Guest blog by: Matt Cymanski
On September 19, about a quarter after 11 PM, a man was sitting at the junction of the Appalachian Trail and a small spur trail just a few hundred feet north of Rockfish Gap. Four men came running at him through the woods, southbound on the AT and headed straight down the side trail, without even taking a moment to consider their options. Moments later, he heard shouting below, and a man who had passed him at what seemed like a snails pace just minutes before came barreling back towards him on the Appalachian trail, this time from the south.
I can only imagine what this guy could have been thinking, enjoying a peaceful night in the Shenandoah wilderness, before witnessing at least one grown man (me) in a state of sheer panic. But we’ll get to that later. More than 23 hours earlier, I had started running about 107 miles to the north, marking the beginning of a journey that had been rolling around in my head for at least the past two years.
When I moved to Virginia in 2018, I quickly realized spending time in the mountains was a ton of fun, and I wanted to figure out how to do it more often. I drove home from work every day with a view of the Shenandoah ridgeline, and on frequent trips between Culpeper and Charlottesville, I drove parallel to a big chunk of its length. At the time, my focus was on racing Ironman, and I spent the next year preparing to race in Kona in October 2019. But I knew the Shenandoah National Park FKT was out there. No one had made a serious attempt in a long time until last fall, when local legend John Andersen set a really fast time, and solidified the end points of the route. If you don’t know, this is simply the Appalachian Trail through the length of Shenandoah National Park. There is some difficulty in deciding exactly where the start and end of the FKT should be, but John established Route 522 in the North and Rockfish Gap in the South as the termeni, which are the most logical and let you run through the fullest extent of the park.
As soon as I recovered from a disappointing race in Kona, I set my focus on preparing for an FKT attempt in the fall of 2020. This would be unlike anything I had any experience doing. The furthest I’d run at that point was 40+ miles a couple times, and that hadn’t gone particularly well. A week after John’s run, the time was bested by Dan Fogg by about 20 mins. I happened to race him at “fat ass 50k” (ie minimal/no entry fee and no awards) a couple months later, and he beat me handily. I had no reason I was particularly faster than John and Dan over 100 miles, so why did I think I could beat their times?
It started with spending more time in the mountains, getting more experience on the trails, and building up my old man strength. Over the summer, I knew spending as much time as possible on the actual trail I would be running out would help me eek out some minutes here and there. Over the course of the year, I ran every mile of the trail at least once and most of it twice or more. Alyssa, my girlfriend and also my coach, was also crucial in getting me in the rhythm of knocking out week after week of work, getting my climbing legs going, and building up some mileage and vert. For the most part, we weren’t doing anything too crazy, just getting the work in week after week. I started doing a lot of sessions of either weighted climbing or just climbing up and down the steepest hill we could find for a few hours. This ended up being an overgrown trail in a hidden corner of the park, leading down to an unfriendly landowner. I got to know that trail pretty well over the summer.
We did do one three week block of pretty exciting weekends in July. The first weekend was a 40 mile bike/40 mile run over the course of two days. I made a series of poor choices on this trip that made it pretty miserable. I parked at the RipRap trailhead Saturday afternoon, and rode my bike down Skyline with a full backpack to Bootens Gap. I thought being up in the mountains would help cut the July heat a bit, but it was still quite hot up there, and I underestimated how slow the backpack would make me on the bike. By the time I made it to Bootens, I was already pretty cooked. I stashed my bike in the woods and headed south. I had planned to cover 20 miles on the first night, sleep for about 4 hrs, then finish up the 20 miles back to the car. The going was a bit slower than I was hoping, so I decided to call it a night a few miles before Simmons Gap, only about 18 miles in at around 10:30 PM. I found a nice little campsite, but a couple other guys were already staying there so I had to take the secondary area, which after I laid down I realized had also been used as the privy by a few people. In an effort to keep things as lightweight as possible, I had brought a Thermarest inflatable sleeping pad, and a SOL emergency bivy, which is basically an emergency blanket taped into a burrito. Since it was a pretty hot night, and the emergency bivy is the opposite of breathable, after about 15 minutes the bivy turned into a hot house. I couldn’t tell if I had ants crawling around inside or sweat running down my legs, but it turned out to be both. After about 3 hrs of laying on the ground, I decided to just get on with it and get back to the car. The next 22 miles were some of the longest of my life. I had about 3 more hours through the night, and I finally stumbled back to my car 6 hours later, pretty much toast.
The next weekend was a bit more fun. I flew out to Denver to Will’s and we drove up to Aspen for the Four Passes Loop. We had an awesome time running through the Maroon Bells Wilderness on a pretty epic 30-ish mile loop. If this loop were a restaurant, I’d give it three Michelin Stars. It has lots of vert, high altitude, lots of rocks, high mountain lakes, a frigid stream crossing, cruisey single track and even the possibility of bear sightings. What more could you want.
To top it off, the next weekend my parents came down to Virginia and we did a simulation on the first 50 miles of the FKT route. We started at the northern terminus, and did the 50 miles to Bootens Gap slightly under my projected FKT pace. It gave my dad a chance to pace some sections with me, and my parents a chance to get some crewing experience and iron out some details for the big day. We had a couple snafus that cost a few minutes here and there, but that’s what the day was for. It was a good learning experience for all of us, and made me feel pretty confident about how my training had gone so far, to be able to do close to half the route under record pace on a hot day after a tough block and with two more months to put some work in.
The next few weeks consisted of putting in the miles, spending as much time on the AT as possible, pacing Alyssa through the ADK 46ers FKT, which included a 20+ hour day over the Great Range-extended, and the Biscay Coaching Olympics, which brought to light how much 100 mile training hurts 400 m leg speed. By this point, I had seen every mile of the trail, and was working through a second or third pass on some of the sections I thought would be more crucial or had a hard time with the first time through. This also gave me an opportunity to really dial in that FKT pace, as by this time I knew how fast I was expecting to run on each segment.
I also had to crack down on preparing things for my crew. I knew from my experience crewing Alyssa, having a well organized crew could be worth a significant amount of time, and I didn’t have a significant amount of time to waste. The first step was breaking down the trail into segments. With the AT crossing Skyline Drive so many times, in most cases the difficult part was paring that down to an appropriate amount of stops. In the end, I tried to set up a stop about every 4-6 miles, which meant I would see my crew about once an hour. Once I had these checkpoints set up, we went through and determined how long each segment should take based on a variety of secret factors, had a map so the crew knew exactly where to park, and listed out the nutrition for the next segment, then put it all into a useful format. My mom and sister were instrumental in bringing this all together, and making sure they had exactly what they needed to get through the day as smoothly as possible. Now that all the work was done, it was time to sit and wait for the big day.
The crew started to gather in Virginia Wednesday night and Thursday, and by Friday morning were all at my house in Culpeper making final preparations. Of all the preparations and training I did, it really all came down to my crew. Obviously with a supported record attempt, a crew is required, but I wanted to leverage as many seconds as I could from them, and they did a great job stepping up and ran like a well oiled machine all day without a single complaint. My crew was led by my mom and my sister Lizzie. We had a two car system, so each was in charge of one car, and they leapfrogged for the first half or so before coming together and caravanning the rest of the way. They were really in charge of all the logistics on the day, keeping everyone organized and on task and making sure the right people and gear were in the right place at the right time. They also did a ton of work up front, putting together binders of information and mapping out routes and parking areas to make sure they had all the information they needed at their fingertips. Then on the running side, I had my friends from college Will and Geoff, Maik Twelsiek, my dad, and girlfriend/coach extraordinaire Alyssa. They also helped out at the stops and I think everyone ended up putting in some extra miles in the closing sections to have even more support after sunset. Between the five of them, someone ran every step with me, and it turned out to be a great mix of people to keep me engaged and motivated when the going got tough at the end of the day.
Friday afternoon, Will, my Mom and Dad, and I drove up to Front Royal with a car full of gear to prepare for a midnight start. In the weeks leading up, I had been going to bed earlier and earlier so I would be able to get some sleep the night before and it worked like a charm. We were all in bed by 7 PM and I think I got at least 3 solid hours of sleep before an 11 PM wakeup. We watched the 4th quarter of the NBA Finals as we got ready, and were at the trailhead about 5 minutes early. I took a last bathroom stop before the clock started, and at midnight sharp we were off.
The first 20 miles or so flew by, with Dad and Will trading out pacing duties every stop or two, coming into the stops right on time and a beautiful evening. Just before Elk Wallow Picnic area, I made my first bathroom break, which turned out to be the first of many. Looking back, I think eating dinner around a normal time, then starting to run at midnight just didn’t give my body enough time to get everything digested. I think in the future, I’d try to eat more like midafternoon, then maybe have a small bedtime snack.
My nutrition plan was to use about half F2C 5:1 and half a mix of Spring Energy, waffles, gummies, etc., for a total of about 300 cal/hr and 1L of fluid total. It ended up being a bit cooler than anticipated, so I backed off some on the fluid intake, but was able to stick to this nutrition plan through about mile 50.
Other than a couple unplanned stops, things were moving smoothly. The weather was a little chilly, but great for a long run. At this point, my legs weren’t feeling quite as good as I hoped they might, but it was definitely manageable, and timing-wise I was right where I wanted to be. Even with some stomach issues, I was still able to keep taking in the nutrition I needed to, and was feeling plenty alert, even skipping some planned caffeine intake. Overall, spirits were high. We came into Beahms Gap, mile 24.6 at 5:17 AM, 6 minutes ahead of schedule. Here, the other half of the crew was waiting. Geoff and I took off for the last stretch into Thornton Gap, and Mom, Dad and Will went to try to get a few hours of sleep. We made it into Thornton Gap, crossing 211 and completing the Northern section of the park. As we crossed, I told Geoff I could see the very first signs of the sun, as the eastern sky had some hints of dark purple, but maybe that was just wishful thinking.
Maik and I headed up to Mary’s Rock from there, one of the biggest climbs of the trail. I’m sure it would have been a nice sunrise if we had time to take the spur out to the rock, but we had breakfast waiting for us at Pinnacles Picnic Area. I gave Maik a target time to reach the spur trail, and we made it up about 4 minutes ahead of that. A little bit fast, but we could try to cruise from there into the next stop. We pulled into the parking lot at 6:37 AM, now -10 minutes. This was my first planned “Long Stop”, which was scheduled to be 5 minutes or less. Here I could change shoes or clothes, sit down, and eat some “real” food. At this stop I had some ramen and some tater tots that had been made the day before that Lizzie had warmed up on the jet boil. On the way out, a chunk of tater tot went down the wrong pipe and I almost emptied out my stomach, but I somehow managed to avert disaster. After the 5 minute stop, I was now -5, right where I wanted to be at this point in time. My schedule had me breaking the record by about 30 minutes, so I was in great shape.
Leaving Pinnacles, I was still battling some stomach issues, which was costing a few minutes here and there, but I was able to make it up on the trail for the most part. Over the next 25 miles, I gave back my 5 minute buffer, but remember I still had an extra 30 minutes, so I’m feeling decent about my pace at this point. My legs are starting to hurt, and I’m having a little bit harder time getting the nutrition down, but I’m looking forward to lunch at mile 62. We came chugging into Bootens Gap, and Will was back on duty.
Going down into the gap, I had a few more Clif Blocks to eat for the segment so I begrudgingly popped them in my mouth, but I just could not get myself to swallow them. I had them in my mouth for probably close to a mile before I just decided I’d have to spit them out, which led to more dry heaving on the side of the trail. This left my already unsettled stomach in pretty bad shape, and I had to spend the next 30 minutes or so letting it recover. Then Will pulled out some water, and it was the best thing I’d ever tasted. Just crisp clean water started to revive me, and kind of gave my stomach a reset. I think at this point, gels and blocks weren’t going down very well, but I was able to still take in some waffles and F2C, I just had to do everything on a slow time scale to keep my stomach happy. One bite of waffle, 5 min break, one bite of waffle, 5 min break, drink of water, … I was able to limp into the next checkpoint on time, but struggling.
The next segment was 6.4 miles, one of the longest of the day, but the last few miles were basically all downhill so I thought I should be able to make up some time there, and here I’d have a 5 min lunch break with some Ramen, so I was really looking forward to that. But this segment was probably the toughest of the first 100 miles mentally, and I really struggled. I think the hour+ leading into this without many calories was catching up to me, and I had to make another bathroom stop, but luckily this turned out to be my last. I knew I just had to make it to lunch, but I was starting to see things slip away. We were going slower than scheduled, and had some tough terrain coming up in the southern section of the park. Going downhill really hurt, and the doubts started to creep in.
I had Maik with me, and he kept me moving through this section, and we made it to lunch. The 5 minutes flew by, but I felt like a new man afterwards. I had the second and last pack of Ramen I’d packed, changed shoes and socks, got some “Theragun action” on my quads, which was actually just my crew holding the gun above my legs because it hurt too bad to touch them, and got some fluids in. I think the Ramen here completed my stomach reset, and it was still a little fragile but I was able to get back toward some resemblance of my nutrition plan the rest of the way. My legs, however, hurt really bad.
Leaving Swift Run Gap, I was feeling a bit better, but I was a total of 10 minutes behind my plan after a 5 min lunch stop with almost 50 miles left to go, and I had been losing almost 1 min/mile for the past 10 miles or so. Clearly this was not a recipe for success. At this rate, I’d be behind FKT pace in 20 miles, and still have 30 miles to go. The next segment was with Alyssa over Hightop into Smith Roach Gap. I had done this segment quite a few times, and I knew there was some time to be made up here if I could keep moving.
When setting up my time sheet, I divided the trail into segments and rated each as Easy, Medium or Hard. This was based on my experience with the segment and how fast I’d gone, the elevation profile, the trail conditions, and the point in the run I’d be hitting it. So a segment that might be a medium in the first 20 miles would probably be a hard at the end. Then, using this rating and the segment distance I could predict how long it would take me. This was useful for my crew to know when to expect me, but also useful for me to see how on track I was to beat the record. This method gives a clearer picture than just the average speed since accounting for harder or easier segments is already baked in.
This segment was a Hard. I started telling myself these were like par 5s in golf. It’s a hard hole, but a good opportunity to get a birdie. I told Alyssa I was starting to doubt myself, but she kept me moving, and reminded me this was what I signed up for. At this point everything hurt a lot, but I could still keep moving, and I had built in some buffer so I didn’t have to go as fast through these sections as I had been earlier. We made it up and over Hightop and into Smith Roach Gap, gaining back 4 minutes over 4.6 miles. We were back in business.
Midway through the next section, the crew met Geoff and I at a road crossing to give me some headphones, but the only music they had available was the new Taylor Swift album. It wasn’t bad, and got me through the next hour or so.
Next up was a Medium stretch from Simmons Gap to Ivy Creek Overlook. I hadn’t thought much of this section going in, but looking at the map afterwards, it was quite a bit more uphill than I had realized. My dad was assigned to this section, and I think he tried to kill me. He was pushing me through the whole way and I think he may have been working harder than I was. Here’s a picture of my dad after these 3.7 miles:
We still lost 1 minute on this segment, which wasn’t bad considering this was probably the most underrated section of the run. Next up was the longest segment left, 6.4 miles to Doyles River Trail, scheduled to take 1 hour and 36 minutes with Will. Another hard segment, another opportunity for a birdie. The first mile or so here was a nice gentle downhill, which was a good opportunity to recover from the thrashing my dad had just given me. I didn’t feel like we were moving particularly fast at any point here, but we just kept a steady pace and made good time up the climb to Loft Mountain. We stopped to pee at the top of the climb, I think the first time I had stopped moving since lunch 20 miles ago, and the pain sunk into my legs immediately. I told Will it was better to keep moving because then at least only 1 leg hurt at time rather than both.
We made it into the next checkpoint and everyone was surprised to see us. We had gained 10 minutes, an eagle! I was now back to 3 minutes ahead of the plan with 25 miles to go. This is where I knew the record was mine to lose. There was still plenty of tough trail ahead, but I knew as long as I kept it together and kept moving it would be a success.
The next few miles are a bit of a blur. I lost a ton of time on the steep descent from Blackrock Gap, probably my least favorite section, and then gained it all back into RipRap Trailhead. At Blackrock Gap, I made the last planned stop of the trip for dinner, where Lizzie had saved the day by saving some Ramen. Going in I was certain all the Ramen was gone and not looking forward to eating anything else, but she had thought ahead and saved half from lunch to keep me in business. This was the first time I had a few foot issues, so we got that fixed up and off I went to close it out.
Leaving Blackrock Gap, it was getting dark again, something I had been dreading since about 10 AM. But by now, I could start to smell the barn and the only option was to keep moving. Maik, then my Dad took me into Sawmill Run. I lost some time here on some pretty technical sections of trail, and found myself 12 minutes behind my predicted pace and still 42 minutes ahead of FKT pace with 11 miles to go. But this was mostly based on John Anderson’s southbound pacing, and I knew he had moved really quickly over these miles and was doing it in daylight, so even in a best case scenario I was likely to lose more time here. So the record was still well within reach, but it was going to be tight.
Geoff and Alyssa got me up the super steep Calf Mountain climb and into Beagle Gap only 1 minute slower than planned. I’d saved the toughest part for last though. The last 3 miles of the trail are the most technical, and we’d be going through at almost midnight after running for 24 hours, and having gone 60 miles further than I had ever run in my life up to that point. Maik and Will went out of Beagle Gap with me and we made good time to McCormick Gap. My dad met us there, and we got up this nasty little steep section onto the ridge. That was the last significant climb of the trip, and we were still in good shape timewise. The rest of the way was slow going and technical, and seems to drag on forever, but the guys were great at keeping me moving, and passing the time as easily as possible.
Near the end we passed a group of three people, also heading Southbound. It turned out one of the women was completing the same route as me, but at the time we thought it was pretty odd to see others out there in the middle of the night too. As we neared the end, I told the guys when we saw a big sign for the thru hikers to check in, we were almost there. We passed the sign, then saw the infamous man sitting at the intersection. His light was shining right down the spur trail, so whoever was leading just saw that and headed down. On the way, Will asked if the blazes were supposed to turn blue. The right answer was no, but we were too close to the end to turn around now. I didn’t realize there was a spur so close to the end either, so I was pretty confused. The blue blazes also tend to look pretty close to white in the light of the headlamps, so it wasn’t completely clear we had made a wrong turn. We popped out onto Skyline Drive, and then I knew right away it wasn’t in the right place. We started running south and someone starts yelling. Who could that be. Wait, it’s Geoff. Why is he yelling for Alyssa? Then we realize, we’ve made a wrong turn and they had been waiting where we were meant to come out. We come to the spot the AT is supposed to come out, and immediately decide I’d better head back up to the point we turned off, then come back down to finish it out. I take off uphill, easily the fastest I’ve run all day. Everything is a blur, there’s lights everywhere in the woods, people are yelling. I hit the sign and head back down. All in all, this is probably like 2 or 3 extra minutes, but it seems like forever. I get back to Skyline and cross the bridge to the official terminus, stopping the clock at 23:14:23, just under 10 minutes faster than Dan Fogg’s record.
Jamie met us at the finish with some McDonald’s which seemed delicious for the first two bites. Then after celebrating a bit, we headed down the mountain to our lodging in Afton. During the 3 miles trip, I got really car sick and threw up as soon as we stopped. I could barely move enough to take a shower and make it into bed, and my body was having a really hard time regulating its temperature. The next day, my legs hurt so bad, and it took a few days to get back to walking normally. Then the full recovery process probably took about 6 weeks to get back to “normal” where I didn’t feel like I needed a bunch of extra sleep and was eating a normal amount of food. The mental recovery process may have taken even longer, since it’s taken me about 3 months to finish writing all this down.
Thanks for reading along. I don’t know what’s next for me now, but I’ve been enjoying some adventures in the mountains and some downtime, and have a few races that are hopefully on the horizon. Hopefully even as things start to get back to normal, I can spend more time outside climbing mountains.