I made the announcement not too long ago here on my blog, on an Instagram post, and on the FKT website that I was planning to make an attempt at the Batona trail self-supported out and back Fastest Known Time (FKT). As I write this, it’s been a week since the actual attempt and I am happy to report that I exceeded the highest tiered goal I set for myself! My top goal was to complete the 106ish mile route in under 24 hours. I was able to do so finishing in 22:46:42 bettering the supported FKT time by over 4 hours! It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t until I was nearly at the finish that I was sure it would happen, but I made it happen nonetheless.
Why was I so nervous and so uncertain over running what most trail runners would call flat and fast running terrain through the New Jersey Pine Barrens? The main reason for me was because this was going into unchartered territory for me figuratively. I had already run every step of the Batona trail multiple times so I was familiar with the trail and the terrain. However, this was my first time wading into the FKT world. I was going for the self-supported record meaning I could not receive any aid from pre-arranged people helping me. Additionally, it meant I would be alone for the entirety of the attempt as the FKT website states that “if a person is accompanied or paced for any distance, it automatically becomes a Supported trip (accompanied = paced = Supported).” The challenge of running through the night in the Pine Barrens by myself without aid stations to break up the miles and without any human contact scared me. Yes, the thought of the Jersey Devil roaming the Pine Barrens crossed my mind, but more concerning to me was the fear of drowsiness and exhaustion taking over while my motivation completely dropped off.
|Artistic interpretations of the Jersey Devil
Being familiar with the trail prior to my attempt was a benefit, but it raised another concern: the fact that I knew how easy it was to inadvertently leave the trail. The Batona is a pretty well marked trail with pink blazes, but there are a lot of unmarked intersecting trails, fire roads, and fire breaks that look pretty much identical to the Batona. I knew that staying alert and constantly being aware of the trail blazes was going to be essential to my success.
Lastly, I was so nervous about this FKT attempt because this was my first run of an ultra distance in over a year. My longest training run since Eastern States 100 in August 2019 was about a 23 miler. With it having been so long since my last ultra distance run I wondered if I still had the drive to keep going when exhaustion set in. I usually escalate my race distance as the season continues, running a few 50ks, 50 milers, and/or 100ks before going for a 100 miler, but this year was different (thanks COVID). Without that gradual build up, I wasn’t sure how my body or mind would react to the challenge of a 100 miler let alone a self-supported one.
I tried to have all of the logistics in place well before even beginning my attempt. This involved having a packing list for what was in my car at the start, what was in my aid drops, what was in my hydration pack, and what was in my car waiting for me at the finish. It also meant planning out where all of my aid drops would be, my driving route to drop them all off, and how I would find them again while running past them. I packed five waterproof first aid boxes with gels, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Honey Stinger waffles, FBomb nut butters, and mint gum. These, along with a gallon of Gatorade and Shaklee Hydrate+, caches spaced about 10-13 miles apart would serve as my aid stations for my 100+ mile run.
|At the start!
Starting to run was easy and felt good after all of the driving and preparations. I went out at what felt like an easy and maintainable pace, somewhere between 9-10 minute miles. It was faster than what I needed to do for my goal pace (about 13.5 minute miles) necessary to run a sub 24, but it felt like my pace at the time and I wanted to move. I quickly realized that I had not picked the most opportune time to go for this FKT. We recently had a pretty serious tropical storm with some very high winds pass through the region which resulted in many downed limbs and trees. After finding several pretty good size trees across the trail during the first 10 miles or so, I knew they were adding time by climbing through the limbs or going out and around off trail. I also knew that as I became more tired they would add more time. Not only were they adding time with every one I had to climb my way through or go around, but each one was also another opportunity to be the unwilling carrier for additional chiggers that I was picking up likely everytime I went through the brush off the trail. The little buggers wouldn’t bother me while I was running, but here I am a week later with my legs broken out in a terribly itchy rash from my ankles up to my mid thighs.
I took my hydration pack off for the first time when the sun was just starting to set to get my headlamp out. I had decided while running that this would be the ideal time to get my phone out as well and provide my wife with a wellness check and say goodnight to the kids. I was about 35 miles in at the time and the miles were beginning to take their toll on my mind and body. With this being my longest run in over a year, the thought of turning around and just doing a 70 miler had crossed my mind and didn’t sound like such a bad idea. I was hoping the conversation would help give me a bit of motivation. Maybe it was because it’s been so long since the last time I ran through the night or just the fact that this was my first solo FKT attempt, but my wife seemed genuinely worried about my safety in the middle of the Pine Barrens overnight. I assured her that I felt safe, hadn’t seen anything that would make me question my safety, and had some safety gear just in case. With that she was more supportive and encouraged me to finish, but it almost felt like I had to convince her to convince me this time. I said goodnight to my boys who gave me some well wishes then got my phone packed back away to continue on into the night.
|All prepped and ready to go!
It was well after dark by the time I got to the south end of the trail, my turn around point, and I had been moving for about 10 hours and 40 minutes. I felt good that I was well ahead of pace, but knew the second half would be tougher than the first. I took my longest aid station stop at this point because I had a towel and a 2Toms lube wipe stashed there.I did my normal fluid and calorie routine and then freshened up a little with the towel. I used the 2Toms anywhere I was feeling any hot spots; thankfully no major ones.
Overnight was the toughest part of this challenge for me. Not that the terrain had changed much, but it seemed like more portions of the south are multi use as a fire road. These portions seemed to have more frequent dips resulting in deep puddles stretching the width of the trail for lengths of up to 15-20 ft. I felt like anytime I had a decent running rhythm going, I would hit one of these massive puddles and break my stride to try to tiptoe around it to avoid getting my toesies wet. I know the simple answer to fix this is to run through the puddle, but tend to get blisters when I run with soggy shoes so if I don’t have to get my shoes soaked I do my best to avoid it.
|Calling my shot.
Besides the puddles, the night went pretty well other than when my head started playing games with me. Using a brighter headlamp (Nitecore 550 lumen) than my old one I was used to revealed a lot more in the woods than I am used to seeing. I kept seeing all so many reflective eyes in the dark and they seemed to be staring at me. At first it didn’t bother me at all. I just told myself it’s a deer (which I’m sure they were) and continued to run. But as I got more tired my mind started tricks on me and creating other scarier scenarios that became increasingly believable to my tired mind as the night went on. During those predawn hours as I was looking forward to the sunrise I had considered the possibilities that I was being stalked by a mountain lion, followed by a pack of coyotes, or that a big cat had escaped from the Six Flags Safari and was now living in the Pine Barrens.
Besides the tall tales I was creating in my mind, the night was peaceful. The night sky was clear and the stars above the lake clearings were beautiful. There were so many stars and they were so bright away from any lights that I took a quick moment to stand by one lake clearing and switch off my headlamp to enjoy the view for a few moments and mental pictures.
Even with all of my planning and marking to avoid missing my aid stops, I still managed to miss the second one during my northbound journey. Thankfully it was cooler overnight and I was drinking far less so it didn’t bother me too much; just surprised me. I was also pretty tired of gels at this point so I still had enough to keep me going until the next aid. Because of that missed aid drop, I covered nearly half (about a 23 mile section) of the northbound miles without any aid replenishments.
|The northern terminus.
By the last few hours of darkness I was feeling pretty physically exhausted and just plain tired. When it started to get light again I could feel a bit of rejuvenation and motivation to finish coming with it. With the four quarters of my total run clocking in at about 4:37, 6:01, 6:18, and 5:50 respectively, the two middle quarters of my total attempt were my slowest. I would attribute at least some of that being due to the night running and overnight drowsiness. Thankfully, my motivation to finish returned with the daylight. Although I was tired and in some pain, I would force myself to pick up the pace and at least “run slowly” everytime I caught myself walking. Then I would ask myself “Is this a walk in the woods or a FKT attempt?”
With about 20 miles left to go, I was sure I was going to finish sub 24 and also knew that sub 23 was possible if I kept my pace consistent. Everything had gone really well for it being my first self-supported FKT attempt. I only veered off trail once overnight and figured it out pretty quickly, like maybe after a tenth of a mile or so. But now with only a few hours to go until finishing I began to recognize a problem. My Suunto Ambit3 Peak will last 20, 30, or 200 hours depending on the accuracy it is set for. With this being an FKT attempt, I figured more accuracy is better so I set if for the most accurate which should have lasted 20 hours. I knew I would take over 20 hours to finish so I brought a portable battery and charged my watch for a few hours overnight. It still seemed a bit low in the morning so I left the charger connected while I continued to run.
|Finished and kinda exhausted.
A common description I hear about 100 mile finishes is how anticlimactic the finish can be when considering the enormity of the task. I haven’t done the research to assemble the statistics on crowd size at 100 mile finishes compared to marathon finishes. Anecdotally and based on my personal experiences at the two types of events, the crowd size at a marathon finish has always far surpassed the crowd size at any 100 mile finish I’ve run. I’ve had a 100 mile finish when it was just the two race directors there to congratulate me. I’ve heard stories of runners finishing a 100 miler to only find a volunteer there sleeping that they had to wake up to get their finishing time recorded. Based on my experience and the stories of other 100 mile finishes, I was prepared for an empty and somewhat insignificant appearance to the finish for this FKT. As expected, it was the most empty 100 mile finish possible; it was just me arriving at a completely empty trail head. My car was the only one in the small lot. I ran from the trail end to the final mile marker (Ong’s Hat Rack) and stopped my watch. I didn’t put my hands up in the air or even give a victory shout. I just sat down on the bench there and thought to myself “I did it!” And in the end, that’s all I really wanted. I’m not that interested in the swag or finishers’ medals that come with races. The cheers and motivation from other runners and volunteers are great and very much appreciated, but the main reason I do any of this stuff, whether it’s a race or a personal challenge, is to test myself. The majority of my gratification from running and my motivation to pursue running challenges is to see what I’m capable of and to test what I believe my limits to be.
|Last mile marker!
|Carry in, carry out!