The Yo-Yo Traverse: 144 miles on the New Jersey Appalachian Trail

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This summer I wanted to run a distance so far that I couldn’t wrap my mind around the enormity of it. An audacious goal that would simultaneously demand a high level of self – sufficiency, excitement, and scare the hell out of me.  The following is an account of a very long running journey, which happened during a very strange year in the history of the United States. This trip report is not only focused on the task of completing a designated trail system by myself, but I am adding details about the strategy and planning leading up to the run itself. The New Jersey section of the Appalachian Trail (AT), completed as an out and back traverse, covered 144 miles with over 18,000 feet of elevation gain.

A moment in time

In February 2020 I began working as part of a healthcare team taking part of an unprecedented pandemic that swept across the nation. For four months, the intensity level was set to 100. The work was traumatic, unsettling, and rocked me to my core.  Fear and caution had spread across the country. Everyone was advised to quarantine. All parks and trail systems were closed in attempts to stop the transmission of the novel coronavirus. Outside of work, my stress-relieving outlet shut down. As a trail runner, I was confined to running on streets during odd hours and distancing from my friends in the running community. If it weren’t for my background in endurance running, I would have floundered under the stress of it all.

Over the spring months, I stayed resilient and continued to run for my own sanity. Eventually there came a time when I decided to take all the negative energy and train for something bigger than I had ever imagined. Plans were initially set, then changed on three separate occasions. Flexibility was the name of the game. Finally, on August 28th, 2020 I completed a yo-yo traverse of the New Jersey section of the Appalachian Trail. It took tenacity, dedication, and courage. The following details all aspects of this trip.

Training

Running and hiking have been a part of my self-care regimen for the better part of my life.  Within the past decade, I have entered several races with the purpose of spending hours on end in the forests with like-minded individuals and challenging my limits. 2020 is the year where all races were cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. I had shifted my focus to building mountain legs. I asked friend, ultrarunner, and coach Christine Sandvick to create a training guide for this quest. I had paced her the prior year at Eastern States 100 and was impressed by the power in her legs after 60 plus miles of running through dense Pennsylvania (PA) untamed lands. She graciously designed a plan that would help me build speed and strength in my legs. I ran during very humid training days, wore a 20 pound weight vest during my scheduled hill repeats and on long runs, my longest run consisted of a 31 mile trail run in 90 degree weather, and my highest mileage week peeked at 70 miles. Another focus of the running was to increase weekly vertical gain (climbing) while simultaneously increasing my weekly mileage. I cross trained with intense Vinyasa flow classes (converted to virtual live format during the shutdown). Three weeks out I added 25-minute core training sessions a few times per week. To mentally prepare for this unsupported effort, I isolated myself during training sessions.  This meant four to eight hour long runs without socialization or music. Lastly, to build mental resilience, I completed most of the exercises in the book The Brave Athlete.

Planning

While there are supported and unsupported records for a one way traverse of the NJ AT, there is no known documentation of an out and back traverse. I planned to set an endurance record for this route by following the guidelines of a solo, self-supported run modeled after the rules of the Fastest Known Time. The Fastest Known Time website (fastestknowntime.com) collects and verifies records of the fastest person to have ever run or hiked a particular route. Typically, the routes are on a trail or in the wilderness. For this attempt, there was no outside support by way of crewing or pacing. The route was completed solo, which minimized moral support and temptation. Nutrition, hydration, and supplies were all carried in my running vest. Resupplies occurred as follows: food was stored in a cached location, purchased at the Sunrise Appalachian Trail Deli, and found along the AT in the form of trail magic (supplies or kind gestures randomly left for hikers). Water was secured via natural streams, spigots, and by trail magic.IMG_9968Navigation of this route was relatively easy. I purchased the Delaware River to Great Barrington navigational aid from the GutHook Guide App to locate shelter, water, and other waypoints. I rented a Garmin In Reach Explorer from Outdoors Geek for live GPS tracking, used my Garmin Fenix 3 GPS watch and the Strava mobile phone App to track my route.

Lastly, I chose to start at the PA / NJ border heading northbound to the NJ / New York (NY) border. Going in this direction a traveler has to climb about 2,000 more feet of vertical gain. Once I reached the border, I would begin travelling southbound on the AT to the PA/NJ border. How do you eat an elephant? Well… My initial intention divided the 144 miles into 3 sections and planned for 52 miles, then a rest period, 40 miles, then a rest period, and lastly, 52 miles to the finish.

Gear and essentials

  • Salomon Advanced Skin 12 Set Pack with 1.5 L bladder
  • Katadyn BeFree collapsible water filter bottle
  • Black Diamond Z trekking poles
  • Nathan Vapor Krar running belt
  • Kogalla trail light with battery pack #3
  • Altra Timp 2.0 trail running sneakers
  • Injinji Crew Toe Sock Liners (worn for first 92 miles)
  • Zensah Tech+ Compression Socks (worn for the last 52 miles)
  • Counter Assault Bear Deterrent Spray
  • Emergency blanket, wet wipes, toothbrush, plastic bag

I chose calorie dense natural food options to avoid stomach problems. I carried between 3,000 to 3,500 kcal per section (52, 40, 52 miles each) for a total of three refills. Before the trip, I was able to get the weight of my running vest down to 9.8 pounds fully packed with my selected foods. I carried the following: home-made flour wraps made with peanut butter and honey, beef jerky, ginger chews, pureed baby food packets (apples, bananas, beets, raspberry), Honey Stinger Gingerade gels, and two pre-sliced French Bread pizzas logs. Prior to each run I ate two servings of Mountain House dehydrated granola and blueberries (500 kcal). Overall, I ended up eating the majority of the food I packed.

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The First 52

At 5:02 am, my friend John Beck (Beck) and I, stood on the bridge of the PA/NJ border. I had only slept for 2 hours the night before in anticipation of this moment. The wind whipping off the highway from the speedy trucks and cars kept pushing my braids onto my cheeks. Beck took a few pictures of me and it was time. At 5:08 am I pressed the check button on my InReach, pressed start on my watch, and took off with a steady pace. Nervous and crazy excited. This was it! I spent at least the first 10 miles passing familiar trails and thinking of the first 52 miles as a whole. I felt unsettled and wondered if I was going too fast. Should I go faster? Will I finish this section before nighttime? This was a perpetual dialogue until I told my brain to calm down.

The average temperature for this day was around 90 degrees Fahrenheit, including the humidity. Around 4 hours in, I had run out of water along the Rattlesnake Swamp Trail and it wouldn’t be for another 9 miles before I was able to filter water. Luck happened during that timespan as heavy grumbling clouds had rolled in. By this time I had adjusted my run to a hiking with intention pace to preserve energy. There was a sudden thunderstorm that hit the area and I literally kept my mouth open trying to collect any rain. I quickly realized this was useless. It occurred to me that water might start collecting on the craggy boulders that littered the trail. My hope grew as the rain became heavier. Suddenly, on a descent, I saw a slight stream developing under my sneakers. I stepped ahead of the boulder, dropped to my knees, lowered my mouth forward, cupped my lips against the crack, and spent the next 5 minutes sipping water dripping off the boulder. I humbled myself. This was enough to get me going.

I made it to the Glen Anderson Shelter, one of many shelters along the AT, and encountered a really sweet couple. Sugar Baby and her husband Swamp Irish who were both from Louisiana. We chatted for a bit and I continued on my own way. There was a small spring where I filtered water. The water was cold, but filled with frogs hopping back and forth. Cautiously while drinking, I hoped they weren’t carrying a disease that my filter couldn’t handle. IMG_0056

The miles ticked by. I hadn’t realized how late it was getting and ended up running in the dark for the last 10 miles. Unfortunately, this made connecting the AT trails across roads a little difficult. I set my Kogalla lights to the highest setting as a way of spotlighting some of the faded blazes. The darkness gave me respite from the heat and humidity of the day. The darkness also made it more challenging to run on the slow rugged trails of High Point Mountain in the dark. I encountered a cooler just after the High Point Shelter, which was filled with glorious trail magic. I chugged a grape Powerade and kept moving.

The last 5 miles or so passed through pastures. I began having an odd sensation of being followed. It was the first and only time I hallucinated. I would turn around and sense this person was shutting off his flashlight as soon as I turned around. You couldn’t have told me any different. I would quickly turn my head around in the dark and see a flashlight going out. I even shut off my own lights and stood in the dark for seconds at a time trying to notice this person. I grabbed my bear spray in one hand and kept moving as quickly as possible. Each time I turned around, the person would hide behind a tree. I was mad. Then a vision of a younger Charles Manson popped in my head. You have to believe me when I tell you that there was no logic, but complete trust in my instincts at this time. I was convinced he was following me, so I ran faster. At one point a twig snapped under my sneaker and seemingly brought me to reality. It started to occur to me that whoever was following me wasn’t making any noise. Surely, twigs should have been snapping under his sneakers as well. Almost as if brain fog was lifting, I started to realize that no one was actually following me and that a younger Charles Manson was not on the hunt. I finally chuckled to myself and loosened the grip on the bear spray. My heart rate calmed a bit. Fifty-two plus miles completed in 21:43:55. I got to my Jeep, refueled, and rested for 3 hours.

The Next 48

As I woke up my body felt physically fine. There were no aches, pains, or soreness. My mind was wired, but I was downright tired with only a cumulative of 5 hours sleep over the past two days. It was going to be another hot and steamy day, forecasted to be 91 degrees Fahrenheit with the humidity. This was concerning as I needed to maintain a sharp mind for decision-making. On the bright side, this next part of the trail had a two mile flat boardwalk running section. I was eagerly anticipating getting through the next 20 miles which would mark the point where I reach the NJ / NY border. The AT trails meandered around pastures for the first few miles, then flowed around the Liberty Loop winding through the Wallkill National Wildlife Refuge with all of its beautiful wildflowers. Next, I entered the Pochuck Mountain area. Of all the AT trails sections, my least favorite were located here. A re-blazing in this area is highly recommended as most white blazes are fading from the tree trunks. It’s easy to wander off the AT here with the many offshoot trails and dusty jeep roads. I mistakenly went off the AT twice and had to retrace my steps.

The next part of the AT crossed two miles of the Pochuck boardwalk before ascending the boulderous climb of the Stairway to Heaven. I chose to make up some time by pushing my speed over the boards.  The sky was cloudless and sun relentless. It didn’t take long before I started feeling like I was boiling on the inside. I had overheated at this point and decided to fill my bladder with slightly cool water from the spigot at Heaven Hill Farm. As luck would have it, a gentleman named Jan offered me a banana and ice-cold water, trail magic! I must’ve looked so wiped out. Ever so grateful, I applied the water bottle to the back of my neck as I climbed the steep Stairway to Heaven. And the miles ticked on.

Singing became my jam. I was making up lyrics and dancing a bit as I pushed my pace as best as possible. The heat continued to drain my soul. It seemed like my body was now baking from the inside out. I continued to check myself for sweating and urinating (gasp!) as a good indicator that my body was functioning well enough. In the early evening, I saw a solo female hiker (this is rare). Emily was strong and heading north towards Maine. Her pace was a powerful reminder for me to stay strong.

Around 5 o’clock, give or take, the sky darkened and thunder began to roar over Wawayanda State Park. This was a different kind of storm. The sky opened up with a deluge of rain, then lightening struck just over my right shoulder area. I was instantly soaked and unsure of where to quickly hide. The few surrounding boulders provided no shelter so I ran and ran, as the trail was nearly ankle deep in water. Then hail started pelting down on the trail. I mentally acknowledged to myself that this was a dangerous scenario for a few minutes. I was stuck without any close shelter. The hail quickly and eventually subsided and rain lightened up a bit, that’s when I had my first moment of weakness. I felt it would be beneficial to book an Uber ride to the nearest hotel room, dry out, then return to the trail. I was concerned that the night would bring colder weather as I was in drenched clothes. Once the sun set, I knew the risk of hypothermia could cancel my goal of completing this section of the AT. During the storm, Emily had mentioned she was going to bail and have family pick her up. Her sleeping bag was soaked and would need to be completely dry if she were to continue on. She had stopped to make a call for what I assumed was a car ride home.

I was less than two miles from the NJ / NY border, just halfway through my trip, and couldn’t figure out my next best steps. I called my friend Jason Friedman to ask if he lived close. My phone was now waterlogged and we could barely hear each other. Jason lived about an hour away so I asked him, “If I leave the trail and return would that ruin the concept of a continuous run / hike for an FKT?” Jason was honest and said “Yes.” At that moment, I decided this was it and told myself, “Keilynn get it together. Get to the border. And figure out a way to stay warm. Use the leaves if you have to.” I forged forward and the rain completely ceased. The sun decided to make an appearance and cast the prettiest golden light amongst the trees. I saw Emily again when I reached the border at 6:38pm. Emily turned to me and said, “I want you to continue. Here, I have dry clothes you can wear. Oh, and here’s some tomatoes that I received as trail magic.” I asked, “Can I get your address so I can wash and mail them back to you?” Emily smiled, “No problem!” And there you go, more trail magic! I posed for some pictures at the border, changed into dry clothes, and started heading south. IMG_0062

After my adrenaline had surged, the familiar feeling of mental exhaustion returned. My hair was still completely soaked and my worry swelled as I started the southbound miles to return to the PA/NJ border. Can I descend the wet boulders on Stairway to Heaven in the dark? What if there are downed trees? It became clear that the trail would be unsafe at night so I decided to stay in the Wawayanda Lean-to. I arrived in the dark to another gentleman who seemed harmless. He was watching the movie Clue on his cell phone and offered to share his solar powered battery pack if I needed it. Never have I ever more wished that my cell phone, InReach, and watch chargers were with me! I graciously thanked him and we had some small talk. I spent the night on the other side of the shelter gripping my bear spray as protection. I took off my wet socks, set my sneakers down next to my head, covered them with my hat, and folded the aluminum emergency blanket around my body. I woke up throughout the night shivering and cramping in my groin area. Condensation had filled the space between my skin and the blanket. At some point around 3am the InReach alarmed that there was only 25% battery left. It was hell, but I was able to sleep about four interrupted hours. I was disappointed to only have logged about 24 miles for the day.

I woke up around 5:30 am and forced a soggy French bread pizza log down my throat. Four hundred calories, check. My socks were still soaked so I put on my sneakers and laced them as tight as possible to prevent friction. I willed my body to run or hike as quickly as possible for the 16 miles back to the Jeep. My legs just didn’t want to move at the pace my brain was telling them to. In a moment of frustration I yelled at the top of my voice in the early dusk hours, “Shuuuuuuut uuuuuuuup legs!” It felt so good to let go of that pent up energy and with that, I calmed down and decided that my poles would have to do the majority of the work for the morning.

At 7:58 am, my InReach gave its last ping before the battery died. I was on the boardwalk and decided that my watch, which syncs to Garmin Connect, would have to suffice as proof of my travels. By the time I arrived at the Pochuck Mountain my watch had also died. I had 17% battery left on my cell phone and decided to start a Strava tracking activity as proof that I was still on the AT. When I passed through the Wallkill National Wildlife Refuge I noticed the birders and their fancy looking expensive cameras. My thoughts ruminated that I must look like a hot mess and was likely at my lowest point here. I was wearing my cap low to cover my eyes, my shoulders hunched forward, my heart sank a little bit. I stuffed food in my mouth to lift my spirits.

My cell phone had 7% battery life by the time I finally reached my Jeep at around 2pm. I changed my clothes, put on my compression socks, dumped my food wrappers and restocked my vest. I had to wait for my InReach and watch to fully recharge. I began to make a plan B as I was not giving up! At 4pm all my devices were charged and the new plan was to make it about 8 miles to the High Point Lean-to. The storm must have packed a powerful punch to this area as quite a few miles of downed trees littered the AT on my way to the shelter. I was able to get to the shelter just as the sun was setting. At the lean-to I met Rocksteady and Gypsy. We shared small talk. My brain was frazzled from altering my original plan. I only logged 24 hours on this day. I decided to rest a few hours, then start the final leg back to the NJ / PA border. Before resting my body, I meditated in hopes of gaining some clarity before the final miles. I slept about a solid six hours.

The Final 44

I woke up rested, but feeling exposed. I had so many miles on my legs, yet so many more to go. I checked the weather while eating my granola breakfast, it was forecasted to be 93 degrees Fahrenheit with the humidity. I hadn’t planned on being on the AT this long and needed to reach the Sunrise Appalachian Trail Deli before it closed at 2pm. The miles ticked on and I was keeping a steady pace in the shady morning hours. I arrived at the deli at 1pm, purchased a cheesesteak and drank two Gatorades. I saved half of the cheesesteak hoping the calories would last for the last 28 miles. The climb up Culver’s Gap was now a struggle as the heat intensified. As the miles continued, I was happy to pass through familiar parts of the AT. The sun started setting by the time I reached the Catfish Fire Tower. IMG_9890

With a little over 11 miles from the PA / NJ bridge my focus started fading. I was exhausted and started relying heavily on my poles for balance. My arms were slightly wobbly. I remember seeing so many snakes on the trails around the Crater Lake area.  Was I hallucinating during the day?  I snapped a few pictures just to make sure.  Yes, the snakes were out in full force. As luck would have it, a short rain shower entered the area making the boulders slippery. I continued to tick away the miles.

When I arrived at Sunfish Pond there was one last boulder scramble, maybe no more than a half mile long, to cross before the trail opened up. The moon was casting a beautiful light across the pond. I awkwardly scrambled across the large boulders. To anyone watching, my gait looked as if I was inebriated and could not make a proper move. I distinctly remember the noise made by the metal tips of my poles scraping across the boulders as I sloppily used them to prop me up from falling between the thigh deep cracks. After what felt like over an hour slipping and maneuvering across the boulders, I made it to the last 5 mile decent. I texted Beck to let him know I was on my way.

My adrenaline started surging at this point. I ran a pretty consistent pace until I reached the bridge. At one point, my light showed the sweaty steam coming from my body. With each step I could feel drips of sweat splashing off my shirt. It was so incredibly humid in those dark hours. Running seemed to intensify all my senses. Once I arrived at the final mile, I saw Beck in the distance ahead yelling and cheering me on! I couldn’t believe this was actually happening! My trekking poles clacked against the road as I propelled my body forward. Then I saw a tall man in the dark on the final ramp up the bridge. He said, “Hello!” I figured Beck had brought a friend. I responded, “Hello.” Then he replied, “Hey baby”! My jaw dropped. It was Bryan; my husband had come to surprise me at the finish! I pushed my pace a bit more to reach the border. My heart was pumping so hard! Steam continued to rise off my body! I made it. Simply unbelievable in my mind. Did this really happen? I had arrived back at my start point at 1:01am after 3 days, 19 hours, 52 minutes, and 40 seconds.

I had pushed my body to complete all those miles without any other encouragement other than my own internal fight. This was truly a phenomenal push to the end. Where did this energy come from? I posed for some pictures and tried my best to walk off the bridge. Suddenly, my legs became shaky. My torso began to shiver. While nearly impossible, I grabbed onto Bryan to steady my wobbly legs as we slowly made our way to Beck’s car. I was beyond spent. This is exactly how I have wanted to feel after all my prior races, but never pushed hard enough to the level of complete exhaustion where I had nothing left to give. Massive kudos to my legs for not letting me down!. In retrospect, I was so proud to not hobble, crawl, or cry the final miles back to the starting point. The final push felt monumental.

Quick with a K

Twelve hours after I completed the yo-yo traverse I returned to the AT to pick up my Jeep. With Beck’s encouragement, we did a recovery walk. This was the hardest walk in my whole life. I was profusely sweating from the effort and my feet felt detached from my body. We happen to come across two familiar faces. It was Sugar Baby and Swamp Irish, the two hikers I met on my first day of the traverse! After introducing them to Beck, we all exchanged small chat and discussed my journey. As I was finishing up my walk, Sugar Baby asked, “So Keilynn, do you have a trail name yet?” I told her that I didn’t. There was one last surprise in store for me. Sugar Baby said that it should have something to do with my quick traverse. Beck added that it should be quick with a K. I was secretly grinning at the thought of having a trail name. It was akin to feeling a level of acceptance from the thru-hiking community. After a little more playing around with the name, Sugar Baby and Beck jokingly agreed that I was now Quick with a K. Not only did I like it, I loved it!

Afterthoughts

I am writing this trip entry about 32 hours after completing the traverse. I haven’t been able to escape the sudden spells of sleepiness. The fatigue is so intense that I find myself having to stop mid sentence and doze off. My hips have full range of motion, which I attribute to my yoga practice. From my knees down, I am somewhat sore. Surprisingly, there is no swelling and I only have one small blister on each heel. The blisters must have developed during the sixteen miles I ran without socks. However, the oddest sensation occurs with every step. It feels like pins and needles, my feet seem detached from the rest of my body.

My hope is that this challenge will inspire others to dream big, pursue their own adventure beyond a perceivable limit, or even demand more of runners who have accomplished many personal records. There are obvious opportunities to complete this traverse in a shorter period of time whether you are a faster runner, decide to choose a month with cooler temperatures, or have pacer and crew support. A future plan at lowering the time on this trail is imperative in my mind. Also, I would be remiss to not mention that I am the first person to record this route and set the baseline record. This project raised the bar of my mental and physical limits. I was self-sufficient, endured, and brave. I stayed level headed through the most challenging weather and vivid hallucination. The best part is that I surpassed my perceptions and stopped caring about what I could or could not do. I took that extra step and soared.

Orcas Island Trail Festival

Flashback to December 2016. I’m at the Trail Running Film Festival in Brooklyn.  An indie film, the Orcas Island 100, stole my attention away from anything I had watched prior to and after the film that night. The people in the film reminded me of the trail community in Pennsylvania.  A good community of salt of the earth folk. I left that night with a fire in my belly. Upon arriving home I started looking up everything that I could find on the web.  Within a week, I signed up for the Orcas Island Trail Festival.  I had no idea how to get there, how long it would take, where I would stay, or if I would know anyone else running.  The only thing that mattered was that I wanted to experience this race first hand and see how the west coast community, if at all, differed from its eastern counterpart.

Heading West

Fast forward to May 11th. I flew out for Washington State to embark on my next journey.  Getting there didn’t go as smooth as I had anticipated.  I booked my flight to Seattle, but still didn’t know how to get to Orcas.  It wasn’t until after I watched this episode of GNGRBTS, a webcast put on my Ethan Newberry, that I figured out that I would need to rent a car and get to the Anacortes Ferry Terminal.  Had I known these logistics, the ferry would have been booked first, then the flight.  There was a 5 hour layover from flight to ferry. Hindsight is 50/50. It all worked out in the end and I arrived at the ever amazing island.

The next day was filled with sailing lessons, eating lots of fresh fish, a short hike on Mount Pickett to preview part of the race course through Moran State Park, and catching up with Lia, a fellow east coaster turned west coast transplant. Lia became my comfort keeper from the moment we re-united.  Lots of girl talk as we drove around the island, bib pick up, and the most amazing food at the Westsound Cafe and Kingfish Inn.  The food really was out of this world.

Race Day

I hadn’t experienced nerves like this in a long time.  Specifically in the form of, “What the hell am I doing here?  These people all have mountain legs.”  I kept chuckling with a nervous laugh everytime I looked at or talked to Lia.  She was awesome and kept reminding me that I belonged there.  Yes, I did belong.  This race was being used as a long run for the World’s End 50k in June.  So in essence, my goal became to enjoy every single moment.

Before I knew it.  Game time and my blood was pumping.  8am, go.

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These forests were tough but absolutely stunning. There were no flats at all on this course. Even the most horizontal trails still had some sort of incline or decline.

There were four major climbs, split between Mt. Pickett and Mt. Constitution, to keep runners honest. I was humbled by the longest climb. Over two miles ascending straight up Mount Constitution. As you start to see the sky peaking through the dense tree tops the course veers into a winding downhill around the mountain only to then switch into another steep incline before you reach the crested the top. Make no mistake. Summiting that mountain was a gift. The view at the top took my breath away. The Cascades and Mount Baker were visible off into the distance.

Looking back on the race now, I couldn’t have imagined how different this experience was going to be in contrast to my previous races.  So much respect for all the racers, staff, and volunteers. Amazing course. Well marked. Incredibly supportive people at the aid stations. The excitement and roaring claps as you get through the finish line was the icing on the cake. Perfect race day. It all ended with local IPA around the campfire later that night. Sharing stories amongst the locals about the east and west coasts.

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Going East

The next day was spent traveling to Fidalgo Island down to Widbey Island.  Lia’s family caught up with us and we hiked around Deception Pass.  More food to fill the belly.  I loved that we ended up at the French restaurant, Prima Bistro.  You see, the last race Lia and I raced together was at the Love Run in Philadelphia.  Afterwards, we ate French food. This was absolutely the perfect way to end the weekend.

One more ferry ride to Seattle. I dropped of the rental car and took a short bus ride to the main terminal. Flying red eye for the night.  I dreamed of the pacific northwest.

Final Stats

26.2 miles, 6,200″ ascent, 6h56m.

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Quest For The Crest on the Appalachian Trail

There I go falling in lust with another mountain. Off to summit the highest peak on the East Coast mainland as a good dose of trail medicine. The Quest For The Crest took 46 hours out of my weekend and a road trip to North Carolina. Add doses of belly laughter, getting chatty with the locals, and eating ridiculously good food. I took in all the southern hospitality and charm of the lower southeast.

Friday.

Aimee pulled up to my condo around 5:30am so I quickly scrambled to throw my bags into the eco rental car. We had a 10-hour drive, took back roads, and had loads of excitement to get us through the drive. The car was all dressed up with our finest art. When you represent the race and your running crew it draws in fun comments from total strangers. At one point we stopped in West Virginia to stretch out and buy some goods. So how do you know when you’re in foreign territory? When the guy parked next to you says something sweet in a deep southern drawl, you smile, and spend the next few minutes trying to decipher what he said. I love it.

 

With stops included, we arrived at Albert’s Lodge about 12 hours later. My senses were on overload. Everything was big and beautiful. The backyard opened up to the Appalachian Trail. The extra large room and kitchen area was easily half the size of my humble condo back in Jersey. On the advice of the staff, we walked up the street to J&J’s Grill On The Green, a Bavarian restaurant. By happenstance, we also met and chatted it up with Marian and Stephanie, two local NC gals who were running the same trails for Saturday. Good food, great company. I ate perfect grilled trout, spaetzle, and red cabbage paired with an IPA made in Boone, NC. The name slips me.

Saturday. Race Day.

It’s 4am and my nerves have me wide-awake before the sun has risen. The RD, Sean Blanton aka Run Bum, calls this the hardest trail race on this coast. Over the past week the mountain has been topped off with snow. We have been warned to crawl on all threes. Aimee and I drive over to a local school for bib pick up and keep switching between more or less layers. Last call for the bus and we’re one of five who get pulled off for lack of space. SWEET! Guess who gets to ride over to the race by Run Bum himself?

 

Stellar props. Sean is so down to earth and chill. He shares a few adventures and points out the summit we’ll be chasing. And I’m thinking, “um, thanks for scaring me even more” as I turn my head skyward to peek at the densely tree lined crest.

I’m waiting for the race to start in a small gravel parking lot surrounded by sky high trees and am surrounded by peace. A seemingly small-sized crowd of trails runners were gathered around chatting. We shared stories about our commute with two guys from Ohio and Florida, respectively. One flew as the other was diverted on his drive down from a massive mudslide. We also had the chance to wish Marian and Stephanie good luck shortly before the start. After a bit, Sean gave us a few tips and we took off for the climb.

The Climb.

My ascent clocked in at about 3,000’ of vertical gain (give or take) according to Strava. I started my watch about 30 min into the race so my numbers are all messed up. That made me anxious. I was able to maintain a slow and steady run for about the first mile. The second mile strategy changed. My run changed to a bear crawl. At one point my right calf became numb and I had to climb backwards for a bit. This seemed to correct the issue. My heart was beating out of my chest and I focused on controlling my breathing without losing pace. It was difficult to find a steady pace with all the changes in terrain. Towards the end of the second mile I began yawning and focused on taking deeper breaths.

The Crest.

There were two other women who closed in on the crest around the same time I did. We shared jokes. It hurt to laugh, but I just couldn’t stop. Laughing was so incredibly important since I was on the verge of total physical exhaustion. And then the view opened up onto miles of fabled mountain. Stunning. The cold wind gusts prevented me from stopping much and at the same time I wanted to lay and gaze into the clear sky. This is the privilege of mountain exploration.

The Descent.

Have you ever had the chance to run downhill for miles, uninterrupted by loose rocks? It was easily the best trail run downhill. I felt as light as a feather and bombed through the last few miles with ease. My thoughts were focused on avoiding a face plant. As I passed two runners my confidence grew. On the last turn the noise of a crew cheering grew louder. I splashed through the final creek crossing and high fived the RD.

Final Stats: 7.5 miles. 6,200 feet of elevation change.

 

Post Race grub at Pig & Grits was delicious. Oh my goodness. You just don’t get food like this up north. Pulled pork on a fruit salad and Root Beer in a mason jar. Served by the nicest waitress in the thickest drawl. I giggled with my head down. Was it possible to clone her and bring her back to Jersey? Speaking of home, I opened my door at 3am. Just shy of 46 hours.

 

North Face Ultra at Bear Mountain

Embrace the sufferfest.  April 30th, 2016 I set out to attempt my third ultra.  What you DO is who you are, not what you THINK about.  Want something bad enough? Grind and kick your own ass.

Training

Back in January I wrote about a pretty simple training plan from the Ultra Ladies 50k schedule.  I am terrible at following plans, but wanted to successfully complete this tough race.  Success meant not getting lost on the trail, not getting too close to cutoff times, and having the chance to take pics on the trail.  For me, it’s all about the pics.  Here’s what worked and what didn’t.

  • For the most part I was able to follow the weekly miles.  It’s a basic plan that works for getting miles in. It was difficult to get all the mid-week miles in due to work, so I focused on quality runs during that time.
  • I didn’t plan enough for changes in elevation.  I was only able to train on mountains in PA a few times during this training cycle.  What I lacked in elevation training was felt on race day.

I also got creative with my training.  I ran the Febapple 20, part of the NJ Trail Series, and Naked Bavarian Marathon in place of two scheduled long runs.  I was joined by some amazing people for all or parts of other long runs.  Shout out to Gladys, who joined me while pregnant in her third trimester, for the last three miles of another long run. I joined Runhole for one of their training runs.  Really cool peeps out of PA. I cross-trained on Sundays with the Uptown Gentlefriends.  That Sunday crew is mostly made up of OCR racers.  Very different from me. Love them madly.

Race Day AM

It’s 3am and I fumble through my gear, get dressed, grab coffee, hop into my jeep and head to upstate NY.  My adrenaline kicks in about an hour into my drive so I started blasting my music and singing like a wild woman. Arrived in just under two hours. It’s beautiful up there. Look over my running plans. Okay. Lets do this. Woo-hoo!

 

After a 20 minute wait for the buses, groups of 30-35 were shuttled to the main race site.  I’m used to smaller indie races and this was a trail set up on commercial crack. In a good way.  The vendors, fire pits, and a three foot high central water jug was pretty cushy.  I kept running into / chatting with familiar faces from my tri-state races.  NY, NJ, PA strongly represented. Roll Call…

  • Balls of Steel. Loved the guy in leopard speedos and no shirt with the Buddha belly.
  • Honorable mention. An amazing mother-runner killing it at 28 weeks pregnant.
  • Beasting it. Type one Diabetic chick; you struggled, but rocked out on that course.

Talk Thirty To Me

This 50k is a challenging race for anyone attempting their first ultra.  If you under-trained, you may finish, but will be in a world of hurt. My plan was to mentally tackle the miles in groups of 10 at a time.  Quick breakdown.

  • First 10 was spent chatting it up with some amazing runners.  I ran a good portion with a seasoned endurance athlete, Katie.  Not only was she badass, but she dropped major knowledge. I shed my layers at mile 5. The morning turned into a tank top & skirt kind of day.
  • Second 10. My mind went bonkers. Rambling thoughts. These hills are killer. Oh, look at the trees! What the fudge, another hill? Am I taking in enough calories? God it’s beautiful out here. Am I normal? Hell no.  Oh, wait, yes I am. I really need to stop talking to myself.
  • Last 10-11. I was tired and had to focus on the downhills.  Tired of kicking rocks. Tired of the hills.  And all at the same time elated to run downhill.  Elated to have this opportunity.  Elated to kick rocks. At one point I pulled out my cell and checked social media. All the well wishes popped up in my feed.  Everything was good.

Runner’s High

I struggle for the last 2 miles. My gps watch died and I went into freakout mode.  Last quarter of a mile I was in tears.  Wild and crazy and lovely, happy tears.  And then the icing on the cake.  I saw Katie at the finish line cheering me on. Perfect. Then I saw an old co-worker from the Operating Room cheering me on. Beyond Perfect.  This race rocked.

31.1 miles. 9 hours and 41 minutes. Beer me.

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Naked Bavarian Marathon

It’s 5am and I have only slept about 4 hours.  My nerves have officially reached a crazy level.  There’s something about a “marathon” race that gets to me.  I did my usual gear and food check, then hurried out the door by 5:40 in hopes of arriving at a decent time to meet up with my running crew, bib pick-up, and a bathroom break.

I remember thinking that the temperature felt much colder than the high 30’s. I could forget any hopes of the sun as the sky was covered in clouds. Whatever, I was overdressed and would shed most layers throughout the course.  I arrived at 7:40am and located John, the 40 miler, and Nicole, the 20 miler.  Picked up my bib, rounded up the group for our obligatory picture, and then we headed to the start line to see John off on his journey at 8am. I started at 8:30, then Nicole at 9am.

So I knew this race was scenic, but did not expect the insane amount of hills and sharp vertical inclines and declines.  Pretty much from the beginning, with the exception of the first half mile, I started going downhill on rocky terrain. By the time I reached the first aid station, at mile 3.5, the hills were rolling on and off without a break.  I cannot underestimate the amount of enthusiasm bursting out of the volunteers.  They catered and genuinely cheered on the runners. And look at that aid station food!

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The trails relentlessly continued on with hills.  This was the easier part of the race as the hills rolled a bit more. About a mile after leaving this aid station the first 20 miler flew by me.  It was pretty exciting to see him and that motivated me to pick up my pace a bit.  By six miles I was hydrating pretty well. My mix of 2/3 water with 1/3 gatorade was keeping my tummy happy.  Next aid station – 6.5 miles.  Again, the friendliest volunteers, music blasting, great food.

This aid station marked the trail split for marathoners.  We ended up doing a lollipop around a separate section of trail to add 10k onto our distance.  We were also warned at the start line that there wouldn’t be aid stations for this next portion of trail. Well, do you remember how motivated I was by the 20 miler’s speed.  I chose to snap some picks and hold off on hydrating / eating at this aid station.  Horrible decision.

About 5 miles in, I started running on fumes.  I shed my gloves and black shirt as the temps were reaching into the mid 40s. Around this time I also finished off my second bottle of water/gatorade.  My energy was zapped.  My pace suffered tremendously.  A few people passed me, but I wasn’t in as bad shape as others.  I clearly remember passing a guy who just stopped and kneeled to the ground.  He said he was okay so I kept meandering along.  I kept willing myself up the hills.  It really was non-stop.  By the time I reached the next aid station, I gave myself a five minute break. Two PB&J quarters, a twizzler, a salted potato quarter, and some laughs with the volunteers cheered me up. After refilling my water bottles, I was off. At this point you crossed a bridge to join the 20 & 40 miler trails.  More trails of hill hell, but with a twist.  These were farmland trails, very similar to the local horse trails I run on.  Slightly comforting, and yes, there were horses.

Mile 16: By mile 16 I experienced something new for me.  I mentally hit a wall.  It was like my body regurgitated any and all insecurities into the front of my mind.  I clearly remember this hill that just compounded the climb one on top of another and my thighs were screaming at me. No decline.  I was upset, did I not train enough? Was I taking in enough calories?  Why am I talking to myself? This was different. There was no one in sight for this entire mile.  I reverted to doing simple math to snap myself out of it.  I counted my right foot stride in multiples of three, then repeated on the left strides.  It was the longest mile of my life.  But I kept going, one foot in front of the other.  By the time I arrived to aid station 17, the cloud lifted.  At this point I took full advantage of the aid station amenities.  Food, one Motrin, a salt tablet, and a half cup of beer did the trick. We cracked some jokes. Many jokes actually. I must’ve looked rough. I was so grateful for their kindness. Then, I was off.

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Luckily there were about 3 miles of relatively flat trail ahead of me.  I took advantage and worked on increasing my speed.

Mile 20: My strategy changed at this point.  I wasn’t going to let my mind get the best of me again.  I turned on my cell, started blasting music and singing. My pace per mile kept creeping down and I started adding a few sprints into the mix.  I made it to the next aid station and kept it moving along.  I started passing a few people and caught up with my friend John.  He was on his second loop going in the opposite direction.  After a few encouraging words, I pressed on.  My face was beaming as I knew the end was in sight.  Two miles later I caught up with Nicole.  I must have been deliriously excited as I told her, “Ok, I’ve got to go, there’s only 3 miles left and I want to do it in 15 minutes!”  Ha! That explained the perplexed look on her face.  In my excitement I even kissed her on the cheek before heading off.  This was it! I had finally reached that runner’s high and my endorphins were sky high. Fuck these hills. Hell yeah, I deserved it.

The finish line was in sight and I felt tears on my cheeks. Happy tears. Each tear was sending mile 16 off to hell.  I picked up my pace for the final quarter mile and heard more cheers.  I crossed the finish line with 27.2 miles. This was a fantastically hilly race. Stephan, the race director, did an outstanding job creating this course.

Lastly, I cannot underestimate the amount of preparation that went into the final food stop at the end.  Hot bratwurst, freshly made German potato pancakes with applesauce, carrot cake, tons of side snacks, and lots of water. And as luck may have it, I ran into Carolyn and Cheryl, who ran the February FebApple 20 miler with me two weeks ago.  We caught up with more friends and headed out to the marsh for some final pictures.

Blackhead Range Traverse

Never lose my sense of adventure.  This is my third and final hike for the winter season.  The Shawagunks, Hudson Highlands, and now the Catskills have stolen a piece of my heart.  My mind has been blown on way too many mini-adventures within these travelled miles.

It’s 4am on Sunday and I’m not surprisingly hyper for the days’ adventure.  A solo trip to Upstate NY with three hours of open road.  Bag, supplies, food, and incidentals are all in check.  Those twice missed tissues are officially in my bag and ready to go. So what does one do for a long solo road trip? Explore music.  Blast it, sing at the top of your lungs, and do some crazy shoulder / arm / neck kind of dancing. Yes, I’m feeling super determined.

I drive past the road sign for Woodstock and immediately feel the mountain town vibes.  You’re in the sticks. Lots of open air markets line the sides of the highway.  Local maple syrup, hot apple cider, and mason jars stacked high with local jams. As I get closer to the the destination, my heart feels a little more full.  It is impossible not to feel humbled when you’re driving on the winding roads of the Catskills.  Look out of your sunroof or poke your head out the window just to see the mountain tops.

GPS location achieved, oh crap, we’re just parking on the side of a random road. I forgot this was a thru hike. I offer to leave my jeep at the starting point, a total of three jeeps carried the group over.  Two other hikers hop in and 10 minutes later we reach our base location.  It feels good to recognize some familiar faces. The plan is to tackle five mountains and get started pretty quickly.

The first mile or so really felt like you entered some sort of enchanted forest.  The deep greens, golden yellows, and chocolatey browns were gorgeous.  We all warmed up pretty quickly despite it being a cool 42F.  Our trail lead warned us that after 3000 feet of elevation we would be hiking in icy conditions so I braced myself.

And then it got steep, and scary.  Our trail lead ended up using his 50 foot rope and ice picking his way down to aid us in the climb.  I’m not going to sugar coat it. The climb was tricky, we bushwhacked a small part of it, and my heart skipped a couple of beats.

These ice trails became 75% of our overall path. Throughout all the miles I laughed, I challenged some fears, and I felt deeply centered.  Many of the lookout points were obscured by pine trees, but there were enough places to grab a bite with a view.

The miles continued. We worked like a great team.  Many stories were shared that will stay on those mountains. So, for the final half mile we were able to take off our crampons and give our legs much needed relief.  I opted to forgo dinner with the crew for the Super Bowl with friends.

Here’s the tally. We travelled the Blackhead mountain range in the northern region of the Catskills. In order, this included Blackhead Mountain, Black Dome, Thomas Cole, Camel’s Hump, and Caudal Mountain. Final stats: 12.87 km, elevation gain 2678 ft, time 6 hours.

Storm King Mountain

5 am. Up and slightly groggy after only 5 hours of sleep. Yesterday was my long run day logging in 12 miles and many errands.  My pups were rowdy so we played well into the night.  I’m blaming my lackluster morning on them.  The bag, clothes, and incidentals were all in check.  Except those damn tissues that were nowhere to be found when I needed them most on the hike.

On the road by 6 am.  Filled up the jeep and headed over to pickup my fiend Liz.  I cannot underestimate the power of going on a hike with your badass soul mate.  She’s a nurse, I’m a nurse. Beautiful – we speak the same language. She’s athletic, I’m athletic. Bonus – we’ll travel fast.  We are both thrill seekers. Hell yeah!

We arrived at 9am to an amazing crowd of hikers.  Did I mention that this specific hike was the group’s 6th year anniversary?  Story has it that the first hike ever only initiated 2 or 3 hikers.  I have always found it extra special to see the evolution of a small movement.   So here I am with 50 other hikers.  The diversity was palpable. One of the group leaders made a short and slightly emotional speech once everyone arrived. Oh yes! I did mention 50 hikers.  It was controlled chaos but the sweepers were definitely on point. Here’s a couple of pics for historical value.

 

Finally, the hike.  The plan was simple enough. A figure eight loop covering parts of the Buttermilk, Bluebird, and Stillman trails. Unfortunately, there weren’t any trail maps at the 9-West parking area. So we head up the mountain pretty much blind.  This was our first ascent. Looking up. Scrambling, yes!

 

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And here’s the first lookout.  Really cool to see the main road.  And the Hudson River.  Stunning.

 

20 minutes into the trails and the group of 50 dispersed into smaller groups of faster, mid, to slower hikers.  Who knows where Liz and I fit in.  They were cool and everyone was doing there own thing.  I shed my wool shirt and gloves. The group ended up stopping for a few pictures and taking in the scenery.

Miles later, it seemed like a good amount of people were able to regroup and snack.  It’s funny to over hear some of the conversations. It was very clear to me that Liz and I were one of the very few people from New Jersey.  The subject of Taylor Ham versus pork roll ensued.  I just said the truth… Bacon is my answer to everything.  I love bacon!  Then the subject of health came up.  It was very cool to see everyone eventually come to the consensus that you eat and live to enjoy life.  When your time comes, it comes.  Internally I thought, wow, these conversations are so different at work.

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The terrain seemed to change from this point on.  Parts of the path were ice covered requiring us to scramble above or below parts of the trail.  Basically, side lying trees and trunks were your friends at that point. There was also a steep increase in vertical climb.

We made it to our second destination on the mountain.  A great look out point to eat, while watching the Hudson river, and rest.

We hiked on.  At this point we were in a small group of 5, then 3.  It worked well. Another change in terrain shortly thereafter. One of the locals, Scott, told us about a brushfire from about 14 years ago that scorched through the area. Once I found out that he was a local, I just kept picking his brain.  And he didn’t seem to mind.  This is, of course, one of the better ways to find out about the local hot spots. We had also arrived at the last part of the trail. An incredibly strenuous climb to get back to the car.  Let’s just say it was a combo of scrambling and super lunges. Throw in some patches of ice. My legs were on fire, begging for relief. I was drenched in sweat and loving it.

Arrived at the jeep.  Final stats: 5 hours, 12.7km, and 4181″ elevation change.  We opted on the local brewery.  Reminiscing in the best way possible.

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The Gunks

 

4am. I’m up and ready to conquer the day.  Or find some semblance of winter.  It’s been extremely mild in NJ and I’m craving the chilled winter air.  My pre packed bag is ready.  I rummage through it real quick and am good to go with food, clothes, and incidentals.  For some reason I kept obsessing over baby wipes to the point where I woke up several times though out the night.  Hey, if we’re stranded on the mountains I want to be clean.  Oxymoron, yeah, got it.

About an hour and a half later I’m on the road and pick up two friends.  While the plan is to meet up with a larger group of hikers at the base of the mountain, my gut feeling is that there are too many quirky personalities to risk an awkward hike.

By 9am we reach the Catskills and an amazingly beautiful wilderness conservation center.  Completely decked out with stuffed wildlife hanging from the ceilings to the floor, wall painted murals, and the friendliest staff.  $10 for all day parking.  Meet up with the group, a pretty chill bunch.

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I started climbing and was immediately awestruck by all the tabletop rocks.  There was a bit of ice and snow, no big deal as long as you had microspikes.

 

Next stop was Lake Maratanza, halfway up the mountain.  This was the first and only time the sun poked through the clouds.

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Miles later we stopped to check out the views of New York.  Snacked and kept moving. The  group hiked at a quick pace.  I stripped a few layers.  It was all good. We made it to Verkeederkill Falls.

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Our last and final stop was to reach Sam’s Point Ice Caves.  It was gated off, closed.  Just our luck.  Much to my content there were a few renegades that just kept it moving.  When you drive over two hours, you want to check out the caves.

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I slowly lowered myself into the cave.  It felt like someone put the air conditioner on high.  Freezing was an understatement. Also, let’s just say that a foot or so of ice and no railing made that part of the trip pretty unmanageable.  I’m okay with that.  When I think of caves, leave the manicured stairs and railings out of it.  Give me scrambling pitch black openings into the earth.  I want to rappel into a bat infested hole and feel my heart beat out of my chest.

We ended up turning back and headed towards the car.  I received a call from family that it finally started snowing pretty hard down south so we opted to leave early.  The rest of the group headed into Ellensville to a little Mexican spot.  Yum.  Missed out on that one.

 

Follow the plan

Some honest thoughts about my trail race training.

My next race, The North Face Endurance Challenge 50K, is scheduled for April 9th, 2016.  Just a little over two months away.  This will be my third ultra trail race.  I have never really followed a training plan in the past for two reasons.

  • I run mostly for the pure enjoyment of being out in nature, so it’s hard to stick to a plan when I’m exploring new areas.  I enter trail races for the opportunity to check out new areas, on a pre-planned path, in relatively short period of time.
  • I typically run long distances, between 30-40 miles per week, just for fun.  When I have looked up training plans in the past, the sum of the weekly mileage really doesn’t change much from what I’m already doing.  Up until the last month prior to a race.  So I tend to ramp up my mileage and intensity one month before a race.

It’s time for a change. My goals are to start racing in different states with varied terrain.  This requires planning.  I’ve decided to use the 50k training plan from ultraladies.com.

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So far, so good with the exception of this past weekend’s winter storm / blizzard.  Thanks for the snow, Jonas.