Monday, July 26, 2010

Foothills Trail 77 Mile Attempt Recap

Several months ago after running the Iron Horse 100 mile race in Florida I began to chat with several running friends about running the entire 77 mile Foothills Trail.  Dan Hartley, Weezy Downey, Mad Dog Riggins, and a few others were interested so we set July 24-25 as the date.  The date was to work for our advantage because we would have about 15 hours of daylight and a full moon at night.  We didn't count on temps in the 90's with high humidity and 100 degree heat index. 

Weeks and months ticked away after we decided to run the trail in February.  Dan set the framework of organization for the run and six brave souls showed up for the journey.  As you read this please realize that this is only my account of the run.  I hope to include links in this post if other runners decide to share their experiences.

The Runners
Jason Sullivan
Dan Hartley
Jim Cobb
Psyche Wimberly
Charles Raffensperger
Chad Henderson

We all decided to meet on Friday afternoon around 3:00 PM at Oconee State Park where the run would end and setup our campsites so they would be waiting as we finished.  We setup the campsites and then headed to Table Rock State park which would be the beginning of the run.  Sweat poured from our bodies as we put our tents up.  In the back of my head I wondered how this heat was going to play out in the run tomorrow.  Little did I know.  We dropped aid along the way at Cheohee Road, Burrell's Ford, Whitewater Falls, and Laurel Valley Parking Lot.  We all arrived at Table Rock State park and had our camps setup with dinner being ate before dark.

Sam enjoying the afternoon with a chuckle...

I pose for a pre-camp shot.......

Charles & Psyche having a laugh before dinner....

After enjoying some cold grilled chicken breast and has browns, I was in my tent sleeping before 9:30 PM.  The alarm was set for 3:30 A.M.the run was  to begin the run at 4:00 A.M.

4:00 A.M. came quickly as it always does and we began our walk to the Foothills Trail head on time.  We all walked quietly through the still darkness onto the paved road which leads to the trail head.  After only two minutes of walking a car came driving down the road and it was Scott H. who was there to support us and provide aid.  Scott drove on down to the trail head and snapped a group photo of us at the start.

From Left to Right:  Dan Hartley, Chad Henderson, Jim Cobb, Charles Raffensperger, Psyche Wimberly, Jason Sullivan

‎"The people that I have met are not foolish; they are aware of how tired, disoriented, and how possibly injured they will become. They know they will face great physical, mental, emotional, and possibly spiritual challenges as they make their way to the finish. This is what they are racing against. This is their challenge. This is what ...I admire."            - Carolyn Erdman

Dan, Chad, and Jim set off in front of Charles, Psyche, and I since they were planning on a faster run.  I looked at my watch and it showed my run beginning at 4:17 A.M.

Off we headed into the darkness up Pinnacle Mountain...

The first section of the trail takes me from Table Rock State Park To Laurel Valley parking area on Hwy 178.  Psyche, Charles, and I all ran this section together. 

I think we summited Pinnacle Mountain around 6:00 A.M. just as the sun was rising in the East.  There was a light fog in the valley and you could feel the mountains waking up from the night.  The three of us took a brief sit down break and enjoyed the incredible view from the top.

At this point I realized that my camera was not going to make the rest of the journey because it was already filled with condensation....

I was disappointed about the camera because my goal was to snap at least 100 photos during the run.  Oh well, at least the pack was lighter after I dropped it at Laurel Valley parking lot.

The first five hours of the run went by very quick.  Charles, Psyche, and I were having some great laughs and enjoying the beautiful sections of single track trail.  The three of us climbed Sassafras Mountain (South Carolina's highest point) and took another brief break.  The mountain air was still cool and a light breeze was making it even sweeter.

We were back up and running soon and descending to HWY 178 where our first aid drop would be waiting for us at the Laurel Valley parking area.

I was thinking that this 13.6 mile section would take us about four hours, but it ended up taking closer to 5 hours.  We were all three very cautious about going out too fast and wanted to slowly work our way into the adventure without blowing up completely in the begining.

We were greeted at the L.V. entrance by Dan's friend (and now ours) Scott Hodukavich.  Scott was incredible!  He had a full aid station setup out of his car waiting for us.  He was stocked with cold towels, ice, sodas, watermelon, grapes, sweets, salty foods, medical supplies, and anything else that we could have needed.  We were simply blown away by his generosity and willingness to meet our every need.  Thank you Scott - you have a huge heart.

The three of us spent nearly 45 minutes at the aid station in the parking lot and like any great aid station volunteer Scott reminded us that we had been resting long enough and that it was time to get moving.  He was right and the three of us knew that the tough 34 mile Laurel Valley section was waiting for us.

I was trying not to dwell on the time too much, but it kept popping up in my mind.  I should have been through this section and into Laurel Valley after 4.5 hours at the most.  I was now starting it after nearly 6 hours.  Either way, I felt like we were doing the right thing so far.

The three of us began the next 34 mile Laurel Valley portion of the trail.  There is no bail out point or crew access through here.  Once you are in you have to either get to the end at Whitewater Falls or turn around and head back to the parking lot.
The climb away from the parking lot is tough and all of the sudden it was getting very warm.  The sun was now up and it was 10:30 AM.  The three of us were moving slowly up the climbing stairs, but Charles was really struggling with the heat and sweat.  We reached a good water source to refill at and the sweat was pouring from Charles.  I have never seen a person loosing that much hydration in my life.  He was still in good spirits, but I knew that we were all going to have to slow things down even more which was going to be tough.

The math & time started racing through my mind again.  We had covered about 16 miles in roughly 7 hours.  At this pace we would be meeting up with Terri Hayes who would pace us for the final 30 miles after Whitewater around midnight.  I knew that if we moved that slow there would be no chance for any of us to complete the entire trail. 

I reluctantly shared this information with Charles & Psyche and made a selfish decision to push ahead at a faster pace by myself.  I use the word "selfish" because I was honestly thinking of my own personal goal of finishing the trail.  I shared these thoughts with the two of them and they agreed that I should go ahead.  We all three figured that we would end up meeting down the trail again soon enough.

I pushed ahead at an even clip.  I was slowly jogging the downhill & flat sections and walking all of the uphills as normal.  I passed Laurel Falls and enjoyed a quick sit down break and some lunch, but was quickly on the trail moving again.

The trail gets very difficult after Laurel Falls and takes you through a lot of steep climbs and descents.  The drama began during this section called "Canebrake". 

I was closing in on a excellent water source that pours into Lake Jocassee when all of the sudden I felt something looking at me.  I didn't feel threatened, but figured that I was closing in on some people camping since this is a very popular area for boaters to dock & camp.  While jogging a nice downhill section I glanced to the right and saw nothing.  Then glanced to the left and 100 feet away was a 150 lb. black bear making his way towards the trail.  If we both continued on our course we would intersect and thankfully, neither of us were interested in a confrontation.

We both stopped.  Vulnerable & standing in the middle of nowhere and looked at each other.  I smiled.  Sometimes when I don't know what to do I smile.  The bear kept looking at me for a few seconds and I would like to think that he smiled too.  I wanted to turn around and retreat, but I couldn't.  I knew not to run from a bear and there is no way that I was going to climb up a hill going in the wrong direction.  As quick as those thoughts raced through my mind the bear spun around and darted towards the lake.  I was in awe as it thundered through the forest and I could feel the vibrations under my feet.  It ran through small trees and brush like it was nothing and I heard a loud splash as it retreated into the lake. 

It seemed like such a great idea.  Just forget about the day and jump into the lake with the bear.  He lives out there and knows what to do.  I can cool off for a few minutes and he may even know where some more blackberries are like the ones I had enjoyed a mile back. 

Reality raced back into my mind and I laughed off the thought of following the bear.  I never felt overly afraid, but somehow connected to the entire situation.

The Canebrake section throws a killer up hill section at you with a massive amount of steps.  You ascend about 40 steps built into the side of a ridge where you cannot see the top.  The trail levels out, then it presents you with about 50 more steps.  The trail levels out then it throws about 60 more steps at you.  It can be a demoralizing section, but I tried to keep my eyes on the incredible views of the lake to the left as the torture continued.  Just for fun, the trail builders put a park bench at the top of this section.  I didn't even let myself sit on it and kept moving.

I was pouring sweat at the top of this section and now it was time to descend in the same manner.  As I'm carefully making my way down the steep steps, I hear Ken's voice down the trail asking if that is Jason.  I was hoping that it was the voice of God, but realized that if it was, then He would have already known it was me.  Darn.

Ken had backpacked into this section to provide us with fresh water and other remote aid.  The generosity that was poured into this run continues to blow me away even as I write this.  Ken instantly alarmed me by stating that Dan had dropped out of the run a few hours earlier.  He caught a ride with some guys on a boat and that is all that Ken knew.  He said that Chad and Jim were still looking good and moving ahead.  I was happy to hear that everyone was safe and accounted for, but saddened by the fact that Dan had dropped.  Ken assured me that he had several signs of heat exhaustion and that he had made the right decision.  Ken, thank you for being out there.  You were vital to our safety.

Ken asked how far back I thought Psyche and Charles were and I was guessing about thirty minutes.  Ken was beginning to worry because we were already three hours behind schedule and I think he began to hike back up the trail looking for them.  I pressed on through the tough Canbrake section.

I crossed over the Toxaway River bridge and saw several party boats docked at the rocks where the river flows into the lake.  The boaters glared at me as I shuffled across the hot bridge and back into the wilderness.  It was a surreal moment where I felt disconnected from their way of life.

I felt the life pouring out of me as I made the climb out of Canebrake back up into the higher mountains.  A steep logging road presented its own set of challenges in the heat.  It was nearing 3:00 P.M. and the heat caught up with me on this climb.  I knew that if I could struggle about 1 more mile to the top there would be a nice little stream to find refuge in.

A struggle it was.  I laid down on the trail twice and closed my eyes just to rest and let my body cool down a bit.  It was at this point where I began to question my ability to finish the trail.  It was too disheartening to spend much time thinking about so I just tried to keep moving forward.

I finally reached the stream at the top of the mountain and I was so sleepy I had to take my pack off and get a quick nap.  I didn't look at my watch when I laid down, but I slept hard.  When I woke up I guessed that I had slept about 15 minutes.  I went to stand up and that is all that I remember.  I woke up again and felt a little better, but was very thirsty.  I treated some water and drank about 20 ounces then realized that my glasses were missing.  I looked around for them for several minutes, but couldn't find them.  This still puzzles me as to what happened to them.

I pulled myself back together and got on the trail moving through a nice easy downhill section.  I could hear thunder off in the distance and the blazing sun was finally extinguished by some thick dark clouds.  The rain began to pour and I felt better than I had felt in five hours.  I began to put together a few nice miles as the rain fell.  It didn't last more than a hour and the sun reminded me that it was still there. 

At 4:45 PM I encountered a wild boar on the trail.  I was running down a switch backed section of the trail and the black boar was walking up it about 75 feet approaching me.  He squealed when saw me and ran back down the trail about 20 feet.  My jaw dropped in disbelief.  I could not believe that I was seeing a boar and this was a whopper.  I'm guessing that it weighed at least 100 lbs.  maybe 150.  I kept making noise and he kept squealing and retreating a little less each time.  I finally had enough room to safely pass him by cutting the switchback short by about 10 feet.  We both wanted to avoid a confrontation.  I was thankful to have him behind me and a few seconds later I heard him running down through the valley in a different direction than the trail was taking.

At 6:30 P.M. I was about 10 miles away from Whitewater Falls and at that point I realized that my dream of running the entire 77 miles would have to wait until another day.  I was so spent physically and mentally that I considered lighting a fire at the next campsite and just spending the night on the trail and heading out in the morning. 

I passed a few campsites and even had a seat at them, but felt that I had enough drive to push a little more.  As I entered Bear Creek the entire area had been mutilated by wild boar.  The beautiful moss and undergrowth looked as if a someone had ran a tiller through it.  It was all turned upside down and nothing but pits of mud & debris remained.  I went into high alert and tried to make as much noise as I could.  I even sang "Rock you like a hurricane" by Scorpion as I trudged through this lush trail area.  No sign of boar - thank goodness.

As the darkness settled in for the night I laid down in Bear Camp Creek to cool off one more time.  The water didn't even feel cool anymore.  It was like floating around in a sun baked swimming pool.  I loaded up with 100 ounces of water into my pack and ate as many ginger snaps as I could stomach.  I needed a good calorie surge to send me off into the night.

The food kicked in and I began to run again.  I put my head lamp on for the 2nd time in the run and decided that I had three miles until I reached Bad Creek and then about three to four more miles until I would reach Whitewater Falls.  I kept taking sit down breaks on the trail and looking back for Charles & Psyche, but they just wouldn't show up.  I knew if we could all meet up together everything would be better.  Our spirits would be lifted and we may even have a remote shot at finishing the entire trail.  Just maybe.

I looked back down the trail one final time at 8:00 PM and decided that they had both dropped out at Canebrake with Ken.  I was happy for them and I knew that they had made the right decision.  As the final runner out on the trail I felt like I should give it my best effort to make it into Whitewater so everyone could rest in peace.

The climb from Bear Creek to Bad Creek was a memorable one.  My mind & eyes began to play tricks on me with shapes forming in the dark wilderness.  Bats began to buzz by my headlamp and I'm fairly certain that they were real.  My eyes would put together strange shapes from reflections off the vegetation that would form anything from a rocking chair to a palm tree.  I became lost in a virtual sea of vivid falsities and my mental focus shifted to the white blazes on the trees that marked the trail.  They would take me home.  It would be several more hours, but I had to focus on them and not get distracted by the mind benders appearing around each turn.

After another long climb heading up to Bad Creek I decided to lay all of my remaining food out and see what I had.  I had 20 Ginger Snaps, 10 Jolly Rangers, 10 Lifesavers, and a hand full of dried pineapple bits.  I decided to eat all of it so I unwrapped it and forced it all down.  I even ate the remaining powdered Tang that I had left and chased it with some water.  I despised chewing up all of the food and it seemed like a lot of work.  This gave me a great energy kick and I actually ran so much that I formed a blister onto my foot which was fine with me at that point.

I finally arrived at the Bad Creek area around 10:20 P.M. and had a decision to make.  I could either continue on the Foothills Trail about 3 miles and climb out of Whitewater or cut through Duke Power's property and travel mostly on paved road for about 4 miles.  I was going to be about 5 hours behind schedule when I arrived at Whitewater and I realized that if a group was out on the trail looking for me that they would not find me if I took the paved road out.  I knew that I had about 1.5 hours of energy left from the food and decided that the paved road was the safest option for me.  If I bonked on the road someone would find me at daylight.  Plus I could sleep/run on the pavement and not have to worry about my footing.

It took me another hour to finish a three mile climb up to HWY 130 through the Duke Power property.  The night was incredibly beautiful with a huge full moon looming over Lake Jocassee as I made my way up the remote winding paved road.  As I looked down into the valley to my right I noticed two objects that were shaped like humans keeping my pace.  They seemed to have thin white lights inside of them and I could make out their shape to be human.  When I stopped to sit down and rest they would vanish, but when I started running they could be seen at random times again.  I'm not sure what to make of this, but they made me feel safe and each time that I saw them I knew that everything was going to be fine.

I finally saw the entrance to Bad Creek on Hwy 130 and made a right heading towards the Whitewater Parking area.  Charles and Terri greeted me with hugs and it was fantastic to see them.

They informed me that Chad had continued on with the run several hours ago with Sam pacing him and that Jim had dropped at Whitewater.  Charles decided to head off the course with Ken on top of Canebrake through a brutal spur trail, but thankfully he made it out.  Then my heart dropped to the ground when they told me that Psyche was still out on the trail.  I instantly regretted ever leaving her or Charles out on the course.  Charles let me know that when he decided to bail with Ken that she looked strong and wanted to continue on.  Psyche is very tough and I knew that she would be OK, but just hated the fact that she was probably out their alone.

Just as I had feared, Scott had went to look for Psyche and myself and never saw me because I took a different way out.  We figured that he would run upon Psyche soon and we kept looking for them to come out of the trail at anytime.

Charles, Terri, and I waited around Whitewater for about 2 more hours and Terri let us know that it was time to initiate search & rescue via 911.  Charles & I agreed so we drove back to Oconee State Park where we found Dan already awake.  He had to make the call because Charles' phone would not get a signal and I had locked mine in Sam's trunk.  Terri decided to sleep in her Jeep at Whitewater in case they made it out and Charles & I got some rest at Oconee in case we needed to go in after her at daylight.

I drifted to sleep praying for Psyche & Scott's safety.

I woke up around 6:00 AM and found Sam wondering around.  I was excited to see that Chad had finished the run, but she let me know that he made it 71 miles to Cheohee Road and collapsed due to exhaustion.  She got him back to the campsite and he was wiped out.

I went and found Charles heading back to Whitewater to meet up with Search & Rescue.  I told him that I was going too, but Dan flagged me down on the way out of the park.  He let me know that Psyche had emerged out of Bad Creek and caught a ride with some hikers.  She was safe!  This was the best news of the weekend and we were all filled with joy! 

Scott had also made his way back out of the trail after spending several miles of night running looking for Psyche.

We drove up to Whitewater and she was beyond exhausted.  She had gotten off course at Hillard Falls and taken a logging road away from the trail for several miles.  The road lead her back to the trail, but it was dark and she was disoriented.  She took a hour and half nap from 3:00 - 4:30 AM and made her way out after that.  I told you she is tough!

I hope to have another shot at the entire trail in the future when it is cooler.  It was more than I could handle in the heat and I'm thankful that we all survived.  It was a true honor to spend the weekend struggling out there with so many great people who have impacted my life in countless ways.

I'm looking forward to running "Just" the Laurel Valley section in three weeks....

Extra pictures courtesy of Scott Hodukavich....

Climbing away from Laurel Valley Parking Lot....
Beautiful View of The Foothills....
Group Photo at the Table Rock Start....
Psyche & Jason Laurel Valley Parking Lot Scott's Aid Station
More fun with Psyche & Charles!
Dan, Jim , Chad enter Laurel Valley...


  1. Dang. What an adventure! Bears, boars, missing people, hallucinations, naps in the dirt... My measly 5 hours in the mountains this weekend, feeling good and just a little dehydrated sure pales in comparison. I know you didn't make it as far as you wanted to but that's a long journey.

  2. Jason,

    Thanks for taking the time to document this amazing experience that was intensely personal for each of us. I could say this a thousand times but the generosity and selflessness of the ultra community is beyond words. And man, *both* a bear and a boar, wow! They've accepted you into their world now....

    Rock on my man, rock on!!!

  3. Excellent will all make it next time, no doubt.

  4. Wow, what a wild run! Congrats on some hard and very determined running! Love the pics -- a good lookin crew of badass Ultra Runners, no doubt!

    Nice work, Jason. You're really kickin some butt out there!!

  5. Congratulations on surviving Jason. That is a very tough course even in good conditions. But I would *strongly* suggest you stick to a buddy system next time and if your buddy drops *you* drop. Period. No matter what.

    And if you get in trouble, rather than going off course stay where you are and 'hug a tree' and wait for help.

    The two golden rules are stay with someone and stay where you are supposed to be.

    Psyche is extremely lucky. In those conditions, dehydrated and at night, shock could have set in and they could have been carrying her body out of there. No joke.

    Same thing with your boar and bear sightings, that could have turned from 'amazing' to 'deadly' in a second. And alone you are in big trouble.

    And hey, I read your Iron Horse report, big congratulations on that !

  6. Wow, Jason! You guys (and lady) are tough! That was quite an adventure! I would have been done after the bear, lol. You'll finish the next time that you hit the Foothills Trail 77 Miler. Congratulations on a great effort!

  7. That's some scary stuff. About the only thing missing from this report is a UFO sighting. Thankfully you all made it out with no long term damage. The ultra community is wonderful indeed. Good luck with your "easier" run next month.

  8. Very scary. So glad everyone is safe. We must all learn from your all's experience! Thanks for sharing this!

  9. Great post - I've done LV as part of the race and as a training run many times - including an out an back on the race portion - really this is the best trail in the south -

  10. i really admire you guys for this attempt and i hate to be overly critical, but in late july in south carolina, if you weren't counting on high humidity and temps in the 90's you must not be from around here.

  11. Irresponsible to be unprepared like that and then to rely on search and rescue.