The orange in Matty Fierce’s shorts popped like the autumn leaves as he moved with ease along the single track pushing towards the top. I stopped to remove my long sleeves. I paused momentarily to feel the contrast of the warm sun and cool breeze on my skin.
This was my first trip back to the Smokies since December and movement (especially uphill) did not come easy. Camus’ words flooded the space in my head…
“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”
I tucked my shirt away, lowered my head and continued the march towards the heights…
I had missed this feeling… feeling small… feeling ancient… feeling connected to something much, much bigger than myself.
No matter how long I stay away from the mountains, they are always waiting with arms wide open.
But what drives us to push towards the heights? What pushes us to race the setting sun…
In hopes of watching the sun drop below the horizon?
At what point does the night no longer feel threatening and we become comfortable in the darkness?
When do we become content with discomfort because we know the beauty it may yield?
I believe a few of us have come to truly understand these things are momentary. These moments… this life… it’s all fleeting… but the beautiful part is the fact the we have the opportunity to choose how we spend these precious moments.
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.”
We have the power of choice and we actively make choices each day. Bad things happen. Good things happen. That’s the ebb and flow of life. We can choose to embrace the feeling… the discomfort… the happiness… the sadness… or… we can let those circumstances define us and choose to take no action. Inaction is a choice.
The truth is… we’re all going to die. Momento Mori. I can honestly say a day doesn’t pass where I don’t think about death and the essence of existence. The point of this daily reminder isn’t to be morbid… the point is to inspire, motivate and clarify life and it’s purpose.
But for me… I’m reminded of the haunting words from Maynard Keenan that are etched in sun-faded ink under my skin…
“I am surrendering to the gravity and the unknown. Catch me, heal me, lift me back up to the sun I choose to live.”
A $20 a night campground brings a certain level of charm… like people loudly coming and going at all hours of the night… a random 5am guitar serenade in 29° weather and conversations with a Harley driving New Yorker in the community showers… (for the record… Ed from NY is a good dude).
Per usual, Matty Fierce and I made the long 5.5hrs drive up from Birmingham to what has grown to be one of our favorite campgrounds in the Smokies. We arrived right before midnight. MF popped the rooftop tent while I sat in the backseat packing my bag.
We were only gonna have 2-3hrs of sleep and I sure as hell didn’t wanna be groggy tryna pack my bag in the morning. It was a good call. We were woke by a car pulling into their camp site at 2:55am. I guess they decided to kick it in their warm car instead of crawling into their iced over tent. Can’t blame them but it was weird enough that they pulled in at 3am… even weirder they just kept the lights on as we crawled down from our tent.
It was bitter outside. I slept cozily. MF stayed cold the first night but after a fuzzy pants purchase at the Dollar General… he also reached a level of hibernation coziness the 2nd night.
MF had sent a last minute SOS on one of the Smoky hikers pages as a last ditch effort for a shuttle. By the Grace of God, a guy named Chris responded and agreed to meet us at 4am. This dude drove 2hrs from West Knox and was waiting at the trailhead when we arrived at 330am. I know what you’re thinking… but percentages man, percentages. The percentages of some random guy publicly answering on the internets then driving 2hrs to an obscure location in the middle of the woods with no cell service at an ungodly hour of the morning to pick up 2 guys just to kill them… well… the chances are low… never zero… but very low.
Thankfully me and MF didn’t have to whip out our cool ninja skills. As you can see from his halo in the picture below, Chris turned out to be a very sweet trail angel.
We all chatted until we reached Rainbow Falls trailhead. Since Chris didn’t accept any $ for the shuttle, MF was thoughtful enough to bring him a new Alabama Outdoors hat.
The start was brisk, but we stayed warm moving under the full moon. Though my legs felt fresh, I was moving ssssslllllooooooowwwwww. Relatively, I’m out of shape. Im still in “let’s go to the mountains and run all day” shape but I’m definitely out of “let’s throw down some hard, fast, racey type miles” shape. When we topped out on Trillium… I had already climbed more than I have in the past 6 weeks combined.
I’ve not had much motivation since the Arkansas Traveller 100 . At first the lack of motivation bummed me out, but I quickly accepted it and let it run its course… which it’s still running. My buddy Ryne Anderson made a post the other day about lacking in motivation in his own running as well as seeing it in some of the athletes he coaches. It’s always good to have some reassurance that other athletes you highly respect go through the same type of issues. In one of our chats he said, “It’s tough. But both of us have been pretty consistent for several years. So probably healthy to hit a lull in motivation for some balance.” That statement really resonated with me. Sometimes I feel like I always have to be “on” my game… but as we know… there are exceptions to those always and never statements and it truly is ok to simply exist in certain areas and pursue other avenues for a while.
The tiredness in my legs disappeared once we hit the glow on Myrtle.
What a majestic time of day to be on my favorite mountain with one of my favorite humans.
To beat the chill, we didn’t stay long and continued down the Boulevard…
MF quickly dropped me after the scar and waited at the top of one of the climbs.
I think he thought I must have been injured or hurting since I was moving so slowly. Unfortunately, I had no good excuse. Nothing was wrong… I was just moving slow.
I ate a Snickers at Newfound Gap (mile 20ish) and felt better for a few minutes.
Since we only had one car, we had to be creative in how we got to the next trailhead… so we ran like idiots for +4 miles down the busy, winding, horn blowing, tunnel filled roads of 441. The only win about this section was that I FINALLY got to meet one of my favorite Smokies IG accounts, Kristi Parsons! Per usual, she was out making the Smokies a better place picking up trash with Save Our Smokies!
We arrived at the Alum trailhead after 25 or so miles. Since the weather was chilly, we’d each only packed 2 flasks with intentions of filtering water from Alum Cave Creek. Of course our filters were frozen. I was getting water regardless…
“F*ck it. I’m drinking from the source and taking my chances with Giardia.”
*** Spoiler: I didn’t get Beaver Fever ***
By this point, MF was feeling the mountain miles as well.
The trip up Alum was our slowest to date, but there’s something to be said about moving slow up Alum. That trail is still one of the best bang for your buck trails in the entire park. It’s beautiful from start to finish and it was nice taking in some of the smaller details you tend to miss when scampering upwards quickly.
Ahhhh…. the magical turn to the top…
We stopped by the lodge for some small talk and to get purified water. This was the last weekend of the season for the Lodge and store to be open so the grounds were bustling. Of course… I needed to swing by and take a #6593 pic.
We kicked it up on Cliff Tops for a bit before leaving the top.
We decided a warm shower, a cold beer and a hot meal were reasons enough to bail on Rainbow~Bullhead loop. The fact of the matter was that we were moving slow and it was getting to that “this isn’t fun anymore” stage so we slowly made our way down Brushy Mtn to our car at Porters Creek.
We didn’t finish the Tour we set out to do but still ended our day with 38 miles / 8,000ft of climbing and some much needed time on my mountain.
Now that I’ve let my body fully recover and have had ample relaxation time since Arkansas Traveller 100… I suppose it’s time to get back to the grindstone. I was giving myself till after Thanksgiving… so I suppose I’ll cozy up for one more day before settling into a Winter training routine and setting my eye on a Spring goal.
I haven’t been running much in the past few weeks. If I’m being honest, I haven’t had much motivation in the running department and it’s felt more like a chore than something of enjoyment. Often when I start focusing more on numbers, time or a long race… I experience a little burn out and that initial inspiration starts to dwindle. Truthfully, not running as much really hasn’t bothered me. The good thing about not solely basing your identity in one area is that you don’t create unnecessary, unhealthy pressure on yourself to have to live up to a certain expectation. I’ve found it better in some ways to be a chameleon.
Dedication is strange because dedication is where you get good at shit and get to experience things the undedicated don’t get to experience, but dedication can also lead to emptiness in other avenues of one’s life. Take running a 100 miles for example…. despite what Weed Goat has to say, a 100 miles is a long freakin’ way. Whether you run, walk, crawl or even DNF… the simple act of training for such a distance requires persistence and sacrifice in other areas of your life. Maybe you’re sacrificing time away from your family and friends, maybe you’re sacrificing other entertainment avenues such as drinking, partying or hitting the bar… maybe it’s sleep. Whatever it may be… dedication leads to sacrifice in some way to pursue a specific goal. I highly respect anyone that committed to pursuing a specific goal.
I’ve really enjoyed training for the “shorter” ultras (specifically 50 milers) in the past year or so. It’s a great distance that allows harder efforts and doesn’t take up an entire 24hrs. Plus, the training doesn’t have to be as intensive. I’ve found a lot of balance in that type of training and it’s been mostly lighthearted and fun. Ive gotten the opportunity to focus on multiple areas of life without having the main focus be running.
I think part of the lack of inspiration, dedication and motivation I’ve felt lately stems from signing up for another 100 miler. It’s been 2 years since I’ve covered the distance and just haven’t been able find that deep rooted desire to put forth the training to perform the way I would like to perform in that specific distance. Training has kinda been redundant and boring. Perhaps it’s running the same repetitive run around my neighborhood or the same ole drony long run at Red Mtn, but whatever the core of it’s cause… it doesn’t really matter.
Part of covering different distances in this sport is figuring out what you enjoy the most. Ive been dabbling in this sport for 10 years now and still learning what I enjoy the most. I think at the top of it all… I like the simple art of moving your body through a beautiful environment and the connection it brings with nature.
In the past few months, my focus, time and energy has shifted more towards music and crafting my therapeutic practice in the work setting rather than running. Those 2 areas are where I’m feeling most inspired and motivated so naturally, they’ve been receiving the bulk of my thoughts and time.
I’ve been writing a ton songs and it’s been hella fun and a great outlet for me. On the work front, I’ve been exploring other avenues of the mental health world such as after hours crisis, probate/court psych evals. It’s been a fun process discovering what area of therapy speaks to me most.
The older I get, the more I’m starting to recognize my own cycles/patterns of behaviors. More importantly, I’ve started to honor those aspects of my intuition. I’ve found that I don’t always have to be inspired or be on fire to run… and when these cycles happen… it’s important to recognize that it’s natural and I shouldn’t throw too much emphasis on trying to figure out the “why” behind it. That fire is always there… it just sometimes presents as a slow burning simmer instead of a raging flame.
The cool crisp of the approaching Fall in the air and being back on some good ole fashion single track produced a sense of excitement for Fall/Winter trail running. I’m looking forward to getting back to some fun and relaxed running without being so goal focused here in the next month or so.
Does anyone else have patterns in their own lives they’ve recognized?
“We all just live in cycles. We all belong to the stars. Our souls long for revival. Be true to who you are.”
It’s been a minute since I’ve been up to the Smokies… and by minute… I mean it’s just been since May. Typically I try and get up there once a month, but I’ve found myself dialing back my visits lately. Perhaps it’s settling into a new job… or maybe it’s that I’ve been shittily training for a race that’s not so mountainous… or maybe it’s just that life is better than it’s ever been and I’m not needing that escape. Who knows really, but at the moment, I’m content with my visits to my favorite place.
Life is a little more demanding lately so it’s harder to jet out early on a Friday and sneak up to the Smokies for a Friday evening/night, but I almost feel as though it’s less stressful not rushing to get up to the mountains. Lately, most of my trips up have seemed less stressed and less forced.
We woke up as the sun came up (no alarms or early sunrise departure), grabbed some coffee and breakfast in Bryson City, and made our way over to Deep Creek where were going to camp for the night. Luckily, we were able to switch camping tags so that we could go ahead and set up camp before our run.
Smoky Mtn running is a ton of fun with Matty Fierce. He’s not so locked into the highlight trails and h honestly helps get me out to see different areas of the park. We set out of the campsite and made our way to the beginning of Deep Creek Trail.
It was easy crushed gravel running parallel to the creek for the first little bit, passing a few waterfalls and some early morning hikers. Eventually the trail would narrow and we found ourselves in that good ole deep green and log bridges of the Appalachia.
Deep Creek had some evidence of some flash flooding and wash out and required us to use some of our trail ninja skills to navigate a few areas.
About 8 miles in, we were moving along a thick, grassy, exposed area when Matty Fierce yelled and quickly and backtracked down the trail. My initial instinct was “bear.” Instead… it was a beautiful rattler curled up right beside the trail. Man… the camouflage was gorgeous. Not that ya ever wanna get tagged by a rattler… but ya definitely don’t wanna get tagged by a rattler 8 miles into the backcountry with no service… that could quickly turn into a life and death situation.
We took our time, found some longer sticks and gently persuaded the snaky snake to slither on its merry way into the thicket.
After the snake, I took the lead for a bit while we continued along Deep Creek. This section of the trail and park was insanely beautiful.
We eventually got out of the low lands and started climbing upwards. At about the 14-15 mile mark, we popped out on 441.
We had a little over a mile of road running to connect to the next trail. I’ve grown fond of connecting long efforts via roadways and keeping things pure in the Smokies. 441 provided the only views we got all day along the trail. The views you get on these types of routes are less focused on the horizons and more focused on the deep beauty of the forest.
We took a lil snack break at the Thomas Divide TH.
About 2 miles into Thomas Divide, MF wasn’t feeling the heat and humidity, so he decided to drop the 3 miles down Kanati Trail and thumb a ride down into Cherokee. For a second I thought about joining, but truly needed some longer miles on my legs. From MF’s report… Im kinda glad I didn’t take Kanati and not sure I’m looking forward to having to cover it at some point for the map’s sake.
Thomas Divide was a bit overgrown on the ridge.. see the trail? Yea… same.
The trail dialed back the growth a bit once I started descending and turned into some good old fashioned single track. The last few miles of the 30 mile effort was a double wide trail followed by a beautiful forest service road.
The park rangers were setting a big steel bear trap about 50 yards from our tent site. Apparently some kids left some food out the night before and a bear came through a ravaged some of the area. I took a quick dip in the river to wash off the mountain mucky muck, hung up my clothes and set off to rescue MF from the perils of being stranded at a brewery. MF got cleaned up in the back seat and we made our way back to Bryson City for some colbeer, pizza and live music.
The next morning we set out for a trailhead in the same general area. Typically day 2 of these adventures would bring a summit of 6593, but it was nice changing things up a bit. I’ll get back to my mountain this Fall.
We tried our best to get to this trailhead… but after a few wrong turns and pull ins to… how do I say this kindly… some sketch ass looking properties… we took our L (mainly for safety reasons) and headed to Wesser.
It was a bit rainy as we started up the AT for the familiar out and back… but the moody weather made for some beautiful scenery!
We were socked in at the Jump Ups…
But we were hoping the clouds would burn off by the time we reached the fire tower. Things were bleak up top for a few minutes…
But the clouds began to part and we had an absolutely beautiful trip down.
It was nice getting down to the bottom and not feeling rushed to leave immediately. We soaked in the icy cold Nantahala, basked in the gorge’s sunshine and sipped on a few local colbeers.
Life is good. I’m finding myself beyond blessed for the people in my life and the opportunity to cover ground on this incredible planet.
Time to focus in on some long, droned efforts for the next month and then hopefully can get back to planning something fabulously rugged and Appalactic for the Fall.
Distance doesn’t make the runner. We’ve all heard the “you’re a runner whether you run 1 mile or 100 miles” saying and I whole heartedly stand by that. You’re no less a runner if you’re doing 5ks and your friends are doing 50ks. It’s all about personally preference and insight.
I remember starting my own venture into the trail world. The forest adventure side of me began as a kid and stayed with me through college. Despite an unbeknownst passion for wanting to run wildly through the woods for no good reason, I never got to pursue trail running in college.
“I’m paying you to throw a baseball… not to run.”
For NCAA and clarification reasons… this “payment” was in reference to scholarships, not actually money…. so don’t get yourself into a legal tizzy.
After I got married in June 2010, I signed up for my first 50k in February. Over the course of the 6 months, I fell in love with the extended time I was spending in the woods. My first race at Black Warrior 50k destroyed me. It hurt so bad. Cramps, blisters… all the good stuff associated with ultras happened to me along that muddy ass course… but I finished.
I’ve seen a lot of folks go straight for 100 milers. They’ll complete a 50k and just go big. More power to those people, but that just wasn’t me. Maybe I’m old school and don’t need that instant gratification. I’ve always enjoyed the process and the build up.
It took yeeeeeeaaaaaarrrrssss and countless shorter races before I attempted my first 100 miler. Along the way I knew I had the ability to go out and finish the distance, but I wanted to be able to enjoy the process and the experience on race day.
The trail / ultra world especially, falls prey to the “you’re not a real ultra runner unless you’ve done a 100 miler.”
Blah blah blah. I mean if we’re technically speaking… anything over 26.2 miles is considered an ultra. Personally, I love the 50 mile distance. I feel it gives ya errrrythang that’s great about ultra running. It’s a distance where you can push fairly hard, spend the majority of the day in the woods/mountains and still experience those lovely highs and lows without being completely wrecked for days/weeks post race.
But there’s a few things that distance may not always give you… like overnight running.
Everyone has different feels about being in the woods at night. I freakin love it. I don’t know if there’s a more exciting feeling than watching the sun set over the mountains knowing you’re about to embark on an all night push. Something about being in the middle of nowhere at 3am doing an activity very few folks do, really puts me at peace and helps me feel connected to the universe. Maybe it’s because most people in the surrounding area are fast asleep and there’s a little less clustered thoughts in the world. Maybe the veil is thinner during those moments and it’s easier to access the heavens.
It’s been a long time since I’ve gone that long. The last time I covered the 100 mile distance was 2 years ago at the Hellbender 100.
I had just started grad school so I had yet to be demolished by the whole “you’ve sold your soul and time to this program and must give an absurd amount of your energy and life to accomplishing this goal” lifestyle.
I couldn’t fathom training for such distance while in grad school, so I stuck to shorter distances. I was able to sneak in a 78 miler, but that was more of a relaxed, fun, solo outing to reconnect with my mountain and to feel alive again.
Now that I’m done with school and starting to settle into only working life, I can start back into a running routine again. Honestly, I’ve felt like a nomad for the last couple of weeks trying to figure out what and where exactly I’ll be working, but I’ve finally settled into an outpatient mental illness therapist position working with both adults and adolescents. Hell, I’ll even have an actual office come Monday 🤘🏼. I’m stoked to have this routine structure back in my life… so stoked that I’ve already started scheduling long runs and hopped into a new training plan for a 100 in the Fall. I’m excited about getting back on that grind and looking forward to an adventurous, hot ass summer in the woods!
“What’s the numbers on your chest represent? A phone number? Social security number?A specific date?”
“Actually, it’s the elevation of my favorite mountain.”
I never expect anyone to understand. Sure, there’s a few that truly understand the feeling of having your soul and heart attached to a certain place, but for the most part, people just shrug and move on as they do with most tattoo questions.
Mount LeConte has held a special place in my heart since the moment I turned the corner at Inspiration Point and my heart fluttered with excitement at the site of the distant Anakeesta ridge.
LeConte has been a critical part of cultivating so many amazing friendships…
It’s been the home of some wild and crazy solo adventures like The Great Ascension (a 78 mile link up of an out and back of every trail connected to LeConte)
GatlinDome… a +40 mile loop from my hotel in downtown Gatlinburg up and over Clingmans and back…
And some non solo adventures like… Fav 2 Fav… a +40 mile point to point that linked LeConte and Rocky Top…
A few weeks ago, Matty Fierce and I went up to celebrate my graduation. When I received my undergrad degree in kinesiology, I went through the entire process of walking across stage and taking ALL the pictures, but wanted something a lil more intimate and special for my graduate degree.
When me and MF head to the Smokies, we typically try and slide in some newer trails as to slowly check em off the map. We spent the previous day running a 25 mile route on a few trails we’d never been on that lead us to familiar spots.
But I really really wanted to be on my mountain for graduation. So we bounced up Alum and hit the usual spots like the Lodge and the summit…
And Myrtle Point…
As we started making our way over to Cliff Top, I came across a stick that resembled the shape of a diploma.
“I’ve got an idea for a graduation picture…”
The rocks were empty when we arrived…
But soon enough, a hiker came up and offered to take a picture.
It was perfect. I’ve had a lot of cool photos with a lot of amazing people on LeConte, but this photo will always hold a significant spot in my heart. It means so much more than I’m willing and able to express through text.
After the trip, I posted the pic on one of the Smokies Facebook pages. I had always enjoyed seeing others’ pictures and experiences that get posted there and just thought maybe others would like to share in this one. It was well received.
At this point in my life, I’m feeling extremely grateful. Grateful for a body that allows me to move across mountainous terrain to see the wonders of the world… grateful for the love and support I’ve received and have in my life… grateful for all the people and experiences… simply put… I just feel grateful. I’d even go as far as saying #grateful.
If you know me at all… you probably know that I’ve painted my body with the places, experiences and people that I love the most. I don’t ragret any marking I’ve ever made… (not even one single letter) and I’m sure I’ll continue to do so until I make the passage to the next life…
Why are we so afraid of silence? Is it because we’ve clouded our world with perpetual noise and the moment we catch a break in the clatter, we slip into an uncomfortable silence and are forced to confront the thoughts rattling around inside our heads? I think yes.
We’ve created such a world that silence is the enemy. It’s the terrifying demon that lives under the bed that we’re too afraid to confront. We’ve been conditioned in such a way where we have to be consistently stimulated and in depth conversation or something is “wrong.”
Over the years I’ve grown fond of silence. I’ll intentionally set out on a +8hr adventure or take a weekend trip alone to the mountains so that I can spend some time with me. I’ve found it to be very therapeutic to get that alone time and for me personally, physical pursuits in the mountains often resolve (or at least help) any internal struggles. The mountains bring a sense of simplicity and clarity. I believe in the same way psychological issues can directly turn into and/or effect physiological issues, the roles can be reversed.
Typically solo mountain weekends are planned and I prepare myself mentally for the silence. Sometimes they’re not. This past weekend was supposed to be our annual winter edition of Mountains Girls Weekend that we’ve all grown to love, however, a few things popped up and it got canceled last minute. C’est la vie.
This weekend was the last time I’d get an opportunity to get up to the Smokies until March/April, so I needed to make the most of it.
I slowly allowed my body to warm during the half mile gravel jaunt to the Bullhead trailhead before pushing up the mountain. Each time I take Bullhead, it always seems to have a different feel and has turned into one of the prettiest routes up/down LeConte.
The mountain offered no views, so there was no escape from my thoughts. No matter how hard I tried to shake some annoying internal dialogue, I couldn’t seem to suppress it enough to enjoy the joys of the mountain. I finally found some mental reprieve by the time I hit the ridge.
Matty Fierce and I had been up the month prior and encountered a good bit of snow on LeConte, but there was a good 2-4in more this trip! I’d never seen my mountain encased in such beautiful splendor!
Even though Cliff Tops would bring no view, I decided to climb it anyways to see if the heavens would allow for a partial view of the blanketed trees below.
I took a few deeps breaths of the fresh mountain air and stole a moment to stare into the grey abyss before 3 guys approached. I chatted with the 3 college guys for a few minutes before heading over to Myrtle.
Myrtle was even more peaceful than Cliff Tops. I deducted from the perfectly blanketed summit that I was the first person to set foot on its grounds for the day. My thoughts quickly shifted to 2 of my best friends. They just brought in 2 new lil baby boys to the world and I felt compelled to build a tiny lil snowman and say a prayer for each of them. I’m so excited to see their family grow and stoked to see what kind of ridiculousness those 2 future adventurers will pursue!
I was captivated by the haunting beauty of the Smoky Mountains as I made my way back towards the Lodge.
I popped by the lodge to see if the winter caretaker was home. I sent Pnut a quick message but he was off the mountain for the weekend. Still made him a lil snowman though.
Since I’ve never seen this much snow up on LeConte, I took some time and roamed the grounds around the lodge.
6593 for lyfe!!
By the time I left the Lodge I felt that serene, inner peace that the mountains often bring, but the further I descended down Rainbow, the more clouded my head became. I got to Rainbow Falls and had all but decided to just get in my car and go home. I drove out to Pigeon Forge and sat in my warm car wrestling with my next move. Since Mtn Girls Weekend got canceled, I didn’t have a place to stay. I could’ve slept in the back of my car for another night, but was prepared for a warm shower and bed… and a cold sub freezing night in the back of the Element sounded… unpleasant.
I like counseling for a lot of reasons and think it is and could be beneficial for every one. One of the main functions of counseling is to have another person take the clouded or scattered thoughts in your head and reconfigure and present them in a simple way so that you can come to your own conclusion. Counseling aside, it’s important to have those types of people in your life. I’m extremely thankful for the open and honest communication I have with my wife Kati. She helps me sort the cloudiness in my dome piece and simplifies my thoughts more than I can explain.
“Enjoy yourself! Go get a yummy meal and a beer! Watch tv and take a hot shower! Enjoy your life!” ~ Kati
“Are you gonna feel better in the mountains or suck ass Alabama?” ~ Matty Fierce
Between the Dark Princess and MF’s words of encouragement, I decided to go grab a shit ton of chicken nuggies, a few burgers, some beer and booked a cheap hotel next to the river.
Since all the forecasts suggested drizzly, cold rain in the valley and snow flurries and cloud coverage in the higher elevations, I decided to sleep in and enjoy a lazy morning in a warm hotel bed. Of course… the one day I decided to NOT strap on a headlamp and push up a mountain is the one day there’s an epic snowy sunrise on Leconte! My friend Adam Williamson (a local photographer me and MF met over the summer on Cammerer) posted this unreal shot from LeConte!
The good thing about social media is that it allows us to share some of our most beautiful moments with each other. If social media didn’t exist, I would never have gotten to see this gorgeous sunrise!
I checked the local road situation before packing my bags and heading out the door. I had planned to do some recon work early the day before for some Spring off trail adventures, but access to the area was closed off. Since 441 was still shut down, I decided to head up Sugarland Mtn to see if I could recon from a different angle, plus, I needed to finish the bottom half of the trail anyways.
The climb up was peaceful. I passed 2 hikers a mile or so in, but after that, I had the mountain to myself. Sugarland had a bunch of under brush and low hanging branches along the trail which had me annoyingly brushing off snow from my clothes. It was apparent by the time I got to the Rough Creek turn, that I would get no chance at any sort of visual reconnaissance so I made the decision to go ahead and descend back down the mountain.
The first mile or so along Rough Creek was much like Sugarland, but quickly settled into a fun and runnable trail. The fog paired with the snowy environment was breathtaking.
I carefully rock hopped a few creeks and playfully followed animal tracks along the trail.
I transitioned into a steady tempo run when I hit Little River Trail. Even though this trail was more like a jeep road, I thoroughly enjoyed the peaceful movement next to the rushing water.
To keep the purity of the route, I decided not to take Husky back over to reconnect with Sugarland. Instead, I made my way to Elkmont campground. I made a quick stop to see some of the sites, like the old staircase to the Wonderland Hotel:
The snow was so beautiful that I didn’t even mind the few miles along the road back to the trailhead.
I quickly stripped down, changed into warm, dry clothes and cracked open a colbeer when I got back to my car.
I enjoyed the silence the mountain brought that day. My voice stayed quiet, my mind wasn’t cluttered, and my heart didn’t feel heavy. Sometimes it’s best to stay silent and let the world unfold around you.
I’m thankful to have gotten the chance to get up to the Smokys one more time to play in the snow. Team Andrews has got some big goals this year. Between wrapping up my final semester and internship of grad school, Make-A-Wish Trailblaze Challenge, and my regular job at the thrift store, these types of mountain adventures will be few and far between. The next 5 months will be mental chaos but I’m excited to see what 2021 has in store. If it’s anything like last year, it’ll be another year of hard, hard growth.
When you’re sleeping in the back of a car, a vehicle pulling into a gravel parking lot is one of the most unmistakable sounds you’ll ever know. Your brain immediately launches into over analyzing everything.
Is this where they tap on the window? What do I tell them? Maybe this is NOT a ranger but a criminal! Are they gonna try and break into my car?
We popped our heads out of our warm sleeping bags and watched as they unlocked the gate to the stables. The sky was barely lit, but we decided to go ahead a pull into the picnic parking area and start getting ready for the day.
For breakfast, we monched on the Chick Fil A sandwiches we bought the night before. We did a quick gear check and started out onto the cold, bone dry trail for a long day in the snowy mountains.
Once we got onto Russell Field Trail, our world quickly became shrouded in a white substance that is Alabamians hardly ever get a chance to see. The little snow we get in Bama is hardly ever enjoyable. Perhaps it’s the < 1 inch dusting or maybe it’s the holy hell there could be snow so let’s go out and buy up all the bread and milk panic. Either way… snow is rarely enjoyed in my state.
The week before, I made my way over to the Walsh’s household where me and Ash did our annual No Views Christmas Run… and like previous years… the tradition held true. We linked 27 miles in the Standing Indian area with approximately ZERO views…
Luckily, my favorite days in the mountains are the foggy, gloomy days. Don’t get me wrong, the views are a spectacular benefit from running beautiful mountain terrain, but there’s something hauntingly mesmerizing about moving through foggy woods.
We eventually made our way up to the Appalachian Trail and chatted with a few overnight hikers from Texas at the shelter before leaving out NOBO.
The AT in white is a site to behold!
We made our way across Spence Field and dipped down in between Spence and Rocky Top. Our intentions were to do the long out and back on the remote Jenkins Ridge Trail.
Jenkins Ridge is just one of those trails that’s hard to access. There’s no easy buy-in and it’s just a long one way trail. It took us approximately 8 miles to actually get started on the 18 mile out and back.
The trail itself doesn’t offer any spectacular views but does have some steep descents (ascents depending on the direction), a few little creek crossings and a few good sections of fun single track. The biggest draw to this trail is its remoteness.
After 6 or so miles of snowy trail, we popped down onto wider double track and made our way to the trailhead near Hazel Creek (mile 17). MF did a quick flask fill and we started back up the trail monchin four Chick Fil A sandwiches.
The climb back up proved to be just as uneventful as the trip down (which is a good thing). A few of the climbs rivaled the steepness of DRT and the slick snow covered leaves added extra challenge to the effort.
The AT welcomed us back with socked in views and silence. Thankfully the last 5 miles were all downhill and we could just slide into a mindless rhythm. We took Bote down to Anthony and was met by a stubborn ass deer about a mile from the trailhead. Homeboy just refused to move so we had march off trail around it. As soon as we started back running a small black bear bolted from the trail and disappeared up the ridge.
The temps stayed in the lower > mid 20s all day, so after 31 miles of coldness, we were looking forward to a hot shower and a warm place to lay our heads. Don’t get me wrong… the back of the car sleeping bag was cozy… but the cheap hotel room and a heater was priceless (well kinda… priceless as in $41). After a huge beer and a huge bacon burger from the brewery, we dozed off into slumber.
We woke up the next morning and grabbed breakfast at the hotel. Originally, we had planned on just taking Alum Cave up to the top and back. We figured a light out and back would be a good way to wrap up the trip and wouldn’t put us home too late. 441 was still closed by the time we finished breakfast so we decided in the classic Rainbow > Bullhead loop.
It was a solid choice because Matt got to visit his tree.
There were a few hikers in between the trailhead sand Rainbow Falls, but after that, the trail became vacant. The mountains were a literal winter wonderland!!
The trail was an icy/snowy mix all the way up, but had some nice, soft powder sections as well. We didn’t have to throw on the spikes until the approach up to the lodge.
We popped down to the lodge to see if Pnut was home (he was out running Alum) before heading up to Cliff Top.
The air is so fresh and so clean clean at 6593ft
After soaking in the warmth of the sun for a few minutes, we made our way over to Myrtle to scope out another view.
We chatted with Hunter from Maryville over Cliff Bars before we started the trip down Bullhead. Upper Bullhead was snow packed which made for some soft running!
Once we dropped down a few miles, we removed the gloves, spokes and beanies. The sun had melted a good bit of the snow and we trudged through a sloppy, muddy mix.
I absolutely loooooove this section of Bullhead. There’s no better feeling than running along a wrapping trail with expansive views!
It was nice to finally run and loosen up the legs some after a long day of hike-crunching through the snow.
Trips like these are pleasant reminders of how lucky I am to have the type of people in my lyfe that are willingly to tackle uncomfortableness for the sake of adventure, fun and beauty.
I didn’t really plan on running 3 ultra distances 3 weeks in a row (50 miles > 27 miles > 31 miles) but I do PLAN on having a few light recovery weeks before hopping back into training. Though 2020 was a shitshow of a year… it was one of the best shitshows of my lyfe. Cheers to big things in 2021. Stay wild!
I look down at my watch as I take another sip of coffee. 1:30am.
Covered in mountain grime and muck, I sit silently on the Pilot sidewalk watching 2 stray cats nibble from a tin can as the rain pitter patters just a few feet away. After driving 3.5hrs, I just needed a break to stretch my legs before driving the final 2hrs home.
To most, exhausted, bloodshot eyes may not seem like a sign of purification but there’s breeds out there that live differently. Maybe it’s obsession? Maybe it’s a primal connection? Maybe it’s something flowing through my blood? Not that I’m even remotely looking for the core reasons anymore why I pursue an endurance focused lifestyle… but the lack of sleep and body abuse for these all out Smoky Mountains binges feels right and almost always cleanse my soul.
I pull into our driveway shortly after 3am. The only movement in our little neighborhood at this hour is the hungry stray cat sitting on our front porch waiting to be fed. I sneak into the house, take a quick shower and slide into bed.
The past 60hrs have been a blur. I punched out of work at 4pm on Tuesday afternoon and drove straight to the Smokies. In order to work 40hrs a week, take my last few remaining graduate classes and start to chip away at the 600hr internship the counseling program requires, I had to hop back into the retail world so now my “weekends” sometimes fall on Wednesday/Thursday instead of Saturday/Sunday.
I stopped right outside of the park and got changed in an empty, well lit parking lot to avoid fumbling through my gear bag at a blacked out trailhead. A cop pulled up and slowly circled the parking lot as I was pulling off my shirt. I waved. He glared. He just wanted to make his presence known before leaving the area. Sleeping in empty parking lots is sort of frowned upon in the area.
Since I was about to lose service, I sent a goodnight text to the wifey before heading to the trailhead.
Alum Cave is one of the most scenic trails in the Smokies. It’s absolutely gorgeous from start to finish. Since you’re getting beautiful views as early as mile 2, it’s also one of the BUSIEST trails in the park. When is it not busy? Midnight.
I loooooove this trail. LeConte was the first real mountain I ever ran. Some of my best life memories are held captive in LeConte’s ancient topography so this mountain holds a special place in my heart… and now on my chest.
I had no time goals heading up the mountain but wanted to push up the mountain quickly. The fresh air was intoxicating. A storm had just rolled through the area so sporadic lightning was flashing illuminating the distant ridges. My mountain was still and peaceful.
The whole trip up the mountain was surreal and honestly, if it weren’t for the Strava data… I wouldn’t be entirely certain that run actually happened. It’s hard to explain, but it just felt like someone was there with me… to the point I kept having to look around to actually make sure I was alone! Not in a scary way… or even a nervous way… but just a calm, warm presence.
I somehow managed to make it up to the summit in under an hour, quickly tossed a rock on the pile and started the trip back to the trailhead. By the time I passed the lodge again, I had given into the comforting feeling and just went with it. I entered into a flow state with whoever or whatever was with me and before I even realized… I was back at my car. I can’t remember any details of the conversation I had with my flow partner, but whatever we telepathically discussed/conversed about felt intimate and genuine. So many weird things like this have happened to me that I’ve stopped trying to seek answers. Now I just let these things occur and approach them with an open heart and mind. The Smokies are so incredibly transcendental and magical that nothing surprises me within its boundaries.
After cooling off in the parking lot and changing into some dry clothes, I drove out of the park and found an empty parking lot. I sent the “I’m safe!” text to Kati around 1am, crawled into the back seat and tried to catch a few hours of sleep. Sleep didn’t come. I would drift off for about 15-30 minutes before waking up hot and sweaty. Around 4am I decided to drive back up the mountain to a higher, cooler elevation. I slept for a solid hour before popping the hatch and getting ready for the morning’s adventure.
It was actually a surprisingly cool Wednesday morning as I connected to the Sugarland Mountain Trail. Maybe it felt “cool” because Alabama’s already 90° by 10am. Ugh.
My original plan had me going up Sugarland, but after reworking the route in my head, it would’ve been a long 26 mile day. 4 days prior to my trip up to the Smokies, Ash had presented a last minute idea which consisted of a +40 mile route that connected two of our favorite mountains for Thursday. Since I didn’t get much sleep the night before, and I knew I would have to drive home after said +40 miles… I opted for a shorter 11 mile version of my intended Wednesday route. The main focus was to connect Sugarland to Chimney Tops via the off trail manway, so I didn’t really care how I got to the manway… as long as I just got there.
I located the manway turnoff pretty easily but since I had only covered 3 or so miles, I decided to pop down just to explore the Sugarland Trail a bit. I’m so so glad I took Matty Fierce’s feedback about the trail being overgrown…. it was disgustingly high/overgrown so I didn’t venture too much further before turning around to head back to the manway.
On the way back, I caught a stunning view of Chimney Tops basking in the morning light…
By no means was the 1/2 mile manway hard to traverse… it was just… slow… due to the overgrowth…
The manway offered one small vantage point of Chimney Tops…
I eventually popped out onto Chimney Tops Trail to a family of (4) all holding cameras.
“Ah man! We thought you were gonna be a bear!”
I apologized for not being a bear before making my way over to scramble to the summit.
Technically…. there are sections of Chimney Tops that are still closed… but… the summit was just how I remembered it pre-fire. Each hand/foot hold was secure and stable which made for easy upwards movement in the warm morning sun.
After a few minutes on the summit, I down climbed back to the trail and started my descent. The “disappointed I wasn’t a bear family” stopped me on the way down and said they snapped a few pics of me climbing and would like to send them my way! That was a cool and unexpected momento from the day!
I took the beautiful and always wet Road Prong Trail up to the AT…
The sleepiness set in when I got back to the car. I drove down to Newfound Gap to grab a signal and again texted the “I’m safe!” message to the wifey. I still had a few hours to kill before Ash would be in the area. Part of me wanted to tag on another trip up Alum Cave to see the views I missed the previous night, but after the overcrowded display of tourists packed at the trail head, I decided to just head on over to Townsend to snack and relax a bit.
When Ash finally arrived, we hopped in the back of the familiar white Cowboy Tubing van and got shuttled upriver for a relaxing float back to our cars. We spent the rest of the afternoon/evening driving across the park stashing aid, almost “accomplishing” the great feat of hiking up the paved pathway to Clingmans, and then rushing to grab some Five Guys before they closed at 10pm!
The next morning Ash texted from her room…
“Dy need to get in my car?”
“I don’t think so…”
“Okay I’m finishing up.”
Dammit. I missed my alarm. I scrambled to throw on my running clothes, haphazardly threw all my shit into my duffel bag and rushed downstairs to Ash waiting in the car.
“What took ya so long?”
Though we didn’t have a real start time, we still wanted to be moving on the trail before sunrise. We figured the route would take 12-15hrs depending on our movement. Typically our runs together… don’t go as smoothly as planned… so we didn’t set any sort of time goal. We just wanted an enjoyable and fun outing connecting two of our favorite mountains (LeConte and Thunderhead/Rocky Top).
After slamming some over-sugared cold brew, we set off with headlamps up Bullhead around 6:20am. As the sun started to light the sky we got some pretty spectacular sunrise views and saw a playful bear bounding up the trail ahead of us.
Ash had been telling me how gorgeous Bullhead was post-fire and honestly I was blown away by the new beauty this trail brought! I hadn’t been up Bullhead in probably 5 or so years!
The miles ticked away easily as moved smoothly and comfortably up Bullhead. We made a quick stop by the lodge to refill water. Since the humidity was high and the sun was sure to warm things up, we knew we needed to over hydrate and be mindful of our water intake on the longer route. After a quick fill, we made the side quest over to Cliff Tops and Myrtle Point.
Newfound (mile 16ish) was already swarming by the time we arrived at 11am. We dug the cooler out of the brush, sipped some Gatorade, refilled our waters, grabbed a handful of Airhead Xtremes and hit the AT.
The stretch from Newfound to Clingmans has never been my favorite. Maybe it’s just the slight incline and relentless, rugged terrain that just brings the mood down… but despite the deep thunder and consistent rain storm… we stayed moving and chipper most of the way up.
We were in the drizzly clouds by the time we reached Clingmans. We snuck off into the woods to grab our last aid stop of the day and got a few peculiar looks from the tourists. We tried to down our Cokes as quickly as possibly to shorten the amount of shiver time. Even in the heart of summer, when it’s raining and you’re at 6k feet… it can get cold!
It only took a few minutes of running to get warm. The rain let up and the humidity set back in quickly after leaving Clingmans. Weirdly enough, despite the rain, we got pretty good views in every single section of the park!
Once we got situated and in a groove along the AT, Ash threw on the music to help set the pace. We passed a few hikers while some old rap was playing…
“Please, ignore the Soulja Boy.”
The 2 hikers looked at me as if I was THE Soulja Boy that Ash was referring to… obviously they weren’t the type to have cranked that Soulja Boy and Superman’d dat hoe in the clurb… their loss.
The climb up to Thunderhead was relentless. By the time we reached the summit, we had covered 37 miles with 11,000ft of climbing!
It started drizzling again as we dropped down to Rocky Top, but the rocky outcropping was the last significant piece of our journey.
Like Alum, we’ve done Rocky Top enough to descend with our eyes closed. As the sun began to set, we started the comfortably familiar descent down the AT to Bote.
We hit a groove coming down. On our way to Rocky Top I might have purposely suggested we would need headlamps for the descent… but this was mostly just to light a fire in Ash so she would attack the descent… which she did… scoffing at my headlamp nonsense.
43 miles and 13hrs33mins later… we hit the pavement near Cades Cove where my car was thankfully still parked.
We drove the windy road back to Ash’s car at Bullhead and changed out of our nasty clothes into our custom made finishers shirts.
I hit the road at around 10pm to start the 5.5hr drive back home. I could already feel how tired I would be for my closing shift the next day but wouldn’t trade these types of mountain outings for the world.
I’m starting to really really want to live closer to these mountains. 5.5hrs is just too far. Kati and I have always talked about moving out of Bama towards the Appalachia, and fingres crossed… when I graduate next May we can start seriously making plans.
These mountains feel like home to me. They’re where I feel most connected to both worlds (physical and spiritual). My thoughts and heart seem to stay transfixed in those smoky silhouetted ridges. I don’t expect many to understand that type of connection to a place, but there are few out there they do understand… and those few souls make me feel a little less like a crazy, obsessed, mountain addict.
“Two friends that have met on a mountain may always claim that as their level, and their souls may always sail out over the hills that are hard to climb.” Sidney Lanier Tiger Lillies
I love shoes. “Shoes” was actually the first word that ever escaped my lungs. Not mom. Not dad. Not supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. It was shoes. OMG SHOES.
Why shoes? I think it’s because I came to the quick realization that if my parents were putting shoes on my feet, it meant we were going on an adventure. I mean that adventure could be the grocery store or the playground… it didn’t really matter, it meant we were off to see great places! Hmmm… maybe that’s why my favorite book is “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!”
Like most mountain ultra runners, I’ve gone through my fair share of shoes… putting thousands upon thousands of miles on little pieces of rubber over the past decade. Despite how many shoes I go through… every time I get a new pair of shoes, I’ll still dive my nose into the foot hole and take a big satisfying inhale of that intoxicating new shoe smell.
I’m sure there’s others out there like me, the ones that kinda get super sad and nostalgic when a shoe life comes to its end. Personally, I’ve always had trouble letting go of shoes because they hold such wonderful memories. Shoes are there for the greatest of times and the worst of times. They’re there when you accomplish goals and when you come up short. They’re like shadows.
Each time the life of a shoe ends, it pains me to know that they must leave my life. I used keep all of them, but that’s just unnecessary clutter, impractical and it got down right disturbing…
Me and Kati were having coffee the other day, scoping out the new Wild Cross shoes that Salomon sent over to test out, when I brought up the need to cull my shoes and reorder some new rides for the summer. Most of the shoes in the current rotation have over 500 miles on them and are starting to wear down. Typically I can get 600-800 miles from a pair before starting to feel those tiny minor aches in the ole joints indicating the need for some fresh kicks. By the second cup of coffee I started talking about how hard it was to let go of some of those shoes and she offered up the suggestion, “maybe you could do a sort of obituary for each shoe? OMG! A SHOEBITUARY!”
So instead of holding onto the shoes I love so dearly, I can do a short obituary detailing the shoes and some of the adventures they took me on! Sadly I won’t be able to recount the last 10yrs of wonderful shoe experiences, but going forward… I’ll be writing a shoebituary for all the shoes I retire or lay to rest.
In Loving Memory of:
“Rouge Ryders” – Salomon Sense Ride 3
Rough Ryders (Salomon Sense Ride 3 – Black), age 492 miles, passed away on Wednesday, June 8, 2020 at Falling Rock. It was sweltering summer day in Alabama with temperatures in the 90s with the humidity at 97%.
Rough Ryders was born early Spring 2020 and is the 3rd and newest generation of the Sense Ride shoe. RR enjoyed long, technical mountain outings and the highlight of her life came on May 16, 2020 when she covered a self-supported 44 mile loop in the Great Smoky Mountains called Gatlindome.
RR spent most of her days roaming the hills of Oak Mountain State Park and aided in leading hikes for the Make a Wish Trailblaze Challenge. Another life event for RR was the 4-day Smoky Mountain adventure binge called Smokefest.
Cause of death: broken lace holder
Pros: Super cushioned! Enjoyed the added padding for longer outings. The upper was very breathable and I found that the shoe drained very well. At first glance, I thought the shoe would be a bit heavy but found that it wasn’t noticeable in the long run. The Sense Ride 3 fit true to size (I wear a size 9 in practically all Salomon) and felt it had plenty of toe room. The shoe gripped wonderfully on technical terrain, but found the cushioning made running fire roads / asphalt surprisingly comfortable!
Cons: Honestly, it’s really hard to find anything wrong with this shoe! The toe cap of the shoe started to come undone at approximately 150 miles. It didn’t really affect the performance of the shoe, but was annoyed it started coming undone so soon. The upper is extremely breathable which led to multiple small tears in the upper. Again, didn’t really affect performance, but did allow small debris to enter the shoe.
Overall: I was surprised at how much I loved this shoe! I actually just placed an order another pair! I got right at 500 miles out of the shoe but feel if the lace holder didn’t shred, I could’ve probably got 200 or more miles on them. The cushion was a MAJOR plus and would highly recommend the shoe to any type of trail runner. This shoe gets a9/10 for me!