Saturday, September 22, 2012

FKT at Old Rag Mountain

For the better part of this year I’ve had an itch to haul in something I would consider close to a perfect run on one of my favorite Virginia Mountains- Old Rag.  By a perfect run of course I mean something speedy but also something where I would feel decent throughout and really good at the finish.  Finally, yesterday I made the call: after work this run was going to happen.  I hit the road around 4pm and drove north towards the Old Rag Mountain trailhead located on back roads a few miles off Route 231, an hour’s drive from home.

A photo I snapped on July 28th, 2012 looking west from 231.  Old Rag shortly after sunrise.  How nice to receive mail at the Craft abode.

Another view.
Old Rag Mountain is unique and exceedingly popular in that it draws approximately 80,000 people each year who show up to hike the Ridge Trail to the summit, down the Saddle Trail and back to their cars via the Weakley Hollow Fire Road.  Some elect to travel in the opposite direction but most often the chosen route is the clockwise direction, the route I just described, the route to which I am partial and the direction I ran yesterday evening.  In total this circuit encompasses 7.5 miles and just shy of 2,200 vertical feet.   By itself, Old Rag is obviously not very big.  Or tall.  In fact, it is more or less a border mountain located between neighboring foothills and the bigger Blue Ridge Mountain peaks of the Shenandoah National Park located immediately to it's west.  For many reasons, however, Old Rag lends itself well to popularity.  For starters, it is located close to various towns, cities and main roads (or vice versa).  Old Rag also happens to offer spectacular views from atop and, well, it’s just a darn fun mountain to experience.  Especially the super rocky summit ridgeline, which requires practically a full mile’s worth of scrambling; sometimes on all fours and at one point the trail even passes through a cave.  Aside from Mount Monadnock in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the most pedestrian travelled mountain in the United States, if not the world, Old Rag has to be one of the most hiked mountains in all the land.  As a comparison, 125,000 to 130,000 hike Monadnock each year.  How many mountains and National Park locales can even support this kind of use?
The scene at the upper parking lot.  Ridge Trail begins on the left, Weakley Hollow Fire begins (or ends) behind the yellow chain.
Once I arrived at Old Rag and parked at the lower overflow lot I warmed up for 10 minutes on the road leading up to the trailhead.  I shook out my legs.  My quads.  I stood in place and counted jumping jacks.  The legs felt heavy still and not at all excited about the task at hand: to run the Old Rag loop- from the upper lot cement trailhead post and back- in FKT fashion.  Screw it, I thought.  I made the drive and I was going to give this run a shot regardless of how the legs felt.  I started my watch, tapped the cement post and off I went up the Ridge Trail.  A moment passed and in the midst of heavy breaths and paranoid thoughts about not feeling truly up for the effort a voice echoed in my head, seemingly out of nowhere.  Relax.  Let the mountain come to you.  That was all it said, only once, and apparently all I needed to hear.  Instantly my shoulders dropped, my breathing settled and I became fixated soley on traveling the most efficient lines through the rocks at a comfortable pace up Old Rag.  Still, my legs felt heavy.  The voice didn’t just make that go away; I simply concentrated on other things.  Mostly, I thought of nothing at all.  My thoughts were empty; in a good way.
The first overlook, at mile 2.14, came at :22:17.  At this point I began the first bit of hands-on-knees power hiking.  The dirt path changed to a rock staircase which soon gave way to incline granite slabs.  I was now in the thick of things on the best part of Old Rag as I climbed, pulled, pushed, lifted, crawled, hopped and scrambled my way up the summit ridge.  The ironic thing about attempting a perfect run on Old Rag is that negotiating the summit portion allows very little running at all.  As evidence, my GPS splits revealed a 17:20 pace over the 1.01 mile between the first overlook and the actual summit, which I clocked in at :39:50 at the summit post sign.
According to Virginia trail running aficionado and historian, Joe Clapper, Kevin Sawchuck of California long held the official summit FKT in :42:31.  I'm not sure in what year he ran it but I believe it was in the late 90s.  Prior to Kevin's benchmark, Joe and Derrick Carr would duel back and forth over who was king dingaling of Old Rag Mountain.  My summit reach earned me FKT #1 on the run so far and a spot in the history books with greats Joe, Derrick and Kevin.  I must be moving well after all, I figured.  Not perfectly thus far but well enough.  The summit FKT was gravy but it was not why I came to Old Rag.  I came for the full loop FKT, so I continued on past the summit sign and prepared my downhill legs for the coming 1.9 miles of technical downhill and switchbacks.
Man, my legs felt good running downhill.  What happened?  Why all the sudden did they feel so strong?  I suppose the mental boost from summiting in less than 40 minutes had something to do with it.  The confidence meter shifted.  A moment or two went by and I stopped concerning myself with the why, I simply leaned more into the trail, sped up and enjoyed the ride.  The summit descent to the Old Rag Shelter is exceedingly technical yet somehow I managed to actually stride out my legs over the rocks and move really quickly down the mountain.  That is another one of the unique things about Old Rag: in such a condensed loop there is so much variation in the trail.  And to cover the loop in FKT fashion one must draw on a diverse skillset which need include, but not be limited to, climbing, rock climbing, scrambling, technical downhill ability and, finally, over the gravel road homestretch, pure speed.
At :53 I hit the gravel Weakley Hollow Fire Road intersection and banged a right hand turn.  It was a gradual downhill from there back to the Old Rag upper parking lot cement trailhead post, and I cruised the final 2.44 miles at 5:14 pace.
Finally, I entered the upper parking lot, tapped the cement post and stopped my watch at 1:05:49- FKT #2 on the day for the roundtrip.  I stood around for a moment or two thinking yeah, maybe I could cover this loop slightly faster, sure, but it was still a perfectly good run.  I felt good, which is what I had hoped for, and I was happy.  I felt like celebrating so I picked up the water bottle, headlight and pack of Clif blocks I stashed earlier behind a log and made my way back up the Ridge Trail for another loop.
Prior to completing this loop I imagined anything under a finish time of 1:10 would be fairly stout and so I am happy with my time.  Sub 1:05 is definitely within reach, possibly even sub 1:03 or 1:02.  It was still warm out during the run and possibly cooler temperatures alone might have helped get me below 1:05, something I think has a nice ring to it and I would like to claim eventually.  Sub one hour?  I seriously, seriously doubt I have that in me.  Never say never but just looking over the splits and how the course is laid out, each section being so unique and requiring different skillsets, I’m not sure where I could shave off a total of more than five minutes and 49 seconds.


  1. Replies
    1. We just did the quick hike + downhill run method yesterday. We clocked 2:54. So fun.

  2. This is awesome. A group of us have been practicing, hitting the mountain once a month. My best time so far is 1:46 for the loop so I have a ways to go.

    (Of course running in January with the snow up there is very difficult, crampons make the experience worthwhile, and the fire road is still runnable though the initial descent is extremely treacherous.)

  3. We came back twice for May; the first time made it up about 1.5 miles before we were ran off by a mother bear and two cubs so we ran the reverse - fire road is a brutal slog going up.

    Second attempt was this past Saturday with temperatures in the low 40s. In our group Andy finished 1:23:59, and Scott and I finished around 1:39. Lots of room for improvement!

  4. Charles,
    Thanks for sharing. Good to hear you're getting after it on Old Rag! By Fall- if not sooner- I expect those times will come down even more at this rate.
    Once on the fire road coming down I was stopped by a Mamma bear and her cubs as well. That area is loaded with bears.

  5. Do you have the GPS watch data from this run available?

    1. Click "GPS Splits" link in the post for data.

    2. Looks like I crossed over that more than once. Ooopss

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  7. Do you by any chance know the FKT for females?

  8. Amazing how fast everyone does this hike. Very impressive. I hiked today to celebrate my 47th. Power hiked up and ran down back down via the fire road side to parking lot with a 10 minute lunch break at summit in 2:52. Not bad for an "old" woman with a healing broken kneecap! :)