Shepherd and six of his friends decided last July to tackle a single-day trail run of the Art Loeb Trail, a 31.1-mile path that begins along the Davidson River near Brevard and gains about 4,000 feet before descending the mountains into the Bethel area of Haywood County.
“Once we decided to do that trail, we were like, ‘I guess we better start training so we can actually do it,’” Shepherd said.
Shepherd, a 31-year-old Waynesville native, prepared for the adventure by heading up to the Black Balsam area on the Blue Ridge Parkway as many evenings as he could after work — usually four or five days a week — to get in some miles. And eventually, the big day arrived.
Andrew Shepherd (from left), William Wells and Garrett Banner take a selfie after reaching Cold Mountain. Andrew Shepherd photo
The group had chosen the auspicious date of Friday, Oct. 13, to embark on their adventure, starting on the Bethel side at about 6:30 a.m. or so, while it was still dark.
They climbed Cold Mountain using headlamps to find their way, arriving atop 6,214-foot Black Balsam when it was still cool and very foggy. Then around 11 a.m. the fog cleared away, and it was a picture-perfect autumn day, crisp and sunny and clear. By 4 p.m., the group had conquered the entire trail and emerged at the Davidson River Campground.
“I was actually really surprised on how well we did, because up to that point we had never done more than about 12 to 15 miles,” Shepherd said.
It was a hard day, but a fulfilling accomplishment. So much so that the group hopes to do it again this year, and for years again after that.
“Just actually completing it and saying that we did it,” said Shepherd when asked to name the highlight of the experience. “It’s kind of a big achievement just to be able to do that many miles.”
And to do it right in their own backyard, too. One of the trail runners is from Brevard, the rest from Waynesville. The Art Loeb is the trail that connects their hometowns.
But Shepherd doesn’t see running the Art Loeb — or trail running in general — as a closed-club sport. He’s in the midst of forming a running club in town, trying to gather people of all ability levels with an interest in running to get together and enjoy the outdoors.
He envisions it as a two-tier endeavor — he’s already launched a Wednesday night running club in town and wants to organize a weekend trail running group in the near future.
“Hiking you get to see a lot of the features in our area and the mountains and everything, but you get to see little pieces at a time,” he said. “Where trail running you can cover 10 miles in a couple hours and see a lot more in a day.”
The Wednesday night group is based at Boojum Brewing Company in Waynesville, with runners meeting at 6 p.m. on the brewery’s back porch to get organized, starting the run at 6:30 p.m. The run will last 45 minutes to an hour, with participants able to choose between a 3.5-mile and 5-mile loop that runs through downtown, to the greenway at the Waynesville Recreation Park and back again. Afterward, it’s back to Boojum for a beer.
“They’ve got that beer called Reward (Pale Ale) and it’s just so fitting for after a run,” said Shepherd.
William Wells (left) and Garrett Banner pause during a 2017 run of the Art Loeb Trail to enjoy the view from Devils Courthouse on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Andrew Shepherd photo
Going forward, though, he’d like to form a separate trail running group, which would meet on Saturday or Sunday mornings to run a pre-determined loop of trail, with varied routes within the loop for runners of different ability levels. Shepherd envisions an advanced group of runners that can keep an 8-minute pace and complete 10 miles, a medium group of runners that can keep a 9.5-minute pace and run for 7 or 8 miles and a beginning group of runners with a pace over 10 minutes that could do 5 miles or so.
“Then we can all start out at the same place and end at about the same time back together,” he said.
Unlike with an afternoon jog through the neighborhood, taking in a view is as much the goal of a trail run as is the exercise itself.
“Instead of just thinking about, ‘OK, we’re going to go out there and do 10 miles this morning,’ it’s like, ‘We’re going to go see two views and a waterfall,’” Shepherd explained. “It kind of breaks it up where you’re not actually thinking about running 10 miles. You’re thinking about, ‘Oh, hey, we’re going out here to this waterfall.’”
There’s also the question of what you take with you. A hiker doing 10 miles might have a pretty hefty daypack, while a road runner might just bring a small bit of water with her. A trail runner goes somewhere in between, Shepherd said. He’ll typically take a first aid kit, a small water filter, snacks and a headlamp.
“Unless we’re doing something big, we try to stick closer to areas where there’s people or roads,” he said. “It’s not, ‘Hey, we’re going to take it out 10 miles into the middle of nowhere for your first time.’”
With two Boojum Wednesdays under his belt now, Shepherd is feeling good about the budding running club and interest level from the community. And as he looks to the future, he’s hoping to recruit more people to take joy in the hobby he’s found himself hooked on.
“A lot of times with our work schedules and everything, it’s hard for us to get together all the time to run,” he said of his Art Loeb friends, “so it would be nice to have more people to get out and enjoy it with.”
A new running group has formed in Waynesville, meeting at 6 p.m. on Wednesdays on the back porch of Boojum Brewing Company downtown. The group heads out to run at 6:30 p.m., with 3.5-mile and 5-mile routes available, returning to the brewery afterward for a beer. Future plans are in the works for a weekend trail running club as well.
Andrew Shepherd, 828.734.5329.