On the crisp morning of Sept. 1, Abby Hall was dropped off at the Whitney Portal trailhead, a few miles outside of the mountain town of Lone Pine, California. She had with her about 22 pounds of supplies: a bear canister full of food, a water filtration device and an emergency bivy shelter.
Almost as if by magic, four days, 11 hours and 20 minutes later, she miraculously emerged in Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley, more than 220 miles from Whitney Portal. But there were no illusions — other than Hall’s own fatigue-induced hallucinations. She had just run the second-fastest known time ever recorded on the John Muir Trail for an unsupported woman traveling northbound.
Welcome to the world of ultrarunning, a world that Hall has found herself immersed in. She ran cross country and track throughout college and began racing marathons after graduating. In 2016, Hall moved to Boulder, Colorado, to pursue ultrarunning, and she is now a professional trail runner for Adidas Terrex. Hall, a vegan of seven years, logs 60-120 miles each week.
Ultrarunning exists at the intersection of sport and lifestyle in a realm of missing toenails, vivid hallucinations and caffeinated gels. To an outsider of the sport, ultrarunners might seem to be pure pain junkies, quietly crossing finish lines only to go home and train for their next round of torture. In the absence of screaming fans, packed stadiums or fancy arenas, ultrarunners seem to inhabit a world of their own.
It would also be difficult to find a sport that is more conducive to the development of intimate relationships between athlete and environment. Trail runners preparing for a fastest known time, or FKT, attempt meticulously study their route, envisioning every climb and calculating each descent.
“As a trail runner, I’m really dependent on our public lands,” Hall said. “There’s a natural connection, at first to study how these lands are protected by our government and how we can vote to protect lands, but there’s so much history beyond that.”
Hall is referring to the histories of Indigenous peoples, which, in many cases, have been neglected. Conservation efforts of the 1800s resulted in violent displacement and land dispossession of Indigenous peoples, including the Ahwahnechee, Paiute, Miwok and Mono tribes of the Sierra region. The trail Hall followed has been used for centuries by these tribes, and long before it was christened as the John Muir Trail, it was called the Nüümü Poyo, or the People’s Trail. In a simple effort to acknowledge Indigenous history and amplify the voices of Indigenous people, Hall most commonly refers to the trail as the Nüümü Poyo.
“I really encourage others to research the lands that they recreate on,” Hall added.
She had attempted the Nüümü Poyo northbound once before in 2016 but dropped out about 40 miles in while ascending Glenn Pass, a notoriously difficult section of the trail.
“It just broke my heart,” Hall said of her 2016 attempt. “I realized, ‘I’ve got to go back to the drawing board.’”
With races indefinitely canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hall found herself staring down at an empty calendar.
“An opportunity opened up for me to take a crack at it this summer,” Hall said.
During her 2016 attempt, she relied on a crew. This time around, logistics were simpler: There would be no friends hiking in supplementary food or supplies. Insead, she carried everything she would need on her back, from start to finish. Other than fleeting encounters with wildlife and a handful of backpackers, Hall was to make this journey alone.
The cuisine of ultrarunners bears a striking resemblance to the diet of a college student on a budget. Hall subsisted on caffeinated Spring Energy gels, Oreos and vegan ramen packets. She mixed pea protein with instant coffee and river water. Maximizing the calorie-to-weight ratio while still preparing for her cravings became Hall’s very own brand of calculus.
Out on the trail, Hall ran under both sunlight and stars. Every moment was counted, each decision weighed.
“It was a constant bartering in my mind — how can I spend time that makes me move faster?” Hall said. “If I could argue to myself that a three-minute nap meant that I could go three minutes faster up a pass, then it’s worth it.”
Rapid eye movement sleep is a luxury not afforded to those attempting to run an FKT. Over the course of four days, Hall slept only six hours and 10 minutes. Her longest chunk of continuous sleep was only 1 hour and 50 minutes, on the very first night she spent on the trail.
“Towards the last couple of days, the hallucinations were very vivid and intense,” Hall said. “It was usually these kinds of villains that would appear in the trees.”
As she descended into Tuolumne Meadows, a popular tourist area in Yosemite National Park, Hall’s brain stumbled on the interface separating wilderness and civilization.
“I was convinced that I saw a playground with a dad and a kid,” Hall said.
But as she approached the playground, it disappeared. Nothing was there.
As smoke from a nearby wildfire at Shaver Lake flooded into Yosemite Valley, Hall’s sleep-deprived brain grasped at the wisps of reality.
“I was taking so many caffeinated products that on the surface, I was awake and alert, but my brain was struggling to make sense of things,” Hall said.
It was in this hazy twilight zone that she completed her solo race, under a smoky, neon orange sky — the familiar hue of late summer in California.
In the end, Hall fell six hours short of the FKT held by Amber Monforte, who ran the route in four days, five hours and six minutes in July of 2016. Since her FKT attempt, fall has turned to winter, and the trail Hall followed for 210 miles lies obscured under a blanket of snow. But it lives vividly in her mind.
“I still look back over the course of those four and some days. I beat my head against the wall of where I could have found that time,” Hall said. “I think about it every single day.”
In her small home in Boulder, Hall fills her calendar with races that could be feasible depending on the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. But while these races might paint her daydreams, it is the Nüümü Poyo that keeps her up at night. It seems to not be a matter of if but when. As summer arrives and the snow in the Sierra Nevada melts into the valley, Hall’s heart might be pulled out West once again.