3 Days, 215 Miles, 25 Minutes of Sleep: Andrea Larson Sets FKT on Wisconsin’s North Country Trail

Battling sleep deprivation, challenging navigation, and a gunked-up water filter, Andrea Larson set the all-time Fastest Known Time (FKT) on the Wisconsin section of the North Country Scenic Trail (NCST) on April 15. Thru-hiking unsupported, Larson completed this 215-mile stretch of remote trail in 3 days, 3 hours, and 5 minutes, besting the prior men’s unsupported and supported records, as well as the women’s supported record, that she chased during her attempt … all while running on 25 minutes of sleep. 

Larson at the start of the Wisconsin section of the North Country Scenic Trail (Photo credit: Andrea Larson)

Prior to Larson, there was no record of a women’s unsupported FKT. Initially, Larson set her sights on this low lying fruit, with the mentality of setting a benchmark for others to chase after.

The previous women’s supported FKT was held by Annie Weiss at 3 days and 9 hours. Confident that she could chase that record unsupported, Larson reached out to Weiss as a courtesy. Larson gained intel that assured her she could not only beat that unsupported, but challenge the men’s supported record as well, held by Brad Birkel at 3 days and 7 hours. 

I saw the men’s supported time and it was the carrot on a stick,” said Larson. “That kept me highly motivated to push, rather than set it up for others. I had times to chase, which gave a sense of urgency and focus on the trail.”

A Look at the North Country Scenic Trail

The NCST is the longest scenic trail in the United States, traversing a myriad of states over 4,800 miles. The remote path meanders through eight states, from North Dakota to Vermont, and encompasses 150 parks, protected wildlife areas, historic sites, and more. The Wisconsin section of the trail, which sits right in Larson’s backyard, felt like an integral part to her journey. 

Though she’d never explored this segment of trail before, as a Wisconsinite, Larson feels right at home in the rugged Midwestern woodlands. In September 2023, she set her first FKT on Minnesota’s Superior Hiking Trail, which lit a fire in her to continue her FKT pursuits on trails right in her backyard. 

“With this thru-hike being half the time (of the Superior Trail), it felt less intimidating. The Superior Trail was empowering; I now know I can be out for almost a week in the woods by myself and handle things thrown at me,” Larson explained. “Planning three days almost felt casual. Having taken detailed notes on my first thru-hike, it felt easier this time to gauge my paces off that, versus my first time, I was just spitballing a lot of things.”

While Larson spent much of the winter running, she admits she didn’t do much training with this specific goal in mind, particularly with a weighted pack. A lot of factors required her to be flexible with her schedule, such as coordinating time away from her family and three kids, taking time off work, and attempting this journey in a good weather window where temperatures were warmer and dryer but before mosquitos hatched in late spring.

Everything in Larson’s 18-pound pack (Photo credit: Andrea Larson)

No Sleep, No Problem

On 12 April, Larson hit the ground running, traversing the trail from west to east. According to a press release from IRONBULL, “she estimates that the number of miles she covered exceeded the number of words she spoke during the three days.”

As an experienced adventure racer, Larson knew there would be challenges outside her realm of control — but didn’t yet realize what lay in wait for her. 

Within her first day on trail, she lost 15 minutes painstakingly filtering water due to the muddy silt in her water sources from spring runoff. Thinking on the go, Larson decided to filter as she walked, or utilize iodine tablets when the temps made it too cold to hold her filter, for the rest of the trail.

Photo credit: Andrea Larson

Partway through the trail, Larson faced her biggest hurdle yet: an active logging area that made navigation tedious and slow. She struggled to distinguish between the blue blazes, stumbled upon open clearings where no markers existed, and picked her way over downed trees that left her watching the ticking clock as her pace slowed. She speculates she was the first person on this section of trail this year. 

Forced to recalibrate her thinking, Larson took this low point in stride. “Me being in this negative headspace is the only thing that’s going to keep me from achieving these goals,” said Larson. “Once I came to that realization, as long as I continue with my forward progress and change my attitude, I will supersede everything I went out to do.”

The mental and physical fortitude didn’t stop there. After experiencing a sobering 47 degree Fahrenheit temperature swing in just 12 hours, Larson quickly realized that sleeping wasn’t a viable option. Nighttime temperatures were colder than anticipated, so instead, she opted to keep moving through the night to stay warm. 

In her 75 hours and 5 minutes on trail, Larson estimates she slept about 25 minutes total. 

“That was a good lesson learned, that my body can handle a lack of sleep quite well,” Larson laughed, recalling her brief nap towards the end of her three days in the woods. “Going into future adventures, I don’t have to worry about attempting to sleep as much.”

Not the Last of Larson

There’s no doubt about it: this won’t be the last time you’ll hear the name Andrea Larson in the realm of FKTs.

“This is definitely a springboard for more. This FKT gave me a second data point that was within my capabilities, and it shows that I can jump into the next goal which is really empowering.”

With some unfinished business at the notorious Leadville 100, Larson looks forward to some high-altitude pursuits in Colorado this summer. She’ll also be the first to run the 200-mile Marji Gesick Race, opting for her own two feet instead of wheels in this historically mountain-biking-only event. She aspires to trek the Long Trail in Vermont and Wisconsin’s own Ice Age Trail in following years. 

Beyond her own intentions, Larson feels an immense sense of empowerment, especially as a woman, to accomplish these things outside. She explained that, as a female and a mother, she sees the disparities in going solo or unsupported as a woman in a male-dominated venture.

“I only told a dozen people on a need-to-know basis because I didn’t want to advertise that I’m a solo female in a remote area that has limited cell phone coverage, and in a compromised physical and mental state,” recalled Larson about her pre-trail communication. “I’ve talked to other men where it doesn’t even cross their minds, but unfortunately the thing that I fear most in the woods is actually encountering another person.”

When asked about how she feels being a role model for her children, Larson responded with a smile, noting that she’s recovered enough from her FKT to join her daughter in an orienteering meet this weekend. 

“As my kids get older, I’m amazed at their capabilities. That opens doors to doing these adventures as a family,” said Larson.  “Women are just as capable. I hope for the men in our lives to encourage women to do these sorts of things because everybody should have access to the outdoors. What we learn about persistence, endurance, and overcoming challenges — they overflow into other areas of life and make us all better people.”

Photo credit: Andrea Larson

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