Over the past week, a group of Virginia ultrarunners had a spirited online discussion about an iconic fastest known time (FKT) route in Central Virginia’s beloved Shenandoah National Park. The route is the 105-ish-mile Appalachian Trail section, which traverses the park and contains some of the most actively traveled training grounds for Virginia ultrarunners. Having completed the route myself as part of my 50th birthday celebration back in 2017 (not as an FKT attempt), I was quite interested in the discussion.
In the course of the conversation, much of the dialogue centered around what exactly the route is and, specifically, where it officially begins and ends. The Appalachian Trail effectively enters Shenandoah National Park in the north a few miles east of Front Royal and exits the park at Rockfish Gap just east of the town of Waynesboro in the south. The most notable FKT attempt to date was Matt Kirk’s traverse of the park in under 24 hours back in 2004, but little additional information exists about the route or it boundaries. As such, in the course of the conversation, I was asked what I considered to be the ‘cleanest’ route.
In my birthday run, I began in the north at the place where the Appalachian Trail crosses U.S. Route 522 east of Front Royal. Technically, this location is 3.5 miles north of where the trail enters the park but since there is no road access to that particular place, I started at the road crossing. I also ended my run 3.5 miles short of Rockfish Gap because I was tired after 30 hours and that last 3.5-mile section is miserable. All this being said, in the course of the conversation and in an attempt to determine the most accurate route, the group essentially divided into four ‘camps:’
The Purists: The purists argued that one should simply consult a map of the park and where the trail enters and exits the park that should be where the start/finish of the FKT is, plain and simple. Others suggested that this might not be the best route to go as those boundaries sometimes change over time. From there, entered…
The Logicals: The logicals argued that the route should start and finish essentially at the nearest trailhead/road crossing to the entrance/exit as this gives people a common start/finish point for future attempts and keeps the route clear of future changes in boundaries, trail reroutes, and more. However, from that discussion the voices of a third group appeared….
The Localists: The localists argued that the local trail users at each end of the route are typically the most well-equipped people to answer these questions of start/finish points as they have the most intimate trail knowledge of the area and also are also privy to area lore and legend. As such, their local knowledge should trump any maps or road crossings. Finally, a lone voice in the wilderness emerged….
The Practicalist: “Wouldn’t the best thing to do be to just walk into the park and ask a ranger where the Appalachian Trail enters and exits the park? Those people work there and should know best.”
Ultimately, we all realized that there was room for all of our opinions and as such we quickly realized that this discussion was a wonderful part of our great ultra tribe. Being able to talk through this stuff with people to whom it actually mattered was more important to us than any one outcome. It also got us all thinking about what it is that drives people to attempt long, self-organized explorations. For me and my Shenandoah National Park birthday run, I was motivated by a love for the land, a desire to share my love of that land with the world, and to attempt an effort that would stretch me. I accomplished all three regardless of where I started and finished and, in the end, at least in my case, that’s all that really mattered.
AJW’s Beer of the Week
This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Basic City Beer Company in Waynesboro, Virginia near the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail through Shenandoah National Park. Basic City brews a fantastic wheat beer called Mandara. This traditional hefeweizen is slightly fruity and smooth and eminently drinkable at 4.7%. A great choice to slake your thirst after a long day on the ‘AT.’
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Did you participate in the same online discussion as AJW?
- What really is better than discussing and debating route nuances with a group of ultrarunners?
- When it comes to defining a route for FKTs to be pursued upon, how important do you consider specific, agreed-upon parameters for the route?