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Running the Wonderland Trail

Mid-drive out to Portland, Oregon; the Plain 100 was canceled. Fires had spread into the course, and the event was off. My body was still tired from the John Muir Trail FKT, so was I relieved? Strangely no. I wanted to squeeze another hundred-mile effort and a sleepless night into my summer. But now that seemed like it wouldn’t happen.

But out of nowhere, another runner sent me a message, “Do you want to just run the Wonderland Trail?” I thought about taking the race cancellation as a sign from a higher power to take some time off and recover properly, but I sent back “Yes” before I overthought it. Locked and loaded with a fresh goal, I finished the drive out to visit my parents.

Mt. Rainier in all its glory

Mt. Rainier in all its glory

We had never met before. Rachel basically wins every race she starts, and I basically never race. So… same. It would be a good story either way. But signing on to over 24 hours of running with someone you have never met is always interesting. Had I done it before? No, but I’m guessing it is always interesting. I had no expectations for speed, pace, time, and style—simply ready to go with the flow and hopefully enjoy the experience.

Living near Mt. Rainier in 2013 sparked a desire to do the Wonderland Trail, but I had never actually gone out and done it. Now, it was a spur-of-the-moment adventure.

Rachel woke up at 3:30 am for her flight to Seattle. It was not the ideal schedule considering we would be skipping the following night of sleep, but it is what she had to work with. I drove to Tacoma and picked her up because I struggle to say no to strangers. It was time for the first impressions.

I am one of those strange introverts who can occasionally be outgoing, and she seemed to be one of those extroverts who is not occasionally antioutgoing. There would probably be little silence on the run, so I decided to leave my headphones in the car. With the first impression done, the plan to run around Mt. Rainier with someone totally unknown continued.

We zipped up to Longmire, Rachel took a nap by making herself right at home in the back of my car, and I just ambled around… having apparently given my car to a stranger. She woke up at 4:30, and we packed up our gear. Well, I packed up my gear. Rachel had left most of her stuff in Los Angeles, so her bag was a medley of borrowed items and freshly purchased equipment from REI. It would be enough to get us around the mountain… probably.

At 4:53 pm, Rachel was ready to go. At 5:53, I was ready to go, and we began our Anti-Counter-Clockwise adventure around the tallest mountain in the cascade range.

running the wonderland trail from Longmire

running the wonderland trail from Longmire

Coming from different backgrounds—I had no background, and Rachel has been running ultramarathons for ten years—our paces had some cooperating to do. Having never done the trail and being a little cautious still coming off a 220-mile FKT effort, I tried to be conservative out of the gate. I made us a little slower than we could have been, but I was hoping to feel good for all hundred miles, not just look impressive for a couple of hours. We quickly fell into a rhythm, and the nerves dissipated.

The route was beautiful but never flat. A fact my dad was sure to tell me before I started. “Listen son, your mother and I have done the Wonderland Trail, and it is never flat,” is how I pretend he told me, although it was likely slightly less dramatic.

The sun set as we passed Indian Henry Patrol Cabin. It was going to be a cold night. The moisture hung in the air and quickly covered our clothes. Clouds of the Pacific Northwest encapsulated us. Wind on the top of each rise bit through the layers, but the night was spectacular. Far away, lights of civilization poked through the darkness and offered the only context of how remote we were. Our headlamps provided the only spot of visibility as we worked our way along the rocky terrain. It was fantastic.

There is something special about running through the night. It feels so unique. It breaks the circadian rhythm and the generally accepted time to go running. I like being a rule breaker, and simply running through the night can scratch the itch!

We saw frogs, millipedes, and mice. Our feet stayed dry, and we consumed such a disproportionate amount of calories that we began to worry that we may not have packed enough food… but there was no going back now.

So what was our style for two people who just met and didn’t know anything about each other? Well, we talked the entire time. I asked a lot of questions, and Rachel provided a lot of responses and then asked a lot of questions. It was very similar to normal conversations that people have.

We dropped all the way down to the South Mowich River. Then the warnings about the upcoming climb began. Rachel had done the Wonderland Trail twice before, and the ugly climb up to Mowich Lake was living rent-free in her mind. I love climbing and uphill, so I was ready to embrace it. Well, I was ready to enjoy it until I stubbed my toe on a rock and then rolled my ankle. It was my poorest five-minute showing of the trail, and a few expletives snuck out.

In our tired and depleted state of 25 miles into a 100-mile trail, we adopted the very complex and unique technique of complaining our way up the hill. It gave us an outlet for the frustration of a relentless and never-ending ascent, and it gave me a subtle way to complain about my stubbed toe. It would not be our only time using this technique.

Mowich Lake (Mowich means deer, which I learned while ambling around while a squatter was in my car) was very confusing. There were tents scattered throughout the campground and several trails that weaved in and out of the campsites. Intending not to infringe on the peaceful night’s sleep of the campers, we made a slight effort to avoid shining our lights into their temporary homes. The Wonderland Trail was difficult to stay on as we navigated the frigid banks of the lake. The wind blew off the surface of the alpine water and froze everything around. Little droplets of water had frozen on the leaves, and we grew cold quickly. The cold only dissipated when we turned away from the water and entered the large old-growth forest near Ipsut Pass.

Carbon River Log Crossing

Carbon River Log Crossing

Rocks littered the trail down past Ipsut Falls. It is as if someone freshly sprinkled them across the footpath just before we descended. It was miserable, and the unstable landmines made running in the dark nearly impossible. But we defied all expectations and survived. Near the Carbon River, things finally came to a head. Through 40ish miles, we had kept our feet dry, which is no small feat on the Wonderland Trail. But this river did not seem to have the same rock hopping opportunities. I was still hopeful and resistant to soaking my feet just before sunrise and put up a very theatrical fight against walking through the cold water.

We walked upstream and then turned around and walked back downstream #bonusmiles. The time ticked by as we strained our eyes, looking for an easy crossing through the milky water. Nothing was feasible, so Rachel took off her shoes and socks and stepped into the cold water. In two steps, her 5’3” frame was deep in the water. The cascading current rose nearly to her waist, and she stepped back out. There had to be a better spot. I walked back downstream further and a log stuck straight out over the raging river. On the far side of the bank it was a 3-foot drop down to a rock that could be used to cross the water and retain dry feet. I began the crossing. The log was slick, and the process of lowering my feet down was tedious. Luckily, being 6’2” I had plenty of leg to work with. I was across. It was Rachel’s turn.

She put on her shoes and socks and saw me standing on the other side. No, I did not wait for her… we barely knew each other, and I had confidence she could survive despite having 15% height to work with. She climbed up the log and then lowered herself all the way back down to the most slippery rock in the Carbon River. It was quite impressive upper body strength and flexibility for a runner. But we were finally across. Only four more tributaries awaited us. Growing closer with a series of tugs, pulls, and jumps, we were finally across just as the sun came up. We made it through the night!

Complaining up that hill - Mt. Rainier FKT

Complaining up that hill

The north side of the mountain was a journey back in time. I had worked in Enumclaw for a summer and spent many days exploring White River and Sunrise. Running through the high points of the route were spectacular. The trail and vegetation are drier, and the views are sweeping. The trail was smoother, and our pace stayed consistent throughout much of the day. When one of us would hit a low, the other would either forcefully suggest caffeine or simply run ahead and offer no option but to continue. It was teamwork as defined in exactly zero leadership books.

Over Summer Land and to Panhandle Gap the view of the smoking Goat Rocks sat right in front of us. As if by fate the smoke was visibly blowing the opposite direction and exactly mimicked our fortune. With no weather report, plan, or even having met before, things were going great, dare I say, perfect. We could see Mt. Rainier in its entirety, and the AQI was somehow within the hospitable levels despite fires all around. Were we lucky? Umm yes, because we didn’t put enough effort in to be good.

Having never done any of the route before made it new and special. I had covered some of the miles, but never connected them together. Rachel came from the opposite side. Each climb lived in her mind, and every section had a defined memory that she would relay to me. The last climb came with very pointed memories and a series of warning to expect the worst. Unbeknownst to her, I took it all with a grain of salt but did play the role of active listener. A hill didn’t get to be awful until it was awful. I wouldn’t call myself a slow learner on the trail, but often a non-learner. Life is a little more fun when everything is a surprise. But, she was right, we had to adopt our complain-up-the-hill technique as we closed out the last of our 26,263 feet of elevation gain.

Mt. Rainier Reflection Lakes

Mt. Rainier Reflection Lakes

The last climb was up to Reflection Lakes. To say we were tired and over it may be the biggest overstatement of the trip. But we did eventually make it to the top of the climb and suddenly have 6-mile descent on a rocky, rooty, dusty descent. I pushed the pace but navigating at the start of night two by headlamp again was really not a fun endeavor. The ground was white, and the light of the headlamp was white. Differentiation was impossible. So we tripped, rolled, stumbled, and reluctantly scurried into Longmire to complete the loop. Rachel was right behind, and just like that we were two Wonderlanders. What more is there to say? We ran a circle and ended up exactly where we started. We took only photos and left only footprints, blood, sweat, eaten huckleberries, and a few remnants of falls along the way.

I wanted to complete the loop, but I never wanted to plan it, instead, I just ran it. Now I can cross another bucket list route off a bucket list I don’t have. Hopefully, more adventure and circles in the future.

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