Hiking Trails

Inside Jeff Garmire’s record-breaking hike on the John Muir Trail

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Editor’s Note: On August 29, Jeff Garmire set a new fastest known unsupported time for the John Muir Trail, breaking Joe “Stringbean” McConaughy’s three-week record by just 12 minutes and 38 seconds. We asked him to tell his story in his own words.

I had a permit to attempt the John Muir Trail record twice this summer but canceled. The thought of going for the FKT scared me: I scouted it for a record attempt in 2019, but spent the next three years too nervous to go. Then, in early August, Joe McConaughy lowered the JMT record unsupported time by three hours. It turned out to be the last push I needed.

The drive to Yosemite was liberating, devoid of the usual pre-FKT anxiety. I was proud to go for a goal that scared me. It was not my first time: from the Colorado Trail to the Arizona Trail, I had managed to knock down the FKTs by making a plan and sticking to it. But the John Muir Trail was different: it was shorter, faster and one of the most competitive records in the world. There was real doubt, and I spent days mentally finding the right headspace.

At 7:33 am, I loaded far from the terminus. The clock wouldn’t stop until I got to the Whitney Portal Trailhead, 223 miles away, or stopped. Consistency was at the heart of my strategy. I planned to walk the same distance every 24 hours and consume the same calories. My goal was 72 hours, enough to beat the standing FKT by just over an hour and a half. That was equivalent to an average of three miles per hour, including breaks and sleep.

Ten hours later, I was standing at mile 36 on Donohue Pass. Everything felt good. But then I stopped peeing, and it burned. The color was wrong. Was it brown or red? I’m color blind and couldn’t tell. It had never happened after 40 miles, and I feared rhabdomyolysis. I was distraught, so I took off my backpack and sat down, trying to calm myself down. When I felt more rational, I started moving again.

Darkness crept in, the temperature dropped, and I pulled out my headlamp. The pause to calm myself had saved my mood. Although the problem didn’t go away, I knew I was in control enough to fix it, or at least monitor it in case it got worse. I doubled my water intake and ran the whole first night, embracing the cold temperatures and the clear, starry night.

The first 24-hour segment ended at the base of Silver Pass. Consistency prevailed, and at 77 miles I still had a chance to break the record. Although my bladder problems continued, they did not get worse.

Later, on Muir Pass, my energy disappeared. The second night came and I lay down on the edge of the trail at 11,500 feet. A five minute timer set, I closed my eyes and passed out.

This bit of rest was not enough to rejuvenate me. I was still exhausted and I knew I needed a strategy, a way to focus. I focused on number five: there were five high passes left before a climb up Mount Whitney. Pushing my body forward, I crossed a ridge next to a stone hut, and five passes became four.

Unlike the first night, the second night was shaping up to be a battle. I struggled to stay efficient. When I tried to run downhill, another wave of exhaustion hit. The sun slowly rose and brought me new energy near Palisade Lakes, but I knew it wouldn’t last. I had another night to spend, after all.

Glen Pass (Photo: Jeff Garmire)

On Mather Pass, four remaining passes became three. Without a break, I descended the switchbacks to Pinchot Pass. I was in the home stretch, with less than 24 hours left, but the lack of sleep was overwhelming. I longed for a nap, finally giving in and grabbing another brief down the trail. But a quarter of a mile later, I realized my hands were empty. In a frenzy, I ran back up the hill to my nap spot to grab my hiking poles, ten precious minutes wasted.

I was down two high passes quickly and smiling broadly on the descent from Pinchot. My legs carried me through some of the most beautiful terrain in the country. The sun was reflecting off Rae Lakes perfectly and I charged up Glen Pass. Just one more high pass. But as night fell, reality set in. I was going to have to spend one more night. Did I have it in me? A 13,120 foot pass and a 14,000 foot mountain stood between me and the FKT.

In the dark, I climbed the final switchbacks of Forester Pass. Now all I had to do was walk up and down the highest point of the Lower 48, Mt. Whitney.

I tried to run but rolled both ankles within minutes. My head screamed and my vision danced. I couldn’t concentrate. The smooth track seemed to bounce with every step.

The next thing I knew, I was on the floor, my eyes widening flustered. I fell asleep while running. Sitting up, I tried to summon the adrenaline I needed to get through the final stretch, but my body wasn’t responding. So I made a scary decision: I would take a 12-minute nap. Would it cost me? Maybe, but I couldn’t go on.

Triumphant at the end of the trail (Photo: Jeff Garmire)

After I woke up, I ran to Guitar Lake and started the hike to Whitney in earnest. The laces quickly got my heart racing. I pushed deeper into the cave of pain: the rhythm of my gasping was a metronome to my feet. I trance-walked to the top when the first morning light appeared. It was magical, but I didn’t have time to dwell on it: the FKT only ended at the Trailhead. Out of nowhere, I fell hard, then again. My phone screen cracked, but nothing mattered. I kept running.

On Trail Crest and up to the gate, my legs got bigger. The clock was ticking down – I had two hours left, then one – but the track was stretching out. With 45 minutes to go, my anxiety skyrocketed: after three days, it would be a photo-finish. My jog turned into a sprint. My bladder screamed and I tried to ease the discomfort, only to end up covered. I ran a six-minute mile, but the track got longer. Where did it end? One more corner, and I saw it: the sign indicating the start of the trail. I ran there, stopped my watch and sat down. It was finished.

My time: 3 days, 47 minutes and 56 seconds. I had broken the record by less than 13 minutes.

The flood of emotions never came; I had nothing left. For three years I had nurtured a purpose; I had been living there for three days. Now a part of me was both fulfilled and gone.