In a record setting time of three days, seven hours and 57 minutes, Darcy Piceu set a new northbound supported fastest known time (FKT) on the John Muir Trail (JMT), twelve hours faster than Sue Johnston’s record that had been standing for 10 years.
Located in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, the John Muir Trail is known for its stunning alpine beauty accented by jagged peaks, pristine lakes, perfect granite, exposed terrain and numerous high elevations peaks. The route starts at the base of Mt.Whitney, the highest summit in the contiguous United States with an elevation of 14,505 feet, then heading northbound traverses multiple passes over 11,000 feet in the first 100 miles (the JMT has an approximate overall gain of 47,000ft) and decreases in elevation down towards the finish at Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley.
Two years prior to this successful attempt, Piceu started out on an unsupported solo attempt but in the early miles had issues with her pack rubbing her back raw and also became acutely aware and overwhelmed by the prospect of no communication with her daughter (there was no 2-way communication at that time) and decided to stop about 40 miles in. This experience is what made her decision to come back next time in a supported effort. “My first time there, I was immediately really floored by how beautiful it was and ever since then it’s always been in my head to go back but I knew I wanted to do it supported the next time. For me, it’s always been about the beauty of the trail, not necessarily the difficulty of the trail but the idea of being drawn deep into the wilderness and getting to see these incredible places. Earlier in the summer I set an FKT on the Huyauash Circuit in Peru and it was the same thing that drew me there – the mountains and the beauty of that area. I just really do love being way out in the wilderness and the John Muir Trail is really out there and there are a lot of through hikers and back packers with a really similar mindset. I met a lot really neat people out there who have fascinating cool stories and that just made it very interesting to me.”
With a full plate as a working mom, Piceu commented on the lack of ideal conditions heading into her attempt “The two weeks leading up to tackling the John Muir Trail, I was not able to get out very much as with the first two weeks of school for my daughter, we caught everything and were under the weather with terrible coughs and colds. But then the whole thing came together really quickly. Initially, I was only thinking I had 3 or 4 people to help me but at the last minute I had another person who was able to meet me at a really really remote spot which basically made the whole thing possible. To get to this location it was a 6-hour drive around and then a 10-mile hike to get in to it and he made it happen. It was a very long section leading into this spot, so having support there to resupply was crucial for this to all come together. It was so great, everybody got along and it was an all-star group of people I had helping me.”
A different beast than running a 100 miler, Piceu talked about the effort of tackling the JMT. “This is the longest I’ve ever run. I would almost compare it to adventure racing in terms of sleep deprivation and length of time you’re out there. I had three designated sleep station stops where I would lay down in a tent and would sleep for an hour, it wasn’t the best sleep especially since some stops had to happen in the daytime since the crew was restricted by the few locations they could come into, but for sure it still rejuvenated me. Along the way I took four dirt naps where I would try and cash out for 10 minutes so I would say at most I slept for 3 hours and 40 minutes throughout the 3 days. On the first and third night I had pacers, I was solo for the second night and I was running a little bit scared very aware of wildlife. I didn’t stop for a trail nap till approximately 4am. In my head, I knew I had to keep my wits about me and be extra cautious, definitely a little sketchy being out there on my own throughout the night.”
While weather has to be considered, the JMT area has some of the sunniest and mildest conditions of any major mountain range in the world and Piceu was thankful that weather played to her advantage. “The part that was so amazing was that we had the best weather. There was a little bit of a cold front that came in. The nights were quite cold, dipping into the 20’s at times and I was in a lightweight down jacket and tights quite a bit but I didn’t get rained on once! Blue skies and beautiful weather – I couldn’t complain at all about the weather, I really lucked out!”
In her 11th year on the First Endurance ultra running team, Piceu said “Throughout the 3 days I always had the EFS drink loaded in my bladder for electrolytes and fluid. I had Ultragen every time I saw my crew along with real food which is what I do in 100 mile races as well. In 100’s I start the Ultragen around mile 60 and I’ve always sworn by that. It is really huge for me. When my crew hiked in I would have some soup packets that we could just add hot water to and then at easier access points they brought in things like pizza and veggie sandwiches and garden burgers for me.”
Things were going well and on track and it wasn’t until late in her attempt that Piceu showed any signs of struggle. “My lowest point was night three when my cough had gotten really really bad. I was on a flat section where you drop into Yosemite Valley and I had about 9 miles of flat terrain that was very runnable but every time I ran at that point I would be doubled over with a hacking cough so all I could do was walk. At that point I was really discouraged I got pretty down on myself about not being able to run that section and I was also getting pretty sleepy just walking versus running.” Overcoming this stretch the experienced runner said “Managing the physical and mental stress went hand in hand while running 200 plus miles on sleep deprivation. Sometimes the physical and mental blend together. It’s about taming the mental side of things and not allowing yourself to go to those dark places and then it shifts how you feel physically as well, so for me it’s all so inter connected. You can make something way worse by thinking about it too much.”
With her eyes on breaking the women’s record of 3 days and 20 hours Piceu acknowledged “I wanted to get the FKT by a significant amount so it didn’t get broken next week! So in my head I was planning to run a pace to make 3 days and 10-15 hours.” And Piceu did just that, surpassing a decade long record held by Sue Johnson by twelve hours to finish the 223 mile John Muir Trail in 3 days, 7 hours and 57 minutes.
An extremely accomplished ultra runner with a lengthy list of notable wins, results, course records and FKT’s to her name Piceu said, “This FKT is high up there with respect to accomplishments but I can’t compare it to any race result. It’s a different one because it’s not a race and it’s such a different style of running.”
“It’s an accomplishment I didn’t know was possible for me so I feel really really proud of it actually, which isn’t something I typically say – it really means a lot to me.”
“The women’s record has been standing for 10 years so to pull it down over 12 hours feels like a pretty big deal, it really feels good.”