Eagle Valley teacher completes big trail triple crown — AT, PCT and CDT — in 2022
VAIL — In this season of annual reflection and New Year’s resolutions, Charlie Janssen has a job almost as monumental as the task he spent most of 2022 completing.
At 7:32 a.m. on Feb. 3 — his 34th birthday — the former Eagle Valley High School teacher and coach left Springer Mountain, Georgia, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail (AT). At 10:28 a.m. on Nov. 15 — 285 days, 20 hours and 56 minutes later — after walking the AT, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), he arrived at the U.S./Mexico border to become the 13th individual to complete the calendar-year trail triple crown.
Janssen’s main takeaway from finishing hiking’s holy grail might surprise you.
Allee Janssen wasn’t surprised by her husband’s triple crown quest. It came up on their first date.
“This is something I’ve known was on his agenda for a long time and it seemed like the right time for him to go and pursue it,” she said. “I knew he would think about it until he either retired and went to do it — and who knows if you would be physically capable at that point — or just figured out a way to do it.”
Janssen started dreaming of the triple crown after a solo completion of the AT in 2012, but a decade later, his wide-ranging motivations had evolved alongside his life.
He wanted to prove to his students and athletes across the three districts he’s influenced that anything is possible. He needed to “metabolize the loss” of his brother, who passed away in 2019 after an eight-year battle with late-stage renal failure. He longed for a general mental reset coming off of the pandemic, which in and of itself had birthed some competitive offspring.
“I was like, oh, (the social isolation during quarantine) wasn’t that bad. I can do that for longer and in a lot more isolation,” he told Backpacker Magazine, one of several outlets to profile Janssen.
The triple crown concept naturally flowed from the former Pittsburg State runner’s innate drive — one derived from the unspoken but automatic assignment given to every collegiate endurance athlete: the lifelong mandate to search for the limit.
Finally, he wanted to show people thru-hiking wasn’t an adventure for single folks.
“I wanted to prove to the world that in cases such as this, marriage makes you stronger and tougher, not softer,” he said. “I can personally attest that this time around, I was far psychologically tougher, grounded and centered than my first thru hike.”
Allee was pivotal throughout, as were many friends from Janssen’s other walks of life.
“This isn’t like a true revelation, but I definitely didn’t get here on my own,” Charlie said. “Sure, I was the vessel that did this.”
Included in the local honor roll of trail magicians, car-shuttlers and hiking buddies were Myriah and Steve Blair, who rescued Janssen from the graupel, hail, rain and snow which greeted him in his early October return to Colorado.
“I was so excited to come back to the home state, but it really gave me the middle finger, weather-wise,” Charlie said of the seven straight precipitation-filled days.
The Blairs rescued him at Berthoud Pass and drove him back to their Eagle County home, where the Eagle Valley boys cross country runners he’d coached one year prior were hanging out after a meet. The Blairs got him back to the trail the next day, and Myriah joined him on an 18-mile stretch from Copper Mountain to Camp Hale while Steve shuttled the cars.
Eagle Valley head cross country coach Melinda Brandt sent a box of goodies to Gorham, New Hampshire, but when Janssen’s AT hike was initially cut short because of snow, the Brandt’s had the package re-shipped to Kennedy Meadow, California, where notes from athletes and much-appreciated junk food warmed his spirits before climbing into the High Sierras. Eagle Valley High School social studies teacher Nicole Dewell organized a night inside via a friend in Branchville, New Jersey, and also collected funds from former co-workers to help offset the cost of the last of 13 pairs of shoes worn throughout the year.
Former athletes came to the rescue and lifted his spirits across the country, too. John Papadapoulos met Janssen in Amish country in southern Pennsylvania with a massive pizza to share. The coach spent a night in a Castleton College dorm room in Vermont with former athlete Ryan Boeke. In California, current Loyola Marymount runner Avery Doan kept him company around Lake Hughes in the Mojave Desert — which ended up being Janssen’s favorite stretch of the whole journey.
Later, Janssen treated Brennecke Gale to dinner to celebrate her Stanford graduation when she visited him on a messy part of the high Sierras. Finally, Aiden Branch drove through the night to rescue a hypothermic Janssen on Buffalo Pass.
“It takes a village of online support and in-person, on-ground support for me or anybody to accomplish this,” Janssen concluded.
Charlie’s “logistically genius” wife set up a Facebook page, “Where is Charlie Hiking Now,” sending out daily updates and GPS locations to over 500 followers. Friends and family watched as the “Kansas Express” (his trail name) experienced the highs and lows of traversing the unrelenting terrain of the AT. He came down with strep and dealt with cellulitis in the first 25 days, but as he told a media outlet in Wyoming, “What wears others down, wears me down less.”
He enjoyed seeing wild horses in the Grayson Highlands and the Franconia Ridge at sunset. Then, 71 days in, he ran into impassable snow just 390 miles from Katahdin’s summit.
He packed up and flew across the country to start the PCT, hiking that trail — which would emerge as his favorite of the three — for 56 days before returning to New Hampshire to complete the AT, reaching the highest peak in Maine on a clear, June 29 day.
He returned to the PCT two days later, where the warmth was a reprieve from the snow and moisture intermittently experienced on the AT. His 42 days of adventures through California, Oregon and Washington included hiking the first 17 miles of one of his meatier climbing days on just 290 calories. There was a 57.6-mile effort — his longest — through an expired fire closure area around Mt. Jefferson, which he navigated without getting caught.
He also was fortunate to see Allee, who has been working as a traveling nurse in California, on 18 of the days, survive a bout with COVID and fly to Tulsa, Oklahoma, for a friend’s traditional Indian wedding. The latter two events comprised seven of the 15 total non-hiking days Janssen afforded himself at his break-neck pace.
On-trail, Janssen eventually engaged in podcasts and audio books, but most of his hiking was done in silence as his mind strained to support the constant cognitive load.
“You had to measure how much food you ate, how many ounces of water to bring to the next source — is that going to be reliable — looking at the elevation profile, the weather, the terrain. Everything is very calculated and it can be stressful,” he said of the topics his mind hovered around.
“It’s crazy how for granted you take running hot water, getting food at leisure. Everything is so calculated.”
Hiking just over a marathon per day, his minimum caloric requirement was 5,000, ballooning to 7,500 with zero cumulative weight gain as an ultimate consequence. “If I lose five pounds, I’m in the hurt-bag,” said Janssen, who pounded tortillas, honey, peanut butter, candy bars, ramen and tuna. Allee prepared dried meals at home before and during the hike to help provide cost-effective, densely nutritious on-trail meal options.
He carried 45 items packed in a Hyperlite Junction backpack, a total weight of 22.28 pounds. After setting up his tent each night, Janssen said his well-adapted body was often tired, but never sore.
“I was just hungry and wanted to go to sleep,” he said. “Other than that, I could wake up and just do it day after day after day; that was just the norm.”
His third leg — what many consider to be the most difficult trail — began on Aug. 16.
“Once he got to the CDT, I feel like there was some sense of relief and you could almost see he was on the homestretch,” Allee said. “He just had to beat the winter storms and obviously not get injured.”
He’d only met one other south-bounder on the CDT when he showed up to Monarch Pass in mid-October, and only 26 thru-hikers over the 2,600-mile trail.
“It was surprisingly vacant,” he commented.
Many of the people he did encounter over the course of his entire trip were friendly and fascinating. Some were, well — maybe just ‘fascinating’ is the nicest way to put it. There was the man who bizarrely stopped, walked 30 feet off the AT into the woods and started taking pictures of Janssen without comment. There was another guy Janssen came upon just 27 days into the AT who was walking in tight circles in the woods.
Tracking his daily forward progress via GPS signals, Allee possessed the normal thoughts any wife would have if her husband was out trying to cross the country three times … on foot… alone.
“I’m confident in his ability, so that really kind of tempered some of my worry,” she said. “We did appropriate things like making sure he had the GPS safety beacon, so that kind of gave me a little peace of mind, but there’s always that constant worry and concern.”
Having been spared of any tumultuous, trek-ending disasters, Janssen’s blessings reminded him of his brother, Michael Janssen. Back in 2012, 700 miles into the AT, he had rescued Charlie, who was experiencing heart palpitations just as he coincidentally approached Michael’s Connecticut home. Charlie spent five days at a Danbury hospital and was diagnosed with myopericarditis.
“If he hadn’t picked me up, who knows what would have happened,” Janssen recalled. “I felt like he was watching over me to make sure I didn’t do anything stupid this year.”
After 91 days — passing thru-hikers who had started that trail (and were only doing that trail) three months before he did, he reached the finish line on Nov. 15. At the end, Janssen felt a sense of shock.
“In 2012, I was psyched to be done, happy to have accomplished what I set out to do,” he said. “This time, I wasn’t really ready for it to be done and it just kind of abruptly ended. You’re going 30-40 miles a day and then zero…..my body hurt way worse when I was done than when I was going.”
The couple felt sadness having the adventure be over.
“I mean we’ll have many more adventures throughout our life, but it was so consuming throughout the whole year — where is he now, what does he need next and just, you know really trying to be there as his support system,” Allee stated, adding that she also enjoys backpacking, but doesn’t expect to trade spots next time.
“I want to share that experience — I don’t want to just do it by myself,” she said.
The next trailhead
To be frank, the triple-crown task perfectly suited someone like Janssen, who hopes to take a second crack at the Leadville 100 next summer or pursue smaller trail FKT’s. The statistical savant relished those daily computations — and mountainous spreadsheets he made devisings his plan — of vert and distance. His ability to recall checkpoints to the tenth of a mile is the same wiring which allowed for ease of decisions for everything from caloric balance to campsite choice.
Most importantly, his time spent as a collegiate runner gave him a unique combination of physical self-awareness, mental fortitude, grit and belief.
“Some days sucked. So cold, so uncomfortable. But it never crossed my mind that it wasn’t going to happen,” he told his alma mater’s alumni news website.
“I was so invested, had so much at stake. My wife went back to travel nursing for this. I quit my job teaching for this. Quitting was never an option. I was not going to throw in the towel. It was either finish or death.”
He considered himself “an average athlete” under coach Russ Jewett. Whether the assessment is accurate probably depends on the assessor, but the salient attribute is hidden from the results list and trophy case anyway. Janssen’s internal awareness betrays a runner who scratched and clawed for gradual improvement, aimed for regional relevancy, and, because he didn’t garner All-American honors, remained motivated to return to the proverbial well and willing to become a lab rat in his own experiments.
Ultimately, he said even this challenge failed to uncover his physical ceiling.
Though Janssen’s trek wasn’t centered around soul-searching, geographic exploration, sight-seeing or weight-loss, it would also be lazy to pigeonhole him and his quest into the post-collegiate runner box — a prototypically obsessed individual, fixated on masochistic challenges and trapped in a perpetual pursuit of one’s mental and physical barriers. Not reaching his max might be shocking, but it’s not a revelatory takeaway holding much universal value.
Then again, consumed by “the next decision,” Janssen didn’t have as much time to ‘solve all the world’s problems,’ as you might think.
“I’ve done this long enough to know that none of those questions you had before are answered and you have way more than when you started,” he said. “90% of the time, your mind is deeply engaged in active critical thinking that in terms of mind wandering, there wasn’t actually a ton of that.”
He did eventually walk away with a relevant realization.
“What’s great about through-hiking is that you find the absolute best in nature and the absolute best in humanity. … In such a socially tumultuous time, it’s just really refreshing,” he told NPR Kansas City.
“That part remains resolute; if more people through-hiked, there would be no war,” he stated last week, reflecting on his avoidance of political divisiveness on-trail.
“Experiencing that for nine and a half months is just something that — I was just inundated with civilization stress as soon as I got back. I was like, man I wish I was still on the trail.’”
The escape from society’s complex warts to a hyper-focused rhythm of eating, hiking and sleeping energized Janssen.
“It was kind of this perpetual thing that was very multi-faceted but also very simple,” he said. “Me vs. nature – you have an agenda: max out miles and push your body.”
When it was all over, those vibes were replaced by the heavy weight of the post-trail blues. Gone were the 12-15 hours of low-grade endorphin release from his daily schedule. Walking off the trail reintroduced a “mega-stimulus” overload to Janssen, who struggled with basic elements like hearing street noises and seeing lights as he assimilated himself back into society. His own vocal cords had atrophied from months without regular talking. Cars going 30 mph appear hypersonic as he recalibrated his movement perception to objects moving faster than his 3-4 mph-world had for nearly a year.
His body had run on autopilot, the comforting consistencies of each morning’s task masking muscles tears, imbalances and misalignments — even to someone as physiologically introspective and in-tune as the methodical, dialed high school distance-running coach. Visits to the chiropractor have helped with migraines, but some things can’t be avoided.
On the first night back in his mom’s Kansas City apartment — which required a car ride from the Mexico border that was more nightmarishly painful, at least on a sheerly physical level, for Janssen than perhaps anything he encountered the previous 285 days — the fire alarm system went off. The shrill, high-pitched noise sent his “anxiety level through the roof.”
Then, he and Allee were rear-ended in California, just for good measure.
“Like, ‘welcome back to civilization,’” he said.
Two things can be true at once
“I would love to go back to coaching and teaching at Eagle Valley,” Charlie said of his next move after stepping away from his Devils post for 2022. “Our No. 1 goal is to move back to Gypsum, but the housing market is really crazy.”
Allee will be in Chico as a traveling nurse until June, after which, they hope to move back to Colorado. He also hopes to write a book, at some point, but, true to form, he knows he needs to process things and get the raw data organized.
Pondering his final takeaways, Janssen remarked, “We started this conversation by saying it really takes a village and you really don’t arrive here on your own, but I feel like it takes a certain level of confidence and innate understanding of your own abilities and capacities just to believe that you can do it.”
On trail, he adopted a mantra from Boulder-area running team Tinman Elite — “Bet on yourself.”
“I feel like some people go out to find themselves, find some revelation or find their limit,” he said.
“I thought I’d go out there and find my physical limit, and I didn’t.”
While that remains elusive, Janssen’s journey felt like more of an internal confirmation of a creed he’s always known: if you want to accomplish life’s big goals – the ones you dream about for a decade — the ball is ultimately in your court. Two things can be true at once:
“Yeah, you’re going to get help and support and people that love you, great vibes, energy and optimism as you go,” he said before pivoting inward to capture the essence and driver of every New Year’s resolutions’ list.
“But ultimately it really boils down to your innate knowledge of your abilities and capacities and belief in yourself that you can do it. Because if you don’t, it’s not getting done.”
Of the 10 players listed on the varsity roster ahead of Tuesday’s home game with Summit, two were juniors, seven were sophomores and one was a freshman. It’s a far cry from the class of 10 seniors who last season led the Skiers to a perfect 27-0 mark and the Class 3A state championship.