AT Four State Challenge FKT (as of 7/3/17)
It was early last summer and I was on a major Strava bender. You know the kind: digging into segments and profiles and scrutinizing the data sixteen different ways. In preparation for my second running of the JFK 50 in 2016, I was researching the section of the Appalachian Trail from Turners Gap outside of Boonsboro to Gathland Park. At some point in this process of obsessive compulsive Strava-ing, I came across a segment owned by an athlete named Iain Ridgeway, clicked the activity and found this:
Appalachian Trail: 4 State Challenge FKT
42 mile run from the PA/MD border at the Mason Dixon Line through to the WV/VA border above Harpers Ferry. New FKT.
My introduction to the concept of FKTs was via Killian Jornet's Summits of My Life series. Understanding that Iain’s run represented the fastest verifiable time of any human ever across this particular route, and a sense that I had the ability to best it, my interest was immediately piqued. This was an epic route in my (relative) back yard. It had history beyond running alone - it weaves through beautiful and important Civil War sites and the route covered part of my absolute favorite race ever, the JFK 50. I printed out the Strava overview and taped it to the wall in my office. It occupies a space next to the aforementioned Killian Jornet's "Skyrunner Manifesto" and was no less inspiring in the year between that night and my very own attempt at the route.
Flashforward to June 2017. I'm preparing for my first crack at one hundred miles, the notoriously difficult Eastern States 100. I'd been talking up the FKT challenge for almost a year and on a training run with my friend Erin Kelman along the AT, we discussed my nebulous intention to tackle it as part of my training for ES100 sometime this summer. A few days later I was at home looking at the calendar, and after a little bargaining with my saint-like wife, I found a date I could stake out for an attempt.
The plan was (not so) simple: drive up to the Pennsylvania/Maryland border the night before the attempt, scope out the first few miles, camp on the AT and attack the route early in the pre-dawn hours to stay out of the worst of the heat. My good friend Sam Graul agreed to camp, crew and pace me from Harpers Ferry to the finish. Erin would run with me from the deserted Pogo Campgrounds approximately thirteen miles into the run to Taylor’s Gap twelve miles south. I haven’t run too many ultramarathons, but three fifty milers and two fifty kilometer races have given me a pretty good sense of what I need in terms of hydration and nutrition at this distance, so I had a good plan on that front and laid everything out for Sam so I’d have exactly what I needed when I needed it.
The Sunday night recce went without incident. Sam, a smart hiker, helpfully educated me on what to look for in terms of trail markings and we got to see a section of the trail called “the devil’s racecourse,” a nasty boulder field where the trail as one knows it simply vanishes. It was invaluable, and after a four and a half mile roundtrip shakeout, we made our way back to my car and to our campsite.
The part of this experience I might cherish most is that of camping in the woods, fairly primitively, just a few feet off of the AT. The Appalachian Trail is a magical place, and poets, painters and writers have eloquently expressed that magic better than I ever could. Suffice to say, resting close to the trail itself, hours before a self-serving, arrogant pursuit, was humbling. Was I worthy even of the attempt? Had I put in the time, the effort? Did I have the appreciation of the history and of the difficulty? Laying next to part of the 2,200 miles, next to the ghosts of the incredible people that came before, I grappled with my own sense of worthiness. Even now, after it’s done, I consider it. It was not a restful nights sleep. I think I got about two and a half hours of uninterrupted slumber before my three AM alarm went off.
Time to go.
We packed up camp. I had my customary pre-ultra Pop Tart and some more water (hydration would be vital today). We got in the car and made the ten minute drive to Pen Mar. I was fixated on getting a four AM sharp start time. We didn’t quite make that, having to deal with a bathroom break and last minute gear fixes. I ended up departing the Mason Dixon line fifteen(ish) minutes after four. Sam followed, and planned to do so until Devil's Racecourse or so. Just past Pen Mar, he caught a root in the dark and went down. I later found out he busted his knee something fierce but he shouted at me that he was OK and that I should keep going and I did… right off the trail.
Literally within five minutes of starting, I was off-course on some side trail. I recognized the mistake fairly quickly but in the darkness, I could not for the life of me find my way back to the AT. Finally, I found the train tracks I crosses right after the Mason Dixon line and followed them in the direction back toward Pen Mar to stop the clock and start again.
Settled and centered, I started for real at about quarter of five in the morning. Still pitch dark, but feeling more in control, I started on. The trip to the Devil’s Racecourse was without incident this time. I was briefly unsettled by (no shit) a black cat sitting dead in the middle of the trail, but considered that it was stationary and never technically crossed my path to be a good sign.
About a mile later, I was in trouble. Not realizing it, my LED headlamp, a bluish-white light, had been making the light-blue blazes of a feeder trail appear white in the pre-dawn darkness. I found myself turned around at High Rock without any idea where I was. Doubling back after finally accepting that I wasn’t on the trail, I reacquired the white blaze of the AT and got back on my way. This detour cost me ten minutes. I could only hope it wouldn’t be the difference between an FKT and a nice long run.
Discouraged but not defeated, I carried on. I got a text about this time from a family member wishing me a “happy run.” At the time, I was a little annoyed. It would be a happy run if I hadn’t gotten lost. But pretty quickly I realized it *was* a happy run. What I was doing was a privilege. It didn’t matter how fast I went so long as I honored this sacred trail with a good effort and a happy heart. Within a minute or two, I was back on track physically and spiritually. Plenty of time left.
Ten miles later, I met Erin and Sam and began the work in earnest. As it so happened, the section Erin was joining me on would be among the most runnable terrain of the day. I didn’t quite hammer, but I put in a good, sustainable effort and tried to bank some good easy miles. Erin kept me honest, pushing when I got a little lazy on the downhills, and keeping the atmosphere upbeat at precisely the time I needed it.
We made it into Taylor’s Gap in good time, I got new water and some more food and kept going. A restroom just off trail was too appealing (I’d been sick with some kind of digestive bug the week before and hadn’t quite shaken it). I stopped for a bio break and another four minutes or so went down the proverbial and literal drain but since I was below record pace at this point, I figured it was worth it. My dream of running this in six hours and forty five minutes was out the window and the goal was to get the FKT with as much joy and grace as I could muster. Getting comfortable before a good effort was worth every second I was off trail.
What happened next is that wonderful event that happens to us sometimes when we cover long distances on our feet: time just slipped away. I was in Gathland Park almost instantly, surprising myself by how quickly and effortlessly I made the distance. I met Sam (who, and this should tell you everything you need to know about him - had picked up two hikers who wanted vehicular passage to Harpers Ferry, which Sam gratefully provided in exchange for information about the AT’s route through the site of John Brown’s 1859 revolt). New water and nutrition in hand. I headed for the Weverton Cliffs and C&O canal towpath.
This is one of the key portions of the run I wish I could redo - I didn’t get enough water at Gathland and I ended up running dry before even reaching the cliffs. It was past eleven AM and the sun was baking on the towpath. By the time I reached Sam at the end of the Goodloe Bryon Footbridge, I was dehydrated. After resupplying me, Sam led me through Harper’s Ferry, across the Shenandoah to the vertiginous climb to the West Virginia/Virginia State Line. I hadn’t quite appreciated the steep and technical nature of this last push and overdid it a little into and out of Harpers Ferry. As a result, unhappily for perhaps truly the first time all day, I power hiked the majority of this section. A skinny guy in running shorts and a singlet asking every southbound hiker he encountered how far away the border sign was must have been a somewhat comical sight. The humor was (mostly) lost on me in the moment as I just wanted to finish this thing. Sub-seven hours slipped away, but I knew I was close and so long as I didn’t get lost or break a leg, I should have enough time to get the FKT.
Finally, I did. At a little sign that reads simply “VA/WVA STATE LINE," my journey came to an end. My watch read 7:19:24. I had established a new FKT by a little more than ten minutes.
Sam caught up to me a few minutes later (the knee was troubling him and perhaps I wasn’t moving as badly as I felt). He was happy for me as only a true friend could be, and I was legitimately and profoundly grateful for his support (and for Erin, who had to leave our adventure before being able to see it to the end).
I was quick to post the data to Strava, which in retrospect was a mistake. I was almost immediately hit with criticism that I didn’t give ample notice to the former FKT holder by a runner who is planning on attempting this route in the days ahead (and who has a super good chance of beating my time). It soured the experience a little and I wish I had instead let myself experience the moment and the accomplishment instead of racing to social media to tell the world about it. In any event, Iain Ridgeway, who established the 7:29:51 time in May of 2015, seemed super supportive of not just my effort but of future attempts.
And so am I. I hope this 43 (ish) mile route becomes iconic. It’s an incredible journey and should be a rite of passage for American ultrarunners. From the Mason Dixon line through Harpers Ferry to the land of Lee, what more could you ask for in a day of running? I know my time won't last long. Mike Wardian might decide to take a leisurely stroll from PA to his backyard one day and take an hour off of this. It's all relative. For now, in this moment, I own something that nobody else owns, something money cannot buy. That's why we run. It's what we're chasing. I have to savor it. I could and likely will harp poetic about this experience but what I immediately appreciate most about this day is how I could not have done it alone. I needed my friends. I needed the support of my wife (not just on the day but during the years of running and life that have led me here). I needed the support of hikers to point me in the right direction. I needed the upbeat text message at five in the morning.
Ultimately what I come away with is that an FKT, achievement of any sort accomplished by one person, is never ever actually accomplished by one person. It’s the work of a community, a tribe. With this run, and my earnest commitment to return to it as I'm able in the future, to defend my time or simply improve upon it, I humbly submit a contribution to the incredible community of hikers and wanderers and runners who have at one point or another called the Appalachian Trail home.
A happy run.