It was a warm Monday evening and there I was, sitting on the roof deck of The Red Derby with a good friend and running partner. In between sips of cheap beer and over-sized bites of a mediocre veggie burger, we were taking notes on the three large maps spread across the small table.
With less than a week from our adventure, things were finally starting to fall into place.
The plan was to be simple: the two of us, plus a third friend, would start at the northern most AT trail-head of Shenandoah National Park, and travel on foot the 102 mile section of the Application Trail to its point of exit at the southern end of the park.
We’d cover the distance over the 3-day Memorial Day weekend, with the intention of traveling roughly 40 miles on both Saturday and Sunday, and finishing up with a much shorter 20+ mile day on Monday.
And we’d do it all by carrying on our backs everything we’d need for the 3-day trip, with the exception of some food we’d pick up at the park’s camp stores each evening.
Between the three of us we have more than a dozen ultras and countless backpacking trips, but this was new territory.
This was a first attempt for all of us, at something called Fastpacking, which marries running and backpacking, allowing you to cover more ground at a faster rate than you would be able to do just hiking.
This was one of those times when you have no idea what you are doing, but think the fastest way to learn something is by just doing it. 102 miles of it.
The fundamentals of fastpacking were simple enough:
- Travel light: Leave behind anything you don’t need, even things you think you might need, but actually don’t. For us, that included leaving behind the tent and stove.
- Travel fast: During a typical backpacking trip, you might cover 15 miles in a day. We were planning to cover 2-3 times that. Being able to move efficiently with your belongings is a must. Hike the hills, run everything else.
The three of us rolled out of DC on Friday afternoon and hit the road towards Shenandoah National Park. We picked up a few last minute items, went over what everyone else was carrying, and stopped at a pizzeria for a final meal before starting the trail.
With our bellies stuffed with enough calories to last us a month, we hiked about a half mile to a quiet and flat campsite. It was there we would lay out our sleeping pads and bags, and settle in for the cold, windy night.
The moon was full, and so was I with anticipation. None of us slept much that night.
Bears, Gus, Lost Bottles, and Big-Ass Blisters
We slowly crept out of our sleeping bags around 6:00am Saturday morning. I’ve ‘packed up camp’ 100s of times over the years, but never in less than 10 minutes. Our shivering bodies and lack of shelter made hanging out at the site about as enjoyable as a Justin Bieber album on repeat.
The first day went very smoothly, but it wasn’t absent of issues. Here are a few highlights from that first morning:
- I took my first fall within the first 10 minutes of the run.
- We saw two bears. One sitting a few feet off the trail and another barking at us from down the hill. Apparently the bears slept about as well as we did that night.
- One of the guys lost one of his two handheld bottles over the first few hours, leaving him with just one until he could purchase another that evening.
While we would split up throughout the run, we set a pattern of reconnecting every 10 or so miles at natural breaking points. This worked really well, and is something I’d recommend for others going out on a trip like this.
I rolled in to Skyland Lodge, our predetermined stop for dinner about 34 miles from our starting point, around 5:00pm. Unable to find either of my buddies, I laid down in the grass to stretch my legs. 20 minutes later, I woke up without even knowing I had drifted to sleep.
I was that beat.
Skyland is the highest point along Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. It was also the perfect place for us to refuel with dinner and a few beers.
After eating we decided to log a few more slow miles that evening, so we filled up a few to-go coffee cups with red wine and causally hiked another 2 miles before crashing for the evening.
I had no trouble sleeping the second night.
I had plenty of trouble getting my legs to move the next morning.
We pushed about 5 more miles to the Big Meadows wayside where we would fill up our bottles and grab a little breakfast. Breakfast was slow moving, wasting time we probably shouldn’t have, but it felt good to wake up with a little coffee.
The next 10 miles were filled with the type of running most trail runners dream of, and I was completely in the zone. The trail was totally runnable and the sun rising over the mountainside made for views like no other.
I hit a small camp store around 12:30 pm to fill bottles and prepare for the longest single push of the trip, 22+ miles to our dinner spot at the Loft Mountain wayside.
It was over a bag of potato chips we learned the Loft Mountain wayside closed at 6:00 pm, leaving us only about 5.5 hours to complete the run. This was doable, considering we were averaging about 4 miles an hour up to this point, but it allowed for no long rests.
We decided our best bet would be to split up and meet at Loft Mountain. At least one of us had to make it to purchase food or the trip would be over for all of us. There was just no way we could keep moving forward without any real food.
The next 20 miles were my most miserable of the trip. We faced several major climbs, and I felt rushed the whole time.
Around 5:40 that evening I rolled down a hill and out onto Skyline Drive, where I felt certain the wayside would be located. So when I didn’t immediately see it, I found a trail marker and ran over to it for directions. “Loft Mountain Wayside – 7 miles”
“SHIT!” came flying out of my mouth with enough force to scare every bear in the park back into hibernation.
I had been out of water for nearly 4 miles. It was 20 minutes before the wayside quit serving food. I was defeated.
A few tears fell from my eyes. And I gave up.
There was simply no way I could travel 7 more miles without water before dinner, so left with little other option, I lifted my thumb and hitchhiked my way to the wayside. I loaded into the car of a friendly family, feeling completely disappointed in myself and ready to give up on the whole trip.
As I arrived at the wayside about 5 minutes before 6 pm, I was greeted by one friend passed out on a picnic table and the other having just arrived. We all looked a mess.
As we shared our stories, they told me it wasn’t actually 7 miles. It had only been 3.
Learning of the new distance almost hurt more. I could have done three. I would have been late, no doubt, but I could have made the push even without water.
We sat there eating our food in tired silence.
When the food was gone and our bodies able to relax, we took a pull of whiskey, and decided to keep walking. Every mile we could cover that night meant one less the next day.
We walked nearly 6 more miles until we found a small campsite around 11:30 pm, covering about 45 miles for the day.
Those final miles of the day were filled with darkness and silence, giving us time to reflect on the day and prepare ourselves for the final push on day three.
The alarm was set for 5:30 am. We knew it would be a slow moving day, and we still had to collect our cars and drive the two hours back to DC once it was finished.
I woke up surprised by how well my legs were able to recover, but my toes were in terrible shape. I had two nasty blisters on the big toes, making every downhill step more painful than the last.
With about 22 miles left to cover, we picked two different springs where we would meet and fill our bottles, but other than the first few miles, we ran completely on our own that day.
My mental toughness had faded, and I spent most of the day in a dark place thinking of nothing but a finish.
I finally broke free from that hole around mile 15, when I paused for a moment at an overlook. The reality of the last few days finally sunk in, and I was both proud and happy with what we had done.
The final miles ended in a bit of a blur, as I cruised down the trail to the end of Shenandoah NP where the other two were awaiting my arrival.
We hugged, took a few pictures, and took off to town for a big burrito lunch.
Lessons and Meditations:
- Sleeping under the stars was great. If we were dealing with rain, I might be preaching a different story, but I’ll be tentless camping again in the near future.
- We were all completely surprised by how well our bodies handled the back-to-back-to-back long days. Even when I woke up sore, my muscles quickly livened up and were able to keep pushing.
- No coffee does make me cranky, but I will survive.
- Water is always a sacred item in the woods. We were dumb not to each carry a purifying system.
- The small flask of whiskey was well worth the weight.
- “Move with a purpose” was the mantra for the weekend, and it worked perfectly. Whenever I found myself moving slowly, a little reminder sent me back to reality. I needed to keep moving forward, and with a purpose.
- Running shorts smell terrible after three days of use.
- With proper training and slightly lighter bags, more distance could have been covered.
- You don’t need nearly as much stuff as you think. We were lucky to have the waysides and campstores for food, but I carried much less stuff than a normal backpacking trip, and I really didn’t miss much. I’ll be packing lighter during my next hike.
- French-fries are delicious, especially at a small camp store after 40 miles of running.
- I really blew it by skipping those three miles, but the goal of the weekend was achieved. We still had an epic weekend in the woods. One I’ll never soon forget.
Gear and Details
- Pack: Osprey Stratos 36 Liter Pack – I carried the biggest pack of the three of us, and one on the bigger end of what was acceptable. It wasn’t full, and it worked great, but going smaller than 36 liters would have been preferred.
- Sleeping Gear: Marmot Cloudbreak 22 sleeping bag and short Therm-A-Rest Z-Lite pad.
- Warm Clothing: Running tights, long underwear top, lite down jacket, hat, gloves, windbreaker, cotton long sleeve shirt for evenings.
- Running Clothing: Shorts and Janji shirt.
- Shoes: Salomon Sense Mantra trail running shoe.
- Food/Hydration: 1.5L Camelpak placed in backpack, Gus x 10, Clif Bloks x 5, Clif Bars x 8, Dates, Walnuts.
- Other stuff: Camera, knife, headlamp, toothbrush.
- Shared Gear (one for the group): First-aid kit, chlorine for water purification, map.
- Day 1: Northern AT entrance to Just past Skyland. Day 2: Just past Skyland to 6 miles past Loft Mountain. Day 3: Finish at Southern AT entry.
Want to hear more about this adventure and the report from a 12 hour ultra? Listen to the latest episode of No Meat Athlete Radio.