By Vince Echavaria
When Josh Garrett was at his weakest moments during an epic trek, including a bout of heat stroke that left him debilitated, it was the images of suffering animals that powered him through the pain.
After all, standing up for the animals that are sent to factory farms and slaughterhouses was the main reason the 30-year-old decided to take on the grueling Pacific Crest Trail between the California border with Mexico and the Washington border with Canada.
Not only would the Pacific Palisades hiker attempt to complete the 2,655-mile-long trail to support the organization Mercy for Animals and try to prove it can be done on a vegan diet, but he was on a mission to finish the journey alone in record time.
It was that message that animals’ sacrifice for a food source is unnecessary and the images from videos depicting their treatment, which were “burned” into Garrett’s memory, that gave the Santa Monica College exercise physiology professor the motivation to overcome any challenges he faced along the way.
“I knew that no matter how painful it was or how miserable I was at times, that what I was going through was nothing compared to what animals go through in factory farms and slaughterhouses. I was constantly thinking about that,” said Garrett, an assistant cross country and track and field coach at SMC.
In the end, Garrett rose above the obstacles he faced on the long but scenic journey and completed the Pacific Crest Trail Aug. 8 in 59 days, eight hours and 14 minutes, which is believed to be a record for the fastest time by an individual hiker. No official records are kept on how fast the trail has been finished.
Just days before Garrett achieved the feat, a female hiker from Washington set the prior PCT record of 61 days and 17 hours.
For Garrett, who previously hiked the PCT in 2009, setting the new speed record was more about helping to spread the word about the strength of a vegan diet than it was a personal goal. If it weren’t for his fight on behalf of animals and vegans out there, Garrett doubts that he would’ve been dedicated to conquering the trail as quickly as he did.
“I wanted to get the word out that we don’t need to eat meat or animal products in order to be healthy or strong… and I knew that by doing the record it would give me a better chance of getting the word out,” said Garrett, an animal lover who has a pit bull named Paula and takes care of a number of dogs in his neighborhood. “I’m not sure I would’ve continued on the hike through all of the low points if it hadn’t been for the cause.”
Those low points included an incident only about 100 miles into the trail in a very hot, dry and exposed section, where Garrett, who hadn’t managed to eat for a while, collapsed and began to vomit. He curled into a fetal position and began shivering in the 100-degree heat, forcing him to get off the trail and recover in a nearby town for the next day.
While many a hiker, knowing how far a journey lie ahead, would’ve been ready to call it quits, Garrett chose to put his hiking shoes back on. “What got me through that was remembering why I was out there in the first place – I couldn’t give up on all those suffering animals,” he recalled.
SMC head cross country Coach Eric Barron was not surprised at Garrett’s commitment to following through on the extreme physical challenge, despite the troubles that came his way. The coach said Garrett, who was once a cross country runner at SMC, is “willing to hurt for things that he cares about.”
“He’s mentally very tough and I knew that if he put his mind to it and if his body would let him, I felt that he would be able to accomplish it even though it’s a long, grueling journey,” Barron said.
Barron noted that many of the athletes on the team followed Garrett’s progress throughout the hike and were very excited to learn of their coach’s record-setting trek.
For Garrett, who has traversed sections of the Continental Divide Trail and climbed Mt. Whitney – the highest point in the contiguous United States – hiking offers a sense of solitude and a chance to enjoy beautiful wilderness.
He chose the Pacific Crest Trail for his record-setting expedition because he was familiar with its layout, noting how the first 700 miles cover primarily desert with hot and dry conditions, until reaching the Sierra Nevada mountain range where there is plenty of water with cooler temperatures and higher altitude. Garrett described the Sierras as the most scenic portion of the trail that travels thousands of miles and passes through 25 national forests and seven national parks.
In embarking on the physical test, Garrett said he expected it to be a difficult road and after accomplishing what he set out to do, he acknowledged that the effort was more challenging than he predicted.
“Anytime you’re going after a world record you have to figure that you’re going to be in for a rough one,” Garrett said of his expectations. “I knew I was going to have to deal with ups and downs and it certainly was an emotional roller coaster.”
Following the trail completion, Garrett has so far raised more than $19,700 for Mercy for Animals and is seeking to raise more than $26,000, equating to $10 for every mile of the PCT. A website has been set up for donations at www.mercyforanimals.org/veganhiker. The organization, which works to prevent cruelty to farmed animals, praised Garrett’s achievement on behalf of its mission.
“We’re deeply moved and inspired by Josh’s commitment to protecting all animals from cruelty and we certainly feel that his historic and record-breaking feat proved that a vegan diet is not only compassionate but also healthy and allows athletes to thrive,” said Nathan Runkle, founder and executive director of Mercy for Animals.
To surpass the record pace, Garrett made sure to cover an average of 45 miles per day, spending approximately 16 to 20 hours on the hiking trail. When he finally got within sight of the monument marking the trail’s end and could see his girlfriend standing at the finish line, Garrett ran toward them and into the record books.
While it took a while for the significance of the moment to set in, Garrett, who has no immediate plans for another extreme adventure, was quick to call the journey the hardest thing he’s ever done.
And he says it was the perseverance through those low points that enabled him to stand tall in the end.
“I learned that you’re going to have highs and lows whether that be on a hike or in everyday life and if you can break through those low points, then things will get better. Break through those low points, don’t give up and you’ll see greener pastures,” he concluded.