Friday, April 13, 2012

AT thru Shenandoah National Park... in One Swell Foop

Over 5 months in 1994, I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, still the single adventure in my life I consider to be the best, most meaningful, in every way.  I had dabbled in ultrarunning pre-AT (JFK in '92 and '93) but got way more into the sport after my thru-hike and had a lot of fun revisiting different sections of the Trail by doing big chunks in one push as "training" for ultras:  the ~70 AT miles through the Great Smoky Mountains twice; the 40'ish Quad State Quad Buster (or 4 State Challenge), PA to VA thru MD and WV;  NY to MA thru CT in a day, about 50 miles; numerous long run/hikes on the AT/Long Trail in Vermont; the ~50 miles from Kinsman Notch to Hanover, NH, 4 times; and the 50'ish White Mtns. Hut Traverse (many but not all miles on the AT) 4 times as well.  The almost 100 miles of AT thru Shenandoah National Park had been on my radar for a long time, but I wasn't able to make it happen until last weekend.
When Chris was offered a work gig in DC a couple of months ago, I politicked for some extra days on the front end of the trip in order to finally attempt the Shenandoah AT section...  and also politicked for Chris to crew me.  Yay, he agreed!  Other runners I know have done the SNP miles in 2 or even 3 days, and the year Chris turned 50 he ran from the finish line at Mountain Masochist all the way to Front Royal, a distance of ~150 miles over 5 days...  but I wanted to do the entire section in one push.  Since the AT crosses or touches/abuts Skyline Drive about 50 times (for real), that meant I could go very light and was able to meet Chris about every 5 miles.

After some deliberation re start time, realizing that the nighttime hours were going to be long and, umm..., "contemplative" no matter when I started, I decided to set off around 3 p.m. on Saturday after a yummy lunch at Stone Soup in Waynesboro.  The first 20 miles or so before sunset went very well, with the Trail seeming somewhat easier on the southern end of the park, that sense undoubtedly complemented by fresh legs.  In the photo below I am not trying to make a fashion statement -- in fact, it's the first time I've worn calf sleeves while running -- but rather, after a nasty experience with a deer tick in the Shenandoahs a couple of years ago, I am *paranoid* of ticks and the horrible diseases they carry.  The sleeves and gaiters were there solely as tick armor.  (They worked.)
As darkness descended, I (smugly, I'll admit) thanked my lucky stars that I am not afraid of the dark and of being alone on the trail at night.  After all, I figured the only thing to "fear," other than ticks, is humans... and most of the perverts of the world aren't waiting at road crossings on Skyline Drive for lone female runners.  The nighttime hours were long, as expected, but thankfully sleepiness was never an issue -- I stayed wide awake and alert the whole night through without the aid of caffeine.  The full moon was spectacular!!  One unexpected occurrence was encountering a small fire atop Bearfence Mountain just off the trail.  (We reported it to the park rangers the next day.  They already knew about it and were sending crews up to take care of it.)  At about 4 a.m. a skunk appeared on the path ahead of me, and I cautiously followed it for about a couple hundred yards before it finally veered off the trail, thankfully without feeling threatened enough to spray me.  Wildlife sightings were an all-time low for me in SNP:  only 6 deer and no bear.  I did hear one whip-poor-will for just a few seconds which, stirring up fond memories of the nighttime hours at Massanutten, put a big smile on my face.
Easter sunrise was a welcomed sight -- it was absolutely beautiful.  The weather had been great throughout the night -- a bit cold (40s) if I stopped for too long but relatively calm and needing to cover my legs only from about 4-6 a.m.  Sunday was a slight bit cooler and quite breezy on the ridge but very nice for running.  Oddly, there were a couple of early afternoon hours where the temps actually got warm and, with the lack of full leaf coverage, I got a tiny bit of sunburn.  As the hours and miles progressed, my "run" became more and more of a fast hike, but I put little pressure on myself.  The main goal was to complete the miles, not set any records.  I did notice around the 24-hour mark that I'd made it to Elkwallow Gap which is about mile 80.  Woohoo.
After meeting me one last time at Jenkins Gap, Chris got us a room in Front Royal before driving around and picking me up at the foot of the Compton Gap Trail.  I'd scoped out the shortest escape route from the northern SNP terminus, and it was only 0.7 mile to the car.  And, just like that, I was done.  Yippee!  Having not done this kind of mileage since the Bear 100 in September of 2010, I really had no business attempting 96 miles in one push but was pleased with how well my body responded.  Only the balls of my feet were sore.  I blame that on the rocks of the Shenandoahs which I'd somehow forgotten about.  My Salomon Speedcross shoes and Drymax socks performed excellently:  not once did I take off my shoes or so much as adjust a lace, and I suffered nary a blister!

As we discussed dinner on the short drive back to Front Royal, I surprised Chris by saying "Screw it, let's just go to Burger King for Whoppers."  It was my second BK visit since college.  It tasted awesome!!


Olga said...

This sounds like a wonderful adventure! I think once we have enough experience, our bodies really are ok with long continuous miles no matter our "preparation" in normal term. I am glad you had a wonderful time with full moon and no ticks or other things dangerous:)

Anonymous said...

Well done, Sue! A classic section of the AT indeed.

mkirk said...


Just awesome! Glad you had a chance to get out and traverse the SNP. Congrats!

mtnrunr said...

Congrat's Sue! Always enjoy following yor "Adventures"...may they never end :)

Unknown said...

Ah I love this! Thanks for sharing :) I'm attempting it this weekend - Easter weekend, just like you!

Unknown said...

I loved reading about your SNP run. The list of trails you've completed is really impressive and inspiring!
I am going to attempt to run through SNP in October, I will have a friend supporting me as I go, and I was wondering how many hours it took you to complete? I am a thru hiker really, just experimenting with trail running, but I am addicted to covering ground fast. I am working on completing my second full hike of the AT and I figured what better way to re-visit SNP than to really challenge myself and try to push all the way through in one go. My goal is 30 hours, but just to finish in any amount of time would feel like a huge accomplishment. If you have any advice or tips, I would be so grateful! Happy Trails!