Early on the morning of September 7, 2014, Ben Nephew and Ryan Welts, two of New England’s strongest mountain runners, set out to break a record that had stood for 56 years.
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“The country in almost every direction is uneven and mountainous. It is daunting terrible, being full of rocky hills as thick as mole hills in a meadow, and clothed with infinite thick woods.”
– New England’s Rarities Discovered, John Josselyn, 1674
Early on the morning of September 7, 2014, Ben Nephew and Ryan Welts, two of New England’s strongest mountain runners, set out to break a record that had stood for 56 years. They were at Grafton Notch in Maine, the northern end of the Mahoosuc Range. In 1958, a 19-year-old trail worker named Chris Goetze had crossed the Mahoosucs—long considered the hardest 31 miles on the Appalachian Trail—in 8:06:30, one in a string of impressive trail-running records he set that summer. Nephew had Goetze’s splits taped to his water bottle, a practical move that paid unwitting tribute to one of the region’s most revered trail runners.
The Mahoosucs straddle the Maine-New Hampshire border, crossing into the remote northeastern corner of the White Mountain National Forest. At 750,000 acres, the “Whites” are one of the largest protected tracts on the East Coast. There are 1,200 miles of trail, including over 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail; six designated wilderness areas; and 48 peaks over 4,000 feet. Here, amid rugged granite-covered peaks and boreal forests, trail running is experiencing a rowdy rebirth. Throughout the Whites, a new generation of mountain runners like Nephew and Welts is pushing past historic boundaries and envisioning new challenges, infusing new energy into a sport that has century-old roots in the region.
This was Welts’s fourth traverse, and it proved just as hard as the others. At one point, Nephew hopped onto a wooden bog bridge—one of hundreds that make the muddy, rugged trails of the Mahoosucs passable. A plank upended, did a 180 in the air and nearly stabbed Welts in the chest. Nephew went down hard, landing in four feet of mud.
To anyone who saw them on the trail, they might have seemed an unlikely duo. Nephew, 40, is missing the archetypal lankiness of the distance runner, but looks like the guy you want if you’re running 100 miles with a full pack. With his close-cropped hair and compact build, he might be mistaken for a boot-camp sergeant. In fact, he’s an assistant professor at Tufts Veterinary School. The world of research overflows into the rest of his life; his rapid-fire speech is filled with data points and developing theories.
Welts, 35, emanates a chill, low-key style. His blond hair runs long, and in another era he might have been accosted by cops as a hippie. He runs a busy pressure-washing business, and has been known to run in Spandex tights from TV infomercials (“Two for $20!”). His wife, Kristina Folcik-Welts, is herself an accomplished mountain runner. They recently moved to Tamworth, in a remote, mountainous corner of New Hampshire. “We’re always looking at maps and piecing things together,” says Welts. “You can do a 100-kilometer loop from our house.”
Both Nephew and Welts, though, are pretention-free and welcoming, with matching irreverent sensibilities. At 5-foot-5, Nephew needs to lunge where Welts can easily scramble. Running through the deep cleft of Mahoosuc Notch that September day, Welts endlessly needled his partner about his stature, while Nephew simply replied with one dynamic lunge after another.
A little after 3:30 p.m., Welts and Nephew ran across the abandoned rail trestle above the Androscoggin River that marks the end of the traverse, 7 hours 45 minutes 17 seconds after leaving Grafton Notch. They had bested Goetze’s time with 21 minutes to spare. The two toasted their achievement with Cokes from Nephew’s car. (Here Goetze’s legacy retained a small victory: He had celebrated “with a whole quart of soda pop.”)
It hadn’t come easy. “We were dead even with Chris for a long time,” Welts says. Their break had come at remote Gentian Pond, 18 miles in, where Goetze had stopped for 10 minutes and inhaled a steak that friends had prepared. “We just rolled through,” Welts says. “It was awesome. We were reliving history.” And making it, too. Times, it seems, are changing in the White Mountains.
“The Trails Here Eat People Up”
“The trail system here is unbelievable,” says local trail runner Marc Chauvin. A climbing guide, he’s worked in ranges from Chamonix to South America. “You can be as imaginative as you want. You can run loops around loops. The possibilities are endless.”
Those endless possibilities aren’t for everyone. Many of the trails have a straight-up-the-fall-line quality about them, and the terrain can be some of the most technical in the country. Kevin Tilton, a resident of Conway, New Hampshire, and a two-time U.S. Mountain Running Team member, grew up looking out at the White Mountains through the windows of his high school. He finds the Whites closer to the highly technical, vertiginous terrain of the Alps than anything in the United States: “It’s just beyond most people’s comprehension of what technical is. Show someone a picture of a trail in the Northern Presidentials, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, cool bushwhack!’ And you’ll say, ‘No, that’s the trail.’”
Jeff List, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and a longtime White Mountains ultramarathoner, says, “It’s vastly more technical than almost any place in the West. The trails here eat people up.” Passing through here last summer during his record-setting Appalachian Trail run, Scott Jurek’s daily mileage dropped from an average of 47 to just over 30. “You don’t understand it,” says Welts, “until you’re on the trails.”
The Whites do have gentler trails too, rolling singletrack that cruises through the deep forests beneath the peaks. Old roads and retired railroad beds, the result of aggressive logging more than a century ago, lay the foundation for hundreds of miles of such trails.
Above treeline or below, one thing is never far from the minds of the locals who run these trails: the weather. It can get fierce, fast. Near treeline, Forest Service signs bluntly warn hikers, “Many have died here from exposure, even in the summer.” The Whites, after all, include Mount Washington, at 6,288 feet the highest peak in the Northeast and the putative “Home of the World’s Worst Weather.” The mountain has claimed 137 lives and has hurricane-force gales 110 days of the year. In the winter, Everest climbers train there for the sub-zero temperatures and high winds.
The conditions pay dividends for runners, too. “At Hardrock, not everyone is well prepared for a cold, rainy night. They get hypothermic and drop,” says List, a five-time finisher of the renowned Colorado 100-miler. “The Whites are where you learn to deal with horrible, cold, wet weather.”
For those who don’t get swallowed whole, the White Mountains have an enduring appeal. On the lower slopes, open hardwoods transition to dense evergreens that make it feel like you’re running through a tunnel. Above treeline, the ridges and peaks are windswept, craggy and challenging. Only tiny alpine plants and stunted krumholz survive in the patches of soil that linger between boulders. And because the region lacks a defined, central hub—the terrain parses the White Mountains into nearly a dozen definable nooks—solitude here comes quickly. “It’s not just the terrain, it’s the vegetation, the wetness, the feel of it,” says List, who spends summers out west. “These are special mountains. I always come back to the Whites.”
Climb, Descend, Repeat as Needed
Tales of endurance in the Whites date back to an era when wool-clad “trampers” laid down epic routes as a personal challenge. One such route, a 42-mile loop over and around the Presidential Range, was completed by Eugene Cook and George Sargent in September 1882. The pair stopped atop Mount Washington, which then featured a summit hotel, and “luxuriated in refreshing rest, feasted with the greatest relish and desire, and ended by enjoying the fascination of the inexhaustible view.” A mountaineering journal at the time called their adventure an “audacious tour de force.”
Modern mountain running in the region traces its start to Chris Goetze and the records he set when he was 19, in that summer of 1958. It was his second season serving on a trail crew in the northern White Mountains town of Randolph, where his family summered. When the axe-swinging ended in late summer, Goetze got down to business. In less than a month, he ticked off blazing-fast times on nearly all the major testpieces of the era—speeds that no one would touch for over a half century. Short, slight and compact in photos taken that summer, he seemed an unlikely endurance athlete. But mentally, he was tough. “He wants to win, he can pull himself together,” his father wrote in 1958. “He can evaluate the condition of his body coolly and dispassionately.”
Goetze soon developed a small team of supporters. Among them was Mike Field, who remembers staffing an ad-hoc aid station. Campfire burning, the crew would scan the ridge with binoculars for signs of Goetze. When he came into sight, a steak went into the frying pan. Linda More, a summertime neighbor, remembers being positioned on Mount Washington with a pair of heavy leather boots into which Goetze changed during one of his record-setting trips. She was left behind with a pair of tennis shoes.
There was no mountain-running scene in the late 1950s, and Goetze soon moved on. Five years after his banner summer in the White Mountains, he was part of a Harvard student team that pulled off what is still the only ascent straight up the Wickersham Wall on Denali, a mountain face bigger than any on Everest. (The route, Jon Krakauer wrote, was “so bold or foolish … it still hasn’t been repeated.”) Other first ascents followed, in Labrador and Alaska’s Hayes Range. But Goetze kept his accomplishments quiet, even as editor of the mountaineering journal Appalachia, in part so others could experience the same sense of adventure. (“Blank spots on maps meant more to him than the accolades that attend discovery and first ascents,” his wife, Lydia, wrote.) He died at age 38, from a brain tumor. Still, in that one season in the White Mountains two generations ago, he laid down times so aggressive that, to this day, his name is uttered with reverence.
Goetze’s accomplishments continue to inspire. One Saturday last summer, Jeff List and more than a dozen friends set off from the Appalachia Trailhead at the base of Mount Adams, the second-highest peak in the White Mountains and arguably the most technical to ascend. Their objective? Tally as much vertical climbing as possible during a 12-hour window. From base to summit, the Adams climb is 4,500 vertical feet of roots, angular granite and switchbacks-be-damned trail running. It was the fifth annual Adams Vertical Day, an adventure created by List that honors one of Goetze’s runs.
On August 7, 1958, the teenager ticked off four laps of the peak—each time faster than the last—good for around 18,000 feet of climbing in under 12 hours. It’s a feat that’s yet to be repeated. List, a lanky 56-year-old, says, “I’m still waiting for someone to prove they’re as tough as Goetze was in 1958.”
The Adams Vertical Day is typical of White Mountains trail running, which has a quirky, DIY creativity. Take another run, the MMD—“More and More Difficult”—an annual gathering in which masochistic trail runners take on a 50K course designed to be a challenge just to finish. The routes vary from year to year, but have one theme in common: They’re designed to crush the region’s best mountain runners. A recent course consisted of six laps in the rugged Northern Presidentials, including The Subway, a trail that threads its way underneath car-sized boulders in the notoriously gnarly King Ravine. Described as an “adventure among friends,” the MMD has no entry fee. Organizer Bob Najar calls it “an antidote to the festivalization of trail running and big, commercial events.” Participants get a painted finisher’s rock and a pot-luck cookout.
There are others, too, like the Mount Adams Challenge. A DIY run up the dramatic Air Line Ridge on Mount Adams, the route climbs nearly 4,500 feet in 5.4 miles. The challenge can be undertaken any day of the year. The cutoff time, 2:10, is set to be attainable by mid-pack trail runners. Get in under it, and you’ve scored yourself a free cappuccino at the local café and a free beer at the pub across the street. A ravine away is another contest, this one named for Crag Camp, a rustic overnight cabin operated by the tiny Randolph Mountain Club. Run the 2.9 miles from the valley to the cabin in a time faster than your age, and you’ll be one of fewer than a dozen who have done it in the last 40 years.
Then there’s the Swan Song Loop, 50 kilometers of the most technical terrain in the East, with a quad-crushing 17,000 feet of climbing. The route is a tribute to the speed hiker Brad Swan, who in 1953 pioneered an epic hike his friends dubbed the Swan Traverse. (The Swan Traverse was meant as a joke, but the era’s strongest runners took it as a challenge. Predictably, no one came close to Chris Goetze’s time.) Ryan Welts and Kristina Folcik-Welts hold the FKTs for the loop. “There’s always a huge climb ahead of you,” says Kristina. “There are descents that are like falling down a cliff. You’re holding on to trees, on your ass.” But you can’t slow down, either: “You want to be out of Huntington Ravine before nightfall.” Take a few steps off-route there, and you’ve just bought yourself a 5.8 rock climb.
This DIY creativity has been aided, albeit unintentionally, by land managers. Some of the most classic trail running incorporates sections of the Appalachian Trail or wilderness areas—both off-limits to organized trail races—or passes through fragile alpine areas. “That scenery already attracts large numbers of hikers,” says Justin Preisendorfer, a local Forest Service ranger. “I’ve dealt with several frustrated race planners. We can help plan events, but some areas will continue to be saved for the individuals who want something wilder and hopefully less crowded.”
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Protected lands notwithstanding, trail racing is thriving in the area. This is in large part thanks to the tireless enthusiasm of Paul Kirsch. Since 2003, Kirsch, a resident of Madison, New Hampshire, has combined an eye for memorable courses with professional marketing skills, to great success.
Kirsch, now 49, moved to the White Mountains in 1992 and began hiking the peaks. Once he crossed paths with Kevin Tilton, however, he began to recognize the rich mountain-running potential of the region. “The big marquee stuff is crazy technical,” says Kirsch, who serves as the chair of USA Track and Field’s New England Mountain/Ultra/Trail Committee and is a seven-time manager of the USA Junior Mountain Running Team. “But there are a lot of accessible trails, too. You can be blown away by the solitude on those trails.”
In the intervening years, Kirsch has helped design and promote what are now two of the best-known short-distance mountain races in the country, the Loon Mountain Race and the Cranmore Hill Climb. The routes weave together singletrack and ski trails, demanding climbs and plummeting descents. Each event has served as a qualifier for the U.S. Mountain Running Team on multiple occasions. Loon, in particular, has captured the imagination of area runners. It’s one of the steepest mountain races in the country, rising 2,200 feet in 6.6 miles, and finishing with a fearsome 40-percent grade on the Upper Walking Boss ski trail. A sign placed alongside the course last year read, “Trending on Twitter: #thishurts.”
“It’s pretty common to hear sounds of agony on that climb,” says Kasie Enman, a resident of adjacent Vermont and the winner of the women’s race last year. “My first year, I heard a burst of profanity. I turned back and was struck by the expanse of what was behind me—both the ant-like cursing figures and the gorgeous view of the mountain landscape.”
Alongside Kirsch’s high-profile events are more than a dozen local mountain races, with names like the Kismet Cliff Run, Squam Ridge Race and the Randolph Ramble, that have been founded in the past handful of years. One of the more recent additions is the Dirty Girl, a trail race for women only. Spearheaded by Leslie O’Dell, one of the region’s top mountain runners, the event’s goal was to get women out on the trails. “The first two races were huge successes,” says O’Dell. “Women have stopped me and told me it was their favorite trail race, ever.”
Like Running Through a Lava Field, Only Harder
Still, the fiercest competition may be for the region’s fastest known times. Not 10 months after Welts and Nephew shattered Goetze’s Mahoosucs FKT, another White Mountains runner, Adam Wilcox, bested their time by the razor-thin margin of 30 seconds.
Nephew, for his part, has eked out the FKT on what is arguably the region’s most famous trail run, the Presidential Range Traverse. He talks as fast as he runs, describing the route in rapid-fire sentences: “You start out with a vertical kilometer! Then, you need to cover some ridiculously technical terrain, really fast!” Eighteen miles long, the “Presi” Traverse snakes its way over the alpine tundra of the White Mountains’ highest peaks, named for early U.S. presidents.
On any given summer weekend, it’s not uncommon to see at least a few groups running the route. Ryan Welts, Nephew’s partner for the Mahoosucs run, resurrected the FKT in 2009, after nearly two decades of relative inactivity on the line; the first recorded fastest time goes back to 1968, when two U.S. Nordic team members ran across the range in 4:46.
Nephew thrives in the Presi’s rugged terrain. (He’s won the infamously rocky and gullied Escarpment Trail Run, in the Catskill Mountains of New York, a record 11 times.) After the route’s first big vertical push comes the boulder-filled northern Presidentials, an area Nephew calls “a unique microclimate of terrain.” “It’s like running through a lava field, only harder, because the rocks are bigger,” he says. Only at Mount Washington, 10 miles in, can you start to really run.
The route culminates in a pounding descent, which very nearly derailed Nephew’s 2013 record attempt. Behind record time at the last summit, he doubled down on the rocky, root-strewn descent—and found himself airborne, a half-mile from the finish. “I hit so hard and so fast, I barely had time to get my hands in front of my face,” he says. “I landed a foot short of a rock drainage that looked like a stacked set of sharp, miniature Stegosaurus plates.” Minutes later, though, he snatched the FKT with a time of 4:34:36—besting the previous record by 53 seconds.
The 32-mile long Pemigewasset Loop is another classic. It sees at least as many runners as the Presidentials, thanks in part to a 2005 article in Backpacker that dubbed the “Pemi” Loop one of the country’s 10 classic day hikes. Nephew holds the current FKT, but Wilcox is not far behind. A top finisher at the Hardrock and Western States 100-milers in 2015, he hopes to be the first person to take the loop under six hours. In a blog post, Wilcox wrote, “I continued to hurl myself around the Pemi, only making incremental improvements. 6:46 … 6:43 … 6:38. I found myself the awkward owner of the second-, third- and fourth-fastest times.”
Recently, Welts, Nephew and other area runners have been eyeing another long-established route, the Huts Traverse. Forty-nine miles long, it wends its way through 17,000 feet of climbing, tagging all eight of the venerable Appalachian Mountain Club’s high-mountain huts. The first FKT was ticked off 84 years ago, but it was—unsurprisingly—Goetze who brought the time into the modern era, and the current FKTs are held by two former AMC hut staffers.
The next big FKT may not even take place entirely on trail. This fall, 31-year-old Josh Garrison of Katonah, New York, soloed three classic rock climbs on Cannon Cliff, a big-wall climbing area in the northwest corner of the Whites. In total, he ascended the equivalent of 20 rope pitches, or about 3,300 vertical feet. He connected the routes with trail runs. The adventure took him 3 hours 30 minutes.
“This combination of mountaineering and running is going to blow people away,” says Chauvin, the climbing guide. He likens it to when trail runners first arrived in numbers, nearly two decades ago. Hikers would exclaim, “Look at how small your pack is!” then ask, “What are you training for?” Says Chauvin, “I’d just look at them and answer, ‘The revolution!’ And I wasn’t kidding.”
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An Enduring Classic
In late October, with New England’s colorful fall foliage strewn across the rocky trails, three dozen Dartmouth College athletes, plus a few alumni and friends, gathered in a field next to the log-framed Ravine Lodge, at the base of Mount Moosilaukee in the western White Mountains. It was a close-of-the-season, late-fall classic: the Dartmouth College time trials. Since 1965, the school’s ski teams have gathered here to run the Gorge Brook Trail to the broad alpine summit of the 4,803-foot peak. It was overcast and gloomy in the valleys of the White Mountains, and up high a furious fall storm was raging. The Mount Washington Observatory, 1,500 feet higher and a few dozen miles away, reported freezing fog, a temperature of 29 degrees and winds gusting to 86 miles per hour.
One per minute, the athletes took their turn, as longtime Nordic coach Ruff Patterson called them to the designated start line, next to a lone apple tree. Conditions changed rapidly as the runners moved higher on the mountain. A thousand feet up, they hit the fog. Near treeline, light rain turned to blowing snow. Small, fragile daggers of frosty rime ice covered the boulders. At the summit sign, another Dartmouth coach yelled out bib numbers over the roar of the wind. A few shivering skiers-turned-mountain runners fought the gusts as they changed into dry shirts and waterproof shells before heading back down the mountain. In the White Mountains, another trail-running season was in the books.
Notable Trail Towns
If there’s an epicenter for the region, it’s North Conway. Within an hour’s drive of almost anywhere in the White Mountains, this famous ski town offers great trail running in the Moat Range and Green Hills Preserve.
The focal point for activity in the western Whites, Lincoln is the starting point for the Pemi Loop, home to the Loon Mountain Race and not far from Mount Moosilaukee and Cannon Cliff.
An Appalachian Trail town at the base of the northern Presidentials, Gorham is the end point for the Mahoosucs Traverse and the starting point for the Presi run. The area is known for its quieter trails.
Classic Trail Runs
This loop has it all, in 32 miles and 9,000 feet of vertical: steep climbs, alpine terrain, boreal and hardwood forests and highly runnable converted rail beds. Start and finish at Lincoln Woods, off the Kancamagus Highway.
No route in the Whites features more time above treeline. When the forecast is great, you’ll see five states and Quebec. Eighteen miles and nearly 8,500 feet of vert assure that your quads will be cooked come nightfall. Leave your car in Crawford Notch and schedule a drop-off with Trail Angels (trailangelshikerservices.com).
Owned in part by Dartmouth, this mountain has a network of runnable-but-rugged trails that start from the student-run Ravine Lodge. Stay for one of the informal family style dinners, and book lodging if you like.
Kilkenny Ridge Trail
A wild traverse through 26 miles of the “Great North Woods” in the northernmost White Mountains, you might run all day and see more moose than people. Spot a car the night before outside the Forest Service gate at South Pond, or you’ll be looking at an epic hitchhike.
Doug Mayer lives at the base of Mount Adams, in the village of Randolph, New Hampshire. He is the founder of Run the Alps, a tour company, and a Trail Runner contributing editor. This article originally appeared in our April 2015/DIRT issue.