PREPARING FOR AN EXTREME RUN - Epic Survival: Extreme Adventure, Stone Age Wisdom, and Lessons in Living from a Modern Hunter-Gatherer (2017)

Epic Survival: Extreme Adventure, Stone Age Wisdom, and Lessons in Living from a Modern Hunter-Gatherer (2017)

Chapter Six




Everyone talks about finding his or her identity. For most people, there are experiences that become the building blocks of this process. These experiences begin to add up, and the sum total of them becomes the person’s identity. Whether consciously or unconsciously, everyone goes through the process in some form or another.

When I turned nineteen, I was just like any other human trying to separate myself from other humans. I was working in a mountaineering shop in Mammoth Lakes, California. Though I performed the tasks to the best of my abilities, it was still just a job. My real focus was working to perfect my climbing and becoming a better distance runner. I felt that by somehow combining climbing and running and using those to explore the land, I could end my lateral drift and establish my own unique identity.

One day, I happened upon a book titled The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California. As the book detailed, the Pacific Crest Trail stretches 2,638 miles from the Mexico/California border to the Washington/Canada border. The California section, by far the longest section at some 1,700 miles, covers the length of the state. Therein lies its majesty.

The trail passes through every climate and nature zone the United States has to offer. As its name states, it runs along the crest of some of the most stunning mountains in the world. It climbs at points to fourteen thousand feet, dips down into the hottest, driest desert, and crosses rivers, towns, and even our busiest highways.

The book’s focus was on hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. In the beginning, it talked about allowing five to six months to complete the trail. It mentioned that a couple named Ray and Jenny Jardine completed the journey in three months and three weeks. Another man, Bob Holtel, ran the trail in 110 days at the pace of a marathon a day, though he rested 46 additional days, meaning that he averaged about 16.5 miles a day. With my training, I was pretty sure I could blow those times away.

I had first heard about the Pacific Crest Trail when I was eighteen. Several of my climbing friends talked about hiking the trail, but running the trail seemed like an elusive dream. Even though the guidebooks said it took several months to complete, we were all certain we could do it faster. But no one actually tried.

I had friends who were in great shape and were accomplished runners. One of my friends, Bruce Davis, used to tell a story about running out into the wild for a day, spending the night, and running back the next day. He had worn a fanny pack and carried a bivy sack and a change of clothes. He was elated by the experience, and I could see by the light in his eyes that something had hit him really hard. It was a simple way to connect with the backcountry carrying minimal gear.

Ideas for long runs circulated in my head for years. I considered entering the Western States 100-Mile race. I contemplated running the John Muir Trail, which stretches 211 miles through the Sierra Nevada mountains. The dilemma was whether I wanted to start entering long races or to keep to the purity of running by going out and finding my own backcountry trails.

The more I read The Pacific Crest Trail and the more I thought about running the PCT, the stronger the pull became. It was a pursuit that would help define me, as well as teach me things about the land that I couldn’t learn on long day runs. Rather than entering competitive races, I decided that running for the sake of exploration was the route I would take.

At first glance, running 1,700 miles might seem impossible. But from my research I was learning that running great distances was actually more natural for humans than most people realize. Several scientists who undertook lengthy studies concluded that humans are actually built to run extreme distances.

In one study, the noted anthropologists Daniel Lieberman of Harvard University and Campbell Rolian of the University of Calgary determined that short toes make humans better suited to running than to walking. They tested fifteen people both running and walking on a pressure-sensitive treadmill. They discovered that an increased toe length of just 20 percent doubled the amount of energy required to run and produced additional shock on the foot.

Their conclusion was human bodies are ideally equipped to run long distances.

In doing so, we are using our bodies the way our hominid forebearers did millions of years ago. In what is known as the “endurance running hypothesis,” scientists and anthropologists believe that running for extended lengths of time is an adapted trait. The evidence suggests that it was the catalyst that forced Homo erectus to evolve from its apelike ancestors because they needed to obtain food.

For me, such information only fed my desire to take a run few had taken before, and it suggested that not only would my body hold up but it was actually built for the journey.


When I broke the news to friends that I was going to run the Pacific Crest Trail, nearly everyone I told was supportive and offered encouragement. However, several ultra-distance runners discouraged me, which came as a surprise. I expected more support from people who ran more than I did. I wasn’t bragging that I was setting out to break the record. I explained that I was just planning to run the trail and see what happened. Despite knowing how physically fit I was, they were skeptical that my body would hold up.

At that time, the prevailing wisdom among ultra-distance runners was that they didn’t peak until age thirty. Runners who regularly won races were closer to forty. The reason for this was mostly pacing and tactical smarts. It wasn’t that younger runners weren’t capable of winning those races; rather it was just that they would start too hard and not know how to pace themselves over fifty or a hundred miles.

I was fairly certain that my body would hold up. I was running like a madman. It was wintertime. I would wake up in the morning and run twenty miles before 10 a.m.—my morning jog in the snow. My weeks were filled with one hundred and fifty total miles over varying terrain. There were times I pushed myself extra-hard for consecutive days. I would run sixty-five miles one day, fifty the next, and maybe forty the third day. But I had never run those distances consecutively for weeks. I had little concept of how many miles I could do for days on end.

I did have other advantages. At that point in my life, I had never owned a car. I was always on my feet. I didn’t even have a bicycle. I made a concerted effort to stay off wheels of any kind. My primary mode of transportation was on foot, which allowed me to stay connected with the earth every step of the day.

The thought of running the PCT brought on a rush of tremendous joy. Not only was it a historic trail, it was a journey that represented freedom in all regards. As much as I loved running across the land, those runs required brainpower. The beauty about getting on a trail is that you don’t have to think. You hop on the trail and put one foot in front of the other. The next day, you do the same thing. There is a meditative feeling to being on a trail versus running cross-country.

It was a perfect time to run the PCT. The trail had just been officially completed. Previously, there were sections where people had to improvise the route because the trail was not continuous. Depending on the route taken, there were shortcuts in the uncompleted areas, particularly in one twelve-mile section that had not been finished because it was overgrown with brush and trees.

In May 1996, I felt I was ready. I headed to Seal Beach in Southern California to stay with family. The city was close to the Mexican border where I would start. I had done a lot of mountain training, so I reasoned that a couple weeks of flat training would be beneficial. I also began putting together the supplies I would need. Some supplies—very few, actually—I would carry rolled up in a cloth and tied around my waist. Others I would ship to post office drops along the trail.

I was trying to capture the feeling of what it means to take off running with only the essential gear I needed tied around my waist. To me that offered the ultimate freedom. It showed that I had developed my skills to the point where I was confident I didn’t need a backpack and could travel a great distance with only the absolute essentials.

I had only about four hundred dollars to my name, so I decided to ask energy bar companies for products in exchange for publicity. I called PowerBar and Clif Bar. PowerBar sent me a hundred bars. Clif Bar was a little less generous. They first offered me a wholesale price. Then they ended up sending me sixty bars complimentary. I understood their reluctance because nobody knew who I was. I was just some kid saying he was going to run the state of California.

At that point, I thought that once I finished the trail and broke the record, they would all be calling me with endorsement offers. I wasn’t convinced I would accept them, but the prospect of the offers was somewhat motivating.

I also stocked up on sunflower seeds and chia seeds. I had learned about the power of chia seeds from my research on Native Americans. Legend had it that when Geronimo was on the warpath and nearly starving, chia seeds sustained him. Many native tribes throughout the Southwest claimed that chia was the superfood of the land and that you could go hundreds of miles on just a few teaspoons of the seed, often referred to as the “food of the gods.” At the time, chia cost only about ninety-nine cents a pound—though once it became a fad, the price spiked to thirty-two dollars a pound.

I boxed up supplies to be shipped to the mail drops I chose from the PCT book. For the California section of the PCT, the book listed eighteen drops that were on the trail itself, rather than in nearby towns. I could have done the trail without any drops by purchasing food in the towns the trail runs through, but using drops would allow me to have the foods I wanted rather than relying on what was available. I also didn’t want to be forced to detour for supplies. I ended up choosing five drops based on the terrain in the area and what I thought my needs would be.

I planned to travel light. The fact that I was running and not hiking forced the issue even further. I took a five-by-five-foot piece of cloth that would serve as a blanket and laid it out on the ground. I placed my bivy sack, my water filter, my maps, extra shorts, and sandals, as well as my food, on the cloth and then rolled it up. I tied it around my waist. I slung a water bladder over my shoulder. Everything I carried had to serve a purpose.

I had very little margin for error.