A Footbath in the Wildnerness – The Long Trail Supported FKT

The Long Trail was the first long distance hiking trail in the United States, constructed between 1910 and 1930 and an inspiration for the Appalachian Trail. One of its nicknames, a footpath in the wilderness, originates from a book published in 1941 by early members of the Green Mountain Club, which maintains and oversees the trail to this day. I stole the slight change to that nickname from Ben Feinson, given its tendency to be covered in mud and standing water. The trail is a premier fastest known time (FKT) route, with a rich history of speed records going back before the term FKT even existed.

The sign at the southern terminus, my finish line. Photo: Melissa Friesen

The trail runs the length of the state of Vermont, from the Canadian Border to Massachusetts, 273 miles through the Green Mountains with around 66K ft of elevation gain and loss. The trail is technical in a way that is difficult to understand without experiencing. Rocks, roots, mud covering the rocks and roots, overgrown sections, and what seems like an intentional avoidance of switchbacks. Straight up, straight down, over or through whatever might be in the way. Many trails in the western US were created with pack animals in mind. The Long Trail was not.

Let’s talk about mud

I’ve become a bit of a connoisseur of mud.

There’s the kind I grew up with: slick mud. It forms a nice coating on the ground as if God sprayed a giant can of WD-40 across the earth. Any attempt to change speed or direction is foolish until learning how to embrace the otherwise treacherous rocks and roots as conveniently placed tools for shifting momentum. This type of mud is why many people at Barkley end up on all fours attempting to make it up some hills.

Speaking of WD-40, after a year of extensive home projects and repairs this has become one of my all-time favorite gifs.

Then I spent a few years in the UK and discovered bog mud. Instead of dirt with a bit of water mixed in it’s water with a bit of dirt. Slick mud makes it hard to stop. Bog mud makes it hard to continue, sucking people in sometimes as much as torso deep like a black pungent version of Hollywood quicksand. One of my first experiences with it was face planting into it at the Cheviot Goat 50 miler and then Galen Reynolds falling in on top of me.

Yup, there’s the good stuff. Take one step too far to the left or the right, or between the stones, and you’re lost to the murky depths forever. Photo: Steve Ashworth Media

The third main type of mud is tacky mud, like we had at the Bandera 100K this year. It gradually builds up on shoes until they feel like bricks, obliterating hamstrings in the process. Any attempt to remove it is tedious, typically futile, and short-lived. This mud can sneakily be about anywhere the other two types of mud can normally be, from the Texas hill country, to the red clay creek banks of Tennessee, to the endless footpaths through British pastures.

Passing on my hard-earned knowledge early

So when people warned me about mud on the Long Trail, I honestly didn’t think much of it. I know mud, and I would deal with whatever I encountered. But I learned there’s a reason Ver-mud has its own name. I wouldn’t say it’s an entirely different category, rather it can shift between and at times be both slick mud and bog mud, sort of how some substances seem to defy classification between solid and liquid. Ver-mud is also relentless, making even some of the worst moors of the Pennine Way seem like short inconveniences.

I’m really not sure if I’m going to sink or slide when I step on this.

On June 29th, in blissful ignorance of the full nature of Ver-mud, I headed to the northern terminus of the Long Trail to start an attempt with an incredible team for a new supported FKT.

Day 1 – Northern Terminus to Barnes Camp

Road support: Jeff Hogan
Run support: Ben Feinson, Patrick Couchot, Sheena Hui, Nigel Bates, Derrick Whynot, Catherine Campbell

We left the little ski village that would remain my family’s home base while I was on the trail and got to the trailhead around 9 AM. I’ve always felt that for multi-day efforts it’s much more important to start on a good night’s sleep than to try to optimize daylight. In the preceding days, though, our two year old had become adamant that I was a “neigh neigh” (her term for a horse), so I guess I should have been able to start at any time and knock it out in a day or two.

Just before starting the hike to the northern terminus.

Unfortunately it’s a bit of a hike from the trailhead to the actual Long Trail northern terminus on the Canadian border, so we didn’t actually start until 10:10. I was joined by Ben Feinson, who had held the FKT since 2021. He had been an enormous help already, coming out to do the tough early sections with me and gathering additional support for later portions. I had been helped several times before by the very people whose time I was trying to beat, but Ben really went above and beyond, even bringing me homemade rice pudding!

Canada is behind me in the fog. Photo: Patrick Couchot

I felt that the conditions at the start were in a delicate balance: it was drizzly and the trail was muddy, with rain on 24 days that month already. But if it warmed up enough to dry things out then the heat could be even more of a problem for me. Or if the winds changed and pushed out the coastal moisture then wildfire smoke could pour in. On the air quality map we were a tiny refuge of green surrounded on three sides by yellow, orange, and red. But we couldn’t control those things. So we set off, and would make the best of and adapt to what came our way.

At the start we’re in the little pocket of green just south of the Canadian border and east of the Adirondacks.

Starting out it felt a bit more like following one of the deer trails near my house than the nation’s oldest long distance trail. But most trails naturally see much less traffic near the ends, and here that effect was likely even greater due to the border. So I tried to embrace it, thinking of the trail conditions as an enforced pace limiter that would keep me from starting off too fast.

Ben Feinson, who held the FKT at the time, loading up some food from the buffet laid out by Jeff Hogan. Jeff was my main road support at the beginning, solo for much of it and doing a tremendous job shuttling both supplies and support runners between trail crossings on remote, obscure roads. Photo: Jessi Kelly

Planning my target splits for the trail had been incredibly difficult: I couldn’t find a good, single GPX file for the whole route (the ones that I found were at least 10% short, likely due to recording datapoints too infrequently and missing small turns and undulations). I also couldn’t properly account for the large differences in trail conditions. The trail is much more runnable in the second half, so it’s very easy to feel hopelessly slow in the beginning, especially with so much of it covered in standing water and slippery rock faces that made speed foolish if not impossible.

Somehow, though, I was nearly right on my schedule through those first few sections. I kept telling myself to save the running for when I could run. It was tough, but as I went down for a short sleep at Barnes Camp about 62 miles and 18 hours in, I was only one minute behind my target schedule and optimistic that the patience would pay off.

The transition at Barnes Camp. Photo: Catherine Campbell

Day 2 – Barnes Camp to Lincoln Gap

Road support: Jeff Hogan, Catherine Campbell, Doug and Bonnie Robinson, Alyssa Godesky
Run support: Joffrey Peters, David Brownrigg, Jake Henricks, Michael Sage, Lance Parker, Matt Cymanski, Aliza Lapierre

After sleeping a bit over an hour at Barnes Camp, we headed up Mt. Mansfield, the highest peak in Vermont. It was a beautiful morning, and I even managed to keep my feet dry on the climb. The view at the top was the best of the route so far, but a menacing haze hung in the distance.

My first great view, leaving the remote, lightly travelled northern section of the trail behind. Photo: Joffrey Peters
The view would have been a bit better without the heavy haze in the distance. Photo: Joffrey Peters

It wasn’t entirely clear how much of the haze was mist rising from the previous day’s rain vs. wildfire smoke. I asked about the air quality situation and was told we had been in yellow, maybe with a bit of orange: still ok for people without any sensitivities, but borderline. I hadn’t noticed any effects on my own breathing, but the absolute last thing I wanted was for anyone to come out and expose themselves to unhealthy conditions while supporting me.

The rocky terrain was much more manageable with drier conditions than day 1. Photo: David Brownrigg

As we went back down the temperatures went up. The good news is that it was starting to dry off the rocks. The bad news is that the mud was still mud, and overheating can be an even bigger risk to finishing than mud. We reached the low point of the route and crossed under I-89 at the hottest part of the day, then started the long sustained climb up Camel’s Hump.

Only 3 full days left. Cool, cool cool cool. No problem. Photo: Jessi Kelly

At the top of Camel’s Hump I was about 1/3 finished in terms of distance (~90 miles), but already nearly 1/2 done in terms of elevation (~31K feet). I was nearing the point when the trail would become slightly more runnable. I was also able to enjoy another one of the finest views around, with sunset shortly after we went down the other side.

Not exactly runnable. But sections like this reminded me of Grandfather Mountain down near where I live. Photo: Lance Parker
Camel’s Hump isn’t a particularly tough or steep climb, but it’s long. Photo: Lance Parker
If only I hadn’t stopped to enjoy this, my time would have been a solid 30 seconds faster. Photo: Lance Parker

We crossed over Appalachian Gap late in the evening, just a couple miles from where my family was staying. Normally my family meets me at or near the end of these long efforts; this was their first time being there throughout. Honestly I had struggled a bit early, being on the trail and knowing I could hop off at any time to join them visiting maple syrup farms and ice cream factories. Like the siren’s song of camp in between Barkley loops, where it’s so easy to decide not to go back out, the thought of heading back down with my family to relax and sleep in a nice bed sounded wonderful. They gave me no such option, though, and after a brief stop I was out to push through one last section before sleeping.

Not making this any easier. 😂 Photo: Jessi Kelly

The next section, my last for the day, has some of the best views on the Long Trail. Unfortunately I wouldn’t see much in the dark, and would be happy just to stay awake to Lincoln Gap. We arrived in what felt like good time, with my total now just under 40 hours with 117 miles behind me. I went down for some sleep with dreams of runnable trail dancing in my head.

Day 3 – Lincoln Gap to US Route 4

Road support: Doug and Bonnie Robinson, Michael Sage, Deena Jensen
Run support: Marc Solari, Dave Baird, David Brownrigg, Susan Ibach, Olivia Carrick, James Flannery, Phoebe Seltzer, Ryan Thorpe

When the sun came back up we were able to take advantage of the more runnable trail. I had lost some time on my goal schedule on some of the wet and technical sections, but had held pretty steady since then. If everything went just right, sub 4 days was still possible.

Yup, this is the much more runnable part. Photo: Dave Baird

But with the sun the heat also returned. Managing my intake and output became tricky – getting as much down as I could without my stomach turning and not pushing the effort beyond what could be sustained by that input. We were also nearing the most difficult part of any run: the next to last section, where maximum fatigue is near but the finish is still far.

Video: Dave Baird

My mind retreated inside itself, and I don’t clearly remember large chunks of that day. I was focused on the basics: keep moving forward, keep stuff coming in, stay awake, and resist the temptation to daydream about other things. Eventually we reached one of the main mental milestones: with a bit over 100 miles to go the Long Trail merges with the Appalachian Trail, with a more maintained and highly trafficked trail the rest of the way to the border. At about 165 miles and 59 hours in, I went down for about another hour of sleep, bringing me to around 3.5 total.

Drat. Another 30 seconds lost. Photo: James Flannery

Day 4 – US Route 4 to Kelley Stand Road

Road support: Melissa Friesen, Scott Gater, Susan Ibach, Olivia Carrick, James Muir
Run support: Jake Henricks, David Brownrigg, Dave Baird, Nigel Bates, Phoebe Seltzer, Luke Spooner, Mike Obara, Hailey Lynch

I sat in a camp chair trying to make a decision some people make every morning: what shoes to wear. With the steepest, most technical trail behind me, I had been looking forward to switching to shoes with some more cushion and bounce. But the combination of heat, moisture, and getting endlessly pummelled by rocks and roots had left my feet battered and swollen to the point that the normally roomy toe box felt like a torture device. It had been a long time since I had needed to resort to my emergency swollen feet sized backup shoes, so long that even packing them was a bit of an afterthought. Now they were my only hope. I swapped into them with the same reluctance as someone who, just before a big date, found that they no longer fit into their favorite outfit.

Well, I guess I’ll just have to finish in these Crocs. Photo: Melissa Friesen

I had also downed a burger and shake before sleeping, trying to replenish some much needed calories and hoping the sleep would give it time to digest. Life is full of decisions we immediately regret, and ultrarunning is often just a caricature of life. As we went up Killington, the biggest remaining climb of the route, my stomach was heavy and knotted. For the first time I had disrupted the delicate flow of nutrition and risked a full blown backup. I had hoped that my sleep would recharge me enough to give one more big full day’s push before I started power napping my way to the finish. But I laid down in a shelter at the top of the climb, hoping a few extra minutes would help my stomach reset. It did not.

Nope, nothing about this is creepy. Nothing at all. Photo: David Brownrigg

But little by little, sip by sip, the flow returned. And as it always faithfully does, the sun came back up. The deeper it gets into a mutli-day event, the more sudden and extreme the swings between highs and lows become. My energy returned and the miles started to click by. I was able to start benchmarking the distance remaining against more manageable distances that my body and mind intimately know: only 100 miles, a couple of Barkley loops, a Bob Graham Round, now it’s just a regular 100K.

At some point rough terrain, tough navigation, and bad weather have a big silver lining: keeping the mind focused and awake. Photo: David Brownrigg

Then the rain came back, and the pendulum swung the other way. The muddy trails quickly became covered in standing water, rocks and roots lingering just beneath the surface waiting to reach up and grab an unsuspecting toe. I hit my normal morning energy low point and started struggling to stay awake. At some point I started yelling made up words to myself to stay awake (I only know this because David shared the video of it afterwards). I do remember that at one point I stopped to lie down in a gravel road we crossed. I’m not sure if I got any sleep or not, but with the rain continuing to increase I couldn’t stop for long.

Thanks to David Brownrigg for capturing this precious moment.

It’s just the sort of thing my experiences have prepared me for. I mentally turned it to my advantage, becoming angry with the elements, focused by fury at my familiar fate, Lt. Dan screaming into the storm. Our pace increased to 10 minute miles, which by that point felt like absolutely flying. We were dancing in the rain, our feet splashing through a carefully choreographed routine with the mountain where a slight misstep could result in a disastrous fall.

Not the first time I’ve used this gif, hopefully not the last

In terms of pacing, it wasn’t the smartest move. I would pay the price for that little outburst for miles afterwards. But it was fun, and it reignited the fire enough that the embers might just get me the remaining 55 miles to the finish.

Well, I guess at least I shouldn’t need to worry about getting hot again. Photo: David Brownrigg

Day 5 – Kelley Stand Road to Southern Terminus

Road support: Melissa Friesen, Scott Gater
Run support: Mike Obara, Lance Spooner, James Flannery

Once more into the breach, dear friends. Photo: David Brownrigg

My face was stuck to the side of a space blanket on the floor of a privy. I looked up to see James, Mike, and Luke, who were waiting one more minute to wake me up from a planned 15 minute nap. I was about 90 hours and 245 miles in. I thought back to the Grand Round nearly three years earlier, huddled in a two person bivvy with Ally Beaven in the Scottish Highlands as Martin Wilson sat outside, his bare legs seemingly impervious to the wretched conditions. I was just over 4 days into that adventure when Storm Ellen slammed into us. I wasn’t sure which night was rougher, but I did know I still had a ways to go to make it through this one.

For those unfamiliar with the term “privy” – it’s an outhouse. An outdoor toilet stall. Nice and cozy. Photo: James Flannery

It had already been the section I most dreaded: next to last, the longest, and overnight. Shortly after we started, heavy rain was added to those conditions. It wasn’t the sort of drizzle that had impeded earlier progress – with my headlamp on I couldn’t see much more than the ground at my feet. Despite the uncomfortable conditions I was struggling massively to stay awake. Normally this is where I would have taken a power nap or two and pushed through to the finish. But if I laid down on the trail I would become dangerously cold within minutes.

It was one of those situations where I wouldn’t have felt safe continuing if not for the support. We were trying everything to keep me awake, moving, and warm. I was wearing a skirt and toga made of emergency blankets. I was imagining my kids running ahead of me wanting me to chase them. We had played countless rounds of that game where one person has to say a word that starts with the last letter of the word the last person said. Things were getting a bit desperate, when suddenly the Kid Gore Shelter sign appeared like an angel from heaven. I had completely forgotten it was coming. I had ignored it in my planning because it was 0.1 miles off the main trail, an intolerable inefficiency in normal conditions. But here, its privy stood there like the Green Mountains Ritz.

After the rest the sleep monster relented slightly, but the rain did not. The trail had fully transformed into a creek with water continuing to pour into it, as if the mountain itself were reaching up to gasp for air with water escaping down every slope. As day broke it eased off slightly and the danger from the cold dissipated. I managed another Lt. Dan moment and pushed downhill to the end of the section and the last support point.

I remember the water being about 2 feet deeper and running roughly 6 minute mile pace. It must be the emergency blanket skirt slowing me down. Video: James Flannery

The end was within reach, just 17 miles away, and adrenaline started to pull me towards it. I would soon be able to sit down without being in a hurry to get back up. I could see my family, take a hot shower, and sleep in a real bed.

Leaving the last support point for the last climb. Photo: Alyssa Godesky

The remaining terrain was also pretty moderate – just one short climb from the road and a few little ups and downs. With frequent bursts of energy in between moments of overwhelming fatigue, we made our way to the end of the trail.

Hey, I think I saw this water last night too, when it was falling on my head and running down the side of the mountain. Photo: James Flannery

As is the case with nearly any distance, the very end seemed to stretch on forever. We kept thinking the terminus must be just around the corner, that up ahead was surely the state line with the terrain dropping off down into Massachusetts. We were repeatedly wrong, an amazing number of times. Until finally, we weren’t. I saw the sign up ahead at the Massachusetts border, with Melissa there waiting for us (with snacks!). I finally reached it at 4 days, 4 hours, 25 minutes, and 50 seconds after I departed the Canadian border, 7 hours and 19 minutes under the previous supported FKT.

Video: James Flannery
Appropriately, standing in mud. Photo: Melissa Friesen

From the end of the Long Trail, it was another 5K back to where my family waited. It was the worst 5K ever. The end of the Bob Graham Round, where you drop off the fells and have a road section to the finish, is the worst 10K ever. But this one, backtracking 5K after having already finished, was far worse. I had to adjust my mindset – my finish line was not actually the southern terminus. Getting back to my family was, and it wasn’t going to move any closer on its own. What started as a hobble increased back to around the same speed and effort I had had while the FKT clock was still running.

At least I got to pad my Strava stats

Just like the start, but muddier

The Post Run

The Long Trail is a remarkable route with a rich history both as a trail and as an FKT. It’s about as challenging as anything actually called a trail can come. The challenge can vary quite a bit with the conditions, but that variability is itself part of the difficulty. Part of me wishes I had had clear blue skies and dry trails, but part of me is glad I had an “authentic” Long Trail experience. If conditions had been different I’m not sure if I could have gone under 4 days or not. Maybe I would have overheated, or sprained an ankle getting overzealous on a descent, or just gotten worn out faster by there being less “cushion” in the trail. A big part of the fun in these things is how complex they are and how many unknowns exist: it’s impossible to ever know a specific outcome or to think that you can’t do just a little bit better.

Don’t worry, I got that extra 3 feet of elevation to and from the trailheads at the start and finish

The list of people who have held this FKT is impressive, including three other Barkley finishers, and I’m thrilled just to join them. But I do know that sub 4 days is possible, and I hope this has convinced others of that as well, including whoever that person is who will eagerly take up that challenge and get it done. Right now it’s right in that Goldilocks zone where it’s extremely challenging but possible.

Here’s my live tracker with all my splits so someone can figure out how to chop four and a half hours off of it. I think that’s approximately how much sleep I got, so maybe start with fewer privy naps. Most of my losses against my sub 4 day schedule seemed to come in chunks: about 1.5 hours from Barnes Camp to US Route 2 at the start of the day 2, another hour from Appalachian Gap to Lincoln Gap at the end of day 2, another hour each at the end of day 3 and start of day 4, and most of the rest during the storm over the last night. I think the big takeaway for me here is that I don’t do well at the very end or very beginning of a day – every single significant chunk lost was one of those times, including during the storm at the end. The chart below shows how much cumulative time I had lost against my schedule while moving . This doesn’t include time gained or lost during transitions, where I actually saved nearly 2.5 hours relative to my plan.

Each color represents a different day, divided by when I took my primary nap (the first four are blue, but too small to see)

To add to that sub 4 day motivational fire, shortly after my run Will Peterson smashed the unsupported FKT (no support crew, carrying everything except water from natural sources from start to finish) in an amazing 4 days, 11 hours, 34 minutes. Here we are on the Fastest Known Podcast chatting about our efforts with FKT legend Heather Anderson.

I recognize that I have some unique advantages in getting these things done. First, I have an incredibly supportive family and both my wife and I have the flexibility to be able to turn these into an adventure for the whole family. We saw Philadelphia on the way up, then afterwards stopped by Boston for the 4th (and a Rangers game!) and Cape Cod. I quickly realized afterwards that our youngest hadn’t been calling me a “neigh neigh” because she thought I’d run fast, but because she was going to hop on my back and get a ride all around the city as I hobbled around for sightseeing afterwards. 😣

A long supported effort like this also requires a lot of, well, support. They are truly team efforts, and I often feel like I’m just the baton being passed along. I’ve built my experience, reputation, and reach over the past few years to be able to do these supported multi-day efforts and gather a team. I recognize that for most non-locals, it would be extremely difficult to find enough people to come run these trails with them in all sorts of conditions, show up at road crossings with food at all hours of the day, and wait around while they take naps in privies. I can’t possibly express enough gratitude for the people who came out to be a part of the team. I hadn’t even met most of them until this run.

On one hand I guess I could say that’s part of it – being able to build and manage a good team and effectively plan the logistics takes years of development the same as in most other sports. But I don’t want it to be, just like I hated needing to build up sponsorships in triathlon so that I could get a superbike to compete with. I want people to take a crack at this FKT and I wish anyone who wanted to could. These are all just rungs on a ladder – each one’s main purpose is to lift us just a bit higher to the next one. If records are meant to be broken, then a record that no one tries to break has no meaning.

Unfortunately I just don’t know of a great solution (other than going out and smashing the unsupported FKT instead like Will did). In the UK there’s a strong culture of support for things like the Bob Graham Round, but it’s a much more compact country where nearly everyone is a few hours away from nearly everything. Vermont is pretty far from pretty much everywhere. I’m grateful that there’s such an incredible trail running community there, and that people were able to come join from farther away as well.

So why did I choose to head way up to Vermont myself? Well, I have a list of things I’d like to do – things that personally appeal to me in terms of fun (for both me and my family), difficulty (extremely challenging but possible), growth (personal and community), and cost (both time and financial). The Long Trail scored well in all those areas, but it’s not an ordered list – there’s no real ranking or sequence I want to do things in. Each year it’s usually a matter of seeing which events fit together and what fits around life, and by always having options I can always be happy with however things work out.

I didn’t get into Western States or Hardrock this year, so that opened up the summer. There were a couple of races I wanted to do earlier in the year, but they conflicted with kids’ activities and birthdays. There was another FKT attempt I was considering but the conditions made it unrealistic during my time window. I’m thrilled the Long Trail ended up being one of the cards I drew this year. We’ll see what comes up for next year. Western State and Hardrock lottery time is getting close, but there’s still a ways to go before we know what the Sierra snowpack will be like next year. 🙂

Gear and Nutrition

Note: I have relationships with many of these companies. For a full list, see Partners.

I relied on the La Sportiva Cyklon for most of the trail, the shoe that’s become my go to for steep and technical terrain (used this year in Barkley and last year on the Wainwrights). I was planning on switching to the Jackal 2 Boa once the terrain became more runnable, but due to my swollen feet I went with a pair of sized up Akasha 2.

Since I was supported I didn’t need my usual Ultimate Direction (UD) Mountain Vest, and instead relied on the waistband pockets of the UD Velum short to stash small items and I had UD Mountain Belts for my support runners to be able to quickly grab without needing to repack their own gear. I also used the UD Ultra Jacket and Ventro Windshell pretty extensively during those wet and windy sections.

I used XOSKIN’s XOUNDERWEAR throughout as well as their socks (toe socks with a pair of normal socks over top), with zero chafing or blister issues. For light, I again used a Petzl NAO+ as my main headlamp with an Actik Core as the backup. My watch was a COROS APEX 2, which only needed charging a couple of times while I slept and was very useful in keeping track of my planned splits and times to support points.

For nutrition I used Tailwind in nearly every flask, accounting for most of my hydration, electrolytes, and about half my calories. The rest was filled with the usual assortment of Supernatural, Maurten gels, and snack food (Snickers seemed to work really well for me on this one, and of course there was the usual allotment of Oatmeal Creme Pies). Support points had the usual selection of “real” food (pizza, breakfast burritos, etc.) which is always especially important before naps. And of course early on, that included the luxury of Ben’s homemade rice pudding.

4 thoughts on “A Footbath in the Wildnerness – The Long Trail Supported FKT

  • 2023-11-09 at 12:07 AM

    Great write up and well done on the FKT. That mud and rain is crazy!!!

  • 2023-11-10 at 5:05 AM

    Fabulous reading as always. Well done John.


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