FKT: Nicholas DiPirro - Rivanna Trail (VA) - 2020-06-14

Route variation
double loop
Gender category
Start date
Finish date
Total time
5h 46m 23s
GPS track(s)

“It’s for my health,” I say to my wife on a Sunday afternoon as I stand in the kitchen holding a beer and shoving as many Doritos into my mouth as I can. “I need to do a replenishment. Salts. Carbos. You know.” Henry, now 22 months old, is in the other room moving half-filled paint cans from one side of the room to the other and back again with great intensity and chatter only taking breaks to hammer on the lids of the paint cans with a large rubber mallet before he returns to moving the cans back and forth and back. If he doesn’t do it, it doesn’t get done.

Although absurdity is held in high esteem in our household, this hasn’t exactly been my typical Sunday. To explain why requires that I back up to the previous evening when I was explaining with my usual charisma (read: awkwardness) to two police officers why I was hiding cans of ginger ale in the woods at 8:30pm. “This trail, the Rivanna Trail, it goes around the whole city. It’s, like, 20 miles. Tomorrow morning I’m going to try to run around it two times in a row as fast as I can and hopefully faster than anyone else ever has. So, I’m hiding cans of soda that I’ll stop and drink along the way. Then, when I’m done, I’ll come back and pick up all the empties.” Long, dubious pause. “Good luck with that.”

Depending on the audience, this explanation either totally suffices or completely confounds so I’ll back it up a bit further for full context.

The Rivanna Trail (RT) is a trail that circumnavigates the city of Charlottesville, VA. As an urban trail, the exact route the trail takes and therefore the distance it covers changes from year to year due to reroutes in response to anything from trail upgrades to access having been restricted by private landowners. When Neal Gorman set the men’s single loop RT FKT in 2012 his GPS data showed about 18.4 miles. When Ryan Paavola and I came up about 2 minutes shy of Neal’s single loop RT FKT in 2015 our GPS data showed about 18.7 miles. When Sophie Speidel set the women’s single loop RT FKT in 2019, her GPS data showed about 20 miles. Data from my double loop RT FKT in late spring 2020 shows about 20.4 miles per loop. There is a local urban legend (that I am starting right now) that the Rivanna Trail is able to grow longer each year by consuming the suffering of the runners that traverse it. As a result, the trail is likely now 25 miles long thanks to my double loop RT FKT effort.

I moved to Charlottesville in the summer of 2012 and quickly developed an affinity for the local mountains and the ease with which you could find steep trails close to town. Having become an avid mountain runner and lover of vert, I was critical of the RT for being too flat and having its flow disrupted too frequently by street crossings or paved sections. Actually, I should rephrase that. As a young to mid-20’s dude with the luxury of spending a ton of time being self-indulgent and playing in the mountains with my dog, I was annoyingly snobby about the RT. Fast forward a few years, promotions, a marriage, an almost two year old with another imminently due, and an online MBA program. The end result has been a significant reevaluation of my priorities and the way I spend my time. The time I have available to run typically limits me to staying within city limits and starting between 4:30am and 5:30am. I have become extremely grateful for the opportunities an urban trail like the RT has provided me to continue to engage with an activity I love. Combine the pandemic related cancellation of the many races I was planning to run with the financial and operational impact of the pandemic on my work which has resulted in increased hours, not to mention stress, and you could say I was starting to feel like I could benefit from the planning, training, and effort required of a solo adventure. My new found love affair with the RT provided a logistically accessible opportunity.

Having had a busy, difficult, and unmotivated few months in the spring, I knew that a single loop RT FKT was out of my fitness range any time soon. Following my last race, Holiday Lake, my weekly training volume had stagnated below what I would even consider “maintaining fitness.” I put up nine lackluster weeks of 0, 46, 35, 29, 35, 31, 48, 56, and 55 miles after Holiday Lake. I knew that if I wanted to do something adventurous I needed to get back into training. I also knew I would only have a couple months to do so since it would be extremely advantageous to execute my goal before the summer got too swampy. I thought I could probably get myself in shape enough to suffer through a longer effort but I didn’t think that getting fit enough to run truly fast was likely to happen in such a short period of time. Thus, the double loop RTF FKT idea was born. I knew that after 9 weeks of stagnation I’d need to be smart about cramming in training so as not to get injured. I thought coupling a week of pushing and a week of cutting back while progressively increasing the load of the push and the recovery might allow me to achieve my goals. I put together 7 weeks of increasing effort at 80, 42, 88, 95, 63, 91, and 101 miles leading up to my effort. I made a point to familiarize myself with all of the different sections of the RT during these 7 weeks.

While I was trying to get back in shape I took the time to reach out to Sophie and Neal about their FKTs to get advice on route selection or other tips for my own effort. They were both kind and thoughtful in their responses which should come as no surprise to anyone. I also tried to discover anyone else who had actually run a double RT before. I had not been able to come up with anything until a post on the Charlottesville Area Trail Runner’s page answered my question for me and reminded me that sometimes the easiest way to answer a question is to ask other people if they know the answer. Only a few folks were known to have completed a double and the fastest known time was Rick Kwiatkowski’s at 9:03:59 in 2006. I had all the information I thought I needed to plan my attempt.

When it came to route selection I wanted to apply a few rules of logic and try to generally stick to those. The first rule of logic was that I would try to run the trail generally as posted on the RT website and to follow green RT signs rather than brown RT signs which generally indicate spurs. However, I knew I would have to make decisions where the text guide to the trail and the map of the trail did not coincide with one another. The second rule of logic was that I wanted to try to be respectful of not taking a route that violated restrictions for passage on privately owned property or that was considered illegal. This ruled out passing through the culvert or over the tracks in the Greenbrier section of town. I violated this second rule in one place and did so intentionally. I crossed the train tracks at 250. To me, that crossing is just part of the RT. There are plenty of decisions to be made about what does or doesn’t count as the official RT loop and those decisions change every time the trail changes. I made this decision. I’m comfortable with it and the potential for criticism. The third rule of logic was that I wanted to use trail whenever trail was an option as long as that did not violate the first rule of logic. This resulted in navigating the CHS neighborhood section of the RT by following Kenwood to the end of the road to pick the trail back up there which is consistent with the RT map online and resulted in using trail instead of road. The alternative would have been to follow the longer road directions posted on the RT website’s text guide to the trail which has you staying on roads longer until you get back on the trail a bit farther west. This third rule of logic also resulted in me following the “wet” route (trail with water crossing) from route 20 to Riverview instead of the “dry” route (roads). The website indicated that both options were available and I knew of no legal restrictions to the “wet” route. I would like to avoid being dogmatic about how others choose to engage with RTF record setting attempts but I would suggest that following this third rule, to use trail instead of pavement if trail is available and not illegal to access, be incorporated. It is a trail record after all. In terms of start/finish area, I selected Riverview since it is a park with no locking gate and I think it is fun to use the crosswalk there as an official start/turnaround/finish line. It’s also a safe place to ditch your car for hours and use it as an aid station.

Regarding route selection and in the interest of being transparent, prior to coming up with my rules of logic I had strongly considered passing through the culvert under the railroad tracks in Greenbrier. One of the reasons I had considered this method was that the trail could go back through there someday so I didn’t want to set a longer FKT that could easily be beaten when the trail became shorter again. Sophie expressed that she felt the trail was unlikely to go that way again and that the new reroute towards CHS would stick. I considered the feedback and I ultimately agreed with it. This passage has been closed and considered illegal for at least the 8 years I have lived here. We could be wrong, of course, but if it reopens and the trail goes back that way again, great. Then I can always go back out and reset the FKT quite a bit faster without working any harder! Sophie also suggested considering whether to take both loops of my effort in the same direction, which had been my original plan, or switch directions after one loop. I liked the idea of switching directions and incorporated this idea, too. I thought it would be cool if multi-loop efforts increased in popularity within our community and I thought that changing directions after each loop offered a unique and engaging challenge. Having run the loop both ways now, I can say that it is a different experience depending on the direction you are taking and it is definitely worth exploring both experiences.

When it came to planning my execution in terms of aid I naturally gravitated towards whatever option allowed me to execute my effort whenever the timing seemed right and would not require me to rely on coordinating support from others. Frankly, I am bad at asking for or taking help. I just won’t do it and when I do have to do it I hate it. It’s dysfunctional, I know. I’m working on it. My lovely wife offered many times to be my crew and is always there to support me in races but I wanted to start early in the morning and I wanted her and baby Henry to be able to sleep until a reasonable hour. I had also become somewhat fixed on this being an effort spent in solitude. I had planned to start from Riverview so I knew I could use my car as aid at the halfway point. I initially planned to carry everything else I needed for a single loop in a race vest and simply replenish the contents at my car at the halfway mark. I planned to do so for several weeks. Then, I bailed on the vest plan. I hate running in a vest and for a solo effort like this one where the risk of sabotaging myself was quite high I wanted to mitigate the risk of internal whining about a variable that I didn’t necessarily need to include. I like to run free and fast without carrying anything at all and if I have to carry something I’d rather it just be a handheld. So, the plan changed. I would carry just a handheld and stash some calories around town. I looked at GPS data for the trail and thought if I dropped aid in 4 spots about 3-5 miles apart I could have 5 sources of aid when I included my car at Riverview. Perfect.

When it came to picking a day to pursue my goal I figured I’d just be an opportunist. I knew I needed enough time to train that by the time I was satisfied with my training Charlottesville would have entered a hotter, more humid time of year. Therefore, I decided I would watch the weather and pick a weekend day where the weather looked in my favor. I scanned the ten day forecast almost every day until I saw that it was supposed to be cool on the morning of Sunday 6/14/20. The date was set and I focused on resting for the few days until then.

This brings us to Saturday night 6/13/20 around 8:30pm when I was making a fool of myself in front of the two police officers. I had wanted to drop aid earlier in the evening so that I could relax before an early bedtime but I have needed to stay late at work a lot recently and it resulted in a backlog of imminently due school work that I spent the majority of Saturday working on ferociously. I didn’t even realize how late it was. I grabbed the supplies I needed, really just cans of ginger ale and mason jars of water, and headed out to drop them. I planned to drop two cans of ginger ale, one for each loop, and one mason jar of water at each drop site. Drop 1 was planned for 3.8 miles into loop one where the trail pops out onto Melbourne and you head towards John Warner Parkway. Drop 1 was uneventful. Drop 2 was supposed to be another 4.2 or so miles away where the trail picks up from Earhart just west of the Bodo’s on N29. Unfortunately, I couldn’t access this drop. The roads were closed, blocked off by a number of police officers for the rally at JPJ. I had to think quickly about repositioning Drop 2 and the subsequent drops in response to the street closures since there would be no additional opportunity to make the drops before I started my run the following morning. I ended up settling on Drop 2 being where the trail picks up from 250 heading south towards O-Hill about 6.5 miles from my Drop 1. I pulled into the small drive by the 250 trail head and found myself parked next to two police cruisers monitoring the area for the rally. I got out of my car to questioning eyes. I waved awkwardly, walked around my car, grabbed my cans of ginger ale and mason jar of water, looked suspiciously over my shoulder to confirm that I was still being watched, and wandered into the darkness beyond the trail head. I quickly found a nice spot to hide my drop and returned to my car clearly having relieved myself of my goods but not of the scrutinizing looks which ultimately led to the interaction in the second paragraph. I moved on to Drop 3 which I decided would be at Jordan Park another 6.9 miles from Drop 2 all the while wondering whether all of my drops would still be there in the morning.

I announced my intention to pursue the double loop RT FKT via the CATs Facebook page when I returned home and then I tried to relax. I never really did get relaxed. Stress, I guess. I knew I’d still have some school work to finish after my run in the morning and prior to plans we had with friends that afternoon. I scrounged together about 4 hours of sleep and professed my love to my coffee in the morning. I don’t eat before I run so there wasn’t much else to do. My wife surprised me by popping out of bed to wish me luck and send me off with love. She’s great that way. I was able to arrive at Riverview ready to go at just about 5:25am. I composed myself and started my first loop at 5:33am from the crosswalk at Riverview Park heading counterclockwise. I thought that since I was doing this solo I would try to use my phone to videotape myself with my watch data visible when I started, when I came to the halfway point, and when I finished. I didn’t think to include my face in the videos but I have rather distinctive tattoos so there is no denying it is my arm to which the watch in the video is strapped. I would run with my GPS watch for data supporting the specifics of the run itself and hope that the combination of the videos and GPS data would suffice as evidence. The videos, I’m sure, are terrible. I’m not currently planning to watch them myself.

The morning was as cool as I could have hoped it would be and my legs were fresh enough. As a result, the early miles passed physically easily but I found myself quickly absorbed by a decades’ long mental battle. I have run for a lot of reasons in my life, both constructive and destructive, and few of those reasons have been of the sound bite quality one might like to be able to offer up when asked why they run or what they think about when they run. I have run for fun, for celebration, for love, for adventure, for stress relief, for self-improvement, for competition, for quietude, for purpose, for self-reflection, to explore the way I process and respond to information or situations, and for the simple joy of moving my body through space in a beautiful place. I have also run to punish myself, to escape, to pursue and achieve hollow measures of self-worth to compensate for the absence of authentic self-worth, to flee the black dog that long haunted my dreams, and, at times, to kill myself without the finality. I have run because I have needed to run. Do not feel sorry for me or worry about my safety. I have been extraordinarily fortunate over the past few years to have found myself moving solidly from the destructive to the constructive. I have taken time off of racing, done a lot of personal work, and been lucky enough to benefit from all of the graces experienced when finding your person and starting a family with a partner who is also your best friend and who understands you completely even when you struggle to express yourself. The net result is that the purpose driving me to do anything that I might do has fundamentally changed and the changing of that purpose has completely changed the experience of doing and being. I need only to reflect on the warm smile of my wife or the tender preciousness of my son to disengage from any backsliding and pursue my tasks with higher purpose and gratefulness. The difficulty, though, is that dysfunctional cognitive habits don’t just disappear. They can be modified and managed with awareness, effort, and consistency but the black dog cannot be laid to rest. He stalks me on the trail and in the office. He stalks me everywhere. He hides just out of sight, always looking for his opportunity to strike. As someone who likes to be able to clearly articulate my goals and motivations, I was surprised that going into this FKT attempt I had not really explored my motivations. In retrospect, I suspect I wanted to see the black dog again and face him. Why? I’m not sure but perhaps there is some inherent value in not allowing oneself to become complacent in the absence of your enemy. I know going into any long run or any exceptionally hard physical effort that spending several hours alone pushing my physical limits is likely to excavate some things but, again, I think that’s what I wanted. Regardless, it’s definitely what I got.

A motif of self-inflicted malevolence with which I have intimate familiarity is that, “I am not, I have never been, and I will never be good enough.” “For what or for whom?” is seldom included in the assault because irrationalities do not make time for clarifications. Although, if I am being honest with myself, the question is technically “for whom?” and the answer is “me.” This approximately sets the stage for miles 3 through 15. I spent an enormous amount of time outlining with painstaking detail why I would not accomplish my goal, why I was not good enough to accomplish my goal, and why I should generally stop trying to accomplish lofty goals. Honestly, my arguments were sound. I think at one point I was even trying to calculate the difference in the nominal and effective rates of depreciation my body was likely to experience now that I only had calories stashed at 3 drop sites versus what those rates would have been for the originally intended 4 drop sites. I just wished I had access to excel so I could sort it all out. I’m only partially joking here but I am trying to be funny. I am being funny. Please laugh. The specifics are sort of unimportant, as they often are and as is often the case with the irrational. The truth is just that it was hard. I made it hard because I was letting the black dog chase me. I decided to take a step back and focus on my physical experiences since I knew I’d need my wits about me to navigate the section of trail between route 20 and Riverview which is often technical and which is extremely overgrown this time of year. I realized that physically I felt quite good. Better, really, than I’d hoped on such limited training and no runs longer than 20 miles. I thought about how right now baby Henry would be doing his morning stomp around the house making his day specific and ever varying demands for snacks. I thought about how he probably came to my room to yell “dada!” and look around for me the way he does every day whether I’m there sleeping or out on a run. I thought about how I would pick him up when I got home and he’d give me a sweet, gross, too wet kiss. I thought about how he generally smells like fruit snacks. I thought about how much I love him and that for him I am more than just good enough, I am “dada!” And so it was that I arrived with levity at the turnaround point at Riverview in 2:41:52 and proceeded to spend way too much time (3:25) feeling warm and fuzzy while I drank a coke and looked at the pictures Zoë had texted me of their wake up cuddles. I thought maybe the next 20 miles would turn out to be less eventful than the first 20 miles and headed back out for loop two in the opposite, clockwise direction.

The black dog invariably came back maybe two or three miles later. I knew I was intentionally deceiving myself when I was pretending there was some chance he might not. This time I decided to chase him. I knew I was playing a dangerous game in terms of taking the governor off of my effort level. Normally, in a race, I take great pride in being disciplined about running at a consistent and appropriate effort level despite what other lead pack runners are doing around me which allows me to be able to run my fastest possible time including having a strong kick to the finish and leaving nothing in the tank. I’m always trying to hit the upper threshold of that effort level, though, so I don’t get it right 100% of the time but I’ve become pretty good at it. However, this wasn’t a race and I kind of wanted to play it risky. Sometimes a gamble pays off on a perfect day, I thought, and I wasn’t running a race anyways so who cares if it backfires? The chase proved fruitful and sort of fun. I spent the time dismantling some of the more persuasive arguments I had made during my first loop. I thought a lot about where I am, where I’ve been, and where I’d like to be. I laughed at the irony of pondering such notions while quite literally running in circles which led to thinking about how you can go such a long way to find yourself exactly where you’ve always been and always should be. My chase and my fun came at a cost, though, which was always the more likely outcome of my gamble so I was not particularly surprised or upset about it. I wasn’t really fit enough to gamble on a potentially perfect day and I knew that. My effort level during this time had only been maybe 3-5% more than I could sustain but that elevation in heart rate was enough to translate to a bad stomach a bit after mile 30. It came and “passed” and came and “passed.” It sapped my energy and generally made the closing miles slower and more difficult than I’d hoped they would be. However, I was able to keep my eyes on the prize which was to get back to Riverview so that I could go home to hug my wife and my son. I was thrilled to reach the last two miles of pavement heading south towards Riverview. The pavement hurt. I pushed but I had no kick. I wanted to walk but I didn’t. I wanted to slow down but I didn’t. I wanted to tell myself I wasn’t good enough but I didn’t. I simply suffered quietly and steadily through the crosswalk finish line, stopped my watch at 5:46:23, and had a good, long sit.

It was a good, long run.