I’m not sure where to begin telling this story because I don’t know where it began. There is the literal start of the run in Happy Isles, Yosemite Valley; but what about all the time spent planning, looking at maps, and dreaming before that? It could have started a year ago when I first browsed fastestknowntime.com and noticed no supported FKT for the John Muir Trail (JMT) had been recorded on the site, but I think it started before that. I think it started the first time I experienced the Sierra Nevada, breathing mountain air and car camping as a kid. It started when I climbed Mt. Whitney for the first time at 13, battling a severe case of bronchitis and watched JMT finishers celebrating their multi-week journeys on the summit – the southern end of the 211-mile trail. It’s impossible to nail down the exact moment, so I’ll start in August 2021, right in the middle of my effort to set a fastest known time on one of the most famous thru-hiking trails in the world.
Silver Pass lands around the 80 mile mark of the John Muir Trail when traveling north to south (Yosemite to Mt. Whitney). This is the most traditional direction for backpackers, but is scarcely touched by runners going for speed records ‑- the obvious reason for this being the net uphill nature of traveling from 4000ft to 14000ft. At this point I was 28 hours into my effort, and my pacer had just left me to return back to Mammoth Lakes after walking with me for 10 miles. The sky was the darkest it would be, and I was severely sleep deprived from only 2 hours of sleep at Duck Pass before starting this leg a little after midnight.
“Why am I doing this?” I thought as my headache and blurry vision, distorted by the beam of my headlamp, brought me to my knees on a cold pile of rocks. My feet ached with every step, I was nauseous, I couldn’t keep my eyes open and I just wanted to sleep. I tried forcing caffeine but any bit of it would come right back up in an intolerably fiery belch of heartburn.
The why. It was an important theme. I fell asleep asking myself this, and woke up doing the same. I came to no conclusion in the moment, but it became my mantra for the trail. “Why?” It’s so simple, but so profound, so I just kept on asking myself. 20 miles later I was still saying it out loud, and I moved through vast terrain in what seemed like a blink. Before I knew it I was at my next checkpoint napping and eating.
There is a lot of the trail I don’t remember – what I saw, what the terrain felt like underneath my feet, if I passed anyone, what I thought about – but I bring this up because this moment is the first I remember when I think of the JMT. The number 1 question I get asked is if I had any spiritual experiences or any profound awakenings: “What did you learn about yourself through such an arduous journey?” I learned that I don’t have a “Why”. There is no good reason why I choose to push myself and seek out such physically demanding experiences. I’m not looking for any answers, I’m not trying to prove something, and I’m certainly not doing this for my health – this stuff is BAD for you. Through 3 days straight of repeating the word “why” I could not come up with anything, and that made me happy. To me, that is pure passion. Adventure drives me. The mountains drive me. Experiencing them at a fast, physically demanding pace provides an unmatchable sensory overload that is the most wonderfully painful high imaginable. I crave these feelings and I don’t care why.
I think back to when I first tapped into my intense desire for adventure. I never truly enjoyed hiking trips when I was younger; thanks to my Dad, I was doing epic things like summiting California 14ers as a teen, but all the epic trips he dragged me on felt forced and out of obligation. I would much rather have been at home playing video games, or riding my scooter and doorbell ditching with my goofball friends. But at some point, there was a change within me: I recall a time in high school after cross country practice where I felt a deep rush of anxiety. This was more than the normal hormonal angst of the teenage years. I sat underneath the shower head for what must have been an hour thinking about how mediocre I was. I was a mid-pack runner, earned good grades but never considered myself an intellectual, did not hang out with the cool kids. Nothing distinguished me. I had no identity and I hated it.
I continued to run and although I never made it to a stand-out level, I began to love it. I could never compete when it came to a 5k race, but I could out run the early-bloomer varsity studs on long runs. The longer the run, the more I stood out. Running out of road options, we headed to the hills, and that’s where I shined even more. I took this newfound talent to the mountains and before I knew it I was running the Mt. Whitney Trail and clocking times that would top leaderboards. Long-distance running in the alpine was my thing, I just hadn’t realized that was a thing to be had yet. I thought about this a number of times out on the JMT. I found the more I thought about my evolution as an athlete, the more confident I became and the better I felt climbing the steep mountain passes the trail has to offer. This was my identity, and the more I accepted it the more it showed.
I would talk more about the specifics of the trail, but in all honesty the whole thing was a blur. Yes, it was beautiful; yes, it was rugged and technical; yes, the mountains were breathtakingly epic, the lakes were reflective and pristine, the wildlife was pure and majestic, but that’s all to be expected. It’s the freakin John Muir Trail! Sometimes I wish I remembered more, but ultimately I don’t think it matters. The memories that stuck were not still images, they were sensations and feelings. They were obstacles that literally knocked me over, barriers I had to mentally overcome. They were the countless internal clashes between sleeping in a few more hours and rising up and persevering to the end. They were moments like this:
You rise after your 4th successive night of 2 hours of rest. You attempt to pack your bag for the final push, but every trivial task is a colossal effort in itself. You check the mental math, look at the company beside you, and despite every hiccup along the way you realize you are actually going to accomplish the goal that sprouted from a ridiculous idea that infected your mind a year ago. You go, teetering across the same line on which you started this journey – the line between a peacefulness that comes with traversing the most beautiful trail in the world, and a fierce intensity required to achieve such an audacious goal.
These moments, although in pitch black and devoid of any visual input, are the moments I will remember – the intense lows beaten down and buried by the even more intense highs. The concoction of emotions felt all at once, and what I was doing when feeling them. These memories will never go away.
There are generally two ways to break down an experience like this. You can look at it on a macro level or on a micro level. Usually, when I meet my goal, (which I happened to do by exactly ninety minutes over the course of a three and a half day effort), I brush it off as a pure success and don’t feel the need to dive into a microanalysis of where things went wrong. I think “Sick, that went perfectly, I don’t need to change anything for the next time.” When I fail to achieve my goal, I deep dive into every scenario and micro-analyze every second of the effort, trying to understand what caused such a miscalculation of my ability. Ultimately, failure is what leads to growth. I think back and there were many times I was hurting incomprehensibly, but none of that matters – because I did the thing. What growth comes from that? Absolutely none. Of course I could have done this better. Of course I made mistakes that ultimately cost me precious hours. But how do I prevent those? I have no idea and my mind is clouded by success. There is a wall that is blocking me from looking back and sitting in the hurt to understand what I could have done better.
While I do believe failure leads to the most growth, there is some growth that comes from achieving your goal, and it is only possible when coupled with curiosity and courage. I learned the tiniest bit more about what I am capable of. I did not hit my limit on a mission where I truly believed at points that I might. I come out of this with the confidence I can take on something longer and more demanding. I come out of this with even more excitement to find that limit and fail at something so outrageously taxing. Because then I can grow even more.
John Muir Trail FKT — North to South (Supported — sign to summit): 213 miles, 50,200ft. of vert in 3 days, 10 hours, 32 minutes.
Rod Farvard is a 26 year old ultrarunner living in Mammoth Lakes. Captivated by towering mountains and infinite potential for long trail linkups in the alpine, moving to the Easterns was a no-brainer when his SF tech job declared the company would be remote forever.
His passion for trail running came early growing up in Moraga, CA where most of his high school cross country team’s training would be done through East Bay Area redwoods and endless rolling hills through expansive open spaces. In college he competed in triathlons ranging from sprint distance to Ironman but switched over to 100k and 100 mile trail races soon after graduating UCSB after coming to terms with his hatred for swimming. Naturally, his love for long days in the alpine combined with the cancellation of races during Covid led him to scheme up a plan to set an FKT on his favorite trail on the planet: The John Muir Trail.