A new women’s FKT on the Vermont Long Trail: My Trip Report

Before we begin….
July 25, 2018

A new women’s FKT on the Vermont Long Trail: My Trip Report

Part of the FKT process (and the end-to-end certification from the Green Mountain Club) is writing a trip report. While I will reflect on this journey through various outlets/blogs/podcasts over the next few weeks, what I write here will serve as my trip report, focusing more on the details and logistics of the days rather than reflecting on the meanings I’ve drawn from various events.

Before the start: The crew all flew in 48-24 hours in advance, and we met in Jay, VT. Over 1.5 days we went over logistics, pre-cooked some food, packed the two crew vehicles and got people ready for 5+ days on the road. Given that about half the crew was from the west coast, this was a big ask and I really appreciated them jumping right into things despite what I know was already a sleep deprived state!

I opted to sleep in the hotel the night before rather than the shelter at Journey’s End. This seemed like an even better decision given the forecast for rain overnight and into day one. Sure enough, as we were driving to Journey’s End at 4:00am, it was pouring.

Day 1

Will, Sara and I got out of the car around 4:25am and headed up Journey’s End trail towards the Northern Terminus. The trail could easily have been mistaken for a river. If I wasn’t so excited to finally start this damn thing, I would have been panicked about the conditions; my adrenaline didn’t allow for that though! The sun started to peak out right as we hit the terminus, but the view was still nonexistent with the cloud cover. Sorry Will, you weren’t going to see much despite all the climbing ahead for the day!

At 5:05am we said Go! And off we went. I had covered this section of trail in October when I did some recon, so I knew it was pretty gentle and not at all like what is to come for the day! The rain also started to let up a bit as the sun came up which was nice. We headed into North Jay Pass right on schedule, dumped some layers with the crew, and Will and I continued on.

The water weight of the rain made the pines surrounding the trail (aka river!) quite heavy, leaning over the trail. This meant all through day 1 I was getting scratches all over my legs and arms – I had opted to be running in shorts and a tank top. While I don’t think I wanted more clothes, it was not the look I was hoping for that early in the process. It was really nice that I had covered this section in October as it took a lot of the navigational stress away and Will and I could just get to know one another (I never met him in person before this trip!) as we climbed Jay Mountain. Again, the view wasn’t great, but despite the rain the trail conditions weren’t terrible as we descended down to Jay Pass.

It was time for a pacer swap and I picked up Hillary for the section to Hazen’s Notch! It was during this section we encountered a few thru-hikers — these women were super supportive and their cheers and smiles for what I was doing gave me a good boost, even if it was still early. This section was also where I took my first real fall — I thought the ground would be firm where I put my pole in….but nope! Instead my pole went in….and my arm followed, causing me to basically dive head first into a soft pile of dirt/leaves. My pack got stuck on a rock as I went down, and I was actually stuck with my feet straight up over my head for a bit before I could maneuver out. A little bang-up to the elbow, but nothing major – whew!

As I came into Hazen’s Notch, the rain was still lingering and I picked up Maik for a section to Eden Crossing. Not having seen this section of trail yet, I was excited for the unknown but also a bit nervous. Still somewhat fresh and excited to talk to my friends, we made decent time and despite getting my whole leg sucked into a mud puddle, we came out of the section with all our shoes.

Having seen the rest of the trail for the day and knowing the worst was behind me, I was excited for some runnable stuff ahead. Even with the rain for the day, Devil’s Gulch didn’t end up being too slippery. I had Matt with me through that section, and at one point I chugged an Ensure. This proved to be a terrible mistake!! Ensure typically is great fuel for me in ultras, but I think since I was using F2C Nutrition’s Endurance 5:1 formula that has protein in it, the Ensure was overkill and my body revolted trying to process it. Luckily it was just a 10 minute or so episode and once that passed, I continued none the worse! We even surprised the crew by coming into Codding Hollow a bit ahead of time, and Emily picked me up for her section here.

Some more runnable trails ahead – though, we still ended up hiking a lot of it given the darkness, and my memory wasn’t 100% on the Prospect Rock section. At one point we also crossed a matrix of Maple Syrup lines which was kind of fun. I was in good spirits and feeling strong as I met up with Michele, Matt and Lyssie Cat just before West Settlement Road. They helped me get changed for the night, have some dinner, and Matt and I went off to Bear Hollow Shelter.

It was here that Kurt was waiting for us! He had hiked in earlier in the day with our overnight supplies, and reserved a couple spots on the shelter for us — absolutely priceless! I brushed my teeth and did my best to not disturb the other hikers, it was a full house in the shelter that night. Matt and I set our alarms for 4 hours from laying down……That came sooner than I expected, which I think means I at least got some good sleep!

Day 1 recap video

Day 2

Matt and I started out from Bear Hollow shortly after waking up. It was a nice climb up Whiteface as the sun rose, and I was again happy that I had done that descent ahead of time as I knew it was one of the Long Trail’s infamous “uphill descents.” With the new location of Barnes Camp, I think it also added a small bit of mileage.

At Smuggler’s Notch, we were greeted by our crew who had a great breakfast ready for me, as well as some new shorts (running in wet running shorts meant I needed some spandex options!). Matt was done and was off to get more sleep while Will took over pacing for Mansfield. I was nervous about another big climb, knowing what still was to come for the day, but I was also energized realizing I was only about 2 hours behind Nikki’s pace, despite having slept well before where she did on night 1. According to Strava at least, Will and I made great time up Mansfield as I now have the QOM from VT 108 to Taft Lodge! I can say the climb was much more fun when it wasn’t hailing on me like it was when I did it in training. I ate a poptart at the top and we continued on, enjoying the technical sections over the forehead, and looking out for Maik who was joining us around Taylor Lodge. Since Maik arrived early, he ended up finding us about 1 mile before the lodge, and he had a redbull in hand which I welcomed.

From Taylor Lodge to Buchanan Shelter, it was another section of trail I hadn’t seen. Having run from Bolton Notch to Buchanan, I mistakenly assumed that the trail would be similar from there to Taylor Lodge. Boy was I wrong! The climb up Mt. Mayo was particularly rough for me, I’m not sure if it was calories or the heat, but we took a much needed rest when we finally arrived at the Puffer Shelter to regroup for a bit. I wanted to press on to the Buchanan Shelter because I knew from there we could make good time, but it seemed to take forever! I popped in my iPod to help pass the miles, and, eventually, Bolton Notch Rd was around the corner. I dropped the boys off and picked up Leslie and Hillary. As we jogged down the road I told them I thought it was from heat and lack of calories, but I just needed to cry for a minute. This prompted both of them to cry with me, and then we all ended up laughing since we all were crying, and I was over that pretty quickly! They jogged with me through the “flat” section which turned out to be quite slow as the farmers re-routed their cows and the trail through the farm was very overgrown. I made it to Camel’s Hump parking lot hot, and a bit worried about the section to come.

Luckily, my crew was amazing and had ice bath materials ready to cool me, and plenty of food. Hillary was working on my left achilles/calf which was tightening up, and Sue Johnston made an appearance. It’s hard to act like a wimp when someone as badass as her is around! So I got myself together and Emily and I started up Camel’s Hump. I was prepared for a long slow climb, but with great conditions on the ascent we made it up only slightly slower than I did in training. There was a large group partying at the top, and with darkness coming and some strong winds, we didn’t stick around longer than for a photo. This was a good decision as the other side of the mountain was much wetter, and descending was going to take much more time than the climb.

At Montclair Glen Lodge, I was swapping Emily for Matt, where he had hiked in with Michele and Lyssie Cat. As they pampered me with the impromptu aid station, I found out that one of the thru hikers there for the night had run into Stringbean during his record FKT run last summer. We all decided this was a really good omen!

Matt and I set out with some hard miles ahead of us, which ended up being even harder because the trail conditions were so wet. We went 5 miles in the first 2.5 hours, during which time we saw some lightning flashing in the sky and heard some thunder rumbling in the distance. Finally though, the sky opened up on us, and the hard miles we were expecting turned into comically hard miles. I could barely see anything ahead through the pouring rain reflecting in my headlamp, and the only thing that kept me moving was my core temperature falling! We reached Molly Stark’s Balcony, one of the exposed sections, just as the storm was directly overhead. We knew we couldn’t cross in these conditions, so we knelt down to wait it out. I said I could probably only wait 4 minutes or so before I was going to get too cold, so we both stared as the seconds ticked by. Three minutes later, the storm was in the distance enough we felt safe to run for it, so we did. The trail was now a river once again. And realizing we were well behind projected times, we made speculations about what the crew was thinking. Finally, we made it out into the Appalachian Gap Parking lot where I saw the crew car. Hillary, Will, Leslie and Kurt sprang out of the car and into action. Matt and I stripped off our wet clothes, into dry clothes, pounded some dinner and in a matter of minutes we were being shut into the back of my car to sleep for the night. I did have a revelation at one point during this about how silly it is, with all that happens in the world, that here I was with my best friends in a random parking lot trying to run this damn trail. They didn’t let me reflect too long before putting me to bed. Since we were behind schedule, it was only 3 hours of sleep that night, and probably 3 hours of restless sleep for me as I woke up a couple times thinking we were being towed (only to find other cars parking in the lot).

Day 2 recap video

Day 3

Despite the lack of solid sleep, I was excited to get going the next morning because my favorite section of trail was to come! The climb over to Mt. Abraham comes in sections and just has a great rhythm to it, with some unexpectedly amazing views along the way, I loved sharing that section in the early morning with Matt. I was in good spirits as I descended into Lincoln Gap which was quite crowded on Saturday morning! My excitement continued with Will over to Middlebury Gap as I knew that since I had trained on that section, a lot of the blow downs were cleared through the Breadloaf Wilderness. While this section proved to still be pretty slow and tough for me, not having to be finding my way around the downed trees was a huge bonus. We also had a really great system dialed in for my pacers by this point and they helped me do a great job getting calories in consistently, regulating my caffeine consumption, and making sure I was staying hydrated. I swear they were carrying full buffets on their back as anytime I had a craving, they had it. Slim Jim? Got it. Swedish fish? sure! Red Bull? Here’s a flask! It was crazy and amazing, I have no idea how they managed that.  A lot of the crew also hiked in from the other side, giving some excitement for the last few miles, and I felt good heading down to Middlebury Gap.

More excitement was waiting there as some of my TeamSFQ ladies were there with posters and positive vibes, as well as pizza, tater tots and ice cream! That pizza and tots really hit the spot. The cumulation of miles and the lack of sleep was starting to set in, but Emily and Maik kept me going as we headed out for another section I hadn’t seen, MIddlebury Gap to Brandon Gap. Despite some climbing here, this proved to be fairly runnable as my legs must have still felt good! My mood was wavering, but overall I felt good hitting the descent down into Brandon Gap, where Carly had flown in as another crew member! Her and Matt would be taking me through my last section of the night.

After reading JB’s report of his FKT, I knew that on his third night he slept at Green Rd, which allowed him to take a shorter day for day 3. This sounded LOVELY to me at this point, and at Brandon Gap I kept trying to tell my crew that they needed to figure out where this mysterious Green Rd was, because I wanted to sleep there too. We went back and forth a couple times, and finally it clicked in my head that I was beyond the point of making sense: it was time to just listen to what they said. And they said that I had a hotel in Killington ready, I just had to make it to Elbow Road. This marked the official point where I handed my decision making over to the crew. I am so grateful that the team that came together was more than prepared and willing to take this on, making great decisions that were going to keep me on record pace.

Making it to Elbow road though was easier said than done! With some severe storm watches in the area that night, we had some solid rainfall early in this section. And what looks like a gentle section is anything but, especially when super wet. Between the conditions and the darkness, my pace slowed to a slow death march. At one point I had my wits about me to sit down and tell Matt and Carly, “I’m having a bit of a mental breakdown.” To their credit, they got me up and moving again, one foot in front of the other. All things considered, we didn’t make too terrible of time getting to Elbow road, but we were VERY relieved that Will was waiting there as expected. I tied my pink ribbon to the trail post signaling where I left off, got in the car and we drove to the Trailside Inn. (Note: the pink ribbon was a system we invented where, if I ever arrived at a check point before my crew, I’d tie the ribbon to the trail post to signal that I had already come through.)

I was pretty beaten down mentally and physically but I hit some more tator tots, friend chicken, took off my clothes, wrapped a towel around me and fell into bed. Another 4 hours sounded like a lifetime and I was ready to take it. The alarms went off and I sprung into action, feeling pretty refreshed once again. I think Carly was a bit surprised at the pace for he morning as we were back in the car headed to elbow road within 15 minutes!

Day 3 recap video

Day 4

It was nice to start the day with her, easing into the pace and seeing some surprisingly drier conditions around Killington. I knew at this point that unless I made incredible time the remainder of the miles, along with no more sleep, I wasn’t going to be going for the men’s record anymore. I adjusted the goal to be shooting for under 5 days.

We met Leslie and Emily just before the Killington climb and Emily continued on with me. We made great time on the way up, only getting stopped briefly by a dog that was off leash and scared by our poles, so we had to stop and hide them behind our backs so he would get the nerve to pass us. Once again my amazing crew was hiking in from the other side, which helped break up the descent that also held some nice runnable sections. At the first big stop of the day, I had my athlete, Briana and her husband Jeff who arrived to help take on some pacing duties. Carly and Jeff were with me first, then Briana and Jeff, and I really enjoyed these shorter 5-6 miles sections. Bri had raced the day before so I got caught up on that news, and in general some fresh voices were nice.

My parents also arrived here!

After greeting them, my crew gave me the good news that I just had one more 8 mile section to go to get to Mt Tabor road, where I’d sleep for the night. Somewhat alarmed by the shorter day – knowing that meant a big push for the last day – I was welcoming any chance to sleep. Maik and I headed off for the last 8 miles, and while they seemed to drag on, I made decent time. I hit some Mac’n’Cheese then resorted to my lair of a blow up mattress and mosquito net in the back of the FJ – truly luxurious!! Will was sleeping on the ground next to the car, and Matt would be in a hammock nearby.

Four hours later, Matt excitedly woke up me up telling me it was time to go! He seemed a bit more excited than I thought he should be, but I realized I had no choice. My feet were in pretty bad shape here, so we took some time to work on the blisters and get them covered up, before heading out on the trail.

Who would have known that night hiking is so much fun? Maybe because I had Will and Matt with me who have been friends for awhile and their company makes things fun, but we had an absolute blast over the next few hours. We ran into a few “hikers” on the trail as well….though, they were sitting down, not actually hiking, and we’re pretty sure they were up to some other activities. But, to each their own!

We had so much fun we made great time getting to Mad Tom Notch and almost beat Leslie and Emily. A quick refuel and Will and I set off over Bromley — the sun rising here really seemed to help me, and again we headed into the next aid station ahead of schedule.

The adrenaline was short-lived though. After starting the next section with Maik, I began to feel the fatigue hit me again. Matt hiked into Prospect Rock (#2) and when we saw him there, I asked for a fuel stop to regroup. The section over to Stratton Mountain should have been quick, but I just wasn’t feeling it, and things were also starting to get wetter again. As we climbed up, my mood and energy continued to plummet, but I tried to hold it together the best I could. By the time I hit the parking lot at Stratton-Arlington Rd, I felt like I was so close, but still so far away. 35 miles seemed like such a small number, but my head was severely questioning how I was going to make it through. I was hoping for a nap at this point, but the crew wanted me to make it through the Glastenbury section. I didn’t think that was going to be possible, so I bargained for a nap at the top of the climb at the Goddard Shelter. They agreed to that, and Will, Carly and I headed out to climb the mountain.

Day 4 recap video

Day 5

I will forever be grateful to them for helping me through this next section as it was one of the hardest things I have ever done mentally. The only bright spot was that it had been recently reblazed, and for a wilderness section was very well-marked which made a tired Alyssa super happy. At the Goddard shelter, I crawled into my sleeping bag on the hard wooden platform and promptly fell asleep. My face was twitching, and my nose was filling with blood whenever I laid down (lovely, right?!), but it honestly didn’t matter: all I wanted was some sleep.

All too soon I was being shook awake, but that was probably good timing as the sun was going down and It was getting chilly.  The nap seemed to refresh me a bit and we started to make progress on the descent. Unfortunately, the descent also has a lot of climbing….a common theme with the Long Trail! This was particularly frustrating to me tonight, and my spirits couldn’t even get lifted by my friends hiking in from the other side. They did, however, bring up a quesadilla from Taco Bell which helped a little bit!!

Eventually I made it down, and at this point all my mind could think about was sleep. I think I was in rough enough shape that asking for another nap was easily granted, I crawled into a pile of sleeping bags in the back of my car, and fell asleep. They got me up about 30 minutes later: it was time to do the final 14 miles with Matt and Emily.

I was a bit nervous as this section starts with “1,000 steps” and I was having trouble staying upright. My left quad had also started to lock up, making the leg nearly useless. But we just took it slow and steady and despite how I felt, my watch kept reassuring me I was doing okay.

Unfortunately, my mind started to get to the better of me as the section went on. It was clear the rain had hit here pretty hard, and most of the trail was under water, or super muddy. This was nearly impossible for me to process as I tried to get through it. My feet couldn’t take much more wetness either. On one particularly long climb. I felt a blister in my heel explode, and I simply lost it. Matt and Emily offered to take a look and do some work on my feet, and I happily obliged. As I put my feet up into Matt’s lap, I leaned back into a fern bush, and realized how nice that felt…….

Next thing I knew, I was being shook away with a headlamp in my face. Very confused, I thought I might be done, only to be told I still had about 8 miles to go. Eight miles that seemed like an eternity at that point. Discouraged by that, but encouraged by the fact that my foot felt brand new from some new blister tape and sock, I soldiered on. Matt and Emily realized the bad state I was in and called off the last aid station — they would just continue on with me without stopping to avoid any meltdowns. Probably a good call, but man I could have used another sit down!!!!!

FINALLY we were in the last 3 miles. By this point, the sun had come up, I realized I was going to make it even if I crawled, and I relaxed ever so slightly. Hillary and Leslie hiked backwards a bit as the final indication I had actually made it.

The sign of the Southern Terminus came into view, and I simply could not believe I had done it. 5 days, 2 hours and 37 minutes: I had a new women’s record. We celebrated and took some pictures, and I’m not sure about them but I was ready to be out of the woods! In true Long Trail fashion, there was one more twist: the hike out. In my planning, I decided I didn’t think I would want to turn back to go back up the trail to get out, so we picked a trail that led out into Massachusetts : the Pine Cobble Trail. Pine cobbles sound like a nice, soft pine needle surface right? Surely that’s a gentle walking path? No way! Apparently pine cobbles are Massachusetts-speak for jagged rocks. My body had really started to shut down thinking it was done, so Will and Matt were called to duty: piggybacks were in order. It look me a bit to get over myself enough to let this happen, but I swear when I did I wasn’t going back and I realized that was the only way I was getting out of the woods!!

The rest of the day was a blue of goodbyes, food, naps interrupted with panicked dreams about still being on the trail, a bath (finally!), and more food. The lessons that have come from this adventure are still sinking in, and I am looking forward to continuing to process them and write more on that in the days to come.

Day 5 recap video