Three weeks ago, I set out on an audacious goal: setting an unsupported fastest known time (FKT) on the Massachusetts portion of the Appalachian Trail. Coronavirus has pushed us all to review and revise all our activities. We are fortunate that trail running has not been adversely affected by the pandemic. Still, most races have been cancelled and rightly so. On Saturday, 9/19, at around 7 AM, I set off north on the Appalachian Trail from the CT border with the goal of making it to the southern terminus of the Long Trail in VT. I believe Morgan Windram-Geddes started about 4 hours before me at the Vermont border heading south. Unlike her, my adventure ended in the town of Dalton on Sunday at 4 am, 61 miles later, wrapped in a space blanket under a starlit sky and shivering away. Kudos to Morgan for powering through. Sometimes when you push the limits, you will find them. I got behind on nutrition and left my down jacket at home to save some weight. Solo unsupported leaves very little room for error. I got a good dose of humble pie while I waited for a taxi to pick me up.... and I have unfinished business with the AT.
Fast forward to last weekend, I had recovered enough to think about taking another swing at it. I was conflicted and distracted because the Midstate Massive Ultra Trail 100 was taking place at the same time and a supported race held a great deal of appeal. So, I presented the options to my wife and kids since they would be involved in the logistics of pick up. My wife pointed out that this is what I’d been planning for all summer and my kids said I taught them not to give up. For me, it came down to:
A. When I look back on 2020 and COVID-19, am I going to remember another 100 mile race, or facing down the demons after a failed FKT attempt?
B. My body was well rested and my mind was still fresh on the weak points from my first attempt.
I made a couple of adjustments. Even though the weather forecast was a high of 75 and low of 45, in went the down puffy. That was a stupid omission the first time around. I also brought an even split of Untapped Waffles and Pro Bars, instead of relying exclusively on Pro Bars. Last time, I brought Just Egg burritos as a savory option and they were way too dry. Jason Koop has a nice rice ball recipe that I modified to make it vegan. I used stickier rice, folded in some scrambled Just Egg and sprinkled in nutritional yeast, vinegar, maple syrup, and liquid aminos to give it just enough kick of moisture and umami to make them appealing even at 3 in the morning. I brought enough Unived gels to tie me over in case none of the solid food was sitting. For an overnight caffeine boost, I brought two La Colombe lattes. I also planned to fill up at every stream to stay hydrated. On my last attempt, my legs started to fatigue about 30 miles in, so I opted to use my poles from the beginning.
And so it began. I parked at the lot for NW camp, checked my equipment and took one last bio break. There was a more business-like approach to this attempt; I felt a similar amount of stoke, but took fewer stops for pictures and was more on top of nutrition and hydration. With the temps in the mid-70s later in the day, my progress was slower than on my previous attempt. The main difference this time was I felt more consistent with my energy levels during daylight. Even when I hit the turnpike, which marked the halfway point, I wasn’t feeling much leg fatigue. I chalked it up to better strain management with my poles and adaptation from 60+ miles from three weeks ago. This gave me more confidence for the overnight portion.
I took a 10 minute aid station break to refuel, drink and repack for the evening. For me, the section from Beckett to Dalton is the crux of the route. The elevation gain is less compared to other sections, but it’s a lot of rollers and very rocky/rooty sections. The leaf fall from the last three weeks also made route finding more challenging and pace is generally slower at night. The evening is when things got interesting. My DNF from three weeks ago still weighed on my mind. My mantra for the evening was, “make it to sunrise.” By the time I hit the October Mountain Shelter, I was again struggling to stay awake. It was around 11 pm. At the shelter, there were two backpacks strung up, a set of poles leaning against a wall, camp stove, and no sign of a human….. eerie. This time around, I made a mindset shift and accepted power naps as part of the process. I planned to lay down for a 15 minute nap. 5 minutes in, I thought I heard a bear growl and thought maybe I was having an auditory hallucination. But then, I heard it again. I perked up and turned on my headlamp. I caught a glimpse of a white footed mouse scurrying about. Then, I saw the sign that said, “Warning, there has been bear activity reported at this shelter (Fall 2020). Please use the bear box. Problem bears will need to be put down.” With that, I packed up my gear and continued on. No sense in chancing a bear encounter, even a black bear. I never heard another bear, but also did not run across another person overnight, so the pair of backpacks at the shelter is still a mystery. I had two other comical animal encounters overnight. The first was a slow moving porcupine that refused to get off the trail who kept stopping to remind me that this was its territory. The second was a beaver that I spooked at Finerty Pond. It dove in the water and I followed it’s path with my headlamp, at which point I was greeted with a firm splash of water from it’s tail. I wish I could say the rest of the night went smoothly, but it was a true slog. My energy levels were fine, I was eating, drinking, and no GI issues. However, I was stopping about every hour to take a quick catnap. Each time, it would push back the Sandman, but then he would come back….”make it to sunrise.” The last climb before Dalton up Day Mountain almost broke me. Yet, I felt a certain amount of relief making it to Dalton. The down was dead asleep in the twilight. It was still cold, but nothing like the bone chilling cold I felt before. I found a sheltered park bench and passed out for my last 20 minute catnap. Then, it was rinse and repeat: refuel, rehydrate, and then stoke the fires with one of the lattes.
The Crystal Mountain stretch was like a dream. Predictably, as daylight unveiled, my energy levels perked up. I had the music cranking through my earbuds and for the first time all day, I knew I was going to finish. I could appreciate the fall colors for the first time since yesterday afternoon. I hit the outskirts of Cheshire at around 9AM. Signs of life were percolating around me and I was actually looking forward to the Greylock climb. I parked myself on a park bench to refuel before tacking on the long climb. I had scouted this section back in June and yet there were still sections that surprised me. The climb up the shoulder off the southern end was steeper than I remembered, and the long rolling section to the small pond was longer than I expected. The western forested section brought a welcome coolness to the day after I started feeling the heat in town. I made it to the tower atop Greylock just before noon and sat for about 5 minutes soaking in the eastern vistas and watching people enjoy a peak foliage day on top of the highest mountain in Massachusetts. Then, it was time to head for North Adams. It’s a 7 mile mostly downhill descent back to civilization and this was the first time all run that I started to feel the fatigue in my legs. There were some hikers coming the opposite direction, but it wasn’t nearly as crowded as I thought it would be. By now, barring any disasters, I was certain I was going to finish. I began texting my wife, Christina, with updates and pick-up directions. It took me about two hours to get down to the road and I got my first view of my last remaining nemesis…East Mountain. The AT had one last surprise left for me. I refueled and slugged down my last latte and crossed the Hoosic River. The first 2 miles of the climb were moderate in grade along a rushing mountain stream. Then I was hit with a half mile section of 30% grade over giant boulders. It was similar to the cruel joke RD will play on runners by throwing one last gut punch of a climb just before the finish. But by then, the anticipated of euphoria of finishing was carrying me through. The last two miles to the Vermont state line was filled with peace and solitude and yet there was nothing that prepared me for the elation I would feel when I finally reached the Long Trail signpost…. pure bliss. I soaked in the solitude for a good 10-15 minutes before returning back to the start. Mission accomplished. The best part was my family was waiting for me at Massachusetts Ave to whisk me back to my car.
I think I will have more to say as the experience sinks in, but for now the one thing that comes to mind is journey. There is nothing more gratifying, gut-wrenching, and growth inducing than the 100 mile journey. The experience was amplified because I was completely self reliant. There is something simple and spartan about moving across an entire state, through one of the most historic trails on earth, carrying everything you need.