EDITOR'S NOTE: A few weeks after submitting her report, the board rejected Sophia Tang's record, citing a technical error that appears to be inconsistent with previous record approvals. On a post on Instagram, Tang said she may attempt it again in 2021.
AURORA, Colo. — As her food supply dwindled, sleepiness clouded her head and her body pleaded for rest, Sophia Tang kept going. Kept hiking. Step by step, steady and surely. Forward.
Then, on Aug. 23, 2020, the 25-year-old reached the Durango end of the Colorado Trail and summoned the energy to sprint into her mother’s and father’s waiting arms. Tears were flowing as they embraced their daughter, whom they hadn’t seen in more than 21 days.
For the past three weeks, Sophia had been hiking the 485-mile trail from Denver to Durango alone and completely unsupported, meaning she carried everything she needed on her back. No help from other people, no restocking in stores, no mailing resupply packages to post offices along the way.
A woman and her pack. And a long, long trail.
To date, Sophia, who calls Aurora home, is the first and only woman on record to have completed the trail in that fashion.
Beyond finishing the trail and establishing that record, Sophia had a deeper and more profound goal in mind: to come face-to-face with herself in her entirety.
“I think that physical exertion and physical activity in general brings out a different layer of people,” she explained. “When you're absolutely exhausted and you can't take another step, you need this other side of your being and I wanted to see what my limits were or where they were and then find a way to push past them. So, whenever I'd be met with these challenges, I would think to myself, ‘This is one of those tests. Where is your breaking point?’”
Preparation, planning for 485 miles
Walking 485 miles provides a lot of time to think. So, it was perfect for Sophia.
She stumbled across the Colorado Trail in January and decided it was something she wanted to pursue in full later in the year — it’d be her first backpacking trip. The next few months were full of preparation: reading gear reviews, building muscle, long hikes and lots and lots of research.
“It came at this time where I was in the middle of this period of transformation,” she said. “Kind of just like soul-searching and figuring out who I was independent of everyone else, of my conditioning. It just came as the perfect opportunity to be out there and really meet myself.”
While researching the trail, she discovered that there was no recorded fastest known time, also known as a FKT, for an unsupported woman on this particular trail.
“Unsupported is kind of like the Spartan style, where you carry everything from start to finish except for water from natural sources,” Sophia explained. “It's you and your pack and then you just figure out how to get yourself to the finish line.”
To complete the trail in that fashion, Sophia would need to carry all her supplies, equipment and food on her back. While outdoor recreation companies have produced top-notch light-weight gear in the past few years, packing almost 500 miles-worth of food was a whole different story.
“Ultimately, I settled on just pre-made, ready-to-go, bust-out-of-the-pack-and-down-the-hatch-and-off-you-go-type food, which ended up being ProBars,” she said.
She scoured the company’s website for the highest-calorie bars — oatmeal chocolate chip — and ordered $350 worth of them. Once they arrived, she opened all 84 packets and rewrapped them in thin plastic wrap with the help of her dad, AJ Tang. She added some hydrogen water, coconut oil, two small pouches of peanut butter, a pound of pecan halves, and energy chews to the food stash.
On Aug. 1, Sophia packed the brick of bars in her pack along with other necessities. Then, early the following morning, her father drove her to Waterton Canyon in Jefferson County, where the trail begins.
“When I had parted with him and I was walking away, I was like, ‘Oh dear. That might be the last time I see him,’” she said. “All these ‘monkey mind’ thoughts going through my head. But after a while it was like, ‘Alright, get it together, Soph. We have a lot of work to do so you stop thinking about that and just enjoy like the rest of this.’”
Tests, triumphs along the Colorado Trail
It didn’t long for the trail to swallow her up — in a good way.
“There’s so much space around,” Sophia said as she filmed herself on the first day of the journey. “I’d forgotten that there was anything beyond just daily, routine life.”
She paused and looked around.
“I’ve gotten so caught up in it. I lost my gratitude,” she said.
She took a bite of a ProBar and turned the camera off.
Prior to starting the journey, Sophia had decided she wanted to finish in nine days, meaning she’d need to cover 54 miles every day. It was a goal her parents had worried over since she didn’t have experience hiking beyond 20 miles, AJ said.
But the trail had other plans, and Sophia said that was OK by her.
“I think I got swept up in the whole trail community and the socializing aspect of thru-hiking,” she said. “But I was (originally) like, ‘You know, I'm not going to do any of that. It's fine. I'm just going to beeline for the goal.’”
Instead, she learned to soak in the Colorado Trail for the wonder that it is, record aside.
“I would meet people and really be able to resonate with them and socialize,” she said. “So, I would sit down, and we would just chat or eat food or whatever and then it ended up half a day was gone.”
In one instance, she passed a camp with four horses and after politely declining a joyride from one of the campers and continuing up the trail, she turned around and went back. She said she remembered thinking, “Life is short and I really wanted to ride that horse.”
Following a short trot around the camp, she dismounted where she’d left off and kept hiking.
Toward the end of the journey, she had a similar experience with dirt bikers, who offered her a ride with the promise of returning to the same spot. She took them up on the offer for a few minutes of thrill.
“So, we rode around and then they dropped me off there and then took off,” she said.
She fell asleep to the evening songs of coyotes. She overcame her fear of heights and hiking in the dark. She resisted the smell of pizza while passing by a store. She accepted her sunburned face, bloody, cracked lips, and oil-slicked hair.
“I’m alright with this unprecedented level of scrappiness,” she wrote on her website.
However, the hike wasn’t all joyrides and new trail friendships. As the days ticked by and she grew further and further from her nine-day goal, she quickly realized the amount of food she had brought wasn’t enough to sustain the enormous daily mileage she’d been aiming for.
“So, I'd end up stopping at 20 miles or 25 miles and then be like, ‘Alright, I gotta take a nap,’” she said. “The food situation was interesting in that manner … just because I wanted to go a certain distance, but my body was like, ‘You're not putting enough energy or fuel into me and we cannot go that far right now.’”
In addition, the Colorado summer had dried up some water sources, which led to one 30-mile stretch without anything but what she called “glorified puddles” that were murky with cow waste. She continued past the miles and miles of puddles until she reached cleaner, flowing water.
For the final week, Sophia kept up the massive mileage on 800 calories or less per day. She’d decided that eating a small amount every day was better than eating it all at once and braving the final days without any sustenance.
During this difficult stretch, her parents limited their own dinners at home in Aurora — a long-distance display of solidarity — knowing her meals on the trail were shrinking, she said.
Despite the food shortage, Sophia said she was in tune with her body and would have known if she needed to seriously consider leaving the trail. But each morning, she found herself tightening her pack’s shoulder straps and hip belt so it’d fit better.
This greatly concerned her parents as they followed her progress from home.
AJ said he’d use a data book from the Colorado Trail Foundation to compare the curves in the trail map to Sophia’s tracking device to determine where she was. Despite his worry for her, he said she was courageous — not only because she was attempting something so extreme, but because she was immersing herself in the experience.
“She was actually really reaching out to reach in,” AJ said. “What she's trying to do is really test her resolve and see what's out there and that she can do it. I think in the process, she realized a lot more than what she asked for.”
‘Wasn't about what I did, but who I became’
On her 20th day, Sophia had 60 miles to go. And despite hours upon hours of hiking ahead of her and a dwindling food supply, anxiety was beginning to creep in about returning to daily life.
“It really wasn't about what I did, but who I became,” she said. “And so, I was dreading the end but then I was also kind of excited to see and to bring everything that I learned from this experience back into this world that has, more or less, stayed the same while I was gone.”
Spurred by periodic short naps, she pushed on. The miles inched by.
On day 21, she paused, took her phone out of her bag and recorded a video.
“This is all that’s left of my nine-day food supply,” she said in the video, showing a small pile of wrappers. “A couple of CLIF Energy BLOKS, six pecans, a tiny bit of peanut butter, one more electrolyte packet and one little bite of ProBar left.”
It was just enough.
On Aug. 23 at 7:37 p.m., she finished the trek — 486 miles in 21 days, 12 hours and 52 minutes.
It was an emotional moment AJ said they had anticipated for weeks.
“We got (to the Durango trailhead) early and basically waited for her to come in,” he said. “My wife's asking everybody that comes out of the trailhead, ‘Did you see somebody…?’ We were … very happy to see her, of course.”
The trio embraced in a tearful reunion at the trailhead.
A few weeks afterward, Sophia is continuing her recovery and reacquainting her stomach to her usual food. She even started eating ProBars again, she said with a smile.
All FKTs are certified through FastestKnownTimes.com, and Sophia is working to complete her trip report — which includes a GPS file and pictures — by Friday for review.
Covering almost 500 miles of dirt ultimately helped her feel more grounded in herself. She found answers to her existential questions in the most mundane of moments, she said.
“I didn't have a really good sense of who I was and what I was capable of,” she said. “That's kind of what I sought while I was out on the trail. It definitely came to me. And also just this renewed sense of gratitude or appreciation for everything the way that it is.”
Her parents have seen a transformation too.
“This trip has provided so much for her that she now has this reserve of what you’d call wisdom, power, whatever, to reach in whenever there is an obstacle,” AJ said. “This will affect her life in a positive way throughout her life. Her goal has been to empower herself and then eventually help others who could use some help.”
With all the challenges Sophia voluntarily threw into the journey, and that the trail bounced back at her, she said she wouldn’t have changed a thing.
“I feel like there's nothing that I could ever complain about again and if I start to lose that gratitude, then it's time to hit the trail,” she said. “Every day was just like, ‘I'm so glad to be here.’”