To Hell & Back, Women’s Unsupported FKT

Stats

52.75 miles
16:25:57
Avg pace 18:42 min/mi
Best mi 13:13 min/mi
Elevation gain 8442 ft
Elevation loss 8337 ft

Watch the run on YouTube

Gear

• MS Force headlamp (became useless. The light dimmed by the time I finished even though it had fresh batteries. I did have backup batteries)

• Kogalla light (best thing I packed)

• 2 battery banks, plus cord

• Phone

• TNF Gortex rain jacket (ended up only using it to carry food because it has big pockets)

• UD vest

• Altra Running KingMT

• Black Diamond trekking poles

• Katadyn Befree bottle (I did all of my refilling at McConnell’s Mill State Park)
3 liter bladder (only carried 2 liters at a time)

• Garmin InReach Mini (I don’t touch it, just keep it in my pack, so that my husband knows when to come pick me up. It died, of course. He waited for me for two hours because he couldn’t track my progress. This is the second time this has happened with this device. I hate to say this because it could be a lifesaving piece of equipment, but it’s the most expensive, unreliable thing we own)

Food

Weather

• 79° F (helped stay cool by dumping water on my head)

• Partly sunny

• Humid

• Passing thunderstorms (I stayed pretty dry, as the tree coverage was thick. At one point, the wind gusted and it was scary. I was concerned a tree would be blown over)

Route description and significance

North Country Trail: Moraine & McConnell’s Mill State Parks (PA)

This route follows a long trail section of the North Country Trail that runs through two state parks: Moraine State Park and McConnell’s Mill State Park. The area is historically known for its glacial activity as well as more recent strip mining, oil drilling, and formation of Lake Arthur. The entire trail follows the blue blazes of the NCT.

The route starts near the Old Stone House, located on Route 8 in Slippery Rock.  Built in 1822, The Old Stone House is famously known for its visit from George Washington as he traveled from Virginia in 1753.  The route travels near Foltz School House and the Jennings Passive Treatment Exhibit.  After crossing south over Route 8, the trail continues through Jennings Environmental Center and into Moraine State Park. 

The trail goes southward until it intersects Route 528 and runs west, crossing Mt. Union Road, to Moraine Bike Rental.  A gravel path connects the Bike Rental to the entrance at the Boat Launch.  More trails continue near the dam and under Route 422 until reaching the State Park boundary line.  The route now goes along Burnside Road, across Route 19, to Johnson Road, finishing at the Alpha Pass Trailhead in McConnell’s Mill State Park. 

The route runs south to the mill, crosses the old covered bridge, and winds along the western bank of the Slippery Rock Creek.  At Hell Run, the trail splits away from the Creek until it terminates at Hell’s Hollow Trailhead.

Then, turn around and go back the way you came, ending at the trail head near the Old Stone House.

Trail

Mostly single track, some double. Technical parts with several rocks and roots. Well-maintained. – HUGE thanks to those who maintain the trail! Wasn’t as muddy as usual, it was more dry, even with the rain (found that strange).

Trip report: lessons, experiences, thoughts

Glad I finished To Hell and Back. Will absolutely never do that again, it was Hell, mostly because of the cougar encounter at mile 49.

The run was drastically different than I thought it would be. I dream big. I figured doing something like this would be a good “benchmark” test to see where I’m at, since I haven’t completed a 50 miler race since March 2019. – I did complete a 40-something, maybe 50 miler (depending on which tracking device you look at) self-supported on the Moraine NCT in 2020 when everything shut down due to COVID-19. This was THE WORST possible challenge for a benchmark run. GRT Ultra (50 miler) was the previous month (May) and was supposed to be my benchmark run… it shares the Moraine State Park route with this run, which is why I thought it would be a good test. The FKT run was a test of endurance and physical and mental strength, not of speed.

Now I know what it means to run unsupported for 50 miles. I know the work that goes into it. When I was deciding how I wanted to do this run, supported vs unsupported, I chatted with my running coach, Kyle Kranz. I told him that doing unsupported would be a huge challenge and that I’d be disappointed if I didn’t attempt it that way. Of course, he was supportive of it, saying that he already knew I could do it.

I had fun, enjoyed every moment, up until coming back through McConnell’s Mill State Park. After that, running felt painful and more strenuous. I checked my watch to see how many miles left. 17. I thought about being done because I sort of know how the final miles go, they can get brutal. I thought of what fellow ultrarunners would say. They’d say, “You’ve come this far, keep going.” Thanks, friends. Low points were more frequent than high until about 10 miles remaining. Storm threats and darkness has me nervous. Mentally, things became a little worse. From then on, every mile felt like an hour. I repeated affirmations out loud to myself and made sure that I picked my effort back up when I slowed too much. Every step forward was progress towards finishing. I fought hard and acknowledged that I was.

I highly underestimated how difficult and slow everything would be. I’ve never carried all my own gear and water (especially, the amount that I had) for over 26 miles. Even self-supported, my Jeep would be an aid station, parked for easy access.

I knew that the middle sections at McConnell’s Mill were going to be rough, I prepared well for this during training. My pace was pretty much power hiking due to technical-ness and the number of times that I needed to stop to cool down and refill my water.

My wonky ankle did great. I didn’t roll either ankle or fall. I tripped 5-6 times. Toenail-wise, only two are banged up. I remember hurting the one on a rock at McConnell’s Mill. When it caught, I thought part of it tore up.

Overall, I was very pleased with my running. My form held up for a long time, it began to suffer when downhill running became painful. I pushed through the pain, but my legs seemed like wobbly noodles.

I learned that I can do something as hard as this.

I learned that if I’m ever going to do something like this again, maybe I should try (train with, first) liquid nutrition. Maybe 60-80%? Then, have favorite solid food options. All of that food, though light individually, adds up.

Need bigger pack? My UD vest is roomy, the elasticity of the material is helpful, however, it still didn’t hold everything and I was worried it would rip.

TNF Gortex jacket wasn’t needed.

Could have planned gear and food better, but didn’t know, this is all hindsight. Learning is part of the process of the sport.

For hours, I had part of the Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood song stuck in my head. It’s my daughter’s favorite show.

While running at night, I saw different wildlife and one I didn’t wish to stumble across. There were many deer, toads, and colorful moths. My run almost ended with about 3 miles left… cougar (I think, I was too frightened to look. It was definitely a large, angry cat).

It was probably less than 10 feet to my left, just behind my back. It gave a long low growl, followed by high pitched ARAWER!! Then, low growl, again. I’ve only ever heard recordings of a big cat roar before, there was no question what it was. Have never been so terrified in my life. I thought I was going to die, I thought my life was over, I let out this big death yelp, which echoed in the trees. An uneasy, warm, numbing sensation that I’ve never felt before overtook my body, starting at my feet and worked the way up. I think my body was physically preparing to be attacked. Everything happened so fast, but in slow motion at the same time.

I blew the whistle on my vest twice, as I was in a panic and hoped it would scare off the cat. I struggle to believe that I remembered carrying the whistle, it’s good to have one, it came with my vest. It was night, but I was sort of near a road and a campground, I pictured their estimated locations in my mind. I was afraid to run, worried I’d trigger the cat to attack. I also worried my bright light might also make it attack. I hiked pretty fast, wondering what I should do.

Thoughts of how stupid this run was kicked in. Shaking, I thought of reaching for my phone to call my husband and possibly get picked up at the next road. Reasoning, I felt that I shouldn’t throw away all of the day’s effort with 3 miles left. I also thought that it might be a low chance I see another cat or bear, or that the cat follows me for 3 miles (my worst nightmares of being on the trail). I kept picturing the video that went viral of the cougar following the man in Utah. No. Thank. You.

I then stopped eating until I finished the run, my adrenaline and survival kicked in. I still drank water. The 3 miles took a very long time and I was feeling unwell-ish, mostly terrified. I gripped my whistle between my fingers, ready to blow again for the remainder of the journey. I decided to turn on my heavy rock music to let animals know I was coming. It was the first time I had on music all day. The music was a part of survival, I didn’t even enjoy it.

As the music was spottily playing due to connection issues, I repeated out loud to myself, “Get to Jennings, please more traffic, people.” I only received relief knowing a person was driving on the road nearby or was partying a far from the campground. Repeating this affirmation, I was practically out of breath and having to drink because my mouth was getting dry. I hope that I never go through that again. I might just stick with races (more people around) if I’m going to be running at night.

Another mile or two passed and I felt the presence of a large shadow approaching my back left side, again. I think I was imagining it because of the cougar encounter, but that didn’t stop my body from reacting in the same way as when the cat growled. The freak-out from the shadow caused me to turn off of the NCT and onto another trail at Jenning’s Environmental Center. My watch alerted me that I was 200 feet off route. I was scared to turn around and go back, but knew I had to. It was hard to be brave.

I was fearful for the rest of the route. When I finished, I was out of it. I didn’t feel as excited as I thought I would, I was relieved and happy to be alive.

Wildlife spotted

• Chipmunks

• Squirrels

• Rabbits

• Birds

• Turkeys

• Deer

• Toads

• Millipedes

• Centipede

• Newts

• Cougar (didn’t see it)

Post run

While my husband was driving me home, I had to have him pull over, so I could throw up. I threw up again when I got home, it wasn’t pretty, it was blood.

Showered and difficulty sleeping. My cat laid at my feet and I had to sleep with half my legs off the bed. She will bite or claw if my feet bother her.

All of my muscles were sore and ached. My feet ached. The usual ultra feels.

Waking up post run morning, I was feeling “off” about the run. I wasn’t feeling excited about it, I felt neutral. I also think that doing this run was stupid of me, I think because it went drastically different than I imagined it would, taking me into the night, I underestimated the difficulty, and I was fearing for my life with 3 miles left. All of this comes from my commonsense. The more I reflect on the run, the more proud and accomplished I feel. I’m glad I did it and finished.

I’m grateful for the experience and accomplishments. Grateful for the “me time,” the trail, and benefits of nature and exercise. I’m grateful for what my body can do. I’m grateful for this reflection. Actually, kind of grateful that I had the rare experience with the cougar and that I was the bigger predator. Grateful for an answered prayer of safety.

Happy running!

Watch the YouTube video

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4 thoughts on “To Hell & Back, Women’s Unsupported FKT

  1. God did answer your prayer for safety, Shannon. This is an incredible accomplishment and a great article. A lot of elevation, a lot of distance and doing it self supported is amazing. The cougar encounter at mile 49 definitely would have been very unnerving.
    Cougars have been quietly been reintroduced in my area of Canada. A lot of deer/car collisions and the cougars have been reintroduced to try and control deer populations. The general population is not aware of this. I didn’t know about it until one day I saw what I was sure was cougar prints. I checked with a guy in my church who has connections with the Ministry of Natural Recourses, and he confirmed what I saw was correct.
    I’m glad you did have a whistle. Interesting seeing the picture of your fuel. Gels have never worked for me intestinally, but have started using Clif Energy Bloks this year. I can use them without throwing up. Hope your recovery has gone well. Throwing up blood can be very serious in some situations. Well done, Shannon. 🙏 🏃🏼‍♀️

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    1. Thank you so much for this!

      Yes, God definitely kept me safe.

      I called the rangers at the park to report the cougar and no one ever returned my call. I’ve been paranoid on every single run, but much less jumpy, my nervous system has been slowly returning to normal. My body is fully recovered and I’m back to my usual routine.

      That’s crazy and scary that the cougars have been quietly reintroduced up there and the general population doesn’t know.

      Spring Energy gels are real food, more like a yogurt than a GU gel, I’d say. After eating so many, it’s still a little too much “sweet” in my opinion. But way better than other gels. Clif Bloks are a win.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You are welcome, Shannon. I 1st learned about the reintroduction about 6 years ago. Since then there has been the odd cougar sighting, and they have been caught on trail cams. Most people assume they have claimed new territory on their own. Much like the black bear has done over the past 30 years.

        I am so glad your body has fully recovered. 🙂

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