Jeff Garmire is an author, ultrarunner, and multiple fastest known time (FKT), record-setting thru-hiker. He’s hiked over 29,000 miles in the past decade, earning the trail name “Legend” along the way (more on that, below). In addition to his incredible accomplishments on the trail, Jeff brings a unique sense of fun and adventure to his outdoor activities, often wearing costumes or incorporating props into his races (he’s been known to run 5Ks in Crocs or push a stroller). In this month’s Coffee Talk, Jeff shares what inspires him to take on some of the hardest endurance challenges around, which was the most difficult, and how a tiger print sweatshirt inspired his signature style.
First things first – where does your trail name “Legend” come from?
I received the trail name Legend on my first thru-hike. It was 2011 on the Pacific Crest Trail and a group of us had just left Wrightwood after a town day and resupply. We were sitting around at dusk at Grassy Hollow Visitor Center and complaining about how we had forgotten to pack out town food for dinner. Being the youngest (20), I volunteered to hitch back into town and bring back pizza. It was nearly dark and since hitching is very tough in the dark they thought it was an impossible plan. But, I walked to the road in my Croc camp shoes, hitched into town, and came back with pizza and even steak to cook over the fire. They deemed the act “Legendary,” and the trail name Legend stuck.
You’ve tackled some of the most challenging endurance races out there, including the Barkley Marathons and the Cocodona 250 (twice). What was the hardest race or hike you’ve ever attempted?
The most difficult challenge was actually in the middle of the Great Western Loop (GWL), when I opted to take the Nolan’s 14 alternate. Living in Colorado for years before taking on the GWL, I had always thought of trying the Nolan’s 14 challenge, which is 100 miles long and summits 14 different 14,000’ peaks. The route is largely off-trail with plenty of scrambling, and navigation is left up to the person attempting it. The only rules are to start at the fish hatchery near Leadville, finish at Blanks Cabin, and summit all 14 peaks in between.
I arrived in Leadville, did a short resupply, and carried my fully loaded thru-hiking backpack to the start. The challenge is an ultrarunning challenge with a cutoff of 60 hours to be considered a true finisher. But, since I only had the gear I had been carrying, I pushed through the challenge as a thru-hiker with nearly all power hiking and a relentless push through the 100 miles. It was my first real test in difficult navigation in the dark, sleep deprivation, and the massive swings in emotions that come with taking on something well outside of the comfort zone. I finished in 59 hours and 30 minutes and it opened a whole new realm of what I thought my body could do.
What inspires you to take on hikes and races that most people would never even consider trying?
I really love the pace of life when immersed in nature and with one goal. It simplifies everything to a manageable level and helps me be present with myself. It is not necessarily the pushing or racing or records that have led to this simplified view, but I have found that they drastically and quickly put me in that headspace. It is a very structured and solidified task at hand and it is very rewarding to immerse myself so deeply into one thing. I found this mindset at 20 on my first thru-hike and I have continued to find it for 12 years now.
What outdoor adventure or challenge have you not attempted but want to?
I really want to explore more internationally. I would love to do the Te Araroa in New Zealand, and then a further lifetime goal is to complete all of the national scenic trails. I really love exploring new places by thru-hiking and backpacking because it gives a more realistic view of the culture and the people who are outside of the larger (and more visited) cities. I have gotten to see a different side of Alabama, Arkansas, New Mexico, Georgia, and even Arizona which was completely different than my travels to the more destination centers in each of those states.
You wrote a book called Free Outside, the same name of your documentary, website, and Instagram handle. Where did that name come from, and what does it mean to you?
It has turned into a bit of a brand, but it started out with a simple decision to turn my blog into a website. I found a few available domain names, but something about Free Outside felt special and I ran with it. It must have been subconscious but it really is how I feel out in nature and on these long trips and difficult efforts. It was born out of availability and gravitating toward a website name that was open.
You’ve been on the road lately promoting a new documentary about your 2020 Fastest Known Time (FKT) effort on the Colorado Trail. Filming an unsupported thru-hike presented some unique challenges for the crew – what was the experience like for you and how was it different from other FKTs you’ve set?
I don’t think we knew what we were getting into. Essentially the Colorado Trail film is a story of three stories happening at the same time. The Colorado Trail is the main character, in all its beauty. Then there is my record attempt along the trail and the massive highs and lows associated with an FKT, and then there is the crew filming the attempt and dealing with all sorts of adversity ranging from keeping things charged to camping to a flat tire and accessing the trail along the way. I had no contact with the crew throughout so we had to trust we would each do our best to capture the nine-day period. Even in the planning process beforehand I didn’t want any info on the places they planned to film. Along the trail, they simply followed my public tracker to capture enough footage to make this feature film.
Where can people watch the film if they haven’t seen it?
We will be touring the film to a number of different cities which can be seen on freeoutside.com/film, with more cities continually being added. Then, after I am thoroughly exhausted with the tour style of getting to interact with an audience and show the film in person, it will find a home on a streaming service.
Have you always been athletic? What were your go-to activities growing up?
I loved sports from an early age. I tried to play every sport possible including soccer, basketball, baseball, track, cross country, tennis, football, golf, and everything in between. I just loved sports and the ability to improve at them by practicing. I still love shooting hoops and the methodical activity of practicing and getting better.
You have a unique sense of style and have been known to run races in everything from Crocs to dresses to fur coats. How would you define your personal style? Who is your style icon?
I do it all for me. I don’t really know if there is any sense in it, but I found that dressing up and smiling at how fun it is really added this deeper level of happiness and enjoyment to activities along with reminding myself that this is all fun in the end. If there is the choice to do the same activity the boring way or the fun way, why would anyone choose the boring way? I bought my first tiger print sweatshirt on the Great Western Loop because I wanted another layer and the “technical fabric” tiger sweatshirt was a great deal, so I bought it and haven’t looked back. Overall, having fun with events and dressing up makes me happier and that is what I try to chase. I don’t know that there is an inspiration or person that I aspire to dress, look or be like, it is simply that dressing up helps me take myself less seriously and bring everything back into the fun zone—whether it is a tough FKT or simply meeting up with friends.
Do you have a favorite trail? What sets it apart for you?
The Pacific Crest Trail in 2011 will always be my favorite. I found independence for the first time and an activity that I could do into my adult life. After choosing not to play sports in college, I was searching for something to immerse myself in, and nature provided that. That single thru-hike was such a fantastic experience of finding a new passion and enjoyment for life.
As we mentioned, you’ve written a book and frequently contribute articles for a number of websites. Who are some of your favorite writers?
I love to read historical and nonfiction books. It is not especially in the style that I write, but a few of my favorite writers and authors are Walter Issacson, Ken Follet, and Laura Hildebrand. I also really like quick-read westerns by Louis L’Amour. I really enjoy Heather Anderson’s books and writing as well. A couple books I find myself recommending pretty consistently are Undaunted Courage and Endurance because of the great leadership and adventure in both the story of Lewis and Clark and Ernest Shackleton.
Which artists would we find on your adventure playlist? Do you have a go-to song to get pumped up for a race or hike?
I love to shuffle all my liked songs because they will cross so many genres. I don’t often get stuck on one artist but currently, I love listening to ford., particularly (the) Evening album. But my playlists have a little bit of everything on them.
How do you relax in between all of these intense activities?
Now that is something I am still learning. I love reading and following the trail world as it continues to get more popular.
What’s next from you that we should be on the lookout for?
I am looking forward to running a 48-hour race in early March to simply see how far I can go when most of the factors of a trail race or an FKT are taken away. I have also been running a lot more trail races and have a few fun ones slotted for 2023.
Where can people follow you?
I keep it simple and everything is centered around Free Outside. On Instagram it’s thefreeoutside, Twitter is Jeffgarmire and my lesser-used TikTok is freeoutside. And then of course freeoutside.com has new blog posts, race recaps, and fun writing hitting it fairly frequently.
Anything we forgot to ask that you’d like to share?
I think it is important to point out that there is so much beyond what I put out there that I enjoy and do. I live in Montana, and in the summer I will drive 20 minutes out to a trail, backpack in a mile, and camp before returning back to working on the computer early the next morning. These are my personal chances to go out and experience the feeling of nature and our place in it on my own. It’s a time to reconnect and relearn the reasons that I enjoy getting out and doing things. I try to respect these times by keeping them as personal memories because, at the end of the day, it really is about gratitude and enjoyment of these amazing places and not about records, FKTs, or race results.