Timberline Trail in a Day: Flowers, and rivers, and sand, oh my!

In 1986 I was attending the University of Oregon and dating my RA (I know, scandalous!). I had hiked and backpacked and car camped before meeting him, but he was a climber. Climbing had never been on my radar as something I wanted to do, but after listening to him rave about the sport, I took a rock climbing class offered in the UofO’s Outdoor Recreation program and then he and I started going to Skinner’s Butte after class a couple of times a week to climb together. As spring progressed my second year in Eugene, he asked me if I’d be interested in climbing Mt. Hood. I said “YES!!!!!” and at the end of May that year found myself climbing my first Cascade volcano.

Me on the summit of Mt. Hood in May 1984

I didn’t climb another Cascade volcano for 20+ years (but that’s another whole story about breaking up, moving back to California, and then reuniting with that same guy many years later). Yet, I’ve always held an affection for Mt. Hood and its striking profile … and perhaps some sentimental fondness for my first grand mountain adventure.

Now, with my (relatively) new obsession with long trail runs, I’ve shifted from going UP the volcanos to running AROUND them (including Mt. Rainier in 2018 and Mt. St. Helens in 2015 and 2018). In 2018 Timberline in a day was on my adventure list, but the season ended before I could fit it in, so I shifted it to the top of my list for 2019. Fortunately, it was also on the want-to-do lists of several of my friends.

In the spring we did a bunch of research and read a bunch of trip reports, and made some plans to head down in late July. Last-minute prep included finding a VRBO cabin in Government Camp with enough beds for all of us (score!), and we soon found ourselves traveling south on a Thursday afternoon for a fun Friday adventure. Even better, our friends Kelli, Mike, DeeDee, and Missy would be running the Wy’east Howl 50K/100K the same weekend we planned for our run, so we could cheer for them on Saturday.

About the trail

The Timberline Trail was built mostly by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The western portion overlaps the PCT (and we met and chatted with several thru-hikers), and the entire trail hovers right around treeline—which means we had lots of views! Distance varies based on which report you’re reading: the Forest Service says 38 miles, 40ish is the rule of thumb, and my Suunto tallied 42. Close enough.

The trail climbs in and out of glacial-fed drainages throughout its length, and with all those ups and downs we ended up with a bit over 9,000 feet gross gain. Each of those “glacier-fed drainages” includes some kind of river or creek crossing, and there are no bridges so they’re all either forded or hopped over using boulders and trees. Because of this, snowmelt levels are an important consideration when planning the timing of your trip.

There’s a lot of discussion online about whether to go clockwise or counterclockwise, and from where to start. We went clockwise, starting at Timberline Lodge. This meant we hit the trail’s high point (at 7,350 feet) at mile 30 and one of the reputedly tougher river crossing toward the end. FWIW, we all later agreed that counterclockwise and starting on the PCT near Ramona Falls would be the best way to go. (Take that advice for what it’s worth: We haven’t done it that way, so what do we know?)

I love how nobody is going in the same direction anywhere in this photo!
Vivian’s planning sheet

On the trail

We hit the trail at 5 a.m. The sky was just starting to lighten but we still needed headlamps to see the trail.

Sunrise and the moon early on the trail

As we wound our way west and then gradually northwest, we found ourselves in a sometimes-stark landscape that for me was a bit reminiscent of Mt. St. Helens. We headed down into Zigzag Canyon and our first stream/river crossing, and then worked our way up toward the intersection with Trail 778, which leads to Paradise Park.

Early morning on the PCT/Timberline Trail
L to R: Ana, Marna, Sarah, Heidi, Vivian
Back row: Mt. Hood
An early creek crossing (maybe Lost Creek?)

We stayed on the PCT/Timberline Trail, skipping the detour through Paradise Park, and soon found ourselves at beautiful Ramona Falls. I don’t have our group photo, but click here for a link to more information and a photo of Ramona Falls. If you’re ever in the area and are looking for a day hike, I think it’s worth your time!

Soon after Ramona Falls, our friend, Kari, caught up to us. She wanted to join the weekend fun, but didn’t want to do the full route. It was fun to have her join us for several miles as we worked our way farther north.

Kari (far left) joined for several miles (and would be a total ray of sunshine for us two other times later in the day)

At mile 14+, we hit the far northwestern point of our route and turned east, leaving the PCT behind as we made our way around the north side of Mt. Hood. This was our favorite part of the trip: the wildflowers were insane; at several points, we had views of Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, and out to the deserts of eastern Washington and Oregon in one snapshot; and an old forest fire left acres of dead trees that somehow seemed mystical as they framed Mt. Hood. If you can only do one section of the trail, DO THIS PART!

Of course, there were more river crossings. Some required quick hops and skips to pass, and others involved a bit more planning.

We were soon looking forward to reaching Cloud Cap, where Kari would meet up with us again. This time, she’d have a cooler full of cold Cokes and Snicker bars, both of which were sounding pretty fantastic by then. Our last “hurdle” before Cloud Cap would be to cross the Eliot. This would be one of the highest running streams we would cross on the trail, but fortunately once you get to it, there’s a nice solid tree trunk creating a natural bridge that’s accessed with an easy big step. Getting there is a bit of a slide down loose rock and sand, and a sketchy traverse along the river’s edge.

Getting down to the Eliot

As we carefully worked our way along the stream, a rock came loose beneath Marna and she was suddenly knee-deep in the water with a death grip on a boulder just above her. Sarah grabbed her arm and working together Marna was quickly out of the water. It was a very strong reminder that things can go wrong whenever you’re out in the mountains.

Marna, in front, just before she fell in
Crossing the Eliot—note Mt. Adams in the background

Once we were across the river, a bit of a scramble got us to a section of rebuilt trail. Look closely, and you can see a serious set of switchbacks going up the hillside.

Kari had been sunning herself on the opposite bank and joined us for the climb up to Cloud Cap. Her cooler of Cokes and Snickers made for a happy “aid station” as we hit mile 25ish. At this point, however, time was slipping by and we were taking longer than we had planned, so we bid Kari farewell and started heading south along the eastern side of Mt. Hood and up toward its high point at 7,350 feet along Gnarl Ridge.

The east side of the mountain was more of a moonscape than any other part. Rocky and barren, with thinning air, it held a different kind of beauty.

Vivian, with Mt. Adams on the horizon

At the high point, we stopped to toast each other with a sip of whisky. After a long day and at a bit of altitude, it took my breath away, but added a touch of ceremony to our journey.

We’re starting to look a bit trashed, aren’t we?

Our focus shifted to “let’s get this thing done” and concerns about hitting our final river crossing—The White River—in the dark. As we headed down from Lamberson Spur toward Newton Creek, we encountered several long patches of snow. Ana slipped and self-arrested with a trekking pole, but otherwise the section was uneventful and we maintained our “beat feet” focus.

Ultimately we ran out of day, and our headlamps were dug out of our packs. We kept consulting maps and calculating distance remaining, but for a while it seemed that no matter how much time passed, we were continuously five to seven miles from finishing.

Finally we spied the ski lifts at Mt. Hood Meadows (where Saturday’s Wy’east Howl would start and finish) and we saw trail flagging for the race. We joked about being glad we were going to finish before the next day’s racers were starting, and then again recalculated how much farther we had to go. I think we came up with five to seven miles again, but I’m not sure how much of that was because our calculations had become a farce even to us.

In our minds, our last hurdle would be the White River crossing, and then we’d have smooth sailing back to Timberline Lodge. The crossing itself was unnerving, as we couldn’t see much in the darkness. Vivian plowed right through it, but the rest of us felt iffy and decided to err on the side of caution by joining arms and crossing together. It ended up not being too bad, with the water up to our knees perhaps, but better safe than sorry, especially when you’re tired and not sure what you’re up against.

And then … well, and then we discovered our last two-ish miles would be on sand. Never-ending sand. And cruelly, the trail, which reconnects with the PCT just past White River, heads straight toward the lights of Timberline Lodge and then abruptly veers north, toward the mountain and away from the lodge. I had NOTHING kind to say about it until I later realized that it was noodling along the edge of a big ravine, and therefore it made sense to do what it was doing. As we finally approached the parking lot, a headlamp flashed at us and Kari called out, “Woot woot!” and once again became a very bright ray of sunshine bookending our adventure.

Done!

The racers

The next day we got up and drove out to the Wy’east Howl race course to cheer on our friends. Mimosas and costumes, along with a vicious game of Battleship, while lounging around in a meadow were a fine contrast to the prior day and afforded us time to digest and celebrate our friendships and to offer “Woot woot”s to Kelli and Mike, who we saw on course.

Kelli (not in costume) on the Wy’east Howl 100K course

Reflection

As I look back on the day on the Timberline Trail and subsequent day cheering racers, I think my biggest takeaway is depth. It takes a depth of training and experience to push yourself, to reach into one’s own internal depths for both physical and mental strength, in the outdoors. These experiences also deepen our friendships: as we’ve reached deep individually, we’ve all gotten to know one another—our strengths, our weaknesses, our moods, what to say when someone needs a kick in the behind—and have supported and been supported by each other. While I still enjoy a long solo day on the trails, the shared journeys hold more texture, more intensity, because of this.

The trail itself holds a special place in my heart because Mt. Hood was where Mike and I had our first big mountain adventure together. That aside, it’s simply beautiful—I can’t think of any part that I didn’t enjoy (except maybe the sand at the end).

All text copyright me. All photos belong to Sarah Brouwer, Marna Kaegele, Ana Hinz, Heidi Flora, or me.

Olympic Coast Route: The hardest thing I didn’t finish

At the beginning of 2019 a bunch of my partners-in-crime got together to brainstorm adventures for the coming year. One that stuck was to do the UltraPedestrian Wilderness Challenge Olympic Coast route. As described on UltraSignup, “This [approximately 58-mile] route runs point to point between the Shi Shi Beach Trailhead in the north, and the Oil City Trailhead in the south. The Olympic Coast Route will test your logistical skills, as it involves timing tides, difficult creek and river fords, and nine miles of road to access the bridge across the unfordable Quillayute River. The Olympic Coast Route may be completed North to South, South to North, or as an out-and-back for the Epic Double.”

Heidi, Marna, and Sarah were committed immediately to the adventure, Ana was a maybe, and I waffled for a couple of months before formally jumping onboard a few weeks before the trip. After pouring over maps, tide charts, and other runners’ Gaia tracks, we set the date for mid-June.

The Route

“Olympic National Park protects over 73 miles of the some of the most primitive natural coastline in the 48 contiguous United States. The views of ocean, cliffs, headlands, islands and seastacks, coupled with the dramatic changing sea, provide a unique wilderness experience. Most of the coast can only be accessed by foot.”
(National Park Service)

The route itself covers about 48 of those 73 miles, using the shore and, in several places, overland routes accessed by ropes and dirt scrambles. Ten additional miles are road miles that are required to get from Rialto Beach to Third Beach, which are separated by the unfordable Quillayute River. In the National Park Service map below, you can see the trail to Shi Shi Beach starting in the Makah Indian Reservation and at the bottom the Oil City trailhead, just north of the Hoh Indian Reservation. An X represents an impassable headland (where the overland routes have been built) and an orange • represents areas where a low tide is required to pass.

LOGISTICS

One challenge with a point-to-point route is the shuttle. The drive from Seattle to Shi Shi Beach, where we decided to start, is a half-day on its own. Add three hours each way on a two-lane highway to get from Shi Shi to Oil City and back, and you’ve got a REALLY long day of driving before a hard trip. In addition, there is very little parking at Shi Shi (although there is a local resident who offers parking space on her property for a minimal fee). We lucked out as friends offered to help with the shuttle: a huge shout-out to Wendy and Kari, who drove out to give us some pre-adventure cheer and support before heading to their own adventure on one of the San Juan islands, and to Ana (who ultimately decided this wouldn’t be her adventure after all) and Adam, who ended up doing tons of driving to make it all work.

PC: Sarah Brouwer

We camped the night before at Hobuck Beach Resort. They don’t take reservations but have 300 spots available. We had a wide selection to choose from! At the campground office, we were also able to purchase our permit for using the tribal lands we would be passing through at various points during the trip.

With our schedule driven by the tides, we would start at 2 a.m. at Shi Shi Beach trailhead. This gave us some buffer time wise to allow us to make it past several key points that are impassable at higher tides, and would also get us to Rialto Beach and the 10ish-mile road section in the daylight. After regaining the coast at Third Beach at mile 41, we would then have 17 miles and two tide-critical passings to traverse before reaching the Oil City trailhead.

As we have done on other crew-supported trips, we carried a Garmin InReach with us and Adam and Ana carried a second. This would enable us to call SOS if needed. In terms of logistics, having the two InReach devices allowed us to communicate with Ana and Adam via device-to-device texting—super handy for when for keeping our crew updated on our progress with no cell service available.

Also as we have for past trips, we shared a multi-tab google sheet with route details and beta, tide charts, food and gear lists, etc. For this route, our route details included landmarks and distances, tide levels required for safe passages around specific points, and clean water sources. The ongoing irony with anything ocean-related is the abundance of water and the lack of drinking water!

I’ve never had a harder time figuring out where i was

We were pretty much on time with heading out, and we covered the two miles out to the beach quickly. And I quickly found running along the sand in the dark terribly disorienting: I could hear waves, but couldn’t see them despite my headlamp, and I didn’t have any sense of where I was going, how much progress I was making, or where landmarks were.

Somewhere on Shi Shi Beach. Sarah and I saw Heidi and Marna from behind a lot early in the trip: Heidi (l) and Marna (r) are fast walkers, and periodically Sarah and I would have to jog to catch up with them!

My inability to get a sense of where I was continued even after daybreak. There were some obvious landmarks—such as fording the Ozette River and the overland sections—but everything else just seemed like a treadmill with the same scenery going by. I am certain I drove everyone else crazy with my continual questions: Where are we now? What’s our next landmark? Where did you say we’re going next? Despite having my own trip outline in hand, Gaia running on my phone, and paper maps, I just never got it. It was the weirdest thing.

If you’re sleepy after a midnight wake-up call, just walk through a river on the Washington coast. That’ll wake you up! PC: Sarah Brouwer

A result of my lack of orientation is it’s very hard to write this trip report. I usually follow the progression of the adventure when I write, but all I have is a start, an end, and in the middle, a collection of snapshots of feelings, experiences, and views.

The middle: magic on the coast (with a dose of reality)

The Olympic Coast is really remote and wild—something that is hard to come by nowadays. I saw more wildlife between Shi Shi and Rialto than just about anywhere I’ve been. We watched a sea otter floating on its back and then diving and playing in shallow pools near the shore. We saw so. many. bald. eagles! plus a million other sea birds. Of course, we saw raccoons (notorious food thieves that campers must beware)—especially at night, when their eyes glowed like little heathens in the light of our headlamps. One of our favorite things was that we followed the footprints of a small animal (raccoon?) and a coyote literally for 15 miles down the beach! We never saw them, but we invented a delightful story of two friends also out on an adventure walking south along the coast together.

Talon print from a bald eagle. Sarah’s hand for scale.
Eagle on a rock
We followed those prints for miles and miles

The sea life—especially in the tide pools—was crazy. So many little creatures in a grand landscape.

Anemones and other creatures
Have you ever seen a snail race?
Happy to see sea stars making a comeback
Scope and color

The terrain was a mix of sandy beaches, little rocks, big rocks, wet rocks, rocks covered with seaweed. It was really mentally draining, because at no point could we just walk or run. Full-time attention on where we placed our feet was imperative. We also had to scope out routes as the tide came in and find our way over/under/through different rock formations. It was much tougher and slower going than just about anything I’ve ever done.

Over rocks and seaweed
Walk on big rocks
Overland scrambles
Look for these signs to find your overland trail
Walk on roll-y rocks
Walk on soft sand

Despite the rough going, it was beautiful. Like breathtakingly beautiful. The sea stack formations, the rock carved by thousands of years of waves, the forested land coming up to the high tide line. The scope is difficult to take in.

Seaweed bas relief
Peek a boo
Approaching Hole in the Wall at the north end of Rialto Beach

In contrast to all this wild beauty, on many beaches we saw evidence of the human impact on our oceans. Some areas were blanketed in styrofoam, nets, floats, plastic bottles. For a time, a large shipping vessel motored its way up the coast. We could barely make it out on the horizon, but we could hear it and even feel the vibration of its engines throughout our bodies for a long time: it gave us a little window of insight into the impact “our noise” must have on sea animals, especially those who use sound to navigate, communicate, and hunt.

The end

When Marna took this picture of me, I’d already made up my mind to bail at Rialto.

I ended up texting Ana and requesting a pick up at Rialto (mile 34ish), while Heidi, Marna, and Sarah continued on and in true warrior fashion, finished the damn route.

There are a multitude of reasons, all of which are my fault/rest on me. I think they mostly stem from my waffling about whether to go: I don’t think I was emotionally fully committed to the journey, so things I could have overcome instead became huge barriers to my continuing. In addition, my planning wasn’t as complete so I (1) hadn’t internalized the route and felt overwhelmed by what was yet to come on an ongoing basis and (2) made critical packing errors. Some are lessons learned (maybe all of them?), so I’ll share them here:

  1. Sarah kept saying it would be cold on the coast, but the forecast was for a nice weekend. In the end, it was misty and chilly the whole weekend, and I was underdressed. Bring the right layers!
  2. The challenges related to clothes were amplified by my body alternating between being overheated when we were scrambling over rocks or headlands and being cold when we were on sand. Bring the right layers!
  3. By the time I got to Rialto, I was dehydrated. I didn’t appreciate how hard it’d be to get clean water, and I couldn’t get myself to drink marsh-stained water even after filtering it. It smelled like a peat bog, it looked like tea, and that messed with me. We also wasted a lot of time following streams inland, looking for clearer water, when it simply wasn’t going to happen. Plan hydration better!
  4. My feet! Once my feet were wet, they stayed wet, and then they gradually got sandy too. I ended up very close to a serious case of trench foot, which I found really painful. Bring more socks! I had a spare pair, but in reality, I’m not sure what I could have done about this. I suspect I needed to suck it up and be stronger mentally.
  5. Group pacing. I am comfortable with scrambling on rocks, and there are sections of the route where you are jumping rock to rock or climbing up and down or over and under boulders for long periods. I would clamber along, and then spend time sitting, waiting for the others. Conversely, there were times where the others were waiting for me as they trotted along sandy beaches and I huffed and puffed and whined about my feet.
  6. Food. No, seriously, this was a duh! moment. I forgot one of my two food bags in the car when we headed out. I got really worried about having enough food for the length of time we’d be out there.

Reflection

I remain humbled by this place where I get to live, by the challenges and opportunities I am given in the outdoors, and by the friendships I share with some really amazing, giving, and strong people. I am in awe of Heidi, Marna, and Sarah for completing the journey, but also just in general because they’re amazing accomplished people who are incredibly strong physically and mentally. I’m glad I shared a large portion of the journey, and—they’ll get this—while I am sad I didn’t complete the full journey, I’m still not sorry I was sitting in a Mexican restaurant stuffing my face with chips and salsa while they continued on. For me on that day, it was the right decision.

Badass trail sisters

Javelina Jundred Race Report

It was a successful weekend in Phoenix for our group of friends: Elly ran her first 100K in fine fashion, and Heidi and I ran our first hundreds and are coming home with buckles!

It’s so hard to put together the words to describe Javelina. The course itself features desert beauty—highlighted with green grass and lots of flowers this year due to a downpour earlier in the week—and a fantastic party atmosphere. Sarah, one of Heidi’s pacers, described trying to nap at Jeadquarters as “trying to sleep on a techno dance floor but on sand.” It’s just a wild, raucous, and hot run with hundreds of like-minded and incredibly supportive people!

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In the foreground: fairy duster, a flower I’d never seen before. So pretty! Photo by Ana Hinz (@willrunforwhisky).

In the end what Javelina was to me was an internal journey—where, through the support of my husband and my friends, I found a focus and strength that I don’t know I really knew was there. You see, for the past month, my commitment to the race had wavered and waned and I wasn’t really sure why I was there. I was tired.

Balancing the demands of training, working, and parenthood (with its emotional highs and lows and with its physical demands of time, interrupted sleep, and driving—I must track my route some day and see how many circles around town I complete!) … it had all worn me down. I didn’t even have a race plan. Friday afternoon I was packing food and gear bags with no lists, just a swag at what I might want or need. I didn’t have a pace chart. I didn’t know the distances between aid stations.

Friday was full of a sense of surrealism. I was actually there, I was actually getting my race bib, and OHMYGAWD it’s hot! One of the best parts of Friday was stumbling on the Taco Shop on the way out to packet pickup. It’s hard to get real Mexican food in Seattle, and those were pretty awesome street tacos!

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Things start getting real when you show up at packet pickup.

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Heidi and I check out where it will all begin (and end).

Saturday morning, after a 40-minute drive to Jeadquarters, we arrived about 45 minutes before race start. Mike and Heidi’s husband, Bill, were checking things out and Heidi and I decided to lie down in the tent we’d rented for a bit. At about 15 minutes before race start, we both bolted upright realizing that we were “this close” to falling asleep. Yikes!

We’d decided to start with the second wave—the noncompetitive runners—at 6:10. I don’t know that it really made a difference either way, but it was so exciting to watch all the runners run by in that first wave. We headed over to the start, and it was just the most amazing atmosphere. Techno music was blasting, tons of people were milling around, and Jubilee was up on her camper with a bubble machine going and had a virtually nonstop commentary to get the party started.

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The sun came up early on loop 1.

If you’re not familiar with the race, here’s how it works: you do five loops alternating clockwise and counterclockwise (washing machine style). The first loop has a little extra tacked on to make up for the remainder of the loops, which are slightly under 20 miles. There isn’t that much climbing on each loop, but it does end up to be essentially uphill to Jackass Junction and downhill back to Jeadquarters, with either Rattlesnake Ranch or Coyote Camp in the middle.

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Let’s get loopy!

Probably because of my lack of a race plan and not having my head in a good place, I was destroyed by the time I’d made it about two-thirds of the way through loop 1. It warmed up quickly once the sun was up, and I don’t know why, but my legs felt like my muscles were in a vise. I came in to Jeadquarters—where your team can meet you as you come in and then you run a horseshoe to the start/finish, and then come back around through the horseshoe to get back out on the course—and I was … well, I’m ashamed but I was a really horrible person.  I was mad at Mike because he didn’t have my gear and food ready the way I wanted (maybe if I had had a race plan for him to follow, he wouldn’t have needed to try to read my mind?) and I was convinced the whole thing was a bust and I should just quit.

My friend, Wendy, was there and she walked the horseshoe with me. Over the past several months we had talked a few times about how, if I lost my cool, the thing I really needed to do was refocus. She was amazing and made me think clearly and make sure I was taking care of myself. So as we walked around the horseshoe, she talked me through the math (you can walk this whole loop and still be fine … just start walking and keep going), didn’t flinch at my f-bombs, and I so appreciate her!

So I headed out on loop 2, with Heidi a bit ahead of me and with me figuring I’d never see her again except at places where our loops overlapped in opposite directions. I thought about my friend Vivian’s advice—if you don’t feel good, eat and then eat some more—and I walked, and I stocked up on ice at the aid stations, and I ate a smooshed crunchy-almond-butter-on-white-bread-with-the-crusts-cut-off sandwich. It probably took an hour to eat that damn sandwich, but to my surprise, once I had it down, I was feeling a lot better. Thanks Vivian!

When I came back into Jeadquarters, Mike was more prepared with what I wanted, and the team stuffed my arm sleeves with ice, Wendy wiped my legs down with an ice sponge, my pack was refilled, and I was in good spirits. I think I kind of freaked them all out because I was on such a tear earlier. Marna may have even said, “Are you the same person?” By the way, having a crew is amazing. It’s that one time where I feel totally babied: Everyone’s there to take care of me, help me, get me things. Quite the opposite of my life as a mom to twin 9-year-olds! Thank you guys!

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Feelin’ the love … I cannot thank everyone enough! Photo by Wendy Abbey.

I think Heidi was just heading out as I came in, but I’m not sure. It’s kind of a blur, now that I look back on it. I remember that the music was blasting, and I remember being glad that my pacers had heeded my request that they stay back at the house and relax during the heat of the day. I also remember bumping into Elly, who was heading out for her loop 3 on the 100K course with her pacer, Adam, and I was just feeling happy that so many of us were there to share the experience together.

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Elly finished her 100K more than an hour ahead of her goal time. What a rockstar!

Loop 3 was probably the loneliest, just because there’s still so far to go, and the sun set during that loop. But I listened to the coyotes howl, and then I watched a huge shooting star streak across the sky from about two-thirds up to nearly down to the horizon, and I felt like the gods had smiled on my race. An hour or so later I watched a huge orange moon rise and thought, wow, this is amazing! My legs felt good and my stomach was happy, I was eating every 30 minutes or so, and life was good. As the race wore on, the “good jobs” just increased from runner to runner, as we all knew we’d been out there a long time and were stoked for each other.

There were quite a few runners in costumes, which I frankly couldn’t imagine doing in the heat and for the length of time we were out there. Some were just out for the Jackass Night Run, but some were in costume for whole thing. A couple of my favorites were Fred Flinstone, who was also at Black Canyon, and a butterfly who was able to ripple her wings through the air in the day and then dazzle us with lights outlining those wings at night.

To my surprise, I bumped into Heidi at Rattlesnake Ranch (about 3.7 miles from Jeadquarters) toward the end of loop 3. While I grabbed a piece of Costco pizza (seriously, I can’t eat this stuff in real life, but Costco pizza at that moment was delish!), Heidi shared that she was struggling with her stomach and had ditched her gaiters because they were irritating her ankle. I could relate to the stomach issues from where I had been early in the race, and encouraged her to eat. I remember being so happy to see her out there and to be out on the course at that point with such a wonderful friend!

As I came in from loop 3, Nina was there, ready to pace me, and I was so excited! From my earlier moments of thinking “I’m only here out of obligation” and “I should just bail” to now going out on loop 4, feeling confident in my finish, and getting to hang out with this fantastic friend for the next 19.5 miles … it was all just so freakin’ awesome! (Seriously, I was that cheerful, which is so out of character for me.)

I waved to Heidi, who was with her team, and to Sarah, who would be her loop 4 pacer. And then I took off, ready to go. I’m not sure what Nina was doing, but she wasn’t quite ready, and I could hear some laughter as she was like, “Oh, she’s going. Wait, she’s going without me!” But I was ready and I had a job to do, so I was off to get it done!

My cockiness quickly fell apart, though, as about 2 miles into loop 4 out of the blue my stomach started feeling off. Thinking of Vivian’s “eat if you don’t feel good” advice, I tried a Gu—which was like a big blob in my mouth. And then I was suddenly and rather violently sick a couple of feet off the trail! I was shocked and worried. But once I was done, I was surprised to find that I felt so much better. So off we went to Rattlesnake Junction, where the first of my rest-of-the-race quesadilla noshing began.

We did some chatting while I did a bit of walking on the way back up to Jackass Junction. We exclaimed over the beauty of the desert at night, and a couple of times turned off our headlamps so we could gaze up at the stars. We cheered the butterfly, and shared “good jobs” with so many runners. I’m sure I told her about my day on the trail, but I don’t remember much of what we talked about. I think the biggest surprise is that I often don’t like a lot of chatter, but I kept asking her questions to keep her talking and just enjoyed the camaraderie we shared.

When we arrived at Jackass Junction, the party was definitely in full swing. Pirates and disco divas (I was so confused!) were everywhere, the music had definitely been cranked up, the disco ball was spinning, and the drinks (of all kinds) were flowing. Oh my gawd, what an absolute blast! Nina took a few minutes to say hi to some friends while I dug through my drop bag for some treats.

We were then on our way back downhill, toward Coyote Junction. The rocky places were just where I told her, as were the cholla that had attacked one woman at mile 4. I asked after Heidi, as Nina’s phone was dinging with updates, but she had little to share. I eventually became convinced that there was a pact not to share updates with me so that I could focus on my own run. However, I thought about Heidi throughout the rest of the race.

As Nina and I started down the wash between Coyote and Jeadquarters, Nina snagged her foot on a root or stick of some kind. It was one of those slow motion, I think she’s gonna save herself oh gawd maybe not, damn she’s down kind of falls. I was so worried she’d slam into rocks or a cholla, but—after a moment to catch her breath—she took stock and counted just a few scratches. Phew!

Back at Jeadquarters, I went for a more minimal approach to the food I was carrying since I seemed only interested in my smashed sandwiches, Gu, and the aid stations’ quesadillas. For loop 5, I now had my friend Ana by my side. Ana did Javelina last year, and I think she was excited to get out on the trails again and enjoy the party without the pressure of the race. We’ve had some great adventures together, and I was happy that she was going to accompany me to the finish.

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Heading out for the last loop and definitely feeling a little loopy! Photo by Ana Hinz.

Ana was (obnoxiously) cheerful, and I got a kick out of how many runners responded to her “How are you doing? Great job!” with grunts. I reminded her that we were all starting to run on empty, but she kept up the great cheer and I think it was quite the boon to many of the runners whose paths we passed as night passed back to day and everyone’s races were coming to a close. I very clearly remember Ana asking one guy how he was doing, his response of “my feet hurt,” and her reply, “That’s because you’ve been kickin’ ass for so long.” He laughed so hard, and I’m sure that laugh gave him a boost for miles.

It was now about 4 a.m. and I was feeling sleepy. Ana kept me moving, although I did give her grief whenever she forgot to shuffle instead of jog as we made our way back up to Jackass. As we chugged along, the sky began to lighten and gradually a new day began. The birds were going wild, singing and chirping and claiming their territory, and flowers that had been closed up yesterday in the heat of the sun were now wide open and sharing their glory with the dawn. Yes, a little poetic and mushy, but I remember this one ravine just steeped in the flowers’ perfume in a way I’ve only before experienced in Summerland on Mt. Rainier when I hit the peak of the bloom one summer.

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Photo by Ana Hinz.

By now Jackass looked a little bit more like Hangover Headquarters, but they still had pancakes and quesadillas so I was happy, and I hoped the party was as fun as it had looked in the middle of the night. This race is staff with amazing, dedicated volunteers! I think at Jackass there were at least two shifts as I remember bumblebees during the day and then the pirates and disco divas at night, but I’m not sure.

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Running toward dawn, surrounded by yellow flowers. Photo by Ana Hinz.

We chugged downhill, and I started to marvel that I was going to get my buckle. I talked to Ana some about my horrible first loop, nasty temper, and lack of conviction in and after loop 1 that I’d finish. I talked to her about my progression through the race and what I’d learned and what I remembered to do. And I talked about my joy in knowing that I’d complete the journey.

Well, I think I did. I also remember being quiet and wishing wholeheartedly that the thing was just plain over so I could get off my feet. And I remember between Jackass and Rattlesnake Ana telling me just about every story she could think of about her early dates with her husband, about a wedding she and Adam had just attended, the speech Adam had prepared and how he’d prepared and how he didn’t get to tell it after all, about all sorts of random things that kept my mind just busy enough that I was able to keep chugging along.

We passed one last time through Rattlesnake, and we took a few minutes to stock up on ice. The volunteers seemed surprised we’d take the time, but the day was already warming and it felt like I didn’t have much left in me to deal with the heat and sun at this point. (The ice we took had all melted by the time we finished, so maybe it wasn’t so silly after all.) We both soon realized how close we were to the end … and then we rounded the corner and could see Jeadquarters again, could hear the music, and knew that I was finishing!

I choked on a huge sob that seemed to just burst out of me. Ana I think sobbed just for a moment too. We chugged up the little hill to the entrance to the horseshoe, and I asked my pacers to join me but they told me to keep going on my own, that it was my glory lap.

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Sobbing as I enter Jeadquarters with Ana next to me and my crew and friends ahead of me. Photo by Wendy Abbey.

I handed off my vest and I don’t know what else to Mike and Ana, and I took off for that final time through the horseshoe. While many tents were now empty, just as many were still occupied, and in every one that was occupied, I was greeted with cheers and “way to go runner!” and cowbells and applause. I half cried my way through those last steps, and then Elly and Nina tried to do a tunnel for me to run through and I hugged them instead (awkward!), and then I was across the finish line!

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Crossing the finish line. Photo by Wendy Abbey.

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A huge hug from my best friend and biggest supporter. So. Many. Tears. Love ya Mike! Photo by (I think) Wendy Abbey.

It wasn’t that much later that I struggled out of a chair and made my way back to that blue arch to cry all over again as we all cheered Heidi in for her glory lap to the finish line. I was so happy to see her get her buckle and to know that she too had vanquished her demons over the course of the race. Her huge smile said it all!

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Heidi (on the left) with her pacer, Marna. What amazing smiles!

As I look back at this experience, I wonder at the why. Is there a purpose or a meaning behind running an ultra-distance race? Is there some epiphany that comes from this experience? Are people who do this different because of it? Am I a better parent for it? Or worse for being away to do these things?

What I know is that I feel intense gratitude for all the support people gave me to follow and attain a dream. This year I did my first 100K, I ran around Mt. Rainier, I did a couple of unsupported long days on the trail solo, I ran around Mt. St. Helens (again), I went fastpacking with friends, and I ran my first 100 mile race. I am different because of the relationships I have with the people who join me in these endeavors and adventures, with my daughters who I hope see me as a role model, with my husband and his steadfast belief in what I can do, and in the relationship I have with myself. I know myself better now … I know what I am capable of, I believe I can do things I never before thought possible, and I think I am a better person for it all.

And I have laughed. and cried. and loved all along the way.

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Ana (left), me (center), and Nina after the race.

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Most of our motley crew (left to right): Wendy, Bill, Sarah, Marna, Ana, Heidi, me, Mike, Elly, and Nina. Missing are Sean and Adam.

Hats off to Aravaipa Running for a fantastic party in the desert; to all the runners I met, chatted with, or exchanged “good jobs” with along the trail; and to all the amazing volunteers who staffed aid stations, road crossings, timing tents, packet pickup, first aid stations, etc., etc. You have all touched my life.

A deep, heartfelt thank you to my direct crew and pacers—Mike, Ana, and Nina—and to my extended trail family that included Bill, Sarah, Wendy, Marna, Sean, and Adam.  More hugs and tears to my fellow runners, Elly and Heidi: I am so honored and happy to have shared this journey with you.

And, finally, babe, I love you.

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Photo by Ana Hinz.

 

As always, all words are mine. Photos are mine unless otherwise attributed. 

 

Circumambulating Mt. St. Helens: An UltraPedestrian Wilderness Challenge

Last week texts were flying as my friends and I tried to decide what adventure we wanted to tackle over the holiday weekend. Our first idea was discarded when we learned that our route was closed due to a wildfire in the area, and after some back and forth Marna and I landed on doing the Loowit Trail around Mt. St. Helens (another in the UltraPedestrian Wilderness Challenge list of routes). Then Sarah had FOMO, and then Heidi jumped onboard, and then we convinced Wendy to come with us, and suddenly we were a group of five.

Mt. St. Helens is one of my favorite places in Washington. I vaguely remember news coverage of its May 1980 eruption (when I was in high school), but once I moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2001 it was one of the first places I wanted to visit. Since then I’ve mountain biked up Ape Canyon, across the Plains of Abraham, down to the Windy Ridge Visitor Center, and back several times and three years ago I ran the Volcanic 50, which took me around the mountain on the Loowit. I’m fascinated by its landscape, which can shift from forest to moonscape in the matter of yards, and by its slow recovery to once again hosting glaciers up high and wildflowers, bushes, and trees down low. None of the rest of the group had done any of the trails, and I was excited to share it with them.

fullsizeoutput_3427We started south on I-5 around 4:30 p.m. on Sunday and decided to stop in Chehalis for dinner. Ha! What a mistake! An hour after we ordered, our waiter let us know we were still four tickets out in the kitchen and offered us each one small complimentary fruit cup to make up for the inconvenience. We felt really sad.

We had hoped to arrive at Marble Mountain Sno Park, where we planned to sleep, before sunset but ended up not even leaving the restaurant until sunset. You know what they say about best laid plans, right?

Anyway, we got to Marble Mountain Sno Park around 10 p.m., set up a mix of bivvy sacs and tents next to our truck, and crawled into our sleeping bags. In the middle of the night I had to go to the bathroom and when I stumbled out of my tent I couldn’t believe how many stars I could see. Seriously, it’s good to get away from the city and remember how grand the universe is!

fullsizeoutput_3428The Loowit Trail is a 28-mile loop trail with multiple access points. We chose the June Lake Trailhead on the south side of the mountain as our starting point because, at 2 miles, it was the shortest “connector” trail. We hit the trailhead around 6:15 Monday morning, with the sun just starting to rise. It made for a glorious start, as our peeks of St. Helens through the trees were highlighted with early morning alpen glow. Once we hit the Loowit Trail, we headed west to start our clockwise trip around the volcano.

We were soon out of the trees, and our jaws dropped as we stood above clouds enveloping the valleys below us, with Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams visible to the south and east. Our first boulder field came up quickly, and we picked our way through the boulders by following wood posts that mark the trail periodically. With the black rock, the tan posts are fairly obvious and make for relatively easy route finding.

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Can’t get much better!

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So excited for our adventure!

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That’s Mt. Hood in the distance

After the first boulder field, we passed the winter and summer climbing routes going up Tubal Worm Trail and Monitor Ridge and then reentered the forest. When I did the Volcanic 50, there were three separate ground wasp nests with very angry wasps ready to attack the runners. I was stung five times; I heard one woman report 15 stings! I was on the lookout for the wasps here but didn’t see any. But as soon as I mentioned that we were in the area where I had been stung before, Marna stumbled upon a nest and was stung on her leg. After the forest and wasps, we hit our second boulder field and worked our way to the west side of the mountain.

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Boulder fields require lots of paying attention to where your feet are and where they’re going!

From here, the trail winds up and down, through sand and rocks and through forested areas. I don’t think the trail is ever flat. Fall colors are coming out now, and in some sections deciduous trees and bushes sporting reds and oranges contrasted beautifully with the black and gray of the surrounding terrain.

Our next milestone came at Sheep Canyon, where the trail has deteriorated significantly since I was last on it. It now features a steep and eroded descent that has been protected with a rope and ends with a 3+ foot drop off at the bottom. We “got to” climb up the other side with the aid of a rope as well.

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Wendy descends into Sheep Canyon

The trail climbs for a bit after Sheep Canyon, and then we began the descent to the Toutle River. There is a lovely forested and very runnable section that switchbacks downhill until you near the river. The final drop down to the river also involves a rope, but this descent was shorter and not nearly as steep at the Sheep Canyon descent. The Toutle captured my imagination the first time I drove across it on I-5 and my husband described the flow and debris carried by the river after the 1980 eruption. In a 1981 USGS report, the author describes:

“The hydrologic effects of the May 18 eruption have been both widespread and intense. During the eruption, a massive debris avalanche moved down the north flank of the volcano depositing about 3 billion cubic yards of rock, ice, and other materials in the upper 17 miles of the North Fork Toutle River valley. The debris deposits are about 600 feet thick in the upper reaches of the valley. Following the avalanche, runoff from the melted glaciers and snow, and possible outflow from Spirit Lake, caused an extraordinary mudflow in the North Fork Toutle River. The mudflow shattered and uprooted thousands of trees, destroyed most of the local bridges, and deposited an estimated 25,000 acre-feet of sediment in the Cowlitz River channel.”

Fortunately for us, the Toutle was much tamer on Monday and involved just a bit of rock hopping to cross.

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Toutle River

We filtered some water here, as water is scarce for the next 10 or so miles until we would hit a spring on the northeast side of the mountain. It’s another steep climb up from the river, and then more climbing took us up switchbacks through some trees. I had told everyone that there was a “sand ramp” after the Toutle and while I had forgotten about the switchbacking section the sand ramp was still there. Once we cleared the sand ramp, we enjoyed a nice runnable section that meanders up and down until the trail finally dropped us out in the blast zone.

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The sand ramp

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Nearing the blast zone

I’m not a geologist or volcanologist, so I can’t adequately describe the events of the 1980 eruption. What I can tell you is that as I have traversed this section of trail, I have been overwhelmed with a kind of primitive understanding of the power of the volcano and how small and ultimately powerless we are in the scope of the world. I do recommend checking out this time-lapse series of satellite images from NASA Earth Observatory showing the gradual “re-greening” of the area around Mt. St. Helens and how the blast zone remains an austere place as nature rebuilds itself on its own timeline.

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As we crossed the northern flanks of Mt. St. Helens we were able to peer up into the crater. We were treated to a little bit of geology in action as a rock slide avalanched from the crater rim and crashed down to the crater bottom. At points we were able to see Mt. Rainier to the north as well as Spirit Lake and all of the dead trees that still float in it today. The rocks themselves are mostly gray and black—some so shiny black that in the distance they looked white from the reflected sunlight—but are interspersed with terra-cotta-orange-colored rocks.

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Dust from the rock slide is visible on the left side of the crater; the lava dome and steam are visible in the center of the crater (with clouds behind)

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Up close and personal with Mt. St. Helens

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Spirit Lake: the white area on the far shore is not a nice sandy beach but instead is a “raft” of dead trees that were deposited there during the eruption

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Nearing the east side

Next we climbed up out of the blast zone to the top of Windy Ridge. There are a few trails here that lead to Spirit Lake, up to the Johnston Ridge Observatory, and to Loowit Falls (which we could see parts of from our trail and look like they’re worth a side trip in the future). Once we ascended Windy Ridge we could look out to the Plains of Abraham spreading east and south of us, and Mt. Adams was back in view and dominating the skyline.

We had a brief discussion about why the Plains of Abraham are named what they are. A route description on the Washington Trails Association site describes them here:

“Here spread out before you is the Plains of Abraham, a near-level expanse named not for the father figure of biblical fame but after the famed battlefield in Quebec City. An early adventurer here saw some semblance, but certainly the plains in Quebec sont plus vertes! In early summer, the pumiced plains are painted purple thanks to a proliferation of lupine.”

The descent from Windy Ridge down to the Plains were some of the sketchiest of the trail. There’s a faint path that makes its way down a steep scree slope, and with each step the path slid downhill just enough to make it feel tenuous. We all made it down safely and were glad to leave that section behind us.

The Plains are open to mountain bikes (we saw none), and I know it well from my past rides on the mountain. We made good time as it’s flat and runnable, and it’s so wide open that the views of Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood (which was back again by this point) are simply in your face. This ended much too quickly after we passed Ape Canyon and the Muddy River.

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At Ape Canyon, with Mt. Adams in the background

Once again I had given everyone a heads up on what to expect—this time that there were ravines ahead. What I hadn’t remembered is how many ravines there are! It’s up and down on loose sand and rocks, again and again. About halfway through, we wished we had counted them so we could give future travelers a heads up and realistic expectations. Perhaps if you travel in a counter-clockwise direction and encounter these with fresh legs they aren’t so bad.

Finally out of the ravines, we traversed (with some ups and downs) through the absolute best blueberry patch I’ve encountered in the mountains. There were so many, and they were perfect—ripe, and sweet and tart at the same time. What a wonderful pick-me-up at this point in the day!

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So! Many! Blueberries!

As we spotted fairly frequent piles of bear skat, we discussed how bears actually eat the berries. Considering how long it takes for a human (with fingers and opposable thumbs) to pick a handful of berries, how on earth could a bear get enough? This discussion fed a lengthy, end-of-the-day-goofiness string of theories, and continues to entertain us even a day later as we discuss a bear’s prehensile lips. Here’s what we’ve since learned: “Black bears are efficient berry-eaters, consuming up to 30,000 berries a day in a good year. They gather berries quickly, using their sensitive, mobile lips and swallowing them whole.” If you want to learn more, you can read about it here.

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We did the Loowit! Now just 2 miles back to the car

After the berries, we entered another section of rocks and boulders, although we now had a more defined trail that didn’t require the same degree of boulder-hopping that the earlier boulder fields had. We hit a section of forest with a soft, plush trail that felt like heaven, and then some more rocks and boulders, and finally another forested section and the intersection with the June Lake Trail. It was a relatively quick 2 miles back to our cars, where we quickly changed out of our sweaty clothes and into sweats and puffy jackets and comfy sandals, and then sat down to a quick feast of leftovers from the previous night’s dinner.

Final Thoughts

As all of us have done the Wonderland Trail, it was natural to compare the two. They both go around a volcano. They both boast varied terrain. The Loowit Trail is quite a bit shorter—without the connector portion, it’s about 28 miles compared with Wonderland’s 93 miles.

However, I think it’s dangerous to compare them. We loved the constant gratification the Loowit Trail and Mt. St. Helens provide. The views are nearly nonstop, and the terrain is continuously changing. The Wonderland has long sections in the forest, where it felt like a lot of work for less return.

I think we must take each at face value. Running the Wonderland Trail is unique, and running the Loowit Trail is unique too. I absolutely love Mt. St. Helens, its stark demonstration of Earth’s power, and the opportunity the Loowit Trail affords those of us on foot to explore all its sides in a relatively approachable 30ish miles.

Stats (per my Garmin)

32.33 miles
7375′ elevation gain and loss (gross)
Total time 13:41
Moving time 11:10

In 2015 I did this loop in 9:50. That time it was raining much of the time, and it was a supported race. I took about three pictures. This time amongst the five of us we probably took around 400 pictures! You gotta come do this one … the views are amazing!

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Ravine number 982,543

All photos belong to either Sarah Brouwer or me. All text belongs to me.

 

 

 

Wonderland Trail in Three Days

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Trail Facts:

  • 93–96ish miles
  • 25,000-ish feet gain and loss
  • Circumnavigates Mt. Rainier
  • Affords hikers and runners views of all sides of Mt. Rainier
  • Wanders through forests and meadows, crosses streams and rivers, passes by lakes and glaciers, and climbs and drops and climbs and drops through continuously breathtaking terrain

Our Trip Dates:

  • Sunday, July 29: Drive to Mt. Rainier National Park, eat at the National Park Inn at Longmire, sleep at Cougar Rock Campground
  • Monday, July 30: Drive to Longmire, start on the Wonderland Trail at 6:01 a.m., arrive at Mowich Lake at 9:30 p.m.
  • Tuesday, July 31: Leave Mowich Lake at 6:30 a.m., arrive at Sunrise Visitor Center around 5:45 p.m. (in time for burgers!) and White River Campground about 7 p.m.
  • Wednesday, August 1: Leave White River at 6:30 a.m., arrive back at Longmire at 7:30 p.m.

This year’s “big adventure” destination landed squarely in our Pacific Northwest backyard: seven of us—Kari, Kelli, Wendy, Heidi, Sarah, Vivian, and I—decided to go around Mt. Rainier on the Wonderland Trail in three days. There was lots of discussion about the pros and cons of starting points and directions, but ultimately we chose to start and end at Longmire and to go clockwise. Our dates ended up being at the tail end of a week-plus of high temps for the region, and our first two days were pretty toasty. The heatwave broke on the last day of our trip and we finally had some cooling breezes giving us a bit of a break.

I talked about this in my prior post, but getting going on this adventure was tough mentally for me. Even as I was packing, I had doubts about my focus and questioned whether I had the level of commitment in my heart to pull this off. I got my answers in the middle of the trip, when I hit my “low” point and puked in the bushes outside the Sunrise Visitor Center parking lot. But I’m ahead of myself …

Day 1: Longmire to Mowich Lake

We had reserved a site at Cougar Rock Campground for the night before, and we were all settled by about 9:30 or 10. The next morning (our first day on the trail) our amazing crew for day one—Ana, Adam, and Sharon—had water boiling at 4:45 a.m. and we were packed and ready to go by 5:45 a.m. They drove us to Longmire and we took all the obligatory group photos, and then we were off. The trail starts rather anticlimactically by running along the road for a bit, and then starts heading up Rampart Ridge (and ironically taking us right by Cougar Rock campground). Our first views of the Mountain came as we crossed the Kautz Creek at about 3.5 miles.

After crossing Kautz Creek, we continued our way up. This section is mostly forested and a bit of a grind. Our first landmark, at 5.5 miles and 2500 feet, was Devil’s Dream. If you think about it, that would translate to “Nightmare” and it was indeed a nightmare of bugs. We pushed into a run to get out of there and soon arrived at Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground. Oh! My! Goodness! Flower-coated meadow. Mountain views. Cabin tucked into the woods beside the meadow. It was insanely gorgeous!

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Wendy running through flowers and escaping the bugs

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Idyllic Indian Henry’s

From here, we had about 11 miles and 3400 feet of gain to get to our next major landmark: Klapatche Park. It was getting pretty hot by now, and we were careful to hydrate, maintain electrolytes (Nuun, Tailwind, and S-Caps were our friends on this trip), and slow down a bit to keep things under control.

We first headed up to Emerald Ridge, which was breathtaking! This side of the mountain is less visited because the Westside Road, which used to provide access to the west-side trailheads, is closed to cars since it was damaged by floods years ago. However, you can still get there by bike, and I think it’d be a worthwhile day trip to ride up to the South Puyallup Trail and hike up to Emerald Ridge. I really liked this area: it’s alpine-y, with huge views of glaciers, moraines, and waterfalls, and the area was awash in color from magenta and orange paintbrush and dozens of other flowers that I don’t know the names of. There was even a resident marmot who ignored us as he stood on his haunches, pulled on a flower stem, and then devoured the flower. He was quite plump and cute!

A steep and rocky trail took us the mile and a half from the top of Emerald Ridge to the South Puyallup River and a stunning suspension bridge. Crossing the bridge was a thrill, and we all acted like children squealing and laughing as we bounced our way across one at a time.

Once across, we had a long hot climb up to St. Andrews Lake. The trail was often overgrown, which just seems to add a bit of misery when you’re already hot and sweaty. This was just one of several overgrown sections on day one.

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Heidi leads me through the overgrowth … 

At St. Andrews Lake, we encountered a family of four (the kids were 6 and 8). We were all in awe of the parents, as none of us with kids could imagine ours being out there doing what they were doing. That family and another couple were swimming and cooling off in the lake, and we quickly joined them. After the heat of the day and the long climb, the cool mountain lake water … simply utter and complete bliss!

None of us wanted to leave, but all of us wanted to get to Mowich at some point that evening, so we resigned ourselves to putting back on our shoes and packs and heading out. This next sections don’t really stand out in my mind for anything except that we kept going up and down, through the trees and out in the open. It’s about 8 miles, with 1500 feet gain and 2100 loss, to Golden Lakes, our next major landmark. The bugs seemed happy, though.

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At Golden Lakes, I split off from Wendy and Heidi—with whom I’d spent the last couple of hours—and set off downhill toward the Mowich River, trying to catch up with the rest of the group. I finally caught them after a couple of miles and enjoyed their spontaneous rap songs (with Skat Master Sarah as DJ) and silliness.

My husband had hiked down to the Mowich a couple of weeks earlier to check out the crossings there. When our friend, Marna, did the Wonderland last year, the Mowich bridge was out and it made for a sketchy crossing. Mike found a bridge on the North Mowich, but the South Mowich had to be forded. So, when we got there, we decided to wait for the group to be whole again so we could be assured of everyone’s safety. As it ended up, both forks of the river are safely bridged now and it was an easy crossing.

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North Mowich River

As the sunlight waned, we worked our way up our final 2,000 foot climb over 3ish miles. I switched my headlamp on with just over a mile to go. Mike—who had arrived earlier in the day to set up camp—was waiting at the intersection with the trail that heads off (the wrong direction) to Spray Park and offered us all a bit of a scare (since it had been so long since we’d seen anyone else) as well as a sense of welcoming, and Sharon waited just up the trail and offered a warm hug and congratulations as we headed into camp.

Adam, Ana, Sharon, Heidi’s husband Bill, and Mike had hot food and cold drinks ready for us, and I don’t think we showed any manners at all as we shoveled it into our faces. (Thank you to my mother-in-law, Nancy, who’d made my favorite chili chicken with rice. It was delicious!) With our tents and sleeping bags waiting for us, we changed out some gear in our packs and fell into bed.

Day 2: Mowich Lake to White River Campground

Up again at 5 a.m., we were slower at getting ready and finally left camp at 6:30 a.m. I was excited about day two: I knew most of the trail, loved the views, and knew that it would be a shorter, easier day that ended in burgers at Sunrise Visitor Center. Translation: I was cocky, didn’t take the day as seriously as I had the day before, and I just about trashed the trip for myself as a result.

The day started with a long descent down a stunning canyon to Ipset Creek and ultimately the Carbon River. It was along this descent that Heidi stepped on a loose rock the wrong way and was suddenly sliding off the trail. Those things always happen so quickly, and luckily she slid into a tree which stopped her downhill progress. It was a good reminder that things can and do happen on the trails!

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Mowich Lake in the morning

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Looking down-canyon

Once we hit the Carbon River, we were on known territory for me. A few years ago, Mike and I rode our mountain bikes up the Carbon River Road to Ipset Creek Campground and then hiked up to the snout of the Carbon Glacier. It was fun to revisit those memories as I ascended the same way. Once we passed Mike and my previous turnaround point, we were back again in unknown territory until we reach Old Desolate above Mystic Lake.

Eager to make progress on this shorter day (I really really wanted to get into camp early and take a nap!), I charged ahead, ignoring my watch chimes that I have programmed to remind me to eat, drink, and take electrolytes routinely. This section ascends just under 2000 feet over 3ish miles, and it becomes another one of those breathtakingly beautiful places along the Wonderland Trail. Without a doubt, Moraine Park—with Moraine Creek, wildflowers, and incredible views of the Mountain—was a highlight.

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Mt. Rainier towers above us in Moraine Park

At Mystic Lake, we all needed to refill our water and then we were off again. We had been hearing from backpackers going the opposite direction that the crossing at the Winthrop Creek was bad and that we should get there as early as possible. We also heard that a man had been washed off the log bridge the day before and had died. His teenaged son had run for help, and that morning helicopters had been out searching for the body. This news definitely affected our outlooks. This was the second person to die in a river crossing in the past five days (there would be one more we’d learn about later), and we were definitely concerned.

Over the 2 miles from Mystic to the Winthrop, we powered on … hoping we would arrive before the day’s warmth increased the river’s levels too much. But when we got there, we not only found the river pouring over parts of the bridge in waves, we also encountered a ranger who strongly advised against crossing. While we debated our course of action and looked at the bridge, we literally watched the water level rise. The water was so forceful that we could hear boulders rolling underwater. It seemed possible that we would have to turn back and give up on our trip. There was a work crew on the other side of the river, and they were there to install a railing to make the crossing safer. However, it would be a wait before they could complete the work. The ranger advised to wait an hour, and we could see where things stood with the bridge improvements.

As we waited, the day continued to warm and my earlier “Sunrise-or-bust” attitude started to tear me apart. I grew hotter and I started not to feel well. There are so many things I could have done during this hour, and in retrospect they’re obvious (hydrate, eat, find shade and a cooler place). But, I was frustrated about the bridge situation, I was a little scared, and I just wanted to keep going. In other words, I wasn’t thinking well.

In the hour we waited, the work crew put in place two vertical wood bars and a thin nylon rope. At this point, they said that we could make our own decision about whether to cross, but it was an adult decision that would be made by informed adults. They said they would give us each a life vest from their gear, but that the thin nylon rope and the life vest were no guarantees of our safety: the rope would probably break if we fell and our heads would probably be bashed by rocks before the vests could save us. Cheery thoughts.

After some discussion, most of us felt confident about going, but not everyone. The rangers told us we could wait another 3 hours for them to finish the bridge in order to be safer. Another group conference later, we remained split and agreed those of us who were ready to cross would, and if the remaining group members weren’t comfortable they’d wait the 3 hours and cross later.

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Work commences on the bridge over the Winthrop Creek

Ultimately, all of us crossed. It was unnerving—because the water was so brown from the silt is was carrying, when the waves of water crossed the bridge I’d lose sight of my feet and the bridge itself. However, I didn’t feel any force from the water and it was actually a relatively easy crossing. My thoughts remain with the man who died and especially with his son, who witnessed everything. The mountains are serious business.

After the Winthrop, you traverse gently up and down to Granite Creek and then ascend several hundred feet through forest. Topping out affords views of Skyscraper Mountain, Mount Fremont, the valleys down to Grand Park, and the Burroughs. There are no words.

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Kelli topping out from the climb above Granite Creek

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The breathtaking traverse out of Berkeley Park toward Frozen Lake and Sunrise

After the climb, everything caught up with me. I walked the rest of the way to Sunrise, trailing behind the group. Vivian kept an eye on me, and cheerfully announced each new spectacular view. I responded with a miserable, “I don’t care.” Just as we arrived at the parking lot of Sunrise Visitor Center, my stomach called BS and I puked up the little that was left in my stomach into the bushes. I then ran to the bathroom to take care of the other side of things. Ugh. From there, I dragged into the Visitor Center and promptly inhaled a hamburger, two bags of popcorn, and two sodas.

From Sunrise to White River is 3 downhill miles. They were some of the longest, most demoralizing miles of my life. I was frustrated with myself for mistakes over the day. My right IT band was tight and my knee hated every step. My feet were hot and sore and felt blistered. It was clear to me that my trip was up. There was no way I was going to be able to continue the next day.

At camp Wendy and I conferred. She was suffering from a swollen foot and blistering, and had realized during those same long 3 miles that her trip was up. I shared my own situation, and I think we both were in the same state of mind.

I went to bed resigned to failure. Mike encouraged me to make the call the next morning, and see how I felt after a night’s sleep. I took some Advil and drank a bottle of water. I then slept like the dead until I woke up at 4 a.m. to go to the bathroom. Then I drank another bottle of water and went back to sleep. When my alarm rang at 5 a.m., I drank another bottle of water.

Day 3: White River to Longmire

The night before, our friends Elly, Angel, and Tim had arrived to replace Ana and Adam and supplement Sharon, Mike, and Bill as crew, cheer, and support. Our friends are the best!

After that bottle of water at 5 a.m., I decided to give the last leg of the trip a try. I dressed, forced down food and changed out my day three food bag to include a quart-sized baggy of chips. I also ate a bunch of chips. Clearly salt was still high on the body-needs-this list. I talked to Wendy, who was limping through camp in her flip-flops, and I felt terribly for her. As for me, I left camp queasy, uncertain, and determined.

Our day started with crossing the White River just outside camp. Here, the river had carved a new channel the day before, and we had to rock hop and finally just walk through the water to get to the bridge over the main channel. This bridge also was partly submerged, so feet that had made it across the first channel dry now got to get wet anyway. This was a big deal because our feet were feeling the miles and keeping them happy was a priority. Oh well.

Our first destination would be Summerland, a long-time favorite of mine. Basically, everything between Summerland and Indian Bar are part of what I consider heaven on earth—beautiful meadows, high alpine ecosystems, stellar views of the Mountain! Elly, Angel, and Tim quickly caught up with us, and it made for cheery conversation to catch up with them.

At Panhandle Gap—the highest point on the Wonderland at 6800 feet—we toasted with a few sips of whisky. Angel, Tim, and Elly headed back down toward Summerland and their cars, and we headed onward.

The first time I did the climb out of Indian Bar, it kicked my butt. I was totally demoralized by this “uphill-downhill” which noodles along a ridge and provides way too many false summits. Since then, I always know what I’m in for, and I warned everyone else in advance. About halfway through the climb, we bumped into another woman, Rachel, who was also doing the Wonderland in three days, but she was solo on her trek. We invited her to join us, but she cheerfully shook her head and later passed us at a nice clip. Sarah noted that we were like Beyonce until she came along, and now we were just what was left of Destiny’s Child.

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Taking the stairs up out of Indian Bar

We finally hit the descent to Nickel’s Creek, and moaned about our feet as we worked our way downhill. I asked if anyone would mind stopping at the creek so I could soak my feet in the cold water, and everyone was onboard with that idea! When we arrived, Rachel was soaking her feet in the creek and she shared that two humongous blisters were troubling her. She also shared that she was the first person the teenaged boy had found after his father was swept into Winthrop Creek, and that it continued to weigh heavily on her mind. This time when we invited her to join us, she jumped at the offer, and we were once again a group of seven.

At Box Canyon, we marveled at all the people and cars and used flush toilets and washed our hands with soap and water. I love how luxuries and civilization are a shock after just a couple of days on the trail. We then headed off toward our last climb of the trip. We’d descend to the bottom of Stevens Canyon and then ascend to Reflection Lakes near Paradise. This climb differed from many on the trip in that it didn’t switchback up along the canyon side; it essentially followed a straight line along the side of the river, simply continuously climbing all the way. At one point, it crosses a creek and then ascend an evil set of stairs. Perhaps two-thirds of the way up out of the canyon, there’s a wash out that makes for a bit of a spicy eighth of a mile.

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Sarah, Kari, and Kelli taking very careful steps

We popped out on the road and felt a sense of dislocation with the sudden change of scenery, but quickly returned to the forest for more climbing. And then suddenly we were at Louise Lake! Our climbing was essentially done!

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Mt. Rainier and Louise Lake

In another half mile, we arrived at Reflection Lakes. There, Elly was waiting to accompany us the final 5 miles back to Longmire. She gave each of us a wonderful hug, and seriously it was like a smile in my soul!

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Kari and Elly … and perhaps another shot of whisky

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Feet up whenever there’s an opportunity (plus Sarah considers hitching a ride for those last few miles)

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OMG—what a happy sight to see!

The final descent along the Paradise River is a treat. The trail is relatively smooth, it’s not too steep, it’s all downhill, and it’s the homestretch. I ran most of this on my own … behind Elly, Kari, Sarah, Heidi, and Kelli and ahead of Vivian and Rachel. My feet were screaming at me, causing me to occasionally stop and flex them and breathe, but I felt strong. I—and the others—had been very attentive to our hydration, food, and electrolytes all day and it had paid off. In fact, I don’t think any of us have peed during a day on the trails as much as we had that day.

This final solo stretch was an important time for me. I spent a lot of that time reflecting on the journey, on what I had learned about myself and about my friends, on what I could do to be a better group member and person, on the giving and supportive friends and spouses who contributed to our trip, to our friends who did not start or could not finish, to my children who waited at home for me. I wish I had some definitive, trademarkable bit of wisdom to share, but I don’t. I simply know that I am blessed. My trip would never have happened if it were just me out there, alone and without purpose. My family, my husband, and my friends give me purpose and direction, and I love them. I can only strive to give back to them as they give to me.

The Wonderland Trail: Wrap-Up

When I was in my 20s, I went on two backpacking trips with my brother, Rob, and his friend, Kip, in the High Sierras of California. After those trips, I learned of the Wonderland Trail and tried to talk them into doing it with me. It’s been so long that I don’t remember why that trip never came together. But it was always there, in the back of my mind.

In recent years, I’ve covered the section along the Carbon River to the Carbon Glacier, the section between Frying Pan Creek Trailhead and Box Canyon five times, and the section from Sunrise to Mystic Lake. Each time, I’ve wanted to see more, experience more, of this wonder: a trail that goes around Mt. Rainier, that shows off its volcanic nature as well as its meadows and forests and glaciers. A trail that would challenge me mentally and physically. A trail that would overwhelm my senses with its grandeur. A trail that could be cruel and giving. I found it all.

Thank Yous

The people you do things with flavor your experiences. The right people enhance the experience and make each moment bigger, better, and simply more fun. And some people give of themselves to be your crew, to help make it happen for you. You guys are all the BEST!

Crew

  • Mike Maude
  • Ana and Adam Hinz
  • Bill Flora
  • Sharon Hendricks

Runners

  • Kari Vigerstol
  • Heidi Flora
  • Kelli Taylor
  • Sarah Brouwer
  • Wendy Abbey
  • Vivian Doorn

Planners, Beta Givers, and Cheer Givers

  • Meredith Wells
  • Marna Kagele
  • Elly Searle
  • Angel and Tim Mathis

All photos copyright Sarah Brouwer and me. All text copyright me. Love to all!

Cowiche Birthday Party

My friend, Will Run for Whisky (aka Ana), and I have birthdays that are one day apart, so we decided to invite a bunch of friends to join us for a birthday run. Since pretty much everybody is tired of wet feet and rain, we decided to head to Yakima—on the east side of the Cascades—and Cowiche Canyon for some desert landscape and dry trails.

Fortunately, we have really cool and awfully nice friends, and despite the 2-1/2 hour drive (each way) a big crew ended up showing up for the party.

Kelly W., who is a master at making all occasions festive, gave And and me sombrerito headbands and sombrero-sparkle-bead necklaces since we were the birthday girls. We had a couple of mountain bikers and then folks wanting everything from 6–8 to 16 miles and after trying to figure out a route, we just decided to run. Once again I forgot my Garmin—seems to be a trend since Black Canyon—and we set out.

It was a joy to run on dry trails and to even see spring flowers polka-dotting the grasses and sage brush.

One problem/benefit of deciding to “just run” is that I promptly got us semi-lost. As I took out my map and tried to figure out how to get down into Cowiche Canyon itself, Kelly announced another feature of our party: it was piñata time! Ana and I tried punching it and hitting it with a rock, but that little guy was tough! We resorted to tearing off its legs, and everyone scrambled for the candy.

We found our way down into the canyon and headed our way upstream. The canyon itself is just a few miles long, but has ancient basalt columns on one side and some kind of andesite formations on the other. (We actually did stop and read an information sign that had pictures and everything.) At the end of the canyon, we decided to explore some more and we headed back up and found another trail system that wound around and around and around. We put Tim of Boldly Went Adventures in front to get us back to the canyon, and sure enough we got to have an adventure as he picked up a deer trail (or something similarly unmaintained and fairly indistinct). He had a good sense of direction, though, and we eventually got back to the trail we had come up. From there, it was back downstream, and then back up to where we started.

Oh—and why the sombrero theme? Because after our run we headed to Yakima proper and feasted on James Beard award-winning tamales. Yum!!

I’m still loving these little adventure “jaunts,” but I’ve got a training plan that will kick into gear after my kids’ spring break and will be logging more time on longer trails soon. And I’m happy to report that I’m looking forward to it.

Post script and pretty much totally unrelated except it happened on this trip: On my way home, I stopped at a McDonalds to use the restroom. Sadly, this guy was hanging out at the door begging for food. I’ve never seen a duck do that before, aside from at duck ponds where people throw them bread. It was kind of surprising to have him just walk up to my feet and stare at me when I walked outside.

 

Race Report: Black Canyon 100K

The Black Canyon Ultras—put on by Aravaipa Running, which also hosts the ultra party known as Javelina Jundred—offers 60K and 100K courses through the desert paralleling I-17 just north of Phoenix in Arizona. While it has a net elevation loss (total loss about 9,000 feet and total gain around 7,000 feet), much of the climbing is in the second half.

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Image (c) Aravaipa Running

In the past two years, the weather has been extreme—with heat afflicting runners in 2016 and cold, wind, and rain causing a course reroute and reportedly miserable conditions in 2017. This year was perfect, with a high around 70°F and mostly sunny skies all day.

I was lucky to have Mike and the girls as my crew. They all got up at 5 a.m. to drive me to the race start and then spent the day driving around to meet me at the Bumblee Bee Ranch, Black Canyon City, and Table Mesa aid stations and, of course, at the finish.

Aid Station Cumulative Mileage Segment Length
1. Antelope Mesa 7.3 7.3
2. Hidden Treasure Mine 12.5 5.2
3. Bumble Bee (crew) 19.2 6.7
4. Gloriana Mine 23.7 4.5
5. Soap Creek 31.2 7.5
6. Black Canyon City (crew) 37.4 6.2
7. Cottonwood Gulch 46.2 8.8
8. Table Mesa (crew) 50.9 4.7
9. Doe Spring 58.6 7.7
10. Finish 62.2 3.6

If you’ve read some of my recent posts, you know that I’ve struggled in longer distances. To prepare for this event, I spent a fair amount of time working through Sage Rountree’s race plan “questionnaire,” thinking about how I would approach this race. One of the questions is, “List three training workouts where you learned something about your mental/physical abilities,” and this one question ended up being invaluable as I faced a few (inevitable) tough spots during the race. Here’s my list:

  1. Owyhigh Loop: I can keep going even after throwing up. (I didn’t throw up, but I attribute that to number 2, below.)
  2. Grand Canyon: I need to take care of issues as soon as they crop up. (Issues cropped up, but I didn’t panic and took care of them early.)
  3. Bridle Trails: Mantras really work, especially when I add F words to them! (I actually didn’t need this that much—but I was happy to know I could use it when I needed to.)

Segment 1: Start to Bumble Bee Ranch Aid Station—miles 0 through 19.2

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Just before the start—dawn at Mayer High School

The run starts at Mayer High School with a lap around the track. Mike was there to see me off, the girls were sleeping in the car, and I was thinking about how weird it was to know absolutely nobody at a race. Then, about a third of the way around the track, I saw my friend, Gretchen (who was there to pace a friend of hers later in the day), and with a cheer and a hug I continued my very slow ultra-shuffle around the track.

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Slowest lap around a track ever!

We were then off through a couple of local neighborhood streets and into the desert. There were some easy uphills on dirt roads and I appreciated everyone who immediately started walking them. It’s so hard to be patient and conservative at the beginning of a race, but group solidarity helped a lot.

In short order we hit the official Black Canyon Trail trailhead; we’d remain on the trail for the remainder of the day. For a while we were out on what I’d describe as open plains, rolling gently, mostly on double track. Then, a quick turn, and the promised downhill kicked in with fun-to-run but almost always rocky singletrack. We’d occasionally pop back out onto dirt roads briefly, and then make another turn onto more singletrack.

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I remember the first aid station—Antelope Mesa—where my strategy (thank you, Heidi Flora) of keeping a flask prefilled with Tailwind powder in the back pocket of my pack made for a quick refill and transition back onto the trail, but oddly I don’t remember the next aid station at Hidden Treasure Mine at all. Regardless, as I neared Bumble Bee, I was excited to see my family and had mapped out what I wanted/needed in the transition.

Bumble Bee might just be my favorite aid station from any race to date: it’s a ranch, and as you come in you see the windmill that is featured in the race logo, you cross a nice open lawn, and everyone’s hanging out in an open, covered picnic area. Meg was holding up a sign with my face (long story that I just don’t know if I could do justice to, so suffice to say I knew my friends back home were there with me in spirit as soon as I saw it), Mike helped me with my transition, I ate some potato chips and salted potatoes, and was ready to head back out. I did decide to change my shoes here since I was getting a worrisome hot spot on my right foot: I’ve had some problems finding the perfect shoes since my previous ones were redesigned and no longer fit, so I’ve been switching three different pairs around for each training run, trying to figure out a good system. Since I knew this might be an issue, I had brought backup pairs for Mike to have at the ready at each crew-accessible aid station.

As I left Bumble Bee, I gave the man eating cows the evil eye, I think they rolled their eyes back at me in disgust, and that was that.

Section 2: Bumble Bee Ranch to Black Canyon City—miles 19.2 through 37.4

Initially there was a bit of dirt road and then long stretches of exposed singletrack. Our first climb of the day was right out of Bumble Bee, and it seemed everyone around me was slowing down. I was fully down with that, as the day was now warm and, for me, feeling pretty hot. We passed through many fascinating areas here—I remember going through a longish burnt-out section, with cacti blackened and crumpled along the trail. There was a dike maybe 20 or 30 feet wide of bright white quartz in the middle of miles of dark rock. At first I couldn’t figure out what it was, it was so bright and out of place. And trail markers, rather than dangling from trees, were knee to maybe hip-height, and carefully tied to a cactus or some other cranky plant covered with sharp things. I spent some time wondering if they were actually tied on or whether the trail marking crew simply threw them at the bushes and they stuck.

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I decided to regroup at Soap Creek Aid Station since my stomach was feeling just a little bit off and I was feeling more than just a little bit hot. Most of my standard food wasn’t appealing, and my stash of stomach-soothing oyster crackers was waiting for me at Black Canyon City. I sat down in a chair and gnawed on some pretzels and drank, then took my phone out of airplane mode to text Mike and let him know I was slowing down and taking a break. My phone immediately starting dinging, and dinging, and dinging, as I was inundated with well wishes and cheer from friends back home—I cannot describe how uplifting it was to see those come in. I then filled the OR ActiveIce Ubertube (aka a special-fabric buff) Heidi had loaned me with ice. That ended up being a lifesaver!

From there, the trail remained rocky. And then it got rockier. Seriously.

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There were a few rocks.

As we neared Black Canyon City, I finally fully understood the name of the trail and area. Ahead the bluff was a solid black rock: the sun reflected off of it, and it was really quite pretty. Just past that bluff was a muddy river crossing. I really didn’t want to get my feet wet and resigned myself to it anyway as I watched others plod through, but a guy in a green shirt showed me a way across just downstream, and I kept my feet dry. (Thanks Green Shirt Guy!) By now, we also had made it down to saguaro country. I tried to get good photos of them, but mostly wanted to keep moving. The one time I did stop completely, a guy ran into the middle of my picture. Ergh.

Finally, I hit the downhill to Black Canyon City. Downhill is always awesome! … except when you know it’s an out-and-back and you’re gonna have to turn around and go back up it.

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Coming into Black Canyon Aid Station. I’m behind Green Shirt Guy.

Black Canyon Aid Station was a mental test. First, it marked the end of the 60K course, so there were all these runners eating pizza, drinking beer, and sharing “my race is done” trail stories, but I wasn’t done. I tried to take it as a power anthem: you’re not done because you’re totally badass and going the full distance. That didn’t really work—I just wanted to be done and join the party! Also, shortly before my arrival, Abby had biffed on rocks in the parking lot (have I mentioned yet that there were lots of rocks?) and skinned basically her entire right knee. Mike had taken her to the first aid tent and they’d done a nice job of cleaning her up and bandaging her, but there were still crocodile tears pouring out now and again. She told me she just wanted to go back to the hotel, and going back out on the course was a serious battle of personal commitment and mommy instinct—I wanted to take care of my baby!

But back out I went. I was over halfway, and I was determined to finish!

Section 3: Black Canyon City to Table Mesa—miles 37.4 to 50.9

After leaving the aid station stocked with pretzels, vanilla gu, and oyster crackers, as well as extra water and Tailwind as the next aid station was nearly 9 miles ahead, I started climbing. I knew I had an immediate climb up what I had descended; what I didn’t know was that past the out and back there was a lot more climbing. I was a little worried about pushing hard on the climbs and not having enough for the finish, so another woman and I buddied up for the next hour or so. Chatting with someone else helped pass the time and it was fun to share stories of her trail adventures near her hometown of Calgary and talk about our favorite races.

Once the climbing was done I kicked into running again. But, oy! the rocks! My feet were pretty unhappy, and my fear of stumbling grew as my legs tired. I had seen many people with scrapes from falling on rocks throughout the day (and Mike said he saw several people at the Black Canyon first aid station getting cactus pulled out—ouch!) and I really really didn’t want to become another statistic. So, power walking to the beat of tunes provided by my bootcamp coach when it was rocky or uphill, and shuffle running through a growing blister and aching feet when it wasn’t—that became the name of the game.

The sun set and headlamps came out, making the rocks appear even more treacherous. But the sun setting brought the gift of colors in the sky, and the darkness brought out stars that were huge in the deep dark of the desert and a sliver of a crescent moon that took forever to set on the western horizon. I think my favorite thing running through this part of trail in the dark was the forests of saguaro cacti, silhouetted by the sky and sometimes illuminated in the beam of my headlamp.

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For a time I was running alone, and then I briefly joined another group of runners. One woman and I speculated on how much farther that next aid station would be—this would be a very long nearly 9 miles for many of us!—she was out of water and despite stocking up for this section I was running low. Here we heard what we thought were people cheering and we got excited thinking the aid station would be just around the next bend, but no, it was a pack of coyotes howling. Dammit! But, finally we saw it, and we were all so happy.

The bit between Cottonwood Gulch and Table Mesa is a blur. I remember lots of rocks and consequently lots of walking. I remember needing to pee and—keeping in mind Ana’s story of getting prickers from a bush in her pants at Javelina that she shared at a recent Boldly Went storytelling event in Seattle—looking for a spot well away from anything that looked sharp, and then stumbling straight into two bushes in the dark before I got my lights back on. Doh! I remember two guys ahead of me suddenly stumbling around trying to find the trail, and how much they appreciated my timely arrival and call of “trail’s over here!” I also met a guy from Wisconsin at some point; he asked if I was focused on a sub-17 and I remember saying “I have no idea anymore, I just want to finish!”

Finally, Table Mesa—and my family—appeared out of the darkness. I dropped my pack, told Mike exactly what I wanted (pretzels, 1 gu, oyster crackers, 2 waters and 1 Tailwind, nothing else), and headed to a porta pot to pee. (Apparently, after getting behind on fluids after Bumble Bee, I had finally caught back up!) And in the porta pot, I leaned my head in my hands and briefly let myself cry. I wanted to be done so badly, and my feet were just worked from the rocks. I got myself together, had a cup of ramen noodles and broth (soooo good!), and headed back out. It was a glorious moment to hug each of my kids and Mike and say, “I’ll see you at the finish line!”

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Meg’s there to greet me as I come in to Table Mesa Aid Station. I don’t think I’ve seen her yet and I clearly am pretty beat at this point.

Section 4: Table Mesa to finish line—miles 50.9 to 62

I now had a 7.7-mile section to Doe Spring, and then a 3.6 mile final section to the finish line. Oddly, I had passed a few people between the top of the climb out of Black Canyon and before Table Mesa, and again I passed some folks. It was like a snail race! Once again coyotes serenaded from the surrounding hillsides. The crescent moon glowed red as it finally made its final descent beyond the horizon. Crickets chirped. I peed somewhere off the trail again.

And then there was rustling in a big bush of some sort right beside the trail. My first thought? Oh my gawd, it’s a javelina! Now, seriously, I have no idea why that was my first thought, but it was. I quickly turned my head, and there was a cow munching on that bush. I laughed at myself, and enjoyed the rush of positive energy that came from laughter. I’m such a dork!

I ran with the guy from Wisconsin for much of this final section, and he commented that it looked like I was going to get my sub-17 after all. I was pleased, but more than anything I was happy that I was going to finish this crazy endeavor I had set out on. I was creating new curse words for every rock I encountered in the trail (owie owie owie), but outside of that I took time to look up in the sky and marvel over the brilliance of the stars, and I shined my light up and down saguaros that caught my attention. It was miserable and mystical and exhilarating at the same time.

At Doe Spring aid station, I inhaled a cup of ramen and broth—briefly stopping to eject a moth that flew into my cup—and then set out for my final 3.6 miles. At first the trail was a relatively smooth dirt road: could it be that I was done with rocks and could run it in to the finish?! Dammit, no, the trail once again cut off onto a final section of single track and I was back to powerwalking and trying to avoid kicking rocks.

But now there were more smooth sections, and Wisconsin guy and I could hear a generator in the distance. Could that be it?! Are those cheers or more coyotes?! Finally, it was real: there was the finish! In the last 50 yards, Wisconsin and I passed two more guys, and then I stopped just before the finish line to call for Meg, and they passed me as I waited for her and I lost two places (oh well!), and then Meg and I ran across the finish line together. Mike gave me a huge hug, Abby gave me a huge hug, someone gave me my finisher’s belt buckle, a photo was taken, and then I fell apart. It was a happy and relieved and exhausted kind of falling apart though!

Postmortem

My brother said the funniest thing to me yesterday, as he watched me struggle to walk into a restaurant at the hotel we’re staying at. He said, “It’s amazing that you’re in such good shape that you can hurt yourself so badly.” It’s one of those oxymoronic statements that capture ultra running so perfectly. This run hurt a lot: but it also gave a lot.

We get to run in beautiful places, and because we go far, we get to see a lot in a shorter period of time. I went through several microclimates, saw different flora (no fauna except the cow), and saw incredible rock formations.

I was able to prove to myself that I could turn my experiences, especially last year’s struggles, into lessons learned that allowed me to perform better and do something harder than I’d done before. When I couldn’t find my inner bunny last fall, I was worried—but I think I found a stronger bunny (or am I carrying this whole bunny thing too far?). I definitely found a stronger me through this journey.

And best of all, I got to share it with my family. Training for ultras often means long periods away from them. I feel selfish sometimes, pursuing a sport that takes me away on weekends, something that I rarely share with them directly. To have Mike and the girls there, and seeing their joy for me, simply amplified my personal joy and made it a deeper and more meaningful experience.

Oh, and my friends back home? From prerace notes and gifts, to those goofy heads on a stick, to a postrace care package and notes of caring, to finding out Mike was managing an all-day text stream updating them on my progress along with all the messages I received directly with all those dings on my phone up at Soap Creek—just wow! I am so lucky! Mike said, “You have a lot of friends, Ellen,” and I said, “And they’re freaking awesome!”

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Bridle Trails Winter Running Festival 50K … or, How Did I Get So Lucky?

Yesterday I ponied up to a starting line for the first time since my DNF at White River 50 last summer. I’ve had some wonderful runs on gorgeous trails since that DNF—including a weekend in the Olympics, the UltraPedestrian Owyhigh Loop, and of course R2R2R—but still feeling the sting of that DNF, doing a race (!!) felt intimidating.

Bridle Trails is kind of a winter lark. The 50K is six loops of a 5-ish mile course, and there are options for a 5 miler, 10 miler, and 50K relay too. And, it starts at 3 p.m., so if you’re doing anything longer than 10 miles, you’re pretty much guaranteed some time chasing the beam of your headlamp through the woods.

I signed up a few weeks ago, as it fit well into my training plan. I’ve done a few long runs on my own lately, and podcasts—while nice distractions—cannot replace the camaraderie of running with other people. This would be an easier way to get in those miles.

I started the day with a fun late holiday party with some wonderful friends I’ve met through road running. Every year we set aside a Saturday morning for a quick run or walk followed by a potluck of all sorts of yumminess, and then we have a crazy, out-of-control gift exchange. We all randomly get a gift, share what’s in our package, and then pass two pairs of dice (in opposite directions) around the circle. If you get doubles, you have to exchange your gift for someone else’s—even if you don’t want to. For 5 minutes, it’s hilarious mayhem!

After the party, I headed home and started getting my gear together for the 50K. So this starting at 3 p.m. introduced all sorts of weird challenges: when should I eat? What should I eat? When should I eat what? With my gear finally organized, it was off to a local school to cheer one of my daughters as she played basketball. Her team was short players this week, so she played the entire game. It was like she did her own version of an ultra.

I then headed to Bridle Trails State Park. I was there about 1:30, which meant 90 minutes of sitting around in my car worrying. I knew Rich would be there, but wasn’t expecting to see anyone else. I texted Wendy and shared how nervous I was. She replied, “Well, I signed up for the 10-miler at the last minute. I’ll run the first two laps with you.” Shazam! I was so happy!

Little did I know that that was only the first surprise of the night.

Lap 1 was the typical jockeying for a place on the trail until folks got spread out. Wendy reminded me to watch my pace (I’m known for going out a bit too fast) and had fun trying to run in the muddy parts to squish down mud lumps. Rich was out on the course ringing a crazy loud and obnoxious cowbell, which was fun to hear and made me smile. As we set out on lap 2, he joined us for a mile or so until we hit a trail that cut out to the street—that was his turnoff to head home, so he waved goodbye and Wendy and I continued on.

Wendy kept me company for the rest of the lap, and we had a good time chitchatting and passing the time. As I finished our second lap, I starting thinking about what it would take mentally to run four more laps on my own. As we headed over to where the drop bags were for me to restock on food, there was Sarah … ready to run! That stinker! Such a surprise! Sarah, who’s just back running after a knee injury suffered during our R2R2R, chattered away and made lap 3 a breeze. Sarah was only up for one lap, and I was back to thinking about three more laps on my own …. this lap after lap thing is mentally tough!

I hugged Sarah goodbye, still feeling the love, and headed out for lap 4. I ran for a while with Sonja, who also has a race in February. Wendy introduced us before the race, but it was our first time running together. Our eating/walking schedules on the trail were off by just enough that we spent the lap leap-frogging each other, and then at some point I lost her in the dark of the forest and didn’t see her again. She accepted my FB friend request this morning, so she must have made it out. 🙂

As I came back in from lap 4, I was practicing my race mantra (“You are strong! You’re going to finish this!” but it was evolving to “You are strong! You are going to finish this f’er!”). I love race courses that feature big climbs, and this course has a lot of flat—which means waaaay more running than I’m used to. My February race will have a lot of running, hence the choice to use this race as a training run, but stil.…

As I start to head out for lap 5, I turned around and got surprise no. 3: there was Ana, grinning from ear to ear, and holding out a Pepsi and a package of Oreos. Another stinker!! It was amazing, and by now I was feeling in the love of my friends and their support. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated them!

I said farewell to Ana, but was quickly shortstopped by Christy and Sharon, along with Sadie Blue (Sharon’s dog). I was starting to figure out that my friends had been making plans behind my back!

Loop 5 felt a bit longer. By this time I knew the trail well—where the mud pits were, where the hills were, turn left, turn right, over the fallen tree there, almost back!, down the hill, yay! another lap done.

As I came back in, I was thrilled to see Christy, Ana, and Sharon still there. Christy and Sharon were decked out in strings of Christmas lights—I cannot tell you what a happy sight that was!! As I took an Oreo from Ana and Christy handed me a little Halloween-candy-sized package of Sour Patch Kids, Sadie Blue licked the sweat from my legs (ewwww!), and then we exchanged hugs all around and they headed home while I headed out for that last lap.

Lap 6, not surprisingly, was a bit of a chore. Same hills, same flats, same mud pits. Maybe I found myself mentally whiny, but I focused on my mantra (which was now, “You are strong! You’re gonna finish this mother f’er!”) and felt my focus return. I found myself cheering on some runners I passed, sharing “woot woots!” and encouraging one guy who was walking that he was gonna get it done.

I finished in 6:17ish—my fastest 50K on my least-hilly and least-technical course. And, as I drove home, all I could think was, “How did I get so lucky?” I have this crazy supportive and wonderful husband who lets me take the time to train, I have these silly and spontaneous daughters who are proud of me despite complaining about my training time, and my friends? Seriously, they’re awesome.

Special call outs to:

Wendy Abbey, Rich Bennett, Sarah Brouwer, Ana Hinz, Christy Cherrier, Sharon Hendricks, Sadie Blue, all the Running Lattes, Mike Maude, Abby Maude, and Meg Maude.

And afterward I learned of more people who wanted to cheer me on but couldn’t, including Elly Searle, Callista Salazar, Heidi Flora, Kelly Woznicki, and Nina Hadley.

You guys rock! I love you all. And, I think I’m ready for that next one. I will dedicate miles to each of you!

And to Seattle Running Club and Northwest Trail Runs—thanks for a great event! My horse-loving daughter has absconded with my finisher’s horseshoe. And I had a blast.