Documenting a Presidential Traverse FKT by Ben Nephew

A few weeks ago, I received an email from Rufus Frost asking me if I was interested in being involved in the filming of an FKT attempt on the Presidential Traverse. Rufus owns 360 Media Ventures, a film production and advertising company out of Portland, ME that has experience with a wide array of sports on locations all over the planet. They thought the idea of an FKT attempt on the 18.4 mile Presidential Traverse would be a good fit for a World of Adventure episode on Outside TV, as well as provide good footage for a Subaru ad. I’ve been a big Subaru fan for quite a while, and although I no longer own my 2003 WRX, Steph and I both still drive Subarus. Rufus and I starting discussing potential dates, and before long we had a preliminary schedule planned that included some necessary flexibility for the Presidential weather; trying to avoid the type that kills people. Twelve short days after the Cayuga 50 miler, the weather looked too good to pass up, so I pointed the Impreza north after work. Rufus and his crew (Caroline Curley, Kevin Sennett, and Calib Uhl) fully realized that filming during the FKT attempt was going to be difficult, so the plan was to get as much footage as possible on the day of the attempt, and then get some additional footage the following day.

On the day of the attempt, we drove up from North Conway and I basically went through my standard pre-run routine while they did a bit of filming. Well, I did have to park my car twice. We had discussed the trails I was going to take, and one of my major motivations for doing the project was to try a different approach to Mount Madison. After discussing various trails with Doug Mayer, Jan Wellford, and Ryan Welts, I decided to take Valley Way to Brookside to Watson path. My first two miles on the trail were pretty similar to my FKT run from 2013, other than Calib popping out of the trees to film me on the Brookside trail. This was great, as the trail runs right alongside a series of waterfalls, and I had thought they were only going to film right at the start. When we were discussing his plans, Rufus had mentioned that they were going to meet me at the summit of Washington, and then drive down to the finish on route 302. As I thought about it, I told him I didn’t think he would make it to the finish in time. I then Google mapped it, and sure enough, it takes about 90 minutes to get from the summit to the finish in a car (without North Conway traffic), and that is about how long it takes me to run that section of the traverse.

The second two miles up to Madison involved some rather serious climbing. This started while I was still on Brookside, but things got real vertical on the Watson Path. Looking at my GPS data, there is a mile with over 1600’ of climb, which is more than any other mile on any of my FKT attempts in NH, the Catskills, or the Adirondacks. The real stat is the 1.1 mile stretch leading to the summit of Madison, which covers 2085 feet. I was a little concerned about my pace during this section, but it now makes perfect sense! That is an average of 34% grade for over a mile with grades of up to 85% at points. While this was an entirely different route up to the summit, my time of 1:08:26 was almost identical to my FKT run up the DW Scout trail in 2013. 

I carefully made my way down to the hut on the jagged spine of the Osgood trail, filled my bottles, and managed to get onto to Gulfside to take Airline to Adams. I was moving well on this section, and made it to the top about 3 minutes ahead of FKT pace. The trail off of Adams is always difficult to follow, and I was glad to have hikers above confirm I was still on the trail whenever I paused to look for cairns! I never feel like I am moving fast from Adams to Mount Jefferson, but I was still about 3 minutes ahead at the summit. At one point on this section, I wedged my left foot so hard between two rocks that it stopped me dead, and I had to use my hands to pull my foot out. That was a first. Around the same time, I also ripped a hole in my sock and took a half dollar sized chunk of flesh off that left ankle. The Northern Presidentials are brutal.

I didn’t want to run too hard to Washington, so I tried to keep the effort steady from Jefferson, over Clay, and up to the observatory. I had 2 minute lead on Clay, but was only about 30 seconds ahead by the time I summited Washington. On my way up, I had an entertaining race with an older fellow who started to hammer as he heard me approaching in my Inov-8 Orocs. For a while, I thought I would have a pacer for the entire last half mile or so to the summit! I filled up in the observatory, and then noticed Kevin, one of the film crew, running at me from another trailhead where they thought I would arrive. He made it to the start of the trail that leads to Crawford Path, but didn’t end up following for very long, which is a smart thing considering the rig he was carrying and the trail that is covered with two foot high mountain shards.

As I made my way down to the Lake of the Clouds hut, the spikes on my Orocs were getting a little old. On the following climb up Monroe, I started to feel the sun bearing down on me as I passed Rufus, who had made his way down from the summit. I certainly wasn’t overheating, but I was warm, and the sweat was rolling off of me. I was a minute behind FKT pace at the summit. It felt good to start the next downhill, but my left hamstring started to tighten a bit. I could not really afford to back off, but I tried to relax and hoped that it would loosen up. I struggled trying to maintain my speed for sustained periods of time, and had a few close calls that would have resulted in extremely painful falls if I had not caught myself in time.

On Eisenhower, I had stopped the bleeding of time, but I was still behind by a minute. I knew I needed to make something happen heading over to Pierce and really hammered the downhills. By the time I got to the flat and uphill sections, both my hamstrings were just about done, and I had to back off to preserve them for the 3 mile downhill that drops about 3k. I knew my run down in 2013 had been full-blast as I was behind FKT pace, so I was concerned when I was still a minute behind at the summit of Pierce. Despite this, I was actually confident I would lower the FKT based on the fact that I had my Orocs on, which allow me to run downhills much faster than non-dobbed shoes, like the Terraflys I wore in 2013. Caution was abandoned on that downhill, and there were near-falls every two minutes or so. It was my version of riding the rev limiter in 6th gear on the Isle of Man TT course. Another first on this run was cramping in my left arm from all the flailing on the downhill. That was interesting. I could only dare to look at my watch towards the very end, and was surprised to see 4:35, I had missed the FKT. My final time was 4:36:01, 90 seconds slower. At this point, there have been at least three runs between 4:34:31 and 4:36:01, with Jan Wellford’s former FKT only 53 seconds slower than my 2013 run.

Despite still having the FKT, I was disappointed to have missed lowering it after 4 hours of intense effort. I think the reason I missed it was a combination of the run being only 12 days after the Cayuga Trails 50 mile, the warmth over the final 9-10 miles, the wet trail conditions over the last three miles, and possibly the Orocs. As I think back to the 2013 run, I don’t think it was as wet as it was this year, and so while the Orocs were hard on my legs at times up on the ridge, they most likely saved significant time on the final descent. I was only 20 seconds slower over that section this year, and I’m not sure I could have expected much more than 9 minute mile pace for 2 miles that descend about 1k each, and then 7:32 pace for the final 0.4 that drops at a similar rate. It was a solid attempt, but it is hard missing a FKT by such a small margin. Apparently my 2013 run was a decent effort.

We then had to wait a little while until Rufus made his way down the Crawford path behind me. I thought it was great that he ran and hiked all the way from Washington to 302, which I think was his first time on the traverse. It clearly gave him a solid appreciation for the trail, including how wet the last descent was, which seemed more like a brook at times. The next day, it was almost completely dry. Later in the afternoon, we headed to the Mount Washington Hotel to film an interview and have a relaxing dinner. The views of the Presidentials from the back porch were postcard perfect. I had planned on finishing up a grant application that night, but fatigue hit me like a truck back at the hotel, and I barely managed to set my alarm for 4am, again. From 4-6am, I got the grant finished and submitted, and then met the crew for breakfast and a long day of filming. 

Steph described the trip as a vacation, but there sure was quite a bit of work being done on this vacation. Yes, I enjoy running and driving. I also enjoy doing research, but long days of either feel like work. The filming on day 2 started with a few shots back at the start, included quite a bit of quality time filming my car driving up and down the auto road (where I served as my own stunt driver), running footage of the trail from Washington down to the Lakes hut, more running footage of the end of the traverse, and finally some high speed drifting through covered bridges. I had a good time talking Subarus and some of the other 360 MV projects with Kevin and Calib during our lengthy mountain commutes between trailheads. It is a good thing I didn’t have my old 2003 WRX; I probably would have slid it off the auto road up Washington. While the two days of filming obviously implies some movie magic for the running footage, I can tell you right now that I was not running any faster the day after the FKT attempt. Faster wasn’t exactly an option. As we were hanging out on the summit of Washington, I realized how rare it was for me to be up there on a perfectly clear day and be able to see virtually all of the ridges and peaks I have run across; like an ephemeral photo album of trail runs. 

While I haven’t seen a single frame of video from this project (click here to see the footage), the 360 MV team clearly know what they are doing, and it didn’t hurt that the weather was virtually perfect. They were awesome to work with, and I hope this project stimulates similar trail running projects in the future. I am certain that there will be some great shots of the trail that clearly illustrate what is involved in northeastern FKT attempts. You may not see me smiling during the attempt, but trying to run fast up there is seriously fun, just more of an exhausting, scary fun. Smiling is difficult because you need to have your lips fully covering your teeth for protection during face plants. While I don’t see a substantial need for increasing the promotional visibility of FKTs, it is my hope that other runners and hikers will find the finished project entertaining, and possibly encourage them to pursue their own challenges and spend more time outside. In the few days since my attempt, two athletes that I coach, Brian Ibbs and Karl Loops, completed a Pemi loop (32 miles with 10k of climb) in under 10 hours, Jeff List ran a double Presidential Traverse in 16 hours at 57 years old, and Bob Najar hiked 60 miles with 18k of climb at 60 years old. When I grow up, I want to be like Jeff and Bob.

Related Links

Ben's Athlete Page
Presidential Traverse Information 
More FKT Reports