge, and also had an inReach Explorer+. This was my first time ever using a satellite tracker, and reports from people who checked its page are that it worked quite well. It was especially nice to know that Jessi and David could see where I was and how I was progressing, not to mention the confidence of knowing I could send a message if something did happen that caused me to get stuck up there.
One thing that I would change is the water treatment choice. Aquamira is great, but if there’s not a decently clear source of water it still leaves you with all of the gunk in the water (but purified gunk!). And it takes time to mix the two different parts together and let the treatment run its course. If I’m headed into a similar situation again I’ll probably go with something like a BeFree filter, which is light, quick, and can actually filter out sediment.
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