Nancy East and Chris Ford Set the Fastest Known Time for the Smokies 900
In 2019, Gossamer Gear Brand Ambassador Nancy East took on the Tour de LeConte Challenge. She hiked 45 miles with 11,000 feet of elevation gain in 16 hours and 13 minutes. At that point, this set the women’s fastest known time (FKT) for the endeavor. She also used the challenge to raise over $5,000 for the Trillium Gap Trail restoration project in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But, really, she was just scratching the surface of what was possible.
In October 2020, she teamed up with her hiking partner Chris Ford, who had also joined her for the Tour de LeConte Challenge, to attempt an FKT of what’s known as the Smokies 900. This feat involves hiking every trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. On October 24, after hiking a total of 947.9 miles in 29 days, 10 hours, and 12 minutes, they had indeed set the record. Over the course of those days, Nancy had a total elevation gain of 164,137 feet and total loss of 205,555 feet. Her longest day was 48.5 miles, and, overall, she hiked about 2.2 million steps.
But, as with her Tour de LeConte Challenge, Nancy wanted this effort to be about more than physical endurance. So, she paired it with a campaign to raise tens of thousands of dollars for the park’s preventive search and rescue (PSAR) programming.
Interview with Nancy East on Setting the Fastest Known Time for the Smokies 900
We caught up with Nancy to learn a little more about her journey, why PSAR means so much to her, and the Gossamer Gear product that was her MVP over 900+ miles.
Gossamer Gear: How did you first get the idea for this feat and what in particular appealed to you about it?
Nancy: I first had the idea after watching a series of YouTube videos created by the daughter of Susan Clements, a hiker who went missing in the Smokies and succumbed to hypothermia. I had taken part in the week-long search and rescue operation and Susan’s death was a tragic reminder of how quickly things can go sideways, even in a fatal way, for unprepared hikers.
I wanted to do something to help the park educate visitors about hiker safety and preparedness, and I discovered that Friends of the Smokies, a nonprofit that raises money for the park, had a line item specifically for a robust preventative search and rescue (PSAR) program the park wanted to implement.
I came up with the idea to go after the Smokies 900 FKT to grab people’s attention and fulfill my personal dream of pursuing an endurance-based hiking endeavor, while attempting to raise money for the park’s PSAR program in the process.
My good friend, Chris Ford, was also thinking about taking a shot at the Smokies 900 FKT. When we both discovered each other’s plans, we decided to join forces and tackle it together!
What was your training like?
Our training mainly consisted of lots and lots (and lots!) of hiking! Chris thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2019, so his trail legs were beneath him long before mine. When he returned home to Tennessee, we started meeting up for training hikes one to two times weekly, increasing our mileage along the way.
We eventually transitioned to hiking two consecutive days with mileage that was similar to what we’d cover during the FKT. We also hiked our first five days of routes, as a dress rehearsal of sorts. It was highly advantageous, as it helped us discover some hiccups that we had time to work on before the actual attempt.
We also both did some weight training at local gyms. Unfortunately, the pandemic derailed most of those efforts when our gyms closed in spring. Interestingly, it didn’t affect us very much, and we were able to maintain the same speed and mileage without it.
Is there anything about taking on this challenge that was particularly unexpected to you?
I didn’t expect to have as much fun as we did. Despite the fatigue and challenges we faced, we tried not to take things too seriously, even when things got hard. We laughed a lot and had a blast doing things like creating clever selfies to reflect the day of the attempt we were completing.I also didn’t expect to feel so well physically. I have no doubt that our training played a big role in that, but as a 48-year-old woman who has never considered herself gifted in any way athletically, I truly had no idea if my body would hold up to the rugged terrain of the Smokies, covering the miles we did each day.
What was one of your biggest challenges along the way?
The biggest challenge for me came on day nine when a trail closed due to a bear scavenging on a backpacker’s body in a backcountry campsite (an incredibly rare thing in the Smokies). My son, nephew, and a friend were bringing our overnight gear to the same campsite.When we first heard the news on the trail about the campsite closure and why it was closed, I had no idea if my family members and friend had been involved in the incident. Once I realized it happened the night before and they were okay, I was incredibly relieved, but we still had to figure out an alternate route to get to them in a different campsite.
The alternate route added about seven miles onto an already long day, and I was in the thick of battling the effects of a pulled quadricep muscle, so every step of every extra mile was a challenge, both physically and emotionally. I was very glad to finally see the faces of my son, nephew, and friend when we finally walked into the campsite.
What was one of your happiest trail moments?
Some of my happiest trail moments were when people recognized us from the attention the fundraiser was getting on social media and on various news outlets. It was always encouraging to meet people who supported our mission to keep hikers safer and cheered us on so eagerly in the process!
Of course, the final day when we finished and set the new record was also one of our happiest moments. Our family, many friends, and followers came to celebrate with us. It was the best!
How much money did you end up raising for Great Smoky Mountains National Park and how will those funds help the park?
We ended up raising $30,000 for the PSAR program in the park. Liz Hall, the park’s emergency manager, will head up the program. She will hire seasonal rangers to implement more outreach and education with visitors before they hit the trails.
Which Gossamer Gear product was your gear MVP during the challenge and why?
Chris and I both carried a Kumo backpack for the duration of the hike and it performed perfectly for me. My Bumster, however, probably deserves MVP though. Since we ate while we hiked, it gave me quick access to an abundance of snacks that I carried in it each day.
What are some ways folks can continue to follow your journey and also up their preventative search and rescue knowledge?
All photos from Nancy East/Hope and Feather Travels.
---Korrin Bishop is the Managing Editor for the Gossamer Gear blog, LightFeet. She's also the co-founder of Wild Wilderness Women, a freelance writer, Oregon Duck, and group hug enthusiast. She grew up amongst redwoods, has a deep love for Everglades adventures, and was once a Washington, D.C. local before fleeing for more open spaces. Korrin has written for the National Park Service, Sierra Magazine, Fodor's Travel, The Dyrt Magazine, and Misadventures Magazine, among others. Learn more about her work on her website: https://www.korrinbishop.com/