What a journey.
It’s been a couple months after I climbed the sand dunes of Jockey’s Ridge to complete my 24-day, 711-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail run. Though I am still wrapping my head around the big picture of this experience, I am excited to share some takeaways and photos from my run. I will share these in a series of blog posts following the timeline of my adventure. I hope you enjoy these stories and maybe they can provide a spark of inspiration for your next adventure!
Day 1 – May 11, 2019
At noon on Saturday, May 11th, I jogged down the ramp of Clingman’s Dome observation tower at the Tennessee/North Carolina border in steady rain. After months of planning and training, the time was finally here to head off into the woods and achieve my goal of setting the fastest-known-time on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
That dream didn’t last long.
With my dad crewing me for the first week, I met him about four miles down the trail at the first of countless makeshift “aid stations” along my journey. I already knew it would be a slog of a day. The trail…I mean river…was water-logged with slick rocks and roots making every step treacherous. I took it slow and steady, trying to not think about how one wrong step could take me out of the run just hours in.
The next section featured one of the longest stretches of the entire MST without aid, a 22-mile section through the heart of Great Smoky Mountains National Park with major climbs and descents in remote wilderness.
I packed my backpack with extra supplies and gave my dad a time expectation to meet me at Mingus Mill near Cherokee, NC and the park’s entrance. I took off downhill on the side of a steep mountainside in the pouring rain. After five miles, I reached aptly-named Deep Creek at the bottom of a massive ravine. I knew there would be a number of creek crossings on this section, but after days of rain filtering into this ravine, the river had swelled to four-feet deep rushing whitewater.
After some recon up and down the riverbank, I found no better crossing point. I put my phone in my backpack to stay dry and grabbed two sticks to help me dig into the creek bed for stability…thanks to Bear Grylls. I took a few steps into the water and felt the current knock me off-balance toward the rocky rapids downstream.
I made it a third of the way across before hitting the deepest and fastest water. The next step with my right foot could either land steady or sweep me down the river with the slightest slip. Just 9 miles into a 1175-mile run, I reached a defining moment. Do I risk attempting to cross this flooded creek or do I turn back and strike a heavy blow to my chances of setting the fastest-known-time?
I believe there are three keys to achieving meaningful goals: passion, controlling what you can, and sacrifice. Though I was flush with passion and motivation just hours into my run, I had no control over the rain or the depth and strength of this creek. Despite grabbing the sticks to help keep me upright, I ultimately had no control over whether they would be enough to get across. If I did make it through this crossing, I had no idea if I could get through the remaining crossings.
But sacrifice, that was the clincher. Myself and many others were willing to sacrifice a lot for my goal of running the MST. I was willing to take off a month from work, pay for expenses along the way, and risk potential injury from the toll this endeavor could take on my body. My parents were willing to sacrifice over a week of their time to travel from Ohio to help crew me on the run. My friends and co-workers sacrificed their time to volunteer to crew me and provide transportation to and from the trail. Countless people sacrificed their hard-earned money to donate to the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in support of my run. And on and on and on…
I certainly felt some weight on my back to move forward…more than just the water and caramel M&M’s I carried in my pack. I wanted to make people proud and prove that I could live up to the #achieveanything hashtag I used each day. I can do this. I am invincible. It’s just a little…ok maybe a lot of water.
More than anything, goal setting and achievement is about setting priorities. As I contemplated moving my right foot toward the other shore, those priorities became clear. Completing the MST may be worth investing the money, time, and potential minor injuries. It’s not worth dying over. It’s not worth the pain it would cause my fiance, family, and friends if I took a fatal plunge down this river. No help was coming anytime soon, if at all.
I moved my left foot and headed back toward safety…breaking both of my “support” sticks in the process…damn you Bear Grylls!
I knew the rain would not stop for another couple days. There was no chance I would be able to cross this creek for at least three days. My record-breaking attempt was all but over.
As a consolation prize, I trudged back up the steep, muddy side slopes toward the last road crossing. Luckily, I reached a clearing that had one bar of cell phone service. Just as lucky, my dad happened to be in an area with service. He picked me up from where he last saw me.. I had planned to run about 30 miles on the first day. I only got in 9 trail miles (14 overall).
As we drove back through the park toward our hotel, I knew it was time to consider shifting goals. The weather would not let up, making the 22-mile section of trail impassable for the forseeable future. In an ideal scenario, I would simply wait out the rain and start the run over once the skies cleared, but my schedule was tight and I needed to reach certain trail sections by set days to meet up with my scheduled crew.
I knew I would continue. Too many sacrifices had gone into this. I may not be able to set the fastest-known-time, but I knew I could still put on a pretty good show.