Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Redemption at the Grindstone 100

"At least this is a pretty place to die!"
Photo by Alex

A well executed race is a controlled collapse, or a gradual emptying of a fuel tank if you prefer.

After tapering and carb loading for a few weeks, my tank is full of gas. Standing at the starting line, I feel invincible. My legs are strong, my energy levels are high, and my enthusiasm is off the charts.

My job is to totally deplete these reserves by the end of the race.

The hard part, aside from timing this collapse juuust right, is to ignore all the warning bells that go off when your tank is close to empty; to override that evolutionary response that says "Hey dumbass, if you keep running, you won't have enough energy to forage for food or fight off a wolf later on!"

A good soundtrack can drown out this voice. That's why I've gotten in the habit of carefully selecting which songs I listen to before a race. Because inevitably, one of them will end up stuck in my head for hours.

A good pacer can also provide motivation, or in certain cases, lie to get you moving. That's why I carefully selected a wife who has endless enthusiasm and no qualms about stretching the truth if it gets me to the finish line faster (Hi Alex!).

Course Details and Goals

Grindstone is a 102 mile out-and-back race along the Shenandoah Mountain ridge in the eastern Alleghenies of Virginia. One of the few east coast qualifiers for Hardrock 100, Grindstone has multiple climbs and descents of 2,000+ feet, for a cumulative elevation gain of 23,000 feet and an equal amount of loss.

Fun fact: The mountain peaks in this region are known as "knobs," and the weary-legged ultra runners who climb them are known as "knob hobblers."

[Note to self - double check last last bit]

Grindstone elevation profile. Crewed aid stations are in blue. Summit bib punches circled in red.

Typical of the east coast, the terrain is mostly rocky single track with a few short stretches of jeep roads and asphalt. The unique aspect of this race is its 6 pm start time, which requires every participant to run through the night. The last finishers, who are on the course up to 38 hours, will run through two sunsets and two sunrises.

Grindstone course map

After a memorable meltdown at the end of last year's race and a 25:39 finish, I vowed to come back and improve on my previous mistakes. My A goals for this year were a sub-24:00 finish, a negative split, and a positive attitude (particularly when dealing with my lovely pacer).

Miles 0-15 featuring friends and gratitude

At 5:50 on Friday afternoon, 250 adventurous souls lined up under a banner at a Boy Scout camp in rural Virginia. Race director Clark Zealand gave a few last minute words of advice, said a quick prayer, and then we were off.

As usual, I had my wife Alex supporting me on the course. Dave (my father in law) also offered to come down to the race at the last minute, which was a huge help for both of us. It provided an extra crew member and meant that Alex had company for the twenty-something hours that I would be on the course.

We're off!
Photo by Eco-X Sports

Clark's pre-race briefing had included a reminder to the runners that we are fortunate to be able to do the crazy things we do. This would become my mantra for the remainder of the race: "I am lucky to be out here. I am lucky that my body allows me to explore the world. I am lucky to have a wife and family that support my adventures."

The early miles of Grindstone are fairly tame compared to the remainder of the race, and I settled into an easy pace running alongside Ryan Espulgar and Guillermo Ayala. Ryan had paced my FKT attempt in September, and I had run with Guillermo at several races earlier in the year. We passed the early miles joking and chatting about race strategies ("Red-line it to the first aid station and then finish strong!").

"Are we almost done? My legs are killing me!"
Photo by Alex (mile 1.5)

Around mile 5, we began the 2,200 foot climb to the summit of Elliott Knob just as the sun was setting. I settled into a steady hiking pace, breathing through my nose to regulate my effort level (a trick that worked well at Vermont and the FKT). Ryan and Guillermo pulled ahead on the climb, and I was alone in the dark on a rural mountain trail.

The night was clear and cool, and the lights of Staunton were visible from the steep mountainside. I was happy to be outside on such a beautiful night. Mile 9 marked the steepest part of the ascent, rising 800 feet. I let out a celebratory cheer when my watch showed my split time: "First 20 minute mile of the day, boys! Woo!" The first of many, I was sure. The other runners within earshot were unenthused.

Shortly before sunset
Photo by Eco-X Sports

Just over two hours into the race, we reached the summit, found the bib punch, and turned around to begin the long descent. I passed Ryan shortly below the top and let it fly on the steep jeep road from the summit. The course quickly turned onto a narrow technical single track trail which was littered with loose jagged rocks. In last year's race, I had run this section in rain and fog, making my ultra shuffle feel like warp speed. This year the rocks were dry, and my view was crystal clear. I flew down the hill, passing a dozen runners in the 1,500 foot descent to the Dry Branch Gap aid station.

I'm so lucky to be out here!

Miles 15-37 featuring the Beatles

I quickly grabbed some orange slices and Coke at the aid station and headed back out into the night. The first climb out of the aid station was "only" 1,000 feet in three miles, which is mild by Grindstone standards. However, it was composed of horrifically steep grassy fire road interspersed with flatter sections where running was possible in 30 second intervals. It was slow going, and once again I was by myself in the pitch black.

Sensing the need for a melancholy soundtrack, my subconscious began playing music on a loop.

Select track --> Oh! Darling / The Beatles

With Paul McCartney silently serenading me, I made steady work of the climb. Hiking hunched over with my hands on my knees, I tapped out the drum part on my thighs. I imagined that the trail was singing to me.

Oh! Darling, please believe me
I'll never do you no harm

"Bullshit," I muttered to myself.

Fifty sullen minutes later, I reached the summit and began the long descent to Dowell's Draft aid station 1,500 vertical feet below. The descent went quickly, interrupted by a few short instances of waiting to pass other runners. For some reason, not everyone approaches downhills with reckless abandon like I do.

I reached Dowell's Draft in 4:50 elapsed, about 20 minutes faster than in 2016.

Oh shit! Did I go out too hard?

"Did I screw up? I think I screwed up."
Photo by Alex

Alex reminded me that the trails were in better shape this year, but I was still a full minute per mile faster than last year. That seemed... aggressive, since I considered the first 80 miles of last year's race to be pretty well paced.

To be on the safe side, I decided to back off the pace for a little while. The next section was a perfect place to reset: a 1,500 foot climb up Hankey Mountain over five miles. I would usually consider this a "douche grade" climb, i.e. a terrain that's right on the border of hiking and running. In this case, it provided a long break from running so I could re-assess my status and take in some calories.

I settled in behind James Doneski, who I had met earlier that day. Alex had made plans to drive James's wife to an aid station so she could pace him later in the race. As luck would have it, we run at a very similar pace. We chatted for a few minutes, but I was driven away by a pair of runners behind us who had chugged warm soda at the previous aid stations and did not seem to be handling it well. Their burps were so loud and frequent that it was starting to make me nauseous. Against my better judgement, I forged ahead on the climb.

I made it to the false summit, then the other false summit, and then the actual summit of Hankey Mountain. The descent was long and meandering, punctuated by short climbs which kept me from getting into a rhythm.

Near the bottom, I caught up to Issac Igenge, and we chatted for the last few miles of the descent. We had never met before, but he recognized me from previous races or maybe from mutual friends. Isaac had only been running ultras for a little over a year, but had already finished the brutally difficult Cruel Jewel 100 and would go on to finish Grindstone just under 25 hours. No doubt he has a bright future in running ahead of him.

I came into North River Gap (mile 37) with 7:46 elapsed, still about 20 minutes ahead of last year's pace. My plan to regroup seemed to have worked, and I felt ready to tackle the signature climb of the course. After refueling, grabbing my trekking poles, and getting some encouragement from Alex and Dave, I set to work on the 3,000 foot climb up Little Bald Knob.

And the crowd goes wild!
Photo by Alex

Miles 37-52 featuring the Beatles (again)

The first pitch of Little Bald Knob climbs over 1,000 feet in 1.3 miles. It took me a few minutes to get used to my trekking poles, but I knew they would help save my legs for the later parts of the race. They tap tap tapped the ground as I started to gain elevation.

Out of the darkness behind me came a flash of color wearing a headlamp and a running skirt. It was Megan Alvarado, who was going for her fifth Grindstone finish. She bounded past me effortlessly.

"Feel free to pass me back when you're feeling more enthusiastic," she said cheerfully.

"I'm good, thanks," I replied, trying hide just how hard I was working. Megan would go on to finish 2nd woman, improving on her previous course PR by half an hour. Badass!

I caught up to a few other other runners as I climbed, and a handful of them latched onto me, following me closely up the mountain. At first it made me self conscious. I kept asking if they wanted to pass, but eventually it occurred to me that they liked the pace I was setting. As usual, my subconscious found a perfect song for the occasion.

Select track --> Something / The Beatles

Sing it, George:

Something in the way [he] moves
Attracts me like no other lover
Something in the way [he] woos me

Clearly George Harrison was referring to the fact that I'm a perfect pace setter. This is the only interpretation that makes sense.

The seven mile climb took just over two hours, for an average pace of 17:00/mi. Thankfully, I had my watch set to display altitude rather than mile pace, having learned my lesson from last year. Sometimes, you shouldn't know how fast (or how slow) you're moving. We crested the mountain and ran another two miles along the ridge, reaching the Little Bald Knob aid station (mile 45) with 10:15 elapsed.

After hiking through the dark for so long, it was nice to see something that resembled civilization. I wanted to linger, but alas, I had a job to do. I refueled, told the volunteers some stupid jokes, and ran back into the darkness.

This section is when I started to see the race leaders running back toward me (except for the eventual winner Avery Collins. He had passed me miles earlier, running at course record pace!). I cheered them on as they passed by, which probably bolstered my enthusiasm more than theirs.

The next few miles of rolling jeep road were uneventful. I tagged the summit of Reddish Knob at mile 49, found the bib punch, and trotted effortlessly down the paved road to the North River Gap aid station at the turnaround.

Miles 52-80 featuring beer and sunrise

I hit the half way point in 11:41, which meant that a negative split was probably out of the question. I had run a little too hard in the first half, but I was still in a good position to finish under 24 hours if I held it together.

I changed my socks for the first and only time in the race and chugged an All Day IPA. After ingesting nothing but sweet fluids and fruit for 12 hours straight, the slightly bitter taste of an IPA was amazingly refreshing. Plus, it was after 5 o'clock* which meant that it was socially acceptable to drink.

*in the morning, but whatever

There's no better feeling in the world than a new pair of socks.
Photo by Alex

I left my trekking poles with Alex and Dave, and I set off in the direction that I came from. I climbed up Reddish Knob in the dark, but as I traversed back along the ridge the sun began to peak over the horizon.

Before the race, I had joked with Alex that I couldn't wait to see the course. I had spent almost 26 hours in these mountains during the 2016 race, but the fog, rain, and darkness obscured the panoramic views that I had heard so much about. Finally in 2017, after 38 lifetime hours on the Grindstone course, I got my first glimpse of the area. It was worth the wait!

Runners at the summit of Reddish Knob at daybreak
Photo by Eco-X Sports

The scattered clouds on the horizon caught the rays from the rising sun and painted a beautiful pink and orange pattern across the sky. I had to remind myself to keep an eye on the ground in front of me, lest I trip and break something.

Pulling into Little Bald Knob aid station for the second time, I was full of energy. The aid station volunteers filled my bottles for me while I grabbed a fresh breakfast burrito from the buffet table that they had set out. Life was good.

I'm so lucky to be out here!

I began the relentless 3,000 foot descent shortly afterward. Last year, this section had decimated my quads, which prevented me from running the final descents in the race. This year, I focused on keeping my cadence high, using short rapid steps to control my speed the way a car uses anti-lock brakes. It seemed endless, and there were short but steep climbs which regularly broke up my momentum, but eventually I heard the cheers from aid station in the distance.

I reached North River Gap (mile 65) with 15:04 elapsed. The 15 mile section since the turnaround had taken 3:23 on the return trip, as opposed to 3:55 on the outbound trip. This meant that I had a 30 minute cushion to run an even split. Would it be enough? (hint: no)

So far, so good. But still so far to go...
Photo by Alex

It was now 9 am, and the weather was starting to heat up. The temperature overnight had been an ideal 50 degrees with low humidity and just the right amount of wind. Now the forecasts called for 80 degree temperatures with moderate humidity. As planned, Alex tied an ice bandanna around my neck, which provided immediate relief.

I started to feel very optimistic about my race. I knew that the next 15 mile section had some nice runnable downhill miles, and after that I would get to run with Alex for the rest of the day. Things were looking good!

The next nine miles were a long gradual uphill back to the summit of Hankey Mountain. Again, it was hard to settle into a rhythm since the course constantly oscillated between uphill and downhill sections. My mile splits were all over the place, but Strava shows that I was maintaining an even 11:00-12:00 grade adjusted pace, so I was still moving well.

I was elated when I finally reached the summit of Hankey Mountain, because I knew that only four downhill miles separated me from Dowell's Draft, where Alex would finally join me as a pacer. My goal was to make it there with about 18:00 elapsed, which would put me 80 minutes ahead of last year's splits. This would give me a decent shot of finishing under 24 hours.

It took a mile to get back into the groove of running, but I managed to click off three sub-11:00 miles during the meandering descent, my quads now starting to complain noticeably. I still kept my breathing in check, knowing that I had - at best - another six hours left on the course.

I rolled into Dowell's (mile 80) with 18:14 on the clock, a little slower than I had planned but still within spitting distance of my coveted 24 hour finish. I grabbed my trekking poles again, replaced my ice bandanna, and then charged back into the woods with Alex by my side.

Miles 80-97 featuring Alex and little white lies

We now had 5 hours and 46 minutes to cover 22 miles. Ordinarily this would be no problem for us, but this final section had a dastardly 5,000 feet of climbing, and my legs had already been through 80 miles of abuse. Well, here goes nothing!

We got off to a good start on the climb up to Crawford Mountain, keeping pace with the runners around us. Our watches showed mile splits of around twenty minutes, but this was to be expected on the steep terrain. The question was whether we could make up time on the downhills.

The endless climb up Crawford Mountain
Photo by Alex

Like the climb up Little Bald, I kept an eye on our altitude so as not to be fooled by the numerous false summits along the way. At 3,600 feet, we had finally reached the top after 90 minutes of climbing. We now had to negotiate the extremely steep grassy fire road down to Dry Branch Gap.

The initial (easy) part of the descent was a welcome reprieve from climbing. However, the steeper sections, which had grades up to 25%, were hellish on my sore legs. I used my trekking poles to take some of the brunt of the impact, but my quads still screamed with every step. Even Alex was amazed by how steep the trail was in this section. Apparently, we had both blocked it out of our memories.

We reached Dry Branch Gap (mile 87) with 20:14 elapsed, almost exactly two hours since we had left Dowell's. The temperature was now in the mid-80's, and Alex and I had run out of water long before reaching the aid station. I chugged another half of an All Day IPA to stave off dehydration. Safety first. Then I grabbed a fresh ice bandanna from Dave and soaked my face and back with a freezing cold sponge from our cooler. It was heavenly!

We got back on the trail, knowing that only one massive climb and descent separated us from the finish line. We now had 3:46 to cover 15 miles. It had taken 4:15 last year, so we would have to push. I figured the final (relatively flat) five miles could be done in about 1:15, which left us about 2:30 to do the 10 mile climb and descent of Elliot Knob. (This is the kind of mental math that I tend to do near the end of races.)

The scenery was a welcome distraction from my aching legs
Photo by Alex

We climbed for twenty minutes, and I waited for that familiar beep from my watch that indicated I had moved a mile. Nothing. A few more minutes passed. Still nothing. Finally...

Beep! 24:04. "Fuck!"

Stay positive. You knew you were going to slow down on this climb.

I pushed a little harder, allowing myself to breathe hard for the first time all day.

Beep! 23:38. "Oh for the love of..."

I was crashing. My legs were totally out of energy. My brain was baking in the sun. I hadn't trained enough for this. What was I thinking, aiming for 24 hours? I told Alex I just wanted to hike in to the finish. We could relax and enjoy the scenery. 25 hours was still a nice round number, and it wouldn't require me to suffer as much.

"Okay," she said, "but keep moving."

It would take us an hour and forty minutes to cover the 4.5 mile ascent. Our pace never dipped under 20:00/mile the entire time. I now had 50 minutes to cover the steep 4+ mile descent to the next aid station before my self imposed deadline, but I wasn't even sure if I was capable of running any more.

"Just walk for a bit and try to get your legs moving," Alex suggested.

I tip-toed gingerly down the precipitous fire road, using my trekking poles liberally. My quads shouted at me and swore in languages I'm not familiar with.

Gradually my cadence increased and I began to pick up speed. The angry cursing subsided and dulled to a resentful murmur. I eventually broke into a feeble jog. I put my head down and focused on keeping my legs moving.

Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming swimming swimming.
Photo by Alex

After a while, Alex glanced at her watch and said "You only have one more mile until the aid station, and almost twenty minutes to do it!" She took the lead and started to set a more aggressive pace.

This was encouraging. Maybe I could still do this! I picked up my pace a bit and dropped a 11:56 mile, my fastest in the last few hours.

Alex glanced at her watch again, "Oh, wait, sorry..."

"What, why?" I asked.

"I think I was off by a mile," she responded sheepishly.

Well, I wasn't going to waste the effort of the previous mile. I pushed a little harder, passing Alex on a wide section of trail.

"On your left!" I chirped as I pushed ahead.

She stuck with me, and together we ran a 10:03 mile, my fastest split in over 11 hours. We reached the aid station with exactly 70 minutes left to break 24 hours. I wasn't sure if that was enough time, but I was damn sure ready to find out.

Miles 97-102 featuring Mark Ronson and Mystikal

I left the aid station before Alex and pushed hard on the last climb of the race, which was 500 feet in just over a mile. My legs still weren't responding well, but I knew I could push harder as soon as the trail went back downhill. I huffed and puffed with every step. Visions of crossing the line in 24:00:01 flashed through my head. This motivated me to push even harder.

After 20 minutes of climbing, I reached the top of the hill with Alex 100 yards behind me. I wasn't sure how far I had left to go. This was really going to be close. I took off.

From behind me came Alex's voice, getting farther away every second:

"You have 50 minutes to do four miles!"

That's 12:30/mi. This is going to hurt. I'm gonna need some serious pump up music.

Select track --> Feel Right / Mark Ronson ft. Mystykal

I'll let Mystikal take over the narration for a moment:

Take a second to wipe my sweat
Might be the only chance you get to catch your breath
Don't get too comfortable in here
Better believe I'm bringing back the rumble in here
Just when you thought you could cool down and sip some of that water


And just like that, I was back. The pain evaporated from my legs. I ran hard. A light rain started, making the trails slick, but providing welcome relief from the heat.

Feel right in this motherfucker!

Mile 99 - 11:45

Jagged wet rocks littered the trail, but my legs were responding to my commands for the first time in hours. I hopped through them like a football player doing a tire drill. My breathing grew ragged.

Feel good in this motherfucker!

Mile 100 - 10:30

I had banked some time, but this was still going to be close. I pushed even harder, throwing myself down the final rocky descents. I was seeing stars. Warning bells were going off in my head. I drowned them out with music.

My whole hood in this motherfucker!

Mile 101 - 10:22

I passed by the sign marking 1.5 miles to the finish with 23:35 elapsed. For the first time in hours, I allowed myself to believe that sub-24 was possible. I still pushed hard, just in case my timing or the sign were wrong. Finally, I emerged from the woods to find Alex waiting for me. She had taken a shortcut to catch up, and we now had 10 minutes to cover the last quarter mile.

And we gon' rock this motherfucker!

Mile 102 - 11:44

"I cannot fucking believe I'm going to do this!" I yelled as Alex rejoined me. I had a huge smile on my face.

The final hundred yards to the finish line was up a slight grassy slope. With a final burst of adrenaline, I threw down my trekking poles and sprinted across the line, crossing in 23:52:59.

Photo by Eco-X Sports

Alex immediately wrapped me up in a hug. It was a perfect ending to a perfectly brutal race.

We did it!
Photo by Eco-X Sports

Strava data
Official results

Post Race and Final Thoughts

Unlike last year, I remembered to thank Clark for organizing a first class race (rather than berating him for making it so damn difficult).

And unlike Vermont, I was able to walk around without feeling like my calves were going to tear apart. So that was nice.

I had laid out my goals for the race in my previous blog post. To summarize:

  1. Sub-24 hours
  2. Negative split
  3. Stay positive
On that first point, there's no question that I achieved my A goal. I'm ecstatic with how well I executed the race, and I'm extremely thankful for Alex and Dave's help, which saved valuable time and kept me in good spirits.

While I didn't run a negative split, I wasn't far off. My first half was 11:41, and my second half was 12:12. We'll call that close enough.

As for staying positive, I had a few sullen moments and a serious low point on the final big climb, but overall I maintained a pretty good outlook on the race and treated Alex and Dave with the gratitude they deserved. My biggest issue here was a lack of proper training before the race, which left me without much confidence in myself. I don't intend to make this mistake again.

These two are rock stars!

Gear and Nutrition

I improved on a few things in this race that are worth noting. There are also some things that I need to work on.

What Went Right

  • I used two headlamps for most of the night. One around my head and another around my waist. This provided better contrast on the rocky sections, allowing me to barrel down technical descents to my heart's content. To extend their battery life I turned the brightness down whenever I hiked uphill. This allowed me to avoid swapping batteries on the trail. I just grabbed a new set of headlamps from Alex whenever I saw her.
  • I also wore two pairs of socks at all times. First a layer of thin synthetic Injinjis to protect my toes, and then thicker Drymax socks over the top to absorb sweat and provide additional cushioning. This worked perfectly, and I only had to change socks once at the half way point. If the race were wetter, I probably would have planned 1-2 additional sock changes to be safe.
  • For the first time in a race, I used trekking poles in strategic segments (I also used them at NJ Ultrafest 100, but this was out of necessity when the trails turned to mush). This helped to save my legs early in the race and also allowed me to push harder late in the race when my quads were fatigued.
  • My nutrition was about the same as always (200 cal Tailwind + 20 oz. water per hour), but I've been getting better about forcing this down whether I'm hungry/thirsty or not. I am also getting better about eating real food at aid stations. Plus I discovered the magic of drinking beer at aid stations (hey, it works for Camille Herron!). The combined effect of all this has improved  my energy levels late in races.
  • Aside from a slightly-too-spicy start, my pacing was pretty good. I'm starting to get a feel for my all day pace, and regulating my breathing seems to be the key. It's a little frustrating to hold back so much early in the race, but it pays off handsomely when I'm still able to run after 20+ hours.
  • My mental fortitude is getting better. And I don't just mean the ability to suffer. By deliberately contemplating how grateful I was to be out on the trails with the support of my family, I was able to stay positive for almost the entire race.

What Needs Work

  • My training was inadequate. Due to a combination of lingering injuries from Vermont 100 and personal/family obligations in August and September, I just didn't put in as many miles as I should have. I finished under my time goal thanks to residual fitness from my winter/spring training as well as a willingness to suffer for a long time. But the lack of training hurt my confidence, leading to a near-meltdown at the end of the race.
  • Uphill hiking has always been my weakness. I should probably spend some time in the gym doing squats, deadlifts, and lunges. But let's be honest. I'm not going to do any of those things. So instead I'll just say that I'm going to do a lot more hill repeats before my next mountain race.

Next Up

One month later, I ran the NYC marathon (race report incoming), and in a few days I'll end my racing season with Frozen Fools 50K. I've been taking a much needed break from hard training since Grindstone, so these races are mostly for the experience of running in cool places with cool people.

Happy running!

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Grindstone Pre-Race Thoughts

Last year, I ran Grindstone because I needed a qualifier for Western States and Hardrock. This year, I don't need a qualifier. Instead, I'm running Grindstone because I want to improve on last year's results. I figure it's best if I write this all down so I can keep track of my various goals.

This picture adequately describes my mental state near the end of the race

A Goals

  1. Finish under 24 hours: With better training and better weather in the forecast, this just might be possible
  2. Keep a positive mentality. This also means being nicer to my pacer during the race, regardless of how grumpy I feel... (sorry Alex!)
  3. Run a negative split: The first half is a net uphill. The second half is a net downhill (and 2 miles shorter). If my legs survive until the end, I might just have a chance.

B Goals

  1. Beat last year's time: I ran a weak last 20 miles last year. This should be easy to improve upon.
  2. Be nice to Alex: Seriously. She's doing me a favor. Even if I have a low point, there's no reason to be a dick, no matter how bad my legs hurt.
  3. Run an even-ish split: If my second half is within an hour of my first half, we'll call this one done.

C Goals

  1. Finish the race: I've never DNF'ed a 100 miler and I'm not about to start now. Finish the damn thing!
  2. Don't end up single: If I'm going to piss off my wife/pacer, I should at least mitigate the damage. Maybe I should buy her some flowers in advance...
  3. Finish the damn race: I'm putting this again because it bears repeating. If the bone ain't showing, keep on going!
Happy trails, and good luck to my fellow Grindstoners!

NJ Appalachian Trail FKT

This is my FKT. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

Running along the Kittatinny Ridge late in the day
Photo by Ryan Espulgar

What the heck is an FKT?

I've been meaning to dip my toes into the FKT waters for a few years now. For those of you who don't obsess over running like I do, FKT stands for "fastest known time." A relatively new concept in the running/hiking community, an FKT attempt is essentially a time trial over a specific route. Unlike traditional races, an FKT can be attempted at a time and date of the runners' choice, which is useful for avoiding bad weather and planning around other races.

FKT routes can be anywhere from minutes in length to multi-week journeys, such as Joe McConaughy's 45 day traverse of the entire Appalachian Trail. The de facto authority on FKTs is Peter Bakwin's website, which chronicles the attempts on various routes in the US and abroad.

Let's do this thing!

For the past few years, I've had my eye on the FKT for the 72 mile New Jersey section of the Appalachian Trail. I had hiked and run various sections of the trail, but had never strung them all together in a single attempt. In fact, it appeared that no one had done so until NJ ultrarunner Zack Price attempted it in 2016, setting a benchmark of 19 hours, 8 minutes, and 25 seconds.

With a several month long break between races in the late summer, I tentatively added this FKT attempt to my schedule early in the year, intending to run it in September when the weather had cooled slightly. Due to family commitments and my training schedule, I only had a few weekends where this was feasible. As luck would have it, the weather reports for Saturday September 2nd showed clear skies and mild temperatures. Per tradition, I posted my intentions on the FKT boards about a week in advance and invited anyone to come watch or participate.

Oh shit, I guess we're really doing this.

With a date set, I now had a week to figure out the logistics of running across an entire state. Pacers, crew, navigation, and gear all had to be sorted out in advance if this run was going to be successful. 

The first decision was which direction to run - northbound or southbound. This ended up being an easy choice: most of my friends and family live closer to the PA border than the NY border, and I'd rather have more support at the end of the day. Besides, the PA border is only minutes away from Hot Dog Johnny's, which is our traditional post-hike dinner spot. The allure of hot dogs and fries would surely propel me to a speedy finish.

Next was the issue of getting food and water during the run. Thankfully, Alex was free all day and sacrificed her entire Saturday to crew for me. My friend Derek, who paced me at TGNY in 2015, offered to accompany her for the early morning hours, and Alex's parents offered to join from mid-morning until the end of the day. A handful of friends were also available to pace me for the later sections of the day. Included in this mix was the FKT holder Zack, who was working through an ankle injury, but offered to accompany me for 10-15 miles.

Regular readers of this blog will recall that navigation has been a consistent issue for me over the years and has cost me large chunks of time in races. Not wanting my FKT to be derailed by stupid mistakes, I pored over my Appalachian Trail guide book and determined check points where I could meet my crew at 1 hour increments.

Map of the NJ section of the Appalachian Trail

The NJ section of the AT follows the NY/NJ border northwesterly up to High Point State Park at the northern corner of the state before turning southwest and following the Kittatinny Ridge along the PA/NJ border.

NJ Appalachian Trail elevation profile (southbound)

The majority of the trail runs along rocky mountaintops, ascending 11,000 feet and descending 12,000 feet in the southbound direction. This makes for very slow running in certain sections. However, there are also a few eminently runnable sections of boardwalk, grass, and pavement, particularly in the early sections of the course.

It's so early that it's not even late!

Wanting to finish in daylight (and before Hot Dog Johnny's closed), we settled on a 2am start time. This meant going to sleep at 8:00pm and waking up at 11:45pm to get out the door by 12:15am. Now, I'm no stranger to early wake up calls for races. But usually "early" means 3:00am. Maybe 2:00am in extreme cases. The kind of times that are so early that they make you say "it's so early it's late!" while everyone around you rolls their eyes.

However, an 11:45pm wake up was even earlier that our typical bed time. When our alarm went off, we didn't even feel tired since this was more like a power nap than actual sleep.

"Alex," I said with a sly realization, "it's so early that it's not even late!"

Thankfully, after only 3 hours of sleep she found this funny.

Anyway, Alex, Derek, and I left the house a bit later than planned and made it to the trail head around 1:30am. From there, Alex and I would have a short but steep hike to the NY/NJ border on the Appalachian Trail. I started my watch at 1:40 and recorded a GPS track just for this section. Per the recommendation of Rick McNulty, I will report two separate times for my FKT: the time spent on the actual AT and the "car-to-car" time, which includes the hikes to/from the trail heads.

While Derek drove to the first road crossing with my supplies (he is an amazingly good friend), Alex and I made our way up the 800 foot climb up to the border, walking very slowly to conserve energy. It was pitch black and the bright orb of the moon peaked through the trees just above the ridge above us. It was a surreal experience being the only people on a remote trail in the middle of the night. I found it exhilarating. Alex was terrified. Unfortunately, she would also have to hike down this trail alone after leaving me at the border. Sorry Alex!

At the NY/NJ border and ready to go!
Photo by Alex

After a few quick pictures and a kiss, I was off!

NY/NJ Border to Rt. 94 (Miles 0.0 - 9.1)

I started at 2:24am, 24 minutes later than my initial plan. Close enough...

Alex ran with me for the first few hundred feet while live streaming a video to Facebook before turning off to make the descent back down to her car. From there, I was on my own.

The weather was a crisp 40 degrees, and I could see my breath in the beam of my headlamp with every exhale. The sky was clear and the moon provided some ambient light. It was perfect running weather.

The first mile was along a rocky ridge line. It's always difficult to follow a trail on this type of terrain, and the footing was unstable, so I took my time. After dropping a few hundred feet into a wooded area, the trail became easier to follow, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was not terribly technical. I had not scouted this section beforehand, so I wasn't sure what to expect.

I got to the first checkpoint at Warwick Turnpike (mile 3.6) with 45:17 elapsed, already 15 minutes ahead of my guesstimated schedule that I had made for my crew (based on a 17 hour finish). Having run very conservatively so far, I was ecstatic with this start to the day.

Derek and Alex were both waiting for me when I arrived and they cheered as they saw my headlamp appear from the woods. I grabbed a new bottle, took a swig of Coke, and was back on the trail in seconds.

The next section was more rolling terrain on semi-technical single track. The trail was extraordinarily well maintained, and my mile splits mostly hovered in the 11:00-12:00 range. Around mile 8, the trail became much rougher, and I recognized that I was getting close to Waywayanda Mountain, also known as Stairway to Heaven.

View of Vernon Valley from Stairway to Heaven on our recon run

This section of trail drops over 800 feet in about a mile on extremely rocky terrain. There are a few precarious boulder hopping sections where a fall could mean a sprained ankle or a broken bone, so I took the descent very carefully. It didn't make sense to risk injury just to save a couple minutes on a 70+ mile run.

9.1 miles down and 63 to go!
Photo by Alex

Thankfully, Alex and I had time to scout this section of trail earlier in the week, and I made it through with no navigational issues and only a stubbed big toe. Near the bottom of the descent, the trail leveled out and I was able to open up my stride a bit. As Rt. 94 came into view, I once again heard the cheers of my loyal crew. I reached them in 1:53:36 elapsed, now 36 minutes ahead of schedule at 9.1 miles in.

Rt. 94 to Carnegie Rd. (Miles 9.1 - 18.1)

The next two miles through Vernon Valley were pancake flat, and I effortlessly maintained a 10:00/mi pace. I probably could have pushed a little harder, but I wanted to make sure I saved some energy for the climb ahead of me.

Most of this section was on a raised boardwalk over expansive marshlands, and I couldn't help but feel exposed. It felt like every animal in a two mile radius was watching me scurry along the platform. The boardwalk was narrow, and I wondered to myself what I would do if I turned a corner and saw a wild animal in front of me. One of us would have to jump off to give way for the other. Who would be the dominant species?

Quiz time!
Question: What animal sounds like a bear when it's pitch black outside?
Answer: They all do!

Around mile 12, I reached the base of Pochuck Mountain. On the elevation profile, this two part climb looks like a minor blip in the grand scheme of things. However, it's a steep and rocky ascent with numerous false summits. Half way through this nasty little climb, I reached Glenwood Rd., the third "aid station" of the day. With 2:41:36 elapsed, I was now 48 minutes ahead of schedule. Woo!

Back to the climb...
Photo by Alex

After another quick stop, I set to work on finishing the climb. I topped out on the rocky summit and then had a very technical 1.5 miles along the ridge before an even more technical 600 foot descent to the base of the mountain. The footing was tricky and progress was slow, but I kept pushing and eventually made it to the base of the mountain and the beginning of the Great Appalachian Valley.

This section of trail followed primitive boardwalks and frost covered grass pathways through the Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge. The first rays of sunlight were just starting to peak over the horizon, and the mist rising from the marshy refuge created a beautiful sunrise. I paused to take a few pictures, but still managed to maintain a brisk 9:00-10:00 pace through this flat section.

Sunrise over the Wallkill River Wildlife Refuge

The trail then turned onto a short road section, where my crew - which had now expanded to three people - was waiting for me. I arrived at the mile 18.1 checkpoint at 3:50:33 to the cheers of Alex, Dave, and Julie (Derek had to leave for family obligations).

I don't think I've ever been this happy to eat a banana
Photo by Alex

This concludes the last flat portion of the trail.

Carnegie Rd. to Rt. 519 (Miles 18.1 - 27.0)

This next section climbed slowly but steadily onto the Kittatinny Ridge, where it would remain for the final 47 miles of the day. A short steep climb from the road brought me to a field with a sweeping view of the mist blanketed valley I had just left.

View of the Great Appalachian Valley just after sunrise

Another short climb brought me the first view of High Point, the peak of the Kittatinny Ridge, which I would run past in a few short hours. With this in sight, it felt like I was making real progress. Combined with the fact that it was now light outside, I was in great spirits.

High Point Monument in the distance

The trail meandered through hilly farmlands and small patches of forest. The rolling hills were gentle enough that I could run almost every step.

Around mile 21, I had my first and only real navigational issue of the day. The AT made a T intersection with a road and seemingly came to an end. There was no trail head on the other side of the road, and there were no blazes to indicate that the trail turned to follow the road.

I wandered a few hundred yards in either direction before finally pulling out my phone and looking up a map of the AT on my AllTrails app. A few minutes later, I had finally located the trail again, about a hundred feet down the road and completely overgrown to the point where no blazes were visible from the road. Thankfully this excursion only cost me about 5 minutes.

So anyway... I continued onward, each mile bringing me another 100-200 feet upward in elevation. I made a pit stop next to a cow pasture and caught strange looks from my bovine spectators. I tried to moo an explanation, but they didn't seem to buy it.

Coming in to the mile 27 check point
Photo by Alex

The following miles ran together in my mind, if you'll excuse the pun. The trail continued to climb through progressively rockier terrain as it entered the more mountainous regions of New Jersey. Finally, with 5:32:57 elapsed, I reached Rt. 519 (mile 27) at the base of High Point, almost an hour ahead of schedule.

Rt. 519 to Deckertown Tpk. (Miles 27.0 - 36.0)

I had been looking forward to this part of the trail all day since this is where I would pick up my first pacer. My running friend Joe Limone had offered to run with me for the "last 40-50 miles" of the trail, in his words (also known as the majority of the distance). Joe is an experienced ultrarunner and just a nice guy in general, so I was happy to have his company.

Heading out with Joe, my first pacer
Photo by Alex

We made quick work of the remaining 600 foot climb up to the Kittatinny Ridge and past the High Point Monument, while we discussed plans for future races and adventure runs (Joe, if you're reading this, we need to plan a Devil's Path traverse!).

The last time I had done this section of trail, I had been carrying a full pack and it was raining. Now in the middle of a clear day and carrying only a handheld, I was delighted to find myself moving quickly over the rocky mountainside. I got a little ahead of Joe on the rocky descent to Rt. 23, but he immediately caught up while I changed socks and had a snack (mile 30.5, 6:15:51 elapsed).

We ran the next few miles together through very rocky technical ridge line, scrambling over rocks and occasionally passing day hikers. The weather was perfect with temperatures in the 40-50 degree range and overcast skies. I once again put a small gap on Joe during a short descent, but he caught back up on the ensuing climb. However, the next descent was much longer, and I lost him for good. Curse my downhill running ability!

I reached Deckertown Turnpike in 7:26:57, 1:05 ahead of pace.

Deckertown Tpk. to Brink Rd. (Miles 36.0 - 48.0)

I pulled into this checkpoint to find the current FKT owner Zack Price waiting with my crew. From the sight of his shorty shorts, I knew right away that he was ready to run fast.

Very different builds. Very similar race results. Ultrarunning is a strange sport.
Photo by Alex

Zack took the lead as we hit the trail, and we threw down some pretty quick miles despite the technical terrain. I couldn't get over how cool it was that Zack was helping me try to break his own FKT. It reminded me of when Scott Jurek set an FKT for the full AT in 2015 and then helped Karl Meltzer break it in 2016. Only in ultrarunning do you see that kind of sportsmanship.

The miles flew by while Zack and I discussed racing, FKT's, and our running backgrounds. He was a track athlete in high school and college with a blazing fast 15:30 personal best in the 5K. I came from a hiking and rock climbing background and can barely run a 6:00 mile. Yet somehow we have very similar times in the 50-70 mile distance (he hasn't tried a 100 miler yet). It's crazy how different skill sets can produce similar ultrarunning results!

We pulled into the Sunrise Mountain overlook in 8:10:19 elapsed (1:20 ahead of schedule), and I quickly refueled and headed out. Zack ran ahead to snap some pictures of me with the expansive vista in the background. Now doubling as a pacer and race photographer, Zack led us through some nice runnable sections of narrow single track along the ridge followed by a boulder strewn 450 foot descent down to Rt. 206. I met my crew in a parking lot just shy of the road with 9:13:51 elapsed (1:17 ahead).

View from Sunrise Mountain Overlook
Photo by Zack Price

The remaining 26 miles were all part of the Frozen Fools 50K, which I have run for the past 3 years, so I felt somewhat confident in my ability to navigate, although the 50K runs in the opposite direction. I knew that the climb up from 206 would be long and rocky, but it passed quickly thanks to the good company.

The trail grew more technical, or at least it appeared to, since my tired feet kept tripping over the loose jagged rocks that littered the path. Zack asked me to avoid hurting myself while we were running together. He was worried that people would think he tripped me in an effort to sabotage my run. So I did my best to stay on my feet, you know, for his sake.

My pace slowed a bit, but I was still well ahead of record pace and I knew I had some gas left in the tank for the remaining miles. After a few more rocky miles together, we reached Brink Rd. where we said our goodbyes and Zack wished me luck. He had been nursing an ankle injury and had a race coming up, so he couldn't afford to risk any further damage. I was (still am) extremely thankful for his help!

Now I was on my own, 48 miles in and 10:08:59 elapsed (1:21 ahead). Time to see just how much gas was left in the tank...

Brink Rd. to Millbrook Rd. (Miles 48 - 62)

With steely determination, I took off down the trail at breakneck pace.

No... that's a lie.

With self pity, I shuffled down the trail at a snail's pace, whimpering quietly to myself.

Yeah, that's more like it.

Thankfully my pity party was short lived. I allowed myself a few moments of moping during a steep little climb before realizing that my negativity wasn't helping. So I put my head down and just ran. The trail leveled out, and so did my mindset. This six mile stretch wasn't particularly fast, but as always, it came to an end.

I reached Flatbrook Stillwater Rd. (mile 54) in 11:39:45 (1:20 ahead), to find that my small crew had grown exponentially! Pacers Ryan Espulgar, Harry Uberti, and Dan Wallace were all waiting for me. Dan was joined by his wife Jackie and son Lucas, Harry was joined by his wife Eileen, and my friends Andrew and Bailey had also come out to watch me suffer run. It was a party!

The gang's all here!
Photo by Alex

Unfortunately, this all coincided with the exact time when I realized I needed to apply more anti-chafe lube to some sensitive areas. It's difficult to do this when there is a crowd of people watching your every move. Oh well, sorry for the show, guys and gals!

We quickly hit the trail and we were greeted by some of the most runnable miles I had seen since the valleys earlier in the day. The combined effect of running with friends and running on smooth trail was a huge mental boost, and my pace improved dramatically. We flew along while Dan shot footage with a chest mounted GoPro.

Note to others: Dan briefly mentions my body odor and says that I "stank." He is being kind with his wording. I smelled like week old chicken that had been baking in the sun. I actually made myself nauseous a few times. Sorry to everyone who had to experience that.

Back to the run! The next few miles flew by, and before I knew it we were back at another crew checkpoint at Millbrook Rd. (mile 58, 12:27:05 elapsed, 1:33 ahead). As you can see in the video, Dan pulled up shortly before the checkpoint with some knee pain (he would turn out to be okay, but was done running for the day). After another blazing fast stop, we were back out on the trail.

I felt very light and springy as we started the climb. It was like a weight had been lifted. Perhaps a weight that I had been holding in my left hand for the past 12+ hours.

Oh shit, I forgot my water bottle!

Well that was stupid. Thankfully we were only a tenth of a mile from the checkpoint, so Harry was able to sprint back to pick it up and then sprint to catch up with us. Thank god there are no rules against muling for runners during supported FKT attempts! Harry was a trooper about the added mileage and joked that it was his speed work for the week.

From the checkpoint, we climbed a few hundred feet back to the top of the ridge. The trail was extremely rocky and off camber in this section, but the panoramic views more than made up for it. Ryan E. now acted as my photographer, running ahead at strategic points to get stunning photos.

Or occasionally a picture of my butt
Photo by Ryan Espulgar

After a few more miles of spectacular - though difficult - running, we reached the final checkpoint of the day, Camp Mohican Rd. (mile 62.3, 13:18:33, elapsed, 1:41 ahead). From here, it would be roughly ten miles and two hours of running until I would see my crew at the finish line. I put on my race vest for the first time all day and we headed back out onto the trails.

Within minutes, the wind started blowing and the sky grew darker. The weather reports had mentioned the possibility of afternoon storms, and now it was looking likely. At least we were almost done for the day.

View from the ridge as the clouds started to roll in
Photo by Ryan Espulgar

The rain started as a light trickle, but steadily grew heavier and we traversed the exposed ridge. After running all day, the cool water felt nice. And besides, I really needed a shower anyway.

On the other hand, the slick rocks became harder to negotiate, and I found myself slipping and sliding constantly. The boulder field of a trail near Sunfish Pond was unbearably slow, but I knew I still had the record in the bag as long as I kept making forward progress. Ryan helped by running ahead so I could follow his footsteps through the slick rocks. Harry stayed behind me, so I still had someone to chat with. It was a perfect combination of pacers!

With three miles to go, I spotted Alex ahead of us on the trail! She had hiked up from the finish to run the last few miles with me. She also informed me that the rest of the trail was entirely downhill. Perfect!

Finishing up a long run with some of my favorite people
Photo by Ryan Espulgar

With my goal firmly accomplished and no other racers to chase, I decided to just enjoy the last few miles with my pacers. I took the final 1,000 foot descent into the Delaware Water Gap at a manageable pace to avoid falling and injuring myself on the rocky trail. At mile 71, we entered the Dunnfield Creek parking lot and only had a mile of asphalt until the border.

This ended up feeling like the longest mile ever, even though it really took less than 11 minutes to cover. We reached the ramp to the walkway on the Rt. 80 bridge, and I "ran" up it at a feeble pace. I refused to walk this close to the finish line. As soon as we reached the bridge, we could see the crowd gathered at the finish line. They seemed miles away, although Strava tells me it was only a quarter mile.

Finally, after 15 hours, 36 minutes, and 25 seconds of running, I reached the PA/NJ border. I had broken the previous FKT by 3.5 hours and finished almost 1.5 hours faster than my goal time.

Photo by Eileen Uberti

From left to right, Ryan, Zack, me, Harry, and Alex
Photo by Eileen Uberti

Once again, I was greeted by an entire party. Derek had made it back from south Jersey after a very long day. Kate had driven him up to the finish and they both stuck around to celebrate. Zack had left to grab dinner but made it back in time to see me finish. And all the people from earlier had stuck around.

Most importantly, we all went to Hot Dog Johnny's afterwards and feasted on dogs, fries, and some contraband beer (but you didn't hear that from me)!


After every race, I'm left thinking to myself "it takes a village..." and this FKT attempt was no exception.

I am extremely thankful for my crew of Alex, Derek, Dave, and Julie, who all woke up ridiculously early to make sure I always had a full bottle of water and a banana to eat. My pacers Joe, Zack, Ryan, Harry, and Dan were all excellent, and the miles I spent with them were the highlights of my day. Plus their course knowledge kept me from straying off the trail, despite my best efforts. Lastly, the support I received from my friends who came out to watch - Elizabeth, Jackie, Lucas, Andrew, Bailey, Stephen, and Kate - made this truly a special event. I can't believe how lucky I am to have this many people supporting my pursuits. Thank you all!

Final Stats

Strava tracks

Total AT time: 15:36:25
Car-to-car time: 16:38:00

NY/NJ border
Warwick Tpk
Rt. 94
Glenwood Rd.
Lake Wallkill Rd.
Carnegie Rd.
Rt. 519
Rt. 23
Deckertown Tpk.
Sunrise Mtn.
Rt. 206
Brink Rd.
Flat.-Still. Rd.
Millbrook Rd.
Camp Rd.
PA/NJ Border