Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Long Trail 2, Alicia 0

I had been eagerly awaiting a return to the Long Trail all year for another unsupported attempt (i.e. carrying all my own gear and food from the start, with no resupplies or accepting food from others).  My plan was the same as last year--stay on the same schedule used by Travis Wildeboer, the unsupported record holder, until the last day or two and then try to finish a bit faster.

Day 1:  Canadian border to Spruce Ledge Camp, mile 31.3

This year I had my mom with me for the trip to Vermont.  She dropped me off at the start of the approach trail at 5am Saturday.  It took a little over half an hour to get to the start of the Long Trail itself, and I spent a few minutes admiring the view into Canada before setting off on my run at 5:42 a.m.

It only took a few miles before I noticed that something was very different this year compared to last year:  I was in much better shape!  The first 120 miles of the Long Trail are extremely technical even by UK standards, but doing the Bob Graham just two weeks previously had left me significantly fitter for all the hills, and my first day on the Long Trail this year was a completely different experience because of it.  Last year I remember feeling like I might not even make it to the end of day 1, let alone the end of the run; this year I wasn't even particularly tired by the end of day 1.

I also went much faster this year!  In fact, I arrived at the stopping point two and a half hours early and had to decide whether or not to press on to the next shelter.  In the end I decided it made more sense to stay and relax at the shelter I had planned to stop at (which was the shelter where the unsupported record holder had also stayed), since it was unlikely that I would be able to go any further than planned on day 2.  Although I was somewhat stressed about wasting a few hours of daylight, it was fun to sit at the shelter and talk to the other hikers, who were all northbound thruhikers and so were nearly finished with their hikes.

Day 2:  Spruce Ledge Camp to Smuggler's Notch picnic area, mile 64.2

I completely failed to fall asleep during the first night, which was a seriously disappointing setback since I spent nearly seven (!) hours at the shelter.  Around 2am I eventually admitted defeat and set off on day 2's miles.  Everything again went smoothly despite the lack of sleep, although I did waste 45 minutes getting lost just before the start of the climb up Whiteface (there is a brief section on a gravel road and unfortunately a logging company had just been through and chopped down a tree which had had white blazes on it marking the turn onto the trail--fortunately I had been here before and realized after a while that I had been on the road far too long).  Whiteface and then Madonna Peak were every bit as hard and unpleasant as I had remembered them, but this year I had saved up a special treat for myself for after the Whiteface summit--a McDonald's burger!  I felt horribly guilty eating it in front of the other hiker who was at the Whiteface shelter, but I had been eagerly awaiting it for several hours and couldn't hold back any longer.

I again arrived at the end of the day earlier than planned, but I did notice that one of my feet was pretty bloody from some sores that I had gotten the day before, from all the mud and grit that had been constantly getting in my shoes.  I washed my feet off in the stream at the Smuggler's Notch picnic area, spent some time taping over the bleeding parts of each foot, and then settled in for a repeat of my luxury accommodation in the composting toilet block.  It felt like absolute bliss and I slept soundly for 7 hours.

Day 3:  Smuggler's Notch picnic area to Montclair Glen shelter, mile 96.8

Putting my shoes on in the morning was a painful task.  With the humidity being nearly 100% virtually the entire time I was on the trail, my foot wounds weren't healing at all, and neither tape nor bandages would stay in place over them, which meant my socks were constantly sticking to the sores and then tearing them open even more as I moved my foot.  However, the first main event on day 3 is the climb up Mt. Mansfield, which is still my favorite part of the entire trail, and that did cheer me up.  I stopped more often than I probably should have for photos...

After Mansfield there is a long runnable section and then several big uphills, which did start to feel like hard work given the high heat and humidity.  I stopped for a snack break at the Puffer shelter and turned on my phone to see if I had any reception.  I did have a little and was startled to receive a text letting me know that my friend Nicole had died unexpectedly. It was a lot to take in at that moment; at least I knew that she would have enjoyed the view from Puffer:

After another long runnable section, it was time for a crucial part of the run:  I needed to get up and over the Camel's Hump (large rocky peak) before the end of the day in order to stay on pace for the record, and the weather was looking threatening.  I climbed up as fast as I could, getting more and more worried as dark clouds moved in.  But I got lucky, and the bad weather stayed to each side of the hump rather than on it.  The summit itself actually had gorgeous sunshine, quite the change from the dark and mist I got last time I was on it!

Getting over the hump and down to the Montclair Glen shelter before dark was a big turning point in how I saw my chances of success on the run.  This day had been the hardest day of the week in terms of both ascent and terrain, and it required the most luck with weather.  From here on, in theory, I had a much better chance of achieving the record...

Day 4:  Montclair Glen shelter to Emily Proctor shelter, mile 129.2

It was another almost sleepless night; I got just a couple of hours before the roasting temperatures and noise level in the shelter drove me out onto the trail.  I will admit that I absolutely hated the first five miles of trail on day 4.  It was nearly constantly technical, and not in a nice way--lots of squeezing between/under/over large boulders and trying to follow a very faint trail as it wound in between the trees.  I was also exhausted from the lack of sleep and the hard day yesterday.  When I finally finished the bad five miles, I decided to stop for a quick nap; it was too cold to sleep much but I did feel a little better when I set off again.  Not much later I made it to an important milestone:  Appalachian Gap, the place where I had had to bail following a hailstorm last year.  I tried to quickly power through the big hills on the south side of the gap (they are *quite* big, it turns out!) and by early afternoon I was at Mt. Abraham, the last of the rocky summits.

When you cross the road on the other side of Mt. Abraham, the trail abruptly changes, so much so that it's like a completely different trail.  I imagine the trail builders thinking something along the lines of "Ha, that northern bit of trail was a good joke, right?  We can't believe you went along with it for 118 miles!  Here's some normal trail now."  It was now very similar to the Superior Hiking Trail, with more hills.  If I'd been feeling stronger, I could have made much better time here, but I was seriously dragging and had to keep having breaks for foot care adjustments.  I did manage to arrive at the Emily Proctor shelter before dark, though, and spent a very nice evening talking with a southbound thruhiker who was staying there.

Day 5:  Emily Proctor shelter to campsite, 165.2

This was one of the easier days in terms of terrain and ascent but not in terms of pain levels; my feet were getting pretty raw and the constant pain was wearing on my mental state.  In comparison to all the sections of trail I'd done so far, this entire day was filled with easy trail, so it was just a question of forcing myself to keep moving quickly and to still do some running.  Towards the end of the day I did have some improvement, and the last 10 miles went fairly well.  I arrived at my campsite just before dark and enjoyed the luxury of a bath in a stream AND a change of clothes--I felt reborn!  There was nobody else at the site so it was quiet and peaceful, and I slept well on a comfortable pine needle bed under my bivy bag.

Day 6:  Campsite to mile 201

Day 5 was the first time I had ended the day behind Travis; he had done a further 7 miles that day to get to the shelter at the top of Killington Peak.  I was (a) too tired for that and (b) not convinced I'd be able to get any sleep in the colder air at the top of the peak, so I had decided to stop early.  But I knew I needed to have a great day on day 6 to make up for it.  I set the alarm for 2:15 a.m. and was out on the trail at 2:45.  The night section was slow since I'd been having trouble with my headtorch (can that design trend where you have to tap the side of the lights to increase or decrease the output PLEASE stop soon...) and I couldn't see where I was going very well.  But by the time I was descending Killington, things were going much better.  I was pleased to discover that my legs were able to run just fine, and I had had some more ibuprofen* so my feet were coping relatively well.

Tired but happy legs

I was pleased with my pace throughout the 20 miles south of Killington; at the top of Killington, I was four hours behind Travis, while 20 miles later I was only between half an hour to an hour behind him.  By the time I got to mile 185 or so, I was starting to believe for the first time that I was going to at least finish, regardless of whether that was ahead of or behind the record.

But...I was running out of ibuprofen.  I had one left, and it would be at least 24 hours before I could expect to finish.  As I approached 8 hours from my last dose, the pain spiked.  It was a swift downfall from here.  There was no medical reason I couldn't have kept going to the finish; there was only a little bit of green in the pus that was oozing out of my feet, so I wasn't worried about a major infection setting in, and I certainly wasn't doing any longterm damage.  I simply couldn't handle another 24 to 30 hours of that level of pain, especially after the previous four days of pain.  I left the trail at mile 201.  To the nice girl with the Senegal FC shirt who stopped to ask if I was okay, thanks for your help in finding my way off the trail.

The primary culprit in the foot pain stakes

It's a harsh outcome for something that was actually largely a success--the training, food, and gear all worked perfectly.  But even if I personally know that I achieved more last week than I did in, say, completing the Bob Graham, that doesn't show up in the final result of the run.  I'm not sure I'll go back; it'll be a tough choice between wanting to polish off unfinished business versus wanting to do an event that I might enjoy a little more (carrying around a heavy pack and camping at night is not really my thing).  If I do go back, however, I will definitely bring more ibuprofen!

*In general, it's true that taking ibuprofen during long runs can be dangerous.  But I've got enough experience from running ultras that I know when it's okay to take some ibuprofen and when it's not.  


  1. All the peak's names bring back memories! I actually even managed to run a road race up Whiteface. Anyway, we had a somewhat similar experience of sorts: fitter than last year, encountering feet pain (different, but still feet), and relying on Ibuprofen to keep pushing. I got lucky with help on that with 2 days to go (technically, you couln't have accepted it anyway with your unsupported). And pointing out the obvious difference - I do love to carry my heavy pack (well, any time it drops below 50 lbs that is:)) and sleep in a tent.
    Here is to more random adventures, whichever fill our souls!

  2. Interesting to read. I notice how your comments have changed from 'never again' to 'probably not again' in the last few days, I'm sure it'll be 'I can't wait' in a couple of months ;-)
    Sorry to hear about your friend.

  3. I camped with you at Spruce Ledge. I am happy that I got to meet you and very much enjoyed talking to you. I'm sorry you didn't get the record as I was rooting for you. Because of having met you, when I work out I now think, "I can ask my body to do a little bit more." Here's to your future success.

    Julia (Boots) Hallquist

    1. Hi! It was good to meet you. I hope your earplugs worked well as I know I made a ton of noise when I left...it took me a couple of days to get the morning packing routine down. And I hope the last part of your hike went well and that you're all rested and recovered now.

  4. Hey thanks for sharing. This is lance (aka Dusk) I went for the record in June and called it at Clarendon after 4 and a half days due to unrelenting muscle spasms. Amazed to see how much you opted to run. I didn't run any of the days I was on the trail. in hopes to conserve some pep for the final 2 big days. I'm going back out on the trail within the next couple weeks to do it (may go self supported just to learn more and save the unsupported record for next year)

    1. Yeah, it was really different than last year--last year I didn't run much at all, but I have to say I preferred it with more running. There was a lot more time for sleep that way!! Have fun if you go back out there. I think self-supported or supported would certainly be a lot more pleasant anyway...

  5. Enjoyed the report. I just dropped in and hadn't realized you were still blogging. Glad to see some are keeping it alive. Feet often ruin all the fun. I've had a lot of luck with foot lube and don't think I've had a proper blister in years, even during multiday efforts, but I know that issues differ.

  6. Enjoyed the report. I just dropped in and hadn't realized you were still blogging. Glad to see some are keeping it alive. Feet often ruin all the fun. I've had a lot of luck with foot lube and don't think I've had a proper blister in years, even during multiday efforts, but I know that issues differ.

  7. Curious to know how heavy your pack was, how many calories a day you carried for yourself and what foods worked well? Thanks for sharing your story!