Reflection on an Arizona Trail FKT
The following is a guest post courtesy of Jeff “Legend” Garmire, who recently set the self-supported FKT (Fastest Known Time) on the Arizona Trail, breaking the overall supported time in the process. Garmire is a self-described serial outdoor adventurer with over 21,000 miles of hiking under his belt. He has completed a Calendar Year Triple Crown, the Great Western Loop, and the Trek has NOT voted him sexiest hiker alive. Follow him on Instagram @thefreeoutside.
Preparing for the FKT
I spent the winter in Tahoe City running on snow and skiing. While it was a huge winter, the inclement weather caused me to alter my training plan from mileage based to moving time and time on my feet. In the end, I think it was a more helpful way to look at training than the mileage I logged each week. After I quit my job in late March I traveled down to Oracle, AZ and jumped on the Arizona Trail. I climbed over Mt. Lemmon (Southbound), turned around and climbed it again (Northbound), resupplied in Oracle and then climbed it once again (Southbound). From there I ran and hiked my way down to the border, scouting out the terrain I would be traveling over. The reason for this was not only to train, but also to scout out the sections. I hiked the Arizona Trail last year as part of the Great Western Loop from approximately mile 200 to mile 705, so scouting these initial 200 miles nearly gave me a complete experience of the trail before my first steps of the FKT.
After days of traveling south and meeting many thru-hikers, I was in the Miller Peak Wilderness. I camped at the edge of the wilderness and was ready to begin my Fastest Known Time attempt. Then the wind started. It blew so hard I struggled to sleep, anxiety weighed heavily on me and doubt began to grow. It was not a tough decision with the flexibility I had given myself and I decided to put off starting the FKT for one more day. I hiked down and traveled into Sierra Vista to regroup, resupply and try to destress. When I was ready, I traveled back to the trail, hiked up the hill and stayed at the first legal camping spot at the edge of the wilderness area.
It was 4.1 miles from my campsite to the monument (Mexican Border) and I was moving by 5am. It was all downhill and I covered the first miles quickly. I took a quick break, threw away my trash and assured everything was in the right spot at Montezuma Trailhead. From there I walked to the southern terminus of the trail, snapped a picture, punched my spot tracker and took off, fueled by adrenaline. I moved fast, covering the 6.5 miles and thousands of feet of elevation gain quickly to the turn off for Miller Peak. From here the trail bounced up and down and I took advantage of my health and began to run portions of it. I ate while hiking and stowed my food while running. I left the wilderness area and still had a good pace. Miles flew by like never before. At mile 20 a small hot spot appeared on one foot and I made a quick sock change and the discomfort went away. The day was fast and easy. I made it all the way to the road into Patagonia. 47 miles down.
At 4:30 the alarm went off and I was ready to go. The excitement of the FKT easily outweighed the early hour and I began the walk into Patagonia. I arrived before 6am and went straight to the vending machine I had scouted on my way south. In it there were sandwiches and snacks. I bought enough to supplement my food for the next 130 miles and climbed out of the town. It was a series of old roads and a long climb that eventually led to Mt. Wrightson Wilderness area. I was feeling great still and ran down into the canyon. Everything seemed easy. My body was responding well, my legs felt great and my mind was at ease. I arrived at Kentucky Camp and took some time to air out my feet, charge my phone and guzzle down some water. My goal for the day was mile 100 and I was well ahead of schedule. The trail had some small climbs and descents in the evening, but they went by with relative ease and I was able to find a nice sandy wash to cowboy camp in. 100 miles down.
Everything was going too smoothly. I was up again and felt great, moving through the flat desert leading up to Saguaro National Park. I crossed under I-10, past the junction to Colossal Cave and took a break at La Selvilla Picnic Area. I aired out my feet quickly and then was back moving north. I had 20 miles done by 11am, but the day would digress quickly. I peacefully walked through the desert, enjoying the unique look of the Saguaro Cacti and then the climb began. From the Quilter Trail and the National Park boundary, the trail gains 5,000′ of elevation over 12 miles. I began the climb at 2pm and it could not have gone worse. The 90-degree heat with little breeze hit me hard.
Within the first five miles I had drank all my water, had a headache and was struggling. I spent the next mile traveling from shaded spot to shaded spot, resting at each one. Sweat poured off my face and my legs felt empty. I was counting each tenth of a mile, seeing progress at a painfully slow rate. Finally, I found a small pool of water. I ripped off my pack and laid down in the lukewarm pool. It felt so nice to not only be in the water, but be able to lay down. It took every ounce of mental toughness to leave the dirty puddle and continue up the hill. Heat penetrated my being and the headache grew stronger. My pace was laughable, and darkness set in before I finished the climb. But as the sun set and the temperature dropped, my strength returned and I was able to salvage a 45-mile day, making it beyond the northern park boundary. In my first brush with adversity, I had made it out the other side. 145 miles down.
I knew this two-day combo would be difficult in climbing through Saguaro National Park and then climbing over Mt Lemmon. I did also know from my scouting that I would be able to follow a creek up the canyon for quite a while throughout the Mt Lemmon climb, and it would be much easier to fight off the heat. The day began early, and my fear of lingering effects from the day prior were unnecessary as I quickly crossed Catalina Highway and began the gradual climb. Today was peaceful in comparison and everything seemed to move at a more comfortable pace. I powered up the hill, and hit Romero pass, where the real climb begins. I was already cutting it close for the General store at Summerhaven, so I picked up the pace and moved quickly up the hill. At the top I began to run the downhills. As time ticked by and my chances of making it to the store before it closed grew even slimmer, I started to run all the terrain. I made it to Marshall Gulch Trailhead and had 11 minutes before the closing and a little over a mile to go. I sprinted up that hill.
This was the last day in this pair of shoes and my feet ached running on the pavement. I arrived at 6:01pm, but they still let me in. The strange thing about the decision to run is that I really didn’t need anything. More than anything I just wanted the morale boost and ability to eat something out of the store. I had a resupply and new shoes at High Jinx Ranch 11 miles away, so all I purchased was a can of Sardines, bag of chips and a coke. I used the internet at the store for a few minutes, ate the sardines and socialized with other hikers before beginning the 11-mile descent to the Ranch. It was so windy and dark that I took out headphones and blocked out the piercing elements. It went by fairly quickly, and I camped right at the ranch, ready to resupply and get on the trail quickly the next morning. 196 miles down.
I didn’t use an alarm because I didn’t want to be walking through the ranch looking for my resupply too early in the morning as people do live there. But in the end, I was up at 5:30 and saw my resupply box and shoes exactly where the owner had described it. I quickly changed everything out and was ready to go when the caretaker walked up. It was a bit embarrassing at 6am to see him after casually walking into the place, but he was kind and even offered to throw away my trash. It was later than normal (6:20am) so I moved with an added intensity. It would be a flat and fast day. I ran miles at a time and felt better on this day than any of my previous. It was true desert, and I saw sweeping views, rattlesnakes, cacti, and even multiple other hikers. I often pass people at night, seeing only their tents, but on this day, I got to interact with a few people as I passed them while they were hiking. Despite my pack being at its’ heaviest for the entire route, I was able to cover 51 miles in relative ease. 247 miles down.
I started the day like I got shot out of a cannon. I was running everything. After 5 full days, everything felt too good and I wanted to use it. I was sprinting down the hills and still maintaining a good pace up them. Miles melted by and I was soon paralleling the Gila River. I only slowed down when I had to filter muddy water out of the river before a long climb. Soon after leaving the river though, my energy level plummeted and I was not feeling like I had much left. The quick start to the day definitely contributed to the crash, but I had a plan. I poured caffeine into one of my waters and began to chug it. I climbed into Tonto National Forest, ascending into the mountains, powered by caffeine. I knew I would have to push late because of my resupply the next day so I continued to go, all the way to Highway 60. It was the first time of the trip being tired, but having to push through the urge to close my eyes for hours. 301 miles down.
I went to sleep after midnight and was up by 3am. It was 44 miles to Roosevelt Lake, and I had to make it by 7pm or I could not get my resupply box until the morning. There was no wiggle room and I moved fast. The climb up into the Superstition Wilderness went perfectly in the cool weather and it even rained a bit. But after entering the wilderness my foot problems began. The soles of my feet grew uncomfortable and despite trying to tape them, the problems snowballed. Hotspots turned into rashes and then my skin began to split. I left the wilderness hobbling. I had no spare time to survey the damage, but I should have taken the time to mitigate it. I continued to move as fast as my injured feet could go, and eventually passed some hikers I had seen while training on my way south. They all let out a cheer and it added a smile to my face. It was the final push I needed before jogging down the hill to the marina.
I made it at 6pm, grabbed my box and walked out onto the patio to look at the damage that was done. My feet were full of cuts and looked like a used tissue. The skin was wrinkled, irritated and slashed in parallel lines as if by a knife. The damage was done, and I bought some more duct tape from the store and walked down the trail towards the Four Peaks and Matazal Wildernesses. It would be one my hardest and most remote sections and I was starting it with injured feet. 350 miles down.
Upon waking, my feet were no better and my energy was at a low. My head hurt, I was groggy. My motivation was gone. I did not feel like moving, let alone pushing towards a goal of 50 miles for the day. But, knowing getting up is the hardest part I rose and began hiking. I was not fast. I couldn’t run, and I couldn’t even walk at 3 mph. Slowly as the sun rose my body loosened up and my feet grew numb with pain, yet the miles were still slow and sluggish. I climbed up, but after only 12 miles in 5 hours, I took a break and laid down, taking time to eat and air out my feet. I coated them in hydrocortisone cream and then tried to duct tape them up. But after packing up and continuing to move north, the duct tape proved more uncomfortable than helpful and I quickly took it off. I entered and climbed through the Four Peaks Wilderness. My pace was not healthy, but I relentlessly continued forward. Downing caffeine no longer helped the way it had in days past and I didn’t have much go right in my day until meeting some hikers that mentioned how much my previous adventures had inspired them. It brought a smile to my face on a day where it was tough to do so and powered me to Highway 87. I tried to push into the evening, but my body and mind rebelled. Sleep felt like the right decision and my eyes were closed around 10pm. It was a poor day as far as progress goes, but even for a bad day it didn’t ruin my chances. 393 miles down.
My feet were still quite destroyed, but my mental sharpness had returned. Sleep had paid off, although it had not induced the physical healing, I had hoped it would. I moved forward consistently and worked to limit down time and time not spent moving. With my diminished speed, I would need to be ever more diligent and efficient each time I removed my pack. I wound through the Matazals, climbing and descending on the rockiest of trail. The loose rocks (about the size of a fist) were not the ideal terrain to be moving over with already bothered feet but the sweeping views and welcome breeze made up for the terrain. Late in the day I dropped down and crossed the East Verde River. It was a river at which I got to the bank and saw no way of crossing and keeping my feet dry. At 8pm I trudged through the water, making the decision my feet would be wet the rest of the evening and for the following morning. As I climbed up Whiterock Mesa the trail became increasingly hard to follow at night. I never lost it, but my pace was diminished because it was difficult to spot the pathway on the empty ground. Usually there is a track, rocks, a rut, or some other tell-tale sign of a trail, but between all the interwoven wildlife and run off trails it was very difficult to follow. When I felt my pace drop to a level that bordered on unproductive in terms of trading sleep for slow miles, I passed out on a nice bed of pine needles. 444 miles down.
Today was going to be a strange one. I had a box waiting just off the trail at the brewery outside of Pine, but I had come to the decision that I would super glue the bottom of my feet in order to provide both a second skin and to try to close the large cuts that were providing so much discomfort. I arrived at the brewery just after it opened at 11am, ate some quick food, repacked my resupply and hobbled into town. I shopped quickly for the necessities and was soon sitting outside on a bench popping blisters and super gluing my feet. It must have been quite a sight. Each blister shot puss multiple feet into the air, producing a nasty colored liquid, and then I would contort the extremity to cover it in super glue. When I finally left town in the early afternoon I felt as though I could log some miles. Running was still out of the question, but walking felt better. The trail along the Mogollon Rim was also much nicer than the Matazals. Soft clay and dirt were the surface as opposed to rock. I pushed deep into the night, but could barely salvage a 40-mile day. Strangely I was content with the shorter day because I thought I had drastically improved my feet. 487 miles down.
Sleep deprivation was adding up. If the trail was flat for too long or my attention was able to drift for an extended period, my eyes grew heavy. There had been many late nights and early morning. I was now getting up before 4am and not succumbing to sleep until after 11 and sometimes 12. The trail was quite easy, following a litany of roads and pine needle laden trail with only the smallest patches of snow. It was a good situation for logging miles and my feet felt a little better. With the aid of caffeine, I was able to stay awake as I pushed to Mormon Lake, but in the afternoon when I sat down for a short break my eyes closed. I wasn’t sure how long I was out, but I bolted upright as soon as I felt my hat fall off my head and hit my knee. I scrambled up and kept pushing. I could not risk an unplanned nap. I crossed Lake Mary’s Road and wound around the tall forest when a gentle rain began to fall. It would be my only wet night and the only night setting up my tent. 539 miles down.
A resupply in the outskirts of Flagstaff was the goal, but staying awake in the morning was especially difficult. It got so difficult I decided to call my dad. Talking on the phone would easily melt away 30 minutes and sharpen my mind for the hour or two proceeding. It was largely flat through the forest and I was able to find a clearing and some sun to quickly dry out my tent after the rain. Then I pushed hard to skunk canyon, turned right and began the pathway along the rim of Walnut Canyon. I had never been on this portion of the trail before and I was quite impressed. The only downside to the great views were the endless mountain bikers I had to share the trail with. On one hand they kept me awake but on the other they always kept me on edge and induced a bit of anxiety that I would be hit by one of them. In the end it all worked out. I made it past the interstate and all the way to Highway 89. Here I had a decision. There was a gas station a few hundred yards south, but there was a Dollar General a mile north. Did I want better resupply food or to save some time? I opted for the gas station and had a food bag full of one of my most depressing collections of nutrition. There was little there to buy, so a staple of my diet would be hot dog buns, mayo and mustard packets, with individual cheese sticks and beef jerky in them. Food would obviously not be the main thing occupying my mind in the next section. I pushed deep into the night and camped at altitude, which proved quite cold. The moon had been continually growing brighter and I now had to plan where I slept, or the near full moon would blind and wake me with its shine. 592 miles down.
I was up early and the chill of the morning at altitude had me dawning every layer I owned. Had it been any colder the next step would have been to drape my sleeping bag over my shoulders between my insulated jacket and my rain jacket. I climbed over the shoulder of Mt Humphries and had snow for a good 5 miles as I neared 9,000’ of elevation. It was a sign of what was to come on the north rim and it had me scared. This vision of snow would occupy my mind too often until I arrived at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. After making it through the San Francisco Peaks the trail dropped quite significantly to a flat, arid high plains. This is where the conditions were perfect. The largely flat abandoned roads and soft trail were nice to my feet, the weather was cool and promoted miles, and my resupply food seemed to be doing the job. I was doing great at overcoming exhaustion and the pains that occupied my legs and feet until night set in. My body would not respond. I slowly trudged toward a 50-mile day at a pace that still makes me cringe. Everything in my body was hurting. My left knee had pain, my quads were empty, my calves felt tight. My feet had blisters, cuts, internal pains and were in non-stop agony. Even my back had a few spasms on this trying day.
At 9pm I set my pack down and rested my head on it for a quick dirt nap. With no alarm set, I was out for 15 minutes and felt rejuvenated enough to log four more miles and hit my target of 50 for the day. With the terrain and weather, I was disappointed I had not been able to get a longer day. I needed to have some breathing room for the snow that awaited me. There was only one day left before whatever was at the north rim became my reality. 642 miles down.
It was not a good morning. I hit snooze on my alarm until I didn’t even need a headlamp to move. Mentally I was out of it, and felt like throwing in the towel. My body was wrecked and I just wanted to sleep. This was not fun. It was brutal and I questioned why I had put myself through this. But while all these thoughts went through my head, I pushed forward. Miles ticked by quickly as I neared the Grand Canyon. I was able to run again and it opened up a new world. My psyche improved and I crushed the day. I made it to Tusayan at 6pm and really needed to turn this day into something special. I did my most expensive (by almost double) resupply at the general store, drank a coffee from Starbucks and packed out a Yerba Mate for even more caffeine and began my assault on the Grand Canyon. I was at its’ rim late at night, but I followed the Kaibab Trail and kept going. It was magical. The moon shone bright and I often turned off my headlamp to see the giant canyon bathed in the night light. Moon shadows were everywhere and it didn’t make me want to stop. I continued to push to Phantom Ranch and then even further on the flat trail. Today turned into tomorrow, and I didn’t even take a dirt nap until after 2am. 700 miles down.
I was reenergized after my 25-minute dirt nap and kept pushing. It was peaceful to have the whole canyon to myself, and I wanted to preserve the feeling as long as I could. The sensory overload of the Grand Canyon was working wonders for my sleep deprived mind, and I could just continue on. After Cottonwood Camp I decided I better log a few more minutes of sleep before the sun came up or I would pay for it throughout the day of snow travel ahead. I dozed off for another 30 minutes and awoke as the first shimmers of light illuminated the canyon. From there it was an aggressive climb up the North Rim and I was done with the canyon by the time most people were done with breakfast. Then the snow began. It was an eerie feeling traveling through the snow-covered forests. There were no footprints and only occasional breaks in the snow to reassure I was on the right path. This early in the day the snow was still firm and my pace was good, but that wouldn’t continue. With each slip on the crusty white layer my feet would cry in pain and I would wince. With no one around, some of the winces could have been quite loud, but I was nearing the point where it was tough to tell what was in my head and what was said out loud. The snow to the park boundary was quite navigable and there were even portions of exposed trail with snow melt to collect water. But once I left the National Park and climbed even higher onto the Kaibab Plateau the snow became constant. It was no longer solid either, and with every step I would sink a few inches. It was not post holing, but it slowed me down considerable.
My feet were wet the entire time and I was frustrated. My pace was slow and sluggish and I was incredibly tired, while also knowing I had to push into the night. The snow changed my plan. Initially I had planned on 50 miles each day, but today that did not seem attainable, so I changed my plan to anything over 40. The thinking behind this was if I would cut the miles remaining to under 50 for tomorrow, then I was confident I could make it to the end. Making this decision eased my fears and lifted a layer of anxiety. In the sleep deprived state, anxiety seemed to be weighing on my body at a much faster and more fear inducing rate than when sleep was not so much an issue. I passed by the East Rim with sweeping views and even found a picnic table cleared of enough snow that I could eat a tortilla wrap for dinner. Then the slog continued into the night and I started going crazy. I couldn’t stop, but I also couldn’t stop the strange things going through my mind. While walking through clearing and on the snow with the moon casting shadows down, my mind turned the trees, shadows and landscapes into things they weren’t. I was hallucinating. A shadow looked like two old people hugging, a tree looked like a witch with a broom, a clump of trees looked like a cabin. Another resembled Sasquatch and my mind continued to drift. It was one of the stranger things I have experienced mentally. I knew these things weren’t there, yet my mind was still making them appear. It was like a weird version of Inception. Late in the evening and after 41 brutal miles I laid down to sleep. It was not good sleep. 741 miles down.
I kept waking up. I would wake in a fit of panic, expecting to have slept through my alarm. I had 8 different ones set to combat this fear, but my mind was too panicky to quell. It was not rational, but in the state I was in, nothing seemed to be rational. I had only planned a couple hours of sleep anyways, but they were not productive hours and I eventually began my final day. Everything I drank had caffeine added to it. There was little else I could do to stay mentally alert and despite trying to listen to loud music, it would frustrate my mind after a few minutes and I would push on in silence. The snow was patchy in comparison to yesterday, and the route was much easier to follow. The brisk morning chill aided in my alertness and I was able move forward with ease. The frustration of having to fight through 48 miles was eased when the number became 38 and then 28. There were moments of reflection and moments of longing. I was ready to be done. I was over caring about food or cravings or even a bed. I just wanted to sleep uninterrupted for hours on end at the first place possible. My feet were as bad as they had ever been after a day of being wet and trudging through the snow, but after a week of intrusive pain, I could move the dull throbbing to the back of my mind and hobble on. There were periods and waves of adrenaline that caused me to run short sections and power up the hills, but overall it was a day of only consistent forward motion. Breaks were not true breaks, only time to grab food from my pack. I had a mission and much like the last hours of Nolan’s 14, I felt no need to rest. I could rest when I was done but not now.
I wanted rest so badly but I did not need rest to accomplish this current goal. The trail eventually hit the gentle downhill and the snow disappeared. I ran out of water and despite knowing exactly where the next source was my mind lost track of the task and I walked right by it, making me need to back track a few minutes. It was a day spent in my own head and as the sun set and darkness engulfed the trail, I felt none of the tiredness of previous night. I continued forward. The final miles frustrated my exhausted body as the gentlest switchbacks ensued with only a couple miles left. But finally, I made it down and heard voices in the campground. It was a weird moment, I hit the monument and not 5 seconds after being done someone yells out with my trail name, “Are you Legend?” I responded and the moment and hours of reflection were over as quick as the trip was.
A rollercoaster like none other. I learned and found caverns of my mind I have never explored and will one day return to those spots, ready to get more comfortable in the pain cave I lived in for much of the past 15 days, 13 hours, and 10 minutes.
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