Monday, August 29, 2016
2016 Table Rock ---> Blowing Rock FKT Attempt
The idea for running the Mountains-to-Sea Trail from Table Rock to Blowing Rock didn't come from wanting an FKT, but from trying to find an enjoyable long run that was point to point and relatively easy logistically. Originally, Dennis and I had talked about it as a training run, but with him having had recent knee surgery, he ruled out attempting the entire 51ish miles. While we had five people taking part, I was the only one scheduled to try the entire run. Ray would run from Table Rock to Highway 181 and then back to his car. Doug and Dennis were going 31 miles of it, to Beacon Heights. And Lee was going to meet me at Beacon Heights for the final 20 or so miles. The finish was to be at Cone Manor, where my wife would pick us up.
On a red-sunrise August 27th morning, an originally planned 6:30 start ended up being 7:10. I had told Lee to expect me around 1:00, allowing six hours to cover the 50K distance. I figured 10 or 11 hours to complete the entire distance, based solely on it being a little harder than other 50-milers I had done. My Mountain Masochist times were just above and below nine hours, but this had more trail and one MM year had 15 miles of snow.
With little fanfare, we started down from the summit, knowing that the first five miles or so would be a plunge (albeit sometimes technical) down to Steele Creek. Doug and I are both registered for Grindstone. This was to be my last big long-run while he was going to do the Iron Mountain 50-miler the following weekend. Though we were at almost 4,000', it was definitely not cool and the forecast was predicting low 90s for the day. I had my water filter, a 20oz bottle, and two 16 ounce pouches I use to store unfiltered water. I was carrying a PB&J on an English muffin, several bars and gels, along with eight S-caps, some Tums, and some Advil, just in case.
It's an enjoyable run down to Steele Creek that gets "shorter" the more times I cover that stretch of trail. I do tend to forget about the few steep, but short, uphill stretches along the way. The final portion down to the Creek is obviously much easier coming down than going up. Dennis had parked his car at the Highway 181 crossing (mile 9) and we figured roughly two hours to reach it. It ended up being about two and a half hours. It's a tough climb back out of Steele Creek and we certainly were not running hard, but it was a bit of a letdown to already be a half-hour off pace. I held out hope that things would speed up over the next few miles as I knew some of it to be smoother running. My biggest concern was that I also knew there likely would be no cell signal from here to Beacon Heights, meaning I had no way to contact Lee if we were significantly off pace. At Dennis's car, we refilled with water and Ray headed back to the Table Rock parking lot.
It was already starting to get warm and the humidity was only making it worse. The trail is largely in the shade, which helps some, but the rhododendron and tree canopy could only do so much against temperatures which were crossing into the 80s and continuing to rise. I had wisely brought one of my running caps which meant I could soak it in creek water at the crossings. It quickly became a ritual for all of us any time there was enough water where you weren't picking up a bunch of dirt and mud as well. We were, as I had expected, able to run a good bit of this. Not at a full gallop, but definitely better than walk pace. So, my optimism on our arrival time began to be restored.
When we reached the dirt road intersection, where turning right meant continuing along the TRU 50-miler route, we continued left along the MST. I had only been on this next stretch once, when I helped with the Diane van Deren MST through-hike several years ago. I really could only remember bits and pieces of it, but did remember where it ended, roughly 25 miles from the Table Rock parking lot. That was a good 10-12 miles away at the moment. Soon, we were blessed with regular creek crossings to help offset the rising temperatures. When we reached the large crossing of Harper Creek, we even soaked down our shirts after refilling water containers. The cool creek water would help us for a while. I even pulled out my water-absorbing neck-wrap I had used at Western States and soaked it down. It worked reasonably well, but didn't stay ice cold very long and wanted to spin around to where the damp part was on the front of my neck.
While here, I sent Lee a text warning him that we were only about halfway to Beacon and it was noon. I didn't have signal, but hoped it would keep trying to send as we went along. I actually recalled that I had been here before with the MST volunteers on a work day and had just forgotten it. However, unlike that day, we'd be heading up along Harper Creek rather than straight out toward Wilson Creek. And it was up as we climbed well above Harper Creek Falls with only a tiny gap of the trees to see it through. Around this point, Dennis's hip flexor was bothering him. Once past the falls, it seemed like we were crossing the creek with increasing frequency. And this wasn't 10' wide rock hopping crossings. These were all 80-100' wide, 2-3' deep crossings. While they felt good, it really slowed things down. The clock continued to tick away with 1:30 coming and going and us still a good ten to twelve miles to reach Beacon Heights. My text message I had sent to Lee earlier also said to bring a headlamp because I was already beginning to suspect we'd be running late.
After Dennis and I did another bottle and pouch refill, roughly seven miles out from Beacon Heights, I told them I would need to head on at a faster pace. It was completely due to Lee being there waiting. Had he not been at Beacon Heights, I wouldn't have cared about our pace. Doug had gotten a bit ahead during the water stop so I told him what I was doing as I went past. I actually ran pretty good up the hill. The next "landmark" was the Roseboro Road where I had finished my second day with Diane. I knew it was about twenty five miles from Table Rock because we had done twenty five miles both days I was with her. This meant there were roughly six miles left after reaching that road. I did miss one turn at a creek crossing and went some ways upstream without seeing the white MST dots before I backtracked and found my error. Unlike most spots, this turn wasn't marked with the two dots. I put a branch across the trail so Dennis and Doug might be more likely to notice the turn. Given how the last couple miles had gone, I should have known that if the trail came close to the creek, I was probably supposed to cross it. I got rained on for a bit after leaving Doug and Dennis, but it felt pretty good. It was one of those sun showers, where the sun is out while the rain is falling.
When I finally did come to the gravel road, I worried a little bit about spotting where it re-entered the woods, but I shouldn't have been concerned as there was a trailhead parking area down to Huntfish Falls. There was a small pickup truck who had gotten stuck in a ditch and was being pushed out by his friends. Since they were blocking the road, I waited for them to get him free. I might have helped but I felt like I smelled so bad at this point that no one would want me near them. It was bad enough passing hikers and worrying I might cause them to choke.
The trail down to Huntfish was welcomingly runnable so I took full advantage. I slowed for a few people hiking out, but largely had the trail to myself. My next landmark would be another road/parking area. I knew from that point it was about three miles to Beacon Heights. I knew it would be steep because I was still at a relatively low elevation (surely no more than 2,000' and Beacon is about 4,200'. So, back and forth across the Gragg Prong creek I went, still encountering the occasional hikers heading to a swimming spot. I ran where I could and fast-hiked where I had to until I finally emerged at Old House Gap, where I filtered some water from a pouch into my now empty bottle. I didn't know what time it was other than well after 1:00. My wife, Leslie, had hiked from here to Beacon Heights and back with a group of friends and said it was a tough stretch. I knew it had to climb a lot, but didn't know what to expect with the trail conditions. Strangely, it began by hiking up a washed out dirt road. This continued for quite some distance and I was treated to another rain shower as I walked. Unsure how much water I'd need, I opened my bottle and held it out as I walked, collecting rainwater. I doubt I captured very much, but every little bit might be useful. In my mind, I told myself I could fast hike this in an hour. I hesitated to run anywhere because I'd get hotter and I worried that there would be no spots to refill my water supply so the water I had on me had to last.
When the MST finally left the road (which continued on to somewhere) it got confusing. The trail is marked fine, but I was having trouble reconciling my direction and what I could see with where I thought I should be heading since I knew what Beacon Heights was like. Somewhere between, I think, one and two miles from Beacon, my cell phone chirped that I had a text. Apparently my message eventually got through to Lee about being at Wilson Creek, but I should have said Harper Creek to give him a better reference. He couldn't really tell how far that meant I had left. He also sent three messages that came through at once. My phone was wet so when I tried to respond, it sometimes through out gibberish. All I could get was "Somewhere below" meaning that I was somewhere below him, coming up the trail. He didn't understand what that meant and called Leslie to let her know where I was. I hadn't looked at the time but saw that I was sending my message at 4:39 p.m. I had told Leslie I might be at Cone Manor by 4:30 and here I was over twenty miles away from it.
When I finally reached the sign just above the parking lot, I texted Lee that I was going to go to the overlook. I knew I was done for the day. I was badly chafing and very dehydrated. I felt terrible that he had hung out waiting for a 20-mile run. Had I been able to get a message out earlier, I would have told him to go ahead and do his run and I'd see him back at Beacon when he finished. When I climbed out to the overlook, I could see a storm brewing between me and Table Rock and could occasionally hear thunder. I had no idea how far behind me Dennis and Doug might be. I tried texting Lee again but they didn't go through so I started back toward the parking lot. He was coming up before I got all the way there. I didn't realize he had never been to the overlook when he told me he wasn't sure how to get there. With the threat of a storm, he decided to save it for another day. He had a "drop bag" I had left with him so I had a change of shirt, socks and shoes. He also had water which I very much appreciated. It was better and colder than the filtered creek water. Lee hung around until Leslie arrived and then Leslie and I hung around to be sure Dennis and Doug came out safely.
They emerged somewhere around 6:15 so they had fallen roughly an hour and a quarter behind me in those last seven miles. Leslie and I took Dennis back to his car, with a brief detour to get takeout at The Italian Restaurant. The adventure began at 7:15 a.m. at the summit of Table Rock and ended prematurely at 5:00 p.m. at Beacon Heights. If there is not an FKT for Table Rock to Beacon Heights, I am certainly not submitting my time for it. It was a challenging stretch of trail, but cooler weather would have helped us all complete the distance much quicker. I hope to try it again during a cooler month as the trail a fun and scenic section of the MST to run/hike on.