A gust of icy wind backhanded me in the face.
I yanked my buff up to shield my bare skin from the cold blasts.
The fabric gave me a moment of sweet relief… until I inhaled and discovered that the buff had made it even harder to breathe than it already was nearly 14-thousand-feet above sea level.
And so, I marched higher and higher up the trail, pulling my buff up and down and up and down, swapping between the two vital needs: Warmth. Oxygen. Warmth. Oxygen.
Of course this run is already stupid hard, I thought, as I choked on my buff. My thighs burned red from the lashing wind.
I was closing in on the summit of Mount Whitney — the highest point in the contiguous United States — and the official start of the John Muir Trail, which I was attempting to complete as close to the record as I could get.
I knew it would be one of the hardest runs I’d ever done, and I knew there was a very good chance I would fail. But I cared about something else more than I cared about the possibility of failing.
It took approximately 2.7 steps for me to fall head-over-shoes in love with the John Muir Trail, or Nüümü Poyo, the People’s Trail.
I was introduced to the JMT when I joined my friend Eli for a 37-mile trek through the High Sierra. Every single corner of the trail unveiled a new mind-blowing view that left me squealing “Are you serious, Sierra!”
As we ran past an endless flurry of sapphire lakes, granite peaks, and rich evergreens, I felt a deep sense of peace and excitement running through those mountains. I was exactly where I wanted to be.
By the time we’d jogged past our 17th alpine lake of the day, I knew I wanted to do the whole 223-mile trail. And I knew I wanted to try to do it fast.
I’d gotten into multi-day speed efforts the summer before and the JMT was everything I was looking for in my next big run: inspiring terrain, a meaty distance, big, beautiful mountains, a big, fat, scary goal.
But every time I fantasized about running the JMT — and attempting any kind of speed record on it — I would quickly muffle my desires with my many insecurities about my ability to do it.
The granite-smothered trail was too technical for me. I am an Oregonian who can only handle soft, buttery singletrack.
There was too much altitude for my sea-level blood. The trail traverses a butt-ton of passes that crest 11, 12, 13-thousand feet and I live at 539-feet above sea level. I should stick to routes where the oxygen is plentiful.
Plus, the Fastest Known Time was entirely too stout. The women’s supported record is held by Darcy Piceu, one of the most accomplished ultrarunners of all-time. And plenty of other extraordinary runners had tried it and failed. Who did I think I was to even flirt with the idea that I could do it?
As much as I wanted to run it, I decided I had no business doing the route. Maybe in a few years, I thought, when I’m a different athlete. A better athlete.
So, I shelved the idea as high out of reach as I could shove it.
But the run kept simmering in my head and my heart.
I found myself going back to the Sierra to get back on the trail just a few weeks later, even though the mountains are a full day’s drive from my home in Oregon. It was like I’d tried to quit caffeine and the JMT was the morning cup I couldn’t stop pouring.
Before I’d even returned home from that trip, with my ankles still smudged with the dirt of the Sierra, I was stalking the US Forest Service permit system, clicking refresh approximately 100 times per minute in hopes of landing an abandoned permit so I could go back and do the whole route before the snow fell.
For a hike, I told myself. Not for a run. I’m not ready to do the run yet.
Thanks to my impressive endurance for refreshing recreation dot gov, I scored a permit and got ready to hike the trail.
But then California shut down its forests as fires raged across the state. The closure was issued the day before I was supposed to start hiking. So, instead of driving to the Whitney Portal, I unpacked my snickers and my sleeping bag and wallowed in disappointment.
I was devastated that the trail had been ripped away from me. As I stared longingly at my pile of snacks, I thought about how much worse I would feel if I never got the chance to run it.
I remembered an interview I listened to with Olympian Kate Grace where she talked about trying to make a national team by focusing on the 1500-meters. She thought it would be easier to make the team in that event than in the 800-meters, even though she was infinitely more excited about running the 800.
She didn’t make the team in the 1500 and she was left with a double whammy of disappointment: She had failed. And she had not pursued the goal she really wanted.
“You can do the so-called ‘safe strategy’, and it still doesn’t work out,” Grace said. And if success is never guaranteed, “why not just do the thing that you actually want to do?”
And I realized the JMT was my 800. If I was going to fail, I wanted to fail doing the thing I cared about. The thing I couldn’t stop thinking about. The thing burning in my heart and my head.
Brené Brown suggests trashing the question: “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail,” and instead, asking ourselves: “What’s worth doing even if you fail?”
I knew I could fail at running the JMT.
But I knew that wasn’t a reason not to try.
So, when California reopened its forests two weeks later, I knew exactly what I needed — and wanted — to do.
Which is how I ended up marching up Mount Whitney, with the first threads of sunrise unspooling across the sky, and cold blasts of wind punching me from every angle, feeling like I was exactly where I should be — no matter what happened.
I clung onto that feeling for the next 87 miles as I explored new corners of the trail and deepened my excitement for the High Sierra and the JMT. No matter how hard any mile felt, I maintained a sense of gratitude.
I ran straight through my first night on the trail – hallucinating dinosaurs in the rocks and shivering through every layer. But even through sleep deprivation and an alpine freeze, I was still vibrating with JMT joy – until I ran into a couple of backpackers hiking south a little after sunrise.
“Is the smoke bad ahead?” they asked. “It’s been awful all morning.”
I flicked my gaze to the sky and my heart dropped. I could see the familiar haze of wildfire snaking over the horizon. The Sequoia Fire was raging just south of the JMT and the winds must have shifted overnight.
As I kept running into the next valley, it got worse and worse and worse. By the time I reached my crew below Bishop Pass, smoke had steamrolled the sky and smothered the mountains all around me. My eyes were burning and I couldn’t stop coughing.
I knew I had to bail on the run.
As I hiked up and over Bishop Pass to get back to a trailhead, I looked back at the smoky valley, and saw what wasn’t: I imagined myself running down the trail, weaving past those glorious granite peaks all the way to Yosemite Valley. My heart ached with longing to keep going.
I was bummed I failed and didn’t finish the run.
But, as I kept hiking and felt that Sierra granite beneath my feet, I knew I would’ve been way more disappointed if I never tried.
Thank you for sharing your story. It is a message I needed to hear. I don’t even know why I received the email… I’m not an athlete, and I don’t run… but I needed your perspective on ‘failure’…”what’s worth doing even if I fail?’ and the possibility of failing ‘ isn’t a reason not to try’. My new mantra! Thank you and God bless you!
[…] athletes dream big on the John Muir / Nüümü Poyo Trail with a “choose your own adventure.”“What’s worth doing even if you fail?” asks Emily Halnon looking back on her attempt on the 223-mile trail through the Sierra Nevada, knowing from the […]
Great piece. Makes me want to unplug it all and implore everyone I know to do the same. We started these fires, we should be able to put them out too. Some things are more important than air conditioning or blown-dry hair. And now I. too yearn to visit the JMT. The original “owners” would be proud, by the way, how much you appreciated their area…
Mount Whitney is the highest point in the *contiguous* United States (or “coterminous” US, also called the Lower 48). Denali in Alaska is the highest point in the *continental* US.
Thanks JJ for the eagle eyes! We have correct the post. Cheers, Jenn
Hmmm Ok, I guess. Didn’t read the article because it sounds like it was written to come up with a new concept. or at least write something with a new twist. Here is how i see a lot of people will take the concept, ‘It’s OK to fail.’ hypothetically speaking, Person #1 says, “I am going to run a hundred miler next month.” Firend says, hmmm but you aren’t a runner, you don’t run. And honestly you are very over-weight.” Person one says, “Why are you crushing my dreams. I read an article that says it’s ok to fail, but at least try. So I am going to try.” Friend says, “Absolutely try. Start training. Build your milage. Eat well. Get in shape and you will not only try you will succeed. I know you can do it!” Person #1 says, “Why is everything a competitiion with you? Why can’t I just try and fail and be good with that?’
So you see. I know you do becasue we see it all the time. Failing, or better put as learning from your mistakes, can be a success. Hell, we can fail at going to t he grocery store if a tire goes flat, BUT just making blatant failure an option? Well, like I said, I didn’t read the article, so you failed to entice my interest. What if NO ONE read the article? Is that good failure or bad failure? well…..you tried…
You nailed it! I’ve learned from experience that to not attempt something that I have a strong desire to do (and the ability, if I’d just trust myself) leads to huge regret. Many of the things most worth doing in my life come with some risk of failure. The regret of not trying is more unpleasant for me than any failure.