Running 50 miles on the Appalachian Trail from Hanover, NH to Mt. Moosilauke.
It was a few years ago that I first heard that Dartmouth students hold an annual challenge to hike in groups from campus to the Ravine Lodge at Mt. Moosilauke by way of the Appalachian Trail. They call it “The 50”. At the time, New England ultra-runners Ryan Welts and Brian Rusiecki were planning on doing The 50 as a training run, and I volunteered to help out with water drops, since I live in Hanover. I remember some discussion about if there was an official FKT (fastest known time) for the route, and that they hoped to establish one. But, plans changed, and the run never happened. I’m sure though that that is when the seed was planted in my mind.
Over the years, I have run quite a few 50k races, and what I call “non-ultra ultras” — rugged trail races that happen to be less than 26.2 miles, and are just as tough as most ultra-marathons. But, the 50 mile distance somehow remained elusive to me. It just seemed to click in my mind that The 50 would be the logical run for me to finally get a 50 miler under my belt. It wasn’t a race, but, I live in Hanover and run on the A.T. all the time. I know the route well. The run would end on Moosilauke, where our friend Chad Denning passed away in 2014 — a fitting tribute, since he told me that I should step-up and run a 50 miler. It all added up. This would be my fitty.
In November of 2016, I attempted the run with my friends John and Lars. It was the wrong time of year! In the fading daylight, 10 hours and 32 miles in, we decided to end the run. We’d encountered cold temps, rain, snow squalls, snow accumulation at high elevations, and limited daylight. We vowed to return and finish the job on the summer solstice when we’d have warmer temps and plenty of daylight. I learned a LOT from that first attempt — the most important lesson being that I underestimated the effort required to complete the distance on that stretch of trail.
54 miles, 15k of elevation, and 3 drop-locations
If you look at the elevation profile above, you’ll note that the route gets progressively more difficult in terms of climbs. The most runnable section is the first 16 miles to the Dartmouth Skiway. After that, you need to do a serious climb up Smarts mountain followed by another up Mt. Cube. After that, you’ve got about 11 miles of rolling over smaller hills, (which seems like the easiest section, but it’s not), and then the brutal climb up the Glencliff trail to the top of Moosilauke: a 3,040 ft. climb over 3 miles with an average grade of 19%! What a great way to end the day :-) Right?
After a few setbacks, the day came for attempt number two, on July 22nd, 2017, about a month after the summer solstice. Still plenty of daylight, and I was armed with GPS data from the first attempt to help out in the planning.
Setting about on an epic run like this on your own requires some careful planning, and the help of family and friends. I was joined by Joffrey and his soon-to-be-sister-in-law Jane, who wanted to do the entire run; and Lars, James, and Anne, who ran for the first 12 miles or so. My wife Emily, Amos and Kristen, met us at the summit of Moosilauke at the end. My wife and I dropped coolers with water and supplies at three locations along the route the night before.
The drops had plenty of water, food, and gear for us to look forward to along the way. The food consisted of re-supply nutrition for the next stretch, as well as food that would be hard to carry in a pack: fruit, boiled & salted potatoes, string-cheese and coke. For gear, I left a dry shirt/socks in each drop, a pair of shoes in the second drop, and hiking poles at the final drop. I carried about 1.5 liters of water in a bladder in my pack, energy chews and bars for nutrition, a splint for an emergency, toilet paper, a soft-flask with built-in water filter for stream water, headlamp, my smartphone and extra battery for coordinating with my wife and friends along the way.
There are a number of road crossings along the trail, but cell phone service is spotty. I sent a number of logistical emails to the people joining me, indicating good places to bail, and where they could expect cell service. Everyone had to be responsible for their own transportation, because this trail can chew you up, and I didn’t want to have a bad day out and leave the others on their own. Luckily, I had GPS data for the first 32 miles from the previous attempt. I also had data for the final stretch between mile 32 and the foot of Moosiluake that I gathered a week before when Emily, Lars, and I recon’d the section. It was the only section I had not run, so I really wanted to know what I was up against. Using this data I came up with an estimated time table:
The plan was to send updates along the way when I had cell service letting my wife and Lars know what time I arrived at each location. From there, they could add or subtract time to plan their arrival for the finish. Or, bail me out if I needed any help.
Someone should write a book on ultra-running crewing logistics. It would be a god-send to a lot of family and friends who are pulled into the vortex of magical thinking that is ultra-running.
A few other logistical notes: based on prior experience, I set a timer on my GPS watch to go off every 45 minutes. I carried enough nutrition to eat at least 100 calories at each interval. In the early hours, I made sure my chews had some caffeine in them as well. It was dark for the first hour, and required headlamp light. I knew I may need it at the end too, so I left extra batteries at the 3rd drop. I had two buffs with for soaking in water which I wore around my neck and wrist. These helped keep me cool. I wore a vented hat which I soaked often as well, and sunglasses to protect my eyes.
And, we’re off!
We met up at the Hanover Co-Op parking lot at 4:20am so we could begin running at 4:30 on the dot. Since we had six crazy runners (and three dogs) all willing to run at 4:30am, it was easy to be distracted from the enormity of the journey ahead for the first couple of hours.
Joffrey, Jane, and I were all planning on running the whole of The 50, so after 12 miles or so, the other runners and dogs went on their own ways. Jane had not caught up with me and Joffrey at this point, but Joffrey decided to push on with me anyhow, thinking he may wait for her at the first drop at mile 16. Paring the group down to just two people had a noticeable impact on the feeling of the run. I missed my dog Arlo, but, I enjoyed Joffrey’s company, so all was well. Spending hours on the trail with someone is a great way to get to know a person. Lifelong friendships are forged in the fires of shared misery!
When we got up to Holt’s Ledge, I suggested that Joffrey text Jane since he’d have cell service at the top and wouldn’t at the bottom, where the first drop was waiting. He sent a text and we moved on. At the first drop, I asked if he wanted to wait. He’d not heard back from her yet, but said he wanted to keep going. I figured Jane was on her own from here on out.
Later on, I’d end up misinterpreting a message from my wife and thought that Jane had bailed. It would be hours before we heard from her again, only to discover that she was still in!
After the first drop, there’s a few miles of somewhat tame A.T., then you hit the base of Smarts mountain. It’s a tough climb even when you’re starting there. I told Joffrey I’d like to buckle down and just knock it out. We settled into a steady power-hike. The last part of the ascent becomes quite steep and it was obviously taking a toll on us both. I knew it was still early in the journey, so I pushed the hurt out of my mind and pressed ever upwards. We stopped for a few minutes at the fire-tower. The heat and humidity were really getting to Joffrey and he needed to re-group. I was antsy to move on, but didn’t want to take off alone either. I pestered him until we were both off again, running the most glorious downhill of the whole trek.
The bottom was a mixed blessing: a wide, cool, brook to refill water and cool our bodies down, and the next climb up Mt. Cube looming in front of us. The two mountains sit next to one another, so once you’re down, you gotta go right back up. It was clear at this stop that the heat may be a real issue for Joffrey. He submerged himself into the brook and was reluctant to move on as quickly as I wanted to. I gathered my things and took a few pics to pass the time, but I was really ready to climb up Cube. I asked him if he wanted to keep going, and he said he did, so I waited a bit longer.
Cube was a slog, but, all things considered, I felt pretty decent most of the climb. About 2/3rds of the way up, I began to feel really terrible. Not nauseous, but just a full body feeling of unease and exhaustion. I had been drifting from my 45 minute eating alarm. Realizing this, I forced down a Cliff bar. I had to eat it in tiny bites, one-by-one, because the texture was like cardboard. After 10 minutes, I felt fucking amazing! Wow, I must have been really burning through the calories!
When we made it to the summit of Cube, Joffrey was hurting pretty badly from the heat. He had drank more than I had since the brook crossing, but after peeing, he realized that he was dehydrated (pee was about IPA craft brew color). He switched on his phone and got a series of text messages. Apparently, Jane had indeed continued on, and was unable to find the cooler at the first drop location. She had sent a text from atop Smarts mountain, but we had no idea when. (Encode a time-stamp in the message itself people! Another tid-bit for the logistics book.) She was low on water and food, her message stated, and was going to drop at route 25a, at the base of Cube, which was just North of us. When Joffrey realized that his fiance would be picking up Jane just a few miles below us, he decided that he would call it a day too. We parted ways at the summit — he said he’d eventually head South to intercept Jane with supplies, and I headed North, down to the road where I’d ended my first attempt at The 50 last fall. The unknown was awaiting my arrival.
I sent a quick message to my wife and Lars updating them on where I was and that I would be on my own now, and I carefully made my way down as quickly as possible. The last mile was very runnable, so I cruised along at a good clip, but I could feel the 9k feet of vert I had climbed so far in my quads on the descent. My feet were pretty beat up too, but I knew that I had another pair of shoes waiting for me at drop number two at the base of the mountain.
When I got there, I grabbed the cooler out of the hiding spot, and laid all my supplies out on a log. I opened a coke, and the container of salted potatoes and started shoving those things into my mouth, all while trying to get the other things done as quickly as possible: re-fill my water bladder, change my shirt, socks and shoes, load the nutrition for the next stretch into my pack. It was buggy and humid, and that helped keep me moving quickly. Slipping on the new shoes (Hoka One One Speedgoat 2’s) felt like a dream! I was ready to move on from drop two.
Things get weird when you’re running for hours on end. I lose the ability to speak easily, which, if you know me at all, is NOT normal. So, when I popped out of the trail and saw Anne waiting to pick up Jane and Joffrey, I had a bit of a start-and-stop conversation with her that left her with puzzled and concerned looks.
“Ready for an adventure?”, I said.
“Okay…”, breath, breath, long pause, “…Joffrey is on top of the mountain there. Jane is somewhere else, not really sure. Joffrey has decided to bail, but he’s dehydrated and needs some time to recover…” Then I stared off into space for a bit.
“Would you like a doughnut?”, Anne asked. She looked concerned.
“No, thank you. Too much sugar all at once. Crash is hard.” After another long pause, “Here’s the deal: he’s up there, and there is cell service, but not down here. You can get service at some point as you go up that trail, but I’m not sure when. It’s 3.3 miles to the summit. You should hike up and try to contact him…” My mind starts racing and I can’t form the words. I know I need to get this information out quickly so I can get back to moving forward. I have a long way ahead of me. Anne is looking concerned.
“When you get high enough to get cell service, he may still be at the top and you can call him. Or, he may have gone back to find Jane and then he won’t have service, but you will…” There are too many possibilities in what I’m trying to convey for someone who has spent the last 10 hours with only ONE thing to do. Then it collapses into one solution in my mind:
“…but, there is only one trail! And, you’ll all be on it! Good luck!”, I blurted out, and then I ran across the road and into the woods.
On my own, and into the pain cave
At this point, I knew I just needed to focus and knock out the next 11.5 miles to the base of Moosilauke. Emily, Lars, and I had run this section just the week before, so I knew it would be steady, gradual climbing, but not very technical. After about 10 miles, I knew there was a wide stream crossing and it would be a great place to cool off, wash up and rejuvenate before the final climb, so I focused on getting there.
My legs felt pretty good, and my body overall was feeling decent. Eating real food at the drop helped a lot. In terms of the number of hours I had been out, I was in new territory, but, I was able to run in short bursts on the flats and on all but the steepest downhill sections. I had to power-hike the climbs. Even though the Hoka shoes were like having a sofa strapped to each foot, the bottoms of my feet ached like they’d been beaten with a hammer. I was head-down for the next few miles, until I crossed a dirt road and stumbled upon the Omelette Stand.
This fella was cooking up omelettes for 5 or 6 thru-hikers who were sitting around his make-shift setup in lawn chairs. He had music playing from a radio and a bug candle burning away. There was a lazy dog lying about. The omelette guy and a woman were in a deep conversation and paid no attention to me as I arrived at the scene. It was such a jarring transition from being alone in the woods, that I just stopped and asked aloud: “What is this place?”
The omelette guy told me, it was the omelette stand, and continued cooking and talking to the woman. I sat down for a minute, then thought better of it. A hiker asked me if I was one of the runners, and I said I was the only one left continuing on. I had no idea how she knew about the run. I bid farewell and made to leave the camp and the omelette guy asked if I wanted a banana. I thanked him, but said no, I was all set, and he asked: “Do you have a minute to sign the logbook before you go?” I told him that I did, and wrote: “Yeah buddy!” inside of it and left.
Later on, I would learn that the Omelette Stand is Trail Magic. The omelette guy makes omelettes for hungry hikers free of charge. He’s out there almost every day during the season when the thru-hikers are passing through. The hiker who told me this said the omelette guy made him an eight-egg omelette, and then offered him another when he was done. There are good people in this world!
Over the next few miles I could NOT stop looking at my phone every couple of minutes to see if I had cell service. Eventually, I got some messages from my wife and from Lars. Since he knew I was now alone, Lars was planning to meet me at the Route 25 crossing and continue on with me from there! While this was good news, I quickly realized that I was entering the pain cave. I was starting to drift my my 45 minute alarm eating schedule again, mostly because I had run out of water! Back at drop 2, I apparently did not put a lot of water in my hydration bladder. I really did not want to choke down any food if I didn’t have water to wash it down.
I knew I was firmly inside of the pain cave when I came to an old campsite with some logs around a defunct fire pit and involuntarily sat down. One minute I was walking, then I was sitting, all outside of my normal conscious control. Hummm. I forced myself to get up and recorded the following video on my phone while I trudged on:
I never did come to a pond. Maybe I imagined that there was one along the way. But, I did find a faint trickle of a creek and managed to fill my soft filter flask many times, sucking down the water like a crack addict, finally getting a fix. At that point, a young and fit thru-hiker caught up with me. I never did catch his name, but I was glad for his company. We talked over the last couple of miles to where Lars would meet me, and I was very grateful for the distraction. We moved along at a good clip, running and hiking on and off. When I finally could see the road crossing, two doggers came running up to me and I heard a “Yeah buddy!” yell from my savior, Lars. He was waiting for me, with his dogs Laika and Lucky, ready to help me bring it home.
Chocolate Milk Saves Me
Lars ran towards me and when we met at the base of the trail, he handed me a HydroFlask filled with chocolate milk and ice. Sweet fucking nectar of the gods! There isn’t a lot I wouldn’t give to relive the experience of drinking that chocolate milk, at that time. I’m getting chills down my neck right now just writing about it. Break a person down to base elements and what is left? A body that demands sustenance, and that need was met, for me, in that flask of chocolate milk. I clutched my precious flask and hobbled to the wide stream crossing, took off my shoes and sat in the water, drinking my milk and feeling better every sip. I could do this. I was ready to finish.
We took off toward the Glencliff trail, a mere mile away. I could run in small spurts, and I knew the final drop was at the trailhead, so, in my chocolate milk delirium, I was actually excited to meet the final climb. Lars pulled the cooler out of the woods. I drank coke, ate some potatoes and changed my shirt. I assembled the hiking poles I had stowed, and we set off up the terrible climb to the summit of Moosilauke, the most southerly of New Hampshire’s four-thousand footers.
It needs to be said that even if Lars had not met me at this point, I would have finished this epic journey, but, I would have broken down, weeping real tears. It would have been a hellish end to a long day. But, there are good people in the world, and Lars is one of those people. He knew exactly what I was facing, so he showed up, and made it amazing, instead of devastating.
As we ascended the Glencliff trail, things were going well at first. I only almost impaled my own feet with the hiking poles a few times over the first mile as I got used to them. It’s hard to see from the elevation profile above, but the climb up the Glencliff trail can be measured in three parts: the “easy” first part, the really steep part, and the really fucking steep part. On the “easy” part, I was moving along better than I expected. Even Lars was working up a sweat at the pace I was setting. When we hit the steep part, it became exponentially harder. Through some miracle, I was able to keep it together mentally enough to keep pushing on, and we got it done. It was the first section of the entire run that I feel behind the estimated schedule, but I gave zero fucks at that point. This was the hardest thing, physically, that I had done in my entire life. I had to dig deeper than I thought imaginable, but that’s what ultra-running is all about, right?
The Dartmouth students end their “50” by hiking back down from the summit to the Ravine Lodge. I was ending my “50” at Chad’s memorial site, a mile or so beyond the summit, where Lars and I hiked up with Chad’s wife, kids, parents, and friends a few summers ago to place a memorial stone where he passed away in 2014. I’m 40 years old now. Chad was a year older than me, just 39, the day he died. He told me, that day, that I could run a 50 miler if I wanted to. We’d spent most of that day talking about grit — that intangible quality required of people if they really want to succeed. Chad inspired active living in me and so many others. It changed my life. For real. It’s not just a feel good story to tell, or something to reminisce about. I live it now. There’s no going back. I’m happy. And because of that, I greeted the end, and Chad, with happiness, in the face of immense suffering and toil.
My wife Emily and our dog Arlo, met us along the ridge-line first. Then, near the summit, we came upon our friends Amos and Kristen. It was sunset, windy, and just perfect. We carefully and purposefully made our way past the summit, down towards Chad. It became dark. Lars had pulled ahead, and so when my wife and I got the the finish, the rock was alight with an illuminated rope that Lars place around the memorial stone.
It took 16 hours and 45 minutes, a hell of a lot of grit, friends, and loved ones to complete my first 50 miler. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
A.T. from Hanover Co-Op to Chad Denning Memorial on Moosilauke:
15,397 feet of vertical gain
16 hours, 45 minutes
7,623 calories burned
There was an additional 5 miles to hike down from the finish to the car. It took another hour and a half, and was in the complete dark.
We started at 4:30am and got the car at 11:30pm. Amos and Kristen left 3 tall boy beers on the bumper.