I’ve spent the last year learning about, chatting about, and finally doing, Fastest Known Times. At this point, the concept has gone from a relatively underground sort of pursuit to nearly mainstream in the ultrarunning world. This has been helped along significantly by the novel coronavirus’s impact on the 2020 race landscape. With no races, many more people are looking for other ways to test themselves, and attempts at FKTs have multiplied quickly.
Our mission was simple: an out-and-back on the Tunnel Hill State Trail, which runs from Harrisburg, Illinois to the Cache River State Natural Area Wetlands center. The trail is a 47.5 miles long rail-to-trail, converted from the old Cairo and Vincennes Railroads. When we lived near the trail a decade ago, we’d run the stretches around Vienna, Illinois frequently, and a couple years ago we both ran the eponymous 100 mile race held on the trail. We figured it was time to say we’d seen the whole trail (the race only uses about 25 miles of it), and we needed to test a few of our fastpacking systems. When the last day of winter/first day of spring weekend also coincided with favorable (ish) weather, we headed south.
We set off on the Womble trail just before noon on a Saturday, an odd time for us to begin a long route. We’d driven the 12 hours from Chicago to the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas, leaving town in the teeth of a nasty snow and ice storm. To make the trip possible, we’d overnighted in our van near the halfway point and gotten back on the road around 0330 that morning.
At the outset of our journey, I was only worried about one thing: making it through a complex section of the loop before it got dark. In particular, I’d heard that finding the trail again after the final road section was tough even in the daylight.
The loop was the Nantahala Adventure Run near Bryson City, NC: 56ish miles comprised mostly of the Bartram Trail but beginning and ending on the AT. Total vertical gain for the loop ended up being a stout 14k feet. Our plan was to cover as much of it as we could take the first day, bivy for a few hours, and then finish it up the following day. We parked our campervan at Nantahala Outdoor Center, a fantastic outfitter that caters to both the river community and hikers on the AT.