MagazineAugust 2010King of the Mountains

King of the Mountains

Ultra runner Matt Kirk smashes the South Beyond 6,000 record

On the evening hours of May 30th, Matt Kirk did what many in the Southeast thought couldn’t be done: He broke the seven-year old record for the fastest ascent of the South Beyond 6,000 Challenge, completing it in 4 days, 14 hours, and 38 minutes. In 2003, Ted “Cave Dog” Keizer became the first person to climb all forty peaks over 6,000 feet in the Southern Appalachians in one continuous footpath, traversing an estimated 300 miles in just less than five days. To anyone familiar with the topography of this region, the feat was astounding. Although the Mountains-to-Sea Trail connects several of these ranges, fifteen of the summits are reached only by serious bushwhacks through dense rhododendron and blackberry thickets and multiple blowdowns from winters past. The terrain is slow and frustrating, at times limiting a hiker’s speed to a pedestrian two mph. Even with the aid of maps and GPS, it is virtually impossible to traverse these peaks without getting off course on occasion.

Cave Dog’s accomplishment was viewed with such awe in the trail running community that no one even attempted to challenge his record for years. Last year a trio of women from Virginia and North Carolina (Rebekah Trittipoe, Jenny Anderson and myself, known collectively as The Cats) brought renewed interest in the challenge with the establishment of the first women’s record (6 days, 13 hours and 31 minutes).

Last summer, having just completed his own multi-day adventure, a five-day speed hike of the 288-mile Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT), Kirk turned his attention to the SB6K. He had been “intrigued and intimidated by the challenge” for years. After months of poring over maps, elevation profiles, and split times, he became convinced that Cave Dog’s record might not actually be as untouchable as it once seemed. At 5:45 a.m. on May 26, he set out to find out for himself.

Dream Team: Matt Kirk (center) celebrates the completion of his 300-mile South Beyond 6,000 run atop Grassy Ridge Bald with his crew team of Lily Chang-Chien (left) and Adam Hill (right).

Although Kirk’s preparation for the SB6K began in earnest in early 2010, the seed for this adventure was planted years ago. He and his father discovered backpacking over a decade ago, during his high school years, and his love for the mountains grew from there. In 2002 he began to compile data for a website about the Southern Appalachian sixers, hoping to someday summit all of them. Ironically, he was contacted by Cave Dog, who was in the midst of planning his speed attempt. Unaware of the complexities of such an undertaking, Kirk asked if he could tag along, to which Cave Dog politely but firmly replied that such ventures tend to be more successful solo rather than as a team effort.

When it came time to plan his own endeavor, Kirk remembered this advice, opting to tackle the peaks alone rather than team up as the Cats had done. Although he would be the one doing the running, he knew that he couldn’t face the challenge alone. Kirk was initially reluctant to ask for help, knowing what a big favor he was requesting. He needn’t have worried, however. Upon hearing about the plan, Kirk’s father David immediately volunteered his services as lead crew. His fiancée Lily also stepped up to the plate, as did several trail running friends from across the Southeast. Kirk was thrilled with the support and knew that if he succeeded, his crew would share in the accomplishment.

Man with a Van: Matt Kirk uses his colorful VW bus as a mobile aid station for epic runs.

Kirk’s first day was his longest and most mentally challenging. His primary focus was survival, knowing that he would need to cover 68 miles to summit the twelve peaks in the Smokies. Not only is this some of the most difficult terrain of the challenge, but it is also the most remote, forcing Kirk to face long stretches without aid or even phone contact with his support crew. Rain, blowdowns, and an injury sustained when he banged his knee into a fallen spruce combined to deflate his spirit. Although on paper Cave Dog’s record had looked attainable, the experiences of Day 1 evoked the feelings of doubt Kirk had experienced back in March, when he was humbled by a DNF at the legendary Barkley Marathon. Knowing that Cave Dog had conquered that nearly impossible course the same year he set the SB6K record caused Kirk to question whether he really had what it would take to cover the Southern Appalachian mountains as quickly as Cave Dog had. Shortly before he embarked on his journey, a friend had asked whether he would continue to push on if he found himself behind his goal pace. Kirk’s answer: “I don’t know.”

Despite his misgivings, Kirk ended the day slightly ahead of schedule and was rewarded with enthusiasm and good eats from his crew. He recalled how he had feared his mental demons during the BMT speed hike and how surprised he had been to discover that he in fact grew stronger each day. The following morning, armed with this confidence and the knowledge that he had already ascended a quarter of the mountains, he pressed onward.

The Final Mile: Matt closes in on the summit of Grassy Ridge Bald in a dense fog.

Through his BMT experience as well as extensive consultation with many of the Southeast’s experts in multi-day adventures, Kirk had developed some guidelines for himself prior to setting out on the SB6K. As most people had warned him that it would be extremely difficult to keep up his pace throughout the night, Kirk made it his goal to stay diurnal, pushing into the night as long as possible but opting for some shut-eye during the witching hours between midnight and dawn.

Kirk’s second rule for himself was concerning nutrition. He planned to consume 4,000 calories a day and, with the help of his support crew, he succeeded in eating much as he does at home. As a vegetarian, he relied mostly on eggs for protein and complemented these with sandwiches, fresh fruits and veggies, muffins, and even the occasional Krispy Kreme donut and ice cream—quite luxurious compared to BMT, where he had to carry all of his food in his pack.

Despite the title of Kirk’s blog, he approached this adventure in anything but a foolhardy manner. I’ve run and hiked with Matt numerous times since we first crossed paths at Hanging Rock State Park almost ten years ago. He’s got a carefree manner and a laid-back attitude. Like many adventurers, he avoids the racing scene and prefers to stay out of the limelight, instead creating his own challenges. Working as a high school teacher for the past year, however, has helped him to mature both as a person and a runner. He describes himself as being less reckless and having a stronger work ethic, both on and off the trails. His friend Adam Hill, who accompanied him for parts of his journey, states, “Each time I was on the trail with Matt during the SB6K through highs and lows, he remained laser-focused and on task, all while truly enjoying the moment, the views, and the trail.”

Prior to May, Kirk scouted most of the areas he would cover, checking out the quickest routes up each mountain. He created a comprehensive notebook for his crew, detailing his itinerary, supply list, projected split times and locations of rendezvous points.

I met up with Kirk as he worked his way through the Great Balsams. Having risen with the sun and summited Chestnut Bald and Sam Knob, he stopped to grab a bite and to resupply before tackling Black Balsam, which was hidden behind a mask of cloud cover. David, Lily, and faithful companion Uwharrie the Dog waited. They were a small crew, especially in comparison to Cave Dog’s eighteen-person Dog Team, but efficient. David Kirk heated water to wash Kirk’s dirty socks—a job only a parent could do—while Lily hiked to the closest spring to retrieve water. Upon Kirk’s arrival, they quickly fed him burritos, muffins and coffee, refilled his water bottles, stuffed food into his fanny pack, and helped him into fresh shoes while conferring about their next meeting place. The runner himself was subdued, obviously tired, but smiling. Upon being told that he was several hours ahead of schedule, he looked pleased but was far from confident, knowing that he had another strenuous day ahead of him.

The Grand Kirk: Ultra runner Matt Kirk pauses at Newfound Gap to enjoy the views on the first day of his record-breaking South Beyond 6,000 run. Kirk also holds the speed record for the Benton Mackaye Trail, which he set last year.

A couple of long days later Kirk found himself atop Grassy Ridge in the Roans, the final peak of his journey. He had not only broken Cave Dog’s record, he had crushed it by close to nine hours. Upon his return home he received a congratulatory phone call from the legend himself. The two had a lengthy conversation, comparing notes and reliving their adventures on the trail. Kirk had anticipated that Cave Dog might challenge him in an attempt to determine whether or not he had actually covered the same route that had been traversed in 2002, but he found Cave Dog to be “really complementary…a class act”.

Upon reviewing both his route and Cave Dog’s, however, Kirk questions whether his record is legit. The thing about the SB6K is that there is no established route. Runners may choose any path they like, as long as they summit all 40 peaks and stay on trails wherever possible. Although Kirk set out to follow both Cave Dog’s and the Cats’ course as closely as possible, he strayed from this route in one area specifically when he inadvertently took a more direct route on the Blue Ridge Parkway off the summit of Mount Reinhart rather than following the more circuitous MST. In his humble manner, he also downplays his accomplishment by emphasizing that he had near-perfect weather conditions compared to the constant rain that Cave Dog had endured, maintaining that the initial expedition was much more impressive.

Even now, weeks later, Kirk is undecided about whether he should accept the record that Cave Dog has graciously conceded. “While I tried to follow in his footsteps, I acknowledge that there are discrepancies between our routes. It would therefore be extremely hard for me to claim a record. I believe Cave Dog would agree that the overall spirit of this challenge was upheld. Perhaps that is what matters most.” His bottom line, however, is that records are made to be broken, and he is fairly certain it won’t take another seven years for this one to be challenged. •

Kirk’s Record SB6K Run
Total miles: 268+
Time: 4 days, 14 hours, 38 minutes
Toughest summits: Mount Guyot and Cold Mountain
Favorite summit: Big Cataloochee
Pairs of shoes: 5
In his hip belt: water bottle, GPS, cell phone, wind shirt, emergency kit, snacks
Hours of sleep each night: 4-5

Places to Go, Things to See: