Friday, April 30, 2010

The Great Smoky Mountains

A few days ago I returned from a hiking trip to the Great Smoky Mountains (aka "GSM") in Tennessee.  Three friends (Tom, Jeff, and Gregg) and I decided to take a break from work and have an extended weekend where we'd get in some serious hikes.  We are all regular trail runners so a few days of hiking in the mountains sounded doable and would be a nice change of pace for us flatlanders from central Illinois.  I figured the elevation gains woulds help get me ready for the Canadian Death Race in late July.  Hard to find mountains in Illinois!  Our "home away from home" was a cabin in the woods just outside of Townsend, TN (picture at top left).  The cabin turned out to be very nice.  I slept in the loft which was open to the rest of the cabin, but still fairly private. Every morning around 4am, I'd make coffee and sit on the front porch waiting for my sleepy friends to awake.  After a quick breakfast, we'd head out to the trail head for the planned hike.

Our main hikes:

  • Charlies Bunion
  • Mount LeConte
  • Rocky Top & Thunderhead Mountain
  • Chestnut Top

Jeff vacations here on a fairly regular basis so he plotted out what he thought would be scenic and challenging hikes ranging from 8-21 miles each.  Well, he was certainly correct about the scenery--we had gorgeous views of trees and the surrounding countryside.  I'm not so sure about the "challenging" nature of the trails.  While officially tagged as moderate to difficult, that designation is obviously for the casual hiker.  We are tough trail runners and experienced ultra aficionados. A gain of 5,000 feet over 10 miles is not that difficult...especially when the trails are well-groomed and nicely marked.  I enjoyed every hike, but none were very hard.  I have now renamed the "Great Smoky Mountains" as "The Great Mole Hills."  I may be spoiled from the mountains of New Mexico and California...these Tennessee "titans" were rarely above 6,000 feet!   Is that all you got GSM?  Can't you do better than that?  I'm a Louisiana boy and these suckers were a breeze.  Beautiful, but fairly easy for hiking. In the photo above and right, you can see my comrades taking a rest break for water, snacks, and some pictures. Were they tired?  Maybe they were just looking for beer?

Enough complaining on my part...the trip was extremely fun and I did get in some excellent base aerobic work with a good dose of hill climbing.  While my compatriots were huffing & puffing during several extended climbs, I was enjoying the leisurely pace while eating Clif bars and taking pictures.  The whole experience gave me a renewed sense of confidence in my current training and conditioning.  I'm not quite the aerobic monster I want to be...but I am getting there!  A couple of months of higher base mileage with judicious additions of tempo runs and uphill treadmill running and I'll be ready for the Death Race.  The Gnaw Bone 50K on May 15 will be my first real test of my abilities.  It'll be here soon and I'm feeling good. 

My favorite aspect of the whole trip was seeing parts of the Appalachian Trail.  Two of our hikes brought us to sections of the famed trail.  To the left is Gregg running down a portion of the AT.  Since we were there in late April, we ran into many AT through hikers that had started at Springer Mountain in Georgia in early April and were headed to Mount Katahdin in Maine...a total trip distance of 2178 miles!  Those are some serious adventurers.  It was awesome to be able to stop and chat with 25-30 of these fine hikers who'll be on the trail for 5-6 months.  While the entire trail never gets that high (highest point of the AT is Clingmans Dome on the border of TN and NC at 6,643 feet), it goes up and down a LOT and ends up with a total elevation CHANGE of 475,000 feet.  That's impressive.  Plus, some sections of the AT are fairly technical and filled with rocks and roots.  I'd like to hike other sections of the AT.  I doubt I'll ever try for a full through hike...or even section hike the entire trail, but I'd certainly like to try a few other parts. I felt humbled and honored to be on the AT. 

I knew this trip would teach me a few things.  Here are a few lessons learned about myself and my running:

1. I need to practice running with my running backpack (GoLite Rush pack).  My shoulders would ache after a 20 mile hike with a full running pack--water, food, clothes, supplies--that load adds up quickly.  Unfortunately, I'll need that full pack at the Canadian Death Race.

2. When taking pictures, make sure the settings are correct.  I had too many photos with the focus on the foreground rather than the background mountains which were my main target.

3. Vegetarian food is less available the farther you get from civilization.  Small rural towns are not veggie-friendly.  How do you "run out of" veggie burgers if they are on your menu?

4. My friends are in good shape...I'm in better shape. I doubt a couch potato could do the hikes we did.  While I might make fun of the "mountains" we hiked, there was a significant amount of elevation change and climbing.  I'm proud of myself and my fellow hikers.  We did alright!

5. I'm a runner, not a hiker.  When David Horton ran the full Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), he didn't walk it with a huge backpack...he ran it with a small pack and crew to resupply him along the way.  He's a runner. That's why the DVD documenting his PCT adventure is called "The Runner."  Very cool DVD.  I respect hikers, but I'm a runner.

6. I learned to have patience and accept what the trail and friends allow.  If the trail is rocky and full of roots...slow down and enjoy it.  If my friends are going slowly, hang with them and enjoy their companionship. I often get frustrated with slower runners and trails that prevent real running (too muddy, rocky, rooty, steep, etc).  I'm getting better at "going with the flow." 

My summary of the trip: it was a wonderful few days spent with great friends in the very picturesque Smoky Mountains.  Still, is that all you got GSM?  Bring on CDR (Canadian Death Race)!  I plan on taking both digital pictures and video at CDR.

NOTE:  For those that are interested in seeing more pictures from this trip, click here for a link to my Picasa photo site.


Tom Rice said...

You are way too obsessed with mileage and altitude and "moon walk miles" and "death races". Just hike and enjoy it. Want to know why I was behind at times. I just wanted to enjoy the hike. What's the hurry?

Chris Ⓥ said...

You gotta know what makes you happy. I am happy running...and occasionally running high miles or fast races or crazy adventure runs. At times, I can be happy "running" at 12 minute/mile pace. I can hike at 30 minute/mile pace and enjoy the hike. At other times, I'm not happy unless I'm blazing along a tough trail at 7:00 pace. I need to be challenged every once in a while so I incorporate crazy stuff every so often. Easy hiking is good. So is fast running.

Tom Rice said...

"You can see my comrades taking a rest break for water, snacks, and some pictures. Were they tired?"

Tired? No. Just being smart...and enjoying the trail.

Tom Rice said...

And more of my devil's advocate role:
"I often get frustrated with slower runners and trails that prevent real running (too muddy, rocky, rooty, steep, etc). I'm getting better at "going with the flow." -Chris Migotsky

I'll be they don't mow or clear the Canadian Death Race route. But you won't be running most of it anyway, only hiking. The Death Race is going to eat you up. Accept that fact and suffer. Go for it!

Chris Ⓥ said...

CDR will likely humble me. I just hope to finish...and beat the Rose character!

Tom Rice said...