Chasing FKTs on the Colorado Trail by Matt Graham
There is a slight burn in the thighs as I move up the forested switchbacks. The excitement of a new journey increases the pace slightly, though my mental dialogue tells me to slow down. I’m only 10 miles into a 495 mountain odyssey. Excitement and doubt seem to tug equally at my core. In part because I’m still shaking out stiff legs from more than 10 hours in my girlfriend's Subaru. And because competition has not been a strong focus of my running the past 20 years. I had traded my high tech running shoes for handmade sandals and began to live with the land as a Hunter Gatherer. Now I’m back in the mountains with the latest Altra shoes and a UD Fastback.
I had spent some time in the San Juan Mountains the previous summer getting a taste of how special they are. Running there with other mountain dwelling friends rekindled my love for those majestic towering formations reaching for the sky. The Colorado Trail always held appeal for me, and setting an official FKT had a nice ring to it as well.
However, I wasn't about to chase after the records Mike McKnight and Courtney Dauwalter set. Two masters of the “Pain Cave'' philosophy. Myself, though I come from a background of speed and many podiums, have spent too much time meditating in desert canyons feeling peaceful vibes. With all that Hunter Gatherer time, I did manage to cultivate one unique skill as a runner. Traveling great distances with very little food and water. This made going after an “Unsupported” FKT seem more doable, meaning I’d carry all of my supplies and food from start to finish. No buying snacks when the trail crossed a store, and not accepting any handouts. This of course still presents a unique challenge when you are covering nearly 500 miles with 98,000 feet of climbing on one food pack.
That's where the doubts crept back in.
Now 39 miles into my first day, my legs are begging for ease, and my shoulders are having conversations with me for adding a 15 pound food pack on them while running. Nutrition is going to be key. Packing the right fuel without being too much weight is a fine line. I broke down my nutrition into five categories. Spring Energy packs for instant fuel and real food, traditional Pinole (Toasted ground corn) for dense carbs, Keto Bricks for high fat fuel, a giant bag of crushed chips and pretzels for salts, and chia seeds mixed with Spring Energy Passion Yams drink mix. I actually felt confident with the nutrition and my body's ability to handle less food when needed.
The following day on the trail, the body began to shake out some fatigue from the first day. I was growing confidence, feeling a connection with the land, and enjoying getting into higher elevations. Still, my shoulders were not happy with the 25 pound load in my UD Fastback. I found myself eating as much as I could to reduce the pack's weight. A decision I knew I would suffer for later, though I would deal with it when it came. At one point I ran through a ski resort full of hot food and friendly faces. Ordinarily I may have been tempted by all the delicious food available, though my shoulders were still happy with eating the food I was already carrying. Besides, the “unsupported’ run was beyond a means to an FKT, it was also a personal goal. I continued on with full determination.
Each day I was met with unexpected challenges. Early on I had trouble learning the tech to officially record the FKT. The features of my Coros watch and my Garmin InReach were all new to me. I was also uncertain of the best way to maintain the batteries on the move. Solar or carrying extra batteries were the two options. I chose both.
Torrential afternoon monsoon rains had me drying out gear and clothing daily, and sometimes caused necessary waiting time to safely climb over mountain passes. I often stopped, making modifications to my pack, hoping it would be more comfortable. At one point, I wore out the insoles of my shoes. After much experimentation, stuffing the shoe with grass was the only thing keeping my feet rubbing raw on the unfinished canvas inside of the shoe. This is all part of it though. Finding ways to adapt is as important for an FKT as it is a Hunter Gatherer.
I had chosen to take on the more challenging ‘West Collegiate' Colorado Trail . More doubts crept in as I made my way around Twin Lakes. Hikers warned me of how the West Collegiate were much more rugged, both in footing and steepness. They also expressed how much more remote and “wild” feeling they were. That word, “wild” was enough to ward off doubts with excitement.
As my legs continued with mixed running/hiking into the Alpine environment over Hope Pass, I had sense again that I was going to complete the FKT. Further into the West Collegiates the terrain was more challenging, though I felt more invigorated. The steeper the mountain, the stronger I felt. At one point near 13,000 feet I came upon a large group of Ptarmigans perfectly camouflaged within the grassy, rocky mountainside. A bird that changes its feather patterns with the changing seasons. They allowed me to approach within a couple feet. The little bird’s eyes seemed to reflect a long ago lost wisdom of the mountain. It looked at me with a softness, almost like acceptance. Whether it knew it or not, the birds' all knowing expression made me feel like I was “one with the mountains” again. Or rather should I say, I no longer felt like a visitor, though I felt like I belonged there, in that place, and within this experience.
The daily miles began to increase. On this day I ran 48 miles. Though I've run 100k days on multi day adventure runs before, the extra weight of my food pack made it feel like a 50 mile day was unsustainable for me. However I was still on track for the FKT, and blessed by reincarnated Ptarmigans (Pretty sure that Ptarmigan was like a buddha), I continued to feel invigorated by the trail. My Hunter Gatherer skills were also coming into play. As I ran alongside wild currant bush’s, gooseberries, rose hips, and edible mushrooms, I swooped them up with ease and began to replace some of the calories I lost earlier on the trail. In fact, I was eating mega pounds of berries daily, and had the shits to prove it. The mountains, the feeling of connection was all coming back. I giggled at the thought of calling myself a ‘Mountain Man’ again. In honesty, I was rekindling the essence of when I lived in the Sierra Mountains as a young climber and mountain runner. Nothing would stop me.
I was 370 miles into my run. I still had a third of my food pack left, and I felt great. With a few setbacks early on, I’m 10 days in so far. I’m still on track for a solid Unsupported ‘West Collegiate Colorado Trail’ FKT, though I’m two days behind the schedule created for myself. I have 125 miles left to go, with two days left to complete it before needing to return home to teach a Hunter Gatherer course that was scheduled. Conflict arose. I began to push harder, faster. My grass lined Altras needed hourly grass replacements, and my feet frequently wore through the grass. The skin on my feet began to wear away. No blister kit, I still pushed on, determined.
Torn, my journey has to stop here. On paper, not completing the FKT doesn't sound like a great story, maybe even a little like another excuse. For me it was a huge success, and it all began the day I met the Ptarmigan. In many ways, the Ptarmigan is the real hero of this story. The little tan/gray/white mottled bird made me feel accepted again in the mountains. The FKT was important to me, although I mostly needed to feel like a real mountain athlete again for myself, and I found that. I’ll be back for more. I've been running Ultras for 30 years now, and haven't felt like stopping yet.
This is incredible! An inspiring and impressive adventure.
Great job! Love reading about CT adventures. Having done the trail twice, it’s always exciting to me when I know the exact spot someone is talking about.
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