Marathon speed hiker Michael "Mish" Popov of Walnut Creek died last week of heatstroke in 120-degree temperatures in Death Valley after going off course in a solo training run. He was 34.
Popov gained world renown in 2007 when he completed the 222-mile John Muir Trail, from Whitney Portal to Yosemite Valley, without receiving outside assistance, in 4 days, 5 hours, 25 minutes, a record at the time.
His partner, Sarah Spelt, said the two drove into Death Valley on Tuesday morning, when he surprised her with the idea of a solo cross-country run from West Side Road to Badwater. At 10 a.m., the temperature was already over 120 degrees and rising, Spelt said, and Popov did not start his run until noon.
"He went for what was to be a short run, cross-country, ending at Badwater, where I was to meet him, and he misjudged his destination, significantly lengthening his run and increasing his time out there," Spelt wrote in an e-mail to me.
Temperatures topped out at 123 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.
Spelt said she tried to talk Popov out of the run, which they estimated at about six miles.
"I said, 'Mish, you can't try to get across here.' I pictured him stranded in bushes in the heat, stuck, dying. I just can't get over that I didn't just slap him and make him listen to me."
Spelt said she and all who knew Popov are devastated and heartbroken. Popov was not only a world-class outdoor athlete, but he also was friendly, charismatic and helpful.
"I was there as medical personnel attempted to revive him," she said. "I was able to say goodbye to him before he and I, separately, left the valley Tuesday night."
His death might change how outdoor athletes approach their sports. In the current era, when nearly everything has already been done, it seems that those who attempt to be the first or fastest at anything in the outdoors must risk their lives.
Three years ago, I brought this up with Popov ("The extreme side of light," Sept. 13, 2009), and he said just a few weeks before, in a failed attempt to set a new speed record for the Muir Trail, that he thought he was going to die from exhaustion near Garnet Lake. So he took a photo of himself.
"If I died," he said, "I wanted people to know when it happened."
Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/outdoors/article/Great-risks-can-accompany-great-feats-3783192.php#ixzz23RTBAxyZ
Tom Stienstra is The San Francisco Chronicle's outdoors writer. E-mail: email@example.com. Twitter: @StienstraTom