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

Me, Brandon, Adam at the start

Background

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.



Approach

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.

Experience

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.

Rainier
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.

Gear:

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


Comments

I'm contemplating running this route in 2015 so finally sat down and read this. :) Is there anything you would do differently? Nice read by the way, thanks for all the details.
Allan said…
Thank you Tim. A very worthwhile, and entertaining, read. Current intentions, "Do it this year". We are currently thinking early August ... any comments on that timing?
Have a good day, Eh! -Allan
Timothy Mathis said…
Martin - I forgot to reply to this a long time ago, but in case you happen back upon it, personally I liked our approach, but the one possible point of contention for others' has to do with our choice to do the Summerland section last - it's the hardest section, so it makes for a gruelling end, but its also the most beautiful so it gives you something to look forward to!

Allan - Early August should be ideal! Pretty much any time between August and mid-September should be reliably great - not sure if you're from out here, but the weather during that period is usually ideal for this sort of thing. Hope it works out b/c it's a spectacular run!

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