Welcome! The intent of Anecdotes from the Trail is to share my experiences while trail running or racing (occasionally on the road too.) And to feature other trail runners and their accomplishments. You may see the occasional gear review or even contest. Please visit from time to time. Happy trails!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Duncan Ridge Trail "Fun Run" 03.09.11

Doug and Woody at the Benton McKaye
and Duncan Ridge trail split.
I started this blog because more than races, I wanted to document trail runs done either alone or with friends that pushed the envelope of just the typical trail run. I still have a long way to go to call myself a true trail runner. There are so many trail runners out West that have access to some of the most rugged climbing, toughest terrain or spectacular scenery in the US. I'll probably never get to experience what they do out there, but I can try. Here in the Southeast, we do have our share of amazing mountain trails. Sure, they're not at 10,000+ feet of elevation, but the grade and the level of technical difficulty is right up there with the best (uh, or worst) of them. A few days ago, I "ran" one of the toughest with two of my regular trail running mates, Doug and Woody. We did the Duncan Ridge Trail in North Georgia.

The Duncan Ridge Trail is a 35+ mile trail that starts near Long Creek at a point where the Appalachian Trail and the Benton McKaye Trail intersect. In fact, it shares the same trail with the Benton McKaye for several miles. It crosses the Toccoa River on a 260 foot suspension bridge and then also crosses state hwy. 60. From there, it goes East where it eventually splits off from the Benton McKaye and then goes along a ridge of several mountain tops and gaps including Coosa Bald. It then connects with the Coosa Backcountry Trail, crosses hwy. 180 at Wolfpen Gap, climbs Slaughter Mountain and finally dead ends into the Appalachian Trail again just South of Blood Mountain. Along the way, it climbs a combined 13,000+ feet with elevation changes between 1,850 ft. and 4,338 ft.

I've had this trail run on my checklist for some time and I was excited that we had finally decided to tackle it. The plan was that we would leave Atlanta early at 4:30am with the hope that we would be on the trail no later than 9:00am. Since this was going to be a point-to-point, we had to take two cars, park one at the base of Blood Mountain near Vogel State Park and then take the other car to Three Forks where the Duncan Ridge Trail started. We managed to make it to the Byron Reese parking lot at the base of Blood Mountain a little after 7:00am. It was raining hard at the time and I would be lying if I said that the rain wasn't concerning. After a quick exchange of gear, we all piled into my Forrester and made our way to Three Forks. To get there, we had to travel several miles of forest service roads, but we finally made it and we were on the trail at about 8:45am. It was raining like crazy.

Crossing the bridge over Toccoa River
Once on the trail, it wasn't long before we hit our first climb of the day. This was to become an all too familiar pattern. I had a hard time in that first hour of running. Maybe I got my heart rate up too fast, but Woody and Doug quickly put a gap on me. It wasn't until they waited for me at the top of the second climb that I was able to get a steady rhythm. The trail was single track and it was saturated. Luckily, it is not well-traveled trail this time of year, so footing wasn't too bad. A few miles in, we hit a long, very runnable (one of the only stretches on the whole trail) section that eventually went down into the valley with the Toccoa River flowing through it. When we made it to the river, we had to take a few pics on the bridge and we grabbed a quick bite. The bridge was built by the Army Corps of Engineers and it was fun to cross. With all the rain, the river was clearly well above its usual water level with lots of white water. This was to be the lowest elevation point on the trail run.

We crossed the bridge and started climbing again. It wasn't too bad, but it was steady. Enough to make us walk for much of the way. We hit a ridgeline for a short bit, then began coming down again. We were surprised to see a couple of cabins and trailers visible from the trail, but soon realized that it was due to being near highway 60 and Suches, GA. We came out on to the road with close to 12 miles on our legs. I don't recall exactly how long it took us to get to this point, but I do know that it would be the quickest 12 miles of the day. What was ahead was going to test our mettle for sure. Although from this point forward, we would enjoy drier conditions with the worst of the rain past us.

Immediately after crossing highway 60, the trail is straight up towards the top of Rhodes Mountain. Who ever blazed this trail did not believe in switch backs. Over and over for the next 17 miles, we would have to go straight up many climbs. The grade at times so bad, that we had to put our hand on our knee and push, just to take the next step. "Running" is loosely defined when talking about trail running the rest of the way. Because even though there was a downhill after every summit, it was the type of descending that made your quads scream with pain.

Crispy fried trail
About four or five miles in, the Benton McKaye Trail split off and we headed east away from it, still going along a ridge with steep inclines and descents. Soon we would pass Mulky Gap and here's where the terrain became interesting. Apparently, there had been a forest fire in the area not too long ago and we ran through a black, charred forest for several miles. Everything on both sides of the trail was just black and sooty. The previous autumn's leaves were all gone and little was untouched by the fire. I don't know when it happened, but at times you could still smell the burnt vegetation all around us.

In this part of the run, we came across a strange knot in a tree that looked like a face. Woody had run much of this trail previously and had alerted us that it was a strange site. We nicknamed it "treeface". You can clearly see two eyes, a nose and a flat smile. Bizarre! We left "treeface" behind and we would soon hit the worst of the day's climbs. Doug, who was cranking along with Woody some paces ahead of me, all of a sudden hit the wall. He let me go in front of him and for the next several miles and climbs, I would be turning back to cheer him on. Meanwhile, I was hitting a wall of my own. At a point where the trail met up with forest road 39, we took a moment to gather ourselves and eat something. I had brought peanut butter and honey sandwiches on cinnamon raisin whole wheat bread. Delish! And just what I needed. What was coming would need every extra calorie I could put into my body.

Doug and me with "treeface"
We climbed Wildcat Knob thinking it was Coosa Bald, but it wasn't. I'm not exaggerating when I describe this climb as straight up. Seriously steep climb! Once over the top, we were hoping to see the connection with the Coosa Backcountry Trail which would have meant we had gone over Coosa Bald, but there was no trail connection and after a short stint on a saddle ridge, we did begin the climb to Coosa Bald. Holy shit! This one was rough. Woody was doing fine, but this climb broke me and Doug. We were both seriously struggling. It seem to never end. It just kept going up and up. Remember, we had already done our share of climbing all day, so this one took it out of us. We thought we'd never get to the top. After what seemed like an eternity, we finally saw the granite outcroppings that mark the top of Coosa Bald (4,280 ft.) We didn't stop to enjoy it. We just wanted to get over it and hook up with the Coosa Backcountry Trail knowing that we had a mile or two of easier downhill running down to Wolf Pen Gap where we had left a gallon jug of water earlier that morning when we drove by. The run down allowed Doug and I to get our strength back some what. We arrived into Wolf Pen Gap and sat down to refill our bottles and grab another bite. We were tired. 30 miles into it and we knew we had one last doozy of a climb up to just below the summit of Slaughter Mountain and then an easier section leading up to Blood Mountain.

When we started the day, we gave ourselves eight hours to finish the entire run, but we realized this was not going to be the case. Sitting at Wolf Pen Gap, we were already eight hours in. We gathered our stuff, threw our hydration packs back on and started the climb to Slaughter Mountain. From Wolf Pen Gap, we would go about 1,000 feet again straight up with a couple of small switchbacks. Some where on this climb, Woody noticed that his Garmin died. The elevation chart you see on this page is of the run up until this point. Click here to view what the Garmin captured to this point.

Top of Blood Mountain
Up, up and up until we leveled off some what and soon the trail broke off from the Coosa Backcountry Trail. We knew there wasn't much left until it hit the Appalachian Trail again. Much of the jokes and laughter had stopped much earlier. At this point, we were just wanting to get up to Blood Mountain and down the other side to the car as quickly as possible. Also for the first time, we realized that we might have to run in the dark before we made it to the car. We came upon the Appalachian Trail unceremoniously. We put the Duncan Ridge Trail behind us and the trail on the AT changed to a rockier single track than what we had been running on all day. The approach to the Blood Mountain summit from the southside is much tamer than from the northside. It wasn't long before we reached the stone shelter built back in the 1930's and then soon after we made it to the top at 4,458 feet. The tallest point of the day and also tallest point of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. The fog and clouds were thick and visibility was poor at the top. There wasn't much to see unfortunately.

We gladly began the descent but it was to be the hardest descent of the whole day. The descents earlier in the day were steep, but the trail wasn't technical in the sense that you didn't have to pick up your feet much. However, the descent off Blood Mountain was not only steep, but you had to step down from large rocks and our legs were pretty chewed up. Adding to this was the mud and overflowing creek water from the rains earlier that morning. Progress was slow which was killing us because we were ready to get it done. It was slowly becoming dark too.

I had brought a couple of headlamps, which I let Woody use one of them. Except he wasn't having trouble with the dark and soon got ahead of me and Doug. When we hit the side trail that led to the Byron Reese parking lot we were thrilled. This was it, the last mile of the day and finally some runable trail. The rain had started again and we did cross some creeks on the way down to the parking lot. One switchback, then another, and we were getting excited again. Finally, we heard Woody "woot!" and we knew were back at the car almost 36 miles later and countless feet of climbing and descending. Ten and a half hours of the
Duncan Ridge Trail left a mark on us.

Doug had brought a cooler with some of his home brewed lager. We toasted, drank and busily changed into drier clothes. Here's my Dailymile post from that evening:

"Epic. Is that too strong a word? Memorable. OK, that's more appropriate. Wow! What a day? Woody, Doug and I ran the Duncan Ridge trail in N. Georgia. "Run" is loosely defined term here. It was more like run/hike/crawl. Mother nature handed it to us with rain, wind and fog. The DR trail is a beast of a trail. We hit insane climbs (13,000+ ft.) and quad-busting downhills. It took us a lot longer than intended, but we got it done. Now we are on our way to a grande Mexican meal and a cold one."

These types of runs is why I started this blog. Thanks to my running mates, Woody and Doug, for another trail adventure to remember.