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Backpacker Magazine – March 2014

Go the Distance: Endurance Strategy

Combine your physical and mental training to hike farther than ever before.

by: Casey Lyons

Matt Kirk (Photo by Steven McBride)
Matt Kirk (Photo by Steven McBride)
All-day Energy Food (Photo by Ben Fullerton)
All-day Energy Food (Photo by Ben Fullerton)

Profiles in Endurance: Matt Kirk

Appalachian Trail (unsupported) in 58 days, 9 hours, 38 minutes

Thirty-seven miles per day through the Whites just wasn’t going to work. Matt Kirk shrugged it off. Even if he didn’t set a speed record, he reasoned, the scenery was payoff enough. Besides, his pack weighed a shade over nothing. He was enjoying the cruise, no matter his pace.

This attitude—flexible, relaxed—might not seem like the stuff it takes to hike these 2,185 miles faster than anyone. But if he couldn’t enjoy it, Kirk figured, what was he doing?

For months, he’d planned every mail drop, every calorie he’d consume, every gram of gear he’d carry. He turned food prep into science—going heavier on fat, which is more energy dense than protein or carbs. And he forced everything to do double-duty. “I packed coconut oil because at room temperature it’s solid and more manageable,” he says. “Plus, if you develop chaffing somewhere, it’s like edible Body Glide.”

He went light on food, carrying just 3,500 calories per day (a minimum figure he arrived at by pushing himself on long shakedown hikes and, of course, balancing pack weight versus hunger). So when he (expectedly) found himself ravenous with nothing more to eat, he tranced into a different state of mind: “When I’m pushing myself at my threshold, I feel like I’m looking outward more,” he says, “like my consciousness is opened more to the world around.”

As he breezed down through the Mid-Atlantic states and into the South, he picked up a few miles here and there, methodically carving into the deficit he’d amassed in Maine and New Hampshire when he missed his 37-mile-per-day pace. He wasn’t so much chasing the 23-year-old speed record as existing alongside it. He didn’t even allow that he might break it until he got to the Smokies. 

Even then, he strolled the last miles as easy as the first.

Choice  Words

Don’t you miss a lot by speed hiking?

“No, you see more because you’re hiking during the crepuscular times of day when wildlife is more active and most people are already set up in their camp and zipped up in their tents.” –Matt Kirk 

Break Camp Faster

Leisurely mornings are nice and all, but if you’re looking at a big-mile day, they’re a huge daylight suck. Want to break camp faster? Get organized the night before, Kirk says: “The only thing that I really keep on hand is my flashlight.” Here’s how he gets out of camp:

4:45 a.m.
Wake up (naturally, no alarm)

4:46-4:49 a.m.
Zip out of bug bivy, answer nature’s call and retrieve food bag

4:50-5:00 a.m.
Retreat to bug bivy, hydrate (20 oz.), eat breakfast (three or four energy bars), and caffeinate (coffee—sometimes even hot!)

5:01-5:04 a.m.
Dress; sort and pack snacks for day

5:05-5:09 a.m.
Zip out of bivy, lace up shoes, drop tarp, pack up rest of gear

5:10 a.m.
On the move


Perfect 50: Olympic Coast Strip

Traverse from beach to highlands between Hoh River and Ozette Lake. INFO

Food: Eat for all-day energy

This food strategy will keep you going and going.

Hiking is hard work, and you need enough fuel to keep you powered for the long run. Target 4,000 to 5,000 calories per day (or 7,000 to 8,000 in winter). Any less and you risk fatigue (like Kirk experienced) and—worse!—bonking.

Breakfast Start your day by putting carbs (150 grams) in the tank—think oatmeal or granola with dried fruit. 

Snacks and lunch The hungrier you are, the less energy and focus you’ll have. Keep the carbs coming by snacking hourly. Target 30 grams of carbs per hour to prolong physical and mental pep. Good sources include energy bars, trail mix with salted nuts and dried fruit, and energy gels and blocks. For lunch, good old peanut butter and jelly offers a perfect mix of fats, carbs, and protein.

Dinner Eat a protein-rich dinner (target 30 grams) and replenish the muscle fat (trigylcerides) you burned during the day. Eat avocado, nuts, and seeds, cook in oil (olive or canola), or mix coconut oil or butter into meals to fortify them with fuel to burn on the trail tomorrow.

Food: Eat Your Rewards

Great news! There’s a place for the post-hike binge.

We may like to think we’re burning the old spare tire during endurance hikes, Ryan says. Truth is, we burn the fat stored in muscle more in this type of exercise. Replace these “good” fats (plus proteins and carbs) over the next 24 to 48 hours—especially if you plan to exercise more. The tastiest way to do that? Tuck into that burger (protein!), fries (fat!), and beer (carbs!).

Don’t Forget: Go Lighter

You’re not getting anywhere—fast or far—with a heavy pack. Target 15 pounds (excluding food, water, and fuel) and you’ll devote more of your energy toward making miles than schlepping gear. Learn more:

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