Photos by Jenna Cho
Every time I hear about a new speed record for completing the Appalachian Trail, I feel a tinge of competition rise from somewhere in the crazier part of my brain. Could I run the entire Appalachian Trail, all 2,190 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine?
This week I gave myself a taste of what that would be like, when I did the 52-mile Connecticut section of the Appalachian Trail in about 14 hours (including two hours of rest and three miles of detours). My mileage was just about the same that ultramarathoner Karl Meltzer averaged daily last year when he completed the entire 14-state AT in a record 45 days 22 hours 38 minutes, besting by about 10 hours the previous record holder Scott Jurek.
I woke at 4am on Tuesday, June 27, and drove two hours to the trailhead for the AMC Northwest Cabin in the northwest corner of Litchfield County. By 6:40am, I was running up the trail and past the cabin toward the Massachusetts border in Sages Ravine. If Karl Meltzer could average 50 miles in 15 hours of running every day, I figured that I could do 52 miles in one day on fresh legs.
The CT AT starts in Salisbury (just north of Bear Mountain) and ends on Hoyt Road in Gaylordsville (just south of Kent). I had a group of friends hiking the CT AT from north to south, so our plan was that while they hiked north I’d run south and we’d each drive home in the other’s car. I figured, why lug a 35-pound pack for four days when I could cover the same distance in one day carrying only a fannypack? Most of the photos in this post are by my girlfriend Jenna Cho, who was in the other group along with the photojournalist Peter Huoppi (Jenna’s former colleague at The Day newspaper) as well as my uncle Steve and his long-suffering son Aidan.
My journey began with a one-mile northerly jaunt to the Massachusetts border, from where I turned around and started my long journey south. Soon I was ascending the steep, rocky side of Bear Mountain (the highest point in Connecticut, at 2,323 feet).
After about 10 miles I passed two AT thru-hikers named Young Giraffe and Dancing Bear, who saw me running up the trail and exclaimed, “Are you Fannypack Steve?!” Days earlier they’d camped with my friends and heard that I was planning to run the AT CT in one day. “Good luck!” they yelled.
Their luck was welcome. In the past few years I’d done several 20-to-25-mile one-day hikes/runs over mountainous terrain, and from 2011 to 2013 I ran five sub-3 hour marathons, so I thought I had a sense of what I was getting into but I hadn’t done any real training. I thought the CT AT would be like running a marathon, taking a lunch break, and then running another marathon. No big deal, I convinced myself. I did not carry a smartphone, cell phone, or any type of GPS device, so I had no way to contact help if I were to need it — but why would I need it?
I crossed paths with Jenna’s team after 18 miles, which took me about 3 hours and 30 minutes — putting me on track to complete the full 52 miles in just over 10 hours. Apparently, the Fastest Known Time (FKT) for doing the CT AT is 11 hours and 35 minutes, so I was going at a record-setting pace.
But I also knew that I couldn’t keep running 6 miles per hour: My quads were shot from running up Bear Mountain and then pounding down the other side, to the point where I could now only run downhills and straightaways. As I took a break with Jenna and refilled my two water bottles from a stream, Peter shared some concerning information from his elevation map: The remainder of my run would be hillier with lots of ups and downs.
To cheer me up, Jenna offered me two “fun-size” Snickers bars and her emergency bivy sack. Uncle Steve joked that I’d been reading too much about Kilian Jornet, the Spanish skyrunner who last month set a new speed record running up Mount Everest. We parted ways at 10:30am, with me continuing south while they hiked north.
I went through the first 26.2 miles in 5 hours and 33 minutes. My overall pace had already slowed to less than 5 miles per hour.
At about 30 miles, I hit a wall in Cornwall Bridge. My entire body was in pain. My shoulders and upper arms ached. My quads cried “mercy, mercy, no more.” And I lost the trail. The white-blazed AT had overlapped with the blue-blazed Mohawk Trail and popped onto Route 4 (also called Cornwall Bridge Road), but the white blazes seemed to disappear and I could only find blue blazes leading me downhill into the town of Cornwall Bridge, over the Housatonic River, and past the Cornwall County Market, where I stumbled inside for lunch at 2pm.
Light-headed, I felt I could barely stand. The temperature was in the high-70s and I’d been awake for 10 hours and moving almost non-stop for 6 hours.So far I’d only eaten a piece of zucchini bread and one energy bar, and maybe drank a half-gallon of water. Famished, I realized that while an energy bar might sustain me for a single road marathon, two bars wouldn’t be enough for two back-to-back trail marathons. On wobbly legs and with slurred speech, I ordered a sandwich and chips, an energy drink and Gatorade.
By 2:30 I was rejuvenated enough so that I wasn’t in complete agony. I shuffled down the steps of the Cornwall County Market and restarted a slow jog back over the Housatonic River toward a gas station where I was told I could find the trail. The young man behind the gas station’s register said the AT trail was up the mile-long hill that I’d run down an hour earlier.
“Really?” I said. “All the way back up that hill I just came down? Geez,” I said, now turning to a man in line who was buying a loaf of Wonder Bread, “that feels like a long way right now. Would it be awkward to ask you for a quick ride up the hill?”
Without making eye contact, the man stared forward and simply said, “I’m going in the opposite direction.”
Another man now entered the gas station, and I turned to him, saying, “Do you know if the AT crosses near here?” He said he could check his GPS on his smartphone, so we walked to his truck in the parking lot. He showed where the trail indeed crossed Route 4 about a mile up the hill. “Thanks,” I said. “Any chance you’re going in that direction?” He responded, “My front seat is full of junk, but the trail is just up the hill, not far at all.”
Talk about Connecticut hospitality! Two grown men with seemingly nothing to do on a Tuesday afternoon but stop for groceries at the Cornwall Bridge gas station flatly refused to offer an exhausted hiker a quick lift up a mile-long hill on a hot day. Their coldness felt in such contrast to the hospitality I recently experienced in West Virginia, where the locals practically fall over themselves for who can be the kindest toward strangers — and where I’m sure I’d have received a ride up that hill along with an offer for a home-grilled venison steak.
Miles 30 to 40 were relatively easy: After the long uphill from Cornwall Bridge to the trailhead, and up further to Silver Hill (1150 feet) high above the Housatonic River Valley, the trail wound down to a pleasant four-mile riverside trail that went through fields and meadows. I was again able to jog, picking up my pace to 4-5 miles per hour.
Miles 40 to 55 were hell. Peter was right about the terrain becoming more challenging with the constant uphill-downhill, especially around St. John’s Ledges, Caleb’s Peak, and Schaghticoke Mountain. Every step hurt. My two-mile lunchtime detour into Cornwall Bridge, in addition to how I had started running from AMC Northwest Cabin about a half-mile away from the CT-MA border, meant that I was actually running at least 55 miles that day, rather than the 52 miles I had originally planned. The extra mileage added an hour.
And just when I thought all the hills were behind me, I had one final 1.5-mile uphill before reaching the New York State line. I wore a headlamp for the final two miles to Hoyt Road, where Uncle Steve’s van awaited me.
I’d started running at 6:40am and finally finished at 9:07pm, translating to about 14 and 1/2 hours of total trip time and about 12 hours of running time on the actual CT AT. I hobbled for days afterward with a new appreciation for how ultrarunners Jurek and Meltzer can do such a thing 45 days in a row.
Should I do such a long run again, I might borrow more from Meltzer’s playbook. According to The New York Times, Meltzer:
…capped each night with one or two beers and left from rest stops with rainbow-colored Spree candy, Three Musketeers chocolate bars and bacon in his pockets. To save time and keep his energy up, he typically slept less than seven hours a night and instead had an energy drink every 10 miles, downing about five a day. When on another day his support crew found him napping, they gave him a pint of ice cream for a boost.
Jenna later said she never actually hiked as far north as the Massachusetts sign post. She claims she was technically in Massachusetts, according to her GPS. But I think they need to go back down into Sages Ravine to complete the full CT AT.