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From Failure to FKT: Perseverance on Costa Rica’s Highest Peak

 By Jeff Garmire

With five miles left, my stomach rebelled. An altitude-induced headache had been crushing my skull since the summit of Mt. Cerro Chirripó, the 12,536-foot high point of Costa Rica. I sat on a rock, giving myself three minutes to collect myself. I slowly watched the seconds tick by on my watch, wishing they would slow down. Every one of them was precious and each moment I delayed moving forward affected the chances of setting a record on the mountain translating to “land of eternal waters.” It had been a year of setting records across the U.S. and I had no idea how this short break would impact this attempt in Central America. 

I rose and pushed my body as hard as possible down the muddy trail, gritting my teeth and sliding around every corner. With four miles left, the record was right on the edge of possible. I ran harder. Only a minute remained to get to the trailhead. I made the final turn and slid down one last muddy hill. I could see the gravel road in the distance and looked down at my watch. The target time clicked past. I missed the record. Two minutes faster and I would have set a new Fastest Known Time (FKT). When the chance of a record was over, my pace immediately slowed and I hobbled the final steps to the road. A patch of weeds looked inviting and I walked over, collapsing in exhaustion and disappointment. The unsuccessful attempt left a bad taste in my mouth.

"With four miles left, the record was right on the edge of possible. I ran harder. Only a minute remained to get to the trailhead.”

After a year of writing and releasing a book and building a fully remote income stream, I jumped on cheap tickets to Costa Rica. It was my first trip to Central America, and initially, the goal was simply to explore a new country. But after two months of living on the beach, exploring the jungle, and being a tourist, I was itching for a new record attempt. 

For one month I lived in a small house half a mile from the Caribbean Ocean in a town called Cahuita. Each morning I would walk down to the beach, leave my shoes under a tree and run six miles on the sand. It was a routine I stuck to religiously, sometimes logging my miles in the nearby national park and other times on the black sand beach. As much as I enjoyed the beach, the towering mountains of the Talamanca Range beckoned as my time living abroad slowly came to an end. And after I looked up the current FKT, I was hooked. Professional ultrarunner, current PCT FKT holder, and back-to-back Western States 100-miler champion Timothy Olson held the record at 6 hours and 38 minutes. I thought I could beat that time. 

Cerro Chirripó rises higher than any other mountain in Costa Rica. The 37th most prominent peak in the world sits in the center of a national park, and I knew I had to climb it. The 25-mile (40km) out and back route to the top gains 8,000’ on nontechnical, but often muddy, trails. When I saw the route, I knew it was perfect. I immediately bought a bus ticket, packed up my few possessions, and set out, newly inspired by a mountain and a goal. 

After a day of travel, I arrived in San Isidro De El General and found the cheapest room possible. Ideally, I would be spending very little time in it. I put my rudimentary Spanish to work and got my permit secured for a climb to the top of Costa Rica. I didn’t have the perfect gear, but I thought I could use my large backpacking pack and simply carry water and a little to eat. I ran two miles through town with the setup and deemed it good enough. 

The attempt was a push straight up the mountain. I was moving fast and the trail was less muddy than I expected. It seemed like everything was going perfectly. But as I climbed the last few feet I began to lose it. The goal was the summit, and then I would determine what the issues were for the run down. I hopped up the last couple of rocks and stood on the highest peak in Costa Rica. My head was pounding. My legs were burning and my heart was racing. It was going to be a painful descent. I took a two-minute break and then began the second half of the record attempt.

“I hopped up the last couple of rocks and stood on the highest peak in Costa Rica. My head was pounding. My legs were burning and my heart was racing. It was going to be a painful descent.”

The miles were slow and painful, despite knowing I should be running seamlessly down the 8,000’ of descent. Every kilometer was marked with a sign and made the last twelve miles feel like they lasted forever. It was a fight through every step. With each mile, I slowed and the cushion against the current record began to slip away. 

At the five-mile mark my stomach rebelled and it became a slow death march to the end. I was two minutes too slow. The record had slipped away as my entire body fought against any sort of pace. I was unprepared mentally, physically, and logistically. But I wasn’t done.

Three days later, still sore from the previous attempt at Cerro Chirripó, I retraced my steps to the trailhead. I wasn't nervous about another possible failure, only the continued ability to push up the peak. Could I force myself to redline for six hours only days after the last attempt? The conditions had worsened. It had rained the last two days, but my drive and determination were stronger than ever. 

From the moment I started my watch, I knew it was my day. The mud was slick and I slopped all over the place. The footing was terrible, but my legs were strong. Even the uphill miles flew by. The flats felt easy and the final scramble came quickly. This time I scampered up the rocks with no sign of a headache. Rewarding the progress with a two-minute break and a short snack, I recentered my mind for the descent. 

I took off as if I were shot out of a cannon and danced down the half-mile scramble. I flew through the flats and then began the long slide down the muddy descent. Each corner was a mess and my feet continued to slide out from under me. But I still had plenty of energy to push each mile harder than the last. Three miles left and I felt confident, so I naturally turned up the intensity even further. I could smell the record. And then I fell.

“Three miles left and I felt confident, so I naturally turned up the intensity even further. I could smell the record. And then I fell.”

It wasn’t like all the other falls leading up to this point. My feet flew out from under me after a slide in the mud and I was quickly horizontal in mid-air. Gravity took hold and my body crashed back to earth. The mud cushioned most of the landing, but my shin crashed down on a rock. It was an inch-long gash and immediately began to bleed. But I was so close. So, I picked myself up and limped on. It didn’t feel broken, but I had so much adrenaline pumping through me that I could have fought through any discomfort. 

To no fanfare, I hit the trailhead in a time of 6 hours and 18 minutes. I had broken the record by 20 minutes and felt completely exhausted. Upon touching the trail sign and sitting down, the cut on my leg screamed in pain. It was a small price to pay in order to succeed at a record that had become an obsession in just days. A trip to the pharmacy, antibiotics, and some added attention, and my leg was salvaged. 

The initial failure on the route turned the speed record from a goal into an opportunity to walk back into the face of failure and prove to myself I could do better. The second time on the mountain became less about time and more about determination. There was more to give. It was about harnessing and reframing a failure in a way that created a new challenge. By walking back to the trailhead only days later, I learned a lot more about what I was capable of. I had shown up again, despite the real possibility of failing again. 

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