The JMT, PCT, TRT, and lastly the AT … what happened on the big trails in 2014?
JOHN MUIR TRAIL (JMT)
The JMT is one of the premier backpacking trails in the world, running 223 miles through California’s Sierra Nevada from Mt Whitney to Yosemite Valley. It is a fabulous route: remote, rugged, committing, but yet with generally good weather, excellent (though rocky) trails and easy navigation. The JMT has become one of the key targets for FKT activity in the western US, and 2014 was definitely a banner year, with several new FKTs being set, both supported and unsupported, along with some spectacular “failures”. Here’s the full recap, in chronological order – – –
HEATHER ANDERSON – Didn’t finish
The action started in June with an announcement from Heather Anderson that she would attempt to “bring parity to the men’s and women’s unsupported records”. This might seem like a brash statement, since at the time these records were separated by nearly 3 full DAYS, but Anderson has serious cred. Last year she set the overall (women’s and men’s) thru-hiker style FKT for the 2655-mile Pacific Crest Trail. Her trip plan was bold: go as light as possible and “not sleep until I have seen it all”. Anderson failed to complete the route, and summed up her trip in this way: “I made it 160 miles before calling it quits. It was brutal, beautiful and very hard.”
RALPH BURGESS – Unsupported Southbound FKT
Next up was a surprise announcement of a new southbound FKT for the trail. Since the southern terminus of the JMT (Whitney Portal, 8337’) is about 4300’ higher than the northern one (Happy Isles, 4035’), most speed trips have been done northbound, while most backpackers head south in order to acclimate gradually to the higher, harder terrain. On his third JMT thru-hike in the past two summers, 50-year-old British ex-pat Ralph Burgess surprised himself by doing the trail (southbound) in 4d8h43m from Yosemite to the summit of Mt Whitney (Burgess did not report a time at the Whitney Portal TH), July 7-11, 2014. Burgess had been hoping to complete this unsupported hike in 5.5 days, and gave himself only 30% chance of actually pulling that off, but found himself cranking out 45-mile days and enjoying the challenge, and finished over a full day faster than his goal. While impressive, Burgess’ unsupported southbound FKT is about 22 hours slower than the fastest unsupported northbound time.
“I followed all wilderness regulations to the best of my ability, including taking a bear can. I adhered to ‘Leave No Trace’ principles, taking only water from the wilderness, and packing out all my uneaten food, trash and toilet paper. I did not abandon common etiquette simply because I was moving quickly, yielding to uphill hikers in the usual fashion.” – Ralph Burgess
JENN and KRISSY – Jenn finished!
Perhaps the most anticipated JMT run of the year was the annual “Jenn Shelton Show”. Shelton has been wailing away at the JMT for the past several years (this was her fourth attempt), boldly going after the overall FKT, but never managed to complete the route. This time she showed up with a ringer – champion ultrarunner Krissy Moehl. The pair had plentiful support from their running sponsors, Twitter feeds, and a SPOT satellite tracker. But, unfortunately, Moehl suffered from a pre-existing illness and after the first day or so their pace slowed to a crawl. Moehl was eventually able to bail at Lake Edison, but by that time Shelton was already hopelessly behind record pace. She was able to finish in a respectable but no doubt, disappointing time of 4d9h30m (July 22-26, 2014). When asked if she would try again Shelton was unequivocal: “No. Never again. No. Done.”
“Our plan was to be smart. So, our plan was to follow Krissy for the first few days. And then just be tough. That was our plan. Pretty simple.” – Jenn Shelton
MEGAN ARMSTRONG – Women’s Unsupported FKT
Taking a more measured approach to the JMT than Anderson or Shelton, Megan Armstrong was able to make a modest improvement in the women’s unsupported FKT, hiking from the summit of Whitney (Armstrong failed to get a permit to hike from Whitney Portal and so ascended Whitney from the north) to Yosemite in 6d2h44m (Aug. 16-22), 3h21m faster than Michelle Jung’s 2013 time. Armstrong was accompanied for much of the way by her boyfriend, which may be considered to constitute “support”, but she carried all her own gear and food.
LEOR PANTILAT – Overall FKT – first try!
Leor Pantilat (http://pantilat.wordpress.com) has been looking at the JMT record for a couple of years, and finally got after it Aug. 15-18, 2014. Pantilat has tons of experience in the wilderness, and has set numerous impressive mountaineering and trail FKTs, including the High Sierra Trail and the Rae Lakes Loop, but had never done a multiday run or even a 100 miler. He assembled an excellent support team with pacers most of the way, and was able to establish a very impressive new FKT of 3d7h36m from Whitney Portal to Yosemite (3d4h30m from the summit of Whitney). Pantilat (who carried a UD Ultra Vest the entire way) published a detailed report on his trip at iRunFar.com.
“FKT attempts on such grand trails as the John Muir Trail often spur philosophical debates among other trail users. Some have the perception that by ‘running’ through such beautiful scenery one cannot truly enjoy it. On the contrary, enjoyment of my surroundings was the primary motivator to attempt the JMT in the first place and the outrageous scenery was often the chief inspiration for me to continue en route. … I’ve been questioned why I haven’t participated in organized races recently. The answer is that my passion lies in the adventures to remote and wild places where I have freedom to design my own routes, access tremendously scenic places that few have the opportunity to experience, and apply disciplines like off-trail route finding and rock scrambling. I found that I could not maintain the level of motivation to do the racing circuit to my potential when it required me to forego so many adventures. While I have likely not run my last race, I’ve decided to follow my heart and focus more on what drives me the most: adventures in the mountains! As John Muir said, ‘The mountains are calling and I must go.’ ” – Leor Pantilat
“You can’t go out and prepare for a three-and-a-half day thing by doing a two-and-a-half day thing. I think that will just make you really tired.” — Leor Pantilat
“Maybe the mythical 72-hour barrier is not that far away after all.” – Leor Pantilat
“Someone’s going to get the 3-day mark, but they’re gonna pay.” – Jenn Shelton
Video interviews with Leor & Jenn, with some video clips from Leor’s trip.
ANDREW BENTZ – Unsupported FKT – Totally gets it done!
Next was an outstanding new unsupported FKT of 3d11h00m by college student Andrew Bentz, August 26-29, 2014. Bentz had hiked the JMT multiple times, including a 5d2h effort in 2013, and had very recently come off a 93-day PCT thru-hike (his dad, Scott Bentz, said “[Andy] hiked the PCT in 90 days, came home, sewed his pack of the JMT hike and took off again”). He beat the previous unsupported FKT by 3h13m, was just 3h24m over Pantilat’s excellent supported time, faster than the supported time of Hal Koerner and Mike Wolfe, and now stands as the second fastest JMT time by anyone in any style! As the FKT comes into the 3-day range support may become less and less important a factor. Pantilat himself called this “The JMT performance of the year.” Bentz’ trip report is here.
“I’d like to eat food now. That was crazy.” – Andrew Bentz, minutes after finishing his unsupported JMT thru-hike.
KURT ACHTENHAGEN – fast Southbound Unsupported trip – with asterisk
FKT activity on the JMT wasn’t finished yet. On September 12, Kurt Achtenhagen posted to the FKT site: “Throwing my name in the hat here, and I would like to claim the southbound unsupported record, with an asterisk – as Little Yosemite Valley was on fire, I traveled from Happy Isles up the Snow Creek Falls Trail, past Olmsted Point and Tenaya Lake before reconnecting with the JMT in Tuolumne. I believe this route is equal in mileage, and hopefully the difference in overall time negates any questions on route similarity.” Achtenhagen had completed the route from Yosemite Valley to Mt Whitney in 3d23h11m, a good 9.5 hours faster than Ralph Burgess’ southbound FKT in July. This is an impressive effort, but I don’t think we can consider it the FKT due to the different start, which accounts for roughly 10% of the total miles. Therefore, I still credit Burgess with the southbound FKT, though no doubt future FKT aspirants will take Achtenhagen’s time into consideration.
TAHOE RIM TRAIL (TRT)
AMBER MONFORTE – New Women’s FKT
The TRT is another classic, moderate-length backpacking trail. It is a loop of about 170 miles encircling Lake Tahoe. The TRT has been done by such luminaries of the ultrarunning world as Betsy Nye, Tim Twietmeyer, Kilian Jornet and Jenny Capel. In June, Amber Monforte went after Capel’s supported FKT for women (53h49m, set July 2013), but was shut down by GI issues. Returning to the trail September 5-7, Monforte was able to establish an excellent new FKT of 49h17m.
PACIFIC CREST TRAIL (PCT)
UNSUPPORTED – four tries, four failures!
No fewer than four people declared on the FKT website this spring that they would be going after the PCT record in 2014. All were dedicated to the classic thru-hiker style: accepting no aid from others, resupplying in towns, and walking all of the town stops. With the record at a sound 60d17h12m (Heather Anderson, 2013), it is perhaps not terribly surprising that none of these men were able to complete their trips, much less claim the FKT. Things have to go really right for a really long time to get this one!
JOE MCCOUNAUGHY – Supported FKT – huge!
On the other hand, 23-year-old Joe McConaughy nailed it on the PCT, claiming an astonishing new supported record of 53d6h37m, and taking a full 6 DAYS of the previous record (Josh Garrett, 2013). McConaughy, a former collegiate runner, was supported by 3 friends who met him at road crossings and remote trailheads so that he could travel most of the time with just a light day pack.
“I can’t believe that I averaged 50 whole miles a day over some of the toughest mountains in the West.” – Joe McConaughy
APPALACHIAN TRAIL (AT)
KARL MELTZER – Still not in the cards
Back in 2008 Karl Meltzer attempted to set the supported FKT on the 2175-mile AT. After being slowed by injuries, Meltzer did finish but several days over the record. He was back at it this year, going once again for the supported record. Unlike 2008, which was a fully sponsored trip with a full media blitz and a camper with “Where’s Karl?” painted on the side, this time it was personal, financed by Meltzer himself, and largely under the radar. There was, however, a pre-trip interview on irunfar.com, and an update on iRunFar’s facebook about 18 days in. Meltzer was doing well and maybe 10 miles behind record pace, but had 18 days to make it up, when on Day 31 he had a bad day. Just couldn’t keep it up, and once off pace and no chance to make it back, pulled the plug on Day 32. Meltzer explained it this way: “I fell off pace around the Priest in Virginia. I had two bad days in a row, no energy, yada, yada. I stopped because I felt the record was out of reach. I believe I needed 56 [miles] per day with 15 or so days left. It was not in the cards this year to attain that, so I went home, as I said I would. [FKT holder Jennifer Pharr Davis] put up some pretty big numbers in the second half, so my strategy was to get a little ahead in VT where she struggled a bit. I did that, with a 22 mile lead at one point, but I knew after that lead, I began to falter a bit and could feel it was going to be tough with her numbers later. Once I started to fall back a bit, mostly because my feet were really bothering me more than anything, I fell a bit behind. Then the section in VA killed me. It just was not in the cards this time, perhaps third time is a charm.”
Meltzer: I kind of want that record.
“Every stage is hard. It’s not like you get to the middle stage where it’s flatter. It’s not flat. There’s about 515,000 feet of climb, so 100 miles straight up which is kind of ironic. Yeah, it’s hard all the way to the end. Georgia is hard, Tennessee is hard. It’s pretty ridiculous. But that’s what I’m good at, and hopefully I’ll be successful.” – Karl Meltzer, before the 2014 attempt
JOEY CAMPANELLI – Big and honorable attempt
Even more under the radar was Joey Campanelli’s self-supported (thru-hiker style) northbound AT almost-FKT. Campanelli started at Springer Mountain, Georgia, on May 15 and ended on Katahdin, Maine, on July 11, for a time of 57d4h41m, more than a full day under Matt Kirk’s (southbound) time from 2013. Unfortunately, near the end of his trip, Campanelli got hit with horrible conditions due to Hurricane Arthur, which caused massive rainfall and flooding in New England around the July 4th holiday. Discouraged by the rain, mud and difficult river crossings, freaked out by a developing case of trench foot, and delayed by a foot injury from a fall in the White Mountains (he took a zero day in order to get an X-ray, which showed that the foot was not broken), Campanelli accepted a ride into town and support from his father. Campanelli wrote in his blog “I am pretty fed up with the condition of the trail. Not only does it make passage difficult and slow, I am worried about getting injured and my feet falling off.” After briefly considering quitting, Campanelli returned and finished the trail, but did not claim a record due to the support (long trail thru-hiker style has generally included not accepting rides for any reason).
“You know those moments. When you feel something big is about to happen. Like when you are cresting the top of a rollercoaster or when you are finishing packing the car to move somewhere new. There is this eerie excitement in the air. Your heart flutters and you can’t help but smile. You know this is going to be good…” — Joey Campanelli, just before starting his AT thru-hike
“So here I am, walking uphill all teary eyed eating a quart of ice cream by myself. I guess that is what lonely people do normally, except for the walking uphill part.” – Joey Campanelli
“I honestly recommend the trail for everyone. You don’t have to do 40 miles a day. But get out there. Walk around. See some beauty. Meet some people. Restore your faith in humanity. Learn more about yourself. Think about what is important to you. Change your life for better.” – Joey Campanelli
“I know I will come back to the AT.” – Joey Campanelli
YOUR COMMENTS WELCOME!
Only 10 years ago, maybe ONE FKT attempt on a long trail was made during the year – now there are dozens – why?