Sean Blanton: AT Speed Attempt

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Appalachian Trail and the Stomach

By Sean Blanton

2 years ago I started toying with the idea of going for the Appalachian Trail speed record. At first it was just another one of my crazy ideas. Then more and more things started to fall into place. I figured I had a good shot at it because of how fast my body recovered from races. I was regular back to back weekend ultra runner. Meaning I'd go out and run a 50 m on Saturday and a marathon on Sunday. I had good success going 50k to 50k multiple times. The funny thing is that once you broke through the stiffness and pain you were rewarded with some smooth running.

The Appalachian Trail to me was more than a trial or just a run. It was to be 43 days of adventure. I was to throw out everything I knew about distance running and hiking. This was a completely different beast. In training my goal was to do as much up and down as possible. I did the majority of my training in north georgia with a 3 week stint in Maui hiking up and down Haleakala. Haleakala is a 10,000 ft volcano. I found myself on some crazy training runs. Try 7,000 ft of gain over 5 miles by climbing/bush whacking up Haleakala the hard way.

My legs were ready. It was my mental state I was worried about. I am a very extroverted person. I was to willingly put myself in my own prison. A deprivation of sense.

I had some how secured a willing crew chief, Denise. Denise and I had become friends at the South Carolina Ultras on Trails race series. Denise is a massage therapist. She is a great person and shes VERY organized. I am the opposite of organized. A pigs pen is neat compared to my room.

It was the perfect combo. Denise and I had been working on the plan and strategy to tackle the AT for almost a year prior to the attempt. Soon after we started planning I got word of a lady who had just broken the record. I knew now that people would think that I was doing this to better her or to try and out do a women. This was just not true but I knew how it'd look.

We got the rental car packed. It was a mini supermarket. I had 25 cases of Clif Shot Bloks. I had 10 pairs of La Sportiva trail shoes. My trusty Petzl NAO head lamp which I was to test to its limits.  There were cases of peanut butter. It was more food than most families of 6 go through in 2 months. I was going to be eating it in 2 to 3 weeks. We calculated that I needed to take in 7,000-8,000 calories a day to maintain weight. 

We left from my home in Atlanta to camp out at the base of the .9 mile climb to the start, Springer Mountain. We woke up and climbed to the top of the mountain. I hung up some sweet prayer flags I had brought back from Nepal. I got them blessed by a monk. How sweet is that?

I took off down the mountain. It was official my AT speed record attempt had begun. I can't tell you how happy, nervous, scared and excited I was. Everything I had done to get to this point. All the mountains, all the miles and all the planning. With familiar trail and an easy 8.3 go to my first aid stop I was feeling great. Denise would come back down the mountain from our photo outting, get in the car and meet me at Hightower Gap.

I arrived at Hightower Gap 2 hours later. Perfect pace. Denise was no where to be found. I waited 30 minutes and she never showed up. I kept on down the trail now out of water and food. It got worse. It was not until mile 17 where I got back to her. I had not eaten or drank anything for 2 hours at this point. I was in bad shape and my stomach was empty. Upset and pissed off I put my head down and grunted the day out to finish 53 miles at Unicoi Gap. I was feeling good.

The next day I missed Denise yet again the first stop and had a hot 18 miles with fuel/ water for maybe 8. I bummed food from other hikers and was able to purify water. It didn't matter though because the last hour and half I ran out of everything. I staggered to the car devoid of life.

I never really recovered from this. We stopped early that day at 30 miles. The next day was a new day I was on

course for 50 + miles yet again but some 40 miles in a got ahead of pace and lost Denise again. I ended up running out on a forest service road praying I would find help. I was drinking creek water and out of food. It was 40 degrees and I had my space blanket around me to keep me alive. I finally found a house and called Denise. We stopped around 39 miles that day.  This screwed everything up. 3 days in a row of going an hour and a half or more with out food or water. My stomach was hurting from this. That kind of raw feeling that won’t go away.

After the disaster that was day 3 we had a late start. Like 1 pm late start. There would be no way to get 50 miles in today. It had screwed up the schedule because It meant that I would now have to go short today and tomorrow as there was to be a 32 mile stretch with no aid or crew access in the smokies.

By day 4 I was burping up stomach acid while I was running I choked on it a couple of times. Doubling over to the side of the trail coughing my lungs out while my throat burned. I had never experienced this before. My legs and body felt find besides my stomach and the occasional dizziness.  The first 3 days I had violent mood swings. I felt great one moment and then would be crying on the side of the trail 2 minutes later. I dealt with this.

26 miles down and out of the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Day 4 was done and I was happy to see my friend Summer come out to crew me.  Day 5 was an easy 16 mile day. I downed lots of food in the morning and strolled into Fontana Dam in the evening. We lounged around the lake. I kept with my strategy of not pushing to hard in the beginning of the trail. The miles would come I was confident.

On day 6 my good friends Charles and Psyche showed up to help pace me. 32 miles of the Smokies. Up to the highest point on the AT, Clingman's Dome. I was fine for the first 10 hours then my stomach went horribly south. I was making uncontrollable pit stops every 5 minutes or so. My stomach hurt and I felt terrible. Still my legs and body felt fine. We pushed and got to the top of Clingman's in the wet col rain. There was zero visibility as there usually is there. I met Denise at the car and asked for her to take me to a hotel. I need to lay down and fix my stomach.

At the hotel I laid there in pain. 30 minutes after some pizza I ran to the bathroom. I was puking my brains out and sitting on the toilet. I was dizzy and weak. Right then and there I knew something with seriously wrong with my stomach. I told Denise, “That's it I am done!” Denise began to tear up. Our dream was over for now. I was just in

pain. The hardest part is 2 months later my 

stomach is still not right and they don't know what is wrong. Supposedly no parasites, no gluten allergy, and no weird disease. I think that I developed an ulcer because of the miltiple days of going with out food or water for so long.

All in all 6 days and 200 miles. NO BLISTERS, NO INJURIES AND NO REGRETS! Nothing close to a record but I learned a lot and I looked into the gates of hell and walked through. I will be back again in 2 or 3 years. I will have more people crewing and more people pacing.

Huge thanks to all my friends, family, Denise, pacers, and sponsors! I love you guys.

Face the impossible and then go for it

-Run Bum

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