Adventure Report: The Wonderland Trail 2019
“It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong” -Yvon Chouinard, Founder of Patagonia
“You must put your head into the lion’s mouth if the performance is to be a success” -Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the U.K. during WWII
The full moon hangs overhead. It is 4am and the temperature is dropping into the 30s. I am sitting on the concrete floor of an outhouse on the north side of Mt. Rainier as the fumes of fecal matter, previously left baking in the sun, waft through the air.
My feet are pruned, blistered, and bleeding. One of my toenails has started the process of falling off. My legs ache from a day covering 48 miles and 12k ft of elevation – equivalent to taking the stairs up to and down from the top floor of the Empire State Building 12 times in a row between running two marathons. My stomach is filled with running gels, iodine pills and Fritos. I am wearing the running clothes I was sweating in all day and the extra layers I had crammed into the pockets of my running vest.
I slide the lock on the door shut and feel safe for the first time since I encountered the mountain lion early last night. The adrenaline that has kept me in fight or flight mode for six hours begins to fade. My mind slows. I am the most comfortable I’ve been all day. I lean against the inside of the bathroom door and peacefully drift to sleep.
This wasn’t plan A. It wasn’t plan B or C either. It wouldn’t be an adventure if we weren’t getting deep into the alphabet. What I lacked in physical preparedness, I made up for in contingency plans. The question was only if I’d be able to finish the 93 mile run around the volcano before I got to the end of the alphabet.
One hour from now I will be back on my feet, starting on the remaining 50 odd miles. Though I didn’t know it at that point, later that day I would sprain my ankle, encounter two bears, get lost crossing a glacial river and push through one more night of running in the dark. I would finish just before 7am and be back in the office by noon – after sleeping a combined six hours in three nights.
This was prototypical Type II fun – the kind that feels miserable in the moment but that you love retelling after the fact. (Hence me writing it now!) If life were measured in the depth of our experiences, I lived years worth in the two days I solo-circumnavigated Mt. Rainier. I confronted deep moments of enjoyment, exhaustion, wonder, fear, relief, aloneness, excitement, and confusion. Sometimes simultaneously.
On Thursday July 25th, 2019 ran ~98 miles on the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier – alone and unsupported. This is my adventure report.
- Do not die – ACCOMPLISHED!
- Complete the 93 mile Wonderland Trail on my own two feet – ACCOMPLISHED
- Keep my heart rate under 120 bpm average for the first 45 miles – FAILED (126 bpm)
- Do not spike over 140 bpm at all for the first 45 miles – MOSTLY ACCOMPLISHED
- Finish in under 48 hours without sleeping – MOSTLY ACCOMPLISHED
- Finish in under 36 hours – FAILED
- Finish with a final 10 mile average over 110 bpm – FAILED (106 bpm)
- Be doing something that looks like a run for >10% of the final ~10 miles – ACCOMPLISHED
- Finish in under 30 hours – FAILED
- Finish in under 24 hours – FAILED
What am I proud of from adventure day?
- I FINISHED!!!
- Longest duration I have ever done a physical activity for
- Completed this on nearly no training or prior ultramarathon experience
- Completed my first ultramarathon
- Completed my first overnight run
- Completed my first fastpack
- Slept in a porta potty
- Met a cat
What areas could I improve for future rides?
- It would be wise train more
- I need to cut my emergency gear from 1lb to <6oz
- I need a better water filter system so I don’t have to fumble with iodine pills
- I lost my hat – I need to be smarter about putting things in secure pockets
- Bringing a pill container (for salt, caffeine & pain relievers) was a mistake – it it hard to fit comfortably and makes annoying shaking noises. Next time bring a bag.
- Didn’t have enough power for my devices to last the full trip.
- Didn’t bring a micro USB charger to refill my battery pack or charge the GPS device.
- Added an extra ~5 miles for various reasons ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
What that was out of my control am I thankful for?
- Abram for; inspiring me to do it, getting me the beta on the trail & translating GPS signals into “He’s OK’ for my mom
- Trail angels that lugged home made ice cream up to the top of a pass and encouraged me to finish
- Phil & Denise for letting me borrow their GPS tracker
- The weather for staying perfect
- Bumping into so many different types of flora and fauna
- That none of the fauna decided I was food
- Everyone that followed along online & sent encouraging texts
What that was out of my control do I wish had happened differently?
- It would have been nice to have seen a mountain lion at dawn instead of right after sunset on the first night
- The overgrown state of many parts of the trail – definitely made it harder and freaked me out at night
Why Would You Do This?
I have a deep inclination to push myself to my limits and find out what I am capable of. I love how overcoming something difficult forces me into an intense state of focus and takes me out of my comfort zone. It causes me to draw on every ounce of my learning abilities, physical strength, mental wits, planning capacity, creativity and grit. I enjoy that.
Doing challenges like this is also the one time I don’t have to hold back. So much of functioning well in society requires holding back; not speaking your unfiltered thoughts, not using your fists to settle disagreements, and not smashing printers when they don’t work. But deep down I’m an animal and when I take on something like this I get to let that primal side free. I get to go until the I am proper exhausted. It is nice to have that kind of outlet.
The binary nature of challenges like this is also extremely satisfying for testing my risk projection and management skills. I pick a goal, and then try and do as little as possible to accomplish it. I project the risks and based on what I think they’ll be, I spend what I deem to be an appropriate amount of time preparing, researching or and getting gear. I love being right but more than that, I love being wrong and figuring out why, so that I am never wrong in that way again. These sorts of adventures always come with hard learned lessons. To quote the legendary mountain climber Mark Twight, “If we believe we can manage those risks, we accept them. Whether these choices are born of delusion or reality comes out in the end.”
Traditionally a person would train for an activity like this, or build up to it, or go with a friend that had experience. I don’t really have time for any of that right now on account of having four young kids and a pretty demanding job at Google. So instead, I decided just to go for it cold.
I was coming off of a base of ~8 miles per week – I consistently go for a 4 mile run about 2 days per week at lunch. That combined with a periodic longer run on a weekend was all of the training I’d done in the past year. I knew I would be mostly ok for the first ~12 hours based on a 152 mile bike ride I’d done the month before – also on no training. I wasn’t really sure what would happen after that though. There was a non-zero chance that I was going to need to bail but there weren’t a lot of easy ways to do that. If you want to finish something really difficult, put your back against the wall. When your goal is the least difficult path forward – you’ll find out what you’re capable of.
The goal was to go fast and light. Those two are dependent on each other because longer trips require more gear and more gear slows you down.
My gear (pictured below – excluding one or two last minute changes) weighed just under 15 lbs. 40% of that weight was food & water, which realistically was only partially full at any point during the day because I was constantly eating & drinking. I’d say on average I probably had about 8-9 lbs on my back and another 2-3 in gear on my body (clothes, shoes, poles, sunglasses, watch, etc.)
This is mostly gear I already had from either running or hiking. The new items I bought for this were the running vest, trail running shoes & poles (REI garage sale!). If this is something I am going to keep up (hint: it is) I can probably cut my weight by about 2-3 lbs with some new gear. Fore example my fleece & rain jacket combined to 2 lbs, but there are options out there that serve the same purpose and that are less than one pound.
Realistically 10lbs wasn’t bad – I’ll probably cut some weight for single day runs and then add in a bit more back in sleeping gear for when I go longer and plan to sleep.
The Morning of
I had taken Tuesday and Wednesday off of work. The weather looked great, my wife was going to have our nanny to help with our four young kids, the snow was mostly melted from the trail, it was one of the longest days of the year and the moon would be full that night. (Fun fact, the full moon is always up during the night – only partial moons come out during the day.) This was about as good as it gets.
From the chart above you can see that in Seattle there are days in the summer where it never gets to full on night. Unfortunately the trail needs those days of sunshine to melt the snow, so the best time to run the Wonderland is usually once the days are a bit shorter in August.
My plan was to get a good night of sleep and drive down whenever I woke up. I had printed schedules for start times at 7am, 8am & 9am. As always, I couldn’t sleep very well the night before a big adventure, and by 4am I realized there was no point in delaying. I drove the two hours down, stopped for a few pictures and was ready to go by 7am.
To kick things off I christened the Beer Rainier. There is a running event called the beer mile where you chug a beer before running each of four laps of the track. I chugged a beer before departing on my lap around Rainier in the same spirit. I did this partly to do something I don’t think anyone has ever done before, partly to force me to go slow early and partly to remember that this was all just for fun (type II fun).
I chose to start at Box Canyon and go counterclockwise. There are realistically about a dozen places you could start and two directions to go. Mine is not a common choice but I did it on advice from Abram. This particular direction meant that I would start with one of the biggest climbs (and the section with the least water) and I would end with a relatively flat section.
That was one thing to optimize for. Another thing I might take more into consideration if I do this again is where I will be at night. Running through thick wooded areas at night is suboptimal. I might prefer the high section of Indian Bar at night so I felt like there were fewer places for a large cat to hide within pouncing distance from me.
Box Canyon to White River
The first five miles were a 2,500 ft climb through the woods. Turns out this was a really good preview for the whole loop which was essentially nothing but up and down repeatedly – as you can see in the elevation profile below.
As I crossed 5k ft I hit my first meadow and view of the mountain I’d have to my left for the next 48 hours. I hit the first downhill section through a section of dewey wildflowers that grew over the trail. I pranced like I was in The Sound of Music. It was magical.
Three hours in I hit Indian Bar. I was in need of my first pit stop and I happened to find the toilet that takes the jury prize for the best view from a toilet anywhere. This one had panoramic views of Mt. Rainier and the surrounding ranges. I’d recommend it if you’re nearby.
Unfortunately somewhere around here I lost my Ironman hat – I think I shoved it in what felt like a pocket of my vest and it ended up falling out. I went and doubled back to the toilet to look for it but had no luck. The two round trips cost me about a mile, which isn’t what you’re hoping for on a 93 mile run. It was then 11am and I was now without a hat for the sunny portion of the day.
After climbing out of that valley I got to Summerland, which was one of my favorite places for running on the loop. I think it was the combination of the terrain (plantless scree that reminds me of rock hopping in Joshua Tree), views and the fact that by then I still had enough energy to run at a normal pace. I logged 3 of my 5 fastest miles in this section.
A few hours later I took a sidetrail towards the Fryingpan Creek Trailhead where I thought there would be a bathroom and water refill. There was not and I managed to add an extra half mile to my trip to check. One option here would have been to take the road to White River Campground, which was actually advised due to the high water levels at White River. I didn’t end up doing that, which means I sort of got the worst of both worlds – the detour and then the river crossing.
When I got to the White River, I confirmed that it was in fact overflowing. It wasn’t so bad so long as you held onto the rail, but it basically meant your feet were going to get wet which isn’t great on a multi-day effort like this. I debated taking off my shoes & socks so I could keep them dry but in the end decided there was too much risk I’d drop them (like the hat I dropped a few hours prior) and wet shoes was better than no shoes.
Now 20 miles in, I was in need of a pit stop & soft reset. This is the part where I transitioned from ‘out for a jog’ into ‘I am a machine that is eating trail miles’. I dealt with some chafing issues, got some food down, filled up my bottles and committed to making good speed up to Sunrise. (Comment for future readers, finding the trail in & out of White River Campground is super confusing, I’d recommend hitting it during the day if possible so you can ask for directions. Or at least scope it out ahead of time – I can see why people get lost there, it is non-obvious.)
White River to Mystic Lake
The climb up to Sunrise brutal. Another 2k ft of switchbacks through the woods. After getting to Sunrise, however, there was an amazing (though heavily trafficked) flat section. Mile 28 was my fastest of the trip, a wide open area in the shadow of Mt. Rainier where I descended from 6,700ft to 6k over the course of a mile. To give you some context about speed, that mile was 10:07 – slower than I’ve ever run in a race, but still the fastest of the trip.
Mystic Lake, at mile 33, was another soft reset for me. I stopped, took off my shoes and socks, ate some solid food and enjoyed the view for about 15 minutes. It was now around 7pm and this was officially the longest I had ever been active in a single day for. After another application of chamois creme, I was off again, ready to start the night shift of my journey.
Met A Cat
Up until this point everything was pretty much as expected. I had to deal with some normal running issues, but I was cruising. I was on pace for a ~32 hour finish and had some downhills in front of me that I was hoping I could use to get under 30 hour pace.
Mile 40 is where things started to go wrong though and it was all on account of one cat.
Around 8:45, as I entered the Carbon River Valley, and the sun set over the hill to my west, I put on my headlamp so I’d have light as it started to get darker. I wanted to make sure I was able to see any roots or rocks that might cause me to trip.
As I turned a corner, I caught a flash of eyes up ahead of me on the trail. If you’ve ever been in a car and seen an animal in your headlights, you know exactly what that looks like. Bright eyes reflecting my light back and me and the faint outline of a body. It was unclear to me what type of animal it was until it moved. As it turned I saw its long tan tail swaying in the air. It was unmistakably a full size , ~200lb, mountain lion (AKA; cougar, puma, Florida panther, trail kitty, etc.) The cat hopped up on a log a stones throw away, crouched and made eye contact with me.
Before I left on this trip, I had recognized that a mountain lion encounter was a very real possibility and probably the one most likely to disrupt my attempt at completing a lap. I have a certain kind of luck with animals – like the time an owl attacked my head or that one evening where I was surrounded by a pod of jumping orcas while I was on my SUP.
Even though there are no known incidents of a human being killed by a mountain lion in Mt. Rainier National Park, the entire outdoorsy community in the PNW is a bit tense recently due to two mountain lion attacks in Washington and Oregon the last two summers. (See this recent article as an example) I read stories of other overnight hikers on the wonderland encountering mountain lions and I debated how to prepare. I considered bringing bear spray, but the end the advice I got was that mountain lions were stealth hunters, and I likely wouldn’t have time to spray it if one was going to attack me. Nonetheless I brushed up on my knowledge by reading the National Park Service recommendations on how to act around mountain lions and watching a YouTube video on how to act around big cats. After watching some more videos, clearly plenty of other folks have come as close to big cats as me, I was most likely going to be perfectly fine so long as I kept my cool. Despite that, I understood the gravity of the moment – I had been running for some 14 hours, was at least 5 miles from the nearest human, it was getting dark and a mountain lion could close the distance between us in under two seconds.
I’m going to go into a bit more detail about the encounter because my memory of it is very clear – if you don’t want to read this, skip ahead to the next bold header (Titled: Mowich Lake Campground – The Longest Night)
Choose Your Own Adventure – Mountain Lion Edition
Let’s play a choose your own adventure and see how you would do in my situation.
It is nearly dark, ~9pm and you have been running since 7am. You have a vest on with a few hundred calories of food left and ~500ml of water. You also have all of the things in that picture of my gear up at the top of the post. (Go ahead and scroll up, I’ll wait here)
You are standing on the trail which is running parallel to the carbon river and heading roughly northwest. The river is on your right and flowing the same direction. It is a glacial river, full of crushed rock and not considered safe to drink. On your left is the steep hillside that was carved out by the Carbon Glacier long ago. So more or less, you are on a narrow closed in path that goes the way you came from and the way you need to go.
Specifically, you need to go about a half mile and then turn onto another trail that winds through a narrow canyon ascending about 2,500 ft in 3.5 miles. At the end of that trail is a campsite where you have stashed 4k calories of food. That campsite has water, bathrooms and most likely some other people. That campsite is the only place you can access by road for a 63 mile stretch of trail so it is also the only way home that doesn’t involve a helicopter if you want to bail.
What would you do here?
What I Did
The first thing I do is by the book. I keep eye contact with the mountain lion, stand tall and make a lot of noise in my deepest baritone.
Where to Go Next?
At this point, I felt there were roughly four options – perhaps you can think of another one though:
- Move towards it slowly. That might encourage it to go the other way for long enough that you can get to the fork in the trail and go along your way happily. If for some reason the cat were protecting a food stash, kittens or if it were injured, this would likely result in a physical altercation.
- Stand your ground and hope that it goes away. The trouble was there aren’t many ways for it to go due to the river and steep cliffs. If it went away from you, you would probably lose sight of it in the dark and then have to follow after it for a half mile (yikes!). If it went towards you, there wasn’t much room to go around you, it would need to come within ~20 feet of you. Remember, a cat of that size can jump ~40 ft in one hop, so being 20 ft from it is bad (because math… and claws).
- Retreat ~10 miles to the last campsite you passed. You are never supposed to turn your back to a big cat, but you could walk backwards for a while. Eventually you’re going to end up walking, in the dark, knowing a mountain lion is somewhere behind you basically the best creature on the planet at sneaking up on things. Plus, 10 miles uphill might take you ~4 hours and by then you will be out of food and water.
- Walk into the glacial riverbed. If you haven’t seen a glacial river, picture a rocky area about the width of a football field with logs and boulders strewn about and rushing gray water that meanders and splits in varying widths and depths. This would mean you had some clearance from the cat and it would have a way to pass you without coming close. But, you have to deal with the river. You have no idea how deep and wide the various flows will be and if you fall in, you will be wet, cold, alone and possibly knocked unconscious on a rock.
Which option sounds best?
What I Did
I decided the riverbed was the best place to be because a) it would give the cat plenty of places to go that was nowhere near me b) I would have ~100 ft of visibility around me so it would be less likely to try and sneak up on me, which would give me the ability to check my map, etc. c) there were lots of rocks and sticks there and if it came down to a fight, that was probably the place I stood the best chance of being able to defend myself.
As I backed away off of the trail and into the brush, trying to keep eye contact with the cat, I tripped on branch and tumbled down a rocky ravine. On the ground is not the position you want to be in near a big cat – even if it doesn’t want to attack you, animal instincts might kick in when it seeing something on the ground. I can’t tell you how fast I was back on my feet – I probably set a world record. I had now lost sight of the mountain lion though, which concerned me.
I proceeded to go as far out into the riverbed as I could with much expedience. I took a few risks here with very little consideration or pause. I crossed a few logs that I normally wouldn’t have gone over, but between walking over a precarious log with whitewater flowing under it, and being close to a mountain lion, I trusted my walking abilities most (after all, I used to surf a good bit and that is basically like walking on wet logs).
As I stood in the river, trying to figure out what to do, I kept my head on a swivel, scanning the bushes for any sign of it. I periodically caught its eyes in the bushes. It was watching me.
Where to Go From The Riverbed?
Now you feel relatively safe, out far away from where the mountain lion was and separated by flowing water. If it were to come after you, it would have to walk across some logs which would give you choke points to throw rocks at it and hopefully scare it off.
You were well prepared and have a waterproof paper map of the area and also the whole National Park downloaded locally on Google Maps. You stop to figure out your options and see that there is another trail a ways back that also heads to Mowich Lake and downriver about a mile is a campsite and wilderness hut.
You have a few options from here.
- Say put and wait for someone to come – maybe blow your whistle to accelerate that
- Use your emergency GPS device to send an SOS. They will probably send a ranger from the campsite up the hill or maybe even a helicopter.
- Go back upriver towards where you came from and take the Spray Park trail – the optional side trail that heads towards Mowich Lake
- Head down river towards the campsite and wilderness hut where there will likely be some other people
What seems best to you?
What I Did
I decided to walk downriver because it was generally the direction I wanted to go and getting near more humans was going to be a good idea. Safety in numbers, plus they might have extra food and gear if I needed to stay put for a while. Perhaps they would even have a way out.
I walked down the river bed for about a mile. As the water meandered, I periodically had to backtrack and find another way around. At one point I felt my only option was to attempt a 10-12′ jump across a rapidly flowing section of water from a perched position atop a felled tree. I paused for this one. I wasn’t sure I could make the jump and I couldn’t see how deep the water was if I missed it. I ended up falling short – I landed in what was thankfully not deep water, but the landing was on some large river rocks that tweaked my ankle. My foot was now soaked and my ankle, while not injured (yet), had definitely taken some damage.
You can see in this shot from my GPS where I was on the trail, roughly where the cat was and how I went out towards the river. That flat area is one big boulder-strewn riverbed.
Once I was parallel to the cabin (according to my GPS) all I needed to do was go through ~200 yards of woods to get there. This was a scary moment. I could stay where I was, and where I felt safe, or I could start walking into the woods, in the dark, through brush, with no trail, in the vicinity where I knew a mountain lion was hanging out recently.
I made it to the cabin and felt a wave of relief come over me. It was a bit too soon though, the cabin was completely boarded up and unoccupied. There were no signs of anyone nearby at the campground either. I sat there with my back to the cabin. Thankfully now that I had my back against something I only needed to keep my eyes on 180* of space, which felt much easier. I ate a few pretzels and I drank the water I had left.
Where to Go From The Cabin?
Here is the next hard choice. You can:
- Sleep right there outside of the cabin
- Break into the boarded up cabin for some more shelter/protection
- Hike back up the trail towards the trail you need to get on to continue towards Mowich Lake (and your food stash). This is towards where the mountain lion was.
- Go downriver ~5 miles to the nearest trailhead – either on the trail from this campsite or back in the riverbed. The trailhead has forest road access and maybe some people/cars. This is away from where the mountain lion was.
- Use your emergency GPS device to send an SOS or blow your whistle hoping someone is nearby
What I Did
I decided I would go back towards the trail to Mowich lake, keeping an eye out for eyes. I figured this was a progressive application of risk – if my current location was safe, one more step wouldn’t be that much more unsafe and would give me some more information.
I set my resolve to get to the Mowich Lake campsite. It had to be done. That was the way.
The determination I took to start walking back into those woods explains a good deal of why I would end up falling asleep on the concrete floor of an outhouse a few hours later. I had to tell myself that safety was up there, on top of that mountain, at that lake, at the campsite.
Slowly I started walking southeast on the trail towards the fork I needed to take.
At this point I learned something that in retrospect is kind of funny but that wasn’t in the moment. There are two naturally occurring things in the woods that reflect the light of your headlamp back at you. The eyes of an animal and mushrooms. One of those is very scary but there are not many of them. One of those is perfectly harmless (unless you start eating them) but very common.
I am waling through the woods, in the dark, with my head on a swivel, on high alert for any light, thinking it is the mountain lion about to jump at me. Every few yards I see light bounce back at me from a mushroom instead. Mushrooms on the ground on the hill ahead of me, mushrooms on the trees all around me, mushrooms on logs, mushrooms under roots. It was like playing Where’s Waldo except all of the fake Waldos give you a mild heart attack. Type II fun!
As the full moon rises over the peak in front of me, I admire the beauty, but am just plain horrified by the area I have to go through. Basically a narrow pass through two cliffs with head high brush overgrowing the trail from both sides and 10-20 ft boulders strewn about on the side of the trail. This is the exact type of terrain a cat would hunt something from. If you’ve ever been to a haunted house, that feeling of having to continue walking but just hating it, is exactly how I felt for ~2.5 hours.
Around 12:30AM I reached the lake and felt so overwhelmed with relief. I had made it. I turned a corner and suddenly caught a set of eyes 100 feet ahead of me. Panic sets in.
Then another set of eyes. Then a third. This time it wasn’t the mountain lion, it was just mountain lion food. A few deer drinking from a creek. I laughed with relief and made my way to my food stash.
All in all, the mountain lion encounter added ~1.5 extra miles to my journey and probably ~1.5 hours. That doesn’t seem bad on paper, but the trouble is it also put me in a high adrenaline fight or flight mode for ~4 hours, during which I didn’t take care of my body very well. I had been running all day on tight margins and now I was in a deep fuel and water hole that would take my body a few hours to get out of. I was also understandably shaken. My nerves weren’t about me and going back into the woods was not high on my list of desires.
Mowich Lake Campground – The Longest Night
The five hours I spent at Mowich lake were what I would consider a hard reset. I was hoping I could take a 30 soft minute reset and keep moving, but that is not how it went.
I started off trying to do that, I got my food stash, refilled my water bottles, changed my socks and sat down in front of the empty wilderness cabin eating something, hoping I would feel ready to go soon.
Soon got a bit longer, but eventually I headed over towards the campsite, which is where the trail I needed to go on was. There were a few cars there and a handful of people camping. I was 2am by this point so no one was awake. I didn’t actually see another human, but I heard a few people rustling in their sleeping bags periodically. I felt much safer at camp – I stopped turning my head on a constant swivel. This was partially based on reality and partially because I had been telling myself ‘camp was safety’ for the past five hours.
I peeked at the trail I needed to go on. It was of course a dark, scary trail that went into the woods, down a ravine towards another glacial river. I had zero desire to keep going. Instead I put on all of my layers and sat around camp for a bit. I eventually ended up in the bathroom and as I locked the door behind me I felt 100% safe for the first time in a very long time. I had no desire to get on the trail and no desire to leave the bathroom. So I slept sitting on the concrete floor of the pit toilet building. Plan F.
I’m not sure how long I was in there, maybe half an hour. Eventually I got up and went outside, mostly because I didn’t want to hog the bathroom if someone else needed to use it. I went over to an empty tent pad and laid down in the dirt. No mattress pad, no sleeping bag – just my clothes. It was fairly cold out so I did some squats to get my blood flowing and my core temperature up then and I fell asleep again for a bit – maybe another 20 minutes. I repeated the pattern of waking up cold, doing squats and trying to sleep more more a few times. Having had a bad run in with hypothermia a year ago at the Boston Marathon I did not want to get to that state here.
Sometime after 5am I woke up and thought to myself ‘what in the hell am I doing right now’. It dawned on me that I was ~50 miles from my car, on a trail, in the wilderness with nothing but my running vest and a few layers – exhausted, untrained and with another 50 miles to go. This all seemed very foolish.
I felt like it would be a good time to click my ruby slippers together and end up back home in my warm bed with a hot meal waiting for me.
Then the rest of my brain woke up and I reminded myself that I love doing this kind of stuff and that I had 363 days a year to be in a bed, these were my two days off to tap into my primal self. With a smile on my face I grabbed my bag and started jogging down the trail in the dark.
Mowich Lake to Aurora Lake
More hours in the dark, on the trail heading down to the next river. I had eaten a good bit at camp and five hours of time gave my body enough space to restock my glycogen stores a bit so I was feeling pretty good.
The most eventful part of the next section was the river crossing. I had no trouble with the North Mowich River but the South Mowich River was much wider than the others I had been crossing and the trail was much less defined. It was 7am as I crossed it and light out again. I thought I saw the way to go based on some footprints but ended up finding a dead end. I had to double back to find the trail on the other side and it involved a few precarious log crossings that were non obvious. In retrospect I am really glad I crossed that at 7am instead of 2am.
I had another big 2k ft climb to a ridge where I had a three mile section that was relatively flat, a rare treat on this trail. I started jogging along and eventually stepped wrong and heard my ankle pop. I had a bad ankle roll a few years back that has resulted in multiple periodic re-injuries. Apparently once that tendon gets stretched, the chance of it happening again is pretty high. In this case, I had been favoring the outside of my foot because the inside had so many blisters on it. Eventually I stepped on a rock wrong and my weight shifted, which caused the roll. I’m sure it was a bit weaker from the botched river jump the night before too. I tested it out and could put weight on my leg fine unless that weight shifted the direction of the roll. I stopped, wrapped it with the ankle brace I had brought and popped some ibuprofen. I had 33 miles left, it would have to hold.
From this point on I had to baby my leg a bit. I could still run, but only on terrain I felt really confident in, even the slightest rounded surface would send my ankle rolling again. It just had no strength to hold firm and resist giving in. From this point on I hardly logged anything faster than a 20 minute mile. I was mostly speed walking with my poles out to brace for stability.
The trail went down a bit and then I had another 2k ft climb ahead of me – as one does on the Wonderland. This one was a slog – dozens of switchbacks through the woods. I was pretty over this whole thing.
Part way up the climb I passed a group of hikers that let me know there were some trail angels up ahead with ice cream. That is exactly the kind of motivation I needed. After a day and a half of eating running gels, chips and trail mix, the idea of some perishable food was very appealing. Plus, ice cream is my fave.
I figured I’d find a few people with a box of ice cream sandwiches they had wrapped in some insulation and carried on the hike with them. I was very pleasantly surprised when I found out the actual situation.
Ice Cream at Aurora Lake with My Trail Angels
A local couple had decided they wanted to do something awesome and they strongly exceeded expectations. Aurora lake is probably the spot that is furthest from any parking lot on the Wonderland trail – it is 15 miles from the closest trailhead, meaning there is no easy way to get there with a cooler full of homemade huckleberry ice cream. So, in an effort of awesomeness and ingenuity, the couple found an alternate path that was a bit longer, but mostly fire road. They hooked up their bike trailers and biked a forest load with the cooler and then rigged up a framed backpack to cary the cooler up the final steep few miles to the lake. They had sugar cones and full scoops of delicious ice cream.
I sat and talked with them as I ate my ice cream and popped my blisters. They had done the trail themselves in segments and let me know what lay ahead. A few beautiful sections, followed by the heavily trafficked south section. They let me know how rare it was to see a mountain lion and how unlikely it was that I would see one on the south side where the trails were wider generally populated by humans at all hours.
As I enjoy the view of the lake and finished my ice cream, my head was doing math and realizing that at my current pace there is very little chance I could get back to my car before it would get dark again. That meant I would have to go through another nighttime period. Not my favorite idea.
As I left, they told me to be safe, but bluntly added that I needed to finish. They knew that hitchhiking the final 10 miles was not going to be satisfying for me. There is a certain point where you realize you need to question your own judgement abilities and being on five hours of sleep and thirty hours on the trail puts you about there. Hearing someone else that seemed like a rational adult confirm that plan went a long way at boosting my confidence – even if those were people I just met.
The Southwest Corner
The next section of trail was home to a number of quick up and down climbs as the terrain changed from green meadow, to lush rainforest, to barren rocky glacier bed, to a red moonscape looking terrain. My mind was set on one thing and one thing only, moving as fast as I could, so that I could beat nightfall.
There are a few campgrounds the trail passes through. As I jogged through one an older woman hanging out said hi and joked that at my pace I looked like I was trying to finish in a single day. I said it was probably going to be closer to a day and half, which made her look aghast. She had assumed maybe I was on an accelerated 5 day option, and was making a joke about it. I’m sure she was on a 10-14 day plan and the notion of accelerating that by 10x was all but unthinkable to her.
As I left the campsite a large bee decided my bright yellow Boston Marathon shirt seemed like a cool place to hang out. After unsuccessfully swatting it away, I decided I’d run fast enough that it couldn’t keep up or would eventually give up. It turns out a bee is fully capable of flying a mile in ~15 minutes. I later learned that 10 minutes per mile is a fairly standard pace for bees and they can go as fast as 30 miles per hour (2 minute miles).
Eventually I got to the final hill going down to Longmire. It was all downhill to what would certainly be a great spot for a soft reset. Longmire would be the first time I was near a road since I left that morning, and the road there was the same one that went to my car, so in theory, I could hitchhike ~15 miles and be done in a worst case scenario. The thought of this came with a lot of relief but also a lot of anxiety about the decision. It was about at that time I got a text on the satellite phone from my wife that said something along the lines of ‘Please don’t go through another night, you’re going really slow and don’t seem ok. It’s ok to give up.”
I knew I would have a big decision when I got to Longmire.
I’ve been to Longmire a few times before. In fact, just 10 days earlier I’d been on a night run there with my friend Abram (while our combined 8 kids slept in tents) who was the one who inspired me to run the trail after doing it himself the previous year. So I knew where I was and I knew what the next few miles held.
Coming out of the wilderness to Longmire felt a bit like arriving in a big city. It had luxuries I hadn’t had access to for 70 miles; tap water, flush toilets, a gift shop that sold food, a restaurant, and a hotel.
The sun hadn’t quite set yet when I got there and I needed to decide what to do. Should I push through for the final ~13 miles and try to finish my midnight or so?Should I get a hotel room? Should I just sleep on the ground near the buildings where I’m probably more safe from wildlife than out in the middle of nowhere?
It turns out the hotel was sold out (or didn’t want to sell a room to someone that smelled like I did at the time), so that was a non-option. After looking at the food at the gift shop, none of it seemed any better than what I already had in my pack, so I decided to pass on that as well. I used the flush toilet and plugged in my watch some to add some juice to it and then headed over to the ranger station.
While there I ran into a group of backpackers that was loading up on stashed food before heading back towards the campsite. Due to some fallen trees, the normal wilderness campsite on that side of the mountain was closed, so the rangers were putting everyone up in Cougar Rock campground. That is a hugely populated campsite with RVs, flush toilet bathrooms and hardly 20 feet between campsites.
One of the hikers recognized my shirt. She had seen me the morning before between Box Canyon and Cowlitz Divide and made a passing comment about my Boston Marathon shirt. Sitting there in Longmire she realized I was the same person. In the time since our passing I had covered ~75 miles while her group had covered ~20. I got to talking to their group and explained my predicament. One of the older men in the group said I was welcome at their campsite if I needed a place to crash.
I decided to take a soft reset to clear my head and make a big decision. I do not like to leave things unfinished and at this point I was so close – I only had ~13 miles to go. That said, it was getting dark, I was getting delirious. Some people in this situation might push through with no regrets but I’m managing a lot of risk here. I’m a father of four and the sole breadwinner for our family. Pushing myself to physical exhaustion is one thing – in a controlled environment I would gladly run until I passed out, but I didn’t have the luxury of doing that here. I had to have enough strength to get to my car, to make good decisions along the way or to find safe shelter.
After I had fueled up and changed socks, I made the call to continue on the trail. I had a mile until their campsite, so I could use that time to decide. As I jogged along it grew from twilight to dark. Again I was running along the side of a river, the exact type of place and time I had the mountain lion encounter the night before. Needless to say, I was on full alert.
A Short Night
I walked up to camp around 9pm. I didn’t know what campsite the group was at and in the dark it was going to be kind of hard to figure that out. Worst case I figured I could just crash on the ground in an empty campsite or even just somewhere in the woods around the campground. Wild animals aren’t going to spend a lot of time in a crowded place like this.
I turned off my watch, but I kind of wish I hadn’t. I estimate I walked an extra mile here trying to find the group. I eventually found their site and recognized some folks from the group. Everyone was setting up tents and I found a nice corner to lay down in.
We got to talking a bit more and one of the hikers who knew a bit more about mountain lions than me explained that they weren’t nocturnal, they were dusk & dawn hunters. He also explained that the number of encounters in the park was extremely low and I should feel lucky to have seen one. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he reminded me that aside from those few recent freak incidents, the number of mountain lion encounters that had ended in injury or deal was near-zero. Unless the animal is sick and you are the only thing that looks like food, it isn’t likely to attack you, there are better options out there that are more meat and less work. With those reassuring thoughts in mind I drifted off to sleep in the dirt of a campsite.
Around 1am I woke up really cold and with a mouse crawling on my head. I might have gotten two hours of sleep by then. I went for a walk around the campground to warm up and laid back down again. Not too long after that I woke up again and decided if I was going to be walking, I might as well get this thing over with. I grabbed my bag and headed back onto the trail for the final miles.
The Final Half Marathon
The full moon hung in the sky above me, peeking out behind clouds, rocky precipices and tree cover. As I hiked I got warm and periodically stripped layers. I was deathly afraid to stop to take off a layer, so I just kept moving as I did so.
Around 4am I made it up to mirror lakes. There is a long stretch where you walk alongside the road, right next to a big lake that reflects Mt. Rainier. This was the top of the final hill for me. It was all downhill to my car.
I turned off my light and walked to the moonlight. It was quiet and still and wonderful.
Eventually the trail ducks back into the woods. Every time I walked into the woods, my adrenaline would spike. Being by the road felt safe, going into the tunnel the trees made felt vulnerable. Yet I pressed on.
The trail takes shortcuts past the large switchbacks the road makes. Periodically it would pop back out to the road. The first time it did so I went and sat in the middle of the road for a while and had a snack. I just needed a few moments of calm.
On the next crossing I laid down the middle of the road with my light off for maybe five minutes. I wasn’t worried about cars, it was 5am, I hadn’t seen a car in hours and it was so quiet and dark I would know one was coming. At this point I might even have been tempted to hitchhike the final miles if one did come.
I contemplated whether it would count if I ran back on the road. The trail ran parallel to the road for the remainder of the hike, so the miles would be equal. It didn’t meet my standards thought. Back into the woods.
A sign on a trail marker warned me of a landslide up ahead. You know it’s going to be fun when the ranger uses all caps.
As I passed a waterfall, the first light of dawn began to appear and I could start to see without my headlamp. There was something so warm and relieving about the day coming. I started to jog more as trail signs were counted down the miles to my car and the end of this adventure.
When I run I’m always doing math in my head. How long will it take at this pace? How many seconds do I need to drop per mile to finish by X? What pace would I need to go for the rest of the mile to stay on track if I took a two minute break here? As I got closer to the finish line I started to realize that finishing in 48 hours was still possible, but it was going to be a stretch.
By this point my body felt like it had nothing left. Breathing hurt. I would jog a few steps on a slight downhill only to be out of breath as the trail flattened out. My voice was an airy whisper as I recorded another entry into my video diary. But the math was there, I could do it if I could just keep under 15 minute pace.
I’ve dug deep running before. I’ve run a sub 4:30 mile, a 2:42 marathon, a 15:53 5k. I’m no stranger to pain in order to accomplish a result. But I’ve never done anything like this. I’ve never been exhausted enough to.
My heart rate had been around 100bpm for the past few hours. I just didn’t have the glycogen to keep it any higher. But with a mile and a half left, the light of morning now fully around, I decided to dig with everything I had. There was no more risk to manage. I would get to my car, and even if not, a day hiker would find me, and even if not, my whistle could reach the next campsite and even if not it was the beginning of a day and it was going to be warm and I had plenty of food and water. So I dug deep.
My heart rate climbed into the 120s and I was now going sub 15 minute pace. (Pretty funny considering I could once run three miles in that time). Then I dug a bit deeper, fingers flat, in full sprint mode, I gave it the effort of a closing 100 meters. I got down into the 12s and my heart rate was above 150. I wasn’t sure exactly where the finish was, but it seemed like it was right there and I only had 10 minutes until 7am, when it would be 48 hours since I started.
I found out there was a slight uphill before the parking lot, but I pushed through it. I felt like I was flying, time had slowed down, if it weren’t for the hard reality of my watch telling me I was just under 20 minute mile pace I might have estimated otherwise.
Finally I saw the road. I was there! I gave it a final push and popped onto the road. Only to find it wasn’t where my car was. I stopped to get my bearings, only to realize I was parked a hundred meters down the road at the parking lot, I had to go through a tunnel and then I was there. With thirty seconds left I sprinted (again, 10 minute miles here) through the tunnel and put my hand on the sign. I had finished.
The first thing I did was turn on my car and plug in my GPS device so I could send a signal home that I was safe.
I had been dropping milestones with fun names the whole time to let everyone know how things were going but I hadn’t had a chance to since the night before on account of not having a charger cable.
The second thing I did was to eat and drink a bunch. The third thing I did was change out of those stinky, wet clothes & take care of my feet.
It would have been funny to go straight to a pedicure. I had dozens of blisters on the sides and bottoms of my feet, some quite bulbous as you can see from my right big toe above.
I had been recording a video diary on my phone and in the clip from after the finish I said “everything hurts, I don’t think I’m going to do that again”. I was pretty serious because I made it a solid two weeks before I started planning my next even bigger adventure. 🙂
I drove for a bit and started feeling a bit tired. I pulled over and slept in the back of my van on the side of the road for something shy of an hour and felt much better.
When I got into town I went to some fast food drive through and ordered the breakfast menu. One of everything on the breakfast menu. I then proceeded to eat all of it and drink two liters of water as I drove home.
On the drive home I video-called into our team meeting. My team had been following along over the past two work days and now on their third was excited to see me alive. I got home, grabbed a shower and drove into the office so I could catch them up in person.
People wondered if I was tired. I explained that at this point I was so hopped up on adrenaline, endorphins and caffeine, I was going to make it through the day, but the next day would be rough.
My kids made a nice sign for me as well and were excited to hear about the adventure. Note the cat one of them was in process of tracing.
What is so fun for me about sharing stories about things like this with my kids is they live in a world where someone going off and winning a marathon or running 93 miles is just normal. Some day they’ll realize it isn’t and I’ll probably have some questions to answer. But by then maybe they’ll be ready to join me on a few things like this. One week after I finished my 5 year old and I took on on a 15 mile backpacking trip into the backcountry near Mount St. Hellens – the kids are certainly getting exposure to this type of thing earlier than I did.
It wouldn’t be a Greg post without a few charts. But this post is really long and I don’t have time to do the things I want to do to the data right now. So these Strava charts will have to suffice.