John "lakewood" Fegyveresi

Monday, August 11, 2014

Uncharted Territory

Celebrating my successful PhD defense, with my Shackleton whisky

When I look back at what I consider to be the defining moments of my life, there are obvious events that punctuate the most recent 8 years.  It was back in 2006 that I made the difficult decision to leave my stable job and set my life moving down a new trail.  I not only decided to go back to graduate school to study science, but I decided to mark this new life epiphany with a 2200-mile thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

And this is when my new life-journey began.

I have been extraordinarily blessed since 2006.  I have written detailed journal entries at the end of each year that attempt to summarize the amazing experiences I've been fortunate to be a part of...things I never could have imagined 10 years ago while sitting in my cubicle at my office job.  I find myself today overwhelmed with a sense of contentment, but also a sense of uncertainty.  The long "book" I've been writing over these recent years has truly come to an end as I now pen the epilogue and begin thinking about the next novel.  What will my next book be about?

I decided to look back in this entry at some of the most poignant moments over the past 8 years.  My journey that began sometime around the late summer of 2006, and has now finally came to its end this past Thursday in a small conference room, in front of about 20 people.  At around 11:45 am, I emerged from this room after successfully defending my doctoral dissertation.  My academic advisor offered me his hand, congratulated me, and addressed me for the first time as "Doctor".  It still hasn't sunk in.

During my Defense

So bear with me as I take a short walk down the memory lane tonight.  I could fill dozens of pages with pictures of memorable experiences over the past 8 years; even my year-end posts alone contain hundreds of pics.  I decided instead to just highlight here, a few "firsts" and what I like to call "hinge points" (moments where my life made an important turn).

Back in 2006, I took this Sepia-toned photo from a coffee house in Cleveland, OH.  I spent many hours at this coffee house pondering the "what-ifs".  What if I were to go back to school.  What if I were to quit my job and go for a long hike somewhere.  What if I were to start over.  This particular night, as I was half-heartedly studying for the GRE, I finally decided to change directions. 

Not long after this decision I went out for my first "thru-hike":  A 42-mile hike of Pennsylvania's Black Forest Trail.  I had never hiked more than maybe a dozen miles at once (and that was in boy scouts).  This crazy experience got me hooked.  I became a new student of the outdoors and pined for longer adventures.

I went on to successfully take the GRE and apply to three different graduate programs in Geosciences.  I was hopeful, but also realistic.  It had been years since I had been to school (and that was for engineering), and the odds that I would be accepted into a prestigious geoscience program were slim.  Still, this was my childhood dream...I had always wanted to be an Earth scientist, and had always regretted changing my major in college (to some extent).  Letters began coming and the news was not good.  My applications had been declined from 2 of the 3 schools I applied to.  I was only waiting to hear back from Penn State...which was actually my first choice due to the reputation of their Geoscience Department and their location.  On February 16th of 2007, I got an email that began with the following sentence:

"Dear John:

I am delighted to let you know that you have been admitted to the MS program in Geosciences at Penn State.  I will be following up with a more formal letter of offer in the near future, but I wanted to let you know the good news right away."   (I still have this email)

It looks like my new life would begin after all.  Two months later, after accepting my offer to PSU and saving a few thousand dollars, I quit my vested job, and began thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.

107 days later, I got my first real taste of life when I rested my hands upon the Katahdin sign after my 2174-mile hike

Over the next few years while taking classes as a Masters Degree student (and beginning my research), I set forth on somewhat of an adventure to experience as many new things as possible.  Things I never would have thought I would ever have even come close to just a few years prior.  Things like...

Finishing my first marathon

Preparing my first scientific ice-core samples in a REAL lab

Completing my first alpine thru-hike

...and setting foot for the first time at a remote field camp in Antarctica

Preparing my first snow pit

Running my first mile on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet

Running in my first "official" Antarctic race

...and witnessing the indescribable wonders of New Zealand.  
Still to this day, my favorite place on Earth

....Experiencing my first REAL latte

...and gazing at, and mapping, my first REAL geology

Running my first mountain 100-miler (Leadville 2009)

and feeling the magnitude of completing the impossible

Going for my first ride in a Twin Otter around Antarctica

...and seeing views like this from the window

...and of course the feeling from the Barkley 
that I still have been unable to duplicate

Experiencing Death Valley for 135 miles...

...and then the Volunteer State for over 300

Taking my first hot-air balloon ride

and standing speechless at a remote lake in Northern Japan

Watching the sunset over cliffs in Southern France

And play on 14ers for the first time

Take in the true beauty and isolation of the Southwest

...and watch my first sunset over monumental canyons

On the academic side, things continued to progress.  In the fall of 2009, after finishing my required course-work and research (including the most difficult class I've ever survived: Math Modeling), I successfully defended my Masters.  A few months later, I was awarded my degree and a printed copy of my thesis.

My Completed Masters

After receiving my Masters in 2010, and hiking the PCT that over the summer, I began the next chapter of my academic life.  The decision to continue on into the PhD program was not an easy one.  I had interviewed for a few jobs and nearly took one before eventually deciding on the PhD track.  Later, in the fall of 2010, my plans nearly derailed during my Candidacy exam.  This exam is required for all PhD students and involves a very difficult 3-hour grilling session with a committee of four faculty members.  I was told that I passed...but just barely.  Had I failed, I would not have continued on with my PhD.  In 2012, I again was tested with a "Comprehensive" exam.  I came out of that experience in much better shape, but still had the enormous and daunting task of putting all of my research together into a 4-chapter volume over the next 2 years...into what would become my actual dissertation.

On Thursday of last week, I stood in front of my committee, my friends, fellow graduate students, and my family...and successfully defended my 7 years of combined research, and my 300+ page dissertation.  The book closed, and I smiled.

7 years of my print

This entire journey would never have come to a successful end without the support over the last 5+ years of my other-half.  We watched and supported each other both successfully defend our doctorates.  We were there for each other during the oh-so-many ups and downs and during so many of the incredible adventures.

I cannot wait to see what's next....

Thank you C.

So now, I will finish my remaining edits, turn in my dissertation to the graduate school, hop on my ski-doo, and make my way to my next adventure....

And onward I go.


"...and not when I come to die, discover that I had not lived" - Thoreau

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Manitou's Arse-Kicking Revenge

On somewhat of a last-minute whim, I snuck in an application to run a rather new race up the Catskills affectionately titled "Manitou's Revenge".  This race occurs almost entirely along the Catskill Escarpment (also known as Manitou's Wall - hence the name).  I had heard some rumblings about this race last year that it was an absolute monster.  When I looked up the finish times for this ~54 mile beast, I saw that winners were taking 11+ hours to complete the course.  Yikes.  Last year was the first running, but it had already garnered somewhat of a reputation within the small ultrarunning community in my regional area.  Without even going to the event, I had a good feeling of some of the people I'd see running....fellow runners from Rothrock, Hyner, and Oil Creek.  Sure enough, many of these folks were indeed there. 

Catskill Escarpment

There were two reasons that I decided to run this race...amidst my chaotic thesis-writing schedule.  Everything I read about it told me that it was the exact type of event that I love.  Low-key, no frills, technical, great trails, and very homegrown.  Additionally, I saw some fellow Barkley runners on the entrants list (most notably Jodi Isenor, with whom I ran on-and-off for 3 laps at Barkley this year).  

I made the 4+ hour drive up on Friday night before the race and found a super cheap motel in the middle of nowhere.  I zipped over to the finish area in Phoenicia NY and picked up my packet and followed that up with a fantastic dinner with Julian, Jodi, Karine, and a few others.  It was great catching up.  Before it got to be too late, I zipped back to my motel for a good night's sleep (which I didn't get anyway as I was up almost all night trying to get some thesis data to plot never ends).  I chatted with David and Ashley Lister on my way out as well and was looking forward to Ashley's attempt at breaking her own course record.

At 3:00 am the following morning I drove back to Phoenicia to board a bus that would carry us all to the start some 25 road miles away.  Once there, they sent us runners off in 5 minute waves so as to keep the trails from getting too congested (which actually worked very well).  I was sent off in the 2nd wave, with Jodi just behind me in the third.  With my lack of proper training as of late, I figured it wouldn't be long for him to make up the 5 minutes and catch up to me.  I ran this race not for any sort of time, or goal other than to try to enjoy some trail time away from my computer and thesis.  The fact that Jodi and Julian were there was just a wonderful added bonus.  

The first two miles were an easy road run.  I was confidently pushing out 7:30-8:00 min/miles and laughing with others about how "easy" the course was.  "What hills!" I believe I even said at one point.  Oh but those hills....were most certainly coming.

The real course began at just after mile 2 and I immediately knew what type of day it would be.  The trails were littered with rocks (in a very Rothrock or Hyner PA fashion), making running difficult.  The climbs were brutal....very Maine-Appalachian Trail in style:  Straight up-Straight down, PUDS and MUDS.  Several short climbs over 1000 feet in gain, and one that was about 2400 in total.  One section, along the Devil's Path, had been hyped up over the course of the day by everyone.  I had heard that it was a 8-9 mile stretch that took upwards of 4 hours to get through due to the its technical nature.  How hard could it be right?

Bottom line was the course was ridiculous, but also a lot of fun.  Exactly what I needed.  I could argue that from a technicality perspective, it was certainly on par if not worse than Barkley, but it was still only about 14,000 feet total gain over 54 miles. (just a little more than 1 lap at Barkley in gain).  Some of the climbs were definitely steeper though and required some true level-1 rock-climbing.

Jodi and I scrambling

Jodi's look of excitement (or terror?)

Did I pay for this?

I grew up in New York, but surprisingly didn't really spend any time in the Catskills.  I've heard countless stories about the Escarpment Trail and the surrounding area, and I was certainly not disappointed.  This race was a true butt-kicker, that had to be earned.  I faired mostly ok throughout the day, with some usual ups-and-downs, but definitely hit a low during the infamous Devil's Path bit.  I was passed by about 5 people in this stretch.  What made it all ok though was that by this time Jodi had caught up to me and we managed to run about 12 miles together.  A complete blast.

Lots of slow-going sections and it could have been easy to get discouraged.  I refused to let it get me down though and just enjoyed my day without ever rushing.  I took long breaks at aid stations, chatted and laughed at length with volunteers and didn't push too hard on the ups or downs.  I ran when I could, and kept it mostly steady.  At mile 48 or so, I hit a major river crossing (requiring a ford), and it was about that time that I was ready for that finish line.  Unfortunately one of the most annoying climbs up Mt. Tremper was right after.  It was a slow climb up that beasty and the firetower aid station (the last aid station) was a welcome sight.  I had planned on sitting for a while there, but when the volunteers told me it was only 4 more miles of downhill to the finish, I took off and ran hard the 3 miles all the way down to the road.  The last mile was along the highway and wasn't entirely fun, but I was still smiling knowing that I was near the finish.

All day people had been saying that the real test of a good day at Manitou's was whether or not you could finish with the sun still up (and without a headlamp).  As I came up to the finish-line chute, I looked up at the nearby mountain off to the west and watched just as the sun was dropping down below the ridgeline.  It felt good to finish with that sun still just barely up and eat some well-deserved food (the post race food spread was incredible!).

So, I know this wasn't the most detailed report, but I just wanted to get some thoughts down.  This race definitely lives up to its reputation.  It is one tough monster.  The winner came in just under 11 hours (this from a guy who runs sub 7-hour 50-milers).  I could go on, but I feel pictures convey the course better than words....

Website with more details:  Manitou's Revenge

Another scramble

"Runable", rocky, downhill

Rocky, rooty, uphill ridiculousness

Can't forget the blowdowns too...those were fun to navigate

15+ hours of madness...and fun

14,000 feet of gain over ~53 miles

That's it it's back to work!  :-)

happy trails and hike on


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Another Light-Hearted Continental Scribble

Visiting Neel's Gap....7 years later.

I decided it was time to post something a little more whimsical as all of my entries as-of-late have been very heavy into the running/ultrarunning.  An opportunity presented itself a few weeks ago for me to partake in a very abridged road-trip.  My mom was making her Spring trip back North from Florida, but had one too many cars to deal with.  I volunteered to fly one-way down to Orlando with my other-half for a quick visit, and then drive the car back for my mom....allowing her to leave a few days later and the car would already be in NY waiting for her when she arrived.  I figured it would be a fun way to drive up the spine of the Appalachians, hitting a few fun quick stops along the way.

Those of you that have read along in the past know that I am still pretty keen on road-trips, especially if those trips allow me to hit up new "unvisited" States.  Unfortunately when it comes to this aspect of my travel, I am somewhat limited as I have already now visited 49 of the 50 states and North Dakota would not be anywhere near my driving route this time around.   The good news is just as I have a secret love for visiting all of the States, I also have a love of hitting State High Points of which I've accrued 17 now.  With the tentative route we had planned, I knew it would give us the opportunity to hit a few new high points as well as a few other fun spots of interest along the way.  In all honesty though, I was truly hoping to wing it.  We only had 3 days for this trip, so any visits had to be quick and we wanted as much spontaneity as possible.

First stop:  NEEL's GAP

7 years ago, almost to the day, I made my way into the famous Neel's Gap store after my first 31 miles on the Appalachian Trail.  It was there that I first laid eyes on the wall map of the entire AT, and knew just how much further I had to go.  Having pushed out a solid 31, I quickly realized that it was barely 1% of the trail.  You could say that Neel's Gap is where reality first set in.  I've often wondered what it would be like to go back there...back to a place that represents a setting so early in my hiking infancy.  Spend a day re-remembering what it was like to be a nascent thru-hiker.  It was literally only the night before I hiked into Neel's Gap, while camped at Slaughter Creek roughly 23 miles into my thru-hike, that I had decided on the trailname that would still be with me now 7 years later.  I have often laughed when thinking back to how much I thought I knew at that point, and how little I actually did.  It truly seems like a different lifetime ago.  And yet, here on this road trip I knew I'd be driving right by again, AND that there'd likely be thru-hikers there.  I had to stop.  It didn't disappoint....

As I got out of the car and walked around, all the memories came rushing back as if I had just been there yesterday.  I can remember where I sat down to adjust my shoelaces, where'd I'd talked to other hikers, and even where I ate my first pint of ice cream.  One thing I didn't remember though was signing my first log book.  Half out of jest, I decided to poke through the logs and see if I could find the 2007 book.  After some digging I pulled it out almost 100% sure I wouldn't find my name.  Looks like I would have lost that bet...

Neel's Gap...The first true oasis on the AT

Just like old times

Finding my name from 7 years prior in the log-book.

I even walked up the trail a bit for old time's sake

Some beautiful Georgia AT

Next Up:  Brasstown Bald

I left Neel's Gap with a big smile and we happily drove further up the road to visit Brasstown Bald...Georgia's highest point.  The Appalachian Trail doesn't actually take you over the mountain and I had never been back to that area of North Georgia to knock out the highpoint since.  Here was my chance.  Brasstown Bald is easily accessible by car.  A quick drive up the approach road leaves you at the visitor store about 1/2 mile from the summit (which is accessed by a very nice paved walking path). At the top is a beautiful lookout tower that you can climb, which provides incredible views of the surrounding North Georgia and Carolina mountains.  We had a perfect day for it to.  

I got permission from a Park Ranger to get a photo at the physical USGS benchmark which is actually located behind a locked door.  I was quite grateful for this as touching the USGS benchmark on a highpoint is the way I personally mark my summits (I know it's a bit OCD, but it always gives me something fun to look for on summits....if there is an actual benchmark of course).

Brasstown's first marker (4784')

Atop the lookout tower on Brasstown Bald

At the actual USGS highpoint benchmark behind a locked door

Next Up: Sassafras Mt.

After leaving Brasstown, there was still plenty of day left to make a quick hop over to South Carolina's highpoint - Sassafras Mountain (Which sits right on the border between North and South Carolina).  The drive over and up to approach road was very quiet and when we started the drive up the mountain, we were in fact the only car on the road....and in the eventual gravel parking area near the top.  We spent over an hour playing around the summit, hiking some nearby trails, and taking pictures of the many vistas before tagging the summit and heading out.  It was a magnificent evening.

Back in the SC

Cooling off in the Chattooga River on the border between GA and SC

Perfect evening atop Sassafras (3553')

View from the near the summit

The official USGS Summit Marker

Next Up: Mt. Mitchell

After leaving, there was still enough time in the day to make our way through the fun/hip town of Asheville, North Carolina and hopefully catch the summit of Mt. Mitchell (North Carolina's high point, and the highest point East of the Mississippi) just in time for would be close though.  After playing around Asheville for an hour and getting some spectacular Japanese food to go, we bolted towards Mitchell.  The access road is long, and has a fairly low speed limit and it ended up taking much longer than expected to the summit.  The sun was slowly setting off on the horizon, and the summit was still a few miles off.  When we hit the parking area, we were the only car in it.  We jumped out of the car and ran up the access path to the observation deck and literally caught the last 30 seconds of the sun setting.  It was perfect timing.  After some pictures, we ate our dinners and drove on ahead for another hour so as to set ourselves up for a morning hike up Mt. Rogers (Virginia).

Moments after the sun finished setting on Mt. Mitchell

Summit Marker (6684')

Panorama taken from the observation platform

For this brief moment, every person East of the Mississippi was below me!

The sign and observation platform at sunset

The Mt. Mitchell Parking lot...with our car the only vehicle.
We had the entire mountain to ourselves

Next Up:  Mt. Rogers

As we left, we made our way up towards the Virginia border.  While hiking the AT back in '07, the trail took me over Mt. Rogers, but never up to the summit.  I'm not sure why at the time I didn't make the 2 mile side-trip to the top, but needless to say, I had yet to truly summit Rogers.  Unfortunately there's no easy access, and the shortest hiking route requires an 8-mile roundtrip hike.  We figured if we set ourselves up for an early start, we could be back down by lunch and on our way Northward to NY.  We arrived at the Massie trailhead the following morning, again the only car there, and had a wonderful hike up to the summit.  We enjoyed perfect blue skies, idyllic scenery, and the bucolic Grayson Highlands.   We saw many wild horses roaming the highlands and enjoyed the only Frasier Fir forest still standing East of the Mississippi near the Roger's summit.  At the top, again all alone, we took a long break at the marker (which was all tree-covered), and then headed back to the car.  Most of the trip was on the AT so I got to reminisce a bit...even passing one of the Shelters that I had slept in while on my thru-hike.  Good stuff!

On the climb up to Mt. Rogers

Some cattle roaming the highlands

Part of the trail goes through this slot

Wild ponies!

More wild ponies!

Mt. Rogers Summit

Last Stop: Skyline Drive / Shenandoah

Once back at the car we began the long drive up the spine of Virginia en route to PA and eventually NY.  We decided on one last detour however when we made it to Waynseboro.  With plenty of daylight left, we decided to drive the 107 miles of Skyline Drive through the Shenandoah's.  There was almost no traffic and we made great time winding along the spine of the beautiful north VA mountains.  We even stopped at many of the scenic vistas, AT crossings, and at a Wayside for Blackberry ice cream.  It was a lot of fun and quite scenic.  I was truly surprised at how few people we saw in total, not just on the drive, but on all the peaks and trails we visited over the course of the 3 days.  It was a great mini road trip that really allowed us both to unwind and destress...even if for only a couple days.

A quick visit to "Foam-henge" along I-81 in Virginia 
(A foam replica of stonehenge)

Skyline Drive

View from one of the many vistas

And of course another high point!

That's it.  I thought I'd keep this post simple and to-the-point.   Make sure to keep getting out there and enjoying this wonderful world any way you can.

hike on my friends,