Appalachian Trail unsupported record attempt: What I would have done differently

The most common question since I came home from my Appalachian Trail unsupported record attempt with a torn calf is “what would you have done differently?” It’s a brilliant question and one I’ve thought exhaustively about, trying to pinpoint if it was my own error that resulted in me getting injured. So I want to answer that question of exactly what I would have changed here:

Carry a rain jacket

For the trip I chose to use a poncho tarp in lieu of dedicated rain gear. While for most of my trips this has worked out extremely well, for this trip this was not the case. This is kind of a hindsight thing because I dealt with more rain in the month of June than the trail had seen over a century. It was exhausting and miserable. And beyond the simple suffering element, I had some extremely slow moving heading up on to the Presidential Range on Mt. Madison because of the risk of hypothermia in the 40 degree driving rain amidst 60mph gusts. So in the future when, not if, I try this again, I’ll likely be taking a four ounce basic silnylon rain shell for at least the northern 600 miles.

Wear durable shoes

If you look closely enough you can see through the logic of this trip.
This hole only got bigger until I eventually the ball of my foot was completely out

I wore lightweight trail runners, Saucony Peregrine 5 shoes, which had held up for more than 700 miles in my hiking down south. But out in the everlasting mud of north Maine, the shoes ripped apart in little over 100 miles. Part of the problem was the shoes were too narrow and my feet were simply bursting out of them. But even if I choose to go with minimalist shoes again in the future, I’ll be gluing up the least durable parts before I leave.

Hike north, then south

I was very pressed for time because I was trying to complete this over my med school summer vacation and work around my sister’s wedding in early June. So I would’ve done this had those constraints not existed. But now I know for certain that it is a great way to prep for the Appalachian Trail. My plan would be to start ~700 miles away from the terminus, and hike north to Katahdin, granted I go SOBO again. I would hike at a chiller pace of around ~30 miles per day, take a zero here and there, and a couple zeros in Millinocket before heading back out and gunning it south. This would help work out any early injuries as well as trail conditions. I developed serious tendinitis which likely led to the calf tear from compensation. Had I developed this on the first leg, I could’ve just rested and started over. Instead what I did to prepare was several shorter trips down south which couldn’t mimic the mountains and mud of the northern Appalachian Trail.

Start in Georgia

This was the biggest conflict, and a serious oversight on my part. Probably most years I would start in Maine, but as I’ve said before, this was not most years. With the horrible winter dumping massive amounts of snow on the trail in New England, trail crews in Maine had a difficult time clearing the trail by early June. The blowdowns in north Maine all the way down to the Bigelow Range made the trail impassable. For several miles I hiked alongside it, scanning to make sure I was still close. But the trail itself was covered with thick fallen pine trees. Climbing over these trees cut deep gashes on my legs that left horrendous scars. And besides the pain, the slow moving made for extremely long days and lost sleep. My slowest day was starting on White Cap Mountain in the 100 miles wilderness and was 32 miles over nearly 17 hours, a distance that on clear trails take me around 10-12 hours.

Spare pole tips, earlier and more often

Trekking pole carbide tips

Trekking pole tips are the most undervalued piece of gear. Their convex carbide tips catch on nearly anything, including slick granite at seriously acute angles. Frankly, they’re amazing-and you don’t realize it until they get dull. I didn’t mail myself pole tips till 500 miles in. By then the carbide tips resembled nubs and didn’t catch on anything. In the future I would mail myself replacements as early as 200 miles in, then again at 300, then again after the Whites Mountains. The rocky trails through there tear them up and are horrendous to hike on without them. Descending Baldpate Mountain (called that because of it’s featureless granite slopes) in south Maine in the rain was one of the most uncomfortable experiences of my life. I fell hard and slid down on my butt, leaving a nasty scrape and it all could have been prevented with fresh pole tips. ALSO: mail the pole tips to a place that likely has a wrench, AKA, not a post office or some obscure resupply.

More candy

I plotted out my diet for nearly the entire Appalachian Trail with 18 spreadsheets. I couldn’t have been better prepared. But I also couldn’t have realized how much I would crave candy. I wanted Skittles and Swedish Fish, not almond bars. The quick energy picked me up early in the day and kept me going strong later in the day. It was rapid and easy to digest. For anyone who judges me, you have no right; go out and hike a 40 mile day and tell me if you still want your kale and chia seed slurp.

No Laffy Taffy or Starburst

Or any hard to open food for that matter. Any individual wrapped candy besides caramel creams (simply because they’re too delicious to leave behind, and also pretty easy to open) should be left at home for an unsupported record attempt. I was tired and hungry and the last thing I wanted to do was try to fumble a few calories out of a wrapper Satan designed. For some reason the banana Laffy Taffy was extra difficult. In the future it’ll be solely bulk candy like king size chocolate bars, Skittles, Swedish Fish, jelly beans, and circus peanuts (yes I’m one of the three adults in this world who like circus peanuts).

Switch to Verizon

Sprint sucks. Having cell phone service on the Trail was of some serious importance. Whether for checking the weather or simply updating social media, Sprint was unreliable at best. I think they may hold the record for most dropped calls.

Carry an external battery

To carry a brick of lithium-ion battery simply to charge my phone soundsĀ ridiculous considering the fact I was carrying a 3.5 pound pack. But it would’ve changed my daily schedule drastically and would have saved me hours of sitting around charging my phone. I would often take an hour midday break just for that purpose. An external battery would have allowed me to drain my phone and the external battery until I could reach a hotel or hostel where I could charge both overnight.

In the end, I think this hike taught me a lot about what it takes to break the Appalachian Trail unsupported record. I found the trip was a lot tougher than I could have anticipated, and that I was a lot tougher than I had ever thought. I’ve thought of myself as kind of wimpy until this trip. But having done even what I did, hike 700+ miles in 3 weeks, that’s pretty badass.

8 thoughts on “Appalachian Trail unsupported record attempt: What I would have done differently”

  1. Saw this on reddit….I will be spending my complete work day tomorrow avoiding any type of work and inhaling the posts about your trip. Inspiring stuff!

  2. Is hiking without poles even an option you considered? It seems slightly counter intuitive to carry extra weight when our bodies are designed to be able to walk just fine without poles. Plus they can be very expensive. Are poles more important only when going for record times or for traveling for more than 250+ miles?

    1. I’d personally encourage any hiker to use poles. For most people they only seem counter-intuitive until you use them. Then they’re priceless. They take strain off your lower body, help prevent falls, and can serve as vital equipment for your shelter. They lengthen your stride too so make it easier to walk a faster pace.

  3. I’m extemely out of shape and I’m dying to hike the AT! Do you have a place you’d recommend for me to start? Oh and I live in FL, there are barely hills, forget mountains! šŸ˜€

    1. nikki
      do the florida trail…..very challenging but flat…..
      i was on it for a month before i had to get off because of injury…..

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