I was fortunate to have perfect weather in January and great company for my fastest known time attempt on the AT 4 State Challenge, the section of the Appalachian Trail that starts at the Pennsylvania border and travels through Maryland and West Virginia to the Virginia border. It was a beautiful stretch of trail with a rich heritage and I can’t imagine a better way to spend a day of running. Conrad Laskowski and Chris Roberts joined me for the day and while I hope they enjoyed it just as much, I owe them a huge thanks for coming out and providing the company, the support, and of course for making the logistics of getting back to the start afterwards easier. And as always, I owe my wife Jessi a huge thanks for providing the support back home for letting me get out for the day to try these crazy things in the first place. At the end I ended up with a new FKT in 6:39:51 and a new appreciation for some of the terrain I have in my own backyard.
Why an FKT? Did you even get a medal?
FKTs have fascinated me since before I started ultrarunning. Although I was a runner in high school, I came to the sport largely through backpacking. I love exploring and getting out in the mountains to see as much as possible. The big thing that always limited me in how much of that I could do was time. So it was natural to think that if I could just run those trails instead, and do it really fast, then I could see even more! FKTs gave me a good measure for how much I could dream of actually seeing in a given chunk of time.
Most of those dreams were centered around longer trails or some of the routes in the Sierra that I had fallen in love with, but thanks in large part to people like Adrian Spencer and Iain Ridgway I started looking at some of the exciting areas right here near me. The 4 State Challenge was particularly interesting to me because 1) I could drive there, do it, and get home by dinner, 2) it was a section of the Appalachian Trail, which I’ve long wanted to do in its entirety one of these days when I actually get enough time (likely to be many, many years from now), and 3) it seemed like a great challenge: achievable but by no means assured.
I do races because I enjoy competing and seeing how I measure up against the best out there, and because I love being part of the ultrarunning community. It’s an incredible group and I still marvel at how supportive, motivating, and enjoyable to be around people in it are. But at the end of the day the reason I do the kinds of races I do is because I love getting out there in the mountains, disconnecting from everyday life, and reconnecting with myself. An FKT attempt allows me to essentially have pieces of both of those at the same time: competing while also avoiding any distractions. Or entry fees. 😉
Alright stop rambling and get to the running part
The plan was to get started at the Pennsylvania Maryland border (aptly named Pen Mar) at around sunrise. So Conrad, Chris, and I met in a Chick-fil-a parking lot at about 5 in the morning and headed that way. We went to the mid-way point at Washington Monument State Park, where we left Conrad’s car. We made one more stop to leave some water at the Wolfsville Road trail crossing, and then headed for the start. It felt a bit colder than I had been expecting, and unfortunately the bathrooms were closed up for the winter, but we got ourselves ready and headed to where the trail officially crosses the state line.
We set off at a nice pace and quickly warmed up. We all knew that there were a few tricky parts of the trail near the beginning with boulder fields and easy to miss turns. That didn’t stop us from chatting away and failing to pay attention the way we should have been. Trail finding was made even worse by the fact that a few small stretches were marked by white blazes on the rocks, which also happened to have a nice coating of white snow. So inevitably we paid the price for our engaging conversations and missed a couple of turns. Thankfully, we corrected pretty quickly (Conrad’s experience on this stretch was a huge help there) and the errors probably only cost us 5-10 minutes total.
By the time we reached our water drop at Wolfsville Road we were moving pretty nicely and making up the lost time. We were at about 1:20 for those first 8 miles, which was some of the slowest terrain of the route, and we needed to have an overall pace of roughly 10:25 / mi to get the FKT. We had already gone through runnable trail, rocky terrain, and open fields, and by that time the brisk weather was perfect.
Conrad, who was rehabbing an injury, was planning to only do the first half before grabbing his car and supporting us the rest of the route. From Wolfsville Road to Washington Monument State Park he made the best of his remaining time on the trail and laid down a nice pace, with a few sections at sub 7 pace and about an 8 mile stretch averaging under 8 min / mi. Somewhere during that I told him I was going to either love him or hate him at the end of the day. Needless to say, we arrived at Washington Monument State Park in good time – about 3:13 for the first and toughest half.
Chris had been planning on going the distance with me, but unfortunately had some tightness issues in his quads and had dropped back a bit. I was still hoping he would catch back up, kind of like the last time I ran with him and he caught (and passed) me near the end of Hellgate.
I kept pushing after Conrad dropped at his car, with a nice climb going away from the monument. If I could make good time to Gathland State Park then I would be in great shape. I crossed over Old National Pike, where the Old South Mountain Inn has stood for nearly 300 years serving who knows how vast an array of historical figures who have passed through that area.
I was now on the JFK 50 course, and the section of the course that I had enjoyed the most. I was moving along nicely, and then, thwack! My right foot went full force into one of the many rocks along that section of trail and I flew forward into the dirt. I got up, and found I had avoided injuring anything on the landing, but my right big toe was throbbing. I figured I could run it off, and continued along until, thwack! Different rock, same toe. I managed to stay on my feet this time, though, and kept moving.
I still made it to Gathland in pretty good time, where Conrad and Chris were both waiting for me. I grabbed a new bottle of Perpeteum, and Chris rejoined me for the remaining 12 miles. We had about 5 miles to go before the big descent down the Weverton Cliffs to the C&O Canal. The ridgeline was beautiful in winter, with the absence of leaves providing ample views west towards Antietam, yet another historic site along this route. I was perhaps enjoying the views a bit too much when, thwack! $#%&! The same foot! Why is it always the same #$%@ foot?! Not long after, in a cruel joke that I think clearly demonstrates their willful intent, the rocks gave my left foot a turn too.
By the time we made it to the C&O that right big toe was in pretty rough shape, but I at last had some flat obstacle-free terrain to cover (normally the exact opposite of what I prefer). I had thoroughly enjoyed the day, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t ready to be done at that point. We met Conrad again and refilled our water before starting the homestretch. As we started along the canal, my watch lost its GPS signal. Oddly, this exact thing had happened at this exact point (but with a different watch) at JFK 50.
Not realizing what was going on, I started speeding up. 9 minute pace? What?! Towards the end of a race or hard run it can feel like you’re going a lot faster than you are, but I had to be going faster than that! I kept picking it up. I turned to Chris and said, “we’ve gotta be going faster than 9:40!” He looked down and replied with something along the lines of ‘umm yeah, that was a 7:15.’ I realized what was going on with my watch and of course started worrying about the implications of having bad GPS data on the FKT attempt. Fortunately I at least had Chris with me with his functioning watch. For the remainder of the run my watch was intermittently losing signal, but other than a section where it looks like I swam a couple miles up the Potomac, it at least mapped out the route fairly accurately.
We made our way through historic Harper’s Ferry, winding up stairs and sidewalks on a route that was surprisingly not very well marked before rejoining actual trail. We came out the other side to cross another river and start the final climb. I’m not sure who decided that the river would not be a good state boundary, but whoever that person was made the next 25 minutes of my life seem endless. There was a climb up a ridge to the VA border. Chris dropped back a bit and I pushed on, thinking that the border must be at the top of the ridge in front of me and that I might be able to go sub 6:30.
It was not to be. As I crested the ridge there were no signs in sight, and another ridge loomed in front of me. My energy and excitement sapped, I trudged up the ridge and started along the top of it. I knew that the border must be within 100 yards to my left, but the trail seemed to continue along forever just next to the border. Finally, and rather suddenly, there it was! I ran up, slapped the border sign, and stopped my watch. 6:39! Shortly after, Chris joined me.
After resting for a bit on some very uncomfortable rocks, Chris and I started heading back down to meet Conrad. He was already nearly up to us, though, and even better he had water and a jacket, the two things I was at the time wishing would fall out of the sky into my hands. He also had Kroy Taughinbaugh with him, who I was thrilled to see after wondering earlier how we had missed him. He had planned on catching us at the bottom of the Weverton Cliffs, but apparently the LiveTrack link I sent out didn’t really work. Apologies to anyone else who tried to view it; I guess I needed better cell service during the run. Here is the Strava link for the run: https://www.strava.com/activities/1366781226.
Home before dinner (sort of)
Conrad drove us back to my car at Pen Mar, where Chris and I hopped in and headed to, well, Sonic of course. 😉 We quickly refueled a bit before heading home, where I did arrive in time for a 2nd dinner.
Other than my toe I felt remarkably well, which was a bit surprising. My racing over the past month had been heavy, but my training pretty light. In 5 weeks I had race efforts totaling 154 miles (Bandera 2 weeks earlier and Lookout Mountain 5 weeks earlier), but only 130 training miles. This was a pretty big departure from my past training strategies and I was curious how my body would react. I fortunately also had the help of Terrel Hale in between those race efforts to ward off any issues, but I’m left wondering if perhaps having less frequent but much more demanding efforts is not an equally valid training strategy. I’m sure I’m not the first person to wonder this, and I’m sure there is research out there on it, but at the same time I’m a firm believer that everyone’s body is unique and has its own optimal training path.
Over the next couple of days the swelling, color, and sharp pain on the toe did have me pretty worried that I had broken it, but it at least wasn’t deformed or anything. So I did the exact same thing I’d do whether it’s broken or just sprained: rest a couple of days, ice it and tape it, then get back at it as long as doing so didn’t make it worse.
There are now two times in my life that I’ve run with Chris, which also happen to be the only two times in my life that I’ve ended up in a boot in the days after a run. The statistics here are irrefutable. In all seriousness, it was awesome having him and Conrad out there. It turned a good idea and lonely endeavor into a great idea shared with friends, and the support during and after the run made the logistics an afterthought instead of a huge difficulty.
This is a great section of trail, with beauty, variety, and enormous history that goes along with it. I encourage anyone in the area to get out and enjoy it whether you’re going for a particular time or not. And for those who do have a particular time in mind, get out and go for it! I believe that a great runner with targeted training could go sub 6 on this stretch. Seeing that happen would be pretty incredible.
Gear and Nutrition
With the similar distance, terrain, and weather, my gear and nutrition strategy were exactly the same as at 2017 Lookout Mountain 50 Miler. I had on the same XOSKIN 4.0 shorts and 2.0 long-sleeved top as base layers (until it got too hot for the long-sleeved shirt), and the 5.0 compression socks. I used the same Ultimate Direction Mono Belt for carrying my phone and Body Bottles with caffe latte Perpeteum and blended tropical / peanut butter chocolate Hammer gel.
The one thing I wish I had switched was to use the La Sportiva Bushido I used at Bandera instead of the Helios 2.0. At only 42 miles, I thought I could get away with the lighter shoes, but after forcefully kicking half a dozen rocks I definitely would have traded the weight for the extra protection offered by the Bushido. Other than the toe protection, though, the shoes did great and would have been the perfect choice for smoother trails.
For the first time in a while, I didn’t really have any hydration issues (until that last endless mile of climbing when I ran out of water). As a result I was able to keep my nutrition intake going as planned and kept my energy levels steady.
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