FKT: John Kelly - Long Trail (VT) - 2023-07-03

Route variation
Standard route
Gender category
Start date
Finish date
Total time
4d 4h 25m 50s
GPS track(s)

Eventually a more detailed report will be at No matter the level of detail, though, I want to make clear that this was a team effort. I feel “supported” is at times a misnomer in some of these big multi-day efforts, equivalent to saying that a quarterback won the game supported by the other positions rather than saying that the team won. Every person had a role and responsibilities, with mine being to continue moving forward.

Even this effort was part of a larger team made up of all of us trying to see what’s possible on these routes. The result was just another rung on the ladder as we see how high we can go. I hope that this effort motivates someone to reach beyond what they otherwise would have thought possible, and that I can support them in that as Ben Feinson, who set the previous mark, supported me.

Day 1

We left the little ski village that would remain my family's home base while I was on the trail, and got to the trailhead around 9 AM. I've always felt that for multi-day efforts it's much more important to start on a good night's sleep than to try to optimize daylight. Unfortunately it's a bit of a hike from the trailhead to the actual Long Trail northern terminus on the Canadian border, so we didn't actually start until 10:10.

I felt that the conditions were in a delicate balance: it was drizzly & the trail was muddy, with rain on 24 days that month already. But if it warmed up enough to dry things out then the heat could be even more of a problem for me. Or if the winds changed & pushed out the coastal moisture then wildfire smoke could pour in. On the air quality map we were a tiny refuge of green surrounded on three sides by yellow, orange, & red. But we couldn't control those things. So we set off, and would make the best of & adapt to what came our way.

Starting out it felt a bit more like following one of the deer trails near my house than the nation's oldest long distance trail. But most trails naturally see much less traffic near the ends, and here that effect was likely even greater due to the border. So I tried to embrace it, thinking of the trail conditions as an enforced pace limiter that would keep me from starting off too fast.

Somehow I was nearly right on my schedule through those first few sections, only dropping off a bit near the end of the day, as some of the trails up top were covered in standing water & slippery rock faces that made speed foolish if not impossible. I kept telling myself to save the running for when I could run. It was tough, but as I went down for a short sleep at Barnes Camp about 60 miles in, I was optimistic that the patience would pay off.

Day 2

After sleeping a bit over an hour at Barnes Camp, we headed up Mt. Mansfield, the highest peak in Vermont. It was a beautiful morning, and I even managed to keep my feet dry on the climb. The view at the top was the best of the route so far, but a menacing haze hung in the distance.

It wasn't entirely clear how much of it was mist rising from the previous day's rain vs. wildfire smoke. I asked about the air quality situation & was told we had been in yellow, maybe with a bit of orange: still ok for people without any sensitivities, but borderline. I hadn't noticed any effects on my own breathing, but the absolute last thing I wanted was for anyone to come out & expose themselves to unhealthy conditions while supporting me.

As we went back down the temperatures went up. The good news is that it was starting to dry off the rocks. The bad news is that the mud was still mud, and overheating can be an even bigger risk to finishing than mud. We reached the low point of the route & crossed under I-89 at the hottest part of the day, then started the long sustained climb up Camel's Hump.

At the top of Camel's Hump I was about 1/3 finished in terms of distance (~90 miles), but already nearly 1/2 done in terms of elevation (~31K feet). I was nearing the point when the trail would become slightly more runnable. We crossed over Appalachian Gap late in the evening, just a couple miles from where my family was staying. The thought of heading back down with them to relax & sleep in a nice bed sounded wonderful, but that would have to wait a bit longer.

The next section, my last for the day, has some of the best views on the Long Trail. Unfortunately I wouldn't see much in the dark, and would be happy just to stay awake to Lincoln Gap. We arrived in good time & I went down for some sleep with dreams of runnable trail dancing in my head.

Day 3

I sat in a camp chair trying to make a decision some people make every morning: what shoes to wear. With the steepest, most technical trail behind me, I had been looking forward to switching to shoes with some more cushion and bounce. But the combination of heat, moisture, and getting endlessly pummelled by rocks & roots had left my feet battered & swollen to the point that the normally roomy toe box felt like a torture device. It had been a long time since I had needed to resort to my emergency swollen feet sized backup shoes, so long that even packing them was a bit of an afterthought. Now, not even halfway finished, they were my only hope. I swapped into them with the same reluctance as someone who, just before a big date, found that they no longer fit into their favorite outfit.

When the sun came back up we were able to take advantage of the more runnable trail. I had lost some time on my goal schedule on some of the early wet & technical sections, but had held pretty steady since then. If everything went just right, sub 4 days was still possible.

But with the sun the heat also returned. Managing my intake & output became tricky – getting as much down as I could without my stomach turning & not pushing the effort beyond what could be sustained by that input. We were also nearing the most difficult part of any run: the next to last section, where maximum fatigue is near but the finish is still far.

My mind retreated inside itself, & I honestly don’t clearly remember large chunks of that day. I was focused on the basics: keep moving forward, keep stuff coming in, stay awake, & resist the temptation to daydream about other things. Eventually we reached one of the main mental milestones: with a bit over 100 miles to go the Long Trail merges with the Appalachian Trail, with a more maintained & highly trafficked trail the rest of the way to the border. Shortly after, I went down for a bit over an hour of sleep, bringing me to nearly 4 total.

Day 4

Life is full of decisions we immediately regret, and ultrarunning is often just a caricature of life. I had downed a burger & shake, trying to replenish some much needed calories & hoping my hour of sleep would give it time to digest. As we went up Killington, the biggest remaining climb of the route, my stomach was heavy & knotted. For the 1st time I had disrupted the delicate flow of nutrition & risked a full blown backup. I had hoped that my sleep would recharge me enough to give one more big full day’s push before I started power napping my way to the finish. But I laid down in a shelter at the top of the climb, hoping a few extra minutes would help it reset. It did not.

But little by little, sip by sip, the flow returned. And as it always faithfully does, the sun came back up. The deeper it gets into a mutli-day event, the more sudden & extreme the swings between highs & lows become. My energy returned & the miles started to click by. I was able to start benchmarking the distance remaining against more manageable distances that my body & mind intimately know: only 100 miles, now it’s just a 100K, a couple of Barkley loops, a Bob Graham Round.

Then the rain came back, and the pendulum swung the other way. The annoyingly muddy trails quickly became covered in standing water, rocks & roots lingering just beneath the surface waiting to reach up & grab an unsuspecting toe.

It’s just the sort of thing my experiences have prepared me for. I mentally turned it to my advantage, becoming angry with the elements, focused by fury at my familiar fate, Lt. Dan screaming into the storm. Our pace increased to 10 minute miles, which by that point felt like absolutely flying. We were dancing in the rain, our feet splashing through a carefully choreographed routine with the mountain where a slight misstep could result in a disastrous fall. In terms of pacing, it wasn’t the smartest move. I would pay the price for that little outburst for miles afterwards. But it was fun, and it reignited the fire enough that the embers might just get me to the finish.

Day 5

My face was stuck to the side of a space blanket on the floor of a privy. I looked up to see Jacob, Mike, and Luke, who were waiting one more minute to wake me up from a planned 15 minute nap. I thought back to the Grand Round nearly three years earlier, huddled in a two person bivvy with Ally Beaven in the Scottish Highlands as Martin Wilson sat outside, his bare legs seemingly impervious to the wretched conditions. I wasn’t sure which night was rougher, but I did know I still had a ways to go to make it through this one.

It had already been the section I most dreaded: next to last, the longest, and overnight. Shortly after we started, heavy rain was added to those conditions. It wasn’t the sort of drizzle that had impeded earlier progress – with my headlamp on I couldn’t see much more than the ground at my feet. Despite the uncomfortable conditions I was struggling massively to stay awake. Normally this is where I would have taken a power nap or two and pushed through to the finish. But if I laid down on the trail I would become dangerously cold within minutes. Then suddenly the Kid Gore Shelter sign appeared like an angel from heaven. I had completely forgotten it was coming. It was 0.1 miles off the main trail, an intolerable inefficiency in normal conditions. But here, its privy stood there like the Ritz of the Long Trail.

After the rest the sleep monster relented slightly, but the rain did not. The trail had fully transformed into a creek with water continuing to pour into it, as if the mountain itself were reaching up to gasp for air with water escaping down every slope. As day broke it eased off slightly and the danger from the cold dissipated. The end was within reach. With frequent bursts of energy in between moments of overwhelming fatigue, we made our way to the end of the trail.

From the end of the Long Trail, it was another 5K to the finish where my family waited. It was the worst 5K ever. But what started as a hobble increased back to around the same speed & effort I had had while the FKT clock was still running. That was my finish line, and it wasn’t going to move any closer on its own.

Final Thoughts

The Long Trail is a remarkable route with a rich history. It’s about as challenging as anything actually called a trail can come. The challenge can vary quite a bit with the conditions, but that variability is itself part of the challenge. Part of me wishes I had had clear blue skies and dry trails, but part of me is glad I had an “authentic” Long Trail experience. If conditions had been different I’m not sure if I could have gone under 4 days or not. Maybe I would have overheated, or sprained an ankle getting overzealous on a descent, or just got worn out faster by there being less “cushion” in the trail. A big part of the fun in these things is how complex they are and how many unknowns exist: it’s impossible to ever know a specific outcome. I do know that sub 4 days is possible, and I hope this has convinced others of that as well, including whoever that person is who will eagerly take up that challenge and get it done.

I also know that my feet have never hurt this bad after something like this. The swelling has mostly subsided, but the throbbing and the random spikes of pain that wake me up in the middle of the night have continued on through day 5 of recovery. Bring more big shoes. 😊