Sunday, August 28, 2016

Wonderland: Chapter Two

***If you haven't read Chapter One, scroll down below and then check out Chapter Two***

"Just tell me that tomorrow will be more beautiful," I said to my guide Abram as I lifted my head off the picnic table following the first day's run. "Don't tell me it's easier, just tell me it's more beautiful." I was looking for motivation to get up in the morning and subject my body to more punishment.

I can't remember that Abram ever gave me a definitive response. I do believe Alex said that the third day was the most beautiful. When I first tried to sleep I was pretty certain that I wouldn't be running the next day. Then after I got up when Caroline and Sean came in after one in such good spirits, I knew that I had to try and match their courage and get up and run the next morning.

One of the biggest problems I think I had over the course of that forty two mile day is that my body was never really rested. I actually was yawning at one point during the run. I had traveled all the way across the nation and hadn't had a decent nights sleep since I left home. And that is counting getting up at three in the morning in order to fly out.

When I first registered for this run I knew the time change was probably going to be a factor. I gave myself an extra day instead of flying in and immediately joining the group. I had also looked up the Seattle Mariner's schedule and when I saw my beloved Red Sox were actually playing in Seattle I knew I had to go.

My flight out went well. Well enough for having a family sitting behind me with three young boys. Five hours to San Francisco followed by a three hour wait before the flight to Seattle. The same family was on the plane to Seattle and I was seated next to them. The kids weren't bad but I was hoping for a little more rest, missing my own kids while not actually having other little ones around. The flight attendant gave the parents a special drink before we got into Seattle and I wanted to speak up and ask for a little something special myself.

As much as I did want to see the Red Sox play, I wasn't sure if I was going to be in the mood after travelling all day. When I checked into my hotel room, I took one look at my economy surroundings and quickly purchased some cheap tickets on my phone.

Thirteen dollars for an upper deck seat in right field. I paid more for parking, which wasn't a problem as the game had already started and I easily got into the park. A great ballpark and I sat near some Sox fans. We had a 4-0 lead when I decided to leave in the seventh, not wanting to deal with traffic and to get some sleep. After all it was now close to one in the morning my time.

Sadly the Sox blew the game, making me glad I left and I was asleep before the room got dark when I turned out the light. My body woke up on East Coast time and I took the opportunity to see a couple sights before I had to meet our group back at the airport sometime after noon.

I am a big fan of the book, Boys in the Boat, and went to the University of Washington to see the boat that was rowed by the gold medal US team in the 1936 Olympics. Ironically the night before PBS was playing a documentary about the event, which I look forward to seeing soon. Not far away was Brooks running shoe headquarters, of whom I contacted for a little visit. Not a very thrilling tour, as I did not get to see any secret technological advances but being a shoe geek it was still cool.

I really needed a nap by the time the group had gathered but it was quite fun getting to know new people with similar goals but different experiences. We drove for another couple hours to meet the rest of the group at Whittaker's Bunkhouse and Mountaineering shop. Yes, I did spell Whittaker  with two 't's instead of my way of one. The Washington Whittaker family is world known as climbers and I just had to buy whatever I could with the Whittaker name on it. I told the clerks I am a Whitaker with one T and that I joke with people you only get the other T after you have summitted Everest.

As I said before I  had a poor nights sleep thanks to the party goers and the local chickens. Now the day after arguably the toughest run of my life I was awoken by the polar opposite of chickens. I thought maybe I had slept very late when I heard Sean's voice not far from my tent, and even further confused as it sounded like he was talking with Caroline and Abram. Had they not bothered to sleep?

A check on my phone said it was a little after six and the two runners who had the roughest day were the first ones up. These people are either that hardcore or absolutely out of their friggin' minds! My body still felt like I just got done with my run, not only tired but filthy, sweaty, trailer trash feeling.

Hearing the tone of Sean and Caroline's voices made me decide that I should try and get my sorry behind out on the trail. Abram and crew made us some great breakfast burritos topped off with his homemade salsa and I was glad to finally put some calories into my body. I had very little to eat last night and I hoped breakfast would jump-start my body.

The day before Megan had said she wanted to get up and out early, and as we all moved rather slow I could tell by the look in her eyes that she just wanted to get going. I did too, but really didn't want to at all, but I listened in as Abram gave us some direction for the upcoming day. Headlamps were required of all runners along with a few other essentials he talked about the day before.

I was slow getting ready hoping my tent would dry out from the morning dew, but I had to pack it up still a little wet. I don't know who was actually first out of camp but it certainly wasn't me. I did convince myself to go and started out on what was supposed to be a twenty eight mile day around eight o'clock.

The trail quickly turned off from the lake with another great view of Rainer, which should have motivated me but I was already struggling mentally. The first mile was rather smooth but my legs were fatigued. I stepped out of the woods and faced a descent of close to a mile and it was much different than the other smooth tracks I zipped down the night before. It more closely resemebled a trail in the Whites and my legs were shaking.

I knew the crew would be taking sometime to get out of camp and if I wanted a ride to the next camp instead of running there I needed to make a quick decision. The sun was already beating down heavy on me and the dried sweat was soon covered with a fresh coat. That was it. I couldn't do it. I felt like I was going to have a bad day. I didn't want a bad day. The next day would probably be even worse if I had to put in  a similar effort as the previous day.

I wanted some sleep. I wanted food other than power snacks. I wanted a good day on the trail. That day would be the next I told myself if I did all those things that my body really needed. I pulled my body back up past the couple switchbacks I had come down and headed back to camp.

Perhaps freeing my mind set my body free as I was able to mostly cruise back toward camp. I ran into Sean accommpianed by Alex and told them my decision. They did try and talk me into moving forward but I was convinced I was making the right decision. Alex sent a satelite message to Abram that I was heading back and when I did get back to camp Abram received the message just as I got there.

We didn't talk too much about my decision except he did finally confess that the third day would be the most beautiful. I had described the previous day as being 'bruteiful' and that I needed to recover if I was to enjoy the beauty of the Wonderland.

I helped break down camp along with Nick and Lourdes and soon we were on the road for a couple hour drive. I rode with Nick and had a real nice conversation with him. He was a recently graduated grad student with writing aspirations living in Missoula, Montana. He had traveled a lot in his thirty one years and had plenty of material for an impressive memoir.

We stopped for gas and supplies in some unknown town. I grabbed a chicken sandwich and a chocolate milk and then was happily surprised when Lourdes bought us all Klondike bars. I also took the time to call Mo back at home, as I hadn't spoken with her since I was back at the airport meeting up with the group. She supported my decision and encouraged me to recover properly in order to enjoy the last day of the run. We probably had one of our best phone conversations in a long time, as I am not much of phone person. It was nice to know all was well at home, the kids were being good, Wild was happy as well and there was no need for me to worry that it would be better with me at home.

When Nick and I arrived at the White River Campground we began to circle around looking for Abram and our campsite. After going around a few loops we spotted him parked in a parking lot. "The campground is full," Abram told us. I was speechless at first but then Abram said, "But I've got a couple ideas."  He figured he would walk around the campsite and look to see who had some space in their site for a single tent and then talk to those people. I told him that he would have to do all the talking and I would help the others set up our picnic gear in a small space in the parking lot leading to the trail-head.  I was amazed that after a short while Abram already had a list of a few spots and was confident that he would be able to get more once more campers got back to their sites.

I spent the afternoon helping set up and having more good food. I also got to know Abram better and talked with a few other campers in the area. But most importantly I got some sleep. I set my tent up in the only level spot near some picnic tables, even though it wasn't a tent-site. I was prepared to move it later when Abram would help secure my spot in someone else's campsite but until then I was able to cruise off to dreamland for a couple hours.

While munching down some food Abram took the time to take out the map to show me what the next day was going to look like. He raved about the scenery and said the toughest part of the day would be the climb to get up above treeline but then it was mostly going to be downhill. There would also be a couple road crossings where he would set up an informal aid station and that if needed we could be transported from these spots. It was kind of nice to know there was an out, but I was happier to know that I was potentially be in a spot that I would remember forever while forgetting about the pain to get there.

The first of the runners were just coming in when I woke up around 4:30. The tri-athletes along with Scarlet. Slowly but surely the rest of the crew all came in and I did what I could for them, leading them to seats, getting cold drinks and anything else they might have needed. It felt good to help, and I was humbled by how strong a group of runners I was sharing this experience with. Not just tough physically but more important mentally. They had all run more miles in two days then some people do in a month, and most of them were already greatly looking forward to the next day, and so was I.

Dinner was once again fabulous, this time burgers and plenty of toppings to choose from. By the time dinner was over we had plenty of spots for people to put up tents. Abram told me just to stay put in my spot, as he had talked with a ranger who said they stopped patrolling the area after eight and no one had told me to move yet anyway. Sounded good to me, as I really didn't want to move unless I needed to.

One of the campers actually moved all their stuff into their friends site and gave over their site to us. So it was there that we set up for a campfire. Well it was a campfire until Abram came along and said we weren't having a campfire but a bonfire. Soon enough flames were rising high and all of us gathered around it's heat to hear instructions for our final day. We all listened very dutifully as our mouths were being stuffed by some awesome apple cobbler with fresh hand whipped cream. I was really excited about the final day and hoped that excitement wouldn't keep me up all night.

As I did lay down to sleep, I thought not only of the next day but of a couple people I met at the campsite that day. Actually both couples. One was an older couple who when I explained what our group was doing said we were doing it all wrong and that we should take our time. I tried to explain that's how I liked to enjoy the trails but they said they once did the loop in fourteen days. Normally it takes people ten and I thought it would be wonderful to take fourteen days in this area. The other couple were somewhere in their sixties and had a VW bus like mine. They were making their annual trip to this area to hike into the place where they were married thirty seven years ago. They did it every year, not always on the anniversary, but close enough to mark the occasion. I was also jealous of them. I was jealous of those who were brave enough to take on the trail for a second day. I needed to make sure I made the most of the next day. I didn't need people to be jealous of me. I needed to run the way I love to run, in a place that was more vivid than my dreams.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Wonderland Trail: Chapter One

If I or any of us got two thirds of what we really want out of life wouldn't we really be happy? If Dustin Pedoria got on base two out of every three times at bat he would be legendary. If you look really good in two of those three jeans you just tried on, that would probably thrill you. So when I was only able to run two of the three days planned on the Wonderland Trail circumnavigating Mount Rainer, I did not go home saddened and disappointed with myself. I went home with tremendous memories and enormous respect for those who completed the loop.

It was a difficult decision to make. Was pride more important than happiness? Was suffering physically and mentally the reason I traveled all the way across the country. Why do I run? For pleasure, pride, or some deeper reason that I am still in search of. I had all these questions running through my head when I set out on the second day of the run, and quickly decided that the run I was facing that day was not going to solve any deeper seeded problems.The day was just going to hurt. I could still have another day of tremendous running.. It just wasn't going to be that day.

The first day of the run was one of my toughest challenges ever. I had signed on with a group of eleven other runners on a supported three day run of the 94 mile Wonderland Trail. Day one had us all leaving Longmire at the Southern area of the trail around eight in the morning. Our group had only gotten to know each other the night before as we made camp and shared the first of our tremendously made meals by the organizer Abram Dickerson and his crew.

Maybe the whole trip might have been different if it started different. Or at least in the right direction. Yup we all made a wrong turn less than half a mile in and went nearly four miles before we turned around. I was with three others in the lead who made the wrong turn. Two young women who are professionally trained tri-athletes and a Frenchman living in Miami who was a couple years younger than me.

Kristen was the first to question our direction, as we passed some hikers who thought we were going the wrong way. When we finally got to a campsite and Kristen began studying the map, I began to fear we had screwed up. The campsite was not on our map and so we went to the camp and asked some hikers who were packing up. I caught a glimpse of other runners on the trail just as we got the bad news and I yelled for them to stop. There was one paid guide, Alex, who was running sweep behind us and he gathered us all and told us we had to turn around. I was pissed off, at myself and for the only time at our staff that we had started in the wrong direction. The rest of the group was in better than expected spirits, and so I put on my best game face and decided to crank out the miles as quick as I could to get back to the start.

Now with nearly two hours of running in our group was headed in the correct direction thirty two miles away from camp at South Mowich Lake. And we were facing much harder climbs than we previously traversed. I had thought that the trail looked harder on the map than what we first climbed coming out of Longmire.

I found myself in the lead pack swapping places with the tri-girls and Jean. It was not a race but I think there was still competitive spirit in all of us that made us want to be doing our best. Unfortunately, doing my best was slowly beating me up.

The girls, Kristen and Whitney, were just ahead of me when we were treated to our first best views of Rainer as we entered some meadows near Indian Henry's Patrol Cabin. It was here that we also first caught up to another member of our party, Lourdes, and one of our guides Scarlet. Lourdes was doing her adventure a little different than ours with less miles being logged. But also a little different as they had managed to go the right direction. Apparently the duo had gone back to the vehicles when we all took off so they never saw us going the wrong way and were really surprised to see us in that meadow now nearly four hours after we had all originally began.

The meadow had some beautiful wildflowers growing and there were multitudes of small blue butterflies fluttering about us as we ran gazing off toward Rainer. My appreciation for this place grew immensely and I was able to put behind most of my frustration.

Jean and I moved ahead of the girls after a water stop. He first crossed a wobbly suspension bridge. Not wobbly because of poor construction, quite the opposite really, but wobbly as it took us a few hundred feet across a river bed. On the opposite side there were two trails, and I paid close attention to the signs and double checked with a hiker moving in the opposite direction.

The climbs were becoming more and more brutal. They were long. I found the footing to be much better than what I am used to with lots of rocks in the way. There was still a fair share of foot obstacles as roots from these massive trees crossed the trail. Plenty of switchbacks made the grade much less steep but extended the length of the climbs. I had my poles with me to help power me up but I really wished I had the training of the tri-girls who were able to catch me and Jean, also with poles, when we reached the next open vista.

What goes up, must come down. I loved the long descents. With all the switchbacks and better footing I was able to fly down the hills. It was a real joy to open it up and make up for lost time on the other side of the mountain.

Four more miles and two thousand feet stood ahead of me, but what really stood ahead of me was my undoing. Of course the girls caught up to me, Whitney first who showed absolutely no signs of any wear, absolutely amazing. Jean and I were swapping places and when he finally pulled ahead I had very little left in the tank. It was well past noon now and temps were feeling kind of high as the sun had shone in all it's glory on us all day long. One water bottle was now empty and I suspected that my bladder bag was running low as well. I did my best to keep up with eating, and fortunately having no stomach issues. But as I made my way towards Aurora Peak with Rainer in sight I was beginning to falter. I was battling between my body, my mind and my heart. It was my legs that were losing though, as I stumbled a little and found it difficult to keep a steady, balanced pace up the mountain.

There were hikers in the area. A couple gentlemen said St Andrews Lake was a good place for a swim. I had no friggin' idea where St. Andrews Lake was located. They may as well have told my that the Rivera Club had a lovely pool. Jean was still close to me and when he expressed he was low on water a couple girls came upon us and said that St. Andrews was the closest water source. Being told that a body of water was good to swim and drink from were kind of contradictory but I would have to make that choice when I got there.

Jean was first to the lake which had a couple groups of people lingering around soaking in the views. It was tempting to do the Nestea Plunge in but I really needed to drink more than to swim. Jean opted not to get water and take a chance, even after a couple more hikers told us there weren't many sources nearby. I knew how weak I was feeling, so I broke out my small bottle of bleach to kill any bacteria that I may have scooped up into my bladder bag and bottle.

My GPS watch died sometime before I reached the lake, maybe indicative of the way I was feeling. It felt good to be off my feet for a few minutes while getting water and taking in a few extra calories. Salty treats were the A-1 priority as I could feel the dried salty sweat on my face.

Back on my feet and going downhill I ran into a small waterfall less than a couple miles away from the lake. I soak a bandanna and am surprised when another runner catches up to me. "I have to keep going or I'll stop, " Megan says to me as she rushed past me. Megan is probably one of the least experienced runners of our group so I am surprised she has caught up to me, but I did struggle mightily up the last mountain. I am also pleased to know that others are doing well and close by. Abram had told us the night before to take energy from others in order to carry ourselves through tough times. I immediately feel his words coming true and catch back up to Megan.

She may not be an experienced runner, but I know how mentally tough she is as we had talked the night before and on the car ride in the morning. She is a lawyer from the area representing doctors who get sued, so she spends lots of mental energy each and every day for long hours. She has also climbed Rainer and ridden her bike around it on roads. I decided I need to get tough upstairs to make it through the next eighteen miles.

I ask her about others, and she says two and our guide are behind us and two more are ahead. I'm a little confused about this as no one has passed me. I suspect maybe two passed me while I was getting water. Megan sets a good pace on the down and I hold back a little wanting to save some energy.

As we start climbing up another mountain we are caught by the two final runners and our guide Alex. They also tell me that the other two, Sean and Caroline are ahead of us. Luke and Sarah are a married couple also from the area and although not ultra runners they are fit and able to pass us on the uphill. I am unable to keep up with them but pull away from Alex and Megan finding myself alone.

I feel better on the up than I had on others but feeling a little vulnerable as I reach the ridge line and notice that blue in the sky is turning a little darker as the day' light is beginning to fade. I have been without a watch now for nearly ten miles I figure and suddenly remember that my phone at least has the time. It is somewhere around six, and I have been on my feet for nearly ten hours when I reach another ranger cabin.

This time there is a ranger outside the cabin drinking some coffee. I stop to talk and he is quite pleasant and tells me the others are getting water. It is then I see a sign indicating the campground is ten miles away. I had been misreading the map earlier and thinking I only had five miles, not really misreading but unable to see well because of my aging eyes. Luke had told me what the mileage was, and I didn't really want to believe him, but now I had to believe. Worse than the miles, was the fact that there was going to be one more long, extended climb.

I spent the downhill cruising down, telling myself that I was going to be a bad ass and the more I could push myself the sooner I would be at camp and able to drink a cold beer. I run into one of our guides, Nick, who is moving in the opposite direction as his job is to work backwards to make sure everyone is on their way to camp. He tells me I have about seven miles to go. Three of which, according to him, are a relatively easy climb after I cross another river.

We share info on other runners, and when I ask about Sean, he tells me Jean, not pronounced Gene, is roughly ten minutes ahead of me. I am on the move by now and we have further confusion about Sean and Jean. As I move I suddenly become concerned. Are Sean and Caroline really ahead of me?

I come to the river and follow cairns and cross a couple log bridges. It is 7:45 and I tell myself I can get to camp a little after nine, and that I need to as I don't have a headlamp. The trees are massive  and letting in enough daylight still to let me see a sign at a trail intersection ensuring that I am heading the right direction with camp now four, not three miles away.

Luke and Sarah catch me as I try to get a photo of the pink sunset on Rainer through the trees. I am glad they have caught me, as this means they are still strong on the climbs. Soon Alex comes zipping by, as Nick has taken over the sweep position. I ask more about Sean and Caroline, and Alex says he has not seen them and that we all now think they have somehow gotten behind the group.

Sean is a couple years younger than me living and working in Seattle, and has completed a couple hundred milers with another one planned in about a month. Caroline, is about our age as well, coming down from Victoria, British Columbia, less than an hours flight from Seattle. She has plenty of trail running experience, and I hope that the two of them together will find strength to get them to camp.

My strength is starting to dissipate with the loss of sunlight. I feel like I am running(ha) through the forest in the Wizard of Oz, except the trees are MUCH bigger, and the emerald city, Seattle, is not that far away. I am also reminded of a story Nick told to us about a friend who attempted to run the entire trail in one push. His attempt was ended when he was stalked by a mountain lion in hours similar to where I was at. The lion followed him for four hours until he was able to get to a camp and in someones car. He survived without incident but was shaken from the experience. I was shaken by the story and could only keep my eyes on the trail in front of me.

I could see the trail well enough in the fading daylight and pushed as hard as I possibly could after now twelve plus hours. I pulled my phone out to check the time and realized the face provided a little light to see. I feared a lion might see the light though and was reluctant to pull out the light again unless I really needed it. Then I also figured a lion would be able to smell my sweaty body from miles away anyway.

I cursed now at switchbacks wanting a more direct route to camp and couldn't even see the switchbacks until I felt the trail turn. Then I also realized that my phone had a flashlight app. Greatest friggin' app ever! I was thrilled to remember this as it had gotten completely dark and I had no idea just how far away camp was located. I still feared lions, and the loss of battery life so I sparingly used the light on the phone.

I could hear a river or stream rushing somewhere in the dark forest and hoped that it was somehow connected to the lake. When I came upon the stream I filled my bottle and drank mightily from it not caring about any bacteria that might be swimming in it. But where was camp? Now at a slow hiking pace I went another ten minutes before panic set in. Shouldn't I be at camp? It was now close to nine thirty and based upon dead reckoning I figured I should be at camp. Did I miss a turn while hiking in the dark and not seeing a sign? I saw the stream on the map and that camp was not too far away. I gave myself another twenty minutes to get to camp before I would turn around figuring that I did indeed miss a turn.

Now I was unconcerned about battery life and looking for any signs with the light. I spotted a water bottle placed on a fallen tree, thinking guides had left it for us. Then to all my glory was a sign indicating that camp was two tenths of a mile away.

Many runners will say that the final two tenths of a marathon can be the toughest but usually there are crowds of people cheering them on. I however, was all alone and facing one of the steepest climbs of the entire day. It was, without question, the toughest two tenths I ever faced. Above my head I saw the first artificial light of the day and with that all my physical and mental strength left my body as I knew I was finally at camp.

Abram and crew were all set up and I was greeted by others as I made my way to the picnic table to finally sit down. Scarlet got me a cold beer and after a couple sips I set my head on the table next to it. Soon thereafter I was given a bowl of pasta but I could barely take a couple bites and preferred to rest my head on the table.

I congratulated other runners but was still concerned about those still out on the trail, mostly Sean and Caroline. I felt a little like John Krakauer from his book about climbing Everest, Into Thin Air, where he did not have enough energy to help rescue others after he summited and got back to camp. I felt I may be needed to help go look for others sometime in the upcoming hours but all I really wanted to do was to crawl into my sleeping bag.

I left my beer and pasta on the table as Scarlet helped me set up my tent. I tried to force myself to eat and drink but was too exhausted. I was relieved when Nick brought Megan into camp but further concerned there was no sign of Sean and Caroline. We all were gathered at the table and talking about our misfortune of the morning and speculating what happened to the others. Apparently Lourdes and Scarlet did run into them as they had taken a wrong turn but were back on track as far as we knew, but we were still unsure if they had stayed on track after that.  Nick was getting in some calories before he was to set off again in the dark in search of them. I wanted to help but knew I would only hinder any progress searching for them. I don't know if others were wanting to help as well as we had all been beaten up by forty two miles of trail and somewhere near ten thousand feet of climbing that day. My day had taken over thirteen and a half hours and I thought that Krakauer had it easy compared to what I had been through.

Despite being totally exhausted, I couldn't fall asleep when I tucked my sweaty body into my sleeping bag. I had completed the day, but couldn't finish my meal or even my beer. Yes, I was that tired! I greatly desired sleep as I was still getting over jet lag. My slumber the night before was not great as campers nearby where quite loud while drinking beer and then I was woken before dawn by some roosters and other unidentified animals.

I'm not sure if I was asleep when I heard Sean and Caroline come into camp being lead by Nick. I saw it was after one in the morning and decided to get out of my tent to greet them. Abram was still up preparing to heat up some food for them. They told me they had accidentally taken the wrong trail after the suspension bridge taking them two and a half miles to a road. So they had ran forty seven miles on what was supposed to be a thirty two mile day, and yet they were in better spirits than I was at the time. I was amazed and humbled by them and able to finally get some sleep knowing they were safe.

There was little choice in getting to camp that day. There were no spots to 'drop' from the run and despite support of Abram and team it was up to me to get myself to camp. My body and mind were completely spent from the forty two miles in a way that I was unfamiliar with. There was no runner's high from getting to the finish line (camp). There was only a sense of relief. More relief than pride. I felt weak both body and mind. I didn't know what I was capable of doing the next day. I didn't know that I wanted to test myself. I did not prepare myself for an adventure to test myself. I had sought this as an adventure to enjoy the environment. I had trained to get out and run for three straight days. I had not trained to test myself for three straight days. A decision would have to come in the morning.