Thanks for visiting my blog. This is where I document and share all of my running adventures with my friends and fellow runners. The good, the bad, and the unquestionably painful. All for your entertainment! Enjoy!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

White Rim Trail FKT: Chasing a Record

I came across the idea for this FKT (Fastest Known Time) entirely on accident and have been totally fixated on it ever since. After running the Moab Trail Marathon in November, Jo and I went for a hike in Canyonlands with a couple of friends. Our hiking route tied into the White Rim Trail, which I had never even heard of at the time. Our friends are avid mountain bikers and were very familiar with the trail, and after a few minutes of discussion about the layout and conditions, I became intrigued by the idea of running it. As soon as I got home, I researched the FKT history and learned that the current record was set on December 2, 2006 by Peter Bakwin in a time of 18:43:22. I was hoping for a slower record because running 100 miles in under 19 hours is never a sure thing.

Nonetheless, I immediately began planning my attempt.

My original plan was to make my attempt in the fall, but I ultimately decided that I couldn't wait and bumped it up to March. After a brief illness, I bounced back feeling better than ever. I was running strong, feeling great and decided to seize the opportunity to go for the record while I was riding an unexpected peak.

The White Rim Trail is a loop curse, approximately 100 miles long. In reality, it's a jeep road and also includes about 8 miles of paved road. My first course of action was to decide where to start and which direction to run it. I eventually had to decide if I wanted to follow Peter Bakwin's route, or mimic the route chosen by the current female FKT holder, Jennilyn Eaton. They started in totally different areas and they ran the trail in opposite directions. I eventually decided to follow in the footsteps of Peter, mostly because I was competing with his record, so I wanted to endure the experience in the exact manner he did. Fair is fair.

Challenging Peter's long standing record was something that I took seriously. I was determined to only make the attempt if I thought I had a legitimate chance for success. There must be a reason the record has stood for so long and I wasn't entering into this lightly.

For Jo and I, preparing for a 100 mile run is a matter of routine. Once I had made my decision on the date, time and route, we fell into our natural roles and everything came together like it always does.

Jo and I are like pieces of a watch. We work together flawlessly and support each others movements. Always.

On March 8th, 2014, Jo and I were at the trailhead at the bottom of the Schafer Switchbacks, getting ready for my 5:00 AM departure.

For those that are more visual, here's the video version of my report:

It was 29 degrees at the start of my run, but I knew the climb would be more than enough to warm me up, so I dressed light. I didn't carry anything with me and didn't plan to eat or drink until I saw Jo at mile 13. I was running unencumbered so I could move quickly.

You Know I'm Serious When I Put My Gloves On

The route Peter took, and I copied, starts at the base of the largest climb on the course. I liked the idea of getting this out of the way early. This climb also ends at the spot that the asphalt begins. I also wanted to have that put behind me right away because the thought of running on pavement in the final miles is enough to make me want to break something.

I also like this route because once the big climb is done, the next 20 miles are mostly flat with some rollers, or downhill. I hoped this would let my legs rest after the big climb.

I launched an assault on the Schafer Switchbacks and ran every step all the way to the top. By the time I got to the pavement, I thought I may have made a mistake but my heart rate dropped, my legs loosened up and I was rolling down the road at a solid pace.

The route took me right passed the pay booth, and right out of Canyonlands National Park.

I left the asphalt behind when I turned onto Mineral Bottom Road. This is a wide, well maintained dirt road that leads me back into park. This is probably the most boring section of the run.

Heading Down Mineral Bottom Road

Spectators Along the Course

I was trying to compare my splits to the mileage and times that Peter had reported for his FKT. I knew there was a discrepancy with his mileage, but he tied them to specific locations, so I was ignoring the mileage and focusing on the destinations and his time of arrival.

When I hit Mineral Bottom Road, 13.5 miles into the course, I was 24 minutes ahead of his record pace.

Near the end of Mineral Bottom Road, we descend a steep, relentless set of switchbacks. When I dropped off the edge and made the plunge downward, it was a dizzying site.

Making Time Down the Switchbacks

At the bottom of the hill, we find the White Rim Road. They claim this is the only intersection on the route that may cause a problem if you're not paying attention. I would prove them wrong later in the run.

This portion of White Rim is flat and follows the Green River. After a few miles, we reenter Canyonlands National Park, which is mostly recognizable because the dirt road is suddenly unmaintained.

The Green River

The next milestone was Labyrinth. All of the notable destination points on the course are campgrounds, which makes sense because they're clearly marked with an abundance of signs, and there's little else in the park that would be easy to distinguish.

I reached Labyrinth at mile 34 in 4:51. This put me 56 minutes ahead of the record pace. I was running well and feeling strong, still.

Coming into Labyrinth Campgrounds

Labyrinth to Hardscrabble wasn't particularly noteworthy. Even this early in the run, the park starts to look the same everywhere you look. It's all beautiful, but even being surrounded by beauty gets a little boring after a while.

The trail from Hardscrabble to Potato Bottom was where I really began to worry. Jo was crewing from the seat of my F-150 and she was supposed to stay ahead of me and wait for me to reach her every 5 miles. This distance was established so I wouldn't have to carry much with me. Sometimes I would stop for aid and other times, I might run right on by. As we made our way up Hardscrabble, the terrain was so technical that Jo was having a hard time navigating it. The road was extremely narrow in places, which forced Jo to fold the mirrors in on the truck to keep them getting ripped off by the rocky cliffs. The drivers side of the truck was nearly scraping the vertical cliffs and there was a steep drop off on the passenger side. She was moving so slow that I ended up passing her several times during the ascent, then again on the way down.

I was nervous for her and felt guilty for putting her in that situation. When we cleared Hardscrabble and arrived at Potato Bottom, I was relieved to have that mess behind us. I had no idea that it was just the beginning.

Shoulda brought the Jeep...

When I arrived at Potato Bottom, I was now 66 minutes ahead of the record pace.

From Potato Bottom, I was headed to Candlestick. This was a critical destination for me because it represented the halfway mark on the route. I had decided I needed to arrive there in under 8 hours if I had a serious chance of beating the record.

I arrived at Candlestick in 7:38, now 80 minutes ahead of the record pace.

My "Aid Station" at Candlestick

It had gone from 29 degrees to 62 and it was only 12:30. With a steady wind blowing and no cover, the dry air was taking a toll on my hydration. I was never really wet from sweat, but salt was beginning to form in all the usual places. I was drinking a full 22 ounce bottle of water with Hammer Endurolyte Fizz tabs every 5 miles now. For me, that's a lot of fluid.

I realize that 62 degrees isn't exactly hot, but after coming out of winter, and in those conditions, it felt stifling! It seems like I'm always trying to acclimate to something.


Pretty Rocks and Things

I was building a pretty solid lead on the record, but even at 50 miles into a run, there's still plenty of room for things to fall apart fast. I'm an expert that shouldn't be questioned about the potential for sudden failure. Just take my word for it.

After the midway point, I began to settle into a more moderate pace and focused on conserving my strength.

But...I was having fun running out there all by myself and when that happens, it's sometimes hard to reign myself in. I was just happy.

Things were actually going flawlessly. Until we headed up to Murphy. This part of the route starts with some gradual climbing but ends with a steep set of switchbacks that lead to the campground. I found Jo sitting at the base of the climb, which was not where we were supposed to meet. She was sitting there because a group of mountain bikers and crew vehicles were coming down the switchbacks, so she decided to wait. I told her I was going to make the climb and would meet her at the top.

And that never happened.

I ran, walked...almost crawled to the top and spun around to see where Jo was. She was still at the bottom waiting for the last mountain biker to clear the road. That would be the mountain biker that was pushing her bike down the trail rather than riding it.

I decided to wait. I waited...and waited...and noticed I had been there for 22 minutes! I had no time for this, so I reluctantly headed down the trail, which immediately turned into another brutal, steep, narrow downhill. I hesitated before plunging off the side because I was worried about Jo and didn't want to leave her in case there was trouble. But I was here to set a speed record and that wasn't going to happen if I was standing still.

After a fast descent, I looked back hoping to see my truck, and my wife, cresting the mesa. Nothing there. I kept running. Five minutes later I found another viewpoint and looked back toward Murphy, but still didn't see my truck. Now I was getting nervous. I was nervous for her and beginning to worry about myself because I was out of fluids and didn't know where my crew was. Our prearranged stop was at the TOP of the mesa in the Murphy campground and I was now miles past that point.

What if she got the truck stuck? Or a flat tire? Or carjacked by a rogue group of mountain bikers? We were miles apart and she was on the wrong side of me.

Just as panic really began to take hold, I saw the hood of my truck crest the top of the mesa and begin the descent. Relieved, I spun on my heels and headed down the trail, pushing the pace to make up for lost time.

NEW RULE: The crew vehicle is never allowed to be BEHIND the runner. Ever.

The next stop was White Crack. By now, the discrepancies in the published distances and what my Garmin were reading had become significant. Peter had listed White Crack at 66.6 miles and my Garmin got it at exactly 70 miles. I arrived at White Crack in 11:03, now 97 minutes ahead of the record pace.

From White Crack, I was headed to Gooseberry, which was about 8 miles down the road. The sun was fading and the temps were slowly dropping. It felt good and I enjoyed the rolling trail. I was settling into the run well and feeling like I actually had a chance to accomplish my goal. But I Still had a lot of running to do.

Peter Bakwin had a pretty amazing run when he set the record. His splits didn't drop much at all in the second 50 miles of his run, which caused me some concern. When I arrived at Gooseberry I had given back 5 minutes of my big lead, going from 97 minutes ahead to 92 minutes. I had a lot of cushion, but this was not a trend that I wanted to see continue.

From Gooseberry to Airport, I was running a steady string of numbers through my head, which is something I often due when I race 100 milers. I'm constantly calculating splits, miles to run, and developing worst case scenarios and plans to avoid them.

Shortly after mile 80, I realized I could power walk my way to the finish and beat the current FKT by 3 minutes. That wasn't the outcome I wanted, but it provided me with some level of confidence.

I finally began to accept the possibility that I might actually pull this off! I would be lying if I said I wasn't a little excited.

Just Happy to Be Out There

All was right in the world....until we left for the final leg...

We only had 11 miles left and every indication suggested this would be the easiest part of the route. We were home free. Until I got to the parking area for Washer Woman Arch. This is where I found Jo parked, for no particular reason. She explained that the road cuts through the parking lot but she couldn't find where it exited and had been waiting for me to come along and help. I began searching the parking lot, looking for an entrance while she followed me in the truck. We had to look like total idiots but thankfully, there was nobody around to witness my truck slowly creeping behind me as I searched the slick rock for evidence of vehicle tracks so I could lead us out.

After a lengthy and exhaustive search, I found a goat path that some people would call a road and Jo headed on her way and I was right behind her.

I arrived at Airport Campground in 14:50, leading the record pace by only 83 minutes now. It was pitch black with no visible moon, but the stars were amazing. It was still relatively warm and the run was comfortable. I was pushing a slower pace, but I was still running.

Last stop...the finish! But not until I kick every rock on the trail between here and there. Because that's kind of my thing at this point of every 100 mile run.

Cruising Through the Night

Because I didn't know the exact distance to the finish, I asked Jo to turn the truck around when she got back to Potash and leave the headlights on so I could use the truck as a beacon, to guide me into the finish. When my Garmin rolled over to 100 miles, I wasn't surprised that I was still running. When my Garmin rolled over to 101 miles, I began to worry a little bit.

I was scanning the dark night for some sign of the headlights. Nothing. Time was ticking by and I still wasn't finished. I wondered if I got off course somehow, but that seemed unlikely. But still...no headlights and I was STILL running.

I crested a small hill and suddenly saw the bright lights below. I glanced at my watch and realized I had lost a lot of time on that last leg of the run. I ran as hard as I could toward those headlights, trying to shave as much time from the current FKT as possible.

I finished in 17:47:25, 56 minutes faster than the previous record and my Garmin showed 101.7 miles. The trip odometer on my truck showed EXACTLY 100 miles.

Better Technology Than GPS?

Jo tracked my data during the run and constantly kept me updated against the data that Peter Bakwin published after his run. I think Peter took his mileage detail from the National Parks maps. I realize how shocking it could be that the federal government might have made a mistake, but in this case, it seems to be true. Here's a comparison of our data:

Location             Peter's Miles     Peter's Split    My Miles      My Split
Potash                      0.0                     00:00                0.0              00:00
I-Sky Road              5.3                      1:02                 5.4                 :50
Minral Road            13.3                    2:18                 13.5              1:54
White Rim               26.2                    4:33                 28.0              3:50
Labyrinth                 32.7                    5:47                 34.2              4:51
Hardscrabble           35.0                    6:09                  37.0              5:15
Potato Bottom         38.8                     6:57                 40.8              5:51
Candlestick              49.8                    8:58                 51.8               7:38
Murphy                   59.8                     11:01               62.1              9:36
White Crack            66.6                     12:40               70.0              11:03
Gooseberry              74.6                     14:10              78.0               12:38
Airport                     86.1                     16:13               89.0              14:50
Potash Road             97.4                     18:43:22         101.7             17:47:25

I think Peter's mileage is short and that's supported by other GPS data generated for the run. I also think mine is a little long because GPS data is not perfect. Nonetheless, it's good information to share because very few people have covered the entire distance, especially in a single push.

I'm extremely pleased with how my run went because there was so little room for error if I had any chance to beat the current record. Peter Bakwin set the bar high when he set his FKT in 2006 and it was through him that I became inspired to try to copy, and hopefully improve on what he started. I want to thank him for all the work he has done for the benefit of all of us that are interested in pursuing these records.

I also need to thank Hammer Nutrition, and especially Myke Hermsmeyer for all their help. They went well out of their way to help me with this run. I'm fortunate to have such a great partner in the sport.

But most importantly, I'm thankful for my wife and amazing crew chief. She drops everything so she can help me do the things that I do. I sincerely believe there is no better partnership in the sport of ultra running. I'm a very lucky man.

Jo and I are headed to Idaho so I can the Pickled Feet 24 hour race at the end of the month. I'm planning big things there, so I'll be focused on recovery and training for the next few week.

Thanks to everybody for their support. It was truly an amazing experience!


  1. I became familiar with the White Rim when Jennilyn did it last year, and it seems like such a beautiful and challenging place to run. You and Jo have such a great ultra partnership! For his Pony Express Trail ultras, Davy Crockett has always strongly suggested that crew vehicles stay ahead of their runners for that very "worry" factor, but those bikers made for an exceptional situation. I think it's so great that two friends have both the male and female FKT there. Great, great job!

    1. I think it's cool that Jennilyn and I share the FKT. I thought a lot about her while I was out there and it definitely added to the respect that I already had for her. Thanks for taking the time to read my report. It means a lot to me. I hope to see you soon.

  2. Congrats on a great run and new FKT! I love that loop, but have yet to run it. Some day... Sounds like you had a pretty stellar day out there. FWIW my 310XT clocked it at 100.37 miles (bike).

    1. Thanks, Chris. I've learned to never trust a GPS device but I keep finding myself relying on them for some reason. I appreciate that you took the time to read my report. I hope you get the chance to run the rim sometime.

  3. As always, I was there with you as you tell your story. I am as usual amazed at your ability. Thanks for the play by play!!!

    1. Thanks, Deborah. I appreciate that you always take time to read my stuff. It means a lot to me.

  4. Awesome job!!!! Especially after dealing with the nasty stomach bug just a few weeks ago.

    1. Thanks. I think the stomach bug helped me because I was forced to rest for several days. When I snapped out of it and gained my weight back, I felt really solid. That's what really triggered my desire to move the date up for this run. I felt like I had to strike while I was feeling so good. Thanks again for following along. It's deeply appreciated.

  5. I have yet to be out on the White Rim Trail. I was going to go and ride it last fall with a few friends but the government shutdown delayed the trip till later this spring but reading your review makes me want to go and try running it some time. Before I run anything that distance I will need to get better at the whole fueling thing.

    1. I hope you get out there at some point, Bret. It's a beautiful place to hang out. Thanks for checking my blog out!