This is a description of my incomplete attempt to run the Sheltowee Trace, a 319 mile trail, from the southern terminus in Big South Fork, Tennessee to the northern terminus north of Morehead, Kentucky. I had hoped to complete the trail in 6-7 days. A strained hip flexor ended my adventure the morning of day four, and I only completed 141 miles. Even without the injury, perhaps the goal was also a little too ambitious for me. I based my planned mileage on times that I had run in the Leadville 50-mile and 100-mile races in Colorado and on my knowledge of the several sections in the northern portion of the ST that I had run. But I underestimated the southern portion of the trail. Though there were no steep mountain passes to climb, the ruggedness of the terrain through Big South Fork and near Cumberland Falls are not to be taken lightly. I had many slow miles, but they were also very beautiful miles. Though I didn’t complete the trail, it was an adventure nonetheless.
Below are day-by-day accounts of my journey. I have entered the days so that they appear in chronological order from top down. I know this is not how a blog is supposed to work, but this is how I did it.
Total starting pack weight = 17 lbs.
Food for 3 days (including 1 day of reserve food) at 4,000 calories per day: oat raisin & cranberry cookies, salami, nut clusters, protein bars, granola, tortillas, single-serving cheese packages, pretzel snack mix, banana chips , pepperoni
Iodine water treatment tablets
Collapsible 1L water bottle
Fleece sleeping bag liner
Extra pair of shorts
Extra pair of socks
Travel toothbrush/toothpaste tablets/pieces of dental floss
A few first aid items
Inactive cell phone (for camera)
String for bear hang
I woke up at my camp at the trailhead before 5:00 am and started on the trail around 5:15 am. My headlamp illuminated the white clusters of mountain laurel blossoms in the peaceful darkness. The birds started singing around sunrise, a chorus of hooded warblers, black-throated greens, northern parulas, and ovenbirds. The trail wound through coves with drippy rock ledges and up on dry ridgetops. Partridge berry and Indian cucumber root were in bloom. The historic Leatherwood Bridge rewarded me with great views of Big South Fork.
The trail from there to Leatherwood Ford Trailhead was easily runnable. I ate lunch at the trailhead. I was a little worried about the pace at which I was progressing. The southern portion of the trail is new, and there are no good maps illustrating it. My daily plan for the trail was to run most of the morning and then run as much as was comfortable after noon, assuming that I would be mostly walking at this point. While walking up a step ascent to Charit Lodge, I encountered Kurt, a ST volunteer. He thought I was farther along the trail than I had estimated. At Charit Lodge, I drank some lemonade and filled up my water. The air was muggy along the banks of big South Fork, and I welcomed the breeze when I ascended up the ridge out of the valley. Muir Lookout had amazing views of the surrounding gorges. It rained a little in the afternoon, just enough to be refreshing and wash away some of the sweat. At 7:30 I stopped to check my map where the trail crosses the Divide Road, and was reassured that I had been underestimating the mileage all day. The trail down into Rock Creek followed an old railroad grade, and I was able to run most of the way to where I stopped to camp at about 9:30 pm. Because of my tarp/poncho, I was not limited to camping at large flat areas.
I brushed my teeth and hung my food in a tree. I tied the tarp in a small flat spot between two trees, spread my fleece sleeping bag liner on an emergency space blanket, staked out the four corners of the tarp, and crawled in. From the map, it looked like I had made it about 51 miles for the day, and I only had one blister to show for it. It took a lot longer to cover the distance than I had anticipated, but my first reason to be out there was to enjoy myself.
I woke up shivering uncontrollably at 5:20. I packed quickly and started moving down the trail; my legs felt surprising well. I ran along the river in the dark a few miles before reaching a junction for a trail that ascended out of the gorge. It was very steep. At the top, the breeze flowing through Gobble’s Arch felt wonderful. When I looked at the map, I realized that I had taken the wrong trail. It was tempting to continue on the trail I was on to where it intersected with the ST again, but instead I backtracked the 2 miles to where I had gone off track. At the intersection, I noticed that the trail sign, which was mostly missing, was indicating that the Gobbler’s Arch Trail intersected again with the ST again in 3 miles up, not that the ST went that direction. The Gobbler’s Arch Trail was blazed with white diamonds, not the white diamonds with the turtle icon that marked the ST.
This is the trail sign that led me astray.
About 200 m beyond this junction, the ST turned to ascend out of the gorge. My mishap cost me about 1 1/2 hours; it was frustrating, but that alone would not keep me from my goal. I stopped at Mark Branch Falls and filled my water. On top of the ridge, the trail followed forest roads and were easy to run. I passed two other backpackers, the only people I saw on the trail that day. I noticed that much of this trail was blazed with both the white diamond turtle blazes and the ambiguous plain white diamond blazes. The single track along the Cumberland River was nice to run. By late afternoon, I began to feel frustrated because I did not seem to be progressing as much as I had hoped. I entertained negative thoughts for too long. I decided that I would try to cover a total of 40 miles for the day, not including the 4 miles that I went on the wrong trail. This would put finishing the trail in 7 days a reasonable goal. Tomorrow would be an opportunity to reassess. I felt comfort living in the moment. I emerged from the forest on a paved road. The sky appeared frighteningly dark, the wind started picking up, and I stopped at the picnic shelter at the Baptist Church to wait it out. The rain had subsided after my hour and a half nap, and I continued down the road. I wore my poncho/tarp for awhile. The amount of fabric was a little unwieldy for someone of my stature and I worried about getting it caught on the blackberries and smilax along the powerline cut I followed. I had noticed a billboard for a Subway three miles down the highway in the direction that the trail was heading. I couldn’t help but hope that I would pass a hotel. Instead, it descended into a beautiful hemlock cove enchantingly lit up by blue ghost fireflies. I found a rock shelter to sleep under so that I didn’t have to put up my tarp. I had made it about 40 miles along the ST; and tomorrow would be a new day.
I woke up shivering at 5:40 am. A whip-or-will and a barred owl called. If they had called throughout the night, I didn’t notice. The third day had been the unknown to me, and as I started down the trail, I was pleased to find that my legs did not feel any sorer than the previous day. When the trail came out on KY-700, I felt glad I had brought pepper spray. Though none of the dogs came so close that I had to use it, it gave me some confidence. The trail along the Cumberland River was very runnable, and I soon reached Cumberland Falls at about 9:30 am. On day one, Kurt had warned me that part of the ST had been rerouted because of recent flooding, and he wasn’t sure how well it had been marked. When I stopped to inquire, the lady in the gift shop did not seem to even know that there was a trail called the Sheltowee, but she called Sheltowee Outfitters for me. I was a little reluctant to approach too close to her and the phone; she seemed like a really nice lady who probably showered regularly. The manager of the Outfitters confirmed there was a reroute but that she had not heard anyone having difficulty following it. I did not take the opportunity to resupply, because I planned to do that at the general store at Laurel Lake in about 17 miles. I followed the trail along the Cumberland River toward the Mouth of the Laurel boat Ramp. This part of the trail appears deceptively mellow on a map. There is little measurable topographic change, but the trail relentlessly meanders up and down little rises and drops, often with rock steps that my quads could only handle at granny speed. I tried to run the flat section in between, but the chaffing from my pack on my back was really starting to bother me. I folded up my space blanket and stuffed it between my pack and my back, making it almost bearable. My smaller pack of this same brand fit really well, but this one shifted side-to-side too much when I ran and seemed to be designed for someone with a longer torso.
Effects of the pack. The rectangle is where the duct tape was. I guess I should have put on more.
Much of the trail was overgrown; my legs looked like I had been attacked by a pack of cats, and I had no choice but to surrender myself to the poison ivy. At Bark Camp Creek, the old bridge had washed out and I followed the flagging tape upstream through the woods to the new bridge, adding more distance to my already slow miles along his section. At the other side of Bark Camp Creek, after remembering Kurt’s warning that parts of the ST had been washed out, I decided that it would be prudent to follow the ST flood route. On top of the ridge, after encountering the second unblazed intersection, I chose to retrace my steps back down and reconnect to the main trail rather than make guesses as to which unmarked road I should be following. The trail along the banks of the river had been flooded in some places, but it was now dry enough that it was no problem to follow. When I finally made it to Laurel Lake, the two miles or so to the marina seemed like an eternity, and I was very tired. I planned to relax a little at the General Store, eat a hamburger that I imagined they would be grilling, and then push through the night a little, rejuvenated. When I got to the boat ramp near the marina, there was no general store. I stopped and asked the campground host, who told me that the store was about two miles down the road. I almost broke down in tears in front of him. I had misread my guidebook. Fortunately, I was eating nowhere near the 4,000 calories a day that I packed, and still had plenty of uninspiring food. Just like the night before, the wind picked up and it started to rain. I huddled inside my poncho under a stand of healthy trees and closed my eyes for a little. I hiked through the dark until 10:00 pm. I had only made about 34 miles on the ST for the day.
Like every morning so far, I did not actually feel cold, but couldn’t stop shivering. I wondered if it may have been because I wasn’t consuming enough calories for the day. My body wanted more sleep this morning, so I lay shivering until about 6:00 am. I woke up in good spirits. I discovered that if a placed my tarp in its stuff sack in between my pack and my back, the multiple layers of slippery nylon buffered the friction. I felt good running the flatter sections of the trail, even though I knew I would not finish the trail in the time I had originally planned. My short-term goal was to make it to the gas station where the ST crossed I-75 (I knew the trail went right by this gas station), order some food at their deli, sit down, and assess the rest of my trip. I had options to possibly take a couple of extra days to finish the entire trail or choose a reasonable final destination short of the end. At about 9:30, my left hip flexor started giving me trouble. I stopped and tried to lift my knee; I couldn’t even raise it even with my hip. I had strained this muscle a few months ago after a training run and struggled to walk for the next three days. I knew this marked the end of my journey. I slowly walked along the trail; the uneven parts were especially challenging. When the ST met White Oak Road I followed this road to KY-80 and walked the several miles into London.
The Sheltowee Trace went left, and I went right.