Health update!

Well team, we have a lot of updates to roll out here. I’m probably going to regret this but rather than glossing over things, I’m going to try to give each one a post and get them out fairly timely! Up on tap: health update (today!), The Stockville race report, a race report from The Hard Fall 24 Hour Adventure Race, and a re-cap of the Backbone Trail Running Camp. That will probably be as much blogging in the next 2 months as I have done all year, but #dreambig right?  

So, here we go: health! 

My last blog was bout IM CDA which was not a good race, to put it mildly. I went on from that race knowing that was not a reflection of where I felt my fitness was. I reminded myself that I had added that race onto my calendar fairly last minute for an Ironman, and that many things pointed to the fact that perhaps I just wasn’t quite back to Ironman-level fitness, just yet. But the good news was, I could channel all of my energy into a race coming up quite quickly, as I had Ironman Lake Placid just a month away. 

I was *really* looking forward to Lake Placid. It is as much of a “hometown” Ironman as I will ever get, and I have been going back to Lake Placid many times in a racing, coaching or training capacity over the last 9 years. Not to mention, my heart and soul is in those High Peaks that look down on the village of Lake Placid. Plus, it’s always a reunion race with Biscay Coaching athletes and other triathlon friends. I never regret going to IM Lake Placid!

The month between CDA and Lake Placid was…..fine. I had some decent workouts, but I also had a lot of crappy workouts. Nothing glaring was off, but things just didn’t feel good. But, I *had* just raced one ironman, so maybe asking to feel sharp was too much to ask right? And I’m no stranger to what it takes to bounce back from a less-than-good race performance, so my mental focus on the good stuff and maintaining a relentless positive outlook was at 110%. 

The day started and there could be a whole blog to write about the day itself. Construction forced a new transition zone and with that a cluster of a morning getting myself to the start line in an effort to play by the rules, take the designated shuttles, etc. Ultimately I got to the start and unfortunately, the chaotic morning turned out to be the least of my problems that day. While the swim felt “fine,” pretty soon after I got onto the bike I started to feel the energy and power draining from my body. It literally felt like a slow leak on a drain, and as energy poured out, the leg burn and the fatigue just crept in. The carbon Garmin holder I had on my aerobars that day actually snapped when I hit a bump and while I did stop to pick up my computer, I had it in my back pocket the second half of the ride, so I wasn’t able to see just how much power I was losing – probably a good thing. I wasn’t too far out of the mix that I thought I could be in, so it was time to run. From the first step, there was a burning and pain in my hips that I have never felt to that extreme, and certainly not during a race. Okay, ignore, compartmentalize, look for Matt and my parents on the course. Just keep the legs turning over. 

And then things went from barely hanging on, to pretty much failure in any sense of the word! The most noticeable issue was that I couldn’t breathe. The only thing I could think when my heart rate would get up was “this must be what an asthma attack feels like” — I just couldn’t get air in, I couldn’t take a full breath, and if I did it was like there was no oxygen in it to send to my muscles. If I pushed it, I started to dry heave and vomit. If I backed off, I could shuffle, but the hip pain and leg pain remained. 

This was really, really hard, in so many ways. It is so hard to do this for a living and have one of your worst days in front of so many people who care about you. Ultimately, I did the only thing I knew how to do: just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Keep my heart open and make some friends, use the other thousands of amazing people out there on course to get me through. My 36th Ironman and easily my worst performance. 

Contemplating life decisions at IMLP

In the days after, I was plagued with so many thoughts, but as I sorted through all of them and consulted constantly with coach Hillary Biscay, I kept coming back to the idea that I have had bad races before. I know what it feels like to have a bad day, when your body just doesn’t show up. This wasn’t that. This was different. 

Over the next two months, I didn’t work out very much. I couldn’t. The weeks after Lake Placid I was hanging on by a thread – functioning just enough to coach my athletes, which was pretty much all the energy I could muster. I saved my sanity with a few trips to the mountains that would leave me depleted for days after. I had headaches. Couldn’t sleep. My brain felt like it was working half the time, at best. It felt like I couldn’t breathe no matter how much I rested or how much I stayed still. I was having heart palpitations that had me concerned. There were days I barely had energy to walk Ramona. 

After *many* different doctor appointments and thousands of dollars I had been told:

-I was fine, I just needed to rest. 

-Are you sure you’re not pregnant?

-I had anxiety.

-Are you sure you’re not pregnant?

-I had asthma.

-I had acid reflux. 

-I had allergies.

-No really, are you sure you’re not pregnant?

In case you can’t tell, for the love of god, I wasn’t pregnant, and I have 8 million tests to prove it, hahaha. 

Admittedly, this all was made more complicated than it already had to have been, by two factors – one, I had just relocated to a new state. I had no background with any doctors. They didn’t know me from Joe Schmo, and it’s really more difficult than it should be to explain to a doctor the lifestyle of a professional triathlete. The second factor was that several of my symptoms, namely the breathing issues, heart palpitations, and sleeping trouble, had been ones that I had been going to a doctor regularly for since, ready for this? 2017! 

Yes, it was back in 2017 when I started feeling…..off. So every 6 months or so I’d land in my PCP office, they’d run the bloodwork, do an EKG, chest X-ray, allergy tests, pulmonology tests, and maybe some others, and everything would come back: I’m healthy as a clam. And since 2017, I was feeling mostly better. Every 4-6 weeks I’d have a few days where I’d feel awful, but it became habit to blame aging and hormones and attribute it to that. The only thing that never ebbed and flowed, but stayed consistent, was this sensation in my lungs when I would breathe very deeply, I’d feel a “catch” of sorts, almost like a sense of fluid or something ever so slightly in my lungs. Of course, if you google fluid in your lungs, it’s terrifying. But the tests were always fine, so again, must be hormonal? Must be the fact that I exercise so much my lungs work differently? 

This summer, in my myriad of initial testing I had a Lyme test done. The initial screen was positive. Stop the presses! I had come back to Lyme through the years, though my test in 2017 was negative. The CDC prescribes a two tier testing method for Lyme though, and my second test was negative – nope, couldn’t be Lyme then, the doctor at Dartmouth tells me. But….I am around ticks. All the time, I tell her. I can remember a time camping where we laid in the tent and counted tens of ticks crawling along the outside. I have a dog and I’m constantly picking ticks off her, and myself. I pulled a tick off the back of my head literally on July 23rd! One of my hobbies is crawling around in the woods, and I have lived in the mid-atlantic and northeast – where ticks are booming (thanks, climate change), my whole life. Nope, she says, not Lyme.

Me doing typical activities, bushwhacking in the woods around ticks.

Two weeks later though, another test came back positive (pro tip – you can get yourself a very valid and FDA approved test from CVS if the doctor won’t order one), and the new doctors I have found think, of course it’s Lyme!

Over the next month I encounter:

-Doctors who think Lyme testing is 100% valid.

-Doctors who think Lyme testing has a lot of holes.

-Doctors who think Lyme testing is mostly useless.

-Doctors who think 2 weeks of antibiotics cures Lyme.

-Doctors who think 3 weeks of antibiotics cures Lyme.

-Doctors who think 4 weeks of antibiotics cures Lyme.

-Doctors who think antibiotics and herbs can cure Lyme.

-Doctors who think herbs cure Lyme.

-Doctors who think Lyme is never cured.

I could go, but you get the point. 

This NYT piece is a really good read and while my struggle (knock on wood) seems to be less harrowing than his, it speaks to many of the feelings I have had through this process. 

In the end, after many doctors and tests, I was diagnosed with Lyme and a co-infection, Babesia. I have begun to feel much better and have been able to resume life “as normal.” Though I still think I am working towards getting myself back to 100%, I do think I’m on the right path finally, and, most importantly, all of the symptoms I was feeling since 2017? They have all disappeared since the Lyme treatment. 

I have been enormously lucky through my 8 year career as a professional athlete that I never had a season ending injury or illness, until this year. It was incredibly difficult to let go of my season hopes, and the two months after lake placid were very tough to keep myself together. But as I was talking to Hillary through it all, giving her the latest download of the contradictory information the latest doctor sent me home with, we both recognized a little silver lining in this all: that I was undoubtedly becoming a better coach through this. 

I realized quickly how each doctor was seeing me, running tests, diagnosing me and making a care plan based on their own worldview. They saw test results and illnesses through their own lenses. The vast differences between them were so incredible. It really was nagging me throughout this – how do I do this same thing these doctors are driving me bonkers with, in my own life? As a friend, a coach, a girlfriend? What am I seeing through my lens and not keeping an open mind to? Where are places I can step back and see the bigger picture? Because I wasn’t training, I had very increased time and attention on my athletes and the relationships around me and I really think it gave me space to approach my role differently and change some habits. That was a good thing.

I am also very grateful that through it all, I was still able to get outside most days, and even if it didn’t feel good, I could go for a walk or a hike or I could do *something*. It was far from training by any definition of what I am used to, but it was movement. Many people navigating this or similar things might not be able to even do that, and not having the benefit of fresh air and movement, would have really made this so much more trying. 

I still remember one thing my doctor said to me back in 2017 as I was living in Charlottesville – that every spring, he always has a handful of top athletes from the area coming to him with similar symptoms. He thinks it is just an allergy to something that is in the region. Looking back, I hope doctors become more open minded about ticks and are willing to acknowledge how little we know about Lyme and the other tick-borne illnesses. It is really scary when you start to look into it. But it’s made worse because of the culture doctors are creating around Lyme. We have to put our egos aside for this one. 

As of right now, I think I’m one of the lucky ones, who had the time, resources and support from friends and family to keep knocking on doors, keep talking to doctors and keep advocating for myself. I hope I haven’t scared people with this story, but, it is kind of scary. And you can bet not a day goes by when I go outside without some good bug/tick repellent!!! Speaking from experience it is not worth the risk!!

IM CDA: A Reality Check

It was my third time returning to the lovely little town of Coeur d’Alene for the Ironman race. In 2012, we had a high of 71 degrees and I remember a lot of folks being too cold out of the swim to get on their bikes right away! In 2015, it was 105 degrees! It was miserable!

Surely, 2021 would be juustttttt right…..right?

Alas, this is not a Goldilocks story, but rather a story that shows that sometimes lightning can strike twice. I won’t focus on weather as the main part of the story, but, when it’s 100 degrees for an ironman, that is going to be a major factor at play!

Despite the forecast though, I was really excited to be traveling for a race again and heading out West. Ironing out travel logistics from a corner of the country was a new hurdle, and evidenced by the fact I sat in the wrong seat TWICE on my way out there I was definitely a little rusty.

Patient Passenger: ma’am, you’re in my seat.

Me: Oh no, I have 22D….

Patient Passenger: Ummm yes….this is 20D.

Me: <face palm emoji> It was like I have never flown in a plane before!  

But, I arrived in CDA and things were just as hippie-quaint as I remembered. I probably should have given myself an extra day pre-race in town, because things were a little more hectic than I generally prefer before a race, but it was really fun to catch up with friends and be back doing all the pre-race stuff. I also had the opportunity to be featured on an episode of “A Fighting Chance” that Ironman created – you can watch that here

Smashfest Queen Pros!

Going into this race, I felt like I had pretty solid fitness. This race was a late addition to the pro calendar, and it wasn’t until April 5th when I e-mailed Hillary to ask her what she thought about me adding that in before IM Lake Placid. We both knew my run fitness would be a wild card, but felt like I was swimming and riding well, so it would be a good opportunity before LP to bust some rust. So….here we are. 

Race start was a funny time. And not just because it was 5am and we had all been awake since like 2am. There were some women there who I have never raced with, but a core majority of the women are some that I have been racing with since our amateur days. It was a little bittersweet as we caught up and eye rolled at ourselves for “still doing this crazy stuff” – ha! But it was also comforting to still be racing with these women. There’s a certain kind of respect that emerges for those who have weathered what Ironman brings you year after year. Physically, mentally, and emotionally – it’s a hard sport to come back to. Even though we may only see each other a few times a year, there is an unspoken bond of respect, admiration and support for the long haulers, and I that helped to really calm my nerves before the swim.

Speaking of the swim: FOLKS! I am not sure who missed the memo, but this race involves a 2.4 mile swim and there is zero need for aggression out there. I don’t know if people were antsy or what after not having raced in awhile, but it was crazy out there and I was happy when we hit the first turn buoy and people didn’t know where to go, so I could just move to the front and be out of the mess! 

Mid way through the second loop as I was navigating through all the age group swimmers I was told wouldn’t be started ahead of our second loop (ahem), I felt…..sweaty. Like, I was somehow sweating through my wetsuit. It also kind of felt like my energy drained from me. It wasn’t fun, but I was still in contact with a few from my group, so I just figured I wasn’t quite in my best swim fitness yet and soldiered on. 

Within the first few miles of the bike I knew it was going to be a long ride. The people who came out of the swim with me were riding away from me, and a glance at my computer was showing less than desirable numbers. Ugh. And so we begin a very, very long 112 miles. The temperatures were now rising, and I knew things were going to get very real over the next few hours. I was getting by okay, ignoring the feelings of riding backwards in the field and just focusing on staying aero and making the most of what I could out of what I did have on the day…..and then, I got a flat. Oof. But, no problem, and I had the tube swapped in 5 minutes and was putting the cartridge on, twisting it to break the seal….and POP. This little rubber insert in my inflator blew right out of the inflator. Ugh. Now I was really screwed. 

A random guy yelled to me as he rode by me and I was standing in open pavement swarmed by bees in 100 degree heat; he said: don’t let this end your day! Thanks, random man. Do YOU have a backup inflator and cartridge on you? Ha!

Alas, my day wasn’t over at that point. A really, really kind guy who was out spectating on the course helped me out and rode up the road to let race staff know I needed aid. Eventually they came down with a pump (thank you also to the man who did stop and offered me his extra flat kit). And I was back on the road 20 minutes later.

Coming into T2 in 5:59, I was actually kind of impressed with myself. A ride of 5:39 with an average of 150 watts (typically I ride 200 for IM rides!) was actually way faster than I expected to have, and I owe that to a great bike fit by Todd Kenyon, and many miles spent chasing Matt around on the roads that have forced me to learn to ride as aerodynamically as I can. 

I was though, the last bike to enter T2. I took my time getting cool and ready to run, and set off for a marathon journey with a shred of hope. When conditions are THIS bad, carnage is inevitable, and perhaps, just maybe, I could run my way into a decent placing after all. 

I had some good miles, then some questionable miles, and then some rough miles towards the end. Carnage did happen, but it wasn’t enough to buoy me beyond 14th place, which honestly feels like a pretty fair placing for the day I had anyway.  It definitely reminded me that running a marathon in 100 degree heat is not my jam. 

This pic from Justin Luau makes it look like hot marathons are my jam!

I’ve fielded some questions about CDA and heard feedback that people were impressed I finished the race. I’ve had plenty of time to think about that and to tell you the truth, not finishing just was never an option – it never really is – when I’m just doing poorly on the day. 

My reasons for this vary – from not wanting to drop because I knew that meant I wouldn’t enjoy the recovery week that awaited me, to the strong belief that a competition shouldn’t only be finished on your best days. I am a younger sister, and I have a lot of memories of starting games and competitions with my older sister, only to have her quit the game when she started to lose to me. Perhaps it is these memories that instilled in me this stubbornness that I will always keep me running on the hard days, out of respect for my competitors, and I will finish the game or the race even when I am far behind. If I have the opportunity to showcase the lesson of finishing what you started, making the most of the day ahead of you, and embracing the privilege of racing – I will.

I recently was watching some random YouTube video and there was a monologue about dreams and why endurance athletes do the things they do. There was the line that “dreams throw you into experience, and experience is progress.”  It’s no secret that since I started racing pro 8 years ago, I’ve had the dream of being on a podium. Several top-5 finishes under my belt, and the dream remains. But this quote articulates an important part of why I keep racing for this goal, no matter what: Experience is progress. Progress as an athlete, as a coach, as a human being. And that is something I value more than my PTO ranking, which plummeted 83 spots by virtue of me not dropping out of the race, ha! 

All in all, in the days since the race, I have tried to remain realistic and objective about my performance. With another race on the horizon there is no time for wallowing in my misery. Objectively, I knew that racing in CDA was a crap shoot when we added it to the schedule. I also know that it was just simply a bad day on the bike – my bike fitness didn’t magically disappear on a plane from Boston to Spokane. It was though, a much needed reality check about how hard Ironman is! In the last 15 months, I think I was starting to forget the mental space you need to be willing to go in to have a good day and race with the best. 

This post also wouldn’t be complete with a shoutout to my co-host and friend, Haley Chura, who was 4th in the race and perhaps in the bigger feat of physical endurance, also stuck around after she finished to record the IronWomen Podcast with me. You can listen to this very special episode here.

Onto Lake Placid, which now counts as a “hometown” race for me as I am the self appointed Queen of the Adirondacks 😉 Here we go! 

On Grief

Two weeks after my last blog, things got all sorts of turned upside-down in the Biscay Coaching family. Our dear friend/coach/ironman/ultraman/veterinarian and all around amazing woman, Mary Knott, was taken from this world in a tragic and senseless crime. In those first weeks it felt like a cloud of disbelief: this is something that belongs on Dateline. This isn’t something that hits close to home. But, Mary is gone. It is close to home this time. 

I hope that no one would ever have to go through something like this but I know that, unfortunately, domestic violence is all too prevalent in the world. I was going to give a statistic to show how prevalent DV is, but I couldn’t even pick just one from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence – you can read them for yourself here.  This is going to happen again, and it will happen to someone you know. I am pleading for you to educate yourself about domestic violence. You will never regret being over-vigilant. As a team, we had a marathon zoom session where one of our amazing teammates, who is a Special Victims Prosecutor, lead us through an educational session on DV. Unfortunately this knowledge is coming now, after the fact for us. After it feels too late. But remembering that while for Mary it is too late, it doesn’t have to be too late for another friend, is important.

Aside from learning about Domestic Violence more closely than I ever wished to, I have been learning about grief. As a team, we also had grief counseling sessions. These were psychoeducational in fashion and allowed people to learn about the process of grief and have a sounding board. I absolutely recommend finding a counselor who can provide professional guidance on grief if you are ever in need. 

Grief is laced with worry. It’s laced with guilt. It’s laced with roadblocks. It is going to be an individual path and each person will travel at their own speed. For endurance athletes, this is a tough pill to swallow. We can’t just power through and the check the boxes. I’m not sure grief ever ends, but as I write this I am able to recognize that with each day that passes my own grief is at least laced with more positivity and warmth than it has been in prior weeks. 

Mary’s legacy is a special one. She taught so many of us in the triathlon world about what it truly means to put your mind to something, and work to achieve that goal. She put on a clinic for hard work and grit, as she grinded away for twenty ironman races before qualifying for Kona. She taught us to never settle. Some of my favorite memories of Mary are from camp training sessions. And these aren’t memories where we were jovial and cruising around on bikes, happy as can be. Most of the memories are of biking with Mary, often tears in her eyes, as she battled to push herself outside her own comfort zone in these camp environments – learning to ride the TT bike well in the wind. Pushing the last bit of a ride when your body is oh, so tired. Multiple trips up Mt. Lemmon. She was vulnerable and raw with our team, and I appreciated her willingness to be that for us. She showed that you can wear your fears on your sleeve, and conquer them anyway. I also had the pleasure of being with Mary in Kona in 2016, the first year she was racing there. Hillary had a new baby and was unable to make the trip – so one of the very important coaching duties was passed to me: I would be meeting Mary for a ride from Mauna Lani resort, up to Hawi, and back, with a little run off the bike. We wanted Mary to do this descent ahead of the race day, to feel the wind, and to practice being brave in those conditions. I’m pretty sure Mary and I said all of 10 words to each other as we rode up to Hawi! I could feel her anxiety, the same as it is for many athletes who have spent years thinking about this stretch of the ride and what the infamous winds would feel like on our fragile TT bikes. We stopped for some fueling, and started our way back down. I spent the next few miles riding behind Mary, encouraging her to go at her own pace, stay relaxed, trust herself. The tears in her eyes turned to a big massive smile as, eventually, we were back on the Queen K and headed “home”. On our brick run, I believe it was maybe Meredith Kessler who we ran into and snapped this picture:

Mary had a huge heart, and she had unwavering support of me in my professional dreams even early on when we barely knew each other. Her support through Cadence Running Company was invaluable in those early years for me — going so far as using airline points to fly me to Coeur d’Alene one year so I could make the trip to race. She was a champion for women who chased their dreams, and while I know she didn’t like the label of “feminist,” knowing that always made me laugh a little, because Mary, as such a champion of women, in my mind you were one of the biggest feminists of us all. 

Mary’s life was stolen before she had a chance to finish so many of her dreams. I will be racing with Mary’s initials on my sleeve this season, as a constant reminder to push a little harder and never stop chasing dreams. I also have some bigger adventures in the works for the years to come, with Mary in my heart. As a Biscay Coaching family, I know we can finish the dreams that Mary wasn’t able to. 

Mountain Bike Musings

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!!

Compilation of all the things

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…..

Reading:

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)

Watching:

The Wilds (fun quick binge watch!)

Shifting Dreams

Gone Tomorrow

-Survivor (we just finished watching our 17th season and it is the best to last us the entire pandemic!)

Listening:

Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey (must be listened to vs read in my opinion!)

-IronWomen Podcast – we are back for 2021!

What’s next in my queue:

-Reading A Beautiful Work in Progress by Mirna Valerio

-Listening to Bravey by Alexi Pappas

Okay that’s all for now!! Wear masks and stay safe everyone!!

An FKT Story: The Appalachian Trail Through Shenandoah National Park

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.

The Aftermath:

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.

Updates!

Whoa – I can hardly believe it’s been almost 8 weeks since I finished up hiking in the Adirondacks. Time sure flies when you’re…..crewing another FKT and trying to recover I guess! Ha!

But, a lot has happened since my last blog post.  Let’s see….

Personally, I got (Earned? Ran? Hiked? Won?) another FKT! This time around, I was going for the female supported fastest known time for the 46 high peaks in the Adirondacks.  If you had no idea about this, I’m sorry! I should remember to update the old blog more often…..I was on a roll for awhile! But, maybe that’s a good reminder to follow me on instagram because I tend to keep that more up to date through the nitty-gritty-busy season. I have compiled a wrap up of this adventure on this page though, complete with links to some of the media that has come of it.

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! 

Hiking The Ring: A Trip Report

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!

Strickler Knob

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!

Pic from Milford Gap

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

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!

“Someone Asked Them to be Quiet”

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.

I donated to Outdoor Afro.

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.

Reading Black Faces, White Spaces.

Listening to the Unlikely Hikers podcast.

Filling my social media feeds with more Black voices. Fast Women has an instagram highlight reel of “Fast Black Women” that is an excellent place to start.

This is the end of my blog post for today, but I am dedicated to not making this the end of my commitment to Black Lives Matter.

Off the Grid!

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!