Friday, August 7, 2015

My Long Trail attempt

It's hard to believe that I was only on the Long Trail for three and a half days. It feels more like three and a half lifetimes.

I was trying for the unsupported record, which is 6 days, 17 hours, and 25 minutes.  It's held by Travis Wildeboer, someone who I know is a very good runner and hiker, so I knew that trying for the record would be a big challenge.  But I was excited, trained, and ready.  I had several last-minute changes of mind about what gear to bring, but both Zpacks and Borah Gear were very helpful about getting me what I needed in just a couple of weeks.  I ended up with a pack of 6 pounds of gear and 8 pounds of food, far heavier than what I'm used to carrying but the minimum I could expect to get away with on something this long.  ("Unsupported" means that you carry all of your gear and food for the entire way with you from the beginning to the end and don't buy anything, or accept trail magic, along the way.)

The Long Trail is about 273 miles long but very uneven in terms of difficulty.  Going southbound, as Travis did and as I would be doing, the first 115 miles or so are mostly extremely rough, rugged, and hilly.  Then there are about 30 miles of moderate trail, followed by about 125 miles of much easier trail.  When Travis set his record, he did 30 to 35 miles a day on the harder sections and then 45 to 55 on the easier sections, followed by a 60ish mile final push.  My plan was to end each day in the same place as he did until day 5, then try to gain an extra 5 to 10 miles on his schedule and come in around 6 days and 15 hours.

On Saturday, August 1, I got an early morning ride to the approach trail to the northern terminus.  The thing about the Long Trail is that you can't just get dropped off and start.  First you get dropped off part of the way up a gravel road.  Then you hike up the road to the approach trail.  Then you hike 1.3 miles to the Canadian border, where the Long Trail starts.  In other words, there's a fair bit of extra work that you get no credit for in your first day's mileage!

The first 4 miles of the trail lull you into a false sense of security.  Nothing in those miles was particularly hard; basically just your standard Superior Hiking Trail fare with some slightly bigger hills thrown in.  The calm trail went on for long enough that I almost started to wonder if all the reports of it being so rough were from people who had never been on any technical trails.

Then things changed.  First, the mud from the previous few weeks of serious rain got deeper and deeper:

Standard mud for the first 30 miles

I decided not to step where my trekking pole went in...
Then the more technical ground started coming thick and fast, beginning with a steep, rocky, and narrow climb up Jay Peak.  I was highly disappointed when we didn't get to just walk up the ski hill!  There were some good views when we crossed the ski run, though:

Between the mud and the very technical descents and the steep ups and downs, I was beaten and ready to quit by mile 14.  Mile 14!!  There were still 259 miles to go.  And as I would later discover, I wasn't even at the hard part yet.

At Tillotson Camp, just short of mile 23, I sat down next to the shelter and tried to regroup.  Something was going to have to drastically change in order for me to make it through the day, let alone through the whole trail.  I tried to adjust my expectations for the day from what they had been--to do 30 miles slowly and comfortably and arrive at the end of the day feeling fresh and ready to do more the next day--to what they needed to be, which was to be ready to deal with a higher level of pain than planned and to keep slogging through the miles regardless, for the next 6 days.

It didn't help that just past Tillotson Camp was a beautiful little pond:

The sun had come out, it was a beautiful afternoon, and there were some guys fishing and relaxing by the pond.  They looked to be having the perfect day and I suddenly wanted to relax and enjoy myself too.  Why was I out here working myself so hard?  I couldn't quite answer that but pressed on.  I was rewarded with a lucky break--after the top of the next peak, the trail eased off a bit and the descent to mile 27 was really quite pleasant.  The easier trail continued all the way to mile 30 and the Devil's Gulch:

Devil's Gulch was not what I wanted to deal with at the end of my first day on the trail, but it's only a third of a mile long and passed by quickly.  Then it was just a quick jog from the end of the gulch to Spruce Ledge Camp, my shelter for the night.  I had done 30.5 miles with over 10,200 feet of ascent.  In other words, it was as hilly as the Hardrock course but with much more technical ground and mud--though fortunately no altitude to deal with!

I had a nice stay at the shelter and met some very friendly people, but it was too cold for me to sleep much and I eventually got up and got back on the trail around 3am.  The nighttime was fantastic; there was a bright moon, I was on a fairly easy section of trail, and I was feeling stronger than the day before.  When the sun came up I stopped for a relaxing breakfast on the climb up Butternut Mountain:

In fact nearly all of this day went well.  For one, the forecasted thunderstorms never materialized. And although Laramay Mountain was tough, with all the mud and wet rock, the entire way from mile 40 to mile 55 was largely easy to moderate, and it would have all been runnable had I not still had 6 days' worth of food in my pack.

Then I reached mile 55, and things went wrong quickly.  There are no less than 1400 feet of elevation gain between mile 55 and mile 56 as you go up Whiteface Mountain.  As in, 1400 feet of ascent in one mile.  Then there's the "descent" from Whiteface, which somehow seemed to have more climbing than descending in it.  (As a motto for the trail, I propose "The Long Trail:  Where Even the Downhills Are Uphill.")  It's all technical and steep, too, and the next peak was no better.  After the next peak there's another 5-mile "descent" full of tree roots, ledges, and boulders.

Out of all the miles I did on this trip, I thought miles 55 to 63 were by far the hardest.  It's difficult to explain exactly how hard I was working here; basically I was putting in the effort level you'd use for a road marathon, except I was moving at 1 to 2 miles an hour.  And this section was relentless--I don't think there was anything that wasn't desperately hard in the entire 8 miles.  I arrived at the picnic area at Smuggler's Notch, my end point for the day, in a huge amount of pain and ready to quit this run.  I convinced myself to at least spend the night on the trail and see how I felt in the morning, but I had low hopes for actually continuing on.  The only good part of my situation was that it was the night where I got to stay in the cement outhouse in the picnic area.  It has two toilets in separate cinderblock rooms, so I set up camp in one, locked the door, laughed at my own joke about this putting a new meaning to the phrase "en-suite accommodation," and went straight to sleep.  I couldn't decide whether I found it hilarious or depressing that I was spending my hard-earned vacation time from work sleeping in a toilet block--not to mention that it actually seemed luxurious.

When I woke up everything hurt just as much as it had the night before.  I hadn't set an alarm so it was already around 5:30 a.m. and it was time to either get going or decide that I was done.  I still wanted to quit but made myself pack up all my gear as if I were going to go on, and then once everything was packed, it seemed like I might as well carry on.  Once again I was lucky with the weather; it had been forecast to rain and thunderstorm all morning, which would have been a huge problem since I had to immediately climb up Mt. Mansfield.  Mansfield is Vermont's highest peak and has an exposed rocky summit, definitely not somewhere you'd want to be in a storm.  But somehow I got beautiful sunny weather, and I absolutely loved this part of the trail.

At the visitors' center, I saw my first other person of the day, a woman who was up on the summit to do some type of biology research.  I asked if she could take a picture of me, and as I was walking in front of the rock above for a photo, I stumbled a little and nearly stepped on some grass.  "Except don't step on the vegetation," the woman said to me, sounding as if I had just dropped a bucketful of litter on the ground.  Apparently having legs that were slightly tired from the previous 67 miles was enough to make me an environmental criminal.  At least I got a photo out of the incident, and I'm fairly sure I didn't actually step on the vegetation.

A lot of people had told me that Mt. Mansfield is one of the hardest parts of the trail, which makes sense because it has a lot of scrambling and it's quite a big ascent, but I thought it was one of the easier parts since it was more straightforward--less jumping over tree roots and small boulders and more just powerhiking up a big hill and then (after the scrambling) running down.  After the scrambling and ladder section on the way, down, the trail opened up into some of the easiest trail I had seen so far:

This was a huge morale boost and I made good time for most of the afternoon.  It was hot, there was rain, then it was hot again, and I had to end the day with a super steep section up the Camel's Hump, but I was moving forward steadily.

Climbs up tree roots was a common theme on the Long Trail 

Just before dark I finally arrived, exhausted and dripping with sweat, at the shelter just north of the top of Camel's Hump (mile 92).  I was five miles short of where Travis had stopped on his Day 3, but there had been signs saying that the mile 97 shelter (where Travis stayed) was closed due to bear problems, and I wasn't keen to try to make it all the way to mile 102 without sleep.

My shelter was full of kids from a summer camp, and while there were lots of them, there could have easily been room for me to stay in the shelter as well had everyone moved over a bit.  But when I asked the group leader if they could make some room for me, he replied "No!  We walked a long way today."  A variety of possible responses went through my head but I managed to just say that I had also walked a long way too, then headed off to the back of the shelter to set up my bivy bag on a wooden gear shelf that was at least mostly covered by the back of the roof.  I did however set my alarm to go off at max volume at 5am!  It was cold and uncomfortable trying to sleep on the shelf, though, and I wasn't able to sleep more than a couple of hours.  Hopefully I at least woke up the group leader as I packed my things to start hiking around 2am.

I had a surprisingly enjoyable steep hike up to the summit of the Camel's Hump in the dark, but once on top the weather had changed to a thick, cold fog, and I hurried to get off the scrambling section in case rain was about to start.  I was getting sleepy and made depressingly slow progress on the descent, stopping a couple of times for a quick rest in the middle of the trail.  It was too cold to sleep, though, so I had to continue on at my glacially slow pace.  Finally I got to the next shelter and had a brief snooze on a chair in front of it, waking up when two hikers came through and made me feel guilty for my lack of forward progress.

There were gorgeous views from the top of the next peak:

By about 8am, somewhere around mile 100, I again wanted to quit.  Well, not quit entirely, but quit trying to go fast.  I was ready to give up on the record attempt and "jog it in" which ironically on this trail would involve not doing any jogging at all.  After using every mental trick I could think of, I finally managed to get myself back in the right mindset and moving forward at a pace that was maybe not stellar but good enough to keep me in a position to keep trying for the record.  "It doesn't have to be fast, it just has to be steady," I kept repeating to myself.  I tackled the steep climb up Molly Stark's Balcony more steadily than I thought I would have been able to and was pleased to make it to the top ahead of schedule.  I was so proud of myself for having gotten myself back together and having overcome the desire to quit for at least the fifth time on this run.  And, I had only about 8 more miles before the terrain got significantly easier.

Which is why I was that much more depressed when I got to the top of Molly Stark's Balcony and saw this:

I had survived a few thunderstorms already this trip, but I knew this one was going to be a problem.  For a start, I was at fairly high elevation, and I wasn't going to be coming down from high elevation until tomorrow.  I had to somehow stay warm all night.  I didn't have enough warm clothes to warm up in a high elevation shelter after getting soaked, and I knew I was way too sleepy to be able to stay up all of the coming night.  I had plenty of waterproof gear--waterproof pants, jacket, and mittens--but even they tend to get soaked through in heavy rain.  I get cold quickly at the best of times and in particular now, having not eaten nearly enough food for the past four days and having barely slept, I knew I was about to get very cold.

And sure enough, the storm started, it hailed like crazy, the trail turned into a river of icy cold water, and I froze.

Just as the storm was starting, I realized I had phone reception since I was on top of a hill, and figured it was my big chance to call for a bailout ride if I wanted one.  My mom had been planning to pick me up at the end of the trail, so I called to check if she would be able to come get me now instead.  She said yes.  I hung up and tried to think through my options, feeling more than a bit pressed for time since lightning was now all around me and I was standing on a tall, exposed chunk of rock.  I finally decided it was time to bail.  As the hail built up, the weather turn seemed funny at first, then got scary as I realized it was 1.5 miles of scrambling up and down wet rock, in the middle of a thunderstorm, to get to the road.  The rock was completely flooded with water and the hail kept raining down, getting me scarily cold within minutes.

When I finally made it to the road, I felt like I had made the right decision, since I was so desperately cold that I couldn't imagine carrying on into even higher ground and somehow trying to stay warm the rest of the day and upcoming night.  In hindsight, of course, I keep questioning whether it was the right call.  I could always have walked up to the next shelter and then turned around and gone back to the road if necessary, or I could have cannibalized my sleeping clothes as an extra layer of warmth to make it through the day, then quit the next day if the storm continued.

So after managing to convince myself to keep going through all of the hardest parts of the trail, I somehow managed to quit 8 miles before easier ground.  I'm not too thrilled about how this worked out.  In fact I'd say I'm the most depressed that I've been about a run since Arrowhead 2011.  Part of me is tempted to use the fitness I gained over the past few days to try the trail again ASAP.  Part of me wants to use that fitness for something else, like a mountainous 100 miler or a sneaky late summer Bob Graham Round.  Most of me, though, remembers that the Long Trail was only supposed to be a little adventure during my recovery from the White River 50, something fun that I could as a sort of active recovery before taking a couple of weeks off and then starting training for some fast, short autumn races.  While I can't quite believe I ever thought the Long Trail could fall into the category of active recovery, I still might be better off sticking to the original plan of having a rest period now and getting back to organized training in September.  I'll have to think about it...

Final mileage tally:

Day 1:  30.5 miles
Day 2:  32.8 miles
Day 3:  29 miles
Day 4:  15 miles before bailing at mile 107, Appalachian Gap.  About 3 hours behind Travis at this point.