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RIP Michael Popov
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Casey Bowden
(clbowden) - MLife

Locale: Berkeley Hills
RIP Michael Popov on 08/13/2012 09:54:22 MDT Print View

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:

Tom Stienstra is The San Francisco Chronicle's outdoors writer. E-mail: Twitter: @StienstraTom

Art ...
(asandh) - F
Re: RIP Michael Popov on 08/13/2012 10:07:54 MDT Print View

Very tragic, very sad.
I followed and admired his exploits.
An impressive and determined man.

Craig W.
(xnomanx) - F - M
Re: Re: RIP Michael Popov on 08/13/2012 10:09:17 MDT Print View

Sad indeed. I followed him as well.

Dena Kelley

Locale: Eagle River, Alaska
Re RIP Michael Popov on 08/13/2012 10:17:58 MDT Print View

Very sad. :(

Ben 2 World
(ben2world) - MLife

Locale: So Cal
Re: RIP Michael Popov on 08/13/2012 10:18:28 MDT Print View

Training in Death Valley's 120F heat?

Very sad, yes, but doubly so because it seemed so very avoidable...

Edited by ben2world on 08/13/2012 10:32:22 MDT.

David T
(DaveT) - F
wow on 08/13/2012 10:25:09 MDT Print View

Sad to lose your life and leave your loved ones without you for just a six-mile run.

I've been there when it was 125 and it's crazy hot. And to run across the salt flats with that high albedo would be even worse.

It's great to push it, but it's also great to come home to your husband/wife/mom/dad/girlfriend/kids. Be safe in what you do.

Edited by DaveT on 08/13/2012 10:25:41 MDT.

Jay Wilkerson
(Creachen) - MLife

Locale: East Bay
RIP Michael Popov on 08/13/2012 10:49:00 MDT Print View

I ran into Michael Popov from time to time in Walnut Creek and hiked with him to the summit of Mt Diablo and back. What a sad, tragic story. 123 degrees is insane WOW..He was a very special person and athlete.

Edited by Creachen on 08/13/2012 11:50:49 MDT.

Eugene Smith
(Eugeneius) - MLife

Locale: Nuevo Mexico
Re: RIP Michael Popov on 08/13/2012 11:41:55 MDT Print View

I didnt believe this at first. So unfortunate.

Aaron Sorenson and Michael seemed close. I hope he is well.

Casey Bowden
(clbowden) - MLife

Locale: Berkeley Hills
RIP Michael Popov on 08/13/2012 12:01:18 MDT Print View

I only knew Popov from these forums but he seemed like a really great guy.

Here's a link to his trip report from a 2009 JMT record attempt.

At the time I thought it was a classic. Now that he is late, even more so.

Aaron Sorensen
(awsorensen) - MLife

Locale: South of Forester Pass
Re: RIP Michael Popov on 08/13/2012 14:44:21 MDT Print View

Hi Casey,

I am in the Coast Guard and happen to be in the middle of the ocean (nowhere) right now.
Thank you for this post, I just haven't felt up to it yet and I was waiting for Sarah to send me the rest of the information as to his run. I know everything leading up to it.

As from the JMT
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."

I was there with him pacing him when this happened. Michael was just sleep deprived and didn't remember half the night. I even took that picture.
He was in no means of danger at the time. It was just the delusions of his mind playing tricks with him at the time.

I first met Michael while doing a run on Diablo.
I was coming down in to Deer Valley at the picnic area and saw someone holding a bike seat in his hand. I asked what happened and it seemed he was a little stronger than the seat. I asked if he was training for something and he told me he was going for the JMT record.
Holy S, I told him, so was I. Then he said, well I am going unsupported. Again, holy S, so am I.
The next time we met was on Whitney spending 3 days acclimating before the attempt and we have been best friends since.

I was going through a divorce back then and Michael and I did some crazy adventures together. He really helped take my mind off the situation. we could never get anyone to go with us on our outings as others "even in the ultra running scene" thought we were nuts for doing it. I even took take my dog on some outings just to have another buddy out there with me. My dog has been in all kinds of places in the sierras that no other dog has ever been before.

We have however never put ourselves any situation I would consider dangerous.
The only time I ever gave him a hard time with was when we were coming down a steep rocky hill and there was a 10' hard area that was a little slippery. I was on the 1 foot by 4 foot ledge about 5 feet below his foot waiting for him and he slipped and fell on me.

I just don't want anyone to think that pushing any limits "too far" was common with him.
People would not want to go with us only because we would push big miles each day.

Tony Wong
(Valshar) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Re: RIP Michael Popov on 08/13/2012 15:43:47 MDT Print View

I am shocked and saddened to hear that this happened to Michael.

Like Jay, I had the good fortune to meet both Aaron and Michael on a BPL hike a few years ago.

It was a hot summer's day with temperatures that would reach into the high 90's.

I was lagging behind the main group of hikers, out of shape, and getting slowly cooked by the sun.

As we were reaching the top of Mt. Diablo, Michael was making a point of lagging behind the main group to keep an eye on me to make sure that I did not go face down into the dirt.

The hike was something that probably did not even make him break a sweat and our pace must have been snail like in comparison to what he could do, yet he took the time to lag back behind the others to look out for me.

To say that he was kind and thoughtful is an understatement.

There will allows be people who push the limits, they will do things that most of us could not come close to doing or to even imagine for ourselves, they set the bar high to show us that the impossible is possible, and they inspire those around them to push a little harder in their endevours and to become better than they are now.

The fact that Michael is/was all these things and such a gentleman is all the more remarkable and the world is a less amazing and wonderous place without him.

For Aaron, I tell you sincerely that I am sorry that you have lost such an amazing friend.....always share with everyone your memories of Micheal so that his memory and deeds live on.

For Micheal's family and loved ones, my heart goes out to you.

I only met him one and he has left an impression upon me.


Mt. Diablo Trip report with photos of Micheal Popov

Michael Popov

edited to add photo

Edited by Valshar on 08/13/2012 15:46:12 MDT.

Danny Milks
(dannymilks) - MLife

Locale: Sierras
Michael Popov on 08/13/2012 16:45:19 MDT Print View

I knew Misha since 2001, when he came up to UC Davis to hang out with his Russian friends, who also happened to be my friends. Even then he was known to work hard and play hard, drink like a Russian and smile like an American.

We met infrequently over a few years, then our paths separated. Years later, I had lost touch with many of those friends and so I celebrated silently when I learned of Misha's JMT record.

In March of this year, Misha was officiating at a trail run in Marin. I recognized his face, and after the race chatted with him. Turns out he lives in downtown Walnut Creek, one block from me.

Unfortunately, he will always remain a memory in the past, as I never got to go on a trail run with him in the present.

Aaron Sorensen
(awsorensen) - MLife

Locale: South of Forester Pass
RIP Michael Popov on 08/15/2012 10:10:23 MDT Print View

Gordon Wright of Outside Magazine wrote an excellent article that sums up what happened on the day of the run.

Edited by awsorensen on 08/15/2012 10:11:36 MDT.

Tony Wong
(Valshar) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Re: RIP Michael Popov on 08/15/2012 18:45:40 MDT Print View


Thank you for taking the time to post up this link to let us know what happened to Michael.

Helps to give greater context of who Michael is and what exactly happened on that day.


Mark Davis
(Trailster) - F

Locale: Cascades
Na Zdarovye Michael! on 09/26/2012 16:03:56 MDT Print View

I have read " Michael Popov's last run" and I am saddened to the point of grief over the loss of such a great athlete and wonderfully gregarious person. I remember Michael by another run, when we passed each other on the JMT in Lyell Canyon. It was arguably one of his most successful days. He was charging down the trail fast, sporting the red SLAB shoes and he wore the exhausted expression that 200 miles on the JMT can produce. He was just over twenty miles from his record setting finish of the JMT. I said, "Good morning" and stepped off the trail to let him pass. I didn't know who he was, but I did know he was going for the JMT record. Weeks later I read his account of the run on BPL and was intrigued by his adventure run. A year latter I used what I had learned reading about Michael's most excellent adventure to finish my own fastpack of the JMT. I didn't match Michael's speed or endurance, but it was still an awesome journey through the mountains that I will always cherish. The next year I met Michael at Trail Camp and discovered what a truly awesome person he was. It was quite a surprise to come upon his festive encampment, complete with prayer flags and to see a sign with my name. Michael welcomed me to Trail Camp and warned me about the overly zealous ranger. I now remember him as the BIG Russian with the Cheshire Cat smile. I would read his Facebook from time to time and I was always entertained by his endless energy and adventurous endeavors. I will miss Michael and the wilderness ultrarunning world has lost a champion.

Na Zdarovye Michael Popov

(jhaura) - F

Locale: Trail
Re: RIP Michael Popov on 09/26/2012 18:37:27 MDT Print View

Thank you for posting this and letting us know about the sad loss of a person who inspired us all. I remember eagerly anticipating his JMT finish and thoroughly enjoyed reading his post trip report. I'm grateful for the light he brought to the world through his super human athletics.