Backpacker magazine suggests allowing 9 to 12 days to make it across the entire 100 Mile Wilderness on Maine’s section of the Appalachian Trail. Joe Wrobleski thought it seemed like a good idea to do it in less than two days, alone, without support. This was his second time running the 100 Mile Wilderness. In 2011, he ran it with friends from Trail Monster Running. That time, Wrobleski and the other runners were resupplied along the way. This time, Wrobleski topped his 2011 effort, finishing in just over 43 hours. We talked to Wrobleski about his experience.
You first took on the 100 Mile Wilderness in 2011, when you ran it with some other runners and got support along the way. What brought you back this time to run it unsupported?
I just wanted to increase the challenge a bit. I’ve been interested in unsupported runs, so I thought this would be good for my first one. I’ve done the Pemi Loop a number of times. That’s really not a big challenge. One hundred miles unsupported is a real test of planning skills.
What did you learn from the 2011 run?
I learned quite a bit. I learned that the trail beats up your feet and I’d have to deal with some pretty sore feet. I learned that I needed better lighting at night. Two years ago, I did it with a Petzl headlamp, which is adequate for most uses but when you’re by yourself at night trying to find the hash marks and navigate a very technical trail, you need a better lighting system. So I had two sources of light: a brighter headlamp, a Petzl Myo, and a flashlight that I used occasionally for a beam to shoot through the forest to pick up the hash marks. That worked a lot better than what I had two years ago.
What time did you start?
I got on the trail about 3:40 in the morning.
And it took 43:04, so you finished the next night.
Around 10:30 or so.
What did you bring with you for food?
Mostly bars and gels—Clif Bars, Pro Bars, some gels. I had some Honey Stinger waffles. Those are good. And I ate quite a few Sun Chips.
I actually had more food than I needed. I’d never done 100 miles unsupported before so I didn’t know exactly how much to bring. I speculated that I needed anywhere from 8,000 to 12,000 calories. I didn’t really settle on how much I was going to bring until the night before. I ended up bringing about seven pounds of food, and I ate 51 ounces of that, so I had more than half of the food left over that I pretty much just carried for 100 miles.
What kind of pack did you use?
I carried an Ultimate Direction Peter Bakwin.
How did you like it?
I thought it was great for something like that. I had plenty of room. I could have fit more gear, although I ended up not needing much gear. I had plenty of room for food, obviously. I think it’s 61 cubic inches of storage with the bottles up front. I switched up the manufacturer’s bottles for empty Gatorade bottles, which are about half the weight. I also brought a handheld bottle, which I really didn’t need, but it’s just easier to drink intermittently out of a handheld than having to take the bottle out of the holsters. So when it emptied I took whatever water I had in the holster bottle and filled up my handheld.
How did it go? Did you have a good time?
I had a really good time. The lowest point was climbing White Cap Mountain in the dark. I had to do that two years ago, too, and this time I had hoped to get over White Cap before the sun went down. One reason was to get the views and also just to finish all the big climbing in daylight. That’s why I started at 3:40 in the morning. But the trail was really wet. It rained all day Friday and a good part of the day on Thursday, so it was a sloppy mess, and my pack was quite a bit heavier than I thought it would be. I felt like I was working hard but I wasn’t really moving as fast as I wanted to.
The best time I had was during the daylight on the first day. The first 50 kilometers were just beautiful. The air cleared out quickly. There was some fog and humidity in the first few hours before things really cleared up. I just loved being out there and running on trails. So I was really happy to be doing it and seeing all the sights.
I don’t think my time will last long as the fastest known time, but I don’t know of anyone else who has done it unsupported.
You’ve done some tough ultras, including the Virgil Crest 100 and Western States 100. How did this compare?
It was a lot harder. I think it’s the hardest thing I’ve done so far. I’ve done the Grindstone 100, too, but this was quite a bit harder. It was certainly harder than doing it supported. I had to carry quite a bit more food and I had less of a safety net this time. Last time at least I knew there were people out on the trail that were part of my group and if something happened they’d be there at one of the roads and I could bail.
One good thing this time was that I have a lot more trail running experience and more confidence. Two years ago, that was just the second time I’d tried to cover that distance on foot. Now I’ve finished a number of 100-mile races.
You know, it’s not the hardest part of the AT by far. Certainly the stretch across New Hampshire is harder than the 100 Mile Wilderness, but the trail is almost always uneven and it just beats up your feet. My feet were certainly pretty swollen, just as they were two years ago.
When you look at the guidebooks, they suggest taking a week or 10 days or more. What do you like about doing it in one push?
It’s just the ultra mindset. I have that mindset of trying to do 100 miles as fast as I can. It’s quite a thrill to be able to cover that distance in that time. I’m so inspired by the mountains and the beauty around me. I just get to see more of it this way than if I was just hiking.
How much of the time were you able to run?
I think maybe 30 percent running. Once I got off Little Boardman, which is about 54 miles into it, the trail really flattened out. And around that time the sun was coming up, and I normally get a burst of energy after hiking all night into the sunrise. All of a sudden I felt really good again. I hit some pretty bad lows at night, which is typical for me. I start to feel a little woozy. But once the daylight comes that goes away. I was able to run for a long time from about mile 50 to 75. I think I was able to run a negative split because of that. The trail got much easier until I got to Nahmakanta Lake, and then I had to climb Nesuntabunt Mountain. It’s not a significant climb, but at that point, about 80 miles into it, you’re hoping that maybe you’ve already climbed it. I started to wonder whether I’d already gone over the mountain. I hadn’t.
In a report about your 2011 run on the trail, you wrote that you encountered a number of hikers and that some of them seemed a little taken aback by the fact that you were running the trail. Did you see many other hikers this time? What was their reaction?
I bumped into one guy who looked at me like I was sort of invading his space, but that’s just my interpretation. In general, when people are out there hiking, they look at you like you’re a little crazy. This happens a lot on the Pemi Loop when you see people sauntering down the trail after a swim. I think it’s kind of jarring to see someone running aggressively at you when you’re in a different mindspace and taking it more slowly. I forget that people who do ultras are outliers and it’s hard for other people to understand how this is fun for us.
Do you have advice for anyone else who might think of doing this?
Spend a lot of time on the Appalachian Trail or other really technical, rocky trails to get your feet ready for it. It will really beat up your feet. Do some minimalist running. Get your feet ready. And do a lot of climbing. Get as fit as you can. I don’t live close to the Whites so I don’t get out in the mountains as much as I would like to, but I try to put in as many running miles as I can, either on roads or local trails.
Do you have any plans for other big adventures?
I might try a double Presidential Traverse in a couple of weeks, from Dolly Copp out to 302 and back. I think I might be able to get that done in around 20 hours. I don’t want to do another 100-mile run. I’m running the Stone Cat 50 in November, so I should probably be doing more speed work, but I’d really like to get out in the mountains one more time and that sounds like a good run to do.