Thursday, September 15, 2016

Wonderland Trail: Chapter Three; Return to (and from) Paradise

Somewhere past the Paradise Campsite the smiles disappeared. Along with the smiles, the courtesy somehow vanished as well. No, not from me, or from fellow runners.  My face looked like I was standing in front of an industrial sized wind fan. The absence of joy was missing from the faces, and bodies of people coming toward me from the opposite direction. I had nearly thirty miles under my belt that day, while many of them less than a mile away from their cars looked like they were still stuck in bumper to bumper traffic.

I had said to Jean on our first day of running that I always wanted to look happier than people I was passing by on the trail. Many people think us trail runners are kind of crazy, maybe even a little rude for 'running' on the trails, and I was out to prove that you had to make your own joy out on the trail. I had given up my ambitious goal to complete a circumnavigation around Mount Rainer in order to create the joy I was seeking on the trail.  And I was rewarded with one of my greatest days of running trails ever.

It's hard to compare this day of running versus others that I've come away from with a shiny metal object and beating some time that I forced my body to overcome. Just out of sheer beauty, there is no equal for me. I came all the way across the country to run in a beautiful place, not to win a race or earn a medal. My reward was that smile I displayed as I passed others who could not appreciate the beauty surrounding them.

In the morning I still wasn't sure how my day would go. I had recovered well enough as I could from that forty two mile day and the only way to really find out how my body was going to react was to get out there. After another great meal from Abram and crew I was anxious to get out of camp. I looked around for whomever else was ready. Jean and Sean were all set to go and so was Luke, who would be running alone as his wife Sarah was opting to sit out the final day. Unfortunately Megan also threw in the towel. Those two ladies who were not the most experienced runners in the group did an absolutely amazing job of covering seventy miles in two days.

So the four of us boys headed out first with Luke leading the way. We all agreed a ten hour day was certainly a strong possibility and nine was even attainable with a little more effort. Sadly Sean quickly fell behind us and I wouldn't see him again until the end of the day. Luke was even talking about an eight and a half hour day. I was pretty certain Luke is a bigger bad ass than he is even aware of, as he actually had climbed Rainer the previous weekend, but I didn't want to make this a day about beating the clock. Well, not totally, I really did want to get as close to nine as possible.

After a few miles when the trail began it's big climb Luke slowly pulled away from Jean and I. As we left behind the magnificent forest of tall trees we were treated with our closest view of ridges surrounding Rainier. Luke slowly became a speck in front of Jean and I who were hiking fast while taking in the scenery.

Somehow I was able to put a little distance between Jean and I when I passed by Summerland Camp with a few hikers passing by. One hiker, full backpack came tearing out of camp between Jean and I and I was amazed that he seemed to be gaining ground on me. I wasn't out there for a race, and although I wanted to take in more of the scene around me, having a guy with a loaded pack catching up to me motivated me to step up my pace. I was still ascending, now over 6,000 feet and would soon reach the highest point on the trail, just a little over 7,000 feet. Rainier stands over 14,000 feet, still a large difference between me and it's peak, but I felt like I was so high above civilization that I would be running into some Greeks gods eating grapes while listening to Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain having a jam session. God bless their Northwestern souls.

The hiker must have tired out, and Jean was motivated to get past him, as we crossed over Panhandle Gap crossing out first snowfield. There were spots of snow previously but now we had to use some caution climbing a little in the white stuff. I was hoping for it to be a little softer for better grip and was surprised how firm it was here in early August. Crossing over the gap, took our breath away with new views of Rainier. This kept getting better and better.

We could also now see really well to the South with nothing to block our view across the horizon. I could have spent the whole day taking photos and videos but I still had miles to go, and knew it was impossible to capture the beauty surrounding us. There were more hikers in the area, and as I crossed paths with two travelling the opposite direction I had to stop for a moment. I looked at the woman's boots and recognized her from our first day. She and her husband had said to us they thought we were going to wrong way a short while before we got to Paradise, and of course they were right. I chatted with them for a moment, envious they would probably be on the trail for close to another week, while I would be on a plane the following night.

Ahead of us, Indian Bar Campsite sat in a flowered meadow with a large stream running alongside. We were told this would be our last water stop before meeting crew along a road six miles away. I filled my bladder and drank directly from the rushing water. I am no water snob that purchases bottled water but this water was certainly the finest I have ever drank. It was still cold from melting off the glaciers and so pure you could taste the clouds it fell from.

Jean and I had to stop and look behind us throughout our saunter through this whole area, as the views were fantastic in all directions. Sadly though we were about to leave all those views dipping below treeline but not before we were treated with our best view South. Mt. Baker was easy to distinguish, and I was later told that one of the peaks I could see in the distance was Mt. Hood which lies all the way into Oregon. That is almost like being able to see Mt. Katahdin from Mt. Washington. I seemed to recognize the spot I was standing in a meadow looking South from a photo that has hung in my workplace for years. The only difference was that photo was taken in less than perfect weather, as the sky was grey still allowing a view of Mt. Baker. Once again proving that real life was better than photographs.

There was about five miles of downhill running ahead of us, and both of us were starting to feel the effects of our efforts. Luke was nowhere to be seen, Jean quads were killing him and I was having trouble with my left calf muscles. I was able to keep ahead of Jean and should have been gaining speed but I was now mostly running on one leg. I crossed path with another hiker and asked if he had seen another runner ahead of us, Luke, as I felt the need to make sure we were all on the right trail and not lost on this glorious day. At first the guy said no and when I got a little concerned and gave more of a description of Luke, he then remembered and asked, "Why, is he your son?" I had joked with Luke how I thought he had looked so young, even as to go so far as to quip, "Do you and Sarah have the same homeroom teacher this year." But just how old did this guy think I was? I was the oldest guy in the trip, when did that happen to me?

The pain Jean was feeling in his quads was obvious, as he was literally screaming out in pain. I couldn't go any faster to distance myself, so I slowed up and let him pass. Not a bad idea in of itself as I didn't want to blow out my leg and have to end my day at an aid station.

Jean must have been feeling a little better, or his throat was now sore as I caught up with him just before we left the forest at a road crossing at Box Canyon. Sitting on the other side of the road was Alex with a table set up. Luke of course was gone and Alex offered to get us whatever we wanted. I had one thing on my mind. Beer. With about ten miles to go, I was feeling great and knew the rest of the trail was not going to be as challenging as other parts, so I cracked open a cold one and soaked in the ambiance.

I had joked with Jean about when the tri-athalon girls would catch up to us, figuring they wouldn't be lounging around camp for hours that morning, and being very respectful of their abilities to catch us despite whatever headstart we did have on them. I was about two-thirds done with my beer when they came roaring out of the forest. I quickly polished off my beer adding some salty treats to my belly before making my way back to the trail along with Jean.

Surprisingly I was able to ascend stronger than descend, as that's what we did coming out of the canyon. It wasn't very long but it had me feeling confident about the last ten miles. I had pulled a little ahead of Jean when I began to see some people working on the trail. I thanked them all for such a wonderfully maintained trail. It was our own fault we got lost, otherwise the trail was easy to follow. I missed having blazes to follow and there weren't many intersections, and all were well marked. Then the trail disappeared. I was close to a dry river bed, probably run off from winter melt, but now the trail was gone. I spotted some pink ribbons tied to some new growth trees and began to follow them. Through the bushwacking I was stopping often to spot the next ribbon and this allowed Jean to catch up to me. Thankfully he did, as it was better to have two sets of eyes to find our way. We decided to instead follow the dry river bed as we could still spot some of the ribbons in the forest. We figured out that the ribbons must be marking the trail that they were going to make soon. The trail reappeared in the form of a climb of course, as it lead us up and away from the river bed.

The climb flattened out as we reached a road where I was able to spot the Abram's truck parked facing Reflection Lake. The day before he had told me and others about these two impromptu aid stations and that we could end our run at either one if we felt the need. I had thought I might need to do this as I was recovering the day before but now I did not even consider ending my run before I got back to the starting spot at Longmire.

Along with Abram, who was risking bodily damage by taking photos in the road, other members of the group were there to greet Jean and I. I took in some fluids and snapped a few pictures, along with many Asian tourists as there was a great view of Rainier.

My thoughts flashed back to home as I now faced a run without the mountain vistas and just a grind to finish. That morning Maine's biggest race, the Beach to Beacon 10K had taken place. Funny that Scarlett the day before was actually wearing an old race shirt as she had lived in Massachusetts for awhile and ran it once. I realized just how much I loved running on trails and that all my motivation to run was to be places, and it wasn't about being cheered on by thousands of total strangers. It felt better to be cheered on by new friends who had suffered similar pain. It felt like the second semester of senior year. I didn't want it to end and I felt sad that I didn't know when, or if I would ever have the pleasure of these people's company.
Megan and Sarah

Jean and I managed to finagle our way around people who actually left the parking lot, and then we were on the five mile descent to Longmire. The pain in Jean's quads kicked in and my calf hobbled me, so I let him pass as he literally screamed down the trail. I did a quick stop at Paradise, getting a picture and giving the sign the finger. Sorry to be disrespectful, but my frustration from day one had not totally subsided.

It wasn't long after Paradise that Whitney caught up to me. I joked with her about passing a waterfall that on day one she had said she never saw on the map, being a clue that we were going the wrong way. She told me that Kristen had to drop at the last aid station as her knee was in serious pain. I asked Whitney if she wanted to pass me and when she did, she was gone. There was no way I could even try to keep up with her. I felt good about keeping ahead of her for over eight hours and now was determined to get to Longmire under nine.

There was no speed in my legs but I kept it going and starting to see more and more people coming at me and that's when I noticed the lack of happiness in their eyes. I crossed a river bed with people not getting out of my way, not that I have the right to the trail and I do try my best to be respectful, but damnit if you're stumbling over a relatively flat trail you should let the guy, or girl, who can boogie over the gnarliest roots and rocks go ahead of you. I did stop to take a selfie hoping to get my last view of Rainer. Jean had taken my pic on day one at the same spot as we had our first view. But now some clouds had obscured the massive peak, and I had to think that maybe those extra miles were worth the effort for that view.

Ahead of me I could see the end of the trail and I heard Lourde call out my impending arrival. There was no finish line. No banners, no medals, but there was a group of friends. There also was Abram there to hand me a cold 16 ounce bottle of Mt. Rainer Ale. I forget whether Whitney was able to catch Jean or not, but story has it that they finished within seconds of each other. No one could catch Luke who beat his goal of under eight and a half. Now only Caroline and Sean remained on the trail along with Nick who would be guiding them in.

Abram had set up camp in order to let us relax, eat, drink and enjoy our last moments together. We were approached by a Park Ranger, who was armed, asking if we had permission. We did and he was very pleasant about the whole scene. It was unfortunate to see him armed but there was a ranger who was killed at this park in the not so distant past.

Scarlet was driving between Reflection and Longmire and gave us some updates on the remaining runners. All of us really wanted to see these two finish, and we were thrilled to hear they had left Reflection and were going to do the final five miles. It was pretty thrilling to cheer them on when they did arrive at camp shortly before dusk. Sean was hurting pretty bad as something in his foot was probably out of place. Caroline seemed to be doing fine, only hungry as she put away one of the biggest plates of food of the entire group.

As the sun began to disappear, gear was getting all reassembled and sorted in order for all of us to head our different ways. A few of us, including myself, would camp out one more night before getting dropped back off at the airport the following day. Abram pointed out to us all just how crazy trail runners can be, as we had all just finished this amazing adventure, but most of our conversation was about what the next possible adventure could be.

One of the Aspire vehicles got loaded with runners heading back to Seattle that night along with Alex. As much as I looked forward to getting home and being with my family, I felt that I didn't have enough time to really get to know these extraordinary people. Everyone of them went beyond their limits, and they did it with dignity and humility and respect for one another. Abram told us on our first night before the start, to look to others for help when things are going rough for you. He was right. But I think his simple message can be applied for life off the trail. You also need to be ready for when someone needs that help from you.

These people and this place will always be with me. When things get rough on a future run, I will think of many of them. When the trail I am on isn't so beautiful, I will remember crossing through snow fields with ridges of Rainer surrounding me. When my day isn't going so well, I will remember Sean's parting words as the van was driving off, "Don't sweat the petty things, but also remember not to pet the sweaty things." And with that, I am sure my smile will reappear.
Front row(left to right) Nick, Abram, Scarlet. Back row; Lourde, Caroline, Sara, Luke, Jean, Kristen, Me, Whitney, Sean, Megan, Alex

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