Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Going for the Colorado Trail Speed Record -- 100th Post

I finally banged my trekking pole as loudly as I could on a rock. At first I had just said “hey,” as I approached. Then “how’s it going?” a little louder. Then “HELLO!” at the top of my lungs.  I could tell the guy was a thru-hiker. He had well-worn sandals strapped to the back of this pack. Now that I was practically on top of him I could see his ear buds. This is why people in the woods shouldn’t listen to iPods, I thought to myself.  He doesn’t know what is going on around him. I could be a starving and rabid bear and he’d never see it coming.

The loud clank of my pole must have been enough, because he turned and greeted me with a sheepish smile. He apologized for being into his tunes. My real concern when I had approached was that I would startle him. I could see now that he was too easy going for that. Trekking alone grooving to his music, pausing to talk easily with a complete stranger, he gushed with the kind of energy I associate with those who will make it clear to Maine.

In the summer of 1998 I hiked the northern half of the Appalachian Trail, interviewing every thru-hiker I caught up with. Although each hiker story is unique, one attribute that resonated across many people I talked with was flow. To thru-hike from Georgia to Maine you literally have to be able to take it in stride. That’s not to say that successful hikers don’t experience obstacles. You can’t take some 5 million steps and not get tripped up. Flow doesn’t imply avoiding obstacles, it means successfully navigating them. The people who do well on the trail (and likely everywhere else!) accept and even embrace the challenges they face. They like to be on the trail.

This past weekend marked my first consecutive days back on the trail. I traversed the spectacular high country of southwest Virginia, first going south through the Grayson Highlands on the AT and into Damascus, and then coming back north on Sunday. Although I didn’t stay out overnight, crossing paths with many thru-hikers reminded me of that sense of immersion and flow that I experience most deeply when I am on the trail.
Being on the trail means experiencing a steady series of tough but manageable challenges. The most immediate problem is upright locomotion (not a gimme on the AT), followed closely by hydration and fueling. There could be other problems, I suppose, but they seem minor in comparison. The shelter of the southeastern US forests reduces most serious threats of exposure. The bears don’t pose any significant threat. For some people the opportunities to form or cement social relationships is real and potentially exciting. Thru-hiking doesn’t demand knowing others so much as it demands knowing yourself, however.

When you start your first 2200-mile journey on foot you will be wrong about something. Maybe you will overestimate how much weight you can carry. Maybe you will underestimate how many miles you can walk in a day. There are countless decisions you will have to make for yourself and you will have to change your mind about some things. And here’s what I love about big, physical challenges: to finish you will eventually have to get it right.

We live with bloated minds infected with bad ideas that fester like unhelpful gut bacteria. The cushiness of our lives provides the margins needed to keep fooling ourselves and others. We can think, and say, almost anything. You’re entitled to your opinion (we like to say). There are many ways to convince others of your opinions, but having the facts on your side is low on the list. We all need a periodic reality check. Think of long distance events as a colon cleanse for the mind.

When you strip away the margin for error by tackling something physically difficult you demand a level of honesty with yourself that is otherwise absent in contemporary culture. Traversing long distances on foot within challenging parameters requires a full and accurate appraisal of what you can do – because, of course, the question will be settled. The more demanding the challenge the more rectitude you get to claim.

This brings me (finally) to the real subject of this post. I’m planning, with Troy Shellhamer (and joined by Mike Ambrose), an attempt at the speed record of the 480 mile Colorado Trail (CT). Although I don’t yet want to post exact details about our plan, by definition we will have to go faster than all previous runs in order to claim the record. By all accounts, the margin for error is exceptionally small. This is a difficult trail at high elevation with towering climbs and damaging descents. Before I provide more detail about the CT and previous speed record attempts, however, let me interject a few words about long distance speed records generally.

Training for the Colorado Trail speed record attempt in the highest country available in Virginia . Photo: Jenny Nichols

It looks to me like the frontier for long-distance challenges is the pursuit of fastest known times (FKTs) on established trails. I could write a book about what motivates people to do better (oh wait, I am writing a book about what motivates people to do better!), but for now I’ll distill it down to this: we use our pursuits to define ourselves. So in a sense it is intrapersonal. You have to push your own limits in order to know what they are. Our pursuits are also interpersonal. Your pursuits have to be social and public enough to give others a sense of who you are. Organized competition – as in a race – has surely been a long-standing feature of human social interaction. It makes for a simple and ready comparison between people to define for everyone who is the fastest.

The differences between people are more complex and interesting than the results of a sprint could ever demonstrate, however, so we have evolved a slew of running events and running intensive sports. New sports are being spawned all the time, but trail running and even ultramarathoning have grown rapidly. These events place a premium on a number of personal attributes that are wholly ignored in a typical 5K. There is the staying upright problem that is added by roots and rocks, and as the distances grow, there are a host of management problems that are tested as well. You have to be able to hydrate and fuel yourself over many hours – a problem similar to that posed to thru-hikers. We generally don’t try to use thru-hiking as a sport. A well-known mantra among those on the AT is HYOH or Hike Your Own Hike. As ultramarathons evolve into ever-longer events, however, the overlap between competitive ultras and thru-hikes increases. The use of GPS and internet has allowed for the publication of performances and therefore ready comparisons of contestants who weren’t in the same place at the same time.

Many of us in the ultrarunning community were compelled by the most recent speed record attempt for the AT. In 2011 Jennifer Pharr Davis completed the 2181 mile trail in 46 days, becoming the fastest person to have traversed the AT. The story, well documented in her forthcoming book Called Again, is compelling because it demonstrates the attributes required to set this mark – attributes that many people will likely find surprising. Let’s face it, most races favor guys. People unfamiliar with ultrarunning may assume that a woman who can compete with (and beat) guys has to be more masculine than a typical woman. Imagine a woman boxer, for example, who could legitimately fight against guys. By contrast the only remotely masculine trait that Jen possesses is her height. Jen surpassed the overall AT record on her terms. She got on the trail by being persistent – not impulsive, and stayed on the trail by being steady -- not ballistic.  Jen didn’t pretend to be self-sufficient or emotionally independent. She enlisted help from the most capable people available, and accepted the complete dedication of her husband toward reaching her goal. Most tellingly, Jen walked nearly every step of her record. The men who have held the record ran the runnable parts, giving themselves more downtime each night to recover. Jen simply slept less, walking from before dawn to after dark every day. Her record is a not just a personal triumph but a triumph of female strategy in long distance treks.

Jen and her husband Brew effectively used media -- online as well as traditional print and broadcast media – to convey the record attempt and also to define who Jen is as a long-distance hiker.  Because of the media landscape we live in I think this kind of self-defining activity will continue to increase. Although it is due for an update, there is a website maintained by Peter Bakwin for the indexing of the fastest known times on established trails (fastestknowntime.proboards.com). Troy, Mike, and I will use that website to post our intentions and our results relative to our attempt at the speed record of the Colorado Trail.

According to previous posts to that website, Paul Pomeroy traversed the CT in 8 days, 12 hours, and 14 minutes in 2008, and that remains the fastest known time for a supported run of the CT.  Paul barely eclipsed the record held by Jonathan Basham, a fellow ultrarunning friend of mine from Virginia. David Horton, a legend in long distance running – and my ultrarunning mentor, then made an unsuccessful attempt at the speed record in 2009. Here’s an excerpt of what he wrote in his blog about the experience:

Going after the CT record might have been my most difficult multi-day attempt so far. The CT record is very TOUGH. The trail itself was tougher than I thought it would be. I averaged 40 miles per day on the PCT and AT and 45 miles per day running across America. Averaging over 54 miles per day on the CT was VERY tough. I started every day before daylight, usually around 4:00 AM and finished every day after dark. My average time on the trail was around 17 hours per day. This left very little time for anything. I was usually in bed 30 to 45 minutes after finishing each day. Each day, the last section ATE my lunch. It took everything that I had to finish each day. I never knew at night if I would be able to go again the next day... Could I have run the next day? Yes. Could I have caused myself or others some serious problems? Yes…

Does reading that make me nervous about attempting the CT speed record? Yes. This will be the most challenging thing I have ever done. My concern has two important benefits, though. First, the need to get more fit has prompted me to get back on the trail -- and that is where I love to be. Second, I get to cross paths with those younger than me who are discovering themselves for the first time. Their spirit is refreshing. When I passed the young thru-hiker who had been so absorbed with his music, I informed him about the big climb he faced going up Iron Mountain. “Oh good,” he remarked with complete sincerity, “I love big climbs!”

He’s especially going to enjoy the final climb up Mt Katahdin in Maine. And I’m happy to be reminded of the spirit that gets us over our biggest obstacles.


  1. Well put, Eric. I look forward to hearing of your progress with the CT.

    -Micah M.

  2. Csikszentmihalyi's "flow"? Good luck on your attempt!

  3. Michael, did you actually key in his name? He has definitely influenced my thinking from back in the day when I was a grad student myself...