An Epic Adventure on the Foothills Trail
Updated: Mar 17, 2021
Why did I choose the Foothills Trail for my first non-race adventure run? It’s close to where my husband, Jeremy grew up in upstate South Carolina. I’ve heard about many boy scout trips of him and his buddies hiking and camping along sections of the trail. I’ve always wanted to experience this trail and one day this past summer, our friends Matt and Sydney shared their plans to do a thru-hike on the trail. Sydney looked at me and said, “you should run it!” 8 months later, after a lot of training through the grossest Virginia winter on record, we found ourselves at the base of Table Rock.
Stats of the Foothills Trail:
77 miles in length
Location is upstate SC/western NC
Typically takes 5-10 days for backpackers to complete
Approximately ~15K in total elevation gain
Highlights: 13 waterfalls, gorges, over 500 wooden steps, multiple suspension bridges, highest point of SC
I had carefully calculated my goals, based on my training efforts over the past 7 months. My plan was to average 4 miles an hour with a ~15m pace, therefore breaking the current female FKT. From Sept through March, I trained hard, until I was running 50+ mile weeks on a consistent basis. Over two different weekends this winter, I ran the first 50 miles of the toughest section of the Foothills from Table Rock to Whitewater Falls so I knew what to expect. Those runs went well and were right on target for my goal pace. I had a set-back with a sprained ankle that healed quickly due to PT (thanks Tyler & Jordan)! I assembled a strong lady crew of pacers, because who wants to experience these crazy endeavors alone? My in-laws, Holly and Tommy also volunteered to provide the “aid station” support.
The 3 main goals I set for myself (in order of priority) were:
Don’t Get Hurt.
Finish the Entire Trail.
Get the Female Supported FKT.
The Night Before
We arrived at Table Rock State Park on Friday afternoon to camp with Tommy and Holly. We ate a meal of Jeremy’s pasta carbonara, salad and buttery bread. We crawled into the back of the trucks early. I lay awake all night with nervous excitement, anticipating the adventure ahead.
Alarms went off at 2:00 a.m. and we quickly loaded our gear and drove to the trailhead, in an effort to not disturb the other campers. At 3:00 a.m., Tommy said a powerful prayer and at 3:01 Huck, Jeremy and I set off to climb Pinnacle Mountain.
Table Rock to Laurel Valley - 14.5 miles Pacers: Jeremy “Never Runs But is Really Fast” and Huck
We climbed Pinnacle Mountain for the next 3 miles, clipping along at a quick pace, while I tried to gain control of my nerves. We got to the summit and took a moment to appreciate the night sky, mountain silhouettes, and twinkling lights of the small towns in the valley below. We heard a pack of wild coyotes howling and barred owls hooting through the trees, while Huck scared up a gang of wild turkeys. We ran our way to Sassafras Mountain, the highest point in SC, then descended to Laurel Valley at 6:30 a.m. on the nose, right on time according to the plan.
Megan and Hannah camped there the night before so they were ready to roll. After a quick repack of fuel and water, Megan and I started on the infamous remote “Laurel Valley” section, while Hannah drove to Gorges State Park to access the Foothills 12 miles later via the Canebrake trail.
Laurel Valley to Whitewater Falls - 33.4 miles
Pacers - Megan “Snack Mule” and Hannah “Payday”
As the morning humidity began to settle in, I started to have stomach issues about 17 miles into the run. My guess is that the humidity, mixed with the gels and steep climbs got the best of me. I lost all of my energy, feeling goal #3 slipping quickly through my hands. Megan and I continued on, talking about every topic imaginable while I battled with my stomach.
We began to tackle “Heartbreak Ridge”, which is essentially a never-ending series of steep descents and ascents, strung together by hundreds of primitive stairs. I couldn’t imagine the trail without them in place though. All the food in my pack sounded terrible and I couldn’t bear the thought of eating my homemade coconut chocolate rice cakes, Gina’s oatmeal chocolate chip balls, energy gels, Megan’s homemade muffin …. absolutely nothing. Finally, a pouch of what looked like oatmeal slurry did the trick.
We finally made our way to Hannah, hours behind schedule. I crawled onto a bench and sipped tailwind, while I faintly heard Megan and Hannah discussing my condition. I could hear the slight sense of concern in Megan’s voice.
I finally gained enough strength to peel myself off the bench and the 3 of us shuffled down the trail to the intersection of Canebrake Trail. Megan bid us farewell and made her way out, promising us tasty snacks at Whitewater Falls.
Hannah and I began the next segment … hiking all the steeps and doing the “ultra-shuffle” on the flats and descents. Missy Elliot’s “Work It” played on repeat as we slowly ticked off the 4 major climbs. We crossed several rivers and suspension bridges and climbed stairs. So many stairs. A Haiku by Hannah about these stairs ensued, peppered with expletives. At this point, we were way behind schedule and running low on snacks and fuel. I stopped at a tree and Hannah pulled out a “secret snack” - a PAYDAY bar! This is hands down one of the best snacks of the entire day - the combination of salty, crunchy and chewy goodness lifted my spirits and brought a bit more color to my face.
Hannah sent a message out through the Garmin Inreach mini and asked if someone could come in through the Bad Creek Access side trail with some more snacks. Little did I know, Jeremy and Megan had already hatched a plan. By the time Jeremy received the text, Megan was already a couple miles in to save the day. Hannah and I did the “Yee Yee” call and we heard a faint “Yee Yee! ” in response. We rounded the corner and there she was, the wonderful Snack Mule, with a plethora of snacks laid out in the middle of the trail. She had mashed potatoes that my in-laws retrieved from a Wendy’s, along with lots of salty snacks. After I happily ate my mashed potatoes from a baggie and cheez-its, the 3 of us continued towards Whitewater Falls, the longest 2.3 miles of my life. Once we got to the last climb, Megan ran ahead to help prep supplies, while Hannah and I made our way up the mountain, dreaming of sitting in the chair. More stairs, more rock scrambling. As we got close to where we thought the cars were, we started Yee Yee-ing, but no one was responding. Darn you, false summits.
Side note: Megan ended up running over 30 miles total and Hannah did over a marathon distance.
We finally saw our group cheering at the top. This aid station was by far the most anticipated one of the entire run. I sat down in the chair and slowly took off my shoes and socks. I was shocked. I had nearly 50 miles behind me and my feet looked absolutely incredible. No hot spots or blisters … they looked exactly like they did right after my pedicure! First time I’ve ever done anything over 30+ miles and my feet looked normal. I ate fruit and leftover pasta carbonara while Jeremy loaded down Michelle with food. Our friends, Matt and Sydney were also there with their new puppy! It was so great to see them and have their support. Jeremy had fashioned a changing room out of blankets, so I switched into new shorts, a top and fresh socks. I told Michelle that my new goal was to try and finish the trail in under 24 hours, so she did some quick calculations to figure out our goal pace.
Whitewater Falls to Burrell’s Ford - 12.2 miles
Pacer - Michelle “Fritos”
Off we went, climbing out of Whitewater Falls and up another mountain for 1.5 miles. Michelle gave me a recap of her fantastic day, which included jumping in a lake, visiting a Chattooga Belle Winery and distillery, dipping her toes in the Chattooga River and buying boiled peanuts. We turned on our headlamps and kept on power hiking. Michelle gave a quick update on pace, and we kept on moving as quickly as we could as the nighttime settled in. I had stopped looking at my watch hours earlier, only focusing on the task at hand, one foot in front of the other. I had gotten cold at the last aid station and thought my thin wool long sleeve top would be the perfect top for the remainder of the run. Wrong. It was way too hot. Michelle announced, “it’s Pickle Time!” and she pulled out a huge dill pickle. I slugged back the pickle juice and was able to eat half the pickle. Michelle shared this was the first time she’s done any running in the middle of the night and she loved hearing the sound of the rushing water below us. She could do without the howling coyotes though.
After 8.8 miles, we arrived at the Fish Hatchery road crossing. Tommy had picked up pizza from Carolina Pizza Company and we chowed down. This was my first “real” food of the day and it was so dang good. Michelle and I continued for the next 3.5 miles, while she blasted Panic at the Disco and danced in front of me. We took another snack break where she brought out chili cheese flavored Fritos. These fritos, along with the payday bar, were the snack highlights of the trail.
We finally made our way to Burrells Ford, the access point at which Morgan and Corinne were waiting for me. The original plan was to get to them by 5:30 p.m. but it was actually 11:30 p.m. I apologized for being late and they shared that they planned to power hike the last 16 miles with me. Michelle headed home for a quick power nap and some refueling.
Burrell’s Ford to Oconee State Park - 16.1 miles
Pacer(s) - Corinne “Nap Boss” and Morgan “Work Them Poles”
The last section was finally here. We began to descend down to the Chattooga river valley, with the sounds of the rushing river beside us. The moon cast a soft light onto the rapids. Jeremy grew up kayaking this river and we have spent many weekends hanging out on its shores. The trail started to get extremely technical with roots, rock scrambling and mud. Morgan rightfully earned her nickname by reminding me to “work them poles”.
Intense delirium started to set in for me. At this point, my contacts had been in my eyes for over 24 hours and I had forgotten to put my glasses on at the last road crossing. My eyes kept closing while I was hiking and the leaves were moving beneath me. Was I hallucinating? I started tottering over, grateful for my poles and Corinne behind me to help guide me along. In my head, I was coming up with alternative plans. I decided to share a new plan with Corinne and Morgan.
“Ya’ll, what if when we get to the next road crossing, I just climb in the back of the truck and sleep for a few hours? Then I can just finish the last 6 miles when I wake up!”
“No,” they said, “we are finishing this thing now.” “Well if that’s the case, I need a nap. Can I please nap right here?”
Corinne gave me permission to take a 2 minute nap. She timed it while I took the hardest 2 minute snooze of my life. It felt heavenly to curl up on the side of the trail and rest my eyes. When I woke up, they popped some caffeine chews in my mouth and 10 minutes later, I had renewed energy. I ended up taking another 2 minute nap an hour later too. Thank you, Corinne.
We laughed as we played Never Have I Ever. We passed hikers sleeping soundly next to the river and we even saw a UFO-looking tent. The trail eventually started to get less technical and we rejoiced during the times we got to hike through sand. So soft on our feet. At any slight uphill, Morgan kept repeating “work them poles”. Dig my poles into the ground and use my arms. During one of my snack breaks, Morgan even gave me a massage on my shoulders.
We finally reached the last road crossing -- only 6 miles left! Holly assured me that it was all easy from here. The sun started to come up and Michelle popped in to join us for the last 4.5 miles. She had downloaded the Foothills playlist and we marched on to Salt and Peppa “Push It” while the sun started to peek over the horizon. We were in the zone and on a mission. With only 1 mile left, we started to smell campfires. So close to Oconee State Park. So close to laying on the ground. So close to crying tears of joy.
We spotted Megan and Hannah making their way up the trail to finish the last mile with us. My excitement was unbearable. It was happening. I was going to finish. With only ¼ mile left, Holly and Huck appeared. Holly trotted with us while Huck led the way. The finish was just ahead. We ran it in as a group, finishing around 8:30 a.m. (It was really 7:30 a.m. with the time change), making the total time over 28 hours. I’ve never been more excited to see the sign for Oconee State Park and all the smiling faces of our crew.
We headed to our airbnb, which we essentially only used for a much needed bath and breakfast. The entire support crew showed up at 10:00 a.m. for a breakfast provided by Holly, Tommy and Michelle.
Post Foothills Breakfast:
Geechi Boy Grits with sauteed onion, bell pepper and country sausage
Overnight baked cinnamon french toast with homemade butterscotch syrup
I ate 2 full bowls of grits and 2 helpings of everything else. Holly even topped off my OJ with some moscato. Tears flowed as I thanked everyone for their support.
There is no way I could have finished this trail without my friends' support and the aid provided by Jeremy and his parents. I learned so much through this experience and am already thinking about how I can apply what I learned to try this again next year to achieve goal #3. The stomach issues early on and sleep deprivation towards the end got us off track, but we worked through it as a team.
This Foothills adventure was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever accomplished in my entire life. It was harder than my brain surgery experience two years ago. This was also the most exciting effort I’ve ever taken on. While I was out there, I went through some really dark moments and swore I would never do anything like this again. I wanted to quit at least 3 times. I remember whispering in Jeremy’s ear at Whitewater falls that I wanted to quit. He encouraged me to get back out there and finish this thing and that they didn’t all come down here for nothing. He was right. When would I ever have the opportunity to run an entire trail with all this support? I should be grateful. I channeled my inner Rachel and the story she told me about crying in her car during Hellgate for an hour, then getting back out there to finish the race.
I do think it’s possible to be proud of yourself, but also expect more of yourself at the same time. I’m so happy that I achieved two of my goals. I am still astounded that I navigated 77 miles of trail without one fall or scratch on my entire body. It was Tommy’s prayer, along with all the positivity and support that helped me get through this. I accomplished what I set out to do. Goals shouldn’t be easy. Hard goals make you stronger, more courageous, and more confident to go after bigger and better things.
Later on Sunday morning, Jeremy and I made a donation to become official members of the Foothills Trail Conservancy. Giving back to support these trail efforts is important. Heyward Douglass, the Executive Director of the FTC and family friend of the Hutchins, and other trail volunteers cleared sections of the trail before our run. Every cut log made a difference for us.
Trails mean different things to different people. For me, this experience allowed me to train towards a goal throughout the pandemic and create memories with my friends and family. But as the trail gives to us, we have to also think about how we give back. There is no such thing as a self-sustaining trail. Donations help provide much needed tools and materials for trail maintenance and every dollar counts. Trails have seen an increase of usage with the pandemic, so let’s all do our part to take care of them. Please consider supporting your local trail efforts.
Lastly, it’s fun to think about what a meaningful goal would be for yourself. It doesn’t have to be a 77 mile trail run because that’s just crazy for the general population. Just pick something challenging that you’ve never done before. I promise you will learn a whole lot about yourself and come out the other side a stronger person.