This article was written by Rob Rives, former GMC Education & Volunteer Coordinator, and previously appeared in the Summer 2018 Long Trail News.
Light and fast. Alpine style. Do more with less. Freedom, buoyancy, and immersion in surroundings. These ideas are inspiring an emerging generation of mountain enthusiasts all over the globe. Trading large backpacks and heavy boots for ultralight pocketed vests and highly breathable, low profile shoes, Mountain/Ultra/Trail (MUT) runners are writing a new chapter in the ever-evolving tale of humanity’s connection to landscapes.
The Green Mountains have long been a magnet for New England’s intrepid foot travelers, so it is no surprise that MUT running has become popular here in the last 50 years. For decades collegiate and national ski teams have run on trails, including the Long Trail, for off-season training. Participation in social trail running groups, organized foot races, and the grassroots movement of self-regulating Fastest Known Times (FKTs) is at an all-time high in New England. Encountering lone runners or small groups on Vermont paths is becoming common.
It should be noted that “running” must be redefined on mountain trails, and particularly on Vermont’s infamously steep and rocky terrain. Often MUT runners combine fast hiking, short-stride uphill running, and careful downhill maneuvers to navigate treacherous terrain safely but quickly. Running in the mountains hardly resembles the consistent stride and cadence of normal road running. On the most technical terrain, runners usually move only a little faster than a typical hiker.
Like road running, trail running is usually enjoyed in solitude. Indeed, the freedom to run anywhere anytime is one of running’s greatest attractions. But MUT running would be less common here without the fairly recent explosion of competitive events, which help build and strengthen the running community.
MUT racing arrived in Vermont in the summer of 1989, when the Vermont 100 Endurance Ride (a 100-mile equestrian race beginning in West Windsor) invited runners to toe the starting line beside the horses. Now in its 30th consecutive year, the Vermont 100 Endurance Race (or VT100 for short) features runners and horses on similar 100-mile and 100-kilometer courses on rolling gravel roads, dirt paths, and singletrack trails through the hills around Woodstock.
“I have always enjoyed running, and running trails gives me time to reflect on things while enjoying the outdoors,” said local runner Isaac Igenge, who runs laps up and down Camel’s Hump for fun and training several times a month. He will join a handful of Vermonters in this year’s Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, a 103-mile footrace in the Alps regarded as one of the most difficult and prestigious mountain races in the world.
Running in Vermont’s mountains has helped Isaac complete the VT100 and two of the East Coast’s hardest challenges: the Cruel Jewel 100 in Georgia and the Grindstone 100 in Virginia. “Vermont has some really rugged trails, and the LT is my favorite,” Isaac added, noting that he has run the Long Trail in sections from Smuggler’s Notch to Wallingford. “My next goal is to run the whole trail, and see if I could finish it.” When asked what he enjoys most about running in the Green Mountains, Isaac said: “The trail complex within the mountains is just technical and very rugged, which makes training meaningful.”
Trail races, uphill mountain races, and ultramarathons (any race longer than 26.2 miles) now take place almost every weekend June through October across Vermont. Races charging fees get permits from landowners or land managers, are directed by an insured organization, and are conducted by teams of volunteers with an occasional paid staffer. MUT racing depends on volunteers just as the Long Trail does. In fact, contributing to the resource is often a pre-requisite for the privilege of racing. The VT100 and many other races require participants to submit proof of volunteer time maintaining the trails on which they run.
The GMC discourages competitive events of all kinds from crossing or using the Long Trail if it would degrade the experience of hikers or damage the trail. So competitive runners there seek to establish Fastest Known Times (FKTs), a self-regulating system of recording and maintaining solo speed records on trails and other routes around the world. With GPS receivers, runners can record distance, location, and time, and compare records with those who ran a trail segment before. Popular FKT routes in Vermont include the LT from Appalachian Gap to Lincoln Gap (and back), the Worcester Range traverse, the Glastonbury-West Ridge loop, various routes up Mount Mansfield and Camel’s Hump, and supported or unsupported efforts on the whole Long Trail.
The most storied of all Vermont FKTs is Nikki Kimball’s supported thru-run of the Long Trail in 2012, which is documented in the film Finding Traction. Nikki is the only native Vermonter who claims a speed record on the Long Trail. She logged five days, seven hours, and 42 minutes, aided by a dedicated crew that met her at road crossings and accompanied her for safety and encouragement. Her run is considered the fastest women’s end-to-end time. Other records claimed include four days, 12 hours, and 46 minutes by Jonathan Basham, and the unsupported (no aid, accompaniment, or resupply) record of six days, 17 hours, and 25 minutes by Travis Wildeboer. The women’s self-supported (no crew, self-arranged resupply) record was set by Jennifer Pharr-Davis in 2007, at seven days, 15 hours and 40 minutes. (Editor’s Note: Since this article was written, new records have been set in the male unsupported and female supported categories.)
It is important to note that the Green Mountain Club, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and other trail organizations do not formally recognize these records, which are claimed and maintained independently by the FKT community. But the Green Mountain Club has its own informal history of endurance challenges. As early as the 1940s, Mount Mansfield caretakers were recording hiking times between shelters and nearby summits and trailheads. If you feel fleet of foot, see if you can match Daan Zwick’s blazing 1941 hiking time of 43 minutes from Taft Lodge to Butler Lodge.
Records of other legendary GMC challenges exist primarily in the realm of story. One legend says that years ago caretakers on Camel’s Hump’s and Mansfield’s summits tried an all-night traverse of the intervening trail between caretaker shifts. Details of that first traverse are lost, but recently caretakers revived the “MansHump” challenge, and some staff members now take it up annually. Still more recently, GMC staff members created the “Bridge to Bridge” challenge—a nonstop LT trek of nearly 40 miles from the Lamoille River Bridge to the Winooski River Bridge.
Traveling fast and light in the backcountry is becoming more attractive with advances in ultralight backpacking, hiking, and running equipment. But with less equipment comes more responsibility: exposure to risk increases with each ounce of gear shed. Runners and hikers should take the same skillsets and practices into the field: carry the essentials for safe travel and navigation, be well-versed in map and compass use, know how to treat injuries, and have a plan for nightfall or weather changes.
Hikers and runners should also understand how they affect each other’s experiences. Both should follow pedestrian right-of-way guidelines: yield to the uphill traveler, regardless of speed. Going downhill, politely step aside for uphill travelers without trampling vegetation. If you overtake travelers going the same way, speak far enough away to avoid startling them.
One February morning my friend Ross and I sat on the hoods of our cars at the Burrows Trail parking lot, strapping light spikes to our running shoes. Unseasonable warmth and a well-packed trail allowed a quick winter scamper up Camel’s Hump. We climbed steadily into the clouds, running slowly enough to converse and catch up on the years since we last saw each other. The summit was cold, windy, and socked in, so we lingered little, made quick work of the descent, and got to work on time. MUT running gave us an opportunity hard to find in our busy world: a mountain, a friend, and rich exercise, all before work on a weekday.