The Backstory: The Pemi (Pemigewasset) loop has been on my mind for the past few years. As a camper back in the mid 90s I hiked it as a three-day trip and vaguely remember it. There was suffering and crushing knee pains that trip because I slacked hard that summer opting for the canoe trips.
This summer I made the point to find time for the 30ish mile loop in a rare gap between weekend races. I prepped by checking the forums and making a few preliminary decisions that I’ll get into later. I had the date, early morning Thursday August 27th.
The Plan: the idea was to get an alpine start and get back in the early afternoon to pick Squall up. This would also help beat the heat and avoid the majority of the crowds. I also opted for counter clockwise - warm up the legs on the nearly 5 miles of flat rail trail before ascending the Bonds.
I packed nearly 2200 calories in the form of gels and bars into my running pack that also held a 2-liter bladder with an inline water filter. I brought my phone, and gopro (dead battery unfortunately) plus my lightweight houdini in case it got a little brisk up above tree line. I wore my Montrail Bajadas that seemed like a good shoe with asic synthetic socks and a Patagonia airflow singlet.
The Run: after an hour’s drive, I arrived at the Lincoln Woods parking lot just before sunrise (5:30am). I didn’t bring a headlamp so I used the bathroom and waited around a little longer until twilight so I could have just enough visibility to get started. I encountered my first mistake within the first half a mile - a full water bladder - there was no need to carry that much weight on the flats. I dumped all but a 1/4 liter and carried on. Water sources aside from the campsites / Galehead hut was the big crux of the loop. I had enough food but where would I get water heading up Bond and after Garfield? I continued running at sub 8min/mi pace and just kept an eye on the small tributaries feeding the east branch of the pemi. At mile 1.4 I passed the Osseo trail cutoff. Smooth sailing so far, the trail was flat and fast. Another 1.2 miles and I was at the turnoff to the Franconia falls turnoff with a little bridge - the trail turned into a single track for a bit where I saw a small fox sprint away on the trail ahead. Side note - I have vivid memories of the natural slide up at the falls. (https://Mt.youtube.com/watch?v=HJ80TLWIGeg). From the Falls Trail junction I continued running up the wilderness trail another 1.8 miles there was a little bit of weaving at this point but it was still relatively flat (442’ of elevation gain for the first 4.8 miles). Now the fun begins! The Wilderness trail becomes the Bond Cliff trail and the ascent starts. It’s a quick change to single track with roots, rocks, a few blow downs, mud and plenty of elevation gain. I became victim of a mud pit that was knee deep and was lucky not to lose a shoe. It would be the least of my worries moving forward. Looking on the topo map, the approach to Bond Cliff looks steep and rugged, which is why I was pleasantly surprised how runnable it was. Aside from a couple sections of rock stairs and a bit of a cliff scramble up top, it’s a lot of gradual (<14% grade) side hill. The 4.4 mile trail took me around 55 minutes to run (2,600’ gain), approximately 1:35 elapsed time. Once above tree line the views were spectacular – Clouds were moving in and out of the surrounding valleys. Another big fail was that my phone’s storage was full and although I tried to free up space, all the videos I deleted just went to a deleted folder. I had my first big fall on the rocks trying to mess with my phone and my left calf cramped up big time. A sure sign of things to come. I gave up on the phone and just took mental snap shots of the beautiful views in every direction and looked forward to Mt. Bond straight ahead. Bond sits 433’ above Bond Cliffs and is 1.2 miles away. It’s a relatively easy climb though on fast rock and views to distract. Mt. Bond was uneventful but I did see my second person and quickly moved on to Mt. Guyot. I’m not really sure when I crossed Guyot - it’s not very distinguishable approaching from the south, somewhere around the 2:08 mark I cruised on and kept my sights on South Twin, the next little bump ahead. Now, I had a goal of getting to South Twin around 2:30 and I made it across the bog planks and up to the summit at 2:33! This was well on pace for what I was going for. Last time I was on South Twin was with Scott Jurek and Timmy O’Neill after an all-nighter. It was just as much of a blur this go-around. My legs were feeling it as it was time to descend to Galehead hut. This is a 0.8 mile section 1,119’ elevation loss. It was also just after 8am and the hikers from Galehead hut were just getting going. I did my best to stave off groin cramps while bounding recklessly down the rock-strewn section. I had a couple near-misses but came away clean and made it to the hut at 2:46 for a quick water stop. I was in and out in a minute and kept on pushing the pace. This section, from Galehead hut to Lafayette would be the crux of the run. It’s 6.4 miles of PUDs (pointless ups and down) with a bitch of a climb up Garfield and a bigger climb up Lafayette (the highpoint of the loop). I had another spill on wet rocks not far after the hut. Shins at this point were bloody enough to draw concern from other hikers, offering their first aid kits. “No thanks, just superficial battle wounds.” As I climbed to the base of Garfield, I sucked down a lot of my water. I was heating up in the woods and thirst was catching up. Ascending Garfield is your last point to get water until linking back up with the Lincoln Woods trail unless you want to tack on 0.6 miles to fill up at Liberty Springs. Knowing this, I stopped on my climb and drank 10 handfuls of water flowing down the trail. I really should have chugged my bladder and filled up there. Ahh hindsight is so cruel. Garfield proved to be as difficult as expected whereas everything up to that point was easier than I expected. My legs were spent and I struggled as I pushed up and over the last 0.7 miles (1,077’ gain). Over Garfield was another nasty descent down to Garfield pond. I suppose you could get water here if you were desperate and let some of the particles settle out so your filter doesn’t clog up. The remaining stretch of the Garfield Ridge Trail meanders up and down before the final up section climbing above tree line up to Lafayette. This again was difficult but I kept moving forward. There were plenty of runnable sections that I just power hiked if you could call it that. I reached the summit around 4:40 and was still way on pace for sub 7.
On paper the next stretch looks relatively easy - the gorgeous Franconia ridge trail that includes Mt. Lincoln, Little Haystack, Mt. Liberty, and capped off by Mt. flume. With fresh legs this would have been a blast but my legs were wasted and starting to run low on water. The entire ridgeline was socked in the clouds which kept me cool but I was still sweating profusely. Lincoln and Little Haystack went by rather quickly but the 1.9 mile stretch to the Liberty Springs junction was painfully slow. It was all still runnable but I was gassed. I was fully aware of my current situation - miles behind me and miles ahead. Plus you have Liberty and Flume staring you down through various outlooks. Once at the Liberty Springs junction I considered scrapping going for time and filling up my water. That thought lasted a full five seconds and I just kept motoring by. It’s just 0.3 up to Liberty and 1.2 miles to Flume then it’s all downhill - a breeze right? Hell no. I sipped the last of my water as I moved up and over Liberty. I tried my best to run/walk over to Flume but spent a lot of time walking. I actually looked forward to the steep sections so I didn’t feel guilty for walking if you can believe that. I reached the summit of Flume around 5:56 and now had uncharted territory ahead. I had been on every section of the trail leading up to this point but had never touched the Osseo trail. I never really looked at the mileage beforehand and was thinking it would be 2.5 miles maybe to the valley floor. Nope. 4.1 miles of twisting and highly runnable trail remained between me and my next water source. As I started to descend I asked some poor girl if I could take a hit off her camel pak. She reluctantly let this crazy man, bloodied and saturated in sweat put his mouth on very intimate nipple. Savior. It was a tease but exactly what I needed. I knew this section was highly runnable and even forgiving in sections as it wound down through spruce forest and soft flat (relatively) trail. I let my guard down for a second and took a headfirst digger, burying my shoulder in the only section of gravel. Great, more blood! I kept running though, leaping over roots and two-foot drops. Some sections you could see nearly a 1/4 mile ahead through the woods. I continued to ask people if there was water on the trail. Didn’t really sound like it. One guy rattled off 2 miles. “Can’t be” I thought. “no friggin’ way.” I fell again. This time my left palm got ripped open. Man, the wheels really are falling off. At this point I just put it in survival mode and took in all the suffering. I had pushed myself to another level and just needed to get down to the river. Finally I could hear the river to the right of me, down a steep ravine. It was a tease but kept me moving since I knew I would soon lose more elevation and be able to refill my water soon. At 6:36, with just 2.5 miles left I sat in the Osseo Brook and filled up my bladder to the max. I took 3 minutes to drink and then got up, licked my wounds, and made my way to the Lincoln Woods trail intersection. Once back on the rail trail I tried to keep 8-minute mile pace but with a stomach sloshing with water and noodle legs I just did what I could to salvage my run. The suspension bridge couldn’t come soon enough! I crossed in 6:51:51 achieving my goal but leaving a lot of time on the table. I envisioned soaking in the river when I finished but I found myself stumbling to my car and just wanting to get far away from the trail. I went to the local grocer for a recovery smoothie and picked up my dog from my dad.
That afternoon I was painfully stiff. Everything hurt. This was my first major trail run and until then I hadn’t put in an effort bigger than my winter Chocorua - Passaconaway link up (https://Mt.strava.com/activities/235774903). Fortunately all the injuries were just shallow cuts and healed within a week or two. My body responded well and all the stiffness was gone within a week. I’d like to run this again after gaining significant strength from this effort but will have to hold off until next year.