Saturday, July 26, 2014


By the time you read this, I will have begun the biggest athletic adventure of my life. This post will self-publish at 5:00 AM on Saturday, July 26, about the same time that I'll be heading up the Signal Ridge Trail on Mount Carrigain. It's my declared intention to visit all 48 peaks over 4,000 feet in my home state as swiftly as possible. A team of family and friends will be monitoring my progress as well as providing food, road transportation, and moral support over the next three days. My plan is to stop the clock at the Mount Kinsman Trailhead sometime on Tuesday the 30th after covering nearly 200 miles, and 68,000 feet of elevation gain if everything goes according to plan. (Ha!)

I’m not the first person to pursue the Fastest Known Time (FKT) of the Four Thousand Footers. Others have blazed this trail before; the Fitch brothers, Ted "Cave Dog" Keizer, Tim Seaver, Sue "Stinkyfeet" Johnston, Cath Goodwin, my friend Ryan Welts, and Andrew "Traildog" Thompson. I've drawn years of inspiration from these people and now it's my turn to try and stand on their shoulders. I've researched and planned and trained enough that I'd like to think I'm going into this with open eyes despite the fact that it's far beyond anything else I've done. It's going to hurt and my resolve will be tested in ways I can’t yet appreciate. The lows will be low and the highs will be high. Failure is deliberately a possibility. 

So why do it? For one, I get to spend four days trying to break new ground in the mountains I love. The deeper answers are hard to articulate, but I will say this: I've collected an unusual set of skills and capabilities over the years as a hiker, climber, and runner. These mountains in particular have been burned into brain over the last twelve years and I strongly feel that I'm as qualified to do this as anyone has ever been. Simply put, I’m doing this because I want to and because I can.

Tim Seaver tells me that when he broke the record in 2003, he was sure it would be lowered again in short order, but attempts on his time have been few over the last decade. Just this summer, Andrew Thompson managed to trim 51 minutes off Tim's time, lowering the record to three days, fourteen hours, fifty-none minutes. Coincidentally, I feel like I’ve been on a collision course with the Four Thousand Footers record since 2003, I just didn’t know it for most of those years. Since the day I discovered a list of the Four-Thousand Footers in the back of an old copy of the AMC White Mountain Guide, I've been unable to sit still. The mountains got me off my sedentary ass and fundamentally changed me. They put me in control of my own life, and blessed me with new experiences I never would have imagined. This adventure will be another one of those experiences, succeed or fail, in a relationship with the Whites that will continue long after this is over.

The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. - Albert Camus

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Grafton Notch Loop

I will never get to experience all the running routes that interest me, even within New England. Sometimes this keeps me up at night but the bright side is that I will never run out of places to explore. The Grafton Notch Loop is one of those routes that's been on my radar for quite some time but never seemed to slot well into my schedule. At 39 miles, the route is a long day for anyone and involves at least six hours driving for me. When one day things did happen to work out, I did my best to make the commute interesting.

Joining me was my good friend Ryan. When planning our day, for some reason I got it stuck in my head that there was only 9,000 feet of climbing and so I figured an 8 hour time at a training-pace was reasonable. As it turned out, the vertical gain was closer to 12,000 feet and we took a bit longer than that.

After caching some water at the Old Speck Trailhead we got started from the southern road crossing on Maine route 26, opting to do the longer eastern half of the loop first. The idea here was to only refill our water supplies once at the north end by saving the shorter western half for the hot part of the day while also saving the most runnable terrain for the end.

Our first peak was Puzzle Mountain and it provided a pretty quick appetizer view for what was in store later on.

Most of the trail was fairly new and, though a bit wet and muddy, not nearly so rocky and eroded as many more popular areas. I was surprised at how much actual running we were able to get in, though there were quite a few small climbs that began to quickly add up.

Most of the route was pretty meandering and it took a while before we got to the real meat of the climb going up to the Baldpates where we'd join Appalachian Trail for a while.

We reached the Old Speck Parking lot in five hours, six minutes and took a short break to tank up on water and a splash of fuel. At this point the barometer on my watch was reading 7,200 feet of elevation gain and I began to get the sense that we were in for a longer day that we'd originally planned.

With stomachs sloshing full of chugged water it took us an hour and fifteen minutes to summit Old Speck, about fifteen minutes longer than it took me at the start of my Mahoosuc Traverse last summer.

Ryan takes a moment to care for his feet.

The trail down the south side of Old Speck has a remarkably different character than the heavily used north side. As soon as you exit the summit clearing the trail goes from the typical rocky, eroded mess to narrow singletrack on a soft dirt bed (with switchbacks even!) There were some token rooty and rocky sections to keep things interesting but were were able to get into a solid rhythm and cover substantial ground.

Ryan and I were both feeling the heat as we climbed up the open ledges on Sunday River White Cap, which had even better views than the Baldpates. It was becoming clear that the two liters of water we each had wasn't going to get us back to the car and we were happy to have brought a filter so we could fill up at the Sargent Brook Campsite without worry about getting sick from the abundant moose poop on the ground.

A lot of the stone and boardwalk work in the alpine zone reminded us of Goose Eye Peak on the nearby Mahoosuc Range.

The remaining miles seemed much longer that what the trails signs indicated but after endless descending and meandering on old logging roads we finally crossed the snowmobile suspension bridge over the Bear River in the bottom of the valley and made short work of the last half mile of road running to get back to the car in 9:29:30.

It was a longer day than we anticipated but Ryan summed it up in a text to me the next morning:

"I'm still smiling from that run."

You said it, man.

And lastly, a word on time. As near as I can tell, Ryan and I set a new Fastest Known Time (FKT) for the route. A little Googling beforehand showed that Scott and Deb Livingston with Matt Schomburg ran the whole route in 13:26 in 2008, shortly after the loop was completed. The next year, Steve and Deb Pero et al also did the whole thing roughly 14-15 hours. I had heard a rumor of a possible 10:30 time but no one I've talked to can remember where they heard that, who did it, or when it might have happened. In any case, we left plenty of slack in our day and if this worthy route sees more attention I wouldn't be surprised to see some one better our time by ninety minutes.

GPS track:

Friday, July 4, 2014

Presidential Traverse 6/29/2014

A casual Presidential Traverse with a friend - in pictures.

Ascending Howker Ridge, the most aesthetic start to the Traverse in my opinion.

Mount Jefferson

Shoulder of Mount Clay

The Great Gulf - my favorite view in the Whites.

The Climb to the Clouds auto race was going on.

I imagine we were some of the few who'd appreciate all of the things in this picture.

Mount Washington summit

Mount Monroe

Looking back to Washington

Last view of the day - another favorite.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Manitou's Revenge - 6/21/14


So proclaims the Manitou's Revenge web page. They put it in capital letters so's you won't miss it, even if you're only semi-literate like I am. Hyperbole is a bit of a cliche in ultrarunning but, that being said, I'm going to put my next statement in it's own paragraph just so you don't miss it:

This race delivers.

I'm a believer in frame of reference. I once caught some flack for calling a Massachusetts 50k "flat and fast" and I suppose if your only experience was on roads then you might have felt sandbagged too. My benchmark has always been the White Mountains and few courses I've run have been able to match them for technical trail running and long steep climbs. I'll admit the possibility of some personal bias there, but I've always wanted to have a competitive race in my own personal brier-patch. Alas, the Man puts up red tape and we can't have such nice things... until Manitou's Revenge came along.

The Manitou's Revenge course is remarkably similar to the Hut Traverse in the Whites. It's a little over 50 miles long, has a solid 14000' feet of climbing, and features gnarly, rocky terrain over the Escarpment Trail and the Devil's Path in the Catskills of New York. Because it's on state, rather than federal land, the race director and his crew were able to work out a deal where the race would be permitted to take place. I think this makes a good example of what such an event can be. We as runners got to participate in a unique and challenging event with minimal impact on the natural resources and other users of the area.

To top things off, not only was the course what I've been looking for, but so was the competition. Denis Mikhaylov was returning after his win last year. Brian Ruseiki, one of the best ultrarunners in the northeast, would be starting as well. Additionally, the last four FKT holders for the Pemi Loop would be there; Ben Nephew, Jan Wellford, Ryan Welts, and myself. Credentials go deeper than that all around, but I'd like to think that any one of us six could have taken the win. Personally, I felt rather outgunned but held out hope that the difficult course would play to my strengths and my hundred miler experience would let me be a contender in the later sections of the race.

We started at a reasonable pace and it didn't take long for a lead pack of about eight guys to form, most of whom I expected with a couple unfamiliar faces. No sign of Denis, though. I was excited to finally check out the Escarpment Trail and it didn't disappoint. The running was technical and stimulating but nothing too crazy and we were periodically rewarded with views of the Hudson River Valley from clifftop overlooks. Denis had made it to the start late and must have been pushing pretty hard to catch us. He came barreling through kamikaze-style like he was running a 5k, made a few sketchy passes off-trail in the bushes, and was soon out of sight. Ben and Brian made a move to pick up the pace and I and a few others took the chance to follow.

 2014 Manitou's Revenge, leaders on the Escarpment Trail, mile 17 from on Vimeo.

I lost contact with the lead group shortly after we passed through North Lake Campground at mile 17 and was surprised to pass an ailing Denis so soon on the long descent into Palenville where I joined up with Jan Wellford. It was nice to spend a few minutes with him in person after a couple years of sporadic email contact, though the conversation ended when Jan pulled away from me on the climb up Kaaterskill High Peak like I was standing still. At that point, around halfway through the race, I figured the finishing order was all but settled, with Brian and Ben being long gone. Picking my way along the muddy and rooty trail I was happy to have Ryan catch me and we ran together into Platte's Clove at 31.5 miles.

Up next was the infamous Devils Path. There were root ladders and numerous thirty foot ledges to scramble up and down, along with boulder fields to hop across. The rocks here are different than the Whites; much flatter with a smooth texture and they all move and shift underfoot. Ryan and I started catching glimpses of someone running up ahead of us through the trees and I thought it must be Jan. Imagine my surprise to discover a seventy year old man from New Jersey absolutely hauling ass down some difficult technical sections. Ryan and I professed our admiration for his strength and skill when we finally did feel ready to pass. I want to be like him when I grow up.

By the time we'd reached Mink Hollow at 38.5 Ryan had pulled away from me and I came into the aid station less than thirty minutes behind the leaders. This was something of a low spot as I was struggling with my usual mid-day bonk and my ankle that's been problematic this year was acting up. It wasn't painful but after eight hours of uneven footing the joint stiffened up and I had a limited range of motion. Strange how my ankle could be perfectly fine over seven hours on the Pemi-Loop but after hour eight it becomes a problem. I'll admit to feeling a little discouraged but it turns out I was not nearly so far behind as I thought at the time.

Despite slowing down, I was hoping to maintain my position in fifth but was caught by by Carlo from Italy just after Silver Hollow (mile 44). We were finally off the Devil's Path but my condition seemed to keep me at the same slow pace. Carlo tried to get me to stay with him, and I did for a while, but when we hit the Warner Creek crossing I stopped to cool off a little and he kept going. After that it was a long lonely walk up the final climb to the fire tower on Mount Tremper. Just before the top I heard some commotion off to the side in the woods and caught a glimpse a of a black bear crashing through the brush. I haven't seen a bear in the woods in a long time.

The last major aid station made a good excuse to sit down and indulge in a couple handfuls of Skittles, something I don't normally eat. Chatting with the volunteers, I was surprised to learn that Jan had come through in first place with over a fifteen minute lead. It sounds like he ran a smart race all day, hanging back early on and making his move in the later stages to earn the win in 10:50:34. I jogged slowly down the final descent into Phoenicia on an old jeep road to cross the finish in 12:28:15 for sixth place.

Manitou's Revenge as an event turned out to be everything I'd hoped it would be. It's the exact kind of course I've been wanting for a long time and I think it has a bright future. Superlatives are overused in ultrarunning, but I'm going to go ahead and call this the hardest race course of it's length that I'm familiar with.  It easily outdoes the Pittsfield Peaks 50 in Vermont, which has similar elevation gain but easier footing. Wapack 50 in New Hampshire would be next in line but it doesn't have the same kind of gain and the difficulty is not nearly as sustained. As for comparing Manitou's to the Hut Traverse, I think the Hut Traverse has the edge with its greater gain, bigger climbs, and footing that cuts you even fewer breaks. And then there's the elephant in the room, the race I've been invited several times to compare Manitou's to; Hardrock. All things considered, I'm going to call it about even with what a Hardrock 50 would be like. Sure, it's a crude comparison as the character of the landscape is totally different but based on finishing times I'm going to say they're in the same ballpark.

As for my own performance, I'm left a little disappointed. There wasn't much I could have done about the ankle issue, but fueling and pacing remains a persistent problem for me. I've been taking in 200-plus calories per hour in gel and I still run out of gas in most races. My muscles seem to be up to the challenge, I had no soreness in the following days, but I just couldn't seem to get them the energy they need. This weakness is probably the greatest barrier to improving my performance and I'll likely be looking into improving my fat metabolism rather than relying so much on carbohydrates, to gain an edge.

I want to express my huge thanks to my wife and daughter who crewed me, the race volunteers, and especially to Charlie Gadol who saw this race through. Charlie, if you ever do go through with that 100 mile version you mentioned, I'll be the first in line to sign up.

GPS track on Strava:

All photos courtesy of Joe Azze at Mountain Peak Fitness.