Alyssa Godesky's unlikely record on a 273-mile trail in Vermont
On July 31, Alyssa Godesky set a little-known record: She covered the rugged 273-mile Vermont Long Trail in just 5 days, 2 hours and 37 minutes -- the fastest known time (FKT) ever for a woman. Her attempt broke the 2012 record, set by ultrarunning legend Nikki Kimball, by more than five hours.
Yet, there's a reason no one, outside of a handful of friends, thought Godesky, 33, would be the one to break the record. An attempt would require averaging 55 miles a day of trail running, scrambling up rocks, crossing muddy creeks, descending sharp hills -- and even actual rock climbing.
Though Godesky is a professional triathlete in Charlottesville, Virginia, she simply didn't have the same ultrarunning resume or thru-hiking credentials as the women who had done the trail before her. In fact, at one of her first 50-mile races back in 2009, Godesky dropped out of the same event Kimball won.
"It was not magic. She just put in so much work," says Hillary Biscay, Godesky's coach and a member of her crew for the supported record. "I had all the confidence in Alyssa."
So how did she do it? What does it take to plan and execute something like that?
In college at the U.S. Naval Academy and later at the University of Virginia, Godesky started trail running and then jumped into ultrarunning events, winning a spot in the famous 100-mile Western States race. But she wasn't super serious about it -- at least not as serious as the big names who were far ahead of her, such as Kimball.
It wasn't until she picked up triathlon, got Biscay to coach her, got faster, and decided to race professionally that she got serious. In 2014, she quit her corporate job at AOL to focus on triathlon. She's now done over 30 Ironmans and more than 50 marathons or ultramarathons. She competed in two Ironman races on back-to-back weekends in 2016 and then took fourth at an Ironman-distance race in Taiwan despite the airline losing her bike and all her gear -- and racing for 10 hours on borrowed equipment.
Then she started looking for a new challenge. She watched the documentary that followed Kimball's Vermont FKT, "Finding Traction," and says, "I was super inspired, but it also showed the door was open." She kept waiting for someone else to break Kimball's record, but no one did, so she decided that she would try.
But a long weekend in Vermont to test the trails last fall made it clear how hard and technical this would be. She had planned to cover 100 miles over four days to test things out, "and I barely made it through 20 miles on the first day," she says. It took hours longer than expected.
Godesky started to worry that maybe she couldn't do it. That's when Biscay told her if the only thing stopping her was being scared of not getting the record, then she should do it. They could get her ready.
While FKTs have always been around, they've grown in popularity with the advent of GPS watches and online tracking social networks like Strava. In order to have an FKT count in some sort of official capacity, the athlete must log it on sites like fastestknowntime.com and submit GPS records.
Godesky started spending a lot of time on those message boards and researching what other people had done before. She bought map books and guides. And she headed up to Vermont, renting an Airbnb on the south end of the trail for one month and then heading to the north end for another month. "It was the most expensive part of the whole thing," she says. She spent $6,000 in house rentals -- knowing she was putting all her money behind preparing for the attempt. Fortunately, she was able to get a grant from the organization Trail Sisters and was able to continue her coaching business remotely, working with athletes all over the country.
Then she and Biscay came up with a training plan unlike any they'd put together before. She did two big blocks of three weeks of training, with multiple days of long runs and hikes building to three back-to-back days of 30 miles each. She did weighted hill repeats and days with two runs -- a long run in the morning and sometimes a treadmill run in the evening to build mental endurance too. She worked with a strength coach to come up with a plan for the technical aspects of the trails such as climbing and sharp descents. And she did much of her training on sections of the trail itself to become familiar with them.
She spent her free time planning the logistics. "There was a lot of time spent thinking through as many scenarios as possible," says Matt Cymanski, her boyfriend and part of her crew. What if she got hurt? What if she went faster than predicted and had to sleep on the trail? What if they needed to decide if she should push on or stop early? Together, they put together a massive binder of all the needed information -- including a spreadsheet with calculations on how long it'd take her for each segment.
Once they were out on the trail, the crew just had to refer to the binder to know which bag was supposed to go in which car (all presorted) and which foods they should get out at which stop. "I'd ask, 'Do you have any Reese's?' and they'd be like, 'I do!,'" jokes Godesky. Biscay and two of the crew even hiked in to bring her a Taco Bell quesadilla on the trail on the last night.
There also was always at least one person hiking with her on the trail, to help carry stuff and for her safety as the sleep deprivation kicked in. It took five days in the mud and rain to cover the 273 miles, during which Godesky slept a total of 17 to 18 hours in trailside shelters or in the back of a car. On the last day, when they decided to push it 72 miles after stopping early the night before, she was so sleep-deprived that she sat down on the side of the trail and fell asleep in some ferns as one of her crew looked at the bad blisters on her feet.
But even as her legs were visibly shaking uncontrollably, Godesky never got too down. "I expected to have to do more counseling," says Biscay. "There were more pep talks planned."
In the end, it was worth it -- the month of prep before and the weeks after of swollen feet and sleep-deprivation nightmares in which she imagined she was still on the trail.
"I put myself in a position I've never been in before and it opened up new avenues," says Godesky. "And it's humbling -- it's bigger than yourself."
Tackle your own trail
Planning to go after your own FKT? Or just want to try a long, ambitious hike? Here are some things Godesky learned from her five-day adventure:
Recruit good friends
One of the trickiest things was finding enough friends who were able to take off five or six days to be part of the crew: to carry supplies from point to point, pace her on segments and drive the cars. At its biggest, there were 11 people (and Biscay brought her two young kids) running a "mobile aid station," as Godesky called it, with an array of food laid out and clean socks and shoes -- anything she might need.
"In a way it was my bachelorette party, wedding shower and baby shower all rolled into one big ask," she says.
Do your homework
Cymanski and Godesky put together that binder of all the necessary information, which they jokingly referred to as the Bible, and every car had a copy. Whereas at most races you get an athlete guide, but here "you have to write the athlete guide yourself," says Godesky.
It included directions to each of the checkpoints, since cell service in the woods of Vermont was unreliable, as well as directions to the hotels and which cars would take which shifts. All the gear and food were also sorted into duffel bags and coolers so it'd be easy to find. Cymanski even went back to the hotel and recalculated the spreadsheet one night after Godesky started to slow down.
Be able to adjust
The only thing Godesky might have done differently, if she could have, would have been to be flexible about the time and dates. The massive storm that rolled in the first two days made the trails thick with mud and made it slow going -- but people had flights and jobs to get back to, so delaying the start wasn't possible.
If she was able to, she also would have been more flexible about where she stopped and slept. Because there are a limited number of spots where the trail crosses the road, they had to make tricky calculations about when to call it for the night and how far to keep pushing.
Just go for it!
Godesky also started a project called Wandeln, in which she's trying to encourage other people to get out on trails and find their own adventures. The motto: One mile at a time.
After all the planning and prep, sometimes you just have to get started. Do the work to prepare, but don't let that scare you or stop you.
"It's 1,000 percent worth the time it's going to take you," she says.