Inside an FKT Attempt on the Appalachian Trail
Liz "Mercury" Anjos just completed a mid-pandemic thru-hike of the AT—with the help of a small, dialed support squad and a van named Pegasus
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Scroll down on the Q&A page of the website for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and you’ll find the following—very reasonable—question: If hiking the Appalachian Trail is so hard, why would I want to do it? The Conservancy’s answer is a little underwhelming: Thru-hiking the entire AT is “rewarding,” “exhilarating,” and “memorable.” One would certainly hope so. But rewarding in what way?
Perhaps Liz Anjos can tell us more. Last week, Anjos (trail name: “Mercury”) completed the AT in the second-fastest women’s time ever. After departing from Springer Mountain in northern Georgia on July 7, she reached the summit of Maine’s Mount Katahdin 51 days, 16 hours, and 30 minutes later. Initially, she had set her sights on breaking Jennifer Pharr-Davis’s 2011 mark of 46 days, 11 hours, and 20 minutes—which was the outright record until Scott Jurek broke it in 2015—but chronic shin splints got in the way.
A professional musician who lives in Portland, Oregon, Anjos, 35, is the founder of the Rose City Track Club; she is a 2:51 marathoner and competed for Greenville College’s track and cross country teams in her senior year. During her FKT attempt, she received continuous en route support from Warren Doyle, a nine-time AT finisher and founder of the Appalachian Trail Institute—a preparatory program for aspiring thru-hikers.
Outside spoke to Anjos about her reasons for pursuing the AT FKT, the psychological benefits of being a distance runner, and the experience of attempting a high-speed thru hike during a pandemic summer. (The AT Conservancy’s current COVID-19 guidelines can be found here.)
OUTSIDE: What made you set your sights on this project? Why shoot for the FKT, as opposed to just doing the AT?
ANJOS: It all started with a dream to hike the AT. I didn’t initially have ambitions to set an FKT. When I was younger, I went on a two- or three-day camping trip on the trail—that’s how I found out what the AT was. I thought that one day I would do the whole thing—maybe when I retire. Then, about five years ago, when Scott Jurek broke Jennifer Pharr-Davis’s record, it kind of sparked the idea again and I just picked 2020 as the year I would do it—way in advance. And the more research I did, the more I started to wonder how quickly I could finish the trail. I’m a pretty type-A person and I’m always thinking about how I can push myself to my limits. And at the time, that tendency was really manifesting itself in my running. But, as late as last year, I was still thinking about maybe doing a self-supported AT trip. Then I signed up for Warren Doyle’s workshop in Tennessee, and he and I just really hit it off. I wanted to learn as much as I could about the trail and, as an educator, he was happy to give me as much information as I could absorb. We started talking about the possibility of a supported record. I hadn’t considered it until that point, because I had no idea whom I’d even ask to support me, but here was this person who loved the trail and knew the trail really well and was eager to support me.
Is there also something that you were hoping to get out of this experience on an emotional level? It seems like there’s a difference between people who do the AT to test themselves physically and those who are maybe looking for some kind of spiritual release.
Absolutely, although I don’t know if ahead of time I could have named exactly what I was looking for. There was the physical aspect of the FKT, but at the same time, going back to that initial desire of wanting to hike the entire thing, it was never because I had to set an FKT. I think I always looked at it as a pilgrimage. I guess I wanted to learn more about myself. Even though it didn’t necessarily take me a long time to do the trail, I still put my life in Portland on pause and set aside this time to do this. And I do feel like I came out of this a changed person.
How much did the pandemic weigh on your decision to proceed with the FKT attempt? Did the reality of COVID-19 impact your experience on the trail?
Going into it, that was the big question. We had planned a July 7 start, so a lot of the spring was just kind of watching and waiting. By the time we started, the entire trail was open, but there were still some restrictions in the northern-most states. But as far as what to do, part of it was just like, I don’t know what the future will bring, and I set aside this time now. So, we just made the decision to continue on with the trek, but to do it as conscientiously and as low-impact as possible.
I got tested twice before beginning (once before departing Oregon, and again upon arriving at my “home base” in eastern Tennessee a week before starting, before driving directly to Springer Mountain in Georgia), but I didn't get tested during my time on the trail. The testing sites I found near the trail would have taken 7 to 10 days to yield results, which wouldn't have been very helpful. We reached out directly to the state health departments of Vermont and Maine in particular about this, since they had the strictest out-of-state visitor regulations. The representative I spoke to in Vermont said my negative test and quarantine in Tennessee would suffice, and the representative from Maine essentially said to avoid crowded public places.
What would you have done differently if it weren’t for the pandemic?
Mainly, just the way of interacting with other people on the trail. I tried to keep my distance as best as I could. Also, I was sleeping in a van and not the shelters along the route. But I don’t know if there’s a ton that we would have done differently. I do feel that the nature of hiking the AT is that it is pretty isolated from other people.
What did your support team look like?
It was mostly just Warren. Throughout the entire trek, he drove the support vehicle that had my sleeping pad and other supplies and met me at every road crossing. The support van (named Pegasus) had a sleeping pad for me, and next to that I had three bins: clothes, accessories/outerwear, food. I had one side cubby with toiletries, and another side cubby with my headlamp, flashlight, and batteries (since I night-hiked so often we needed those in an easy-to-find spot). We kept a cooler in the back that was always filled with protein shakes for easy calories. Warren is very proud of the fact that he purchased Pegasus at an auction for $400.
Was there a specific day or moment when you knew that you wouldn’t be breaking Jennifer’s record?
There was a definite moment. I don’t know the day, but I think it was around the northern end of the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. From pretty much the second or third day until then, so almost 1,000 miles, I had been plagued by shin splints, and ended up walking 20-hour days and getting two or three hours of sleep. I kept making the miles that I needed to break Jennifer’s record, and I kept holding out hope, but by the time I got through Shenandoah National Park, it was clear that it wasn’t getting better and that I wasn’t getting the recovery that I needed. It was tough. I’d be hearing from Warren and from friends along the trail: If you could just run, you’d finish a lot sooner and you’d get to sleep more. And I’m like, Well, I know that. I was very aware, but my legs weren’t having it.
I didn’t really know what to do. Despite my lack of experience, I was very confident that I could break Jennifer’s record. I hadn’t really considered what my game plan would be if it became clear that that wasn’t going to happen. I ended up setting some A-B-C goals. Initially, it was to try and finish in under 50 days—an average of roughly 44 miles per day. Then, we knew that David Horton’s record from 1991 was 52 days, so that would be the next goal. And then we knew that Heather Anderson’s very impressive self-supported goal was 54 days, without any outside help.
Even though you couldn’t run, do you think your experience as a road marathoner helped you at all?
I think the mental gains that I got from all those years of endurance road racing certainly translated. Just the mindset of running though all conditions. I think the discipline and the mental fortitude really helped me with all those walking hours. Because, physically, I’m not a very strong hiker. Especially with the tougher stuff in the White Mountains in New Hampshire, I didn’t necessarily have the physical and technical skills going for me, but I did have the mental strength side going for me.
In an Instagram post, you wrote that, “the trail taught me so much about myself and the good of other people.” Since we’re not exactly inundated with news about the good of other people at the moment, could you elaborate on that?
I was just blown away by the support of the trail community. I didn’t know what the climate would be like with COVID. Are people going to be upset that I’m hiking the trail or coming through their towns? But it was just the opposite, in that I received so much support—whether it was from trail maintainers, or people from the local trail club or local businesses coming out. Not just for me, but for other hikers on the trail. Little “trail magic” things: coolers at the trailhead with cold bottles of water, or Pepsi for hikers coming by. And people who would come out to hike or run with me, at a distance. I didn’t know them and they didn’t know me, but the willingness to help strangers just blew me away.
What did the trail teach you about yourself?
I think I went into the hike as a very goal-oriented person and putting a lot of pressure on myself. I also assumed that friends, family, and people who were following what I was doing had those expectations, too, and I think I felt this pressure to have a certain outcome. But the more I got into it, I realized that it wasn’t about the goals, or the outcome, or the performance. It isn’t about any of that at all. It’s really about the experience and the learning and the people—the magic of the trail.
Jennifer Pharr-Davis has said something similar: that the greatest reward of an AT FKT is not the record itself. Fair enough, but then why pursue the record in the first place?
I still want to explore my personal limits, but those limits are defined by me and not what someone else has done. Also, the nature of what I was doing put me in these situations where I was really stretching myself. I don’t know if I’d normally be hiking at eleven o’clock at night, up on some ridge, during a thunderstorm. Other times, I’d be hiking for hours in the dark and I’d be really in my own head and kind of exploring all these thoughts without really having to wrap them up any time soon. I’d get a melody in my head and I would wonder if I could turn it into a song. These are things that I wouldn’t necessarily be experiencing if I wasn’t out on the trail for hours and hours.