Friday, May 21, 2010

Pinhoti Trail Adventure Run: Day Seven: The End Of The Trail

Baker Branch Trailhead (FS 3A) to Northern Terminus (Benton MacKaye Trail), 30.7 miles, ~8 ½ h

    This is it; my last day on the Pinhoti Trail!  I can hardly believe it!  I was awake even earlier than usual because I was so anxious to get going; also it was a pretty involved drive to get back to where we’d left off the evening before (remember that long climb up into the Chattahoochee National Forest?).  We made good time and only started a short bit after 6:00 a.m.  Today my company included Kathy, Joey and Fritz once more.  Meanwhile Eric Charette would be shuttling Fritz’s mini-van closer to the far end of the day’s route (Josh would pick him up after getting us started) and would later be joining us on the trail.

    Right off the bat I realize I’m going to be a bit slower today.  My left ankle is flaring and my feet are swollen.  Thank goodness I packed some larger trail shoes to fit my super-sized feet!  This first bit of old 4x4 road is a bit of a blur right now, I think I was focusing more on the pain in my ankle than anything else!  I remember at one point hiking up the old road, up Tatum Mountain, and hearing a large number of dogs barking, perhaps a dog kennel?  Who could say, we never did see any dogs but there were a whole lot of them making all kinds of racket!  Eventually we left the jeep road onto a pretty nice bit of single track trail that gradually descended to Highway 2 near the Cohutta Overlook.  We expected to see Josh and Eric here, but nope.  Nobody!  Rather than stop and wait, Kathy and Joey stayed behind on the road to wait for the rest of the crew to arrive while Fritz and I continued on.  The guys really missed out, this next section towards Mulberry Gap Road was, again, some of the best single track I’d seen along the entire Pinhoti Trail.  It was apparent that this is a popular mountain bike trail because there were many tracks and the trail itself was a bit wider, and had bermed switch backs (for the mountain bikes to take the turns at high speed).  While I couldn’t do the berms justice with my slow pace, I still had fun plodding along this trail section.  The route seemed to contour in and out of several different creek watersheds until finally it began to ascend a bit, climbing up Turkey Mountain, just a couple miles from Mulberry Gap.  We’d just started downhill again when we saw Eric, Joey and Kathy all coming up the trail to greet us!  Apparently we hadn’t missed our crew by very much back near the Cohutta Overlook, we’d just been a bit quicker than they anticipated!  I kind of like it when that happens.  Fortunately we didn’t have that much further to go before we’d see our crew again so it was no big deal continuing on when we did; it was still cool and the route was fairly easy to follow; terrain not overly difficult.  Now we had a huge gaggle of runners on the trail.  Just like old times really; we could have been out for a typical weekend long run.  It was a pretty nice feeling; everybody joking and cutting up; normal.  Soon later we arrived at Mulberry Gap and Josh was there waiting for us.

    Joey and Kathy decided to stop at this point, so Eric, Fritz and I continued on.  Just as we were about to leave, I experienced my second drunken woman on this adventure (my how we’ve gone full circle!).  This lady approaches us from down the road asking to use our cell phone (she has one in her hand by the way).  She complains in a slurred speech that she has such and such service provider but doesn’t have any signal and she needs to make a call to so and so.  Josh tells her that she’s out of luck that we all have the same service provider and have no signal as well!  She doesn’t seem to comprehend that it’s not the phone that’s the issue; she still wants to try our phones!  Well I don’t stick around and get out of there quick and not long later the rest of the crew is driving by!  Crazy!  Anyhow from here we have just a short five mile stretch, a longer 11 mile stretch and then the final 3 miles to the northern terminus of the Pinhoti Trail.  Hard to believe I was almost there!

    From Mulberry Gap to Holly Creek Gap the route is un-eventful.  My ankle hurts but it’s manageable; what choice do I have?  This section is also a blur, just more trail, more old wilderness roads and eventually we arrive at Holly Creek Gap and the start of the last long section of trail.  It has warmed up today, but cruising through the deep woods it’s not an unbearable heat.  Josh is adamant that I carry my hydration pack for this 11 mile section.  I simply refused; I didn’t want carry the extra weight; didn’t want to add any additional stress to my bum ankle.  I also wasn’t drinking a whole lot by then so I knew I could make 11 miles on two large hand bottles.  No problem.  Even if I did run dry I’d be close to the end of the section and then I’d only have 3 miles to go to the finish (yeah, I’d have to also hike out 3 miles, but we’ll get to that in a minute).  My typical strategy was to try and pound some fluids before I left the crew stop, that had the effect of cutting down how much fluid I’d need on the next section.  This was probably (that I can remember) the only time I got a little flippant because I told Josh, “If you make me carry that pack into the woods, it isn’t coming out!”  I was implying that I’d rather dump the pack in the woods (or at least empty the hydration chamber) than have to carry that ball and chain one more step!  Sorry Josh for being flippant;  I just know my body well enough to know what I need and the last thing I wanted at that time was to carry a heavy pack!

    So, with just my two hand bottles and small waist pack, me, Eric and Fritz embarked on the last long trail section of the Pinhoti.  This last section did not disappoint! In my humble opinion this section was probably the most beautiful of the entire Pinhoti Trail!  These were some very long miles true, but we descended into (and climbed out of) three separate water sheds on some very nice mountain bike trail.  Every time the trail bottomed out, deep into a canyon, we’d have many, ice cold and refreshing creek crossings amid the wild rhododendrons and other unusual vegetation.  Simply spectacular.  This is one area I need to go back and revisit given more time and a more relaxed itinerary.  It was a relief to have all the creek crossings, because my left ankle was really throbbing and so I’d take time at most of the creeks we crossed to ice it down a bit.
The route got a little complicated when we intersected the Beark Creek Loop trail; sometimes it wasn’t readily obvious which way to go as this was a high traffic area with many off shooting, unmarked trails and campgrounds that complicated matters.  Still, the map and description were invaluable so we made our way through without any mistakes; just made for even slower going as we had to frequently check the map.  One of the highlights of this entire section was passing by the Gennett Poplar tree about half way through.  Let me tell you, this is one humungous tree!  It was eerily reminiscent of the “Big Tree” in the Sipsey Wilderness Area back home, except I think this one is bigger?  Wouldn’t you know it, nobody thought to bring a camera on this section? This was probably the most beautiful section and not a single photo? Ha!  Well another reason to come back and visit right?  Anyhow we were well into the third watershed; all filled with may creek crossings, when Kathy and Joey appeared ahead of us!  This meant we shouldn’t have too much further to go.  They gave us the bad news a minute later; the climb out of this last watershed was probably going to be a real bear (they’d come down it), very steep in places.  Oh boy, no gradual climb out of here I guess.  No matter, we bent our backs to the task and soon we’d climbed out of the final water shed of the section and arrived at Buddy Cove Gap; the last crew stop!

This was it, only 5km of trail stood between me and the northern terminus of the Pinhoti Trail.  Totally boggled my mind to think how far I’d come!  I wanted to get going quickly, but we’d just covered a long trail section and I was really thirsty.  I hadn’t run out of fluids, but I had been rationing what I had so I drank a bunch as I prepared what I wanted to take to the finish.  The others were packing away their cameras, I stuffed my red “Sub 7” Strolling Jim shirt into my pocket and then we were off, heading down an old wilderness road towards the South Fork of the Jacks River.  Most of my crew sped along ahead of me as they sensed that I’d prefer to cover this last bit by myself.  I wanted reflect back on my journey, to try to make sense of what I’d seen, heard, felt; experienced.  I’ll be honest; it was very difficult for me to hold back the tears.  This was a huge goal for me that I was accomplishing; I’d started a whole new chapter in my ultra running career; an area I’ve thirsted to explore for a long time.  While this current adventure was rapidly coming to an end; I knew that this was just the beginning of the rest of my life.  Who knows what adventures I’ll still have?  I’m just extremely happy I had this opportunity to do this; and to share it with my close friends.
I snapped out of my internal ruminations as I approached the last water crossing on the Pinhoti.  Josh snapped one last photo of me and then disappeared up the trail to the terminus.  I was now totally alone.  I slowly waded across the river (really just a wide stream here and now) and walked up the last bit of trail.  Not even a quarter of a mile to go and I broke back into a jog.  I could hardly hold my head up as I was getting very emotional.  At last I turn a corner and there are all my friends snapping photos.  And there it is, the trail sign marking the northern terminus of the Pinhoti Trail.  The end of the trail.  Holy cow!  I can’t believe it!  I raise my arms in a “V” for victory then I’m crying!  I drop my water bottles on the ground and just stand in front of the sign not believing what I’m seeing.  Incredible!  I touch the sign and bow my head.  I am done.  After 152 hours and 48 minutes I am done.  I’d averaged 52.6 miles a day over the last 6 1/3 days to get to this spot of ground.  I believe my total “trail time” is a bit north of 91 hours, so as you can see, I spend most of the last week OUT THERE.  Phew!

Just in front of the sign is a stump that I collapse onto.  It is difficult to hold the tears back now, but I’m so happy and sad all at once.  I manage to thank everybody there and unroll the red Strolling Jim t-shirt; I dedicated my Pinhoti Trail Adventure Run to the late Phillip Parker; an ultra running giant of his time in the Southeast.  He was also a friend and mentor; he also played a large part in influencing me to take on bigger ultra running challenges like this one.  Thank you Phillip!

As quickly as the tears came, they were gone, I was suddenly filled with joy as if a huge burden were removed from my back!  My Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal (BHAG) was a success!  Now it was time to celebrate life, my friends, everything!  Eric Charette hands me a buckle that he’d carried with him.  I turn it over and see that it has the PTAR logo that I designed on there.  He explains it was Laura’s idea.  Wow what a surprise!  Thank you Laura!  Totally unexpected and unnecessary but I love it!  Next we are all taking photos of each other in front of the trail sign.   Soon though, all the pictures and video are taken and all that is left is the long climb back out!

I ask to be by myself for one last moment at the trail terminus.  The others retreat back to the Jacks River to cool off (it is rather warm out now).  I sit for a moment in silence, close my eyes and try and envision all the miles I’ve covered to get here; it’s impossible to do so.  I can still remember all the highs and lows along the way and for me that’s enough.  I take one last deep breath, one last look at the trail sign and then I’m walking back down the Pinhoti Trail to my awaiting friends.

The End… for now.

For more information about the Pinhoti Trail Adventure Run click here.