Wow. This was an FKT attempt unlike anything I’ve done before. I was excited to take on my first supported multi-day FKT for the first time since the PCT in 2014. Since my first big attempt in 2014, I knew I had become smarter, stronger and more confident. Self-supported FKTs on the AT and Long Trail were fun and their own unique challenges, but sometimes you just want to feel like a Nascar driver. Taking on the 788 mile Arizona Trail in a supported fashion was the perfect challenge. Plus, what could be better than a trip to the sunny, dry desert after a winter in Seattle?
DISCLAIMER: THIS POST IS OVER 13,000 WORDS LONG AND NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART. GRAB A COFFEE, OR BETTER YET, A NICE GREEN TEA.
When I started thinking about this, the existing FKT on the AZT was 14 days by Josh Perry. Based on my conversations with him, the differences in supported/self-supported attempts and knowledge of the trail, I thought I had a good shot at at making a big dent in the record.
- My A goal was to go sub-11.5 days
- My B goal was to go sub-12 days
- My C goal was to go sub-13 days
Current FKT Holders
Michael Vertsteeg (supported, male): 15d 22h 39m 0s
Josh Perry (self supported, male): 14d 12h 21m 0s
Helen Galerakis (supported, female): 17d 11h 3m 0s
Heather Anderson (self-supported, female): 19d 17h 9m 0s
If I can give any advice to anyone who is attempting an FKT or relying on a support crew, it is this: Surround yourself with the right people.
This was the foundation that enabled my success. The training, planning and preparation would’ve been useless without these people on my team.
Katie McConaughy – Crew Chief. Katie threw down hard. She had a GPS mapped checkpoint at every road crossing and was the glue that made this thing work. She even pulled off 70+ miles of pacing on top of managing a 3-car support team. My hero.
Witt ‘El Matador’ Wisebram – Chief Mileage Officer. Witt set the self supported AZT FKT in 2017. He brought a decked out camper van. He forded the Gila River to get me resupplied. I got to know Witt as his coach and was excited when he agreed to join. He was my foot care guy, and paced around 260 miles. Damn.
Michael Dillon – Vlog King. Dills runs the company Pilot Field and produced the vlog (documentary to come!). He was on my PCT support crew in 2014 and this was a great excuse to hang out with a friend. Dills would film until midnight when the crew went to bed and would stay up for 3 hours finishing the vlog. Happy belated 30th!
Jack Murphy – King of the Old Jack Road. Jack is the ultimate wild card: great at guitar, expert videographer, and deep, dreamy eyes. With me on the PCT, Jack earned his nickname on this trip for making countless lonely drives up and down the remote Highway 67, renamed to Old Jack Road.
Will McConaughy – The Tucson Cowboy. Living in Southern Arizona, my brother will was a great resource to have on the trip. He provided tons of local knowledge, had a fun fact about every mountain and cactus, and even snagged 2 Boulder problem first ascents while waiting at crew check points. And his lovely girlfriend, Christa, also joined and had the best food!
Mary Ann McConaughy – Dog Whisper. My mom, also know as MAM, took care of the biggest X-factor, our dog Crash. MAM gave me the best head and shoulders massage on day 4.
Crash Bandipooch – Trail Pooch. He crushed it, but got really dirty. He likes to lick my blisters and scabs.
Michael Dillon and Jack Murphy are two good friends. They were with me through thick and thin on the PCT and Dill’s company Pilot Field produced the Run For Colin documentary. Dills and Jack came back for round two to film the AZT FKT Attempt. Each separate video covers a different day and is 5-15 minutes long. They plan to produce a feature length documentary on top of the daily vlogs.
The most impressive part? They were able to put these videos together mid trip. Dills would often stay up until three or four in the morning to finish up editing and get out a high quality video. In fact, one time a video didn’t upload so they hiked to the top of a mountain to get enough service to upload the video onto YouTube. The ultimate hustle.
Episode 1 – Arizona Fastest Known Time Attempt
Episode 2 – Arizona Trail FKT Day 2
Episode 3 – 64 miles and 17,000ft of Vert in One Day
Episode 4 – Running 50 miles for Grilled Cheese and then Running Another Marathon
Episode 5 – Rash Decisions and Superstitions
Episode 6 – We Lost the Drone
Episode 7 – Joe’s Hero Makes a Cameo
Episode 8 – Change of Plans
Episode 9 – What an FKT is Really Like
Episode 10 – The Bean is Back
Episode 11 – Reaching the South Rim
Episode 12 – Getting Off-Trail
Episode 13 – The New Arizona Trail Fastest Known Time
NATIVE AMERICAN CAUSES
The entire Arizona Trail is on the ancestral homeland of Arizona’s Indigenous people. The land was traded, stolen and conquered over time. We are raising awareness and funds to support two organizations supporting Native American Causes.
Chizh for Cheii is a Navajo-led non-profit. In operation for 9 years, they work on the Navajo reservation in AZ, NM and UT to gather firewood for elders and provide essential services for their community. To this point, we have raised $8,000 as part of a larger fundraising campaign by the organization to raise $75,000! Donate here.
Native American Rights Fund (NARF) is a leading legal services organization protecting and extending Native rights. They offer legal assistance to individuals, organizations and tribes that might not otherwise have adequate legal representation. In addition to high profile cases like the Keystone Pipeline and Bear Ears, NARF is currently representing the case Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, trying to protect voting rights for rural Arizonans which disproportionately affects Native American communities. We have raised over $9,000 and are so close to our $10k goal. Donate here.
Katie, MAM, Crash and I drove from Seattle to Tucson. Witt drove from Atlanta in his camper van. Jack drove to Chicago to meet Dills, picked up a rental vehicle, and then drove down to Tucson. Since my brother Will lives in Tucson, it was a natural meet up spot. When we are converged, we had an awkward COVID moment. When was the last time you greeted someone you hadn’t seen recently without a mask? We’d done our best with precautions to quarantine pre-trip and everyone was tested, however it still felt unnatural.
Excitement hung in the air. We all knew the monumental task ahead of us – pushing my body to its extreme limits over two weeks through the deserts, mountains and backcountry of Arizona. We did a several final grocery shopping runs, handed out a bunch of Columbia swag for the crew, went over resupply points and how to use Gaia, and started to form a real team.
The Southern Terminus of the AZT is closed. Border wall construction closed the .7 miles from the junction of Joe’s Canyon Trailhead. The Arizona Trail Association recommends that hikers start Montezuma Pass, however that would shorten the overall trail distance. Instead, I opted to start at the fittingly named Joe’s Canyon Trailhead, which would add 1.7 miles and 1,300ft of vertical. Never say no to extra credit!
Off the bat, I wanted a short 12-14 hour day. There was no need to burn the midnight oil out the gate. That would put us for 48-55 miles near Patagonia, AZ. I planned to start at 8:00ish am. Of course, by the time we left the AirBnB, took a wrong turn getting gas and arrived around 9:00. The bigger issue? The other two support vehicles weren’t at the starting trailhead. Katie and I rode with Witt in his camper van. We were at the trailhead alone. Jack and Dills car was nowhere in sight. Neither was the Suburu Forrester containing Crash, MAM and Will.
Witt, Katie and I sat tight in silence. Did we botch the first logistic meet up? If so, our trip would surely be doomed… Hadn’t we walked through the start 3 times with everyone?
Katie was able to get ahold of Dills. Turns out part of the crew went to Montezuma Pass, what was supposed to be the first resupply spot, since we had originally planned to start there before changing to Joe’s Canyon to ensure complete mileage. 10 minutes later, two cars come barreling down the road. My heart is beating out of my chest. Dills and Jack fire up the cameras & I hug the crew. Here we go again, Stringbean.
Fresh legs propelled me up and over Montezuma Pass and Miller Peak. I gain around 5,000ft of vertical gain over the first 20 miles. It’s an absurd start. But it barely phased me as I strode into Parker’s Canyon. I was averaging 4 miles per hour with 400 ft/mi of vertical gain. Is that even possible? I felt so good!
I continued to cruise through the the rest of the day which featured rolling desert vistas and meandered in and out of washes. Man, Arizona is beautiful. When I think desert, I always I think of a desolate wasteland. The Arizona Trail packs so much diversity and beauty into so many different environments. We hit the last critical resupply for the day, Canelo Pass at mile 35, and Witt joined me. I didn’t need the pacing help but it was nice to have company. As we were leaving, I made a comment about the ominous clouds on the horizon. ‘Witt doesn’t think it is going to rain. Everyone else thinks it will. We have a rain jacket for you.’ Said Dills. I put my money on Witt, this was essentially his 4th time doing the AZT and would certainly be better at reading conditions than anyone else.
30 minutes later, cue a downpour. Witt was oh so very wrong. We hit strong winds and rain. We cruised through the unfriendly conditions without much worry, outside of a few lightening strikes in the distance. As light fell, I reached into my pack for my headlamp. Witt and I both obsess over our headlamp, the NAO Petzl+. That puppy is strong!! However, it was notably missing from my pack. I had gone into the night without a headlamp. Damn.
‘Do you want my headlamp?’ asked Witt. Well, I have a certain sense of pride, and I wasn’t going to swallow it there. I flipped out my iPhone, cranked the flashlight mode to max and cruised. Call me stubborn, but a little headlight issue wouldn’t ruin my day.
At the end of those 14 miles, we had a road running section through Patagonia. The crew drove alongside as Witt and I knocked off the last few miles for the day. Due to the dampness, I was getting quite cold. But like the headlamp, I wasn’t going to let it slow me down. We cranked out another 7 miles for the day.
It was only after I got into camp that I realized I was showing some hypothermic symptoms. I was slow to respond, shivering, and stumbling over my words. A heat blast session and dinner in the van warmed me up, but I had to do better.
After 5 hours of sleep, I got up for day 2. Now it was starting to get real. I had initially scheduled this day for 58 miles, but with only 8,000ft of ascent, I realized I probably could gobble up a few miles to make the following day over Mica Mountain and Mount Lemmon easier.
I felt fresh and I jumped on the long Temporal Gulch Road out of Patagonia, AZ. The sun rose over the hills and I couldn’t help but smile at how beautiful the experience is. A pure expression of physical endurance in the most beautiful of places. Life is good.
Well, it is good until I saw the snow over Mt Wrightson. A fresh coat blanked the mountain. I would go up to almost 7,000 feet before descending. As I climbed, I noticed snow lodged in agave plants. How odd to see snow hanging like a thin blanket over a desert plant?
The snow started in trace amounts and peaked at 1-2 inches towards the saddle. I snapped a nice photo of Mt Wrightson and sent it off to the crew. I had a long descent in front of me and the snow made it a little more fun. I cruised through the next section, knocking off around 5 miles per hour for a sustained period. The weather was a little nasty, very windy with some snow/hale. I checked my phone and saw an encouraging text from Heather Anderson, a role model of mine and the self-supported FKT record holder. I send back a GIF of Dori from Finding Nemo Just keep swimming.
At Sahuarita Road at mile 106, Katie jumped in for a nice 7 mile section to close out the day. I really enjoyed her company and we kept spirits high as we banged out a flat desert section. At Marsh Station Road, what was supposed to be the end of my day, we decided to push on another few hours. By the time I made it into camp around 10:30PM, the crew had set up a glorious spread. The food was good, the temperature was just right, and we all breathed easy. We were doing it.
The crux. I had taken 12.5 hours to do 55 miles with 12,000ft of elevation gain and almost 15 hours to do 64 miles with 8,000ft of elevation gain. My ambitious goal (which Witt assured me I was a little crazy for shooting for) was to run 68 miles over Mt Lemmon (or Babad Do’ag to the Tohono O’odham) and Mica Mountain with 17,000ft of elevation gain. Could I pull it off and be recovered enough the next day to hit a flat 78 mile day?
I started charging hard in the morning. I was driven. My ankle had bothered me a little during day two, but I bumped the Advil consumption to 200mg every 4 hours and the pain went away. My feet were in good condition and I was covering miles with the same drive.
At base of the Rincon Mountains (or Cew Do’ag to the Tohono O’odham) is Saguaro National Park. Saguaro cactuses are the ‘classic’ western cactus that you’d picture in a John Wayne movie. A saguaro cactus only grows about an inch a year, meaning the forest of Saguaro’s that I found myself in were hundreds of years old. I passed an enthusiastic hiker on my way up. ‘You’re running the whole trail? I saw the video about you! My trail name is Race, because I’m the slowest one out here.’ At 62 years old, Race was an inspiration on the trail.
The ascent up Mica was gradual, but with about 27 miles of no support over a 9,000ft mountain, I was dragged down a little by the extra food and water. I used my Sawyer for the first time in a small pool – the water was remarkably clear and cooled my core as I sucked it down. The desert is hot.
But as I climbed higher and higher I left the desert behind. The terrain turned to oak forest before giving way to full blown pine forest with a layer of snow. This is a feature known in Arizona as the ‘Sky Islands.’ While the lowlands and valleys are filled with dry desert, the environment changes in a matter of 20-30 minutes to an alpine wonderland: Tall pines, flowing mountain streams and epic mountain vistas.
I tried to cruise down Mica, but the northside wasn’t groomed like the southside. I channeled the flow through tight turns and sharp shrubs. My shins and knees were experiencing death by 1000 cuts, but there wasn’t much I could do. Plus, I was really enjoying cruising down a 5,000ft descent after that climb.
My concentration faltered ‘Yo, are you Stringbean!? Rock on! You’re crushing it. There is some good water here.’ I ran into a jolly group of four hikers, Bluejay, Fancy and two others. I looked on longingly. I would have loved to stop for water. To hike 15 miles with this upbeat group. To pass the time without constant worry of resupply points and efficient movement. Instead, we exchanged a few pleasantries and my spirits were lifted by the warmth and support of fellow hikers. I got back to downhill cruising and noticed my shin feeling tight again.
The section between Mica Mountain and Mt. Lemmon was surprisingly tough. Nothing about this day was easy – I gained a rolling 3,500ft of vertical over 14 miles. As I made the last descent into the Santa Catalina Highway, at around 42 miles for the day, my shin tensed up. A shooting pain ran through my ankle. Uh oh – not good. I walked it off in the half mile descent to the crew, but they could tell I was hurting. I took more Advil, rolled out the ankle, and tried to shake it off. To get to the top of Mt. Lemmon, I would have to climb 21 miles with approximately 6,000ft of vertical gain. At night. On a bum ankle.
Will joined me for the first two miles. The gradual uphill and my beaten state made the eternal question walk vs. run simple. I enjoyed his company and we talked about life. We had a fantastic conversation, and I felt so lucky to have a loving brother who is doing great things with his life. Two miles later, we met the crew again. They had hiked in to swap my food & water and Witt and Will. As I was about to leave, I realized I still had shorts on. Mt Lemmon was supposed to be well below freezing. Without a second thought, Will ripped off his pants and handed them to me. He walked back to the car in his boxers.
The climb up Mt Lemmon was arduous, but we got it done. Witt and I witnessed the most beautiful sunset in Sabino Canyon. I bonked on the steep climb up Romero Pass. Witt shared stories of his past FKTs. ‘I was so tired I slept on that rock right there!’ ‘The bathroom at the top of Mt Lemmon is heated. It is a GREAT place to sleep and if we can’t meet the crew we can find shelter there.’
We finally made it to Summerhaven, the small town on the top of the 9,000ft mountain, and found the van. My ankle ached, my feet were cold, but we had done it. I was beat up, but we had reason to celebrate. Dills was turning 30! Crowded in the van with 5 people, I felt lucky to have such a tight-knit crew. Witt was kind enough to let me sleep in his van. Sleep came easy. Could anything stop us?
We were a little slow to rise the next morning. I couldn’t find the same energy that I had mustered at the beginning of day 3. Katie and Witt made sure I had an efficient morning out of the van. Heavy, cold winds whipped at my face on the road walk to the trail on the north side of the mountain down Oracle Ridge. I grimaced and limped and felt sorry for myself. How can I do 78 miles today?
The extended descent down Oracle Ridge gave me renewed hope. I found myself hitting 14:00 minute miles with little effort. By the time I made it all the way to the bottom, I was averaging 13:00 miles with 18 miles done for the day. As I rolled up to meet the crew, Will, a passionate rock climber, cooed over his morning adventure, ‘I found a boulder rock that I don’t think anyone has ever touched before. I sent two routes; they are probably first ascents!’ Katie, on the other hand, was barking logistics. I appreciated her organization and focus. She was keeping the crew ship afloat. Her attention to detail and deep empathy makes her a perfect crew chief. I’d have 7 miles of good support, then a 29 mile with potential support at halfway and a 26 mile self-supported section to finish it off.
For the 7 miles before the 29 mile stretch, I was still making good time. I took a swig of pickle juice, was loaded up with water and food, and hit it. This is where the bacon is made. I’d already had a long day but I still had 55 miles ahead of me. I focused on hydration and nutrition. If you are eating and drinking right, even daunting miles can fly by. The rolling desert made for nice miles, although it was hot, probably 80 degrees. I bounced in and out of washes, around old, abandoned ranches and jeep roads. My ankle was still lingering, but I noticed that it bothered me most on steeper descents. Luckily, this day didn’t have any of that.
I tried to focus on form. I could feel my body breaking down. My friend Andrew Skurka had sent me a text that my form looked like an old grandma. While this was a small blow to my ego, it is a bigger blow to my long-term health prospects. Changes in running form caused by tired legs and compensation for injuries mean two things:
- Higher likelihood of future injuries
- Slower pace
I focused energy into my lower core, drew my arms in a more efficient swing closer to my body, emphasized landing on my mid-foot, and tried my best to drive my knees. I noticed my running pace pick up by about a minute a mile, and my ankle wasn’t causing me any problems.
At a nasty looking jeep road, I found Dills and Katie with no car. They had made it, but at a cost. Witt and Jack were trying to fish the van out of the sand on the remote road. Katie and Dills had only arrived minutes before me – we had almost missed each other and the valuable water they were carrying. I lubed up on sunscreen, and carried on my merry way. Meanwhile, the crew floundered in the sand for another hour before finally getting fished out by a truck.
The next 14 miles were smooth, but I noticed my feet starting to burn. It was getting uncomfortable, sort of like my feet were outgrowing my shoes or I was blistering. As I hit the road crossing to see the crew, there was no one in sight. My heart sank. They must’ve missed the checkpoint. I was fresh out of water, my feet ached, and the sun was sinking. I would be out here stranded, and there was no way to see the crew for another 26 miles. I tried not to jump to conclusions are I reached for my phone. I had a bar of service. I called Katie, trying not to sound panicked, ‘Hey, where are you guys?’ Slightly confused, she replied, ‘we are at the checkpoint? It’s like 1/10th of a mile up trail to a parking lot.’
Thank god. I was so relieved. I still have PTSD of missing crucial resupply checkpoint on the PCT and being stuck overnight without and gear or warm clothing.
I met the crew and a trail angel same Sequoia. Witt had talked incessantly about this guy. Sequoia was a jolly trail angel who’d been supporting thru hikers for a long time, at least seven years according to Witt. Sequoia had a big smile, loads of energy and a beat up Arizona Diamondbacks hat. ‘You like grilled cheese?’ The freshly grilled sandwich was in my stomach faster than you can say ‘holy crap, yes.’
I took off my shoes to find my feet dusty with red splotches. ‘Oh, that looks like you are getting some bad rashes. You should rub some apple cider vinegar on those puppies,’ remarked Sequoia.
Luckily, we had just acquired apple cider vinegar to clean my throat. I was starting to feel the beginning signs of a throat infection like I had on the Long Trail and wanted to get ahead of it. Witt rubbed my feet down. We both were a little skeptical that this would do the trick, but we both shrugged and went through the motions.
Witt joined me for the last 26 miles. Many of the miles followed powerlines and the day continued to be very runnable. We were still averaging around 13:50 minute miles when we started. The highlight of this section was finishing in the Tortilla Mountains. The mountains themselves aren’t that big, but they string together a few miles of smooth, epic ridgeline over the Gila River. With a full moon, Witt and I loved cruising the last few miles in the moonlight desert. The day ended with a 1,000ft descent to the Gila River (or Keli Akimel in O’odham). I could tell my feet and shin weren’t in good shape.
The next morning, I was in a sour mood. Two 18 hour back to back days had taken a toll on me, but also the crew. I awoke at 5AM, and everyone was sluggish. The crew wanted to treat me by making a smoothie. My feet ached and were still splotchy, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. After dawdling for a few minutes while Katie and Witt focused on the smoothie and packing my bag with electronics, I grew restless. There was a road crossing 2 miles ahead. I wanted to get on the road.
I snapped at the crew, ‘I’m taking the smoothie and will meet you two miles down the road. I need to get going.’ Astonished, Katie, Witt, Will and the crew didn’t exactly know how to take that information. My bag wasn’t packed and we’d only woken up 20 minutes ago.
I limped on trail to warm up to the tune of 22-minute miles. I slurped on my smoothie, which turned out to be dense. I quickly realized I didn’t even think to bring toilet paper and that I would soon need it. I immediately regretted my rash decision. About a mile in, I saw a headlamp on trail – it was Katie. ‘I brought you toilet paper – I figured you’d probably need it.’
Boy, how did she know? I am truly a lucky guy.
The day was going to be a tricky one. I had 69 miles on the day with 14,000ft of vertical gain. With my slow start and beat up legs, I wasn’t sure if I was up to the challenge. It would be a logistically tough day, with resupplies at mile 2, and potential hike in options at mile 19, mile 40 and mile 59. I would hit the Gila River, Alamo and Reavis Canyon – all featured rugged terrain and tough roads for the crew.
At the very least, the entire day was beautiful. The mountains were textured and distinct. The trail was winding and found interesting lines across the terrain. The only solid water source in the Gila River Canyon section was a rainwater collection tank a quarter mile off trail. I met a slew of hikers who were lounging in the shade, getting to know each other, and quenching their thirst for the descent down to US 60 at Picketpost Trailhead, outside of the town of Superior. As I refilled, it was nice to catch up with other hikers.
On the descent down to Picketpost, I was starting to hurt. I was noticeably hobbling due to the pain in my right ankle. There was noticeable swelling. My strength and flexibility was limited. The downhills miles I was used to cruising became frustrating and uncomfortable. Regardless, I pushed on with a long day ahead of me.
At Picketpost trailhead, a party set up had attracted a crowd of trail angels and AZT hikers. As I came into the trailhead, a group of 20 people, many with cameras, greeted me. It was a bit overwhelming, especially in my current state. I just wanted to refill my water and tend to my feet and ankle. Katie corralled me in and sat me down. I took a swig of pickle juice, snacked on an array of foods, and took a second to collect myself. The pressure of constant motion was getting to me. I needed to relax and live in the present moment.
After an extended break and a rollouts by Katie and Witt, I was ready to go. I was moving slower than expected, so we agreed to make it a 58 mile day and camp at Roger’s Trough Trailhead. But first, I went back to the fellow AZT hiker party to thank the hiker for an AZT keychain that he had given me crew. A few other hikers clutching Truly seltzers came over to excitedly wish me good luck. Their assurance and positivity felt good – 5 days in, I had covered a lot of ground and that was worth celebrating.
The following miles were a gradual uphill into Reavis Canyon. The canyon followed a windy wash which could be difficult to follow. On the big climb over Reavis Canyon, I saw a pair of eyes looking back at my from a nearby hillside. I looked closer and froze. I was pretty sure that I was looking at a mountain lion, but I can’t say for certain. It took a passive interest in me and didn’t make any movements. A few seconds later, I started walking with my headlamp shining on the cat-like silhouette. To my dismay, I turned a corner. At that point there was a 10 foot embankment to my right separating my from the mountain lion. If the kitty wanted to, it could easy sneak up and jump right down on a skinny, unsuspecting Stringbean, snuffing out my life.
I quickly discount that notion as absurd and ignore the elevated beating of my heart. I focus on powering through this big uphill climb. By the time I make it to Roger’s Trough Trailhead at 58 miles on the day, it is around 10:30. It feels good to get into camp at a reasonable hour, and the crew is generally in good spirits. Only after a few minutes do I realize the ordeal they went through that day. The road to the trailhead was horrifying and impossible to get up without a truck – Katie took some of my gear and got a ride up the last 3 miles from a passing truck (thanks Jenny + Ryan!) and the others had hiked up the rest after getting the cars up another couple miles up the precarious road. Somehow they had brought ice and 2 boxes of pizza for me. The daily vlog had failed to upload in the backcountry, so Jack, Witt and Dills and ascended a mountain to get enough signal to upload it. I chuckled at these harrowing tails as I scarfed down slice after slice while elevating my legs with ice on my lame ankle.
The rugged terrain continued on day 6. I would be traversing the Superstition and Four Peaks Wilderness – probably the two most rugged wilderness sections on the trail that lack a major mountain like the Grand Canyon or Mt. Lemmon. Day 6 was initially a short day – only 58 miles – so I simply took the 10 miles I’d missed from day 5 and tacked them onto day 6. That was easy!
I felt a little rejuvenated after 4.5 hours of sleep. Getting into camp before 11 really makes a difference. The Superstitions were fun. The trail had a very different vibe than the rest of the trail, and reminded me more of east coast trail. On the east coast, trails are much older and not built with considerations for stock animals, consistent grades or riding ridgelines. Instead, they take you from point A to B in the most direct way possible, even if it means straight up ascents and rocky, rough trail. There is one point in less than two miles were you drop 900 feet of steep ascent, walk a quarter mile of flat before going straight back up 900 feet. No switchbacks or ridgeline riding. It reminded me of the ‘punch you right in the mouth’ type of trail design common on the Long Trail in Vermont, which still haunted my memories.
After the Superstitions, it was a long descent into Lake Roosevelt. Katie jumped in a few miles before we got to the bridge. My feet were hurting on the downhill, but I was quite glad for the company. I told her about a weird comedy sketch I was dreaming up that we could pitch to SNL. We sang the songs with all the best lyrics we could think of. The miles flew by.
Will’s girlfriend, Christa, had joined the crew for the day. And she brought brownies!!! Want to know a way to win my heart? Christa does. Out of Roosevelt Lake, there is a 4,000ft climb out through the Four Peaks Wilderness. I left with a sugar high. Given the situation of my feet and ankle, I don’t know how I was able to climb so hard. Katie stayed with me for another 8 more miles, and we climbed up from Roosevelt. Despite it being hot and up, we were averaging 16:00 minute miles over 1,500 feet of vertical gain. Nice!!!
We met the crew again to drop Katie off and meet Witt. We met pro skater Ryan Lei. He was hiking the trail to raise money for an afterschool skate program he had started. The dude was rad and it was fun to talk to another extreme athlete. I realized that people setting FKTs and skaters weirdly have a lot in common. They operate in unconventional sports trying to knock off big objectives that only a small following of fans care about. Our careers are like icebergs, you only see the 1% fruit of our labors and the 99% of dedication and commitment hangs below the surface, rarely acknowledged or appreciated.
I was ready to climb, but Witt, who was set to join me, was not. Instead, he was picking Ryan’s brain. Witt said he would catch me, so I barreled on ahead alone. The Four Peaks climb was fantastic. The remaining 2,500ft climb went seamlessly. The uphill are often the most meditative parts of an FKT. There is no temptation to run or worry about overexertion. You simply hike and drink in the views and trail as they come. Witt did in fact catch me with about 1,000ft of vertical gain to go. We laughed and we smiled as we climbed. This is what FKTs are all about.
Once we hit the top of Four Peaks, we ran into the crew. I was running a little depleted from a hot day in the sun. Lake Roosevelt got all the way down to 2,000ft and in the mid 80’s. I was unsure of how my body would hold up for the 15 miles, but at least it was a long descent. The miles would come. Witt and I knocked off the miles by talking about our love of basketball growing up. I was a Supersonics fan and he loved the Atlanta Hawks. He asked me who my favorite Seattle player was, which is tough, because there were so many great personalities on the Sonics in the ‘90s. Gary Payton, Vin Baker, Detlef Schrimpf, Shawn Kemp. The list goes on.
With 6 miles left to go, I got my first taste of the nighttime boogieman. Sometimes, night can be a huge mental obstacle. Regardless of your mental state, I find my pace slowed by 0.5-1 mile per hour at night. What got to me was my deteriorating feet. I could feel blisters developing on my feet and my ankle continued to bother me. Additionally, I’d developed a nagging pain on my left Achilles. I felt like Bambi. We were running on fairly smooth rollers into the Beeline Highway at mile 386, but I slipped and stumbled on every rock. Occasionally, without warning, my ankle would send shooting pain that forced me to walk.
By the time we made it into camp, it was an 18:30 hour day, the longest of the trip. I was exhausted and beat up. After taking off my socks, I noticed bad blisters on my pinky toes and on the inside of my right arch. Ouch. Featuring a big blood blister, the left pinky toe looked like the worst of the bunch. Witt took a lighter to a safety pin for sanitization and poked the hell out of my feet. I lost a lot of foot fluid that day.
Shortly into the next day, I crossed the halfway point. If I doubled total time since I started, I would finish in the low 12’s. The best part? The south section of the trail is 163 ft/mi and the northern section of the trail is 114 ft/mile. Based on elevation, the southern section of the trail has 43% more elevation gain per mile, making it a hell of a lot more difficult. With a strong second half, I definitely could go sub 12! The only x-factor that remained was snow. Based on snow data from GAIA, a few small flurries had landed since a big storm a few weeks ago. It had left standing snow for around 15 miles around the Mogollon Rim, 15 miles around Mt. Humphrey, and 5-20 miles around the North Kaibab Plateau. The good news – most of that would melt off in the coming days with consistent 60+ temps and no precipitation in the forecast!!
That didn’t stop my feet woes. It took about 10 miles for the dogs to stop barking and eventually settle into my pace. If I was running like a grandma on day 3, I couldn’t imagine how someone would describe my form now.
The crew managed to hike in on the Mazatzal Divide Trail, a half mile in at Mount Peeley. With no support for 34 miles, this was a godsend. The crew loaded me up with food and I took a longer break to make sure I was ready for the big solo effort. As I was getting close to leaving, Will said, ‘Oh dude, you have to check this out.’ He whipped out his phone and pulled up a video.
A familiar face came on the screen, but I couldn’t quite place it, ‘Hey Joe, this is Detlef Schrimpf.’ WHHAAA ‘I heard about what you are doing running the Arizona Trail and doing it for charity. What you are doing is amazing.’ Detlef went on for another 30 seconds before ending with, ‘And don’t forget to love one other.’ As I left the stop, the crew mimicked the old ‘Detlef’ chant: STRINGGGGGGBEANNNNNNN. I was more than halfway done. My heart was full as I charged uphill. Detlef Schrimpf knows who I am. Bucket list, check.
The Mazatzals were mountainous but nice. On the second half, there was some lingering snow. This was especially problematic because walking on snow meant sloped and unstable footing. I was already overcompensating for my bum right ankle with my left Achilles. This took it up another notch. My Achilles became painful enough that it caused me to stop a few times. I could feel the creakiness in the joint when I flexed my foot. I tried cupping some snow and putting it into my sock to ice it. Of course, this didn’t do anything. Instead, I decided to ramp up the amount of Advil I was taking.
Despite the challenges, I was making good time on trail. I ran into a few memorable thru hikers. One hiker was sitting at the high point in the Mazatzals smoking a cigarette. It cracked me up to see a hand rolled cig in such a remote environment. He was from Florida and had overcome initial elevation sickness to make good miles on the trail. I also met Maverick. Maverick met Witt on the AZT during Witt’s first thru hike of the trail. He was stoked on my effort and wished me well.
The last resupply was at LF Ranch. I met Katie, Jack and Will. I was glad to see them. They were stoked on the ground I was covering even though I was less than impressed. It was well timed perspective to hear their encouragement and excitement.
The next 13 miles were a straight climb to Twin Buttes Road at mile 450. Katie joined me for the dark, uphill slog. Although the sun was down, I was sweating bullets. I’m pretty sure this was the only time I had to stop on an uphill climb out of exhaustion. I sat on a rock and grumpily told Katie I was hot. Everyone needs a good pout every once in a while. Once we got the climbing done, the trail would be flat into camp. The problem? It was straight rocky, hardened mud trail. Which meant not much in the way of running… We stumbled through, and I tried my best not to agitate my sensitive ankle on the rough terrain.
When we finally made it to Twin Buttes Road, Witt was waiting for us with Crash. Crash went bonkers. He was so excited to see his mom and dad. Crash did some road running with us to finish out the last mile and make it to camp. Will and Jack had elected to stay in a motel that night, not all the support vehicles could make it up the mountain road to the resupply point. I ended the day with 68 miles in 18:30. Again, longer than I would’ve like to be out on my feet.
I compared my ankle flexibility when I was back in camp. I had about 60% mobility on my right ankle compared to my left. Well, at least I was covering miles, and had great food.
My crew helped with a swift departure the next morning. The burrito and a half was sitting well in my stomach. I had originally planned a 77 mile day for this section, but knew that was well out of reach. There would be around 10,500 ft of gain in that time period and I could run into some snow. Whatever happens, happens. I told myself.
My blisters had worsened but I felt strong the next morning. A dirt road section followed by a long descent into Pine helped me make good time where I got to meet a group of local trail runners. After I left, the trail out of Pine became deceptively unfriendly. I rode the base of the Mogollon Rim; the trail meanders, dips and dives for 15 miles into Washington Park Trailhead with the crew waiting. My frustration continued as my pace stayed in the 16 min/mi range despite relatively flat elevation. I began to realize that I was losing focus. I hadn’t been eating or drinking much in my push to make time. Maybe I was just really tired. I felt sluggish inefficient. My feet hurt. I tried to focus on the present moment. All I could do that that point was is eat, drink and make miles.
None of my old tricks seemed to work and the trail blues hung over me until I sawa my crew. I take an elongated break. Looking at GAIA, there was standing snow for at least a few miles at the top of the rim. This would be the first snow test.
I powered up the 1,300ft climb to the Rim. Life always seems to get better on climbs.
Once I broached the top of the plateau, I hit my first snow patch. It was mostly drifts. There were some parts of clear trail but there was also more than 2 feet in some places. I followed the trail deeper into the forest where the snow saw less sunlight. The snow was worse on the north facing slopes. As I continued northbound, I would hit a perfectly dry uphill stretch of trail only to find myself in knee deep snow on the downhill.
My frustration continued as the uneven footing took more of a toll on my achilles, ankle and blisters.
The lowest part of that day was a stream crossing. The stream had swelled up from all the precipitation. What would normally be a quick and dry jump across was impossible. Forlorn, I took the plunge across the icy stream, soaking both feet. To my frustration, the trail meandered back across the same stream less than 400 meters later. I soaked my feet again.
Thirty minutes later I called Witt and Katie about the slow going. I would meet the crew at mile 35 for the day at Highway 87. Our initial plan was to go to Lake Mary Road the next checkpoint and a whole 30 miles away. I gave them three options:
- Push on to Lake Mary Road as planned. That would make for a 20 hour day. Woof.
- Take a nap at Highway 87 and push on for 30 more miles before taking a longer sleep period. Again, woof.
- Stop at 35 miles for the day and consider it a recovery day. Man, a 35-mile day hurt my soul.
I could tell Witt and Katie were concerned about my mental state, but they didn’t understand the conditions I was seeing. We agreed that we would make a game time call when I made it into camp.
The snow slowly subsided, which was relieving. Instead, meadows of mud took its place. I came across a cattle guard after a long meadow. I could feel the extra pounds of mud under my shoes. I kicked off mud on the grated metal. Without thinking, I turned sideways. My foot got caught in the cattleguard and I tumbled forward. My fragile body crashed onto the metal and I heard a loud crack. Oh shit, oh shit. Something bad happened. I do a quick body check. My foot and shoe are still stuck in the cattle guard. My knee hurts – its bleeding but serviceable. I writhe around for a few minutes trying to contort my body free.
Once freed, I touch and scan my shins, knees, hips and arms. Nothing is broken. I look over at my trekking pole and it is full snapped in half. “Well, I guess it is time to start moving again!”
The hard miles provided clarity in my plan. I make it to the support crew around 6PM. ‘I’m taking a 45 minute nap and then we are crushing the next section.’ My crew already has my sleeping bag, food and water laid out on the ground. I close my eyes and before I know it, my alarm rings.
My feet are swollen and painful. Particularly, my left pinky. I’ve had the same issue on the PCT, AT and Long Trail. My pinky toe folds underneath my 4th toe, causing a large, raw blister. I adjust my shoe tightness a few times on trail.
Once my feet were adequately tended to, Witt and I cruised. The trail was quite wet and snow-filled icy, however the crisp night air froze the top layer to make for somewhat tedious but quick trekking. We covered the next 27 miles in about 9 hours, making it into camp at around 5 AM. I’m going to pay for this one later, I thought. A full 4 hours of rest was in order, however my left pinky toe look was looking like a crime scene. After wolfing down some food and attending to my feet and ankle, dusk rose as I shut my eyes for a second time.
Woof, my dogs are barking again. Katie, Witt and I check my left pinky toe. It looks horrible. There was no odor, but I could see at least 3 layers of skin, possibly 4. I tried my original size 11 shoe. No luck. The only other option is to borrow Witt’s shoe, size 13. I put it on, and thankfully the pain is tolerable. We all laugh at my ridiculous look. On my right foot, I was wearing a bright orange size 11 shoe with an orange compression sleeve on my leg for the ankle swelling. On my left, I was rocking an oversized silver shoe.
I walked the first 2 miles with Will in case the new shoe brought any unforeseen problems. Will gave me a brotherly pep talk, we hugged it out, and I carried on.
Leaving at ~10:30AM, I knew today would be a wash for mileage. Also, the trail was still snow covered and very wet. My feet quickly dunked in a few puddles of fresh snowmelt as I trudged along. We were 526 miles deep into this journey. I just needed to hang on for a few more days.
I showed up to Double Springs Campground 12 miles later. It was an intervention.
Witt was so concerned about my feet, he’d called his sister who is a practicing nurse. I was getting put on an intensive footcare regimen. Every time I met the crew, we would wash and tend to my feet. We filled a small orange tub with lukewarm water, poured in Doctor Bronner’s and took a washcloth to my bad boys. I will admit, the soap stung. After drying, we put lamb’s wool in between my 4th and 5th toe. Sometimes moleskin. Hopefully, this would do the trick.
At the next resupply, I had quite a surprise. A guy with a motorcycle helmet approaches the crew. ‘I hope you don’t mind bothering, but I wanted to say hi.’ It was Barkley legend John Fegyveresi. I believe John is the only ‘non-elite’ runner to ever complete all 5 loops of the Barkley. John and I had exchanged many emails with me trying to learn from his experience, but I’d never met him in person. We are both part of the same New England-based running club, and he had been following my journey. ‘I saw your tracker and was coming by on my motorcycle, so I thought I’d say hi.’ John also completed the Long Trail unsupported around 7 days. Stud.
With the extra footcare, I started to get my groove back slightly. My body simply maintained in its depleted state. The rolling, flat terrain of above the Mogollon Rim was favorable, especially as snow began to subside. I was nearing Flagstaff and starting to feel a renewed sense of energy. The sun was setting. How lucky am I? In all the pain, I can help but feeling joy. My crew is everything to me right now. They are giving me hope, joy, safety and comfort. I have my mom, my wife, my brother, my best friends, and a new Chief Mileage Officer who I will be forever indebted to. What more do I want?
I roll into Marshall Lake Road and the crew weighs our options. Either I make a hard push for another 16-26 miles, or I take a quick nap first. We decide the footwashing and nap would give me the most benefit, so I conk out. Awakened in a daze, I slap back on my shoes and get back out there.
Thank god for the trails of Flagstaff: smooth, rolling, wide. Rocks were few and far between. The dry terrain was refreshing for my feet and swollen joints. At this point, I felt like the Michelin Man. Every time I slept, I awoke looking like a puffed marshmallow. I could see the horror in my crews eyes. However, after a few miles of running, I got the extra fluid moving and start to feel normal again.
I averaged around 17 minute miles through four and a half hours of darkness. When I met my crew 16 miles later, my watch read 3AM. I’m less efficient moving at night, so I told the crew we would be calling it for the day.
A 48 mile day is shockingly low, but I was okay with the effort, knowing I would be ready to fight another day.
I reassessed my finishing time. I had 217 miles to go. If I could take advantage of the flats, I would finish in 11.5-12 days. I’d have to average two 65 mile days and then put in a 105 mile push in a little over 24 hours. It would be tough, but doable.
The only x-factor… snow. Mt Humphrey’s looked bad. The Gaia Snotel Layer showed 10 miles of deep snow. If I was reading the map right, half looked between 20-60 inches deep and half was less than 20.
I continued to wear the non-matching size 13 and size 11 shoe. My feet appear ednoticeably better with the added care, but they were still quite painful. I started off the day stronger than I’d felt in a long time. I’m hit 14-minute miles on the rolling terrain. It was great! Exactly the day I needed.
I opened my phone to text the crew. To my astonishment, I had 30 new text messages. All from unknown numbers. Within minutes, 30 more texts rolled in.
‘You’re almost there! Keep it up! Cheers!‘
‘String bean dude you don’t know me but I heard your ass is getting kicked bout now. To put it politely Fuck That Shit! We’ve all been in that spot. Trust me it gets better but you gotta move. Now get moving.’
‘Keep on pushing man. You got this! PAIN IS TEMPORARY (insert 30 emojis)’
What the hell? I opened Instagram. Andrew Skurka was to blame. I read a multi-paragraph post encouraging followers to text me words of encouragement. A few hours later, I found a similar message on the AZT Thru Hikers 2021 Facebook group with my phone number on it.
How did this make me feel? At first, I was annoyed. My battery was getting killed and now a bunch of random people have my cell phone number. More texts come in. Slowly, I started to comprehend that all these people were rooting for me.
While a supported FKT attempt looks like it has a lot of glitz and glamour, the truth is that it is a very solitary experience similar to thru hiking. Actually, more solitary than thru-hiking. I saw my crew in morning, evenings and for 10 minutes intervals a few times a day. I was often too tired to feel really engaged. I’d have a few brief conversations with fellow thru hikers each day, but I was always concerned about making miles. Outside of Katie and Witt pacing me, I rarely spent more than a few minutes in conversation.
I started to get emotional and feel strangely validated. I was surprised at how an outpouring of support from strangers got me teary eyed. In some ways, it felt wrong that I was so moved by the kind words of strangers more than the kind words of my crew. But feelings are feelings, so I let myself feel. I found a renewed sense of purpose.
At the beginning of the day, I experienced a first. Someone who was following my journey wants to run with me! I was joined by Darcy. She knocked off two miles with me around Flagstaff before dropping off. Then Katie joined me for 15 miles. We hit a bunch of snow in Schultz Pass and it is frustrating, but we carry on. The snow clears up once we get out of the narrow passage.
As we approach Humphrey’s, a runner name Bear Meat joins us. I appreciate the company and tell him he can come with as long as he likes. He previously thru hiked the AT and wanted to see how my adventure was going. Bear Meat is from Maine, so we talk about the AT and East Coast life.
We meet the crew at mile 597.7. Will sneaks up to me ‘Here is the wine we got for mom, let’s wish her happy birthday.’ Thank god for Will. He is always so thoughtful. MAM turns 71 today (on April Fool’s!) and Will had snagged a primo bottle of wine. I quickly stuffed it into my laundry bag.
I called over MAM in a whiney voice, ‘Hey Mom? Can I ask for a favor? I REALLY need my laundry done…’ She lifted the bag and kindly said she would get it taken care of. She’s too good. She felt the bag again, ‘wait, is there something in here?’ Suddenly, the whole crew (and a few onlooking thru hikers) burst out in song. HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOUUUU!!
Witt joined me and Bear Meat as we continue on up Humphrey’s. Snow time had arrived and I was struggling. My 14 minute mile pace quickly slowed to the 15’s and then 16’s. My shin was really bothered by the uneven footing. A few times sharp pain radiated my lower leg, forcing me to stop.
As we approached the high point on Humphrey’s, the snow turns from a few inches to a few feet deep. We postholed our way for a mile or two until we met the crew again, who parked at the Arizona Snowbowl and hiked in over the ski area. Witt and I resupplied, said goodbye to Bear Meat and carried on postholing.
We had about 5 miles of this, according to Gaia, but it turned out to be 8 or 9 miles. We passed a pair of thru hikers or are in the same dilemma, stuck on the side of a mountain in knee deep snow. I had no idea where they were going to camp. As the sun set, I was grateful I had Witt with me. Witt was on a war path. He stayed about 200 feet ahead of me plowing through snow. He was finding the trail and creating a path at a faster pace than could keep up with. So focused on the task at hand, we walked in silence for hours. Eventually, the snow receded and we were back on firm ground. The pace picked back up again. After averaging 22 minute miles through Humphrey’s we finished up the day with 13:30 miles. Man, if there was no snow, I would have been crushing this trail! I tried not to focus on the hypotheticals. After all, in planning for this attempt I knew I would be hitting snow.
Witt and I made it into camp with a big surprise. The crew had picked up over-priced Mexican food in Flagstaff. With it, came the most delicious, decadent churros of all time. Fried goodness with the perfect ratio of sugar coating. The center had a creamy filling that was out of this world.
Time to get back to setting an FKT. My feet were still a bother, but I had a day clear of snow ahead of me. This would be the alley-oop pass to the final push to the finish tomorrow. I was 162 miles out from the finish. My success on Day 11 would set me up for a 100-120 mile push on the final day.
I got out the door a little late, 6 AM, and the miles came a little slow. I averaged about 17:30 miles for the first 8 miles. That wasn’t good enough. My feet looked remarkably better, however my blisters were still painful. As I settled in, my ankle loosened up and my blister pain subsided.
I started to hit consistent 14:30 miles, driven to push as hard and far as possible. Running free felt so great. There was little elevation gain in the plateau forest and I could feel the rim approaching.
Katie joins me at mile 31 on the day for 10 miles. This would be the last section we complete together, and we both get sentimental. It was a Friday. In normal life (well, as normal as you can get with COVID), Katie and I have ‘special Fridays.’ We take Crash, find a fun nearby trail and do a 4-8 mile run in the middle of the day. It’s how we spice up the week and make intentional time for each other. We both appreciate the ability to still enjoy and celebrate special Fridays, until I fall right on my face. I catch my foot on a small root and do a barrel roll forward. Once we confirm that I didn’t do any damage, we laugh it off and keep on trucking.
As we are running, I felt a little niggle in my shoe on the outside of my forefoot. I found a small rock lodged inside the mesh lining of my shoe. It was rubbing on my foot the wrong way, but I couldn’t move it. I simply dealt with it, hoping it wouldn’t progress to something worse.
At Grandview Lookout, I was treated to another surprise. This February, an athlete of mine, Jacob Bueller, won the ski division of the 350 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational. He flew from Alaska to Phoenix to go on a vacation with his sister and say hi on my run. Yep, that’s right, he flew from Alaska to Phoenix. What a trip! It was my first time meeting Jacob in person, and, at 6‘7”, he is even more of a stringbean than me. So cool. I changed shoes and carried on.
At this point, I could almost smell the Southern Rim of the Grand Canyon it was so close. I could either go 16 or 25 miles to finish off the day. I cruised through miles, however the new hotspot caused by the rock continued to bother me. I gingerly walked much of the last few miles and decided to call it a day at 18 miles.
I had 108 miles remaining. Time for one last push, starting with the Grand Canyon.
My feet continued to bother me. I didn’t sleep well the night before and was starting to doze off as I walked through the morning darkness. I hit trail at 3:45AM, prepping for a big day. The first 8 miles were straightforward – flat trail and road to the base of the Grand Canyon. Then, the fun really begins.
I was surprised by a herd of about ten elk at morning dusk. My crew had been raving about all the elk herds they had come across, but this was my first one! They took little interest in me and passively stared at me as I walked by. I met the crew at the South Rim, and I could feel the excitement. This was the second to last aid station the crew would be responsible for. The 21 miles of the Grand Canyon would be unsupported. At the North Rim, the entrance road was closed, meaning I would have another 50 miles on the Kaibab Plateau without support until I hit Jacob Lake, where I would see the crew. From there, it was a 28-mile jaunt to the Utah-Arizona border.
A friend and athlete I coach, Mikaela, would be hiking in from Jacob Lake. There could be some snow on the Kaibab Plateau and minimal water sources. She would hike in on the road, dropping water caches along the way, covering the last 25 miles until Jacob Lake.
This is about to get real.
Did I mention this was my first time visiting the Grand Canyon? MAN, it is spectacular. I got the full experience. About 5 runners passed me and Witt as we dropped 5,000ft to the Colorado River. Every 15 minutes brought new plants, geological features and beauty. How incredible.
My feet and Achilles were not a fan of the big drop. I laughed at my current state ‘hobbling to a new FKT!’ But we kept descending. By the time we made it to the Colorado River, the temperature had risen 15-20 degrees. It was suddenly in the mid-80’s. We took our time through the canyon, careful not to push too hard or to neglect my feet. Witt popped more blisters as we chugged water at the last few known water sources.
We came across many runners, more than I could have expected. Probably 30-40 in total? I knew a Rim to Rim to Rim was a popular adventure, but I was still astounded. Almost all of them were faster than our hiking/jogging pace.
We began our ascent and I focused on nutrition and hydration. Witt was surprised that I was climbing so well. As FKTs progress, I find my running pace to suffer significantly, while my hiking pace stays strong. As we ascended over 6,000 and then 7,000ft to the North Rim, we ran into many of the runners who had passed us earlier in the day. Either they were hurting on the uphill climb or bombing back down the North Rim to return to their car. As we climbed farther, the runners looked less and less resilient. We saw a handful of runners who did not look to be in a good place and two who collapsed. Witt attended to one of the runners who collapsed and told me to continue on ahead.
Witt caught me with about 500 feet of gain left to the North Rim. As we crested 8,000ft, we yelled in joy. I opened Gaia, the coast looked clear! According to the map, all of the on-trail snow had melted. Hallelujah! The stars were aligning. Best of all, a melting snow bank was giving off so much water that we were able to refill our bottles. Best. Day. Ever.
In celebration, we took a 30 minute footcare break. We were ready to crush.
Until we took out first step on trail.
It was a posthole.
Oh, dear god. I had no idea what was in front of me.
We quickly realized that the first hundred feet of snow was not an anomaly. We were thigh deep in snow and going nowhere. We maintained our optimism – surely it would let up soon. Seven miles and four hours later, we realized we were up Shit Creek without a paddle.
The worst part? The trail ran parallel to the North Rim Road, which was paved and snow free. As we postholed up to our knees, fought tooth and nail for every step and bled from our shins, the road taunted us. The sun was beginning to set and we reconsidered our prospects. Would the snow continue another 43 miles to Jacob Lake? Probably not. However, we would remain at 8,000-9,000ft of elevation for the next 20+ miles. Would the snow be this bad in 5 miles? In 10 miles? 20 miles?
We threw on all the clothes we had as the temps dipped below 40. I had shorts, long tights, a t-shirt and windbreaker on. My feet were soaked, I was getting cold. All we had for shelter was a space blanket. We decided the best option would be the get off trail and hike 4 road miles north to the North Rim Park Entrance. The crew had received intel of a forest road that would allow them to circumvent the road closure and drive to the North Rim Park Entrance and could be there in two hours. Witt and I jumped off onto the road. By the time we made it to the entrance, the sun had nearly set, and I was freezing. I jumped in my space blanket and was immediately warmed. Witt did the same and we waited. I closed my eyes and opened them to the sound of voices and footsteps a few minutes later. The crew had been able to make it, thank god.
Witt explained our situation as I laid motionless in my space blanket. We were cold, had to get off trail, and were unsure if we could proceed. Katie stuffed Fritos into my mouth. I didn’t even bother to open my eyes. I just wanted to be warm.
Luckily, we had a secret weapon for the snow. Snowshoes! About 7 hours after we hit the North Rim, I was ready to get back at it. There were two options:
- The snowshoes worked. I would be able to cover decent ground over the estimated 20 miles of remaining snow in front of me and we’d set a new FKT.
- The snowshoes didn’t work. If my moving pace was too slow, time between resupplies would be too long and I’d be posing too much risk for the safety and health of me and the crew.
I set off in the dark in my snowshoes with the intention to backtrack the last 4 miles until I hit my tracks, hike up the road 4 more miles and then resume plowing. Since the sun was down, the snow would theoretically be cold and in its best conditions to be crossed.
With my first footstep sunk into the snow, my heart sank with it. The snowshoes didn’t help me float on top at all. I tried to ignore the impact of that first step, but I couldn’t as I wandered off alone up trail, leaving my crew behind. I followed my headlamp and tried to push the best I could. I tried not to look at my watch. My 40-minute mile pace had already decreased to a 43-minute mile pace. I pushed on.
Time moved at a snail’s pace, but the distance ticked off even slower. I became more and more discouraged. I was furiously doing math in my head. My ankle hurt from the added weight of the snowshoe.
15 miles of snow at 45 minute mile pace = 11 hours
20 miles of snow at 45 minute mile pace = 15 hours
25 miles of snow at 45 minute mile pace = 19 hours
I couldn’t kid myself. If the snow was this bad here, it would be just as bad 25 miles away. Was I really going to spend 19 hours to make 25 miles? Would my ankle last that long? Could the crew even support me? What about my blisters?
I can’t do this. I bailed.
I trudged back down the hill having only covered a mile and a half in an hour and fifteen minutes. I messaged the ‘I’m quitting’ preset message on my Garmin to the crew. This was it. I’d given it everything. My crew had given it everything. The snow was too much.
The crew had scattered after my departure. Katie and Dills were walking 4 miles south on the road to meet me. Witt had gone to pick up Mikaela. Jack was driving back north to get more gas. I came back to the scene I had left. Gear was strewn all over the highway and there was not a soul in sight. I began organizing and sorting gear. I could at least be helpful to clean this mess up.
Jack showed up and I hopped in the car. I could tell he was distressed. He couldn’t believe it was really over, ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Yes,’ I responded confidently. There simply wasn’t another option. I had come to terms with it.
Slowly, the rest of the gang rolled up. We drove back to Jacob Lake where a hot shower and warm room were waiting for us. I took off the gear I was wearing for the experiment, got in the shower, examined my body, and stuffed Pringles in my mouth.
My recovery would begin.
While I was broken, I should’ve known my crew wouldn’t let me off as easily. They had sacrificed just as much as I had: long hours, constant stress and total dedication to the cause.
Everyone wanted to respect my decision. When I woke up, the first thing Katie asked me was, ‘Are you sure we’re done with this?’
The craziest part – I was sure. I knew what it would take to finish, and we couldn’t do it. The snow was insurmountable.
I could see the disappointment in everyone’s eyes. Jack asked me again if it was over. Dills told me it would all be okay. By the time I got to Witt, I started to realize that the crew was not finished. They wouldn’t give up. They believed we could pull it off.
And god dammit, maybe we can.
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I agreed to go back to where we had left trail. Katie and I would hike the miles starting at where Witt and I went on the road. To our luck, a scientist happened to be driving through with access to the entire Jacob Lake Road. He agreed to give Katie and I ride to the road, saving us 4 miles of walking.
Katie and I hit trail. To my surprise, we hit a ridge with patchy snow drifts. We were able to do 25-minute miles without much difficulty. We made it back to the North Rim entrance from the night before, and Witt and Mikaela swapped with Katie. We had 19 miles to go without any road crossings. Katie would try to hike in from the north to shorten the section as best she could, but this was the crux. If this worked, we could do it.
The snow was isothermal, meaning it was a constant temperature throughout. The temps on the Kaibab Plateau were around 50 during the day and in the mid-30’s at night. This meant that it was too warm for any of the snow to freeze other than a painfully icy layer on top at times. Almost every step assured a 6 inch to 2.5-foot drop.
The miles were slow and miserable, but with three people we were able to have some fun and move more quickly. Mikaela took the lead with the snowshoes. Witt and his size 15 shoes followed in her footsteps. By the time I hit the snow, it was significantly easier to move. We were able to average 35-minute miles over these 20 miles. I could never have done it alone.
We maintained optimistic until we realized just how slow a 35-minute mile pace was. In our rush to start, we forgot to think about nightfall. Again, we only packed light outer layers which would not be sufficient for night. How could we do this two days in a row?
Thankfully, my wife kicks ass. She had managed to hike far enough in to cut the unsupported stretch to 14 miles. At 7PM, we heard a yell from a quarter mile away. We plowed through the snow until we crossed paths. Katie had extra water, headlamps and warm layers.
I can’t believe it, we are actually doing it.
We follow Katie’s footsteps for the next 5 miles. The snow is still bad, but we notice that there are occasional dry sections of trail. ‘WE HIT DIRT!’ we exclaim. Five seconds later, we’d be up to our knees in snow. However, we can feel the progress.
Shortly after, Mikaela had to leave for a 7-hour drive back to Albuquerque. Talk about the ultimate closing pitcher. She’d delivered me through the worst of it. Witt took a side trail back with Mikaela back to the highway. Katie and I plowed through the remaining 5 miles until we were all reunited again. It was about 8:30PM, and we were starting to feel the magic. The crew had ordered sandwiches. ‘Make sure you get some food and more layers. We can have support every 4-8 miles from here on out. We have a weird sandwich waiting for you.’ Jack had apparently ordered 5 sandwiches, 4 grilled cheese and one non-grilled cheese. No one really knew what was on it, but all 4 members of the crew had passed up on the ‘weird sandwich’ opportunity for a grilled cheese.
I huffed down the sandwich without a second thought.
At that point, the snow quality got worse but there was also less of it. The top layer was hardened, but it was not hard enough to support my weight. I carried on alone. With every step, I would break through the top layer and feel the sharp, crusty snow cut my ankles. There was nothing I could do more than endure.
My pace began to pick up to low 20-minute miles. The next two resupplies blew by. Witt joined me again for the 8 miles into Jacob Lake. The snow had hardened enough at this point to be a bit more manageable, and maybe half the trail was dry. We made good time as Witt completed his final miles by my side. We could see the dusk rising as we pushed closer and closer to Jacob Lake.
After Jacob Lake, life was a breeze. I was full of energy and joy. After thirteen hours of postholing, I opened up with 13:00 and even 12:00 minute miles. I so desperately wanted to finish the last 28 miles. The terrain was rolling and generally downhill. A recent burn scorched the countryside, forcing a 3-mile trail detour. The lack of shade hurt – I could feel my ears and hands burning. Small bubbles beneath my skin formed on my hands. I tried my best to run with my hands up to prevent further skin damage.
With 1 mile to go, I heard the sound of a drone. I couldn’t believe it. I had a 500-foot descent to the finish. Memories, emotions, hope and pain were rattling through my brain. I’m so glad I didn’t quit. I’m so glad I didn’t quit. I ran the entire last 1.5 miles and soon found myself at the northern terminus. I slapped sandstone monument with my crew watching from a distance.
My Dad, Nick, and Stepmom, Bertie, had made the drive out to see me finish. I gave everyone a huge hug. We had actually done it. My mind was racing and empty at the same time. After some goofy photos at the monument, we gathered up in our cars and drove off to our AirBnB.
I couldn’t be more grateful for these amazing people who’d pushed me past my limit. We had done it – a new Arizona Trail FKT.
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