Jenn Shelton has a goal. The 28-year-old Ashland ultramarathoner holds many running records, including the fastest 100-mile race run by a woman in the United States, but she has her sights on another achievement. Something much longer. The speed record for the 223-mile John Muir Trail, stretching from the Mount Whitney portal to the valley floor in California's Yosemite National Park.
"It's been three years in the making," Shelton explains. "Ever since I ran Mount Whitney with my friend Connie Gardner."
Last year, Shelton and Gardner took a shot at the trail but were stymied by one of the deepest snowpacks in years. Twelve days ago, Shelton took another crack at it with fellow Ashland runner Ryan Ghelfi, a 23-year-old SOU student.
"For some reason," says Shelton, "we had it in our heads that not only were we going to break the women's record (3 days, 20 hours), we were going to break the men's record (3 days, 14 hours, 13 minutes), and we were going to break it by 15 hours."
Shelton is not alone in her quest to shatter speed records on well-known trails. In the past two years, the speed record for the Appalachian Trail has been broken once, the Grand Canyon's "Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim" record has fallen multiple times, and the fastest known time on the Pacific Crest Trail (north to south) fell in 2011 (64 days, 11 hours, 19 minutes).
Former Crater High running star Max King was one of three men who had the record on a route known as the "Five Peaks Traverse" in Central Oregon, which involves consecutive runs up and down Mount Bachelor, Broken Top and South, Middle and North Sister. Their time was bested last September.
Most of these attempts are done solo or with a partner, and because they are not formal races, the records are known instead as "fastest known times," or FKTs.
"After you've done a lot of races," says Shelton, "it's something new."
Ghelfi and Shelton spent nearly two weeks in the Sierras acclimating to the higher altitude and spent the two nights before the big run in Mammoth Lakes, at the home of 2004 Olympic marathon bronze medalist Deena Kastor.
On Aug.14, Shelton and Ghelfi began their attempt to post a new FKT on the John Muir Trail.
"We started at 2 a.m. because we figured we were going to be done in 72 hours," Shelton explains. "We'd get through one night at the beginning (without having to spend time sleeping)."
The pair had a support crew of six, divided into teams to meet the runners at various checkpoints along the way to resupply them with food. Coordinating such a rendezvous was a monumental task in itself.
"These were significant hikes," says crew leader Erik Skaggs. "The longest one was a 24-mile roundtrip, and all the places were fairly remote."
According to Skaggs, there were five meeting points, and timing is everything.
"You can't miss your crew or you're in trouble," he says.
Shortly after the start, the runners made a decision that complicated their schedule.
"Ghelfi had this plan to sleep not where the crew was," says Shelton. "He figured you waste so much time because you're excited to see your crew. He wanted to sleep on the trail because it's more efficient."
In addition to causing a lot of worry among the support crew, this spur-of-the-moment change backfired in another important way.
"It was too cold on the trail, so I couldn't sleep," Ghelfi explains. "Even wearing a waterproof jacket and getting inside an emergency bivvy sack."
Most of the John Muir Trail is above 10,000 feet. Ghelfi estimates that the temperatures that first night were in the high 30s. The seven-pound pack he carried held extra clothes, food, maps and the bivvy sack, but no sleeping bag.
After two hours without sleep, the pair resumed their run. Their total distance covered in the first day: 85 miles.
Ghelfi was running comfortably on the climbs, but the descents were wreaking havoc on his knee. When they met the crew at the 90-mile checkpoint, he made the decision to drop: the next checkpoint was 50 miles farther. Even so, he had to hike 13 more miles out to the car.
Shelton was feeling good and made the decision to continue solo.
As she headed out, she thought she was 10 miles behind record pace, when in fact she was 7 hours ahead of schedule.
"The next day I was really hammered but I really pushed," Shelton recalls. "That next night I had to do solo, and that's where everything completely went downhill."
After running so many miles, especially while running in the dark, the mind will often play tricks on the unsuspecting athlete. Near a river crossing, Shelton's flashlight picked up two eyes. The eyes didn't move.
"It scared me so much, I had so much adrenalin, that I gave myself a rule: I would not look up at the eyes, I would only look at my feet on the trail," says Shelton. "But I had to cross this river."
She even tried talking to what she thought was a cougar, asking it not to hurt her. Then the eyes moved.
"Finally a flashlight comes on and I saw that the eyes were only reflectors on these people's tent," she adds.
The toll of running far faster than record pace left her exhausted and sore in just about every muscle from the waist down. At the 160-mile crew rendezvous, at Reds Meadow, she made the decision to drop, but Shelton is already planning next year's attempt. She learned a valuable lesson this year about pacing multi-day events.
"I think you have to be conservative for 48 hours — hiking, sleeping — then on the third day, after 48 hours, you can push it, but not a second before then," she says.
Ghelfi says he will make another FKT attempt later this year.
"I had the Half Dome (in Yosemite) record for two years. I set it when I was 19," says Ghelfi. "I'm going to try at the beginning of October."
Earlier this summer, Ghelfi just missed setting the FKT for a run up Mount Shasta — from Horse Camp to the summit. On his first attempt he lost valuable time when he was stopped by a wilderness ranger who wanted to see his permit. The second time, on July 3, he narrowly missed the FKT, but his partner, Ricky Gates of Woody Creek, Colo., broke the 27-year-old record by more than a minute, clocking a time of 1 hour, 38 minutes, 10 seconds. On that run, the pair had no support crew, and for most of the 4-plus miles to the summit, no trail and a deep snowpack. Gates used track spikes and a small ice axe to propel himself to the summit for the new FKT.
Shortly after returning from the John Muir Trail last week, crew leader Erik Skaggs put up his own FKT on a summit much closer to home: Mount McLoughlin. His time of 1 hour, 3 minutes, 41 seconds took more than minute off the old record. He's happy with his time, but he's taking it in stride.
After all, it was his own FKT that he broke.
To see FKTs for trails all across the country, see http://fastestknowntime.proboards.com
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org