My second attempt at the Foothills Trail started at 9:38am from Oconee state park. I knew I’d be running in more darkness but, as I promised my grandmother, I had two light sources this time.
Due to gray weather, the trail was mostly empty and I ran solo for hours, (I saw only 3 hikers the entire run) crunching through a leaf covered trail. The parts of the trail I had run before sunrise were enjoyable to see in daylight. I focused on keeping a consistent and steady pace. Having learned this year that I can keep running long after I want to keep running, I ran most of the flats and downhills, though my uphill pace eventually began to wane.
When the sun set around 5:30pm, I pulled out my Kogalla wasit light and kept on trucking. I refilled water for the first time, annoyed at myself for waiting so long as managing my pack and bottles was trickier with less light. But I got enough and kept on going. (And going and going and going). The Foothills Trail is full of sections that look and feel so similar to other sections it can be difficult to feel as if you are making any progress at all.
When I finally hit the point I quit last year, I felt a surge of triumph. This was it, 14 or so miles and I would be done! Little did I know the last miles would be some of the hardest. A drizzle had set in, soaking the leaves on the ground which in turn soaked my shoes, my socks, my feet.
The climb up to Chimneytop Gap seemed never ending, and when I emerged at the treeline of Sassafras Mountain I was unsure where the trail continued. After a few back and forths, I managed to reconnect to the trail and enjoyed a mile or two of soft pine needle running before I was back to the rooty, rocky, classic East Coast heartbreaker trail.
My watch seemed behind on miles, my GPX seemed to show over 10 miles left, but the sign said 9.2…what was reality anymore? Tired at well past 2am I just slogged on, knowing the only way to know how far it really was to the finish would be to finish.
I did my best to keep running flats and downs, though nothing seemed flat or down. When I finally got to the granite outcropping of Table Rock I was thrilled, ready to run four miles down to the finish. And I did my best, but those four miles felt like the most technical I had yet encountered. (perhaps Table Rock to Oconee is better for speed?) Steep, covered in large rocks and thick roots. No more railroad tie stairs (yay?) but more difficult. I had re-set my goal for under 20 hours, 24 minutes, but at the trailhead junction, I again was confused which way was the nature center and “finish line”.
Sighing, I slowed down, pulled out my GPX, forded a final river, and jogged until I saw lights through the trees. I had made it! 20:35:04. I stopped my watch by the Foothills sign in the parking lot at 6:13am. Even though it was barely 6am, the restrooms were open and I was able to brush my teeth while I waited for my sister to pick me up. (Gels do not have the best aftertaste).
I limped to the gate of the state park, having finished before official visiting hours began. I climbed in the car and promptly fell asleep.
Overall, The Foothills Trail is gorgeous, and very well maintained thanks to a dedicated local group (Foothills Trail Conservancy). Numerous water crossings make this a great trail for a first attempt at longer unsupported efforts. The Appalachian Mountain waterfalls, pine trees, and wildlife (tiny salamanders playing in wet leaves!) are fabulous to experience up close on foot. But the diabolical nature of tough East Coast trails should not be underestimated. Few sections are smooth, most have exposed root systems to avoid, railroad tie stairs to climb or descend, direct climbs, granite boulders, and humidity (even overnight) make this a much tougher effort than it looks. Now go enjoy!
Hi Allison! Congrats on such a great run on the FHT!! I just recently saw this and wanted to add your name/result of this run to the website I maintain that records runs of the trail (http://www.foothillstrailultraruns.com/). Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for a bit more info and a question I wanted to ask you about the run. Thanks and congrats again!!