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Shifting Goal Gears: From the Western States 100 Mile 'Run' to the Unsupported John Muir Trail FKT (Part II)

A Little JMT FKT History

overview map of the 222 mile long John Muir Trail overview map of the 222 mile long John Muir Trail

"do you need what I need? boundaries overthrown. look inside, to each his own..." - Metallica, 'Eye Of The Beholder'

The first known fastest known time can be traced, somewhat hazily, all the way back to 1948 and a guy named Robert Speed (no joke!). The tracing is more like a 'purple haze' as no one even knows his time or whether he was supported or not, but Peter, in compiling history for his site, did receive an e-mail from Robert's wife in 2005:

"I think that to hold a record in 1948 you had to at least jog the trail as late into the night as you could see, eat very little and drink out of streams. My husband was exceedingly self-reliant, fearless and needed very little in nature. He could just throw himself down anywhere on the ground and go to sleep. But someone must have timed him and obviously, his time was formally entered because he knew he had set the record. All he did say, in self deprecation, was that the record was superceded virtually immediately in the next year or two."

In reality, the record remained shrouded in that haze until 2000 when Peter Bakwin and Buzz Burrell (current brand/product manager of Ultimate Direction, the company that, on a side note, made the first trail-running specific pack I ever owned...the Nimbus model from 1997) destroyed themselves physically enroute to what surely would have been the first sub-4 day before a radical, road-closing thunderstorm, destroyed them emotionally and halted their progress long enough in Tuolumne for the will to continue at record pace to drain from their souls into the decomposed granite being washed away around them. After a night in a cabin in the Valley they returned to finish the final 25 miles and although sub-4 was long gone they, amazingly, still got under the existing record, which was held at the time by Blake Wood (trailhead-to-trailhead). In keeping with the intimate thread of continuity in this tight-knit subculture, Jim Knight, one of the founders of Ultimate Direction, who helped to revolutionize the concept of fastpacking in the 80's, held the record at the time for the summit of Whitney to Yosemite Valley.

Buzz Burrell & Peter Bakwin displaying the haunted "Blue Steel" look a fast attempt on the JMT always elicits at some point... (JMT, 2000) Buzz Burrell & Peter Bakwin displaying the haunted "Blue Steel" look a fast attempt on the JMT always elicits at some point...
(JMT, 2000)

The Sub-4 Club

"Am I happy, or in misery? Whatever it is that girl put a spell on me..." - Jimi Hendrix, 'Purple Haze'

I don't know if the JMT is feminine or not, but there is no denying that it has become a powerful muse for many in the FKT world. Buzz Burrell was one of the first to be captivated by it and was the one who originally compared the allure of the 4-day barrier on this internationally-iconic trail to the 4-minute mile barrier of the 1950s. There are a lot of amazingly beautiful trails throughout the country, and the world, that people have established  and continually reset FKTs on, but for some reason the John Muir Trail has found itself at the top of most adventure runner's lists of desirables.

Maybe because it, almost unbelievably in this day and age, does not cross a single road; 222 miles of uninterrupted singletrack through remote wilderness where the nearest bailout point is sometimes a trailhead nearly 20 miles and a monstrous pass away. Maybe because the Sierra really does deliver its sublime "range of light"  more predictably than most. Maybe it's how inviting the light-colored granite that predominates the landscape is; not brooding and foreboding-feeling like the darker rock of other ranges. It greets you like a welcome mat on a friend's doorstep, even if that's simply an anthropomorphism for an otherwise indifferent wilderness.

elevation profile of the JMT elevation profile of the JMT

At any rate, it's attractiveness has been growing steadily since Peter Bakwin returned from his storm-squashed attempt with Buzz in 2003 to become the first person to crack the elusive barrier with a 3d22h4m effort. Kevin Sawchuck lowered it the following year to 3d21h5m and it appeared as though, now that the physical AND mental barrier had been breached, that it would be off to the races for the deep space-distant sounding 3-day mark. Instead, it was not until 2007 when Sue Johnston became only the 3rd person to go sub-4 with a record-setting 3d20h.

Peter Bakwin returned to the JMT in 2003 and this time cracked the 4 day barrier... Peter Bakwin returned to the JMT in 2003 and this time cracked the 4 day barrier...

Then, in 2009 Brett Maune, unknown in both the ultra and FKT worlds, amended a July DNF on day one with a record-smashing 3d14h13m in early September. Unbelievably to many, he did it unsupported. The effort sparked a tremendous amount of debate in the FKT world, both about the validity of FKT claims and how best to verify them (Brett mostly silenced the doubters by later winning twice, and setting the course record, at the Barkley Marathons in the Brushy Mountains of Tennessee, an event that, in many ways, makes the JMT seem like a "fun run."), and about the relative merits and disadvantages of supported vs. unsupported.

in August 2009 Brett Maune came out of "nowhere" to be the first, and only, person to hold the overall JMT FKT title with an unsupported effort... in August 2009 Brett Maune came out of "nowhere" to be the first, and only, person to hold the overall JMT FKT title with an unsupported effort...

What follows is two lists of the progression of the FKT (all times listed are trailhead-to-trailhead), one for the supported and one for the unsupported record, with any unique or interesting tidbits I happen to know about the attempts or people. Supported or unsupported the approaches have been as varied as the people that have made attempts. One thing is for absolute certain though: sleep-deprivation and the various debilitations inherent in that state is often the number one factor in the overall success, or incompletion, of an attempt. If you want to read more about an individual's attempt you can access trip report links on the fastestknowntime website, for as Peter has said, and I wholeheartedly agree, the stories are the most interesting part.

Supported FKT Record Progression

"No man (or woman) is an island." - John Donne

Don Douglass / August 1982 / 4d21h30m

Blake Wood / August 9-13, 1998 / 4d22h / big snow year, carried crampons for much of southern high passes section, for many years no one was aware of Don's time until an LA Times article was found

Buzz Burrell & Peter Bakwin / July 31-August 5, 2000 / 4d1439m / treated 1st 100 as a 'race' without stopping, on sub-4day pace until severe thunderstorm over Tuolumne

Peter Bakwin / August 11-15, 2003 / 3d22h4m / battled severe knee pain much of 2nd half, ran into the Eastside's own photographer, John Dittli, on Donohue Pass

Kevin Sawchuck / July 31-August 4, 2004 / 3d21h5m / backpacked JMT solo at age 14, 10-time sub-24 Western States runner, sister is Heather Burror, a long-time supporter of Sage To Summit, and whose 12-year old daughter has backpacked more long trail miles than most people do in a lifetime

one year later Kevin Sawchuck lowered Bakwin's standard... one year later Kevin Sawchuck lowered Bakwin's standard...

Sue Johnston / August 24-29, 2007 / 3d20h / had probably the best "sleep plan" of anyone underscoring its importance even though you are losing time against the clock, only female to hold the overall FKT (so far), to hear her talk of her effort is to listen to someone that truly enjoyed the entire experience, her time still stands as the overall female record

in 2007 Sue Johnston became the first, and only (so far!), female to hold the overall JMT FKT record at 3d20h in 2007 Sue Johnston became the first, and only (so far!), female to hold the overall JMT FKT record at 3d20h

Brett Maune / September 3-6, 2009 / 3d14h13m / broke supported record while unsupported - only person to ever do so, had a 25+ pound pack at start

Hal Koerner & Mike Wolfe / August 1-4, 2013 / 3d12h41m / neither of them had ever really set foot on trail, dealt with thick smoke & raining ash from wildfire for a section, missed a critical resupply at Mono Creek and went hours on virtually no calories more than halfway through

Hal Koerner & Mike Wolfe tag-teamed a successful supported record attempt, despite numerous & sundry issues that would have sent most people packing for the nearest watering hole... Hal Koerner & Mike Wolfe tag-teamed a successful supported record attempt, despite numerous & sundry issues that would have sent most people packing for the nearest watering hole...

Leor Pantilat / August 15-18, 2014 / 3d7h36m / modern day Muir with how much of the Sierra he has explored, both on and off trail, but had no prior multi-day experience and, in fact, had never even run a 100-miler, made up most of his 5h5m on the existing record in the final 36 miles from Donohue Pass as he was in by far the best physical condition of anyone at that point in the game and able to do a lot of running

Unsupported FKT Record Progression

"I am a rock. I am an island." - Simon & Garfunkel, 'I Am A Rock'

Robert Speed / 1948 / time unknown

John Rosendahl / August 25-30, 1988 / 5d7h50m

Michael Popov / July 30-August 4, 2007 / 4d5h25m

Brett Maune / September 3-6, 2009 / 3d14h13m / see supported notes as he set overall record as well

Andrew Bentz / August 26-29, 2014 / 3d11h / college-aged (early 20s), had prior fast JMT experience, did it 2 weeks after finishing thru-hike of PCT in 93 days, made his own pack for the trip (http://www.palantepacks.com/about.html)

The unsupported record for the women is debatable, although it is a debate I refuse to get involved in. In September of 2013 Michelle Jung completed the trail in 6d11h35m. In August of 2014 Megan Armstrong did it in 6d2h44m, significantly faster. The catch: she was accompanied. If you read the style definitions carefully you'll understand immediately why there is a debate.

Personal History With The JMT

"I've been higher than the High Sierra, lower than Death Valley must be..." - Linda Ronstadt, 'High Sierra'

Throughout the peaks and valleys of forty-one years of living, the Eastern Sierra has always been a constant for me. I didn't grow up here but I spent part or all of nearly every summer from 5-years old on at the family cabin, nestled in the lodgepole pines at 9800' on the edge of the John Muir Wilderness. I cut my trail-running and peak-bagging teeth on the local granite, both in its solid and decomposed forms, and when I realized both that I wasn't fast enough to be competitive at shorter distances and that I preferred going long on adventure runs in the mountains anyway I quickly turned to ultradistance trail running.

I first heard about FKTs in general and the John Muir Trail in particular when I picked up the April/May 2001 issue of Trail Runner mag and was captivated by an article titled "Long Days & Lonely Nights" in which Buzz Burrell eloquently described his and Peter's JMT FKT experience from the previous year within the broader context of the adventure running discipline. It sounded like the holy trifecta of what I loved, combining running, hiking and my favorite mountain range. I knew I would attempt it someday. That day didn't come until August 27th, 2009.

the Buzz Burrell-written article in the April/May 2001 issue of Trail Runner mag that switched on a lightbulb of possibilities in my brain... the Buzz Burrell-written article in the April/May 2001 issue of Trail Runner mag that switched on a lightbulb of possibilities in my brain...

In a Backpacking Light forum (http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/forums/thread_display.html?forum_thread_id=22736&startat=100) Peter Bakwin commented, "Kozak has excellent ultra credentials, but I don't know that he has any experience with the obscure discipline of multiday trail records. There's a lot more to this stuff than just being a good runner." He hit the nail so squarely on the head he could have driven it through the face of Half Dome, which I passed in the first and fresh instead of final and FUBAR'ed miles since I was making a rare SoBo attempt (supported); not for any particular reason other than the car shuttle assistance I thankfully received on training fastpacks that summer randomly led to me covering the miles in that direction and left me feeling that I had the southbound rhythm of the trail in my blood. It made sense to me to try and capitalize on that.

it's easy to be all smiles & full of psych, even if it is 3am, at mile 0... it's easy to be all smiles & full of psych, even if it is 3am, at mile 0...

On top of a fire-induced road closure forcing a 5-hour detour on the afternoon drive to Yosemite Valley and getting virtually no sleep the night before starting, I made a lot of mistakes that compounded exponentially before breaking the forward momentum bank somewhere between Woods Creek and Bullfrog Lake trail junction. My good friend, Phil Kiddoo, was with me and captured some of the post-breakdown on video (Glen Pass funk) coming down the south side of Glen Pass. I arrived at my 3rd support camp around 8am (3d5h and 185 miles) and by early afternoon I still hadn't come back from the depths of the darkest place I've ever voluntarily put myself in. (3rd resupply camp video, Bullfrog Lk tr jcn)

The view across the deeply-forested valley containing Bubbs Creek and Vidette Meadow to the lofty rise of Forester Pass that normally sends energy pulsing through me, instead, haunted my soul. It looked a million miles away and I knew it would probably be dark before I even got there in my condition. In the presence of a potentially character-building moment, I balked at the fear of the unknown and practically crawled out over Kearsarge Pass with my girlfriend that evening.

remember the haunted "Blue Steel" look I mentioned earlier?... yeah, here's mine, night 3, Taboose Creek, & still 2 passes from resupply camp... remember the haunted "Blue Steel" look I mentioned earlier?... yeah, here's mine, night 3, Taboose Creek, & still 2 passes from resupply camp...

Even when I laid down those first 2 nights on the trail in cozy camps I never could unwind enough to sleep much and, with already being in the red on the sleep books due to piss-poor planning the day before the attempt, the sleep-deprivation hit me hard going into night 3. Instead of an unplanned bivy along Woods Creek to try and revive myself, I staggered over Glen Pass, commenting constantly to Phil that we just had to be making better time. I couldn't process the time/distance/pace equation anymore and I was no longer processing any food or fluids....because I was no longer taking them in. I had reached that dreaded mental space where you no longer care. I knew it well from 100-mile after 100-mile disaster. The 100s were short enough that I could still get it done by "walking it in." This was a different animal. I was done. Game over.

sleepwalking off Glen Pass & deeper into the "dark place," with Phil Kiddoo... sleepwalking off Glen Pass & deeper into the "dark place," with Phil Kiddoo...

I knew I would attempt the JMT fast again. I just didn't think 6 years would pass before that eventuality. But the time has come and, barring any serious weather outbreaks or continued horrendous smoke conditions, I will try to get the DNF monkey off my back starting from Whitney Portal on August 26th...

One thought on “Shifting Goal Gears: From the Western States 100 Mile 'Run' to the Unsupported John Muir Trail FKT (Part II)”

  • Buzz Burrell

    Great Post!

    The JMT really is the best long trail in the world, and remains the touchstone of all multi-day runs, in part due to the exceptional quality and purity of line, but also because 4 days is what separates "having a good time" from "Not such a fun time, but much later will remember it as being fun."

    Be safe, have fun, go fast! (In that order)

    Reply
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