Life doesn’t always give us opportunities to execute better than we’d hoped/planned/expected. Friday, August 24 around 11am I had an amazing realization that spurred me on with a smile and excitement as Darcy Africa and I were finishing up the last 2 miles of the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier. It was a moment of disbelief (as we all know how hard it is to do math after having been up all night) and I couldn’t believe that we were not only going to break our personal goal of finishing in a day or under 24 hours, we were making our way back to our starting point closer to 22 hours.
The Wonderland Trail is a spectacular hiking trail that runs the circumference around Mount Rainier through the Mt. Rainier National Park. Depending on the map or guide book the trail is around 90 miles (I’ve seen it posted as 93 and 96 also) with a beautiful elevation profile that totals around 48,000 ft of change. In 2010 I hiked/ran the trail with a close friend in a little over two days and got to see the trail’s beauty and the countless magnificent views of Rainier and have loved this icon of the Pacific North West since.
To be honest, I cannot recall how Darcy and I chose the Wonderland Trail as an adventure this summer. I can imagine that on one of our many runs together we got to talking about FKT’s and adventure running as opposed to racing and perhaps the conversation evolved from there…? I do remember meeting up at Peko’s Tea House after a run a couple of weeks before Hardrock with my maps and iPad and making our plan for our run around Rainier. We involved our friends, family, sponsors & photographers in these first group emails setting the stage for a great plan. Decisions were made around direction, time to start, gear to carry, weather to plan for… Plane tickets were purchased, Fred Marmsater was hired to shoot photos… The excitement built quickly in this small group of planners.
In the weeks leading up to our run around Rainier Darcy won Hardrock, I started a 6 week road trip including stops at Karl’s Speedgoat 50k and Gary’s Squamish 50 miler and we kept in touch about plans and details through a few text messages and emails. One planning call between Darcy, Fred & I put some of the final details into motion and before I knew it the crew started to land in Washington and the five of us piled into Simba (my Honda Element) and made multiple grocery store and eating stops on the way out to Rainier. We posted to the FKT Proboards the intent of our run while enjoying lunch in a park near the airport. The first official announcement after months of planning.
Even with the best plans there is usually something that goes wrong. It doesn’t have to go horribly wrong but in all of my years race directing the Chuckanut 50k I have learned that something will come up and it really is just about how you handle it. Well, in making the campsite reservations online two weeks before everyone arrived, I somehow miss clicked the calendar and booked our two campsites for August 28, the week later. Fortunately Fred arrived early to scout and was able to land a good spot and my parents arrived a few hours before us also picking out a spot and quickly and easily solving my mistake. So, we got that out of the way, the rest of the trip should go smoothly… and it did.
We spent Wednesday afternoon preparing gear and eating. Basit kept us entertained with his appetite and stories and everyone piped in and helped out keeping the energy fun and light around the evening campfire. At Fred’s advice we pushed our estimated start time of 11am back to 1 or 2pm to adjust for running the more beautiful sections of trail in the daylight hours and slept soundly in our tents not having to worry about an early alarm.
The lazy morning was nice and we moved through gear bags, packs and food choices without time pressure. We each made detailed notes about what we might possibly want at each of the four places we would get to see our crew, immediately also noting that all of that would likely change once we arrived there. We packed our UltrAspire packs, changed clothes, ate a few more calories and around 12:45pm decided that a start closer to 1pm felt good so piled into a few vehicles to make the short jaunt over to Longmire, our official start.
Last minute nerves started to kick in for me which also brought more energy and excitement to get this underway. Seven of us would make the journey around the mountain that day and night. Two girls running, three guys crewing and two more guys documenting. Those in vehicles would drive over 500 miles to our 90+ miles of running. No one would sleep more than a short nap, everyone would see the peak light up like fire from the evening sunset, we all kept track of time and location and got to see beautiful views of the impressive mountain. We were soaked from the humidity and cooled by the evening air, we saw various animals on each of our routes and told jokes and sang songs to keep awake during those ridiculous hours that fall between night and morning. We worked together to do all of the little things to accomplish the bigger goal.
Finally starting this run was funny to me. Our small group of supporters stood around with us at the trail intersection giving hugs and good luck wishes. Matt helped Darcy start the Spot device that would track our route. With cameras focused on our watches we started the time and ran away from our support and into the trees. My first comment to Darcy was that we were finally doing it! All of the months of planning and we were now officially on the clock. My second comment was to bring up the fact that we had never talked about what would happen if either of us faltered, stomach, injury, etc. We chatted only briefly and decided that we hopefully wouldn’t have to deal with that, and if we did, we would deal with it then.
The trail was wide enough to run side by side for quite a while and instead of talking about what we were actually doing, it felt more like a one of our Boulder runs. I have a hard time calling my time on trail with Darcy a training run, because we run to catch up on life and chat about everything but running, splits or goals. After being gone from Boulder for three weeks we had enough to catch up on to make it through the first 35 miles to Mowich Lake and our first crew spot.
The west side of the loop is mostly in the trees and has six notable climbs on the profile, feeling good we cruised through the climbs, perhaps a little faster than intended and also sucked down our water supply much quicker than planned and found ourselves looking for good sources only three hours into the run. Our first stop came with good timing, but we realized that we should have probably tried using the steripen as Matt suggested in camp. It didn’t seem to be working, but in the meantime I was holding the bladders and Darcy stirred the steripen through while the mosquitos went to town on our shoulders and backs. I was trying to use my knees to wipe my arms (picture that!) and Darcy told me to make friends with the bugs. We ended up opting to treat the water with some tabs Basit gave us and had to wait another 30 minutes to drink. In that time I noticed my clothes started to dry. I’d basically been soaked through with sweat since the start, but was now starting to dry. Once the 30 minute mark hit and we started to drink again it almost felt instantaneous that I was responding to the humidity as I should. There was one more point of running dry and searching for water as we approached our last decent before Mowich. The source we finally found was perfect and better yet, Darcy figured out how to use the steripen! We were able to rehydrate and start sweating again immediately.
It felt like darkness happened quickly, the sun was setting and the sky filled with amazing hues of pink. We caught a glimpse of Rainier’s summit through the trees and marveled. It looked like it was on fire! I started singing Micheal Franti’s “Yell Fire!” and we cruised up the final climb to Mowich lake. Fred and Austin had met us near the bottom and were capturing the last minutes of daylight as we chugged like a train to the top of the climb, each taking turns in front to maintain the steady pace.
Basit met us on the trail and sprinted ahead to let the guys know we were up for soup and ginger beer. Turns out we caught them a little off guard, everything was ready, but they were not expecting us for another 30-40 minutes. We cruised in to our first point under 8 hours feeling good, hungry and enjoyed chatting with our guys who had everything dialed to get us back on the trail.
We figured we had 9 hours of darkness. We each took our iPod’s, but hesitated putting in music as we ventured back into the night. This section of trail was familiar to me once we got around the lake and knowing Darcy’s mad downhill skills I stepped aside and she pulled us down the steep trail. As we dipped down into the deeper, thicker trees I believe the hair stood up on both our necks with the realization that something may be watching us. Our verbal noises transitioned from conversation to random yells, chirps and whatever we could think of to ward off large lurkers in the spaces our headlamps couldn’t make out. At one point we decided to each turn on our music and sing as we journeyed through the night. I can only imagine what that might have sounded like had someone or something come upon us.
Not long after leaving Mowich Lake we came across a detour for the Northern Loop trail. We were confused and worried that we’d missed a turn and pulled out the maps I’d laminated and tried to make sense of where we were. Between the two of us we figured it was one of two places and kept moving forward knowing that we would know in less than a half mile. We crossed another trail sign that put us on the Northern Loop and we opted towards the Carbon Glacier and soon after came across another sign posted with another detour explaining that the access to the Wonderland Trail had been rerouted. In the recesses of my mind I remembered Ellen and I making our way through this same detour years ago. I double checked that the Spot was still blinking to note our 0.3 mile detour add-on and we continued down the trail and returned to our noises and singing.
Through the night Darcy and I seemed to take turns feeling good and pulling the pace while the other slipped in behind. While climbing I felt my stomach would tighten up and it kept slowing me down and made it so I didn’t want to eat. Darcy stayed strong on the climbs and I used that as motivation to keep pace rather than slip into walking. As night hours do, there are memories and there are blurry times where time seems to just pass and the orb of light in front of your feet is a time warp. My mind tends to wander to friends and wondering what they might be doing. I have to remind myself to keep eating in spite of my stomach and opted for a few caffeinated gels to help bring my mind focus back.
After a high point in Berkeley Park and looking down at a long descent we could see the beam of another headlamp shining back at us from the other ridge. That must be Sunrise – the point the guys were going to run back to and make sure we made our way down into the White River check point. When we finally met up with them Matt and Basit said it was like watching a video game as our two headlamps bopped down the trail on the other side of the valley. It was so nice to see the guys and to run along with a few more feet. We didn’t have to expel as much energy on noise making and as we dipped lower I felt my body come back to life a bit, my stomach relaxed and I slipped into an easier pace. The guys ran ahead to let Mark, Fred and Austin know that we were close and we followed into the parking lot to find hot soup, mate, coffee and plenty of snacks to refuel. With all of the humidity I had to deal with some chafing and we both took new headlamps to make it through till dawn.
Bellies and packs full we headed out of White River and back on to the trail. The next time we would see the guys would be in 19 miles and at that point we had decided we would switch to handhelds and try to move lighter for the last 13 miles. The sun would be up and the end would be near. All of these thoughts were encouraging. With a couple more hours in the dark we were back to our noises and singing and now added clapping to the regime to help save our vocal cords. Later in the route in this direction, there are not as many climbs, but they are more significant. The climb up to Ohanapecosh Park was beautiful in the predawn moonlight. The terrain changed to a rocky landscape and a few snow patches got my attention to ensure a safe crossing. Now closer to 6500 feet my stomach started to tighten again and I could feel Darcy get stronger. I wondered if my three weeks at sea level were a factor, but pushed that aside, because overall I felt much stronger as a whole and had attributed that to my time in Boulder and Colorado’s mountains. We kept our eyes out for the trail signs to keep on track through the campgrounds and finally started the long descent to Box Canyon where we would find our team. About 2-3 miles from the bottom Darcy stopped to use the trees and I blew my thousandth snot-rocket, which led to a nose bleed. An uncontrollable one. I moving well on the descent and I wasn’t about to let blood pouring down my face stop the rhythm, so after doing the mental scan of my pack I came to my gloves as the only option to help slow the mess that was forming down my front side. At one point Darcy, running behind me, asked to see. I turned around and her face told me all I needed to know… ridiculousness. The best part was that the guys didn’t even flinch at the amount of blood. Mark asked if it was all from my nose (gauging if I’d fallen and had a head wound) and helped me pour water on my tank top to wipe up the drying red spots on my face, arms and legs.
Box Canyon was a longer stop and as we left we justified that we had needed the time to refuel and regroup. Neither one of us were able to eat much on the trail anymore so the time with the guys was key for the remainder of our miles. We ditched as much as we could and headed back out for our final stretch. Only a few steps out Darcy noted some serious pain in her foot. Very focused and super intense. I looked to see her limping just behind me, eyes down and focused purse to her jaw line. Basit had run out with us and offered to get some advil which she accepted. Our pace slowed a bit. Looking back on the moment now, I never questioned if we would finish. I wondered how long the last 13 miles might take, but I never questioned us making it back to Longmire. I wonder now if I should have questioned her finishing on such a painful foot. At least have suggested her to consider any long term damage. But I really didn’t doubt that we would both finish. I know she is tough, I know if I were in the same situation I would bear down and try to motor through and I think this deep knowing is why I didn’t even question in the moment and also why I wasn’t surprised when something kicked in for her and I was again working to keep up with her on the climbs.
Mark surprised us along the trail to offer some encouragement and joined us for the few miles to Reflection Lake, the last time we would see our crew. He helped us think to minimize our load even more keeping only a bottle each, the Spot and the few items I had stuffed into the Spry as we cruised through that final aid point. We started passing more and more hikers on this stretch and some of them knew of our effort. All of them stepped kindly aside to let us pass and had some kind of encouraging comment.
One last river crossing and we saw Fred and Austin framing up some final scenic shots. Rainier was to our backs, but we both had our heads down bouncing from rock to rock and across the log bridge leading us to the final sign… 1.7 miles to Longmire. Safely back in the comfort of the woods the trail widened again so that we could run side by side. This is the moment I looked at my watch and saw that it was 11am and felt the surge of adrenaline cause goosebumps on my arms and legs. Not only would we be under 24hours we were closer to 22. We didn’t pick up the pace, but we kept running steady. The trail was smooth and mostly downhill, Darcy started to recognize a few landmarks from her little warm up run on Wednesday and when we finally rounded the last bend to the sight of our crew, my parents and cameras Darcy reached for my hand to finish the final yards together. Both smiling and even laughing at how well this had all turned out. Better than Expected.