Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Running the Wonderland Trail

As with many of my adventures, this one began only two days in advance with a whole lot of encouragement from some of my friends. To be honest the idea was sparked the evening of Sunday the 12th of September after I ran The Enchantments. A friend suggested it and I could not stop thinking about it. Monday I decided I wanted to go for the unsupported fastest known time. The previous time was 33 hours and 45 minutes. Which for 93 miles is less than three miles an hour. I thought that would be very manageable.

Monday night I stopped by the Seattle REI and bought $35 of energy food including:

  • 16 GU and Clif Shot energy gels (1600 calories)
  • 1 GU Chomps (180 calories)
  • 1 Sports Beans (100 calories)
  • 1 Clif Roks (270 calories)
  • 1 Clif Builder Bar (270 calories)
  • 1 Clif Fruit and Nut (130 calories)
  • 3 Clif Bars White Chocolate Macadamia Nut flavor (720 Calories)
  • 2 Clif Shot Bloks (400 calories)
  • 4 Chocolate Almond Butter packets (720 calories)

I also took the other gear in the picture as well as a long sleeve blue Nike shirt, Asics shorts with large mesh pockets and Discovery Channel cycling jersey.

Tuesday I woke at 6 AM with excitement. I started with an energy filled McDonalds breakfast with two sandwiches and a mocha. For six dollars it is hard to get so many calories at most places. I also stopped to buy gas, Gatorade, Five Hour Energy, and pick up some salt packets. One of my new friends, a former ultrarunner who still parties with the Seattle ultra crowd, highly suggested that I take extra salt so that I don't cramp. I've never cramped before but I took his advice.

I arrived at Longmire around 9:30. I checked in at the Wilderness Ranger station and told them what I was up to. I wanted someone nearby to know that a crazy kid was out there trying to do something ridiculous. I finished changing into my running clothes and packing food and gear into my eight pockets.  At 9:55:39 AM I took a picture by the sign to the Wonderland Trail. The weather was amazing! I started running...

I was more or less flying at the beginning. I filled my bottles with Gatorade so the first 40 ounces of fluid had 200 calories which was really nice. I passed the South Puyallup River trail intersection at 12:47:29 PM. Thats 12 miles in 2:52. I didn't do the math at the time but looking at it now that's moving well.

It was hard running carrying the three pounds of food and other pound of clothing and gear and two pounds of water. It all added up to make the running less exciting than running unencumbered over a trail. But then again I had the ability to go farther. I forgot the salt in my van so throughout the day I was trying to lick my own sweat from my arms, forehead, and hat. In fact, if you wet the brim of your hat a little you can suck out the sweat and get all of that sodium.

I believe I passed the bridge at North Puyallup River at 2:28 PM because that's when I took a bunch of pictures of a bridge and steep hills upriver which both match the time stamps and topo map.

Of course this whole section was going very easy. I drew on many past experiences to get me through this. Compared to the Presidential Traverse the trail was a piece of cake. In fact, the whole Wonderland Trail is just amazing. I am sure that it would make a great six (or 11) day backpacking trek. Compared to the Indian Peaks loop I did earlier this summer the altitude is no problem at all. Compared to my adventure on the Casual Route in 2008 (20 hours on the go) 12 or 14 hours is not a very long time.

The whole afternoon was really a blast. My legs were feeling great and I was just cruising. The weather was good. I had food. My super-glued shoes weren't falling apart. What more could you want?

I arrived at Mowich Lake at 6:22 PM. Arriving at the campground was strange. For the past eight and a half hours it had been just myself and backpackers. No day hikers. No car campers. No roads. Then all of a sudden I arrive at a family wearing cotton hoodies and grilling. I was very excited to be through about one-third of the trail in such a quick time. My mind started to fill with delusions of a sub 24 hour run. 

That being said, I was also getting a little tired. Not bad at all, but tired none the less. Look at my face in the picture, not exactly feeling fresh. I purified some water and watched a crawfish five inches long crawl inches from my open bottle. It was really interesting yet somewhat creepy. I've eaten smaller shrimp. 

I was a little slow moving through Mowich Lake. It took about nine minutes from the time I remember arriving until the last picture was taken. Obviously I was starting to move a little slower. 

I went out and over Isput Pass. That is just a phenomenal view. I tried to take a picture but after 10 seconds of struggling with my back pockets I gave up. So you will just have to visit Isput Pass to see it. The valley just stretches away. It is the kind of view that helps me understand why we have national parks. What I mean is, if Yosemite wasn't a national park there is a good chance that some private owner would charge people to look and climb. I mean that national parks are not a right. They are a privilege that we are very fortunate to have in the United States.

I ran down the pass as the sun set. At about 7:30 PM I decided to put my headlamp on. I turned my hat backwards and adjusted the light. I was a little frustrated that I had to put my light on so early because I had planned to turn it on after 8, but that is life. I mean with my lithium batteries I have hundreds of hours of battery life anyway. Those batteries are also almost fresh. I used them in my GPS in Pakistan but only on the summit push and then only for half an hour at camp three. 

I progressed through the night until the lower crossing at Carbon River. The normal trail to the upper crossing and the suspension bridge was out so I had to detour along the lower crossing. I made my way up to Dick Creek  and perhaps a quarter of a mile or half of a mile after passing through there my batteries died. I immediately halted. I pressed the on button again. The light flickered for half a second and went out again. I took the light off my head and gave it a futile shake. I tried the button again and the light went on and off as fast as you can think it. It was 9:10 PM. 

This was a trip changing event. I sat down on the nearest rock and ate one of my Clif Bars. I am a huge fan of the White Chocolate Macadamia Nut. They could probably be sold at Starbucks, unpackaged, for twice the price they are sold at REI. 

Anyway, I took out my iPhone to light the map and contemplated the future. I tried to lay out my options. I could sleep there on the trail. I had my iPhone light so I could use that to keep going. I could use my iPhone to get back to Mowich and end the run. 

There was really only one decision that stuck out in my head. Use the iPhone to keep going. On the map there was a patrol cabin at Mystic Lake about 4.5 miles away. My iPhone battery was full so I thought I could make it that far. Then I could decided what to do next. Well, no time like the present.

I started hiking and I went slow. The light only provided about ten feet of visibility so I was moving at maybe 1.5 miles an hour. As the trail went up the side of the hill there were sections without trees where the night sky lit up the trail enough to turn my light off. There was about a first quarter moon but it was on the other side of the valley so it was not giving me any light besides reflection off of glaciers and clouds. 

The hike that would have taken not much more than an hour in the daylight or with a good headlamp took two and a half hours in the dark with an iPhone. When I was moving fast I was not feeling bad. As soon as the pace slowed it was like my legs and head were on the same page again. Realizing the 40 odd miles they had already covered they agreed to be tired. 

Hiking alone in the dark is one of the more scary things to do. In fact, it is one of the most scary things that I know of. I would rather sit at a hanging belay a thousand feet in the air than go hiking alone in the dark. I was not nearly as scared this time as I usually am. I think that all of the bear, elk, and moose encounters I have had this year have given me more confidence in the wilderness. During the hike by iPhone I did scare up some animal. I never saw it but it was a larger size of animal. At least deer size. Half of the fear is hearing a crashing in the trees 20 feet away and not knowing what it is.

At about 11:45 PM I arrived at the patrol cabin. At this point the enthusiasm for my ethics about being unsupported were low. I was planning to ask the rangers for AAA batteries. I pay lots of money for National Park entry fees and a few batteries would be a huge help. If they didn't have batteries I was going to ask to sleep inside their cabin for a few hours. 

Step number one, wake up the rangers. I pounded on the door and windows and shined light through the windows. I circled the cabin and finally realized that it was locked from the outside. Truly locked. I was alone. I was exhausted. 

Fortunately, there was a blue tarp behind the cabin folded on top of a wood pile. I took it off and went to the porch. I wrapped the tarp around me and put on every piece of clothing I had (a long sleeve shirt and wind shell). I ate and drank a little food then I passed out. For the next five and a half hours it was a mix of shivering and waking up to my phone alarm. The first alarm was at 3 AM, the second at 4 AM and at 5 AM I woke up shivering naturally. It was a terrible night. Not as scary as getting altitude sickness at 20,300 feet in Pakistan or sleeping on a ledge in Yosemite so I slept like a rock in between shivering sessions. 

When I woke up at 5 AM I rolled around another half an hour before I decided to get up and go. The night is coldest before the dawn and about 5 AM with a 6:30 AM sunrise is very cold at 5700 feet in Mt. Rainier National Park. I sat up around 5:30 AM and ate some more food. I folded up the tarp and headed back on the trail, with the iPhone lighting my way. Just ten minutes down the trail in a small meadow I scared up a rock. At least I thought it was a rock until I was 25 feet away. It stood up and lumbered 20 feet away from the trail. At three feet tall, bulky, and black, it was a bear. I started talking and yelling and trying to make noise and scare it away. After only a few seconds it ran into the forrest. I continued to make noise as I scampered down the trail. There was a fair amount of talking out loud during this time. Had the bear not moved when it did I could have touched it another five or ten seconds down the road. Encountering a bear alone in the dark is not high on my to do list.

The sun came up and I gladly resumed my trotting and speed walking rhythm. The above picture captures part of the north face at 7:34:07 AM on Wednesday the 15th. The North face of Mt. Rainier looks so interesting. Very difficult. I had no idea there was any face like that on Mt. Rainier. I would have taken a better picture but it was simply too dark for my camera from 7:30 PM to 7:30 AM. I arrived at White River at 9:00 AM on the dot after scaring several early morning backpackers. I was continually hiking or running up behind people so fast that I gave them a scare. I started to announce my presence 20 feet back or farther so that they had some time to know I was there. 

Again it was strange to arrive at White River with roads, people, cars, and industrialized stuff. From then on out the trail was amazing. I mean world class hiking. From White River to Summerland was seven great miles. That being said, I was getting tired. Uphills were not as fun as they had been. I had a fair amount of food left so I was eating more per mile than I had before. The whole run I was most concerned about getting up Panhandle Gap. At 6800 feet it was the highest elevation on the Wonderland Trail. It was also at the beginning of a long stretch without any way to get off the trail in case of emergency. 

However it was quite easy and I arrived on top at 11:17 AM according to the above picture. I think that mountain in the center right of the picture is Mt. Hood. This picture is looking south from Panhandle Gap. Then of course the token self portrait with Mt. Rainier in the background.

From there it was nice running, but starting to get a little painful. Down and down some more. I figured that I had 7000 feet of descending left and 3000 feet of ascending and just over 22 miles. I was almost done!

Just above Indian Bar I had a conversation with two rangers. 

Me, "I have a tough question. Vanilla or Strawberry?" In reference to which flavor of gel I was going to eat next.

Younger ranger female, "Vanilla, definitely."

Then we proceeded to talk about what I was doing for about 15 seconds and then I was off hiking uphill again. From there I just kept moving, eating and drinking. It gradually became more cloudy and was sprinkling slightly as I passed through a deserted Box Canyon. 

With 11-12 miles to go I managed to think of what I had left to do as only a 12 mile run. I thought I could push hard and pick up the pace and do it in less than two hours. For about a mile I moved rather fast. I probably did a sub 10 minute mile uphill. That soon ended.

Around mile 82 my right leg which had been hurting for 10-15 miles spiked to a five out of ten. That's not runable unless I am in fear for my life. My right ankle near the front was really hurting. It hurt most running downhill. Walking uphill was bearable so I spent most of the next few miles walking. I know from reading about ultrarunning that pain often turns around and people can continue on. That happened.

Around mile 85 when I saw the 7.5 miles to Longmire sign the pain subsided in my right ankle and I resumed a moderate amount of running. I passed some backpackers that were dong the Wonderland Trail in six days and of all the people I have met that is the fastest anyone has tried to do it.

At the sign that said 1.7 miles to the finish I started running hardish again. The rain picked up but not enough for my wind shell. At this point 12 minute miles downhill was my version of redlining. Every sign was nice to see. 1.6 miles. 1.4 miles. I was going to finish this massive trail. I popped out into Longmire at the same place I had entered the trail. I was slightly bewildered that the entry and exit were the same place. I took the picture below at 5:26:17 PM.

I walked over to the Wilderness Ranger Station and pounded on the locked door. The ranger I talked to the day before came down and we talked for a minute. She was impressed, and happy they didn't have to come rescue me. I changed into cotton clothes in the bathroom. Next, having forgotten the salt packets, I sat in the driver's seat, wearing cotton and ate a salt packet. I had a very strange feeling of all the muscles in my legs relaxing. They were not cramped up but they were tight and that salt packet was almost as good as a massage. I had five energy gels left so I ate about 3700 calories during the run. I also drank a quart of strawberry lemonade, my first Five Hour Energy, and a pint of water. That was enough to get me to Ashford. 

At the local watering hole I had a bacon double cheeseburger. I have never actually had a double hamburger and I devoured a huge one with lots of cheese and bacon. The fries didn't slow me down either. I followed that down with a salted margarita and a tall glass of milk. 

That got me to Puyallup where I stopped at Krispy Kreme and Jamba Juice for a few hundred more calories. 

That was enough to get me back to Ballard to a friend's house. I took three steps toward his house and he just laughed at how I was walking. I had hot spots on my feet, my legs were sore, and I was tired. Strangely enough I wasn't tired enough to go to sleep. I talked with him and his roommates about big wall climbing in Yosemite and other adventures. We watched District 9 which I managed to stay awake through. It is a good movie. I ended the adventure by collapsing in a spare bed and sleeping like a rock.


  1. Nice run. The mountain when you crest Panhandle Gap is Mt. Adams. I know a few people who have run the trail in 24 hours, including John Stamstad (retired pro mountain biker) so I don't know where you got the 33 hours from. Excellent effort!

  2. Steve, I think he means unsupported. http://fastestknowntime.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=pacific&action=display&thread=40


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