The SCAR run has long been on my mind, when I first heard about it from my old adventure racing teammates Charlie and Ernie. At the time, I thought they were pretty crazy, and their first attempt was downright frightful — caught in crazy weather of snow, rain, wind, etc. You can read Charlie’s account of their second, successful attempt here. I didn’t really think I’d ever attempt it at the time, but then the idea began to grow on me. And as my knee has been doing better and better the past year or so, and I’ve been running stronger and stronger, including an 8 hour finish at Uhwarrie (38 miles this year on a slightly shortened course), I figured now was as good a time as ever. When my friends April and Mike said they were interested in helping out, I jumped at the chance.
I did not carry a camera as I didn’t want the added weight or the temptation to stop. There were many amazing sites that will only live in my head. So hopefully this post is not too boring! I do have some photo’s at the camp site where Mike and April were waiting for me and I did take a couple with my phone at clingman’s when I got it out to send a quick update to my wife that I was still alive and well…
I had planned to run the full SCAR, all 72 miles, all along. But the weeks leading up to it led me to believe that was not a wise choice. First I got some pretty bad blisters on both feet on a barefoot run — I almost never blister! What gives? I had some callouses growing, which are no good for distance running, and normally a mile or two on pavement acts like a pumice stone and they are gone. For some reason, this time I blistered under the callouses and they eventually came off. So I lost about a week there. Then I got pretty sick, and lost a week trying to figure out what it was. The 1st day was really bad, but then I thought I was getting better, only to plateau and then get worse. A second week down the drain. When it got worse and I noticed a swollen lymph node, I went to the doctor. Turns out I had had Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and subsequently a bacterial infection from the same bite! I started antibiotics right away, but recovery was slow and I never really got back to good training. I had lost about 6 – 8 lbs, which for me is significant since I only weigh about 145, and had trouble putting it back on. Finally, 6 days before my scheduled SCAR date, I got a two hour run in, but it was not strong. At that point I decided for sure that 1/2 SCAR would be plenty.
Because Clingman’s Dome road and Mt Collins shelter are closed, the former due to re-paving and the latter due to bear activity, doing a 1/2 SCAR was tough logistically. I didn’t want to meet April and Mike at US 441/Newfound Gap, as I was not sure when I would be there and did not want to leave them waiting too long. We settled on camp site 53, a five mile run down a side trail away from the AT. Fork Ridge trail hits the AT at just about the exact half way point for a full SCAR.
Here is an elevation profile and map… About 3 miles past Clingman’s dome, I would hit the Mt. Collins shelter trail head, and just past find the trail head for Fork Ridge down to the camp site. I had spoken to a runner who had done the full SCAR just a few days prior and he said there was a sign on the AT for Fork Ridge, but my map did not show that, so I was not sure that would be the case. But I was hopeful, and if not, Clingman’s Dome road was right next to the AT just past the Mt. Collins shelter split, so I knew I could find it from there.
And a part trail map… Start at the bottom left at Fontana Dam, run the AT, the green dotted trail all the way to Mt. Collins at the top right, then head down Fork Ridge, the purple trail, to site 53:
I picked up April and Mike around 10:30 a.m. and we headed west. Any trip on I-40 near lunch time warrants a stop at My Father’s pizza in Black Mountain, one of the best pizza joints in the world, so we hit that where I ate a salad, an entire pizza, and had a last beer to wash it all down. April wondered if I was having a “last meal.” She also introduced me to an excellent little chocolate shop a well. We grabbed 50′ of 3mm cord for a bear rope as I wasn’t sure if the camp site we had agreed to meet at would have cables or not, and we were on our way to Fontana Dam. We arrived there around 5:30, walked down to the shelter which only had 2 hikers in it, and then walked around the dam, visitor center, across the dam and up the road that leads to the trail head. We turned back, cooked dinner, chatted with the hikers, went over the meeting place one final time, and I went to sleep as soon as it was dark (about 9:30).
I of course tossed and turned. I normally don’t sleep that well the 1st night out on a back packing trip, and the night before a big race or event is also always difficult. So I tossed and turned. And tossed. And turned. I looked at my watch many times and it seemed like time was moving in slow motion. Finally at 4 a.m. I decided I might as well just get up and go rather than wait any longer. I grabbed my pack, bag, and pad as quietly as I could and walked the 100 meters up to the Fontana Shelter bathroom. There were some tent campers on top of the hill with a HUGE blazing fire. At 4 a.m.! Weird. Anyway, there I put my sleeping bag and pad in their respective packs, filled my hydration bladder and two hand held bottles, and walked the 200 meters to the car. There I quickly got a cup of coffee brewing, got dressed, and put my final gear in order. I opted here to skip my oatmeal breakfast — there was no way I could eat anything right now, so I decided to stuff another bar in my pack and head out. I hit the restroom at the visitor center, climbed the stairs back to the dam, and started running at 4:38 a.m. Officially that means I ran an extra 1/2 mile or so since SCAR starts at the border of the GSMNP. I was cool with that. 🙂
The Climb out of Fontana
After the nice flat run across the dam, the road up to the trail head was gradual and fairly easy. But as soon as I hit the trail, I knew I was in for quite a climb. I already knew that, at least in theory, from having looked at the elevation profile (see above!). But wow was this tough… Not much running here. Every once in a while I’d see the lights of the dam below, getting farther and farther a way. This was literally a 4 mile climb of 1500 feet before it plateaus just a little, and then continues climbing for 4 more miles before you finally get a down hill. I tried to run as much as I could, but again, it was tough.
About 2 and a half hours in, my first handheld bottle of perpetuem and chia mix was just about empty. (See below for my fueling strategy.) I squeezed it into my mouth, and the bottle of course made a squishing empty bottle sound. I heard a response off to my left — it sounded like a wild pig snorting in the woods maybe 20 meters a way. A few minutes later I heard what sounded like a very large pig digging for truffles off to my left, and then I thought to myself that it was moving awfully quick. The next thing I knew, the biggest pig I had ever seen ran across the trail maybe 15 – 20 meters in front of me. It took all of 3 seconds to realize it was not a pig but a bear — albeit a somewhat skinny bear! My 1st live/wild bear sighting! 🙂
About 30 minutes later, I saw my 1st hikers of the day. They asked where I had come from and were surprised when I told them Fontana, which was a good 10 miles away since it was not even 8 a.m. yet! About 20 minutes later I came up on Mollies Ridge shelter, which kind of has its back to the trail the way I was headed. I could see a couple people on the far side doing normal morning things like gathering gear and brushing teeth. It turned out it was a father and daughter (about 13 yrs old I would guess). Apparently I had given her quite the fright as all she saw was me in my black shorts and shirt, and she thought it was a bear running at them! I just stopped to say good morning and then kept on running.
First Water stop: Russell Field Shelter
My 1st planned water stop was Russell Field Shelter, about 15 miles into the run. I got there and there were a lot of hikers eating breakfast and the like. I’m not sure if they all had slept in the shelter the night before, but that would have been packed like sardines if that was the case! I asked where the water was, and ran down about .2 miles to it. It was not a piped spring, which was a bummer. I poured the good water from my bladder into my hand held bottle, then filled the bladder and 2nd bottle. I was not happy to see all the floaties, but figured I’d not really notice them later! I put my water treatment pills in, filled the handhelds with my perpetuem chia mix, and headed back up to the shelter. There I stopped for a minute or two to fix my socks and re-tie my shoes, and chatted with a couple of the hikers. Then it was back to the trail for more running. I had my pace down to about 17:15 per mile at this point, but by the time I left after getting water and all, it was up to 17:45!
From Russell field I passed Eagle Creek trail to Spence Field shelter, Rocky Top, and on up to Thunderhead, which is quite a steep little climb. Near Rocky top I passed a crew of trail volunteers maintaing the trail, and I thanked them all. This section of trail was getting quite over grown, and where they had cleared was great, but beyond that, it became difficult to run as the grass was covering all the dangers of the trail like the rocks and roots and washouts. After Thunderhead, I expected to see two SCAR runners that were supposed to have started at Davenport, the opposite end of where I had started, at midnight. Based on what I thought their expected time would be, I should have seen them, but I did not… So I kept looking and kept looking…. My pace had slowed into the high 18’s by this point, as this was difficult trail!
Derrick Knob Shelter
I reached Derrick Knob probably around 7.5 hours. I wanted to get more water here — hopefully for the last time. This looked to be a really nice shelter, so I’m storing that away in case I ever backpack this section! The water was just down the hill and was a nice piped spring — the kind I am tempted to not filter or treat. But I had tablets so I used them. Once I was back up the hill at the shelter I spent a quick minute re-organizing the gear before I was back at it.
I hit the marathon point just after 8 hours. Wow! I finished Uhwarrie this year, which was 38 miles, in just under 8 hours. Here I was 12 miles behind that pace. I had not felt that my sickness leading up to this race was slowing me down that much, and while it may have a little, it just proved to me how tough this trail really is.
It was here that I finally put on the ipod — one ear only as always on the trail so I can hear what is going on around me! I had originally figured maybe a few hours of no ipod, but I never really needed or wanted it until this point. And then right at 26.2 I just felt like it was time for a little music. 🙂
About 15 minutes later, I finally saw someone that appeared to be a runner not a back packer — he had just a waist belt on with two bottles in it and one hand held. Since this is such a remote location — we were probably a good 15 miles from the road at Newfound gap — it had to be a runner. I asked him if he was a SCAR runner and at first he didn’t understand and just said he was running from Davenport to Fontana. I said “yeah, that is SCAR,” and he said “oh yeah — it’s been a rough night.” They had left at midnight as planned, but the 1st 12 miles were pretty tough, and his co-runner had gotten sick. So he tended to him and got him to their support crew, and then continued solo. His final words stayed with me for a while — “I’m just in survival mode now!” At this point he had done about 45 miles to my 27 or 28…
From Derrick’s Knob to Clingman’s is about 10 miles and 2000 feet of climbing. Would the ascent never end? It was gradual, but there was so little flat ground to gain some speed! One thing about the AT is that there are often long sections with very little mountain vistas and views, especially in the summer when the trees are full.
At Double Spring Gap I decided to stop and do some quick foot work. I felt the blister from 5 weeks earlier on my left BOF start to come back — at this point my feet had been wet most of the day and they turn that white pruney cadaver look, and the old blister lines were splitting a touch. So I took the time to duct tape that area and put on dry injinji socks for the rest of the run.
Once I passed Double Spring Gap shelter around mile 31, the trail opened up and there were mountains all around! It was sad to see so many dying hemlocks, but it was nice to finally see something. When I finally reached Clingman’s Dome, I had to run up the ramp to the watch tower, even though it was a little off trail. With the road closed, it was deserted up there — much different than last time when it was crawling with tourists! I had carried my phone on the off-chance there was service here, but had yet to take it out of my bag. I pulled it out and there was AT&T E! I sent a couple quick text messages to Kelly updating here on where I was and decided to snap a couple quick pictures. For some reason, April and Mike’s phone number was missing, so I could not send them anything. I doubt they would have received any messages from me as they would have been hiking down into the valley by now.
Me, not looking too bad after 34 miles! 🙂
From Clingman’s I had to descend down the AT to the trail towards Mt. Collins, about 3.5 miles away. This section of trail was very tough — it was steep and muddy and rocky, and it started to sprinkle. And then it started to pour. I finally had to break out the black trashbag I had brought… I brought it instead of a rain jacket to save space and weight, and the trash bags can be useful in many ways. I quickly poked a hole in it for my head, put it on, put my buff around my neck to keep water from dripping down, and put my hat on. Now it was raining so hard the trail was literally a stream bed… After a while I thought for sure I should have come to the Mt Collins split, but it was nowhere to be found. I really had hoped I had not passed it.
And then I met Gandalf. Well, he reminded me of Gandalf. All of a sudden, there he was. A man in a yellow 3/4 length poncho with the hood on, and a large staff in his left hand. At first I thought it was Mike, and I was impressed that he had hiked nearly 8 miles to find me! Then I realized it wasn’t Mike. I asked Gandalf if he had passed the trail to Mt Collins. “I don’t know,” was his response. I said either I passed it or you did. And he said “Maybe it is 20 minutes beyond for you.” Ok, thanks for the info, and I head out. He was thoughtful enough to yell “Stay Dry!” Right, this was like the Biblical Flood happening and I have a black trash bag as a rain jacket. Stay dry! I thought of lots of responses but in the end just ran off. I was more worried about staying warm at this point! Cold rain at 6000+ can be chilly!
Two minutes later, I hit the trail split! I guess he must have been out of it to have not noticed. The beautiful thing here was a sign for Fork Ridge trail 0.2 miles further along the AT! Here I was at the 1/2 way point of SCAR, just about at 20:00 pace which is a 24 hour run if you do all 72 miles. I had really slowed on the climb up and down Clingman’s! From here, though, the rest of SCAR is mostly downhill. Should have been easy to maintain that pace or even speed up a little, right?! Except night would hit in about 4 hours, so I’d have a good 7 or 8 hours in the dark. Anyway, the plan today was for Half SCAR, so maybe next time!
Fork Ridge Trail
I reached the sign for Fork Ridge Trail 0.2 miles later just as the sign at Mt Collins had said. Only here was a problem. There was now another sign that said Fork Ridge was closed due to the road construction on Clingman’s. Now I had a dilemma. If it was closed where Mike and April were to park and hike down on Deer Creek Trail, would they be at the bottom? My choice was to run 4.6 miles on the AT to US 441 and head down that road to the trailhead they should have been parked at which would have been maybe 3 or 4 miles more on the road. If the car was there, I’d run down the trail and meet them. That would be about 12 more miles of running. Or I run down the closed trail 5 miles, and if they are there, I am done, and if not, I have 4 miles to run up to the road and hopefully find some clue to where they might be.
I decided to stick to the original plan and run down Fork Ridge. If they were not there, it was less running for me. If they were there, it was a lot less running for me. I went from the AT another 20 meters to Clingman’s Dome Road, crossed, and went to the trail head for Fork Ridge. Here another sign slightly caught my attention — it said the bridge at Deer Creak was out and not usable. Hmm… It’s a creek, right? I can cross a creek without a bridge… That thought stuck with me much of the way down this trail.
So, the bad thing about a trail being closed is that it is not maintained. Well, this trail turned out to be bushwhacking adventure in some places, there were so many down trees. And there were a couple of washouts where there was not a whole lot of trail left. But when the trail was open, it was good. 5 miles down with nearly 3000 feet of descent. It was here that my knees finally let me know that they were getting a little tired of all the pounding! Overall they had held up really well, though, so not much to complain about….
As I got closer and closer to end, I kept wondering what would happen if April and Mike were not there… Or if the bridge was out and the creek was more than I bargained for. And the sound of water kept getting louder and louder. And LOUDER. So now I had some serious concerns about creek crossing with no bridge.
When I finally got to the bottom and came to the creek — there April and Mike were!! Woohoo! 13.5 hours and 42 miles later, it was so good to see them, and it was awesome to see they had set up my tent! 🙂
Me at the finish, still smiling!
After taking off my shoes, I had to eat before anything else! 🙂
Here is the stream we camped beside… it was crossable! and Very very cold. After I ate, I used my buff to rinse off the days sweat and grime. April even had soap which was a nice surprise and treat. I had packed a camp towel in the backpack April had carried down, so I dried off with that and got dressed in clean clothes. I have to give a big thanks here to April and Mike. They carried all my back packing gear — more food, fresh clean clothes, my tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, etc., as well as the gear they needed, all the way down for me. Awesome!
Here is the map from Garmin… Too bad wordpress.com won’t let me embed it here. Oh well, a picture works too I suppose!
And the elevation profile:
Garmin says I did nearly 14,000 feet of elevation, which I think is about right for this run. That much climbing and descending made running tough.
After a decent nights sleep, we had breakfast, packed everything up, and hiked out the 4 miles to the car. Yes, I wore the huaraches out! 🙂 I also carried my backpacking pack and all my gear, as well as my running pack and running shoes. I just strapped them on to my pack and hiked out. Overall, my legs felt good, other than my right hip.
Besides the bear encounter described above, I saw the following:
Turkeys — one sitting on a log about eye level just 10-12 feet away. We stared at each other until I finally said something to him like “Good Morning,” when he proceeded to jump off the log and fly away. Yes, turkey’s can fly, at least a limited distance! Then a few hours later I came across two more… One jumped off the trail fairly quickly, the other ran the trail in front of me for a good 30 seconds before it realized it should just get out of the way. Or maybe he was pacing me.
Fox or coyote — I caught a glimpse of a sandy small dog shaped animal running the trail in front of me, though I could not tell exactly what it was.
Whippoorwill — I didn’t see it, but it kept me company as I climbed out of Fontana in the dark… Reminded me of home, though our Whippoorwill is about 50 db louder than this one!
Toads – many toads on the trail, especially in the morning — one the size of a softball! I swear!
Gear selection and thoughts
I always like to re-cap my gear and nutrition to help me on future events.
I again used a strong/thick mix of perpetuem — about 500 calories per bottle. This time I mixed in a couple tablespoons of chia seeds. I dilute this with water from my hydration bladder as I run, and this allows me to get in a lot of calories with relatively little weight. This was my main fuel. Beyond that I had two or three bars, two or three packs of cliff shots, 4 hammer gels, and combos. If I went longer I would have liked to have something like a PB&J or almond butter and honey.
- Ultimate Direction Wasp — great little pack, rides nice and high, love the vest in front with 4 pockets to give quick access to food and other items… a touch small if I wanted to do the full SCAR unsupported, but for half SCAR it was fine… And if I do a full SCAR with support at US 441, it would work fine. I kept one hand held bottle in reserve in the pack. The pack did give me a small rash on my back where the bottom of the pack must have been rubbing… I was pretty much wet all day so I am sure that had something to do with it!
- 64 oz hydration bladder — just for water
- 2 x 22 oz sport bottles — to carry my perpetuem/chia mix… one in the pack and one in the hand held…
- Nathan Hand Held — used this to hold one hand held bottle… it also has a small pocket to keep something like a pack of cliff shots and bar or gel. I would clip this on to a loop on the pack’s shoulder strap now and then when I needed two hands to work with gear, or to use on my legs as I climbed the steep stuff. Clipping the bottle like this to the pack does not work well when the bottle is full and you are running — there is too much bounce. But when you are hiking up or down the steep inclines, it works fine. And if the bottle is empty or close to empty, it is also not too bad.
- Icebreaker shirt – never leave home without Icebreaker!
- running shorts & under armor 7″ compression shorts — the compression shorts really helped eliminate chafing. I was worried about the seams but they rarely bothered me
- ekko tekko socks – used these for about 30 miles
- injinji socks – after I taped my left foot, I switched to these for the remainder of the run. I often use these as a “liner” when the feet start feeling hot spots, but this time I used them alone.
- NB 790’s – I was worried this might not be quite enough shoe, as it is a trail racing flat, but overall I was pretty happy with them. There were a few times I would feel the jolt of a rock or root through the bottom, and early on my left ball of foot felt slightly bruised so I switched to a mid foot strike instead of forefoot when the terrain allowed it
- Pettzl Tikka and Fenix P3D – nice and light yet bright head lamp… the P3D is 120 lumens and helps me find my way quickly if things get tough with the tikka.
- black plastic trash bag — these have many uses, but on this run, when it started to pour, it became my rain poncho
- emergency blanket — just in case… I have carried this same blanket on many events and have yet to use it, but some day I know it will come in handy
- Leatherman skeletool CX — I always carry a leatherman, even though they are heavy. This one is only 5 oz. so not too bad. 9 times out of 10 I only use the knife, which I did this run for cutting the water treatment tablets. But having a couple of the other tools, especially the pliers, is a nice safety in my opinion
- Buff — another item I rarely do long events without. I mostly used it to wipe the sweat off my face, but it can also be used as a pre-filter for water, as a head covering if you get cold, and around the neck to keep water from dripping down through the trash bag poncho I made.
I’m now about 2 days post run, and my muscular soreness is just about gone. My right hip is still a bit sore, but much better than yesterday. I have some kind of weird feeling in my left ball of foot — like a metatarsal is popping when I walk barefoot, but it also seems to be getting better. Overall I am happy with how I felt post-run. While my knees had started to get sore the last 5 miles or so from all the pounding, they were fine the next day for the hike out and have given me no troubles since then.
I had planned to take at least a week off from running, and I am definitely going to do that, and maybe run just once a week for 2 or 3 miles for a week or two after that. I still plan to lift more for the next month or so, to try to regain some of the lost muscle from rocky mountain spotted fever.
I am finding it hard not to think of the next big event, and a 50 mile race in the fall sounds tempting. At the same time, I had said I would take some time off before deciding what to do next, so I need to stick to it. I could not help but ask Sultan to compare SCAR with some of the ultra’s he has done, and he responded that a full SCAR is more difficult than most 100 mile races. So that makes me feel better, because Half SCAR was one of the toughest things I have done.
I loved every minute of it, and can’t wait to attempt the full course in the not too distant future!
Thanks for reading!
Great report, Sean. Excellent job finishing the Half+. To me, that section from Thunderhead to Newfound is probably one of the toughest parts of the whole SCAR. Glad everything worked out for you and you finished well. I look forward to hearing about your full SCAR when you do it too. You will be challenged. Recover well.
Great job, Sean. Very cool adventure. Inspiring.
Very cool. You lunatic. 😉
Great job Sean! I enjoyed the report. I’d still be interested in doing this again if I ever have time. Let me know if you decide to go after the full SCAR in the future.
FYI, the people I know consider the end points to be the visitor’s center at Fontana and the AT/Mt. Sterling road intersection at Davenport Gap. So, you didn’t run any extra if you go by those guidelines! 🙂
Charlie, I definitely want to go back and do the whole thing. I had promised myself a week off from running and to not think about “what’s next” until then. But that has been difficult! I’m thinking a 50 mile race in the fall, or a full SCAR, is in order. 🙂
Great job! I’d love to join you on a full attempt. Looks like a beautiful route. If you come out here before your full attempt, I’ll make sure you get some good “hill” training in so that those Appalachian bumps won’t seem so tough. 🙂
Way to push yourself!
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