Long Trail FKT Recap

Long Trail FKT Recap

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This is one of 4 blog articles on the Long Trail in addition posts on Instagram and Strava that I’m currently writing. See links below.

Long Trail Announcement – Part I
Long Trail FKT Recap – Part II (congrats, you’re here)
Long Trail Gear List & Review – Part III
Long Trail Food & Sleep Strategy – Part IV

The Long Trail

The original American Long Trail. The Long Trail traverses the state of Vermont and runs from the northern to the southern border. The trail is an FKT (Fastest Known Time) classic, boasting five new records since 2018. Designed without switchbacks, the Long Trail is known for relentless ups and downs, rocks, roots, and mud.

The trail is 273 miles long with 65,000ft of elevation gain and is the most challenging terrain I’ve ever encountered over a prolonged distance, and I’ve run both the Pacific Crest Trail and Appalachian Trail.

Why did I want to do the Long Trail?

The FKT is a true classic. I wanted this one. And since I love lists, I’m going to write one. I had multiple sources of motivation to push me through the rocks, mud, sleep deprivation and everything you experience out there:

  • Unfinished business: Few people know I attempted the record in 2015 and ended up with a watermelon sized knee after 90 miles and called it quits.
  • Goodbye, Boston: With Katie and I moving to Seattle this summer, this is my final goodbye to New England, where I’ve lived for the last 10 years. Got to go out with a bang!
  • Black Lives Matter: I’m also hoping this run and my platform will contribute towards positive change and equality in our country for black and brown lives. Racism and social inequality are not confined to our cities.
  • Competitive Trail Record: Few FKTs have the depth of competition that the Long Trail has. I was following in the footsteps of some legendary athletes, literally. The trail name of Jeff Garmine, who set the Unsupported Record last year, is Legend.
  • Unsupported: I <3 fastpacking. With ultramarathons cancelled, this is the year to continue to refine my fastpacking skills. I love the challenge of carrying everything I need – sleeping gear, food, water, clothing – all in my bag.

You can read about my pre-trip thoughts in my first blog article in the series!

Let’s do this. I’m about to go off on a lengthy day-by-day recount of an epic five day adventure. It’s over 7,000 words, so turn on some jazz music and grab a cup of coffee.

A misty summit peak on the Vermont Long Trail
Taken from day 2, I hit a nice rainstorm

Goals

As a running coach, I always encourage my athletes to have A, B, and C goals. No goal is more important than the other. The joy is in the experience and if I can hit one or two of my goals with a smile on my face, I am a happy boy.

  • A Goal: Beat the supported record set by Jonathan Basham of 4 days, 12 hours and 46 minutes.
  • B Goal: Beat the unsupported record set by Jeff Garmire of 5 days, 23 hours and 46 minutes.
  • C Goal: Avoid long term injury.
The gear and food I brought on the Long Trail, totally 27 pounds.
The gear and food I brought on the Long Trail, totally 27 pounds.

Day One

54 miles (41 miles + 13 miles), Northern Terminus to Laraway Lookout to ~Bear Hollow Shelter. Links to Strava, GPS not 100% accurate.

I start my Long Trail FKT at 6:30 am in the morning, unsupported, southbound. Katie and I hike to the northern terminus, which is a slightly uphill 1.5 mile hike. Katie kindly carries the bag to the start and remarks that the bag is outrageously heavy, giving me a lot of confidence pre-trail.

I’m carrying 26 pounds, 18 pounds of food (40,000 calories) and 8 pounds of gear. Additionally, I am starting with 2 pounds of water, so I guess I really have 28 pounds.

My goal for the day? Cruise, hit 50-60 miles. I breeze through the first 9 miles in at Jay Peak. My pack isn’t that bad! My watch tells me I’m averaging about 400ft of elevation gain per mile. Woof, that’s a lot. But I’m averaging a little over a 3 mph pace. I’ll need 3.2 mph to beat Jonathan Basham and 2.7 to beat Jeff Garmire, so I’m optimistic. Bits and pieces of my memory from my 2015 attempt come back to me. I remember I had accidentally gone up the ski slope in 2015 and made sure to follow the wooded trail.

I run into my first hiker, Hero, shortly after Jay Peak. He’s wearing pajama pants and seems to be thoroughly enjoying his thru hike. With a rainstorm coming tomorrow, we debate how bad the weather is going to be. He insists that I take his number in case I need a resupply (I didn’t tell him I was attempting an FKT), and I carry on. Hero has been on trail since mid-May, which is a little concerning because I was under the impression that the Long Trail was actively discouraging hikers through May. I see about 6-7 thru hikers on day 1, the majority of which have been on trail in a similar time frame.

I try to tackle my least favorite food I packed, banana chips. High in fat and seemingly less processed than other foods I brought, it seems like a good place to start. I immediately remember which these were my least favorite on the AT. The banana chips are dense, and I need to suck down water to keep my mouth from feeling like a desert. I also indulge in some power chia balls purchased from the Food Co-op.

The sun begins to fall in the sky, and I begin to ponder my sleep strategy. I have two different options:

  1. Sleep 4 hours from 11-3. Minimize camp set up and take down.
  2. Sleep 2 hours from 9-11 and 2 hours from 2:30-4:30. Maximize physical and mental rest and break up the night.

Heather Anderson, a legend in the FKT community, had been texting me for the few days before the trip. I am more familiar with and inclined towards option one, but she adamantly defended ‘dirt naps’ (30-45 minute power naps). I decide I’m going to risk it. Either way, I’m going to have sleep deprivation, and Heather’s recommendation is backed by the opinion of most multi-day adventure racers.

I summit Laraway Mountain and witness a BEAUTIFUL sunset. Holy crap. That’s nice. I set up my shelter with a lot of vigor and crash around 9PM. Referencing my Green Mountain Club Long Trail map, it appears I’ve covered approximately 40 miles. I’m a little discouraged, because it’s well short of my 60 mile per day goal. At least I know I hit a ton of elevation today, and I have a TON of gas left in the tank.

The views from atop Jay Peak, mile 9.
The views from atop Jay Peak, mile 9.

At 11PM, I awake with clarity. Pack up my crap and hit the trail. The pink dusk is now a deep black. It’s go time.

My feet churn downhill, I feel fresh. The trail continues to be technical and I’m excited to hit the flat section around Vt. Route 15. Hopefully, the flat will allow me to cover good miles, but I’m not there yet. My gaze is locked on the trail. In a meditative-like state, all I’m processing is the incoming terrain – the rocks, roots, branches, trail markers, trees and mud. My feet follow instinctively.

The trail pops out at Vt. Route 15. This is one of two road sections on the trail. My pace differential is shocking. My movement isn’t restricted by a trail. But, running on road accentuates just how heavy my pack is. I have a hard time running on the flat sections without exhausting myself.

The Long Trail weaves through a few roads before beginning a long, slow climb that culminates on Whiteface Mountain. In 2015, I camped on top of Whiteface, but had a mildly traumatic experience going up the steep climb to the peak. I remember I felt more like a free-soloing rock climber than a hiker. At 2:15AM, well before the peak, I find a decent enough spot to pitch my bivvy and nearby water next to the Bear Hollow Shelter.

I don’t want to mess with Whiteface at night again. Plus, the pitter patter of rain starts to fall as I wolf down my last few bites of food and close my eyes. I have a feeling that tomorrow will be a long day.

A beautiful sunset atop Laraway Mountain at the end of day 1.
A beautiful sunset atop Laraway Mountain at the end of day 1.

Day Two

45 miles (39miles + 6 miles), ~Bear Hollow Shelter to Bamforth Ridge to ~Montclair Glen Shelther.

Ten hours into day two and I’ve done 24 miles, a 2.4 mph pace. Things are not going well.

First, my throat starts hurting. My metabolism had a hard time keeping up with the food I was cramming into it on Day 1. On Day 2, I feel a pain in the back of my throat; kind of like strep throat. Do I have COVID? I recently tested negative and the symptoms didn’t quite line up. Hopefully I will be fine, but eating some foods is becoming painful.

More importantly, the rainstorm hit. The trail has turned wet, which is when the Long Trail gets real nasty. Since the morning, the rain has varied from a faint drizzle to a windy downpour. Every rock and root is now a liability due to wetness. I slip and slide a few times on steep rocks, thankful to not have any major falls. My feet are wet. Many sections of now feature mud. I take a wrong turn and lose 20 minutes. Ugh.

My gear and body are both protected from the rain by my Mountain Laurel Design Poncho Tarp. It’s done it’s job, but I have a hard time accessing food and water with the draped poncho covering me.

I need to hit at least 50 miles if I want to challenge Basham’s record. At this point, I try not to focus on the details and my slowed pace. All I can do is put my time and energy into worrying about what I control, covering as much ground as possible. If I don’t beat Basham’s record, so what? Who cares? My heart sinks at this thought.

Then, I think back to a few hours ago when I was bombing down Mt. Mansfield; steep rocks and thick rains didn’t stop me from rock hopping down a technical shoot. I remember laughing at all the challenges that this day has presented. Despite everything going on, I’M DOING IT. The beauty of an FKT attempt is in the journey itself, not in the finish or the time.

It is now the afternoon, and the rain is clearing up. I’m begin to feel like my old self again. The wetness is taking a toll on my feet, they ache and I sense a blister forming, but I can’t worry about that now. I recently crossed Bolton Mountain am now descending down the other side. The trail will have 11 miles of general downhill followed by a three mile road section. I hit it hard.

Feeling refreshed, I run and I run and I run. I channel my inner Forest Gump. This section of the Long Trail has very few rocks, and the downs aren’t that steep, allowing for very efficient running. The next few hours are a whirlwind, I cover 15 miles in 3 hours. That feels gooooooood.

Just before 9PM, I set up camp with about 180 miles to go. My feet are ghastly white and I can tell I’m getting blisters on the arch of my foot. I put on Aquaphor Lip Repair. I’m currently a quarter way through the biggest single climb of the Long Trail, Camel’s Hump. I know I’m going to hit Camel’s Hump at night. But is the 3rd highest peak in Vermont at night a good idea? I set my alarm for 11AM and shut my eyes.

Vermont, aka Vermud.
Vermont, aka Vermud.

The next thing I hear is Katie’s voice to wake me up. That’s weird… I open my eyes. I’d been dreaming, I think. I look at my watch. 11:20PM. Why would I be hearing Katie’s voice? I start to connect the dots – I had set my alarm to AM instead of PM! Idiot. And somehow, Katie appeared in my dreams to make sure I didn’t sleep through the night. Thank you, Katie!

Camel’s Hump is anything but boring. The wind is howling and temperatures are in the mid-forties, I estimate. The trail traverses a lot exposed rock, and I’m not even close to the top. My adrenaline is pumping. The trail continues to climb, and I eagerly pursue it. Thoughts of pace and FKTs leave my mind, right now there is only me and the mountain.

I enter the alpine zone and am blasted by winds. Wearing only a t-shirt, I should be freezing. The constant movement buffers me against the whipping cold gusts of air. I’m now fully exposed on top of 4,000ft mountain and it is 1AM. How many people have experienced Camel’s Hump in such conditions without another soul for miles? I feel a rush and yell into the night in joy.

Descending off the windy peak, the trail is still very technical and a little wet. I get out my water bottle, a plastic Dasani bottle fitted with a screw-on Sawyer Micro Squeeze filter. The filter allows me to refill water directly from streams and drink straight from the bottle through the filter. During the Appalachian Trail, I carried two Sawyer filters in each of my front chest pockets. This time, I thought it was only necessary to carry one. Boy, was I wrong.

I squeeze the Dasani bottle and put it to my lips. The water doesn’t rush into my mouth, rather, it is forced out of the threading where the Sawyer filter is screwed onto the bottle. What the heck? That hasn’t happened before. I examine the filter and notice a small plastic O-ring is suspiciously missing.

The O-ring is attached to the base of the filter and creates a seal around the top of the water bottle. The O-ring is necessary to prevent air/water escaping from the water bottle when you squeeze it. The increased air pressure forces the unfiltered water through the 0.1 micron filter and out the other side, allowing you to drink clean water by simply squeezing the water bottle.

I find out what happens when the O-ring is gone: the only way to get your filter to work is by strongly sucking on the filter. I try this for a minute and get less than a mouthful of water. Imagine a baby futilely trying to suck on a bottle filled with only air. That is how I feel. Well, this isn’t good.

After two and a half hours, I am well passed Camel’s Hump. BUt I’ve only covered 6 miles. Damn, that is slow. Time for camp. After attempting to find or McGyver some kind of replacement O-ring with the gear in my bag, I give up. At around 3AM, I shut my eyes with uncertainties swirling around my head. Beyond this new water struggle, I haven’t even covered 100 miles in the first 2 days.

A photo of my foot with a large blister on my foot, taken 2 days after finishing.
A photo of my foot with a large blister on my foot, taken 2 days after finishing.

Day Three

50 miles (42 miles + 8 miles), ~Montclair Glen Shelter to ~Middlebury Gap to ~Mt. Horrid

Time to for the real deal. The goals of day one and two were to cruise. If I can play my cards right, I might just finish in two and half more days. I hit trail at 5:15 AM. The trail is taking a toll on my body. My feet now have two large blisters on each arch, my throat hurts more and my shoulders and back are sore from the pack. I have to stick it out.

My day begins by going over Mt. Ethan Allen. I still have 170 miles to go, and the next 70 are supposed to be the nastiest. If I can get through today, I am golden (or less screwed) .

Movement is slow going. I think I’m a 28 year old living in a 50 year olds body. The rocks, roots and climbs are relentless. I’m so tired of jumping from rock to rock on technical downhill sections.

I bump into a hiker named Kaleidoscope near Cowles’ Cover Shelter. She has been pulling 20 mile days herself and is over halfway done with her northbound hike. We commiserate over the rainstorm we endured the day before. We laugh about how ridiculous, yet enjoyable, this whole experience is. As I depart, I wonder how much different life would be if I didn’t feel this desire to push the extreme limits of the human body.

Food is harder to eat, particularly nuts. An intense burning sensation stings the back of my throat whenever I try to eat them. This is particularly sad, because I love nuts. So much. The water situation isn’t helping either. I’ve been hiking the whole day lifting and sucking on my water bottle to try to get whatever water I can. Dehydration leads to a whole bunch of issues, so I do my best. I’d walk for a minute with my bottle in my mouth only to get a mouthful of water. It’s not looking pretty.

A few hours into the day, I get a thought. I had tried using my gear to create a makeshift O-ring that would create suction in my bottle. However, I hadn’t tried using anything that the trail could provide. I give a leaf a suspicious glance, pick it off the tree, poke a whole in the middle and place it in between the filter and water bottle as I screw on the top. I give the bottle a squeeze, and to my utter delight, water doesn’t escape out the threading. The water is being forced through the filter again!

Shocked, I squeeze the bottle again. It works. I try drinking, and aside from a small weird minty flavor from the leaf, the filter works just fine. After a few uses, I realize that the leaves are only good for one use, meaning I’d have to replace the old leaf each time I took off the top.

My throat continues to be a problem. Even though I’ve solved my water filtration issue, the constant sucking leaves my throat even more sore than before.

This is the underrated part of the FKT where your problem solving skills and knowledge are more important than your physical fitness and ability to crank out miles. Unfortunately, I make two more mistakes with water.

Mt Ellen to Mt Abraham is particularly dry stretch of trail. If only I had known. I’ve been enjoying a lighter pack and got in the routine of refilling water only when I was completely out. As I ascended Mt Ellen, I began to notice the dry ground and lack of any recent water sources. Two hours later, I come across my first water source. I have to hike 400 feet off trail to a very nice mountain stream and guzzled down an entire bottle after I applied a new leaf. At least I learned not to skimp on water, right?

Wrong.

I bumped into two European hikers after Mt. Cleveland, about 11 miles after my first water mishap. “Is there any water up ahead?” I ask. I was out of water again. “Uh, no. You don’t have any water?” they reply. Here we go again. “Well, if you want some of my water, we are about to get off trail. You can have it.” Upon rewriting this experience, it feels like I’m reenacting The Devil Went Down to Georgia by Primus, where the devil offers me a sip of water in exchange for my soul.

There are three types of FKT styles, supported, self-supported and unsupported. Going after the unsupported FKT, I cannot use any other resource other than what the trail provides. Taking water from a fellow hiker is against the rules and demotes my record attempt to a self-supported FKT. In this moment, I don’t realize the implications of my actions. I am dehydrated, sleep deprived and a little bit desperate, so it is no surprise that I accept their kind gesture. Bummer, but c’est la vie!

Even though I’m in the more technical section, the terrain seems noticeably friendlier than the prior two days. I can feel myself making significant progress, no matter how slow my pace has become.

Towards the end of the day, I realize I’ve way overpacked food. My throat hasn’t helped either. I dump some in a garbage can. After 42 miles that day, I cuddle up just past Middlebury Gap. I find a stagnant ‘stream’ to wash my aching body and overstressed skin. I try to eat all the food my body will allow, I’m pretty sure I’ve started to hit a significant caloric deficit.

Notice anything small and green hanging off my waterbottle? #waterfilter

At 11:54PM, I start my third night run. I do a quick battery check. With 1-2 more nights remaining, my headlamp reads two-thirds charged, my iPhone was just recharged and my Anker battery pack has a half charge remaining. That should be enough to get me through 2-3 more nights.

I begin with a 2 mile, 1,000ft climb up Mt. Worth. Life isn’t too bad. I really have come to enjoy climbing when it is dark out. My mind is clear and there is nothing to do but move forward. My second climb of the night goes over Mt. Horrid. I chuckle to myself as I bound through the dark Vermont Forest.

Mt. Horrid turns out to be pretty pleasant, aside from a cold breeze whipping through the trees. Suddenly, the light on my headlamp dims. That’s odd. I look at my battery, somehow the went from two of three bars to one flashing bar in two hours. This means that my battery has is almost dead. I trek on for a few minutes until I find a flat spot to set up camp and pass out. With 125 miles to go, I’m beginning to count down the time.

A photo from Burtn Rock Mountain, looking back at Camels Hump State Park.
A photo from Burtn Rock Mountain, looking back at Camels Hump State Park.

Day Four

57 miles (46 miles + 11 miles), ~Mt. Horrid to White Rocks to ~Baker Peak

When I did the Appalachian Trail in 2017, it took me a few days to really have any fun. On day one, I experienced multiple ankle twists. On day two, severe chaffing. At the beginning, I was obsessed with timing, pace and progress. Finally, I hit a rhythm and started to relax.

This is the reason I like multi-day FKTs. You can chill out.

As I put on my Pa’lante Pack and laced up my Columbia Montrail Trans Alp FKTs, I felt a sense of gratitude and appreciation that didn’t exist in the first 3 days. I’m 28 years old, going on a reckless adventure on the oldest Long Path in the United States. Despite being self-reliant on trail, (well, almost), I still needed Katie’s loving help and support to get to the start line. Each day, I cherish her response to the multiple daily voice memos that I sent. Despite not being by my side, she is with me.

I look through the overwhelming number of texts and messages from friends, family and strangers on my phone. I feel so lucky, so blessed, so privileged.

Up until this point, a 13.5oz bag of rocks has stayed stashed away at the bottom of my bag. Before my journey, we wrote the names of eight individuals who had been murdered due to police or civilian brutalities. I stop to take a photo of the rocks laid out on the trail.

By the end of my journey, I will have crossed only one non-white face out of hundreds of day hikers and backpackers. The hiking community is overwhelming white. FKTs and the outdoor community at large are often regarded as disproportionally white. Hell, I’m in Vermont, one of the whitest states in the US.

Racism in this country is systemic, I cannot kid myself into thinking that our outdoor spaces are somehow immune. I have a responsibility to take the movement that is happening in our biggest cities and bring it to our trailheads.

The Long Trail is a place for me to express myself. The Long Trail allows me to test my limits, to live in awe of the natural world, to laugh, to cry, to heal. I reflect on how at home I feel. Not once have I felt anxious or unsafe due to the color my skin. I don’t worry about if I fit in or why no one else looks at me.

With all these thoughts on my mind, what can I do for myself, but also what can I do to make our outdoor spaces accessible for all? In the moment, not much. I hope that our fundraiser for Outdoor Afro is going well and by using my voice and social media, at least a few individuals will look at this topic differently, become an ally or take action.

I reflect on the name written on each stone:

  • Trayvon Martin – Florida
  • Ahmaud Arbery – Georgia
  • George Floyd – Minneapolis
  • Tamir Rice – Ohio
  • Eric Garner – New York
  • Freddie Gray – Maryland
  • Manuel Ellis – Tacoma
  • Breonna Taylor – Kentucky

I passionately write my reflections into my phone while hiking, with some back and forth with Katie. I’m so thankful to have Katie. I need a thought partner that I can talk over such complicated subjects with in a safe space. For anyone reading, that was really my first step into having an active opinion on Black Lives Matter. My stomach grows queasy when I hit the post button on Instagram, worried about my social responsibility and how people might react. I put my phone away and focus back on the trail in front of me.

All the sudden I realize that it is 6:40PM sand I only have 85 miles left to go. I only have 85 miles left to go?!

Since leaving the northern section, the trail feels like buffed out West Coast Trail. The Long Trail has now joined with the Appalachian Trail. I’m on familiar territory. I can’t believe the difference. It is like night and day. There are still a lot of rocks, but I’m making great time. The elevation feels like nothing. Could I possibly finish before nightfall tomorrow? I’d be two hours behind Basham’s record, but I’d be done and proud. Plus, I’m not sure if my headlamp and flashlight will last two more overnights.

I start doing the math. Day falls as I start my climb up White Rocks Mountain. I’m less than 79 miles away. I need to recharge my flashlight, but if I can get a full charge I probably have 6 hours of light left. My phone has about 75%. Should I try to push on through the night? As I climb White Rocks, the decision is made for me. I’m desperately cold. A cold front came in, and the low temps will probably drain my battery and night miles are slow going anyway. I realize just how sleep deprived I feel. I’m having a hard time deciding, but sleeping now and following my original strategy is the only thing that makes sense.

I camp at the first flat spot, which happens to be a windy ridge. Terrible call. I immediately curl up in my sleeping quilt. I don’t feel like much of anything except sleeping. It takes me a few minutes of rolling around in my quilt to finally take my socks off of my swollen feet. Woof, the blisters look real bad now. All they have to do is last one more day…

A photo of 8 rocks of black individuals who were murdered by police/civilian brutality. I carried the rocks for my entire journey.
A photo of 8 rocks of black individuals who were murdered by police/civilian brutality. I carried the rocks for my entire journey.

My throat is now undeniably painful. I don’t want to eat anything even though I know it will help. I have Fritos, trail mix, oreos, plantain chips, 2 snickers, a salami stick and lots of nuts. The only thing that my throat agrees to are Fritos. To make them go down easier, I pour some filtered water into the bag. I funnel a ziplock bag of cold, mushy, salty and delicious Fritos to the face. I realize I haven’t had this much calories at one time in days. Perhaps the Fritos will be the only food that goes down easy. With this in the back of my mind, I decide to leave about two handfuls of Fritos in case I get desperate tomorrow.

I plug my Petzl Nao headlamp into my battery pack. I cross my fingers that it will have a full charge after my nap. With coldness trying to permeate my quilt, I try to catch a little sleep.

I awake in a daze. I only slept an hour because I’m cold. My body is slow to move. Exhaustion and cold feed my weariness. I linger for 10 minutes before putting on my socks under my quilt. As I look under the quilt, a bright light shines back at me. The light is coming from my headlamp. My headlamp is on. Oh god, no. I quickly turn it off. I must have turned it on accidentally as I awoke. The battery pack is dead, but the headlamp reads only one of three bars is charged. That must be a mistake, the actual charge must be closer to 50%. It just must be closer to 1/3 than 2/3.

I wrestle on my shoes, careful not to pop my blisters, pack up my gear and leave.

As the wind howls, I meander up the trail. My body shivers uncontrollably, trying to heat up. Boy, a hot shower sounds nice right now. The raw skin on my shoulders and lower back stings as it comes back into contact with the backpack. Here we go.

Back in my familiar state of being, hiking, my body comes around to the idea of moving. I begin to experience a little more comfort as I start descending the other side of White Rocks Mountain.

My thoughts wander to little electronic gadget shooting a beam of light from my head. How much charge will my headlamp really have? Only time will tell. It has to at least last through tonight. I carry onward.

My headlamp goes into low power mode. Oh crap is my first thought. I’m three hours into my night hike/run. I have at least 65 miles to go. My second thought it to turn off my headlamp and navigate by iPhone battery light. The iPhone is considerably less powerful, but I’m going up a steep climb so I don’t need to move fast.

I go through my options to finish. The smartest move would seem to be sleep. Then, I’ll be ready to hit the final miles hard. My biggest problem will be managing battery life thru inevitable night hiking tomorrow. At 2:30 AM, I find the next spot to turn off and set up camp. My watch alarm is set to 4:10AM.

Me nomming on some oreos. Keep reading for DIY cooking tips and on trail smoothies.
Me nomming on some oreos. Keep reading for DIY cooking tips and on trail smoothies.

Day Five

68 miles (52 miles + 7 miles + 9 miles), ~Baker Peak to Maple Hill to Sucker Pond. Recorded half of my runs due to low watch battery.

Today is the day. Finish or die. Sixty eight miles to go, leave it all out there.

I start the day strong. In about 2.5 hours, I’ve covered eight miles. My mind goes through all the hypothetical situations:

  • Average 3.5 mph, finish at midnight
  • Average 3 mph, finish at 3AM
  • Average 2.5 mph, finish at 7am, just under 5 days total
  • Average 2 mph, curl up into a ball and cry
  • At this point, I’m at least 5 hours behind Basham’s record at 3.5 mph, and about 23.5 hours ahead of Garmire’s record at 2.5 mph.

I am motivated by a thought. Am I really going to finish in over 5 days? The thought seems tragic. If I don’t go sub-5, put my name up there with the likes of Romeo and Gatsby. The fire has been lit.

To make this happen, I’m going to need all the energy I can get.

My water bottle + filter + leaf system is somewhat successful. I can tell I’m still dehydrated. I take in as much water as efficiently as my janky system will allow. My real issue is nutrition. Not only am I running off 15 hours of sleep in the last four days, but I haven’t been eating. My highs stop being as high and my lows start to feel lower. There has to be a conscious effort to eat.

Additionally, my body is starting to fail me. My blisters hurt more with each step. The blister has expanded to cover both the arch and the inside of my foot. Every time I take a bad step, I feel the fluid shooting into the outside edges of the blister. The fluid is separating layers of skin to create more blister.

I feel my lower back. There is an inch long, circular gash caused by pack rubbing. To alleviate the pain, I tighten my backpack straps. The straps dig into my already raw shoulders, and the tightness has even caused chaffing on my ribs. My trail name should be Frankenstein, not Stringbean.

A close up photo of my face. I look real bad.
A close up photo of my face. I look real bad.

Despite all these setbacks, I am cruising. My back is the lightest it has ever weighed. The terrain is so much nicer. When I did the Appalachian Trail, I thought Vermont was one of the more challenging sections. Now it felt like a cakewalk. The majority of the mud has dried, there are few rocks and roots on the trail and the gains aren’t as extreme.

At about 53 miles out, my energy starts to plummet. I can tell I am hurting. My system needs food. Luckily, I saved those Fritos! To no ones surprise, they sucked on day two. I had a hard time stomaching them, all the yummy fat and salty flavors were suddenly gone. What was left was cold, mushy, bland and terrible Fritos.

My body needs more firepower. Lightbulb! The Oreos were saved for this moment, but they don’t have to be eaten alone. I’ve been unable to eat my nuts, but maybe I can have a life hack. Using my entire bag of Oreos (~1,500 calories), a half bag of almonds (~1,000 calories) and filtered water, I make a smoothie. Maybe you’d call it sludge.

Either way, it was absolutely out of this world. My throat only has minor stinging. Sitting by a nice stream, I scarfed down the whole meal in 10 minutes flat. That is the real FKT!

Back on trail, the food doesn’t sit well at first. I’m still lethargic. Expecting a full energy recovery, I wait for the breakthrough. It never really comes.

Leading up to Stratton Mountain, the last true mountain of trail, there is a long section of flat section. I run as much of it as I can. According to my watch, I’m moving at around a 4 mph pace. Booyah. Caution to the wind, I try to hold this pace until the big incline of Stratton.

Finally, I hit Stratton Pond and the 1,700ft climb begins. My legs burn and my heart rate skyrockets. The trail isn’t technical, but it is more challenging than any climb so far. I’m exhausted. Speeding through the last section took it’s toll.

Halfway up, I decide I’m terribly sleep deprived. My energy levels are much too low. I just ate 2,5000 calories. If I was calorie deprived, I would have bounced back after my oreo smoothie. I look at my watch and notice the battery is at 5%. With only 41 miles to go, I’d covered the last 27 miles in 8.5 hours. A 30 minute nap and I’ll be ready to crush the rest of the trail!

After a brief snooze, my alarm goes off. I never actually went to sleep. I try to feel confident about my decision, however I get the feeling like it was a giant waste of time. As I trudge up Stratton Mountain, my heart rate still spikes and my legs are weak.

My mood shifts towards increasingly irritable. I start to blame myself for the impending headlamp battery issue, for not being faster, for even attempting the Long Trail in the first place. Summiting Stratton Mountain doesn’t do anything to cheer me up. In fact, it only accentuates the significant pain in my feet from my blisters.

Actually, I realize only one of my blisters hurts. Searching for any excuse to stop, I take off my shoes. The blister on my right foot popped naturally. It looks and feels great. With only 40 miles to go, I’m not longer worried about a foot infection from a popped blister.

Well, if my right foot feels great with a popped blister, why don’t I speed up the process on my left foot? Pinching my nails together, I pierce the skin. Yellow fluid oozes out. Ew.

A post trail photo of Columbia Trans Alp FKTs. They are in good shape!
A post trail photo of Columbia Trans Alp FKTs. They are in good shape!

Excitedly, I put my shoe back on. Finally, I can run without foot pain. Immediately upon putting on my shoe, I realize I am mistaken. The left foot is now 3x more sore than it was before. Running is quite painful, and I’m near the top of a 1,700ft descent. Sometimes, you’re not as clever as you think you are.

Nevertheless, after about 3 miles of painful running, the pain subsides.

My next problem quickly arises. I’m having a hard time running for more than 30 seconds downhill. I get short of breath. This becomes particularly problematic when I am going uphill. If I try to transition to an uphill climb shortly after running, it feels like I have been punched in the chest. My legs lose all strength and I struggle to stand. After a few seconds rest, my strength returns and I can hike again.

After a little trial and error, I realize I am pretty much relegated to power hiking. If I do anything to elevate my heart rate, the energy gets zapped out of me.

I retreat into the pain cave of my mind. The deep, dark place that only I know exists. The place that allows me to ignore the extreme discomfort and fatigue. My body takes over, almost on autopilot. The miles continue to tick off, the hours continue to move ahead.

I’m now less than 20 miles away. I need one last spurt of mental energy devise a game plan for the night ahead. I text back and forth with Katie. She has received multiple text messages from me, each more dire than the next. We agree it would be best for me to sleep at 9PM and try to regain whatever energy I can. I’d then have a mad dash to the finish using primarily my iPhone battery. If that died, I’d camp. Dawn is at 4:30AM, leaving me with 2 hours of sunlight before the 6:29AM five day cutoff.

I find an appropriate spot to camp with 16 miles to go. As I set up my bivy, I can’t think but how dumb this plan is. I’m 16 miles away, going at an all out effort, and am trying to sleep? In college, I would run that distance in less than 2 hours.

However, with my decision to stop is reaffirmed when I try use my headlamp. The battery must have gone from low power to no power since I last used it, because it won’t turn on. All I have left is 34% iPhone battery.

This will be fun.

I wake up ready to ROCK. If only I had a guy with a boombox playing Rage Against the Machine running beside me. I start cruising through forest. Despite my weak light source, I become wreckless. This is my one shot. Gloves are off.

I notice my battery jumps from 34% to 24% between turning it on/off. Damn you Apple. Oh well, I’m in the zone.

I’m more alert and energized than I have been in days. Energy is pumping through my veins. I’m not longer having issues running. I find myself even being able to comfortably run on some uphill sections.

The battery drops to 15%. I’m now dropping 500 feet to cross Vt. Route 9. The trail transforms into its only rocky, technical self, the one I cursed for 170 miles. On the other side of Route 9, I climb an identically technical 500 foot rock staircase. Battery is at 10%.

I start running any uphill section that I can handle. I don’t care if I’m breathing heavily. The trail is fairly runnable, and nothing is going to stop me from missing the 5 day cut off. My battery dips to 5%, then 4%, then 3%,. I stop looking at my phone and focus on running what I have left. I’m definitely not going to finish before dawn.

All the sudden, it happens. My iPhone flashlight shuts off. I realize I’m going to have to camp right at this spot. Luckily, it seemed fairly flat. I double check my phone only to realize that there is still 2% left! My spirits jump and I’m back to the races.

My iPhone shuts off a second time. Looking at my phone again, it still have 1% remaining. I’m going to squeeze every last drop of energy out of this thing. I connect the dots that iPhone probably has a battery-saving feature to shut off the flashlight if battery is low.

Finally, the phone dies for real. The only problem is I’m smack dab in the middle of a long stretch of two-by-fours elevated above Sucker Pond. It’s pitch dark. I can’t camp here. I estimate I have about 100 feet of plank walkways ahead and behind me. Unable to see the ground, I need some kind of light to guide me. My GoPro has 5% battery, so I hit record. The LED screen offers a dim light. I bend over, the GoPro inches off the ground. The light allows me to baby-step forward. After a few minutes, I find myself on solid ground. The GoPro dies, but I can at least camp here.

With only 2% battery on my COROS watch, my last remaining electronically charged item, I set my alarm for 4AM. When the light comes, I need to be ready to go.

To my surprise, the trail has faint enough light to navigate at 4:15 AM. I have 8.5 miles to go. Can I run 8.5 miles in 2 hours and 14 minutes? In any other circumstance, I’d laugh at that challenge.

I try to channel my old cross country days. For the first time in this entire adventure, this felt like a true race; physical capabilities put to the test against a clock. Every so often I check my watch. The first 4.5 miles has about 1,000ft of elevation gain. There aren’t any physical landmarks for me to use, so I don’t know my true distances.

At about two miles in, it looks like I am averaging 5 mph. At 4 miles in, my pace looks closer to 4 mph. Am I going to be just short? This fuels me to run up the last significant uphill.

The time is counting down and the finish doesn’t seem any closer. The clock hits 6AM, then 6:10AM, then 6:20AM. With 9 minutes to go I holler in desperation, hoping that Katie will hear me from the southern terminus. I don’t hear any response. All I can do is keep running, my breathing is quite heavy. I yell again. This time, I hear a response.

I cross the southern terminus of the Long Trail at 6:23 AM, six minutes under five days. Katie is waiting for me, and I give her the biggest hug I can muster. She is also joined by a handful of wonderful friends, Josh and Cooper Katzman, Evren and Tara Gundez, Jen Watt and Eli Burakian.

My heart is overcome with joy that these people would be here for me. The mad dash to the finish is capped off by the company and laughter of good friends.

I am beyond words. The trail is humbling, inspiring, and grueling. Anyone who’s hiked or run the 273 mile Long Trail knows it is a unique beast. Its endless rocks, roots, exposed peaks and steep climbs make it unlike anything I’ve ever run/power hiked/frolicked thru.

In my final 48 hours, I faced sleep deprivation. I had to overcome constant self-doubt, a slowed pace, and a dead headlamp and phone, but the burn to finish in under 5 days was relentless. Going into the final night, I had one option: run as far as physically possible.

Over the next 30 minutes, I drink a water, kombucha, hot chai tea, and Heady Topper. We relish the moment. My favorite comment a few hours later was from Evren, ‘Right now, you look terrible. But when you finished, you looked HORRIFIC.’

At the finish, everyone wanted to get a look at the eight 13.5oz stones carrying the name of an individual who had died due to police/civilian brutality. I had accomplished my goal of carrying them from start to finish. We took a photo with them. Jen and Katie suggested that we leave them at the Southern Terminus as a tribute.

And so, we nicely arranged the rocks before hiking the last 4 miles through Massachusetts back to our cars. Three days later, Katie and I started our cross country drive/move to Seattle.

Goodbye, New England.

Me hugging Katie at the southern terminus of the Long Trail. We did it!
Me hugging Katie at the southern terminus of the Long Trail. We did it!

Is this still not enough?

Congratulations on reading my Long Trail FKT recap. I hope you enjoyed reading about my journey.

Joe ‘Stringbean’ McConaughy is an ultramarathon runner for Columbia and a fastpacking/running coach. You can follow along with his adventures on Instragram, Facebook and Strava.

Leave comments/thoughts/musings below. Ill happily answer any questions!

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Lain

    Congratulations Joe! What an accomplishment! Best to you and Katie on your new adventures in WA! Hope to see you on the trails or manning an aid station in the future!

  2. Evren Gunduz

    My man! What an engaging, inspiring read – similar to you as a human. Keep showing me the way of running and adventuring with a solid mix of love, purpose, and balance. You are an incredible friend and a fantastic coach. And, yes, you looked “HORRIFIC” right at the finish and only “terrible” just a short while after 😉

  3. Fernando Salcido

    Inspiring, motivating, touching, scary, freeing… Sick!

    I have known of you, watched and read your craziness, and had the chance to talk to you once…you are one of those good humans this world has.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences and look forward to hearing a lot more…

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