“All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” — Ed Abbey, Desert Solitaire
“The sum of two partners’ energy, wisdom, and strength of will—when those partners are well adapted to each other after years of stress and adventure—is far greater than their individual power and spirit… Well-adapted partners see through the other’s eyes. They imagine accomplishing a particular task and then execute it in roughly the same way. Trust in each other’s ability and judgment is total. Ultimately they become each other.” -Mark Twight, Extreme Alpinism
Hal and I have different styles. Hal uses hair product for his serious suave. I’m lucky if I use shampoo instead of dish soap on my head. Hal listens to every new band I’ve never heard of while driving his pimped-out Audi allroad complete with carbon-fiber mirrors. I listen to 2Pac on repeat while I drive my cracked-windshield Toyota Tundra. Hal likes to sleep comfortably in hotel rooms. I like sleeping on my Thermarest in the dirt.
No matter. When Hal and I put on our running shoes and set our gaze on the trail, our styles were one and the same. Together we finished the 220-ish-mile John Muir Trail (JMT) in a single-push effort on August 4. We did it supported, with an amazing crew of folks helping us along the way. We moved for 3 days, 12 hours, 41 minutes from Whitney Portal to Happy Isles at Yosemite National Park—the length of the trail in its entirety. For those JMT FKT purists out there, we moved for 3 days, 9 hours, 5 minutes from the summit of Mount Whitney to Happy Isles, Yosemite—the length of the actual JMT. During this time, we slept for only four and one-half hours.
I suppose I could provide you with an analytical report of our split times on sections of the trail, how many gels, calories, and water we took. What exactly was in our packs. Where our crew-access points were. What our overall strategy was. If you want that information, you can surely contact Hal or I directly. That’s the easy stuff. The boring stuff.
Serious sleep deprivation leaves your memory foggy. I remember certain sections, certain moments with vivid clarity. Surely instances burned into my memory that I’ll never forget. Then, other sections of our run are a blur, where I can’t even remember running entire sections of trail when I look back over the maps. The following moments are what did make it into my memory.
Floating up Mount Whitney. It’s the biggest climb of the journey, and it’s barely a warm-up for the next three days. We decided from the start to ‘hike with purpose’ up Mount Whitney, and not push the pace. We knew we needed to reign ourselves in the first day, and keep it relatively causal, at a four-to-five-mile-per-hour pace. The south-north route starts dramatically, climbing from the trailhead at 8,360 feet, up to the summit of Whitney at 14,505, an ascent of just over 6,000 feet in 11 miles. I think we were too excited, however, as we scampered to the top in 3:22 from the car, leaving our cameraman behind. It felt easy, exciting, the start of a great adventure. We lingered for 15 minutes on top, setting our watches, and Hal sending out the first of many SPOT Connect text messages that took upwards of 600 seconds to connect and send via satellite. There were hordes of day hikers and peak baggers on the summit. All too many asked us why we had the same outfits on, looking like lime-green aliens on the austere, rocky moonscape that is the high Sierra. We stuck out.
Hot and dry the first day, and Forrester Pass sets the tone. We quickly got used to running in the low-humidity, glaring, alpine sun. You’re over 10,000 feet almost entirely for the first 120 miles of the JMT. You quickly get used to choking on dust from the trail, and the constant rub of decomposing granite pebbles in your shoes and socks. Constantly on rock. Getting accustomed to the rocky and parched landscape, Hal and I ran steadily through the day to Forrester Pass. This is the first of many high alpine passes you cross over that is literally dynamite-blasted through high Sierra rock. Hal and I chatted on and off on Day 1, but I think we also settled quite quickly into the functional mode that made our partnership so strong and saw us through to the end. We swapped leads naturally. Whenever one would stop for a bathroom break, water refill, or photo. But, other than that, we moved very fluidly, with the lead person often 20 or 30 yards ahead of the other. No talking, just movement.
First crew stop at mile 43, Kearsarge Pass, Jeff Kozak. It was late in the first day, an hour before sunset. We were excited for a real meal and some company. Kozak outdid himself. He packed in chocolate milks, maple-bar donuts, and even Hal’s favorite; White Castle sliders. We both force gorged ourselves at Kozak’s Kitchen and then stumbled on into the sunset with full stomachs. It was a gorgeous, warm, clear night up and over 12,000-foot Glen Pass. We encountered many backpackers while we were out there, likely upward of 30 people a day. But Day 1 seemed to be the most entertaining. Encountering what Hal termed ‘the gang-bangers’ sucking air on top of Forrester Pass, and then the guys stumbling around lost in the dark as we descended off of Glen Pass. We couldn’t waste the energy with too much thought of others. But, we learned then that it was much preferred to pass folks by cover of darkness. During the day, we were constantly answering the barrage of questions from hikers: “Why are your packs so small?” “Where did you start?” “Where are you going?” “Why are you in matching t-shirts?”
I remember trying to fall asleep at mile 63, at our second crew resupply. The amazing Benna family, JB, Jen, and Eva, had a nice camp installed they had backpacked in the previous day. Hal and I got in sleeping bags around 3:30 a.m. at Bench Lake. It was cold and frosty, with the Milky Way shimmering down on us. Hal kept telling me he was seeing shooting stars, but I didn’t see any… the entire trip. I think he was hallucinating. We ate our obligatory hot Backpacker Pantry meal of chili mac or salmon pasta, then laid down to sleep for two hours. I couldn’t fall asleep. I was tired, and I needed this first rest for what was to come. We’d been on the move for 20 hours and tomorrow was a big day. I couldn’t sleep because my body was in engine-burning go-mode. Damn it, Hal was already snoring. I could feel my elevated heart rate hammering throughout my entire body, and my breathing would not slow down. Maybe because we were at over 10,000 feet, and neither of us did any real acclimatization? I told myself I had to go to sleep. Suddenly, it was two hours later and JB was shaking me awake and handing me coffee. After a quick cup of coffee and a Nutella/almond butter tortilla wrap, we were up and off, heading toward Mather Pass. I was surprised by how light and springy my step felt after laying down for those two hours.
The intensity of mid-summer sun sinks in on Day 2. I remember hobbling into, and out of, our 84-mile crew resupply with our cameraman Tom Robertson. Sure I was tired, but it was the sun sapping our energy. I felt better after another meal, and Tom’s secret espresso coffee. But the climb up and over Muir Pass felt arduous. Being in constant sun over 10,000 feet surely took its toll on our pace in the afternoon. As we crested the top of the pass in early evening and dropped down into the stunningly beautiful Evolution Basin, we found our running stride again. We were pleasantly surprised to find how runnable this section of trail was. I think we had both been a little shocked at how the majority of the trail up to this point was not feeling very runnable. I think we both expected to be hiking up the passes, then cruising down and rolling steadily through the flat sections, even if it was the rocky Sierra. We had run all over the world and knew how to run technical terrain. But that plan had not panned out. It isn’t that the trail is ungodly technical, like something we’d never encountered. No, it’s more the way it was engineered by the CCC. It’s incredibly rocky, yes, but then throw in massive, knee-high, rock water bars every 12 feet, or rock steps cut for mule trains and packers, and you see how runnable it feels after 36 hours on your feet. It’s that kind of terrain where you can never get into an actual running stride. It’s jerky, stops you every few strides, breaks your stride, and seems only conducive to sore knees.
Dropping into Evolution Basin was the first smooth and creamy running we’d had in a while. We let the legs go and ran into the sunset, trying to make up some time, feeling good. We also were descending into an ominous sunset. We new there was a big forest fire burning north of us, and we’d hit the smoke at some point. We dropped into the smoke in the bottom of Evolution Meadow in the dark, and the ash started to fall.
Hal and I had planned to run from our mile 83 crew spot to mile 130 for our next crew resupply without stopping. We hoped to make it to mile 130 late in the night on Day 2, sleep for a couple more hours, then eat and rally. Choking and coughing down the trail along the South Fork of the San Joaquin River, past Muir Trail Ranch, and beginning the climb up toward Selden Pass, we hit a wall. We fumbled around, stopping too much to access food in our packs, fill water bottles, and we resorted to pulling out Hal’s mini speaker for the one and only time. He plugged it into his iPhone and blasted some tunes to try to help us up the trail toward Selden. Maybe Hal just has better taste in music than me or I’d started to hallucinate, but his choice of music along with the falling ash and my deteriorating mental state seemed to make me crump even quicker. I suggested we rest. We needed a quick break to try to sleep in our emergency bivies. It was the coldest night yet; I was shivering every time we stopped. Hal wanted to keep moving, questioning whether we could stay warm in the bivies. Within a mile of carrying on, we’d both reconsidered and we were immediately lying in the middle of the trail in our emergency bivy sacks. It was 2:00 a.m., and we set our alarms for 3:00 a.m. These bivies are pretty amazing. They are essentially emergency blankets welded into bags. However, though they do surely reflect 90% of your body heat as advertised, they are 100% non-breathable. I was comfy and warm for about 10 minutes. Then I realized, as did Hal, that moisture condensation on the inside was dripping all over us. We shivered in a fitful sleep for an hour, ate some Oreos, and soldiered on.
We missed our crew person at mile 130, at the trail junction with Lake Thomas Edison. No fault to our crew person, more a miscommunication and probably lack of better planning on our part. Before we had left, Hal made a last minute plea on Facebook for someone to crew for us here. Our original crew person had fallen through at the last minute. We never even met our crew person. He was there; he spent the entire night there, but we missed him by 20 minutes. He thought surely we’d be through in the middle of the night, but we didn’t show up until 9:00 a.m. the next day. We saw numerous people along the trail that had literally just seen him. Ugh, absolutely demoralizing. Now what? We made the quick decision to run the 1.5 miles down to the lake. We knew there was a motorboat taxi we could take across the lake to a general store. We could just buy food. We ran out of our way. Unfortunately, when we got to the lake, we’d missed the last boat shuttle for the morning. Shit. Shit. Now what? Run another five miles out of our away around the lake to the general store? Make it 13 miles of running out of our way? How many hours would that take at this point? We hadn’t really slept in over 24 hours. We hadn’t had much food in 50 miles.
When things could have faltered. When our wills could have faltered. This was the moment. Hal and my partnership burned stronger, however. We both sat down and emptied our packs to assess our food supply. Before either of us said it, we both knew we were carrying on; it’s what we had to do. We couldn’t risk the detour to the store on the other side of the lake. We had two gels each, half a Ziplock of beef jerky, half a Ziplock of mini Oreo cookies, and a small Ziplock of Vitargo carbohydrate drink mix. We should be able to survive another 30-plus miles on that, right? We set off on the climb up Silver Pass.
I started to hallucinate for the first time ever on our way into Reds Meadow, mile 160. Luckily, back at Lake Thomas Edison, Hal had cell service and was able to text the Benna family, who would crew us at Reds Meadow. He let them know what had happened. JB responded he would try to run in and meet us with some extra food. Up and over Silver Pass was brutally hot and the sun felt like it was burning through my head. Hal started to get the first of many unstoppable bloody noses. My left shin started to burn with pain and I noticed it was red and swollen. We stumbled on, as it was the only option. I started to see elephants that were rocks, people that were trees. I had no idea what was going on when I heard someone yell my name, “Mike!” I turned around, thinking it was Hal behind me. No, it was JB yelling at me, from 15 feet away. He was standing right in front of me. We were in a stupor. JB was a lifesaver. He had Cokes, juice, ham-and-cheese sandwiches, and enough gels to get us running again, and literally run most of the way into Reds Meadow.
I slept like a baby in Reds Meadow. A stomach full of Coke, chocolate milk, cheeseburger, soup, grilled cheese, chips. We had the entire crew in force there. The Benna family, Tom shooting photos and video, and mystery man Greg Lanctot had showed up from the Bay Area with a dozen of the craziest donuts I’d ever seen. I’d never met the guy and he was taking off my shoes and socks and cleaning my feet with warm water and a washcloth! I must have hallucinated that!
We slept until midnight, then blasted out of there with lots of mental energy. We moved very strongly out of Reds Meadow up the first part of the very long climb (21-plus miles) up towards Donahue Pass. By the time the sun rose, we’d thought we should be cresting the pass. Damn, we still had six or more miles to go. We fell back into death-march pace. Hal was suffering from a brutally consistent bloody nose that was starting to make him feel lightheaded and dizzy. All the dry air and smoke had both of us coughing, stuffed noses that had now turned to bloody noses. My gloves I wore through the night were soaked in dried blood. My shin was a constant nuisance. I’d put on compression socks and wrapped it in Reds Meadow. It was fine hiking up and running flats, but anything steeper downhill or technical it was painful and I was constantly compensating on my right side.
We finally crested Donahue Pass, both a little pissed off and over it. At least we could look down into Tuolumne Meadows and know we’d made it into the home-ish stretch. We both wanted desperately to run the long, gradual Lyell Canyon into Tuolumne. We should have been able to cruise it, but it was a struggle. I was limping along; Hal was tending to his bloody nose. We ran, but we’d make it for five or 10 minutes in the midday sun and then stumble into a walk again as soon as we’d hit a patch of shade. By the time we made it to the visitor center in Tuolumne where our crew was at mile 195, I was broken.
There was no rest here. We were finishing this bastard. We ate ham-and-egg burritos, drank Coke, coated with sunscreen, iced my leg, and mounted back up. Our amazing support network was building, and the energy our crew provided was uplifting. Jess and Rob Hollister joined in the ‘fun’ here. Jess is our amazing PR person at The North Face. She’s way more than just a PR person. She’s always at our races and events, doing whatever it takes to support us. She was icing my neck, icing my leg, cheering us on. We were super lucky. Jen Benna said she’d run the last section with us. I was borderline conscious and nodded in agreement, as did Hal, both happy to have some company.
Powerhiking up another pass in the mid-afternoon heat. At least it was the last damn pass, and only 1,500 feet of climbing. We climbed strong, keeping a solid pace. Hal was motivated, I could sense it. He was feeling strong. I wanted to feel the same way, but the toll of the pain in my leg over the last 80 miles started to drag me down mentally. I was struggling to keep up to Hal’s pace. When we finally crested the last pass and knew it was virtually 20 miles of all downhill running to Yosemite, Hal picked up the pace. Or, at least it felt like it to me. I was doing everything I could to keep going. Mashing Snickers, Paydays, and M&Ms into my mouth. Grunting, grinding my teeth, hobbling. Searing pain, right side starting to tighten due to all the compensating. I was mentally shattered. I was having to tell myself to just stay upright. I was about to pass out and fall on my face.
Then, Jen had a text from JB. She said we had miscalculated the distance and our finishing time. We had to run 14 miles in the next two hours to break Brett Maune’s record. Shit. Shit. I simply knew there was no way I could do that. No physical way. I told Hal he should go on without me. Go break the record. I knew he had the strength. He wouldn’t leave me. I stumbled on a few more minutes.
My mind opened. At that instant when I thought I was buried in the deepest dark of the pain cave that never seemed imaginable. Almost like I accepted it and passed through. I told Hal, “I’m not gonna’ let you down,” and I ran by him. We proceeded to run the next five-plus miles at the fastest pace we had run the entire JMT. Granted it was all downhill, but we were cranking out seven-minute miles, passing tourists coming off of Half Dome, grunting, snorting, completely focused. Completely focused. We blasted down into the sandy flats of Little Yosemite Valley, before the final drop to the finish, and stopped running. That was it, we were done. Done running that is. Shot.
When we got to Nevada Falls and the last section of steep paved downhill, we knew we only had four miles and we had over two hours to beat the record. Turns out, our crew’s calculations had been wrong, we had the extra time, and we had less mileage than we thought we did. No matter, it had spurred us on. I sat down on a rock to wait for Hal. Rob Hollister bounded up the trail with Cokes in his hands. Best Coke ever.
Hal and I walked the last couple, ridiculous, paved miles down the trail to the parking lot. Our crew, our little family, was all there. We finished together. We took photos at the trail sign. We hugged. They had champagne for us. It was beyond exhaustion. Elation. Hidden, indescribable emotions. Hal is the man. Could not have done it with a better partner. We were completely in sync out there. Hal is the toughest bastard around. Recognize it. I drank champagne. I ate an ice-cream cookie. Later, I drank a beer in the shower. This was the first time I’ve had a sip of alcohol in over 15 years. ‘Nuff said.