FKT: Zachary Lever - North/South Trail (TN, KY) - 2021-10-31

Route variation
Standard route
Gender category
Start date
Finish date
Total time
13h 39m 22s
GPS track(s)

Running in Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area for me started about three years ago and became my "go-to" spot on days off and weekends to get my trail running in. The idea to eventually run the entire 59 mile North/South trail quickly became a goal. Setting the mark for the Fastest Known time (FKT) unsupported upped the ante for me significantly. Doing it unsupported was the way I preferred to attempt the trail as I believe it offered more challenges to plan for, train for and execute flawlessly on game day. I am also bad at asking for help (crew support) and the thought of having a support crew out there in "no mans" land didn't appeal to me (especially if that crew is my sweet  wife). Over time I would eventually end up doing the entire trail in sections, anywhere from 5-20 miles each session. I would make notes and go over them frequently. Water was always my biggest concern. I realized quickly that to do this thing unsupported I would need to find water sources even if the source of water was located significantly off the trail. Eventually I had found what I thought was a sufficient amount of water sources. Note*Because of all the rain the previous few days prior to my FKT attempt it turns out I had more than enough water sources directly on the trail or just off of it. Doing this attempt in the summer would have made it multiple times more difficult. I chose Fall and it worked out great. When Lofton Rowley set the initial FKT time unsupported on October 24, 2021 I was out there actually reconning for the final time! I actually think I saw Lofton Rowley crossing the Trace highway around noonish moving from the south and heading north. (Trace highway is the main paved road that goes through the entire LBL area North/South). 

My initial plan was to make the FKT attempt on my 49th birthday on October 29th, 2021. Weather was rainy all day on Friday and most of the next day Saturday. I was worried the 31st on Sunday may be too wet. We drove through the Trace on Saturday and had a fabulous dinner with my family at Patties Settlement in Grand Rivers. Just 6 miles or so North of the North Welcome Center. It was still wet that Saturday evening but I was committed. It was full-go regardless of how wet the trail would stay overnight. My mind was made up. I posted my intentions on the FKT website and was asleep by 2115. I awoke at 0345. My dear fabulous wife Traci woke up and we drove to the South Welcome center. A few minutes prior to 0500 we hugged and kissed goodbye, snapped a few photos and I was off. Of course she was worried, it was all over her face. I told her I would be halfway at Golden Pond between 1100 and 1300 and would turn my phone on and call/text her with an update. There is no cell service until you reach halfway anyways so leaving phone on would cause it to quickly lose battery by searching for signal nonstop. I told her if I hadn't updated her by 1400 something was wrong. I was either injured, lost or shot by a hunter. Hunters were parked all over the main Trace highway this time of year but are not supposed to hunt within 150 meters of the trail but I didn't trust that. I have seen several hunters previously inside that 150 meter mark. So I wore bright clothing and an orange reflective hat. I also would make lots of noise when going through clearings and such. Several loud "whoop-whoops" to let someone know I was not a damn deer or animal coming through so please don't shoot on sound versus sight. 

After the hug and kiss goodbye from wife Traci I crossed the road from the South welcome sign and headed into the forest. Interestingly enough the first 1-2 miles from the South may be the most terrain gain in one mile for the entire 59 mile section. It feels like it anyways, so I knew I had to ease into it and ease into it was exactly what I did because I had no choice!! I had a SKUNK for a pacer. HA! As soon as I entered the woods this big skunk looked at me and then with a "lets go" kinda smirk he took off slowly running up the trail. It was surreal. I should have pulled out my phone and videoed it. I was like ok, lets go buddy lets do this because I am not going to pass you and be sprayed! So for a good quarter mile we ran together with the skunk about 10 meters ahead of me (like a man walking his dog) until he finally pulled off to the right and allowed me to pass. He just stood and watched me as I passed away from his sight. Maybe he was inclined to go a little further with me, but thought to himself, "nope, I have a family to look after and feed". It was a really neat few moments of real life joy between nature, the animal world and mankind.

The ground was damp and I was really hoping my HOKAs wouldn't become soaked and allow my socks to get wet, especially so early on. I knew I would get drenched feet from the "wrangler" section of nine miles that starts around mile 18 until mile 27. This is a horse shared section famous for a lot of horse traffic that fills up the trail with deep rooted hoof holes, horse shit and one big soupy mess for nine miles. But its fun! Part of the experience and mental tests this FKT requires. In a strange way I am glad this portion is on the course because it's a challenge added to the mix that we all have to get through and face head on. I carried 4 water bottles right from the start (about 64 ounces) so felt good this would get me to about mile 15. At mile 7ish I ran by a hunters parked truck in the pitch dark, still slowly idling as he waited to head out to his "spot", wherever that may be. I doubt he saw me even with my torch (headlamp) on. The miles clicked by fairly quick as I averaged about a 10 minute-11 minute pace until mile 15 when I resupplied with water from a spring. This process of replenishing water takes time. Probably 7 minutes total it took to fill up the water bottle filter and then squeeze it all out into the other water bottles to purify it. I did this to all three bottles and moved out again simultaneously eating a payday bar and applesauce packet. These stops and challenges add to the time for sure and the reason why they are such a challenge. It's the reason why I like "unsupported" FKTs so much more. I was close to crossing the main Trace road that runs through the entire LBL section and did so at mile 17.2 or so. I felt delighted! Strong, confident and ready for the challenge of "wrangler" trail. Bring it on! 
One of the main reasons why I chose to start in the South is because I would go through wranglers trail with fresher legs than I would have versus starting from the north. I did not want to go through wranglers trail on trashed legs, as that would have made the remaining 20 miles a greater "sufferfest". Another advantage to traveling from the South is the North is much more pleasing to the eyes. Its better terrain, more open meadows, glimpses and close approaches to the Tennessee River etc. I wanted the last 30 miles to be this more pleasant backdrop versus the gloomy, dark eerie feeling the South brings to me and many others.

After slogging through the wranglers trail section and after missing a turn and doubling back (lost about .4 of a mile) I was through it and nearing Golden Pond! Of note is the missed turn. I have run this section multiple times and it's still very possible to miss a turn or a marker when your mind is wandering. I did this one more time later on around mile 40ish. That one would be more costly. Recoverable, but cost me more time and about .5 of a mile.
As I raced into Golden Pond onto the highway and under the overpass and back into the woods I turned my phone on and received many messages from my sweet wife Traci and daughters Katie and Allison! I was thrilled and ready to take on the final 30 miles or so. I did a Facebook live video and watching it now I was surely in a good "mental and physical" place.

My pace started to slow as expected and the challenge with the mind and body began," just get to 40 miles and you will be inside 20 miles", I said to myself. My mind escaped to the area and the people who once lived here. Before it became Land between the Lakes it was simply known as "tween the rivers". "It was an inland peninsula running north and south, bound by the Tennessee River on the west, the Cumberland River on the east and the mile wide Lower Ohio River across the north end. The place and its people were isolated; there were no bridges. In that strip of land, roughly 60 miles long from north to south and 10-15 miles across in most parts, there lived some exceptional people. From the time of the earliest settlers in the latter eighteenth century until they were progressively driven from their homes by the federal government in the 1940s, 50s and 60s to depopulate the area, those people had been independent and self-reliant. They were accustomed to hard work, hardship and deprivation, complaining to no one and expecting help from no one." But those people and their homes, farms, stores, churches and schools were all now gone and part of history" Excerpt above from the author Tom C. McKenny in his book "Jack Hinsons One Man War".

It was hard not to feel this vast history as I ticked off the miles. I could literally feel the history run through my entire body as my thoughts reverberated through me. Our bloody Civil War played out heavily in this part of the country and made a devastating, lasting impact on the people who lived here. About this time around mile 40 or so I made a wrong turn or missed a sign marker. I ran for about a quarter mile or more before I knew I had made a mistake. "No, No!" and several four-letter words I screamed.  I turned around running with more sense of urgency and to find the path again. Going all the way back to the point you left the trail is always the worst and filled with anxiety. How far am I off?! Where did the trail go?! If you know what i mean--you know. Thankfully this only happened twice and probably accounts for about an extra .80 of a mile ran. It happens to all of us, even to myself who has run these sections several times.

The more scenic backdrop of the north section helped, but I had slowed considerably. Average pace was climbing but I was able to maintain a constant steady push. The more frequent water stops to fill up after filtering and frequent urinating was having a toll on pace. I stopped very rarely on this FKT, albeit to take quick pics with my Iphone and that was all. I knew I was well on pace for a new FKT time. I had a lot of time in the bank for that but I wanted to make my goal time of between 13 and 15 hours. As I slowly crept under 10 miles to go and with 6.4 miles to go I turned on my phone and got a bit emotional reading a text from my awesome son Zachary, "Keep pushing pops you're killing it". If you knew the troubling week we both had prior you would know how much that meant to get this message! Zachary and I are so very close but we had a very rare tough week last week that shook all of us. Struggling through a few tears I powered on with renewed energy and will to finish this great project! With about 3 miles to go complete darkness engulfed the forest and I had just a little bit of light left from my headlamp. This quickly ended and my light went out with about 2 miles to go. Lesson learned! Bring a backup or better yet a better headlamp! I cautiously clawed my way through the last 2 miles scared as hell I would miss a sign or marker from the darkness and I almost did several times. Thank Goodness for the triangular white reflective markers they have littered throughout the trail. With about a half mile to go I made it to where the North/South trail joins with the Canal Loop Trail. Canal loop trail is a ten mile fast loop in the most northern portion of LBL. It's an FKT in fact that I initially established back in the heat of this last summer. An FKT the faster and younger men have now taken ownership of. I am confident this 59 mile unsupported effort will give them something harder and more challenging to overcome! To come out of the woods and see the North Welcome sign and finish this project was a tremendous feeling of accomplishment. I have run several 100+ milers but this is the athletic performance that gives me the most satisfaction. It's all the time and energy put into it prior that makes it all feel that much better! Love you all! Zack