I am not a planner. Every other Fastest Known Time attempt has been planned in weeks. Even the Colorado Trail and the logistics of filming a 500-mile unsupported record was planned in three weeks. The John Muir Trail was different. It was the culmination of three years of considering if it was even possible. It was a shorter and faster record and the world's most competitive FKT. The term FKT began on the 223-mile John Muir Trail. Add up all that, and it scared me.
Seven days out, I got a permit to hike the trail and somehow felt the pull actually to go do it. I committed without a clue if I could achieve the goal. Was I fast enough? Was I in good enough shape? Did I have the drive and determination to get it done?
I hopped in the car without overthinking it.
Even during the drive out, I was overwhelmed with pride. I was finally chasing a goal that made me nervous. I was simply proud to attempt it, and the success or failure weighed less on my psyche than the thrill of the attempt. I even slept great the night before!
I began my attempt at 7:33 am. I charged uphill from Happy Isles and into the heart of Yosemite. I passed Half Dome and Cathedral Peak, soon arriving at Tuolumne Meadows. My legs felt great, and my attitude was even better. Only hours in, and I felt like going after this FKT was the best way I could spend a weekend in late August.
The John Muir Trail Fastest Known Time (record) goes from Happy Isles Trailhead all the way to the Whitney Portal Trailhead 220. A typical John Muir Trail hike ends on top of Mt. Whitney, but the stipulations of the FKT add about 8 miles to the trail. The eight miles from Trail Crest down to the Whitney Portal Trailhead are the only ones I had not covered before. I had seen every other step at least three times, but never headed south or in the late summer. Some things were the same and some things were different about this trip along the JMT.
Donohue Pass at mile 36 was the first gauge of how I was doing. I hit it exactly when I hoped, roughly 10 hours into the epic adventure! The first day turned to night, and adversity struck.
In a typical slowing to pee, something was very wrong. The color was way off. And, since I am colorblind, I cannot differentiate between red and brown. I feared I had Rhabdomyolysis? But I had never had it, and I was only 40 miles in. It was a distance I covered a few times a month. I sat down, reset my mind, and kept going. I would ensure that it didn’t get worse but not let it jeopardize my mission if it didn't escalate.
Night 1 was a welcome reprieve from the heat of the day. I embraced the cold (I do live in Montana), and my body simply operates much better at night. This first night I was fired up and flew through the climbs and descents around Devils Postpile and Virginia Lake. Somehow I even calmed my mind to get a few minutes of sleep. I never sleep during the first night of shorter FKTs, so this was a very welcome surprise and I figured it would help on the back end of the adventure.
In the first 24 hours, I covered 77 miles. It is exactly where I wanted to be. My senses were simply overwhelmed with nostalgia, enjoyment, and beauty. My body was performing fantastically, and I was so grateful to be in one of the premier environments in America. Day 2 was a day of efficiency. Some running, some hiking, but all smiles … and then night 2 arrived.
On Muir Pass, I was empty. It was night 2 and my energy faded fast. I started to crave sleep and was quickly moving so slow I gave in. Within a mile of the famous Muir Pass Hut I laid down on the side of the trail and took a nap. It was only five minutes, but it was all I needed to push on. Still something was off. My motivation and drive were waning. I needed to break the remaining miles into manageable chunks. So, I naturally divided the trail into the most striking features, the high passes. Five high passes separated me from a final climb up Mt. Whitney. I physically stuck up five fingers as I crested Muir Pass, and at the top I put one finger down. Four high passes remained.
It was such a hard night. I tried to piece together a series of naps to get through it, but everything felt so disjointed and inefficient. I could run for a few minutes but then would immediately crash. Power naps were not enough to keep the pace up, and I felt like a child sprinting, then walking, and then napping. It was a demoralizing night, but the sun on day 3 brought a new level of focus. It hit on the way up Mather Pass and the motivation to put down another finger was all I needed.
On top of Mather Pass, my four remaining passes became three. The physical act of counting down put micro goals in front of me. It isn’t my normal style of getting through an adventure, but it allowed me to focus on one finger/ pass at a time.
I didn’t even pause at the top of Mather. Instead I began to sprint toward Pinchot Pass. But sleep deprivation was eating at the edges of my consciousness even in the daylight. I needed a hard reset. So, I quickly set my timer for five minutes and let myself doze off. This time the dirt nap was perfect, and I got up running. But the strange feeling of forgetting something took over. Where were my poles? I had forgotten them after the nap. I turned around, ran back up the hill, and retrieved them, wasting ten minutes and a lot of energy.
It was an awesome feeling to put down another finger. Only two high passes remained and I was ecstatic. Pinchot Pass was in the rearview mirror, and a massive descent awaited. Running was what I craved, and it would add a little wiggle room to staying under the record pace. For miles, I flew down the trail. It was fun, exactly the reason I was attempting this FKT. I was running through a bucket list location, and the opportunity was not lost on me. Still spurred by the gratitude, I forced myself up the long climb to the top of Glen Pass.
Just one finger and one pass remained. I made sure to leave the finger up that made me giggle. There has to be fun in these adventures. After all, I choose to do them wearing a tiger sweatshirt!
I simply crushed Forester Pass. It is the highest of the passes, but I stayed consistent and fought through the darkness to the top. I thought my sprint to the finish had begun. It didn't.
In the first mile of running down the pass I rolled both my ankles. Not bad rolls, but the careless type that are frustrating. My vision wasn’t clear and my eyes struggled to focus on the rocks littering the ground. The cracks in my concentration had turned to canyons. I was beginning a nightmare and I still had hours of dark to fight through. My headlamp bounced off the surroundings and made me dizzy. How could I make it 25 more miles?
Then I opened my eyes in confusion. I was laying in the dirt. My mind and body had given out while trying to run. I could not keep this up. I had to make the scary decision to sleep. Would it cost me? I set my timer for 12 minutes and passed out immediately. It turned out to be the best thing I could have done.
I ran to Guitar Lake. The energy was back with an excess of adrenaline. The switchbacks up Mt. Whitney were no match for my legs. Everything was finally falling into place. It was the hardest thing I had ever done but I was also more motivated than ever. A goal I wanted to accomplish for years was still within reach. As if to welcome me, the first golden light of the morning appeared just as I crested the summit of Mt. Whitney. It was beautiful. But the clock didn’t stop until I hit the trailhead and I began to run down.
Two falls later I had a broken phone screen and a bruised hip. Did it matter? No. Everything was trivial. Over Trail Crest I pushed and began to hobble the switchbacks down. The footing was awful and it was so hard to keep a good pace. But I was already cutting it close. I had never done this eight-mile section and I didn’t know where it ended. One hiker on his way up said he had been going for four hours. My anxiety skyrocketed and I quit hobbling, I ran.
Switchback upon switchback I powered through and I could finally see the parking lot. I ran Mile 218 of the John Muir Trail in 6 minutes and 20 seconds. I could not fail. With just a mile or two left, my screaming bladder acted up again. I had to relieve myself but I couldn't stop. I ended up covered, but it didn’t matter. One more switchback and I touched the trailhead sign, stopping my watch.
I had made it in 72 hours and 47 minutes, setting a new record by a mere 13 minutes. I gave it everything I had. Even sitting on a stump covered in pee, taking a photo at the trailhead sign seemed to require an insane amount of effort. I could not process what I had done. A goal that scared me and filled me with doubt was still able to become a goal I accomplished.
I hobbled over to the bathroom, put on my sweatpants and took my finish photo in the only article of clothing I didn’t wear for a single mile of the record.
Continue adventuring with Jeff: @thefreeoutside