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

A Dream Deferred

"I like to look at the long run. I like to take each step, one by one. Right on time you will arrive, by keepin' the dream alive. It's alive and it's kickin', inside of me..." - Van Halen, 'Finish What Ya Started' 

"You had me at FKT," I can imagine many people thinking. It's such a big buzz word, or acronym as the case may be, these days. But, let me get one thing clear: FKT in my case stands more for Fastest Kozak Time than Fastest Known Time. To say I'm shooting for the current unsupported FKT would be akin to have been saying all spring that I was shooting for Top 10 at States. I could say it all I want but the reality is, "It ain't bloody likely." With that said though, if you're going to bother to try and do an iconic, long trail fast you might as well tuck the current standards in the far corners of your mind to dig out late in the game if things somehow happen to be flowing along coolly and fluidly, like a refreshing alpine stream.

So, that's the psychological cornerstone of the plan. My Dream Goal is to squeak in down those final, nasty disintegrating- pavement and broken-rock miles into Yosemite Valley under 4 days. It's proven to be a highly exclusive club over the years, supported or not. There has been no broken eggshell rush of sub-4 day'ers, in the way there was when Roger Bannister finally cracked the sub-4 minute mile barrier and exposed the yolk of possibility, since Peter Bakwin first pulled it off in 2003. In fact, there are currently only 8 individuals (6 supported, 2 unsupported), two of whom worked together as a team, to have pulled it off. The truth is though, I simply want to finish what I started with a supported SoBo (southbound) attempt back in August of 2009 that saw me bailing, in a baby-like state, over Kearsarge Pass after covering approximately 185 miles in 3d5h. Solid pace, if I had been experienced enough at this multi-day trail game to properly take care of myself...

Kearsarge Pass trail junction...3d5h...185 miles...wrecked and done... Kearsarge Pass trail junction...3d5h...185 miles...wrecked and done...

An Op-Ed Interjection

"energy derives from both the plus and negative..." - Metallica, 'Eye Of The Beholder'

John Muir, with a trekking pole precursor to fixed length carbon fiber? John Muir, with a trekking pole precursor to fixed length carbon fiber?

Let's just get it out of the way at the outset: what would John Muir himself think of people trying to blast down his namesake trail chasing time goals? Of course, it's impossible to know for sure, but, really, who cares? A lot of narrow-minded people apparently, based on the noticeable number of negative comments moving quickly on mountain trails can attract.

I've never understood this, and my reactions oscillate between completely ignoring the person and exceptionally-sarcastic missiles fired at close range. The notion that there is one right pace, or gear list, to travel through and experience wilderness is absurd, yet that seems to be the stance of enough people to take notice. Personally, I think it's crazy to move through the mountains in these modern times with a pack weight that would make Norman Clyde proud, but here's the catch: I would never make some snide comment to a random person on the trail about it.

the antithesis of ultralight, Norman Clyde was known to carry hardbound copies of classic Greek literature through the mountains, along with cast iron cookware... the antithesis of ultralight, Norman Clyde was known to carry hardbound copies of classic Greek literature through the mountains, along with cast iron cookware...

Moving ultralight and from dawn 'til dark has allowed me to explore so much more of the Sierra than I otherwise would have, and I've got the photos to prove that, while I might not always be stopping to smell the wildflowers, I'm certainly taking notice. If you are leaving the mountains essentially the way you found them for others to enjoy, whether your pack weighs 10 pounds or 100, and whether you cover 5 miles or 50, should not matter. Fortunately, most people get this, but either way, I've learned to derive forward momentum from interactions with both human energy fields. And, if you really think about, John Muir was a minimalist who travelled light (not because his gear was featherweight but because he simply didn't take much with him) and occasionally covered a lot of ground in a day, or days.

Style Matters, But How Much Weight Do You Give It?

"people always biting, and I'm sick of complaining..." - Beastie Boys, 'The New Style'

FKT's are generally divided into three approaches, supported, unsupported and self-supported, with separate records being kept for each style. Peter Bakwin's website, http://fastestknowntime.proboards.com/, has become an online "coffee shop" of the FKT-set, where records have been sorted out, history has been sifted through and chronologically-compiled, and debates with comment threads as long and winding as many of the trails themselves have taken place on all manner of minutiae.

From his site the following stylistic definitions have evolved:

Supported means you have a dedicated support team that meets you along the way to supply whatever you need. This generally allows for the fastest, lightest trips, and for an element of camaraderie and safety, since someone knows about where you are at all times.

Unsupported means you have no external support of any kind. Typically, this means that you must carry all your supplies right from the start, except any water that can be obtained along the way from natural sources. This approach has also been termed "alpine style." Unsupported also mean unaccompanied.

Self-supported means that you don't carry everything you need from the start, but you don't have dedicated, pre-arranged people helping you. This is commonly done a couple different ways: You might put out stashes of supplies for yourself prior to the trip, or you might just use what's out there, such as stores, etc.

As applies to the JMT self-supported is essentially an unemployed option, as caching supplies in wilderness areas is illegal and the four realistic locations for sending your own resupplies are all in the northern half (Muir Trail Ranch, Vermillion Resort/Lake Edison, Reds Meadow and Tuolumne), with the first two of those being significant detours off the JMT. This leaves supported and unsupported as viable approaches. Sounds simple and straightforward enough, right? Not so fast. As with anything involving humans, it never is, and the FKT microcosm of human endeavor is no exception. Throw into the granite ring the fact that people can't even agree on where the southern terminus of the JMT FKT actually is (Whitney Portal or summit of Mt Whitney?) and you've got a 15-round boxing match of uppercutting opinions and the confusing (and ridiculous) need to keep track of two separate times.

It's difficult to split hairs with an unsupported approach as you either go from Point A to Point B with everything you will need and use except water, accepting no assistance of any kind along the way, or you don't; it's the supported approaches that seem to draw the most debate, for there are an infinite number of ways to go about it and the variation in levels of support can be tremendous. Therefore, the argument goes, how can one compare? And, furthermore, doesn't this make unsupported efforts a more level playing field and, thus, easier to stack efforts up against one another? Some would even go so far as to argue that unsupported is more pure from a mountain travel standpoint; that supported is a Mt Everest mess and unsupported is a solo climb of a remote peak for the sheer joy of being self-sufficient in the wild.

Personally, yeah sure, I have my opinions like everyone else, but when you get right down to it I don't really care all that much, certainly not enough to get constantly drawn into heated online debates that, like discussions about religion and politics, never seem to amount to more than clashing air masses, like thunderstorms erupting over an elevated mountain heat-source, unleashing a several hour-long torrent only to have everything calm and looking the same again by dark.

I have been fortunate to have been involved in several supported FKT attempts, both successful and not, over the past few years, and they have all been incredibly inspiring. I have chosen to go in unsupported fashion this time around, and, yes, part of me does believe it is a more 'pure' approach, but that is hardly the reason I am choosing to do it this way. The challenge of doing it solo both excites me and hangs a bit of intentionally well-hidden anxiety on the rusted-out hinges of supported events, such as hundreds. I love the challenge of running, and trying to race, hundreds, and all other race distances for that matter, but after having done eight of them, and finally seeming to have figured them out, a lot of the general unknown that used to be there has been removed from the equation. This unsupported JMT attempt for me is mostly unknowns, especially in the decision-making process of what to take and what to leave behind. And, I know there will be many times over the course of the 222 miles that I will feel desperate for the camaraderie of a supported endeavor, but that is simply another variable of the approach.

an example of a supported pack set, Leor Pantilat using one of the Ultimate Direction Signature Series packs on his record-setting supported outing in August 2014 (photo: Erica Namba) an example of a supported pack set, Leor Pantilat using one of the Ultimate Direction Signature Series packs on his record-setting supported outing in August 2014
(photo: Erica Namba)

I have as much respect for Leor Pantilat's current supported record as I do for Andrew Bentz's unsupported one, and the fact that they are separated by only 3h24m, somehow both blows my mind and leaves me unsurprised at the same time. It certainly blows the door off the crowded, claustrophobic-room notion that supported trips are undisputedly the fastest method of travel on a trail as rough, long, and consistently unconducive to running as the JMT. And, actually, Brett Maune's unsupported and overall record of 3d14h13m from 2009, that stood not even remotely challenged until Hal Koerner and Mike Wolfe came along in August of 2013, should have already driven home that hard-to-accept point.

an example of an unsupported pack setup, Andrew Bentz with one of his homemade "Pa'lante Packs" that he used during his unsupported record setting outing in August 2014 (photo: from Andrew's website, palantepacks.com) an example of an unsupported pack setup, Andrew Bentz with one of his homemade "Pa'lante Packs" that he used during his unsupported record setting outing in August 2014
(photo: from Andrew's website, palantepacks.com)

As for the southern terminus of the JMT? It sounds like when it was officially designated as a trail and given its name it was deemed to "officially" start (or finish) on the summit of Mt Whitney. The only thing I can't get over is how asinine this is. This leaves 11 miles of additional trail and approximately 6000' of ascent (or descent) between you and a trailhead. How the heck are you going to get up there (or back down) without using your legs? As such, the only time I care about is the "car-to-car" or "trailhead-to-trailhead" one, but because it has become part of the culture, I will be keeping track of both.

Ultimately, I understand why, with the ever-increasing attention being paid to FKTs and the potential for both athletes and companies to benefit from said attention, some are clamoring loudly for more clear-cut ground rules to be established to allow for more meaningful comparisons of efforts, and to be prepared for a time when FKTs may begin to be separated by minutes, or seconds. But, in a world where everywhere you turn there are a million rules and regulations someone else came up with and then hired someone else to force you to follow, a big part of me balks at the idea.

The concept of the FKT is just one of a myriad possible reasons and motivations to get out and, at least for a brief time, and maybe only falsely, feel free and wild and unencumbered by the weight of a civilization constantly vying for more control over one another and increasingly cutting us off from our roots with the natural world. In the end it's only the experience you have out there that really has any substance, any staying power. The numbers will come and go. Announce your intentions and be honest in what you do or do not do when it's all said and done. The truth is, attempting to compare anything, even the same organized race, from year to year is not as black and white as we like to think it is. Course conditions change. Weather differs. Gear changes. People change. But compare away we will. It is part of the human condition and it's not going anywhere.

In the final analysis though, I don't ever want to lose sight of the forest of fun for the clear-cut of trees....

Muir quote

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