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.

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

  1. Quick with a K for your new trail name. I love it. What an incredible recap Keilynn. I loved reading every bit of it. Incredibly well written right from your background in medical during this pandemic, Neat reading about your gear. Have always wondered about tracking about FKT’s so it can be documented. And I have heard how important it is to have backups. Having read that both your Inreach and Garmin ran out of battery, I can understand more fully.

    So much respect for how you pushed through the hot days, the hallucinations, the hailstorm. Would have been so easy for you to pack it in. So inspired how you fought through Keilynn. So wonderful that your husband was there at the finish. Congratulations. At 62, I don’t know if I would ever come close to a FKT, but you certainly have inspired me. Thank you for taking the time for sharing this so vividly. 🙂

    Carl Wright

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Keilynn. You are very welcome. Thank you for what you shared about endurance. I have been looking at different records out there and what might be attainable. A challenge in itself would be how to prove that I made a new FKT. I don’t have media on my phone, or use Strava. Would they accept a screenshot uploaded from my Suunto onto my computer? Stuff I am looking into. And see if there is anywhere around here that I can rest a Garmin In Reach Explorer.

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  2. Great trip report, Keilynn! Congrats! Sounds like it was an amazing and challenging adventure! Especially tackling it self supported.

    I’m just curious, what made you decide to go with the PA state line as the start/finish rather than the NY line? Any thoughts about trying the route again to establish the supported FKT?

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    1. Hi Scott, Thanks for your kind words! I started at the PA state line because there is more climbing (about 2,000ft vert) when you go northbound. My legs would be stronger for the first half so that set the benchmark. On this route, most of the one way FKTs have been southbound because there is less climbing. Another bonus, you can park right at the PA state line, but have to hike 3 miles to the NY state line.
      I definitely plan on running it again now that I have experience and know which mistakes to avoid. My next attempt will likely be unsupported as that sets the baseline “time” for self-supported and supported times thereafter. Would be happy to share any beta if you’d like to attempt it!

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