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The Onion vs. Mr. Magoo

On your mark, get set ... hike. Inside a 5,600-mile footrace on the country's hardest trail.

Ultra-distance backpacking surfaced in 2001, when "Flyin’ Brian" Robinson became the first hiker to conquer hiking’s Triple Crown in a calendar year. Flyin’ Brian had approached the feat–thru-hiking the Pacific Crest, Continental Divide, and Appalachian Trails–as if attempting a giant math problem. Prepare one’s body to endure thousands of trail miles? Run 50 miles per week before leaving. Lighten one’s load? Use your poncho as a makeshift tent. Give yourself enough time? Start on January 1. Ten months later, Robinson had done what many said was impossible.

Garret Christensen gets Robinson’s desire to hike for thousands of miles without a break. Unlike the rest of his life–his Mormon upbringing, as well as his graduate school classes in economics at the University of California at Berkeley–Christensen thinks that ultra-distance backpacking adds up. It makes sense.

"When I’m backpacking, I don’t have to worry about anything else," Christensen told me on a hike in Tilden Park, outside of San Francisco, shortly after he came off the CDT. Sporting a Muir-worthy beard over his tanned face and dressed head to toe in lightweight nylon, he seemed to be in his element. "All I have to think about is tiny logistics, like getting food," he continued. "Other than that it’s walking. It’s very simple."

Christensen grew up in Reston, Virginia. His dad worked as a defense industry engineer, and his mom looked after Garret and three older siblings. They were devout members of the Mormon Church. Christensen’s parents’ only apparent failing seems to be that they didn’t watch young Garret’s diet too closely. He became a junk-food junkie.

His diet didn’t slow him down. Christensen became an Eagle Scout at 18 and thru-hiked the AT in 2002. He developed a sharp wit and a facility with numbers, graduating magna cum laude from Brigham Young University in 2004 and writing a 40-page thesis that linked economic theory with summiting Mt. Everest. That same summer, Christensen squeezed in a thru-hike of the PCT, discovering in the process that he could travel great distances without much rest. He walked end to end in a blazing 93 days. Then, after the hike, he jumped straight into Cal Berkeley’s rigorous PhD economics program. He says it was a logical step. "Mathematically, there was always a right answer in economics," he says. "Plus, as an undergrad I was good at it."

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