Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In

Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In

Brands

Northeast

There’s a New Sky Runner Challenge on the East Coast. It’s a Beast. 

What is the Northeast Ultra Sky Runner Eight? Maybe the most extreme trail running challenge in the region.

Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.

A beam of pink light rose from the shoulder of Hunter Mountain. My running partner, Jason Pageau, funneled the last crumbs of a Honey Stinger waffle into his mouth and snapped photos of the sunrise on his iPhone.

“Is it this turn?” I pointed to a dirt road and Pageau flipped back to the GPS.

“No, a little further,” he motioned.

I glanced at the temperature gauge. Seven degrees on a January morning. It would be a brisk start for the Devil’s Path, a twenty-four-mile trail in New York’s Catskill Mountains with 9,000 feet of elevation gain.

Our day had begun under the stars. At the trailhead, we sorted gear by headlamp. I had removed the back seats of my Dodge Caravan so I could use it as a traveling gear closet for running, camping, and climbing adventures. 

The objective: to complete the Devil’s Path in under fourteen hours for the Northeast Ultra Eight Sky Runner Challenge, which we’d kicked off with the Saranac 6er in the Adirondack Mountains of New York the previous week. 

We needed to move quickly, but we still had to prepare for the worst-case scenario in a remote area on a low-traffic winter day. My body and mind crave challenges like this because it combines speed and efficiency with technical skill. 

“This is not a lovely stroll through the park,” Pageau reflected. “Many life-or-death situations may occur without proper planning and preparation.” With that in mind, I locked my van, zipped the keys into my puffy jacket, and began to run the Devil’s Path in winter boots with a twenty-pound pack.

RELATED: Coach Roche’s 8 Favorite Hill Workouts

The Northeast Ultra Eight

Back in 2017, a new challenge emerged on the trail scene dubbed the Northeast Ultra Eight. Its creator, Doug Duncan, declared it to be a collection of the eight toughest trails in the northeast, and if you completed them each under twenty-four hours, you’d receive a patch and join an elite crew of finishers. 

The roundup includes: 

  1. Mahoosuc Traverse 
  2. Cranberry Lake 50
  3. Pemigewasset Loop
  4. Taconic Crest Trail 
  5. Saranac 6
  6. Presidential Traverse
  7. Great Range Traverse 
  8. Devil’s Path

Duncan selected the Ultra Eight – which represents trails in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, and Massachusetts – through years of research, hiking challenges, and completing the Northeast 111 in both summer and winter. 

trail running white mountains new hampshire
Running the Presidential Traverse in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. (Photo: Nicholas Triolo)

Duncan is not the only one drawn to these routes. All eight are posted on the Fastest Known Time website and are highly sought after by “Beast Coast” Legends, including Lindsay Webster, who earned an FKT of the Year Nomination for her effort on the Presidential Traverse in New Hampshire last summer, when she completed the nineteen miles with 8,500 feet of vertical gain in 4 hours and 33 minutes. Webster is a three-time Spartan World Champion from Canada and likes to garden and bake when she isn’t training. She also holds an FKT for the Great Range Traverse in the Adirondack High Peaks, which was once rated the third hardest day hike in America by Backpacker magazine

“As my career as a pro athlete evolved, I discovered my love of running the technical trails, and it just snowballed,” Webster recalls.

The East Coast doesn’t have the altitude of the West Coast, and the highest mountain in the Northeast Ultra Eight, Mount Washington in New Hampshire, comes in at 6,288 feet. But the area has lovingly been termed the “Beast Coast” because of its unrelenting terrain and weather. Webster and many other elites train here because it’s the best obstacle course around. 

RELATED: Your Guide To The Best Sustainability-Minded Trail Gear

Introducing the New NEU8 Sky Runner Challenge 

The Northeast Ultra Eight Sky Runner Challenge was created in 2021 for athletes like Webster who could easily cover the ultra distances well under twenty-four hours. While the NEU8 allows a full day to complete each route, the Sky Runner version has a new established cutoff time, giving you only 10-13 hours for summer attempts and 14-17 hours in the winter, depending on the route. Pageau summarizes it well, “I like that the Sky Runner takes a hard challenge (NEU8) and makes it a little harder for the crazies out there.”

Currently, the title to be the first NEU8 Sky Runner is up for grabs. There are two categories: summer and winter. Neither category has a finisher and Pageau and I have hopes to be the first finisher in each. 

Duncan is drawn to the winter records. Not every FKT has a winter record category. Exceptions have been made for certain Northeast Ultra Eight routes because of the Sky Runner Challenge and the momentum it could gain in the future. 

I like that the Sky Runner takes a hard challenge (NEU8) and makes it a little harder for the crazies out there.”

“In the past, it was not socially acceptable in the climbing community to set speed records in the winter. With the appearance of world-class athletes like Dani Arnold, Ueli Steck, and Kilian Jornet setting winter speed records on the world’s most recognized summits in the past few years, it is now becoming socially acceptable to take on challenges like this in the winter,” Duncan notes.

But even if it is more socially acceptable then it once was, accidents do happen. Death happens. Scott van Laer, a Retired New York State Forest Ranger with twenty-two years of experience in the High Peaks of the Adirondacks, has followed the rise of trail running in his backyard.

“I have noticed that people hike more miles in a day than they did twenty years ago,” van Laer says. “It used to be rare for people to do a Great Range Traverse in one day, even in the summer, and now it is a daily occurrence.”

RELATED: “Beast Coast” Film Series Captures Trail Running On The East Coast

The terrain of the Northeast is densely forested and provides a challenging landscape for rescues if something goes wrong. On the Great Range, there are a few sections of Class Three climbing in which some people use rope for extra protection. Evacuations can easily take over 24 hours. 

In his years of experience, a lightweight winter hiker was the only person van Laer knows of to die of hypothermia on the first night of being lost, other than people who fell through ice. His opinion on speed routes has evolved during his career.

trail running white mountains new hampshire
The trail of the Pemigewasset Loop in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. (Photo: Nicholas Triolo)

“There is nothing wrong with creating a time challenge for a trail or route. I just want people to know that the mountains will always be there, and they should not get speed fever the same way a mountaineer can get summit fever,” says van Laer. “Your trip, whether for time or pleasure, doesn’t always go to plan. The wilderness is the great equalizer and will not always let you get to the summit, slowly or in record time.”

A Beast of an Opportunity 

We arrive at Jason’s car as dusk falls with the mixed-gender unsupported FKT. My feet are sore and mind foggy from 9 hours and 15 minutes of what I refer to as survival pilot mode. I unclip my pack and rub my collar bones. On the drive back to my van, Jason and I begin planning our next trip. A Nor’easter storm is going to hit next week and change trail conditions. 

By the end of the winter, we completed three of the eight winter routes of the Northeast Ultra Eight Sky Runner Challenge. We failed attempts on the Taconic Crest Trail and Great Range Traverse because of deep snow and missing the splits we needed. 

The East Coast doesn’t have the altitude of the West Coast, and the highest mountain in the Northeast Ultra Eight, Mount Washington in New Hampshire, comes in at 6,288 feet. But the area has lovingly been termed the “Beast Coast” because of its unrelenting terrain and weather. Webster and many other elites train here because it’s the best obstacle course around. 

Now it’s spring in the Northeast, and Jason and I are aligning schedules to figure out how fast we can knock out the summer version. Even though we want to be the first to finish the challenge, we also want more people to know about it. Duncan does, too, and his hopes for the NEU8 are limitless: “I see the NEU8 becoming known worldwide.” 

Now the world waits, curious to see: who will be the first to finish? 

Bethany Garretson is an Environmental Studies and Recreation instructor at Paul Smith’s College in upstate New York. She’s a mountain athlete and in 2020, made history with Katie Rhodes, when they completed the 46 Adirondack High Peaks thru-hike unsupported, becoming the first women to do so. She is a brand ambassador for SheJumps, a non-profit that advocates for women and girls to get outside and recreate.