Matt Kirk BMT Fast-Pack Interview
Tuesday, November 03 2009 @ 04:55 AM PST
Contributed by: mday
This past May Matt Kirk completed an unsupported fast-pack of the Benton MacKaye trail, 288 miles of Southern Appalachian single-track roughly parallelling the Appalachian Trail. Matt ended up completing the entire trail in 5 days 23 hours and 16 minutes, an incredible accomplishment. Over less than six days Matt averaged more than 48 miles per day carrying all his own supplies traversing the rugged Southern Appalachians.
Shortly after completing his adventure, Matt wrote an excellent detailed report. If you are at all interested in Matt's adventure you should read his report. I don't think any third-person account of the hike can compete with Matt's report.
In addition to Matt's own report, please visit the adventure's web site. There you will see photos and something else really cool: live voice reports from Matt during the course of the run..
I've known Matt and his family for more than six years and was interested in some specific aspects of Matt's record-setting through hike. My nickname for Matt is "The Trailmaster" because he has introduced me and others to so many great trail adventures. I've watched Matt progress in his fast-packing plans and preparation over the years. I've seen him experiment with different home-made gear and food options. I thought it would be great to see if if he would be willing to answer some questions via email.
ncultra: What did you eat for six days on the trail?
Matt: After a day or two on the trail, food is what it's ALL about. Thru-hiking at any speed requires a lot of energy. To be successful and happy, I carried calorie-dense foods that would help save weight. I enjoyed a variety of nuts and used single servings of flax oil to add fat to (cooked) dinners and breakfasts. I tried to avoid simple sugars and went with more complex carbohydrates.
I had the experience of a few hikes to know how much I should take in and what nutrition I could handle on the go. Minimally processed vegetarian foods were easy on my stomach. I never did much running while eating, but rather a lot of fast walking. 4000 calories/day was my goal, and I think I was able to achieve that with 2 pounds or less of packed food per day. I didn't have any difficulty eating until the very last hours of the hike.
ncultra: How much chance did you get to experiment with different foods in preparation for the fast pack? How different was your diet on the adventure from your normal diet?
Matt: I normally eat more fresh whole foods when not on a long hike. Unfortunately, it just does not work well to carry lots of fresh veggies on a fastpack. I practiced nutrition even on short 10 mile runs by eating the staples/snacks right before heading out. The most beneficial experimentation came on a couple overnight weekend outings with full pack.
ncultra: What did you do for gear?
Matt: To minimize weight, I carried only the necessities. And even these items were designed to serve multiple purposes. I built a lot of the gear because there really isnít such specialized equipment on the market, or itís expensive. Some of the items I carried were a mesh pack, bivy sack, poncho/quilt, cuben fiber tarp, esbit tabs/titanium potÖ The base weight of all this gear and clothing was around five pounds.Thereís been some interest in my pack, so here are some more details of the design: I used a very light/ very cheap (on sale $1/yard) mesh because it would dry quickly. I integrated two removable 1-liter platypus bladders into the waste belt. Hydration tubes connected to shoulder strap pockets. I made the pack upside down so the heaviest stuff (food) could always be on the bottom for the best ride while remaining accessible. With water/snacks up front, I rarely had to take off the pack or dig very deep.
ncultra: Was this the first pack you made?Matt:
No, I've made a few before this. One was a simple frameless pack I carried in 2002 on the Colorado Trail, another was an external framed pack that worked well for a 2007 AT thru-hike. The body of these packs are pretty simple to make, the most complicated parts are the shoulder straps and hip belts.
ncultra: What previous experiences helped prepare you for the BMT adventure?
Matt: Previous experiences include several overnight 35 mile/day trips through the years. One time I tried to go 360 miles in 10 days on a combination of local trails. I failed. I found that I was carrying too much weight and too little food. I also neglected to take care of my feet. I was thinking like a short-timer. This failure was a tremendous learning experience. I wouldíve never guessed that 20 pounds was too much to carry and that 3000 calories/day was too little food. Itís an experiment of one, and field-testing is key.
ncultra: How much did this so-called failure add to your motivation as you started to pile on the miles?
Matt: It provided some contrast to the success I experienced on the BMT, which surely added fuel to the fire. But it also kept me in check. I knew I'd need to take better care of my feet.
ncultra: What were your expectations for this adventure?
Matt: My expectations going into the BMT fastpack were pretty low because I lacked confidence in my fitness. Work had consumed more of my spring than I hoped. Plus, it seemed like I had invested more time designing and building my gear than actually training on weekends! As it turns out, I was pleasantly surprised by my performance day after day, which kept the vibes positive.
I hoped to hike the trail in 7-10 days. Having a reasonable time goal helped keep me from getting discouraged. I made sure to listen to my body and think carefully about what effect my daily activities would have further down the trail. I made sure to get off my feet and sleep for longer periods than what some multi-day adventurers allow. I tried to pamper my body as best as I could and it definitely paid off.
ncultra: Was there anything you did specifically with your feet that allowed you to continue during the last third of the adventure? Your previous SAGE adventure produced some foot problems that you avoided (or didn't stop you) this time. Was that because you were carrying less weight?
Matt: Carrying less weight definitely helped keep my feet happy. I also got some great advice from veteran fastpackers Annette Bednosky and Charlie Roberts among others. They clued me in to leuko tape, which kept minor hot spots from becoming major problems. Finally, I lucked out with good shoe selection. The Saucony Fastwitch 3s were much lighter and breathable than the shoes I used on the SAGE. I think this is crucial for a fastpacking shoe.
ncultra: How much of the BMT had you previously covered?
Matt: Maybe about a third, or around 100 miles here and there. I looked forward to exploring the new sections. The novelty of this trail helped keep me motivated.
ncultra: What was the low point of the adventure? The high point?
Matt: Well the truth is, I was on a high most of the way, which has got to be rather rare for such an adventure. It feels great to be "on top of your game." I think the trick to this was good prep with gear/food/logistics and reasonable daily goals or "carrots". That said, I wasn't always on top. If I had to name a low, it's when I took a wrong turn and got discouraged at Fontana Lake. The high was seeing all these friendly faces (Josh, Adam, Carl, my mom, dad and Uwharrie) who came to watch me finish at Baxter Creek.
Note: more photos of the adventure are located on flickr.