FKT Report: New Hampshire's Presidential Traverse 2013 by Ben Nephew

Date: September 9th, 2013
Location: White Mountains of New Hampshire
Adventure: 18.5 miles, 8,700 feet elevation gain

Last June I went up to New Hampshire to run my first Presidential Traverse with the goal of running faster than Ryan Welt’s 4:56. By halfway, I was behind by 4 minutes, and seriously considered bailing on the FKT attempt part of the run. Fortunately, the weather improved, and I was no longer fighting 40mph winds with gusts up to 58. I had already been blown over 3 times in the northern peaks. I still wasn’t all that far ahead of Ryan’s time as I reached the last summit of Pierce, but the final downhill went well and I finished in 4:50. A few weeks ago, Jan Wellford, the FKT holder prior to Ryan, took 15 minutes off the FKT, running 4:35 on a perfect day for running above tree line. I started to check the weather to find a decent day to head up north again, but it was looking like I wouldn’t have the time to fit it in before the snow. When it looked like last Saturday might not be too windy, I started trying to find a ride that would make it a shorter day for me than taking the AMC shuttle. I wasn’t sure the weather window would hold through the afternoon either. Luckily, both Kevin Tilton and Tom Skrocki offered to give me a ride, and I went with Tom when he was crazy enough to meet me at 6am at the Highland Center.

I left the house at 3:15am, met Tom and parked across the street since I wasn’t staying at the Highland Center, and we headed up to Dolly Copp campground. Tom is an old friend from the start of my trail racing days, and the best part of the trip was catching up with Tom on the ride up to the trailhead. It had been far too long. The funniest part was when he dropped me off at the southern parking area at Dolly Copp, which I thought would be closer to the trailhead for the DW Scout trail. Tom left, I ran around a bit, realized I was going to have to run up the road to the other entrance to get to the trail, and then saw Tom driving back after thinking that he should have dropped me at the other entrance. I was still able to get started up the trail around 7:35, which was great.

I ran almost all of the first 2 miles of the climb up Madison, and much of the next mile. The last mile gets quite steep and takes you up a boulder field. I didn’t really like it much during my first run, but having a sustained rock scramble on a FKT is unique in the northeast, and I appreciated it more this time with the….slightly better weather. I still don’t like how the trail traverses across the mountain, it would be better if most of the boulder field section was a vertical climb. Since I forgot to take my wedding band off, I have a reminder of Mount Madison as it’s all roughed up from using my hands. With the weather, I was expected 15-20 mph winds, and they were definitely stronger than that by the time I was on the final half mile to the summit. I passed a few people in full Gore-Tex, and then had my own dog incident, similar to Jan. While fighting wind gusts on the small summit, I was just about pushed off the mountain by two off-leash dogs. My time was about 4.5 minutes faster than Jan’s, which was a good start that I was sure I was going to need. I made it down to the hut safely, getting all the crazy looks as I filled my water bottles wearing just shorts and shoes. It was in the 40’s, no need for a shirt.

The signs in the northern peaks always confuse me, and I ended up running to Star Lake and taking a slightly longer route to the summit of Adams. It might have been better with the wind, though, as it was ripping as I reached the top, where my time was now slightly behind Jan’s. It was going to be a long day, as I had expected. There were a bunch of guys cheering like crazy once I confirmed I was doing the traverse, which was quite entertaining. The trail off Adams is a Where’s Waldo game of trying to find the cairns, and it was hard work trying to navigate the rocks and stay on the trail at the same time.    

I was afraid I had lost more time on the run over to Jefferson and was hoping I had minimized the damage on the climb. Realizing that I was now 4.5 minutes behind at the summit was not encouraging.  I realized I needed to push the climb up to Washington if I wanted to have a shot at the FKT. The trail is less technical and more runnable over Clay and Washington, but I didn’t feel like I was moving as fast as I should have been up the hill. The wind was still blowing as I approached the summit, and I realized that Jan would have been at the top as I started the final 0.2 mile trail loop.  My guess that this was about 4 minutes was right. Apparently, I hadn’t made much progress since Jefferson. I had been the same distance behind Ryan last time, but Jan had run much faster over the last 9 miles. This was going to be interesting, and probably painful.

The good news was that I was able to get out of the wind as I got further away from Washington. I focused on trying to push the downhills as hard and as safely possible. There was quite a bit of traffic heading up which made things a little a tricky at times, but most everyone was great about sharing the trail, other than a few more off leash dogs. I managed to close the gap to just over 3 minutes by the top of Monroe after really pushing the climb. I only had one more significant climb after that, and I knew I had to take advantage of both as much as possible, given Jan’s downhill ability. At the same time, I was taking more risks on the downhill sections, with a number of near falls and a hard hit into a boulder with my left knee. I did the exact same thing last time. I had been banging my feet and ankles off rocks all day, of course. For those that haven’t been up here, those rocks are quite sharp!

My hard work up Eisenhower paid off, and I was only 2:10 behind Jan as I ran down towards Pierce. I really did not want to be behind Jan’s time by Pierce, as trying to run hard down a final technical trail section after 4 hours is never a safe thing to do. At this point I felt like I was moving well, and I was disappointed to realize that I was still almost 2 minutes behind at the summit. The only thing I could do now was to throw myself down the mountain and see what happened.

That was not one of the smarter things I have ever done. It reminded me of one run at 7 Sisters where Leigh Schmitt blew by me on the final descent. I told him that he wasn’t supposed to do that, now that he was a new dad! With that in mind, and realizing a fall could end any chance for the FKT, I tried to find the line between aggressiveness and safety and stay on it. It worked, almost all the way down. I had about a year’s worth of close calls on that wet, steep, rocky and rooty descent down to 302. Between the slips, trips, and effort, I’m sure my heart rate was through the roof. It must have been obvious that I was in panic mode as one woman asked me what was wrong as I fell down the trail. Most of the hikers seemed to know exactly what I was doing, and it was fun to hear the supportive comments. My hamstrings started to cramp at one point, and it became progressively harder to get my toes over all the boulders. With only about 400 meters to go, I caught a toe and went down hard, like Lawrence Taylor would do if he was trying to tackle a large log water bar. The log didn’t move much, but I may have put a dent in it. I think I heard it cry. I avoided breaking my collarbone and got right back to full speed quickly.  Just as I was thinking I was going to run out of time, I ran towards two hikers who I asked about the distance to the road. The gentleman told me that it was 30 seconds at my pace. Ten seconds later, I was at the end of the trail, looking at my watch that read 4:34.  It wasn’t displaying the seconds, but that was good enough. I called Steph to let her know that I made it across safe, and very slowly walked to my car.

It was amazing how much the run had felt like a race right from the start, which is one of the reasons I think FKT’s are so great. You can not only run a time trial on a route that will likely never be a race, you can simulate a very competitive race. Between Ryan, Jan, and I, we’ve lowered the FKT for the Presidential Traverse by 33 minutes in the past 4 years, and this is not the first time a big route in the Whites has been lowered by seconds. I think at this point, removal of the prefrontal cortex might be an essential preparation for FKT attempts on the Presidential Traverse. It’s amazing how much of that route is technical, and it gets mentally exhausting when you are constantly trying to push the pace.

I want to thank Tom for the ride and the conversation. I was home 12 hours after leaving, which is pretty good for someone who is only 20 minutes from Providence. Thanks to Steph, as always, for watching the boys and supporting my crazy runs. All the hikers on the route were great, thanks for sharing the trail. Considering how many people were out there and that I set the FKT by less than a minute, being able to easily pass was probably crucial. Thanks to inov-8 for my Terrafly 313 GTX’s. They did well, but in hindsight I might have been better off with something stiffer, like my old Terrafly’s.  

At the end of the day, Jan’s time was definitely motivating for me, and it made for what I consider an ideal challenge.  I would have to say that for routes like the Traverse, I prefer it as a FKT than as a race, if that were possible.   It is the type of challenge that needs to be experienced individually to fully appreciate.  At my day job, 1 minute over the course of 4 hours is something I would probably say is not a functionally significant difference, and that evaluation can be greatly broadened.  Whether you are trying to break 5 hours, 6 hours, or finish the Traverse in daylight, it’s a great experience, and I wish the best of luck to all who attempt it.