4:15am alarm. How sweet it would be to forget about it and keep savoring sleep late into the morning. It takes 15 or 20 minutes of snoozing but then the gears kick into motion. Frozen waffle & a little bit of coffee for the drive; use the bathroom; stick of body glide proclaims "foot" but it ought to know it's going head to toe - though ultimately it wont be any match for shorts prepacked with about 4,000 calories worth of gels gettin ready to go bouncy castle in my hip pockets all day; sunscreen; contacts; vest; Reilly says we need to get a move on and I reckon she's right - already half an hour behind, not an auspicious way to begin.
40 minute drive to Davenport gap, a few glimpses of the full moon between clouds, sips of coffee, conversation, feeling ready to get into the mountains. Reilly sends me on my way at 6:00am and says she'll be to Fontana by 8pm to greet me, though my goal is to finish by about 9:00pm and I don't anticipate it being much earlier.
It's still dark as I take off, using my phone to light the way for half an hour or so. The first ~13 miles are almost all uphill, ascending from ~2,000 ft to over 6,000. But the grade is gradual and feels much more runnable than when I did the route in 2020. I aim for over 300 calories an hour from the get-go and around 3/4 liter of fluids per hour. I refill two filter flasks from the trail near Cosby at mile ~8 and make it to Tri-Corner at mile ~16 feeling great, enjoying some fleeting views of a beautiful sunrise over fog filled valleys below. Running through cool clouds a good bit up high throughout the early morning. The trail is super wet for much of the first 40 miles til I drop down the other side of Clingman's and my shoes are totally waterlogged early on. I fill three of my four flasks at Tri-Corner and pay the loo a visit.
I take a spectacular headfirst fall barreling full-tilt downhill on rocky trail around mile 25. I lay there for a moment spread out as the adrenaline abates enough for me to scan my body for the sensation of any serious damage. I spot the spring gel I had in my right hand busted open and oozing purple goodness just off the trail, but for my part it feels like I fared fine. As I get to my feet I notice my left hand is hurting the most and looks a little bit funky. My left ring finger is a little out of line and when I make a fist the knuckle where it attaches to my hand is nowhere to be seen. I try manipulating it a couple of times suspecting dislocation, popping that knuckle back into the place I think it should be, but it keeps going back to it's wonky ways. Doesn't feel like a huge deal and no time to lose - I carry on. Pop a couple ibuprofen to get ahead of the growing pain and try to ignore it as much as I can the rest of the way. I'll find out the next morning that it's a serious fracture with displacement.
A few miles later I'm to Icewater, feeling much better than I did at this point last time around. Well hydrated, well fueled. I planned to fill two liters of water here, with almost 14 very hard miles to the next sure source. I'm tempted to gamble given all the water on the trail, but the memory of the stagnant pool that I filtered from last time between Newfound and Clingmans keeps me honest and I fill all four flasks. I do end up passing other flows and would have been fine with a liter, but high risk low reward. Fast miles down to Newfound Gap. It is a madhouse - after my solitary morning in the woods I feel like I've never seen so many people and cars. I move quickly along. The climb up to Clingman's is challenging and I do a good bit of hiking for the first time so far. Poles are out of the question because of my hand so I just lean into it. I down a quesadilla, my first "real" food of the day and that feels like it gives me a great boost over the next couple hours.
I get enough service here and there to let Reilly know that I'm moving a good deal ahead of target pace - and to receive a few energizing flurries of encouragement and excitement in return.
Feeling awesome as I pass Clingman's Dome - the high point at 6,643 feet - and begin descending into the punishing up-and-downs of the western part of the park. I keep telling myself that mile 45-60 is where it gets real. I make it to Derrick Knob Shelter around mile 49 feeling solid and refill 3 or 4 flasks, I think 3. Dang the filter tops are hard to unscrew with one hand in the condition it is. Precious minutes tick by.
Derrick Knob to Mollie's Ridge is undoubtedly the most challenging section. The climbs and many of the descents are brutally steep and technical. My mantra throughout the day has been "make seconds, make minutes, make miles" and I keep coming back to it to get myself to push just a little bit harder and run just a little bit more on the ups, knowing how much all the seconds or minutes I can cut off add up over the course of the day. Legs feel awesome on the flats and downhills but the steep ups take so much focus to maintain pace. My fueling begins to fall behind a little bit as I run out of gels nearing mile 60, downing the last one I've saved at Mollie's Ridge. Plenty of other stuff squirreled away - goldfish, potato chips, another quesadilla, sour patch kids, PB pretzels, a packet of Cholula ha.. I wanted more real food last time around but now I wish I had gels and tailwind to put down easy. I skimp and much of the snack food stays with me to Fontana, though I'm able to at least put down the goldfish and sour patch kids. I'm also out of water and thirsty by the time I finally reach Mollie's. The pipe is dry and all I have is a small shallow pool that makes it hard to get a good fill in the flasks. I drink up there but am lazy with the fill and settle for two flasks (the ones with filters) 2/3 full.
One more sustained climb after Mollies. I push hard and then it's about 8 miles mostly downhill to the western park boundary. Some short challenging climbs still interspersed but they don't ambush me like they did last time and I still have plenty in the tank. Every step uphill is heavy, but the downhills still flow and I run well the rest of the way down to the park boundary sign - the official western terminus of the route. I continue over the dam, taking in the beautiful lake and mountains bathed in evening sunshine, feeling proud of the adventure I had out there through these home mountains I love so much. Reilly greets me with a shriek all smiles on the far side of the dam and wraps me in what has to have been the stinkiest hug of her life. If this isn't nice, I don't know what is!