Michael Versteeg was aware of the 800-plus miles he’d have to run, the mountains he’d have to climb and the lonely stretches of wilderness ahead.
As he set out on Oct. 3 in his quest to set a speed record on the Arizona Trail, Versteeg had taken stock of all the obstacles. The Arizona Trail is a beautiful but brutal north-south path from the state line bordering Utah to the Mexican border over forest plateaus, rugged ranges and vast deserts. Versteeg would have to cross the Grand Canyon, deal with radical elevation changes (from 1,700 to 9,000 feet) and cope with the wild cards of weather and injuries.
“The Arizona Trail throws everything at you,” says Versteeg, 31, a carpenter and ultrarunner from Prescott, Ariz.
One feature he didn’t count on, though, were the grasslands of southern Arizona. He says running the trail’s final 200 miles were like running a painful gauntlet through vegetation exploding from late-summer monsoons. By the time Versteeg arrived, the plants were full of stickers, thorns and seeds. They penetrated his shoes and socks, shredded his feet and legs and almost brought him to his knees.
“These thorns would just go straight through my shoes, completely through my shoes, and so I’d go like 15 minutes and there would be so much pain I’d have to stop and rip everything out of my feet and toes,” he says.
Eventually he wrapped duct tape around his shoes and legs for protection.
At 4:41 a.m. on Oct. 19 he reached the border marker with Mexico, completing the trail in a record 15 days, 22 hours and 39 minutes. It surpassed the previous fastest known time (FKT) of 21 days, 14 hours and 16 minutes set by Adam Bradley in 2011. He logged 830 miles (thanks to a couple of wrong turns) and averaged just over 51 miles per day.
(Editor’s note: While Versteeg was setting a fastest known time on the Arizona Trail, Heather “Anish” Anderson was completing the trail in 19 days, 17 hours and 9 minutes, a record for a self-supported hiker. She also went north to south. She began on Oct. 7 and finished Oct. 27. Anderson, of Bellingham, Wash., also has previously set self-supported records on the Pacific Crest and Appalachian trails.)
Versteeg, who grew up in Arizona, had long wanted to complete the trail, even before he started running four years ago. The past two years he’s thought about going for the record. This year, he decided the time was right.
Now that it’s over, he’s grateful for seeing areas of the state he’d never seen and discovering a talent for multi-day, long-distance runs he didn’t know he had. He’s won a 100-mile race and other events at distances such as 50K, 88K and 60K, but says the Arizona Trail run was different.
“I can’t even wrap my head around what I went through for the past 16 days, and the difficulty of the terrain and trail and the weeds and things that made my feet fall apart at the end,” he says. “When I was finished, I was happy to be done.”
He takes more pride in this project than any previous run, especially after pushing through the last five days. “I found out a lot of things about myself,” he says.
Jamil Coury, an ultrarunner and race organizer from Phoenix who ran with Versteeg on three trail sections, says he has a right to be proud.
“Oh my God it was incredibly difficult,” says Coury, who knows the trail well after thru-hiking it in 31 days in 2008. “Fifty miles a day is what he was doing. Toward the end he was up to like 20 hours a day or more (on the trail), constantly out there. That accumulated mileage and stress on the body is pretty incredible.”
“Just keep moving”
The first section of the Arizona Trail was dedicated in 1988. Gradually, it evolved to its full length. It was designated a National Scenic Trail in 2009 and completed in 2011. Matthew Nelson, executive director of the Arizona Trail Association, says about 200 people—hikers, runners and mountain bikers—attempt to go start-to-finish annually. Several people have tried to break Bradley’s record in recent years, but none has come close, Nelson says.
As Versteeg prepared to run it, he didn’t do specific training. He had a full summer of racing in Alaska—where he was working for the summer—and, in the weeks leading up to his trek, he did what he calls “easy runs” before and after full days of carpentry work.
“So, I was getting used to long days, like 16-hour days of constantly being on my feet,” he says.
He already had a huge fitness base. He’s a longtime hiker, climber and outdoorsman who found a natural transition into ultras. He’s raced and trained continuously the past four years. At 6-foot-1 and 140 pounds—with a dark, bushy beard and long hair—he’s a lean machine built for trails. Plus, he knew this was no 50- or 100-mile run.
“You’re never really going that fast,” he says, noting he averaged just 3 to 4 mph. “So it’s 15- to 20-minute miles. You’re kind of jogging the easy stuff and power hiking everything else. You just have to keep moving for very long days.”
He had a rotating crew of 15-plus friends who gave him their time (and dipped into their own wallets) to supply him with food, water, clothes and equipment at designated locations. It wasn’t completely efficient, though, because some trail sections are so remote, vehicles can’t reach them. There were times he had to do 30 to 40 miles on his own.
The first 300 miles in the north were the easiest for him (excluding the climb out of the Grand Canyon). He ran on well-groomed trails through plateaus and forests. In his first six days he covered 340 miles—almost 57 per day.
Then came the less-manicured route through the remote areas of the Mazatzal mountains, Four Peaks Wilderness and Superstitions where his progress slowed. Fallen trees and overgrown bushes and branches clog the route, and it’s easy to get off track. Sometimes, only rock cairns mark the route.
“It’s bushwhacking and it’s very difficult country to move through,” says Versteeg, who says he could, at times, make just a mile an hour. By Day 10, his average was down to 50 miles per day.
Then came the grasslands, when he wished he’d been wearing boots rather than running shoes. The constant cuts and punctures caused swelling in his legs and feet. When he covered his shoes in duct tape, it shut off air flow, creating a wet environment that caused his feet to “fall apart.”
The going also became so slow he was getting little sleep. To keep to his 50-mile average—what he needed to do hit his goal of 16 days—he was on the trail 20 to 22 hours per day, taking naps at dawn and dusk.
“Even in the grass, he would be frustrated and uncomfortable, but he was always looking to get back on the trail,” says longtime friend Paco Cantu of Tucson, who crewed for Versteeg during the last five days. “He never for a second talked about quitting, never for a second was out of spirits.”
Finally, Versteeg completed the final few miles through the Coronado National Memorial, running by the light of his headlamp with Coury and Cantu past U.S. Border Patrol vehicles to the end. Versteeg wanted to see the finish spot in daylight, so he, Coury, Cantu and other crew settled in for a short nap until sunrise, when they celebrated by devouring burritos Cantu brought.
Over the next 24 hours, Versteeg says he slept 19. He felt tired for several days. Yet he had no significant injuries.
“Doing something like this the whole idea is sustainability and the ability to do it day in and day out,” he says. “So theoretically at the end of 16 days I could have kept going.”
Versteeg did the run for its challenge and also to raise awareness and money (through his GoFundMe page) for the Save the Confluence campaign to stop a proposed development project at the confluence of the Colorado and Lower Colorado rivers.
Now he says he finds himself poking around the Internet to see what the fastest known times are on other long trails. He wants to do another endurance trek—perhaps the nearly 500-mile Colorado Trail—but will take his time to decide. This trip told him he’s built for these.
Versteeg adds,“I’m pretty good at this multi-day thing because of my mental ability to just commit and be incredibly, unwaveringly stubborn.”