If you follow me on the social medias, you will know that in the last couple months, I have picked up a new sport: mountain biking!! About a year ago Matt and I entered what was to be our first adventure race: The Two Rivers Adventure Race with Rootstock Racing. Obviously, COVID happened and the race couldn’t happen safely, and we found all of that out before we even took the plunge for getting mountain bikes. But as the year progressed, COVID restlessness continued to settle in, a few more hopeful adventure race entries were garnered, and despite the massive bike shortage in the world right now, Matt and I found ourselves happy owners of new bikes!
I have spent a good deal of time of the last few years expanding my sporting toolkit with navigation and bushwhacking, so it was not a big surprise to me that when I took up mountain biking, I loved the “newness” of that too. In elite sport, progression comes in very, very small increments. I do some huge weeks of training, all in the hope that at the end of a few months, I might see a few watts of gain. That I might get a few seconds per mile faster. Gone are the days when I see drops of 5 to 10 minutes in my swim or run times that are oh so fun to see and of course, oh so motivating to keep me training for more!
Of course, certain big goals remain in my eyesight and for those I am willing to grind away for those nominal gains. It will be worth it. But that doesn’t mean I don’t miss the feeling of being at the starting end of a huge learning curve! And that’s where mountain biking has been a treat.
Mountain biking requires a lot of things that don’t come naturally to me, namely: rhythm, coordination and balance. I also definitely have a disconnect between what I think I’m doing with my body and what I’m actually doing – ie I watch a bunch of youtube how-to videos, attempt to execute thinking I’m mirroring them 100% and then when I look at myself it looks *nothing* the same! That disconnect is a little scary but at least I fall on the side of having too much confidence/self belief?
The thread that ties all of those things together is something I *am* good at: riding a bike! I just have to learn a new way of riding a bike. Namely, a way that includes skills and steering. As someone who used to unclip “just in case” on a U-turn in a triathlon course, to say my skills need some work is an understatement!
The early days of me mountain biking was a lot of stop-starts. A lot of hike-a-bike. And a lot of falling. But somewhere after a fall where I thought my knee cap would never be the same (update: 5 weeks later it is now officially back to normal!), some knee pads, and time on the trail with a very patient friend (thanks, Shannon!) and boyfriend….I’m turning into a mountain biker!
I’m not tooting the mountain bike horn to say that everyone should go out and join me in this off-road adventure. I certainly think it’s a good way to see cycling from a different angle if you have been feeling a bit unmotivated for road cycling goals. So what place does mountain biking have in a triathletes life? I’ll put on my coaching hat to give the most commonly heard coach answer ever: it depends! When tri season is in full force, for me, there won’t be a big place for my mountain biking. My goals are still such in triathlon that when I build for an Ironman I will want to put 100% of my focus on time trial cycling. For someone who has more flexible goals about how triathlon goes? Sure, riding a mountain bike could be a great interval workout in the week! I also don’t have really any “easy” mountain biking terrain where I live…..some folks may have areas where a mountain bike could be an easier spin. I do like having this tool and look forward to mixing it up in future offseasons, getting into adventure racing some more, and perhaps trying my hand at an Xterra event at some point.
Of course, we’ll see if I have a change of heart in a few days because tomorrow is my first adventure race so I’ll get to put my mountain bike skills to use!! Here we go!!
2021 probably won’t be the year my consistency in blogging improves, but here we go! I figure an update on what I’ve been up to is appropriate. So, here we go…..
Training: I am training (for a marathon)! I have a goal race (Myrtle Beach Marathon)! That’s the good part. The bad part, of course, is the global pandemic and so many factors, including the race actually happening, are up in the air. But for now I am enjoying doing “the work” and I think even if the race doesn’t happen, this is a good training block to put in for later in the year when hopefully races will start to return with regularity.
Life: If you are an IronWomen podcast listener, you probably caught that at the end of 2020 I moved from Charlottesville to Culpeper to live with Matt. We are pretty sure Culpeper is not our forever home, but for now we are enjoying the mild winter and ability to still train as (mostly) normal. We’ve also explored some more trails on mountain bikes, and while I’m still a huge wuss when it comes to mountain biking, it’s been a really fun change of pace for me.
One major change is that in leaving Charlottesville I lost my favorite meal services! This was a huge way I “cheated” on a daily basis and didn’t have to rely on myself for healthy meals every day! Matt and I are eating meat ~2 times and week and mostly vegetarian for the rest of the week, so if you have any go-to veggie based meals for us to try, let me know in the comments! #Mealplanning4Lyfe
I also have a few recommendations to pass along…..
–The Vanishing Half (Yes, I’m late to the party on this one but it was so good!)
–Women with Altitude (if you love the Adirondacks this is a must)
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.
This FKT was particularly special as I was raising money for the Paden Institute and Retreat for Writers of Color. One of the last blog posts I did manage to do was about how I wanted to make the outdoor space more inclusive for everyone. This was a very small step towards that, and having a deeper purpose behind my run definitely made a difference. I am very thankful for Alice Paden and her support of my fundraising venture for the Paden Institute.
It’s been 8 weeks, and one of the most popular questions I get is: what is next? I had a lot of high hopes for some things I could get right down to, but truth be told….I’m definitely still recovering. I actually had ~3 weeks after the hike where I felt great and superhuman. And then, as I continued to just give my body some time off, things took a turn and my body definitely started to really recover. Which is code for “I got pretty unfit.”
I absolutely realize that my “unfit” is still probably quite fit for the average human being, but I would have a ways to go before being able to race something that requires speed against elite competitors! As hard as it is to do workouts and feel like nothing is smooth and like you’re breathing through a straw, it’s also kind of nice. I can’t remember the last time I let myself get this “unfit,” so I am trying to embrace that it’s probably been a great thing for my body. But oof – getting that leg speed back is Not Easy!!!!
Also, it might be awhile before I start to really think about the next thing! I am still sleeping happily for 9-10 hours a night if the opportunity presents itself, and I still want a nap every now and then (which is actually unusual for me!). It’s also the BEST time of the year to enjoy the outdoors here in the Blue Ridge Mountains, so I’m looking to soak up some of that. Plus, I am spending extra hours volunteering at the polls for early voting (if you have extra time, please volunteer locally as well)!
I do have plans to write up my thoughts (as a coach, and a crew member) from Matt’s FKT he nabbed last month – 107 miles of the Appalachian Trail through Shenandoah National Park was a pretty epic 23 hours and 14 minutes. That will be next!
As we walked off the trail, 70 miles of The Ring behind us, it was a full 48 hours before I realized the extent that the world had crumbled while we were out there following orange blazes. And I say crumbled, because language is escaping me. I’m not entirely sure how to describe this time of unrest, but I can only hope that we will look back on this as the turning point to when things began to change, and be better. Things are still spinning, and I am still processing, learning and acting. I don’t want to take away from any of that. But I also recognize the power of the outdoors for myself, not only in terms of resetting but also in terms of giving me space to think and process much of the things going on in the world today. So with that in mind, I didn’t want to skip over writing a trip report on the Ring. When Matt and I were planning this, there was a surprisingly limited amount of information out on the internet, and what was there was a bit dated and left us wondering about the accuracy of it. So I wanted to make sure to give you the details of what we did, and hopefully encourage others to head out to these trails for a place to reflect and grow, and of course have an adventure.
That’s another way of saying “This is going to be a long one folks.” The short version can be summed up in this video:
We chose to start the ring at the Kennedy Peak trailhead, and hiked clockwise. We set off around 2pm on Wednesday, planning to get up Waterfall mountain and then begin to look for a place to camp. This would be about 12 miles. No part of the trail in this section is particularly challenging, but you still quickly get a feel for the fact that this trail is slow going even when it’s not technical! We dropped our packs and did the out and back to Strickler Knob without them — I’d definitely recommend this detour. That was the only time we saw people out on this day, another couple heading back from Strickler. Coming down from there, we made sure to fill up our water (we were both carrying a 2L bladder, a 16oz flask/bottle and a .6L Katahdyn soft flask with filter). We figured that the next stretch could be a little iffy with water access and we were right!
The hike up Waterfall is steep, especially with a full pack, and I was happy to have that behind us on the first day of the trip. At the top we explored some of the herd paths curious if they lead to campsites, but no luck there. As you continue on towards the road a few campsites do emerge right at the road crossing. We decided to cross the road, and about 1/4 mile across just before the trail climbs again there is a nice campsite we picked on the right.
The rain was rolling in overnight, so when we set off in the morning we weren’t sure if it was raining, really humid, or just windy and that was causing water to come off the trees. Regardless, it was a pretty wet start to the day. Our goal was to get to Edinburg Gap and find some water in that area, making the decision of whether or not to go off trail to the spring at that point (.5 mile detour each way).
This day proved to show off the heart and soul of the Ring trail. It reminded us not to judge a trail by the map – -what shows as possibly being “a nice hike along the ridgeline” is so much more than that on this trail. The rugged terrain rewards you just enough with the occasional view to keep you going, and we were happy that at this point in the season (just after Memorial Day), the stream crossings on the map did in fact have water flowing — so our bet to skip the spring and hike north on the trail about half a mile was a good bet!
The next section up to Woodstock Gap, I will always refer to as The Matrix. When you leave Endinburg gap, you see a sign saying 7 miles to Woodstock. After hiking strong uphill for 25 minutes, another sign…..still says 7 miles! More time passes thinking surely we are almost there, and another sign indicating that we are, at best, halfway. I don’t know what is going on in that section, but just be aware! Woodstock Gap was hot, but had some signs of civilization and we knew we were on our last stretch. But, it was turning into a 28 mile day as we slowly realized our hopes of finding a campsite up along the ridge in the next section were probably not going to come true — we’d have to hike the extra 2 miles down off the ridge. I think the annoyance factor was compounded by the fact we had wet feet since the start of the day – or at least it was for me. For some reason, I decided not to pack an extra pair of socks on this trip. I’ll never backpack again without making sure I do!!!!
Eventually we got to Mudhole Gap, and while we had low expectations based on the name, it turned out to be a great campsite. We were there on Thursday and no one else was around, so we had a ton of room to get ourselves set up, dry things out, and soak our legs in the cold water of Little Passage Creek. It was lovely!!
A nice night, and we packed up and started the second of the big days. You hike along the fire road for the most part for a few miles, which parallels Little Passage Creek, so we didn’t have to top off the pack weight with all the water right away either which was nice. Just make sure you fill up eventually — we did right at the intersection with the Tuscarora Trail – as you won’t have much more water until descending down to Elizabeth’s Furnace.
Signal Knob is a great view, and again, we lucked out by being the only ones around. After being able to make good time for the first couple hours, coming off of Signal Knob gets slower and much more technical. Down to Elizabeth’s Furnace, there was a sign saying that a hand pump for water was available in the campground, and some directions there were given. However, it wasn’t clear if it was a sign that had been there since pre-COVID days. As we went through the campground, trying any fountain along the way, it was clear they were off because of COVID precautions. The day was heating up, and I was clearly suffering from lack of calories and hydration. Matt was happily still looking for said hand pump, and I threw a (very small) tantrum insisting that this thing we just came across:
was clearly the hand pumped they referenced, and it was off, so let’s just get water from the river and get back on trail. Matt was adament that said device is just a faucet, not a hand pump. We may never know who was right!!! But Matt gave in to my rashness and we just hit the river.
After some cold water in my system, and eating 3 large snacks, I immedietly felt better (go figure!) and really enjoyed the next section of hiking. This area is one I had been in the vicinity of before for Old Dominion 100, and it felt familiar for sure. We also saw some others out hiking and the friendly faces were welcome. Still, we kept moving in an effort to get off our feet in less time than the day prior — my sock choice had proven to haunt me even further and I was getting pretty bad blisters on the bottoms of my toes.
Down to Little Crease Shelter for our last water fill of the day, and we hiked out for the ridge, our sights aimed on Milford Gap. This was perhaps the biggest wildcard for camping options, and I was a little nervous about targeting the ridgeline for camping after seeing yesterday’s ridgeline so limited for options. The eastern side of the ring though seemed to have many more options, and it would be a pretty reliable statement to say that at most trail intersections on the eastern side, there is a primitive campsite or two around.
Perhaps because of the weather rolling in (which we didn’t know about yet!) Milford gap was also empty, though it looks to be a well frequented spot. Probably my favorite site itself of the trip, though the major downside was it was a tick haven. I still get squirrely thinking about how many ticks we saw there and found on ourselves. Not ideal. But it actually had some benches of logs to sit down on, which was a pleasure!
As I alluded to before – weather was rolling in on this night. In an attempt to keep the tent cool, we had tried to not fully setup the fly for maximum airflow through the tent. As we started falling asleep and we heard thunder rumbling in the distance, we realized that might not have been wise! Slowly the storms rolled in, Matt went out and secured the fly, and for the next couple hours I layed awake worrying about the storms and the potential for a tree to fall on us (I realize this is a very small possibility and generally not something to lay awake worrying about) while Matt slept soundly.
That night, while I was exploring on my inReach Garmin map, I realized that it said a spring was just .4 miles down this trail from the campsite. We decided that seemed closer than the other options on the map, and it would be nice to just refill once in the morning and then not have to stop again for the last 10 miles of the hike. So in the morning we went down the trail to the West, and eventually did find the spring at the road down there. We didn’t see anything else for the rest of the day, so most likely you’d have to leave the trail to get water at some point, this isn’t a bad option.
The last day was pretty “easy” in comparison of terrain and climbing, and only half the distance we had been doing which was nice! In the first 68 miles of the trail, we had seen 9 others out on the trail. In those last 2 miles though on the Kennedy Peak trail, we saw another 15+! That was kind of crazy, and it was a little weird to end the hike in such a crowded place — but, by then it was Saturday morning so it was expected.
Overall, there is a lot we are still learning with backpacking. Like the need of more dry bags — we use one for a bear bag at night, but we probably should have had others to be able to keep other stuff (like sleeping bags) in our packs dry — even just from our sweat! We definitely didn’t need to take the puffy coats we had either, though I’m always hesitant to leave those behind because who knows what weather could really happen out there. I’m also still trying to figure out the perfect blend of hiking and camp clothes. I liked having the button down top and looser pants to wear at camp each night for sure, but I’d also like to try the option of maybe a campsite dress to stay covered but also air myself out once at the campsite.
For our first multi-day trip backpacking though, this was a pretty solid success! Since then, I’ve also felt a solid strength deposit in my legs for the running I’ve been doing. I guess 70 miles with a 20 pound pack will do that!
The print in the photo above has been hanging in my home for the last 3.5 years. I actually think some people see it as parents telling children to be quiet and the impending doom that comes with that. I got the print as a reminder to myself to keep fighting the fight that I had immersed myself in since 2014 with Ironman, trying to achieve equal slots for women at the Ironman World Champions through #50womentokona.
Throughout the current presidency, the print has often brought to mind other battles we find ourselves fighting, these years wrought with controversy and oppression for various groups.
But I’m not sure I’ll ever look at this print again, without thinking of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others.
I was 23 years old when Obama was elected in 2008. I was young, excited, felt like I had the world at my finger tips and like so many of us, filled with Hope. His election was symbolic to me of the fact that my generation stood for change, promise, and good.
I was naive.
Since 2008 my generation has gone ahead and we have done, created, built, dreamt and inspired. We have changed the world. That election gave us a sense that things in our world were better, and so we poured our energy into things to make our lives more enriched, more fun, more connected, more efficient.
I was naive. I knew racism still existed, but I made conscious choices to believe that it wasn’t in my world…that incidents were isolated….that they could be called “incidents.” My naivety was a privilege, afforded to me by the color of my skin.
My generation has gone on to change the world, but in the process we overlooked the need to change the system. We forgot that instead of forging ahead, perhaps we needed to take all our energy and passion and go backwards, digging into the systems that govern our streets and educate our people, and make sure we put changes in place so we never ended up exactly where we are now.
We were naive. Because we didn’t fix the system, more Black people were oppressed. More Black people were murdered. More Black people’s voices and stories have been removed from history.
We are standing on the brink of a massive opportunity. The world has a lot of battles to fight, but I hope we all make a conscious choice to pick this battle and help make the world a place where Black Lives Matter. Through larger actions of education and activism, and smaller actions of reading, signing petitions and speaking up when something needs to change in front of you….through mistakes and humility, I hope you will join me in this ongoing pursuit to be an ally for our BIPOC communities.
What am I’m doing *now* to begin my allyship? Great question. Because I believe my audience is a lot of outdoor enthusiasts and endurance athletes, I’ll start today by sharing ways that I am learning about racism in the outdoor space and how we can change that.
FKT’s are also a space that lacks diversity – But Coree Aussem-Woltering is out there RIGHT NOW on the Ice Age Trail (over 1,000 miles!). I know firsthand how just SEEING an FKT attempt from someone like myself can plant the seed – let’s share Coree’s run which is being tracked on the “tracking now” area of fastestknowntime.com and plant those seeds for other Black athletes.
I feel like it’s the understatement of the century to say that people are going a little stir crazy lately! I am no exception. We’ve been super lucky that Matt’s job has maintained minimal impacts throughout the crisis, but one of the smaller impacts was being required to burn a week of vacation time at some point in May. Honestly, I perked up at this even though we didn’t have anything planned. It is a great time of year to get out and do a backpacking trip that we have wanted to do. Even better, we’d be able to go during the week to help keep off the trails in the popular times.
We are definitely experimenting with “how light can we travel,” though I will say that we are both scared of sacrificing too much food so we have PLENTY of that. The forecast also looks favorable as have the last few weeks for us to have plenty of water access. I’m also experimenting with my clothing options so we’ll see how that ends up and if I choose correctly!!
Next week I’ll update you on where we travelled and how it was — keeping that off the public space for now just for safety! (that’s for you, Mom!)
In the meantime, we have a great IronWomen Podcast episode on tap for tomorrow – so please keep your eye out for that to drop and have a listen. Haley often challenges me with topics that she proposes for the show, and this was no exception. I learned SO MUCH in this episode and I hope you will too!
As I was driving out to my hike this morning, I looked ahead at the stretch of road, always quiet mid-day, but even quieter in these COVID times. Today, the mountains weren’t there. Or so it seemed, at least. But having driven towards them many times before, I knew they were in fact there, buried beneath the thick fog that was moving in, bringing with it heavy rain. I might beat the rain today, but I knew I couldn’t beat the fog.
Normally I would be pretty “meh” about a hike in this unseasonably cold, wet weather. But I think since my training has been light and my fatigue level pretty low for the last few days, I was in a better mood than expected. But the thought still popped into my head that I’d be doing all this climbing today and I wouldn’t get one darn view out of it!
But of course, sometimes you start a climb knowing there will be no view. And, view or not, I knew it would be worth it. Climbing a mountain always makes me feel strong. No matter how busy my life has been. How blah I feel about my body and fitness. How tired my legs are. There is no way I can climb a mountain and not feel…better. Better mentally and stronger physically.
It’s a little bit of a stretch (but when I’m trying to blog every week, stretching to hit some points is totally fine in my world!) but it reminds me of what Hillary used to remind me of in my first years of working with her, when as a twenty-something life was much more dynamic, dramatic and emotional than I’d like to admit. (Hopefully she’d agree that the pendulum has shifted in my wise years of the thirties!!) But when all those emotions and drama would boil to the surface and the last thing I ever wanted to do was the exercise on my plan for the day, she’d remind me of something tried and true for many endurance sports athletes: mood follows action. Just start. It might not be perfect, but it’s something. And you’ll probably feel better after doing it. And she was right.
In this time when some days are good and some days are bad, my call to action? Climb a mountain. If you don’t have a mountain, hike up a big hill for awhile. Don’t have a hill? Set the treadmill to 15%. Can’t access a treadmill? Put heavy stuff in a backpack and walk around town for an hour. Altitude is relative. But I find this to remain: Altitude shifts attitude.
Last week I wrote about how I was inspired to create a self-challenge, which I called “The Five Days of Jarmans” — starting on Monday I would run 1 lap of Jarmans Gap Road, ~6 miles and 1,500 feet of vertical gain and 1,500 feet of descent. Each day thereafter, I’d add a lap until Friday, when I’d do 5 laps. I’m writing a blog for the Smashfest Queen Diaries this week with some more elaboration on my “why” for this, as well as what my takeaways have been. But before it got too far away from me, I wanted to sit down and write out the more data-oriented side of things in case people were interested.
I dialed in my fueling and hydrating plan through this pretty well. Day 1, only being 6 miles, I made sure I was well hydrated and fueled going into it and afterwards, but I didn’t fuel during that hour.
Day 2, I started to add in some calories. I drank ~16oz of NUUN Endurance (60 calories) and on the first descent I had a Spring Energy Speednut gel (250 calories). Honestly I would have liked to have had some more NUUN Endurance but I wasn’t feeling too crisp this day and minimized the extra weight of carrying a handheld for too long. But I made sure to hit the rehydrating right after, and had a shake right afterwards with ~300 calories as well (I had this shake each day afterwards in addition to the nutrition below).
From there, things stayed pretty consistent, and I essentially just added a bottle and a gel each lap. So Day 3 was 2 Speednut gels (500 calories), 60 calories of NUUN Endurance, and 160 calories of Red Bull for bottle #2. (Total of 720 calories and 32oz of liquid while running)
Day 4: Two Speednut + 1 Koffee gel (710 calories), 120 calories of NUUN Endurance, and 160 calories of Red Bull. (Total of 990 calories and 48 oz of liquid while running)
Day 5: Two Speednut gels + 1 Koffee gel (710 calories), 1 pack of Clif Blocks (200 calories), 180 calories of NUUN Endurance and 160 calories of Red Bull. (Total of 1250 calories and 60oz of liquid while running)
As you can see, for days 3-5 I really focused on getting in 250 calories an hour and ~12oz of hydration with NUUN Endurance and a Red Bull/Water mix. Most of the time I was also using the caffeinated NUUN Endurance. Yes, caffeine is my friend 🙂 So are calories!!
I think the consistency with which I fueled lent itself well to the diesel engine approach I had with my pacing. Admittedly, I’m not a huge data person. I also didn’t want the data and time aspect of this challenge to derail me from having a good time out there. I did my best to remember to split laps up/down, but by the end of the week I was over that a bit and didn’t lap out interloopal times, so those kind of blended together. I also warmed up a little bit on the first couple days which threw off my times/elevation, but I did some rough estimations to give you a ballpark, and all links are to Strava data if you want to double check me! Here is what I have:
15 laps over 5 days
Total time for the 5 days including interloopal times: 14 hours, 37 minutes
Approximately 88 miles total
~23,500 feet gain total
~22,750 feet descent total
Fastest descent was the last one!! 18:58
Fastest climb was the first one!! 31:15
Below, I segmented out any times I did easily have. The “total” is the total elapsed time for the day — so that includes any time I had faffing at the top of Jarmans, and interloopal times.
I was lazy and not doing much lapping here, but the climbs appear to be 35-37 minutes and the descents 24-25ish (until the last one!). I also went live on the Smashfest Queen instagram at the top of loop 3 to show what the “view” is at the top since people had asked, and after loop two there was a train, so I waited at my car until that had passed rather than waiting in the open with the train roaring by me. So plenty of places for time to be eliminated with just those!
And last: gear! It might not seem like it’s too variable for this type of adventure, but there are actually plenty of options I considered. First: shoe choice. I ran all but 4 of the 15 laps in Nike Next%. The ones I didn’t were the two on day 2, and the first two on Day 5. I’d say that those were some of my slower laps— I noticed a very big difference for me on my ability to descent in the Next%. I also think they absorbed the pounding a lot more allowing me to rack up all the climb/descent of the week with the least amount of wear possible.
I actually did consider taking out trekking poles for the last part of the week (controversial, I know!) to have them for the second mile, stash them and bring them down a mile on the descent to have again for the next loop. I never ended up doing that, but I would bet if you are good with the sticks, this would help your times on the climbing!
I also wanted to minimize what I was carrying, so I always stopped back at my car for a new bottle and a gel rather than carry everything the whole time. I created a system which worked really well for the second half of the week where I would bring a bottle all the way up to the top on the first lap, and leave it at the top. Then on further loops, I’d carried a bottle to the second mile, and would grab it again on the way down. On the last lap I may or may not carry a bottle the first couple miles, because I would have to carry the bottle from the top on the last rep. Again, carrying a bottle all the time wouldn’t have been the end of the world and while it seems quite small, these are the small things that add up! I think paying attention to these little things ultimately helped to lighten my load and keep me consistent through the whole week.
Hope some of you found this interesting! More thoughts to come so watch the Smashfest Queen social for that link on Thursday!
This week on IronWomen we are interviewing Lael Wilcox, an endurance sport athlete I have loved following since I came across her documentary I Just Want to Ride. Back in the winter, I noted one of her adventures and loved the concept: She was doing the 15 Lemmons of Christmas by riding Mt. Lemmon for 5 days, with 1x up and down on the first day, 2x up and down on the second day, and so on. To fully understand the scope of this, you might have to head out to Tucson to ride up Mt. Lemmon, but essentially its a 21-25 mile climb (depends on what you call the “top”) which climbs from under 3,000 ft to 8,000 ft. Whether you do it fast or slow, there is no easy way to climb Mt Lemmon.
I don’t know how it popped into my head exactly, but I felt like a great way for me to use this inspiration was to take it to a local running route here outside of Charlottesville: Jarmans Gap. I’ve been doing a lot more running than riding these days, and climbing mountains has been keeping me happy and fit. So, why not climb Jarmans a few times? And thus, the Five Days of Jarmans was born.
One of the things I love about living in Charlottesville is the history. Recent years have made some aspects of history here controversial….the history is not alway a happy history. But it has been so interesting to discover more about the land that I run and ride through every single day. Historical markers here can be as frequent as road signs in some places it seems, and it’s nice to stop and read them every once in awhile.
Jarmans Gap most definitely has a history. You can read some of it here or here, but the short version is that it was a major early crossing through the Blue Ridge Mountains. Before even the earliest European settlers, Native Americans were using it as a path to travel. It’s pretty cool when you spend time in a place like that to think about all the footprints that have come before.
But even the coolest amount of history doesn’t take away from the fact that these days, running Jarmans Gap is hard! It has become a right of passage for the local runners, and the “go-to” spot to send folks who are visiting and looking for a run. “Oh! You should run Jarmans!” we’ll say, with a smile of encouragement, knowing what they are in for.
Until COVID19 changed the world, running Jarmans usually didn’t fit in well to my training plan. A ~3 mile incline with 1,500 feet of elevation gain doesn’t usually fit in too well as a brick run, or prep for the IM marathon. So now with the renewed focus on staying motivated and maintaining fitness, I’ve been able to spend more time on Jarmans. So I figured – why not spend *a lot* of time on Jarmans one week? And, here we are.
I love the scenes in movies and the chapters in books when the hero is training and developing and working to become great; when you see that drive and ambition to face sacrifices and to improve. You see cold early mornings and sweat and pain become results. I want to live that story. I want to climb that mountain.
The beauty of climbing is that you won’t just have one experience. There will be fierce moments of riding into a driving wind, of your lungs flaming and your quads disintegrating to cinders, and then there will be absolute calm. The longer you stay out there, the more you’ll experience.
I’m excited for the simplicity of the days and miles ahead. I’m excited for the dewy humid mornings, honing in on my drive and ambition, experiencing life this week on Jarmans. I’m excited to climb that mountain.