Thursday, May 20, 2010

Pinhoti Trail Adventure Run: Day Six: Hot Cross-Country Day

Day Six: Snake Creek Gap to Baker Branch Trailhead (FS 3A), 46.9 miles, ~12 ¼ h

    Alright, second to last day on the Pinhoti trail.  I was now over the “hump”, I’d come a long way; some 257 miles over the past five days and still many miles to go but, never the less, the goal was in sight; I could see the light at the end of the tunnel.  I was up early again, especially because of the long drive back to Snake Creek Gap from Dalton and the fact that today’s forecast promised temperatures would soar into the low 90s (Fahrenheit)!  Sure thankful of my sauna heat training now!  I devoured a waffle and several glasses of juice at the hotel breakfast and then we were speeding our way to the trailhead.  Soon we’d arrived and were itching to go.  Today Eric Fritz would attempt to join me for the whole day’s worth of mileage.  As we had full crew support, this was a great opportunity for him to get some high quality long distance training in; he could stop at about any time if he had to.

    Of all the Pinhoti Trail through Georgia, this next section I had really eagerly anticipated.   The Snake Creek Gap to Dug Gap trail section is rated by the International Mountain Bicycle Association as an “epic route.”  In short, any trail that gets a rating like that is truly exceptional and as an avid mountain unicyclist (and former mountain biker) I was itching to explore this area with eyes for a future return trip.  The trail did not disappoint.  Beautiful single track greeted us right from the trail head as we began a fairly gentle ascent of Mill Creek Mountain.  In the cool morning air we attempted to run all that we could.  Soon we’d reached the summit and began a long ridge run.  Wow this is some great single track!  Very mild grade, non-technical, we made great time and soon were descending off the ridge to the first of several Swamp Creek crossings.  Basically impossible to keep the feet dry so we didn’t bother; besides after this trail section I’d be switching to road shoes for the long road run to finish up the day’s mileage.  After the last creek crossing we began to climb an old 4x4 road that had a fairly gentle uphill grade (I was envisioning riding this on my unicycle) when not too long later Fritz and I starting hearing music ahead of us.  There was Josh awaiting our arrival at a small intersection where the route veered off back onto single track along the ridge.  We refilled and continued on, beginning a long series of ridge running.  This next 7 miles was some of the most spectacular single track I’d yet seen on the Pinhoti; definitely a place to come revisit in the future!  No significant climbing here, just wonderful single track trail along ridgelines with spectacular morning views of the surrounding valleys.  Wow!  Speechless!  As we make a large bend onto Hurricane Mountain the trail gets a big more technical, more like our own famed Mountain Mist trail back on Monte Sano Mountain back in Huntsville.  Honestly at times I thought we were running along the very same trail.  Spooky.  We kept on and on and were not far past another bend that brought us onto Rocky Face Mountain when we spotted Joey in the trail ahead.  He’d come back from Dug Gap to find us and run some with us.  The trail begins to ascend a bit steeper now, the running a bit less easy, but it’s still fairly cool out so we attempt to run what we can; only walking the steepest bits.  Soon enough we arrive at the summit; adjacent to some radio towers.  From the summit my long road run of the day has essentially begun; farewell to the gorgeous single track and hello pavement!  As we head down the tower road to the main road (Dug Gap Battle Road) I spot my wife Kathy ahead! Yippee!  I hadn’t seen Kathy in days and now she’d arrived to be here for me my last two days on the trail.  I was very excited and gave her a nice sweaty hug and kiss!  Ha!  I decided to keep my trail shoes on until I got into Dalton so we press on down the mountain road, across the bustling I-75 Interstate and into town.  Seeing so much vehicular traffic after so much time on the trail was a bit numbing at first.  Hard to believe I was following the Pinhoti Trail!

    Quite frankly, the next 25 miles or so were not very fun at all.  I stopped to change into my road shoes and then Fritz and I continued on along the sidewalk.  I just bent my head to it and plodded on through the busy streets of Dalton.  Worse yet, it really started to get warm and with the reflections off the hot concrete I started to bake!  The heat was all still tolerable to me; I just kept putting ice into my wide brimmed hat and kept the cold fluids going.  Thank you sauna training!  Eventually we had passed through the thick of Dalton and were heading back into the country.  Most of the next many miles were a blur of road after road, busy intersection after busy intersection as the Pinhoti Trail seemed to try to follow every busy road around Dalton!  I will say that as confusing as this route was to me, it was very well signed; and I don’t mean just with the typically turkey blaze diamonds.  No, the Georgia Pinhoti folks went all out.  Every turn was signed with a large metal road sign!  Very cool!  It was impossible to go off route here.  The route left something to be desired as every road seemed to be a major highway to me (very active and busy) but at least it was very will marked!  Eventually I somehow ended up at the Chief Vann House “trail head”; really just a busy cross roads with a lot of historical signs in the area and what was obviously THE Chief Vann House, a plantation house, just up the hill and, unfortunately not along the route I’d be running.  Had this been a cooler, less busy day, I’d have liked to pop in for a visit; instead I settled for some photos by the signs and kept going. The heat was really thick and powerful now; somewhere along this way my crew brought me an ice cold Slushy.  Wow that really hit the spot! Simply wonderful!  Eventually even these hellacious roads were behind us and we were a bit further out in the country, away from Dalton and things began to settle down.  When I got the chance to look around (not having to look out for my life) there was some spectacular country scenery about.  I saw rolling farm land, tall grass and flowers; cattle and horses grazing.   Time had seemed to have just flown by yet again.  It was now getting to be late afternoon and I felt pretty cooked.  This was possibly one of my biggest low moments of the adventure.  I believe we’d just past through the tiny town of Ramhurst (after nearly getting run over by a tractor trailer!) when I just suddenly felt very hot and needed to sit down, luckily Eric Charette and the gang were close by and so I sat down on the van bumper and had a gallon of water dumped over my head. Ahhh!  Refreshing!  The toughest part about these long road sections is the complete lack of accessible cooling points i.e. streams and creeks and the total exposure to the sun; shade was hard to come by along these country roads.  At this point I had less than ten miles to go for the day (yeah a relatively short day!) and plenty of time to be done in the day light.  Wow, to not be finishing in the dark! Luxurious!

    Finally I got my butt off the van bumper and kept plodding on, Kathy and Fritz in tow.  I’m a bit confused right now as to who was running with me when and where so I apologize for any mistakes.  Like I said, I was pretty baked by the sun at this point.  The sauna training had helped, mainly with my ability to cool down given the opportunity to cool.  So after the dunking, more ice in my hat, I was back to normal and back running.   A little bit later I was getting very close to finally being off the pavement for good!  Up head were Eric and Joey.  Suddenly Eric is swinging his arm and a ball comes rolling towards us down the middle of the road.  For an instant I think about running up to it and kicking it, thankfully I don’t as I realize that Eric has rolled a beaten up bowling ball at us!  If I’d have kicked that ball like I’d been planning on kicking a soccer ball (that’s what it initially looked like to me) I’d probably have broken my foot!  Note to crew: don’t ever roll heavy bowling balls down the road that look like soccer balls towards tired runners!  Whew!  I cringe a little bit when I realize the ball is indeed a bowling ball and what I had been about to do!  Dodged that bullet!  I could see the story now:  Runner covers nearly 300 miles of the Pinhoti Trail only to be taken out by breaking his foot kicking a bowling ball!

    At last we’re off the pavement and begin a long winding gravel road climb towards the Baker Branch Trailhead.  We’ve crossed back into the Chattahoochee National Forest and would now remain in the forest the rest of the way to the Benton Mackaye Trail.  It’s now just Josh crewing me and Fritz as we slowly ascend the mountain road.  Even with working harder having to climb up the steep road, it’s still so much cooler now as we’re largely in the shade; almost pleasant.  Somewhere along this stretch Josh stops ahead and gets out with the camera.  Apparently I’ve just passed 300 miles on my journey; doesn’t really mean a whole lot to me; hard to fathom.  It’s all sort of a blur really.  I can’t believe I’ve come so far on foot in such a relatively short period of time.  This is all uncharted territory for me so it’s difficult to comprehend.  Instead we just snap a few photos and keep on climbing up the steep road.

    Every now and then there is a short downhill section and we’re able to run.  For the first time I start to notice that my left ankle is giving me trouble.  I’ve got this pain at the front of my left ankle that just kills when I attempt to straighten or point my foot. Ouch!  I think I’m developing some sort of overuse tendonitis; go figure!  I’m just really surprised that I’ve gone this far without any major issues!  So these down hills are a bit of a challenge for me to run; ironically my ankle doesn’t hurt when we’re climbing!  Too bad I don’t have the energy to run uphill very fast as at least my ankle doesn’t seem to hurt!  After several more miles of climbing; broken up by the occasional short downhill, we’ve arrived at the Baker Branch Trailhead (really just a fork in the road where we decide to stop for the day.  We are now only a solid 30 miles away from the goal of my quest.  While we’d considered taking a short break and continuing on, through the night to the finish, I really didn’t plan to do this run that way.  It meant much more to me to “see” the entire route in the day light, to keep the night running to a minimum.  Still, the ultra runner in me was sort of chomping on the bit to just finish up.  However this was all very unfamiliar territory for both myself and crew; too easy to get lost at night!  Not worth it; and at this point, doing some rough calculations, even going slow through the night would perhaps only buy us a few hours off the final end-to-end time; not enough to put me under 6 days for the adventure.

    Fritz and I sat in the lonely mountain road for a bit to unwind and then we quickly changed clothes and headed back to Dalton with Josh.  Just one more, short, day on the trail and then I’d have to get back to my “real life.”  I was honestly quite sad at the moment more than elated to be almost finished!  I know it’s difficult to imagine, but it’s true.  Fast hiking the Pinhoti Trail had been a goal of mine for many years;  how was I going to fill the void that would come with closing of this adventure?

To be continued…

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