My 33 mile day hike in the Great Smoky Mountains

Posted on August 18, 2020

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(Last Updated On: August 19, 2020)

About 3 years ago,

How I trained for the steepest day climb in America

The past year I’d been biking for the majority of my exercise. I put my kids in a trailer and tow them along. I was doing this mainly when taking them to school, to help with time management.

With no school due to the pandemic, I started running more. With cabin fever and the allure of outdoor Youtube videos ever growing, I decided to do something more extreme.

I also think it’s good every now and then for a personal trainer to remind their audience that yes, they do in fact exercise too.

I’ll go into some details on the preparation and random pointers for anybody interested in doing something similar.

Scouting a route

I got it in my head I wanted to do something around 30 miles.

Cactus To Clouds was about 20 miles, but all uphill. I figured doing something that was less miles uphill, but longer overall, would be a nice challenge relative to that.

After a lot of looking around I came across the Great Smoky Mountains and the Appalachian Trail. When it comes to hiking or running, I much prefer mountains to flat ground. Between that and the area’s history, I went with it.

From there it was a lot of trial and error on Google Earth and CalTopo. I eventually went with what is more or less Davenport Gap to Newfound Gap.

Elevation profile:

I realize the title of this post says 33 miles but the above says 31 miles. I’ll get to that later.

-> I wrote some notes about being careful doing extreme exercise during this COVID time. I held to that myself for about a month, but then because my family was so isolated, my fear of getting the virus went to ~zero. Now, since my family’s situation has changed, I won’t be exercising in an extreme way at least until the pandemic truly calms down.

Training

Mileage Progression

With all the biking (30 to 50 miles a week) I was probably only running 7 miles a week before I started training for this. Maybe 3 or 4 mile runs a couple times a week.

As I started biking less, I ran more.

For probably two months it was as simple as adding about a half mile per run, at 2-3 runs per week.

So, after about six weeks, I went from running 3 or 4 miles at a time to about 10. Once I got to that range, largely because of the heat and humidity, I found it too tough to keep increasing by that amount every single run.

Gear

Once I got around the 10 mile range I also added gear. One week I added a Camelbak with only some water in it.

The next I added more water.

Then I added even more.

Then I added some food.

This way I gradually added how much weight I was running with.

With the amount of mileage and the added weight, the runs were getting to be so long I couldn’t keep adding mileage during the week. My schedule didn’t allow me to go much beyond two hours in a day, and I didn’t have two+ hours on weekdays.

So I then started doing 9-12 miles during one or two weekly runs, and then would focus on making the weekend run where I had to add mileage.

Because what I was looking to do (30+ miles) takes so much time, what I was hoping to do training wise was make it so I could pretty much run 15 miles, in the hopes that once I did the 30 mile “event”, I’d be ok by power walking a great deal of it. That is, hoping 15 miles of running roughly equaled 30 miles of fast walking.

-> This is one of the hardest things with those who like to do long hikes. The training for them does not mesh well with daily life. Ideally, when training for anything, you’re doing it at least a couple times a week, with some days of rest in-between i.e. you can’t just do it on the weekends. But it’s hard to train for a 10, 15, 20+ mile hike during the week by actually hiking, due to job / family commitments, etc.

This is something I’ve gotten a lot of clients from, due to their irregular long hikes routinely give them all kinds of painful flareups.

Hills

The route I chose had nearly 11,000 of elevation gain and 7,000 feet of loss.

I live in a way too flat area. A great deal of my hill running had to be done in a mall parking lot and one park I found on the side of a hill towards a bay.  I also did a good deal of stairs.

-> I found another park that was very hilly due to being an old mining area. For fellow flat landers, look or ask around (e.g. email the parks system). Usually you can find something.

About a month in I started adding hills. I gradually made the training more and more hill dominant based on how I felt. So, once I was running around seven miles or so, I started adding some hills, but that first day only 1 out of the 7 miles was hill oriented.

Then I added from there based on how my body responded.

Train it like you fly it

With an event like this, you really, really, want to train as much as you can like the event will be.

Any variable you can train, you must train.

The biggest mistake, and people seriously die doing this, is leaving something to event day that you haven’t practiced. You can click the Cactus To Clouds link above and read about smart people, people with PhDs, accidentally killing themselves because they thought they’d be fine. Whether it’s how much water you’ll need, training in a temperate environment when the event will be in the heat, thinking because you’re used to running on flat ground you’ll be fine despite the event has a lot of elevation change, the list can go on for a while here, and this could be a post in itself.

One of the big mistakes I’ve seen is with elevation change, so let’s go into that for a second.

While at first glance the mechanics don’t seem dissimilar, running downhill is much different than running on flat ground. It’s drastically more likely to flare up your quads and or knees, due to the little extra bending that happens when you’re going downhill. (In technical talk, the quadriceps go through a greater eccentric motion downhill. Downhill running is so notorious for causing soreness, its use is actually one way eccentric muscle stress is studied in a laboratory.) The last thing you want with something like this is halfway in to start having to limp because you jacked your knee up.

-> This is another reason training for hiking during the week is so tough: you can’t just do an uphill treadmill as a substitute. What goes up must come down!

Or I mentioned I did stairs, but stairs are not a full substitute for hills. When you go down stairs, full foot contact means landing with a foot in neutral alignment (toes same level as the heel, since the stair is parallel to the ground), but when you go down a hill, your foot is plantar flexed (it’s at an angle, with the toes pointing down relative to the heel, since the ground is angled downward). That is, when you go down a hill, you’re way more likely to beat up your toes than you are on stairs because your foot is being pushed into the front of your shoe.

Furthermore, going down stairs means, as your foot progressively makes contact, landing with an achilles that’s somewhere between stretched and neutral (the ball of your foot hits the ground first, then your heel makes contact (with your knee traveling forward of the foot (stretches achilles))), while going down hills means landing with an achilles somewhere between shortened and neutral (the heel of your foot makes contact first, then the ball makes contact at a point below the heel, due to the angling of the ground).

It’s plenty different enough to the body, and the body responds exactly to how it is stressed.

Another example- I knew it might rain when I did the event. One weekend day I purposely went out on a day it was raining. (I’ve seen others purposely douse their feet and shoes in water.)

Despite being fine for over two months, once I was in the rain, my achilles area started blistering. I had to figure out a way to pad them so I could keep going. As we’ll see this ended up being too relevant.

Fancier Gear

I bought a Garmin Mini inReach, which is a satellite communications device. You can even text message with it, using your phone. This is great for keeping family members peace of mind. They can follow you through a link you give them. Highly recommended.

I practiced with it on one of my weekend runs to make sure I knew how it worked.

Food

This is something people can go off the rails with, and is another test it like you fly it issue.

I’ve seen a lot of people do these events, bringing all kinds of food with them they never normally eat. Like tons of Cliff bars or gel packs. Then inevitably their stomach is killing them after hours and hours of ingesting the stuff.

First, you don’t need that many calories. Most of us have more than enough fat on them to get through stuff like this. People are a little crazy when they think one long day of activity is like, going to actually starve them to death.

Second, bring food you’re familiar with. Personally, I brought two granola bars, two Cliff bars, a gasoline station jug of chocolate milk, and one packet of pop tarts (i.e. 2 pop tarts). This is all stuff I’m familiar with eating regularly. (While I barely ever bought a snack bar until the last year, I now have two small kids. Getting them to eat anything besides snack bars and milk is an achievement right now. And with so many of them around, I eat them more than I’d like, but it worked well for this!)

I then had about 5 liters of water with me. During my runs, the temperature was about 85 degrees with high humidity and I was drinking about 2 liters. My thinking was if that was good enough over 15 miles, then over about double that distance, more than double the water, in much cooler temperature (due to being at elevation), would be more than enough.

Food wise, I was barely eating during my training runs, so I was used to more or less no calories over 15 miles. I only brought as much as I did as a just in case.

Shoes

I purposely bought some bigger shoes to lessen how much my feet were touching other parts of the shoe.

This was an adjustment too though. With a bigger shoe, I was way more likely to trip over tree roots. Where my foot was wasn’t quite the same as where the shoe was. Basically, I realized I had to look down a lot more than I anticipated whenever I was on rockier terrain.

Event Day

This was not enjoyable!

I tried the best I could to avoid doing the event in the rain, but it ended up raining on me 9 of the 11 hours I was out there. As anybody familiar with mountains can tell you, forecasts aren’t worth a whole lot.

With that, this part of the Appalachian Trail was outrageously rocky.

I pretty much looked at my feet for 11 hours, to prevent myself from tripping or slipping. It was mainly the slipping that concerned me. (I had one decently hard fall.) There was only one time I even had a view to look at anyways. Per the name, it was smoky (foggy) all day and really, most of this route was pure forest.

While I was planning on about 31 miles and hoping for it to take 8-10 hours,  roughly 3.5 miles per hour, it was clear right away that wasn’t going to happen.

First of all, I was out there for maybe 20 minutes, where I then saw a sign saying 31 miles to Newfound Gap. Clearly I was going to do more than 31 miles.

Next, and I knew this was a problem from Cactus To Clouds, I had been using my Apple Watch’s accelerometer to train for this, which is based on your feet hitting the ground not necessarily how far along the ground you traverse, which is more how GPS does it.

Because of all the rocks and rain, I often had to walk laterally or diagonally, opposed to in a straight line, and with the smallest of steps to keep my footing. Even so, I must have slipped a hundred times, despite having shoes with great tread.

So, while GPS more or less says you’re going straight ahead, you’re actually not walking straight ahead to get there when you’re constantly zigging and zagging in small increments that GPS won’t pick up but an accelerometer will.

In training, this wasn’t a problem. GPS would nearly perfectly align with my Apple Watch, but my training didn’t involve that much rain and that much rockiness.

So on event day, this was such a big discrepancy my watch said I went 40 miles. Meaning I had to move so much not in a straight line to avoid slipping that I went 7 miles further than the actual trail length!

Relative to the length of the trail, I went about 3 miles per hour (33 miles in 11 hours), but relative to how much my legs hit the ground, I went 3.6 miles per hour (40 miles in 11 hours).

It was such a discrepancy my guess is on a non-rainy day I could have went a couple hours faster.

-> I probably ran 5 out of the first 15 miles. I purposely didn’t want to run much due to concern of burning my legs out. After the 15 mile mark, my legs were aching enough with running I only power walked.

Bears

Researching bears on these kinds of hikes is surprisingly controversial. Seems like you have your “it’s never an issue” on one extreme and you’re “they will kill you” view on the other.

I went 29 miles seeing a person every two miles or so and nothing else.

I then saw two bears in two miles.

One of which I accidentally came right up on. I was in a bushy area and out of nowhere heard a loud growl and a bunch of bushes move around, realizing I was about 10 feet from a bear who just lunged at me.

A mile later I walked about 30 feet behind one who was sniffing around at one of the shelters. If you were a person walking that direction, you could have easily walked right into it, especially when you’re having to look down so much in rainy conditions.

So, as I did, I’d say bring some bear spray and know what to do when you run into an animal. (Don’t run!) I grabbed my bear spray on both occasions, and just kept walking (sideways, always looking at it, with a much faster heart beat!). I also looked over my shoulder and turned around a bunch to make sure nothing was tracking me.

Recovery

I took some Advil as soon as I was done, had a bunch of different food, then went to bed two hours later.

The next day I was a little sore, but nothing crazy. My lower back was the most sore, due to all the slipping, which caused me to over and over again extend backwards.

I moved very slowly though, thinking more intense soreness might set in the next day, but the next day I was pretty good, and from there on out just kept getting better.

Overall, the run-half-the-distance-you’re-going-to-hike approach worked well. Physically, it went well. Mentally, it was truly awful, but if it didn’t rain, I think it would have been much better. It was the opposite of Cactus to Clouds, which was physically very hard, but mentally fun.

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