One intrepid mountain runner shares the story of her newly-minted FKT of Yosemite's iconic Half Dome.

By Natalie Ghelfi

4:15am in Yosemite Valley is quiet, apart from the cries of our 20-month-old toddler Laiken. I could see Half Dome in purples and blues at dawn from our campsite. My mom wondered over at 4:45 to watch Laiken. As I’m sipping my coffee and forcing half a bagel down, I say to my mom “If I were another person, life would be a lot easier,” anticipating the effort I was about to put forth.


woman infront of half dome


When you have a baby there’s never enough sleep, and camping had presented its own challenges. As much as I love running and “going hard” just as much as the next person, I spend much of my time as a mother in a state of running on empty. And while I often feel a little crazy in that constant hum of sleep deprivation, I’m starting to believe that motherhood makes you stronger as an athlete. At least, that’s what I was telling myself as stood on the valley floor, preparing to take on this immense challenge.

In short, Half Dome was the hard effort I had predicted. But with any race, there are unexpected twists. I started at 6am and reached Little Yosemite Valley about 50 minutes later, soaked from the mist that pelts you as you pass Vernal and Nevada Falls. All my nerves had long since fallen away and I was just part of the valley, feeling the beat of my feet on the packed dirt, the rock, and the sand. With a few years of rock climbing in my past, I was surprised to find how cautious I became once climbing the cables up the Dome — It’s true that people die on the cables every year, which makes mortality a constant thought as I made my way up the dome.

woman facing half dome

As I approached the sub dome, I felt as though I was racing the ghost effort of the woman who held the record before me. I could imagine her running up the last few switchbacks before the sub dome — It was a duel. Just she and I on the mountain. I literally didn’t know anything about her. Not her name, her face, or her favorite, or where she was from, just her time on Half Dome.

I reached the top in 2:00:30 — my first summit ever — hardly stopping to look over the edge to let out a “holy shit”. I decided to take the climbers’ trail down that Dean Potter had used on his FKT. It cuts off 1-2 miles. Not realizing how many downed trees, boulder fields, and creek crossings there would be, I slowed to a crawl and the occasional stop as I struggled to lift my legs up over obstacles even 6 inches tall. I was beside myself, almost laughing at the ridiculous pace I was moving.

With a mile to go, I was close enough to know that I would handily get the record even if I walked it in. In those final minutes pounding my quads down the extremely steep trail, I pushed harder. I remember only the fact that I was having a hard time forcing out a smile to the tourists hiking up. As soon as I reached the rock steps and dirt of the Mist Trail, I was able to find my legs and continue pushing. The beautiful history of the mountain connected me to the record more than I expected and fed my drive to push harder even to the last few meters, finishing in 3:14:01.


woman running outside

One of the things that draws me to the pursuit of FKTs is the simplicity. You can start when you want to, on the day your choice, by yourself in the mountains. Wednesday at 6am was what I chose. I finished close to 9:15am. I didn’t expect an FKT to feel dramatically different than a race effort, but it did. No other race compares. I was setting the time for the next woman to break and I wanted to set the bar as high as I could on that day. I know it’s not too high. Someone will break it, probably soon. When that day comes, I can’t wait to run it faster.

I am incredibly proud of my FKT on Half Dome. It means a lot more to me than the time on the Fastest Known Time site. The sleepless runs. The bladder control that I am still regaining. The loose skin on my tummy and the bags under my eyes that have aged me enough to never be asked for my ID. None of those things matter. Half Dome represents that I can. It represents my persistence.

woman and man in running outfits


See Natalie’s Entry on here, and see her route on Strava here.