Reconnaissance on the Long Trail

On the first evening of my Long Trail recon hike, I tossed and turned in the foldout bed in Adrienne Mitford’s dreamy turquoise striped Ford Econoline. Every time I closed my eyes there was a large brown dog barking and running full speed toward me, or I was tumbling backwards downhill on a slick jumble of rocks, or I was lost in the woods trying to find the trail, or I was slamming my head into a fallen tree that I didn’t see above me on a steep, technical uphill climb. I’d like to say those were just silly nightmares, but in actuality they were all flashbacks of events had occurred that day.

Earlier this year I wrote about how I had a fleeting thought of hiking the Long Trail and possibly trying for an FKT, but then immediately wrote it off as something that wasn’t for me. It’s easy to put ourselves, and others, in neat little categories to explain the way we are, and likely to remain comfortable and stick to what we think we know. I’m an introverted morning person and a Virgo (I don’t read much into astrology, but my zodiac sign characteristics are hilariously on point). When asked if I was attending the bonfire the night before my the Promise Land 50K my response was, “Ha ha ha ha ha!” Staying up late and being in a large crowd the night before a big race? No thanks. The thing is, I did end up going to the bonfire (briefly) and had fun. Just because we know our own tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses, doesn’t mean we can’t ever deviate from our own narrative.

Based on what I knew about the Long Trail up to last weekend and what I’ve come to know about myself, it is not the kind of trail that plays to my strengths. It’s gnarly, steep, rocky, and rooty, and I am no mountain goat. Give me long stretches of gravel or dirt forest roads to tear up and down any day. I’ve got a need for speed!

What I have known for a while, however, is that I’d like to hike the entire Long Trail. I’m planning to do so in August! It’s a gorgeous place with a ton of history. The big question mark for me has been, how would I like to hike the Long Trail? Do I do a more traditional thru-hike carrying a pack and resupplying in ski towns? Do I go all in and try for an FKT? Would I do it supported with the help of a crew à la Alyssa Godesky and Nikki Kimball, or unsupported carrying everything I need with me from the start with no outside support like Mikaela Osler and Nika Meyers? Or just forget any kind of FKT all together because it’s probably too hard? Do I want the pressure on or the pressure off? Pain or pleasure? Daring or comfort?

I kept coming to a standstill with those questions, and felt like I needed to just get out there and see some of the more rugged, northern parts of the trail for myself. I messaged Adrienne (the ringleader behind the running community M1ndurance) to see if she might be interested in spending a long weekend doing a supported prep hike together. It didn’t take long to hear back. She was in!

Going into the prep hike, I felt nervous and intimidated about stepping onto the trail because I didn’t know what to expect. It didn’t help that we goofed on the location of the approach trail, leading to my very brief bushwhack through a forest on private property. While I never actually got lost, I had no idea if I was in the right place. After getting dropped off around 4:30am, I ran down a gated gravel road and through a clearing, then started down what looked like a trail, maybe, but it was extremely overgrown with many hidden wet, slippery rocks. It didn’t help that I spotted plentiful moose poop and heard a snort nearby in the woods. I knew parts of the LT were overgrown, but I thought, If this is the Long Trail, I had a big misunderstanding of what I was getting myself into.

After a few failed phone calls, Adrienne and I finally got in touch. She had also quickly realized the mistake and told me to come back to the road. I ran the mile and a quarter back and scrambled safely into the support vehicle. We were both pretty rattled and it was not a good way to start the day. My heart was pounding and my hands were shaking. We quickly found the Journey’s End trailhead, which definitely lead to the real Long Trail. I hiked the 1.3 miles up to the monument marking the Northern Terminus and US/Canadian border, trying to put what had happened behind me, though still apprehensive about what was to come.


To practice for the real thing, whatever the real thing would be, I touched the monument and began my watch before setting off southbound on the Long Trail. As the trail wound through the forest, dipping in and out of little gullies and going up and over jumbled boulders, with plenty of nice, non-technical dirt stretches in between, I finally breathed a sigh of relief. While I had only just gotten started, this wasn’t the scary trail I had built up in my head, resembling the barely-formed, overgrown, rocky, mucky non-trail I’d tread on that morning. It was a good trail, a nice trail, a well-maintained trail (thanks to the Green Mountain Club). I felt as if I were on familiar terrain, similar to the Appalachian Trail. It had an almost magical quality with the misty air, glistening rocks, soft pine-needle covered earth, and lush shades of green from the moss and trees.


Adrienne met me at several road crossings throughout the day. It was our first time working together on a supported hike just the two of us. We started to find a good rhythm together throughout, becoming more and more efficient at each stop. She helped me quickly swap out my pack or water bottles, made sure I was well stocked with gels, and even handed me a pastry or a turkey bacon wrap at different points of the day, which I took with me and ate while I walked.


I had an especially good stretch from Jay Pass to Hazen’s Notch, and began the next section feeling pretty optimistic. I had been moving well, and the trail, even with plentiful little ups and downs, was quite nice. As I began the steep ascent up Haystack Mountain, not long after meeting Adrienne, I heard some loud barking. I recognized from the sound that it was a dog, but when I looked uphill, a large, brown, furry beast was running full speed directly toward me and my brain immediately went BEAR! (probably having flashbacks from being bluff-charged by a bear on the AT last summer), though in another split-second I realized it was, in fact, an off-leash dog. Either way I had to move or defend myself or do something, but before I knew it I was stumbling and tumbling backwards downhill. I yelped and screamed as I fell, rolling once or twice before landing still. The dog stopped short and I picked myself up, doing a quick assessment of whether I’d been seriously injured–I wasn’t, but I could have been!

Frustrated and angry that someone would let their dog loose like that, I immediately resumed marching uphill, not missing a beat. At that point the owner had caught up to his dog and held on tightly to the dog’s collar as I passed by. He looked mortified and apologized several times, and while I was upset, I couldn’t bring myself to yell at a total stranger. I also wasn’t going to go out of my way to make him feel better. You know what you did! The best I could muster was, “That was REALLY scary!” and I continued on my way. There are a million other things I could have said. Adrienne saw the dog and its owner shortly after at the road crossing, and confirmed that indeed, the dog was enormous!

Not thirty seconds later, in my haste to put them out of sight I slipped going uphill on a wet rock, banging my knee and yelping out once more. As I continued to climb up Haystack Mountain, the mist grew thick and damp, to a point where I couldn’t tell if it misty, raining, or both. The ascent was challenging, with moments that I was scrambling up on all fours, with my face just inches away from the trail ahead of me. I hoisted myself up onto giant step after giant step, glutes burning, when suddenly BAM! I slammed my head into a fallen tree trunk that I hadn’t seen above me, no thanks to my brimmed cap blocking the view above. I cried out and held my head, wondering how hard one needed to hit their head to get a concussion.

At that point I was just mentally done with that day. It would be another eight miles until I saw Adrienne at the next road crossing, so I had a lot of time to think about it. My mind was made up. On top of everything I’d been shaken by that day, I felt a sense of foreboding about hiking into the night. I’m no stranger to hiking alone in the dark, but there’s just something I really hate about having to do it at the end of the day versus the beginning. I started my Smokies FKT at 2am so I could finish before it got dark out. I loved that the Hellgate 100K that I ran in 2019 started at midnight with a cutoff by dinnertime.

Strategically, at least in an FKT situation, it makes sense to begin the Long Trail in daylight hours, that way on the second day you’d ensure that you’re knocking out some of the most challenging climbs and exposed sections above treeline during the day, lessening the chance of getting turned around in the dark. I thought I could convince myself that starting at 5am or 6am and hiking into the night would be okay; that the way we divide daytime and nighttime is a silly construct, that mathematically it was no different than starting at any other time of the day; but I couldn’t stop dreading what was to come.

I reached Eden Crossing around 3:30 in the afternoon, only 28.8 miles south of the Canadian border and 22 miles from my destination. I felt mentally defeated. I wanted a do-over. I threw out the idea starting where we left off the next day at midnight to Adrienne. Despite the challenges that would come with it, a very early start in an FKT attempt would be ideal to me for many reasons. To set an FKT on the Long Trail means plentiful night hiking no matter what, but I quickly realized after starting my practice hike at 6am, late by my standards, that I would want an early start for the real thing to get the best out of myself mentally. 

After turning in well before the sun went down, Adrienne and I were up by 11:15pm and I was back on the trail at midnight exactly. While I’d had flashbacks of the large brown dog running at me every time I shut my eyes (which in my imagination turned into a bear), and though I definitely felt nervous about getting back on the trail in the dark alone, I reminded myself that I had hiked in the night by myself over and over the summer prior without thinking twice about it. During my AT record attempt, I was too tired to even care about being scared.


Once I got going, I was reminded of why I loved hiking in the dark. It was calm, quiet, peaceful, and I had the trail all to myself. I love early mornings and that’s when I feel my best. My energy levels were high and I felt excited about the day.


I navigated Devil’s Gulch in the dark, which was a jungle gym of large, toppled over boulders (like a miniature Mahoosuc Notch). Adrienne met me at two road crossings that we’d scouted out the night before, and we continued to improve our efficiency, getting me back on the trail as quickly as possible. When the first rays of light appeared around 5:00am, I marveled at how many miles I already had under my belt and it felt like the day had barely begun.

After hiking up and over Prospect Rock, I popped out at VT-15, resupplied with Adrienne once more, and headed into the next section on a bike path, apple turnover in hand. I was treated to a flat half mile stretch before turning right onto West Settlement Road, enjoying a nice uphill road walk for several miles. With no rocks or roots in sight, I whipped out my phone and posted a few Instagram stories and sent off a few texts before entering the forest once again.

I had a few miles of easy climbing to reach Bear Hollow Shelter, likely where I’d want to end day one in a supported FKT attempt. Beyond that was the first more intensive ascent up Sterling Mountain, past Whiteface Shelter, and through the Smugglers’ Notch ski area. As I made my way up, the trail became prettier and prettier, like something out of a story book. It wound this way and that, with something new around every bend, a twisted melange of moss, pines, rocks, and earth.


I emerged out of the woods and onto the ski slopes, which in the summer time are open meadows full of vibrant wildflowers. I hiked up and down the fantastically steep Madonna Peak just before cutting right back into the woods down a dramatic slope of glistening, mossy rocks. I passed by the busy Sterling Pond, accessible by side trails. It was the 4th of July and there were many families and hikers out there enjoying the holiday.


Unbeknownst to me, I walked right by where the Long Trail continued to the right and nearly took a detour up Spruce Peak. After catching my mistake which added maybe 5-10 minutes to the day, I began the relentless descent down to Smugglers’ Notch where I’d next see Adrienne. My mind turned to what lay ahead beyond the next road crossing, the big climb up and down Mt. Mansfield. I’d never hiked that section of trail before, and based on the trail descriptions I’d heard and read about, I was quite intimidated by how hard it would be. I also had no idea how long it would take me. I thought back to my first day in the Whites on the AT, and how my pace slowed down disastrously in the difficult, unfamiliar terrain.

After a knee-pounding three mile descent, I reached the road crossing at Smuggler’s Notch a little past noon with 36.2 miles under my belt. The next section including Mansfield would be 23.2 miles to the parking lot at VT-2 where Adrienne would meet me. I had been moving well to that point, but if the section was as difficult as I was dreading, I worried that I might not finish until 11pm or midnight. What we didn’t fully consider when I deviated from the original plan by stopping early on day one and starting from a different point than originally planned on day two, was that there would be no road crossings or bailout options in that last big section. Unless I camped along the trail (which I hadn’t brought gear for), my only options for the day would have been 36.2 miles total or 59.4 miles total. Yikes. While I’d initially felt optimistic about covering the longer distance on paper, I wasn’t familiar with that section of trail and had no idea how long it would take me. Not wanting to take an unnecessary risk, we made the disappointing call to stop for the day.

I sent off some glum texts to my friends and sister who had been checking in on me, saying things like “Well an FKT attempt probably isn’t happening.” “This is really hard.” “I’ll probably just pick up where I left off in August and finish it by myself.” And of course, that would be perfectly okay! Not every hike has to be the fastest hike ever, and there are many, many good reasons to be out there.

Adrienne parked the support vehicle in a nice lot available to hikers at Smuggler’s Notch. We were treated to a beautiful sunset with the silhouette of Mt. Mansfield looming above. Adrienne pointed out the various peaks including the Adam’s Apple, the Chin, and the Nose. I felt very intimidated by what was in store for me the next morning.


The third and final day had only been planned as a half day, so we decided to pick up where we left off so I could complete the big, scary 23.2 mile section including Mt. Mansfield and then Bolton Mt. a little further south. I could have kicked myself, because it ended up being the most spectacular, lovely and enjoyable section. Yes, there were plenty of challenging and slow-going bits with open, rocky ledges, built-in ladders, and steep drop offs, and I took my sweet time getting through them.


Beyond Mt. Mansfield, the trail became much tamer, relatively speaking. For however much I slowed down going up and down Mansfield, it wasn’t hard to make up for it with a lot of brisk hiking and jogging the rest of the way. The descent coming off Bolton was gradual and easy on the knees, nothing like descending into Smuggler’s Notch the day before. I reached the VT-2 parking lot, where I’d hoped to finish the second practice hike day, in 8 hours and 34 minutes, which would have had me finishing at a reasonable 9:15pm had I kept going the day before. Not 11pm and not midnight! Even if I had continued on and taken longer than planned, Bolton Mt. would not have been difficult to navigate in the dark.

I added on the next two mile bit to the trailhead for Camel’s Hump, just so I could practice all the little turns through a private farm property. I’m glad I did because it will be much easier to remember next time around. I ended the day with a nice road run, touching the sign to the parking area as my official stopping point. Our recon was complete.


For all the worries, doubt, and fear I experienced throughout this hike, not one part of it was as bad as I had made it out to be in my head. A perfect comparison would be from the movie Home Alone, in which the 8-year-old Kevin McAllister was terrified of the furnace in the basement. In his imagination the furnace took on a demonic presence, chomping its grill and mocking Kevin, scaring him back up the stairs. Later in the story, Kevin confronted his fear head on and tells the furnace, “Shut up!” I need to be more like Kevin.


Again and again throughout the weekend, I convinced myself I was hiking poorly. It didn’t help that my watch was constantly underestimating my distance and pace, which I had no way of knowing until emerging at each road crossing knowing the actual distance I’d covered. I’d exclaimed to Adrienne several times, “My watch is lying to me!” I kept arriving at each road crossing earlier than expected. It was like a pleasant surprise that I was actually doing pretty alright. I was moving just fine, and I didn’t have to do anything special, extraordinary, or mountain goat-like to do so.

After this experience I’ve come to realize that the biggest obstacle in attempting an FKT on the Long Trail wouldn’t be the rough terrain, steep climbs, exposed ridges, or long hours on my feet, though those aspects would be plenty hard to manage in themselves. The most challenging part, I think, would be not talking myself out of continuing on and believing that I’m capable. Throughout my AT hike, there were several instances in which I ended a day early out of fear of how long the next section would take me. Then I’d hike the section the next morning, and it never took as long as I thought it would. It’s the same story over and over, and it’s about time I learn from that.

If you go into something anticipating the worst case scenario, sure, maybe you’re protecting yourself from being set up for false hope and expectations. It’s an awfully pessimistic way to live, though, and you might deny yourself a chance to do something great. Or at least see what happens when you try!

💫

Thanks for reading! You can probably imagine the wheels in my head are turning after that little recon mission, which turned out to be full of valuable learning experiences. The Long Trail is on for August (yay!), and I’ll continue sharing updates as to what that will look like. Today I’m heading north to join my dear friend KT Gunvalson (Raven) for the first four days of her supported FKT attempt of the Washington Pacific Crest Trail. Her journey begins this Friday, July 16th. You can find her on Instagram here, and her husband and support crew Stephen be posting regular updates by newsletter which you can sign up for here.

Here is my ask: if you enjoy my writing or if this resonated with you in some way, please consider buying me a coffee. If you look forward to these letters every week as much as I enjoy writing them, consider supporting Mercury on the Run on a monthly basis with the membership option. The default is $5 per month, or about the cost of one shmancy coffee. I appreciate any support! ‘Til next week! ~Mercury

2 thoughts on “Reconnaissance on the Long Trail

  1. Just do it – you know you want to. Remember you are not swimming it so if you are not successful its not like you are going drown or anything. Keep smiling.

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