The Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done – Pemi Loop, 8/30/14

Never in a million years did I think I’d be writing a post like this. Obviously for the past 8+ years when I was very overweight, I never saw myself doing anything like this. Even last year, after two road marathons and having lost 60+ pounds in 8 months through running… I just never imagined it was possible. I looked at people who did things like this as nuts. Even when Chris Dunn of acidotic RACING decided to organize a team outing for us in the Pemi Wilderness, to feature the Pemi Loop in teams of two… I said “sign me up!” but inside, I was hesitant, and very unsure of myself. But things change. Bodies change. Mentality changes. People change. I changed.

 

It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves. – Sir Edmund Hillary

 

Over the past few months, I’ve tested myself in the mountains, doing things I never thought I would, each progressively more difficult. At the end of June, I ran my first Presidential Traverse, and had some pretty rough spots due to nutrition. A learning experience to be sure. In early August, I ran a slower Presi Traverse, and then a Moriah-Carters-Wildcats traverse the next day. This went much better, and I recovered faster than I ever imagined possible. Those three trips were all designed to get me ready for this. The big one. A 50k of mountains. The second-hardest day hike in America. The Pemi Loop.

On Saturday August 30th, Marek Telus and I ran the Pemi Loop together, going counter-clockwise, in 9:59:31.

On Monday September 1st, after a day’s rest, I ran a 25 mile Owl’s Head Loop in 8:50:26.

This post details the Pemi Loop, and a post recounting the Owl’s Head Loop will follow soon. See below for a video of the Pemi Loop!

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Pemi Loop – 8/30/14 – 9:59:30

Ranked as the second-hardest day hike in America by Backpacker Magazine, the Pemi Loop is a rugged 30-35 mile loop over 8-11 four-thousand-foot peaks, with 9,000-11,000ft of elevation gain (and the same of descent.) Filled with miles of “knee-hammering rocks,” the standard loop is approximately 30-31 miles, and hits 8 peaks. You can add approximately 2 more miles in “spurs” to hit Galehead and West Bond (which Marek and I did) and even add 2.6 more miles to hit North Twin (which we did not).

This Pemi Loop outing was part of a gathering of athletes from my team, acidotic RACING. We stayed overnight at the Penguin Ski Club in Lincoln on Friday and Saturday nights, and used it as a base of operations for our explorations of the Pemigewasset Wilderness.

 

Marek and I started our run at 6:38am on Saturday morning. We ran across the suspension bridge, made a right turn and ran into the wilderness. Well, sort of. See, the first 4.5 miles are a very gentle incline of former railroad grade, climbing only 400 ft in that 4.5 miles. The next 4.3 miles climbs 2600ft, despite being one of the easier climbs of the day.

We set out at a slow run, keeping things very easy, around a 8:40/mile pace. Not knowing the terrain ahead of us, this felt good. The morning light was peeking through the trees, and we could already tell it was going to be a good day!

When we approached Bondcliff Trail, we slowed down quite a bit, again, not knowing what lay ahead. The final approach to the summit of BondCliff was beautiful! It was still fairly foggy, but we were starting to have some spectacular views, as well as see what lay ahead for us. Check out the video (also embedded below).

Heading from Bondcliff to Bond, and over the Twinway to South Twin was pretty smooth going. We took the West Bond spur, which was approximately half a mile each way. We saw someone had dropped their pack at the beginning of the spur so they could go without it, and thought “We should have done that…” It turned out to be some of our aR guys coming down off the spur! It was good to see some familiar faces and find out how they were faring, as they’d left quite a bit earlier than we did. We came off the spur pretty quickly and headed over to South Twin.

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View of Bondcliff (R) to Galehead (L) from the perspective of Franconia Ridge.

 

The descent off South Twin was the most brutal of the hike. For me, it’s gotta be the most difficult part, even more difficult than the climbs! Very slow going and a little painful on the knees after 14 miles. We finally descended, filled water at Galehead Hut, and went out the spur to grab Galehead.

Heading up to Garfield was a long climb, but rewarding with the (windy) view at the top. It gave a great view of the inside of the loop!

The climb to Lafayette was the hardest climb of the day, and just seemed never-ending! Every time it looked like the summit was ahead, we’d crest and see the real summit still off in the distance. It was mind-numbing, and we were starting to get a little sore and tired at that point. Somehow we managed a 30-minute mile, which with over 1,000ft of rock-slab climbing, felt pretty good. (Mentally…)

Finally, we reached Lafayette, and it’s very strong, gusty winds! On the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, I swear it was busier than Hampton Beach. Only smellier. We must have seen 800 people. I have never encountered that many people anywhere on a hike, or anywhere but a beach, really.

Unfortunately, this made one of the most runnable sections MUCH slower than it needed to be. I would run 20-30 steps, and then have to walk or even stop as a large group of people passed by. In some cases I could run off trail, but my technical running is not as sharp as I’d like it to be, so I often avoided that. Marek gapped me quite a bit at times on the ridge as he’s better at the technical stuff and was willing to jump off trail and into that.

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A view of Franconia Ridge.

 

Heading across the ridge slowly like that really ground me down a bit. I felt much better when I could run than when I had to hike or walk, but the conditions combined to force me to a walk fairly often. After 21-22 miles and 7.5 hours on your feet, you just start to wonder when it ends. We still didn’t know the terrain well enough to know how difficult or easy the last 8-10 miles were going to be.

After a lot of stops and starts, or at least walks and runs, we made it to Flume, and knew our day was almost done. We hit Flume right about at 9 hours elapsed time. We were hurting pretty good, but I had a feeling we still had a chance to get in under 10 hours. I wasn’t sure, again, not knowing the terrain other than the last 1.5 miles. But I had a feeling we’d make it if we pushed. We ran the flat bit before the wooden ladders descending off of flume, and I had my first fall of the day! Of course, the most smooth, runnable section of trail since mile 5, and I eat it. (Right in front of another hiker too!) I caught myself with my hands enough to prevent my face from hitting the ground, but scraped up my hand, forearm, elbow and knee a little. Nothing bad, I just rolled up my sleeves. (Can’t get blood on the nice new shirt, though it DOES have red accents…) On we ran. The ladders were slow going, but luckily didn’t last too long.

When we hit the smooth lower section of the Osseo trail, I picked up the pace, and Marek kept pretty close behind me. I tried to not let it waver much, and kept between a 6:45 and 7:15 pace. I wasn’t sure exactly how much longer we had to go… I thought it was two miles, but I wasn’t sure. We kept hearing water thinking we were almost back to the Lincoln Woods Trail, but it was a FRAUD. Finally, the trail flattened out even further, and we hung a right onto the Lincoln Woods Trail. There were some pretty good crowds, but nothing we couldn’t run around. I picked up the pace a little further, to 7:00 pace, about as fast as I wanted to go not knowing how much further I had to keep it up! Finally I asked a gentleman who was chilling on the side of the trail if he knew how much further. Three quarters of a mile. Music to my ears! My watch beeped for mile 30, already 4 miles longer than I’d ever run before. I kept that steady effort until I took a left on the suspension bridge, crossed the Pemi, lapped my watch, and turned and waited for Marek. He had kept a great pace, and crossed the bridge a minute after me, in 9:59:31.

We collapsed and sat for a few minutes, as a family of four with bikes stared at us. Finally the father asked me how long we’d run. I told him we did the loop, and it was 30 miles. His eyes grew wide as his kids’ jaws dropped. “THIRTY MILES? Today?” Yes sir… ten hours of beautiful mountain trails.

The Pemi Loop was a grand adventure. I sort of enjoyed going into it without knowing exactly what it would be like. While it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, it wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be. Thirty miles in the mountains feels much different from even twenty on the roads. I was much less sore than after a marathon, at least once I’d taken a shower and eaten an obscene quantity of food. I even recovered in time for a 25 mile mountain run with a day of rest in between. (Post coming soon).

I really wanted to make this post more interesting… maybe a bit more reflective of the bits of drama we experienced throughout the day. Between having another amazing day in the mountains two days later, and not having time to write this up for another 3 days, I don’t feel I can do it justice. Some things are just better left as memories and obscure “feelings” that can’t be put into words.

So when words fail, here is a video of our trip. You can also view our route on Strava, and the overall view below the video.

 

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