Saturday was the official 28.3 mile Trailblaze Challenge! Friday night we had a pasta dinner for all the hikers and you could hear the excitement build as everyone was coming in, meeting up with friends from previous hikes and talking about their expectations for the next day. After some good carbo-loading, we got the run-down of the morning festivities which included a 4:45am roll call and a quick departure by 5:00am. After we finished dinner, no one really knew what to do – we all knew we should be headed to bed, but it’s really hard to go to sleep when it’s still daylight! I got into bed shortly after 9:00pm and slept well, before waking to voices in the hall around 4:00am. When we left our room, we found that everyone’s doors had banners and streamers celebrating the challenge we were getting ready to undertake.
After a quick breakfast of a bagel with peanut butter and checking in via roll call, I jumped in a van with 9 other folks and we made the long trek to the start line in the Nantahala National Forest. When I was describing where this hike was going to take place, I kept telling people that it’s where North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia meet – we were staying in a hotel in Georgia, but our hike started in North Carolina and ended in South Carolina. As we were driving to the start line, I saw the sign for the North Carolina State line and almost immediately we turned into a parking lot for the trailhead, so while we technically did start hiking in North Carolina, it was probably only about .1 of a mile – but I still hiked through 2 states!
It took us a little bit to get everything situated, but we were able to get a group shot of all of the hikers in the light of the vans and the early morning sunrise. After the group picture, we broke up into our hiking groups – since we had over 50 people hiking, we did a staggered start of 5-6 people in each group. I was in the 5th group and after a short stop at the trailhead sign for a picture, we were off! The rest of the group that I started with were all members of the same team, the Lake Wylie Blue Blazes, and we stuck together through the first section and leapfrogged one another until somewhere in the third section where I lost track of them. Not too far into our hike, as the sun was coming up, we came to a clearing where we could see out over Lake Jocassee.
Of course, since it was beautiful scenery and we all started hiking around the same time, we had a little bit of a crowd form as everyone stopped to take pictures. The first section of our hike was just under 5 miles (4.7) and while I had intentions of starting my Garmin before the hike, I forgot and it took forever for it to find the satellites, so I missed a bit of the first section, but it eventually got started – as we were headed uphill, of course. With the sun still coming up and promises of a hot day (it ended up around 80 degrees), I was pushing myself to get as many miles in before the sun was hot overhead.
After starting my hike at 6:22, I made it to aid station #1 at 8:05, which is just under 22 min/mile pace. Once I got to the aid station, I picked up a packet of almonds and used one of the few real bathrooms on the trail and then got started on my way again. Aid station #2 was 7.2 miles away and there we would have access to our “comfort bags” where I had stashed my M&M’s for later in the day.
During the second section of the hike, we started to hear (if not always see) the waterfalls that populated this part of the forest. There was more climbing in this section of the hike, but the biggest climb of the day was definitely in the first section – we started at around 2500′ and our first peak was around 3300′ – in the second section, there was another climb which lasted about 3 miles and went from 2650′ to 3050′. This section also included a lot of bridges over some of the smaller streams as well as some mud crossings and rock hopping.
I made it into aid station #2 at 10:44, which put my pace for the second section (7.2 miles) just over 22 min/mile. Since I’m not sure how long I stayed at the first aid station, I think my hiking time was actually a bit faster in this section than the first. At aid station #2, I took about 15 minutes to eat and change my socks. I had a small blister starting on my left heel and I figured I’d try out the BlisterShield I received in one of my Strideboxes earlier this year. That was probably my best decision of the day and I’ll be headed out to buy some more of this stuff! I thought it was going to be the consistency of body glide, so when I opened the package and it was a powder, I was a little thrown off (and of course, I didn’t read the directions), so I just put some of it into my hand and rubbed it all over both of my feet. I also broke out my gaiters because I was getting pretty good at kicking stuff into my boots. After that, I had no problems with blisters or sticks / leaves / other “stuff” in my boots! *note to self – just take the time to do the gaiters at the beginning of the hike!
Aid station #2 was getting pretty busy, so after I finished tending to my feet and grabbing my M&M’s, I quickly headed out onto the longest section of the day – 10.4 miles until the next aid station. The good news is that there was going to be a water station set up around the 8 mile mark so we could re-fill before we got the whole way to the aid station #3. After I left the aid station, I headed downhill for quite awhile before finding myself beside the Chattooga River which separates South Carolina from Georgia.
It was around this time that I started to get pretty hot and start going through my water more quickly. One of the things in our goodie bag when we checked into the hotel on Friday night was another Make-A-Wish bandana and I already had one tied to my pack, but
I figured I would bring this extra one with me, just in case I needed it for something. Walking next to the fast-moving water, I knew exactly what I was going to do with that bandana – soak it in water and put it on my head! It was the perfect way to keep the sweat out of my eyes and also help cool me down a bit in the heat of the afternoon. For the most part, I was hiking by myself at this point, but every now and then I would either catch up to someone or get passed by someone and as we got farther into this section, everyone I saw was wondering how much farther we had to go before we would find the water station we were promised. Since my Garmin didn’t start right when I started the hike, it was off by a little over a mile, so I was able to make a few guesses as to how much farther we had to go, but it wasn’t much help. By this point, I had emptied my 2L water bladder and was working on my reserve 16oz water bottle. I got about halfway through that bottle of water before I decided I should probably ration my water just in case we weren’t able to fill up at mile 8 like we were expecting. Instead, I broke out my beef jerky and chewed on that for awhile which seemed to work well.
There were some interesting blazes on this section of the trail, including different markers for high tide and low tide. We were at low tide, but I went up the hill anyway, following the first white blaze I saw. I heard from someone at dinner who had take the lower trail that it was probably a much safer route to go up the hill – lots of slippery rocks to contend with on the lower route. Shortly after that section, I came to this trail marker…
At least one person at dinner didn’t remember seeing the giant arrow, but he made it through safely nonetheless. I also really like this trail marker where the tree is actually growing around the blaze…
I’m not 100% sure if this means that someone has cut out the section of the tree where the blaze was originally painted instead of repainting it or if the paint has actually caused the tree to leave a hole in the middle. Even though there was no extra water stop at mile 8, I eventually made it to aid station #3.
By this point, my watch battery had died, I had less than 8oz. of water on me and my left IT band was hurting every time I went downhill, but I only had 6 miles to go! I did continue to slow down in section #3, finishing the 10.4 miles at about a 24 min/mile pace. One of the volunteers graciously filled up my hydration bladder and after eating another peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I headed out to tackle the last section of the trail.
My goal for the day was to finish in less than 12 hours, and coming into aid station #3 at 3:15pm, I thought that was definitely still doable. As I was getting ready to leave the aid station, one of the volunteers told me it would be an easy 6 miles out and “all downhill” which definitely didn’t excite me since downhill was the only time I was having pain. The good news is that while there was some downhill, most of it was gradual enough that I didn’t have too much pain. I left the aid station before either of the other women who were there, but was quickly passed by a woman, Debbie, who had her feet taped by the EMTs at the aid station. After a mile or so of hiking by myself again, I saw her sitting on the side of the trail taking off all of the tape because it was actually causing her more pain than before it was taped. Once she told me she would be fine, I headed off again.
With about 4 miles to go in the hike, I decided that trying to coordinate my feet and my hiking poles was too much work mentally, so I strapped them to my pack and just walked the rest of the way without them. Debbie caught back up to me with a little less than 2 miles to go and we stuck together through the rest of the hike. We passed a guy who told us we only had a 2 minute walk to go until the finish and soon enough, we could see the vans through the trees and eventually, the finish line sign.
We dropped our packs at the finish line, did some stretching and I went back for an obligatory finish line photo.
Almost as soon as we finished, the other hikers who had finished before us started grabbing their things because we now had enough people to warrant a bus back to the hotel. Those hikers were definitely excited because some of them had been waiting for about an hour, but I felt a little rushed to grab my things and get into the van. I didn’t even get to take off my boots before jumping in the van for a 30 minute ride back to the hotel. But, as soon as I could sit down, I was happy to just not be walking anymore!
Saturday finished with a dinner back at the hotel and at least one guest at the hotel (who was clearly not part of our group) asked one of the hikers what we did that we were all walking funny. It was great to re-group with everyone back at the hotel and hear stories from the different groups that ended up together on the trail.
Have you ever taken on a challenge like this?