I've always enjoyed being in the great outdoors since I was just a little boy. There is just something about being in the mountains that satisfies my soul. But I never imagined I would ever attempt something so bold and so challenging that I'd be pushing my bearded self to the edge, both physically and mentally. And to attempt to do this record breaking feat during the hashest months of the year was even more insain. But my #fastestgsmnp900miler didn't start out as a record breaking hike. I just simply wanted to hike all the trails. How I came to this decision though was a whole nother story in itself.

 

              While sitting on top of My LeConte on Thankgiving weekend of 2016, (the same weekend of the Chimney Top II fire) I remember sitting at the Cliff Tops watching the sunset and watching Chimney Top burn below . It was the first time in my life that I had been to Mt LeConte and I was in total awe! But while I sat there the thought came to me to take a break from section hiking the AT and focus on hiking all the trails in the Smokies instead. I initially figured it would take me a year. I had no idea how many miles of trails there was or how hard they would be. It was a decision though that felt right. Like it was exactly where I was supposed to be and I couldn't have been more right. I went home and immediately discussed it with my beautiful bride Ashley, who was completely on board and supportive of the idea. I then began doing my research and planning logistics.

              My crazy adventure began at the Alum Cave trailhead at 3:am on Dec 31, 2016. I hiked up the mountain with a group of hikers to see the last sunrise of 2016. When we got to the lodge the wind was blowing pretty hard and the temp was hovering around 9° degrees. A handfull of hikers turned back due to the conditions being so extreme. But a smaller number of us pushed forward towards Myrtle Point (the best spot to see a sunrise on LeConte). My plan was to start with a hike to LeConte and to finish my 900 Miler with a hike to LeConte as well, since that was where I made my decision to do my #gsmnp900miler.

 Alum Cave Trail

Alum Cave Trail

Benny Braden Tristar Adventures Brand Ambassador Smoky Mountains Great Gatlinburg sign.jpg

In early February

I began hiking with a determination to break a record in big fashion. I began doing bigger miles and started making preparations to start hiking full time. 

 

              Now I only camped in the backcountry a total of 19 nights (15 in my Zpacks Duplex tent and 4 in shelters). Which left me with day hiking the rest of it. Instead of driving home which was 1 to 3 hours away (depending on where I was in the park). I would drive to a store nearby and sleep in my truck. This allowed me to save gas and to resupply if I needed to or simply get some fresh foods for the night like milk, fruits and veggies.

              March got here and I was steaming along and not looking back. Everything was going good and I was on schedule to finish on the 19th of March. 

 Forney Ridge Trail

Forney Ridge Trail

In the final 8 days I pulled my biggest mileage day at 35 miles. Honestly I wasn't sure if I could do it but I did. It was Hike-40 and I was trying to beat the snow that was forecasted. Remember me saying earlier about the big snow I expected in March? This was it....... or at least I thought it was. The next morning at the shelter I was surprised to see on 4" of snow. That was good news for me. That meant I could still get some big miles in that day. I was only expecting to get 10 to 15 due to the high snow fall forecasted. That's why I pushed for the 35 miles the day before. But this also meant I would be pushing my finish date up 1 day to the 18th instead of the 19th.

        On March 18th, 2017 I woke up ready to finish my 900-Miler. It was hike (Hike-47). Nearly all of my closest friends joined me. I could not have imagined finishing this #fastestgsmnp900miler hike any other way. The trail was the wettest I had ever hiked in, but we were not complaining. It was good to be able to have my friends with me. We started out at Trillium Gap trail head that morning at 6:30. It had been raining all night and was still raining. Grotto Falls was absolutely incredible. The water flow was more than it was the first time I'd seen it. As we made our way up to the top of Trillium the water and snow on the trail was unbelievable. But the break we took at the LeConte Lodge was much needed.

              After warming our feet up and drying out socks (just a bit) for about 30 to 40 minutes we all loaded up and started down the mountain on Rainbow Falls trail. At the trail head at the bottom of the mountain a reporter from WBIR met me and interviewed me really quickly. We were already 30ish minutes behind schedule. There were also a couple there that greeted me and wished me well. But we quickly got back to hiking and headed down the Old Sugarlands trail. The last trail of this hike. I was almost done........ and I was ready. My right quad was cramping real bad, which made it very painful to walk on yet alone to hike. It had given me some problems earlier that week too.

             About 200 yards from the finish was the moment I'll never forget. As I was hiking up a short hill I looked up to see no one other than Sharon Spezia. She had hiked in to have this moment with me. With smiles on our faces, we immediately gave each other a hug as she congratulated me. It was such an incredible moment. I had been wanting to talk to her ever since I decided to break her record. But never was able to get in touch with her. The crazy side to this story was we actually met on trail. It was  Hike-19 on the Little Greenbier trail. We crossed pathes that day,  but I didn't realize it until I was about a 1/4 mile down the mountain (she was going up). So ever since then I was hoping to see her before I finished. And I finally did. 

            I was just a few minutes from finishing my hike. Sharon and my closest friends went ahead to become a part of the "hiker tunnel" as I hung back to have the last couple of minutes to gather my thoughts and to prepare mentally for what was about to happen. I was just moments from being a 900 miler. 

      I could feel the anticipation inside me as I started walking towards the hiker tunnel. I had never seen that many people at a 900 Miler celebration before. I was told that was the most people ever at a hiker celebration, which was pretty cool. The tunnel looked like it was about 60' long or more. As I got closer I could see Sharon at the entrance. She greeted me once again and told me to "go finish this". I could hear everyone clapping and cheering as I entered the tunnel. I thanked God for this amazing opportunity, getting me to here and gave Him the glory. As I continued to walk through the tunnel, I seen so many faces. People reached in to give me "high five". And some just patted me on the back and shoulder. When I got towards the end of the tunnel. I knew I was getting closer to the one I wanted to see most,.... my beautiful bride. She had told me by phone that she would be waiting for me at the end of the tunnel. So that was all I was thinking about. And as I exited the tunnel I looked up and there she was. It was eveything I could do to keep from crying. I was so happy to see her beautiful face. She met me with a big kiss and warm embrace. It felt so good to have her in my arms again. I hadn't realized how much I'd missed her till then. I had been keeping #mybeardedself occupied with details of the trail so I wouldn't think about it. 

      After I was done catching up with my family. I did a couple of interviews with WBIR and the Knoxville News Sentinel. I also go to spend some more time with Sharon Spezia who also introduced me to Jennie Whited. Jennie was the first female to do 5 maps (900 milers). I had so many people that came up to me to congratulate and talk to me. Some I knew and some I didn't. But either way I appreciate all of them taking the time out of their busy day just to come be there for me. I believe that's the part that overwhelms me the most. It's very humbling when I think about that.

      Afterwards we all went to Smoky Mountain Brewery for an Ol' Smoky burger and a beer. It is my absolute favorite place to go after a hike. It was great being able to sit down and have a big meal and a beer with my closest friends. They all came from Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina  and Mississippi just to hike with me. What amazing friends I have. I'm such a blessed man to have friends like them.

               As I sat there at the table, it slowly started sinking in. I just finished my 900 Miler. And I did it in the fastest time EVER... Wow! Maybe what I did was a big thing after all. Before I was having a hard time understanding why everyone was making a big deal out of my hike. But now I was starting to understand it. God just helped this ordinary man do something extraordinary.

So what's next     you ask?

        So many people have asked me what's my next adventure. Well I've decided that in the Fall (2017) I'm going to do it again, BUT EVEN FASTER. I'm shooting to do it in just 45 days total. Which would break my own record of 78 days. I believe I can do it and I'm looking forward to the opportunity.  If I'm able to complete it then that will also make me a 2 time 900 Miler in 1 year. Which would tie me with 7 time 900 Miler Sharon Spezia who also has done 2 maps in 1 year. It would be an honor to share that record with her. 

        The last hike I used the hashtags #fastestgsmnp900miler and #gsmnp900miler to identify with that hike. This way people could search anything they need to find out about that hike using that hashtag. This time I'll be using the hashtags #fastestgsmnp900milerx2 and #fastestgsmnp900miler . It should be an extraordinary journey. Here's how you can follow ALL of my adventures:

 Facebook page:  Plug-it In on the Appalachian Trail and Instagram: @pluitinontheat

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