Brian Donnelly and his FKT on the Oregon section of the PCT
[Editor’s Note: In August, guest writer Brian Donnelly set a new FKT for the 456-mile Oregon section of the Pacific Crest Trail at 7 days, 22 hours, 37 minutes. Here is Brian’s report.]
Speed records or fastest known times (FKTs) have likely existed since the dawn of human terrestrial locomotion. They are a byproduct of our competitive hard wiring and efficient design. And whatever the cause for the apparent surge in record attempts this summer, I personally think that present-day FKTs are about scratching an ancient itch that’s built into our biology. Wake up, survive, sleep. I see these efforts as antidotes to an invisible illness, a purpose and meaning where none exists in our modern lifestyle with all of its efficiency and convenience. Endurance athletes are looking to challenge themselves in more personal and compelling ways because they are humans, and humans are built to be in nature doing hard things.
In mid-August, my good friend, Yassine Diboun, and I set out to attempt a self-supported FKT on the 456-mile Oregon section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). The self-supported and uber-light approach of our ‘runpacking’ adventure relied heavily on our ultrarunning fitness and compact packs, and it demonstrated our genuine attempt to navigate the confluence of ultrarunning and fastpacking.
On paper it seemed plausible. Move for 17-plus hours a day. Cover at least 60 miles daily (not including the miles required to pick up resupply packages). Eat, drink, and sleep enough to keep going day after day. Have fun, expect the unexpected, and don’t get badly hurt. Sounds pretty reasonable, right? During the weeks leading up to our August 9 departure date, my mind yo-yoed between sinking negativity and buoyant confidence. For me, the upcoming crucible was such a huge unknown.
Our friend Stephen Petretto graciously agreed to deliver us near the PCT at the California/Oregon border as he was already driving south for the Ashland Hill Climb. We left Portland at about 6:00 a.m. on Friday and made good time down I-5 before pulling off at Grant’s Pass and heading up into the smoke-hazed hills toward Ashland. We soon found ourselves a bit lost on various national forest and logging roads. Behind schedule, we abandoned our intended noon start time and continued to search for a PCT access point. At about 1:30 p.m., we finally agreed to just set off on foot and relieve Stephen of his driving duties.
After a quick goodbye, Yassine and I excitedly climbed over a rocky knoll and started bushwhack-style toward the PCT. We ended up wasting another hour or so running through a maze of logging roads before we finally met up with the PCT roughly four miles south of the border. At about 2:55 p.m., we finally arrived at the border crossing and launch point of our trek. We quickly turned on the SPOT, chatted with and congratulated the group of happy thru-hikers hanging out trailside, and then finally, at 3:00 pm, we were off. Our journey was under way!
Within minutes, we were unfurling our poncho tarps in the rain. As we meandered across ridgelines toward Mount Ashland, heavy thunder, lightning, and hail began to shake the darkening skies to the east and eventually all around us. Our effort quickened and our spirits soared despite the ever-present fear of being cooked by lightning.
The rain eventually abated as the sun sunk below the horizon. In the shadowy dark of late evening, we dug out our lights only to discover that Yassine’s headlamp was completely kaput. He changed batteries and fussed with it for a bit. Nope. We needed to cover some significant miles, so we agreed to charge ahead using my single light, which I pointed downward at my feet so as to share the beam between the two of us. The lack of a light slowed our progress significantly and caused an abundance of stubbed toes and stumbled steps. Still, we eventually crossed I-5 and climbed eastward into the late night before falling asleep just off trail. We stopped at around 12:30 a.m. after completing about 32 miles.
After a restless night under the vague threat of thunder showers, we awoke at 5:30 a.m. and started making our way toward our first resupply at Hyatt Lake Resort roughly 20 miles away. Our mission for the day (besides covering at least 60 miles) was to find a new light. The morning warmed quickly under clear skies as we climbed up toward Hobart Peak. Golden, grassy fields, volcanic boulders, scrub oak, and giant Douglas fir trees decorated the landscape.
We closed in on Hyatt Lake by 11:00 a.m., picked up our boxes and found out that they did not sell lights. Yassine asked around. Word soon spread through the little restaurant filled mostly with bikers. Eventually, a gruff looking but friendly biker dude stepped outside and barked, “Somebody need a flashlight?” He dug through his panniers and produced a basic Maglite. We agreed on a price of $10. I grinned at the spectacle we made. Two skinny, barely clothed runners making a street deal with a leather-clad, bearded biker guy. Awesome. Off we went back toward the PCT, but not before taking a quick rinse in the Hyatt Lake outflow creek.
At this point in the run, my feet were already a mess. While I am not generally prone to blisters, I had almost immediately started to realize a massive heal blister on my left foot. My toes were also starting to form various blisters. The trail dust was explosive, making it almost impossible to keep my feet clean. The constant build-up of dirt, sand, a salty-sweat solution, and extremely long days made for the perfect foot-destroying cocktail. I made a pact with myself that I would stop to clean and care for my feet as often as possible. That would prove easier said than done.
We pushed on through the afternoon, through long, dry sections. Our conversations continually settled on the task at hand. “If we can keep this pace and always try to minimize our stops, we can definitely cover 60 miles a day.” We decided that if one of us had to make a quick stop, the other would continue onward, forcing the rear runner to catch up and avoid losing valuable time. The terrain was mostly forested and non-technical through the afternoon. We pressed on and gobbled up a good batch of miles.
As evening faded, we found ourselves moving up through large sections of volcanic boulder fields. We maintained a solid pace through this area as we climbed up and up toward Mount McLoughlin. Our goal for the night was Christi’s Spring, a 60-mile effort for the day. Late into the night we charged, becoming more tired and weary of our slowing pace. We surged and pushed to try to finally end the day. Yassine took a bad fall during this final section, but was lucky to avoid more than a banged-up knee. Finally, after a seemingly endless hallucinatory slog, we made it to our destination at around 12:30 a.m., slipped into our bivy sacks, and tried to fall asleep.
This was our first full day of running and this night I would find out how difficult it would be to actually fall asleep after a long day of big miles. For hours near the muted splash of Christi’s Spring, I lay in my narrow sleeping bag, tension and nerves pulsing and surging through my hips, core, legs, and feet. I was so tired but so racked with the day’s efforts that it would take nearly two hours for my body to settle down and allow for some rest. This ritual would repeat itself every night on the PCT during my speed-record attempt. It lessened a bit toward the end of the trip and perhaps I became more accustomed to it, but it was simply part of my daily routine, rolling in discomfort, breathing deep breaths to try to reduce the tension, constantly shifting positions on my tiny pad, waiting for sleep to find me.
We started late on the second full day. Somehow the alarm didn’t go off or it was never heard. I was up trying to tape my dirt-black and blistered feet and finally nudged Yassine. Within minutes, we were heading down the trail toward our Crater Lake resupply some 40 miles away. We pushed steadily through the morning, becoming more accustomed to the occasional stops to filter water and the rhythm of the ascents and descents of the trail. The terrain was changing. Gone were the grassy fields and scrub oak. We were entering steeper, rockier sections. The trail straddled immense cliffs, climbing up over craggy scree mounds and plummeting into lush green valleys. It was incredibly beautiful.
The mornings were the best. We felt fresh and recharged. The possibilities stretched out to the farthest horizon. But after 30 or so miles, with the high sun dropping to the west, the remaining mileage and cumulative fatigue slowly consumed our daily dose of determination. Running long stretches, it felt like we were making such good time. Yet I dreaded checking the maps. The pace almost always seemed impossibly slow. We pushed on toward Crater Lake, arriving at the resupply turnoff (Highway 62) at around 4:30 p.m. Just before the turnoff, Yassine had pressed ahead a bit on a downhill section while I consulted the maps. When I arrived at the road, my partner was nowhere to be found. Crap. Oh well. I figured I’d go get our boxes and try to catch back up.
I was soon at the Mazama Village store stuffing the contents of my resupply box into my pack. Because the package was postal-service priority, they would not let me collect Yassine’s box. Knowing we had limited time before the store closed for the evening, I bought some extra calories off the shelves and figured we could probably make it to the next resupply without Yassine’s box. Despite my heavy pack, I pushed hard to try to catch Yassine. I retraced my route back up the road, back to the PCT, and was soon at the crater rim. Arriving at the rim, I still saw no sign of Yassine. I snapped a few photos of the lake. This was my first time visiting Crater Lake and, despite being worried about rejoining my partner, I was very stoked to see the lake in the evening sunlight. It was breathtaking.
I perused the crater rim gift shop, bought an over-priced veggie wrap. and topped off my bottles for the upcoming dry section of trail. As I munched on my wrap, I repeatedly called and tried to contact Yassine. I waited for a couple of hours, feeling a little out of place amongst the clean and carefree tourists. It grew dark. I was cold. I started to think that Yassine had maybe picked up a bunch of food from the gift shop and moved up the trail. I called my wife. She confirmed via Yassine’s SPOT that it looked like he had backtracked and was now heading away from the area. I finally decided to move on in hopes of catching up and felt confident that we would be able to reconnect in the next day or so. It was a bummer to waste a significant amount of time at Crater Lake, but it was a gorgeous evening cruising along the rim with the bright canopy of stars erupting overhead.
I made it another nine or so miles past Crater Lake that night and was ready for sleep. As I stopped and knelt to pull out my sleeping bag, I noticed eyes reflecting off my light in the near distance. The hairs on my neck sprang to attention as a bolt of adrenaline flashed through my body. I could clearly see the outline of a cougar in the trees less than 50 yards away. I watched it pace back and forth, slowly and effortlessly, its large lantern eyes hanging in the darkness. Without a word and without taking my eyes off the cat, I re-stuffed my pack and calmly walked away from it toward the north. After every clearing, I paused and held my light, waiting to see if the cat was following me. I repeated this walk-stop-check for the next couple of miles before finally deciding to sleep.
I set my alarm for 4:00 a.m., hoping to cover some ground and catch Yassine. The morning terrain was relatively flat and I made great time in spite of the many fallen logs across the trail. By 11:00 a.m., I had traversed the shoulder of Mount Thielsen and was at 40 miles before 3:00 p.m.
As I was climbing some tougher terrain toward Windigo Pass in the late afternoon, I finally made contact with my wife and received word that Yassine was in fact behind me and that he had decided to stop. I took a moment to reflect on the situation. I was more worried about Yassine dealing with the outcome and inevitable letdown of stopping than anything else. We had planned and dreamed about this trip for so many months. I contemplated bailing myself for a brief moment, but felt that I had come too far and pushed too hard to give up. I couldn’t end the trip this way. Onward I must go.
I pushed to Summit Lake, which I finally reached at around 9:30 p.m., 57 miles total for the day. Summit Lake appeared to be a real campground on the map, so I was half expecting coin showers, the smell of s’mores, and people huddled around tables, lanterns, and fire pits. The place was eerily dark and empty, however, and offered only a small boat ramp and pit toilet as amenities. I stopped and forced myself to take a full-on swim (with soap) in the darkness of night. After some frigid minutes trying to dry off and re-dress, I finally ended my day on the northwestern edge of the lake watching yellow explosions of lightning pop far to the east over central Oregon.
Running and hiking late into the night had become a completely torturous affair. At the end of an extremely long and taxing day, the late-night miles seemed to slow to a syrupy pace and drag on forever. As I fell asleep at Summit Lake, I decided that I would maximize the psychological benefit of daylight by starting each day before 3:00 a.m. This would allow me to get in a few solid hours of refreshed night running while anticipating the impending uplift of a sunrise. Then, as the sun set and the day ended, my body would not be forced to push for many additional hours into the night. In the end, my standard alarm time was 2:30 a.m. This allowed me to put in solid 17-plus hour days, cover the required miles, and then end my day just an hour or so after dark. The formula worked very well for me.
After leaving my lonely campsite at Summit Lake and wasting precious time finding the trail in the early-morning darkness, I eventually climbed up toward the Pyramid Peaks and the Willamette Pass. I now knew that I was on a solo journey. I began to slowly reconstruct my mental mettle as the weight of the now solitary adventure sunk into the pit of my stomach. I felt myself go inward to my own inner strength. I remember the sunrise on this day being extremely powerful and emotional. I bawled and cried as I climbed up over stunning, rocky slopes ablaze in orange and pink sunglow. I felt rawness, emptiness, and pure bliss. This is why I had come!
I made good time moving toward my next resupply at Shelter Cove Resort. To the great amazement of the other thru-hikers hanging out at the store, I was in and out in less than 20 minutes. It was fun chatting with everyone, sharing experiences, and talking about gear and mileage. Given that I was a bit behind schedule, I was anticipating a big, 70-mile day. I bought some extra cans of Red Bull for later in the evening and pushed hard up across the pass and past Waldo Lake. I ran long sections throughout the day and was feeling really good until late into the afternoon when my lack of hydration started to hamper my efforts. My urine was a scary coffee color at first and got worse, to the point that I was peeing blood. I stopped to consume copious amounts of calories and water. I filled all of my water bottles and dramatically reduced my pace. I felt fine, but knew I needed to take it easy. After a few hours all was back to ‘normal,’ but as I would find in the coming days, I needed to consume way more water than I thought necessary to keep myself adequately hydrated.
I hiked and ran late into the night. By 11:30 p.m., I was stumbling and hallucinating my way up a long, forested climb toward Sisters Mirror Lake. My dulled mind watched branches, rocks, and trees morph into awkward human poses and expressions. Even my reserves of Red Bull mixed with Via coffee packets (a disgusting concoction) did little to stimulate my brain and keep me awake. With just over 60 PCT miles completed, I finally decided to sleep. Too little progress was being made and for too great an effort. I fell into my sleeping bag not 10 feet from the trail in a deep thicket and began my nightly bivy beatdown.
By 3:00 a.m., I was back on the trail, somewhat recharged and headed north toward the Sisters mountains. My destination for the day was Big Lake Youth Camp where I had a resupply box waiting. After miles and hours of darkness, another soul-stirring sunrise greeted me. I slowly approached the South Sister, then the Middle, and North. I crossed crisp mountain meadows, icy glacial streams, fields of shiny obsidian, and coarse volcanic boulders. The terrain was mostly favorable in the morning hours, but turned steep and tedious in the late afternoon.
Later in the day, after crossing Highway 242, I was greeted by an immense field of volcanic rock during the hottest part of the afternoon. I was low on water and had a long way to go before reaching Big Lake. I had made a conscious effort to drink way more than enough water throughout the day, but, once again, I was finding myself dehydrated in the afternoon and with no real option but to just run hard to the next resupply and water source and thus minimize my time out in the sun. I pushed hard through the final 10 miles of this day and arrived at Big Lake completely wrecked.
I had already covered 50 miles by 6:30 p.m., so I took time to eat a real meal, pick up my resupply box, and take a hot shower. By the time I started back down the trail at 7:30 p.m., my feet were so completely swollen that I could barely manage to shuffle at one mile an hour. My left knee was also badly swollen and stiff. Finally I decided to sleep a few feet off the trail in a burned-out area. I tried elevating my legs on a mound of blackened dirt and started the nightly racking. As I fell asleep, I seriously questioned whether or not I would be able to continue the next day in only a few hours time. I told myself I’d wake up and see what I could do. That’s all I had.
When I awoke and hit the trail at 3:00 a.m., I felt like a piece of old wood. I quickly found some sticks to use as makeshift hiking poles and tried to pick up the pace. As I warmed up, I shrugged off the sheer amazement that I could actually run again after only a few hours rest. In the dim glow of my light and in my muddy mental state, the trail suddenly became a canvas of panda bears. Everywhere I looked, the contrast of wet and dry sand in the trail created a perfect face, body, or gesture of panda. Of the many hallucinatory moments on this trip, the morning hours of panda portraits on day six proved to be the most entertaining by far.
I moved well through the dark hours and found myself crossing the Santiam Highway well before sunrise. As it turns out, my wife and Yassine had taken the time to drive to the trail and were sleeping somewhere by the trail/highway intersection in the parking lot as I crossed the highway on the actual trail, probably only a hundred yards away. Seeing them would have profoundly bolstered my spirits, but I had no idea they were there. I unknowingly moved past them following the vacant glow of my light.
As the sun rose, I could see Mount Jefferson’s pointy silhouette to the north. Throughout the day, it would grow ever closer until I would finally pass its hulking mass and end the day looking far south at its towering peak. I put in a solid effort all day and focused on drinking plenty of water, especially in the afternoon hours. My destination for the day was Olallie Lake Resort. I was a bit deficient on food for this section and knew that any additional calories I could buy at the store would help make the next day more bearable. Besides, I had become so absolutely sick of Probars, Clif bars, dried fruit, and nut butter that any other form of sustenance sounded utterly delightful.
I learned from some thru-hikers that the Olallie store closed at 7:30 p.m., which I thought would pose no problem given the terrain I’d encountered for most of the day. Little did I know that I still had some steep and mostly technical trail to traverse. I pushed hard, always on edge, always struggling to create some kind of running rhythm across the awkward stops and steps of the rocky path. In many places the trail more closely resembled a creek bed of baseball-sized boulders than an actual trail. At times it would smooth out for a moment, but again my pace would be stifled by the indifferent layers of rubble clogging the pathway.
After a hard, 15-mile push, I made it to the store with about 20 minutes to spare. I chatted with the clerk, drank a soda, and bought a pile of Pop Tarts and candy bars (which is about all they sold). Sipping a second soda while sitting on the back deck, I realized that I had only two more days left of this crazy adventure. The trail was guiding me home. I left the store and stopped at a lakelet to wash up a bit before bed. I made it another mile or two down the trail in the ashen twilight before I finally found a flat spot just off trail.
As I lay there feeling the pangs of tension wash through my body, raindrops started to pat against the ground around me. I quickly jumped up and pitched my poncho tarp. As I was slithering back into my bivy, I saw that I was surrounded by a swarm of big red ants. They were everywhere. I quickly zipped up my bivy and tried to relax to the sound of raindrops against the tarp and ants scurrying all around and on top of me. I soon felt the sharp burn of an ant bite on my right hand. Luckily it appeared to be the only ant that made its way inside my bivy that night.
I slept through my alarm but still managed to rise at 3:30 a.m. I hurriedly collapsed my tarp and shot down the trail using some new makeshift hiking sticks to help my stiff legs and sore feet. I was slowly feeling my journey come to a close. I knew I was approaching familiar territory. In the dark hours on this morning, I felt a deep connection to the trail. It had been my companion, my single focus and purpose for so long now. It provided me with community, direction, and a sense of power. Its narrowly focused spine stretched across unfathomable distances and connected me to my home and all those others that now and in the past had walked its surface. As I had pushed and pushed my physical body to its very limits, I had emptied myself onto this hollow imprint, this worn groove of dirt and rocks and roots holding me together.
All morning, I felt gratitude for being able to spend time on the PCT, gratitude for experiencing my home state in all its natural wonder. Soon I found I was on part of the Mount Hood 50 Mile course, a race I had competed in less than a month prior. The terrain was easy, the trail buffed. I pushed to make good time. Soon I passed Timothy Lake and beyond. Finally, in the afternoon, about 15 miles from Timberline Lodge (my final resupply), I asked some hikers if they knew when the resupply store closed. After some murmuring, someone down the trail shouted, “6:30!” It was already well after 3:30 p.m. I had less than three hours to cover 15 miles. Damn. Cape time.
I tightened my pack straps and started running at about eight-minute-per-mile pace for the next six or seven miles. I then crossed Highway 26 and felt I had some breathing room. Still, I pushed hard and continued to run everything but the steepest sections of sandy trail. I eventually made it to Timberline at about 5:30 p.m. My body was completely destroyed, but I didn’t want to take any chances. If I had missed this final resupply, it would have dramatically affected my finishing time.
Yet again I ended a long day by essentially racing the final 15 miles to reach a resupply before it closed. A theme was emerging. On schedule but trashed. Despite my various fumbles along the way, I was still eager to set a worthy record of less than eight days total. I was planning to push on through the night. I picked up my resupply at Timberline, re-bandaged my decrepit feet, called my wife, and set off into the evening light on the flanks of Mount Hood. As the final wedge of twilight gave way to darkness, I slipped into my bivy for a short nap just above the Zigzag River.
My last alarm went off at 12:30 a.m. I was up and alert but struggled to move urgently. I made my way to the river and wasted about 10 minutes trying to locate the trail on the opposite side. On I pushed through the night, across the Sandy River, up the long steep climb to Lolo Pass, past the Bull Run Reserve. The miles were extremely sluggish and slow. As the sun rose on this final day, I was beyond exhausted and my body was in a deep state of pain. I felt completely empty. There was no fire. No fight.
I continued to march at what seemed a sloth-like pace throughout the morning daylight hours, wincing and grunting with each footfall on an awkward rock or root. This slow struggle continued until, with about 20 miles remaining, I stopped caring about the pain. I desperately wanted to be done. I wanted to stop moving. I wanted to see my family. I ate almost all of my remaining calories and started running as fast as I possibly could. There would be no more slogging, no more pow-hiking. I was running this thing in, as fast and as hard as I could.
I started clipping off nine-minute miles, eight-minute miles, faster. Transcend! My feet stopped hurting. My legs stopped aching. I felt calm. No emotion, just movement. I passed Whatum Lake and sent a text to my wife with an ETA for Cascade Locks. I passed Chinidere Mountain and hauled ass across the Benson Plateau. Dropping down off Benson nearly killed me as the constant, 3,000-foot descent jarred and rattled my body back into submission. Still, I could see the mighty Columbia. I was almost home. I pushed on.
And there it was. Finally. The Bridge of the Gods. I made it. Yassine, my wife, daughters, sister, and mom were waiting there for me as I went out onto the bridge and snapped a picture of my watch at the Oregon/Washington border. 1:37 p.m. Done. The absolute hardest and most intense thing I’ve ever done. A new self-supported Oregon PCT FKT of 7 days, 22 hours, 37 minutes.
It’s been several weeks since I finished my epic run across Oregon. Recovery has been going well. My feet are healing nicely. I’ve ended the trip with a much greater appreciation for everyday things: the smiles on the faces of my daughters, a warm meal with friends, time left to enjoy more adventures. Speed record aside, this trip was about experiencing my home state, pushing myself beyond perceived physical and mental limits, washing myself in the unencumbered freedom of traveling fast and light, and seizing a simple opportunity for adventure. On all counts, I consider the trip a success.
The self-supported nature of my effort proved to me that a more hybrid style of ultrarunning and fastpacking can be applied to much longer endurance adventures. Leveraging recent advancements in ultra lightweight backpacking gear meant that I had an extremely lightweight and fully functional shelter and sleeping system. Minimal clothing and a resupply pickup nearly every day ensured that my pack weight never prohibited running. And I could have gone much lighter still. In the end, a self-supported FKT with an emphasis on running is not really anything new, especially on the PCT. It’s merely a continual evolution of re-defining small boundaries, however humble. And as interest in bigger FKT efforts continues to increase, I have no doubt that these boundaries will continue to expand in astonishing ways.
A final thanks to my extremely awesome and supportive wife. My tenure on the trail caused her a lot of stress and worry. I am grateful for her patience and support. She is the home to which I yearned to return. Also, thanks to my friend Yassine for helping to realize this journey. It was great to spend at least a couple of days together on the PCT. And thanks to all my friends and family. Your positive energy and encouragement meant a great deal to me.