FKT Report: 2014 Mahoosuc Traverse by Ben Nephew & Ryan Welts!
Date: September 7th, 2014
Location: New Hampshire to Maine
Adventure: 29 miles, over 10,000 feet elevation gain
In 1958, Chris Goetze broke the 31 year-old record for the Mahoosuc Traverse by over two hours, running the rugged 29 mile route with over 10k of climb in 8:06:30. Late last week, Ryan Welts emailed a few of us to see if anyone was interested in joining him for a hard run over the traverse.
I was originally planning on a Hut Traverse that day, but the history of the Mahoosuc and the opportunity to run with another human (quite rare for me) convinced me to change my plans. Since Ryan was only 3 weeks out from his 21 hour win at the Eastern States 100 mile, he was not entirely confident that his legs were ready for a hard and long effort, and I was in a similar state after having run for 15 hours in total two weeks ago on what we will call a Hut Traverse training run that included a bonus ascent of Mount Field. However, the weather was just about perfect, with temperatures ranging from 50-70 and low humidity, and the trail was mostly dry.
For those who are not White Mountain locals, Chris Goetze is a very well-known figure up there. In that summer of 1958, he broke the records for the Hut Traverse and Mahoosuc traverse by hours. The few more recent runs over the rugged Mahoosucs that I am aware of confirmed why the record has lasted such a long time. Adam Wilcox gave the record a shot last summer, but post race fatigue caught up with him in the second half, and he finished with a time of 8:47, which is closer to 8:06 than it seems.
You see, the route is now 2.3 miles longer. When Chris set his time, there was a 1.5 mile fire warden’s trail up to the summit of Old Speck Mountain, which involves 2700’ of climb. It doesn’t get much more direct than that! The current trail up Old Speck is 3.8 miles long. It is not a very runnable trail, and the change clearly adds a significant amount of time to the route.
My worry was that Ryan and I were going to run a time close to 8:06 where it would be unclear if our time was a stronger run than 8:06 on the 1958 route. I didn’t really have much hope that we would run faster than 8:06 with an extra 2.3 miles added onto a record that has been around for over half a century. I’m not sure how much extra time that is worth, but 2.3 miles is a long time at Mahoosuc pace, so Adam’s 8:47 was not really 40 minutes off the record.
Our long day started with a scouting trip of the last mile, which involves a couple of confusing turns to get to where Chris finished. We then drove to the start in Grafton Notch State Park in Maine, where Ryan revealed his intimidation plan: wear everything he had associated with his recent Eastern States 100 mile win. He knows I am scared of 100’s, and his outfit was thoroughly impressive. In response, I flexed various upper body muscles, kicked some dirt around while dragging my metal spiked Inov-8 Orocs across rocks, and urinated in a circle around Ryan. We strapped on our packs and were ready to go.
Ryan was concerned with running a fast enough pace when I suggested he lead, and this might have been a bad idea as I struggled to keep up. It was going to be hard to compare ascent times up Old Speck, and even if we had been running the 1.5 mile direct route, I was not going to be concerned if we were behind at the summit. Chris ran 42 minutes for that climb, which is a very hard effort if you are looking to keep running for another 7 hours. We ran up into the clouds for 58 minutes, which was about 4.5 minutes faster than Adam’s run last summer. It was a hard effort, but we both still felt good as we began the descent to Mahoosuc Notch.
Blowing clouds and early morning condensation made things a little interesting on the steep descent off of Speck, but we managed to avoid major crashes. I was very happy with my decision to wear the Orocs. Just like Ryan felt some pressure to make good time on the first climb, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t holding up Ryan on the descents, and the Orocs made that easier as I was able to run down wet sections where running was not an option with any shoe that did not have metal dobs.
When we reached Speck Pond, we could start comparing our splits to the FKT run, and it looked like we had run a couple minutes faster. It was early, but that was a good sign. We tried to keep the momentum going to the beginning of the infamous Mahoosuc Notch, the hardest mile on the Appalachian Trail. Without a doubt, it is a mess with respect to a hiking trail, but it is an awesome rock scramble.
Since our family spends so much time in New Paltz, I was pretty familiar with this type of terrain, which is incredibly common in the Shawangunk Mountains. The scrambling was a nice break from uphill grind and pounding descent. I entertained Ryan with a few dynos up or between boulders that were pretty much necessary for someone of my height unless you wanted to make a time consuming detour. It’s hard to tell exactly when the Notch ends, but we gained another 2-4 minutes on the FKT by the time we made it out without any broken bones.
I was starting to get optimistic at this point, and pushed a little harder up the next big climb up Fuller Mountain. I think we gained another minute or two on the climb, and we were only 11 minutes behind Goetze’s time. Ryan did not exactly appreciate this at the time. He was right on my heels on the descent, but I tried not to allow that to increase the pace too much, as hard downhill running too early is a great way to ruin your legs. Despite a certain amount of moderation, we made the descent in 7 minutes, 2 minutes faster than Chris. At this point, I was starting to get very optimistic about our chances for a fast time.
We then made good time up Goose Eye Mountain, and I cranked up the pace when we reached the alpine bog and boardwalks past the north summit. Once again, the Orocs are ideal for getting traction on wet wood, and I was thoroughly enjoying the first opportunity we had to open up the stride. The views were spectacular and my head was fully rotating trying to take everything in. It reminded me of some of the best trails in the Shawangunks, but 2000’ higher with more mountainous terrain surrounding you.
My run almost ended right there on the boardwalks. I tried to run across the mud in a section where the boards were missing, and took a very violent plunge into the bog up to my waist. I was so shocked, not a word came from my mouth when it happened, but Ryan sure did make some noise behind me. It was basically just 3-4 feet of black water over rock, and I got some major whiplash when I hit the bottom. I’m just glad my leg did not hit the end of an intact or broken board, land between a couple rocks, or land on one of those huge spikes they use to make the boardwalks. Other than some lingering neck and back pain, I was OK, and we pressed on.
At this point, the timing got confusing. It appeared we entered some sort of time warp, as by the last summit of Goose Eye, we were almost even with the Goetze’s split. Well, we thought we were, but it didn’t seem to make sense and we weren’t really sure what summit we were at. We ended up deciding to be optimistic and assume we were at the very least close to FKT pace on the shorter route. By the time we descended Goose Eye and climbed Mount Carlo, we were 6 minutes ahead, although I didn’t have this split with me, so we didn’t know this during the run. The trail was still rough, but everything had dried out and the terrain seemed to suit both of our strengths. We crossed the state line right around 4:01, which put us 24 minutes ahead of Adam’s run.
The next climb up Mount Success was a bit of a grind, but it was there that we could confirm that we were 6 minutes ahead of Chris, summiting at 4:33. We still had a long way to go, and it was clear that Chris had made great time over the last few miles. We stopped to filter water on our way down to Gentian Pond, and so we expected to be behind pace, as Chris had stopped at Gentian for his customary mid-FKT steak. Yes, steak. I started laughing when I looked at my watch upon reaching Gentian and it said 5:12. This put us 8 minutes ahead, which was actually 18 minutes, as Chris took 10 minutes to eat his steak.
We maintained this lead past Dream Lake and Page Pond, and focused on the last two climbs up Cascade Mountain and Mount Hayes. While not huge climbs, they are late in the run, and running up the moderate inclines was requiring major effort, accompanied by various noises from both of us. We both laughed when we looked at our watches as we crested Cascae: 6:47 compared to 7:08 by Goetze. The steak had definitely helped, but we were still gaining some time.
We paid the price for our aggressive middle miles on Mount Hayes, which never seemed to end. After making sure we were taking the correct trail down at 7:16 into the run, we started to accelerate down the mountain. At first, the trail is too steep, rough, and washed out to run quickly, but it then flattens out to a grade where you can really open up your stride. Ryan was running up my back, as my quads were just about done for the day on the initial steep section, but they felt better on the softer lower section. The final mile or so on dirt road is rather soft and has some uphill which just about did us in. At about 5 hours into the run, Ryan had predicted a 7:45, and that is exactly what we finished at. At the time, I guessed that we would be just under 8:00.
This was certainly one of my most satisfying runs, whether race or FKT. To be able to run a FKT on a route that has only seen two record times over the previous 87 years, and one as spectacular as the Mahoosuc Traverse, well, it doesn’t get much better. To do it with Ryan made it especially memorable and virtually eliminated the nervous stress of navigating a new route, or just being alone, far from help, trying to run fast on very rough terrain while exhausted. It made it much more exciting to have us both be able to share the effort and excitement of such a challenging route. In many ways, Chris was there as well, which brings us to an immensely sad afterword to our run.
After a long drive to get my car, we drove down to Lincoln to have a celebratory dinner at the Gypsy Café. We had no idea that as we were finishing our meals, Chad Denning’s body was being lowered down the Beaver Brook Trail a few miles down the road on Mount Moosilauke after he collapsed and died while running with friends. Chad was 39, and had a wife and two children. I’m 39, and have a wife and two kids. When I found out about Chad on Monday, I hugged my boys extra hard when I got home from work. Strangely enough, Chris Goetze died of a brain tumor in 1977 at the age of 38.
In reading about Chris, I think Chris and Chad would have been great friends had they known each other. I’m sad about the loss of our friend and that Ryan and I were never able to know Chris Goetze. I thank Jeff List for introducing me and many others to his incredible achievements. I am confident that like Chris, Chad will be remembered for his contributions to trail running for decades.
While I always think of these accounts as race reports, they do tell a story, and sometimes stories have dedications. This FKT is dedicated to the memory of Chad Denning and Chris Goetze; we lost you both far too soon. I hope you are effortlessly hammering up the Beaver Brook trail on a cool and dry fall day.
“But whoever is warmed by the inner fires of ambition looks back on the long hours of concentrated effort with joy-or, at least, with pride.” - Klaus Goetze, father of Chris
Klaus Goetze; Chris’s father, writes about his sons attempts in "FAR AND FAST" December 1958, on 2 well known traverses back in 1958, one being the Mahoosuc Traverse that both Ben & Ryan just gained the FKT on. Here is the short story, a great read and with good insight into what it takes to make such an attempt. Ben & Ryan’s story is a great compliment to a remarkable feat back in 1958. Click here for the PDF.