This write-up was featured on Level Renner.
On Friday, June 27th, I did my first Presidential Traverse. Wikipedia says: “A Presidential Traverse, as it is known to hikers in the Northeast, is a strenuous and sometimes dangerous trek over the Presidential Range of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Contained almost entirely in the 750,000-acre White Mountain National Forest, the Presidential Range is a string of summits in excess of 4,000 feet.”
My route was 18+ miles with 8500+ ft of elevation gain. This was my first time on the Presidential range with the exception of the Mt. Washington Road Race (I deliberately did not go to the summit after that race), so the rockiness of the trails was new to me. I had a great experience, and know I can drop quite a bit of time the next time I do the traverse. Here is a brief story about the trip.
The nice benefit to running something like this, rather than hiking, is that I don’t have to get up as early. I had a 2.5 hour drive and only had to leave at 6:30. That’s new for me! The drive to Highland Center was uneventful, and I met Ashley Lader there. The plan was Ashley was going to drive back down to Highland Center and hike the Southern Presidentials while I did the traverse. Due to unforeseen circumstances, Kristina Folcik-Welts (the new women’s FKT holder in a blazing 5:32) and Jeffrey Zawadzki (who I didn’t know previously) ended up riding up to Appalachia with us. We got to Appalachia after only missing one turn, said good luck all around, and were off. About 1.5 miles in, my calves started feeling tight from lack of a warm-up, so I pulled out my trekking poles. That’s when I first lost sight of Kristina. Unfortunately the route was pretty technical (for me at least) and I ended up snapping a carbon pole. After struggling with how to make do with only one, I just stowed them both and got on with my life!
I wasn’t drinking a whole lot yet, so I passed the Madison hut without getting water, and headed up to summit Madison. About 2 minutes from the top, I passed Kristina heading down. Upon reaching the summit (in 1:28), I took in the view (with a quick Go-Pro video) and headed back down. Nearing the bottom, I saw Kristina about 5 minutes ahead of me, heading up towards Adams. As I headed up toward Adams, I got off trail and headed up and over a small secondary summit… before climbing down again to get up Adams. I knew navigation and staying on trail would be a problem for me, and it definitely was! I made it to Adams in 2:05, and mentally slowed myself down. I was planning at this point to tag Jackson on to the end of the traverse, so I knew I had 22 miles to do, not just 18.
As I headed across to Jefferson, I took some more GoPro footage, and then summited Jefferson in 2:52. There were some incredible views! (Not that the rest of the traverse was lacking!)
Heading down off Jefferson and over to Clay, you can see Washington in your sights, and I have to say, to a first-timer, it’s disconcerting. I have run a few marathons since I started running, and you never realize how far they are because you can’t see more than a few hundred yards of the course at once. Being up in the mountains like this really makes you appreciate how much ground you’re covering! My legs were feeling pretty strong at this point, but I wanted to play it safe, so I didn’t pick up the pace.
While on the climb to Washington, I neglected a turn, and ended up just hiking up alongside the Cog Railway. Two trains passed me going down as I was going up and it’s shocking how slow they move! Running on the coal was not my idea of fun, however. I got to Washington in 3:56, touched the sign and ran inside to fill my reservoir. Luckily, there were no lines, and I was able to fill up and take a minute to change clothes, wash my face and readjust my pack. I’ll take a minute here to describe my hydration/nutrition strategy: I filled my 70 oz reservoir with water and 500 calories of Tailwind (includes electrolytes). I then filled a zip-loc with another 500 calories of Tailwind for when I needed to refill my reservoir. I also carried one flax-seed granola-type bar, and 500 calories of Honey Stinger chews (includes electrolytes). Keep an eye on those electrolytes; there’ll be more on that later…
Heading down off Washington after about 10 minutes taking care of things, I tripped several times. Anyone who says this stuff is “runnable” is a wizard. I would say about 30% of the time I was walking when my fitness would have let me run, just because I didn’t trust my feet! I hope that more practice will help with that.
I reached Lake of the Clouds in 4:33, and took a minute to soak my knees in a stream. The descents were starting to take their toll, as they were starting to get sore. After a minute or so, I headed on to Monroe. During the climb up Monroe, I got off trail again, (for the third time) but quickly found it again, and reached the summit in 4:41. I took my time heading down toward Franklin and Eisenhower, as my legs were starting to feel it. My right hamstring had been cramping up since the climb up to Washington, and it really started to get stiff here. Every time I bent my leg, it’d be tough to straighten again. I was still thinking it was lack of electrolytes, so I finished off the last of my chews and kept moving.
The next section from Monroe, over Franklin to Eisenhower was more runnable (though I maintain that that is a very relative term.) It was here that I started to suspect that too much electrolytes might be my problem, but I didn’t have any plain water to fix that with. I mentally decided that if I wasn’t feeling better by Eisenhower, I would do the traditional “FKT” traverse, and leave off my plan Jackson. I got to Eisenhower in 5:24, and took a pretty solid breather for a few minutes. My asthma always starts to get worse above 4,000 feet, and I’d now been above 4,500 for over four hours. Add in allergies, and my face was not pleased with me! After a few minutes I got up and started over to Pierce.
About 5 minutes after starting out, I ran out of water, and I knew it would be dicey to complete the next 4+ miles without anything to drink. While running, I was thinking through my situation. I knew I would have to go past Pierce to the Mizpah hut to get water. But would I come back across Pierce, or continue on to my original plan of Jackson? I was doing mental math, and took another digger as a result, but I decided I needed to double back after getting water, and not do Jackson.
The descent from Pierce to the Mizpah hut was dicey with wet rocks, rotting log walkways and deep mud. I picked my way down, filled up my reservoir with PLAIN water this time, and happened to glance at the trail sign that said Mizpah cutoff. This saved me from making the extra climb back to Pierce.
The plain water gave me a whole new set of legs, eliminated almost all my soreness, and got rid of the hamstring cramp. I cruised most of the way to finish at Rt. 302 in 6:51 elapsed time. I wished I had tagged on Jackson after all, but I can always come back for that.
I learned a lot from my first time on the Presidentials, first and foremost, that I LOVE it up there! Being above tree-line for 12+ miles is absolutely incredible! That said, I need to have a better water/nutrition plan for next time. Now that I’ve done it once, I will also pack less next time, unless weather is questionable.
GoPro video is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xnjXzx6CTXc
Strava page with route is here: http://www.strava.com/activities/158916435?ref=1MT1yaWRlX3NoYXJlOzI9dHdpdHRlcjs0PTc1MjE5NA%253D%253D
Running in the clouds!