"There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen."
When COVID hit in March, my life didn’t really change. I wasn’t a bar-hopper. I probably hadn’t partied since 2014. My idea of good time in recent years was getting 8 hours of sleep, drinking good coffee, executing a perfect long run, and then staying as horizontal as possible with a book in hand for the rest of the day. I was social distancing before it was cool, is what I’m trying to say. What did throw me for numerous loops were the race cancellations led by UTMB-CCC. I started to lose focus and motivation. My roommate, Jimmy Elam, said as much to me. Something to the effect of: “Take a look at yourself…you are aimless right now. Do something. You need the structure.” He was right.
I had never stopped putting in the work. I just wasn’t investing it towards anything. But the strength and capacity were building. Seriously. Moving to a mountain cabin in Big Cottonwood Canyon back in April had changed the game for me. In particular, I was executing on a lot of difficult, high-elevation, high-vert long runs. This 3 week stretch at the end of June and beginning of July shown below was particularly good. I knew it would do something special for me in the late summer or early fall.
In early August, I took a 2 week vacation from the Wasatch to visit family in New England. Well, it was supposed to be 2 weeks. I spent most days going back and forth to the White Mountains, jamming around the Pinkham Notch area. A few days before I was supposed to depart for Salt Lake, I ran the Pemi Wilderness Loop, registered a new PR, and got back to the car with energy to spare. Good sign. Particularly good for an idea that had recently absorbed my mind: going for an FKT on the Hundred Mile Wilderness - a section of the the Appalachian Trail I had long felt another calling for. It’s where I got my start in this sport back in 2013. That was sufficient to nix my September race plans, which I doubted were going to happen anyways, and extend my time in Maine another 3 weeks. Thank the heavens for the tech industry and the flexibility of distributed work. Over the next 15-18 days, I took it pretty easy - mostly short, flat, slow road runs. I also registered another ill-advised downhill workout charging the descent off Old Speck in Grafton Notch. But other than that, I was pretty smart. I would not be lacking in motivation - or energy - in this attempt. Finishing was a given. The only question would be whether I could go under the record.
"New England: where shit gets real." - Karl Meltzer
The 100 Mile Wilderness embodies all the adventure, beauty, difficulty, and splendor of the Maine woods. The entire trail is covered in a combination of bogs, boards, rocks, roots, and slate. You ford a couple of rivers. There's over 36,000 feet of elevation change across the entire route. It's tough. And it's really remote. There are a couple of primitive logging roads that intersect at various points. But the logistics of getting extracted are so tough, you never really entertain quitting. It makes sense. When you eliminate optionality, you focus better (that’s a life tip, by the way).
"Pessimists sound smart. Optimists make money." - Nat Friedman
The day before my attempt I drove up to Abol Bridge - the northern terminus of the route - and parked my car in the hiker lot. I’d want it there to get some sleep at the finish. The ride up to Abol via Millinocket was both beautiful and disheartening. The changing fall colors: inspiring. The deindustrialization in the former mill towns: sad. From AboI, I hitched a ride from a guy named Zultan back to Monson and settled in at a hiker hostel in Monson called "Shaw's". The care-takers are awesome and it's a nice little town. Captures the spirit of the Appalachian Trail and thru-hiking culture perfectly. I ate a couple of gourmet (yes, gourmet) sandwiches from the General Store, stretched out on the bed, and read the New England section from Scott Jurek’s book: “North” for some last-minute inspiration. Eased the mind and gave me 7 hours of sleep. The next morning, I organized all the gear into my race vest, took a swig of hot coffee, and the same dude, Zultan, dropped me off again at the trailhead.
I began heading north at 5:35AM on Sunday, September 6th. I was attempting an unsupported fastest known time on Maine's 100 Mile Wilderness, a section of the Appalachian Trail that runs from Monson to Abol Bridge - one of the entrances to Baxter State Park. "Unsupported" meant I could not receive assistance from crew or pacers along the way. That record stood at 33 hours, 18 minutes, 55 seconds. If everything went as planned, I would try to go faster than the supported record too, which stood at 30 hours, 22 minutes, 5 seconds.
"Don't fear moving slowly. Fear standing still." - Chinese Proverb
The first 40 miles cover the most mountainous section of the course - the Barren-Chairback and Whitecap ranges. Altogether, there is about 26,000 feet of elevation change packed in here. Physically, all that climbing and descending breaks you down. In one instance at mile 22, I took a fall that dislocated my right middle finger. There were a lot of little annoyances like that. You also have to ford two rivers, including the west branch of the Pleasant. In this section, I stayed conservative averaging roughly 3.5-4MPH pace. My memory from my 2014 thru-hike was fuzzy, but I wanted to store energy to make up time in the 2nd half of the run. It looked really flat on the map, so I figured I could cover 5-6 miles an hour in that part and "close hard". When I reached the summit of White Cap Mountain around 530PM - 12 hours in - I thought it was a big milestone. The vast majority of the climbing was done for the day and I could start actually running. The sun was just starting to set, the air was getting cooler. I got all my night gear ready while taking in the first legitimate view of Katahdin. Optimism abounded.
“Your mind can’t know what’s coming.” - Frank Shorter
The last 55-56 miles of the course are a minefield of rocks, roots, and bogs. Forget groomed dirt. I did most of this section through the night and ended up maintaining roughly the same pace on this "flat" section as I did on the mountainous section. In fact, I was lucky to hit 3 MPH pace. My legs simply weren't strong enough to clear the rocks and roots and safely keep a fast clip. At mile 78, I started to fatigue. Going on 24 hours without sleep, I found a big rock overlooking nearby Rainbow Lake, set my alarm for a 10 minute wake up call, and kept my music playing. As I started moving again, "When The Levee Breaks" by Led Zeppelin blared in my ears. I caught Robert Plant chanting: "...crying won't help you, praying won't do you no good". Weirdly up-lifting. I did some quick math in my head. I had to cover 18 miles in under 9 hours to beat the unsupported record and go under 6 hours to get the overall record. Totally do-able. So I started motoring again. Sometimes jogging at 4MPH. Blazing fast, I know.
"Until you work as hard as those you admire, don't explain away their success as luck." - James Clear
About a mile from Abol, a group of passing thru-hikers cheered me on. I had fans? Apparently, they had stayed at Shaw's the night before and were dropped off at Abol to do this section southbound. They had gotten the lowdown on what I was attempting and were stoked to see me so close to the finish. Word spreads surprisingly fast in the woods. At 10:51 AM, I exited the wilderness and sprinted down the Golden Road to Abol Bridge. I started fist pumping and hooting and hollering as logging trucks and rafting buses passed me. There was a cool mist in the air and a thick fog obstructed that final, iconic view to Katahdin from the bridge. A hellacious groove from one of my favorite Beta Band songs was kicking into gear, and I caught the refrain: “take me in and dry the rain, take me in and dry the rain”. So fitting. Another kick. 3 minutes later, I reached the bridge. I had beaten the previous unsupported time by over 4 hours. But I also went under the supported time by over an hour as well to get the overall fastest known time. At the nearby Abol General Store, Zultan from Shaw’s was there unexpectedly to greet and congratulate me (he had been dropping off those thru-hikers).
My final time: 29 hours, 18 minutes.
Start time: 5:35 AM on Sunday, September 6th.
Finish Time: 10:54 AM on Monday, September 7th.
*Note - due to the medical assistance I received from a dislocated finger at mile 22, my record was changed from unsupported to self-supported as documented here.
"If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you have launched too late." - Reid Hoffman
(1) I carried food proven to agree with my stomach and that’s a large part of the reason I was successful. Every DNF I have ever had has resulted from stomach issues. I can’t stress enough the importance of testing what works and what doesn’t in the long runs of your training cycles. For me, the perfect food combination was: Thai chips, pepperoni, peanut butter snickers, and Clif bars. Notice there were no gels in the mix. Just (relatively) whole foods. Everyone is different. This is what worked for me.
(2) The remoteness of the trail made quitting basically impossible. There’s a lesson here, somewhere. But this was the only ultra I have ever participated in where the thought of quitting never entertained my mind because the logistics of getting out were even more painful than continuing on to the finish. I can’t think of many other routes out there in the world that have this same benefit. Yes, I am calling it a benefit!
(3) I practiced A LOT of slow running/hiking in practice. Basically the same pace I ran during this effort. Lots of days where I just went out and averaged somewhere in the 12min-22min pace range. Why is this important? Most trail runners struggle mightily with the massive gap between the paces they run in training and what they actually do on race day. For example, most runners aren’t going to log 7-8 minute miles in races, in part because of the terrain but also because of the pace. Yet they do it all the time in training. I’m not saying this is bad or even misguided. I will just say that because of the pacing I grew accustomed to in training, there weren’t any surprises during this effort. I locked right in and never felt compelled to "go out hot".
"In the Kamigata area, they have a sort of tiered lunchbox they use for a single day when flower viewing. Upon returning, they throw them away, trampling them underfoot. The end is important in all things." - Yamamoto Tsunetomo (Hagakure, circa 1709)
On the racing front -
On November 7th, I will be competing one final time in the Georgia Death Race. This was rescheduled from it’s normal date in March due to COVID. After DNFing this race in 2019, I am hungry to fix the mistakes I made. In 2018, I set a PR here of 12:42. This time around, my goal is to run under 12 hours. It is an ambitious goal, but the training and cabin life puts it in the realm of possibility. We will see. You can read the old race reports from my previous GDRs here.
On the lifestyle front -
In the nature vs nurture debate, I am firmly in the nurture camp. Environment matters. We do our best work when we are free from distractions. So, fit your environment to your goals, not the other way around. How we live changes our brains. Schedule your day - well-defined - in advance, then do what your calendar says. If its not in the calendar, it doesn’t happen.
To this end, I frequently reference the following quotes:
Extreme people get extreme results.
World changers ruthlessly eliminate distractions and bad environments.
Discipline is remembering what you want. When it works, its a function of being less and less conflicted. So, resolve the conflicts you have to make the hard work effortless in terms of motivation.
This past spring and summer, I’ve solved primarily for home and training partners.
Home: in late March, I moved to a cabin in Big Cottonwood Canyon, UT nestled roughly 1 mile down the road from two of my favorite trailheads in the Wasatch Mountains: Mill B North and Mill B South.
Training Partners: As mentioned earlier, one of my roommates, Jimmy Elam, is widely considered to be one of the best mountain ultra trail runners in the world. I am fortunate to do a lot of training with him. He has improved my running 2-3x just over the course of 3-4 months. And on top of that, of course, I get to train with the Bonneville Barnstormers, a collection of the best trail runners in the Salt Lake area. More on the latter, later.
The plan in the fall and winter seasons is to solve for the next two variables: diet and sleep.
That's all I have to say for now. Thanks for reading! Until next time...