On October 21st, 2019, Alex Elizabeth set out with the goal of running all 310 miles of the Superior Hiking Trail in a single push. While most thru-hikers complete the trail in two to four weeks, Alex’s goal was to complete the trail in less than 6 days and 8 hours. If she did so, she would set a “Fastest Known Time” or “FKT.”
This is the story of how Alex survived a brutal storm, persevered through a painful ankle injury, and adjusted plans in response to an unexpected trail closure to establish a female FKT on the Superior Hiking Trail.
Why did you attempt a FKT on the Superior Hiking Trail?
The Superior Hiking Trail is a special place. I have logged hundreds of miles hiking, running and racing different sections of the trail.
When she was in college, Alex lived in Duluth, Minnesota, right on the Superior Hiking Trail.
The Superior Hiking Trail was the first place that I backpacked, and I would head up there nearly every weekend with my dog to hike and explore. I loved the idea of completing the entire trail, and I am impatient so really liked the idea of completing it fast.
What motivated you to attempt a FKT, rather than focus on a race?
I had completed a number of trail races, moving my way up from 50 kilometers to 200 miles, and I wanted to build on that experience.
Another big motivator for me was the fact that there was no female time on the Superior Hiking Trail. The number of female attempts pales in comparison to the number of males who go out and attempt the trail. I wanted to put up a female time to encourage other women to get out on the trail — to put themselves out there, to push their limits, and to represent other women in the sport.
Another big motivator for me was the fact that there was no female time on the Superior Hiking Trail. I wanted to put up a female time to encourage other women to get out on the trail.
Your goal was to set an overall FKT by thru hiking the Superior Hiking Trail faster than the current FKT holder, Austin Nastrom, who thru hiked the trail in 6 days and 8 hours. What was your approach each day?
Every 24 hours, my goal was to hit fifty miles. The trail conditions impacted how fast I was able to do this. The mud, water and downed trees made for some painfully slow sections. Some days, I was able to get to fifty miles in 13 to 15 hours. Other days, it was much slower. I would rest for 20 to 60 minutes and then go again until I got as close as possible to fifty.
I wanted to maintain this for the first half of the hike, with my primary goal to maintain a pace that would allow me to stay healthy. My plan was to do a final push at the end with what I had left.
How much did you plan to sleep during your FKT attempt?
When I had to sleep, I tried to limit it to either a 20 minute or 60 minute nap. I wanted to minimize stopped time so my ankles and legs wouldn’t swell. Toward the end of the week, I was able to fall asleep the minute I stopped, whether I was standing, leaning or sitting. I would immediately fall into a deep sleep. In the last 70 hours or so of the hike I slept less than two hours total — which I paid for on the last day!
Were you ever tempted to stop during your FKT attempt?
I was tempted to stop the very first day. A strong storm moved in during the early afternoon, bringing torrential downpours, hail and 50 mph winds. Its unrelenting intensity knocked me down both literally and figuratively.
My mind got tired, and I started to question what I was doing. Why was I doing this? Why was I wasting other people’s time? Maybe this wasn’t meant to be… I felt like I was having to go really deep mentally already just to keep moving forward. I wondered if I could continue for four to five more days. I resented my cold, gray surroundings.
This Superior Hiking Trail FKT attempt was not Alex Elizabeth’s first. Just five months earlier, Alex had had to abort her first FKT attempt approximately 200 miles in due to an ankle injury.
What motivated you to attempt this FKT so soon after your first FKT attempt failed, and what did you do differently this time?
I felt as though part of me was still out on that trail, and I was deeply motivated to get back. At the same time, I was questioning myself quite a bit regarding timing and proximity to the first attempt.
I started working with a new coach Darcy Piceu. I started doing really specific physical training and, more importantly, started a daily sitting practice. My mental training taught me to let go of the anxious thoughts that were stirring in my mind and causing me to question myself. It allowed me to simply be where I was, how I was, which is exactly the practice that allowed me to keep moving day after day on the trail.
What support did your crew provide for you during your FKT attempt?
Hot food, clean socks, dry shoes, warm clothes, pacing, physical therapy expertise, knowledge of the trail and unconditional support. They gave up so much to be there, and I was so grateful for them.
…and laughter! They provided so much lighthearted joy and laughter. This was the most valuable. No matter how terrible I felt when I arrived at our meeting points, I always left re-energized and laughing.
On the fifth day of Alex Elizabeth’s Superior Hiking Trail FKT attempt — just as Alex was approaching Duluth, Minnesota — the City of Duluth unexpectedly closed the section of the Superior Hiking Trail through Duluth.
What was it like to receive the news that the City of Duluth had closed the section of the Superior Hiking Trail through Duluth — just as you were approaching this final stretch?
I had just passed mile 205, which marked the longest I had ever gone on my own during an event. I was thrilled, and a feeling of accomplishment and renewed commitment and focus overcame me.
An hour later, my crew delivered the news that the Superior Hiking Trail sections through the City of Duluth were closed. They were sad and uncertain. I was sad and uncertain. I could not stop wondering if this FKT was simply not meant to be. I could not stop wondering why that was so. If I could no longer try to achieve the record, what was the point? I felt helpless.
What did you do when you learned that a 43 mile section of the Superior Hiking Trail was closed?
Something compelled me to keep moving after I learned that the Superior Hiking Trail was closed. So I did. I wasn’t sure if I would continue and follow a re-route. I wasn’t sure if I would quit at the next trailhead.
As I moved forward, I realized that the FKT, while an important source of motivation, was not my sole purpose for being out here. I thought about my crew and what they had given up and done and continued to do for me. In thinking of them, I realized that this was more about sharing an experience than anything else.
As I moved forward, I realized that the FKT, while an important source of motivation, was not my sole purpose for being out here… I realized that this was more about sharing an experience than anything else.
As Alex hiked along the Superior Hiking Trail towards Duluth, Alex’s crew designed a re-route to bypass the the section of the Superior Hiking Trail that the City of Duluth had closed. Their goal was to parallel the Superior Hiking Trail as much as possible, to keep the mileage and elevation as close to possible to the intended route.
On October 21st, Alex Elizabeth set out with the goal of running all 310 miles of the Superior Hiking Trail in a single push. On October 27th, Alex Elizabeth — along with her friends and crew — reached the Southern Terminus of the Superior Hiking Trail.
Alex’s goal had been to set a FKT. When she reached the Southern Terminus, Alex had no idea whether her FKT attempt would be counted by the powers that be (FKT.com) as an official time. However, Alex was sure that she had completed her journey...
What thoughts were running through your head when you reached the southern terminus?
I am so glad I don’t have to come back a third time to get this done!
What will you remember most from this experience?
The best parts of the adventure were all of the things that went wrong. Being out there that long I knew a lot of things would come up and we would have to adjust, I just (luckily) had no idea how many things would go as ‘wrong’ as they did. The adaptability and unwavering support of every single person on my crew was truly a gift.
I will always remember the existing relationships that were strengthened and the new relationships and connections that were made. I will remember what each of my crew members did for me and for one another out there and their unwavering support. They were so wonderful.
After reviewing Alex Elizabeth’s effort, Fastest Known Time (FKT.com) determined that Alex had established an official female supported “Fastest Known Time” on the Superior Hiking Trail.