Training Log: Running the Presidential Traverse

August 15, 2019
presidential traverse training
Steve HoltThe author’s training partners, Rob Pyles and Bryan Schnittjer, on one of two long trail runs in the Blue Hills before their Presidential Traverse.

After nearly a year of planning and training, the big day is almost here: In a few weeks, two friends and I will wake up early and make our way to the Appalachia trailhead for the beginning of our attempt at the Presidential Traverse. The Presidential Traverse (or Presi) is a roughly 20-mile journey that hits the summits of seven 4,000-foot peaks in the White Mountains’ Presidential Range. (Some folks throw in Mount Clay for good measure, though it’s not officially part of the traverse.) We’re going to do it in a single day, meaning we’ll be running where we can.

With the explosion of trail running in the last decade or so, the single-day Presi run has also gained popularity, with some overachievers seeking to lower fastest-known times (or FKTs) over the difficult route. No one should head into the White Mountains and attempt to complete the Presi without proper training and extensive planning. In the case of our little group, we’ve been preparing for this adventure for more than a year and are walking into it with the appropriate reverence for its difficulty. Our planning encompasses these main categories: fitness, gear, route, and safety.

Fitness

All three of us come into this challenge with a base level of mental and physical toughness, but our task over the last year has been to hone that training toward mountain running. As we’ve continued to build our aerobic fitness on weekend group trail runs and on our own during the week, as well as our physical strength through bodyweight and gym workouts, we’re also running more hills than any of us ever have. This can be challenging for three dudes who live at sea level, but we’re making it work: heading to the Blue Hills to run the difficult and frequently scrambly Skyline Trail; always taking the stairs; and, when all else fails, doing repeats up a modest but steep hill in our Boston neighborhood. We’re also working on flexibility and muscle endurance, as none of us has had the experience of exerting ourselves in this way for more than 4 hours at a time—let alone 10, which is the amount of time we think this will reasonably take.

Gear & Nutrition

We’ll be traveling light and fast, but based on conversations with folks who’ve completed the traverse, we’ll need to carry a number of important items. First, our packs need to be super-lightweight, with plenty of pockets to access water, snacks, and rain gear. We’ll all be carrying hydration packs with roughly 2 liters of water in each reservoir, plus hand-helds, refilling at Madison Spring Hut, the Mount Washington Observatory, Lakes of the Clouds Hut, and Mizpah Spring Hut. We’ll pack some electrolyte powder and a few water purification tablets, in case we need water in between those stopping points. For nutrition, we’ll each carry whatever calorie-packed gels, beans, or bars taste good to us, ideally consuming 100 or more calories every 45 minutes. (We’re likely to burn up to 1,000 calories every hour for 10-plus hours.) We can purchase sandwiches and the like on Mount Washington for something more substantial.

In our packs, we’ll also carry an extra long-sleeve shirt, a heavy-duty rain shell, extra socks, a lightweight first-aid kit (with blister care items), headlamps, emergency space blankets, whistles, anti-chafing lube, AMC maps, and our smart phones. I’ll be wearing a Garmin Forerunner 35 watch for navigation and tracking during our run. (Note: We very well may end up packing additional warm layers, depending on the forecast at the summits, but we won’t know that until a day or two before.)

running the presidential traverse
Steve HoltRob and Bryan pore over a map of the Presidential Range during one of our pre-traverse planning meetings.

The Route

We pored over our map of the Presidentials picking out the optimal route to follow and double-checking the AMC website for updates to trails described in our White Mountain Guide, 30th edition. At the same time, we identified alternate routes around summits and even bailout trails, should weather conditions change or we are somehow unable to continue. We were able to find and print a spreadsheet listing all the trails we’ll follow, junctions, and landmarks, the distance of every segment, the cumulative distance traveled at every point, and the elevation gain of every segment. The spreadsheet also includes the estimated time to hike each segment and the cumulative elapsed time traveled, which is a good baseline for determining how quickly we can run it. We’ve each committed to studying the route so we’re not dependent on any one navigator and could make our way along it solo, if it comes to that.

Safety Protocol Planning

As I’ve written here before, safety planning is for trail runners, too. We’re taking safety planning deadly serious, because we know that failing to do so could in fact be deadly. First off, we’re leaving detailed route information with our families back in Boston, including estimated start and finish times, and will attempt to check in by text at various points along the way. If we leave our planned route—say, because of bad weather on one of the peaks, for instance—we will send a text notifying someone back home. We set an overarching rule to never separate, but if we do, to wait at every junction for the slower runner(s). We’re also setting rendezvous points along the route, should we get separated. To be sure we stay on the trail, each of us will take turns leading, with the No. 2 runner double-checking that we’re on the correct trails. We’ll of course carry with us emergency phone numbers for ranger stations and each of the huts on our route, and we’re discussing what action we’ll take should one of us find himself unable to continue. We’re taking nothing for granted! (Neither should you—read this recent tutorial on how to make hike planning fun and productive.)

Taper, Focus, Run!

We’ll take the week before the traverse to reduce the mileage we’ve been running (roughly between 25 and 40 miles per week, varying from guy to guy). We’ll use that week to begin to shift to the mental challenge that lies before us: fighting through seemingly endless quad punishment on the uphills; hunger and fatigue; feet sore from hours of pounding; feelings of despair; and the like. This won’t be easy, we know, but we can visualize ourselves succeeding; we’ve come up with words and phrases to get ourselves and each other through the dark patches; and we’ll ultimately remind ourselves that we’re going into this as prepared as we possibly can be. We’ve put in the training and planning; all that’s left is to arrive at Appalachia trailhead fresh and focused!

Stay tuned in the coming weeks for a post-Presi recap with photos and possibly videos of our adventure.


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Steve Holt

Steve Holt is the associate editor of AMC Outdoors.