John Muir Trail Run
Buzz Burrell

"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves."

- John Muir, (1901); America's pre-eminent conservationist, early explorer of Yosemite Valley and the Sierra Nevada mountains, and founder of the Sierra Club.

Like it's namesake, the John Muir Trail is of incomparable stature. Starting from Mt Whitney, the highest mountain in the 48 states, and continuing northward to it's terminus in the incredible Yosemite Valley, the JMT traverses the backbone of the Sierra Nevada. Even more remarkable, all 223 miles are pure trail, with no road crossings of any kind. It's almost hard to conceive of a trail so long, and so continuous through wilderness, but such a gem exists.

Peter and I decided to run it. Either because of a noble urge, or simply limited vacation time, we spent six months training and planning for a record-breaking traverse of the John Muir Trail.

This actually has been done numerous times before, by some of the best trail runners in America. Although we both are very experienced, I harbored no fantasies that we were more fit than these illustrious people. Instead, Peter and I adopted a unique "balls-to-the-wall" strategy: we would carry no camping gear, we would sleep very little, we would receive minimal support; in short, we would move very fast and light.

The plan was to do the entire first half of the trail - which is the highest and hardest - in one monstrous 48 hour push. After a brief sleep, the third day would be a "death march", as we hung on to the 3/4 point, which is the first place near a road where we could refuel. The fourth day we would be totally exhausted, but our brilliant thinking was we would then "smell the barn", and with a great effort supplemented by shameless use of caffeine, we'd hang on to finish in exactly 96 hours - 4 days flat, thus surpassing all previous efforts by a significant margin. The obvious downside to this plan was the only margin for safety or error would be our own will-power and endurance ... and maybe the good graces of the Mountain Gods.

The result? Unfortunately, our plan - particularly the "balls-to-the-walls" and "exhaustion" part - worked out all too much as expected! Then at the end, the Mountain Gods stepped in and had their say ...

1:14 am, July 31 - we leave the trail head and start grinding up Whitney. Jupiter rises in the early morning sky a bloody red. Driving out from Boulder, the air had been hot, dry, and continually filled with smoke, from the Colorado/Utah border to the Sierras. The vistas were clouded by smoke, smoke hung low in the valleys at sunrise, and Lone Pine, the last town, was oppressive, sweltering in the 105 degree heat, an orange glow in the scorched air.

I had a continual sense of foreboding ... the world seemed out of kilter, out of sync. But the feeling dispels as we summit in only 5 hours, and after gawking at the colors of the crazy smoke-filled sunrise, we take off North. Our legs feel good as we zip by the occasional backpacker, eating up the miles and glorifying in the freedom - and vulnerability - our light packs give us so far away from any support. Although we had studiously read all previous accounts of JMT runs, a couple of things still surprise us mightily:

By afternoon, my initial conclusion is that while I expected to love the Sierras, instead I feel great appreciation for our home state of Colorado. To the East, the Appalachians are soaking wet and the trails run straight up and down the hillsides, while these Sierra's are too dry and the switchbacks are annoyingly gradual. Colorado now appears as being perfectly in-between, "just right", like Baby Bear's Porridge.

We had started early in order to make the subsequent support stops at the most fortuitous times, but this might have been a mistake, as we soon find ourselves ahead of schedule but sleepy - a continuing problem. We flop out on the ground twice for catnaps totaling 1.5 hours. Fully expected cold nights to be a problem, we're again surprised that it was almost too hot to sleep, and mosquitoes are a real issue.

A previous runner named Blake Wood had described the JMT as "Two Hardrocks, back-back", referring to the hardest 100 mile trail race in the world. We agree with everything he said. The JMT is hard. It's long and lonely. It's not to be taken lightly. And even though we're blazing away at a pace far faster than his, not for a minute do we feel we're exceeding anything he accomplished. Rather, we're building upon his and all other's who had shared their experience with us. Our contribution as I see it, is in raising the bar a notch higher by introducing trail race intensity into a mostly unsupported multi-day backcountry environment.

As night besets us the second day, we realize we are now running into our THIRD period of darkness with little sleep or rest. "Whose stupid idea was this anyway?" we joke, as the intensity of 107 almost non-stop miles and 5 major mountain passes weighs heavily on us. And this distance is short, because the Forest Service measures miles off a map - the real on-the-ground distances are 10-20% greater than stated.

We're now very eager to meet our crew for a re-supply ... both of food and emotional energy. We wonder how the hell we were going to get up and do this again tomorrow... and again for a 4th day. At 10 pm our flashlights finally find my son Galen, and Peter's friend John at a camp set up at the halfway point. They had humped in SEVENTEEN MILES - one way - to re-supply us. This is an "aid station extraordinaire"! Seeing someone who loves me adds a very important quality to the support.

We eat, lay down ... and the alarm goes off at 3:15 am after 4 hours of sleep ... off into the darkness we go again.

At this point, the nature of the trip becomes evident:

Midnight, Day 3 - We run down into Red's Meadow, which is the first close road access (the only other is Tuolumne Meadows, near the end). Blake described this section as miserable, with thick dust ground up from the soft pumice rock. I think that guy had a positive attitude! Red's is next to Devils Postpile National Monument, which makes it a great example of volcanic soil ... and also an example of what happens when a large commercial pack operation guides dozens of horse and mule trips up the trails. I thought maybe it hadn't rained in the last 300 years, as the trail consists of 4" of talcum-like powder mixed in with a few tons of dried animal feces, all of which is churned up by hooves into a fine dust that hovers in the air - and is inhaled by hapless runners. By midday, our nasal passages are bloody from the irritation and infection.

Our attempt now becomes really intense, and very clear cut. We are in sync with Blake's previous attempt, having arrived at the same spot as was he with but a single day remaining - except we got here in three days while it took him four.

This would be our easiest day while it was his longest. So we felt guardedly optimistic... all we had to do is match his time on this last day, and we would arrive at the finish in the incredible time of 4 days flat.

Unfortunately, besides being exhausted and beat up, to meet this schedule means we have to go off with only 2.5 hours sleep. But we awake before the alarm, and at 3:15 am I hear Peter say, "Hey Buzz, want to go for a run?" Off into the darkness we go.

Peter's great. He's fit, supportive, is making few mistakes, and is taking strong action while at the same time exercising good judgment. The map is in his hand rather than the pack, and he's calling off the times as we make the "cut-offs". I just had my head down and was concentrating on moving forward at all times. I was hanging on.

Thinking back, it was ludicrous to be so intense on such a long run. I would hold my bladder in order to not waste time. We carefully arranged our packs so snack food was on the top to save precious seconds. If I got a stone in my shoe, I wouldn't stop; too much time to empty it. We tried to run the downhills non-stop, and only snack and drink on the up hills to save time. We had calculated every way point, and each time we hit the "cut-off" exactly. We were totally and completely focused on hitting 4 days flat. It was not fun. We did not admire the flowers. It was like the finishing kick of a race - except this went on the whole day.

Our demarcation line was Tuolumne Meadows, where our outstanding crew would meet us. From there, it was only 23 miles to the Valley. Tuolumne was where our final push would begin, where we would take the caffeine pills we had been saving up, where we would ingest whatever herbal stimulants we had, where we would simply do anything, anything at all to hang on and hit that 4 day mark. Blake had done that final section in 7 hours. We had matched his times the whole day - working as hard as we could, we had not gotten a minute up nor a minute down. We needed to hit Tuolumne at 6 pm for a 6:14 pm departure ... or be faster than 7 hours to the finish, which was questionable considering how we were feeling.

Afternoon, Day 4 - I'm toast. It's amazing. Every big run seems to take on its own mythical character, its own supreme symbolic meaning, and this one now reared up into conscious clarity: I'M AT MY LIMIT. Never before had this happened. In over 30 years of ultrarunning, I had somehow never been "exhausted". My legs may have been too sore, my electrolytes screwed up, or I was breathing too hard to go faster, but never had I been "exhausted". I'm now unable to fantasize about anything positive ... even when I intentionally try imaging fun things, usually easy on a run, I can't do it. Exhaustion is experienced at the core of one's self, it permeates one's being, it becomes one's entire experience.

The weather is now the opposite of earlier - was my earlier foreboding justified? For the umpteenth time today, a light rain is falling. Stopping to put on a jacket I muster my concentration to avoid keeling over, to avoid falling asleep before I hit the ground.

It was fascinating. It's a wonderful thing to explore your limits, to know, first hand, just what you can and can't do. This is very important to a Man ... to make an absolute all-out effort, and to hit the place that you can't go past, to discover something you absolutely can't do ... this is deeply rewarding, in a way that can only be described as spiritual. The spirit that is tremendously restless and freedom-seeking finds deep peace in expending everything ... and then finding nothing. We live in a world where through artificial means there are no limits; we've created this huge, polluting, de-humanizing civilization just so we can feel no restrictions ... but in doing so we have lost part of the very essence of the male character.

I was noticing another really interesting thing about exhaustion, which is, unlike other forms of limits, this one has a highly undefined boundary. There is nothing concrete to make you stop, as your Will can keep you going ... as long as you can muster it. I was in new territory, and unsure where it would lead. As many people have done, I have always fantasized about The Perfect Race ... sort of like I had fantasized about the Perfect Sex experience, and many other fantasies ... in The Perfect Race (which along with all the others, unfortunately has never come), I would be totally tough, totally pull through, and against all odds, execute a wondrous, orgasmic finish to a perfect run. But now in maybe the biggest event of a long career, there I was, poised at that perfect moment ... and I wasn't sure I could do it. My opportunity finally had arrived ... and I'm not sure I had what it would take.

5:00 pm - Oh yeah the rain ... we had been listening to continuous thunder for the past hour, as the sky was black and in turmoil up ahead. Approaching Tuolumne - our sacred cut-off point we had to hit by 6 o'clock, the magical line where we would exit the world of effort and pain and begin that final push - the rain picks up, and now it's really coming down. I'm piling on clothes until everything I got is on, but I'm cold and soaked. Thus stimulated, my legs show some spunk and the pace picks up, as we're running through a full-on hail and lightening storm. Incredibly, I spot Galen coming out in this storm to the trail junction with food for us ... what an effort! But the ferocity of the storm makes even simple conversation difficult, so we beat a retreat to the car, piling in amidst a 6" deep stream running across the parking lot.

It's 6:04 pm.

We're still right on schedule! For now. We decide to drive a half mile to a Cafe to dry off, regroup, and wait for the storm to subside. But the highway is officially closed! The road and river are as one ... fist sized rocks washing across the pavement, hail piling up like snow ... a scene of carnage. We drive back to trail head, and dash inside a building to discuss the very suddenly shifting situation.

It is ... "The Perfect Storm".

I look at Peter. This guy is incredible. Peter has a Ph.D. in Physics, and is one of the most methodical and calculating people I know. Now he's totally committed, totally focussed; he just wants to get back out there and keep going. One of the smartest guys I know, now he has but one thought left in his mind: keep running.

Thunder crashes, the building shakes. Rain startles us, grabs our attention as it pelts the windows. I looked at Peter again ... and tears are in my eyes. "I can't go out in this", I say. And it was true. "I'm sorry, but I can't go out in this". Tears are now running down my face as our suddenly shifted circumstances sink in. Everything we had been focussed on so intently is instantly and totally changed, without our ever having a say in it.

This storm is so intense, even if we put on everything we owned, it would be impossible to move. There was actually no doubt about continuing. We might survive out there, but all of a sudden, there was no way possible we could hit 4 days.

It was if the Mountain Gods had finally spoken: "Thou shalt not pass".

Upon reflection, our circumstances were vulnerable to divine intervention ... or interruption:

A drawback to our "balls to the wall" approach, is that our options were limited.

We could have waited this storm out and then continued. But since we were going on almost no sleep, we had to finish at our planned 1:14 am time; going longer than 4 days meant going the whole night without sleep - which was not possible at this stage of the game. But there was no place to catch a few hours there; setting up a tent in the thunderstorm was too much, and 4 of us sitting wet in the car would have been difficult.

We did have a cabin reserved down in Yosemite Valley ... and since our crew had been through so much already, I thought this our best option. So we finally trundled into the car after the highway reopened, and drove for hours down, down, down, to where we had originally hoped to finish that night.

The strange thing is, at that point we could have driven to San Francisco, eaten some sushi, caught a movie, driven back, gotten on the trail, and still gotten under the existing record.

As for myself, I suddenly realized I didn't give a rat's ass about the record. What I really cared about, was the SPIRIT of our attempt: the passion, the commitment, the boldness, the creativity, the teamwork ... the exploration in a very visceral way of what was humanly possible. The "Record" was a number; an abstraction. The feeling I had shared with Peter, of going all out, taking it to the limit ... that was beautiful, that's what I cared about ... and that was over.

The next day we headed back out from Tuolumne Meadows, after a 12/ 1/2 hour break from the trail, but with only 4 hours sleep, due to bad logistics (next time we want an RV!). It was an outstandingly beautiful morning. Steam rose off the creek from snow melted waters, which were warmer than the cold air. Frozen hail covered the landscape, and we comment on how impossible it would have been to navigate this last night, with hail covering everything. We casually sauntered along, and for the first time admired the flowers, marveled at the granite domes, appreciated the Yosemite high country that the trails' namesake, John Muir himself, had so vigorously championed.

I thought of Muir ... what a guy. Way back in 1874, when Nature was the Enemy and mankind did his best to tame, change, and push back the forces of nature, Muir was in his beloved Sierras during a huge windstorm. So he found the tallest Douglas Fir he could find, climbed to the top, and rode out the windstorm as the tree swayed back and forth over a radius of 30'. He later wrote "...all Nature's wildness tells the same story - the shocks and outbursts of earthquakes, volcanoes, geysers, roaring, thundering waves and floods, the silent uprush of sap in plants, storms of every sort - each and all are the orderly beauty-making love-beats of Natures heart."

We would finish - including our 12 1/2 hour break and casual ending - in 4 days, 14 hours, and 59 minutes. A new record. We would come down into the Valley, down past the backpackers, then the hikers, down like all mountaineers must do into a denser more complicated world, down into the milieu of tourists and sightseers and parents pushing baby strollers up the first 1/2 mile of the trail we had suffered our souls for.

The finish to a big event is supposed to be climatic, but I actually don't remember it well. What I remember, is that with about 10 miles to go we were still at 9,200 feet, when suddenly the outlandish Yosemite Valley opened up below, with Half Dome towering improbably in the distance. I was enjoying our morning's walk, and happy to see these sights in the daylight hours instead of darkness, but my thoughts had turned to the previous night, and the big "what if" ... what if that storm hadn't come in? What if we found ourselves at this exact spot, on or behind schedule? Downhills are both our specialty, and as a runner, I live for and pride myself on the blazing technical descent.

With 10 miles to go, 4,200 feet to drop, in the middle of the night, no sleep and behind schedule ... it would have been some race. It would have been glorious.

But could I have done it? Exhaustion - could I have mastered it? Did I have what it took?

Interesting questions.

Even more interesting, was that for once, I didn't need to know. I had hit that hard place, the place between my ego and my soul, my life and my death, and I was comforted.

"Few places in the world are more dangerous than home. Fear not, therefore, to try the mountain-passes. They will eliminate care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action".

- John Muir (1894)

Buzz Burrell
Boulder, CO