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Long Trail FKT Trip Report

At the beginning of the year the Long Trail was merely a bullet point on a list of “Fastest Known Times” that I would potentially try to break. It was the item on the list I was the least familiar with. Its reputation for being rugged, intense, and possible to do unsupported had landed it within my tentative plan, but it barely garnered a thought until about a month before the attempt would take place. After completing the Arizona Trail FKT and gaining some experience in the heat and humidity of the Pinhoti Trail, the Long Trail moved to the top of my list.

I maintained a baseline level of fitness by running but would not move towards peaking for the attempt until I entered an extended period of hiking and running trail. I traveled down to California to train in the high sierra and push myself in the altitude along the John Muir Trail and many nearby and adjoining trails. Through three weeks I logged hundreds of miles through snow, above 10k’ and racking up thousands of feet in elevation. The trails and terrain were not directly comparable, but I tried to mimic exertion level in spurts and prepare my body for day after day pushes with a heavy pack. It was a very flexible training style full of volume in a non-rigid format. Some days were long and difficult, while other days were much easier. It was all about getting a base that I was comfortable with in going into a trail I knew little about. 

I flew out to Burlington from Los Angeles but had multiple problems with the trip. From the start my plane was delayed many hours and I was stuck overnight in the LA airport. I couldn’t sleep and after two missed connections I arrived in Burlington as a shell of myself. I stayed with Mcgoober and Cyclops (trail names) and got one good night of rest, sorted out my food and was about as ready as I would ever be when they dropped me off at Journeys End trailhead. I walked to the shelter, and then on to the monument to make sure I had this bit figured out before my start the next morning. I sat at the beginning of the trail and visualized what the next morning would be like. Once I left the Canadian border there would be no looking back and the giant push would begin. I returned to the shelter and shut the door, blocking out all the light to go to bed at 6pm. 

Day 1 – 48 miles

I was up at 5am but considered trying to sleep longer. The clock hadn’t started yet, and I knew I could try to build up a bit more rest before it all began, but I was too ready. I unpacked everything, and then repacked, making sure each item was exactly where I wanted it and then casually strolled, exerting myself as little as possible to the terminus. I was planning on a 6am start. 

I had my photos and I couldn’t wait any longer, so I took my first steps at 5:59am. The time had started and the push began. I had so much adrenaline that I moved with reckless abandon. The trail didn’t seem as hard as people had inferred. I was navigating hills, mud, rocks, and obstacles with relative ease. I passed hikers at shelters with only a quick nod, intent on continuing to push. I was over Jay Peak by 10 am and still feeling amazing. My legs were firing on all cylinders and I was trotting the downs and slowly jogging the flats. My energy seemed endless. I continued to misjudge my fluid intake and constantly ran out of water, but managed to find a refill before any significant time passed. My spirits were high. 

Over Gilpin Mountain and Domey’s Dome I enjoyed the names of some of these shorter mountains. I was having fun despite the elevation gain continuing to rack up quickly. I made it through the rugged Devils Gulch before dinner and yet still felt the need to continue to push. My mileage was so far beyond what I had anticipated I let my mind stray to how much faster I could complete this trail than even my goal of 6 days. The climbs weren’t that long and the descents were not that taxing. I didn’t recognize or accept I was navigating this terrain fueled by adrenaline and the freshness of my first day. I made it all the way past prospect rock and made myself stop for the night near Lamoille River. I knew I needed to try to force myself to get 4 hours of sleep this first night or it would come back to hurt me later. It was closing in on 1am and if I continued to hike, my 4 hours of sleep would bleed into the early hours of daylight. This is not something I could let happen. I needed to be moving for the entirety of the daylight hours, so I slept. 

Day 2 – 35 miles

I awoke around 4:30am and was a shell of what I had been yesterday. I bent my leg up to put a shoe on and it immediately cramped up. I tried the other leg and the same thing happened. Anxiety hit me hard. Had I pushed too hard on day 1? I rolled over, got up and walked over to a log to aid in getting my shoes on and began hiking. The total tear down time for camp never eclipsed 15 minutes on the trip. Efficiency is my strength, and helped me bank time throughout the day. 

I was sluggish from the start. My legs did not have the same power as most mornings after a big day. It reminded me of my first, and only, ultramarathon to date in which I drastically over trained and neglected to taper. It seemed I had over trained and not taken enough time off before this trail as well. The challenge had swung like a pendulum from a physical push to a mental challenge already on the morning of day 2. The big first day only compounded this, there was nothing I could do now, but relentlessly move forward. 

It was a brutal 8 mile, 3k’ climb up Whiteface Mountain to begin the day, and my expectations were checked. I would not be breaking 5 days or something incredible as I had let myself believe the day prior, each step was a challenge and I began to focus on moments as opposed to totality and trying to project my current progress over the length of the trip. I was trying to eat as much food as possible to get my pack weight down, and to aid in the comfort of these steep climbs. It was a brutal day in which my psyche slipped into a negative spiral early on. It was all I could do to try to pull my thoughts back into the moment and appreciate what was in front of me. 

I bounced around some ups and downs and made it to the top of Madonna Peak much later than I had hoped. Here I sat down to collect myself and eat a burrito slathered in mustard. What was I in for? I tried every mental exercise to get myself right and positive as I descended to the base of Mt Mansfield. The mileage kept showing how close the peak was, but I was still descending. How would I climb up to nearly 4,400’ in such a short distance?

Without stopping at the bottom, I began the ascent. There were people everywhere, and some Long Trail hikers warned me how steep it was, saying they took the bad weather route around. I shook this off; I was conquering this beast head on. Every few minutes I had to take a quick second to stop and collect myself before powering up again. My knees felt it and my quads burned. I was making such slow progress in horizontal miles that it was frustrating. Finally I hit a sign saying the chin was only a few tenths of a mile away and vowed to not stop until the top. I scrambled, scaled the rock, navigated and pulled myself up steps over three feet high and eventually topped out on the Vermont high point. It had taken a lot out of me. 

I took a quick picture but didn’t want to stop, so I followed the rocky route toward the forehead of the massive mountain. I hoped to run some of this, but it was too uneven and not conducive to getting in the flow of quick movement. When the true descent began, I was blown away by the challenge. If I thought going up was technical, this felt even more so. There were giant rocks with significant drops. I often sat down to lower myself to the ledge below. Rickety ladders provided aid in the most impossible sections, but even these required intricate moves to reach and slowly descend. Multiple times I would begin down a ladder facing out, only to turn around and back down the steep descent, often leading to another offset ladder that required more careful foot placement. 

By the time a more recognizable trail began, I was worked. The quads burned from the stabilizing they did on the steep descent and my feet ached from the hard, uneven rock. This was an adventure, and I smiled at the most unlikely time. I had just been given the opportunity to take a lap on nature’s playground and move my body in ways that few trails in the world require. I took a quick bathroom break and ate at Puffer shelter before making it up and over Bolton Mountain. The final descent of the day began, and I tried to take advantage, but my legs were gone. A few miles before Notch Road and the Winooski River I called it a day. It was not the day I thought I would have, but I figured I would make it up tomorrow, I wouldn’t. 

The major issue with my expectations on this day and the proceeding one were in the importance I was putting into horizontal miles and not taking account for the technical and steep terrain. My expectations were not aligned with reality and it was wearing on my emotional stability. I thought I should be able to navigate and travel over this trail as I had every other one in my life. There was just no time to be made up on these sections of uneven footing, steep trail and nasty descents. Not even on Nolan’s 14 had my expectations been so far removed from the reality of what was actually possible from my body. 

Day 3 – 33 miles 

I woke up and was moving quickly and fluidly down the descent to Notch Road and across the Winooski River. I crossed the bridge and on the other side was a beer sitting on a post with a note addressed to me. Some follower had tried to leave me trail magic. Unfortunately, being an unsupported attempt there was no way I was taking this beer and jeopardizing my attempt. After being without alcohol for weeks while training, it didn’t even sound appealing. I took the note, crumpled it up and added it to the trash bag I would carry throughout the attempt and left the beer at the spot for the next hiker to enjoy.

I continued to enjoy the flat hiking, but that would all change when I hit Duxbury Road Trailhead. My climb began. Emotionally I was feeling like I would rebound from the depths of yesterday and attack today with an intensity unknown to mankind. I had no set mileage goals, but was operating at a comfortable exertion level. This foreign style of terrain in which not all miles are created equal continued to frustrate me and I wanted to try to fluidly move through it in a timely fashion.

The 3,700’ climb up Camels Hump took place over 6 miles and worked me. I tried to consistently move forward, but the morning was full of micro-breaks where I would stop for 20-30 seconds just to catch my breath or slow my heartbeat. It was a tough climb that seemed to stretch forever. When I finally arrived at the top I was greeted by a thin layer of fog and lots of day hikers. Being already mildly frustrated by the morning timeline, I began my descent quickly. It was hiking across uneven rock slabs and was never comfortable. The steepness continued and I saw day hikers slip and fall on the unforgiving rocks. A few times it was steep enough I slid down on my butt to avoid falling and recreating the embarrassment of the day hikers.

I crossed a series of ledges with white blazes simply painted across them, bottomed out, and then climbed a thousand feet once again up the side of Mount Ethan Allen. Ledges, rock and overall ruggedness continued through Burnt Rock Mountain and now that it was the heat of the day. The new factor entered the mix. The temperature eclipsed 90 degrees and had me sweating profusely with the extreme effort. I took off my shirt and it remained off for the next couple days.

I took a quick break at Cowle’s Cove Shelter because I was worked over, but I didn’t have much time to waste if I wanted to salvage another day. The effort level was there, but I expected more out of myself in terms of trail miles. I had an inward struggle of defining what success was on the daily throughout this section, and it often led to a negative head space. A head space that was dangerous to occupy for an extended period of time out here.

I continued to seesaw through the difficult terrain on my way to Appalachian Gap, and came around the corner and four hikers were coming north. Meat Sweats (aka Boot Sweat), T1000, Blue Blaze, and Butterfly continued the opposite direction, but not before warning me of the ruggedness of “App Gap.” In retrospect this seems comical because while rugged, it is a far cry from what the rest of the morning had held for me. I had made it to the portion of the trail in which the opinions and perspective of those heading north and those heading south differ greatly.

I climbed up from the gap and was running low on water. Clouds were moving in and it looked like an afternoon rainstorm would be taking place. I got to Stark’s Nest as the first drops fell. Then the sky opened up and dumped. I took refuge from the rain to wait it out. In the meantime I filled all my bottles from the rain barrel, ate, and tried to pick the dirt out of my socks.

When the weather improved, I left the shelter, much to the surprise of another group that had showed up in the storm. The ridge walking had begun. People had given me different points where the terrain improved, but in my mind I needed to at least make it over Mt. Abraham and then I would feel like easier terrain was ahead.

It was straightforward night hiking with a headlamp at first, but then the clouds sunk lower and clung to the ridgetop. I crossed Mt Ellen, Nancy Hanks Peak, and was approaching Lincoln Peak when the foggy clouds grew thick enough that my light could not break through. I took off the headlamp and held it below my waist and pointed out. This seemed to offer enough visibility for me to bag the last two peaks on the ridgetop and begin the descent toward Lincoln Gap. I lost enough elevation to be out of the clouds, and then passed out for the night. It was another day of failing to meet my expectations.

Day 4 – 48 miles

Despite only being at mile 116 of 272, I still had my mind solely focused on finishing the Long Trail in less than 6 days. This meant that I had to up the intensity on what would certainly be easier terrain than the previous three days. I shot out of bed, packed quickly and began to fly down the trail. Through this reckless movement, I carelessly stuck the tip of my pole between two rocks, it stuck, I was surprised and lurched forward, landing squarely on the side of my foot and rolling my ankle. I screamed a curse embarrassingly loud. The frustration of the last two days, the pressure I put on myself, and the pain of the injury all combined to cause me to break my even keeled demeanor for a few moments.

I looked down at the ankle and it was obvious that this was a bad one. It had already begun to swell and when I tested it, the joint was tender. I had to modify my gait to diminish the pain. This was a terrible blow to suffer at the beginning of what needed to be a very good day.  I crossed Lincoln Gap and wound through the green forests offering few views and little context as to what lie around. It was overcast but cool and perfect for logging good miles. My body felt good and my feet were in surprisingly good shape. The only roadblock was my ankle. I slowly loosened up and I was able to hobble the downhills in a modified run. Things were going well and the miles were productive.

I flew through the rest of the Vermont Presidentials and crossed Brandon Gap late in the day. I finally had a sliver of positivity to attach my mood to. From Brandon Gap the terrain grew even gentler and I jogged along the largely flat trail. There was some hope and the ability to drop the Long Trail FKT to under 6 days was still a possibility. On this day it had shifted to being right at the edge of what I thought I could do, to something that was entirely achievable if things fell into place.

As my mileage neared the mid-40s for the day, my mind began to go. I was exhausted. I knew today needed to be the last night of good sleep and the final push would begin tomorrow. Despite wanting to make it all the way to Tucker Johnson Campsite; I ended up staying about a mile short. I could have pushed through this mile, but at some point the miles are taking so long and cumbersome that you are robbing yourself of sleep. The difference in the time it takes to cover that mile when you are rested vs when you are exhausted are all net sleep hours that could be gained, and I always try to recognize when pushing at points like these is providing no end benefit. In my mind it is better to go to sleep earlier in the night and get up earlier as opposed to forcing yourself through a slow unproductive hour just to reach a mileage goal. While each day stands alone in terms of productivity and effort, they are all also fluidly related.

Day 5 – 58 miles

Waking up I had 108 miles to go. It would be the start for the final push, and my last real chance to try to break the 6 day mark. I moved fast, quickly crossing Route 4, and high tailed it up towards Killington Peak. While in the zone and watching my legs robotically move across the terrain I heard a rustle in the bushes off to my right. When I looked I saw a mother and a cub running down the hill away from me. So far this trip had been void of significant wildlife sightings and the bears brought a smile to my face. It was another reason to appreciate the morning and the opportunity to be out in nature.

I saw multiple northbound Appalachian Trail hikers but passed by with only a cursory exchange of pleasantries. I had big goals for today. I had a quick snack at Cooper Lodge and picked up my pace even more. I had eaten most of my food in the first half of this attempt, so my snacks and food breaks were much shorter and less satisfying. The goal to eat more food early stemmed from the desire for a lighter pack at the end of the trail and the knowledge that motivation and determination would be their highest when the end felt within reach. This strategy worked well and my face had adopted a scowl, a look of pure desire and focus. I flew over the terrain, attempting to run as much as possible despite the nagging in my ankle. The long descent was quick and optimism seeped through my psyche. The miles were finally passing in a timely manner, the way I had been expecting the entire trail.

I crossed multiple roads and wound around the lower elevations when it began to rain. My pack was waterproof and I wore a rain jacket and rain skirt, so I was comfortable. Most of the other hikers had retreated to shelters in the inclement weather so I had the trail to myself. The day flew by in the rain, my vision was largely aimed down to keep the rain off my glasses, and my feet moved automatically over the trail. Even the climbs felt shorter and easier on this day.

The day turned to night and my speed decreased. The added mud and water on the trail made the footing more tedious and the going tougher. With this drop in productivity I knew hiking through the night had become a reality. I needed to get at least half the 108 miles done before even thinking about closing my eyes. The 6 day goal had become more, it was now an obsession. My tired mind was so fixated on one thought that I would not give up on it.

In the darkest dark I climbed up Peru Peak and began to notice my vision playing tricks on me. Dark shadows cast from my headlamp were turning into things that weren’t there. I wasn’t worried, only surprised this had begun so early into a sleepless session. I had been in this spot on the Arizona Trail and there was no reason for alarm. I continued over Styles Peak, dropped down and climbed all the way up Bromley Mountain. Here I took a quick break to use the privy, charge my headlamp, and eat a little more food and caffeine. I was tired and beginning to really hallucinate now. I put some music on. The leaves would move and my mind turned them into impossible things. I saw children’s toys hanging from the trees, rocks sitting in mud puddles that weren’t there, dark shapes that turned into animals next to my route. I was moving away from the edge of reality into a fantasy world. The night continued in this fashion until I was brought back by the “real” chirping of birds just before the first light. It had rained all night and I had entered my own world, but the sounds of nature cemented me in the real world for a short time.  The light of day brought new strength to my lethargic body and I knew my goal was within reach. With 24 hours to go, I had about 50 miles to make it to the southern terminus. It would be 50 miles of trying to hold on to what was real and filter out the things that weren’t.

Day 6 – 50 miles

Things began to crumble in the Lye Brook Wilderness and I began to consider taking a short nap. My vision was bouncing as if I were on a pogo stick hopping down the hill. I couldn’t focus or sharped my mind despite trying to rub cold water on my face, violently shake my head, or give myself an inner pep talk. I was in a world of rolling terrain and unspecified surroundings. The ability to focus had disappeared with the night of sleep I gave up. All the leaves on the ground were now small children’s toys and I was walking through a natural play area. The shapes of tigers, lions, hippos, giraffes appeared in the miniature figurines the leaves had morphed into. I drank more caffeine. At the height of this loss of control I ate the last two ounces of cheese I had been carrying, trying to give my body something else to do other than augment reality.

I walked into Stratton Pond shelter to reshuffle some snacks to the top of my pack and was surrounded by other hikers who had been there since the start of the rainstorm. I was incapable of interacting and sat on the steps, pulling out snacks for the coming hours in my own world. They likely acknowledged my presence and talked to me, but I cannot recall if I even responded. I was a shell of myself and the first thing to go was my ability to interact socially. I didn’t have answers to questions like “Where did you stay last night?” and “How far are you going?” My current goals were only in the footstep I would take towards my end goal. There was no capacity to reflect, only the ability to evaluate progress towards my looming goal. I was nearing my limit, but I was also nearing my goal.

In that short break at the shelter some new splash of determination soaked my soul and I flew with reckless abandon up Stratton Mountain. My vision no longer bounced and I could reconcile the hallucinations to the real world. The rain had lightened and I felt good in comparison to an hour prior. I felt as though I were walking through the reptile exhibit of the zoo. The day was warmer and the rain on the ground seemed to steam up in humidity, washing over my face. There is no way to know if this is what actually was happening or a fantasy my mind turned the situation into. It didn’t matter. I was ecstatic that my vision had cleared, whether my mind turned the fringes into hallucinations or not. At the top of Stratton the caretaker’s wife said hi and asked where I had come from that day. With no idea how to respond I simply said a couple shelters back. At this point all I really knew was that I had come from Canada and was going to Massachusetts. Nothing more was relevant.

On the descent from the mountain my motivation waned and I made the mistake of calculating how many more miles I had left. I had been awake and pressing for a day and a half. The number of miles remaining frustrated me. I still had so much farther to go after such a hard push just to get here. I tried to focus on the moment and appreciate each hour. Mantras became the key to my success. I continually told myself. “This moment is short,” conferring to my mind that this pain and this push will quickly be a thing of the past. I accepted that I still had many mental and physical peaks and valleys before the trail was over. I reminded myself that I only needed to survive the valleys and cling to the peaks. There was still success and enjoyment that came with each peak. I told myself that if I keep pushing I will love my current self and my determination when it is over. I welcomed a new version of myself and pictured each wall (figurative limit) that I was breaking down around my mind.

The miles were frustratingly slow and the first thing exhaustion had taken from me was my patience. I tried hard to stay within the current mile as I pressed over Glastonbury Mountain. The sun sunk low and cast sporadic rays through the green tunnel, wreaking havoc on my broken mind. One mud puddle offered a perfect reflection of a strip of blue sky and my mind interpreted it as a hole in the ground. Panic shook me and I avoided the water. In another instance I saw a dark stump on the side of the trail and out of the corner of my eye it became a bear staring at me. Things were getting weird once again.

I crossed Woodford Hollow and I was losing it. My phone battery was at 20% and all my external power was gone. Stress poured over me as I climbed Harmon Hill and my movement was slow and methodical. With 12 miles to go I knew I needed a quick break and laid down right on the leaves. I set 7 alarms to be sure I would get up and then closed my eyes for a 1 hour nap. Waking up I felt more functional. The sleep had brought me back to the stage of recognizing what was real and what was a creation of my mind.

I was short on time and began to move as quickly as possible through the terrain, sinking up to my knees in the mud, but firing through it with no regard for cleanliness. With 6 miles to go I ate my last handful of peanuts and narrowed my eyes. I had to finish by 5:59am. Nothing would stop me. I ran. I snapped a trekking pole but was unfazed. I stowed the pieces of the broken pole and continued to hobble. My ankle screamed when I set it on an unstable rock, but I could not slow down now. I crossed the last road and had 3 miles left. My pace quickened. It was the home stretch and all I saw was the narrow footpath in front of me that led to success. I worked harder than I ever have in those last few miles and with only tenths left I began to sprint as fast as my body would allow. In the dawning morning light I saw the sign, ran up and touched it just as my watch clicked over to 5:47am. It was over! The clock had stopped. I had achieved my goal with a final time of 5 days 23 hours and 48 minutes.

I would like to say that the emotions poured out at that spot, but I was only overcome with relief. The last two days had been so stressful to see an arbitrary time on my wristwatch, that when I finally saw it in reality I was only relieved to have it finally be over. My feet were destroyed after days of soaking in wet shoes and my legs ached. My mind burned with a headache and stomach growled without food. But I was proud. I had done what I thought I could, and just barely. I had set a goal so difficult it took nearly everything, but I had achieved it! With 1% battery left on my phone I took a photo and then made my way down the Appalachian Trail to get picked up. I was over it and these were some of the most frustrating miles. I didn’t need more bonus miles. I needed sleep. It was all over but I was too broken to appreciate it. I had given everything. I had done it!

The northern terminus of the Long Trail FKT
The southern terminus of the Long Trail FKT
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