Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Appalachian Trail Section Hike 2016 -- My AT Library

If you've ever hiked on the AT, you've heard the question: "Have you ever read 'A Walk in the Woods'?"

Short answer? Yes.

Longer answer? Yes, I've read AWITW, and while it has some pretty funny moments, and does provide some interesting backstory about the trail, it's not the best book I've read about hiking on the AT (we won't get into the debates about how much, if any, of the book is actually true.)

Go to Amazon (or better yet, go the AT Conservency website store -- they'll use any money they make for the trail) and you'll find pages of hiking memoirs and DVDs chronicling the trail and people's experiences during their hikes. At worst these are dry renditions of days hiked, places been, and people met. At their best they go beyond and capture the feel of the hike, and let you experience the author's experiences and evolution.

Over the years I've built a small library of AT books, which I'll often pick up to reread when I'm getting psyched for my next trip. In no particular order, here's a few of my favorites.

Walking with Spring - Earl Shaffer

Shaffer was the first to thru-hike the AT in 1948, as a WW II vet looking to "walk the war off." What's most fascinating about his account is how much the trail has changed. In his day, many sections followed country roads and wound past now forgotten farms, crossroads, and mountain communities - including many that looked on him with suspicion if he hiked too near the local moonshine still. Earl didn't mind roughing it, with no shelter but an army poncho, no stove, and an old army rucksack to carry his gear. It's a great read about a different trail and a different time.

On the Beaten Path - Robert Rubin

Many AT memoirists romanticize their journey as a voyage of discovery and a life-changing experience. Not Rubin. A 40-something writer and editor going through a mid-life crisis, Rubin quit his job in the late 1990s and left his wife holding down the fort at home while he made the trek. Was it worth it? Sort of.

Rubin's keen eye and wit captures the personalities and experiences of the trail and places them into a larger context with the outside world. You really get a feeling for all the ups and downs - mentally, physically, and emotionally - involved in an AT thru-hike.

A Season on the Appalachian Trail - Lynn Setzer

Setzer interviewed dozens of hikers during the 1996 hiking season and  compiled a wide-ranging look at the many different people, landscapes, experiences, and hiking styles on the trail. Arranged as a month-by-month account, it's entertaining and instructive to learn about the experience of attempting a thru-hike from a variety of different perspectives. I've found it a valuable reference to consult when I'm getting ready to tackle a new section.

As Far as the Eye Can See - David Brill

Definitely my favorite - Brill reminisces about his 1979 thru-hike with the voice of a poet. A young man just out of college, he describes a life-changing journey with verve as he transforms from a uncertain newcomer to a toughened outdoorsman. Brill eschews the traditional chronological approach to trail memoirs and takes time to examine his time hiking through with a variety of themes and vignettes - some amusing, some alarming, but all entertaining and engrossing. I always finish this book wishing that I'd followed in his path when I was a young man. Definitely one of the best of the many books about hiking the AT.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Appalachian Trail Section Hike 2016 - Resupply

Food is heavy. So there's no way I'm going to try and carry 11 days worth of food with me when I start the trip. With only a few exceptions the AT hiker can count on having a reliable resupply point at least every three to four days when they're on the trail. So planning becomes a calculation about how how much weight you want to carry versus how much you want to stop.
Several days worth of hiker chow.

As a rule of thumb I've found that carrying a three to four day supply of food works well. My first step in planning is to sketch out a menu plan for each portion of the hike between my resupply stops -- how many breakfasts, how many lunches, how many dinners, plus snacks, drink mix, and that ever-important jar of peanut butter I hold in reserve.

The second step is to decide where to resupply, and how to do it. Option one is buying food at a trail town along the way. On this trip I'll be stopping in Hot Springs on Day 4. Hot Springs is a well-equipped trail town, with a grocery store, lodging, laundromat, and bars. A perfect spot to stay the night to resupply, clean up, and regroup.
The AT runs through the heart of Hot Springs

Moving south from Hot Springs is the challenge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. GSMNP starts about two hiking days south of Hot Springs, and will probably take me five days to traverse. One option would be to load up with seven days of food at Hot Springs - not an attractive option. The other option is to use a mail drop.

Mail drops have historically been an important part of AT hiking. Hikers will mail packages of food and other supplies to post offices or lodgings along the way, and then pick up the package when they arrive. It's a useful strategy when resupply options are limited or expensive. 

Two days south of Hot Springs, just before the Smokies, is Standing Bear Hostel, which accepts mail drops. So I'll ship the bulk of resupply items that I'll need for the Smokies trek there, and pick up odds and ends from their camp store.

Next time: Some thoughts on gear.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Appalachian Trail 2016 section hike -- back on the trail!

As of now, I've completed the portions of the trail highlighted in yellow.

Chipping away

I completed my first AT section hike in 2002 - an epic(?) 58-mile, 4-day/3-night trip from the James River to Reed's Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway. That kicked me off towards a goal of finishing the entire trail. The tally so far? 800 miles down, about 1400 to go.

Through the Smokies!

After a one-week jaunt through Pennsylvania and Maryland last fall, I've shifted my gaze for 2016 to the south. I plan is to hike southbound in September, starting in Erwin, TN and finishing in Fontana, NC - a total distance of 177 miles. The hike will pass through some of the highest peaks and most scenic highlands of the AT south of New Hampshire, including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with the highest point on the entire AT, the 6,643 feet peak at Clingman's Dome.
My plan for 2016.

How far, how fast?

The first thing to consider when planning a section hike is how long it will take. Through hard-won experience, I've found that I'll usually maintain an average speed of 2 to 2.5 miles per hour during the day, including time spent for breaks, eating, etc. So if I plan on hiking about 8 hours a day, I can cover about 16-20 miles. Of course you can't always budget 8 hours of hiking a day, given stops in town for resupply and a night or two off the trail. Planning to cover an average of 15 miles a day seems to work well as a compromise figure. Some days I'll do more, but some less, depending on terrain and other factors. A little quick math gives me a reasonable time frame of 11 days to complete the hike.

Getting there

Section hiking does involve certain logistical challenges. The first is how to get to and from the trail. Neither the start or finish of my hike are served by plane, train, or bus, so I'm dependent on my car. But if I'm walking from point to point, how will I get back to my car when I'm done?

Fortunately, there are some options available. There's a informal cottage industry of shuttle drivers who will pick you up in one location and then drive you to your starting point. So, simply park your car at the trailhead (or other convenient location), ride with your shuttle to where you're starting the hike, and then walk back to your car. Just don't forget your car key - I did that once!

(Next time - Resupplying along the way)

Monday, May 02, 2016

Race Report: Promise Land 50K(+) -- A day of ups and downs

Promise Land was not my first ultra. But I knew from looking at the elevation profile -- and from the far-away look in the eyes of ultra vets when they talked about it -- that it would present a significantly tougher challenge than what I'd faced before.

And sure enough, Promise Land race was a day of ups and downs -- not just topographically, but physically and mentally too. So here are some of the highs and lows of a roller coaster experience, in pretty much chronological order.

High -- Camping out!

I admit it, I love camping out -- every new piece of backpacking gear I buy gives me excuse to set up my tent in the side yard. So what better way to spend the night before the race than in the company of hundreds of other ultra runners and ultra runners-to-be inhabiting tents of every description? Even better -- a nice contingent of CATs were able to stay in the same area and chill before and after the event.

High - A predawn start and an epic first climb

Thanks to expert advice from a slew of vets, the beginning of the race held no surprises. And the first climb up the mountain was surprisingly smooth -- I started with an easy jog for the first mile or so and then downshifted to a solid hiking pace, keeping my breathing under control as I went. And what cooler way to start up the road than in the reflected glow of hundreds of headlamps?

Low - Sore quads already?

The long, gradual downhill after cresting the mountain would normally be another high point. But a nagging note of worry had already crept in, as my quads started aching under this very easy load. I began to worry that my illness-imposed spotty training in April was going to catch up to me. More on that later...

High - Trilliums and fiddlehead ferns

Hillsides blanketed with trilliums and thick stands of ferns beginning to unfurl for the spring. It's good to run in the woods. And did I mention I saw a Scarlet Tanager, too?

Low - Sunset Meadows and the down the mountain

By the time I made it up to Sunset Meadows I knew that my legs weren't quite in the game. And the drop down to Cornelius Creek confirmed it. I'm not a great descender (see Terrapin Mountain for more on that), and the rocky route down was complicated by shooting pains in my quads with each step. Add in the frustration of being passed by dozens of runners and I found my patience wearing thin. Two stream crossings with their jolts of cold water provided a bit of relief.

High - Aid stations

All the aid stations were well-organized and enthusiastically manned, but Cornelius Creek gave me a chance to regroup, refuel, and re-energize after a demoralizing descent. And being the old road runner that I am, I welcomed the stretch of gravel and pavement that followed it to pick back up on my pace and recapture a few spots in the standings.

High - Grinding it out, miles 20-27

Was it just a strange coincidence that we ducked back into the woods right at mile 20 (the infamous "wall" of the marathon)? Despite the psychological barrier, I felt like I did some of my best running through this stretch. The mix of terrain and surfaces kept things interesting, and I was able to keep a good consistent pace while mixing up my running and hiking, all the while keeping fueled up and hydrated. The further I ran the more I gained confidence to tackle the final climb and the final descent to come.

Low (Very Low) - The Apple Orchard Falls Trail beatdown

I didn't have any illusions about conquering the climb back up to Sunset Meadows. Just put my head down and keep moving. Get to the top.

But as soon as I started up the trail from Cornelius Creek the wheels started falling off. Sore quads turned into cramping quads. Every step up over the rocks on the trail felt like a ticking time bomb was about to go off in my legs. Soon I didn't have a choice -- walk 100 steps, stretch the quads, walk, stretch, rinse, repeat.

This time-killing strategy held off the cramps, but in my preoccupation with that and my otherwise miserable state I neglected to keep fueling. By the time I reached Sunset Fields, after well over an hour of climbing, I was cold, and flailing to keep moving forward. It was then that I remembered Horton's advice from the night before - "Don't stop at Sunset Meadows - keep moving and get down the mountain!" I grabbed a Coke and followed his advice.

Low - QUADS!!

Eventually I was over the top and descending the single track. The crisis had passed, but I can't say I was a happy camper - it felt like a gang of dwarves was beating on my legs with ball-peen hammers. Finally the gravel road and some relief. At least I knew that the road would level out and the pounding would stop soon.

High - Finishing strong

After being passed several more times on the final descent, I dug in. No more! As the road's grade began to ease my pace started to pick up and my legs loosened up a bit. A quick glance back saw two more runners looming in the distance and something kicked in. My stride got better, speed picked up, and soon I was overtaking some of those who'd passed me earlier. Finally the legendary brown squirrel was on my right and I ran down the grass all alone to cross the line and accept my handshake from the great man himself.

High - What a fun day!

Despite over 8 hours in the woods, I felt surprisingly good at the end. A hot cup of tea and a change of clothes and things seemed fine. No blisters, what was left of my cramps faded quickly, and no damage worse than a little inconvenient chafing.

And realistically I did about what I expected. Earlier in the spring I'd been hoping for around 7:30, but after a pretty much shot

It's been fun dipping my toes into the trail running world, and Promise Land sealed the deal for me. It's a rugged sport, but one that lets you challenge yourself in a lot of different ways - physically and mentally. And I can't think of a better place to do it than at this challenging event!


Monday, March 21, 2016

Terrapin Mountain 1/2 Marathon Trail Run - Race Report

In recent years, the beginning of Spring meant tuning up for the Charlottesville 10-Miler, or hitting the road on my bike in preparation for triathlon season. But with Promise Land looming on the horizon, the Terrapin Mountain 1/2 Marathon seemed like a good idea. While I felt pretty well prepared -- I had runs on the AT, Fox Mountain loops, ascents up Jarmans, and several long training slogs up the the powerlines in my training log -- this was the first trail race I'd done with larger  field. I was curious how I'd measure up.

I decided to treat Terrapin as a training run, with a simple goal -- don't be stupid. Stay in control on the climb, keep fueled up, and finish with gas in the tank.So after a pleasantly sunny afternoon spent lounging in a camp chair by my tent, reading Jennifer Pharr Davis' AT thru-hikng memoir, I turned in early, gear laid out for the morning. 

Morning was cool, but not unpleasantly so, with the rain in the forecast holding off. A cup of coffee, some peanut butter on a corn tortilla, a little socializing and soon it was time to line up. I seeded myself well to the back (don't be stupid), and shuffled off across the line to the sound of a gong being enthusiastically rung by race volunteers.I settled in on the paved road and gradually moved through the field to where the pace felt comfortable. That comfort didn't last long, as the road got rougher and teeper.

John's course preview came in handy here, and I treated the climb like Jarmans -- power hike the steeps, run the flatter sections. Stay on the edge, but don't red line the heart rate. After a while we leveled off a bit onto some nice single track, with growths of mountain laurel and rhododendron hinting at the higher elevation. Intersecting a forest service road we hit Camping Gap and the first aid station. I jogged over and refilled my handheld with sports drink, grabbed a couple of saltines and shoved them in my mouth as I started up the trail to the summit.

The summit trail was as advertised -- steep! My breathing felt fine (in fact I didn't seem as out of breath as some of the runners around me), but my legs were burning from the climb. Finally we reached the spur trail to the overview. Overcoming my mild acrophobia, I scrambled out onto the rocks to punch my bib and turned to head down the trail.

After squeezing through the joke of Fat Man's Misery (Really? We go through there?), the trail started descending steeply. While I'd moved up steadily in position while going up the mountain, I was out of my element here, and picked my way down trail cautiously, losing time to let faster runners scamper by me. Something to work on....  But despite my tentative pacing I enjoyed the downhill. I stayed patient, took every opportunity to keep fueling up from my handheld, and bided my time

Passing the turn onto the last leg, I headed down to the last aid station. A quick stop, a refuel, and I turned around to go back up the fire road, power hiking back up to the last leg.

John Andersen had described the last leg in dire terms, but I quickly found that I liked it. The trail was wide and relatively smooth, and the grades gradual. I started alternating runs and walks, and quickly shifted into longer running segments. I felt good -- lots of energy in the tank and I was moving smoothly. Best of all I could see runners ahead of me and I was catching up.

As the miles ticked by and the stream crossings were checked off I felt better and better. Finally I hit the last crossing, amusing the small crowd of spectators by picking the deepest possible line through the water. A small girl sitting on a rock said "If you run fast you'll get barbecue!" I didn't need any more encouragement, and gave her a high-five as I sprinted past.

Passing familiar terrain, I put the hammer down and picked up more spots. As the school came into sight I caught up to a dad running with his 8(!) year old son. The boy had no intention of letting me pass him, so I yielded to his enthusiasm and let him cross first.

My overall time for the day was 2:50, putting me somewhere around the top 1/3 of my age group, which seems OK for a first effort. Giving myself a report card for the day, I succeeded with my primary goal -- don't be stupid. I'd paced well, and while uncomfortable at times on the climbs, hadn't blown all my energy there. Fueling worked great throughout. I started with Tailwind and topped off my bottle each time I hit an aid station. Aside from a few salty snacks to keep my thirst up, I didn't need anything else.

Things to work on? More climbing of course. I often feel like my aerobic system could get me up the hills faster, but the legs aren't strong enough. And I need to be more confident in descending steep trails. Nothing wrong with playing it safe, but that's free speed if I can develop better skills.

All in all, a fun day on a great, challenging course. I can see this race becoming a regular spring time event!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Day 7 - Off the Trail

Backpacking a long trail for an extended period is like stepping into a different world. After only a few days your expectations, rhythms, and perceptions shift. Thoreau captured the essence:

"I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” Walden

Those "lowest terms" boil down to the essentials: the rise and fall of the trail you're treading, the rocks and soil under your feet, the miles ahead and behind you, sunshine and rain, water, food, and shelter. 

Touches of Fall were in evidence as I hiked south
I was fortunate to have hiked in the company of some kindred spirits on this trip, so it seemed only fitting that I met many of them when I arrived at the ATC office in Harpers Ferry. Hand shakes, fist bumps, high-fives, and even a hug were exchanged as I accepted congratulations and wished them well for the rest of their journey.

My day today was short, but not uneventful. I awoke to the sound of trucks in the distance, laboring up the grades to cross South Mountain on US 40. My camp mate, Waffle Tread and I both packed up quietly, trying not to disturb Rocky, cowboy camping on the ground next to our sites. Waffle Tread told me he'd arrived at Midnight. Hike your own hike, I guess...

Rocky catches some Zs 
Waffle Tread left before me, while I finished my coffee. We hiked at similar speeds, so I was pretty certain I'd see him down the trail. It was a great morning on a hike distinguished by wonderful weather. The sun slanted through the trees and across the Civil War battlefield of South Mountain, a major engagement in the Antietam campaign.
Spot where Union general Reno fell in battle, 1862. South Mountain., MD.

Soon I caught up to Waffle Tread, at a nice overlook that presented a great southern view of the ridge we would follow until we hit the Potomac River. In this distance I could see the fog that indicated the valley of the Potomac, which we'd follow into Harper's Ferry. 

The ridge the trail follow is in the center. To the right, in the fog, is the Potomac River, leading to Harpers Ferry.
At Gathlands State Park I took a short break for a snack, then pushed on towards the final stretch of ridgeline and the descent to the C & O Canal Towpath, the final 3 miles into Harpers Ferry. Waffle Tread and I hooked up and started hiking together, only to be joined by a beagle dog. I called the number on "Sammy's" tag, and the owner, rather nonchalantly, said he'd meet us when the trail came off the ridge. Unfortunately, Sammy the dog decided to run off after sometime before then. When we met the owner
Waffle Tread and I pose at Weaverton Cliffs
sitting in his car at the agreed upon road crossing he was rather grumpy and put out about the fact I didn't have his dog with me. Turns out that Sammy is a serial offender, and runs off to the AT all the time -- the next hiker down the trail brought him down. My advice -- learn to take care of your own damned dog, and quit leaving it up to us hikers to do it for you (just my opinion).

After an awesome view of the Potomac from Weaverton Cliffs, we trudged up the C & O towpath until we finally reached the promised land of Harpers Ferry. Being a Frenchman, Waffle Tread immediately suggested we stop for a beer. Being an American, I immediately agreed. After at a beer and sandwich at the Potomac Grille (formerly the Secret Six Tavern, but exactly the same as in 2010), we walked up to the ATC Headquarters, where I had a nice reunion with Gravity, Rockman, Highlander, Breezy, and Rocky.

"Spike" is officially photographed at ATC headquarters in Harper's Ferry!

After having my picture taken at ATC HQ, we backtracked to the town and caught the shuttle bus to my car. I drove Waffle Tread to the next trailhead, and hit the highway home, back to the world of fast cars, gas stations, mini-marts, and the the rest of the best of American culture. I can't wait for next year!

Following a white blaze into Harpers Ferry.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Day 6 - Smooth Sailing

Day 6 -- Campsite to Dahlgren Bacpacker's Campground
Distance - 24.3 miles
Time on Trail - 11:30
Speed - 2.1 mph

Yesterday had ended on a down note, sheltering in my tent from rain storms. But overnight the rain abated and I slept well until about 4 AM. By 5 I thought "why not?" and started packing my gear. At 6 AM, sans breakfast, I started off with only my headlamp to guide me.

It was eerie, walking through the darkness and seeing the eyes of owls/deer/raccoons/cougars/bigfoot reflecting in your headlamp's light (I think they were owls, actually), but soon I crossed the Mason-Dixon Line (no Trump wall yet) and struck south into MD.

Sneaking into MD.

At Penmar Park I grabbed a snack and admired the predawn lights of towns to the west. Proceeding south for 5 miles I stopped for my morning Joe at Ravens Roost Shelter. Knowing it was a big day, I also indulged in spoonfuls of peanut butter and trail mix - a simple but potent energy boost.

After some initial climbs and rough going, the trail smoothed out into long ridge walks on wide trails. I started making time, getting on schedule after a slow start in the darkness.

As I hiked, I heard a voice from behind - "Breezy", one of the small bubble of SOBOs I'd been traveling in sync with. She and I hiked along for a mile or so, shooting the breeze, then on a downhill she skipped away. Actually, literally, skipped away. The power of youth...

By now it was a glorious day, sunny but cool, with a touch of fall in the air. I crossed I-70, well caged in to protect the cars below. Beyond that was a quiet residential neighborhood. The oddity of passing well-maintained yards guarded by leashed dogs yapping at hikers was somewhat surreal.

Crossing I-70

A few more miles and I hit the original Washington Monument, a lovely state park (look it up!). Because of a lightning strike the tower was closed, so I admired the view and relaxed in the grass as compensation. 


Still a nice view!

45 minutes later I was in the Dahlgren Backpacker's Campground, a somewhat unique establishment. No fee, ample tent pads, and hot showers. Best of all it's 1/4 mile from a fine restaurant on US 40 (the old National Road) -- the Old South Mountain Inn, a fixture since the days of the French and Indian War. And they love serving hikers (assuming you shower first).

Yup - prime rib (the Tuesday special)

So having showered, eaten (prime rib) , and had some wine, I retired to my tent to catch up today's journey for you. The trail ends for me tomorrow - thanks for tagging along so far with me!