Foothills Trail, Upstate S.C.
April 16-17, 2011
20 hrs 47 min (New Female Speed Record)
FOOTHILLS TRAIL April 16-17, 2011
1:45am: After tossing and turning for four hours, I finally gave up on any illusion of sleep, got up and turned on the coffee. I had gone to bed listening to the howling wind and rain bombarding my windows. Tornado warnings had been issued across the Southeast and the weatherman had recommended that all sensible people should “hunker down” for the night. Instead, I was about to set out for a 77-mile solo adventure across the Foothills Trail, a remote and rugged trail along Blue Ridge Escarpment in upstate South Carolina.
3:30am: We arrived at the trailhead at Table Rock State Park. I had managed to doze a bit during the drive down (fortunately, I wasn’t at the wheel), but the force of the wind blowing the Subaru around made it difficult to get any solid rest. I sat in the parking lot for a few minutes, hoping against hope that the wind and rain would die down, while knowing that the radar showed at least three more hours of storms. Finally, I filled my fanny pack, strapped on two headlamps, grabbed my water bottles, and was off.
The trail was dark and wet. It was nearly impossible to see the white blazes through the fog. The river roared below me, and between that and the sound of the wind and rain, the noise was nearly deafening. I had chosen this weekend for my run because of the full moon, but I didn’t get a glimpse of it through the heavy cloud cover. The first 9.7 miles of the trail circumnavigate Pinnacle Mountain and climbed Sassafras Mountain, South Carolina’s highest peak. This is a rocky area and the heavy rainfall had created multiple mini waterfalls across the trail. Creek crossings that can usually be rock-hopped had turned into knee-high rivers. I typically don’t mind a little water, but I have to admit that I was terrified crossing many of these areas, knowing that one false move could send me slipping off into the dark abyss. I am not by nature a religious person, but I did resort to prayer, and after an hour-long conversation with God, I did manage to feel a little more confident and less alone. After going off trail once for about thirty minutes, I finally managed to make it to Sassafras, where I met Mark for some much-needed aid and encouragement, although I think he was just as freaked out by the weather as I was.
At that point in the run, I seriously considered dropping. The weather was miserable and scary, and it hadn’t taken me long to realize that I’m really not a solo adventure-type runner. As much as I’d love to be one of those hard cores who disappear for days or weeks into the woods, maybe that’s just not me. But the other part of me remembered that I had put this goal out there and it would be just plain embarrassing to go home after only ten miles. I decided to continue on to the entrance of Laurel Valley and take stock there.
Reaching Laurel Valley an hour or so later, I had a decision to make. The next portion of the run was a wild and remote 34-mile stretch through the Jocassee Gorges area, accessible only by boat. Once I entered, I was committed to a minimum of eight hours alone and without aid. By then, the rain was tapering off and my spirits were rising. I had done that section of the trail before and felt confident that I could complete it during daylight. If I decided to call it a day at Whitewater Falls, the end of this section, at least I would have completed 47 miles, a respectable distance.
An hour or two into Laurel Valley, the sun began to peak through the clouds. Soon, the clouds had vanished completely, leaving a perfect blue sky and gorgeous spring day. The trail was covered with mayapples, wild iris, and trillium. Birds began to sing and life was good. I maintained a pretty steady pace over the multiple bridges and 1,500 wooden steps, managing to avoid getting off trail except on two brief occasions. Since the trail followed the river for extended periods, there were plenty of opportunities to fill my bottles. Mark ran in to meet and accompany me for the final ten miles, which provided a moral boost.
Finishing up the Laurel Valley section, my confidence level was high. It had turned into a lovely day and my energy level was good. My legs were beginning to ache but the pain was nothing a couple of ibuprofen couldn’t mask for the time being. I finished the section in 8:30, about thirty minutes faster than I had when I ran a 47-mile training run back in February. I cruised through the next three sections, which were 4.7, 3.3, and 3.9 miles respectively.
The next portion of the trail, 10.4 miles from Burrell’s Ford to Cheohee Road, was the only part that I hadn’t had the opportunity to recon beforehand. I had been warned that this section was tricky, as there are a number of spur trails, tricky turns, and an intersection with the Bartram Trail. I had daylight for the first hour, which was great. When darkness set in, however, it was a different story. Although the night was clear and silent, a peaceful reprieve from the conditions I had endured earlier in the run, the blazes seemed faded and farther apart. There were a couple of spots where the trail ran through campsites, which provided a good opportunity for me to ask for directions, but afterwards, seemed a little sketchy. Should I have told those three guys with a pile of empty Bud Lite cans that I was alone and over ten miles away from my destination?
The overflowing Chattooga River presented challenges of its own. The trail parallels the river for some distance and at one point it was completely underwater. I had missed the high water detour, which was marked from the other direction, but not in the way I was traveling. In the darkness, I couldn’t see much except that it appeared that the trail had ended, so I took a deep breath and plunged in, expecting water to be up to my ankles, not my butt. The river was cold and moving quickly. I tried to move quickly as well in order to get back on solid ground.
Back on the trail, I glanced at my watch, noting that my pace had fallen off substantially as a result of the darkness, the river, and several meanderings off trail. I figured I still had about four miles to go in this section when I saw a tiny light ahead and heard a desperate voice calling, “Is that you, Anne?” Apparently Mark had noticed my slowing pace as well, and having expected me at the next crew access point much earlier, had started down the trail, convinced I was lost or injured. It was a pleasant surprise to have some company for the remainder of this section and before I knew it, I was at Cheohee Road, only six miles from the finish. I had run this section previously and knew it to be better marked, less technical, and without any major climbs. A quick check of the watch revealed that a 4 mph pace would result in a sub-21 hour finish, so I swallowed a few gulps of Coke and took off. The final miles were bliss, illuminated by moonlight and stars. The fatigue and lack of confidence that had plagued me earlier in the day melted away and running felt effortless. I arrived at the car and a relieved Mark around 1:30am, 20 hours and 47 minutes after I set out, tired, hungry, sweaty, stinky, and happy.
Post script: Although I swore many times during and immediately following this adventure that I was “done” with this sort of thing, I have already begun my search for the next challenge.