Mikaela Osler — AKA “FlyBy” — set the women’s self-supported speed record on the Colorado Trail on August 9, shattering the old record by over four days
Mikaela Osler left the Colorado Trail near Denver on the morning of July 30. 10 days, 12 hours and 36 minutes later, she stepped off the trail in Durango with the new women’s self-supported Fastest Known Time (FKT). The previously held record of 15 days, 2 hours and 28 minutes was set in 2018 by Olga King. Currently heading for another year of grad school at University of New Mexico, we caught Osler for a quick chat about her Colorado Trail experience. Here is what she had to say.
Q: Where are you from?
A: “I am originally from Jericho, Vermont. Right now, I’m in grad school at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. I’m doing a masters in fine arts in creative writing.”
Mikaela is just starting her second year of a three year program.
Do you consider yourself more of a runner or a thru-hiker?
A: “I got into ultrarunning last fall. I did a 50 (Deadman Peaks) and then New Years, I did my first 100 — Across the Years — like in a 24 hour race. It was all flat, not a mountain 100. But yeah, I think I’m more of a thru-hiker first, but I feel weird saying that I’m only a thru-hiker.”
Where did the trail name “Fly By” come from?
A: “I’ve done the Triple Crown — I’ve done the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) and the Appalachian Trail (AT). So the PCT was my first trail, and day three or four, I figured out that I needed to do 30 miles that day to get to Warner Springs (California) the next day to get my box. It was a Friday and I needed to get my box on Saturday morning. Otherwise, I would have been stuck there all weekend waiting to get my box.
And so I was hiking along trying to do this 30-mile day, which I had never done before — like I was not an athlete and have never done anything that intense before. And so in the morning, there’s this place called Scissors Crossing where you cross this wide, flat plane and then you start to ascend into the foothills. And so I was still hiking on the sidehill trail and looking out across the plane and I passed this guy, and we chatted for a second. I told him I was doing a 30, and he was like, ‘What?!’
I got a little bit past him, and then a fighter jet flew by us. I remember it being at eye level — I had never been that close to a moving airplane before, and this guy who I just passed shouted up the trail at me: ‘Hey, your trail name should be FlyBy!’
So that’s how I got it.”
Which long distance trails have you completed?
A: As mentioned above, Osler has completed the Triple Crown, and now the Colorado Trail.
What was your inspiration to start tackling these long-distance trails?
A: “My dad did the Appalachian Trail when he was in his early 20’s — he did it in 1981. And so I grew up with his stories. When I was in third grade, I was on a road trip with my mom, and her friend’s daughter was hiking the Appalachian Trail. We went out and found my dad in a trail register and then went to visit her friend’s daughter. And I was like, ‘I’m going to do that one day.’
When I got to college, I was having a really hard time. I felt really directionless, really kind of lost, pretty depressed. And so my sophomore year, I applied for a year-long leave of absence. I ended up hiking the Pacific Crest Trail that year — in 2016.”
When did you decide that you wanted to pursue an FKT on the Colorado Trail?
A: “The Colorado Trail was sort of a last minute decision because there was a pandemic. I decided last year when I was on the Appalachian Trail. I had gotten my pack really late, and so I was doing way bigger miles than I expected. I listened to the audiobook ‘Thirst’ by Heather Anderson. She set the FKT on the PCT and AT. I had heard about her when I was on the PCT and it was so, so important to me that she had not just done it really fast, but had done it faster than any men had ever done. It made feel like, as a woman, I could belong in the thru-hiking world and not be held back by my gender or sex.
My first day listening to (Anderson’s) audiobook, I hiked my first 40. A couple days after that, I actually looked up the FKT on the Long Trail, and I was like, ‘I could totally do that.’
And so I guess I had FKTs on my mind. But then this summer I had some time, and I didn’t want to go to Vermont. I had kind of been going back and forth with (the Colorado Trail) anyway. I felt a little safer going into New Mexico from Colorado in terms of the pandemic, so I did the Colorado Trail.”
Do you hold any other FKTs?
A: “I don’t know if I still have it, but last summer on the AT, my partner and I submitted the unsupported Connecticut Challenge FKT. There was no mixed gender FKT, so we just did it and submitted it. I don’t know if I still have it though, or what happened, but I felt cool doing that. I (basically) did the whole hike through Connecticut in a day. I mean, someone can totally break that. We had all of our backpacking stuff with us.”
Do you have any other big adventures planned in the near future?
A: “I think my big adventure right now is grad school.”
What were your feelings while out on the trail or after completing the trail?
A: “When I was on the trail, I settled into this really negative (mindset). It was really interesting, actually, noticing all of my negative thought patterns and noticing all of the ways I’m really mean to myself. 135 miles from the end, I took a four hour sleep. And I had lost my sleeping pad, and so all of my sleeps weren’t super high quality. I did that, then hiked another 40 miles or so, slept for two hours and then I had 95 miles to go. So I slept for two hours, woke up, did another 20 miles and that got me to Molas Campground. I stopped there and charged my phone and took an hour and a half nap. And for the last 75 miles, my plan was just to not sleep, and I already hadn’t slept, or barely slept, the previous 70-ish miles.
And so I got into this horrible, negative thought pattern — like if I was more disciplined, I could be walking three miles an hour right now. I knew in my head if I had someone pacing me, I could be walking three miles an hour, that my body could do it but I just couldn’t get my mind to do that. I was so mean to myself.
So I think towards the end of the trail, I was noticing the thought patterns that I got stuck into. And then immediately after I finished, I was like, ‘Oh my God, you tried so hard.’ I felt really proud of myself and really strong.
On my thru-hikes, I’ve hiked with other people — you just make friends (on the trail). I had always told myself that I could totally do this alone if I wanted to; it’s just more fun with other people. But a part of me had always asked, ‘Are you sure about that? Are you sure you could really do this alone?’
I should have just believed myself that I could do it alone. I guess I really proved it to myself that I really am able to do it alone.
What was the most challenging segment for you?
A: “I think my lowest low was the climb between Breckenridge and Copper, which was maybe day three. I wasn’t really acclimated to the elevation, so it was kind of trial by fire. It was a weekend, and there was a ton of people out and it was really hot and I was just out breath the whole time.”
What advice do you have for others who want to pursue an FKT?
A: “This is advice I didn’t follow myself, but am going to follow in the future. Especially on (trails) longer than 100 miles, I think that we should be going after overall FKTs. I don’t think that sex or gender should (be discriminated). I try to reflect on things that slowed me down, and it was things like not getting up in the morning fast enough. There’s a ton of anecdotal evidence and the fact that Courtney (Dauwalter) was going for the overall FKT at the same time (I was on the trail). I don’t want women to be intimidated, but I think we can be setting overall FKTs. I wish I would have gone for that, and in the future I will probably go for an overall FKT.”
What were some of the biggest lessons learned on your journey?
A: “I was getting blisters between my toes. Somebody gave me raw wool and I wrapped my toes and was wearing Darn Tough socks and they were also wool. It was the most magical, happy blister life.
Along with that, something I didn’t really plan for, a lot of my blister care ideas rely on taking my shoes off for eight hours a night. And so I hadn’t really planned for what it was going to be like wearing shoes for 20-,21- or 22 hours a day. Like, how am I going to keep my feet happy?
There were so many things I didn’t plan for. I wish I would have packed six times as much caffeine. I had one packet of caffeinated Crystal Light a day, and I was buying anything caffeinated I could get when I stopped in stores. There was trail magic right before I did the last 75 miles and they gave me these electrolyte tablets with 30 milligrams of caffeine. I was taking three of those at a time.
I think also learning that I could be out there with no sleeping pad was pretty cool. I guess I knew a lot about campsite selection because I had done a lot of hikes. But after that, really thinking about how I could get a couple degrees of warmth from the pine needles and whatever else.
The other strategy thing that was, at least, sort of successful for me. It’s important to me to include some sort of land acknowledgment. I just want to acknowledge that I was hiking on Ute/Cheyenne/Arapahoe lands and the we should, as adventurers and as people who engage with ideas of the wilderness, we should all be thinking about that
What led to your use of land acknowledgments?
A: “I think what’s really foundational for me is thinking about land acknowledgment was reading ‘The Trouble With Wilderness’ by William Cronon. The idea that this land was ever a wilderness is really harmful because it erases the fact that Indigenous people have always been here and are still here, and that colonialism is still happening.
And so when I think about using my platform — like posting photos of things that people might interpret as wilderness — I think a lot about how I’m participating in creating that myth. And as I hike, I keep noticing these landscapes that we think of as ‘wild’ and ‘natural’ are really human constructions — like allowing vehicles or not allowing vehicles, allowing bikes or not allowing bikes — all of these things are rules that we follow, that are really harmful ways of relating to one another. I think land acknowledgments are a first and tiny step, and that actually using our money and resources are a bigger, better step towards undoing the ways that wilderness is part of the settler colonial process.”
For more adventures from Mikaela, follow her on Instagram at @mikaelaosler.