The Maine 100 Mile Wilderness (M100W) is a famous stretch of the Appalachian Trail from Rt. 15 in Monson, Maine to the Abol Bridge at the edge of Baxter State Park and the foot of Mt. Katahdin. It is the most remote section of the AT, and is one of the most rugged portions, if not the most rugged portion of the trail. The elevation gain/loss is in the 15-17,000 foot range, and the footing is almost universally uneven, with the trail strewn with roots, rocks, or shoe sucking mud. This is the sign at the trail head in Monson.
The Challenge: In the early spring, Ian, of our trail running club called the “Trail Monsters,” came up with the idea to invite experienced ultra runners to participate in a “run” on the M100W, and attempt to break the speed record of 40 hours. The proposal included running this section in a southerly direction, from Abol Bridge to Rt. 15 in Monson – this would mean facing the mountainous part of the course in the second half, and a portion of which, at night. A proviso was that every runner have a “crew” that would assist them and keep track of them, as this was not an organized race. There were 5 places on the course where crew members could drive up logging roads to meet their runners and resupply them. The date was set for August 5th-6th.
This idea immediately intrigued me, but as I had not attempted the 100 mile distance before, and I was scheduled to run Vermont 100 in mid-July, I expressed interest, but was not able to fully commit to the run. Also, I knew that getting a crew together would be near impossible, so it seemed unlikely I would participate this year.
The Training: My training for VT100 went well, and I had a good first 100 mile finish (23:10:xx). After a day off, I was able to cross train for a couple of days, and I was running again by the end of the first week after the race, so I knew I could recover soon enough to participate in the run. I decided to commit to the run and develop a plan. For training, I knew I mostly had to concentrate on recovery, without growing stale from inactivity. I ran most days in the 3 weeks leading up to this event, with a few medium long runs in the 10-12 mile range on trails, and some Stairmaster mixed in with a few days off.
The Plan: Without a crew, I had to figure out a way to resupply myself on the course. I knew I could carry enough food for about 50K, and that there were plenty of springs, streams and rivers on the course to supplement the drinking water supply, so my idea was to hang two 5 gallon buckets at two places on the course. As luck would have it, two major logging roads crisscross the course at 40 miles (Jo-Mary Road) and at 70 miles (Gulf Hagas), so I targeted those places to hang my caches of food. Many of us would camp the night before at the Abol Campground near the start and start the run at 5:00 am.
This was a point-to-point 100 mile run, and being able to resupply myself on the course did not guarantee me a way to get back to the start and the Abol Bridge. The best I could come up with was to hope that I would finish with a runner one or be ahead of a finisher who would give me a ride back to the campground at the end. My back up plan was to stay at one of the two Camper’s Hostels in Monson (about 4 miles down the road from the trail) and pay them to shuttle me back to the start. I knew they picked up campers from the AT. These were not ideal arrangements, but they got me to the start on August 5th.
The day before the race, I drove up to the trail to hang my caches. I found the spots without a problem and walked a short way into the woods off the trail to hang them. I was able to get them high enough to appear safe from critters, and far enough into the woods to hide them from hungry through-hikers. I left a gallon of spring water on the ground near each cache. There was nothing left to do but cross my fingers and hope they would be there when I got there on the trail. I headed up Rt 11 to Millinocket and the Abol Bridge Campground, and met up with the Trail Monsters at about 6:30pm. Here’s the view of Katahdin from the campground the night before the run.
The Gear: I ran in a Nathan HP020 hydration vest with an 8oz Nathan gel flask for the mesh pocket (these worked very well) and an Amphipod waist pack (fits 3 Cliff Bars). To give me even more storage options, I wore Race Ready shorts, with mesh pockets on the waist. I carried a 22oz Nathan handheld bottle. I was able to carry almost 3 liters of water in this gear along with 5 Cliff Bars, a bottle of Ensure, Aqaumera water treatment bottles, a bag of trail mix stuffed with the bladder, and electrolytes in a pocket of my shorts. I tied my Pezel Headlamp to my waist belt and stuffed my camera in one of my vest pockets.
The Run: I had no real goal for this run, other than to finish. Finishing less than 40 hours would be nice, but I was not sure what to expect for the course except that the prospect of mountain climbing at night scared the heck out of me. I saw this more as a social event, and I wanted to stick with the group as much as possible. After a few words from the organizer of this event (Ian), twelve of us lined up at about 5:00am for the start of the run. (I am on the far left in blue.)
There had been showers the day before, and almost immediately on starting the run, we encountered very slippery roots. It was not long before I found myself at the very end of the pack, with most of the runners out of sight in a few minutes. My plan was to try to stick to a group of runners that were compatible with my pace for the most part. Trail Monsters Ian, Emma and Jeremy were running around my pace, if a little fast, so I stuck with them for the first miles.
The first 10 miles or so were flat but fairly rough, as advertised. We stopped at Rainbow Spring to top off our bottles and get a snack.
Shortly afterwards, we met up with friend Julian. Julian was attempting the run unsupported and self-contained, meaning he was not going to get resupplied on the trail. We ran together for another 5 miles or so, but separated after the crossing at Pollywog Stream, with Ian, Emma and Jeremy running on ahead. It felt good to still have a running companion. About a mile up the trail, Ian and the group had stopped at the first logging road check point, and Julian and I kept going, as neither of us needed to stop. Since we missed the spring at Pollywog, we filled up our water bottles and bladder at Wadleigh Stream, at around mile 23. This was a questionable source, so we had to treat it, which took up a little time. Running around Nahmakanta Lake, and other lakes, we took in some pretty good views:
Or we were running right on the beach.
It was starting to get hot, and it would have been nice to jump right into the lake, but we kept moving.
At around this point, I was lagging a little and having a hard time keeping up. We stopped at Wood Rat Spring at about mile 27, to fill up and have an extended break. This was an ample spring and the water was very cold. A short while later, Ian and his group got to the spring. We stayed for a little longer, then Julian and I got back on the trail.
The trail seemed to flatten out and become more runnable. I went on ahead, figuring that Julian would catch up when I took walk breaks (he is an incredibly fast hiker), or at some other point down the trail. Running felt good, after more hiking than running, and I kept going all the way to Jo-May Road and my first cache.
I let out a whoop when saw my bucket hanging where I left it.
It was dinner time (Spaghettios with an Ensure and a Snickers Bar). I reloaded my vest and waist pack, and I headed up the trail in the twilight, wanting to get in as many miles as I could before it got dark. I got a nice view of Little Boardman Mountain from either Crawford Pond or Mountain View Pond:
I had been alone since about mile 30, and I was a little nervous facing the biggest climb of the run (White Cap) in the dark, which was a major upgrade from my previous night running experience. But I had gained some confidence in navigation from the start, and there was nothing else to do but face it, so I kept going.
Shortly after it got dark, the trail flattened out, and went through a meadow for a considerable distance. This meadow had no trees to speak of and the grass and bushes encroached on the trail to the point of covering it from view. This stretch was a little nerve wracking because there were no hash marks on trees to keep track of, and the trail was not visible underneath the growth. I went slowly, making sure to stay on the trail. Bats were nailing bugs caught in the beam of my headlamp about a foot from my face – this added to the fun.
The climb up White Cap, was hard, but uneventful. The trail was well marked, and frequently turned into rock stairs, which made it easy to follow. Up top it looked like a lunar landscape – mostly boulders all over the top with little vegetation. I got a good view of the stars (no moon) and they were beautiful.
I did not stay there long – it was cold and windy on top of the mountain (I had a jacket with me, but did not feel like unpacking it, figuring I would be out of the wind before long) and my light was fading, so I wanted to get out of the wind and change my batteries. Fortunately, I brought a small flashlight to light the battery change, so this was not a problem in the dark. The trail down was steep and rocky.
The south side of White Cap consisted of a series of 3 lesser peaks (Hay, West and Gulf Hagas), but these were not bald faces, so I did not get cold the rest of the night, and I cruised down the mountain to the West Branch of the Peasant River.
This was the first river ford where my feet got wet. Despite the mud and water, my feet stayed relatively dry during the daylight hours. This was by design, as I had only one pair of shoes and one pair of socks for this run, and mud and moisture tends to give me blisters on my feet.
Fording the river felt good on my feet, and washed off some of the mud from the run. The sun was coming up, and I was able to turn off my head lamp. A short walk up the trail on the other side, and I found my second cache:
I met up with Mindy, Alison and other crew members. It was great to meet up with them and chat while I re-supplied and stuffed my face. I switched gel flasks and stuffed my shorts with caffeinated gels for the last 50K. I felt good about my chances to break 40 hours at this point. I left my flashlight behind, figuring I had enough battery power to light my way through if it got dark at the end. My feet were starting to get sore and I had more than one hot spot, but, my spirits were high and I was ready to be inspired by the climb up Chairback Mt.
Half way up the mountain, I realized that I had left my map in the bucket down at Gulf Hagas. Since I had not referred to the map the first 70 miles, I thought I was OK going ahead – and in any event, I was not going back down the mountain to get it.
The climb up the Barren Chairback was pretty tough – the trail seemed to frequently send you up rocky slopes like this
The views were nice, if not spectacular.
When I got down Fourth Mountain, I was running low on water, and I was starting to feel a little light headed (it was hot out there). I crossed a very small creek, and I decided to tank up at the creek. Afterwards, I headed out on the trail, but I had the feeling that I was heading in the wrong direction, because I was going up again. I headed back to the creek, to figure out from which direction I crossed it, but I could not shake the feeling that I was heading north again (this is where a map would have been handy). I decided to bite the bullet and walk back until I saw something I definitely recognized as having past. I walked until I got to a sign asking people to stay off the boggy area. I had noted that sign as I passed it, so I knew I needed to turn around and head in the other direction. I lost a lot of time here.
I was frustrated at this point, and started to run and hike fast past the Cloud Pond Lean-to and down the Barren ledges. By the time I got to Long Pond Stream, my feet hurt like heck, and were blistering in a number of spots. I was hot, and I decided to refill my bladder with what looked like better water, and douse my aching feet and my head to cool off. I also got my head together here, and got my nutrition back on track with regular eating and drinking, and running where I could and walking where I needed to walk.
Feeling revived, I got to the Long Pond Stream checkpoint and wondered if I was in the right place. That’s when I realized that the runners I thought were behind me had stopped, and that, in the last 15 miles, I would be alone in this. I still felt pretty good, even though my feet were aching, and in any event, there was nothing left to do but to finish up, and figure things out at Rt. 15. I was about 36 hours into the run, so 4 hours to go 15 miles seemed doable.
This was a runnable stretch, so I took off at a brisk jog, and hiked where I needed to. I saw a lot of through hikers in this stretch, many of whom commented on the “race.” Some were matter-of-fact about it, (one asked why we didn’t start in Monson – good question!) but others seemed annoyed by it in some way.
For some reason I kept asking hikers about this stretch of trail – how far how hard, etc. The start of this stretch was very runnable, and I was making really good time and hoping to get in close to Rt. 15 before nightfall.
When I got to the Wilson Valley Lean to, I met some hikers who were bunking down for the night. The guy asked, “Are you one of those racers?” I said I was and I was headed to Monson for the finish. The woman said, “Oh that stretch is a ball buster!” She probably saw my jaw drop because she said “I’m sorry to tell you that, but you have your work cut out for you if you are to make to Monson.” I asked them which way to the trail and took off.
After a railroad track crossing (the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic RR), there was a cool ford of Big Wilson Stream. This was fast moving thigh high water, and they had a rope across the very wide stream so you could get yourself across hand-over-hand, because your legs were almost useless in the rushing water.
I bumped into another hiker around Little Wilson Falls, who said I was about 6.4 miles away from Rt.15. He said he had seen another runner about an hour ahead of me, but he told me that I would not make it there before nightfall. I was a little more than 39 hours into the run, and I thought, just an hour to go 6 miles. I headed out as fast as I could.
I got dark shortly after that, and navigation got very tricky. The trail made a lot of twists and turns, the hash marks were faded in many places, and went over rock ledges where the worn trail disappeared and you had to find the hash marks without getting turned around. My biggest fear was of getting spun around looking for the hash marks and ending up heading back into the wilderness. I moved very slowly and carefully. I could hear the road at this point, but it frequently felt like I was moving away from the road, which was disorienting. After a while I noticed I needed a brighter beam – I had extra batteries, but no flashlight to reload. Fortunately, Pezel lets you open the light while it is still on, so I could see how the batteries went in before the light went out.
When I got to the Leeman Brook Lean-to, I completely lost the hash marks. They ended at a sign that said Rt 15, 3 miles, and a double hash mark (indicating a turn in the trail) and then nothing. Someone was camping nearby and got out of his tent to see what was up. He had come from the North, so he was not familiar with the rest of the trail. Eventually, I saw the hash mark down in the gully near Leeman Brook. By inches, I was able to find each mark going over the Brook and up the next hill. I filled up my bottle at the Brook (not the bladder) and headed out.
Once I got over the hill, I was back on the worn trail and hiking again at a good clip, but I was exhausted and dehydrated. This was the longest 3 mile hike I have ever taken.
I got to the last directional sign (no indication of which way to Rt 15) and saw an unused placard for postings. There was only one visible trail, so I headed up it a ways, but there was a lot of grass and vegetation on it, so after a bit of walking, I headed back to the sign. I looked around the area, and saw what looked like a road, and, behind the placard and not visible from in front, was clearly the AT. I said a few curses as I headed up the trail, thinking that it would not be long till I got to the end. After I ways up the trail, I started to wonder if I was on the right trail, (I could no longer hear the road) so I headed back to the sign, to check out what looked like a third way out. That turned out to be a dead end, so I committed to walking on the trail until I couldn’t walk any more. I was already out of water and feeling dehydrated. Passing over a split log bridge, I thought it looked pretty comfortable, and had visions of camping out there for the night. But I was on zombie mode at that point and I just kept walking.
It seemed like forever, but eventually I saw the sign warning hikers about the M100W. Shortly after the sign, I saw a bag on the ground, with 3 apples and an orange – without thinking, I pounced on them and ate an apple as I hiked out the trail onto the parking lot.
It was pitch black at the lot. I hit my watch (43:15:04). I could not believe how long that last 6 miles took me, but I was glad to be out of there. I checked the cars parked in the lot to see if there was any one in one of them. They were empty, so I sat on a rock, ate another apple and the orange, and sat on a rock to collect my thoughts.
It was 1:15am. Even if I could call the Camper’s Hostel, there would be no one up to shuttle me over. Hitching wasn’t an option. Hiking to Monson was really the only alternative. My feet hurt, but I felt like I could make it, so I headed out.
It was a flat stretch of road into Monson, and I hiked as fast as I could. I did have visions of crawling onto someone’s porch to sleep the night, but nothing looked inviting. I passed a cemetery, and I some thoughts there, but there were no platforms to lie on, and I did not want to get on the wet grass.
I took the left into Monson and at this point I was staggering. My state of dehydration was much worse. I saw a light on in a house and knocked a few times on the door to get directions – no answer. As I walked across the street, I noticed a shade move in the window of the house I was leaving – bastards!
The folks across the street were polite but guarded – and they told me the hostel was a 10th of a mile down the street. I thanked them and headed out.
When I got to the hostel, all the lights were off and the door was open – nobody up. I decided to let myself in and settle with the owners in the morning. I got to the sink and took a drink of water. I was filthy and I knew I reeked, (especially when I took of my shoes) and so getting on the furniture was not an option. I found a yoga mat in the corner, and I unrolled it on the living area floor, and draped my jacket over myself for a blanket. I got 4-5 hours of sleep before I heard activity around me.
Mostly everyone kept their distance at first. I got up and out there door, so as not to foul up the air in the house any further. I found a hose and cleaned off my legs, and sat in an Adirondack until someone came to deal with me. This cat was friendly.
Eventually the woman who was co-owner (Dawn) came out and asked me what my story was. When I told her, she said she had heard of the run, and I was in luck – that another hiker was being shuttled to Abol that morning, and that I could grab a shower and a change of clothes before they headed out. I thanked her and headed for the shower.
Before I got in, the hiker who had commissioned the ride stopped me and asked me how long I would be. I told him I would be right out, and he said that was good because he had “12 miles to get in today.” I stared at him for a moment and then told him I would be right out.
When I got out of the shower I found the hiker and told him I was ready to head out. The other owner (Dick) interrupted and said “Breakfast first!” I told him the hiker was in a hurry, and he said “Breakfast first!” So, I relented.
It was amusing being at the breakfast table with a bunch of wide-eyed hikers. A hiker that earlier looked at me like I was the foulest thing within 50 miles called me a “bad-ass.” Another asked me what the point was of running the M100W I less than 2 days. I told her there really wasn’t a point.
This was an incredible, beautiful, difficult, sometimes painful experience. Congratulations to all the runners who attempted this run and, to the finishers, hats off! Thanks to Ian for organizing this great event.