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Run Report: Art Loeb Trail

In hindsight I’m not 100 percent sure how we landed on the decision to thru run the Art Loeb Trail, but suffice it to say that the idea took shape and came to fruition quickly. Old Mr. Loeb never even had time to settle himself quietly at the bottom of mine and Niki’s ever-growing list of “things we should do someday,” which is stacked with backpacking trips and long trail runs. We review in detail various items on this list at least weekly, but, as it goes, most of our ideas linger there collecting dust for months or years before being checked off.

Art Loeb was different. In mid-October, high on completing the StumpJump 50K, Niki and I resolved to do at least one destination trail run per month. Almost immediately, with no knowledge of that pact, our friend John presented the idea of a point-to-point on Art Loeb and from there everything fell into place almost serendipitously. He had the logistics all figured out, he said. There just so happened to be a singular weekend that fit all of our schedules (a not-so-small miracle), so we took the hint and decided to go for it. 

The Art Loeb Trail is a mountainous 31-mile trail in Western North Carolina that’s known for its beauty and also for its ability to give even seasoned backpackers a thorough butt kicking. For shuttling purposes we decided to reverse the traditional direction and run from north to south, allowing us to knock out the highest elevations early on (which we would come to be very thankful for).  

We had intended to deposit an aid box with snacks and supplies at the halfway point where the trail crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway, but due to road closures we had to forego that plan and carry everything we needed. Late Friday night we filled our hydration vests, crammed handfuls of gels and chews into the pockets and scarfed down bowls of pasta while rehearsing the details of the next day.

After camping creekside near John Rock, we woke at 5 a.m. to begin making our way to the trailhead at Camp Daniel Boone near Cold Mountain. By the time we made breakfast, dropped off our end-point car, took a hopeful trip to the nearest bathroom and drove an hour to the trailhead, we got our start at precisely 8 o’clock.

The Frosted Tips, a la Guy Fieri

The first four miles are a moderate-to-steep ascent up to Deep Gap, and we were feeling pretty great for the first two and a half of those miles. As we climbed high enough to encounter a dusting of crisp snow (an area that we semi-affectionately named the Frosted Tips), the temperature dropped drastically and before we knew it we were stuffing our hands deep into our sleeves and scrunching our noses against the stinging wind. We knew we’d start chilly, as on all early morning runs, but we weren’t exactly prepared for this level of cold.

Soon my bare thighs numbed to the point that I couldn’t feel the branches and twigs that I knew were grabbing at me from the sides of the trail and the hose on Niki’s hydration pack froze completely solid. I was kicking myself over my decision to wear shorts, and even more for opting to leave my Houdini jacket in the car at the last minute.

Amazed that Niki managed to look normal in this picture. 

To boost our spirits, John serenaded us with a spot-on rendition of Les Miserables’ “Look Down,” which, fittingly, is the song that the ragged, suffering prisoners sing in the movie’s opening scene. Though no one voiced it at the time, all three of us were questioning our ability to complete the trail in the cold and wind that were (perhaps naively) so unexpected.

That was when we first realized that Mr. Loeb might have a few tricks up his sleeve.

Under a spotless blue sky, we marched on atop a string of blustery bald mountains, only stopping whenever we found a still patch of sunlight where we could spend a moment thawing our chilled and stiff limbs. (To be fair, John stopped often to let Niki and me catch up. Also to be fair, he is an entire foot taller than us.) The views, of course, were endless and stunning from 6,000 feet, but we didn’t linger long to admire them.

At last we dropped off of the ridge and the weather warmed significantly, and as it turned out, regaining at least partial use of our frozen fingers was a real morale boost. At around 13 miles, we parked ourselves on the side of the trail halfway down Black Balsam Knob and munched our soggy veggie pita pockets. It had taken us nearly four hours to come that far.

We crossed over Black Balsam Road (there’s something decidedly gratifying about crossing an actual road when you’re trail-bound, even a deserted one), then bobbed through an airy evergreen forest and onto a stretch of trail that was tediously muddy from the previous week’s precipitation.

From there, the next ten miles are mostly a chain of small but sometimes steep hills, which we hoped would be a relief from the massive ascent and descent of that morning’s high ridge.

L: Me sadly munching on my skratch chews. R: Niki questioning her life choices.

That was when we encountered Mr. Loeb’s second trick.

Because it was late in a rainy fall, the leaf litter on the trail was thick and slippery, slyly masking the loose rocks and slick roots beneath. This meant it was slow going even on gradual or flat sections of the trail. We met lots of backpackers completing either all of part of the trail, and despite our own trials, we were exceedingly glad that we were not spending the night in the 11 degree temps that were predicted for the mountains.

It was mostly smooth sailing (aside from our constant slipping and tripping) until around mile 21, when John’s knees began to protest our arduous day on the trail. Until then, he’d been charging ahead of Niki and me, but he soon began to fall behind. With the major elevation put to bed, the final ten miles would be the home stretch, and Niki and I were eager to get to the car before the temperatures began to fall.

We stopped to wait for John a couple of times but quickly became chilled from standing still in the fading daylight, and with only about three miles to go, he told us to go on ahead. We pulled out our headlamps and felt giddy as we cruised along a gradual descent that we knew ended with my warm car, fresh clothes and the junk food and beers we had stashed in our cooler.

As our usual silliness dissolved into borderline delirium, we began pretending that we were Scott Jurek during his AT speed record and that Jenny would have hot sandwiches waiting for us when we arrived in the dark.

By that point our form was breaking down, and we laughingly compared our quick jolting steps to those of a little old lady bustling around the supermarket in high heels.

Finally, we heard the sounds of cars on a nearby road and then the sound of running water, and knew we must be close to the parking lot at Davidson River Campground. We reached the bottom of the mountain and saw what we thought was our endpoint a few yards away through the trees.

Que Mr. Loeb’s third and final trick.

As it turns out, the trail meanders about half a mile between the end of the final descent and the actual parking lot, though the highway is in view the entire time. It’s safe to say that Niki and I exercised every profanity in our vocabularies (plus some colorful improvisations) during that small flat half mile that felt like an eternity at the end of a long day.

All told, completing the trail took a whopping 11 hours, longer than the cutoff time of an average 50K. But that’s not of great matter.

Finishing an endeavor of that magnitude incites a sense of non-belief. As in, “I can’t believe that I woke up at five this morning and then worked my butt off for many, many hours and now I’m here drinking beer and eating Mexican food, a little sore but overall no worse for wear.”

Maybe our favorite sight of the day. 

As in, “I can’t believe that earlier today I lost sensation in my fingers and was seriously considering the symptoms of hypothermia and now I’m reading a book and giggling with my best friend inside a tent while wrapped in two sleeping bags.”

As in, “I can’t believe that two weeks ago we had only the vaguest idea of this possibility and now we’ve done it and it was way harder than we anticipated but way more amazing than we ever could have imagined.”

Maybe Old Mr. Loeb has a fourth trick, and maybe that trick is an ever-lasting hold on those who are humbled by his trail.

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