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.