Sunday, March 5, 2017

Ultra de LeCoontay

**Invite only. Must bring a growler of beer and ingredients for a potluck as an "entry fee."**

I fired off a text to OJG last Tuesday afternoon...

"So just kinda sunk in that I'm not a backpacker... 
Do you happen to have an actual backpacking pack and some trekking poles?" 

Though I've spent countless miles and hours roaming mountain tops and tramping through forests... I have NEVER actually put on an actual backpacking pack and hiked in gear for an overnight stay. Most of my long efforts have been a single push with the absence of sleep. Though backpacking (mostly fastpacking) has always sparked my interest... I just haven't broke down and invested in the gear. Thankfully I have adventurous and generous friends that will let me borrow their gear from time to time.

"Don't think I'm going to make it to Oak Mtn... Hump has the backpack and poles." 

I met Hump Thursday afternoon at Oak Mtn to pick up the pack and poles and for a chilly night trail half marathon...

Once we wrapped up... I scooted on over to the Beer Hog and filled up my favorite growler with some local goodness for the fun run...

Since I had to take a half a day off on Wednesday to spend 4.5hrs getting 6 crowns on my top teeth... I couldn't bring myself to ask off a half day on Friday. So as soon as the clock struck 4pm I headed home, made a quick dinner, grabbed my gear and hit the road for the 5hr drive to the Smoky Mtns.
Initially I had hoped for that half day off so I could get up to the Smoky Mtns mid afternoon and up to the lodge a little after dinner. The late departure would have had me starting my hike up the mountain around 11pm and I didn't want to disturb anyone who was already asleep by rolling in around 1am. Instead... OJG offered me a place to stay at their cabin near the NOC. Even though it was an hour away from Alum Cave trail head... it was nice to throw down the sleeping bag in a warm environment opposed to the back of my car. I arrived at the cabin a little after midnight, laid out my gear for the weekend and finally fell asleep around 1am.

My first alarm went off at 430am. I turned on the lamp and dozed in and out of sleep until my 3rd alarm went off at 500am. I heated up my breakfast burrito and was on the road by 515am heading towards the trail head.

I started my hike up Alum Cave around 630am. I knew it would be slow moving with the heavy pack and ice on the trail so I gave myself a 2hr window for a leisurely hike up to the lodge. It was an absolutely gorgeous morning! I got up to the Alum Cave Bluff as the first light started hitting the distant mountains. I made sure to stop and take a Candice Burt Selfie for Matty Fierce...

There was more ice on the trail than I expected. Most of it was very visible but I managed to find a well blended sheet  and took a pretty hard fall which bloodied my thumb a bit. But like the old saying goes... "a bloody thumb is better than a busted growler."

It was evident as I made the last turn up towards the lodge that we had been blessed with a picture perfect day for fun run.

I arrived at the lodge about 30 minutes before the fun run was supposed to start. I walked around a bit searching for signs of life and finally heard a muffled voice coming from a room off the main dining hall. I walked around back and opened a door to a small room full of people. Though I had actually never met a single person in the room... the atmosphere was warm and inviting... it was like walking into my Mamaw Tiny's kitchen full of close family members. I firmly believe there is no such thing as "strangers" among mountain lovers and adventurers. Initially Ash and Dan were going to join me for the fun run... it was to be a DayQuan/NighQwon/Phootwan adventure... but life happens and unfortunately they couldn't make it.

After JP finished his spiel about the details of the fun run... he showed me to my cabin where I quickly changed clothes and packed my vest. After a few introductions and a quick picture... it was time to set out for a long, fun day on the trails!

We started down the Trillium Trail...

It was a little slow moving at first with the ice and clustered group...

The ice started to disappear and people began to spread out once we really got into the descent. For the first couple of miles I got to chat with a super chill guy named Seth. I was almost disappointed to tail away from him when we arrived at Trillium Gap. He continued down Trillium and continued straight towards Brushy Mountain.

What I really love about these types "fun runs"  is the flexibility and non competitive attitude behind them. If you wanted to run hard you could run hard. If you wanted to go check out sights and places that were not on the route... you could venture off as you please. If you wanted to stop at the half way point and start drinking colbeer... you could stop at the halfway point and drink colbeer. From the get-go I had looked at this fun run as a laid back, enjoyable but tough effort in the mountains. I hadn't really had a long outing in the mountains since October and was looking to get a lot of solid climbing and time on my feet. Since I hadn't been up to Brushy Mtn in years I took advantage of the fun run flexibility and opted for the half mile or so out and back to the summit. I did not disappoint. This summit is especially beautiful in the summer when the rhododendrons are in bloom! 

I removed my jacket before heading back down to rejoin the Trillium Trail. Once I got back on the trail I started the long descent passing Tori (I think?). After scaling a downed tree... I managed to misplace a step and take a tumble. Good news: Tori didn't see my fall... Bad news: I tweaked my ankle a bit. Though the ole ankle felt weak the rest of the day and would still be a little bruised and swollen come Monday morning... it loosened up by the time I hit Grotto Falls.

After connecting a trail over to the start of the Rainbow Falls trail... I met up with a group that was chilling at the start of the trail.

I spent the entire ascent of Rainbow with this group (Jeff, Ted, Chas Scott, Ryan)

Just before we arrived at Rainbow Falls... we came across Jennifer Pharr Davis soaking up some warm sunshine with her youngest. It's always cool to see complete badasses out and about :)

We continued the ascent and passed through some areas that had been scorched by the recent fires. Still can't believe the devastation they caused....

When we got back to the lodge (roughly the half way point) I stuffed my face with some donuts and mini Snickers. I had eaten the second half of my Arby's roast beef sandwich during the Rainbow ascent but was still hungry. After refilling my soft flasks I set out down the Boulevard Trail towards Charlies Bulge with the Indiana crew: Jeff, Ted and Chas.

Charlies Bulge (aka: Charlies Bunion if you want the technical and real term) was packed with tourists. The Bulge is easily accessible from Newfound Gap which makes it one of the top destinations along the Appalachian Trail in Tennessee.

After hanging out a bit on the Bulge... we started the trek back up towards the lodge.

The trail was mostly ice free but there were a few semi sketchy spots where it took some slow navigating...

Those pinks shorts tho.... how can you not love this guy?!

The fun run just so happened to also be Chas's 29th birthday! We calculated that a quick little out and back to Myrtle's Point would just so happen to perfectly allow Chas to run 29 miles... so of course... we Myrtle'd it up!

I am extremely grateful that the Indiana boys let me tag along with them all day!

We took the final steps down to the lodge to wrap up a glorious 29 mile/ 7700ft gain fun run!

After a quick change into warm clothes, we all grabbed a beer and hiked up to the Cliff Tops to watch the sunset.

Once the sun disappeared over the horizon we hiked back down to the lodge in a soft blue-orange glow.

We all crammed into the kitchen for a delicious mac and cheese dinner!

After singing happy birthday and presenting Chas with a birthday brownie...

The "entry fees" were put to good use...

It was fun talking and getting to know so many people. I spent a good amount of time talking with Ryne and Jeff of Nashville. It turned out that we had a few mutual friends and great passions for "fun run" self supported type adventures. I'm really looking forward to venturing out with these guys in the future!

After my fair share of "entry fees" I was ready to call it an early night. Maybe it was the lack of sleep or the 34 miles/10,000ft of gain day... but I found myself saying goodnight and walking back to my cabin far earlier than expected. The city lights twinkling in the distance were pretty... but the sky was gorgeous. A bright thumbnail moon and a million stars lit the frigid walk back to the cabin. It didn't take long before I was warm, cozy and drifting to sleep in my sleeping bag.

I woke up a little after sunrise the next morning and headed down to the kitchen for some breakfast. JP and company cooked up some delicious maple glazed cinnamon rolls and an egg-kale-bacon blend that was heavenly. After some warm conversation and hot coffee I said my goodbyes and started the run/hike back down the mountain.

I am so thankful to have been a part of what I have dubbed the "Ultra de LeCoontay." These are the types of weekends that reignite my love for mountain adventures and the culture and people that come along with them. Long, hard efforts in beautiful Appalactic terrain with not so stranger-like strangers... this is what mountain running is all about.

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