The Mountains Were Calling—and So She Went!

How Darcy Piceu shattered the women's record on the John Muir Trail

For the first 40 miles of ultraruner Darcy Piceu’s attempt to break the Fastest Known Time (FKT) record on the 222-mile John Muir Trail in California—211 miles from the summit of Mt. Whitney; 222 from trailhead to trailhead—she struggled with the thought of completing the task. “It’s just so freaking long,” she admits to thinking. “And it’s such a mental game. Part of me was like, ‘What am I doing out here?’”

The 42-year-old mom, professional therapist/counselor and three-time Hardrock 100 winner from Boulder, Colorado, had done the first 42 miles of the John Muir Trail before. Two years ago, she started an unsupported solo record attempt on the trail, but aborted the mission after the stress of being disconnected for so long from daughter Sophia, who was 6 at the time overwhelmed her. “Plus,” she says, “I wasn’t fully recovered from Hardrock that year.”

Taking John Muir’s famous quote to heart—”The mountains are calling, and I must go!”—Piceu set about returning this year to complete unfinished business wearing a pair of Hoka One One Challenger ATR 3 trail running shoes and a lightweight Ultraspire running pack. But as she got started from the Whitney Portal trailhead at 4 a.m. on Sept. 14, Piceu was also carrying an inReach DeLorme tracking device, which allowed her to stay in contact throughout her effort. And this time, she also had a support crew—other ultrarunners and friends who’d volunteered to hike and run in to remote sections on the trail with food and drink to resupply Piceu’s pack, set up mini “sleep stations” along the way, and pace her for sections of the trail to help her keep moving.

The morning’s first light shone on Mt. Whitney the morning of Sept. 14 as Piceu was about to set out to try and break Fastest Known Time on the John Muir Trail. Photos: Courtesy of Darcy Piceu

Summiting 14,505-foot Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States, is a feat in itself. But for Piceu, it was only the beginning. After “not feeling great” in the early miles, she says a flip switched around Mile 42. “I was like, ‘OK, I’m committed. I’m gonna do this,’” she says. “I decided to take the route section by section. Getting over that hump was really crucial.” Also crucial was Piceu’s grit, determination, strength, navigation, and overall physical and mental toughness that has made her one of the best ultrarunners in the world for the past decade.

She’s not an FKT newbie, by any means. Earlier this summer, Piceu set the record for running Peru’s 85-mile Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit, which she completed in 29 hours, 15 minutes. She has also held FKTs on both the 42-mile Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim, and the 93-mile circumnavigation of Mt. Rainier on the Wonderland Trail. (Both records have since been broken.)

Her experience with those efforts, and from a handful of multi-day adventure races, helped her manage tough times and sleep strategies over her three and a half days in the Sierra.

Piceu and crew had planned when and where they’d meet her—crewmembers sometimes having to hike in 12 or so miles—and where and when she’d take roughly one-hour naps. Her first one-hour nap came during the first night, at mile 60.

Piceu admits she wouldn’t have been on record pace without her crew. At left, Billy Simpson helps drain and dress blisters near Mile 165 as Piceu snacks on a veggie burger in a makeshift aid station set up by her crew. A day earlier, Piceu (right) relaxed for a moment near Mile 86 while sipping some coffee and Ultragen. Photos: Monica Morant

The second night, after covering 116 total miles, she ran completely alone after leaving her crew around 8:20 p.m. “I was running a little scared that night, worried about bears,” she says, adding that she never saw one. Thanks to sleep deprivation-induced hallucinations, however, she explains how every tree stump and rock would look like a tent or someone’s backpack along the side of the trail, until she’d get closer and realize she was seeing things. “At one point, I thought I saw a little troll dart away behind a tree,” she laughs.

Around 5 a.m. on Day 2, exhaustion overtook Piceu, so much so that she had to lay down on a rock on the side of the trail and wrap herself up in her emergency blanket and a down jacket. She awoke to a voice: “Darcy?” Ultrarunner Gary Wang knew Piceu would be attempting the record, and was out on the trail having his own adventure. “Do you need any bars?” he asked.

“It scared the living daylights out of me,” Piceu laughs. The two chatted for a moment before Piceu continued on her quest.

Another full day of moving—hiking the uphills and what she calls “jogging, definitely not hammering” the downhills—some with a pacer and some without, brought Piceu to her crew at Mile 165. “That’s where we took off my shoes and found I’d totally blistered up,” she says. After popping and dressing blisters, eating “a ton”—a veggie sandwich, a veggie burger, chips, First Endurance Ultragen recovery drink—and resupplying, Piceu headed into her third night.

“That night was rough,” she says. She and pacer Billy Simpson tackled the long, difficult climb up Donahue Pass. “I was so over it by the time we got to the top,” she says, explaining that she sat down a couple of times to rest her eyes and try to gather herself. What followed the pass was nine “very runnable” miles into Yosemite Valley. “I was so discouraged, because I had this intense cough, and every time I’d try to run, I’d start hacking so hard I had to walk,” she says.

Despite exhaustion and blisters, Darcy was still all smiles while heading into Mile 165 at Reds Meadow on Day 3 with pacer Jeff Zozak. Photo: Monica Morant

Still, she was on record pace. By that point, Piceu was on track to break the women’s FKT, and had a shot at breaking the men’s. “I had a little breakdown, and teared up and took a moment,” she says. “Moving more quickly kept me awake, but my cough slowed me down and so I’d get sleepy.” Eventually, the two reached crew at Mile 200 at about 4 a.m.

In the end, despite pounding cough drops the last chunk of miles and feeling “pretty cooked,” and despite a directional glitch that had her off-course for a small section, Piceu reached the end of the trail at Happy Isle bridge in Yosemite National Park to set the women’s record of 3 days, 4 hours and 12 minutes—averaging 21 minutes 40 seconds per mile while climbing approximately 47,000 feet of elevation and besting the previous FKT of 3 days, 15 hours, 32 minutes set by Sue Johnston in August 2007 by more than 11 hours. Her time from the Whitney Portal trailhead to Happy Isles trailhead, including Mount Whitney, was 3 days, 8 hours.

Says Peter Bakwin, founder of the website FastestKnownTime.com that records best times for trails and mountains around the world: “…In reality there is no DQ, no race director, no official anything,” he says about the nature of Fastest Known Time records. “There’s only what each person has done, how that’s communicated to the community, and how the community takes it…I feel, and I think others generally agree, that Darcy should be credited with the women’s FKT.”

Piceu agrees, and is proud of her run, crediting her crew and, luck, noting how successful FKTs require a lot of pieces aligning properly.

She explains how her final miles descending into Yosemite Valley on the paved(!) section of the JMT felt “sort of anticlimactic” after being in the remote, and astoundingly beautiful wilderness. “There are all these people; it’s kind of like Disneyland.”

Recovering back in Boulder, Piceu says there’s a little bit of sadness that the effort is done. “I had some moments out there where I felt really connected to that area for some reason, and being in those mountains, and I got super emotional,” she says. “I had a tearful session on top of one of the passes. I was overwhelmed with how pretty it was, how beautiful. When the sun would come out in the mornings, I’d find myself saying, ‘Hey, mountains!’ I was talking to them. I felt so connected that I didn’t want it to end.”

“I would do it all over again, oddly, or I would help someone else do it,” she adds. “For me, I wouldn’t just go do this on any trail. The John Muir Trail— like the Huayhuash—it’s the aesthetics of those trails, and how beautiful they are that draw me.”

Even though it might come across as an individual pursuit, it takes a village to go after an FKT record attempt on a trail. Flanking Darcy here are her crewmembers: Betsy Nye and Willie Roberson (left of sign) and Billy Simpson and Monica Morant (right of sign). Photo: Courtesy of Darcy Piceu
Lisa Jhung
Boulder, Colorado-based freelance writer Lisa Jhung is the author of "Trailhead: The Dirt on All Things Trail Running" (Velo Press, 2015). She has written for Runner's World, Men's Journal and Women's Running and was the co-founding editor of Adventure Sports magazine.