Andre Michaud first wanted to attempt a fastest-known time (FKT) record attempt on the famed Colorado Trail in 2017. The Peak 2 Fire near Breckenridge ended his journey early. A year later, it was a pair of nagging injuries to his feet that took him off the trail in two days. Everything lined up perfectly in 2019.
Michaud, a 47-year-old ultrarunner, set out from the east trailhead southwest of Denver at 5 a.m. July 21. After 486 unsupported miles through a mix of high heat, monsoon rains and night skies, he finished at 4:16 a.m. Tuesday for a final time of 8 days, 23 hours, 16 minutes. That is a new record time, beating the previous self-supported time of 9 days, 14 hours and 28 minutes set by Brandon Stapanowich in 2016. It also was faster than John Zahorian’s unsupported time of 9 days, 12 hours, 32 minutes that was also set in 2016.
With the Stapanowich record in sight, Michaud hiked the final 70 miles Monday into the morning hours Tuesday, completing the trail before sunrise Tuesday.
“Night time is always hard for a lot of people. It felt like it just went on forever,” Michaud said. “I knew I could break the record by a few hours, but I wanted to really break the record and knew I could do sub-nine days. I did Molas Pass to Durango yesterday. I kept thinking, ‘This is what I’ve been training for.’ I’ve approached this as a primary event for three years. It wasn’t like, ‘Well, if this just works out, great.’ I wanted to do as well as I could.”
The Colorado Trail crosses eight mountain ranges with a high elevation of 13,271 feet just below the Coney Point summit in the east-central San Juan Mountains. There is nearly 90,000 feet of elevation change, with an average altitude of 10,300 feet.
Michaud, who called Durango home from 2010 to 2015, turned three years of training into a new record. A long-distance aficionado, he would spend weekends hiking and running for 100 miles with his backpack, ultra-light tent and sleeping bag to prepare.
“I could not believe how well my body was working, honestly,” he said. “I know world-class athletes and coaches who speak about how when you practice and train so much for something, that when you get to the event you’re actually OK, and that’s kind of what happened. I’ve had so many experiences of dealing with bad weather, monsoons, being out in the elements with the bare-minimum equipment. Some of the worst nights of my life toughened me up and gave me confidence knowing what I could handle in a given situation. So much in life is having that experience and confidence.
“The last few years, I’ve literally just been training for this. I trained so carefully and intensely over a few-year period. When it came to this week, I’d wake up with no muscle soreness, my joints weren’t dying. I was pleasantly surprised at how the preparation, both mental and physical, came together so nicely.”
In the self-supported effort in thru-hiker style, Michaud could not accept any outside aid and did not work with a pacer or another hiker along the route. He had to turn down homemade ice cream being made at a Colorado Trail Foundation campsite along the route in Sawatch. He relied on eating bars every hour, whether it was a candy bar or energy bar, as well as generic dehydrated chili beans that he would cold-soak for an hour. He also cold-soaked oatmeal and ate that for breakfast.
“Anything close to real food can save you mentally, and even physically it gives you that extra kick,” he said. “If I had taken a stove, that would have been an extra two pounds for all that equipment. I didn’t want to have any ethical concerns, so no trail magic. Self-supported, you can buy food wherever, mail yourself packages, resupply in those ways, but you can’t receive trail magic or have friends help, any of those kinds of things.”
Wearing his favorite model of shoe, the Columbia Montrail Mountain Masochist IV, Michaud debated stopping at Gudy’s Rest for a moment of reflection Tuesday morning. In the dark, he opted to continue to push on to the finish at Junction Creek, where his longtime friend Steve Morozowich waited with his family.
“I haven’t totally processed it,” Michaud said. “My buddy who came to the trailhead was crying, but I was emotionally blunted because I was kind of shocked.”
Michaud is not a professional runner. He works full time as an anesthesiologist, and his record attempts have to correlate with when he can get vacation time. That made the timing of the 2017 fire that stopped him tough to swallow, and, in denial, he still set out and ran and hiked as far as he could before the fire stopped him. In 2018, he had gone 120 miles in two days to Copper Mountain before his feet screamed at him to stop.
He first became aware of Colorado Trail FKT attempts while living in Durango. He saw a documentary about Scott Jaime’s supported FKT in 2013 and thought it looked cool. He had gotten into ultrarunning after high school, but he had transitioned into cycling while living in Durango. After leaving in 2015, he got back into running and soon remembered how cool the Colorado Trail record attempt had seemed. In a few days, Jaime is expected to attempt a record at Zahorian’s unsupported record.
With a move from Grand Junction to Alaska coming up in two weeks, Michaud knew he needed to finish the project he started before saying goodbye to a state he does not want to say goodbye to.
“I had seen the entire trail at least once in sections, but I had never done the entire trail in one go,” he said. “I seriously thought about this every day for three years. ... As it became closer, things changed in my personal life. I’m getting ready to leave Colorado and stuff, which I don’t want to do, but it’s the right choice for other reasons. It also became sort of the going away party, the thank you to Colorado. It came together like, this is definitely the thing that had to happen.”