It was the last day in the 10 day weather forecast that wasn't boiling hot. If you wait until July to go for the Great Range record the consistently higher temperatures dry out the high mountain springs that keep you from having to carry a ton of water over the range. The record is getting so competitive that something like carrying an extra 32 ounces of water could make the difference. So, whether I liked it or not, today was the last day.
My new mountain adventure partner, Ryan Kempson, was driving in from 2 hours away so we opted for a slightly later (see hotter) start at 6:30am. Ryan has never run in the Adirondacks, run hard for more than 3 hours, and I knew before he got there that he was in for a wild day.
The Great Range isn't something to be taken too lightly. It's consistently named Top 3 hardest day hikes in North America due to the pretty staggering numbers involved. The whole route is 23 miles, 10,000 feet of vertical gain (nearly all of that comes in the first 14 miles), brutally steep, and unmatched in technicality and ruggedness. You hit 10 peaks, 8 of which are Adirondack High Peaks;
Lower Wolf Jaw
Upper Wolf Jaw
We started our watches and took off up Roostercomb Mountain, the first peak in the Great Range. My friend Jan, who started putting up fast times in the Adirondacks before it was cool, maintains that every single record on the GR is paced wrong. He says everyone goes way too fast in the first 2 hours and then dies on the back half. I told myself I would be smart and pace it correctly.
Unfortunately, as soon as we started running I decided to forget all of that and just tried to hammer Atkins' splits for when he got the record. We hit the top of Roostercomb a minute slower than Atkins but at a pace that was still too fast. After Roostercomb you start hitting true Adirondacks trails that are essentially washed out streambeds that require you to frequently use your hands to climb over small cliffs and pull yourself up with dead tree roots. We filled up bottles quickly in a going up Lower Wolf Jaw (it's likely already dried up a week later).
We hit Upper Wolf Jaw right on Atkins' record pace so I knew we had come over from Roostercomb about a minute faster than he did. At Armstrong we were a minute up, Gothics a minute plus. Kempson had been lagging a little on the descents and had asked me if I had some of the trail memorized. To which I responded that I had run this trail over a dozen times and is my favorite trail on the planet. So yea, a little bit.
Coming down Gothics is the "Cable Route" where they installed cables because it's pretty steep, slippery, and a fall would be pretty bad there. Luckily, we both run in shoes from the brand VJ which has rubber so sticky we didn't touch the cables once on the way down. The views of the rest of the range and the Adirondacks are pretty spectacular through here but focus was needed to not end up airlifted from a misplaced foot.
We charged up Saddleback, now 2 minutes ahead of record pace, and I tried to urge Kempson along with thoughts of delicious stream water in just a few miles. Buuuut Kempson ran out of water and lost contact with me coming down Saddleback so I just left him for dead. RIP Kempson.
I quested on alone over Basin. I was laser focused when Kempson was there, the guy just oozes concentration. Once he was gone, I was left with just my own thoughts and my mind started to wander. I had the song "I Hate This" by Tenille Arts stuck in my head and the lyrics were rolling around in my head on repeat:
"We said, we'd just be friends
I can't lie and I can't pretend
Boy, I've tried it, bottom line
Is I still love you and I hate this"
It morphed into a song that summed up my feelings for the Great Range. I loved it but it hurt me. I tried other trails around the world but I'm back for the upteenth time because I'm still in love with it. I broke my ankle for the first time trying to get the record when I was 19 and it set off a chain reaction that led to 5 ankle surgeries (2 on the left, 3 on the right) spread out over 6 years.
Then I passed the spot where I broke it and came back to it. I love this trail a whole bunch but I really wanted to finally nail it so I could have a break from thinking about it, so I focused. I wanted a 5 minute buffer on top of Haystack, I ended up with 3. The fear started to set in that I was slipping. Thankfully the self doubt was already well entrenched, buried, and long since forgotten from when my hip flexors and adductors started cramping back on Gothics so I didn't really have to contend with that too.
Fear is a good thing for me when racing. It dredges up feeeeelings, makes things personal, and I do my best work when I'm a bit offended. Every step up Marcy was for the sole purpose of making Atkins' ghost suffer. I hit the top of Marcy and was still only 3 minutes ahead. Normally this would still be a good sign except for the singular fact that Atkins is probably the best descender the Adirondacks has ever had. I wanted to phone it in at that point. I didn't really see how I could top his descent time. I figured I'd give it a go anyway since today was the day last possible day to try it and I don't have to be uninjured for race season until at least September.
The descent is 9 miles long and goes from the highest point in New York, down through stabby alpine trees on one of the most unkempt trails in the park, through a bunch of streams, past John's Brook Lodge, and onto one of the fastest trails in the park. I started feeling the effects of 4 hours of running hard and foot placements stopped being so precise, intentions less concrete, and thoughts less clear.
"I still love you and I hate this."
'Stay on top of calories. just go as fast as you can'
"I still love you and I hate this."
"I hate this"
'Shut up, shut up! Focus and don't forget the turn.'
"I hate this"
'Stick your head in the water and go'
I hit John's Brook Lodge and was surprisingly about 5-6 minutes ahead of Atkins. I gave a whoop made of confusion, surprise, and elation. I immediately started crunching the number for what it would take to go under the mythical 5 hour barrier. My brain was firing on all cylinders to figure out what 25 - 2 = ??? because if I could just run Atkins' time from JBL minus 2 minutes I could get under 5 hours. Fully wrapped up in that complex problem I tripped on a root, wobbled for a second or two, and managed to stay upright. That tiny shot of adrenaline faded almost immediately and left me feeling drained and all the bounce left my stride. I was paying the price for my greedy thoughts.
"I hate this."
I ran as hard as I could from JBL to the finish at the Garden Trailhead. I ended up 4 minutes ahead of the previous record and a total time of 5 hours, 3 minutes, and 51 seconds.
I laid down in a stream, started jogging back to the car, laid down in a bigger stream, and kept jogging. I drove back up to watch Kempson, who came back from the dead, and finish what is nearly double his longest hard running effort. The first thing he said was "That was the hardest thing I've ever done." Having done this route loads of times I can sympathize with that. The one thing I know for sure is that there is no such thing as a casual day on the Great Range. It exacts a toll of sweat, blood, and emotions.
GPS Map of the Adventure:
Looking up the range from Gothics: