by Helen Pelster
Filing this FKT (fastest known time) report was never my goal. Setting that goal post would have directly countered my primary mission to complete a very personal challenge on my own terms.
And yet, completing said challenge would directly lead to a fastest known time for a woman to complete the 171-mile Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) by herself in a self-supported manner. To be clear, no previous FKT had been established for a woman to complete the trail self-supported, nor unsupported, which is an even greater form of self-support.
Last month I shared some of the mental techniques that led to my successful completion of the TRT. Here, I will share the timing and enough logistic specifics to support an FKT claim.
I chose not to publicly share my TRT run in advance for a number of reasons. As I mentioned above, it was a very personal challenge, and publicly declaring an FKT attempt ran counter to my desire to finish the route in a mentally positive manner. Furthermore, I was not comfortable with unfettered public access to my GPS coordinates while out for three days. Bears and mountain lions are scary enough predators!
So why file this FKT report now, a month in retrospect? Yes, I had flirted with the idea here and there, but it was not until finishing that I recognized the value in sharing my adventure this way.
I was honored that Mike Tebbutt, holder of a 2015 unsupported men’s record on the TRT, was there in Tahoe City to help celebrate my finish. He encouraged me to file this report, and supported the idea that it would help other athletes, especially women, feel empowered to undertake similar challenges.
Note: I compiled data soon following my finish, referring back to both my GPX track and timestamps on photos, so I am confident in the accuracy of the details that I’m sharing now.
So here we go…
Mode of travel
I am a trail runner. I have completed many ultramarathons, including five 100-mile races. I am a co-founder and currently Board President of the local mountain running club. That being said, I am hesitant to label this TRT adventure specifically as trail running, ultrarunning, ultralight backpacking, fast packing, or otherwise. It was something in between that I like to think of as ultra packing.
To me, the label is irrelevant. Here is the relevant summary: I travelled by foot, by myself, utilizing food, water, and some relief supplies that I cached in advance at various trailheads. I started in Tahoe City, California, and traversed the trail in a clockwise direction, slept in my bivy for two nights, and finished in Tahoe City 76.5 hours (3 days, 4.5 hours) later.
Timeline & Mileage
Day 1: Tahoe City to Spooner Summit South
July 28, 2019, 2:41am:
Departed from Tahoe City Trailhead (near transit center)
Traveled in clockwise direction
July 29, 2019, about 12:30am:
Arrived Spooner Summit South
Prepared and slept fitfully for about 5 hours
63.5 miles in 21.8 hours
Day 2: Spooner Summit South to Big Meadow
July 29, 2019, about 6am:
July 29, 2019, about 9:45pm:
Arrived Big Meadow Trailhead
Prepared for and slept well for about 8 hours!
40.5 miles in 15.75 hours
Day 3: Big Meadow to Tahoe City
July 30, 2019, about 6am:
July 31, 2019, 7:11am:
Returned to Tahoe City Trailhead!
67 miles in 25.2 hours
171 miles in 76.5 hours (3 days, 4.5 hours)
I know that you’re anxious to geek out over my gear list, compete with brands, model names, weights, serial numbers and more. I promise to share that someday, but not just here and now. Instead, let me share the essentials that will help you understand that nature of my adventure.
I carried a Salomon 20 liter soft backpack (more like an uber-hydration vest than a traditional backpack) and an insanely dorky Salomon Agile 500 waist pack. The starting weight of my backpack was 12.8 pounds (5.8 kilograms,) which included 1.5 liters of water. The waist pack weighed in at 1.3 pounds (.6 kilograms.) I also carried a pair of modified Black Diamond poles.
My backpack and waist pack included the following items:
- Sleeping gear, including: bivy, insulated sleeping pad, down sleeping quilt (see *caveat below)
- Warm clothes, gloves, hat, etc.
- Rain jacket
- Rain cover for pack
- First aid kit
- Fixed-blade knife
- Garmin InReach
- iPhone (generally turned off)
- Lights: headlight, full spare headlight, and spare battery
- Water filter
- USB battery and mini-cables to recharge InReach and iPhone
- ID, credit card & cash
- Tiny swiss army knife (great for the scissors and tweezers)
- Miscellaneous items such as skin lubricant, lip balm, toilet paper, and electrolyte pills
- Food and water as needed between cache locations
*Sleeping gear caveat: I choose to leave my bivy and sleeping pad in my bear box cache at Echo Summit on day 3, as I had committed to continuing through the night to the finish without sleeping again. I kept my sleeping quilt in the pack with me in case of emergency.
I wore two watches, neither of them collecting GPS data! I kept my cellular-enabled Apple watch turned off on my right wrist. This was a backup to the backup to the backup communication device.
My left wrist donned a simple Casio Baby G digital watch. Even the time of day became too distracting by day 3, so I stored the watch in my pack thereafter.
I feel strongly that all trail users should be responsible for their personal safety, regardless of how fast and light you wish to travel. With or without an emergency satellite messenger such as the InReach, one could still suffer serious harm if a broken bone forced you to wait on the trailside for help. For this reason, I chose to carry the rain jacket and sleeping quilt with me the entire time, even though there was no threat of precipitation nor unusually cold temperatures.
I started my trek in the middle of the night on a Sunday. A day and a half earlier (all day on Friday, July 26, 2019,) I drove to trailhead locations around Lake Tahoe in order to place seven bear-proof cache boxes and to secure a TRT thru-hiker permit at the Forest Service office in South Lake Tahoe, which is only open on weekdays.
Despite planning for over a year and a half, my golden window to execute on the TRT came quite suddenly. With one kid at camp, my parents offered to host the other so that I could have this time free from parental worries. The huge 2019 snow pack was suddenly melted down to where it would be only an occasional annoyance, the weather looked great, and water was flowing generously.
So it came to be that Friday was my day to drive around Lake Tahoe. Do NOT underestimate the magnitude of this task on a glorious (i.e. tourist-laden) summer day. My husband and I would later collect all seven cache boxes within 24 hours of completing the route. Not that this expediency was necessary, but I was happy to push through and bring the chore to a close.
Inside the cache boxes
In my early days of dreaming up this adventure, I imagined having it all: sleeping comfortably on my sleeping pad in my bivy, while carrying all of my food and water in an unsupported fashion. After training with a 20-pound pack in the Spring of 2018, I decided that I wouldn’t be able to move as fast as I wanted to with all that gear on board. Something had to give.
I started to think about caching water at trailheads. Then it occurred to me that I might as well cache food as well. Ultimately, I also included spare clothes and a few toiletries (including toothbrush, toilet paper, sunscreen, and bug spray.)
My ultramarathon background definitely came in to play here, and I approached each cache box a little more like a race drop bag than a simple food resupply. I absolutely enjoyed this approach and highly recommend it to anyone! Likewise, I viewed each cache location as an aid station, and mentally divided the daunting 171-mile route into eight segments.
Mile 20, Brockway
Mile 41, Mt Rose
Mile 64, Spooner
Mile 78, Kings Grade
Mile 104, Big Meadow
Mile 120, Echo Summit
Mile 155, Barker Pass
I had never cached supplies before and this was certainly one of the biggest risks and unknown factors of the entire endeavor.
I scraped together borrowed bear boxes and purchased OpSak odor-proof bags to insert into each. Bear boxes provide a physical barrier to entry for bears as well as smaller critters. This was important because all of my caches would be hidden under bushes on the ground. I believe the odor-proof bags were also crucial to each cache being left undisturbed by wildlife.
I bought 1-gallon jugs of water to place with each bear box and labelled every item with my name, the dates of my thru-hike, plus a plea to leave them undisturbed. Then I hid each near trailheads and captured a GPS waypoint (lat-long) of each location.
Finding the hidden cache boxes proved challenging. It turns out that recalling a large granite rock with pine trees next to it, is not so helpful in a forest filled with granite and pine. The GPS waypoints on the InReach were only slightly helpful due to lack of pinpoint precision.
I had calculated that I could miss any one of the cache boxes and still have enough calories to complete the route. That being said, I wasn’t about to give up on any of them, no matter how difficult to find. In the end, I was able to recover each and none had been disturbed by animal nor human.
The Tahoe Rim Trail is a very well-signed route and generally easy to follow. I lost the trail only 3 or 4 times, and that was usually due to snowpack or downed trees altering the course. I did get off-route early on in the dark of the first morning when I went the wrong way at one of the few unmarked intersections.
I carried two electronic navigational tools: the Garmin InReach with maps and the route loaded, and my iPhone, generally turned off to save power. On the phone I had available the Guthook app with the TRT guide as well as Gaia and GPSKit, all of which included maps and the route in offline mode.
The Guthook app was the most useful tool, as it includes a true trail guide specific to the TRT, including mileage and information regarding water sources. Powering up my phone was cumbersome, so I only referred to it when really necessary. I generally resisted the temptation to power up just for photos.
As mentioned above, I did not use a GPS-tracking watch. Instead, I employed the GPS tracking capabilities of the InReach device. The InReach has two modes of tracking: one that sends GPS points via satellite at a set interval, and another that saves GPS points to the device locally.
You can substantially extend battery life by using the satellite less frequently than the local-only mode. You can also preserve battery life by saving the local points at much longer intervals than you might with a typical GPS-tracking watch.
I set the local points to save every 5 minutes. This is very minimal time resolution and the track misses miles and miles of detail. The resultant GPX track file therefore reports a total distance of about 140 miles. My estimation of 171-miles is based on high-resolution GPS data available at the Tahoe Rim Trail Association website.
The 31-mile difference is due to the fact that the 5-minute data points make straight lines instead of the curves and switchbacks that I actually followed on the trail. This data is good for verifying where I was every 5 minutes, but not useful in demonstrating the actual distance that I travelled. Click here to view the GPX data at Garmin Connect.
And a note about start/finish timing: I based my start and finish times on the time stamps of the start and finish videos that my husband captured, rather than the times recorded by the InReach. This lag accounts for two minutes of difference between the InReach GPX file and my stated start/finish times.
Update: Check out the official FKT page here!
There is so much more that I’m looking forward to sharing about my magical experience on the Tahoe Rim Trail, but I will stop here for now in order to share this FKT report in a more timely manner. I hope you’ll also read the descriptive narrative that I wrote on our club website here. In the meanwhile, may you be inspired to create and execute your own audacious challenge!
I am looking onward someday to a completely unsupported lap around the Tahoe Rim Trail when the conditions again line up again just right.
Each and every person in my life has contributed to my successful completion of this personal challenge, but none more so than my adoring husband Javier. His belief in my ultimate success exceeded my own. I can not fully express my gratitude.
Without the Tahoe Rim Trail Association, there would be no trail. Please support their efforts to the best of your capabilities with your dollars, your time, and your hearts.
Finally, to my trail tribe, the Donner Party Mountain Runners. To each of you who has inspired me with your own adventures, and to each of you still seeking to recognize your full potential, you have my deepest gratitude.