Three days, 12 hours and 41 minutes later, they reached champagne toasts and ice cream sandwiches, a trail record in hand and a fatigue so deep it would take days to sleep it off.
Mike Wolfe returned to Missoula this week after joining Hal Koerner of Oregon in setting a speed record for a supported run on the John Muir Trail in California – an accomplishment that is only now settling in.
“It was really like a grand adventure packed into three days,” Wolfe said Thursday, weariness still in his words. “You’re so sleep deprived when you’re out there, I feel like my mind is still putting all the pieces together.”
The pieces, as Wolfe puts them, might include every step of their 218-mile journey over the John Muir Trail in the High Sierras – a trek that took them to the summit of Mount Whitney down to Happy Isles in Yosemite National Park.
In the nearly 85 hours they spent on the trail, the ultrarunners slept less than five hours. At Half Dome, they logged a seven-minute mile – the fastest of their trip. At Red’s Meadow near Mammoth, they enjoyed a cup of coffee.
At one point, still above 10,000 feet, their last supply station 50 miles behind them and the next station a disheartening 30 miles ahead, they missed their rendezvous and were out of food.
It was, Wolfe said, the toughest moment of the journey.
“We got supplied at 80 miles and had to reach 130 miles – it was our longest stretch without the crew,” said Wolfe. “We did that stretch through the night. We were behind schedule and we didn’t arrive until daylight.”
The crew member they were supposed to meet for food – aka precious energy – had left. Wolfe and Koerner were down to four gel packs, half a bag of jerky and a handful of Oreo cookies.
The duo had two choices: Either run 14 miles to a nearby resort, putting them well behind schedule, or ration their food and push on to the next supply crew 30 miles down the trail.
“We made the choice to forgo fresh food and make a run for it to the next crew waiting at the 160-mile mark,” Wolfe said. “It was a tough moment. We had to assess how much food we had and ration it.”
The John Muir Trail rarely falls below 8,000 feet and includes seven mountain passes, the highest topping 13,153 feet. The U.S. Geological Survey places the total elevation gain at more than 46,000 feet with 38,000 feet of descent.
Wolfe said the reality of their challenge set in only after the two reached the summit of Mount Whitney to start their run. At 14,496 feet, the mountain marks the highest point in the Lower 48 states and presented a view of the country before them.
But excitement prevailed, Wolfe said. The next two passes – each more than 13,000 feet – set the tone for the next three days. Finishing the run would be difficult; setting a speed record would take determination and focus.
“We did converse quite a bit the first day, just talking about this or that,” Wolfe said. “We settled into a rhythm pretty early on. You had to be so focused and moving so consistently, you had to save all your energy moving forward. There wasn’t a lot of idle talk.”
Wolfe and Koerner are not newcomers to endurance runs. Wolfe has competed in long-distance races since 2006, landing his share of victories. Koerner is a two-time champion of the Western States Endurance Run.
Still, the elevation, combined with exposure and distance, proved grueling.
“When you think of altitude, you think no oxygen, but we were overwhelmed by the heat and sun,” Koerner told Runner’s World. “We were constantly putting on sunblock, but got fried anyway, and dehydrated. It was like being cooked from the inside.”
Wolfe describes the fatigue as deep. Since returning home, he has indulged in three-hour naps and logged 10 hours of sleep at night. He and Koerner have shared their exploits in various media interviews, including with National Public Radio and several running magazines.
Recovering at home, Wolfe is nursing a few pesky blisters and a shin injury. He’s waiting for the results of an MRI, not sure if the pain is a bad case of tendonitis or, worse, a stress fracture.
“It started to act up on me about 130 miles in,” said Wolfe. “I had to deal with it for 90-plus miles. I looked down at one point and my shin was red and swollen and started to bruise. It was something that wasn’t entirely debilitating. We were so committed to finishing and doing it, I made the decision to soldier on.”
Finishing the run was cathartic.
“We were so broken, tired and exhausted, there was definitely a sense of relief,” Wolfe said. “It was also a little bittersweet. We had some special moments out there. To do something that challenging with a partner is a pretty special thing. There’s a unique bond you form with someone when you’re both suffering like that.”