By Charles Raffensperger
On November 1, 2014, at precisely 2:55 p.m., after having run, hiked (and sometimes crawled) continuously for close to 31 hours, I added my name to the list of finishers of a Foothills Trail ultra-run. After four previous failed attempts over the last four years I had given it another shot and this time got it done. It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t fast (my time is among the slowest on record) but I FINISHED IT! ALL 76.2 GLORIOUS AND PAINFUL MILES! As I tried to collect myself next to the trailhead in Oconee State Park, the enormity of the accomplishment got the best of me and my emotions poured out in tears as I shared an embrace with my life-partner Psyche Wimberly. Psyche and I met on this trail and have shared enumerable adventures on it, both together and with others who share our love of it.
You see, the Foothills Trail is a very, very special place…
Here is a fitting description of the Foothills Trail from GORP (Great Outdoor Recreation Pages):
The Foothills Trail may be the most unsung, underused, and underrated long trail in the Southeast. It traverses the Cherokee Foothills of the Southern Appalachians in North and South Carolina, through state parks, national forests, and state-owned preserves. In these lands are high ridgelines, wild and scenic rivers, deep rock gorges, wilderness areas, mountain lakes, clear trout streams, towering forests, and a number of incredible waterfalls stretching from one end of the path to the other. There are so many cascades along the Foothills Trail that I wonder why they didn’t name it the Waterfall Trail.
The trail itself is deceptively difficult. Starting and ending in the South Carolina mountains, with Table Rock and Oconee State Parks as bookends, and large sections snaking into North Carolina (Transylvania County no less!), these are no mere “foothills”. Although there are no peaks higher than 3600’ (the trail crosses Sassafras Mountain – the highest point in South Carolina), it has more than its fair share of steep, ball-busting climbs, and descents. In fact there is more than 18,000 feet of climbing packed into this 76.2 miles of trail – you’ll swear that some sections are substantially longer than the official stated distances! And the trail designers, who must have had a sadistic streak, threw in many climbs that go straight up the sides of the ridges using nothing but wooden steps – who ever heard of switchbacks? To be sure, there are many runnable sections, but the cumulative effect of the steep climbs and descents can leave your legs quivering and unable to take advantage of the more runnable sections.
This is gorge country (part of the trail traverses North Carolina’s Gorges State Park) with steep ravines carved out by several swift, churning, boulder-filled rivers. One several mile section hugs the side of the Chattooga, designated a Wild and Scenic River in 1974. Replete with amazing waterfalls both along and off of the trail, as well as abundant wildlife including bears, boars, snakes, and coyotes, this is a remote corner of the Appalachians, protected from development and outside influences. On the Foothills Trail you can literally tune in, turn on, and drop out of the modern world.
My introduction to the Foothills Trail came back in 2009 when I read a race report on Christian Griffith’s blog, Run100Miles.com, about an obscure 35 mile race in the South Carolina mountains. Named after the middle section of the Foothills Trail, the Laurel Valley race was created by Claude Sinclair in 1995 and is held every August, demanding the most of runners who have to battle not only the trail itself but the sweltering heat and humidity as well. This is an old-school ultra with no aid until the end and no markings other than blazes on the trees. I was intrigued by Christian’s report of his experience on this incredible trail.
By early 2010 I had several ultra finishes under my belt and became friends with a group who had set their sights on attempting a run of this entire trail. Although hatched by Dan Hartley and Jason Sullivan, I found out later that several others had previously pioneered the idea and had run (or attempted to run) the entire trail – most notably Byron Backer, Brian Kistner, Richard Lilly, John Dove, and Matt Kirk (Matt set the first FKT on the Foothills Trail and is well known as the record holder for an unsupported hike of the Appalachian trail; Matt’s exceptional FKT of 16:42 was later bested by a phenomenal 14:26 by Mark Lundblad!).
To prepare for the attempt our little group planned various “training” runs on the trail to get familiar with various sections of it. The first of these runs was unofficially dubbed the Outkast run – led by Terri Hayes, this run was an unhurried traverse of the Laurel Valley section.
My next exposure to the Foothills trail came in the guise of the Chattooga 50k in June, 2010 – miles of tough, rocky/rooty trails along the Chattooga River…nothing short of amazing!
Following that race we planned a night run along the final 30 miles of the Foothills Trail, which encompassed a section of the Chattooga 50k I had just completed. On this run we variously had to run through untold GIANT spider webs, I almost lost an eye when I ran into a tree branch, and Jason did a header into a tree that had fallen across the trail.
Feeling ever more confident, Dan, Samantha, Psyche, and I planned a 49 mile run from Table Rock Park to the Whitewater Falls trailhead. A strange encounter with a park ranger that morning led to the creation of the tradition of a BMF wallet as a finisher’s award for this trail. I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say that this is the same wallet that Jules carries in Pulp Fiction. 100 mile races typically give out belt buckles – finish the Foothills Trail and you’ll get your very own BMF wallet! This 49 mile run was cut short due to heat, thunderstorms, and cramping but we had an intriguing taste now of every section of this trail.
July 24, 2010 arrived and had all the makings of a true adventure – this was D-DAY, when six of us would attempt to run the entire trail – on the hottest day of the year no less! If hindsight is 20/20 then planning a run in this heat turned out to be pure, unadulterated, STUPIDITY! At least we had the common sense to line up several close friends to crew for us. Runners included Dan Hartley, Jason Sullivan, Psyche Wimberly, Chad Henderson, Jim Cobb and me. Crew included Scott Hodukavich, Walter Stovall, Ken Sturm, and Terri Hayes. Feeling confident, we set out early that morning. 24 hours later all of us had quit before finishing, mostly due to the soaring heat and humidity, except for Psyche – running by herself, she had gotten off-trail in the Laurel Valley section and spent the night on the trail before finding her way back onto it in the morning light – but not before we had called search and rescue teams to help find her.
Subsequent attempts ended in a DNF at mile 60 due to a racing heart, another DNF at mile 53 after having broken my arm in a creek crossing six miles into the run, and my fourth DNF at mile 29 after suffering painful leg cramps. You would think I learned my lesson – the Foothills Trail was clearly not my friend.
But those failures, along with seeing several friends successfully complete this trail over the years, only fueled my desire. I was determined to finish, and on my own terms. Starting this run on Halloween day, 2014 seemed altogether appropriate. Although mostly solo, Psyche joined me at several trailheads and shared a few miles. Trudging through the night and into November, through howling winds (with gusts up to 50 mph) and temps close to freezing, I made my way toward Oconee State Park and the end of my journey. At one point a strong wind gust knocked a large branch out of a tree that hit Psyche in the leg – we were lucky it missed her head by only a few inches. With less than 2 miles left I started sprinting, exhilarated by the excitement of finally, finally finishing this trail!
For ultra runs in the Southeast you can’t beat the Foothills Trail for its rugged and scenic beauty. But beware, once you’ve succumbed to her charms she’ll lure you in and you’ll find yourself daydreaming about your next Foothills run and that elusive BMF wallet…go big or go home J
For more information about Foothills Trail ultra runs you can find a wealth of information on Jason Sullivan’s website: http://www.foothillstrailultras.com/
“We take these risks not to escape life, but to prevent life from escaping us.”
– Scott Crabb