As the sun rose on the Fourth of July, Kyle Curtin was in the midst of an All-American effort.
The 33-year-old out of Durango was running low on water and on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe. He was 100 miles into a run on the 171-mile Tahoe Rim Trail with the goal of swiping the overall fastest-known time (FKT) away from Spain’s Kilian Jornet, the four-time Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run winner who had set a mark of 38 hours, 32 minutes in a supported effort with pacers in 2009.
As Curtin became aware he would not be able to tackle Jornet’s time after battling dehydration during a segment of 36 miles without a water source, he debated giving up. But the former Army special forces helicopter mechanic rose to his feet and awoke from a nap to supportive text messages from friends, including record-attempt documentarian Luis Escobar, and found the legs and spirit to continue.
Though he did not take down Jornet’s record, he would shatter the unsupported FKT set by California’s Sean Ranney on July 12, 2015. Ranney’s mark was 51:45, and Curtin would finish in 41:09.
“I knew I was falling behind and wouldn’t have the day I was hoping to,” Curtin said Tuesday after he had returned to Durango. “At Mile 145 or 150 or so with Armstrong Pass – one of the higher points on the route at 9,500 feet of elevation or so – the mental side and physical side of being that far in and that high, it was pretty difficult. I mentally quit for a little while.
“Once I got over the pass, I knew I wasn’t going to get the time I hoped for. I was dizzy and not moving very fast on the trail. I stopped, took off the pack and fell asleep on the side of the trail for what I am guessing was 40 minutes or so. Even when I woke up from the nap, I was disappointed I wouldn’t have the day I hoped for. I texted Luis Escobar and told him I was going to walk back to the car and that I was done. But he sent me encouraging messages, and some friends who were tracking me texted and said I was doing great and to keep it up. That was pretty inspiring, knowing people were watching and cheering me on. I kept going. By the time I got down to the car, I had 16 miles to go at that point. I am happy I decided to finish it up.”
Curtin ran unsupported without the aid of pacers, carried all of his gear and purified his own water. He started at 6 a.m. July 3 with the goal of finishing near sunset July 4. His final time is now the second-fastest known FKT in the trail’s history dating back to its opening in 2001.
“It’s a pretty famous route, and Kilian’s overall record has stood for 11 years and nobody has gotten it,” said Curtin, who first became enamored with Tahoe when he set the Tahoe 200 Endurance Run in record of 49:27:22 in 2018. “I was trying to do it on the Fourth of July, and that was a motivating part of it, to try to get the record back to an American on America’s birthday. It’s also just a super cool backpacking route around the lake between 6,000 and 10,000 feet.”
The route calls for between 28,000 and 29,000 feet of elevation change, but Curtin’s GPS clocked 32,000 feet of elevation change along the route. Curtin traveled clockwise from the Echo Summit area.
He had completed a lactate threshold test at the Durango Performance Center to study his metabolism and how many calories his body would burn and require for an effort such as the Tahoe Rim Trail, and the number he decided on was 10,000 calories.
During the day, he would mix fruit flavored mix from Tailwind Nutrition – a company based out of Bayfield – with his water. At night, he would pick coffee or chocolate flavored mix. He broke the route into nine segments and packed a bag full of enough calories to get through each depending on how many miles that segment totaled.
“Anytime I was sipping liquid, I was making sure I got calories, or at the very least some electrolytes,” he said.
Curtin said he also read the blog of Pete Kostelnick, a Missouri man who has the FKT running across the United States in 42 days, 6 hours, 30 minutes. Kostelnick recommends more protein for longer efforts to help build amino acids in the blood stream to repair damaged muscles. Curtin had experimented with that more this spring and summer and said it proved beneficial for the 171 miles.
It was the section between 3:30 and 11:30 a.m. July 4 where he would be without a fresh water source to refill his bottles that would become problematic.
“Water conditions were perfect for right now with the snow melt filling creeks now more than later in the summer. That’s a main reason I did it now,” said Curtin a Suunto Elite Team athlete. “Doing it unsupported, you have to know the certain spots you can fill up. I knew the segment was coming up and was planning for it. I knew I had to push that segment to make it to the next water source before it became too hot. By 11:30 a.m. when I got there, I had been out of water for awhile. It made it difficult.
“Since all of my calories were liquid calories, it was difficult to eat. Not getting calories or water to wash the stuff down, that’s where I fell behind. It was exhaustion, running out of calories and water, and then I went into the biggest hole of the route soon after.”
Running under a nearly full moon at night and without a cloud in the sky during the day, Curtin said conditions were perfect. He never got cold, so he could run with less gear in his pack.
The run capped an epic road trip for Curtin, who had hoped to run the Western States Endurance Run, a famed 100-miler in California, this summer before it was canceled because of COVID-19. Leading up the Western States, he had planned a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail.
With that plan scrapped and the Pacific Crest Trail Association asking hikers to stay away because of the coronavirus pandemic, Curtin changed his plans and went for a 3,500-mile road trip from Silverton to Utah, Nevada and California with plenty of time spent in the Sierra Mountains.
In all, he ran 503 miles and had roughly 150,000 feet of vertical gain during the trip. He climbed to the summit of 23 mountains taller than 10,000 feet, and he even mixed in some mountain biking.
While Curtin’s race schedule has been nixed this year because of COVID-19, he has turned to alternatives. It was in late March he did an “Everesting” challenge on Hogsback outside downtown Durango in which he repeatedly climbed the peak for a total of 29,131 feet in 34 miles with a time of 17 hours.
He did that mission mostly solo, too.
“In theory, self-supported sounds more difficult since you gotta carry your own food and gear in one pack. But, at least on the mental side, in a lot of ways it’s much easier to do it all on your own,” Curtin said. “You don’t have to stop for anything else. The simplicity is something that fits me, personally, a little better the way I approach it.
“Something like Tahoe, it’s you pushing your own limits. It’s something that’s a bit of a question mark. You never know how your body will respond physically or mentally. It’s a really interesting place to go. In ultra-running and that long-distance kind of thing, you push your limits. This definitely pushed mine.”