Some of you may be familiar with R.J. Thompson, a good friend of the CTA, owner of Native Endurance, and co-founder of Vermont Huts Association. Well, you may not know that in August, RJ will be attempting to complete the Long Trail, 273 miles from Canada to Massachusetts, in the “unsupported” Fastest Known Time (FKT). This record currently stands at 6 days, 17 hours, and 25 minutes, accomplished by Travis Wildeboer in 2010. To put that in to perspective, the Green Mountain Club estimates the average through-hiker will need 20-30 days to complete the trail. This type of feat certainly pushes the human body to extremes, but it by no means involves only the physical element. As RJ described to me in my recent interview with him, while he poured through his trip spreadsheets on his laptop, “There is a little nerdiness in every sport.” This is certainly no different.
The word “unsupported” might be overlooked, however, this is where the details really get interesting. For his attempt to qualified as unsupported, RJ will have everything he needs for the entire trip with him at the Canadian border. The only thing he can acquire on the trail is water. It all boils down to one formula; be as light and fast as possible, but carry just enough to get there. For RJ, this means long days, little sleep, a boring menu, and pushing himself to the edge of his physical and mental capacity. So, let’s dive in with the nerdy stuff;
What will R.J. be carrying?
As far as trail FKT’s go, the Long trail is in the “Sweet Spot” for unsupported, in that it is just short enough to realistically accomplish in one push. “My pack will weight approximately 22 lbs at the start,” R.J. told me. Besides the 1.5 Liters of water he will have, this weight is almost entirely food. Pro-bars and home-made energy bars to be specific. “You’re looking for the most calorie dense stuff available” he says. The goal is to mow down 1.5 oz of energy bar an hour. That means 11-12 bars per day for a total of around 4,600 calories per day. “I will still be in a big calorie deficit,” R.J. explains, “but you get to the point where you’re carrying too much weight, and your legs don’t like that very much.”
Another piece of the equation is water. R.J. has decided on carrying 1.5 liters from the start, which he will aim to refill every 2-3 hours of travel. He will filter water from any available sources, using an MSR Trailshot pocket filter. Although iodine will be his backup, he points out that, “some water sources are not deep enough to access with a bottle or soft-flask. With the pump you only need about a ½ inch of water to access it.” So with all of his food on his back, and reasonably reliable access to water, how do you complete 273 miles in 6 days?
What will the trip look like?
R.J describes the overall plan; “Moving time days one, two, and three will be 13-17 hours. The last three days will be closer to 18 and 20, and not sleeping at all the last night.” This means his longest rest will come in the first couple of nights for maybe 5-6 hours. “Night three going into the fourth day I’ll be waking up early because it’s a longer day, and from there it’s harder to predict how I will be feeling” he says. Finally, when he wakes up on the fifth day, he will be aiming to complete the last 64 miles of trail in one push… No sleep!
This plan is certainly not an accident, as R.J. has seen every piece of the LT a number of times in the past four years of training. He knows that the true crux is the first three days in the Northern sections. “My goal is to make it through 100 miles in pretty decent shape. The last 100 is less technical and the climbs are not nearly as brutal as the northern peaks. If I can make it through 100 miles on pace, I’m not coming off the trail” R.J. tells me. Day two will be long and grueling, climbing over Whiteface, Maddonna, and Mansfield peaks. Day three is his lowest mileage, because it includes a long descent down from Bolton to Route 2 that is extremely hard on the knees and quads, followed by the biggest climb of the trip, up and over Camels Hump.
To compound the rough, technical terrain in the northern peaks, RJ’s pack will be at its heaviest. “It’s all about that starting weight and getting through the high peaks with that weight” RJ explains. His pack will be shedding about 2 pounds each day, so it’s in the southern portion of the state, when the terrain mellows out and his pack will be lightest, that RJ will be trying to cover the longest miles. This includes a final run of 64 miles from north of Bromley Mountain, all the way to the Massachusetts border.
How is RJ Training?
Most of R.J’s training runs, building up to his attempt in middle to late August will be done on the Long Trail. The weekend of June 30th he will be completing three days on the trail and covering almost 100 miles. During these training runs he is testing how is body responds to depleted energy stores, sleep deprivation, and even slight hallucinations that he will likely face during his attempt. But like any training regiment, you save the full race distance for race day. “I won’t run the whole trail until I run the whole trail” he says, “and I won’t run the longest day until I run the longest day. Realizing the capacity of my body is really just an experiment at this point.”
One reason why this record is important to R.J., is that all donations and proceeds will go directly to the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps. Having an environmental background, he says he chose to fundraise for the VYCC, “because it is important to engage the youth demographic in environmental stewardship, and they touch on a lot of different aspects of recreation in Vermont.”
Beyond his commitment to helping a great organization like the VYCC, I asked R.J. two final questions that may be on some of the readers’ minds; What is your motivation for this attempt, and what will it mean to you if you are successful? In order to not take anything away from the very personal meaning that the Long Trail and the challenge have for him, here is his response in full;
“It’s hard for me to truly identify the real motivation behind this attempt. I think it’s simply a challenge I created for myself three years ago, and I haven’t yet been able to complete the journey. In some ways, I’m motivated to break the record so I can begin to pursue other passions, spend a bit more time on my mountain bike with my wife, and let my body recover for awhile. In other ways, I’m motivated by the people who have supported me throughout my training. I recite their words of encouragement to myself when I’m alone in the woods in the middle of the night and I begin questioning my existence.
If I am successful, I will undoubtedly have an emotional moment (okay, maybe a breakdown) at the Massachusetts border. I have poured so much time, effort, and commitment into this attempt. It’s been on my mind – literally every day – for the past three years. It will be a bittersweet moment if I can succeed. On one hand, I imagine a sense of relief will set in, but on the other, it will be like saying goodbye to an old friend for awhile. I know the trail so well – its smells, sounds, where it rewards you with its unparalleled beauty, and where it beats you down with its relentlessly rugged terrain. No matter the outcome, I know I’ll have given the trail everything I have, because it has already given me so much.”
If you are interested in following R.J. on his FKT attempt this August, you can get updates by following @nativeendurance or #unsupported2017 on Instagram. VYCC will also post updates on our Facebook page, www.facebook.com/thevycc. If you would like to donate to support RJ and the VYCC visit https://vycc.networkforgood.com/projects/28068-rj-s-run.
Best of luck to R.J. from all of us here at the CTA.