JB Benna not only makes beautiful movies but he throws down when it comes to thru-hiking and trail running. His list of races is extensive and he’s even managed to rack up a few wins along the way. In 2006, he filmed David Horton’s 2,700 mile FKT on the Pacific Crest Trail. He filmed Dean Karnazes run 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days in 2009—an epic feat for anyone involved. Then in 2012, he gave us ultrageeks a sweet little gem—Unbreakable: The Western States 100. It’s effect on the ultra community is undeniable. It’s a great flick that makes us believe that anything is possible and inspires us to go outside and run into the sunset and maybe, just maybe…keep running until the sun comes up. Most recently, JB bagged an unsupported FKT on the Tahoe Rim Trail (174 miles) with a time of 58:43. I spoke with him after a week of healing and time with his wife and daughter.
AM: How ya feeling now?
JB: Pretty good, I guess. Pretty satisfied. Tired. My knee was pretty swollen up after that. Swelling is just kinda going down now. That and a bunch of blisters were my only real physical issues.
AM: Tell me about the last person who held the Tahoe Rim Trail unsupported FKT.
JB: Michael “Mish” Popov.
AM: Was he a buddy of yours?
JB: Yeah just an ultrarunning acquaintance. We kind of just hit it off right off the bat. He’d seen my film The Runner about David Horton’s record on the PCT and he himself had done a speed record around the John Muir Trail, so we’d always chat whenever I’d see him. That was 2007 or 2008. We saw each other at different races and different events. He passed away last year in Death Valley on a solo run. It’s still kind of a sensitive subject but I felt inspired by his feats. I wanted to go out and honor that and test myself as well.
AM: Yeah, it seemed like you wanted to pay tribute to him rather than go out and beat his time.
JB: Yeah I didn’t want to say I’m going to go out and beat your time. It’s a solo pursuit of just pushing yourself to your limits rather than beating someone else’s time. I did feel his inspiration and his spirit while I was out there hallucinating for twenty-four out of the fifty-eight hours of the event.
AM: Wow. So how tough did it get out there? How bad was it?
JB: Well from about mile 110 till the finish I was fairly convinced that I was hiking not only with another person but that my feet, my poles, my legs and my hydration pack were all individual characters.
We both laugh.
JB: So every time something happened with one of those items it was a conversation with that item, telling it to get itself together so it could keep up with me. Every thirty to sixty minutes I would snap out of it and realize I was hallucinating and that I was out there alone. I realized that was an easier place than reality for my mind to be at that moment. It was interesting, I mean, I’ve had some mild hallucinations while running hundred milers where I’ll be running down a trail and see some-thing, I think it’s a voodoo doll, or an animal or something and it turns out to be just a stump but nothing to that extent where it was continuous and I was having conversations with my foot about why it wasn’t fixing my blister.
AM: And these hallucinations went on for a long time?
JB: Yeah, at least twenty-four hours. The second night and then ten hours and fourty-three minutes on the third day. I didn’t sleep much. I didn’t even sleep the first night, I just lied down for about twenty-five minutes but it was so windy that I don’t think I actually fell asleep. The second night I was trying to sleep for ninety minutes but I only fell asleep for thirty minutes and I was lying down for forty-five to an hour the whole night.
AM: I know it was unsupported but did you have any friends out there at all?
JB: Well at the very end, I wanted at least one person to be there to verify. I had this photographer guy come out at mile 150 and then at the last minute my wife also decided to come out with him so there would be two people there to verify that no one handed me anything. They didn’t even give me a hug or touch me in anyway. That was the only person I saw that I knew. There were probably only ten or twelve people total because it was so windy, so there weren’t many people on the trail. Plus it was a weekday. I saw a few people and told them to tweet me or Facebook me to say that they saw me. Someone took a picture of me so I’m hoping I hear from these people in the next few days. Overall, I didn’t see too many people because it was 60-70 mph winds. It felt like it was gonna rip my backpack off my back at certain points. That forced me to change my direction of travel at the very last minute. Two hours before I left, I switched from going counter clockwise to clockwise, which kind of threw my mental game off a bit. I’d been thinking about the other direction for so long and then all of a sudden was going the opposite way but it was kind of necessary with the conditions and the chance of rain.
Photo by Jennifer Benna
AM: Do you know what he weight of your pack was?
JB: It was at about 4.9 pounds. With my food about 13-14 pounds and then with my water for the first stretch, which is one of the longest, was about 20 pounds. Then with my clothes and poles it was 23 pounds of total weight.
AM: And you just filtered water along the way?
JB: Yeah, only natural water sources. I think I only stopped for water like five or six times, probably every twenty miles, thirty miles.
AM: Were you mainly eating gels? You’re not stopping to cook food, are you?
JB: I actually did cook two meals. I ate four meals, two of them were cooked. The rest was quite a variety of foods. I had gels, bars, peanut butter M&M’s, Justin’s peanut butter, beef jerky, Wheat Thins, dried fruit, Vespa, electrolyte tabs. Stuff like that. I had two hot cooked backpacker type meals and then two granola and milk breakfast type meals. Definitely variety helped under the circumstance. One downfall is the harder, more solid food will sustain in the long run but it’s harder to chew. My jaw was actually very sore for the last twenty-four hours.
AM: I know you’ve done some thru-hiking and fast packing. Does that sort of thing appeal to you more than races? We’ve seen your wife at races this year and you’re usually there supporting her.
JB: Yeah, we’re just gonna focus on her races. Over the last few years I’ve done some shorter trail runs. I’ve had some success. I’ve won some races but just not in the ultra world. It’s just different. The thing that appeals to me is running is about the simplest thing you can do. At a semi competitive event you can test your limits but you’re completely on your own. There’s no aid stations, no fellow racers, no crew, no pacers, nothing. Kind of an extreme of that simplicity. I don’t want to become a trail hermit because I really do enjoy the camaraderie with the trail running community and the ultra community. I find that they’re really amazing but I think it’s nice to strip it down to bare essentials and just be out there with yourself and see how you can perform.
AM: Yeah, I couldn’t agree with you more, man.
JB: There will be more FKT’s but Jen’s going to take the year and I’ll be there for support.
AM: Hey, I’m a big fan of Unbreakable, as well as your other films, what’s next for Journey Film?
JB: You know I’ve been working on a women’s ultra film. The working title is Ultrabeauty. It’s kind of a bio pic about five or six different women throughout the course of a year or so. It’s a little different than Unbreakable. It’s has more character. It’s still kind of coming together. I’m not sure when it will be released. That’s kind of my tentative plan.
AM: Well again man, congrats on the FKT.
JB: Yeah man, I didn’t know if I could do it, I figured I’d just give it a shot. I honestly thought this would just be a test run this year and next year I’d give it a more experienced go but I’m pretty thrilled with the outcome.
AM: Did you film any or all of this big adventure?
JB: Yeah, I filmed with my iPhone. It was just a little talking into camera sort of thing. The guy that came out to take pictures also filmed some of it from Mount Rose Meadows and the finish. Between the stuff I shot and the stuff he shot, maybe a short blurb or something could come out eventually.
AM: But it won’t be the next Journey Film?
JB: (Laughs) No, I think that would have taken away from the experience.