Failure is Hard: A Long Trail FKT Attempt

Too often, blogging feels like a chore. Maybe it was because I failed, but it took a long time to want to write about the Long Trail FKT attempt. It’s been a couple of months. I finally feel like this story deserves to be told, and I finally want to write it. Hopefully, there’s someone out there that will read this and learn from my mistakes.

Buckle up and hold on to your hats, folks; this one’s a wild ride.


Zach and I woke up at 4 AM and were out of the bus by 4:30 to hike the mile-ish approach trail to the Northern Terminus. Guided by headlamps, we wound our way slowly upwards. I did my best to temper my excitement. After months of planning, scheming, testing, and training, I was finally here, about to take my first steps on the most challenging thing I’d ever done. 

Before we reached the terminus, Zach said, “Hey, did we forget the cheese in the fridge?” I stopped. “Yep. Yep, we did.” What cheese, you might ask? The cheese that was supposed to contribute to 1000 calories of fuel, the cheese that I had explicitly said not to let me forget in the fridge. Yep. That cheese. Still in the fridge. Zach promptly turned around and ran back down the trail to get it. I continued hiking and waited at the border for him to come back. 

After Zach returned, I started hiking at precisely 6 AM. It was later than I wanted, but it would have to be okay. After a while, that little mishap faded into the overexcited din of stoke in my head. It felt like it had taken FOREVER to get here, and HERE I WAS! Busting my ass on the most challenging long trail in the country! I didn’t even care when it started to rain… and rain… and rain. It didn’t matter that my feet were already drenched. I was just happy to be out there. 

I cruised through the first ten miles. It helped that I had something to look forward to. The first time I hiked the LT, I met a girl named Slips, who was hiking the AT. We traveled together for a couple of days and became friends, but after Killington, I never saw her again. I knew she was out here hiking north, and I knew I’d run into her today, so when I saw the yellow jacket coming up Jay Peak through the fog, I was overjoyed. We got to hug and catch up briefly. She gave me some words of encouragement and sent me on my way. 

About 15 miles in, I realized I had been so focused on meeting her that I had forgotten to eat or drink enough. When working hard, I don’t get hungry; I get weak. It’s tough to come back from. The rest of the day, I would battle these waves of weakness. It was frustrating. Day one is when I’m supposed to feel the strongest, and here I am, neglecting my nutrition. A rookie mistake that I should know better to avoid. 

It was 5:45 PM when I reached the junction for Belvidere fire tower, 25 miles into the day. My energy was sapped. I tried to eat as much as I could, but eating became a chore in itself. I wished I had more liquid food so I didn’t have to chew. An hour later, I stopped by a water source and cooked a dehydrated meal. It was amazing and exactly what I needed to feel human again, but my pace was lacking, and as night fell, my spirits plummeted.

I did find some beauty out there, even as I suffered. The light my headlamp cast on the ground cover plants gave them an almost magical silver glow. I pushed on towards Butternut Mountain. It was not a challenging climb, but I was spent. My feet were aching, I had long since lost my appetite, the chaffing on my legs and crotch was atrocious, and for some reason, I had become borderline incontinent of urine. No lie, when I felt the urge to pee, I had precisely two seconds to pull my shorts down before peeing my pants. And I was having to pee every half hour or so. At least it was clear, so I knew I was hydrated. I was already considering stopping earlier than I had planned when something happened that sealed the deal. 

I was crossing a bog bridge and lost my balance slightly. I threw out my trekking pole to catch myself and felt a snap! I was saved from falling into the mud, but the neck of my trekking pole had splintered. I could put maybe 25% of my force behind it, so I kept using it for another half hour until it became impossible. The handle dangled pathetically from the rest of the pole. I stuffed it in my pack and called it a night when I reached Corliss Camp at mile 37.5. 

Mercifully, I had the shelter to myself. I could spread my things out to dry and sleep without pants on. I washed my feet, socks, and shoes in the water source. They were already wet, so they might as well be clean and wet. I set my alarm for four hours of sleep and collapsed on the lower bunk.

An hour and a half later, I was AWAKE. I lay there for a while, trying to figure out why. Guys, I had to use logic to figure this out. I asked myself, why do I ever wake up in the middle of a sleep? Oh, I must have to pee. Again. I went outside and pissed an actual gallon of urine. I’m not sure I drank that much yesterday, but I was past the point of caring. 

I went back inside and tried to fall asleep, but it was impossible. I tried everything. Head towards the door, head away from the door, sitting up against the wall, legs up against the wall, using my puffy as a pillow, on my back, on my belly, on my side, EVERYTHING. What I really should have done was get up and keep fucking hiking, but nooooo, I just had to figure out how to get four total hours of sleep. 


After wasting two and a half hours not sleeping, I managed to get my food intake back on track by consuming 400 calories before I started walking at 5 AM. As the sun came up, my mood improved. It was a new day; I was on top of food and water, and it had finally stopped raining. I had also decided not to wear my shorts, the primary source of my chaffing. Instead, I wore the near-shear undershorts that I had. You might be able to see my ass through them, but preventing more chaffing was more important to me than modesty at this point. 

I hit the 45-mile mark at 8 AM, two hours behind my goal pace. Mentally, it was a blow to my confidence, but I was ready to try to push hard to make it up. I took a quick 20-minute power nap and pushed on through Johnson. 

The bridge over the Lamoille River was closed due to the recent flood damage, and a road reroute was in place. I looked at the reroute map and understood it before picking a direction to walk. At least, I thought I understood it. I went the wrong way and had to do extra miles on the hot, exposed pavement. It didn’t matter though. Those miles and the next few after that, we’re easygoing, and I powered through them to make up for lost time from yesterday. I felt terrific except for all the pain. 

I took a short break to eat, soak my feet, fill up water, and refill my snack pockets at the Bear Hollow Shelter (mile 53) around two o’clock. It was the most efficient lunch break I have ever taken, and it came at the perfect time. The next climb up Whiteface promised to be brutal. I took it one step at a time, and when I reached the top, I was relieved for about 5 seconds. I had wrongly assumed that now that I was going downhill, I’d have an easier time, but the climb down was just as strenuous as the climb up. There were a few sections where I’d have to drop my remaining trekking pole to the bottom of a cluster of sheer rocks so I could use my hands to scramble down. The technical challenge is one that I usually would have welcomed, but knowing that I was falling behind my goal pace just made it more stressful. I needed to find space to move quickly.

I pushed harder than I probably should have to get over Madonna Peak and down to Sterling Pond, but it was still slow going. It felt like trying to run in a dream, where the harder you work, the slower you seem to be going. When I finally arrived at Sterling Pond, I found myself in the company of a family of four – mom, dad, and the two kids. It didn’t bother me. I had seen fewer people out here so far than I had expected, so even though I was too exhausted to strike up a conversation, just listening to them exist was a welcome reprieve from the solitude. As I went about dunking my shorts in the water and wringing them out over my head, the mom started to ask me questions.

It was the usual stuff at first. She wanted to know what I was doing and how long I’d been out there. It had only been a day and a half, but I smelled like roadkill. I talked a bit about how hard yesterday had been, and she asked me if she could help if she could give me something. I dreaded this question. I knew I’d have to say no if someone asked, no matter how much I needed an extra snack or something different to drink. Surprisingly, the answer came quickly. “Actually, I’m going for an Unsupported record, and I can’t accept any outside aid.” I felt both proud and broken saying it. Was it pointless to uphold that standard? I was so far behind. Then, she did something that I did not expect. She asked if she could hug me.

At first, I didn’t know what to say. Was that against the rules? Did that even matter anymore? Why on earth would this stranger want to hug someone that smelled like a dead raccoon? “I think that’s allowed,” I said, “but if you hug me, I’m going to cry.” She hugged me anyway, and as she did, she validated my struggle. “The weather yesterday didn’t serve you; today is much better. You’re doing so amazing, and you can totally do this!” I completely lost it. Any shred of control that I had over my fragile emotions and my sleep-deprived brain vanished. I sobbed into her shoulder as she comforted me, and when I walked away, I felt refreshed and strong, ready to keep going into my second night.

As I navigated the gnarly terrain down towards Smuggler’s Notch, I kept my spirits up by listening to Disney songs. I told myself to keep moving and keep pushing. Mount Mansfield, the tallest peak in the state, loomed ahead. I wanted to set myself up for success before I’d have to put my head down and grind out the vert. The descent into the notch was crucial and an awful time to develop a knee injury, so of course, that’s exactly what happened. A sharp, burning sensation in my knee came on suddenly. It was not the kind of pain that one should be pushing through. I stopped. I flexed and extended my knee several times and massaged it a bit. The pain seemed to dissipate, and I thought, well, since I’m going uphill next, maybe it won’t be so bad. 

Folks, it was BRUTAL.

Alright, I suppose the bottom half of the climb up Mansfield wasn’t so bad. I took it one step at a time and tried to stay consistent, but halfway to the top, the terrain gets rockier and steeper until you’re only a measly quarter mile from the summit. That quarter mile is vertical, with bouldering moves that my short limbs could barely complete on a good day. There are one or two spots that could be considered no-fall zones. My muscles felt like they were being ripped to pieces. My knee was on fire, and I had developed an extra pain in my glute from compensating for my knee. I found myself wishing that I would fall, that some accident would occur that would take the choice of continuing out of my hands. I crawled to the summit of the high point of Vermont in tears, and when I got there, I stood, glaring at the vanishing sunlight and cursed out the peak, the trail, and the FKT about as hard as I could. 

I kept moving, mostly because I didn’t know what else to do. What else could I do? I was still putting one foot in front of the other. What excuse did I have? I was miserable, and I was way off the pace, but there was some part of me that wanted to believe that I could still do it. So on I went. I crossed the face of Mansfield to the Forehead and started down the Needle’s Eye while simultaneously clicking on my headlamp. If you’ve ever hiked the Needle’s Eye section, you know that navigating the boulders, ladders, and drops is difficult enough in the daylight. I’d have to do it in the dark, with two cumulative hours of sleep, just as many mental breakdowns, and another 20 miles ahead of me afterward. I knew it would be slow, and I picked my steps carefully. At the top of a big ladder, I’d drop my trekking pole, slowly climb down, pick it back up again, and walk about 15 feet to the top of the next drop to do it again. 

In one section, there are two large flat-topped boulders separated by a small crevasse. A simple step over the crevasse was complicated by another tractor-trailer-sized Boulder jutting over the majority of the crevasse. It couldn’t be climbed; you had to shimmy around it and over the crevasse on the exposed side of the mountain. I looked around and decided that the trail would eventually end at the bottom of that crevasse. I dropped my trekking pole confidently into the void and stepped around the boulder. 

It took me a minute to process why the next ladder was in front of me instead of to my right. The trail did not go to the bottom of that crevasse. There was no possible way to get to the bottom of that crevasse. I was never going to get that trekking pole back. 

It was the stupidest mistake I had made thus far, and even though I didn’t want to admit it, it was the final straw. I was furious with myself. I was at mile 70, and I had 9 hours to hike 20 miles in the dark to be on pace for the next day, and that would mean not sleeping. I started to compromise my plan for the rest of the day and decided to stop at Taylor Lodge. I’d get some rest, and if I felt better when I woke up, I’d keep going. If not, there was a two-mile side trail to a parking area where Zach could hike in and get me. 

The two-and-a-half miles from the bottom of the Needle’s Eye to Taylor Lodge took me two hours, and I realized I didn’t have a chance. My options were to quit now while my injury might still be minor or quit later and potentially have to be carried out. I told myself that quitting was a smart decision. Maybe that was true. Perhaps it was just something I told myself to ease the guilt. 

Backpacks littered the small porch in front of the four-sided shelter. I didn’t want to disturb anyone sleeping inside at midnight, so I dropped my pack on the porch and took my sleeping stuff out before heading in. I was shocked to find the shelter empty but too tired to be worried about where all these people might be. I made myself semi-comfortable and passed out without setting an alarm.

Clack! Cla-cla-cla-cla… At 3:50 AM I woke up to what sounded eerily like a trekking pole hitting a rock. It surrounded the shelter, first on the left, then the right, coming from behind. In the pitch dark, I struggled to find my headlamp or phone. Sleep deprivation still fogged the corners of my mind, and the sound persisted. What is that?! Is it the ghost of Leave No Trace? Are they coming to get me for leaving my trekking pole in the Needle’s Eye?! Maybe if I’m really quiet and still they won’t find me. Oh god, oh god, oh god, how am I ever going to leave this shelter? My whole body went rigid, and my heart beat faster than it had since starting. Daylight, I told myself, daylight would be my savior. If I could just make it to daylight, everything would be fine.

The sun somehow rose before my heart completely gave out from terror and fatigue, and as it did, the noises stopped. Out of the woods appeared several young girls, who had been sleeping in tents nearby. I sent a message to Zach on the Garmin. While I waited, the group of girls got together around the tables on the porch to have breakfast. One of the counselors started talking about how they heard a woodpecker last night.  Duh, I thought. Of course, it wasn’t a ghost. 

Zach arrived and traded me a set of functioning trekking poles for my backpack. He and Leah lead the way as I hobbled behind, barely able to keep him in view. All told, I had made it 72 miles in 42 hours. It was the longest effort I had ever done, both in mileage and time. I went out searching for success and instead found humility. I’ve taken several important lessons away from this attempt, and maybe someday, after some more experience, I’ll return and try it again. Right now, it’s the last thing I want to think about. Thanks for reading, for those of you who made it this far, and thank you for following along. The support of my friends and family has always been vital, even when I go out alone. Stay tuned for more adventures to come!