Monday, July 16, 2012

Setting the fastest known time on the Greenstone Ridge Trail

Earlier this spring I announced my intent to set the fastest known time for the 40.4 mile Greenstone Ridge Trail on Isle Royale in Lake Superior, running unsupported from Washington Creek Trail to Hidden Lake Trail.

On July 10, 2012, after 8 hours, 47 minutes and 36.90 seconds of running, I reached the end of my journey and have now run this point to point route faster than any other person ever documented.

Now that you know the end result, let's take a step backward and work our way beginning to end.


What is the Greenstone Ridge Trail? It is the longest trail, on the largest island in the largest fresh water lake in the world. The Greenstone Ridge forms the geologic backbone of one of America's least visited National Parks, Isle Royale. This half-million acre island is located in the far northwestern corner of Lake Superior. It gets its name from the greenish stones that are commonly found along it and despite being closer to Minnesota, is official part of Michigan, my home state.

As Jim DuFrense states it in his book Isle Royale National Park Foot Trails and Water Routes, "The Greenstone route is a Michigan classic, recognized in backpacking circles as one of the premier long-distance routes in the Midwest."

I first came up with the notion of running the GRT back in early April, having recently come off of running rim to rim to rim in the Grand Canyon and during a visit home to see my parents, I pondered what the next great adventure would be?  I initially had considered a few different options, including a trail that travels from Lake Michigan to Lake Superior or the Mountain-Bay Trail from Wausau to Green Bay, WI, but the more I read about Isle Royale, on top of my fascination with Lake Superior, it was clear WHERE I wanted to go, but it was not until reading all of the trail guides and books, that I singled out "the Greenstone" as my target.


Before any travel was booked, I had to be certain of the actual fastest known time for the GRT.  There is a claim posted on the website of "bstearns" running the GRT in 10 hours and 12 minutes, posted on Novemer 4, 2011. There are no other details of this report and while the aforementioned rules are mostly guidelines and since there is not sufficient information about this report, I can not validate the time.

There are many reports of a park ranger from Amygdaloid (small island off of Isle Royale) who ran from Rock Harbor to Windigo in 2008 (documented in the personal log book of George Hite of but did not traverse along the entire length of the GRT, but instead ran from Rock Harbor Lodge to the Windigo Campground. Apparently the ranger also ran back to Rock Harbor on the second day, which is a tremendous feat!

Greg Drum (a former NPS Ranger) and his brother Scott ran what they coined as "The Isle Royale 40" running from Rock Harbor Lodge using the Tobin Harbor Trail up to Mount Franklin and then the GRT down to Washington Creek.  The GRT actually starts at the intersection with the Lookout Louise Trail and runs 4.8 miles southwest to Mount Franklin, so therefore Greg and Scott ran a different route.  This team also had support along the route.  There feat, which is impressive, is documented on Trail Runner Magazine.

I have spoken with the National Park Service, several authors of books on Isle Royale, and numerous people on and no one can substantiate any faster times for the entire GRT.

Therefore, based on my research, I targeted a time of less than 10 hours and 12 minutes, though as noted, this claim could not be substantiated whatsoever.

Travel Planning

For those of you who have been to Isle Royale, you know what a logistical nightmare this can be; the only way to the island is by boat or by plane.  Of those options, only certain boats travel from certain ports on certain days and dates.  Then the sea plane only travels to certain ports on certain days and dates.  Combine this all with the fact that I would be running from one end of the island to the other, somewhat of a rare occurance, it was not conducive to an easy travel problem to solve.  After hours of studying, I came up with an option that allowed me to fly to one end, run to the other, meet my Dad and spend his 61st birthday together, take a boat back to the beginning to get my gear and then fly back to land.  Of course, this could only happen on July 10-13, given all of the variables.  But after booking the flights, the boats, the cabins, etc, it was all in place.

As you can see, I had to sketch out the travel plan just to understand the logistics.

Documentation Planning

I set out to follow the common sense guidelines proposed by Buzz Burrell and documented by Peter Bakwin on
  1. Announce your intentions in advance. Like a true gentleman, pay your respects to those who came before you, and tell them what you intend to attempt and when. 
  2. Be an open book. Invite anyone to come and watch or, better yet, participate. This makes your effort more fun and any result more believable. 
  3. Record your event. Write down everything immediately upon completion. Memory doesn't count.
As mentioned above, I announced my intent on May 1, 2012 and posted that on several websites, including my own, my blog, the Fastest Known Times board, etc.

For documentation, during the run, I wore both a GPS watch and regular timing watch.  At each trail intersection, I took pictures of the trail marking sign post, a picture of me with the sign post and pictures of both watches (all pictures were time stamped).  This information, combined with the GPS track, and physical witnesses (rangers at both ends) should be proper documentation to validate my effort.

Trip Summary

On Monday, July 9, I drove from Kingsford, MI to Houghton, MI where my trip would begin by boarding a sea plane to make the 30 minute flight over to Windigo.  I had never been in such a small plane, but it was a great experience to fly over Copper Country, Lake Superior and then see the island for the first time from 3,000'.

Thanks to Royale Air Service for a smooth ride, and a flawless water landing.

We touched down in Washington Harbor near Windigo just before 1:00pm eastern time where we were met by a very friendly ranger from the National Park Service.  I wish that I could have taken a picture of the look on the ranger's face when I told her what my plans were... priceless!

In preparation for the trip, I thought that I would be sleeping in a tent at Washington Creek Campground on the first night.  I found a great buy with the GoLite Shangi-La 2 tent on sale and then picked up a Therm-a-Rest ProLite sleeping mat from REI.  Luckily there was hardly anyone at the campground and nearly all of the shelters were open, so I was able to take my pick of the best and not have to set up the tent.  Shelter #1 was near the mouth of Washington Creek and it felt like I owned the place with no one else around.  After snacking on a salami and cheese sandwich from the Windigo store, I laid down and took a restful two hour nap.

After waking up, it was time to prepare my gear.  For the trek, I chose the 2012 CamelBak M.U.L.E. pack because it seemed to have the best combination of bladder size (100 ounce), storage capacity (580 cubic inches) and overall size for running.  I had tested it out several times on training runs, but admit that I never had packed it completely with enough food, water and gear to last for 40.4 miles plus an emergency reserve.  When everything was loaded, my pack weighed at least 12 pounds; far heavier than I preferred but I would not realize how laborious it would be to carry until the morning after I had taken the first step of the run.

Before calling it a night, I went for a little walk to check out the trail head and make sure I knew how long it would take to get there in the morning.  Looking at this picture, the trail looks like a boulevard; and it was... for awhile!

While I was not near open water at the camp ground, watching the sunset over the harbor was pretty spectacular.

Being so far north, and so far west, but still in the eastern time zone, the sun did not set until 9:35 pm and it did not get fully dark until nearly 11pm!  Needless to say that with an early morning alarm in my future, and laying on albeit semi-comfortable 1" sleeping pad, it was difficult to fall asleep.  I think I finally dozed off before midnight and the alarm went off just a few short hours later at 4:30am.  The plan was to start at precisely 5:30am, but after getting dressed and putting on my inov-8 Roclite 312 GTX trail shoes and making my way over to the trailhead, I realized that it was much darker in the woods than at the campground.  In trying to minimize pack weight, the last two items I pulled out of my bag were the SteriPen water filter and my Black Diamond Spot LED headlamp.  After some deliberation, I made my way back to camp to get the headlamp; I wanted to start as early as possible and was willing to sacrifice some speed by running in the dark early, to avoid the heat of the afternoon.  Plus my Dad was planning on being at the end around 2:30pm, and I did not want to keep him waiting too long.   It was a little cold overnight, so initially I had put on my orange Patagonia Houdini, but it would warm up quickly.  At exactly 5:46am, I pressed start on both of my watches and I was off and running, sort of...

I knew from the elevation profiles that I had created through various sources of data that I would have three significant climbs in the first half of the run with trail going over the two highest peaks on the entire island at miles 6 and 15.  None of the climbs all day were ever overwhelming, just long steady climbs.  So as I left, the trail immediately started to go, up!

With the climb and the gear, I started to heat up very quickly and it wasn't even a full mile before I had to stop and take off my jacket, but I continued to carry my headlamp in my hand to illuminate the way.  My plan for the day was to keep pushing forward and based on what I knew, or read, that I should be able to finish in just over 9 hours.  That meant that the pace on average would have to be about 13 minute-miles, which seems brutally slow.  I will go into detail later why it is not, and how someone can go much faster on this trail.

Running over Sugar Mountain at 1362' along the way, the first major intersection was at the Island Mine Trail 5.9 miles into the run.  My GPS seemed to be very accurate to the documented trail mileages all day, but in the first section, I didn't see the sign post until 6 miles.  I stopped to take some pictures to document the time of 1:07:20, and pressed on quickly.

The miles seemed to click off fairly regular in the early hours.  Nothing was fast, but I was steady at 11 minute-miles with an approach of running the flats and the downs and power hiking the climbs.  I thought that I would need to preserve energy for late in the day by using this method, but I would end up walking most of the climbs regardless of how I felt as it just seemed to work well.  Passing over Mount Desor at the highest point on the island at 1392', I enjoyed a nice downhill section toward the South Lake Desor trail intersection at 10.7 miles in 2:02:21.

As boring as it sounds, the first half of this trail run was very uneventful, which is exactly the way I wanted it to be.  I hoped to avoid the highs and lows of emotions and just maintain an even effort. The sun started to eventually peak through the trees and rise up into the sky.  For the most part, the first half of this trail was under the coverage of trees of foliage and despite being along the ridge of the island, seldomly offered any views of Lake Superior.  Shown below was a rare section where the trail was not running amongst tall trees, but far from a spectacular sweeping view that I had hoped to see.

Climbing back up from Lake Desor, the trail ascended just over 400' up to 1377' at the second highest point on the island, Ishpeming Point.  I arrived at 2:42:38 for 14.2 miles.

In between intersections, there were no trail markings whatsoever; early on this was not a problem as the trail was very well established and traveled, as many people use it that stay close to Winidigo.  In a way, it was a breathe of fresh air to not have white paint on trees to mark the way as it helped to keep the wilderness raw and as nature intended it.

One of the funny things about looking back at pictures of me at each trail intersection was how everything was all "smiles and rainbows" early and toward the end of the day I begin to look like the life was all but sucked out of me! The intersections featured a single, yet prominent sign post clearly marking with an arrow which way it was to each destination and how many miles. Squatting down here next to the sign post pointing toward Malone Bay, I am still smiling with my Julbo Performance Trail sunglasses atop my Fleet Feet Huntsville cap!  I knew that other than one climb at Mount Siskiwit, I would generally be running downhill for the next 12 miles.

I arrived in 2:42:38.

At times the trail was very runnable like this...

...or when it would traverse through swampy sections, the trail would actually be boarded!  This was nice as it kept from traipsing through the low lying swamps, but with the morning dew, the boards were wet and usually slippery.  They are exposed here and clearly visible, but most of the time being the middle of the summer, the ferns and other low ground growth covered them up so I was reduced to a walk in order to avoid sliding off or tripping when the boards were stacked to go up or down, as opposed to an even seem.

During the middle miles the ground foliage began to take over the trail and being still early in the morning, was full of dew.  My shorts, socks and shoes were soaked and at times it would take over the trail to the point where I had to slow down as I could not see the trail and feared falling over one of the many rocks.

As the day wore on and the trail got further from Windigo, in general the trail lost the feel of a boulevard and begin more to feel like a guessing game in some parts.  As there were no trail markings along the way, often times it would be looking for rock cairns placed by previous thru-hikers to mark the way.  Most of the time it was not this bad, but at times the trail would look like this and I would have to really focus and occasionally I did panic a little when it was not obvious.

Even though there were a few of these spots with exposed rock, there were very few times where the view really opened up, but when it did I tried to snap a quick picture while still moving forward.

I made it to the Hatchet Lake Trail in 3:30:36.

The next section was deemed as the most difficult section by Jim DuFrense.  It was a 7.2 mile section from Hatchet Lake Trail to Indian Portage Trail and had nearly twice as much elevation change as any other section, which as the longest stretch between intersections, seemed about right.  Mentally this was an important section as after it was over, I would have just 15 miles to go.

I crossed two streams during this stretch, one that was on the map, but unlabeled, and one that was not. I had heard many reports that no water was available at any point on the Greenstone, so these water sources were welcome.  Having grown up in a small town and spending significant time in the wilderness drinking from back country streams, I have never gotten sick or worried about creek water.  My dad has always said as long as it is moving, it is fine.  During the Grand Canyon run, none of the water sources after Phantom Ranch were turned on, so from miles 6 to 15 and 25 to 34 we drank directly from Bright Angel Creek without issue.  On these two streams along the GRT I filled up a hand bottle and drank them completely and filled them again as a back up source.

It was important to me to be under 12:00 minute pace for the first half of the run and I just ducked in under that for the first 20.2 miles.  But soon after I began to lose time faster than I had put it into the bank.  By the time I reached Indian Portage, I had several splits of well over 13 minute miles and was power hiking more and more.  I reached the end of the 7.2 mile section and 25.2 miles overall in 5:07:31.

The next section would be the second shortest all day in just 1.6 miles to reach Chickenbone East Trail.  I had studied the maps over and over and this was one of the places that I had questions on, and it proved just as confusing in person.  There was a canoe portage between Chickenbone Lake and Lake Livermore which was marked, but after running a marathon, my brain wasn't exactly working correctly, so I had to stop and make sure I was going the right way.  Then at the end of the section, the Greenstone Trail came to a "T" intersection and I had to think about which way to go.  I was now at 5:29:00 for 26.8 miles.  The GPS accuracy had now slipped to 0.36 miles as it read 26.44 over a documented 26.80 miles.

Leaving the second lowest point on the trail, the next two sections to Daisy Farm Trail and Mount Ojibway would be mostly climbing and I was rudely welcomed with a sharp and technical climb after a long boarded section through the swamp.

Things during this section are very fuzzy; From the GPS splits it looks like I was walking more and more and struggling mightily.  I do recall trying to keep the splits below 14 minute miles, thinking that if I ran the first half in 12's, that I could run the second half in 14's and still run 13 overall and hit my target.  There were more and more people on the trail now, and most of them were traveling west, or against my path.  They were all very nice and stepped aside as I ran by.  I expressed my gratitude briefly each time and only once was I able to muster any more words than that and it was something about "30 miles down, 10 miles to go, TODAY."  I hit the 50km or 31 mile mark at the Daisy Farm Trail connector in 6:31:19.

It was a brief 1.5 miles to Mount Ojibway Trail, but with the continued climbing, it took me over 20 minutes to get there.  The trail was now more exposed to the hot sun than it was shaded, and it was starting to take a toll on my energy levels.  I tried to run through the sunny parts and power hike through the shade but it was mostly an ultra-shuffle the entire way.  The closest I was to being lost all day came at the intersection of the Mount Ojibway Trail when I stopped to talk to a father and son who were hiking.  I asked them questions about the terrain to Mount Franklin and upon leaving, I went the wrong way.  They quickly yelled to me and I back tracked a few steps.  It is amazing how fast you can lose focus.  I arrived at the intersection at 6 hours and 52 seconds even.

To the best of my memory, the Mount Ojibway fire tower was just past the trail head.  This picture was taken on my approach to the tower as I still had my camera out in my hand.

There was a group of what looked like Boy Scouts and a few adults camped out under the tower and as I ran past I asked them what the rest of the trail looked like.  One of the younger boys said that there was one more climb and then it was a big field to the end.  I assume that they started at Rock Harbor, so  the field he referred to was after Mount Franklin on the trail back down to the Lodge and that my last section would not be the same.

It was just a short 5km or 3.1 miles to Mount Franklin and I was holding steady at under 15 minute miles.  I had been doing the math on what it would take to come in under nine hours and staying under 15's plus a cushion would do it.  The trail was pretty rugged now and I was kicking more and more rocks, and running just enough each mile to stay under the 15 minute mile threshold.

I was a little confused when I came to the Mount Franklin overlook at just 2.8 miles.  I remember reading about a distance discrepency of 0.3 miles, but what happened was that the overlook was at 2.8 miles and it was another 0.3 miles to the end of the section.  The overlook featured the best vistas of the entire day and since I needed to take in come calories anyway, I hung my pack on a tree and took some pictures.

I even managed to take off my sunglasses for a self portrait with the north shore of Isle Royale in the background.

I arrived at the second to last trail post marking the direction to Lookout Louise in 7:36:01 for 35.6 miles.  The final push to the end was a mere 4.8 miles and if I could hold pace, I would be well under 9 hours and make my goal, and also beat the time on record.  As I took this picture, though not smiling, I really felt like I had the goal in the bag, but then...

As discussed above in the research section, most runners either start or end at Rock Harbor and don't run the entire Greenstone Trail as at the end, there are few options to get back to Rock Harbor and none of them are great.  A runner can backtrack to Mount Franklin and then take the Mount Franklin then Tobin Harbor trail to Rock Harbor, which would be almost 10 more miles!  The second option is to have someone meet you at Hidden Lake.  My plan was to have my Dad travel to Rock Harbor from Copper Harbor then canoe across Tobin Harbor and hike up to Lookout Louise for our meeting.  Then we would paddle back together to Rock Harbor and I would only have to hike 0.9 miles more to the water from the end of the trail.

What I didn't realize was that the shortcut to Rock Harbor meant that virtually NO ONE ran all the way to Lookout Louise.  I very well may have been the first person this season to traverse the 4.8 mile section.  The trail was so overgrown that for the first 3 miles that it was up to my neck and I had no idea where the trail was if not for tripping on the rocks that were too numerous to mention.  My thought of having a sub 9-hour finish "in the bag" were now at risk and I started to panic again.  There was virtually no running whatsoever through these first 3 miles toward the finish.  With what little brain power I had left, I realized that 17 minute miles was as slow as I could go, and each time I looked at my GPS the instantaneous pace seemed slower than that.

I also was wincing in pain from the low lying underbrush composed of ferns and berry bushes that were ripping across my ankles (on the 1" gap between my Injini socks and my 2XU Compression calf sleeves) and across my knees (on the 4" gap between my compression sleeves and my Skins compression shorts) and left me bleeding at the time and with scars to prove it a week later.  At that point, I was not about to slow down and just continued to push through the brush despite the tearing of skin.  I was just hoping to see the final canoe portage across the trail, which I knew was 1.5 miles from the end.  After the thick forest finally opened up to some more bald rock sections, I could see the sign post; the end was within reach.

The final 1.5 miles marked the triumphant return of running as the trail widened out again and mentally I knew that even with a slow ultra-shuffle, I was a lock to break 9 hours.  Being the ever-competitor, I thought I might be able to come in under 8:50 so I pushed a little harder, even though the splits don't seem to reflect it.

Finally... after 40.4 miles...

...pressing stop on the watch(es) after 8 hours, 47 minutes and 36.90 seconds of running...

... and finally with a smile of relief, a smile of accomplishment, a smile of fulfillment; a record setting smile!

The timing of the finish was perfect as my Dad had arrived at Look Louise just 15 minutes prior to me, so after a 0.1 mile hike up and over the ridge from the trail terminus, we were able to catch up on the day that was...

... and share some great views of Lake Superior...

...and after the mile long (painfully slow) hike back down to Hidden Lake, I took a refreshing swim in the chilly (52 degrees) waters of Lake Superior.

Then after the canoe paddle back to Rock Harbor, I stopped for one last photo opp.

The picture below includes the pretigious Greenstone Ridge Patch, which means much more than the $4.95 price tag.  Also shown is the back country permit completed by the ranger at Windigo, which notes my intent to run the entire Greenstone Ridge Trail, in one day.

The new fastest known time for the 40.4 mile GRT.


Here is a slideshow of images from the entire trip, including the hiking done after with my dad.

Mileage, Times

#LocationStartLocationEndTotalStart TimeEnd TimeDurationPaceTotal TimeAve Pace
1Washington Creek Trail0.0Island Mine Trail5.95.95:46:006:53:201:07:2011:251:07:2011:25
2Island Mine Trail5.9Lake Desor South Trail10.74.86:53:207:48:210:55:0111:282:02:2111:26
3Lake Desor South Trail10.7Ishpeming Point14.23.57:48:218:28:380:40:1711:312:42:3811:27
4Ishpeming Point14.2Hatchet Lake Trail18.03.88:28:389:16:360:47:5812:373:30:3611:42
5Hatchet Lake Trail18.0Indian Portage Trail25.27.29:16:3610:53:311:36:5513:285:07:3112:12
6Indian Portage Trail25.2Chickenbone East Trail26.81.610:53:3111:15:000:21:2913:265:29:0012:17
7Chickenbone East Trail26.8Daisy Farm Trail31.04.211:15:0012:17:191:02:1914:506:31:1912:37
8Daisy Farm Trail31.0Mount Ojibway Trail32.51.512:17:1912:38:000:20:4113:476:52:0012:41
9Mount Ojibway Trail32.5Mount Franklin Trail35.63.112:38:0013:22:010:44:0114:127:36:0112:49
10Mount Franklin Trail35.6Hidden Lake Trail40.44.813:22:0114:33:361:11:3514:558:47:3613:04

GPS Data

Here is the link to the GPS data collected from the run.  Note that the distance accuracy of the Garmin 205 GPS started to deviate slightly over the course of the day, but this route has been accurately determined to be 40.4 miles and published in the official National Geographic map.  The GPS measured 39.17 miles, so it had an inaccuracy of 1.23 miles over 40.4 miles or just over 3% error which is about what I think Garmin publishes on their website.

Special Thanks

To the Maker for giving me the physical ability to complete such adventures and the will to do so.  The real glory of this is all yours.

To my Dad, not just for picking me up in the canoe, but for spending some great quality time together on Isle Royale.

To my Mom, for not killing us when we forgot to tell her that there wasn't any cell phone coverage north of Houghton and that she wouldn't hear from us for several days:)

To the good folks from Isle Royale Forums, to whom I got most of my inside information for the trip.

To Rachel, for whom I did not have to drive 1,200 miles away from to know how much you mean to me.  I know that the time and distance apart is not easy on either of us and I look forward to seeing you soon.

How to Break the Record

I really wanted to do the gentlemanly thing and tell you how I think someone can not only run faster, but I believe run this in under 7 hours.
  1. Run it as a team of two.  I have done a few long runs and it is always beneficial to run with someone else so that you can push each other, as the natural rhythms of how you feel good/bad are rarely at the same time as your running partner. 
  2. Run it in early June.  While you will not have the same amount of daylight hours, that should not matter and the peak temperatures will not be as brutal later in the day.  This will also limit the amount of foliage in the middle miles and in the last section
  3. Run it supported.  I could have easily made it across each 20 mile "half" with two hand bottles full of water and pockets stuffed with energy bars, etc.  Have a crew meet you somewhere in the middle to refuel your supplies.  Of course, my record is for an unsupported effort, so this would be a different category.

Just for Fun

As noted in one of the Isle Royale brochures, "Know your limitations; hikes of over six to eight miles a day are uncommon due to rough terrain."