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Runtrails' 2005 AT Journal
 
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DAY 25:  TUESDAY, MAY 24
 
Start: US 19E/Elk Park, TN                                
End:  Dennis Cove/USFS 50, TN
Today's Miles:                       23.9
Cumulative Miles:              379.3
   
 
"All of our relos are longer than the original AT."
- stated proudly by Ken, a trail maintenance volunteer with the Tennessee-Eastman Hiking Club (TEHC)
 


Volunteers with the TEHC and thru-hikers building new trail ("relo") before the Moreland Gap shelter. 

Large tree on the Trail in today's section.  5-25-05

I've mentioned "relos" before. They are the ubiquitous relocations along the AT where old sections of trail are replaced by newer ones.

There are several reasons for relos. The most common are to prevent erosion and to utilize newer, protected land acquisitions so the Trail is more remote and peaceful.

And sometimes they're designed to make life easier for the hikers!

I've noticed a large number of relos since leaving the Smokies. They are easy to spot, even if they are several years old. I can see where the Trail used to go and where it reconnects.

I know to follow the new blazes, though. The AT guidebooks repeatedly tell hikers to follow the blazes, no matter what the directions say in the guidebooks. I read the directions each day, but don't usually carry them with me. Today I did because there were a lot of turns.

The TN/NC guidebook I'm using was last updated in 2001. Recent updates are posted on the ATC website, but they don't go back that far. So today I got a nasty little surprise concerning relos: a bonus of at least 4 1/2 miles, according to my new TEHC buddies, Ken and Ed.

My pace is so doggone slow recently that I've been wondering if the relos are adding significant mileage. Now I know for a fact that they sometimes do.

SKIPPING AHEAD

I wrote yesterday about my newest injury, a sore left inner quad muscle that really hurts on the downhills. It's sore higher up than the quad/knee that hurt on the other leg a couple weeks ago, and isn't swollen. But, man, it hurt on steep downhills yesterday.

I've learned to compensate for sore quads with my "good leg/bad leg" coping strategy: lead with the sore leg downhill and the good leg uphill. Both techniques minimize stress on the "bad" quad but take a lot of concentration when I encounter rocks and steps.

One of my three "rules" for this trek is adaptability and flexibility. Today was a great example of when both were required.

After icing the heck out of my leg last evening, I decided to go ahead and run/walk an easier section today than the planned 26-miler that includes Roan Mountain. I spent some time this morning reading about sections farther up the Trail, and decided to skip to the section planned for tomorrow. Although the guide book said it included some steep ups and downs, the elevation profile didn't look so bad.

And it was "only" 19.4 miles.

I gave Jim an estimate of eight hours so I could do a lot of walking to give the quad a break.

SMOOTH AS SILK

Jim dropped me off about 8:25 AM at the trailhead on US 19E, where signs were posted strongly advising hikers not to leave cars parked because of continual vandalism. My leg felt fine. The day was sunny and cooler than normal. Perfect!

And the Trail. Oh, my. I've never seen such nice, smooth trail! Even better than a couple days ago. I had to really try later in the day to fall (that's five!) over a little snag.

Soon I was going up a wet, weedy path through a valley meadow. Although there weren't many flowers (very few on this whole section, for some reason), it was a beautiful valley and the views at the top were the best all day.

My strategy was to walk most of today. After about 45 minutes, I couldn't stand just walking. The Trail was so smooth, it just begged to be run! I started running the flat and gentle grades slowly to minimize stress on the quad, which felt fine for about five hours.

WHERE THE HECK AM I?

The Trail was easy to follow up and down meadows, through woods, past a little cemetery, in and out of dark, dense rhododendron forests, and along a river.

River? I don't remember reading anything about a river in this section. Maybe it's Laurel Fork? No, too big.

Out come the directions. I've gone about two hours now, and should be six to seven miles into the run. What I'm reading about where I've been . . . doesn't jive with where I've been!

Paranoia creeps in. Did I head the wrong direction from Hwy.19? Am I really headed for Dennis Cove, where Jim is to pick me up? I know I went north, doggone it! What's wrong with these directions??

Not all trailheads have those nice signs that tell me how far it is to the next gap or shelter. Most gaps and knobs and summits don't have signs. The best gauge of miles I had for today's section was the location of the sole shelter at 11.6 miles.

So I'm running and walking and just loving the nice smooth Trail that has no killer ascents or descents, noticing I'm on several relos but not thinking much beyond that basic fact. Most of the Trail is very pretty, except for one section about two miles long that has been recently burned, I suppose to clear out some of the dense rhodo growth. I'm disappointed that none of the trees are blooming yet.

I've been running probably 45% of the time for about five hours. I certainly should be at that shelter by now! In 1990, an earlier shelter was torched by locals and never re-built. I wonder if I either missed the sign for the shelter or it's also gone.

I start feeling like a hamster on a wheel, not getting anywhere. And my directions still are cock-eyed. They describe some other place, not where I've been!

Worse, my left quad is starting to hurt and it's raining a bit.

GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS

Then I come upon two trail volunteers spreading leaves over a brand new section of Trail that goes around a mountain instead of up and over it. What a concept!! I can see the old trail, which they've just "closed" off by laying a bunch of tree branches across the bottom of it. I look up. And up. That trail went up at an obscenely steep pitch!

We chatted a bit and I asked what happened to the Moreland Gap shelter. Oh, it's another two miles up the Trail, Ken says.

WHAT???  I've gone only 11.6 miles in five hours???

No, Ken says. Because of all the recent relos the club has built in the section I've just run (including the new Elk River relo), I've already gone about 15 miles. That's when he proudly told me his club's relos always add mileage. The one his group was finishing today was designed to avoid one of the steep ups and downs in this section by winding around the mountain instead of going over the top.

Stop and think about it. If a trail zigzags up a mountain via switchbacks, it's going to be longer than going straight up and over - and the grade will be easier on your legs and lungs. Same thing with a relo that traverses around a mountain and has gentle ups and downs. Pretty obvious. I'd considered it before on those days when I just knew I was running more miles than advertised, but it just hadn't registered in my brain this morning.

So the good news was that 1) I wasn't going crazy - I was on the right trail; and 2) the relos I'd been on today eliminated several very steep climbs and descents, which was good for my sore quad. For once, I think the guidebook's estimate of elevation gain was too high at 6,500 feet, since several relos didn't go to the tops of the mountains.

The bad news, of course, was that I had chosen a 23.9-mile section to run today instead of a 19.4-mile section! Fortunately, I carry more than enough fluids and food than I usually need each day. This would mean another 1 1/2 to 2 hours on the Trail.

The other bad news was that I still had about eight miles to get to the rendezvous point with Jim. And although there were at least three more relos to avoid steep grades (and another one planned soon before and after the shelter), there were several steep ups and downs to come.

INITIATING THE TRAIL

I was happy when Ken and his buddy suggested I be the very first hiker to use their brand new trail section (about 1/2 mile long). It was a surprise to the volunteers I found along the way, who didn't realize anyone would be coming through yet! But they were all cheerful and happy to see me. I chatted with all of them, thanking them for their hard work.

Ed, who designed this relo, also confirmed that this section is 4.5 miles longer than the guide says, and will be even longer when the Konnarock crew builds the new section around the Moreland Gap shelter in a couple of weeks. Too bad it wasn't already done - killer hills!

There were five men doing the trail work from the Tennessee Eastman Hiking Club. One runs the popular Kincora hostel near Dennis Cove. Two days a week he does trail work and encourages hikers from the hostel to take a day off to work. Four thru-hikers were out there today.

The one I talked to the most was Josh, a nice young man who is a marathon runner. He's been doing some running downhill during his thru-hike. Although he's not technically a fast-packer, his pack is about 30 pounds and he finds it easier to run downhill than walk.

He hiked this section yesterday and knew how runnable it is, so this morning he ran the eight-plus miles from the hostel to the work site, and back this afternoon after the trail work was done. He blew by me a little while after we talked and let Jim know I was coming when he passed him hiking up the Trail to meet me at the end.

Josh's trail name is "Pizza the Hut," after a character in a Star Wars movie spoof. He plans to thru-hike in five months, so I'll probably see him again in a few days up the Trail. He's keeping track of Warren Doyle's group, which also spent last night at the hostel. They're doing a shorter section than usual today, only 13 miles (they need to average about 20 miles/day to get done by Labor Day).

Although there were many twists and turns today, the Trail was very well-marked. The TEHC has done a good job maintaining their trails, from what I've seen of their sections so far.

One thing I really like is the metal mesh (hardware cloth?) that they use on wooden bridges and logs across streams. There were a lot of stream crossings today and the Trail and logs were wet. The mesh makes the crossing much safer. Thanks! Good idea for other AT clubs to employ.

All of today's section was in Tennessee, but I still have to go back and do the previous 26-mile section that winds back and forth along the state line. When I'm done with that, I'll be out of North Carolina. And by this weekend, I'll be done with Tennessee. Progress!

INJURY WOES

I suppose I should have been a Good Girl and rested today. But the lure of the Trail is strong, and I have miles to go . . .

The last eight miles were not fun. I really had to employ that good leg/bad leg strategy. I even crept down the very long, very steep descent to the shelter backwards to take the stress off my quad.

I spent about ten minutes sitting at the shelter to massage the leg, put on some Bio Freeze (which doesn't seem to help), wrap one of my knee supports around my thigh (compression helps some), check on my water supply (guide book said to avoid the streams today because they're contaminated), and sign the register.

Warren Doyle signed yesterday, indicating he was glad his "work project" was now done and he could enjoy the rest of the journey to Katahdin. I like chasing his group; it's more fun to chase someone (like in a race) than it is to be chased!

The rest helped my leg, but I still had several steep ups and downs before I was done. The Trail remained smooth until the last couple miles. I was able to leave Jim a message about the extra mileage, but he didn't have a signal until we were about a mile apart. When I didn't get to the truck by 4:30, he and Cody came in to meet me. I was so slow, he hiked uphill 2.5 miles before getting to me. He knew the quad might be slowing me down, but he knew nothing until then about the bonus miles.

At least these are bonus miles I can count! I'm not sure if the ATC's figure of 2,175 miles includes recent relos or not. Doesn't matter, I guess. I still have to run/walk however many miles there are to Katahdin.

And every day I have to consider the possibility that 19.4 miles really means 23.9 miles, and be prepared for it.

CURRENT DILEMMA

Jim and I spent this evening trying to figure out when to rest, when to run, where to run, and where to camp this weekend. It's Memorial Day, when campsites are packed. He's found a nice national forest campground up near Damascus, VA, but we need to get there on Thursday to get a first-come, first-served site before the crowd gets there. It's too late to reserve a site.

That's a long way from some of the trail heads I need to get to!

I've come up with several plans, including staying in our current site all weekend. We love it here in Unicoi at the Woodsmoke Campground (privately owned). We're here for five days.

It's quiet, shaded, reasonably priced with our Good Sam discount ($21/day with full hook-ups), we are next to a little creek, and we have good cell phone and TV reception (nice to see the Desperate Housewives finale Sunday, and this week's Jeopardy series with Ken Jennings). We highly recommend this campground if you're in the Erwin, TN area.

But staying here all weekend would feel like we've stagnated, like we aren't making any progress. So we're going to move tomorrow and just drive ridiculously long distances back down here a couple times to trail heads.

I considered cutting the next two long segments into halves, but it will take forever to get to VA that way. I'm definitely taking tomorrow off to rest and ice the body parts that are stressed, and elevate my legs. My mind wants to keep going, but my body is screaming for a break.

After all, I'm not 35 any more!! (Darn it.)

Tomorrow I'll entertain you with tales of where my mind wandered today regarding the love-hate relationship between local residents and the Appalachian Trail. Some towns are known for embracing the hikers, while Erwin, TN still has a negative reputation to overcome.

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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2005 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil