FKT Attempt: A Champion’s Story

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Witt flying through Beagle Gap.  Note the stove I used to make coffee.

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

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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.

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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.

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Sunday night prep.

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.

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Final checks.

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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.

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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.

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After set up, we’d wait until the man himself dashed into view.

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Water bottles exchanged.  Snacks delivered.

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Potassium-rich bananas help prevent muscle cramps.

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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).

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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.

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Waiting quietly for Witt had its pleasures.

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The aid stops were plotted where we could get easy access to the AT, generally 3-5 miles apart.

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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.

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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.

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As the day wore on, the mountains and the sun took their toll.  Mother nature is not sympathetic.

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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.

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The thousand-yard stare tells the end of the story.

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.

Sisu

 

 

 

Danger Will Robinson … and everybody else.

If you’ve been following the AT class of ’13, you know that the weather has been record-breaking cold and wickedly brutal.  It’s also extremely dangerous to be out in those conditions, especially if you’re a rookie.   Otto von Bismark’s aphorism seems to apply (with a twist).  God protects drunks, fools and AT hikers. 

As I’ve been doing my homework in preparation for next year’s hike, I’ve been stunned by how many profoundly unprepared people attempt to hike the AT – in winter!  Whoa!!  Winter hiking requires specialized skills and gear.  Of particular concern is the number of people who worry about the weight of their pack in fear of being rediculed.  It’s an AT cultural artifact that should be exterminated.  Sure, knot heads show up carrying 50 lbs. and wonder why it’s hard and they fail.  Conversely, account after account describes how the gram Nazis have intimidated people into carrying light weight but inadequately warm jackets and bags, or insufficiently insulated hammocks and bull-shit rain gear.  Some have compounded this with zero winter camping experience, or in several cases, not hiking or camping experience whatsoever!  Hello.  Dead person walking.  Too many zombie shows…

I hold two people from this year’s class in especially high regard for being candid, for their honesty, and for trying to educate others.  They are Hobo and the misnamed Stupid.   The latter definitely isn’t.

Stupid described how he got caught out in the ice when tree limbs began falling all around him like shrapnel from air-burst artillery.  He recognized the immediate danger to his life and sought shelter under a fur tree with a low-slung and big wing span.  He was safe for the duration.

Hobo put it in the larger context, and I’m going to paste in this entire post.  It’s worth reading.  I wrote back to him that even experts are but one bad decision from death in killing weather.  The danger of hypothermia, frostbite and dehydration represented by conditions represented by driving rain at 34*F rapidly changing to single digit temps just after the sun sets is profound.  I’ve experienced all of the aforementioned, so this is experience talking.

Here’s Hobo’s tutorial.  Read and heed:

Hobo’s post Trail Journals.com April 5, 2013

 “If you are a worrier (Mille) I would suggest you not read today’s journal entry . . . or you may just want to skip to the last paragraph.

I awoke at 5:00 and checked my shirts to see if dry, but they were still damp.    I put them in my sleeping bag because its better to put on warm and damp clothes than cold and damp clothes.

The shelter had the usual snoring last night that Mallet has dubbed the Sore’chestra.

One person decided to return to Gatlinburg. Everything he had was wet and and he’s concerned about hypothermia . . . wise decision

It is still bitter cold and all the trees are covered with ice. It’s harsh but beautiful – a crystal forrest.

We got a late start because there were so many people trying to take down wet clothes from the lines we had strung in the shelter and packing up. Eventually Quaker, Trouble, Son Driven, and I hit the trail.

So, let me just say, this is very serious business out here and I don’t think it would be overly dramatic to say it is a matter of life and death. I didn’t want to post this until I talked to Anita so she would know that I’m ok.

When we were coming off Clingman’s Dome we met 2 guys who were just getting back on the trail after taking a hypothermic hiker down to where the park rangers could get to him. One of the guys had cuts next to his eye from his own fall.

Two days before I hiked Clingmans Dome there were two groups of hikers that had to be rescued and another who was having chest pain.

Several months ago they found a hiker in his early 50’s frozen to death at the shelter where I will stay tonight. The sad thing is he had all the right gear but became hypothermic and disoriented. They found him in shorts and a t-shirt beside his sleeping bag and warm gear. On March 22nd they had to airlift out a 23 yo with hypothermia from the same shelter.

Within the last week they rescued a hypothermic hiker with frostbite who will probably lose some of his fingers. They also brought horses up to carry out a hiker who fell and injured his leg.

So far, I have made wise decisions (like stopping after only 3 miles in the freezing rain), I have the right gear, and I always sleep in dry clothing. I have one set of clothing that I wear during the day, even if I have to put it on damp. I have long underwear top and bottom and a spare pair of socks that I NEVER wear during the day so that I always sleep dry. Nonetheless, I am constantly evaluating the conditions and my capabilities.

The trail conditions are still icy but somewhat better than yesterday. By 1:00 the sun began to peek thru the clouds and we were frequently showered with falling ice from the trees.

I hope you enjoy the picture with this entry because it nearly cost me my life. I told the group to go ahead while I took a picture. I also decided to pee since I was alone. I began to walk down the trail while I was putting my gloves back on and I was looking around (proof that I can’t do 3 things at once) when I tripped over something and went face first off the side of the mountain. I was on a narrow ridge that had a steep drop off and plunged about 10 ft before I could grab a tree. I heard a loud crack and my first thought was I had broken something. I did a quick inventory and all bones reported in as being intact. Then I thought I must have broken my poles but I found them lying beside me in one piece. As it turns out I feel on a limb that broke when it hit it.

Now I’m lying face down a mountain and my mind is racing. Should I take off my pack so I can face up hill? No, I quickly decided – I don’t want to lose my pack down the mountain unless I have no other choice. Eventually I was able to maneuver myself around and crawl back up to the trail. The beauty of this story is that I stood up and hadn’t walked more than 10 ft when Quaker appeared. My buddies were concerned about what was taking me so long and Quaker was designated to come back and check on me.

Thankfully the rest of the day was less eventful. We found a wonderful sunny spot for lunch on top of a mountain (see pic section).

Most of the day was spent hiking ridges above 5,000 ft. The most significant climbs were an unnamed mountain at 5,728 ft, Mt Sequoyah (5,941 ft), and Mt Chapman (6,249 ft).

I started to get cold and restless after lunch so I decided to strike out on my own knowing that I had a safety net behind me. After awhile Sun Driver caught up with me and we hiked the rest of the day near each other.

We reached Peck’ a Corner Shelter but decided to push on even though it was getting late. We wrote a note for Quaker and Trouble telling them we had pushed on and left it on the shelter sign post. We arrived about 6:30 at Tri-Corner Knob shelter. I was really happy when Quaker and Trouble rolled in about an hour later. Trouble said she had never see Quaker hike so fast.

Billy, a ridge runner, was in the shelter and I enjoyed talking to him.

This is a nice shelter with a new privy. Finding water sources is something you are constantly aware of and sometimes you have to hike down a steep trail to get it. This shelter had a water source about 20 ft from the shelter – yeah!

I went to bed excited about tomorrow. I will we going to lower elevations and the lowland forecast is for son with temperatures in the 70’s. I’m sooo ready!!!”

Not all those who wander are lost ~ J.R.R. Tolkien