Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Travel, the PCT, and the International Dream Life

Photo stolen from Lyndsey McKerchar while she wasn't looking

Angel and I are just back from an International Dream Vacation, skiing the Canadian Rockies with some Kiwi friends, enjoying unseasonably warm weather in Banff, and trying out the related unseasonably bad skiing and smelly hostels in Fernie.  It was our first time downhill skiing since we were teenagers.  It was fun and nothing's broken, but that's mostly neither here nor there.

Travel is always a nice chance to take a break from normal life rhythms, but for us it has also frequently been a chance to plot major life changes.  Travel to Australia landed us living in New Zealand, which preceded our move to Seattle.  Traveling the Camino in Spain ultimately led to a decision to hike the PCT and then go learn Spanish.  Going places makes us want to go other places.

This Canadian trip (with good Kiwi friends who we never would've met if we hadn't traveled to New Zealand) was a nice reminder that Angel and I would rather travel than do just about anything else.  Hanging out with Kiwis always has that effect because they travel as well as any nationality I know and because our two years in NZ were some of the best of our life.  And it was also a nice tune-up for our upcoming period of vagabonding. 

Beyond just wanting to be on vacation all of the time, traveling this year (and maybe beyond), is about trying to figure out how to prioritize the things that are important to us.  Different people want different things in life.  Some people want to spend time with their family, or make a lot of money, or have a meaningful career.  All of that is important to us to some degree, but we also want to do it in the context of experiencing as much of the world as possible.  Our priorities in some random order include: meaningful and beneficial work, outdoor adventures, close relationships, a sense of home, seeing as much as we can, learning as much as we can.  We've spent 10 years or so hammering away at debt, investing, buying and remodeling a home, changing careers, and trying to put ourselves in a position of some professional and financial flexibility.  What that adds up to at this point is a chance to try to move the balance away from career a little bit and more towards life.

Or a more accurate way to say it might be that we want to shift more towards a model where, when we are working, we are working intentionally - shaping our work life so that it will allow us to do more of the things that we want to do.  Part of me always feels like I need to justify our decisions to travel, both to myself and others, as if they were inherently selfish.  But in practice I doubt that our contributions to society will be significantly diminished by the fact that we'll be moving from place to place for some period of time in the near future.  And we're lucky to be in a position where our jobs themselves are a meaningful part of the lives we'll live.  If we pick up nursing work while we're traveling, it should contribute to the experience rather than feeling like a necessary evil. 

The two year plan is to make this a sort of intensive Masters program in resilience and creativity: stretching the resources we have as far as they'll go, investigating what nursing can do for us to both enrich our experience and extend it, developing other skills to make money to keep traveling, sorting out how to balance being home with being away.

The long term goal is to develop a life where travel and adventure is a regular, viable possibility: More Caminos.  More through hiking. Spending more time with the people and places we love. Floating the Mississippi. Going to new parts of the world. More friends. Ultras, Skiing, Biking, Mountains, Surfing.

In two months, we'll see how this goes.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Graduation Speech from the Cascadia College of Adventure

In discussing the Triple Crown of US through hikes, people often refer to the Appalachian Trail as the place you get your Bachelors (entry level - tough but doable without much previous knowledge), the Pacific Crest Trail as the place you get your Masters (takes some preparation and you could get yourself in trouble/flunk out if you're not smart), and the Continental Divide Trail as the place you get your PhD (even experienced hikers sometimes can't do it).

Because we've never done a proper through hike before, Angel and I owe a huge debt to the Cascadia College of Adventure (CCA), where we've been auditing courses for about three and a half years now.  Before we moved to Seattle, our spirit of adventure mostly manifested as a travel bug, but in the last few years our local community of faculty and students has helped us get to a place where we feel that it will be at least reasonable, if not advised, to jump into something as big as a PCT through hike.

If we hadn't moved to Seattle, with it's massive, approachable outdoor community, and particularly if we hadn't gotten involved in the trail running world, I'm not sure we would've had the guts to take this thing on.  But tenured faculty like Win Van Pelt from the Seattle Running Club, and Glen Mangiantini and Liz Kellogg who've spent as many miles on the trail as anyone, shared a lot of outdoor wisdom with us and helped give us some early introductions and encouragement - helping us get through our first trail races. 

Local hotshot adjunct professors have been particularly inspiring in helping to plot a course for what it looks like for a normal person to live an adventurous life.  Our buddy Seth Wolpin is both an actual UW faculty member and a real-life mountain climbing, globe-trotting adventurer. Deby Kumasaka and George Orozco have pioneered roles as family-centered suburbanites by day and hard core ultra runners by night and weekend.  Julie-of-all-trades Cassata seems to have mastered every outdoor sport on two feet, from through-hiking to ultra running to orienteering.  And fellow former Ohioans Matt and Julie Urbanski, provided us with a template for quitting life and going on a bunch of adventures.

We had a great, if somewhat melodramatic, personal TA in Adam Gaston, who let us tag along on his own exploits and provided us with beta while joining for some of our own.

And in the last couple of years it's been inspiring to see some of our fellow students graduating and taking on their own big adventures: Yitka Winn, who quit life in Seattle to move to CO to work a dream job at Trail Runner Magazine, then quit that dream job to pursue an actual dream of writing freelance.  And our friend Alicia, who was wearing "BEER" socks and metallic shorts the first time we met her, and now has run for the Canadian National 100k Team. 

"Graduation", for us, means having the confidence to create adventures ourselves, which reflect our identity.  Basically, our approach has typically been adventure as a lark - doing big, tough, scary things and having fun with it, rather than taking ourselves too seriously.  We ran across Spain, but we did it slowly, and we ate at just about every cafe along the way.  We ran 100 miles, and Angel finished in a pink unitard.  And we'll hike the PCT dressed like Liberace. 

Just kidding, I think. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Why PCT?

Now we have an official Facebook group, most of our gear, and about 850 miles of resupply boxes packed.  It's getting real, and it's about time to start doing some posting about our preparations for the Pacific Crest Trail.  For the sake of continuity, I'm going to do my posting here rather than starting a new dedicated blog for the trip.

If you're the kind of person who likes details, or are planning your own trip, I'll try to eventually throw up some of the logistical basics here.  Right now I have a rough Resupply Strategy outlined if you are interested in checking that out.  I'll probably eventually put up an obligatory gear list, and will make a spreadsheet with the contents of our resupply boxes available as well - if only because I'm putting it together anyway, and I haven't been able to find such a resource online, and I personally think it would be helpful in the initial stages of planning.

But I'm not particularly detail oriented, so in general I'll probably be more likely to tell stories and offer reflections here than to give useful data.  With that...

How'd we get here?

Hiking the PCT, for us, will involve quitting two jobs that we like, leaving a city that we like, renting out a co-op unit that we like, and uprooting a generally happy existence.  We don't have any heroin habits to kick, failed marriages to flee from, or dead mothers to mourn.  We don't have any particularly pressing personal crises that need sorted out, and it's not a traditionally opportune time to uproot and go on a pilgrimage/spirit quest/journey of discovery.

Really what our trip is about is living before we die.
As a couple, we've done some crazy crap in our day, and our decisions to have big adventures have typically occurred according to a formula:  We sit down for a meal, Angel suggests something crazy, I think about it for a second, and say something along the lines of "We could probably figure out how to do that." (Angel has a million crazy ideas, and would almost definitely have a much more exciting life if I wasn't around to poopoo most of them.  It's the few that make it through what we could call my poopoo filter that end up happening.)

About a year and a half ago we were sitting at dinner in Anacortes on the way back from Canada, and the restaurant happened to have a deal where you could get free entry to a movie at the local movie theater with a meal.  We wanted a meal anyway, and we had time to kill, so we ended up spending an hour or so having drinks and killing time before that evening's showing of The Hunger Games started. 

The topic of conversation turned to finances (which is to say, possibilities). About 7 years prior, Angel and I had started putting away a chunk of money each month on top of our normal retirement, savings, etc., with the thought that by the time we hit 34 or 35, we would probably either be having kids, looking to purchase a bigger place to live, or both.  We talked about both kids and a new place, and we realized that we (still) didn't want to do either. But we did want to have a grand adventure.

Angel had previously brought up the idea of hiking the John Muir Trail, a 210 mile section of spectacular trail in the High Sierra of California.  At that point, we were already planning a three week trip to New Zealand in April, and the prospect of being able to get another big chunk of time off from work in 2014 seemed unlikely.  Somehow, in the course of conversation about finances, the idea of getting around limited vacation time by quitting our jobs came up, and by the end of our second beer we had decided that we would begin planning for a year off, during which we would hike the PCT (why just do the JMT when you can walk the whole way from Mexico to Canada?), start learning Spanish, and travel in South America - spending as little money as we could, and potentially doing some travel nursing to supplement an otherwise non-existent income.

Sometimes after a few beers you talk about those sorts of things and don't mean it, but in that case it turns out that we both did.  As the year progressed, we started to firm up our commitment to the plan, and eventually Angel made it real by telling both of her employers that she was leaving.  I'd floated the idea to my boss shortly after I started as a nurse (one of the questions my boss asks in all of her check-ins is "Is there anything that would make you quit?"), and I also made it official with her in November.  In mid-April, we'll both leave our jobs and head out for the first part of our planned trip - the PCT.

Why PCT?

Thru-hiking itself is a logical progression from what we've done in the past - spending a ton of time on the trails through ultra running, backpacking, and hiking/running the the Camino. After running a 100 miler, I think a lot of trail runners have a bit of a crisis trying to figure out what's next.  We did our first in 2013 at Cascade Crest, and thru-hiking feels like a logical next big challenge - in some ways more of the same (long distance on trail by foot), but it's also a step into the unknown (months of time living outdoors and carrying a lot of weight).

The PCT specifically was a logical trail choice because it's our local trail.  If we really wanted to, it would be relatively easy to walk out of our front door, head a few miles up Snoqualmie Pass on the Iron Horse Trail, catch the PCT and head South all the way to Mexico.  It's more appealing (if a bit more logistically challenging) than the Appalachian Trail, and not as daunting as the Continental Divide Trail.  It's cheaper and easier logistically than anything international, and it's a suitably epic endeavor to justify uprooting a good life to tackle.  Before Wild came out, it also still had somewhat of an underground spirit to it, with only a couple hundred people completing it every year.

And in general it all feels like a big mystery.  We did the Camino, but we've never really lived outside for more than a few days at a time.  We've done up to 100 miles in one push, but we've never done more than 20 miles in a day with a heavy pack on. We've gone backpacking, but never for longer than about a week in a stretch.  It's a big mystery.  A big, exciting mystery.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New Year's Resolutions: A Little Hikey

New Year's is always one of my favorite holidays - at least in principle if not always in execution.  I have a bit of a sappy sentimental streak, so it's always a nice opportunity to indulge in that, but I also really like the idea of new beginnings.  Nothing is ever finished. 

I've actually never been that big on New Year's resolutions though, if only because I never actually remember them long enough to sort out if I kept them.  In principle though, those kind of 'big decisions' made over drinks are only kind of important.  If Richard Dreyfuss taught us anything in What About Bob?, it was that the small, everyday decisions are the ones that really matter.  They eventually add up to big things, or at least put us in a position to make the big decisions.  If you can't do the small things every day, you can't do the big things.  But if you can:  compound interest and all that.

For the past 10 years or so, sometimes in a focused way, sometimes not, Angel and I have been doing little things to try to get life to a place where we want it to be: saving money even when we didn't have much of it, paying down bills rather than buying new things, driving crappy cars, shopping at thrift stores, making career choices that allow for maximum flexibility, prioritizing our marriage over other relationships, and staying active - particularly in the last five years, after we realized that getting older is actually a thing. 

This year all that should add up to some big things, if all goes as planned. 

Specifically, the April all of that should add up to a chance to pack up our stuff, rent out our apartment, fly to California and walk from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail on a little through-hiking adventure that's bigger than anything else we've taken on.  After that, the plan is to keep traveling as long as it's financially possible and personally enjoyable, so the sky's the limit.

A lot of folks are aware of our scheme, so this isn't exactly a first public announcement of intentions, but it is a note to say that I'm going to start blogging a bit about the PCT experience here, so most of my Runny posts will be put on hold in favor of Hikey ones.  Can't wait!

Prospero Ano y Felicidad everybody.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Trail Running and Mythology

Sometimes I like to walk around Discovery Park and think about things, and today the thing I thought about was mythology and trail running.  I've written about that a little bit before, but for some reason it was on my mind again today while I was spotting seals and shore birds on Puget Sound.  (It's actually been percolating since I watched the video embedded at the bottom of this post.)

The word 'myth' is used nowadays to refer to a story or popular conception that isn't true, but in the traditional sense it referred to a story that stuck around precisely b/c it was true - or at least contained some element of truth, even if all of the factual details couldn't necessarily be substantiated.  Traditional myths frequently developed first as true stories - 'history' as we think of it - and across time took on extra details that resonated and made for better stories, in the way that most of the stories people tell about their childhood do (for instance).  And across time, the actual historical events in the myth became less important than the moral of the stories - the lessons the myths taught about the groups that espoused them, or about humanity in general.

In that vein, when I was studying religion, I came across the idea that myths are stories that people keep telling because they tell us something about ourselves.  They're stories that say something about our identity - usually something we like and want to remember, like that our ancestors were heroic, or overcame persecution, or were extremely good looking (and hence, so are we, whatever the evidence to the contrary).  As such, every good culture benefits from myths that establish and maintain its identity- whether it's the national culture of a global superpower or the sub-culture of a small group of weirdos.  They're stories that we tell about ourselves, as much as about their ostensible subjects.

The currently small group of weirdos that makes up trail running culture is no different.  In fact, it seems like we actually have a disproportionate number of mythological stories and figures.  Trail running is, after all, an activity that lends itself well to myth-making - ordinary people doing impossible sounding things on their weekends off from work.

Personally, I think because trail running works best as a counter-culture, our best legendary stories and figures are counter-cultural. Triathlon is for influencers - people who do tough things because they want everyone to know they're tough.  But trails and mountain running are for grizzled outdoor-folk - people who do tough things because they're tough and love the natural world, and don't need admiration to keep going.  Hence the mythological ancestors we claim are people like Gordy Ainsleigh, who decided to run a 100 mile mountain horse race himself after his horse came up lame, and didn't write a book or go on TV to talk about it, but did convince doubters that what he'd done was possible, such that a small number of others decided to join him.  That story is, in fact, the established origin myth of American ultra-running, even if there were Americans walking and/or running distances longer than 26.2 miles a century before Gordy's horse screwed up its leg.

I really think that the book Born to Run worked as a successful propaganda piece for trails primarily because it tapped in to this type of mythology.  It was a collection of stories that (if you ask the subjects) were kind of true, but not totally, but that resonated with readers to establish a mythological history of running (and more particularly trail running):  Running is natural and human and can take us back to our roots, and the most pure form of running is on trails, with no shoes, across really long distances.  Runners (and non-runners) identified with the message, and dove into trail and ultra-running in unprecedented numbers.  (Trail running seems to have stuck around as a movement so far, even if minimalism in footwear is already mostly dead.)

And because it's a counter culture, I think that the best mythological heroes in the trail running world are the introverts who don't self-promote, but let other people use them as a template to project heroic qualities.  In mainstream sports, loudmouths are frequently lionized (for better or worse - I love Richard Sherman as much as the next Seattle-ite), but in trail running self-promotion comes with a lot of stigma.  Dean Karnazes will never quite be a pantheon figure because he told most of his stories himself.  Scott Jurek made for a much better hero in Born to Run (when someone else talked him up) than in Eat and Run (when a lot of readers felt he talked up himself - though to me he's always seemed like a bit of a reluctant celebrity).  And because of her combination of introversion and achievement, Ann Trason will almost definitely remain one of the most revered figures in the trail world for quite some time.

In the Northwest trail community, we're blessed with a lot of people who fit this mythological mold: tough people who love the outdoors, do amazing things, and don't talk themselves up, and who others want to identify with and so help shape the culture. Historically the Seattle area has been as myth-worthy as anywhere else in the US.  The myth of Seattle in the '90s was the heart of this story.  And currently it's still true.  Both Heather Anderson, (Anish, or "The Ghost") who walked the PCT unsupported faster than any other human being has, and Joe McConaughy, some random kid who ran the trail in supported fashion faster than anyone has, come to mind.  And our current most established runner on an international stage - Jodee Adams-Moore - does as well.

My new personal mythological hero right now is Ricky Gates.  The life he's carved out, at least as it's presented in the video below, encapsulates what trail running culture is about.


Friday, October 24, 2014

Oregon Coast 50k: A Short Review from a Rainshadow Fan

I race mostly for Glenn's pictures. 

Every year in the famously rainy Pacific Northwest there seems to be a weekend in mid-October when the wet season officially breaks - when we stop having spotty showers and settle in to the regular grey that features in every TV show and movie set in the area.  I'm pretty sure that break was last weekend, and I'm pretty sure the epicenter of raininess was a beach a few miles outside of Yachats, OR where a bunch of us crowded together for the start of the newest Rainshadow Running race, the Oregon Coast 50k.

Angel and I usually run Baker Lake to cap off the season, but this year we decided to make a trip of it and run this one in its inaugural year, because James Varner always puts together amazing courses and we'd never run in the area.  Personally, the race found me in top form - after a month-long taper of virtually no running since the Wonderland, I was unmotivated to run at all, let alone in the cold and rain.  Angel and I spent the bus-ride to the start convincing each other not to bow out. 

The course starts with a 6 mile beach run.  Sand running can be difficult, but in this case the beach was wide and flat, and the sand was hard packed, so it was a pretty perfect surface. The driving rain and consistent headwind was a little bit less ideal though, and in just a couple of minutes I found myself giving Mother Nature an extended lecture about why she was still single and running as fast as I could to get off of the damned beach and behind the shelter of some wind-swept trees.  After about an hour of running much faster than I was trained for, and when my face was sufficiently sandblasted, the course headed away from the beach and through a state park to the hotel where we were staying, and where the course would eventually loop around to finish.  Angel said she stood at this point for at least 5 minutes trying to find a legitimate reason to quit.  I'm too proud to think about quitting, but I was already regretting how fast I ran on the beach and knew I was going to suffer the rest of the way.

The rest of the course lived up to the Rainshadow brand, making a lollipop loop along the coast, up three steep but relatively short (for Varner miles) climbs, before heading back to the finish line in Yachats.  Through no fault of the course, which was beautiful and generally really runnable, I suffered for more miles than I ever have in a 50k.  The combo of not training and going out too fast taught me the important lesson that one should never take an ultramarathon for granted - even if it's 'just' a 50k.  The last 20 or so miles felt like the last 20 of a 50 miler more than a 50k. I tried to keep myself distracted by striking up conversations with the people who were passing me and cursing about how stupid running is.

Mercifully, when I got back on the flats about two miles from the finish line, the sun broke out and it suddenly warmed up.  I convinced myself if I could just not walk for about 20 minutes the suffering would be over, and I rolled in to the finish in 6:09 - one of the slowest 50ks I've run, on a course that should've been (on paper anyway) one of the fastest I've run.  

But enough about me...

Never mind my own bad day, this first year race fits well into the Rainshadow pantheon, and adds something new to James Varner's repertoire with a tough, beautiful coastal course. There are some similarities with this one to the Deception Pass 50k, but overall I think this is a more consistently beautiful course in an area that makes for a great long-weekend destination.  The Oregon coast is notoriously rugged and pretty, and the finish line was without a doubt the nicest of any race I've been to - music, pizza and beer on the coast as the sun was setting made for an ideal end to a long day, as well as a picturesque way to finish out the 2014 trail racing season.  And the resort that hosted the finish made for an awesome place to relax for the weekend.  Pricier than our normal free camping approach to Rainshadow races, but worth it for the beachfront view, on sight amenities, and totally mellow weekend.

Monday, September 22, 2014

How to Run Around Mt. Rainier: Wonderland Trail 94ish Mile Fun Run

Me, Brandon, Adam at the start


One of my more recent posts here was about our trip to Colorado to run the Hardrock course in July, which for me turned into a trip to Colorado to get sick, barf on the side of the Hardrock course, and then sleep in the back of Jeason Murphy's truck.  That series of runs had previously been the big summer focus for me, and because it wasn't panning out, at some point on that trip I settled on re-focusing my goals on running the Wonderland Trail around Mt Rainier.  This year was all about going to new places and doing more self-organized events rather than "training" or focusing on races, so it fit right in. 

So, I did what you do in those situations, and started a Facebook group to try to find people to crew and pace, and maybe run with me. Almost immediately my friend Brandon Sack volunteered to join on the run (despite the fact that at that point he hadn't run further than a 50k), and a group of crew started to form.

Then, a couple months later, my favorite adventure partner Adam Gaston had to drop from his big Summer race at the Ultra-trail du Mont Blanc, and I immediately started plotting to get him to join at Rainier.  It wasn't too difficult to get him to agree, although he did keep trying to find excuses to back out.  "I want you to know if the weather's bad, I'm not doing this" and "I've already done this before so I have to figure out why I should do it again!" Luckily we happened upon one of the best weekends of the year, so Adam didn't have any valid excuses, and our trio was set.

In the meantime, Angel (my wife) and Broeck (Adam's girlfriend) headed up the crew effort, and made sure everyone was organized to provide enough ramen and moonshine at each aid spot to make it around the mountain.  I was originally hoping to gather 4 - 5 folks to help support, but these things escalate, and by the end about a dozen friends signed up to crew or pace for the weekend.


For the uninitiated, the Wonderland is a (officially 93 but there's a short detour that I don't think is factored in so I'm going to say) 94 mile loop trail that circumnavigates Mt Rainier, and it's one of Washington's iconic hikes, as well as one of the prettiest trails in the world.  It's also really tough, with about 23,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, and an elevation profile that looks like a heart monitor reading.

Backpackers seem to usually take 10 days to do the route, but runners will frequently approach it as a 3 day trip, or will take it on in one push.  At this point, a few people have finished in under 24 hours, but most take in the range of 36.  The fastest anyone has ever run it is Kyle Skaggs 20 hour 53 minutes in 2006. Some people do it in unsupported fashion (i.e. carrying everything they need from the start to finish), some self-supported (i.e. dropping their own caches along the way but not enlisting others' help), and some supported with a crew meeting them at spots along the way.  And among runners, people seem to usually start at Longmire and move in a clockwise direction, though I haven't heard strong rationale for the superiority of any starting/finishing point or a clockwise vs. counterclockwise approach. 

Personally, I wanted to organize a supported attempt, run counterclockwise, and start/finish at White River for some specific reasons.

Some of the Crew at the Start: Broeck, Eric, me, Brandon "I could do this with my eyes closed" Sack, Adam, Emilee, Jon

1) Running Supported

I run, basically, because I like it. And I know that I prefer hanging out with friends when I'm running to doing it on my own.  I also know that I have a lot of friends who like to camp out in the woods, and who would have fun either crewing or pacing for something like this even if they don't necessarily have the time or desire to run the whole thing themselves.  (Some of my own more meaningful experiences with running have actually been crewing, pacing or volunteering to help other people meet goals, so I don't have much trouble asking for help with this sort of 'selfish' thing.)  So, I wanted this to be a weekend party for and with friends as much as a personal challenge.  It's important to keep the 'fest' in 'Sufferfest'.  

2) Running Counterclockwise from White River

When I thought about running the Wonderland in one push, my hesitation was always that I wanted to see the whole thing in the daylight because it's so beautiful.  But then, I realized that if I approached it correctly, I could accomplish that goal.  A group of us did the Longmire to Mowich River section last year, so if I set up our approach to put that section in the middle, we would be there overnight and have daylight for everything I hadn't seen.  (We also could have gone clockwise and still placed the Longmire-Mowich section in the middle, but we went clockwise last year so that's no fun.)  This maybe was a little selfish, because it did mean that Adam and Brandon would have to tackle the longest, toughest climb (from Box Canyon to Summerland) at the end of the run, but suffering builds character, and they both need it, so in that way I was looking out for them.

Our approach did have some advantages.  As our friend Jenn Hughes pointed out, it has you moving through the most beautiful section (Indian Bar-Summerland) at the end of the trip, so you have something to look forward to.  It also allowed for three crew access points in the last 32 miles (Longmire, Reflection Lakes, and Box Canyon), when you most need it.  Adam said it was harder than the clockwise run he took last time, but in the end I think the approach we took made for a great experience. The trail is brutal any way you divide it up.

I'll work in some other data and logistical stuff in an appendix below for those who are interested in that kind of thing, or might be interested in doing this yourself.


Start: White River to Mowich

Our plan was to meet on Saturday morning at the White River campground, and to get started promptly at 7 am to maximize our daylight. My friend Emilee from nursing school (who we've been working on tricking into becoming a trail runner for a few years) was planning to meet us there to pace, but at 7 everyone was there except for her (and Eric, who she'd carpooled with). While we were finishing up the last of our packing, Angel went to find her at her campsite, and came back reporting that she was still asleep.  About 30 minutes later she walked up and apologized, "Hi guys.  I took an Ambien."  Lulz.  Obligatory crew photos, and we were off.

Our first section between crew access points was about 27 miles long, with some amazing views of Rainier and Mystic Lake.

and Mystic Lake
Our strategy was to start out slowly and continue to move slowly pretty much forever.  We aren't all exactly evenly paced, but we were close enough, and more importantly had all run together enough to know that we'd be able to get along and work it out if someone needed to move ahead of the group, or drop behind. While I'd tend to push ahead on climbs, and Brandon would push ahead on descents, for the most part, we stuck together the entire time, only splitting up for any amount of time on the final descent with about 6 miles to go.  If we'd separated and moved our own paces earlier, Brandon in particular probably could have finished significantly more quickly, but then we would have missed out on experiences like this:

I'm not sure why this happened, but it did.
My favorite story from this section: we were moving along, chugging down a random hill, when Brandon stopped to read a sign posted on the side of the trail.  "Caution: Yellow Jack...OW! S%*#!! BEES!!"  Hornets proceeded to swarm and sting all of us while we tried to simultaneously run away, shout profanities, and swat them off of our skin.  We established a safe distance, and waited for Emilee (who was a few minutes back) to repeat our experience.  We thought about warning her, but we were all too scared of the hornets to go back, and there was really nothing we could do to spare her anyway.  She came calmly down the hill with red welts on her arms.  "There are hornets back there.  I got stung when I stopped to read the stupid sign."  We did all learn two important lessons: 1) Never read warning signs, and 2) None of us have anaphylactic reactions to hornet stings. 

About an hour out from Mowich, we ran into Broeck, Angel, and our friend Sol (another recent trail running convert) who had come out to meet us and run back to the crew spot with us.   We ended up with pacers for the entire route (Emilee from WR to Mowich (along w/Sol, Broeck and Angel for a few miles), Jon Karlen from Mowich to Longmire, Angel and Broeck from Longmire to Box Canyon, and Scott Caparelli - intrepid hiker/cyclist who hadn't previously done much trail running - from Box Canyon to the end.)  We definitely loved the fresh energy, and all of those changes of face allowed Brandon to recycle the raunchy jokes he told the whole run.   

 Nighttime: Mowich to Longmire

It turned out that my plan to do the Mowich section in the dark worked pretty perfectly.  We left Mowich Lake campground at about 4:15 in the afternoon, so were at the lovely Golden Lakes area at sunset, arrived at Longmire around the 4:15 in the morning, and napped for a bit before leaving about an hour before the sun started to come up.

In the immortal words of Whodini, the freaks come out at night, and on this section we ran into a great cast of characters. 

1) Just after we left Mowich Lake, we ran into a couple of Canadians who were also running the loop, but in the opposite direction.  I took this as a good omen, because Canadians are my spirit animal.  "How's it going?"  "Good, but slow!"  Yep. 

2) Many trail runners have stories about being confronted by unfriendly or suspicious rangers - particularly while out for the kind of questionable endeavor that we were engaging in on this trip - so I was a bit nervous when we arrived at Golden Lakes and approached the ranger cabin to ask about nearby water sources. In this case though, the ranger, who had the affect of a friendly Hempfest participant, was incredibly excited.  "What?! You're running the whole thing!  That's so rad!  How long will it take you?!",  and my favorite, "Can I ask you a question? When you're out doing this, what kind of munchies do you get hungry for?" (I swear he said munchies.)  In a side note, I realized that as I was talking to him, I was simultaneously applying vaseline to my nether-regions without even thinking about the social impropriety involved.  He didn't seem fazed, which will only encourage me to engage in this kind of behavior in public in the future.

3) At 2 a.m., shortly before we arrived at a wilderness camp site called Devil's Dream, Jon (who was pacing through this section) was running ahead about 100 yards when I heard him shout, startled, and begin talking to some one. When the rest of us caught up, we saw that he was talking to an older, grey haired woman, maybe 65, dressed in pajama pants and a puffy jacket.  She wasn't physically injured, and being that it was 2 a.m., and she was sitting in some random bushes on top of a mountain, I immediately kicked into psych nurse gear and begun doing a silent mental health assessment.  Does her conversation make sense?  Does she know who she is, and who we are?  Is her mood congruent with the situation?  She was odd, but the answer to all of those questions was "Sort of".

The story she told was believable (if strange and unfortunate).  She was hiking the Wonderland with a friend, and they had gotten separated earlier in the day and so she was on her own.  At nightfall she had turned on her flashlight, but it had died, and she wasn't able to see the trail.  She stumbled off trail, and fell into a creek, such that her clothes had gotten wet and she wasn't able to get herself out of the water with her pack on, and now her pack and sleeping bag were both wet and still in the creek.  She hadn't been able to see the trail in the dark, so had stopped for the night to hole up in a sheltered area in a bush.  We'd happened to run by and she caught our attention by shouting at Jon.

Weird, but you can understand how something like that could happen.  The strangest thing about the situation was her friend, though (another 65-ish year old woman).  The woman had plopped down in bushes less than a mile from her camp site, so we shared our lights and warm gear to help her get there to meet up with her friend.  When we arrived, the friend seemed completely unfazed, like this kind of thing happens all the time.  "Oh yeah, I figured you were camped out somewhere."  When the bush lady told her friend the story about her gear being in the creek, she said, "Well, I don't have enough room to share my sleeping bag."  And we determined that it hadn't even crossed her mind to go looking for her friend when she didn't show up after dark.  (She would have found her if she'd taken even a 10 minute walk up trail.) The friend was being completely unhelpful, so we gave bush lady a warm hat and emergency blanket so we could carry on our way with confidence that her friend wouldn't let her die in the cold.    

My theories: either the friend was trying to sabotage bush lady and was disappointed that we'd brought her back, or the two were really committed and terrible scam artists who hang out in bushes in isolated locations in hopes of grifting hikers out of $5 emergency blankets.

(Update: in a strange twist of karmic balancing, today I received a free emergency blanket in the mail from the Washington Trails Association). 

Day 2: Longmire to White River

We arrived at the Longmire crew point at about 4:30 am, greeted by cheers and cowbells and crew who were clearly just as committed and tired as we were.  Here's what we 4:30 looks like:

I came real close to barfing up that pizza a few minutes after this photo
Jon pretty quickly crashed out in his truck:

And I took a 15 minute nap/opportunity to drool all over Angel's sleeping bag:

After about an hour at the crew point, we got moving on the final section, which was (in my opinion), the most beautiful. Personally, I was in pretty good spirits because I was feeling physically tired, but not injured in any worrying way.  The nap had helped, and we were still moving along well, at the upper end of the pace that I thought we might go.

If you haven't done a long run like this, an important thing to know is that in the middle, you always think you are going to finish in less time than you ultimately do, because the end is always slow and it always hurts.  And we did slow down significantly - we had been moving at a bit more than 3 miles an hour (believe it or not, pretty good for the Wonderland), but in the last section dropped to less than 2.5 mph (except for Brandon, who is tougher than Adam and I).

Still though, the overall experience during this section was great, in large part because we had such great support.  Angel and Broeck kept us company for about a half-marathon to Box Canyon, and Scott hiked/ran with us the final 18-ish miles to the finish.  We also had a lot of crew intersections, with Jon setting up an unannounced aid station at Reflection Lakes after a big climb, Scott and crew meeting us at Box Canyon, and our friends Kelly and Roger setting up a roving aid station on their own out and back run from Box Canyon to Indian Bar.

Reflection Lake
It was also, I think, the most beautiful section of the course.  We had already moved through a beautiful section near Indian Bar, with massive views of the mountain and a fantastic spring to cool ourselves off in, when we ran into the Canadian runners again.  "You guys are about to move through some epic shit", they told us.  They were right - the portion of the trail through Summerland was some of the prettiest terrain I've seen anywhere in the world. Really spectacular. 

Here are some mediocre pictures I took of the beautiful things we saw during this final push:

After Summerland, the trail drops down into the White River drainage for about a 6 mile stretch, and for me this meant for the last 6 miles I felt like I was almost done which meant that suddenly I was thinking about how much I was suffering and wished I was sitting in camp with a beer and sleeping bag.  Brandon, Adam, Scott and I had allowed ourselves to split up as we finished, so I was by myself, which is usually when I suffer the most.  I was chugging along really slowly, running some on downhills, but walking most flats and uphills.  I also kept seeing phantom signs for the turnoff to White River campground, which I knew should be coming sometime soon, and cursed every time I realized it was just another sign-height branch. And I made a very slight wrong turn (about .1 mile added) and ended up on a road, and very seriously thought about hitching back to camp. The only thing that stopped me was the thought that "No, wait a minute, that would mean that you couldn't tell people you finished the Wonderland because you weren't willing to walk 2 miles at the end."  Honestly though, that sort of feeling is familiar from the end of just about every long race I've done, so it was a pretty par-for-the-course type of suffering.

When I finally crossed the river into camp, I had a weird wave of nostalgia wash over, as I was passing over a point that I've been to a bunch of times, with a view of the mountain I really love.  The crew were posted up at the campground parking lot with cowbells and drinks ready to mark the official end of the trail, but the emotional finish was that almost contemplative moment of passing over the river and looking up at that big effin' mountain we just ran around.

Crossing the "finish line"

Big effin mountain we just ran around

Appendix A: Some Random Concluding Thoughts

- Brandon, Adam and I got along remarkably well, all things considered.  That's a long time to do anything with anyone, but we had a ton of fun. It's good to run with friends.

- Maybe for that reason, the whole thing had the atmosphere of another long summer fun run rather than a crazy endurance challenge.  Very high ratio of fun to suffering on this one. I'm pretty sure Adam, Brandon and the crew felt the same way, although last night after dinner, instead of saying goodbye, Adam did point at me aggressively and snarl,  "I'm never F&%$ing doing the Wonderland again!"

- Our crew and pacers were so awesome, and I'm not just saying that because it's obligatory.  They took care of us, surprised us with fun things, and generally convinced us that we were amazing and that we should keep going, despite the fact that we were often hobbling around the mountain like men three times our age.  I wanted the weekend to be a party with friends for everyone, so I hope that's how everyone experienced it!

- This is a seriously hard trail.  I think the Issy Alps 100k was more difficult, pound for pound (20k elevation gain over 65 or so miles vs. 23k over 94), but I agree with a lot of other trail reporters in saying that overall this was the hardest run I've done.  Steep climbing and lots of moderately technical descending.

Appendix B: Facts, Figures, Gear List and so forth

Finishing times: Brandon: Just over 34 hours.  Me: Just over 35 hours.  Adam: just over 35:30.

Crew Access Points: Mowich Lake Campground, Longmire road crossing, Reflection Lakes, Box Canyon parking lot.


Salomon Skin Pro 14+3 pack
Sawyer squeeze filter
Brooks Cascadia shoes
Patagonia Houdini jacket
Filthy Seven Hills trucker hat
Synthetic race shirts
Smartwool long sleeve shirt and sock hat, North Face gloves (didn't use any of 'em- crazy warm night!)
Thrift store shorts
Green Trails Wonderland map
SPOT transponder (Thanks Broeck!)
Socks (only changed once)
2x Ultimate Direction bottles (total of only 40 oz - so many water sources on the trail!)
Pretty generic headlamps
Sol emergency bivvy
Lighter, just in case
A bunch of vaseline

Nutrition Strategy

Eat constantly and eat a wide variety.  Ate a total of probably 9 -10,000 calories! Carried way more, which I always do because I'm either a bad planner or like to be prepared for worst case scenarios. 

12x half turkey sandwiches
3 safeway pastries
A bunch of honey stinger gels
A bunch of rice krispie treats (my favorite)
A bunch of pop tarts
Some Twizzlers
1.5 slices of Big Mario's pepperoni pizza
A couple of Cokes
2 bananas
A bit of ramen
A bunch of Starbucks chilled coffee
2 packages of Nutty Buddy's (tasted great but made me sick!)
1 swig of gas station apple moonshine