AT RunVenture Project Segment No.2
April 15-18, 2021 Rock Gap to Davenport Gap Miles 105.8- 238.9
We had quite the two and a half week break formulating a plan for our 134 mile journey from Rock Gap at mile 105.8 through the Smokies to get us to Davenport Gap at mile marker 238.9. We worked hard and Celia did all the tough stuff getting our gear, food and goodies to our crew. She planned out our menus for travel and for our crew to have everything we needed and she prepped our gear as I left most of mine at her home in GA.
We were so ready, except a slight niggle in Celia’s calf that she had been rehabbing since segment 1. She continually told me it was fine but the Smokies are another world when it comes to climbs and descents on the Appalachian Trail. I was very hopeful and I adored her positivity that her calf would be fine. I had a feeling though that one or both of us would face struggles in this section.
Let’s get this started. I flew in after work on a Wednesday evening. I kissed my boys goodbye in the car, my youngest crying and pushing me away because he couldn’t come into the airport with me, (This is not how any Mom likes to go, but it happens a lot). I made it through security and found myself a sandwich for dinner and the flight was uneventful. Once in Atlanta I met Celia and we began our drive up to Rock Gap at Standing Indian Campground.
Once we arrived we unpacked and repacked our packs from inside the car due to the rain and our attempt not to bother the people within a tent nearly right in front of us. We got ourselves ready for the morning which was a humorous process in the car, like most cars these days after the engine has been off for ten minutes the lights automatically turn off. This left us struggling to find the keys to get the lights back on for ten more minutes and we went through this routine about four times. We had previously had thoughts of starting that night but it was raining and we were both tired so we opted for a night of car sleep.
About five hours later, at 5:00AM we woke up from an ok but restless night’s rest and we packed up and ate. We were on the trail a little after 6:00AM on April 15, 2021.
There isn’t much to say about the morning, mostly because I hardly remember it, but we moved fluidly and covered ground as we awaited sunrise which wasn’t far off. We continued to hike/ jog into a gorgeous day. We had a very nice climb up Siler’s Bald and then up Wayah Bald. Around 11:00AM we stopped for lunch which was amazing. I enjoyed my Apple and Cinnamon Condition One bar and Celia enjoyed one of her bars as well. We took about 5 minutes to eat, make a video clip and enjoy the view.
Upon descending we came to a gap, I honestly have no idea which one, but we were met with trail magic. We spent another 5-10 minutes here chatting with thru hikers and with folks supplying the trail magic which included a sugary coffee energy drink, a whoopie pie (which I’d save for my afternoon snack) and plenty of fruit for Celia, but also postcards! We both quickly jotted down our kids' names and our home addresses on a postcard excitedly as we couldn’t wait to share this tiny bit of joy and magic with our boys at home.
The next ten or so miles were so much fun! We were able to run for miles, we only stopped for about 5 minutes after a climb to watch me try a Whoopie pie for the first time and laugh about it together. We came into NOC or Nantahala Outdoor Centerat mile 136.7, almost two hours sooner than we estimated and we met with Celia’s friends Kat and Denise who weren’t quite ready for us but had enough food to feed ten of us. We had planned for a respectable break here, knowing that our aid had gone out of their way for us. We spent an hour eating pickles and fruit. I had a chicken quesadilla made to order and Celia ate a sweet potato and some kippler (Celia has a weird canned fish liking). We stocked up on cookies, goodies, our canned coffee for the following morning and when we were good and ready and our packs weighed 15lbs each we set out to climb Cheoah Bald.
We had both heard of this one, so we knew it'd be quite a climb but we were totally unaware how long or how big it really was. The top of the mountain is at mile 144.9, a full eight miles from NOC and roughly 3200’ of gain. It took us nearly three hours but the view was breathtaking.. We stopped at the top to catch our breath and relax for a moment before continuing onward, the sun would be setting soon and finding a place to sleep was next on our list. We were planning to get to at least Stecoah Gap at mile 150.6 but then we hoped to get to a camping area or shelter to set up our tent for the first time together on the trail.
We were exhausted and out of water when we came to Stecoah Gap and thanks to someone’s notes on Guthook we were able to follow the map with some confidence off the trail, down the main road and turn left to a gate to who knows where. The gate was shut and so I climbed over, Celia behind me also climbed over and waded through thick grass and weeds for a couple hundred yards to where we came to fresh water. As we filled our bottles and drank we decided the soft grass here would be a good place to camp so we began our naive process of getting set up in the dark.
We ate some food, tried to eat powdered Tailwind Recovery and set up our tent with our freezing hands and shivering bodies. I hung our bear bag a couple hundred feet away at the only strong-ish branch I could seem to find and managed to get it safely above the ground. We did not feel, due to the terrain and location near the highway, that bears would be an issue but we promised our loved ones we wouldn’t be stupid so we did our part to be safe. Then, we settled into our very cold tent and shivered, tossed and turned the night away until about 3:00AM when we opted to start moving and stop freezing.
We packed up and got moving slowly around 4:00AM and began our approach to Fontana Dam. We moved fairly slow but made good time nonetheless. There were a fair amount of rocks in this section, to say the least, so this kept us slow too, but we were happy to have gotten to them around sunrise so at least we were able to see them all.
We arrived at Fontana Dam at 165.7 miles a little before 10:00AM and got to see our good friend Robin who had crewed us for Double SCAR so we had really been looking forward to this. Celia was struggling a bit with her calf which had begun to act up that morning and we both were super ready for caffeine despite our first round of ice cold canned coffee at 3am. We both took in a few hundred calories of our usuals, cashew butter and jelly sandwich, my soylent shake, Celia’s protein shake and clementines, whatever sounded good at the time. We had a nice opportunity to switch out clothing as the warm weather from the lower altitude would not return. We knew we’d basically be cold from here on out. Celia applied a bunch of Rocktape to her calf and hamstring and we got ourselves ready to go. After a little over an hour we crossed the Dam and were ready to take on the section known as SCAR.
We began climbing, caffeinated and overstuffed. We made great progress and soon had our jackets off. The sun was gorgeous and it was a very nice day. We climbed and climbed and climbed. We had made such good time that I recommended we push on that evening and get over Rocky Top and Thunderhead Mountain. Celia was somewhat hesitant as she judged the tension in her calf and overall fatigue level, but I knew she could make it and I was dying to see what these views looked like on a nice day (when I did Double SCAR it looked like clouds everywhere).
We continued past Spence Field and took on these steep climbs and cruel descents. We were headed for Derrick Knob Shelter and were looking at ETA of sunset, nearly on the dot. With only 2.5- 3 miles to go to the shelter I felt really good and perhaps a little guilty about pushing Celia the extra climbs and miles (although the views were absolutely worth it) so I took off with her OK to run on ahead.
Just before you get to the shelter there is one last sharp steep climb that kicks you down, I was so determined to get to the shelter before dark I nearly ran up it. I then ran the final mile pretty hard and arrived at the shelter panting and grateful. I was greeted by thru hikers seated around a nice warm fire and they welcomed me. They immediately shared that there was room on the top bunk in the shelter and even offered us a tarp to protect us from the wind that travels up between the wooden slats. I hesitated to borrow from a thru-hiker as surely I didn’t feel we needed anything as much as they did but he had insisted and I would take any help in the ‘staying warm’ department.
Celia arrived a few minutes later, to a loud round of applause and welcome cheers from the thru hikers, and I showed her where we’d be sleeping. We set up our sleeping bags, got some fresh water and ate our “dinner” prior to packing up our bear bag. We walked over to the pulley system in place for hanging bear bags and stared for a moment before we agreed it would be easier to ask for help and naturally the thru hikers were kind enough to show us just how easy it was. Then we sat by the fire and engaged in nice chit chat for a few more minutes, warming rocks in the fire to take to bed and then we tucked ourselves in.
After a sleepless first hour and half my warmed rock was not making much heat, the floorboards were cold, the air was cold, I never felt that bad but for whatever reason I just could not get comfortable. I tossed and turned all night, not to mention my 2-3 mile run at the end of a big day left my hips aching like after a long road run and that only added to my sleeplessness. Luckily, although I am grateful Celia got some sleep, she woke up and I asked if she was going to sleep more, she said “Probably not, but I’m not yet ready to get out of bed yet.” We stayed huddled in our bags for a few more minutes before we went for it.
Quickly we packed up our sleeping bags, camping blankets, sleep pad, put on our shoes and headed out to get our food and fill water into our bottles. Although it was a fairly well done take off, it was already a little after 4:00AM as we headed back toward the trail, but I immediately couldn’t make sense of it as we should not be going South. So I needed to turn on my phone to find the trail. We had only gone a few hundred yards of course before we turned around and passed back through the shelter to continue Northbound.
We were hiking very slowly this morning. We knew we only had 10 miles to get to Clingman’s Dome and that it would be a hard, cold start to the day, but at least once we were there we’d see Robin again and drop our tents and sleeping bags for the next section. I climbed hard and remained in pretty good spirits, but Celia was not doing well. She had tension and pain in her calf and now tension pulling in her achilles as well. She was tired and felt fairly hopeless about the rest of our segment. We began to discuss goals and options.
We talked about her stopping at Newfound Gap and having me continue on. The reasoning being that she had already done this section when we both did SCAR in October so she did not feel it was totally necessary to do again, whereas I have the goal of covering every step of the AT South to North, so I couldn’t just skip this segment as badly as I wanted to in that moment. I spent a lot of time in my head as we hiked deciding if I had the guts to go it alone and what that would look like. I was scared but after a couple of hours to process I had come to a place of peace, if it had to happen I would do it… but I would do what I could to keep Celia in the game with me.
I tried hard to keep positive but by the time we got to Clingman I was fairly sad and stressed by the precipitation, as beautiful as snow and sleet are… I was not loving the idea of suffering in it with 40 more miles to go. Celia was ready to stop there and I was just short of a blubbering girly breakdown.
I, of course, made it to Robin and her warm car first and got in and explained the situation. I kept myself from falling apart and got to work prepping myself for whatever would happen next. Celia came up and got in the car and the look on her face said, “I don’t know” I had just enough cell service to phone her trusted friend and functional bodywork therapist Marvin who talked through her injuries with her, made some rocktape recommendations and reassured her that she likely wasn’t making any injuries worse by continuing. He recommended that she continue on for a few more miles. Celia agreed and I was unbelievably relieved but also knew we weren’t out of the woods, literally and figuratively.
We spent a good chunk of time here too as Celia massaged her injuries, added more rocktape and switched shoes. We ate and drank lots more coffee. When we left Clingman's dome parking lot Celia asked Robin to wait long enough that if she changed her mind in the first mile or two she could come back and quit. It was hard to stomach but I also knew exactly how Celia was feeling. I had some achilles pain for the latter 2/3rds of double SCAR but knew I had time to recover and pushed through it, but, the way Celia and I have designed our RunVenture she has just under two weeks to be ready to do more miles, so risking true injury vs a small niggle could be very hard and it’s quite a bit of pressure even though both know that we could change or postpone segments of our plans depending on how things go and life’s responsibilities.
As we began to descend Celia continued to move forward, she never complained and every time I asked she said she was doing a bit better. Once we were an hour away from Clingmans and Celia was feeling pretty well I finally started to relax. We hiked steady, not “runner” fast but steady and made great time to Newfound Gap where we again had the chance to see Robin, eat a ton of food and repack for the last section. We had so much fun in the shelter the previous night, we opted to leave the tent behind and stop early for the night to ensure we’d have a place to sleep in the shelter. It should have been fine... and due to the kindness of others, it absolutely was.
We left Newfound Gap before 2:00pm with more than enough time to get the nearly 10 miles planned to Peck’s Corner shelter and if we found we made good time we would consider going to Tri-knob shelter. We hiked steadily up and around 2.9 miles out of Newfound I was anxiously awaiting Ice Springs shelter to pop on a sign as it was supposed to be 3.1 miles away from Newfound gap. It didn’t come and up we hiked and hiked. We enjoyed some gorgeous mid afternoon sunshine and views as we discussed my difficulty slowing down and my struggle with simply hiking as a “runner.” We climbed and climbed until we saw signs for Le Conte Lodge, which was awfully strange because it wasn’t on Guthook. Everything AT was on guthook, but even that in my sleep deprived hiking trot did not make me stop to think about how strange it was that we’d not seen a thru hiker in 2 hours, that we hadn’t seen signs for any shelters and not to mention our gps had us floating in space and…(Yes another and)... AND… there had been ZERO white markers for … wait for it: 5.3 miles! We walked off trail for 5.3 miles, just when the day was seemingly not as terrible as it had seemed to be, it was in fact worse.
Now, granted, the weather was kind, the views gorgeous but alas, that hardly made up for the extra 10 mile hike that would have us barely making sundown at the very first shelter out of Newfound Gap. I struggled not to sprint down the mountain, angry and exhausted, but knowing I now had a full 28 miles the following day with much less time to complete it in, I needed to be smart. I wanted to cry for the release but I couldn’t really do it, there was no escaping this anger, in fact, writing this now, there’s still a mild pang in my stomach.
We filled our bottles at a lovely water crossing just before we got back to our wrong turn and righted ourselves arriving at Ice Spring Shelter 5 minutes later. I arrived tired and stressed and a woman asked, “How are you?” I simply said, “I’ve been better, we just spent 10 miles checking out the Boulevard trail” and with a deep sigh I trailed off and asked if there was any way there was space left for the two of us. A couple of thru hikers began to move their sleeping bags apart as they told us, “Of course we can make some room.” My heart was so full, they could not have known what that meant to me, to us, that night. We had room by the fire and great conversations.
I called my husband before settling in, because I wasn’t settled. The mistake had cost me my sanity, or only nearly perhaps. After how close Celia had come to quitting SCAR that day with the very sound reasoning that we’d already done this section, I, in my current state reasoned quite justly that I had done this section in both directions in October and therefore we should hike back to Newfound in the morning and take a ride to Davenport and skip out on the final 28 miles of the Smokies. Celia was tempted but knew she couldn’t let me do it, deep down I knew I wouldn’t quit, but it sure sounded good! I called my husband and reasoned to him just as I have explained it and he of course said that I would need to get up the next day and walk/ jog another 28 miles. So I cried for a solid minute and then we got ready for bed.
A section hiker let me borrow an extra layer and I had carried 3 packs of hot hands to be sure I would get some sleep that night. I took some melatonin and with my warm rock in my sleeping bag I finally slept for the first time in 2 full nights. It was brief, maybe only 2-3 hours, I woke up cold and opened my hot hands and placed one above my heart on my chest and the other against my low back and I snoozed for another hour or so, not quite warm enough to relax but I felt much better than the prior nights. Around 12:30 Celia stirred and surprised me when she asked if I wanted to get up. When I hinted the night before that we should start at 2am to ensure we had enough time to be mindful of her niggles she was not thrilled with my idea. Nonetheless we were out and on the trail by 1:30AM. It was insane. We knew it, but we needed it. We hiked on. After 3 hours we wished for sunlight, but also enjoyed the feeling of quiet miles passing before the day started. By the time sunrise finally peaked through we had only 14 more miles to go, we had covered half the days distance before sunrise strictly hiking. That felt good!
I felt so good from the hiking that I took off running and kept running. I ended up covering 5.4 miles in that hour as I watched the clock carefully. That morning we not only had to meet Robin for our ride home but we also needed to meet Buddy Teaster. He is the CEO of Soles4Souls and a very experienced ultra runner. We were so excited that he wanted to come out on a hike with us for a bit. We actually thought after getting lost that we had to cancel on him but I sent him a text at 4:50 AM letting him know we had somehow woken up and gotten on trail by 1:30AM and we were back on schedule. He had responded excitedly that he was on his way and planned to be on trail by 7:30AM. Due to limited cell service this was much communication as we had.
Just before the climb up Mt Camera I slowed a lot letting Celia makeup some time on me and changed out of my extra layers only to change my mind a mile into the climb and stop again to put them all back on. It’s all about the angle the mountain faces as to whether it’s sunny or shaded, windy or not. I went from hot and sunned to dark and chilly within a few hundred yards. I was now beginning the descent to Davenport Gap and still hadn’t run into Buddy. I was worried I’d missed a text but I had No Service to know or to find out. Finally about 3.5-4 miles from the Gap there he was. We said our hellos and I turned back around and started hiking back up as I was suggesting we hike back to Celia. During our climb I shared our story of how we got to the AT mentally and then physically the tale of our current adventure, the getting lost, Celia overcoming it all, etc… It really wasn’t long until Celia came around a corner hiking strong and still smiling. We turned back around and the three of us hiked steadily downward. Celia was in enough discomfort between her calf and achilles that we could not run it in from 4.5 miles up. We walked and chatted about Soles4Souls. Buddy gave us details of the benefit the used shoes provide and the process that the shoes go through after donation. We felt even better about our supporting Soles4Souls and will begin to focus more of our story on them and our efforts to collect shoes and funds. Buddy also shared countless tales of his experience in ultrarunning. He named off all of our dream races or faves from Bear 100, my first 100 miler to Hardrock 100 which neither Celia or I have yet had the opportunity to do. It was so nice to have the company and to get to know Buddy a little more than just a name in an email.
About a half mile from the end it was a beautiful runnable downhill and my feet throbbed from the walking with brakes on downhill so I announced that I was taking off to run it in. I did and it felt so good. As soon as we finished we ate food, lots of it, and I barely remember what. I know I had some watermelon and strawberries, some mini muffins, half an avocado, definitely two cups of coffee and more. Mid meal I searched for clothing that didn’t smell and Robin was kind enough to allow me to borrow a fuzzy shirt and pants that smelled like fresh laundry. I was so happy.
We took a photo with Buddy and said our goodbyes. We had just been yelled at by a local for Robin’s car being in the pull off too long so we quickly packed up despite the ridiculous response of this person, we still felt it was better to just move along. On the drive back to Celia’s car at Rock Gap I sat up front with Robin and we spent the ride talking about athletics, goals, life and other deep “stuff.” I love these conversations and I loved the drive with my two friends.
Once we arrived at Rock Gap we struggled with a bit of fatigue on the next two hour drive back to Celia’s home, but more than that we got hungry again.We stopped and ate Chipotle. We ate all of it before getting back in the car and heading home for a shower. Once we were clean we began pulling out the maps for the next segment.
This segment could not have worked out with the love and support of our families, Robin, Kat and Denise. It was hard, but it was beautiful. It was exactly what we love about being “Ultra” whether we’re hiking, running or crawling, we’re making our way North on foot.