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 flower does not think of competing with the flower next to it. It just blooms.”
The plan after wrapping up the final Make a Wish event in June was to get back into shape, but I felt lost as far as what “in shape” looked like to me. “In shape” used to look like being able to go out and run a 30-50 mile outing at the drop of the hat, but my heart still wasn’t longing for those types of distances. I continued to feel guilty for not wanting to cover long distances.
Our final Make a Wish hike event (Trailblaze 2.0) for 2022 was in South Carolina. My primary job function at 2.0 was napping…
Kidding kidding… it was volunteering and making sure hikers had a splendid time along their 28 mile journey.
After all the songs had been sung and all the drinks had been drank… it was time to head back to Bama. The BFD crew I rode up to SC with was staying an extra day so I had to score a ride back with someone else.
It’s been said, “one good conversation can shift the direction of change forever…”
Janey was kind enough to let me bum a 5-6hr ride back to Alabama, but more so, was kind enough to share some of her own struggles and how she persevered. She helped me simplify my problem into smaller, manageable goals. It’s funny because in my therapeutic practice… I do this daily for other people… but alas… it’s often tough to make changes and manage our own issues independently.
Like Janey and I discussed… I started small. I started running a few miles 3 days a week and started getting in the gym 2 days a week. And ya know what? It sucked. It sucked real, real bad. I felt like a SLOB. But I knew consistency would be the key and I desperately needed a short term goal to keep me on track… so I signed up for a trail 5k our company sponsored.
I also joined Ellison Fitness Innovations because I felt weak, frail and out of shape. I missed being an all-around athlete and this lil adorable trainer was determined to get me back into shape.
Over the course of the last 3 months… I’ve fallen back in love with being an athlete… not just a runner. I’m finally in a rhythm and have found a new routine! I’m in the gym by 5am 4 days a week and participate in a men’s workout group (F3) 1x a week. I’ve gained some weight (sitting at 145-150lbs compared to the usual 125-133lbs) and feel healthier than I’ve felt in years.
I’m still running 20-30 miles a week and it’s feels like the perfect amount. Despite a favorable outcome of a struggle bus effort at the local trail 5k… my speed is no where near where it was last year…
But that’s alright. The important thang thang is… I’m excited about this new transition into a more well-rounded type of fitness.
Now that my groin issue has dissipated… I’ve finally got a few adventures planned, some quality mountain time, a few shorter trail races… and perhaps a trip out West in the spring.
Wrapping up the end of a long short week at the office… I’ve been reminded how small talks can be impactful and lead to big changes.
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.
The older I get, the more I’ve grown to appreciate the authentic. Authentic friendships. Authentic experiences. Authentic love. The modern world has us chasing instant gratification and it seems like a new trend comes and goes every single day. Some people and events can mask themselves in authenticity, but if you stare long enough, you can see through the makeup and nails to reveal the gimmicks.
I remember standing outside of Camp Morganton in 2013 when a slender man with a bull horn drew a line in the gravel with his foot.
I was an abecedarian in the world of mountain ultra running, but instantly knew there was something genuine about Cruel Jewel. It was raw. It was real. You couldn’t “fake it till you make it” your way through this race.
Originally, CJ56 started at 4pm and was essentially a night ultra. I lined up with 16 other adventurers and set off for Vogel. After 15hrs20mins, I arrived to the park first, but there was no finish line. The finish was a cabin with a few folks hanging out. For my first ultra win, I got a fist bump and a cold beer. Authentic to its core.
Since 2013, I’ve gone back to the beautiful North Georgia mountains to experience the Dragon several times. Before changing directions, I had my eye on Hardrock and fought my way through 2 Cruel Jewel 106 mile finishes (2016 & 2018) to snag qualifiers. Cruel Jewel holds a special place in my heart and my skin…
But let me be authentic with you guys… I’m sure as shit glad that Covid canceled the 2020 attempt. I was not looking forward to battling the Dragon again. The 106 mile journey is such a massive undertaking and a labor of love. It not only takes a special kind of personal grit, but it also takes a special type of human to sacrifice their own time and well being to crew/pace. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times, crewing/pacing a 100 miles is harder than running a 100 miles. I’ll forever be blown away by those who support these types of endurance endeavors.
Due to the 2020 covid cancellation, runners were given the option to defer to the following year or get a credit for Dumass events. Since grad school hadn’t really offered the free time to properly train for a 100 miler, I chose to drop down to the 56 miler to give myself a lil more grace with my weekly mileage. My approach to ultra running training during grad school looked completely different than pre-grad school, but I think the approach has been effective. Ive felt happier and healthier with lower mileage paired with more quality workouts/runs. Plus, a lot of my longer efforts have been solo and I believe that’s played into the overall mental well being of my running.
Speaking of grad school…. I’M FINISHED!! I graduated on May 8th! It still doesn’t feel real! Perhaps it doesn’t feel real since I opted for a shorty shorts Mount LeConte graduation instead of the typical walk across stage in a black robe type of graduation.
Heading back to North Georgia for the 2021 CJ56 felt like freedom in so many different ways. I didn’t have school work or internship looming in the back of my mind,… I wasn’t searching for a job since I had recently secured a therapist position at a private nonprofit… I was free to enjoy the N Ga mountains with no bonds or ties.
Since we (the Road Prong Boyz) already had a big mountain adventure planned for June, the usual suspects couldn’t make it out to CJ to crew. I had originally planned to just snag a campsite and shuttle/drop bag my way through the race, but Kati said we could make a weekend out of it and she’d crew me. My wife Kati has always been one of the biggest supporters of my endurance endeavors, but after I botched a few experiences for her… I gave her a life long pass of not having to come out to anymore events. I got super stoked when she suggested coming along with me since we’ve not gotten to spend a lot of time together due to grad school and such. So we said goodbye to our cats and headed to Blue Ridge.
We snagged a cute little AirBnB about 10mins from Camp Morganton called “The Happy Place.” It was quiet and allowed easy access to all the crew accessible aid stations for the race!
After dinner in Blue Ridge, we called it an early night.
“Oh damn, it’s kinda cold!”
Race morning weather couldn’t have been any better. 42° and gorgeous.
We had a small, chatty group as we made our way down the asphalt of Snake Nation and up the big hill towards Deep Creek trail head. The road had been my friend for the past several months so I felt comfortable moving quickly along the blacktop. I didn’t have much of a strategy for the day and had no real plans of competing with anyone other than myself. I wanted this race to be more of a celebratory run than a competition. My personal plan was to go out quick and stay consistent until I reached Skeenah, where I’d inevitably slow down to cater to the Dragon.
I pushed through Deep Gap aid (mile 2.7) without checking up. It had been years since I’d run this loop in the daylight and enjoyed the easy movement. Ya tend to forget how pleasant a section can be when you have +50 miles on your legs already.
I passed my girl Sunny on the backside of the loop. She was back for revenge. Sunny and her pacer Stan were pushing through the first morning. I stopped for a quick hug before carrying on to the aid station. The mental fortitude and persistence that resides in Sunny is something out of this world. I can’t even begin to explain how proud I am of her finish.
I got back to Deep Gap aid (mile 8.5) and quickly had a volunteer verify my bib punch before heading towards Weaver.
Oh Weaver… how thou sucketh so badeth.
“This pointless out and back is why youare running 56 miles and not 50 miles.”
Yea… that sign sucks… but it sucks even worsewhen you change the numbers to 106 and 100. Dropping down to Weaver isn’t so bad when it’s mile 10 and not 60. I passed 2 other BHM lads (Don and Robby) pursuing their CJ buckles.
I found myself enjoying the climb out of Weaver. I wasn’t falling asleep to the sunrise with Matty Fierce like I was in 2018…
I wasn’t deliriously wondering if some old man with a rifle was gonna shoot me and OJG like in 2016… (thassa true story tho…)
I was just climbing and enjoying the morning when I came upon another Birmingham bad ass tackling the 106 miler. As always, Missy looked fresh and was moving well!
Once I topped the climb out of Weaver, it was easy running down to Stanley (mile 18.9).
The guys weren’t too far behind me so I decided to kick a lil on the asphalt to try and bank some extra time for the Dragon. I got into a steady groove and was well ahead of my anticipated arrival (by ~ 45mins) for Old Dial. I was a bit worried I’d miss Kati at Old Dial aid (mile 24.8) and told the volunteers to be on the lookout for a cute girl in a black death metal t shirt. Luckily, Kati had litrully just parked when I was leaving the aid tent.
I took a quick sip of Coke and tried to monch a Clif Bar, but solid foods weren’t the ticket for the day.
I quickly headed out of Old Dial and up towards the fire tower. Even though it’s been since 2018 that I’ve been on this particular portion of trail, everything felt familiar. I allowed myself to revisit some old memories and conversations as I pushed up towards the fire tower, but quickly snapped out of it when they started turning negative. I rolled into Wilscot aid (mile 30.3) a little overheated. Though not as hot as previous years, this was still one of my first exposures to warmer weather this year. Hell, it was 30° with snow flurries during last weekend’s 25 mile adventure in the Smokies w/ Matty Fierce!
I was starting to feel a bit dehydrated and knew I wasn’t taking in enough liquids. I grabbed a 2nd handheld from Kati before leaving Wilscot. As you can see from the above chipmunk cheek picture, the bacon at Wilscot was top notch.
Wilscot to Skeenah was pretty uneventful. I kept pushing as hard as my body would comfortably allow through some of the more runnable sections. Every time I felt overheated, I’d douse myself with a little water and catch a cooler wind through the trees.
Skeenah (mile 35.2) was a welcomed sight. Skeenah marks the beginning of the end. The Duncan Ridge Trail is a relentless beat down when you’ve got a pair of fresh legs… but the Dragon Spine is just down right fierce when you’ve already got many tough mountain miles under your feet.
I was curious of how I’d feel about the DRT when I only had to cover its ground once. As always, the climb out of Skeenah along the BMT was long and hot! As I turned onto the DRT, I gave myself a little pep talk.
“Alright Andrews, 20 miles. Stay steady. Pick up your feet. Stay consistent.”
Typically when I run long alone… I’ll get a song stuck in my head and it’ll become my mantra. I’ll tie myself into the song’s cadence or deep dive into the lyrics to take my mind off the present. At Blood Rock 50 it was MGK’s “Kiss, Kiss” that played on repeat in my dome piece. At CJ56, it was Taking Back Sunday’s “Timberwolves at New Jersey.”
Get up, get up
Come on, come on, let's go
There's just a few things
I think that you should know
Those words at best
Were worse than teenage poetry
As I started rounding into Fish Gap aid (mile 40), I saw Ryan James well into the late miles heading to another 100 mile finish. Dudes been crushing lately.
It was good catching up with RJ for a bit. I hadn’t seen him since he made the move to Black Mountain from Birmingham. We came into the aid together where the wonderful Baker family was volunteering.
“Ya just need to make it to Fire Pit and you’re done.”
Ryan was right. If I could just drop down to Mulky and fight my way to Fire Pit, I’d be sitting pretty for a solid push to the finish.
After Mulky, a fleeting memory of the Lesbian Mountain Dew adventure flashed in my mind as I passed a certain area along the trail. Years ago… out of water with no access along the DRT, a friend and I came across a strange couple camped along the trail. It appeared that their main form of nutrition for the trip was a 24 pack of Mountain Dew. I verbally expressed my longing for one of those bright green cans and they were generous enough to offer us up a couple.
The memory triggered an immediate need for Mountain Dew at Fire Pit aid (mile 47.4). After a cup or 2, I buried that memory and poured some out for a lost homie.
I slogged my way up to Coosa Bald and was relieved when I topped out .
I spent the next 4 miles descending towards Vogel. Despite the 50 miles or so already on my legs, the descent was a lot of fun! I knew the guy behind me (Brian) was relatively close (he’d been 1-6mins back all day), so I needed to push the last couple of miles. I hit Wolf Creek aid (mile 52), filled my bottle with a lil bit of water and dug in for the last 4 miles. In the last couple of CJ100s, the headlamp would come out for this long, drawn out duck waddle into Vogel. I was stoked that the sun was still shining bright and I still felt strong (and that I wasn’t at mile 102). I crossed the road and passed Becca as I dipped back into the woods. She snagged a 2nd place overall female finish and honestly… it didn’t even look like she had been moving through the mountains for +30hrs!
The moment my feet hit the pavement at Vogel I heard a camper yell:
“You wanta beer?!”
Damn it felt good to be done.
11hrs20mins ~ 1st overall
The Cruel Jewel folks really know how to put on a first class, authentic event. I can’t speak highly enough of the amount of effort, love and passion they put into this journey each year. The RDs and volunteers are half the reason I keep coming back to support this race.
I can’t thank my Dark Princess enough for the incredible support she gave me all day!
Kati and I walked into the dining area to sit down for a bit. The heat and the gel diet was slowly catching up to me….
We enjoyed talking with Brian Oestrike post race. He’s such a humble bad ass. Hopefully I can link back up with him at Pinhoti 100 when I’m a lil more talkative and there’s a lil less poison ivy!
I spent the drive back to our cabin periodically getting Kati to pull over so that I could throw up in various Blairsville and Blue Ridge parking lots…
Thankfully the nausea settled overnight and we got to spend the next day exploring the Bigfoot museum…
And Amicalola Falls!
Cruel Jewel was the perfect way to cap off the end of a tough season of my life. I’m sure I’ll see ya again Dragon… in a couple of years.
“An adventure isn’t worth telling if there aren’t any dragons in it.”
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 don’t race that often. It’s not that I have anything against racing, it’s mostly that I’d rather be roaming the rugged and remote Appalachia under my on accord.
And honestly, racing be aspensive yo!
So I try and limit myself to 1 or 2 bigger races a year. Since Covid shut down the country and the race scene this year, my “A” race for the year was canceled. I feel it was for the best. I’m through chasing HR qualifiers and heading back to Cruel Jewel 100 for a 3rd time just seemed… preposterous and… painful.
I got my long distance fix when I linked a 78 mile route on my favorite mountain for my birthday in October, but with the year winding down, I kinda wanted to throw some of my built up stress into something hard (Blood Rock = 50 miles w/ ~ 13,000ft of gain). The last 6 months in particular have been some of the busiest and most stressful of my life. I’m finally seeing the light at the end of the master’s degree tunnel… but that light has felt more like an approaching freight train. Since the counseling program requires a 600hr internship, I had to switch jobs (again) and hop back into the retail world in order to be able to work full time and knock out my internship. I left my physical therapy family…
Between spending 20hrs at my school internship site counseling students, working 40hrs a week and wrapping up the Make-a-Wish Trailblaze Challenge… running has been one of the few things that’s kept me stable and sane. My typical week for the past semester has been jam packed. “Double Days” is a term Kati and I coined for days where I have to either do internship then work or work then class. A DD on Monday/Tuesday means going to my internship site to counseling 4-5hrs then strolling into work for an 8hr closing shift and a DD on Wednesday/Thursday usually means opening the store and then going to 3hr class or counseling supervision. If I’m lucky enough to score an “off from work” day during the week, I spend a full 8hrs at my internship site. If my “off from work” days land on weekends, I either marked/flagged/lead a Make-a-Wish hike or tried to slide in an adventure of my own. Despite the crazy, hectic schedule, I still managed to keep decent mileage on my legs each week and squeezed in runs when I could.
I felt like I’d had so much stress built up and kinda felt that I hadn’t been able to do anything that I wanted to do. Everything felt like a commitment or requirement out of my control and honestly… I just wanted to lay waste to something that I chose to do… so the Monday before Blood Rock weekend, I signed up for the 50 miler. The 50 miler was the only distance that fit my time frame… I had to be at work at 630am Saturday morning so that took out the 25k, 50k and 100 miler. I figured if I could bang out the 50 miler in a decent time, I’d at least get a few hours of sleep and could coffee my way through a sore and zombiefied morning of work.
Blood Rock 50
The last time I raced a Tosch race was in 2015. I was a big bearded, long haired dude running around the woods in a French Maid’a outfit…
Don’t worry… I left that sexy outfit hanging in the closet for the BR50.
I’d forgotten how enjoyable it was to go to a packet pick up and actually see people you knew. The weather was a wee bit chilly at the start, so I tried to stay in my car until 5-10 minutes before the start.
I walked up as Tosch was wrapping up the pre-race meeting and took my spot near the front of the pack at the starting line. I stood dwarfed by a tall, athletic looking dude…
I now know what Kevin Hart feels as he stands next to Dwayne Johnson…
After a 30 second count down, we headed out up the road to begin the race.
Daddy Long Legs shot out ahead of me and I followed suit. Thankfully, years of ultra experience has taught me patience and to not pursue out of my comfort zone, so it wasn’t hard settling into a rhythm and watching DLL break away.
We came through NTH 1 Aid Station (mile 2) fairly quickly and darted on the single track. I saw my buddy Matt Benefield setting up the aid station and yelled a quick “hey” to him! After a half mile we started the brutal Back Country Trail. The next 5 miles would be a series of up and downs resulting in approximately 2,000ft of techy climbing. I wanted to keep Daddy Long Legs in my eye site so he stayed a climb ahead of me. Climbing up through the fog was enchanting! The fog clutched tight in the trees and swallowed the view as we passed over King’s Chair. I finally caught up to DLLs as we started into the Back Country beyond King’s Chair.
Daddy Long Legs: “Which race are you running?”
Me: “The 50. How about you?”
Daddy Long Legs : “The 100. Good! I don’t have to worry about you as competition.”
This immediately rid the atmosphere of any tension and we settled into good conversation as we descended to the bottom dirt road.
Turns out… Daddy Long Legs was not his given name… it was Zack Jordan… and Zack absolutely crushed the 100 miler (1st overall in 23hrs42mins). We ran side by side along the bottom “sunken road” and Zack took point as we started the climb up Topless. To put Zack’s (Daddy Long Legs) stride into perspective… 2-3 of my lil hobbit ass strides compared to one of his American bred quarter horse strides. We both chose to bypass the water only Billy Goat Bridge aid station (mile 7.1) without checking up and rolled together till we got to the NTH 2 aid station (mile 12.5).
We got to NTH 2 at 1:55… coming in a little bit quicker (35mins) than I had originally anticipated. I figured the first 23 miles would be the toughest and I wanted to get as much as I could out of the way while I still had daylight. I was pleasantly surprised to see Matty Fierce at the aid station. For some reason, I had it in my mind that he’d not be there until the last time I’d come through NTH. I quickly refilled my bottle and darted back up the trail.
I was moving swiftly uphill but got a little too aggressive on the descent down Eagles Nest and took a hard fall. Between the slick, leaf covered terrain and grade off the mountain, both feet flew out from under me and I landed square on my back. The fall knocked the breath out of me, but fortunately, it only sent a shock to my system and didn’t do any damage. The jolt pumped enough adrenaline in me to power through the return trip through the Back Country riding a “high.”
I was still moving smoothly and comfortably by the time I reached the NTH 3 aid station (mile 22.9). My GPS was already showing short (showing 17.5) so I had to transition to paying closer attention to actual time (3:40) rather than mileage. MF was there waiting with a warm Arby’s sandwich, a cold Coke and a new water bottle.
The Cabins aid station (25.7) was practically vacant as I rolled through. I said a quick hello to Tony as I crossed over the timing pad at the start/finish area. I made a comfortable push near the BMX area along Yellow before starting the easy ascent up Orange towards the abandoned Boy Scout Cabins. While running with Matty Fierce the week before, I had imagined I’d be running down Tranquility Camp Road in the dark. Surprisingly, I was well ahead of my expectations and pushed hard down the descent to the Yellow/White connector. I caught a beautiful and fiery sunset climbing up YW and didn’t have to flip on the headlamp until I started the descent down Green.
I saw the all too familiar red glow from the heat lamps in the owl/hawk cages before turning onto Yellow/Green connector. The moment my headlamp came into view of the Terrace Drive aid station (mile 32.8) I heard a lonely “ROAD PRONG!” being yelled from the open field. Of course… I returned MF’s “Road Prong” with a gleeful “Road Prong”’ of my own.
I rolled into Terrace aid station (mile 32.8) at 5:09. The aid wasn’t entirely set up yet, but the race strategy wasn’t to even utilize aid stations unless completely necessary. I crammed a few more gels into my waist belt, switched out water bottles, monched a lil more of my Arby’s sammich and downed a bit more Coke before heading off into the night.
I was still feeling fresh leaving Terrace so I moved quickly up Johnson’s Mountain. I slowed a bit after veering off the main trail towards the neighborhood, but once I hit the Hamptons I felt like Britany and Tiffany Wilson…
The asphalt was welcomed and made for faster running until I reached the massive climb up the power line. The power line “trail” was steep but was over quickly. I stayed composed and pushed gently up the climb. I didn’t even find in necessary to have a “BF.”
I picked up the pace once I hit Peavine Road and cruised in around 6:00 to Peavine 1 (mile 38) feeling strong!
I kept the pace up as I backtracked the way I came. After leaving the trail and hitting the asphalt again, I crossed paths with the 100 mile leader (which I presumed to be Zack “DLL”) along Peavine Road. I was surprised I didn’t see any headlamps as I made my way back to the turn off near Johnson’s. The lack of headlamps made me push a little bit harder up towards the the infamous “Blood Rock.” I never felt bad throughout the race, but I took a hard step-down descending Green/White connector that jostled my belly a lil bit that resulted in a slight throw up in my mouth…. which was swallowed involuntarily and unexpectedly for some unknown reason. The climb out of Peavine Gorge was peaceful. The sounds of rushing water paired well with the cool night air and it made for a tranquil escape from the steep climb. The Peavine aid station was bustling with crew & volunteers when I came through the second time. I reached Peavine 2 (mile 44.7) at 7:09.
I finished the last bit of my Arby’s sammich (yes… the same one I’d been steadily monchin’ on all day), took another swig of Coke and grabbed a new headlamp.
Sonia was there cheering runners on and I think I may or may not have been forced to twerk on Matty Fierce before being released from the aid station? I’m sure there’s incriminating video evidence out there somewhere…
Matty Fierce: “No other 50 mile runner has come through Peavine the first time around. It’s just you and your time now.”
I dipped down the back side of the pavilion and descended down to the creek below. I the climb out was fairly steep but I knew the climbing was over when I saw the gorge overlook. I was hoping the route was gonna take runnable Blue Trail from Peavine, but instead, it took the old Grey Trail up past Sugar Shack along the ridge. Since this isn’t a “normal” trail, it was windy and rocky. I never found good rhythm through the section. I reluctantly accepted the slower movement and tried to enjoy the chilled night until the trail dipped back down to the Blue Trail. When my feet hit familiar Blue ground, I dove right back into a smooth rhythm that lead me up and over Shackleford. Passing through Maggie’s Glenn for the final time ignited one final push to the finish.
The 50 mile distance has always alluded me. It’s one of my favorite distances to cover but one that I’ve just not figured out yet. Hell… last year at Lookout Mtn 50 miler I got passed at mile 49 that dropped me out of a podium finish.
However, Blood Rock was a critical piece to slowly figuring out that 50 mile puzzle. I came across the finish line feeling like I’d just put in a hard 5k effort. I still felt like I had life in my legs, but had expended enough to feel happily depleted and worn.
I’m not sure I’ve ever had a smoother and better executed race. I felt strong, composed and confident all day and most of the running seamed relatively effortless. I was fortunate enough to cross the line 1st in 8:38, setting a new course record (for the updated course that has been used the last 3yrs).
I learn a little more each time I cover long distances and maybe one day the “take the next day off from all lyfe activities” lesson will be learned… but for now… the 545am wake up call to be a zombie at work will have to suffice.
I’m extremely thankful to have pieced together a solid race to cap off a weird, weird year! I can’t say enough about the dedication and passion Tosch puts into his races and how selfless and incredible all the volunteers are who make these events so special… yall the real MVPs. And a huuuuuuge THANK YOU to my Champion Crew Chief (Matty Fierce) for following me around in the drizzle and cold all day and into the night. You da best… ROAD PRONG!!
I’m excited to be finally wrapping up my masters degree in May and looking forward to sliding back into a more balanced and less stressful lyfe schedule. Until May… I’ll continue to throw in adventures and training as time permits, but for now, it’s time to recover so that I can get up into the mountains for some wintry adventures.