"MANY OF US RUN TO ‘ESCAPE’ REALITY BUT TOO FEW OF US RUN TOWARD OUR POTENTIAL REALITY." - Andrija Barker
Andrija Barker & Taylor Neal
To run/fast-pack the length of Idaho N to S in 30 days - the record is rumored to be 45-50 days.
Saucony Peregrine – 6 pairs each (and I definitely could have used one or two more)!
The Idaho Centennial Trail (ICT) is a route that spans the length of Idaho (900+ miles). Most commonly, attempts are made from South to North over a time period of months. We started in the North - on the border of Canada and Idaho - and trekked South, toward the Idaho-Nevada border.
Let me just put this out there. You don’t know me.
I am not a well-known trail runner/ultra-racer nor would I consider myself a thru-hiker. The majority of the backpacking I have done is 2-3 days. The one time I ran/hiked 52 miles in a 24-hour period, was a total accident. Google me, and you may find a few racing accolades of a just above average 5k-50k runner but, nothing astounding.
However, when my long-time friend, Taylor and I started talking about this attempt – over 10 years ago while working at a specialty run store - I never doubted that we were up for the task. In all my training and racing, I was used to pushing limits. As a runner, I'm always stepping just beyond my comfort zone – and enjoy it. I figured a 900 miles trek couldn’t be much different. Or perhaps a little naivety and a dash of ego helped with the confidence.
Fast-forward 10 + years later, sitting on a restaurant deck in late June, over-looking the Kenai River in Alaska, a few beers in and one of us threw the challenge out there again. “We should definitely attempt the record sometime” one of us casually said, “How about next summer?” the other chimed. That was it. No turning back. We were committed.
We hit the trail on July 30th, 2016.
We had planned the logistics for over a year were prepared with gear, food, water, etc. Physically, we had done all the prep we’d had time for with our full-time jobs and other responsibilities. Knowing my body would be pushed to extremes, I had confidence that, mentally, once I stepped on to that trail, it would take something major to get me off the trail before the ‘finish line’.
In preparation, we had studied the maps and read up on trail conditions, etc. What we DIDN’T take into account, or actually, what we just were not experienced enough to know, were 2 things:
- The toll the accumulating 30 miles/day would have on our bodies.
- The toll that that mileage, over nearly vertical terrain, massive downed trees, along overgrown and non-existent trails, would have on our bodies.
The first 7 days, I was miserable. Every morning I had to rely on painkillers to even move my legs to crawl out of bed. But the body adjusts to pain and stress. As quickly as the soreness and stiffness came, it went.
On Day 8, I woke up and felt completely different. My body had adjusted, or rather, given up on me quitting so, it decided to cooperate.
Don’t get me wrong; I wasn’t suddenly skipping through the forest, pain free and singing with the birds.
Most days something hurt. Pain migrated from one place to the other for both Taylor and me. Mentally, this was no cakewalk either. There were hours each day that I was extremely bored. Think about a training run you have done, where the time seems to drag. You look at your watch and it’s been 5 minutes, then you look again and it’s 8 minutes, and so on and so on. Now imagine that, every day, for an average of 10-12 hours! There is only so much that can be said between two friends who spend 24/7 together with NO ONE else around to join in the conversation. We spent countless hours in complete silence, caught up in our own spinning thoughts.
Day after day we knocked out the miles. Days blended into each other, broken up only by our resupply spots, frequent wild animal run-ins and the rare encounters with other humans.
For the first couple hundred miles, Taylor’s parents supported us. They resupplied us when possible throughout the day, cooked for us most mornings and nights.
We were on our own. We strapped on our heavier packs (25-30 pounds) and hit the trail at more of a fast-hike pace. All illusions of running this section were thwarted by poor trail conditions, intensely steep terrain and our timeline. Our stops were few and efficient. Minus a few miraculous occasions when we ran into other people who shared a meal, fire, or beer with us – our breaks lasted no longer than 10-30 minutes. When we hit our mileage each day, or it was too dark to go any further, we would set up camp wherever we were – and we ended up in some interesting places – quickly consume as many calories as we could stomach and stumble into our sleeping bags for a night of restless sleep.
Our GPS tracking device died and with it the ability for anyone to follow our progress – this included our support crew (my brother) waiting for us at the end of the Frank Church wilderness section. This meant one thing; we had to stay on track. Otherwise there would be a search party out looking for us – and that just sounded like a mess.
We stopped for a short break at a spot called Chamberlin Basin and continued on…in the wrong direction for several miles. By the time we figured out our mistake it was early evening. While backtracking, we took what looked to be a half-mile short cut across what turned out to be a swampy field. As we trudged across it, up to our thighs in sloppy, squishy gunk, all I could think about was the backcountry plane we had seen at Chamberlin Basin and wished that I were on it, headed home.
Once out of the muck, we were faced with yet another obstacle. The trail was not where our maps showed it to be. Soon we were in downed trees piled so high and thick that to move, we had to balance on and above them. As I leapt and climbed on exhausted legs along each natural balance beam, I occasionally fell into the spaces between the trees – where I could see nothing but a labyrinth of slivers of light. Hours later, feeling completely defeated, we found the trail.
I stood there and cried for a moment, frustrated and hungry.
As the sun went down, we set up camp in the middle of the trail, half-heartedly shoveled yet another dehydrated dinner into our mouths and wormed our way into our sleeping bags. It was a particularly fitful night, as the temperature dropped drastically. In the morning, the clothes we had laid out to dry overnight were frozen.
All we could do was laugh.
We pressed on. Taylor and I played word games, in part to pass the time, and partly to be sure we could still speak semi rationally
Over the next couple of days we mentally checked off specific trail points as we blew past them. On a Sunday night, we camped along Marble Creek – a particularly long drainage along the ICT - and planned out our next day. We were low on food and wanting to stay on track to finish before our deadline. In a moment of stubbornness, we made the decision to put in a 45-mile day and reach the end of the wilderness section. From there we would have daily support to the finish. Early Monday, we headed out. It was a rough morning. Following trail cairns, we crossed the creek over 30 times. We couldn’t feel our fingers or our feet; I gritted my teeth to keep from screaming.
The day was a blur. Reaching the Middle Fork of the Salmon River was a pivotal moment and marked 29 miles to go. At Indian Creek guard station we were able to send word to my brother regarding our location. With spirits high we set out for the final 20 + miles - the anticipation of ‘real’ food and being able to get our heavier packs off our backs energized us. At 1 am, we emerged out of the Frank Church Wilderness, haphazardly threw our tent up and fell into our sleeping bags to escape the dipping temperature. It was 24 degrees that night. Sleep was impossible - between the cold, the lack of food and over-exhaustion - I drifted in and out of an almost hallucinatory state. The moment there was a smidge of light out, I was up.
I woke up feeling nauseous, which I blamed on the previous day’s trek. Logistically, all we had to do was cover the 17 miles to Lola Creek campground, where my brother and his family were waiting for us. We enthusiastically handed our packs over to the ranger who was driving them to the campground and started down the trail, thrilled to be able to run, uninhibited again.
It was awkward initially, my body was used to balancing itself with a heavy pack and suddenly I felt infinitely light and bouncy. The trail varied between loose dirt and rocks to firm sandy dirt, crossing several streams that ran into the Middle Fork River below us. Much of the terrain had been burned in years past and the elements had washed out sections of the trail. The route wound us right along the river, on narrow and wildly loose ground – a wall of rock and dirt to one side and a sheer drop off on the other, into the river – 40 feet below. We slowed our pace and walked/jogged across the worst sections knocking the unstable soil loose and listening as the rock slides crashed into the water below. Ten miles in and on a particularly solid section of trail, I was leading and started cruising - daydreaming about fresh food and beer. Rounding a corner, the footing suddenly changed.
Without warning, I tripped and felt myself pitch forward at an angle, straight off the cliff.
Because of the momentum I had when I tripped, I flipped completely and luckily was catapulted feet first off the precipice. Each desperate attempt to grasp at the earth failed and only served to create a landslide following my path down toward the river. I bounced, once, twice, three times off jagged, jutting rocks, which may have slowed me down enough to have a chance of halting the free fall. Abruptly my right heel hit a rock that didn’t move at the same time my side body wedged into a slight crevice, stopping me forcefully. Quickly, I ducked my head as the slide I had set in motion flew past me. I watched the rocks along with the water bottle I had been carrying, crash into the river 10 feet below me.
There was no way for Taylor to help – it was too steep.
I assessed my situation and despite being bloody, dirt covered and shaken, I appeared to be fine. Recognizing that I had adrenaline on my side, I cautiously started the climb back up to the trail – it was a slow scramble. At the trail again, I felt relieved but painfully aware that the remaining 7 miles to camp were going to be rough.
A couple hours later, we were greeted with hugs, beer and more food than we had seen in weeks. After attempting to clean my wounds thoroughly, we sat relaxing and reliving our adventures. That afternoon and into the evening my nausea increased. I was sick all night and into the next morning. Stubbornly, I made the decision to keep going – which we did, slowly. Covering another 30 miles that day. By the time we got to camp that night, it was well past dark. An attempt to nibble at dinner was unsuccessful - anything that went in, came out -and another night similar to the previous one left me a mess in the morning. Again, I stupidly and adamantly insisted we press on. By the days end, I knew I was finished. I continued to be sick throughout the evening and into the night – the next morning, after much internal debate (and some tough love from my brother and Taylor), I called it quits.
We had covered nearly 800 of the 900 + miles in 27 days.
Despite a tinge of disappointment, I also feel a sense of pride. The end of the journey is not always where you think it is or plan for it to be. Most of the time, it’s the moments that make up the trek, the breaking apart of assumptions and barriers and the subsequent redefining of those perceptions that are most valuable. When we enter unchartered territory, whether a seemingly simple task or something that seems impossible, we redefine and refine ourselves as individuals.