I secured my parking permit Thursday morning at the Lake Fort Smith Visitor Center when they opened at 8a. I was on the trail by 840a.
I hadn’t really wrapped my head around what I was setting out to do. I’d never tried to set a Fastest Known Time before. The supported record is currently 62 hours 25 minutes. The unsupported record is 109 hours 53 minutes. I figured I could just hike the 165 miles straight in under 72 hours, which would easily break the unsupported record. And maybe even in under 60 hours, which would set the overall FKT. Ambitious goal, given that I hadn’t really done much planning and hadn’t trained at all for the attempt. All I had to do was keep walking, right?
Technically, the FKT Pro Boards require that a trekker carry a SPOT device in order to authenticate the time. I don’t have one, and I wasn’t willing to invest $200 to get one for just one attempt. Fortunately the OHT has mile markers almost every mile for the duration. I took selfies with my SUUNTO Traverse watch, which was recording the track. One of the fundamental issues with the SPOT is that it only proves that the device itself made the trip; it doesn’t prove that multiple people didn’t treat the trek like a relay. What I hoped to show with the selfies is that I was at mile posts every 3-6 miles. My watch died after about 8 hours, and my battery pack failed, so I wasn’t able to charge it. Instead, I started taking selfies with my cell phone showing the time. That way, the time on my cell phone could authenticate the timestamp on the photo, and the photo itself would prove that I was at the respective mile marker and at what time I was there. Additionally, I took photos with third parties that I ran into during my hike. I also had them take a photo on their respective phones and email them to me as verifiable proof of where and when they saw me. Only saw a half dozen parties who could verify, though. Worst case, I’d break the record and the Pro Boards would reject my claim. Even if the Pro Boards didn’t accept my evidence as sufficient, I’d know what I accomplished. I was really out there to see what I’m capable of. It was less about setting a record and more about pushing my limits. Being recognized for holding an FKT would be pretty cool, though. All that said, it was pretty unlikely that I’d break a record on my first attempt ever anyways.
That first day was actually quite pleasant. I was stopping pretty frequently to take photos. (The leaf peeping was on point!) I’m a backpacker and a photographer, so it’s difficult for me to be in such a beautiful place and not try to capture the experience. I figured taking photos was just a great excuse to take breaks, so they really didn’t affect my overall pace. I didn’t take nearly as many photos as I normally do, but I couldn’t skip the incredible scenes all-together. I was cruising right along, totally on-pace. In fact, I was ahead of pace at the 41-mile mark (one quarter of the way) and still at the 55-mile mark (one third of the way). The Ozark Highlands Trail is pretty cool, especially in the fall. It's also supremely challenging to speed hike. There is a lot of elevation gain and loss as the trail climbs ridges and dips into hollows. The tread is often narrow and downward slanting on the frequent side slopes. It’s also largely made up of jagged rocks, exposed roots, and thick overgrowth. Add to that the fallen leaves, and it got pretty dicey out there. It’s also not very heavily travelled, which meant that there were scores of spider webs across the trail, and I was one of the few people around to walk through them. I must’ve walked through hundreds, maybe even a thousand, of the freakin’ things. It was possibly my biggest gripe of the whole experience. I saw fewer than a dozen other trekkers the whole 53 hours I was out there.
It was really mentally demanding and exhausting to constantly pay such close attention to footing. I found it challenging to track both footing and the white blazes. Usually on a trail, I can just watch my footing and the tread is obvious. On the Ozark Highlands Trail, the tread is often obscured. And when it was on a well-graded, well-maintained section, it was exceedingly common for the trail to suddenly dart off of those sections inexplicably in favor of a narrow, overgrown corridor. It certainly kept things interesting. Things got even more challenging at night. It was a mental game. I was more tired and had to focus a lot harder to keep track of the trail. I really appreciated seeing signs of civilization on the night portions. I could see town lights off in the distance, hear the sound of distant passing cars, etc. The trail felt less remote. It felt more manageable when I had those reminders that I wasn’t all alone.
Had a tendency to see more wildlife in the late and early hours of the day, naturally. Saw a couple armadillos, a couple raccoons, and a couple owls. Thankfully I didn’t see anything threatening. It can be intimidating being out in the woods alone overnight. I’ve had a couple intense experiences over the years while night hiking, so those were in the back of my mind. Any eyes I saw or noises I heard that I couldn’t place were deer, end of story. That’s how I kept myself calm. And it worked really well. Think I’ll use that technique from now on. When the sun finally came up on the second day, I was feeling revived. The trail was a little easier to follow, the colors were popping. Things were looking up. Back to cruising, baby!
Since I hadn’t done much planning, I didn’t have a sense for water sources (among other things). Instead, I had worked out a water rotation plan where I carried no more than two liters at any given time. Whenever I came across a water source, I finished a liter and refilled it. My understanding of this trail is that water is exceedingly common in the spring and early summer, and that it’s not especially uncommon in the fall. I played a hunch, which I don’t recommend for an endeavor like this. One of the techniques I used on the two occasions where I was down to less than a quarter liter of water was to sip and then keep that water in my mouth for as long as I could without swallowing. Doing so increases saliva production and helps stave off dry mouth, which encourages us to drink more water. I also made sure that I was well-hydrated at the start, which gave me some wiggle room in the event that I actually couldn’t find water. I knew I wasn’t going to die of dehydration; worst case, I might get a little uncomfortable for a couple hours.
Food was never a concern. I’d allocated one bar/snack per five miles, which turned out to be excessive. Mostly, I was forcing myself to eat anyways. I knew I needed the calories, but I just didn’t feel hungry. I could probably do something more like one bar per 6-8 miles next go-round. Of course, I could also more regularly force myself to eat, which would probably be wise.
I didn’t start to experience any sign of muscle fatigue until about the halfway mark- mile 82. I figure in order to have a successful attempt at the speed record, I need to be feeling pretty good at the three quarter mark- mile 124. Once things start to get difficult, the experience becomes exponentially more challenging at an exponentially accelerated rate. If I’m still feeling good at mile marker 124, then things can start to get tough and I’ll still be in good shape overall. I can push through damn near anything for 41 miles. Just a walk in the park at that point. Instead, at mile 82 I was about 20 minutes behind the pace. And I was already experiencing pretty significant groin chafe, a couple small blisters, and fatigue. I’d hoped to avoid those symptoms for at least another 41 miles. I knew it was too early for me to be starting to suffer. Part of me wanted to go ahead and set up camp. What’s the point, I thought. But I wasn’t ready to stop, not until I’d at least pushed my limits a little bit. That’s just not who I am. Besides, it was so pretty out there! I pressed on.
I kept reciting the poem Invictus over and over in my head and imagining the impossible experiences that people have been through. Without exception, we’re capable of far more than what we’ve accomplished when our mind starts saying “I can’t.” Most of us are so quick to quit that we’ve never even flirted with our extreme limits. Then there is the question of self-efficacy. When my mind said “I can’t,” I knew I could. I just had to decide whether or not I wanted to endure.
by William Ernest Henley
OUT OF THE NIGHT THAT COVERS ME,
DARK AS THE PIT FROM POLE TO POLE,
I THANK WHATEVER GODS MAY BE
FOR MY UNCONQUERABLE SOUL.
OUT OF THE FELL CLUTCH OF CIRCUMSTANCE
I HAVE NOT WINCED NOR CRIED ALOUD.
UNDER THE BLUDGEONINGS OF CHANCE
MY HEAD IS BLOODY, BUT UNBOWED.
BEYOND THIS PLACE OF WRATH AND TEARS
LOOMS BUT THE HORROR OF THE SHADE,
AND YET THE MENACE OF THE YEARS
FINDS AND SHALL FIND ME UNAFRAID.
IT MATTERS NOT HOW STRAIT THE GATE,
HOW CHARGED WITH PUNISHMENTS THE SCROLL,
I AM THE MASTER OF MY FATE;
I AM THE CAPTAIN OF MY SOUL.
Lost the trail a couple times throughout the 127(ish) miles that I covered, but nothing too serious until around mile marker 105. The trail exited at a trailhead parking lot and just stopped. No sign of the trail across the street, or up the road. I looked everywhere for a blaze or obscure bit of tread. I had made up so much time in the last couple hours and was nearly back on track, so this hiccup was exceedingly frustrating. Finally, I pulled out my maps and trail description. (I hadn’t planned much, but I would never set out on a trip of this magnitude without resources.) Unfortunately the trail description was written opposite my direction of travel, so it took some translating. That wasn’t so bad; the real issue was that the trail description was wrong. It described a right turn from the highway into the trailhead parking lot to pick up the OHT heading westbound. It’s actually a left turn from the highway. All told, I spent over an hour trying to work out the route. I was pretty livid. Ah well, natural consequence for my lack of planning and scouting beforehand.
The next section of trail was the Hurricane Creek Wilderness, which is (apparently) known for its lake of maintenance and blazes. Not by me, though. Again, natural consequence of my lack of planning. Ended up following what I thought was the trail for about half an hour before I realized I hadn’t seen a clear blaze for quite a while. It looked like the same obscure tread I’d been walking on since Lake Fort Smith State Park, but I couldn’t be sure without the blazes. Perhaps it was just a drainage or a game trail, and I was actually off route.
Until now, the white blazes were mostly fairly common and obvious (placards rather than paint stripes on trees). Here, there were some stripes that looked like they could’ve been blazes, but they also looked like they could’ve been some sort of fungus on the trees, which was really common out there. Without the placards, it looked like the trail literally could’ve gone in any direction. There were “painted blazes” everywhere. I ended up backtracking for another twenty minutes, then I noticed a cut log. Why would there be a log that had clearly been cut if this wasn’t the trail? I turned around again and started searching for cut logs rather than blazes. It actually worked out really well, besides the extra 40 minutes I’d lost. By this point, it was pretty much impossible for me to make up the lost time. I was completely demoralized. I’d come so far, and I couldn’t help but wonder what I might be on track to accomplish were it not for these logistical mistakes. Again, I considered setting up camp right there. But I still wasn’t ready to quit. Instead, I took my second sit down break of the trip. I sat there for almost an hour, enough time to completely remove the possibility of finishing in under 62 hours 25 minutes. That way, I could just focus on my other goal: 72 hours. It was a great choice. By sitting down and taking a moment, I was able to let go of my attachment to a sub-60 timeframe. I even took my shoes off (for the first time) and gave myself a foot rub. Boy, they were looking rough.
I finally reached mile 110 and was feeling pretty excited to be two-thirds through. Just 55 miles left. At this point, I was still thinking I could do it sub-72. Just had to keep walking.
Finally, the sun rose again. It warmed up quickly, and my chafe got significantly worse as it did. Blisters too. That was tough, but the real trouble was that I could hardly be bothered to lift my head high enough to look for white blazes. It’s tough to be awake for 48 hours, let alone maintain a 2.4 mile/hour pace for 48 hours. But by now, my pace was plummeting. The question was very quickly becoming less about whether I could endure the sufferfest and more about whether I could keep my eyes open. Seventy-two hours? Sure, probably. But my pace was falling so quickly that it was looking more like 96 hours. I’m good, but I dunno if I’m that good. Hiking through a third consecutive night was going to be…something. Besides, I have to get back to Durango and be ready to work in a couple days. Wilderness therapy isn’t exactly a sit-down and recover kinda gig. I needed to be ready to rock.
Side note: I don’t think those mile markers are completely accurate – or even close in some places – which made it extremely challenging to gauge pace. Overall, I appreciated the mile markers because they gave me at least an idea of my progress. That said, a couple times mile marker 7 came after mile marker 8 (for example), or there were two consecutive mile markers for mile 65, or it would take me 40 minutes to cover one mile then immediately take me 8 minutes to cover the next. Suspicious.
After nearly 53 hours straight and just over 127 miles, I finally allowed myself to lie down at a fire road crossing. It was the first time I’d been horizontal besides a couple trips and slips. I’m not one to quit, but I’m also not one to be selfish and irresponsible. Those two important parts of my identity were at odds as I lay there in the hot sun. I could still beat the 109 hour 53 minute unsupported record. But it wouldn’t have been anywhere near what I’m capable of doing, so was it really worth it just to check a box? To say “Yeah, I finished and set a new record.” Nah, I'm proud of what I accomplished here. Walking 127(+) in 53(-) is pretty damn good, and I walked over 80 miles straight before I sat down the first time. But that's not my limit; I'm just getting started.
The list of goals I’ve quit on in my life is pretty short. Whether I succeed or not, I always finish. The list of professional obligations I’ve failed to meet is even shorter. I decided my professional obligation is far more important than my ego, so I called it quits right there. And as I stood up, a couple on a four wheeler passed. I flagged them down, and they gave me directions to the nearest road and ultimately to the interstate. Off I went, satisfied with my effort. I figure it’s important that periodically in our lives we reach as far as we can for something we want and still fail. If we never miss our goals, never make mistakes, never feel uncomfortable, then we’re not growing. If we’re not growing, then we’ll never be the best version of ourselves. I don’t really care about the record itself other than that pursuing it is a part of pushing myself to be the best I can be. I’m happy with how it all turned out, because I gave it one helluva shot. In this moment – here, meow – I’m the best version of myself because I hike the way I live: full on.
I caught a hitch before I hit the highway. Mark got me down to the interstate. I had lunch, then caught a ride at a gas station the rest of the way. I don’t enjoy hitching, but I’ve actually had really good luck hitching pretty much every time I’ve done it. Didn’t expect to make it back to my car tonight, but here I am. Pleasantly surprised, and supremely grateful. Then Jesse and Jef pulled up- I met them shortly after the first mile marker. They were my first third party to verify my passing. Pretty neat to see them and tell my story. They were so interested and supportive and cool.
I’m planning to come back next year…better-prepared, better-outfitted, and with a better understanding of my obstacle. I’m shooting to complete the 165 miles in under 60 hours. And I’m certain I can finish in under 72. I’m still in a lot of pain, and I’m already psyched for next year. Bring it on!
Reflecting on this year’s walk, it feels important to name the obvious. There is absolutely an unavoidable element of luck that goes into something like this, regardless of preparation and training. I slipped on wet rocks, tripped on hidden roots, and had a number of mis-steps, one in particular that could’ve left me in a bad way. But through it all, I wasn’t injured in the slightest. Lady Luck was totally in my corner this year, and I’ll need her again next year – in addition to preparation and training – if I hope to meet my goal. Credit where credit’s due.