Shenandoah National Park, August 5, 2019 — “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” Theodore Roosevelt
Witt Wisebram is an Appalachian Trail Ridgerunner from Atlanta, GA. His resume includes the hiking triple crown – the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail.
Witt holds or has held the FKTs (Fastest Known Times) for the Arizona Trail, the AT’s 100-mile wilderness in Maine, and the AT’s Four-state Challenge.
You can look up and learn more about FKTs here: FKT website
Yesterday Witt attempted to earn the record for the FKT on the AT in Shenandoah National Park.
The course is 103.2 miles on the Appalachian Trail beginning at 2,220 feet in altitude at the south entry kiosk, rising to 3,837 ft. at Big Meadows, and ending at 2,334 ft. at the north boundary. The elevation profile looks like saw teeth whose bite can sap a runner’s strength like a crosscut sunders logs.
While the planning began for this “supported” attempt began weeks ago. It got serious Sunday night when Witt and his support team positioned themselves in Waynesboro, VA to launch a zero-dark-thirty assault.
Overnight rain meant slick trail, at least until the sun burned it off. Lingering clouds delayed the BMNT (Beginning of Morning Nautical Twilight) start by nearly 20 minutes. Five thirty a.m. was launch time.
While Witt burned up the trail, the support team set up to wait. The tote contains calorie-dense foods, spare clothing, blister treatment, and spare gear. A cooler in the car chilled water.
After set up, we’d wait until the man himself dashed into view.
Water bottles exchanged. Snacks delivered.
Potassium-rich bananas help prevent muscle cramps.
It’s always handy to have a physics professor friend document your record attempt. The sheet marked mileage, aid stops, miles in between, expected pacing, actual time, and any variance. Sabine even made a column for bears seen (6).
Witt was on or ahead of pace even after the sun burned off the friendly cloud cover. Here he is crossing the Skyline Drive bridge at Swift Run Gap at the the boundary between the park’s southern and central districts.
Waiting quietly for Witt had its pleasures.
The aid stops were plotted where we could get easy access to the AT, generally 3-5 miles apart.
Reginald the snapping turtle was our mascot. Sabine’s life-long friend, an astronomer from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, happened to be in town and joined us later in the day.
Leave No Trace principles apply, especially when the athlete and his support crew are ridgerunners. Witt exchanged is old wrappers for new snacks at each stop.
As the day wore on, the mountains and the sun took their toll. Mother nature is not sympathetic.
As nightfall approached, we could tell Witt’s tank was emptying. He had stumbled just prior to this stop and tweaked a muscle in his upper back. His pace had been slowing since mid-afternoon. When he sat down at this stop I knew his run was in grave danger.
We discussed ending the attempt. Witt was concerned that continuing might but him in position for a long painful recovery.
We quickly planned another stop 1.5 miles up the trail at the Timber Hollow Overlook on Skyline Dr. where a final decision could be made. Sabine joined Witt for safety and support.
For safety’s sake and Witt’s health, he made the decision to stop his attempt, just short of the 70-mile mark. Elapsed time: 15 hours, 21 minutes and 48 seconds.
Witt made a brave and intelligent decision. This was his first defeat. I hope it’s not his last. Adversity helps us learn and grow. It offers perspective and coaches empathy.
Note I did not say failure. While the outcome on this day was not what Witt expected, he performed like the champion he is and will continue to be, only After this he’ll be a little bit better.