Final Shakedown: 199 miles in 6 Days on the Lonestar Trail

I wanted to fit in a big one before I leave. One last shakedown to convince myself I’m ready. I chose to return to the Lonestar Trail, but this time with an aggressive plan to yo-yo in six days. There and back, with no mile left behind. I would be pursuing the Fastest Known Time to complete the trail unsupported, and the Fastest Known Time to complete a double.

Some prior experience with 45 mile day hikes and a few cases of 30+ mile days being strung back to back had left me optimistic that the 30-36 mile range could be sustainable for a week or so. It would turn out that I was just so barely right. This trip would suck everything out of me, and exit me three pounds lighter and in unfortunate pain.

I print some maps and load up 8 days food (just in case), into my backpack, along with 4L of water and the rest of my gear. My backpack and gear classify as “ultralight”, weighing in well under 10 lbs, but 8 days food at 4800 Calories per day weighed nearly 19 lbs and 4L of water weighed 8.8lbs, driving the total to a measured 36.4 lbs.

Day 1: 28.9 miles

I woke up that morning with a shaky start. Going to bed the night prior at 4am wasn’t much of a strategy move I figure, as I tape up a toe where I was already short a nail. I arrive at Trailhead #1 a bit later than intended at around 10:20.

I get the gear out of the back of the car and turn on my tracker at 10:26:46 AM. Starting the trail fresh enough, I find the miles to be nice and easy here, if not a little muddy at times. Trails are well marked here, and the navigation is not so difficult. I filter water from the lake at mile 16.5 and talk to some friendly hikers about gear.

My water bladder is a bit leaky, and that gets on my nerves all week. I blow into it to push the water back and tie knots in the tube to halt the drip. I’ll probably replace the mouthpiece soon (Update: Did do.)

I see quite a few hikers and some squirrel hunters close to trailheads, and finish my day around 9:15PM after some pleasant night hiking. Nothing about my walking pace was designed to be too taxing. I tried to play a balance the harshness of walking faster against the effects of increasing time on my feet.

I setup camp and hang my food after cold soaking some Ramen noodles. I rig my bivy sack and go to sleep. The low at night is 36F, and my quilt keeps me warm. In my bivy, I think about the math of what I am attempting, and wonder if I’ll actually have it in me to sustain 5 more days of heavier mileage.

Day 2: 30.9 miles

I wake up late at 8:00, and have a slow start to the day. I leave camp at around 8:40 and head off for a 30.9 mile day. I complete some road miles early in the day. While snacking on a breakfast recipe I came up with by mindlessly mixing ingredients dense in calories and nutrients. One serving each of Granola and Oats, three table spoons of Chia Seeds, and 9 grams of cacao nibs, a big scoop of hemp hearts, and 1.5 servings of powdered milk, some dehydrated raisins, and blueberries. Add water and you get a paste of 1217 calories in 9.8 ounces. It tastes surprisingly medium, and is operable with chopsticks so long as you keep the water thin.

Nice view while crossing a dam early in the day

When I hit the trailhead for the Four Notch section, I run into some trouble. The trail is on fire now. Controlled burns by the Forest service left me staring at caution tape and burning trees, as I decided how to proceed. I didn’t want to take a road detour, but also didn’t want to walk into the burn. Just past the caution tape didn’t look too bad, but the smoke was heavy, and I had seen some heavier burn on my approach. I also lacked the water supply to comfortably turn around.

Fun Fact: The Forrest Service tends to announce these burns on the same day that they happen

After some thought, I reach the conclusion that a controlled burn is, by definition, “controlled” in some way and that I can use this fact to my advantage. I backtrack less than 100 feet and find a dozer line that follows near the trail. A network of dozer lines has the fires contained to sections. Tracing muddy dozer trails on GPS with fire on either side of me, I manage to closely hug the trail, and with a few bushwacks I soon join the main trail again.

My water filter is slow, and it eventually gets on my nerves as I wait for my bladders to fill. I measure 9.5 minutes per liter after generously back-flushing. I only pass by two groups of hikers this time, both near mile 35, and both in need of some assistance navigating. I help them with their maps and keep on walking, unaware that these would be the last people I would see for another four days.

I finish my miles around 9:30PM. In camp, I notice a hotspot developing on my left heel, but no blisters. I have some minor aches, but I feel pretty good. I put on some tape, as I head into bed. This will be the last of my relatively painless days.

Day 3: 37.1 Miles

I remember from back in Boy Scouts being told that “Day 3 is always the hardest”. I expected it to be. But Day 3 was really hard. I had 33.6 miles written down on my itinerary, but that would quickly grow to over 37 miles. My plan was to sleep trailside near the ruins of an old Fire Tower.

The morning was marked by a 5 mile stretch of road walking that I hadn’t been looking forward to, but didn’t really mind so much in practice. On road stretches, dogs come and harass me when I get too near their homes. On one occasion, a small little lap dog comes flying down the road to scream at me, while a big guard dog from the same yard watches tiredly from under the shade of an old truck. Before sunset I spot two Ribbon Snakes coiled together mating, which out of the corner of my eye looked like one snake with two heads.

Two Gulf Coast Ribbon Snakes Audition for a Part in the Staff of Hermes

When I lose all light I’m still 11 miles from stopping, but that turns to 15. At mile marker 75 I’m real exhausted, and mentally just out of it. I listen to the remainder of an audiobook to distract myself, Bill Bryson’s The Body. The final chapters were focused on the history of Cancer Treatment, and the reporting of Mortality. As a consequence of my foggy mind, I get turned around just after the 75th mile marker, and soon enough I’m back at 74. I turn back around a second time to correct course, adding two “navigation miles” to a day that already seemed long enough.

A bit past mile 91 I feel that my pockets are empty. There was supposed to be a map in them. I turn around for a bit over a mile once more before I find it, adding over 2 miles to the day, yet again. I stop 0.9 miles early at a bridge. I needed to filter water anyways, and it was a good spot for sleeping.

This was probably my favorite campsite

I figure I can hang food off the side of the bridge, and sleep underneath it. I put my backpack under my feet to keep them higher than my heart. The arches of my feet hurt real bad, and I think I pulled some muscles in my legs. At this point it seems like everything hurts. I lie down in my bivy sack and type my daily notes up on my phone. I have nothing positive to say for myself except that day 3 was always supposed to be hard. I worry that I’ll barely be able to move when I wake up in the morning. In reference to the miles behind me I whisper “Illegitimi non carborundum” to myself, and try to fall asleep.

Day 4: 31.8 Miles

I had it in my mind that Day 4 might hurt less than Day 3. It was a stupid thought. Although shorter than average, these 31.78 miles were among the hardest that I pulled. My feet hurt bad, from the moment I woke up to the minute I went to sleep. For some miles every step was shooting pain. I had only been carrying one trekking pole, but I find a stick on the side of the trail that is heavy, some 3 pounds perhaps, but almost the right height, and I start to use it as a second. This takes some weight off my ankles and helps me finish the day.

I hit the turnaround point on the trail early in the day, at 9:30am sharp, take a picture, and head back the way I came.

Several photos were taken here. This was the most enthused.

Pain management began to dominate my decisions. Yesterday I had upped my dosage of Ibuprofen from the bottle’s recommended 2-2-2 to a stronger 3-2-3. This still isn’t actually that insane of a dosage, but I really hate abusing this stuff. I put the rest of the burden on my cocktail of natural anti-inflamatories. Three times a day I take Turmeric Extract with Piperine for absorption and Fish Oil. I take Grape Seed Extract twice a day, and I take Ginger Root only once a day, but at a higher dose. I also take Digestive Enzymes 2 or 3 times a day when I’m backpacking, but that’s just to help my system cope with the unusual diet. In combination, this sufficed to all but take the edge off of things pain-wise. Digestively something was also quite disgustingly amiss (the details I may spare), but frankly, I wasn’t even worried about that.

I started a new Audiobook called Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. “It’s mad fun.” I may state just for the heck of it, “but also a little bit dry”. It does inspire me to notice the excellent moss along this section of the woods though, and indeed there is plenty of it. The picture below shows a tree with two types of moss. What types are they? I don’t know. Mosses don’t have common names like plants do, only long and laborious latin names; identifying them on sight is a fairly rare skill, and not what the book was focused on.

Rain was a consistent “almost” as a few drops and a high humidity constantly kept me on my toes, but failed to proliferate into anything serious. The humidity made it feel much hotter than it was, and I frequently ran my shirt through murky ponds, keeping it freshly cool and slimy. I employ a headlamp for about 9 miles, and stop before getting back to the big road walk. I setup camp quickly, and shove my backpack back under my feet. I don’t bother to remove my food and prepare a hang. I get poor sleep because of shooting pains in my legs.

Day 5: 36.8 Miles

Day 5 hurts no less really, but my threshold for what seems reasonable to walk on adapts throughout the week. When in the morning I stand up to some familiar shoots of pain on some badly messed up feet, I strongly suspected that they’ll hold up just fine for the 35.4 mile stretch I had written down on paper.

The effort is exhausting, and the setting cold and wet. On a long road segment I briefly shelter under a Baptist Church when the rain went suddenly from something tame to its full force. I make sure my gear is tucked away properly before getting back out into the thick of it.

Mostly though, I didn’t want to stop for anything, and that caused me to run low on water and ration it. Cold and wet days make me far too comfortable with minor dehydration. It was a series of bad decisions, frequently passing points where I could filter, but I didn’t regret the lighter load.

I retrace the burnt trail from day 2, where some fire still burns. I night hike along some highway for a bit. Passing by a speed limit sign I sigh and speak “no worries”.

I walked a slippery log across a creek and noticed something fall which was stuffed inside my pocket. I reach to catch it, slip, and rack my self quite mightily. I punched down at the log with my left fist while falling, as if to make some token effort. At this point though, I don’t even care. I dismount into the creek, grab my fallen water bottle and climb up the side of the ditch I found myself in. From there I turn back, face the log and laugh a little. “No children though…” I say to the log, and I keep on walking along.

I get turned around in the dark while climbing around some fallen trees adding a bit more than a mile to my day, before I finally finish near a creek where I can filter from at 11:15 PM. Setting up camp in the pouring rain, I’m finally confident I can see this through, as I enter cold into my bivy sack. My bivy sack isn’t an ideal shelter in the rain. I zip it up fully and quickly run out of air. It’s a well documented design flaw. I have to leave it partially unzipped to breathe, and water comes in through the gaps. Water also pools on top of you. A fraction of a millimeter separation between you and water feels the same as being wet, and makes for another night of poor sleep.

Day 6: 33.2 Miles

Day 6 was cold. I knew that factually, but never really noticed it. I completed my remaining 33.2 miles at a faster pace than usual. I was ready to go home.

Chasing some final daylight miles before the sun goes down, I’m stopped by a larger man, who motioned to talk to me. He was the first person I had seen in over 4 days, although that is of course not counting the cars which passed me during road miles, all of which I did assume to have been occupied. He stood next to a dirty white truck and looked at me with his one eye and four chins. It was a fearsome ratio. Not typically one to judge such things, I do make the observation that a beard or two might serve the man well. He asked where I was coming from, saying he had heard someone around the corner of somewhere else some fifteen minutes ago, and he wondered if it was me. “Could have been”, I figure to him. I had been mumbling all sorts of crazy to myself lately, in an effort to distract from the feeling in my feet, and it’s quite possible that what he caught was a portion of that. I had also made some half hearted effort to manually complete portions of Dave Van Ronk’s “Tell Old Bill”, as well as Kimya Dawson’s “Nobody’s Hippie” when my one good earbud started acting up. I sincerely hoped that wasn’t what he had heard, but it all seemed to fit his timeline quite reasonably.

I finish the trail at 9:10PM and take a photograph by the Trailhead. I lifted my thumb to express some enthusiasm, but looking at the photo afterwards realized that I had, on many levels failed to commit. I take a deep breath, and try again without the thumb; it comes much closer.

With the trail finished, I do some final stretching and place my gear inside my car. I return to my apartment shaking, and struggle to get the key into the keyhole. I talk to my roommate for a while, and then I draw a cool bath, and get inside of it with a cliff bar from my backpack. I wake up there several hours later, and am relieved to see that I had in fact turned off the water before drifting to sleep.

Aftermath

The next day is a Friday, and on Fridays my friends rig slacklines on campus across the Academic Plaza. I made it there with my trekking pole, hardly mobile for the day without some sort of cane. I sat at the base of a tree, talked some, watched some, relaxed.

Someone asked me what was wrong with my leg, and I told them “I just got back last night from backpacking 199 miles in 6 days”. They tell me, “Oh wow, that’s a lot of miles per day. Doesn’t answer what happened to your leg though!”. I shrug my shoulders defeatedly and sigh to my self, “I think it does.”

I attend a friend’s surprise party, and give rides afterwards to a few people in no shape to drive themselves. Walking through the parking garage we joke that not one of us looks fit to drive, and perhaps me least of all, as I limp across the concrete with my stick. But the day had made it clear that I was happy to be back and with my friends.

Happy Birthday Cameron

I begin the PCT March 31st, and that will be very different. That trail need not be handled so aggressively. Those 2655 miles, will be savored and enjoyed.

*Updates*

My submissions for Fastest Known Times have been accepted.

I was also able to attribute much of my foot pain to a poor choice of insoles. REI had lost their machine to measure arch height, and an employee thought they had a hacky way to approximate. It wasn’t all that close. They said I probably had high arches and recommended me some insoles to match. I now know after having my arches measured and having my foot looked at by a doctor that I am actually quite flat footed. The insoles caused me to put way too much weight on my arches which over the course of that many miles messed my feet up pretty good.

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