Pinhoti Trail Adventure Run (PTAR) A to Z

Posted by posted by Eric Charette

Pinhoti Trail Adventure Run (PTAR) A to Z
by Robery Youngren

A day-to-day report of an adventure of this magnitude would take ages (though I’m also working on that) so in the short term; I’ve compiled the highlights on my epic in an A to Z. Enjoy!

A) Most Fun Running

I’ll pick one from each state I passed through.

Alabama: The 35 mile section between I-20 crossing to Burns Trailhead on Day Three. This was perhaps the smoothest single-track I’ve seen in all of Alabama. Beautiful winding trail that passed through many watersheds and lakes (Pine Glen, Sweetwater Lake, Coleman Lake, Choccolooco Creek Watershed…). This entire section was all very runnable with nice switch backing climbs and descents; a must to revisit.

Georgia: The 10 mile section between Holly Creek Gap (FS 90 Trailhead) and Buddy Cove Gap (FS 64) on the last day. This section had some great smooth, single-track trail (for the most part) on some nice winding switchbacks. There was also countless numbers of creek crossings that made the warm day much more pleasant. This area deserves to be revisited. A close second is the ever popular mountain biking section: Snake Creek Gap to Dug Gap. Nice ridgeline single-track that has some breath-taking views.

B) Not-so-fun Running

My top three are:

1) Horn Mountain (between Bull Gap Trailhead and the Pinnacle)

Probably the most energy sapping 12 miles of trail I’ve ever been on. We passed through this section on the second half of Day One and though the route mostly follows the top of a ridgeline, the trail is never flat, nor every very runnable as it has a lot of off camber hillocks covered with rocks/roots that snakes mindlessly (seemingly) back and forth across the top of the ridge. The worst part is, it crossing a nice, parallel running 4x4 road throughout its entirety that sourly temps you! My crew chief, Josh Kennedy, had to verbally correct us to get back into the woods trail after an aid stop mid way through (we were lulled into starting back out on the “nice” road)! Probably a nice place to hike, but running is very difficult here.

2) Oakey Mountain

Though Josh would claim this is #3, it’s #2 in my book! Again, even at best, not very runnable and there is a very long, steep, sustained climb up to the knife edge Oakey Mountain ridgeline that is rewarded by a quick hair-pin turn over the ridge and back down another sustained, long, steep descent on very rough trail! This section really beat me up on the second half of Day Three.
3) Cheaha Mountain (Ascent via “Stairway To Heaven”)

Really this climb is one last insult, as the entire way from Porters Gap to Adams Gap is mostly climbing on some of the roughest trail the Pinhoti has to offer. Multiple slippery rock gardens, off camber trail and some steep climbs lead to the final assault up into the Cheaha Wilderness with a short but very steep climb known as “Stairway To Heaven.” This last climb is basically climbing up boulders to gain the high ground and is very taxing starting fresh, never mind starting from 15 miles away and on the first half of the Day Two.

C) Shoe Choices

On the roads I split time between a pair of Nike Frees and a couple pair of Nike Lunaracers. On the trails I ran the first three days in a couple pair of INOV-8 Roclite 295s. The rest of the trail miles I used a couple pair of La Sportiva Fireblades.

Looking back, the Frees were probably not the best choice to run nearly 30 miles in after 3 days of running 50+ miles a day! I wore them on the long road section from the state line to Rome. They were fine at the time, but that night my feet sure ached like fire! Lunaracers worked perfectly on the first half of Day One and on the long hot Day Six roads.

I’d probably have stayed with the Roclites but near the end of Day Three I noticed the heel slipping a bit no matter how tight I tied the laces. I didn’t want to risk a heel blister so decided to switch to the Fireblades the next and subsequent days. Roclites were very good for the rockier Alabama sections and the added protection and support of the Fireblades got me through the rest of the way. Both are really good shoes in my humble opinion.

D) Worst Injury

Besides losing a few toe nails (typical for me), I developed some severe tendonitis in my left ankle halfway through Day Six that slowed me down (sort of) the rest of the way. Ironically the only time it didn’t hurt was running uphill! Luckily there were numerous ice-cold stream crossings the last day to give my ankle some brief relief.

E) Best trail find

I found a rubber monkey on Day Six along the roads in Dalton. I believe the rubber monkey appeared in many photos along the way after that.

Second wasn’t found by me, but by Josh’s young son Matt; a long bamboo stick that appeared at every crew stop. This bamboo stick became sort of a totem for the whole trip as it was always there most every time I popped out of the woods; thanks Matt!

F) Best running too fast for your crew moments

The first best was early on Day Five. I was running on the very flat Simms Mountain Trail (a converted rail-to-trail) and Josh had gone ahead to explore some of the upcoming trail access points (this was unfamiliar territory for all of us) and rather than clocking off my typical 3 ½ to 4 mph moving pace, I was running closer to 5-6+ mph as I was relatively fresh and it was a nice cool morning. Anyhow, after a long time without seeing Josh (not that I was worried) I saw him flash by on the parallel road, clearly thinking I was further back on the trail. So at the next couple of road crossings I made an arrow out of rocks on the ground pointing the direction I’d gone in the hopes that he’d see them and figure out where to find me. After a short time he did come across the arrows and figured out that it was me that placed him and soon caught back up to me!

A close second was on the last day, when under similar cool conditions, though much more difficult terrain, a group of us got to the Cohutta Overlook trailhead about seven miles into the day when we popped out of the woods an onto the road and no crew! Luckily we only had a little over four miles to go before the next crew stop so Joey Butler and my wife Kathy stopped to wait at this crossing for the crew to arrive while Eric Fritz and I continued on.

G) Biggest surprise

Near the end of Day Three as I was just starting to descend to Maxwell Gap (in the dark), all was very, very quiet. It had been a very long day, I was tired and I had sort of gone internal with my thoughts and concentration having run alone for most of the day. Anyhow I was in a sort of meditative state, cruising down the trail when all of a sudden I heard this explosion perhaps 3-4 feet above my head! I snapped out of my trance with a jerk as a large wild turkey took flight from right above me; branches crashing, wings flapping furiously! Wow! I was now fully energized and awake and zoomed down the remainder of the trail segment.

Coming in a close second for surprise (only because I have a bias towards all wild animal encounters) was being presented with a finishers buckle at the northern terminus of the Pinhoti trail! Total surprise, but this time in a very good way! Thank you Laura Charette and everybody else who may have had a hand in that! I will cherish it and wear it with pride!

H) Number of times I fell

Believe it or not: ZERO! Probably going too slow to fall. For the record I go by the DeWayne definition of a fall rule: A knee has to touch the ground. I also go by the Madden rule which says something to the effect that two hands and an elbow don’t equal a knee. So by those definitions I didn’t go down. However, I did stumble numerous times, stubbing my toes, turning my ankle, but no full face plants where all your gear “yard-sales” and the crushing impact knocks the wind out of you and forces you to just sit there for a minute or two to compose yourself.

I) Worst section for insects

Hands down the Dugger Mountain and Oakey Mountain sections. I’d stop every 10-15 minutes to pick 3-4 ticks off of me and still had to pick off 4-5 after I finished the day! Gross! As an aside, there were way more ticks on the Alabama side than the Georgia side; granted there were more road sections in Georgia, but on average Alabama still had way more ticks/bugs.

Besides all the ticks, the black flies were very numerous on the Alabama side, less so in Georgia, but all very annoying!

J) Worst running weather

The road section through Dalton, Spring Place, Ramhurst and Chatsworth Georgia. Essentially a marathon in high traffic and 90+ degree Fahrenheit heat! Good thing I followed the Badwater sauna training schedule leading up to PTAR as I knew it could get hot “Out There.” Overall the heat didn’t really get to me until near the end of the day; but the traffic was just ridiculous! There has got to be a better road route to cross the valley; I’d settle for having to run 10 extra miles if it meant I didn’t have to run on major highways! Regardless, everyday was in the upper 80s so it was “hot” to me most days, even in the woods.

K) Best running weather

The first half of Day Three in the Coleman Lake area was probably the best. It was a cool period on the trail when it was still overcast, in the 50s and with a slight drizzle and some breeze. Almost felt cold! Still I liked it a lot and definitely help me push to get through one of my longer trail days.

Close second was most of the last day as we were predominantly running in the deep woods, at the highest elevations we’d seen on the whole Pinhoti and there were numerous stream crossings.

L) Shortest and longest days

Shortest day was obviously the last day when I only covered 30.7 miles. Yeah, we’d considered pushing through the previous night to finish up, but I wanted to do the Pinhoti as a hiker, I wanted to “see” the entire trail and keep the night-running to a minimum. Plus, we did not know this area well and as navigation proved to be somewhat of a challenge (both on the trail and for the crew) the possibility of getting lost and missing the crew were very high with an overnight push with tired runner and crew.

Longest day was my third day with 54 miles from the I-20 crossing to Maxwell Gap. I was on the trail for over 14 ½ hours this day; though the majority of the days were 14 hours+, this day felt the longest.

M) Shortest and longest distances between support

Shortest distances between support were any of the road sections (Days One, Four and Six) when access was very easy, though the typical stop was at least two miles.

Longest distance between support was the twelve mile section from Adams Gap to US-281 in Cheaha State Park. This was a long, hot and muggy section that took us 4 hours to cover on Day Two. This section included the dreaded “Stairway To Heaven”. In addition there were other, numerous 9 mile plus sections without support, sometimes multiple in a row and at least one per day.

N) Total number of people seen (besides my crew) on the trail

Alabama: ONE! Excluding the first road section, in the 3 days 5 hours it took me to get from the start at Flagg Mountain to the Alabama/Georgia state line I saw exactly one person on the trail! I was about a mile from the state line when I encountered a fellow Pinhoti thru-hiker on top of Flag Pole Mountain. This grizzled old character is a Triple Crown hiker and multiple Appalachian Trail thru-hiker. If you want solitude out on a long trail, come to the Pinhoti! Wow!

Georgia: One poacher, a drunken woman and a couple of mountain bikers. Saw the poacher in a “Posted No Hunting” area between Mac White Gap Trailhead and Hammond’s Gap (CR-325). Guy wasn’t wearing an orange vest and before he thought I saw him he had his rifle pointed at me but quickly slung it around his shoulder once he realized I wasn’t prey! Spooky! The drunken woman was on the last day, as she came staggering up to our crew vehicle at FS-18 / Mulberry Road. She wanted to borrow our cell phone to call someone as her phone had no service. Sorry lady, we don’t either! Crew and all got out of there very quickly! The two mountain bikers passed by us on the trail coming the opposite direction, perhaps 15 minutes apart, on the Holly Creek Gap to Buddy Cove Gap section. The first guy never acknowledged us even though we stepped off the trail to let him by; the second guy was much friendlier.

Seriously, if solitude is your game, the Pinhoti is a great trail to get away; you won’t see anybody and is every bit as beautiful a trail as the famed Appalachian Trail.

O) Best meal

Definitely the foot long tuna sandwich from Subway after finishing up Day Three. Wow that was good! However, the pair of egg and cheese biscuits I had several mornings before the start of the day were equally good!

P) Favorite trail food

“Foods”: Boost, string cheese and Powerbar Powerblast gels

“Liquids”: Sweet Tea, Mountain Dew, Coke and for my electrolyte needs, Mild Grape First Endurance E.F.S. (Electrolyte Fuel System) (This stuff never got old!).

Q) Best marked trail

As a whole, all the Alabama sections were very well marked; only had to refer to my trail map and description a few times. No section stands out as being particularly well marked over any other section in the Alabama side, which is a good thing as there is a high degree of consistency. I did really like the numerous trail signs in the Davis Mountain section marking the way.

In Georgia, the road sections are very well marked, complete with the diamond turkey markers on all the road sections very frequently, all turns marked with offset double blazes. The Dalton to Chatsworth was particularly well marked with very frequent Pinhoti road signs to mark all the turns (perhaps to compensate for how bad these roads are with traffic)! Nice signs!

R) Worst marked trail

In Alabama the initial 22 mile road section that is not well marked. It took me ten miles to realize they were using YELLOW blazes to mark this route when I was expecting BLUE, and those yellow blazes were very faded. Needs to be re-blazed and perhaps some Georgia style road signs added? Also there needs to be a Southern Trail Terminus sign in Alabama on Flagg Mountain. With proper maps/description you can find your way as long as you’re diligent; but a proper trail terminus sign is in order.

In Georgia, overall, the trail was challenging to follow. With the exception of the popular mountain biking section, Snake Creek Gap to Dug Gap, the rest of the trail needs some serious reblazing. In particular the section from Mac White Gap to Hammond’s Gap and some spots between Hammond’s Gap and East Armuchee Creek trailhead were almost entirely non-blazed, or very faded. What blazes I found were very old and faded and often blended in with the sunlight hitting the trees. Several trail signs (posts) I came across were broken, on the ground, or actually pointed the wrong way! Thank goodness I had trail maps and description with me or I’d been horribly lost in several occasions.

Overall comment: There needs to be consistency in what markings to use across the length of the entire Pinhoti trail. As this is an Appalachian Trail feeder, by convention, it should NOT be marked with white blazes. I suggest using the light blue blaze adopted by the Alabama side and utilizing many more of the diamond shaped turkey blazes whenever possible. The blue blazes, in my humble opinion, stand out much better than white, on average I could spot blue blazes from much further away than I could white blazes. If trail signs/posts can’t be replaced, just ensure that every intersection is well marked (over blazed), signs can be damaged, and destroyed but putting a lot of blazes around intersections is less likely to be sabotaged. There were some sections on the Alabama side that used two different colors of blue blaze in the same section! The Maxwell Gap to Jackson Chapel Road trailhead had several places with navy and light blue colored blazes.

S) Most elated moment

The obvious answer was arriving at the northern trail terminus on the last day to finish. However, I had an elated moment every time I’d be trekking down the trail and look up to seen a good friend approaching me, often in the middle of nowhere! It really picked up my spirits on that hot day when I saw DeWayne Satterfield approaching me on Day 5 (this was sort of a low moment for me in the full heat of the day). I was so excited I turned around in the trail and started to head the other way! I thought I’d seen a mirage! Every time I came off the trail to see the crew was always a moment full of elation, because it was another milestone reached. As somebody told me, “How do you eat an elephant? One piece at a time!” Special thanks to everybody who sacrificed work and life to take time to come out to visit me along my journey, I’m blessed to have such good friends!

To those who didn’t know, I dedicated my Pinhoti run to the late Phillip Parker; an endurance running giant and mentor who strongly influenced me to pursue my multi-day running dreams. I wore a “Sub 7” Strolling Jim shirt every night to bed both to remember Phillip and as a motivator towards my goal of a “Sub 7 Day” Pinhoti run. I carried the shirt the final 3 miles to the northern terminus and made my dedication public at the finish. The video captured is probably a bit too personal for the public web as I got very emotional at the end of my quest and because I was thinking of Phillip, who I know for sure would have been there in person; I know he was in spirit! Thank you Phillip!

T) Most discouraging moment

The first half of the first day was very discouraging. It was just the beginning of the long journey and I was a nervous wreck; I couldn’t keep myself from thinking of how far I had to go! I’ve never smoked nor consumed alcohol but if ever there was a time to start it was during this period! It didn’t help that we started this “trail” odyssey with a 22 mile road march, ughhhh! My spirits picked up enormously when we finally stepped foot on real trail into the Rebecca Mountain section; great trail section by the way.

A close second was the first half of the second day; Adams Gap through Cheaha State Park. I just felt like I was really dragging through here. It was very muggy, the trail very tough and our progress very slow. It took us 8 hours to cover the first 27 miles and we still had over 21 miles to go! Luckily the second half was largely downhill and easier trails to run so we made pretty decent time.

On both these days I want to especially thank Josh and Eric for really pulling me along. My heart was in it from the start; it was just a matter of getting my “head” into it; they helped immensely in this respect.

U) The crux

Day Three. Sadly this was the day that Eric Charette and I split, but it was, by far, my best day and the defining moment of the entire epic. As previously mentioned, Day Three was to be the longest day on the trail and I knew this ahead of time. The day culminates with two, difficult, 8 mile+ trail sections (Dugger Mountain and Oakey Mountain) that I absolutely did not want to have to traverse in the dark. So to accomplish that I had to really push the first 36 miles from the I-20 crossing to the Burns Trailhead, which I ended up covering in right around 9 hours (not too shabby). Unfortunately I felt great while Eric was not and, by our previous, pre-run, agreement we separated. I hated to split, but we knew full well that this was a possibility if not an inevitability so we’d prepared to have two distinct crews in advance. It was also at the completion of this day that, though I still had days to go and tough miles ahead, I knew that I was going to make it to the finish of the Pinhoti trail. I believe I’d finally “hardened” to the task and that it had now become a “lifestyle” my existence only to keep moving forward, my thoughts and concerns of my “real life” vanished; my only thoughts and concern was what lay ahead; one foot in front of the other until I was done. I know most folks can’t relate to this, but the human body is amazingly adaptable, capable of accomplishing monstrous tasks, overcoming overwhelming abuse; those that have had similar multi-day running experience know what I’m talking about; you simply adapt. Anyhow, after this day I was just putting in my time, it was relatively easy compared to the first two days; wake up before dawn, scarf a couple of egg and cheese biscuits on the way to the trailhead, run for 14 hours plus, drive to the hotel, devour a bunch of food while I ice-bath and shower, then lights out; and repeat… I honestly feel that, given a dedicated support crew and applying some of the lessons learned from this epic, I could handle 14 hour+ trail days for a long time; I think I’ve found my niche!

V) Most abundant wildlife seen

To the Creek Indians “Pinhoti” means “turkey’s home.” If you’re going to name a trail after the most common creature seen then Pinhoti is spot on. I saw more wild turkeys than any other large creature in the woods. Dozens. I’ve seen wild turkeys out on the trails where I work, but the Pinhoti turkeys ALL flew off when they spotted us. It was always a sight to see these large birds fly; not the most graceful fliers; they’d crash between the branches and make all kinds of racket! People asked if I saw a lot of deer, surprisingly no I didn’t, perhaps maybe a dozen total. I also saw a lot of squirrels and lizards.

W) Friendliest and least friendly drivers

Sorry Alabama, but Georgia had, by a huge margin, the friendliest drivers. Though Alabama only had a single long road section (22 miles from Flagg Mountain to Rebecca Mountain trail-head) and assortment of some very short hops, the average passing distance was perhaps half a lane or less, often only a foot or so! It wasn’t a good omen that on the way to Flagg Mountain to begin our journey, that we witnessed a lady in a white pickup track ram into a gas pump protector at a gas station along where we’d be soon running! Later that morning as we passed, again, through that area (this time on foot) we saw a utility pole down and telephone and cable lines across the road. The lady had apparently bolted from that gas station, made it down the road perhaps another quarter mile before she went off the road into the ditch and crashed into the utility pole knocking it down! When Eric and I came running by there was a sea of fire-trucks, police cars and ambulances there along with the utility company trying to fix things up. The woman was ok, but in very deep trouble! Wow!

On the Georgia side road sections, more abundant and so more chances to influence the friendly/unfriendly driver metric, for the most part drivers gave a whole lane if possible, or if not at least slowed to almost a crawl when they couldn’t get far over. However I never did have anyone pull over and ask if I needed help or what I was doing running along the road. I believe my crew was asked several times and there were many offers of assistance as folks thought my crew’s vehicles might have been broken down.

X) Why starting May 1st was a good idea

Bottom line this was the only date that worked for Eric, myself and Josh. April was out because of Eric’s work commitments and we both needed all of April and part of March to train. Later in May was out because Josh had already made vacation plans. Also any later and it would be guaranteed to be very hot, the trail overgrown with poison ivy and other vegetation and spider webs and snakes in abundance. However, at least this year, based on the amount of rain we’d had in March and April, I’m not sure some of the streams we’d encountered would have been safely fordable had we gone much earlier than we did. Also, although it was hot most of the time, it really made me “earn” my finish every step of the way so nobody could say I lucked out with some nice conditions. Plus, if somebody ever does decide to go after my Pinhoti thru-hike record I’d hope they’d try to do it under similar conditions; it’s only fair in my humble opinion since I’m the one that’s set the bench mark…

Y) Why starting May 1st was a bad idea

I really hated to “compete” with the Strolling Jim 40 miler. I’d have really liked to do the Jim or at least help crew somebody. Also we were a little thin on crew the first couple of days mostly because our friends were involved with running/crewing at the Jim. The trail was already overgrown in many places; I have poison ivy rashes all over my legs to prove it! Also there was a lot of encroaching vegetation and high grasses that ticks just love (next to my hairy legs that is). The spider webs and Gypsy moth larva webs were already in abundance so that meant, with such little trail traffic, that I ended up being the chimney sweep on most of the trail! I remarked at one point that if I’d collected all the silk that I’d pulled off my face and body I’d have enough to make a fine silk shirt! These web-in-the-face encounters were perhaps the most annoying thing about this trek. Uggh!

Z) What was the break down in daily mileage?

Day One: Flagg Mountain to Porters Gap, 52.3 miles, 12h 48m

Day Two: Porters Gap to I-20 crossing, 48.7 miles, ~14 ¼ h

Day Three: I-20 crossing to Maxwell Gap (CR-70), 54 miles, ~14 ½ h

Day Four: Maxwell Gap (CR-70) to Midpoint of Simms Mountain Trail, 50.5 miles, ~14 ¼ h

Day Five: Midpoint of Simms Mountain Trail to Snake Creek Gap, 51.8 miles, ~14 ½ h

Day Six: Snake Creek Gap to Baker Branch Trailhead (FS 3A), 46.9 miles, ~12 ¼ h

Day Seven: Baker Branch Trailhead (FS 3A) to Northern Terminus (Benton MacKaye Trail), 30.7 miles, ~8 ½ h

For a total of 152h 48m or 6 days 8 hours and 48 minutes and an average of 52.6 miles/day.