LBL North/South Trail Fastest Known Time (Female, Supported)
Land Between the Lakes (LBL) National Recreation Area is the largest inland peninsula in the country. The 170,000 mostly forested acres offer plenty of recreation opportunities (LandBetweentheLakesVisitorInformationandMap2022). One of these is an almost 60-mile trail that joins the South Welcome Station with the North Welcome Station. I have wanted to run the entirety of the North/South Trail since I had run a portion during the 2020 COVID lockdown. Because all races were cancelled, a group of friends planned a 50-miler out-and-back on the northern portion of the trail. It was a great day, and I put running the complete trail on my bucket list.
Jump to four weeks ago, and I was looking for an endurance project to test my current fitness. I wanted something around 50 miles and relatively close to home to limit travel. I jumped on fastestknowntime.com to see what the current records were for the trail. The trail is difficult to complete in an unsupported fashion because of limited water resources on the southern half. I didn’t have much time to plan or scout for water resources, so I decided to focus on the supported FKT. The current women’s supported FKT was 20h 26m 23s. That was the time to beat. This project was complicated by tornado damage left from the December 2021 tornados that left portions of the trail impassable. There is a southern reroute and a northern reroute. I contacted the Forest Service and they did not have an estimate for when the trail would be passable in its original form. I contacted the folks at fastestknowntime.com and asked if I could complete the FKT as a variation of the original route and received the go-ahead.
I studied the maps of the trail, and two weeks before the FKT attempt, I ran the southern portion (South Welcome Station to Golden Pond Visitor’s Center). It came up to 27.48 miles and 2,713 ft of gain, but this included two wrong turns and corrections. I studied the mistakes in hopes to avoid making them again. The week before the attempt, I ran the northern half (Golden Pond Visitor’s Center to the North Welcome Station, 29.27 miles, 2,664ft of gain). I had seen the entire trail, and it was time to put it all together, which should come out to around 56 miles and a bit over 5,000ft of gain. I took it easy the week of the FKT and let my legs get a bit of rest.
On Monday, February 9th, 2023, I headed to LBL. My strength trainer volunteered to crew for me, so we met, left my vehicle, and drove south on the peninsula. We saw more wildlife on the drive than I knew I would see on the run. The leaf litter is deep on most of the trail – this makes for very noisy running and poor wildlife viewing! We saw many deer, hawks, bison, a rabbit, a band of coyotes, and were even briefly escorted by a rafter of turkeys. At 7:30am, I began my run from the South Welcome Station sign. We snapped some photos at the start, and he followed behind me (beacon flashing on top of the vehicle!) until I turned off of the reroute and onto the trail. He would meet me every 5-8 miles on available forest service roads with water and food resupply for a total of eight aid stops over the course of the run.
It was a gorgeous day – mostly sunny with a nice breeze. The miles ticked off easily. The trails were a bit muddy from ice/snow melt, but not as bad as I had expected. The mud under the leaves made for a slip-n-slide in some areas, and about mile 13, I skidded for a few feet before coming to a rest on my knees in the mud. Soft whammy! I stood up and the mud caked on my knees looked like knee pads. I didn’t bother to try to wipe it off, maybe I’d need those knee pads again! The trail weaves up and down hills, through dry creek beds of gorgeous rock, over fun bridges in various states of repair (or disrepair!), through fields, on runnable forest roads, and by old homesteads. Although there are no awe-inspiring views on the southern section, it is a pleasant trail. Despite recent rains, I was surprised to see almost every creek bed devoid of water. This would be a tough unsupported journey if I ever attempted it.
My first three aid stops were at miles 9.6, 14.7, and 21.4. They went smoothly. I exchanged drained flasks for full flasks (Tailwind and water), leaving each aid carrying 800mL of fluids. I was eating Honey Stinger waffles, chews, SportBeans, or peanut butter balls while running. At aid stops, I ate bites of banana, boiled egg, cooked oatmeal, or sweet potato.
Between miles 18 and 25, the trail was damaged due to equestrian traffic, and this was a difficult section. My shoes sank deeply into the slippery mud, and my ankles twisted over the horse hoof prints. I felt like my energy had been zapped as I approached Golden Pond. I was too tired for not being even halfway finished. My left IT band was extremely tight and yelling at me with every step. But all things considered at this point, I was in good shape. It had been a beautiful morning on the trail. I hadn’t made any wrong turns and my only fall had been a soft one.
I made it to Golden Pond, mile 26.5, in less than five hours. I slathered my thigh in anti-inflammatory cream, and my trainer advised some stretches and rolled my thigh quickly. I was happy for a short road run to relax my legs a bit before hitting the trail again. I made my way back onto single track and cruised over a thick bed of pine needles knowing the toughest sections of trail were behind me. I saw the first lake views and was thankful to feel a bit more of a breeze near the water. Even though it was only in the low 60s, I was hot. I had been running in much lower temperatures. My sweat had soaked through my clothes. I started to get queasy. I took a salt tab. It seemed to settle things down a bit, but I didn’t feel like eating. I kept running.
I was surprised by splashes of yellow dotting the trail ahead – blooming daffodils! I noticed the flowers and the nearby foundation of an old homestead. On the North/South journey, there are many reminders of the people who lived here before the construction of dams to create Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake. I passed more than a dozen cemeteries on my run. I hoped the descendants of these people had found happiness wherever they put down new roots.
As I rounded a corner, I saw a mussel shell in the sand of the trail. It was as big as the palm of my hand. I picked it up and put it in my pack. Perhaps I would polish it as a memento of the run. I carried it until the finish. I was grateful to be able to embark on this adventure.
There are several field crossings on the trail, and I whooped and yelled “Not a deer! Not a pig! Not a squirrel! Just a badass human coming through!” to announce my presence to hunters. As the miles added up, the weight of my pack (even though it was only a bit over 5 pounds) took its toll. My muscles of inspiration were exhausted from breathing in against the weight. My announcement to hunters became strained, and I may have replaced the word “badass” with “crazy”.
As I became more fatigued, I walked moderate to steep inclines and ran the flats and gentle rollers. I was so sweaty. I wasn’t eating enough. I took another salt tab. At aid at mile 33, I was still a bit queasy. We figured out oatmeal seemed to work the best in that it settled my stomach a bit and provided good, slow-burning energy. I basically stopped eating during the stretches between aid. I drank tailwind between and ate oatmeal at aid stops. About mile 40, I started drinking a bit of Ale-8 (caffeinated ginger ale). This helped further calm my upset digestive system. I kept pushing forward. I watched the sunset – light pinks and purples decorated the sky. Twilight is the most difficult time to trail run. There isn’t enough light to see, but it’s not dark enough for a headlamp to provide much illumination. This is when I always see things that aren’t there: A shadow that looks like a coyote, a stump that looks like a pig, or a face in a tree. I turned on my headlamp and waist-light, hoping for no whammies. I kept running.
Through the darkness, I could see the flashing yellow beacon on the aid vehicle bouncing off trees as I got close. It was a welcomed sight. Aid at miles 47 and 52 was oatmeal and Ale-8, rolling of the IT band, and reminders that the finish was close. As I approached the northern tornado reroute, my view to the sky opened up. There were few trees left in the wake of the devastation, and the nearly full moon was illuminating the twisted remnants of the forest. These were some of the most eerie miles that I’d ever run. The reroute included a section of decomposing asphalt, flanked on both sides by tangled timber. I thought about the magnitude of loss from this tornado – so many lives. I pushed forward. I was grateful to be alive, thankful to be able to do something I love so much.
I realized I had a shot of making my “A” goal of sub-12 hours with about a mile left. I started to push a bit. Then I pushed a bit more. It was ~11:55:00. I couldn’t see the beacon yet, so I couldn’t see the finish. The trail underfoot was packed dirt. There were few roots, so I decided to floor it. I asked my legs to run up an incline and was surprised when they responded well. 11:57:00. I turned my lights on their highest setting and ran as fast as I could. I saw the beacon: 11:58:00. I still had to run up a short incline, take a left turn onto asphalt, run down and up a dip, across an entrance, over the curb, and into the grass to touch the sign. I started pumping my arms up the pine needle-covered hill. My breathing was loud huffs and puffs. I turned left. My breath made a white veil behind me in the night air. My shoes pounded the pavement, then crunched the grass as I leapt over the curb. I touched the sign and stopped my watch: 11:59:33. I had run from the South Welcome Station to the North Welcome Station in one of my favorite journeys and was able to set a new supported female FKT. I didn’t make any wrong turns, had only a soft whammy, tested my endurance, saw many beautiful sights, and enjoyed a sunny day and clear night in the forest. I had run 55.7 miles, climbed 5,354ft, burned 5,260 calories, and finished in 11h 59m 33s. Grateful is an understatement.