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Monday, November 28, 2011

Two Big Climbs, One Big Run

With winter looming threatening ice and wind for the end of the holiday weekend I took advantage of a perfect autumn Saturday to double traverse Grandfather Mountain.

My training has been... spotty. When I get out the door I've felt surprisingly good, if a little tight (& heavy). But once a mile or so passes below me things have been fairly strong and smooth. As I continue training for Weymouth Woods 100k in January, I can't help but feel extremely under prepared for the task ahead. I go into this knowing that the task with be mental, that the fatigue will be a long term partner on that day.

Grandfather Mountain- Double Traverse
Having slept in Saturday I arrived at the trail head around 1:30pm with about 4 hours of visibility to work with and temps in the mid 50s at the base of the Profile Trail. Forecasts said a low of 43 that night so I figured up top at 5,946' elevation the weather would be pleasant enough. To be safe I still strapped on a light jacket, hat and gloves.

The Profile Trail is the most direct route to reach Calloway Peak. Starting along the gentle moss-covered rocks of the Watauga River the trail soon goes from easy 8 minute miles to challenging 12 minute miles (or slower) within 1/2 a mile. With numerous early water crossings on big flat boulders this early section allows the legs to settle into less technical rock hopping and the eyes get a chance to program the brain for the challenges to come.

Soon the grade becomes severe in sustained fashion, it is a mountain after all and I just continued my 4 hour pace for an over and back attempt on the mountain. My hope was to reach the Tanawha Trail near Boone Fork via Nuwati and then loop back on the Daniel Boone Scout Trail. Somewhere around 30 minutes I reached the Profile View, which was occupied (as was every other via this day... busy day up there) and so I just kept moving up up up! A few minutes later I reached the spring and took a short rest. As I refueled and down a few big gulps of fresh spring water I took in the peaceful silence in the fir trees.

The Trail Below Calloway Peak
Higher and steeper
The final push to the saddle atop the ridge is STEEP. Big step on rock jumbles on grades of 25% or more in places. I decided this was a great place to walk... or climb and even so I was feeling a burn in the quads and my heart rate was getting my attention... and still not a quarter of the way out... I was a little worried about that climb later in the day when I would be ascending the mountain for the second time on 2+ hours into the run. Anyhow, in a few minutes I reach the junction atop the ridge and made my left turn toward Calloway Peak.

More big steps, rocks and wash outs with enough roots to step and trip along while ducking under short fir trees reaching into the rugged path. Even hiking these trails can be technical but somehow, once you find the rhythm they can be run pretty efficiently about 95% of the trip! Along the way to Calloway I stopped in at the Watauga view and spotted where my house is way off in the distance. A cool perspective on the county from up there while the skies were crystal clear.

Midpoint Summit
A few minutes later I reached the pinnacle at Calloway Peak running from tight squeezes in the fir to the vista atop the peak. There sat about 20 hikers who were a bit surprised, startled to see the crazed faced trail runner. I gave a quick "howdy" and left them the peak hoping to get my alone time up there on the return... I figured I would need the rest later and that stopping here I might think better of the test ahead of me... so onward and downward I ran.

The feeling running off the top of a mountain is odd. 2,000' elevation loss ahead of me over the next 45-60 minutes was a nice thought from an immediate effort stance, but those quads were about to be tested with each precarious foot fall on the rooty, rocky, washed out trail! Last time I had run this descent I got an up-close and personal view of the root systems of trail side vegetation... with the 4 hour run in mind I took it in patiently checking my excitement to fly away not wanting to bleed all the way home. This worked out fine and soon I was at the loop junction for the Nuwati Trail.

Nuwati to Me
This is maybe the most technical portion of trail on Grandfather, while not the most strenuous... the amazing network of roots left by erosion make running very difficult under low hanging branches and some tight squeezes through big boulders. That said, it is runnable (even in the snow and ice) and I was making some decent (descent) time through this section while hydrating aggressively and chomping down my Gu Chomps.

There was a lot of traffic on this portion and one encounter sticks out. I came up two teen boys and their father. The second boy who was  maybe13 and straight from the Google convention warned me of the treacherous trail ahead of me while I passed by. As I approached his father who was nose deep in his iphone completely missing everything around him... the mountain, the weather... his sons I was forced to gently brush by him... I was left trying not to tempt the trail gnomes with judgement of the encounter. We are all visitors.

Nuwati trail I took a moment at a watering spot, a mossy sluice box, to fill my bottle, fill my belly and get ready for the next test... the beginning of the climb back to the top. 1:45 in and who knew how long to get back. I was feeling strong and fairly fresh but with the climbing ahead, over 2,000' worth and nearing 2 hours on my feet it could get pretty tough. Add to this, the sun moving toward the horizon and I knew I just had to keep moving patiently. Barring injury I should be able to get to the west side of the mountain with a good amount of daylight remaining... it was about 3:20pm... that's 2 hours of good daylight, and maybe 30 minutes of dwindling dusk.

What Goes Down... Must Go Up!
Midpoint Low Point
Daniel Boone Scout trail is a winding switchback section which transitions away from the rhododendron up to the fir trees again. I bounced my way lightly upward and was reunited with many of the faces I had visited with on the way down.

Completing the loop and rejoining the Nuwati trail I was surprised how great I was feeling. From here I was only 20 minutes from rejoining Calloway Peak.

I noticed a thickness in the air and soon my head was in thick white fog permeating the trees. Passing an old plane wreck I moved onward knowing I was not meant for the one view at the top of the mountain today... rather the countless views along the way, impossible to measure in any single way but with a lingering feeling of experience it is something that stays with you.

Atop Calloway Peak for a second time I looked around at the drifting whiteness of the air. Visibility was about 50' and I had a big laugh that after 2:45 of moving to this point on the peak that I would see... clouds and few nearby trees!! Was the run any less rewarding?  

Atop Grandfather Mtn.
Nowhere to Go but Down
Beginning the final leg of the run I settled back into downhill movement, the rocks a bit wetter, though my Innov-8 Roclites gripped with easy and I ended up without even a slip on the way, just a couple of uphill stumbles (no official falls!). Reaching the spring again I stopped and took a few minutes to re-energize my legs for the runnable downhill to finish. With the technical stuff behind me I had 2+ miles of smooth downhill ahead!

Reaching the Profile View I stopped for a minute to take in the face of the mountain's namesake, this time with the trail to myself. Then, I bombed downward picking up speed, dipping into and cruising out of tight turns and splashing through ankle deep mud puddles, what a blast! I reached my car just before 5 o'clock with 3:15 on my feet and feeling like I would have liked another bit of running... but for now it was time to head home!

This run was a big confidence booster. Grandfather Mountain is an area I once considered not runner friendly, which may be true for a road racer... with the right approach this is a playground with big climbs, technical sections, downhill bombs and even a few sections of flat, open trail. I can't wait to get up there again and add on to the double traverse!

This type of running should serve me well come Weymouth Woods, though not sure how to prepare for 60 miles in a sandbox... suggestions?


  1. Good running, Sean!

    This is very sad though : "missing everything around him... the mountain, the weather... his sons"

    I give you permission to smack me in the back of the head if you ever catch me doing something similar with my boys.

  2. another epic run and post! awesome!

  3. What makes the sandbox very tolerable is the yummy food every 4.5 miles. It's what kept my attention, focus of each lap is always to think about what to eat at end of the lap.

  4. What a GREAT post!

    I love Grandfather . . . especially the backcountry! And you had me there with you the whole way (but I've never run that fast!) That was one heck of a run!

  5. I think I did this same run back in Augsut:

    I'd like to go back and push the pace on it sometime, though I don't think 3:15 is in the cards for me!


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