This year we’re sending normal runners out to take on some fastest known time routes. Read more about the project here.
A rocky trek across the highest peaks in New Hampshire, with endless views (on a good day) and multiple chances to stop for baked goods at AMC huts.
Distance: 18 to 19 miles, depending on exact route selection over the peaks
FKT: 4:34:36 (Ben Nephew). Women’s FKT is 5:32:49 (Kristina Folcik-Welts) following slightly different route, as explained below.
Normal runner time: 6:30 to 10:00
Access: this is a point-to-point route, so you’ll either need to take two cars or use the AMC hiker shuttle.
In 2009, Ryan Welts set the standard for the current north to south FKT route over the Presidentials. He followed Daniel Webster-Scout Trail from the Dolly Copp campground to the Osgood Junction. From there, he followed the Appalachian Trail (aka Osgood Trail) south over Madison to the Madison Hut. From the hut, he continued following the AT (which is also called the Gulfside Trail from Madison to just north of Washington and the Crawford Path from there to just north of Pierce), departing where necessary to summit peaks that are not actually on the AT (Adams, Jefferson, Monroe, Eisenhower, and Pierce). After summiting Pierce, he turned around and returned to the Crawford Path (which splits from the AT just north of Pierce), and followed it to Route 302.
Welts completed his 2009 traverse in 5:07:44. Since that run, the record has been held by Jan Wellford, Welts again, Ben Nephew, Wellford again, and then Nephew again. Nephew currently holds the record on this route (an insane 4:34:36). It seems hard to imagine someone going faster anytime soon, but 2013 showed that anything is possible.
In 2014, the women jumped in the game. Amy Rusiecki and Kelsey Allen posted the first women’s FKT of 7:12:30. Interestingly, they chose a different route up Monroe, ascending from Appalachia via Valley Way. In her report, Rusiecki made clear that she knew this record would not stand long, but that she wanted to put a women’s time out there for someone to beat. And just one week later, Kristina Folcik-Welts took up the challenge and followed the same route, finishing in a time of 5:32:49. Folcik-Welts’s time could probably stand for quite a while, though in drier conditions Folcik-Welts and some other fast women could probably take some time off the descent down Crawford Path south of Pierce, as Folcik-Welts set the record in June when the trail was still pretty wet.
Check out more on these records on the fastest known time website.
The Normal Runner
So what can a more normal runner expect from the Presidential Traverse? On June 21, 2014, I set out to find out. First, to give you a sense of where I fall in the speed spectrum (so you can figure out how your experience might compare to mine), let me say this: I am a truly middle of the pack runner. In short and mid-length trail races—3 to 15 miles—I have a knack for coming in right at the 50th percentile overall, a bit higher among women. On roads or easier trails, I’m happy enough to maintain a nine-minute-mile pace, though I can push closer to eight-minute miles over shorter distances. I do have more experience in the mountains than a lot of trail runners and also a fair amount of experience with long, unsupported mountain hikes. Last year I finished third among women and right around the middle of the pack overall at the Wakely Dam Ultra (a 55k unsupported trail race in the Adirondacks) and I also section hiked and ran all of the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire, most of it by myself, covering several sections of about 20 miles on day hikes. So, I’m a confident mountain runner and hiker, but my speed puts me in the middle of the pack.
On June 21, my moving time on the traverse was about 8:20. I am pretty sure that, if I pushed hard and didn’t fall (see below), I could shave about an hour off this time, since I didn’t run nearly as much of the southern sections as I have in the past and I could probably have pushed my initial ascent up Madison a little harder. I had planned to do the traverse on that day because it was also the day of the Mount Washington Road Race and I wanted to hang out for a while on the summit of Washington and cheer the runners. So I started early with the goal (which I met) of being on the Washington summit before the first runners arrived at 10 a.m. I took a long break on Washington to watch, cheer, and take photos. I also stopped for coffee at the Lake of the Clouds Hut and stopped for a bit after a nasty fall on the way up Washington. Because I planned to spend some time on the Washington summit, I stuffed my pack full of more clothes than I would normally carry for this traverse.
Getting up Madison
The start of the traverse is probably the toughest part. The fastest men hit the summit of Madison via the Daniel Webster-Scout Trail in the 1:10 to 1:15 range. Folcik-Welts made it up Madision on Valley Way in 1:25. I hit the summit in 2:07 via Daniel Webster-Scout. I think on a better day I might be able to shave 10 to 15 minutes off that time, but honestly, that would be pushing it for me. I hiked, rather than ran, the whole way up, even the more runnable sections. I tend to start a little slow and cautious, and I wasn’t feeling great at the start. Still, now that I know the route better, I could probably push this a little faster.
If you aren’t looking to set a men’s FKT, it might be worth trying the Valley Way trail, since Appalachia is easier to reach on the shuttle than Dolly Copp (not an issue if you have two people and park a car at the southern end). But that trail is not a shortcut. It is just as long and has almost the exact same elevation gain as Daniel Webster-Scout, so it isn’t likely to improve your time too much. To be honest, there just isn’t an easy way up Madison. To get up any of those northern Presidentials from the valley below, the trails follow a generally similar pattern. They start at a moderate grade, giving you a little confidence boost. Then they just turn straight-up, nasty steep. Fun, if you like that sort of thing, but steep. There is no way around it. So, normal runners, expect to spend some time getting up Madison. The AMC White Mountain Guide (book time) estimates that it takes 4:05 to the summit on Daniel Webster-Scout and 4:10 on Valley Way. A more experienced trail runner can probably take those times below three hours, but don’t feel bad if you are struggling here.
Madison to Washington
From Madison to Washington, the footing is the biggest issue. It is all rock, and your speed is going to be determined by how slick the rock is and how confident you are. Route selection at the micro level—meaning choosing which rocks to step on—is very important here. If you’ve ever hiked or run in that area, you know how easy it is to veer just slightly one way or another and find yourself scrambling or struggling to find good spots to step, only to look to your left or right and see a much easier line of travel.
Trail conditions, and wetness in particular, are also a big factor. I started early in the morning—around 5:00 a.m.—in order to reach Mount Washington to see the race. If I wanted to go faster, I would leave a couple of hours later to allow the wind and sun some time to dry the rocks. It was pretty slick, but as the morning went on, it got less slick. I also wouldn’t look to go fast on a wet day. Falling here hurts. I know because I took a big fall just about a mile north of Washington. At the time, I wasn’t running and it wasn’t even a terribly difficult section (about as easy as this area gets). I was just walking along smiling and thinking things were going well. Next thing I knew, I was on my face. The slightest movement of a rock can do that up there. I landed hard on both knee caps and cut one knee fairly badly. This slowed me down substantially later in the day.
I was up Washington in a little under five hours (including the time I spent lying on my face on the trail after my fall). The fastest men post times right around three hours to the summit of Washington, and Folcik-Welts made it there in 3:40. I think on a faster day, if I took a little time off the Madison ascent and then pushed a little faster on the section in between (which I would probably be more likely to do if the rock was a little drier), I could probably hit Washington closer to 4:30. But the things that slowed me down are things that are likely to happen on just about any run (feeling tired and a little queasy at the start, nervousness about footing, falling, etc.). So a normal runner shouldn’t be surprised to be standing on the summit of Washington closer to six hours into the trip either. The AMC book time for the six-mile stretch from Madison Hut to Washington is 4:15, but that doesn’t include the short detours over the summits of Adams and Jefferson. So, book time from the start to Washington would be over eight hours. Experienced runners can shave a lot of this, but plan for these northern sections to be tough. The first half of the traverse is, without question, the harder half.
Washington to Crawford Notch
From Washington, things get fun and much more runnable. This is the section where I really would have liked to have gone fast. Unfortunately, my knees were in bad shape from my fall. I managed to control the bleeding using first aid materials I had brought (be prepared!) but I was pretty stiff and, to be honest, scared to fall again. I knew I couldn’t take it. So I went pretty cautiously even though my brain was dying to run.
Assuming it isn’t too wet, Washington to Lake of the Clouds Hut is fun and runnable. The footing is still very rocky, so you need to be careful, but it isn’t as steep or difficult as some of the sections to the north. (Also, on a nice day there is likely to be a lot of traffic on this section. Slowing down when passing hikers can definitely add some time, but it’s probably worth it to avoid being the jerk who knocked over the kid making his first summit of Washington or the thru-hiker who is 300 miles away from finishing the entire Appalachian Trail.)
From Lake of the Clouds, the ascents up Monroe and Eisenhower are steep and will probably entail a lot of hiking rather than running, but the sections in between the peaks are very runnable. I truly love the southern Presidentials, and they’re a great place to pick up some speed. The fastest men make it from Washington to Route 302 (don’t forget to tag Pierce before turning around to head down Crawford Path) between 1:30 and 2:00. Folcik-Welts ran Washington to 302 in about 1:52.
After hitting Pierce and turning around to head back down Crawford Path, the trail is very runnable, assuming it isn’t too wet. That said, this is also an area to be careful for injuries because tired legs may not move quite as fast as your brain wants them to. I had to be very careful in this section with my banged-up knees. I would have loved to run fast. I love technical downhills like this, but, given that it was June, the trail was very wet, and I knew I couldn’t withstand a fall. So I took it slow. I’d like to go back in late summer and run this descent again. I took between three and three and a half hours from Washington to Route 302, but I know I could run this section faster. A lot faster. How much faster? I guess we’ll see. Book time is 4:25, but that does not include the trips up Monroe, Eisenhower, or Pierce, which probably add at least another 30 to 45 minutes (or more). I think a runner with some experience can definitely run at least as fast as I did, assuming there are no injuries or other concerns, like weather.
So, with all of these variables, I’m going to say a trail runner who is experienced and understands mountain running, but isn’t necessarily a speed demon, can run this FKT route in 6:30 to 10:00.
A few tips
- Don’t be surprised if you feel a little queasy up Madison. The first couple of miles of the Dolly Copp trail are runnable (depending on your fitness level) or at least fast-hikable, but from there it is pretty rugged and steep with lots of hand-over-hand climbing. I was really glad that another runner had told me that when running the traverse last year he felt terrible on this climb but later finished really happy with an overall time of 6:45. If I hadn’t talked to him, I would have felt pretty discouraged. As always, listen to your body, but know that this climb can leave even a strong runner feeling a little woozy so don’t feel like you need to bail just because you are off to a rough start.
- Be careful going to fast on the rocky northern sections, especially if it is wet from rain or early morning. These rocks are slick. And they move. Even if you think you have a great place to step, it might not be great with your weight on it. Falling here hurts.
- Consider wearing gloves in the northern Presidentials, even if it is pretty warm. After setting the most recent FKT, Ben Nephew commented that he’d forgotten to take off his wedding ring and it was all roughed up from using his hands so much. These rocks can really shred not only your rings but your palms. It is rarely so warm in that area that you can’t wear light gloves. You may be glad later that you did. Also, the temperature can drop pretty fast as you climb, so gloves may feel pretty good anywat.
- Respect these peaks: have an exit strategy. There are many options for side trails to get down if the weather gets nasty. Have a map, study up, have a plan. Sure, the huts are a good place to hide out for a bit, but sometimes bad weather lingers longer or a hut is miles away. Also, and this is especially true for those who aren’t setting records, carry a little extra clothing and some first aid supplies, even if you don’t think you’ll need them. I was sure glad to have that stuff after I fell. In terms of clothes, as great as the hut staff is, they probably aren’t going to literally give you the shirt off their back, so bring something warmer than you think you’ll need.
- Have a sense of the order of the summits. There are a lot of intersections and, though there are signs, it’s nice not to have to pull out your map constantly.
Is it worth it?
The route is definitely worth it. Everyone who has the fitness, interest, and time should give this route a try. If you are only going to do part of the traverse and you want to try running, choose the southern half. If you are only going to do part and love rocky hand over hand climbs, then you want the north.
Also, if you are looking for a longer (and more painful) challenge, you should consider staying with the Appalachian Trail after summiting Pierce to tag Mounts Jackson and Webster as you head down the vicious Webster Cliff Trail. Because Jackson was named after 19th century New Hampshire geologist Charles Thomas Jackson (not Andrew Jackson), it isn’t technically a Presidential, but it is a fun climb. And the “run” down Webster Cliff Trail is just plain gnarly. No one seems to have posted an FKT including this section of trail, so you could leave your mark here.
Here’s a rough look at the men’s FKT route, but you’ll definitely want to bring along a map, such as the Presidential Range map from the AMC.
(click to enlarge)