Day 0: I arrived to the park and camped at site #93 to prepare for the start of this inaugural attempt.
Day 1: Started 10/4/23 at 4:37 am in a counterclockwise motion. This trip was unsupported and while I had trained with a pack, it had never been this heavy. Between the ~35lb pack and the varying terrain I quickly understood I would not be running the anticipated miles each day and accepted the long days matched with short nights of sleep would lie ahead.
Day 2: This was my longest trail day to date and made sure I got another 4am start knowing I had 37 miles ahead of me. The pack rash on the shoulders and hips became a real concern as breakdown and pus was starting to appear at those sites. I adapted (what I could only imagine looked ridiculous) a “shuffle” of a stride where I would move my legs as quickly as possible while reducing much upper body movement, reducing the bounce, impact and rubbing of my pack.
Day 3: It was business as usual on day three until the sun started to set. Having done this trip in October, the sun set a little earlier than I had hoped. With almost 10 miles to go at 7pm I started the climb up to the highest point on the trail, Mount Sterling. The several hour climb in the darkness could only be improved by rain that turned to sleet as I continued up the steep incline. Close to 11pm I finally arrived camp cold, wet and with poor camp site options. It wasn’t until the next morning did I realize the campsite was a bit further ahead than posted on the map but I made the best of the situation considering the circumstances.
Day 4: This day was spent finishing the eastern side of the park making the turn to begin the northern border. Disappointed to not have the chance to dry out my gear during the day, it was a nice wet camp at the backcountry site.
Day 5: This may have been the day to have broken both my spirits and FKT attempt. My right hip started to give me issues although the pack rash was starting to heal after discovering wearing my pants high up above my belly button seemed to do the trick. The walk into Gatlinburg seemed like a sick joke. After everything I had been through mentally and physically I’m not sure which part of me thought going out of my way into this bustling metropolis would add some sort of sparkle to this adventure. The trail into town was closed due to bear activity so I sheepishly walked the winding road in, spotting several bears along the way. While in town I ate a tuna wrap at a park and quickly became self conscious of how much I stood out, dirty, smelly, and just beat up. While tempted beyond belief, I kept up my unsupported agenda and did not make any purchases (or Uber rides back to my car) despite having the opportunity. A road walk into Elkmont proved to be one of the sketchiest parts of the trip. Most of the road had a shoulder. At night, the winding roads didn’t seem like a place for anyone on foot and the glowing eyes of the bears from my headlamp seemed to agree. Finally I made it to camp and truly thought this was the end of my adventure. I sheepishly hobbled into my tent, groaning with each move and somehow those 4.5 hours of sleep reset my mind and body enough to do it all over again.
Day 6: By this time I realized the importance of breaks in my pacing. I found sitting on the ground at trailmakers and taking 8 minute naps proved way more effective than trying to grind out miles when I was too exhausted to move at a reasonable pace. A several mile trail has been closed for as long as I’ve visited the park and is responsible for the big dip in the trail you see on the northern border. This closure added at least 8 miles to the day but it had to be done. It did award a late night dip into Cades Cove where I visited the campground, regrouped myself and undertook the most mentally challenging single digit mile section of this trip. Once I got to camp that night, I knew no matter how I was feeling, after completing this second 38 mile day in a row, I had this thing in the bag.
Day 7: Spirits were high as I had one of the shortest days( 30 or 36 miles, the maps demonstrated a great deal of variance). There were long stretches of flat or comfortable descents. Between the elevation profile early in the day and my pack weighing significantly less, I spent more of this day running than I had yet. Taking it trail by trail I had that Harry Potter Audiobook on blast and kept plunging forward, somewhere between taking my time and being in a huge rush. Upon completing the trail my fantasies of going to the nearest gas station for some wipes, food and something carbonated were immediately squashed as I discovered a squirrel made a nest under the hood of my car, chewing and severing enough wires to keep the vehicle from starting. My spirits were only uplifted when I realized I finished the trail a day earlier than I thought I did. Doing math with dates is hard…but so is this trail.