(Former) Wonderland Trail Unsupported FKT, 9/27-9/28

UPDATE: This post is still getting a lot of traffic, so I should clarify the record has been lowered by three talented runners: first in September 2013 to 27:16 (kind of ridiculously close for 93 miles…) by Richard Kresser, then in September 2014 by amigos Brian Donnelly and Yassine Diboun. It’s gonna go under 24 hours in the next few years…

27-plus hours of running should explain — if not exactly justify — the following lengthy exposition. As I suspect most traffic will come from the FKT (fastest known time) board or Facebook, a little history is in order. I come from fairly traditional backgrounds in running (high school cross country) and backpacking, my interest in the Wonderland Trail (and ultrarunning) being the bastard fusion of the two. I have not been able to race as much as I would have liked to, running Capitol Peak 50 in the spring as the year’s only competitive entry. As with most in the M/U/T community, I was lured by the idea of a 100-mile run. I thought about racing Pine-to-Palm in southern Oregon, but neither finances nor training lined up in time, and so I started searching for some other goal to fill my fall, albeit one with lower stakes. The past five summers I have spent doing fieldwork in the tropics, which while building a certain tolerance for suffering, or at least putting up with extended discomfort, does not usually permit much in the way of serious training. This season was better than most, with a decent local summit to run up daily, but consistent and focused preparation had eluded me, and after a good stretch in the spring, I had been running a fair amount, but without rhyme or reason, and with periodic droughts during travel. On getting back to the States, I managed to log a few good weeks in Vermont, some backpacking and pacing at Leadville 100 in Colorado, and a few long or hard runs in Oregon. Inconsistency begets inconsistency, and it seemed that to balance inadvertent stretches of sloth, an ambitious project or two was in order. The race-and-rest mentality, in other words, except without a budget for racing.

One of my earliest exposures to ultrarunning was stumbling upon Scott Diamond’s wonderful “Volcano Running” website. At some point over the past months, realizing there was a legitimate chance I would be leaving the Pacific Northwest following graduation, the idea of running all the obvious volcano circumnavigations in the PNW crystallized into a goal, and having knocked off the Three Sisters with Laura Kantor as an introduction, and then St. Helens that same fall, Mounts Hood, Adams, and Rainier were left to tick. I ran Hood (the Timberline trail) early in September, and decided to try the Wonderland before I thought twice about it (at 93 miles and >22,000′ of climbing, it is far and away the most difficult of the loops). It could have gone better: I made wrong turns, hit bad weather, and fell asleep, bailing via hitch-hike after a retreat to Box Canyon in a lightning storm (I had started at Mowich Lake and was going to run counter-clockwise). The failure stung, and in the back of my mind I prepared to try again before the month was out, but put no particular date in the calendar. Before I knew it, September was almost over, and winter was on its way.

The weekend prior to my run I had put in a hard effort up Larch Mountain from Angel’s Rest in 3:34, which had me confident in my overall fitness. For those unfamiliar, the route is a bread-and-butter staple for Portland trail runners, a wonderful mix of technical trail and silky-smooth singletrack with ~7500’ of climbing over 23ish miles. Then, the following Monday, I logged a particularly good track workout — 8 x 800 m @ 2:32 apiece, with 2 minutes rest — and all signs indicated my leg speed, not my endurance, was at a peak, and that I should be hammering out 5Ks, a road marathon, maybe a 50K, but nothing longer, not having checked the usual boxes with no back-to-back long runs or full-day excursions. My legs were feeling two hard efforts in close proximity, and any thought of a taper was out of the question. Yet the loop loomed over my head and threatened to distract me from my senior thesis project, and so some self-sabotaging instinct drove me to try again. I wanted to finish the thing, damn it. And you can run road races in the bleak drizzle of late November, whereas the high Cascades were due for snow within the month (the sooner the better, the skier in me said, but still). Besides, biomechanical and metabolic efficiency transgress arbitrary distance distinctions, I argued to myself. To run is to run. I bought the food, highlighted the route on my map for the visceral satisfaction of it.

Then, fear struck, remembering the night I spent bivied in split shorts and a space blanket against the storm and the yowls of putative mountain lions, the pioneers’ devil-cats. The inevitable twelve hours of darkness and low-grade suffering. I tried to talk myself out of it. Failing that, I tried to get my girlfriend, Kate, who had endured a day of worrying as a consequence of my rashness during my previous attempt, to do so. But she was encouraging, and feeling cornered, I finished packing and bought gas.

I brought something on the order of 6000 calories, mostly in bar form. I had in addition to the food, in my pack, a SPOT transceiver (on loan from the Reed College Outdoors Progam — Thanks, Will!), a space blanket and poncho, a tent stake for self-arrest on any dodgy snowfields, a lighter, a Melanzana beanie (hoping Marta Fisher’s success at Leadville would rub off on me), two headlamps, my phone, a windshell, two five-hour energy drug-things. I carried a single hand-held water bottle. On my feet, La Sportiva X-Country shoes, which while a bit clunkier than I usually like, fit perfectly and have enough heel to hike well.

And so with this kit I found myself, following a lab meeting I barely absorbed for apprehension of it all (something about bias in gene expression?), driving out of Portland in the sunset, a quick meal at Burgerville sitting heavily in my gut, with the start of a sore throat. In true dirtbag fashion, I slept in my car, and woke at 5:45 in little better mood. But nor had my illness progressed, and so I went through the motions, no ready excuses forming in my mind. At 6:30 on the dot, I started trotting up the trail. Unlike my prior attempt, during which I had worked to run the flatter sections of each climb, I kept my enthusiasm in check power-hiked the uphills. By the time I reached Indian Henry’s Hunting Camp, with its idyllic setting and still-abundant wildflowers, I was feeling better about the whole venture, but the grim mood I began with had the provident effect of keeping both the highs and the lows from reaching extremes, of keeping a keen, detached attention to the run itself.

I had had the inspired idea to bring a pen (archival quality; indelible ink for any unexpected deluges) to jot down my splits at significant junctures. This kept me focused not on the enormity of the run as a whole, but only on each 6-7 mile stretch at a time, and let me write down my curiouser turns of thought as well — the songs that got lodged in my head, the moments of confused revelation or religious feeling. Later especially, this would have some amusing results, but for the moment, it provided periodic reassurances of a sense of purpose, helpful in such an ultimately pointless task.

Running it for a second time, the relentless nature of the Longmire – Mowich section was clearer to me, with its endless progression of steep climbs and descents, though its predictability allowed for a rhythm of sorts to my exertions. The only true challenge to the unsupported qualifier of my attempt came early on, when a backpacker offered me homemade powerbar — much harder to turn down than a commercial powerbar, as you don’t want to seem as though you are slighting the offerer, who you are sure is a very competent chef — but I dug deep and resisted. I would break and walk over the many splendid bridges and stare at the torrents beneath, and mostly tried not to overdo the effort, eating on the ups, filling my bottle at every decent stream crossing. My legs had been feeling flat from the get go, but I wasn’t asking much from them in the speed department, so I pushed it out of mind.

Mowich Lake was a real low, mostly as it was where I had camped with Kate my during my previous attempt, and coming through in 8:35 I was tired enough to wish nothing more than to find the comforts of a welcoming tent, a pot of trail-risotto. I resisted the irrational urge to lie down in our old campsite, and managed to get back out on the trail within 10 minutes. I immediately passed an overweight man urinating in the center of the trail. Real pretty ‘round here, he said, pulling up his shorts, not anywhere near as sheepish as he should have been. Yes, I replied, nice country.

I made a conscious effort to relax the pace on the surprisingly technical trail down from Ipsut Pass, stopping to chat briefly with a backpacker from Tacoma who had impressively traversed the entirety of the Olympics the previous week. I grabbed his email for verification purposes, had him snap an unflattering photo of me, and was on my way. The trail dropped further and further to the loop’s nadir, Ipsut Creek, at 2320’, and then gradually climbed along the course Carbon river, a detour taking the route along the east side rather than the customary west bank.

There is something distinctly ominous about the Cascades, a quality absent from the Rockies or Appalachians or the other ranges I am familiar with. Perhaps it is the weather. Probably it is the gloomy, scraggly firs, the gnashing teeth of glaciers crumbling into the raging silty torrents rushing to the North Pacific through the fertile strip of coastal bottomlands we call home. Climbing towards the toe of Carbon Glacier through magnificent old growth, Rainier growing larger on the horizon with each step, was pregnant with a sense of this quality, a sense of place. I reached the toe of Carbon glacier in 11:02, had “dinner,” and climbed on aching feet into the sunset, passing Dick Creek Camp, which seemed somewhat precariously perched above the valley below, and back into subalpine meadowlands. The moon was rising and Rainier spread in front of me unobstructed and gleaming, a timely if not entirely sufficient reminder of why I was there. God? I scribbled melodramatically in the margin of my map.

Night fell. It wasn’t so bad. I was alert. I was worried I would get sleepier, but nothing for it. The only way through was out, I told myself, though it failed to catch on as a corny mantra. Each time I would come across a campsite with a patrol cabin I would dream about knocking on the door and being let in to spend the rest of the night, then make my way to a road and somehow hitchhike to Longmire in comfortable defeat. C’mon in, my boy! the bearded ranger would say, in my fantasy. There’s whiskey, and a fire in the hearth! But then I would imagine the more likely response: This is why we don’t like people running the loop. And a stern glower of disapproval, reluctantly offered aid. And I would keep on moving, knowing nothing in my condition justified bailing, besides simple cowardice.

The stretch leading up to Sunrise Camp was spectacular, but rough. My legs weren’t responding to anything but the smoothest sections of trail, the Mountain distractingly overwhelming in the moonlight. My mind was doing strange things, the hallucinogenic pulse of XTC’s “I’m the Man Who Murdered Love” stuck in my head, giving ground to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies,” then making brash proclamations of love for THE UNIVERSE that echoed around in my skull like reverb-drenched guitar. It was clear the area saw heavy use, even in the darkness, the path spreading to highway-width, the gleam of headlamps in a distant hollow. I even fancied I heard voices.

The trail dropped a couple thousand feet in a few miles, taking me more than an hour. Frustratingly slow progress. And then, at White River, something marvelous happened: There was cell phone service, and I received several encouraging messages from friends. I lingered past my usual self-imposed 10-minute limit on stops, but left in a considerably better mood, and jogged a bit down to the base of the long, gradual climb up to Summerland, most of which was deep in the woods. One foot in front of the other, and onward I climbed. Orion and the Big Dipper arced across the sky as the forest receded into meadowlands, jagged shadows in the silver moonlight cutting angles against my path and the firs and crenellated buttresses of volcanic rock.

I reached Summerland shelter, a lean-to in the familiar Long Trail vein, though mostly of stone. Again, sitting cross-legged on the timber floor and digging through my pack for food, the desire to curl up for the night washed over me. It was 2AM. But I had a few cards left to play, and broke out one of the 5-hour energy shots, which tasted narcotic and perked me up considerably. And then there was music. I have always been an obnoxious purist about running with headphones, but I must admit they made a world of difference then and there, the first time I had ever used them. Josh Ritter crooned and reassured me of life and beauty and human goodness and frailty as I poked my way among the scree and snowfields of Panhandle Gap at 6,750’. A wave of emotion washed over me as I listen to Animal Years, thinking of a close friend preparing to ordain as a Buddhist monk and spend the next four years living the life monastic in Sri Lanka, a friend who sings these songs beautifully and had introduced me to them.

I was in a fairly good mood — all things considered — crossing this high, barren country. The snowfields were not the obstacle I had feared, the landscape striking and invigoratingly different. But I made several route-finding errors where faint boot-dirt paths over the névé failed to catch my eye, and lost maybe an hour all told following up false leads in the bracken before inevitably spotting the next cairn, the winding road ahead. My progress was dreadfully slow even as I began to descend again, on steep trail with difficult, bone-jarring footing. Arbitrary time goals slipped into the aether. I felt worse, and then better, and then worse, rolling in to Indian Bar around 4AM and resisting the pull of another shelter and another few moments of refuge from the night, eating more and pressing on. I was furious to discover a sustained 2 mile climb out of camp. As I passed in and out of the woods and meadows, snaking down Cowlitz Ridge, I would disturb elk sleeping or grazing (?) nearby, their alarmed bugling unspeakably eerie. I passed the junction with the Olallie Creek trail, where I had slept a few hours before the storm on my previous attempt, and was glad to leave it behind.

I reached Box Canyon in 24:12, the sun just rising. It was exactly as uplifting as I had expected. I knew it was time to dig deep, and pulling out the headphones again, blasted Fugazi for 53 minutes, dropping several miles in the 8-minute-mile range and feeling like a thousand bucks, noxious 5-hour energy coursing through my veins and somehow alleviating the aches and pains that had taken cruel sovereignty over my body. Then, the album ended, and reality returned, the Clash failing to have a similar stimulating effect. But as everyone seems to say in these things, I could smell the barn, and it was a moot point. While I had been confident of finishing since I trucked out of White River all those hours before, the record had been on my mind and seemed likely, but now it was a possibility with defined parameters. I knew the current unsupported FKT (fastest known time) was in the 28:XX range, set by John Reese on 9/14-15, but thought I ought to dip under 28 to be sure and finish in fine style. Never had 12 miles in 3-4 hours seemed like such a stretch, but I managed to hold 4 mph pace out of Stevens Creek in determined-death-march-mode, cursing the wet brush that was soaking through my clothes and shoes. My body refused to run the brief stretch of asphalt near Reflection Lakes, but I crossed the road, and had 5.5 downhill miles to go at 26:12 elapsed. This was doable. I ran. I crossed the Nisqually. I couldn’t run it all, with even the slightest leveling of the trail seeming an imposing obstacle, but I could keep my pace under 10 minutes per mile. I hit the junction, saw buildings.

Rainier from the Nisqually

I ran. I touched the signpost in 27:19:19, and that was that.

I had a woman in the parking lot take my photo, and wandered over to my car. I borrowed a dollar in quarters and called Kate in Portland, safe and sound. I laughed at myself a little wildly and stared at my feet, liberated from their bonds and tattooed in dirt and scabs. I drove home on I-5 in brilliant sunlight, south to Stumptown, to friends, food, sleep, beer, homework, coffee. I started writing.

A loop around Mt. Adams, the last on the list, will have to wait for the deep fire-dampening snowpack of spring. On skis.

Full splits:

Indian Henry’s – 1:42
South Puyallup – 3:00
Klapatche – 4:13
Golden Lakes – 6:04
Mowich – 8:35
Carbon Glacier – 11:02
Mystic Camp – 12:40
Granite Creek – 13:58
Sunrise Camp – 15:30
White River – 16:32
Summerland – 19:17
Indian Bar – 21:35
Box Canyon – 24:12
Reflection Lakes – 26:12
Longmire – 27:19

16 thoughts on “(Former) Wonderland Trail Unsupported FKT, 9/27-9/28

  1. Wow Ethan. Wow. Not only a remarkable feat of running, your writing of the experience is thrilling. I almost felt like I was doing it with you. Ha! That’s a great compliment because never, ever, in this lifetime at least…but you’ve inspired me to do some all-night adventures again. Let’s see, it’s been since I was, well, 20-something. Congratulations many times over. Love ya, the monk-to-be’s mom.

  2. Damn Ethan– that was one serious tale of badassery- and amazing writing to top it all off. A spectacular description of the Cascades. Your monk-to-be friend sounds pretty awesome, with his great music taste and all. Also, just so you know, my entire community, more-or-less, has read this description. Many people you may not know. It’s such an inspiring story and it doesn’t surprise me at all that you managed it. Way to go Ace.

  3. We finished a three day Wonderland run at Mowich on Sunday afternoon, September 9th and bumped into Kate who was anxiously awaiting you and wondering if we had seen you. Glad to hear that you made it out safely the first time and congratulations on totally nailing it a few weeks later!

  4. Pingback: Mon, Oct 8 | UltraRunnerPodcast.com

  5. Great write up and great run. This brought back vivid memories of my loop around that mountain, especially a distaste for the wet brush coming out of Stevens creek.

  6. Michael — thanks! Hope you guys had a great run. I would love to linger over the trail a bit more next time.
    Will — yes, curse that brush.
    Justin — I appreciate it. Enjoy fall in New England. I’m missing it.

  7. Wow Ethan, I had no idea there was even such a thing as this kind of running, much less that I might be acquainted with the record holder! Impressive story impressively told. Thank you and way to go!.

  8. Ethan, my legs just exploded merely by reading your account. That’s an incredible achievement! I’m planning to run to work tomorrow, and that’s about 11 miles round trip. It’s gonna be epic. I think it would take you about 20 minutes total ;)

  9. Pingback: Gothic Mountain east face ski descent | Beyond the Ranges

  10. Pingback: Leadville Silver Rush 50, 1st place, 7:01 | Beyond the Ranges

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