This adventure started like most of its kind: with an alarm clock at an ungodly morning hour. In the pitch dark, I stubbornly pushed myself out of bed at 3:30 AM. All I had to do was brush my teeth, put on the clothes I had laid out the day before, and grab the muffin off the kitchen counter before jumping into the truck. My partner, Zach, returned to the room as I was donning my cold weather gear. "it's not that cold outside," he claimed. I was surprised, the weather had called for a freeze last night. I checked my phone again. 30 degrees? I finished dressing by zipping my puffy jacket.
We piled into the truck for the 40-minute drive to Sunapee. Leah, my dog, took up the space in the back seat, so my 16-pound pack sat between my knees. 16 pounds is a lot for one day of hiking, but the plan was for this to be a training hike for something bigger. My overnight gear for that trip might never come out of my pack today, but I needed to carry it. To break it down, I had 8 lbs. of base weight, 4 lbs of water, 2 lbs, of food, and 2 lbs of extra clothing because it was so cold today.
We pull into the empty, dimly lit ski area parking lot and jump out of the truck. Leah happily runs free with no one else around. I fumble around with my new Garmin InReach and figure out how to start the tracking. It is 4:39 AM. This hike would be a practice run for this new piece of technology too. Zach has the live tracking link so he can see where I am and find me if I need help. I know the MSGT doesn't officially start until the summit of Sunapee, but I'm not getting a helicopter ride up there, so I start all of my tracking in the parking lot. Those miles count too!
Zach and Leah walk with me until the trail turns off the ski area access road, and I embark alone into the still-dark woods. Twenty short minutes later I am regretting all of my clothing choices. Why did I think I needed a buff AND a hat? Or base layers? Off came the puffy jacket, the hat and buff, and the base layer top. The pants would take longer to change so they could stay... for now.
I summited Sunapee quickly, around 5:37 AM. The sun had already made its way above the horizon, and I could see the surrounding valleys and peaks. A slight breeze chilled my bare arms, but I knew putting my base layer back on would be silly. Instead, I wrestled my long sleeve sun shirt out from the side of my pack.
The descent from Sunapee into the town of Washington is long and rolling. It was easygoing, and I tried not to run too much of it. After all, this was a PRACTICE hike for a multi-day. I wanted to be able to do it and still feel like I could hike again tomorrow. Some of the smooth drops were tough to resist, and I found myself running gracefully despite the weight on my back.
My one detour for the day was to the privy at the Steve Galpin Shelter. I love MSGT privies. None of them have walls or a roof. You get that "pooping in the woods" feeling without having to squat. Rain is a bit unfortunate, but lucky for me the weather was crystal clear today.
The only significant climb between me and Washington is Lovewell Mountain. It's a popular peak, but there was no one at the summit. A quick selfie and I'm on my way down to town and lots of dirt road walks.
The dirt roads made for easy running, and I was happy to be moving quickly. My left knee, however, was not. Faint sharp pains zinged down the inside of it, forcing me back into fast-hiking mode. I had a feeling it would clear up if I slowed down a little.
Washington General Store is just off the official route of the MSGT in the center of town. Many hikers stop there for a quick snack and a break. I firmly believe in the principle of inertia. I have momentum now. If I stop it might be harder to keep going. Besides, I had all the food I needed in my unnecessarily heavy backpack. I cruised right through town and back into the woods.
Immediately after leaving town, I came upon the General Washington shelter. It is the oldest shelter on the MSGT, and today it was home to a large group of college kids. They had completely taken it over for their orientation hike. Fine with me, I wouldn't be staying. I hope the landowner doesn't mind though.
Over the next several hills and valleys, I would see two more college groups, several thru-hikers, one trail runner, and one mountain biker. I enjoyed the Sunapee Ridge, where I had seen no one, but it was nice to know I wasn't alone out here too.
Rolling through the halfway point, I did some quick math. It was about 12:40, which meant it had only taken me 8 hours to get there (seven if you go from Sunapee Summit). That was an hour ahead of my 18-hour goal. Why 18 hours you ask? Well, that was about how long of a day I had assumed I'd be doing for my upcoming multi-day. Up until this point, the FKT hadn't been a thought in my mind. I knew that it was something north of 16 hours, but I hadn't even been super dedicated to being unsupported. If I hadn't on a whim felt like skipping the Washington General Store, I could have stopped. But here I stood, halfway between the summits, on pace to finish peak-to-peak in 14 hours. I put the thought out of my head. If I let it in I'd get too excited, push too hard, and end up hurting myself. I climbed up the back of Pitcher Mountain, trying to think of anything else.
Luckily, there was plenty to think about. After crossing the road on the other side of Pitcher, my legs started to tighten up. I needed water, I had to pee, and there was chaffing starting to happen in uncomfortable places. One stop could solve all of these problems. Just under two miles ahead was Robinson Brook Cascades. I dropped my pack on the side of the brook and set about collecting water. I quickly realized that it would not be a pleasant stop. Black flies and mosquitoes swarmed my body. There would be no rest here. As soon as I collected my water and emptied my bladder I took off again to escape the bugs. Later I found a sunny spot that the bugs were avoiding to address my other issues, but stretching could only do so much for my legs. I decided that now would be a great time to teach them about active recovery and for my mind to practice dissociation.
The next big landmark for me would be the town of Nelson. It was only 12 miles from the summit of Monadnock. I decided that if I could get there by 4:40, I'd give myself the hope that I could get this FKT. Of course, this only stoked my tunnel vision, because now I was paying attention and pushing myself ever so slightly faster than I probably should have been for a training hike. Needless to say, I made it to Nelson by 4:20 and was now an hour and twenty minutes ahead of my goal for the day. The last two miles would be all climbing, so I used the next ten to pick up even more time. I started to think about the sunset and how awesome it would be to see it from Monadnock, and not to be night hiking or hours. Picking up time became my sole purpose, and it was easy to do in the rolling terrain and bogs of southwestern NH.
It had been a long day, and somewhere after Nelson, I realized something interesting. Never had I yet been in a bad mood or been having a bad time. Despite how much everything hurt, I was somehow not dying. Sure, my run may have turned into a series of long strides, and I might have had to do a countdown to motivate me to go from walking to running, but it was still fun, 45 miles later.
Finally, I hit the Dublin trailhead and started to climb. I kept one eye on the orange patches of sun on the ground and the other on my footing. As long as I could still see those patches, I was in good shape. The trail got gradually steeper and rockier as it went. The trees slowly shifted from deciduous to coniferous. The sunspots stayed on the ground. I pushed my body harder than I had all day, neglecting to stop and eat or drink or check my guide to see how close I was. Slowly, the trees fell away and I found myself scrambling over bare rocks for a summit that I could now see, and a sunset that was imminent. It seemed to take forever, but finally, I found and stood on the survey marker that denoted the summit of Monadnock. It was 8:17 PM. I have never worked so hard for a sunset in my life, and as the sun disappeared below the horizon I picked my way down the White Dot trail. My legs were totally spent. Stepping down was like murder. I didn't care. It could take all night and I wouldn't care. I just snagged my first FKT.
It was important to me to beat this time by a couple of hours if I was going to do it at all. I still think my time is soft. From the start, this wasn't an all-out effort, and I was carrying twice the weight that I needed. There is still lots of room for improvement on this (very run-able) trail, and maybe someday I'll come back and do it myself, but I hope to see some more competition get after it too.