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JMT - Listening to the Universe

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JMT - Listening to the Universe

I don’t want to tell my JMT story like I’ve told all my other adventures. This one was different. It feels as if I’ve reached a beautiful alpine meadow after years of climbing the mountain of life, and I have more to say than a stripped down bare recounting of the adventure. If I go back and read through my previous few trip reports a constant theme emerges. A sense of searching and yearning. The universe has been screaming at me, and I’ve been blissfully unaware. I’m failing to hear it through the constant clouding of my life and ego. My near death experience in early May was a rude awakening. It jerked me from my sleep to leave me wondering how long I had been sleeping. But I didn’t slow down and listen to what it was telling me. Only two weeks later the universe grabbed me and stabbed me in the heart… Julias dead. My life came crashing to a halt. I watched around me as everyone’s lives continued living but mine. Mine seemed to have ended with Julia.


Let me take a few steps back and paint a clearer picture. In the fall of 2017 my on and off again boyfriend and I ended it for good. I became unintentionally homeless on Thanksgiving when a squirrel destroyed my living quarters. Julia repeatedly took me in during this difficult time in my life. She was family and that’s what family does. Ultimately I escaped my personal hell to Montana for the winter. I started reading Buddhist books and meditating at the local Buddhist temple. I thought I had finally found myself. But by finding who I thought I was I lost my old identity. The thrill and power of winter ultras had escaped my allure. And with this lacking motivation and desire I DNFed both of my races. Next came the Badwater Salton Sea which I gifted my race entry to Julia. My head was no longer in this world. I was loosing my life long identity as a runner. Still homeless when I returned to California in the spring, I took off in my van to pursue a different world of paragliding. The paragliding world took me in and embraced me. I spent close to two months on the road chasing the wind. I fell in with a community of pilots that I traveled around with, and I felt as if I had found another family. Then everything changed. I went to a paragliding clinic where they tow you thousands of feet above a lake and you simulate the possible things that could happen to your wing when you are flying. Conditions were less than ideal, and I only got a few tows. On the last day of the clinic he told me I was going to throw my reserve parachute. He told me to give bad input on a negative spin and the next thing I knew I was spiraling with my risers twisting at violent speeds. I threw reserve without hesitation. Some say it was skill, but I think it was luck that my reserve narrowly missed my violently twisting wing and opened seamlessly. What happened next was also luck… bad luck. The reserve opening tossed me from my comfy seated position in my harness. I was so unprepared that it whiplashed my head so far forward that my head got forced between my twisting risers. The risers twisted a few times above my neck before it stoped twisting. Instead of hanging from my harness I was now hanging from my neck. I couldn’t breath. This was it. I gasped for one more breath forcing my fingers between the risers to try and release pressure on my neck. I yarded and yarded on the risers trying as hard as I could to get my head out. Seconds before impacting the water I was able to pull me head out of the risers. I landed hard into the water, but I was alive. 

I had never had the pre death thoughts before. The tunnel vision in your eyes as the life is slowly forced out. Your constant fight to keep living. Your not thinking about your loved ones or what you could have done with your life but on what you can do right now to stop death from overcoming you. My last thoughts would have been me thinking about what I could do to keep breathing. I participate in dangerous sports and have felt the pains of losses all around me, but never this close. It happened so quickly and unexpectedly just as I imagine death did. It comes not when you are prepared or ready but when you least expect it. This rude awakening happened on mothers day. I imagined the calls to my mother. The sorrow that would have rippled through my family. It hurts to imagine. Julia came to Tahoe to console me in this weird time in my life. I had just driven straight from the clinic to Tahoe to settle back into apartment living. And she came up the next day. Life was so fragile. Our clocks are ticking and we don’t know when that time is up. The universe I feel knows and it keeps giving us warning signs. I was having a serious problem with mortality. Julia told me that I couldn’t live my life with the fear of death. That you wouldn’t be living. She sat on the couch and watched me untangle my wet wing and then she slept in my bed that night. In the morning we hugged goodbye. She drove back to Winters where she lived for one more week and then passed unexpectedly like death always does.

I got to experience my biggest fears. I watched her family experience grieving as I imagined my family would have. And what it did to me is unexplainable. Everyone grieves differently my therapist likes to say. And there isn’t a right way or a wrong way, and you can’t predict why or when it’s going to hit you and to what level of intensity. I guess I have to believe this. But sometimes I think she is just trying to give me excuses for my erratic and painful behaviors. My first night alone in my apartment after she passed a black faceless object visited me. I screamed bloody murder from my bed as it crept closer and closer and I pushed farther and farther back into the corner. It was the second time in my life I had experienced a fully conscious night terror. I flipped the lights on trembling in fear. No one had heard my screams from my cabin alone in the woods. And I had this overwhelming sense that it wanted me. Whatever it was wanted me next. I haven't slept with the lights off since. My friend Jenelle rescued my from my trembling state in my bed that night and my long time on and off again boyfriend came back to take care of me. Everyones lives were continuing on and I wanted so badly to keep living as well, but I couldn’t. 

Work was asking me to pick up more tasks. So I did. I picked back up my house project to fill any other waking moment of my time. I had to cram every moment of every day with something so that I never had long enough to feel. I wasn’t meditating or reading. Those tasks were too simple. I would surely break down and cry. Running became even more painful for me. It was her sport. It was our connection. Our community. Our people. My identity as a runner was being lost even further. But I also had lost my identity as a paraglider and my identity all together. Months went by of just existing. I’d cry occasionally, but I existed mostly in a brainless state of busyness. That was until I got mono. My case of mono was strange. It manifested it self in sores on only one half of my throat. I had no cold like symptoms, no cough, or mucus, or fever. I had throat pain and fatigue. It was treated for several things. First bacterial then viral till ultimately it was diagnosed as mono. It wiped me out for close to 4 weeks. I missed two races and finally had to feel. I cried like I’ve never cried before. Not the shock cries and pain cries that I did in the beginning. But the cry as if there was no hope for tomorrow. That I was trapped in a place of darkness for eternity. I finally felt a summers worth of pain in 4 weeks. Julia is dead. There is no amount of tasks in the world that will make that statement untrue. No amount of busyness that will make that less painful to say or think.

I look around me. At all the other people in this community who have suffered just as close of losses as I. Why can they find joy and celebrate their friends and loved ones lives and yet all I can do is grieve. I don’t feel happiness or joy when I think about Julia. I feel pain and sadness. Julia was a dark tortured soul. It’s what I liked about her. She’d tell me she felt as if she had died a million times and that she was just tired now. She didn’t shy away from death but embraced it. She feared nothing. She was perplexing and complex. Everything she said was a puzzle and if you didn’t know her well you wouldn’t get the key. In her wake we discovered a piece of literature she wrote. I’ll repeat it here:

I feel so done. Apathetic. Apathy doesn’t always mean abandon, though; It makes me want more —  to fill some newfound emptiness. Maybe it was always here, and I just noticed it, or just noticed what it means. Or theres the proactive approach that  this my fault, I am to answer for this; because I care I have created a vacancy that I now feel the need to fill.

Either way, I still feel like I’m in something I need to snap out of.

Either way, this entire train of thought is probably arbitrary.

And the latter insight brings me back to the former and back and forth in the back of my mind:
    ‘Hey, you — everything is meaningless’
    ‘Shut up you worthless existential piece of shit’
    ‘What would be the point?’
    ‘You’re really not accomplishing anything, you know’
    ‘I’m not trying to’
    ‘Creation drives humanity’
    ‘Why does humanity need to be driven?’
    ‘Because otherwise human life would have no purpose’
    ‘It doesn’t’
    ‘Says you’
    ‘Yes’

I think I prefer elevator music as a canvas for my consciousness.

This is probably also why my success in life is becoming progressively non existent. My mind is like one of the expensive cars with the stereo systems that adjust the volume to how fast you’re driving. The more I attempt to think the faster my synapses fire, the louder everything gets — and instead of it feeling good, or at least proportional, I can’t even see for all of the static that has no where to go. Getting anything quantifiable accomplished is an after thought that actually accounts for a good portion of the useless drivel I come up with, take in, analyze, and  finally forget.

This is a problem for everyone who associates with me.

And my detached removal from the aforementioned community always ends in someone getting hurt. And me feeling like I should feel shitty because of a million rock ballards about `I’m sorry; baby’. And me feeling fine. And me actually then feeling shitty because I feel fine. And me losing the energy with this war of social contentiousness — 

And me feeling empty.

Maybe the problem is that I don’t associate with myself. The way people without some sense of self respect cannot command the respect of others. Unless they die, which somehow adds credibility through a connotation of elegy and nostalgia and seriousness. Which means that people who are really excited about themselves or people who are dead are really cool, relevant contributors to society. Which means that I’m so gone, there’s no one to tell anyone else where to find me, because I don’t even know.
— Julia Millon

I feel as if the universe was trying to tell me this was going to happen. That it was queuing me in over and over and I was ignoring it. I’ve been stagnant these past few months really listening to the universe. It’s speaking to us. We just have to listen. It’s not coincidence that dogs can alert people to things before they happen or that goats can predict natural disasters. They are in tune with the universe. Their senses are not suppressed by ego and social noice. Our lives our loud, busy, and shrouded in social constructs that limit or connection back to earth. People are creating festivals to help people live more authentic lives and get outside but are missing the points. Strip out the social media. Strip out the ego. Touch the earth and listen to it. You don’t need to pay someone to tell you to listen to it. The universe will speak louder and teach you more than any person in a classroom ever can. They say everything happens for a reason. Or as others say we will find reason in everything that happens. I recently tend to think towards the former. The reason is set before it happens. And the universe will change it’s outcome if we listen.

So what does this have to do with the JMT? Nothing really other than every experience in our lives substantial or inconsequential is shaping our experiences and how we interact with the world. Julias death is substantial and I feel as if it plays an important part in this story.


I won permits for the JMT back in March of this year. It was an objective I had been dreaming about doing for years. I teamed up with Stacey and we loosely planned the mission. Julias death and a myriad of other things left us planning the adventure just a few weeks before. For many reasons we decided to not use my permits. It’s difficult to get permits going South to North (mine were North to South) which is the preferred direction with close to 10k less elevation gain. And the bear canister requirement is super heavy almost making it a backpackers trail not a runners trail. We decided we would be “day hikers” just doing 5 long days back to back to back. We secured Whitney permits and set on our plan. I struggled mentally with if this was the right time for this mission. I had been very emotional and sick for most of the month of August leading up to the adventure but was excited and knew I could pull through.

As to not bore you with the details everything went to plan. My friends Jenelle and Gretchen came and met us at Kearsarge where we resupplied. I can't thank them enough for their support.

Mt. Whitney - 14,505'

Forester Pass 13,200'

The next day, after a cold sleepless few hours of tossing, did not go as smooth. It was brutally hot during the day and my mental state was dwindling rapidly. Poor Stacey sat with me on the side of the trail while I cried the cry of helplessness. Not because of the mission but depression will follow you even into the deepest mountains. We got up and kept moving but the thought of bailing at Bishop Pass was discussed. I caught a second wind and we started to run. Bailing at Bishop Pass was a distant memory as I was riding another wave.

Glen Pass - 11,926'

Pinchot Pass - 12,090'

Mather Pass - 12,067'

A much warmer 2 hours of sleep were welcomed and I woke even more rejuvenated than the day before. Excitement welled inside of me of the prospect of continuing on this journey. As we arrived at Bishop Pass early in the morning we met with Coralie for our second resupply. Then the perfect storm happened. To keep the story short we didn’t have a permit nor a bear canister and though we told the rangers we were day hikers they, for many reasons, knew we were lying. We weren’t given any tickets but were asked to leave the trail in more or less terms. We mulled over the ideas of continuing on and what that would mean but ultimately didn’t feel good about it so left at Bishop Pass with Coralie. 

Bishop Pass - 11,972

Maybe I make things up in my head or maybe I’m trying to be more in tune with what the universe is speaking to us, but it felt in that moment that leaving Bishop Pass with Coralie was the right decision. My ego and everything else in my body wanted to continue. It wanted to finish the JMT. We were capable. But I have to feel that the perfect storm was so perfect for a reason and to ignore that would be crossing the universes wishes. I say this because Coralie’s service dog started to have crazy neck tremors and the thought of leaving her to hike out alone and something worse happening wasn’t even an option. I say this because Corbin had expressed disinterest in crewing us at the VVR and I later found out his truck which had lost a wheel unexpectedly in Mexico a short few weeks earlier was showing signs of the other side going to go out. I can only imagine the consequences of loosing a wheel on the narrow cliff roads out to the VVR and what that might mean. I say this because we planned to hitch hike all the way from Yosemite Valley back to Lone Pine and as safe as that sometimes feels it often times is not. I say this because we hiked out with Coralie, had a delicious dinner of donuts, all rode back to lone pine together, got breakfast in the morning, and everything was okay. I don’t know if everything would have been okay if we continued. And so this journey was beautiful. And it was successful. And I would change nothing about it.

So where does this leave me? I don’t know. I feel more lost and alone now than ever before in my life. I am not a runner, or a paraglider, nor am I a climber… I’ve accomplished nothing this year but a long list of failures. But I’m searching harder and listening as intently as I can. I’m getting older. I’m growing up. I’m learning. I’m alive. I want to be everything and nothing all at the same time. As I go back to meditating and letting the emotions of Julia run through me. I will hopefully come out the other side someone that has felt something.

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Ruby Crest Double - Slow and steady hurts the most

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Ruby Crest Double - Slow and steady hurts the most

Two athletes I could never be are a backpacker and a triathlete. It really blows my mind that people can spend weeks and months away from home carrying pounds on their backs for miles and miles. It also really blows my mind that people can be super fit at swimming, biking, and running all at the same time! Maybe it’s because I’ll never be great at either of these sports that I have a lot of respect for people that do them. All that being said I’ve romanticized the fusion of running and backpacking. A term that many in the community coin “fast packing”. Libby and I did something along those lines on the GR20 last summer and honestly the Tahoe 200 and Moab 240 are a ultra light super supported fastpack in my opinion. So this winter when I won permits for the JMT I felt like I was prepared for the task. I teamed up with Stacey and started getting excited for our big audacious goal!

My general approach to adventures are little preparation with lots of stoke. But the JMT is different it has lots of rules and is remote for many miles. The gear and food required to fastpacking the JMT unsupported over 7 days would be so heavy that it might as well be called backpacking. Since Stacey and I had never done something like this before we thought it would be important to do a 2 day adventure to simulate what a bit of the JMT might be like. We had both been talking about running the Ruby Crest Trail for a few years but instead decided we’d try fast packing the double with JMT heavy packs over two days. We roped in Libby since she’d also been toying with the idea of running it as well. It was a last minute plan! A Monday and Tuesday in the beginning of July Libby, Stacey, and I would be questing off on a Ruby Crest Trail Double!

I did little to no research leading up to it but was able to download a last minute GPX file, thanks to my friend Jenelle, to my Gaia app and printed my signature map and elevation chart that I like to bring on all my adventures. We met in the town of Elko the day before the adventure. Sorted and split some shared gear, eat some delicious Mexican food, and then headed into town for a good night sleep. Corbin and Lopi had joined for the first portion since we were just returning from celebrating Mason and Allys wedding in Salt Lake City. So we got a hotel for convenience. Stacey and Libby stayed in their vans outside. An early morning wake up call had us at the North trailhead at 6:30am. The plan was to jam down to the South Trailhead, bivy, and then return to the North Trailhead the next day. The sun rose at 5:15am so the trail was already in full sun as we started out. We moved quickly up to the first pass in no time and were greated with a beautiful vista and alpine lake. 

Chatting and jogging for a bit the miles passed quickly and we were already on the Ruby Crest early in the day. The next section is all above 10k feet for about 10 miles. You stay right on the crest and the stark contrast of tall mountains falling straight down into arid desert is beautiful. It reminded me a bit of the White Mountains outside of Bishop. We would push up over the pass take a little break and then repeat. It was beautiful and we were really enjoying the landscape. It turned out that a three person team offered an odd dynamic. The person in the middle was the only one that could hear everyone talk while the front and back missed out on half of the conversation. So it often turned into two people talking or the middle person repeating for the person in the front or the back. 

We didn’t end up filling water till we got through the crest and took a little break. The next section is a traverse it gains very little elevation over a 9 mile section and weaves in and out of the canyons with many little stream crossings and a beautiful water fall. This offered a nice change of pace from the up and down and the constant creek crossings where nice for cooling off in the baking sun. This traverse dumps you out at the last beautiful alpine lake called overland lake. This huge alpine lake has a nice little wood shack for sitting out a storm. We took a quick stop here before powering out the last thousand feet of climbing to King Mt.

From here the trail becomes much less traveled. You drop close to 3k feet down into the valleys bellow and the trail is so over grown that at times we thought we might have gotten off trail. This section seemed to go forever. The views were no longer breath taking and the sting of branches and flowers slapping across your legs got old fast. It was the hottest part of the day and thinking of having to go through this again the next day really drug on my moral. We silently trudged our way through the flowers barely stopping to observe the aspen tree markings from the Peruvian who first traveled the trail. The history down there is very interesting but the heat dampened my interests. You make two river crossings and then the final climb up to Green Mountain before dropping down to the south trailhead.

The climb out to Green Mountain went on forever. The heat was suffocating and we had been under the sun for almost a full day. I was noticing more and more the weight of the backpack and was really looking forward to getting to sleep for the night. We took a little break at the top and tried to guess some numbers on how close we were to the South Trailhead. It’s not super clear since the trailhead isn’t generally where most people park since it’s a pretty burly 4x4 road to get up there. But we had a GPS track and a general idea of the elevation at the trailhead.

We started down the hill towards the trailhead. My spirits were low as I kept trying to ditch my backpack since I knew we’d be coming back this way. It felt contrived to have to hike with all this weight to the trailhead just to turn around and hike it back up this hill. Libby and Stacey kept theirs and I was out numbered so I silently and unhappily stomped behind them. I joke that I’m not good at out and backs or loops because I lack the motivation to do things I’ve already done again. This was confirmation of this. As we inched closer to the trailhead hours off my predicted time I kept running the possibilities of bailing. Is there a way we can get a ride out of here. If only Corbin had stayed in Elko I would for sure call him and get him to pick us up. 

As the sun started to set we decided we should probably boil some water and start cooking our dinners so they would be ready to eat by the time we reached the trailhead. We stopped at the very very last possible spot to get water on the trail and found ourselves pumping water out of a trickle. Stacey and I were sharing a meal while Libby had her own. I used my handy dandy MSR water pump and Libby made the hole deeper so I could get more water faster. We filled up the jetboil, boiled the water, and filled our dehydrated meals with the water. Now we just had to wait for them to hydrate so we continued on our way down to the trailhead.

IMG_3301.jpg

The sun was setting now and we weren’t totally sure what the south trailhead even looked like. Most people do a one way trip and go all the way to the parking area which is several more miles. I slowly walked in the back wishing I had ditched my pack hours ago and stepping carefully as to not squash any of the giant crickets that had appeared on the trail. The last 5 miles or so of the trail are on a dirt road so at times we questioned if we truly were on the trail. As the sky really started to exploded we saw the trailhead! It was a joyous site as I finally mustered the motivation to move but it only signified the half way point.

Since Stacey and I had to work the day after we finished we decided it would be nice to get to the North trailhead before it got too late the next day so we planned to knock out the first big climb at night before we went to bivy. We sat and eat our dinners first and then pushed on back to a nice bivy spot right below Green Mountain. We moved quickly because the night time brought cooler air, a full belly of food, and the promise of sleep soon really motivates. I actually really enjoy night running. Maybe more than I do during the day. Being inside your headlamp makes the miles move faster. You don’t have any references of the top or the next point on the trail all you have is a circle of light and progression forward. Also it’s really nice to be cool. Especially after the intense sweating I had done all day long. Unfortunately down on the south side it’s so over grown and humid that the bugs are really bad and the second you put a orb of light right beside your face… the bugs become REALLY bad. We hiked in silence coughing occasionally as we swallowed a bug or cursing and swatting as they flew into your ears and eyes.

We made it to our bivy spot around 11pm. Laid out the tarp, blew up our pads, changed our clothing and passed out. Or I guess I should say I passed out. I awoke once to the sound of Libby vomiting her dinner but fell back asleep quickly. Mainly I was just happy to be off my painful feet. The alarm chirped early at 4am. The sun hadn’t risen but it was light enough not to need a headlamp. I went down to the stream and filtered water before boiling some water for breakfast. We were all packed up, fed, dressed and on the trail by 5am. I felt a pressure to get through the low meandering trails before the sun got too hot again but the weight on my back was becoming more and more noticeable. Heads down we hammered it out to King Mountain catching most of the trails in the early morning shade.

At the top of King Mt Stacey had to wait about 15 minutes for me and then another 30 minutes for Libby. Our team was in a lot of pain, sleep deprivation, and desire to be finished. It was beautiful but we had already seen it all and at this point we just wanted to be done. Unfortunately or fortunately there aren’t any bail outs at all on this trail. You don’t even have the option to DNF even if you wanted to. You’ve got to get yourself out the way you came. Stacey suggested splitting up so that people could sleep at the parking lot while we waited so that everyone was a little safer getting home that night. Especially since Stacey and I had to work the next day. We all decided that was an okay option and split up for the last 20 miles of the trail.

This was really hard for me. Usually in an ultra this is when you get a pacer. The last several miles when your body and mind have broken down is when you need that distraction and company to pull you through. This is also when my neuromas start to rear there ugly heads. I’d been struggling with neuromas for a while now. Maybe it’s just a smell of ultras but it wasn’t till after the Tahoe 200 that it feels like every long distance run I do is riddled with debilitating pain. I get to a point where I can no longer walk but I have no option but to walk and the nerve pain in my feet continues to send a shockwave up through my brain and I step again and repeat. Ultra running is no longer fun for me. I don’t want to have to depend on my high pain tolerance to get me through these adventures. I don’t want to feel nerve pain. But here I was 20 miles left to go right over the crest of the Rubys in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been and I had no option but to smash my nerves under the weight of my body and backpack all the way to the trailhead.

IMG_2473.jpg

I went heads down through the traverse and up to the crest. An impending storm off in the distance motivated me to make quick work of the crest and once I was below tree line again I felt a sense of calm. I was only 8 miles from the finish line. Alone, suffering, and out of water. I kept thinking I’d find some good mountain water somewhere along the trail but it never came. I was hobbling pretty bad walking bow legged trying to get as much pressure off my forefoot as possible. Soon I had been out of water for awhile and I still had one big climb till I was on the final descent. It was hot out by now and I knew water wasn’t negotiable. I wouldn’t be able to gut it out to the finish with out something to wet my mouth. There is one stream crossing right before the final climb. Unfortunately it comes out of a lake… a popular lake and since we had split up I didn’t have any water filtering or even tablets on me. I sat for 30 minutes hoping Libby would catch me and we could share water. Also secretly enjoying being off my feet. But I knew I needed to get out so I filled my bladder with some of the water and drank it up the final climbing knowing that dehydration was worse than the nasty gut issues I may or may not get.

As I stood at the top of Liberty Pass I could see the trailhead and the parking lot just a couple thousand feet below me and a short 3 miles. I knew it would take forever but I was so over joyed at the thought of never having to stand on my feet ever again. I hobbled painfully down the trail repeating the faster you run the faster your done. A motto I know all to well. Thinking in my head when will this ever be fun. I can’t even imagine being in this much pain and still having almost 200 miles to go on the JMT. Yet I distinctly remember this foot pain on the Tahoe 200 creeping up well before the 50 mile mark. I don’t know when I’ll learn my lesson or what it will take to cure this pain.

When I arrived at the trailhead Stacey had been there for about an hour. I quickly shed my clothing and bathed myself in the nearby river. Laying on the floor of Staceys van I put my feet up trying to get as much swelling off of the damaged nerves. Wow I can’t believe how hard that was! The pain in my feet, the blisteringly hot sun, the 67 miles drug out over two days, the lack of food, the heavy backpack… Stacey and I had a lot to think about as we started to prepare for our JMT effort were we capable of getting up and doing that again for 5 more days? I sure didn’t feel like I could. The Tahoe 200 was easy compared to that. Libby arrived about an hour later and we all drove into town. We said goodbye to Stacey as she headed home and Libby and I made the 5hr drive back to Tahoe... not without a stop at a local taco truck first.

After some rest and recovery and some much needed thought Stacey and I decided that we aren’t backpackers but runners and if we did things as fast and light as possible like runners then maybe it wouldn’t hurt so bad. Or maybe it would hurt just a little bit less. Stay tuned we'll need some help from our friends the first week of September. If you want to come out and party with us on the JMT and bring us food that isn't freeze dried or bar shaped. :)

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GR20 France - Learning is hard

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GR20 France - Learning is hard

If you came to this post to read about the logistics of running the GR20 from gear to mileages to everything in between you should go read my blog post about the logistics instead. If you've arrived here to read my personal trip report then enjoy!

"It is not possible" a man repeated to us on the trail. "You cannot do it." Another man said. It was a common theme for Libby and I on our 5 day traverse on the GR20 but let's start from the beginning instead.

It was March I think fresh off a failure in Minnesota and preparing to battle the Alaska mountains once again when Libby cold called me. The conversation was something along the lines of you want to run the GR20? Sure! It was a week before our planned adventure when I finally sat down with the book and looked into what it would take to really run the GR20 in 5 days. What I found didn't make me scared but I knew we would be pushing. The book predicted 20 hr days every day. I assumed we would do half the time of their hiking predication if we had perfect days. I printed a couple of copies of a map and the plan and called it good for planning. I wasn't worried of 180km in 5 days with 44,000 feet of gain and 45,000 feet of loss. I'd run 100 miles in 1/5th of the time this to me seemed very doable. As long as I could recover daily and keep my eating right.

My schedule was tight. Libby was uncertain of her ability to get out of Libya on time so we only gave our selves 5 full days in Corisca with a travel day on the front and end. That means I flew from San Francisco to Paris to Nice to Corisca and then started running about 10hrs after landing. As a new world traveler I didn't realize the implications that a trans Atlantic flight would have on my stomach and sleep schedule. But we only had 5 days... so jetlagged or not we were moving. Libby and I met in the airport with our lovely couch surfing host Philipp. He was a huge part in our success. He gave us tons of useful information, took us to swim in the Mediterranean, helped us buy groceries, made us dinner, and even drove us to the trailhead at 6am the next morning.

The alarm chirped at 5am. I had barely slept that night from jet lag and the air conditioning being too cold. We rolled out of bed got our things together and ate a quick breakfast. I had some yogurt thinking it would be fine. Unfortunately it wasn't sugar yogurt but very raw sour yogurt. My stomach was already unhappy with this choice. We got to the trailhead by 6:30am and were optimistically charging up the long up hill to our first hut. We had barely stept onto the trail when two men came storming past us in little packs. Libby and I tried to pack light but we were definitely not running more fastpacking with the size of our packs. Those men were running.

We moved very quickly on the uphill passing lots of people and making good time to the first hut. We filled water here and kept on moving. The day seemed to fly by, the uphills seemed easy, and the terrain rocky and interesting to keep the mind occupied even with a very sour stomach. As we descended into our second hut of the day we picked up the pace. This is when I lost focus for just a second crossing a dry creek bed and twisted my ankle. Screaming in pain and crumpling to the ground I had felt everything in my ankle crunch. I thought it was over. After all the travel and planning to have everything be over in a split second. I was devastated. Libby quickly turned around and I regained some composure to assess the situation. The ankle was intact. The pain was extreme but I only had one option to get out of these mountains and that was to walk. I got up now heavily relying on my poles and hobbled to the next hut. We sat here and I removed my shoe to look at the damage. A bit of bruising a lot of swelling but it appeared to be a sprain so not a show stopper. Libby recommended I take some ibuprofen. I was hesitant. I had never taken any medicine during any runs I had ever done. This didn't seem like the place to start but she was a nurse and I needed to not roll it again because the next roll could be game ending.

My stomach was still very upset and now the heat of the day was setting in. We death marched up the final climbing sweating profusely. Head down trying to ignore the pain in my ankle and the nausea in my stomach we kept moving. As we started our descent into the final hut of the day Libby was out of water and the drugs had finally kicked in so I was moving fine. Time wise we looked good. 12.5 hrs for the first day was close enough to my 10hr perfect day predication. At the hut we paid to sleep outside and went to a nearby restaurant to get a big dinner. Eggs and fries were exactly what I wanted and a nice comfy sleeping pad in a tent was the best sleep I had in a while. I was limping badly now that we had stopped moving and even worse when we woke up in the morning.

We decided to buy breakfast at the hut the next morning which put us on a late 6:30am start. This day was a question mark for us since the information I had written down was for the recently closed cirque de la solitude. But we knew it was going to be one of the bigger days ending up closer to 30 miles. We always made good progress in the mornings and uphills were turning out to be our biggest strength. We passed parties that were gripped clinging to the side of the mountain as we mountain goated by hands free. We'd talk to a few english speakers as we passed by and they all seemed surprised as we told them our destination was "Manganu!!?? noooo" People seemed to be surprised but nobody seemed to express doubt in our abilities to do it just yet. This stage was beautiful and my stomach seem to be doing fine. It was the heat and the distance that seemed to wear on us and a few bone issues with Libby and her bad leg. Hikers liked to tell us of how flat sections of the trail were and how after the 4th stage the trail flattened out and was easy. As time would progress we would realize more and more that there was no such thing as flat on the GR20. And that the steep rocky bits continue on to the very end. Contrary to what people who are currently hiking it and who have previously hiked it may say.

Our late 6:30am start ended up really screwing us over on our way to Manganu. The hut seemed to never come and when we arrived at 8:30pm dinner was already done being served. We were screwed if we couldn't get a good dinner and a good night sleep. This turned out to be our free night. The host had already left so we had no one to pay for sleeping and a lovely Swedish couple saved us with some pasta, cheese, bread, and even a peach. We owe a lot to that couple and Libby and I made sure we would never have another late start again. Dinner was crucial to our success. We opened bivied that night and I in a thin bivy sack essentially slept in a warm sometimes chilly swamp of my own sweat. Needless to say it was a bad sleep.

We got up early the next morning and were hiking by 5:15 am. When we would start on a uphill we always seemed to make progress quickly. This was a nice technical traverse and we passed lots of parties. On the back side we boulder hopped quickly when Libby made a bad pole placement and went down face first into the boulders. The way she fell I was sure she had broken her leg. It was over. I slowly approached her growning. She hadn't yelled like a break so I was optimistic. A puddle of blood was pooling beside her face and I asked if she was okay. She responded yes but let me take stock first. She had punched herself in the face with her pole as she fell a few scraps on her knees and fat lip was all she sustained. I was hoping this would be our last accident.

We filled water at the next hut and decided to take the high route variation for the next section. A nice technical traverse of a ridge line to keep us occupied instead of traversing low in the trees. We moved faster on the technical terrain anyways. We passed a couple who we chatted with for a bit. The man very kindly wanted to remind us that we needed to stow our poles to get through the technical section. I ignored his comment and we kept moving. After a bit Libby and I talked about the encounter. It was the first time I had really started to notice how much unsolicited advice we had been getting on the trail. Was it because we were two females? Was it because we were Americans? Why did everyone want to tell us what we needed to do or that it was impossible to do the GR20 in 5 days? The pole comment stuck with me since we had never stowed the poles even once and honestly the entire route could be done without even using your hands. The real question was did they also say this to the two men who had flown past us at the beginning? Just as we were having this thought picking our way slowly down a step descent a man came flying past us in a tiny backpack effortlessly bounding down hill. His feet never touching the ground for more than a second. We must have passed those man in a hut at an early day I was convinced it was the same men.

Some storm clouds started to build and Libby set a grueling pace on the next uphill. Now it was just 5,000 feet of descending and we would be at the half way point of the GR20. This is when it hit me. I could eat like a 100 miler for 2 days worth of time but by the 3rd day my body was starting to lose hold of the sugar diet. Sugar might buy me 15 minutes instead of an hour now and the lack of calories and water sent my into a downward spiral. The downhills started to hurt more and my knees start to lock up. Next thing I know I'm bending over to stretch my legs standing up and falling face first into the boulders from a strong orthostatic hypotensive moment. I thought my sugar had dropped and I needed sugar. Libby was saying things to me but I couldn't hear her. Apparently I was moaning some inaudible sounds. I shoved a fruit leather in my mouth but couldn't chew it. Libby describes the moment as a partially unconscious person chocking on a fruit leather. She got me to move into the shade drink some water and eat some real food. She shared with me some of her extra food a cheese stick which I promptly spilled cheese liquids all over my shirt. It was my badge of dishonor to remember how I screwed up nutrition once again. This is when we realized that I had never done a multiday push. I've run 100 milers in a day before and I've climbed big walls in a day before. It turns out pushing is a lot different than pacing. I couldn't use my motivation of "the faster you run the faster you're done" no I had to keep sustaining for 5 days. You can't push into the pain cave and create a deficit. It was a new world of eating and moving that I was learning. And unfortunately this is what learning feels like as Libby liked to remind me. 

When we arrived at the half way point we got to see the the little town of Vizzavona. It wasn't much but it had showers, electricity, and the comfiest air mattress and best sleep I had on the entire trip. We ate downtown at a restaurant were no english was spoken. A few mystery dishes with one mild vomit and it was off to bed to start the second half. We chatted with an English speaker in the camp who was doing the route in 14days. When he discovered we were doing it in 5 he promptly responded with "You can not do it. It is impossible" We quickly ended the conversation and it left a bad taste in our mouths. On the way back to my tent I looked at Libby and said fuck that guy just because it's hard doesn't mean its impossible. 

The next morning we rose early and made our way to our last sleep on the course. The day started well and we made progress quickly. The terrain for this day was boring. Mostly wooded and good trail with little exciting to look at. I was running low on food and we were actually running on the trail. Libby close to falling asleep behind me we decided to slow down a bit and talk to make the time and distance pass quicker. When we finally reached Verde we decided to take a longer break drink some cokes and eat some food at the restaurant. We were on the final 10 mile stage of the day and making good time. The coke and the new drugs finally kicked in and we rocketed up what we thought was the final climb. But then things started to go south for me. I had eaten a bit of the cheese sandwich Libby had bought and the stinky cheese immediately did not sit well with me but riding the coke high at first it didn't seem to matter. Now about 3 miles out from our destination I was dry heaving on the side of the trail seconds from vomiting. I wanted to vomit. Vomit would make me feel better. Libby was talking about nasty things in an effort to make me vomit and I was retching on the side of the trail. An hour of slow walking and laying down and dry heaving and burping went by before I started to get angry. I felt like shit and I wanted to get to the next hut. At the pace I had slowed to we would miss dinner again. I started too shout and ride the anger wave now averaging a fast pace on the trail. I shouted angrily about french food and about animal cruelty and ran in anger. This wave of anger lasted until the hut was in sight and then I ran in desperation to be done. When we arrived I sat head between my legs with extreme pain in my abdomen. We had gotten the very last two dinners which I counted as a success. A nice comfy warm tent and I bought some more food to get me through the last day.

As we sat down to eat the food two very fit looking men in running shoes and clothing came up to us. You are the runner girls they proclaimed how many days are you doing it in. We responded with 5. They seemed impressed. They were the men that had passed us at the beginning and again on day 3! They were also doing the trail in 5 days. We had such a pleasant evening talking about the trail and running and getting to know each other. They both lived here on Corsica and the one man had run the trail in a just 2 days! We enjoyed their company and it was such a pleasant relief to have people who didn't use the word impossible. They gave us some good beta on some alternate routes that would make the final day more enjoyable. 

That night was rough. I tossed and turned all not from the pain in my stomach. I got up a few times to use the bathroom but nothing seemed to help the pain. Usually in the mornings I would feel great and we could make good progress for the fast half of the day. This morning was different. The abdominal pain had not left. We got on the trail by 5am and the boys passed us for one final time on the initial climb. Unlike the other days I wasn't able to muster the energy this morning. I was ill but moving. A cute little brown dog was following the boys out of the camp but when the boys moved to fast he latched unto Libby and I. He had a collar with no name and we assumed he belonged to someone at the hut. Libby kept shouting at him to go back but the fit little dog seemed determined to go with us. After a while we just accepted that he was with us now but the anxiety of having the dog around couldn't be ignored.

I ate 4 times with in the first hour of the morning. Hoping my stomach would turn around. The first hut took forever and the second took just as long and the sun was the hottest it had been the entire trip giving me heat rash on both my arms. When we arrived in Bavella we could finally eat some real food. We ordered 3 cokes, 2 chocolate crepes, and a large order of fries. Our puppy friend took a nap and the restaurant seem to recognize him and gave him a big plate of food. I was happy he was being fed but start to cry thinking about how independent he was and how much I missed Lopi. I poured a coke into my bottle and chugged the other. It was the final 12 miles to the finish and there was nothing that could stop us now.

Freshly drugged and full of food Libby and I took a more casual start to the final leg. We talked a lot and kept the miles and time passing. The end went quickly in my head. The mountains started to disappear and the ocean was the only thing on the horizon. My stomach and feet were hurting but a good conversation can distract anything. I had been in a strange habit of pooping about 3 times a day and the final day was no exception. This time however I realized something was different. I pooped the blackest poop of my life. A sign of bleeding. It was of no surprise having not taken ibuprofen for years of my life to now taking a healthy dosing for 5 days in a row that maybe the abdominal pain was something deeper than just upset stomach. But we were hours from the finish and it would heal in time anyways. 

The final day took us longer than expected and we arrived at the finish well past the bus schedule. It was entirely my fault but I had done the best I could. A lovely French family celebrating Bastille day invited us in for some delicious homemade pizza and wine and we talked all things Trump and GR20. In Conca even though the trail was done we were 3hrs from being back in Calvi and on a holiday in France the town was dead. Again for the last time of the trip we were told "It is IMPOSSIBLE to get to Calvi tonight" with early flights in the morning we reassured them that nothing is impossible it just may be expensive or hard. A few hours of attempted hitching and then a quick call to a taxi we were back in Calvi with our lovely couch surfing host Phillip at 2am. A glorious shower and blister relief allowed us to finally sleep well for me the first time 8 days. The next day would hold a 40hr travel block with a 18hr layover in Paris to a 5hr bus ride from SF to Truckee. Boy it felt good to be home and what a beautiful adventure. My ankle is healing well and I already feel like I can run again!

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GR20 Logistics - Corsica, France

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GR20 Logistics - Corsica, France

Route Plan

I had a double sided paper with this information printed on one side and then the map printed on the other side. I printed 3 copies one for each of us and a spare if we lost one.

Day destinations miles miles total hours hours total feet up feet up total feet down feet down total
1 Calenzana -> d’Ortu 7.5 7 5085 770
1 d’Ortu -> Carozzu 5 16.25 6.5 19 2460 9825 3445 6545
1 Carozzu -> Haut Asco 3.75 5.5 2280 2330
- - - - - - - - - -
2 Asco -> Tighjettu 5.5 6.5 3280 3280
2 Tighjettu -> Vergio 9.5 25.5 6 18.25 2790 8270 2855 7695
2 Vergio -> Manganu 10.5 5.75 2200 1560
- - - - - - - - - -
3 Manganu -> Petra 6 7 3220 2430
3 Petra -> l’Onda 6.75 19.5 5 19.5 1640 8110 2985 10335
3 l’Onda -> Vizzavona 6.75 7.5 3250 4920
- - - - - - - - - -
4 Vizzavona -> Capannelle 10 5.5 3280 1100
4 Capannelle -> Verdi 8.75 28.75 4.5 17.25 1050 8560 2035 5860
4 Verdi -> d'Usciolu 10 7.25 4230 2725
- - - - - - - - - -
5 d'Usciolu -> d'Asinau 10.5 7.25 3315 4020
5 d'Asinau -> Bavella 6.75 29.25 4.75 19 1250 6860 2280 11780
5 Bavella -> Conca 12 7 2295 5480
- - - - - - - - - -
119.25 93 41625 42215


Gear

Libby and I took similar but different gear. I am just going to write about the gear I brought including the pad which Libby carried since I didn't have room in pack.

Quantity Item Brand Notes
1 15L Running Backpack Osprey Super adjustable with no chaffing and extra storage space. Perfect for walking quickly or running. Also includes a 2.5L bladder for long hot efforts.
1 Bivy Sack Black Diamond Too warm for a bivy sack just makes you sweat and be uncomfortable at night. Instead bring the Patagonia ultra light sleeping bag. Would not bring this again.
1 Sleeping Pad I'm not sure I'd bring this again just because if you get in early enough and don't mind spending the money you can get a tent or a bed that already has a pad or mattress.
500 Euros You probably only need about 250 Euros unless you plan to Taxi from Conca to the start and then you'll need atleast 500 Euros
1 Wind breaker Black Diamond Only used this one day for about 10 minutes but would be nice if the weather wasn't so good.
1 Wind pants Patagonia The only pants I brought were definitily nice to have something to change into at the end of the day.
1 Underwear Patagonia I turned them inside out every other day and cleaned them at the half way point.
1 Puffy Jacket Patagonia It got chilly at camp at night it was nice to be able to put a warm jacket on also for sleeping
1 Fleece Patagonia I would take my sports bra and shirt off at the end of the day and it was nice to have a warm soft light layer to sleep in every night.
1 Bra adidas Outdoor Only need one. Cleaned it half way though and did not sleep in it.
1 Shirt Smartwool The thin wool shirt was clutch. It didn't even smell bad by the end of the trip.
1 Skirt Ryp wear The Ryp wear skirts have nice inner pockets to store food and also long enough to prevent lower back and thigh chaffing.
5 Socks Swiftwicks I brought a new pair of socks for everyday. This is important since your socks get really dirty every day and proper foot care is key to success.
1 Buff Buff I used the buff at night to cover my eyes and keep the ear plugs in.
1 Sunscreen Jtree Skin Products The Mediteranian sun is relentless. I wish we would have brought more sunscreen than we did.
1 Water bottle Hydrapak This was key for getting enough electrolyte drink. Every day I would drink several these with electrolyte, recovery, or even coke in it.
1 Chapstick Burtsbee The sun is unforgiving apply often.
1 Earplugs The only way to guarantee a good night sleep every night is to keep the sound out.
1 FirstAid and Drugs We kept an assortment of bandaids and pills. We never used any of the bandaids but the ibuprofen came in handy.
10 Babywipes We used baby wipes every day for just bathroom and foot cleaning. We should have brought about 10 more than we did.
1 Bugspray We encountered very little bug activity would not have brought this again.
1 Running Poles Black Diamond So key to being able to do the distances day in and day out. Save your legs.
1 External Battery Goal Zero This was perfect for charging the phone every day. Also important to bring a European charging converter. Most huts have electricity to charge from.
1 Cell Phone Iphone You want to be able to remember it if you're going to go this fast. :)
1 Child flip flops These are light wieght and key for foot relief at the end of the day. Defo bring a pair of these.
1 Sunglasses Peppers It is a bright!
1 Tiny Towel Nice for bathing in rivers and at the huts. Could go without but was nice to have when we showered.

Food

There are tons of places to buy food along the trail. You can probably go a lot lighter if you would like. Every hut has wide selection of food as well as all of the Bergeries along the trail. What I learned from what I brought is that in these kind of events you want to bring a wide variety of textures and flavors of food. And way more real food than packaged food.

Quantity Item Brand Notes
5 Electrolyte Powder Skratch Labs I brought one for each day and wish that I had brought at least two for each day. The weather was so hot that you sweat a ton and need a lot of sweat replacement.
5 Recovery Powder Skratch Labs I brought one for each night and end up drinking them every night. This was key to getting enough calories and being able to recover for the next day.
4 Cookies Skratch Labs I made 4 homemade blueberry almond butter cookies. This was a nice change to what I was eating out of packets and wish that I would have made and brought more things.
10 Gels Assortment I had given myself about 2 gels a day and ended up maybe eating about 6 of them. Gels are hard to stomach when you feel sick already and aren't as good for sustainable energy in a long multiday adventure
10 Gummys Assortment I eat all of my gummies by day 4. They are easy and tasty. Bring things that you like to eat it'll make it easy to eat them when you are forcing yourself to.
8 Nut butter Justins These I found hard to eat as well with how hot it was. But sucking back a nut butter packet always gave me some sort of sustainable energy for a good amount of time.
3 Bars Pro Bar These were perfect for a large mid day protein bust. I only wish I would have brought 5 so I could have had one every day instead of just the first 3.
10 Oatmeal Quakers We each had two packets of oatmeal every morning for breakfast. In the beginning this was enough but as the trip progressed I needed more and more food in the morning. A packet of peanut butter had to be added to get enough calories to start moving by day 4.
15 Fruit Leather Stretch Island These saved me in Alaska but weren't dense enough calories to get me through. I finished all 15 of these by day 3.
3 Apples Real fruit was an awesome way to mix things up
1 Dried Appricots I bought these at the half way point and really enjoyed mixing it up with some dried fruit with the usual food.
10 Apple sauce I bought 5 at the half way point and 5 at the last hut. These were nice and easy to go down but burned through quickly.


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