Mike Wolfe and Hal Koerner are expert ultrarunners attempting to set a record running up Mount Whitney. (Photo courtesy of North Face).
Mike Wolfe and Hal Koerner are expert ultrarunners attempting to set a record running up Mount Whitney. (Photo courtesy of North Face).

By Cy Musiker

Two champion ultrarunners headed up California’s Mount Whitney this morning as they began an attempt to break the speed record for hiking the John Muir Trail.

Hal Koerner, who manages a running store in Ashland, Ore., and Mike Wolfe, from Missoula, Mont., want to finish the trail’s 222 miles in less than three days and 14 minutes. That would put them at the end of the trail in Yosemite Park early Sunday morning.

In a telephone interview from Lone Pine yesterday, Koerner joked that he’s making the attempt because it’s “the best way I can continue my summer tan, while finding an excuse not to shave.” And then, he added more seriously, “It’s one of those epic trails, probably the most scenic trail in the world, and it’s right here  in our backyard.”

Lots of people do the route every year, but most take two to three weeks to make the trip. It’s no wonder. The hike starts with a brutal climb — from Whitney Portal, at an elevation of 7,851 feet, to the top of Whitney, the highest peak in the 48 contiguous states at 14,500 feet. Put all the climbing together, and it adds up to about 46,000 feet, according to the USGS, with about 38,000 feet of descent.

Koerner and Wolfe also will face poor air quality along the way from a fire on the west side of the Sierra. Koerner said the two were checking out the trail where it passes near Mammoth Lakes a few days ago, and it was hard to breathe just walking around town. “The idea of walking 30 miles through something like that doesn’t sound too appealing at the moment, but you just take what the environment gives you.”

I asked Koerner if, in racing the clock, he and Wolfe will miss what’s really special about the trail: its natural beauty and the awe-inspiring views along the way. Trail runners spend a lot of time looking at their feet to make sure they don’t trip or twist an ankle. But Koerner said he and Wolfe both love the mountains, and will keep their heads up.

“Whether that’s four days on the John Muir Trail, or a couple of weeks on the John Muir Trail,” Koerner said, “I’ll hold no less of a wondrous appreciation for what we see up there. And I’ll be inspired around every corner, as much as anyone else would.”

“There’s something very fluid and natural to us about moving through a landscape like this, light and fast.” Wolfe said. “To us it’s just as spiritual doing it this way, as someone who’s got a big backpack on.”

Mt. Whitney
Mount Whitney is the highest summit in the contiguous United States with an elevation of 14,505 feet. This is the east face, taken from the road to the trailhead. (Don Graham/Flickr Creative Commons)

Koerner and Wolfe will each carry about 10 pounds of food, including lots of goo, beef jerky, and “junk food like Oreos and Snickers bars,” plus water and an emergency shelter. They’ll be resupplied with food four times along the way.

That means they won’t be challenging the speed record for trekking the John Muir Trail without resupply that’s held by Brett Maune. He did the trip in three days, 14 hours in 2009. Instead they’re trying to beat Susan Johnston’s record, set in 2007.  She had friends meet her at three points along the route with food and supplies, and covered the trail’s 222 miles in three days, 15 hours and 32 minutes.

Koerner and Wolfe note they’ll still be dealing with the challenges of high altitude, sleep deprivation, and taking in fewer calories than they burn each day. Maune suffered from hallucinations, a problem common to ultrarunners. “Certainly it’s still a race of attrition.” Wolfe said. But part of the mental training for this run, he said, is having the patience to slow down from the pace they would set in a race. “We’re not out here to just go out hard and go as hard as we can. Because we (wouldn’t) make it.”

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor