8 Record-Setting Days on the Colorado Trail
Looking back towards Molas Pass on the ascent between Molas Pass and Stoney Pass on day two. Photo: Courtesy of Bryan Williams

Amid struggles, Bryan Williams traverses Colorado Trail in record time

“The easy answer is, ‘One step at a time.’”

That was Bryan Williams first response to the question of how he broke the fastest known time (FKT) on the Colorado Trail. Traversing the Centennial State in a general north-south and east-west direction, the Colorado Trail is a 486-mile route that connects Denver to Durango, traveling over some of the most rugged, remote and scenic areas in the West.

A fastest known time (FKT) is essentially a record time for a known trail or mountain peak. The FKT movement has become increasingly popular as GPS tracking technology has become a trend to record fast individual efforts of trail runners, fastpackers and mountaineers. Veteran adventurer and trail runner Peter Bakwin of Boulder, Colo., started and maintains the website Fastest Known Time as an unofficial record keeper for FKTs and attempts. The site includes recommendations for establishing an FKT, namely to announce your intentions, keep records for accountability and be an open book to inquiries.

The Colorado Trail high in the San Juan Mountains on day two.

Most people who set out to cover the entire Colorado Trail route take two to three weeks, carrying heavy backpacks full of gear and food. But starting early on the morning of Aug. 26, Williams and his friend Eric Truhe set off to try and run the trail in under 8 days and 7 hours, the previous fastest known time record set by ultrarunner Scott Jaime in 2013.

“Our goal was to try and run the entire trail in one push, to just see if we could run for 500 miles,” Williams said a few days after finishing, “but in the back of our minds, we thought, if we can do it right, if things go right, we might have a chance at breaking the record.”

But things didn’t go right, from the very first day all the way until the last day.

“From the start things started to unravel,” Williams recounted. “We had splits from our scouting runs. I had pre-packed all of my food. We had even booked rooms in hotels and cabins that we had planned on sleeping in night months in advance. All of that was thrown out after the first day.”

By the end of the first night Williams and Truhe were already several hours behind schedule. The small crew consisting of Williams’ girlfriend, Truhe’s father, and a couple other friends were barely making the aid stations in time in the remote San Juan mountains.

“By the second day we had lost serious time, we ran out of water, we were seriously dehydrated, and just falling behind,” Willams said. “We got to Carson Pass on the second night at like 2:30 in the morning.”

After deciding to sleep in an hour past their planned 5 a.m. wake-up on day three, they lost more time when Williams’ knees started to hurt really bad, especially on the descents. Then, that night they stopped 7 miles short of their goal.

“It was really discouraging,” he said. “The mood was kind of sour.”

Things didn’t improve on day four, as they once again started on the trail late. Truhe, who had been running well up to that point, developed painful shin splints that ultimately caused him to drop that night from the attempt. “When I heard that I was really bummed; we had planned on running the trail together, and now I was alone. But Eric really encouraged me to keep going, and I was feeling good, my knees had stopped hurting, so I kept going.”

The intersection of 390A out of Winfield and the Colorado Trail on the morning of the sixth day; Bryan (in front) being paced by previous CT record holder Scott Jaime on the final day; Early morning on the third day atop Carson Pass, the highest
point on the Colorado Trail.

And so Williams, a 42-year-old print maker who works in Boulder, kept running alone as he entered the Sawatch Mountains fueled primarily by Justin’s Nut Butter and energy gels.

“That began the toughest, darkest day and night for me,” he said. “I chose to run the Western Route in the Sawatch, which is a much cooler line than the Eastern Route, but it is higher in altitude, above tree line, and has more climbing.”

After 16 hours of pushing on day five, Williams was bonking hard, uncontrollably sobbing, seeing faces in the rocks of the endless talus fields; he was ready to give up, to call it quits.

“The only thing I have control over, I kept thinking, was eating and moving, so I started eating and eating, taking time at the creek crossings to cool down, and just really appreciating where I was, my crew, my daughter, my girlfriend,” he recalled. “I gave up, and in that moment, I learned to trust others, to really trust my crew. It was like a switch flipped, before I knew they had my best interest at heart, but now I just trusted them, deeply, physically, emotionally.”

At that moment a light appeared in the distance. It was his girlfriend who had hiked out on the trail worried about him as he was over five hours late. “I saw her light and I just fell apart,” he said.

Finally, after 20 hours of running Williams arrived at Winfield.

“It was a critical point, because I knew I had finally made up the distance I had lost, but it cost precious time,” he said. “I had been through the darkest spot, and now to wake up in Winfield and know I was safe, alive, it was a turning point.”

And a turning point it was. Williams was way behind on his record attempt, but now the trail became more familiar as it mirrored part of the Leadville 100 course, a race he had run before. Then at Tennessee Pass his coach, Cindy Stonesmith, surprised him to pace him for the day.

“Bryan had been alone for the past couple days, and his running partner Eric had to drop two days earlier, so he was a little down,” Stonesmith said. “But once we started, he turned it on and he was incredible. He was so determined, so humble, so consistent.” Finally things started to click, and Williams, who sometimes calls himself “Buffalo Wild Wing” began to motor along the trail. Yet it wasn’t over, as he had only two days left to break the record and close to 200 miles.

Bryan feeling good on top of the Ten Mile Range near Breckenridge Ski Resort on day seven.

Williams began running seven years ago to get out of depression. Coming off a divorce, he was overweight, depressed and in debt. His mom got a dog for his daughter, and in walking the dog every day he started to think about running and getting in shape.

“I remember the first day when I could run all the way around the block, that was the coolest thing for me,” he said.

When he finished running his first mile, he signed up for his first marathon. Slowly he worked his way up the distances, until he had run such ultra classics as Leadville 100, Bighorn 100, Western States 100, and then this summer as part of his training, running unofficially the Hardrock 100 course over three days.

On day seven, the last day, Bryan still had 89 miles to run in just under 29 hours if he wanted to break the record.

“I thought to myself, I’ve been training for 400 miles to run a 100-mile race, and I have 29 hours to do it,” he said. “Well, I know I’m capable of that, so I had a 3-hour tapper and started on on the final push.”

Scott Jaime, the previous record-holder, who had been following Williams’ progress, showed up at Kenosha Pass and ran a leg with him, giving a lot of positive encouragement. With bolstered spirits and new-found energy, Williams put the metal to the grindstone and cranked out the final 89 miles of his 500-mile journey in just over 24 hours. “He was just laser-focused that last day, he was so present,” noted Stonesmith.

Touching the Waterton Canyon sign, the unofficial finish point, Williams completed the Colorado Trail in 8 days, 30 minutes on September 3, 2017.

“Honestly, when I finished I was a bit bummed that it was over,” he said. “But really, it was an amazing experience, and I just want people to realize that they are capable of so much more. Really, people just need to go for it!”

Bryan Williams and Scott Jaime, holder of the pervious fastest known time on the Colorado Trail, share a moment on the final day of running. 
Peter Jones
Peter Jones is author of "The Best Front Range Trail Runs" (CMC Press, 2014) and co-author of the annual Boulder Running Journal. He is a regular contributor to several running publications, and is co-author of the forthcoming book "Best Trail Runs: Boulder, Denver, Colorado Springs" (Falcon Guides, 2017)