A race against myself, against the clock, one I could show up to late, on my own chosen date, solo, with no support.
This was something that excited and inspired me!
I began searching for a trail, and found Maryland’s Big Savage Mountain Trail, 50-80 minutes away from my house, 17 miles point-to-point, rated as difficult.
Without ever running more than a few miles of it several years ago,I aspired to become the first person to attempt an FKT on the Big Savage Mountain Trail.
It seemed simple, straightforward.
As excitement built, I decided to check out the northern end of the trail on an easy out-and-back six-miler.
I came home with a good sense of what the rest of the trail might bring – rock gardens, brush blocking the path and coyote poop. In other words, highly technical, some stuff to skirt around, and wild animals... but enough large, white blazes to keep my head and heart still in it.
Then I enlisted my always-up-for-an-adventure all-women trail running group, the Trail Run Tribe, on a recon trip.
On Sunday, February 23, seven of us began our ascent from the southern terminus, at the Savage River, where I've camped and kayaked the Class IV river before life as a mom and when my oldest son was a toddler.
Preferring climbing over running downhill, we chose to run it in the direction that gained more elevation then descent.
When we arrived, we saw that it began on the vertical – that much I knew from my runs years ago before kayaking. Within two miles, we experienced knee-high leaves, enormous fallen trees, vicious greenbriers, giant rock and boulder gardens and an indistinguishable trail. It felt more like bush-wacking, plowing straight through the forest, than trail running, and we reveled in the absurdity of it all, laughing, falling, bleeding, screaming, smiling and swearing for 17 miles.
We ran it in five hours and 50 minutes, with a lot of walking due to the completely ravaged terrain.
It was awesome!
We counted 204 fallen trees that we climbed over, under or through, over all 17 miles.
That’s 12 trees per mile.
Six trees every half a mile.
Three trees every quarter of a mile (one track lap).
And about one and a half trees every 220 yards, with giant rocks in between and often underneath.
Never in my life have I or anyone in the Tribe experienced such a trail! We loved and cursed it all at once and vowed never to go back. Yet it kept us laughing for days, probably even years to come, and we celebrated over dinner at Cornucopia Café.
Trail Run Tribe Recon Run on the Big Savage!
“The Big Savage Trail is now open but the going is rough and recommended for only the most experienced hikers with excellent navigation skills. The ice storm of 2002 and Gypsy Moth defoliations in 2006 and 2007 have ravaged the forest canopy over large areas of the trail, allowing sunlight to proliferate an abundance of vegetative growth on the forest floor thus obscuring the trail in many locations. Volunteer efforts are underway to clear these overgrown sections but until the forest canopy reestablishes itself at some point in the future keeping the trail open will continue to be a challenge.”
That explained a lot.
Immediately, I called the Savage River State Forest to report the 204 fallen trees and ask A LOT of questions. Do you have volunteer trail maintenance days? I'd like to help. Do you own chain saws and could you please take them on the trail? Can I take in a hand saw? Your trail is in danger of being completely taken over by trees upon trees, brush and briers, did you know that? 2002 seems like a long time ago for nothing to have happened in regards to repairing storm damage…
Before the Tribe recon day, my FKT goal was 2:30-2:50, based on 25K trail race times ranging from 2:34 to 2:58, with similar elevation profiles to the Savage.
After the Tribe recon day, I knew that a 15-minute pace would be ambitious. I added 30 seconds for every fallen tree (204 trees=102 minutes) to my original goal time range, coming up with a new goal time range of 4:12-4:32, hoping for something close to 4:15, and coming to terms with the fact that what I first desired in this FKT mission - a steady, rhythmic, straightforward, fast run - would most certainly be an interval run, speeding up in short, choppy bursts, undertaking obstacles every 220 feet, give or take. In fact, I thought, this FKT might possibly be the slowest 17 miles I have ever run in my life.
The day the Tribe and I ran the Savage, it was dry, and I prayed no snow or rain would come in the next seven days, as I had selected Sunday, March 1, as FKT day.
The snow came.
I began making phone calls to the state forest and local businesses for snow reports, searched online for mountain weather conditions, and texted the Tribe ladies who lived nearest the trail. Four to eight inches, resources reported.
Would I be sabotaging my actual fastest time by attempting it in snow?
Yet, I did not want to wait another day to go for it, because, frankly, would a perfect day come? Beginning the day after my anticipated FKT date of March 1, the weather forecast called for three days of rain on the mountain followed by two of snow. When would the trail dry out? By that time, it could be snake season, and those rocks made for perfect rattlesnake dens, fallen tree tops made for perfect bees’ nests, greenbriers would barricade the trail even more, hungry bears would be coming out of hibernation, poison ivy and every other plant would sprout and bloom, the nearly invisible path would become overgrown and invisible, and I didn’t want to complicate the run any more than it was with the current state the trail is in. It had to happen in the dead of winter before that wild mountain came to life.
So, yes, it is very possible that my lack of perfectionism, or impatience, or opportunistic hopefulness, sabotaged the chance at a faster time, but I was ready and braced myself for the possibility of snow. Running double digits through snow, like digging one’s way through wet sand, is not new to me, but doing it over an unclear path atop the unkempt Savage Mountain terrain would be a totally different situation. I packed my Leki Micro Pro Trail Race poles and planned to use them the entire way.
As March 1 approached, my Tribe ladies began sending me sweet good luck messages and wishes. I carried those with me to the trail head and throughout the run, their cheers acting as beacons of light, quieting any excuses, self-doubt, second-guessing, or thoughts of “forget this solo FKT, it was more fun with friends!”
I felt their laughter in the woods, their presence in the path, our memories creating a warm energy field around me, keeping my mind clear and focused. The fear of running solo and unsupported in rather new, tricky territory subsided after our adventure together, and I felt relaxed, empowered, ready to handle the unexpected.
This is what I wanted - a new challenge, something outside of my comfort zone, an independent endeavor, relying on my own two feet and willpower. I was ready.
Big Savage Mountain Trail, Maryland
Sunday, March 1, 2020
17 miles point-to-point, running northbound/ exact distance on Garmin: 16.48 miles
Elevation gain: 3,192 feet
Elevation loss: 1,555 feet
Weather: 21 degrees at the start, no wind, sunny
First FKT attempt on the Savage
My husband Eric, along with our two sons, whom we roused out of bed at 6:30 a.m., drove me to the southern terminus, which sits at about 1,300 feet above sea level. With zero snow at the start line, I was happy, yet still ready to take it on if it met me on the ridge line. I set out around 8:27 a.m., with Eric and the Tribe following my Garmin Live Track.
Miles zero to one: Dry ground, about 400 feet of climbing, with a view of Savage River Reservoir to the left.
Mile one to two: 700 feet of climbing up switchbacks with the most storm damage and largest trees required flinging my entire body on top of tree trunks angling downhill, holding on with legs and arms, and rolling off the other side, or crawling underneath.
Mile two to three: The ridge line! Welcome, briers. An inch of snow on the forest floor gently grew to two inches, as I was now at 2,500-2,800 feet above sea level, with the biggest, longest climbs completed. A brier entangled my head, ripped off my beanie and grabbed my braid, and I fought with it for a good minute. Wild dog or cat prints as big as my fist were walking in the snow in the same direction I was running, maybe stalking the deer whose prints were also heading north. I blew my safety whistle and turned up the volume on the mini portable speaker attached to an iPod shuffle in my running vest and sang along happily. You can see the music set-up in the photo below, as well as the whistle and mace I carried, just in case.
Mile four to five: Ate half a sweet potato and took a selfie to submit to the FKT verification authorities. About two inches of fluffy snow, not quite enough to add a noticeable increase of effort in the legs… yet.
Mile six to seven: 10K, done, and feeling awesome! Road crossings – four in total, begin.
Mile seven to eight: Along the road, a wide, flat, swampy stretch of trail, layered in four inches of snow, on top of ice, on top of mud. Very wet feet and frozen shoe laces. The white blazes seemed to hide here, as other trails spurred to the sides and bisected the Savage, and I had to stand and consult the map on my Garmin fenix 5s watch, navigating my way back, side-to-side, until the blazes became visible again. I went about four minutes off trail here by following some human foot tracks – those tracks were not taking the Savage, and I made a mental note to NOT mindlessly follow anyone else’s tracks. After that, or before, for that matter, I didn’t see any other evidence of humans.
Mile eight to nine: Much like the previous mile, a meditative game of locking my eyes to the immediate white blaze, glancing down at the path in my plight to not fall, locking eyes with a blaze, glancing down, eyes up, eyes down, eyes up, eyes down, and on and on… employing keen awareness and attention was key. Eric happened to catch sight of me at one of the road crossings and snapped this pretty, snowy photo!
Mile 10 to 11: Still feeling strong and motivated! Ate some organic dark chocolate as I climbed upward, the hill slowly flattening, and finally, things got a tad easier. I crossed a wide clear cut with a view, where the Tribe and I took lots of photos the week prior. I took the selfie below for the FKT verification process and to always remember those rocks and trees!
Miles 12 to 13: Steady, strong energy levels. To keep it up, I ate the last half of the sweet potato and another small bit of chocolate. Handling food with mittens and poles was interesting, hilarious, but better to take time to fuel than hit a wall.
Mile 13 to 14: Much of the same and the most frustrating loss of eye contact with the blazes in the entire run, as I was really moving, so near finishing. I stood for minutes, whole minutes, and let out a yell - Is that snow?! Or is it a blaze?! Finally, I found the path again, by pausing to oh-so-slowly observe the trees and locate the blazes. Pausing is not what I wanted! I so desired uninterrupted running, but I was in the wrong place for that! Large wild dog or cat paw prints were all around, on top of logs and rocks weaving in and out of the trail and the deep forest.
Mile 14 to 15: YES!!! I actually shouted out in joy! The journey itself was fun, but coming close to completion is always means for celebration. I crossed the clear cut that indicated I was approximately two and a half miles from the northern terminus. Time to move! I folded up the poles and strapped them to my Salomon running pack, nervous to collapse them as they had been my saviors upon the rocks, feeling for holes and pits, keeping my slipping and sliding from becoming full-blown falls, and catapulting me over downed trees. I was willing to risk it for wild, swinging, arms and free hands. The snow was at its deepest here, covering my shoes and up my shins, an easy six inches. I dug my toes in, legs burning from the resistance, and fought for as much speed as I could get.
Miles 15 to 17: Skidding and breathing hard, I was careening sideways down rocks and slopes without the assistance of the poles and loving it, fighting for every second through the nastiest of the snow, which was piled in drifts. Unable to discern whether I was leaping over snow-covered logs or wind-blown powder, I prayed my ankles wouldn't hit anything and snap. Finally, the tiny downhill to the finish that I was expecting, yearning for, arrived, and I flew as best I could, coming in at 4:10:55, five minutes better than what I expected!
The hard work was done, and I cried. 22 unread messages were waiting for me from the Tribe. I cried even more.
If I hadn't run this trail with my Tribe the week prior, it would be difficult to put into words the poor, sad state of it, which makes me love it even more. I want it to survive, to live on.
Such is the difference between running groomed, well-marked trail races and my local, hometown favorites, which include the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, Ohiopyle State Park trails plus Bear Run and Quebec Wild Area, all of which receive regular maintenance, for which I am enormously grateful - thank you, thank you, thank you, I can't wait to run fast, uninterrupted miles on you soon.
Eric and the boys pulled in a minute after I finished.
Oh, I was so ready to snuggle with my ninja-clad sons!
Yes, I was yucky, stinky, soaked to the bone...
And so very thrilled with a solid run, equally as thrilled to be with my boys, my husband, and oh so content, at peace, with my first FKT under wraps, a beautiful solo mission accomplished, one where I never gave up, gave it everything I had, and handled the conditions and circumstances with my whole, faithful heart, with the love of friends and family, under a bright, sunny sky.
Thank you, Big Savage Mountain Trail. I hope you get the care you need, the makeover you deserve, as you have the potential to be stunning. If you do, I’ll be back to chase my own FKT. I'll check on you in a month or two.