A Life Of Miles: For a Big Goal, What Have You Got in Mind?
Words and Photos from Jeff Garmire
Thirty thousand miles and always counting, give or take a few yards or inches, all done on foot. Jeff Garmire (@thefreeoutside) is still heading out whenever he can to "make up for 2020." Some of these miles were racked up diesel engine-style, nice and steady, all day long. Some were covered with a cinderblock on the gas pedal. In this post, he taps into what happens when a plan goes off the rails, when to wave the white flag, and why there’s tremendous value in knowing when to do so.
Each month, Jeff will send out a call for your questions in our Instagram feed and answer them there or in new posts in The Shakedown section of our blog. Put your thinking caps on folks, and journey into Jeff's brain. Who knows what'll you'll learn!
Last month I answered questions about planning and attempting FKTs (Fastest Known Times), and since that time, I went for another one. It was an exercise and a reminder of what works on an intense thru-hike and more so what doesn't work. It was a humbling attempt, but it also took me to a new area of the country. Ultimately my lack of planning and a series of compounding mistakes led to a failure. But that didn't diminish the takeaways and the chance to sharpen my techniques, routine, and style.
I drove out to Minnesota, intent on setting the unsupported speed record on the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT). The SHT is a 300-mile route that roughly follows the northern banks of Lake Superior. The distance and current unsupported record of five days and 17 hours were within my capabilities and fitness level. In addition, I had the training aspect of the attempt covered and was confidently entering the attempt after four different training days of over 40 miles.
On the days leading up and throughout the drive-out, my confidence soared. The plan was to hike fifty-mile days and then push hard to the finish over the last 48 hours. The extent of my planning ended there. I didn't pour over maps, step foot on the trail nor read any trip reports before the start. The uncertainty I was beginning with wasn't the sole reason for failure, but it didn't aid in any potential success.
Confidence alone cannot accomplish a record or even a thru-hike. Unfortunately, things started to go wrong early on, and it was all due to a lack of foresight, planning, and preparation.
I drove out to Jay Cooke State Park, stopped at a local grocery store, and bought everything I could possibly need for five days of unsupported hiking through Minnesota. I repackaged everything and started to struggle with basic decisions on how much food to take for each day. I was out of practice. Most of the summer, I ran and put in long days in the mountains versus pushing for days on end with overnight gear. I was uncomfortably questioning each decision regarding my nutrition. It was anxiety-inducing, but I pushed on with the plan.
The only safe spot I could leave my car was eight miles from the southern terminus. This meant that to start the FKT attempt, I had to put in some bonus miles. I considered my two possible options while completing the packing and organizing. Then I ultimately decided to hike in and camp near the start. It would be a warm-up for the main event and a chance to collect my thoughts before the clock started clicking.
I parked as it was growing dark and heaved a pack much heavier than expected onto my shoulders. The closer I got to the Wisconsin border, the more I began to question the outcome of this attempt. I was certainly rushing this, but I also had a limited time to try to squeeze a record attempt in. It was too late to dwell on the lack of preparation.
Leaving my car behind at the state park was my last chance to change gear, pack items, or leave behind unnecessary items. But I nonchalantly strolled away from the car without even considering one last check. It came back to bite me later.
Two major differences from previous FKTs are that I wore road running shoes and a pack that had already been through the wringer. My pack was custom built for the Colorado Trail, had lots of wear and tear, and this was going to be its last big trail. After setting the record on the Colorado Trail, the pack had a few holes, tears, and signs of wear. It is a pack that I only chose when the goal was to be fast and unsupported. It was made specifically to carry enough gear to cover many days efficiently. Unfortunately, the lightweight construction was nearing its end, and the hip belt had ripped off the side within a day.
The interesting thing about unsupported attempts is that the weight of a pack changes drastically from the beginning to the end. I try to keep my base weight as light as possible, which means that over 70% of the weight I am carrying is food. But, after a couple of days of eating through it, the weight change is noticeable. My pack looked a little beat up, but it only had to survive two days of a heavy load before it would be firmly within the comfortable and acceptable weight range. It couldn't do it. At a break on my first day, I heard the rip, and it hung crookedly off my shoulders for the remainder of the hike.
The elevation gain on the Superior Hiking Trail was nowhere near as substantial as the terrain I trained on in Montana. I often wore road running shoes on these trails simply because of the comfort gained. The little planning that I had done involved noting I had nearly 50 miles to cover around Duluth. A lot of this was on paved roads and paths. I thought I could get away with a basic road running shoe on this trail. They worked perfectly through the Duluth section.
But after I left Duluth and the terrain got more technical, the thin uppers on my shoes began to fail. Within 100 miles, the sides of my shoes were ripping. My feet were less stable, and the foam was sinking. I did not start with new shoes, rather, road running shoes that were broken into the perfect level. The comfort at mile 0 quickly became discomfort at mile 100.
At the end of day two, I was disheartened. I brought the wrong gear, too much food, and didn't inspect my pack before leaving. My back was having spasms because of the crooked pack's poor fit, and my heart wasn't in it. I simply didn't want to keep pushing myself to exhaustion day after day.
I didn't quit because of my pack or my shoes. I didn't quit because I overpacked. I quit because I didn't want to keep moving forward.
My body hurt, but that is what I sign up for on FKTs. My motivation was lacking, and I didn't want to spend the extent of my first trip to northern Minnesota anxiously trudging through an experience I no longer wanted to have.
FKTs are delicate things. They are difficult and need luck, planning, preparation, fitness, and drive. When things start to falter, it is the mindset that becomes the most fragile. Once things went wrong in my attempt, I simply didn't have the ability to pull myself out of the hole. Now I know that mental training and fitness are just as important as physical training and fitness.
Jeff Garmire is a writer and author. When he isn't adding to his 30,000 trail miles, he can be found on the trails and in the mountains around Bozeman. He is the author of Free Outside, which chronicles his Calendar Year Triple Crown.