Wednesday, February 22, 2012

77 Mile Foothills Trail Finish

I finally finished this run.  It has taken me over three years and three attempts to make it, but I finally did it.  This is going to be a very difficult account to write because it is deeply personal on so many levels.  I write this blog mainly for my two children who I hope one day will understand what their crazy daddy did on these runs.  I think it will help them know me better too as a person and a father. 

There we are on the left.  Mike Riggins (Mad Dog), Me, and Viktor just minutes before starting the run from the Eastern terminus of the Foothills Trail in Table Rock State Park at 6:57 AM.

If you don't know much about the Foothills Trail, here is a brief description from it's website:

"Whether you are looking for a long-distance backpacking trip or an exciting day-hike, the Foothills Trail offers an extraordinary opportunity to explore the Southern Appalachians. About 77 miles in length, the Foothills Trail is located along the Blue Ridge Escarpment in Upstate South Carolina and Western North Carolina.

The landscape is diverse, ranging from high rocky outcrops with views to the distant horizon, to quiet forests in deep valleys carved by bold mountain streams. Elevations along the trail range from 1,120 feet at Table Rock State Park to 3,560 feet atop Sassafras Mountain.

The Foothills Trail can be approached as a multi-day through-hike, a weekend section hike, or simply as a dayhike. The trail is 77 miles in length, and a through-hiker should plan to spend approximately 5-10 days on the trail. Week-end backpackers and day-hikers can utilize numerous trailheads for shorter trips."

Most people planning to do the entire 77 mile trail plan for 5-10 days.  My goal was to do it in under 30 hours.

My previous two failures of the trail came from the result of a lack of training, poor planning, bad judgement, and mainly just plain stupidity.  Here was my final post on Facebook before heading out to the trail on February 18, 2012 for the early start:

I love and hate this trail.  There have been so many friendships & wonderful memories made on it.  At the same time, search & rescue has been involved with one run and people's lives have been put in jeopardy more than once.  This trail has sent some of the best runners packing it up and heading home in retreat before reaching the 77 mile finish.  On the other hand, merely average runners like myself have found a way to make it through in one piece. 

I had originally planned & trained specifically for The very FLAT Iron Horse 100 mile race in Florida on this weekend.  I began this training with my coach Janice Anderson back in September and basically every run was leading up to Iron Horse.  Some logistical issues prevented me from running Iron Horse with my buddy Wayne and I immediately decided it was time to go for my 3rd FHT run.

Janice was excited to hear this news and gave me the green light to run it hard.  That was all I needed to push all the chips in again.

So I began to pray, beg, and plea to all of my friends for help on the run.  I wanted to involve as many people and resources as possible.  I knew that having a lot of people involved would make it nearly impossible for me to just throw my hands up and walk off this course with anything less than a broken leg. 

Sure enough, friends started stepping forward.  Many more wanted to be there, but had prior plans and couldn't.  Everyone who was supposed to be there was - that's just the way these things work out.

I want to say thanks to these people before going into the run so you at least know who they are.  I would have NEVER finished without them.  Each one contributed to my finish:

Mad Dog - Mike Riggins ran the 10 mile stretch with me up to the top of Sassafras from Table Rock. We started at 6:57 AM as pictured above.

Lester Farmer met me with supplies on top of Sassafras and then drove down to Laurel Valley where he ran the rugged & isolated 33 mile section with me. He made sure I was eating & drinking and kept me steady. I had some tough nausea issues through here, but always felt at peace with Lester's experience and steady attitude.

Chad Henderson stashed Lester & I two Cokes at the Toxaway River sign before Canebrake. Those really hit the spot before the big climb up from the lake!

Dan Hartley ran into meet us from Whitewater and he had some vital running gear to share with me. This helped us get out of Laurel Valley much quicker.   Dan also paced/crewed for me for the final 29 miles down the final stretch.  It was his 40th birthday and a real pleasure to spend it with him this way.

Bo Millwood & my brother in law Nick Cerda met me at Whitewater Falls with lots of food and good spirits.   Bo had all of my running gear & food for the final 29 miles of the run and he ran the entire section with me.  Nick ran the full home stretch with me too and this was his first trail ultra which was really cool to be a part of.

Viktor's mama was also there which made the party even better. It was also a great surprise to see Mr. Epic - Joe Parker at Whitewater. This was a great surprise that gave me a much needed lift.

Ok, this is supposed to be a race report so here it goes.  And yes, I did "race" this course.  I spent every ounce of energy I had to finish as fast as possible.
Mike and I arrived at the locked entrance to Table Rock State Park at 6:30 AM.  A park employee was there to open the gate at 6:40 and we drove to the trailhead within a few minutes.  We were quickly greeted by Viktor and his mother.  Viktor was also setting out to push his limits on the FHT.
The run began from the Nature Center at 6:57 AM.  Viktor took the lead with a slow jog while Mike and I assumed a power hike up the 3.5 mile climb to Pinnacle Mountain.  The weather was perfect.  Sunny skies and 40 degrees with a beautiful sunrise casting shadows down the mountains as we moved along.
We arrived a minute behind Viktor at the Pinnacle Mt. overlook area where he was busy taking pictures.  I never play around here too long because with one clumsy step you could easily fall off the cliff.  We enjoyed the views for a minute and continued to climb.
We enjoyed some brief downhill jogging before beginning another climb which would take us to the top of Sassafras Mt. - the highest point in South Carolina.  I really enjoyed catching up with Mike during this section.  He spent some time telling me how he qualified to run in the Boston Marathon this spring.  This was amazing coming from a guy who has had all four of his major joints worked on in surgery over the last few years.  Both knees and shoulders.  Mike & I met during my first ultra (Buncombe 34 Miler in May 2009).  We have been friends ever since.
The climb up Sassafras is a tough one, but we made it in exactly three hours (9.8 miles).  I was greeted by Lester laying in the trail near the top.  He was enjoying a nap in the sun before running the Laurel Valley section.  He offered his famous quote, "It ain't no fun unless there is a good chance you can die."  So true!
Lester filled up my water bottles for the fun & fast 4.5 mile section of downhill to the Laurel Valley parking lot, then he and Mike drove down to meet me there while I ran it.  I always enjoy this section and today was no different.  I found myself getting out of control on some of the steep downs and even slammed into a tree fairly hard at one point in a switchback.  I just kept laughing and thinking about Lester's quote.  Kept on running.
I popped out at the bottom onto HWY 178 at exactly 11:00 AM which was about 4 hours into the run.  I walked the quarter mile stretch of gravel road trail up to the parking area where Lester was waiting on me.  It was starting to get a lot warmer.
Viktor's mom had just sent him off into the 34 mile stretch of Laurel Valley and she was sticking around to snap some pictures of us too.  I quickly switched out my water bottles for my Camelbak and night running gear.  I instantly regretted the heavy feel of the pack.  It weighed about 18 pounds with all of my water, food, light, rain jacket, and supplies.
For the first time in the run the little voice whispered in my head, "You can't really do this, can you?"
Lester and I embarked into the Valley around 11:30 AM which was about 4:30 into the run.  I had to drown the little voice.  It just couldn't win today.
The first 1.5 miles into this section is tough.  Mainly steep uphill with lots of crooked wooden stairs that force you into a walk from the first step.  I began to feel horrible here.  It was getting very warm and I was suddenly pouring sweat.  The weight of this pack seemed unbearable to carry for 33 more miles and I didn't feel like eating or drinking anymore.
Lester immediately started asking me what my eating schedule was and I told him that I needed to eat something every 30 minutes.   He stayed on top of it with me for the first few hours and I just kept getting sicker and sicker.  I was very lightheaded and just wanted to lay down for a while. 
The voice came back a little stronger this time, "it's too hot for you to finish today, your pack it too heavy to ever continue after whitewater".  I never believed it and kept running when I could and power hiking the hills.
I started forcing food down with big gulps of water and a salt tablet.  I told Lester that I wanted to walk one of the flat easy sections for a while and let my body try to re-adjust.  It did!  After about 10 minutes I started feeling much stronger, then my walk turned back into a jog.  This came at the perfect time as we were getting close to eight miles in and nearing the famous "heartbreak ridge" section of stairs.
The six sets of stairs up the ridge seemed OK.  They didn't kill my legs and I was excited about being rewarded with a Coke that Chad Henderson had left us at the Toxaway River sign in less than a mile.  Sure enough we ran up to the sign and there sat two plastic bottles of Coke - awesome!
It was honestly tough for Lester or I to get very excited about the next section after the Cane Brake sign on Lake Joccassee.  It features a climb that just rips all of the joy out of your legs.  We both got quiet, worked it slowly, and smiled a lot when we reached the top.
I knew at the top of this climb that I would finish the Foothills Trail this time.  There was no doubt that it was going to hurt, especially with my lack of specific hill training over the past months. 
We continued on the trail and our next landmark to look forward to was Horsepastuer River.  Dan Hartley was planning on running into LV from the other direction and meeting us somewhere around in there then running back out with us.
Lester did a solid job of pacing me.  He was very patient with my pace and kept me on top of my nutrition the whole time.  With out combined experience we have probably been through Laurel Valley at least 30 times.  It felt great to know that we knew where we were going.  That was one less thing to be concerned with.
I began battling nausea again before we reached Horsepastuer.  I felt like I could have lost anything that I was eating or drinking and nearly did several times.  If I felt myself about to get sick I would start walking because I couldn't afford to lose those precious calories at this point.
We crossed the Horsepastuer River about 1:30 before dark and both began to look ahead on the trail for Dan.  We were very surprised to cover several more miles and not see him.  This part of the trail just went on forever.  I zoned out in my mind for the first time around mile 40 which honestly felt great.
Then it happened.  I felt a blister form on the inside heel of my right foot, then pop.  This happened over the course of several miles and I didn't mind it at all.  As a matter of fact I loved the pain.  I was even running with my laces untied at one point so it would the shoe would slide more on my foot until Lester warned me to tie my shoe before I trip on it and fall.  I know this sounds ridiculous, but I wanted all the trail had to give me.  Or so I thought I did...
One of my favorite parts of this run was at sunset just before dark.  We reached a very rich & lush part of the trail known as Bear Camp Creek.  There are moss covered rocks and deep greens as far as you can see.  We scrambled rocks & roots as the sun faded into the night.  The vibrant greens slowly faded into darkness as the valley finally went into nightfall.  We were left with only the streams pouring over rocks and we got our headlamps ready for some night running.
We both got our headlamps out and I was glad to see that Lester's was working fine.  I secured mine onto my head and hit the power button----nothing.  I hit the power button again ----- nothing.  Then I took it off and made sure the brand new batteries were in right.  Turned it on again ---- nothing.  I went into a quiet panic.  Then the voice screamed at me, "you will never finish, stop at whitewater if you can even get there!"
Lester agreed that we should just keep moving forward in the darkness while trying to share his light.  This was very difficult and I must have kicked 20-30 rocks and roots trying to keep on the trail behind him.  We tried several different light positions, but the only way to make it work was to have him hold the light down and stay in front of me.  The uphills were not too bad, but the steep downhills were very difficult.
For the first time, I thought the run was going to end at Whitewater falls.  Lester was doing the best he could with the light, but I knew it was going to take up to 4 hours to finish this final 8 miles.  That is only if one of us didn't get hurt trying to move in complete darkness.
Once again, hope came in the form of Dan Hartley running down the trail towards us.  We had just passed Thompson River and were slowly climbing up towards Whitewater River.  Dan met us full of energy and in good spirits.  He even had a decent spare light that I was able to use and at least sped us back up to 3-4 miles per hour.
Lester took off while Dan and I caught up about how I was doing with the run.  He spent some time encouraging me that I was right on track to be at Whitewater in about 15 hours which was my overall goal.  That made me feel a whole lot better and I hustled as much as possible towards the final river crossing in Laurel Valley.
I had to walk most of this section because my stomach was still turning flips.  Running was just unbearable at that point.
Dan, Lester, and I finally made it out of Laurel Valley alive in a little over 15 hours.  It was GREAT to have that section behind me!  I was excited to see my new crew and very grateful for all Lester had done for me as he packed up to head home.  I envied him for a minute as I thought about how nice it must feel to get in a warm truck with dry clothes on.
I suddenly realized that it was raining and I couldn't see with my glasses on so I handed them to someone and asked them to put them somewhere safe.  The next 29 miles would be with about 75% of my vision and probably 10% of my brain.
Bo, Nick, and Joe were running around grabbing stuff and getting me ready to head out.  I only spent about 15 minutes here and I'm very glad that I didn't stay longer.  It could have gotten ugly because these guys were not going to let me quit.
Dan and Bo's daughter Dylan drove ahead to the next road crossing at Sloan's Bridge while Nick. Bo, and I hit the trail to climb up and over Round Mt.  This is a fairly tough climb, but these guys made it easy on me with their fresh legs and jokes.  I was barely hanging on to my sanity and patiently waiting for the Ensure, Expresso Double Shot, and Coca-Cola to kick in that I had enjoyed at the Whitewaterfalls parking lot.  I felt the surge about 10 minutes into the climb and could feel the strength coming back into my body.  It felt great to have such a solid team helping me get this thing done!  Things were clicking again!

My mind began fading in and out through this section.  I would be laughing at a joke one minute and then trying to figure out where I was the next.  I didn't mind it because I had two runners on the trail in front of me with about 26 miles to go.  I thought "just keep moving to the next aid stop" and everything else will work out.

Of course Dan being the trail clown that he is, decided to sneak in and scare the crap out of us in this section.  He was laying beside a downed tree and screamed at us when we ran up on him.  Bo got the worst of it because he was in front and I was so tired all I could do was smirk.  There wasn't a whole lot left to scare out of me at this point.

The rain and fog continued to come and go through the night as we worked our way towards the longest section of the night - The 10.9 mile Chattooga River section.  We must have arrived here around 1-2 AM.  I spent a little extra time making sure I had plenty of food for this stretch because I knew it would take us at least four hours.  We had a little over 16 miles to go and this would be the last tough stretch of trail before finishing.  I didn't even think about it and just kept moving.

At this point in the run I was reduced to a power hike.  The best I could do was maybe a 17-19 minute pace and sometimes much higher than that.  This Chattooga River section is so technical.  It's very difficult to get into any type of rhythm at all.  Plus, the majority of my training had been on flatter groomed trails which was catching up with me.

Nick and Bo continued to keep me company and talk through here.  I knew these guys had to be getting tired too, but thankfully they never showed it if they were.  Around three miles in, the trail forks and you can either take a "high water" route to avoid walking through the river, or just choose to get wet and walk the river for about 100 feet.  None of us wanted to walk through the river at night and we were planning on taking the high water route when we began to hear a deep growl.  We all three stopped in caution and Bo & Nick picked up some hefty sticks for protection.  The growling continued just feet ahead in the darkness and it was definitely on the trail.  I was prepared to fight whatever animal was blocking the trial.  My heart was pounding out of my chest.  There was no way I had come 65 miles to simply turn around and retreat.  Nick & Bo took the lead down the trail with sticks in hand and to our left we saw the animal.  It was a huge husky dog that was guarding it's master's tent.  And of course the tent was on the trail that forked for the high water detour. 

That left us no choice but to get wet in the river.  We narrowly escaped a dog attack as well.  This trail is difficult enough by itself and situations like this really put you in harms way.  I was so thankful to have these two guys with me.  I'm sure the three of us together presented too much of a challenge for the dog.  Had I been alone there would have probably been a fight that may have ended the run.

We pressed on through the night and I hit another mental low point.  This stretch of trail would never end.  It would go from one section of terrible roots and steps to a smooth/slick transition of soft mud.  And it all seemed to go uphill.

I forced down a Snickers bar which did wonders for my mood & energy level.  After 22 hours I was sick of eating and drinking.  I had already ate over 10,000 calories and my mouth was just tired of chewing.

We kept plugging away until we finally ran into Dan who had ran in from the opposite direction.  He said that we had about 4.5 more miles to go which wasn't the news I wanted to hear.  It seemed like we should be much closer.  All I wanted now was for the sun to come up.  I kept looking up into the darkness, but black fog was all that I could see.

I decided that I needed to push the pace through here so I started power hiking as hard as I could go.  I felt that I owed my crew the best effort that I had and I pushed hard.  I made up my mind that as soon as we hit the final aid stop at mile 70 I was going to quickly gulp down a Ensure and Double shot then get back on the trail.  I wanted this to be over.

Sure enough, we made it out of this section alive just as the sun was starting to come up.  I had been moving for 24 hours and I had been wanting this feeling for three years.  I always wondered what it would feel like to come out of the Chattooga section and cross over to the final aid stop at Cheeohee Rd.  It felt awesome! 

The rest of the crew were hunkered down warm and sleeping here in their vehicles.  I quickly downed my two drinks and within a minute I was back on the trail now running towards Oconee State Park!  6.0 miles to go!

The first two miles of this section are very nice downhill and I ran it as hard as I could go.  It hurt so bad to run, but I refused to give this trail anymore of my time than it deserved.  Bo and Nick caught up with and I found myself exhausted from the running at the bottom of the 2 mile hill.

I felt my blister pop again through here and I was glad to know that I could start taking care of it soon.

It was hard to hold back tears through the rest of this section.  Finishing was nearly a guarantee at this point and it felt so good!  I continued to go as hard a possible through here, even up the climbs.

Dan ran in to meet us just under two miles from the finish.  I kept telling myself that the faster I moved the sooner it would be over.   This stretch seemed to last forever and it all seemed to go up hill.

We finally hit the final half mile stretch of trail leading to the Western terminus of the Trail at Oconee State Park.  Dan let me know that if I would hurry I could come in under 25:30.   I put in one last hard burst of energy and there is was, I could see the finish.

As I ran the final 50 feet to touch the sign all of the memories from the prior attempts raced through my mind.   The sacrifice and effort of my crew today caused me to swell up with pride.  Tears filled my eyes with joy as I finally touched the sign.

I had finished the 77 mile Foothills Trail in 25:28.

 We all shared a celebratory group hug and some high fives.  This was a great run and I couldn't have asked for a better FHT finishing experience.  We even had time to sneak in a quick shower in the campground before packing up and heading home.

I would like to thank God for the strength and safety to finish this run.  And of course the entire crew for spending part of their weekend to help make my dream come true.  I will say it again that I would have never finished this run without their support.  I would also like to congraulate Viktor Trukov on finishing the FHT in his first attempt with a time of 24:10!

I'm humbled and honored to be a part of the Foothills 77 Mile Ultra finishers list!


  1. Way to get it done, Jason! You are always an inspiration to me, and this is your greatest ultra accomplishment to date.

  2. Outstanding as always. Knew this was going to be your time, and can't imagine the feeling of finishing after 2 other attempts. I about broke down after the first:o) Awesome job Sully!

  3. That is AWESOME. Way to go. :)

  4. Awesome. I'm considering a go at it this Fall, though unsupported, fast-pack style split over two days. A bit more relaxed! Then maybe, sometime do it all in one go!

  5. Amazing accomplishment! Great report too:)

  6. That is so good! Wow, I can't imagine, running that far, in darkness for that long! Great job! And no doubt there is nothing like a good ole Coke! That is the first thing I wanted after my marathon! haha... I said next go around I am ditching the gatorade and putting some flat coke in my bottles!

  7. Wow - that is an amazing story! I can't believe you did that on your own - you have some really great buddies!

  8. I'm so happy for you! With all the work that you have done with the Foothills site and organizing runs, it just wasn't right that your name wasn't on the list. It sounds like things worked out just the way they should have this weekend. Congrats! Great report and I like the obligatory finish photo in that familiar pose, complete with blood running down the leg.

  9. Nice job, hopefully I can run this trail myself some day soon. A bunch of my running buddies and I have been looking at doing it on a long weekend. I will probably get in touch with you for some input before then. Congratulations again!

  10. Awesome report Jason. Truly captures the highs and lows of the entire experience. Congrats on a strong finish in miserable weather conditions at the end. A true BMF!

  11. I always look forward to reading your run reports ... been looking forward to reading this one for a long time. Congratulations!

  12. You've been working incredibly hard, so I knew the finish was just a formality. So glad I was there to share the experience with you!

  13. Wow! Awesome report! I thoroughly enjoyed the read and want to say a HUGE congrats on your accomplishment! Very inspirational! It was great to get to meet and run with you for a short bit @ FATS 50K this past year. I'm looking forward to continuing to read about your WS training and progression.

    I would love to join you guys on a run portion of this trail in the future.


  14. Hey Jason. I also have been inspired reading your amazing number of race reports. I really like the adventure aspect of this event. A bit beyond the n0RmaL craziness of ultra running. If you ever consider doing this again, to improve your time, I would love the opportunity of being considered as a possible running partner... as that would probably be my best chance of taking on this course. I see on the list that no one my age (58) has finished it yet, so that would be a part of my moto, besides the shared experience of doing it with a legend. :-0

  15. Jason,
    We met in the lobby of the Hilton just beofre the start of the Columbia Marathon/Half Marathon. It was good to meet you (and your family) after reading your race reports for so long. I have admired your dedication and determination. As I told you, I enjoy the details you put in your reprots and usually check your blog to get info on races I may want to run in. That being said, I am considering either Weymouth Woods or Iron Horse for my first 100K. Which would you recommend? I'm not much of a trail guy, so the less technical, the better.

    Thanks for your help.

    -Mike Barbee

  16. I've been reading your blog for a while now as you are so inspirational and I really appreciated the local race reports. I live in Atlanta and have found some nearby places to run based on your posts. I am running the Buncombe 55k next month - which will be my longest run to date. As a I recall, it was your first too. I'm sure that seems like forever ago to you now that you're a WS finisher!