FKT: John Ruemker - American Tobacco Trail (NC) - 2023-03-06

Route variation
out & back
Gender category
Start date
Finish date
Total time
7h 4m 40s
GPS track(s)

The American Tobacco Trail has played a major part in my running career, being the site of many challenges and achievements for me, so when I started considering putting down a long, fast run as a confidence-booster in my early ultra training schedule this year, the ATT was an obvious choice. I started looking into what the current FKTs are and discovered the unsupported male out-and-back record had yet to be claimed, so that sealed the deal. Snagging my first FKT on such an iconic trail for the NC triangle region would definitely be the kind of confidence booster I was after.

I chose a run date in late winter when the weather would be favorable and my body would be re-primed from early training blocks after the off-season to endure long hours on my feet. I scheduled the run to follow my normal recovery week with only moderate training volume, and took it extra easy for a few days before. On Monday morning, I reached the trail just after sunrise fully loaded with plenty of fuel and as much fluids as I could carry, given that I knew it'd get sunny and possibly warm in the late hours. The morning started at a beautiful and crisp low 40s℉ - a perfect day for a big performance, or so I thought.

The plan was to warm up at 8:15/mi for 10 miles then try to hold 8/mi through 50k and hope for some speedy magic in the last half-marathon. Those early 10 miles felt really good and flew by. My watch pace was not super helpful as a guide since the tree canopy makes GPS coverage inconsistent on the trail, but I held a steady effort and felt really in control with no bodily concerns, and pace worked out close to where I wanted to be over that early stretch. I got myself in a good rhythm with fueling and hydration from the start and was able to follow a good schedule of keeping up with it most of the way.

Because it is winter, all of the drinking fountains along the ATT are turned off, but I knew from runs in the weeks leading up that there was water available from the sink in the bathroom on the trail at Herndon Park that I would pass at 10mi and 34mi. That's still a big waterless gap - especially for this heavy-sweater - so I brought a lot of capacity filled to the brim from the start, and then refilled to the max both times I passed here. I had 121oz capacity, starting with a mix of plain water, skratch hydration, skratch superfuel, and pespi. I only needed to top off a little bit the first time I passed Herndon, but I drank all that I had on the way back to here at 34mi, and then nearly used that full amount again before the end between drinking and dousing myself.

After that few minutes stop to fill up at mile 10, I kept it moving steadily all the way to the other end of the trail, although not quite as fast as I had hoped. My pace hadn't climbed as I'd planned, instead hanging around 8:30/mi, but I was fine with it since my perceived effort and heart rate were at the right sustainable level in mid to high zone 2 so I concluded my targets just weren't realistic for that day. By the time I reached the 22mi turnaround in a time of 3hr10min, I was starting to really feel the heat. The idea of negative splits was feeling not so likely, and since I knew I didn't have to beat any particular time to get the unclaimed unsupported FKT, I let go of the plan to crank up the intensity so I wouldn't risk blowing up too early and having to get a ride or walk, and instead just kept my effort steady which meant a slightly declining pace over time.

I crossed the 50k mark in PR time at 4hr35min, which gave me a nice boost in confirming I was indeed running really well for my standards. However here I was starting to dread how much distance I had left. The sun was now directly over the trail, blasting my neck from where the trees could offer no protection, and the temperature was into the 70s℉. In those final few miles before hitting the water resupply I was sipping the last of what I had left, and finally I was left with only the thick, not-very-satisfying skratch superfuel. But I finally got there and filled my belly and doused my head with sweet sweet H2O, and then had enough available in the remaining miles to keep my head buff and arm sleeves wet which was a nice relief. But it was still very hot!

I had been counting down miles until that water stop, and now that I'd passed it, the only milestones left to look forward to on the journey were the not-so-fun uphill at Southpoint Mall and the finish line 10 miles away. That realization took the wind out of my sails. I kept putting one foot in front of the other for another hour, but slower and slower with each mile. I took comfort in knowing that nothing was going to stop me at this point, but those hot sloggy miles on pavement were punishing.  With 3 miles left to go, I had to start taking a lot of walk breaks, but I was able to keep them short before getting going again. The ATT tortures runners with mileage signs every 0.25 miles, and the time between each sign was feeling like an unbearable eternity. At 2 miles left, I switched to run .5mi / walk 2 minutes, and that was relieving. At 1 mile left I was reduced to run 2 minutes / walk 1 minute, but I was still inching closer to the finish line. Slooowwwwllllyyyyy and surely those quarter miles ticked away.

At long last, I came over the bridge that reveals the Durham skyline. It was time for my next walk interval but I said nuts to that and "ran" (probably more like hobbled) my way to the finish line! Only a few other walkers were out here on the trail at this time on a Monday afternoon, and they were lucky enough to witness this sweaty, red-faced, crazy man in a vest having his own little party on the sidewalk under the Durham Freeway celebrating what a beast ultra runner he is. It felt good! My car was a mile away so the elation faded fast, but I'm still riding high knowing I conquered this awesome challenge. 

Throughout the run I consumed 2342 calories (335/hour): 8 huma gels (800cal), 4 servings skratch hydration (320cal), 1.4 servings skratch superfuel (572cal), 2 slices quesadilla (140cal), 2 servings mashed potatoes (300cal), and 17oz pepsi caffeine free (210cal). All carried in my Solomon ADV Skin 5 vest.

I know I could run this faster if I didn't have to carry so much water, which will be an option just a few weeks later in the year when the fountains are back on, but then again its only getting hotter every day, so there's the tradeoff. It would be fun to take another crack at this and get closer to the 6 hour time I feel like I have in me, but until then, this feels like a great achievement. I encourage anyone else to go for it too. You can do it!