Hikers set speed record on Smokies trails

Nancy East and Chris Ford by Lakeview Drive tunnel
END OF THE TUNNEL: Nancy Mercure East, left, and Chris Ford stand by the Lakeview Drive tunnel in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park just before wrapping up their record-breaking hike of the park's trail system. Photo courtesy of East

Consider these numbers.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park contains about 803 miles of official hiking trails. According to the GSMNP 900 Miler Club, just 675 people have hiked every inch of them. And as of Oct. 3, only two people can claim to have accomplished that feat in less than a month.

Nancy Mercure East, a retired veterinarian from Waynesville, and her hiking partner, Air Force veteran Chris Ford of Knoxville, Tenn., set a new record for hiking all of the park’s trails with a time of 29 days, 10 hours and 12 minutes. The two shattered the previous Fastest Known Time of 33 days set by Knoxville trail runner Jeff Woody, who had just completed his own attempt in late August.

While East and Ford were covering familiar territory — East has previously walked all of the Smokies trails twice, and Ford three times — their recent FKT was more than just a hiking feat. East, who volunteers for Haywood County Search and Rescue, wanted to raise money for the national park’s Preventive Search and Rescue Program in honor of Susan Clements.

In September 2018, Clements was returning from a moderate hike to the park’s Andrews Bald when she apparently got lost on the trails near Clingmans Dome; East was part of the search that found Clements dead of hypothermia a week after her disappearance. “It was heart wrenching,” East recalls, and the experience drove her to promote hiker education in an attention-grabbing way.

East traveled to Ohio to meet with Clements’ family, who gave her their blessing, then set up a fundraiser (avl.mx/prva) through the nonprofit Friends of the Smokies. As of press time, she and Ford had raised over $29,000 in recognition of their record-setting trail effort, which the search and rescue team used to buy a new truck.

“Nancy and Chris are truly inspirational. The energy they put into hiking all the trails of the Smokies was matched only by the effort they put into raising awareness and funds for search and rescue,” says Marielle DeJong, director of projects and community strategy for Friends of the Smokies. “It’s a magical thing to find people who not only have a strong love for the park but are committed to sharing that love with others.”

Walking the web

Unlike a linear path such as the Appalachian Trail, the Smokies trails branch and loop in an intersecting network. Much of East and Ford’s challenge was untangling this web to hike all the paths with a minimum of repetition.

Enter Lane DeCost of Maggie Valley, one of East’s search and rescue teammates. A retired investment analyst, DeCost loves a good puzzle, and after conferring with East and Ford, he devised a daily plan for the trails East and Ford should walk, becoming what the hikers called “the trail boss.”

DeCost’s guiding principles were efficiency and balance. His plan avoided duplicate trail segments as much as possible, assigned big elevation gains to morning hikes and ended every day at an accessible trailhead to facilitate shuttles. To allow East and Ford time for recovery, he mixed easy, moderate and difficult days throughout the schedule — with “easy” defined as anything less than 30 miles and 2,000 feet of ascent in a day.

The two hikers covered over 500 miles while training, ramping up from a couple of days a week to a five-day stretch of challenging trails they nicknamed “the gauntlet.” Although East and Ford had previously conquered “Le Tour de LeConte” in October 2019, setting a mixed-gender FKT by hiking all 44 miles of paths leading to the park’s Mount LeConte in 16 hours and 13 minutes, they wanted to understand how their bodies would react to back-to-back days on the Smokies trails.

“That wasn’t so bad,” Ford says of the gauntlet, which included the Deep Creek area of the park, the steep rock scramble of Chimney Tops and a portion of the Appalachian Trail. He and East subsequently chose those most challenging days as the first five of their record attempt.

Day by day

On a typical day, Ford and East would wake up at 4 a.m. and leave for the park an hour later, with the goal of being on the trail by 6 a.m. Ford, whose trail name is Pacer, led the pair: They averaged 2.5 mph, kept their heart rate at a comfortable level and made sure not to overheat. They ate high-calorie foods like nut butters and dried fruit on the move, only stopping for comfort breaks, to fill up water bottles and to greet well-wishers who recognized them on the trail.

Nancy East and Chris Ford
ALMOST THERE: Nancy East, left, and Chris Ford hold up their fingers to mark the end of their 28th day on the trail. Photo by Jamie Ford

The duo’s support system included Ford’s wife, Jamie, who with other friends and supporters moved cars to where East and Ford were going to be at the end of the day. They were able to get two rooms, some for free, all around the park — The Lodge at Buckberry Creek in Gatlinburg gave them a complementary stay for two weeks. Other times, they stayed in campsites.

In the evening, East’s husband, Larry, resupplied her and Ford with frozen meals that they had prepared at home. The goal was to be in bed by 10 p.m. East tried to get six hours of sleep but often didn’t succeed; she nevertheless says she always woke up fresh the next morning. She posted photos of her day on social media to encourage her followers to donate to the Friends of the Smokies fundraiser.

“You know what you can control, but you don’t know what you can’t control,” Ford adds about the effort. “It’s harder when you have two people. I’m superstitious.”

Final steps

When Ford and East were planning their feat, Hazel Creek Trail had been closed because of bear activity. The rules for an official FKT effort are clear: Hopefuls must walk all of the Smokies trails that are open at the time they “finish a map,” i.e., when they complete the trail system. DeCost and the two hikers had planned for Hazel Creek to stay closed for a while, but the trail reopened on Oct. 1, just a couple of days before the end of the challenge.

“We were really thrown a curve,” DeCost said. “Nancy and Chris hiked those last few days on sheer willpower.” On their last night, the two walked the Hazel Creek trail from 10 p.m. to 10 a.m. — an unplanned addition of 22 miles after a day of 34 miles and a short nap.

East’s Oct. 2 Facebook post showed her exuberance: “Hazel Creek in the bag! We hiked 56 miles in 29 hours, so it’s time for some big calorie consumption, nap for a few hours, then chapter 2 begins for our last 30 miles!”

A group of enthusiastic supporters greeted the pair at Big Creek on the North Carolina-Tennessee border as they finished the trails on Oct. 3. All told, the journey clocked in at just under 948 miles in less than 30 days, at an average of over 32 miles a day.

East is writing a book on the experience, tentatively titled Coves, Creeks and Peaks: A Long Walk in the Smokies. The process is likely to take much longer than the record-breaking hike itself, but she says her attitude of determination is the same: “As long as I can walk, I can do this.”


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About Danny Bernstein
I'm a hiker, hiker leader for the Carolina Mountain Club and an outdoor writer. I've written two hiking guides "Hiking the Carolina Mountains" (2007) and "Hiking North Carolina's Blue Ridge Heritage" (2009) both published by Milestone Press. Check out my website www.hikertohiker.com

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