10:00am Start - 49 degrees, rainy, and low cloud ceiling.
Section 1: Start - Mile 20 Grandfather
Profile Trail up and over Grandfather and out to Linn Cove Visitor Center all but runnable. The rocks and roots were slick as ever, which made for a long first section of hiking. After Beacon Heights, there was the first runnable section down to Gragg Prong Falls parking lot. By then, my feet had already started to become an issue with trench foot and blistering. My wife, daughter, and I decided to take time there to dry out my feet, eat a bit, and enjoy each others company. This would end up being the case for all aid station stops. It was time I did not necessarily want to take, but it was needed to ensure an actual finish and extra time to spend with my family.
Section 2: Mile 20-39 Lost Cove
I ventured off into Wilson Creek via the Lost Cove Trail where the majority of the water crossings occur. With all the rain from the previous storm that had just started to break, nearly all of the crossings were too high to skip over from rock to rock. For the next 9 miles until Raider Camp Trail, my shoes were continuously filled with water. I brought an extra pair of socks, some Gold Bond, and pizza for when I crossed the last water crossing. I took some time there to relax and enjoy as I filtered some water and let my feet dry out before the climb out to Greentown where I would meet my wife again.
Section 3: Mile 39-49 Greentown/Table Rock
Arrived at FS496 and again, took time here to dry out my feet, eat, and spend time with my wife. We talked to my best running buddy and pacer, Michael on the phone to discuss when he wanted to start. Original plan was to have him jump in at Woodlawn, but with all the excitement and eagerness, he wanted to start at Pinnacle. I gladly accepted and could not wait to start running with him. By now, my feet were in a lot of pain from being water logged and my knees were sore from all the slipping/jarring on the rocks for the last 40 miles. I gave my wife a kiss and off I went out on the next section. I would see her again at the Table Rock Parking Lot.
The section was a bit uneventful with the exception of seeing a couple small owls and spooking a bear. First time encountering a bear in the dark, which was quite the experience. I don't know who was more surprised to see each other, me or the bear. The climb up to Table Rock was a bit long, but not overwhelming at all. I got into the parking lot and was greeted by my wife and pup. There was a rock climbing event going on this weekend at Table Rock, so the parking lot was full of sleeping campers (it was now around midnight). We were quiet and took another 50-60 minutes to dry out my now cracking/peeling feet before heading out to the Table Rock decent out to Pinnacle.
Section 4: 49-60 Linnville River/Pinnacle
This section is where it started to get rough for me. Not from a muscular/mental fatigue standpoint, but for me feet and knees. They both felt like they were on fire, especially on the downhills. The descent to the Linville River crossing was almost unbearable. I was using my poles to help take the load off my legs, which helped a bit. About 2/3 of the way down the descent, I ran into a skunk on the trail. He meandered down the trail for about 20-30m before popping into the thick brush. I did the same, but on the other side to make sure he wasn't just off the trail and could spray me (been there before, not fun). Continued down the trail until I finally reached Linville River. Again, like Wilson Creek, the water was a tad high and looked about waist deep in spots. I knew that the Pinnacle climb was coming before reaching my wife and did not want to chafe. So I did what any other sane trail runner would do in the middle of the night when encountering a river crossing... Stripped down to my birthday suit, held my pack and clothes in one hand and poles/waist light in the other. Made it across feeling very "refreshed" had a good giggle to myself, dried off with the extra shirt I had in my pack, and made my way to the start of the Pinnacle climb. Made my way up, and was happy to see my wife and Michael. Now I knew the party had started. Spirits were up, the energy way high, and we were ready to start making this happen. Did my foot routine, ate, and then we were off.
Section 5: 60-75 Dobson Knob & the Demoralizer
I knew from here on out, we didn't have any major water crossings, so I started off with a fresh pair of dry shoes. We hoppled down NC 105 for the first half mile while my feet started to adjust to moving again. Hit the trail and off Michael and I went. It was such a relief to have him with me. We spent most of the time catching up on life as it was the first time we've seen each other since our Hot Springs training run in January. Life was good and lots of smiles. Made our way through to the other side of 105 before the technical section of Dobson Knob ridge. Dawn was just starting and we could see the silhouette of Grandfather, Table Rock, and the BMCT. This is the only spot on the route that you can see it in it's entirety. It was absolutely surreal to be up there with the sun coming up, giving us light to see the past, present, and future that awaits us. It was as if we were in a movie scene. We carried on the ridgeline, my feet and knees cursing at me with every off camber step and loose rock that slipped out from under me and down the Demoralizer. Switchback after switchback, thorn bush after thorn bush, we made it down mountain. Although the trail was annoying to say the least, the view of the fog lifting off the Catawba River basin and blanketing the floor like a layer of pillows was breathtaking. One we got to the jeep roads, we cruised into Woodlawn where my wife was waiting for us with food in hand and a smile on her face. That smile never gets old. Ever.
We did some quick math in our heads and realized that all the extra time spent on my feet (nearly 4 extra hours), really cut into my overall goal time. We knew that the goal time of 26:00 would not be attainable from the get-go and decided it would just be a fun birthday run, but we never really did any calculations up until now in regards to where I stood against the FKT. We knew that the next 25 miles had almost 10K of climbing with only about 3.5K of descent. Quick back of the napkin math with factoring the climbing in and the fact that I could no longer effectively run downhills because of my knees and feet, I would be close to the 32:00 mark. Downed two McDonald's Sausage Egg and Cheese McMuffins and hashbrowns, filled up the packs and off we went. It was time to boogie.
Section 6: 75-87 Woods Mountain
Got on the MST and hiked in to let the feet start working again. Got into the ultra-shuffle on the jeep road for a couple miles until we hit the Woods Mountain Trail. Neither Michael or I had been on this section, but we knew according to the topo maps, we were in for one 2,100ft+ climb followed by two 500 footers. We got our poles ready and settled into the first climb. It was long, but the grade was manageable. I recall telling Michael, "I'm going to push this one a bit, I don't want to fall off pace." So off we went, clicking each mile in the targeted time that I was hoping for in my head. We recovered up, then shuffled until the downhills. The dowhills were just steep enough that I could not run them. My knees were wrecked. Got to the second climb and repeated the hard effort up, recover on top, ,crutch down on my pole. Hit the last climb with the same effort, recovered up top, rounded the corner, then could see off in the distance the Buck Creek Gap Parking Lot. But more importantly, my truck and my wife. We meandered our way off the ridgeline, skirted another peak, then descended to the parking lot. We knew from here on out, it was business. So we quickly filled up our packs, tended to my feet, put on fresh socks, kissed my wife, and off we went to what we thought would be the most runnable section of the course, the drop into Briar Bottom.
Section 7: 87- 95 Big Laurel and Briar Bottom
We crossed under the parkway and up the embankment to the MST trailhead. According to the profile, we had only about 1,200+/-1,500 over about 8 miles. Piece of cake. Similar to the previous section, this was new to us until we hit Neals Creek. There was no cake on this section... Just ankle biters, roots, and off camber trail. My feet and knees again, hated me. I politely told them to hush as we pressed on, running where it was runnable. A lot of the trail was so narrow and off camber that Michael and I were slipping off the bank. Erosion central from miles 2-6. Once we dropped into Neals Creek area, I knew where we were from training runs and Hellbender 100 as that was part of the course, just in the opposite direction. We made our way to towards the campground, overshot our turn and headed up towards Green Knob. Oops. We were so used to running on the MST, we passed the Upper River Loop Trail and tacked on an extra 0.4-0.5 miles. Oh well, that's trail running for you.
We got into the final aid station where we saw my wife and daughter again. With all the pushing in the last 20 miles, we made up some time and knew the FKT was in reach as long as we stayed on target. I got the biggest hug from my daughter and wife, one I'll never forget. I looked at Michael and said, "We're leaving now. Let's do this, I want it." With a high five from him, a kiss from my wife, and another hug from my daughter, we were off. We knew what was in store, Mount Mitchell.
Final Section: Mount Mitchell
We crossed the bridge and set off on the Mount Mitchell Trail. This was the first time in the entire run that we had seen anyone on the trail, and there were tons. It was a cool fall afternoon, a perfect day for people to be out. It was refreshing and made me happy to see so many people enjoying the trails. We settled into the climb and decided that we would take it conservatively to ensure that we didn't burn out halfway up. Made it up to the start of the powerline cuts and I looked down at my watch. I realized that we have a chance to break 31:00 if we kept pressing on. I asked Michael and he confirmed that my math was right. So on we pressed up the trail to Buncombe North Range, then turned up the final ascent. I told Michael "I want to make it one last push up here. I don't want to miss Sub 31:00." He agreed and we pushed up the climbs and ran the "flats" up to the summit. We hit the last 0.5 miles of the trail where the boulders and signs were, I knew we did it. We made it. I began to tear up and get emotional. Two years in the making and I finally did it. My adrenalin kicked in, my pain, went away, I felt nothing but ecstasy. We came out onto the pavement and all we could hear is the roaring of my family waiting for me up at the top. Michael and I ran it in together, we touched the sign, and stopped my watch. We. Did. It.
I held back my tears as I embraced my wife and daughter. I could not believe that we had done it. Two years in the making and we did it. Together. My Mother-In-Law, Sister-In-Law, Niece, and Nephew were there as well. I was beyond ecstatic to see all of them. We took pictures at the top, then went down to the car to change and celebrate. They surprised me with a birthday cake and gifts, I felt so gracious and thankful to have such a wonderful family. We relaxed for a little bit, then were welcomed by one of the most beautiful sunsets that we've ever seen. What a perfect way to end such an amazing and emotional journey.
All of the planning, the work, the dedication of my family to help me finish my goal. It was over. We did it. There was no arch to run under, no finishers buckle, no crowd (with the exception of a handful of people at the summit). This is exactly what I want, and needed. It was the first time I completed an effort over 50 miles where I actually felt proud. Not because of the time, not because of the place, but how the journey went. There were no hiccups, there were no issues (other than the feet and knees, which were unavoidable), only happiness on the trail. I could not have done with without the support of my wife, Jen, my daughter, Bella, and my best running partner, Michael. My Dream Time.
Now on a more serious note (and likely why anyone may have read my experience), here are some tips that I have for you if you attempt the route:
Weather - I would not recommend attempting the route in the rain like I did. Between having to slow down for the first 40 miles, feet were an issue. A dry day is a happy day on the MST.
Gear - Poles and gaiters are a must. Both are pretty explanatory. You'll want a water filter for Wilson Creek as it is a 19 mile section. Last chance for water in that section is at Raider Camp, then it is a 9 mile trek to the next chance for aid. Extra shoes and socks are a must for a rainy day, likely want them for dry too as you'll likely get wet in Wilson as well as crossing the Linville River.
Course Overall - Very rocky and forces you to slow down a lot at times. Be patient, don't get discouraged. Just enjoy the journey. It's a mountain run, not a groomer. The climbs are all manageable as long as you train effectively.
Most importantly, enjoy the route. It is absolutely breathtaking, and for the most part, in areas that are off the beaten path of the tourist attractions.