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At 4 a.m. on September 15, Darcy Piceu stood at the trailhead to California’s Mount Whitney, surrounded by a small group of friends. She wore a pack with everything she’d need for the next 42 miles.
The stress of the past few days—the travel, the frenzy of organizing crew and securing a last-minute permit—melted away. She felt relaxed.
“Finally,” she thought. “I can just go out and do my thing.”
Piceu, 42, of Boulder, Colorado, is the definition of experienced ultrarunner. She’s been involved in the sport since the early 2000s and has a host of podium finishes at some of the biggest trail ultras—including three wins at Colorado’s Hardrock 100, three at Utah’s Wasatch 100 and two at Hawaii’s HURT 100.
But the John Muir Trail was beyond anything she’d attempted before. Over the next three-plus days, she would cover 222 miles with only a few hours of sleep, traveling in supported style. Her longest single push to date had been 120 miles, at the 2016 Bigfoot 120.
“I wasn’t even sure if I could run that far,” she says.
But as she pressed the “start” button on her GPS tracker and headed for the summit of Mount Whitney (14,494 feet), things began to click.
Three days 7 hours 57 minutes later, she arrived at Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley, setting a new women’s supported FKT.
Second Time’s the Charm
This was not Piceu’s first attempt on the John Muir Trail. Two years ago, she attempted to set the unsupported record. She only made it 42 miles.
“Going unsupported, my pack was heavy, and it rubbed back raw,” she says. “It was tough mentally to realize I’d be out there for so long and have no contact with anyone, especially my daughter.”
Despite the disappointment, those 42 miles were enough to convince Piceu that the Sierra was worth coming back for—with a crew.
“I studied the maps,” she says. “I had my spreadsheets laid out. I knew what I had to do.”
The supported women’s FKT on the John Muir Trail had stood since 2007, when Sue Johnston, then 54, of Vermont, had run it in 3 days 20 hours. Piceu would not be the first woman to attempt to beat the time.
At the beginning of the 2017 season, Piceu put in for a thru-hike permit, but did not make it through the lottery. So, she went on with her summer plans, which included an FKT on the 85-mile Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit in Peru followed by a second-place finish at the Hardrock 100.
In early September, at the last minute, she decided to take her chances and fly out to California in the hopes of scrounging up an unused permit.
“I flew into Reno on Tuesday, drove to Lone Pine [California] and got my permit on Wednesday,” she says. On Thursday morning, she was standing at the Whitney Portal trailhead.
Piceu’s crew was a mixture of old friends and strangers—Betsy Nye, Billy Simpson, Monica Morant, Willie Robertson and Jeff Kozak. They would meet her at all major trail junctions with pizza, sandwiches, soup, donuts, coffee, fresh clothes and a sleeping pad.
For the first 42 miles, Piceu ran alone, trying to shove doubt from her mind as she replayed what had happened in 2015.
But, when she reached mile 42—the place she had bailed out two years ago— “a switch went off,” she says. “I immediately thought, ‘No, I’m committed, I’m ‘gonna do this.'”
From mile 42 through 86, she ran with Kozak. She would not have another pacer until mile 165. Despite running alone for so many hours, she was surprised at how her high her spirits stayed.
“It’s such a different style [from racing 100-milers],” she says. “Normally at a race, you’re pretty aggro coming through aid stations and not getting enough calories in. It was so nice to come in [to a crew stop] and lie down, sit, eat and talk.”
She had designated three crew stops as sleep stations, and dutifully shut her eyes for one hour at each, plus a few “dirt naps” along the way.
“I would just pull off the side of the trail, put on the emergency blanket and sleep for 10 or so minutes,” she says. “I set an alarm, but the cold always woke me up before it went off.”
Asked about low moments, Piceu struggles to come up with many.
“There were a lot of highs,” she says. “I was so blown away by how beautiful every step was. I was brought to tears. I didn’t want it to end.”
Aside from the scenery, Piceu says she enjoyed stopping to chat with the dozens of thru-hikers she met along the way.
She met a couple that had been hiking the JMT in sections for four years, and were about to complete their final leg. She met a PCT thru-hiker who had detoured onto the JMT just to catch the sunset at Thousand Lakes.
“I wasn’t trying to hammer through,” she says. “I wanted to have that kind of contact with people.”
Of course, as with any ultra-distance run, Picue had low moments. “I don’t typically get blisters,” she says. “But I guess it takes running more than 100 miles.” On the third night an old cough resurfaced.
“It was a really runnable section, but every time I started to run I would start coughing,” she says. “I shed some tears, but Betsy [Nye, my pacer,] reminded me that I could walk the rest of the way and still break the women’s record.”
The ending, says Piceu, felt “anticlimactic.”
The last few miles took her through Yosemite National Park, which was packed with tourists—a far cry from the solitude of the rest of the trail.
At the Happy Isles trailhead, she was in shock. “I was just sitting in the dirt, thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t really function.'”
Where does the JMT officially start?
There is some controversy as to what constitutes the official southern point of the JMT—the trailhead to Mount Whitney, or the summit.
Piceu’s time from the summit of Mount Whitney to Happy Isles was 3 days 4 hours 12 minutes—18 minutes under that of current overall supported FKT holder Leor Pantilat. However, her time from the Mount Whitney trailhead was 3 days 7 hours 57 minutes—roughly 20 minutes slower than Pantilat’s time for the same distance.
“I don’t think anyone will dispute that she has the women’s FKT by a huge margin,” says Peter Bakwin, FKT expert and manager of the FKT proboards, the de-facto forum for all things FKT. “But in fairness to Leor I don’t know that we can credit her with the overall … FKT. Her trailhead-to-trailhead time was slower than Leor’s. While others disagree, to me the JMT has always been trailhead to trailhead.”
Pantilat agrees: “To my knowledge, not one supported JMT FKT has ever considered summit-trailhead. It has always been about trailhead to trailhead,” he says. “Back in the day, some unsupported northbound FKT attempts treated the summit as the start and spent a couple days on the summit acclimating!”
For Piceu, though, the run transcends simply an FKT. “It was a spiritual, moving experience,” she says. “It was as if everything I had been doing in my career had been leading me toward this. Being out in the wilderness in that way, for that long … this is why I love trail and ultrarunning.”