At the time I thought that staring at a mountain lion was the most terrifying experience of my life. Actually, there are things that are far more terrifying that you have absolutely no control over. That is a story for another day, but my weekend has put my Wonderland Trail in perspective. And now I am ready to tell about part II.
I began running a little before 7am Wednesday morning. My legs felt good I took a picture at the start of the trail and immediately saw what looked like a runner headed up the trail toward me. What are the chances?! The man's name was Glen and he was off to run the entire Wonderland Trail as well. His wife was meeting him at a few key spots and he quickly encouraged me to pass him if I wanted, he was taking his time. I was still putting on and taking off layers and adjusting my stuff, so after about 10 minutes I caught up to him, after a few more questions, I he told me that he had never run more than 20 miles. I was FLOORED. Here I was running the Wonderland trail and I had actually found another runner crazier than myself. I wasn't sure if I should be super impressed or really worried about the man. He was holding a slower pace than myself, so I bid him good luck and crested the first hill. I didn't see him again the rest of the way, and I have a feeling that he may not have finished, but that is only based on how tough the trail was. Definitely not a good idea for someone who has never run an ultra.
The first 50k was insane. Insane amounts of climbing. I kept glancing at my watch thinking, "6,500 feet of climbing in the first 20 miles?!" and "12,000 feet of climbing in the first 50k?!" and on. It was up, up, up. I figured if I ran 9 hour 50k's I had a chance to beat the overall unsupported FKT (fastest known time) for the Wonderland Trail. It definitely felt possible and it was exciting to play with the clock. John Reese had just set a new record for men's fkt at 28:50. That was the time to beat. I came through 50k at 9 hours 5 min. Almost right on the dot. I was feeling good and moving well. I saw Glen's family waiting to crew him at Mowich Lake and gave them a report, saw him at the start, haven't seen him since. The trail is really tough. They were rather shocked to hear that I did not have a crew.
Me to his wife: I'm sure your husband is very thankful for your support. Her: You don't have a cache somewhere? Me: no. Her: Can I make you a sandwich? Me: I wish!! Thank you, but I am doing the run completely unsupported.
Just 10 miles earlier I had passed two hikers who asked how far I was running. After telling them the entire loop, one of the pair asked incredulously, do you have cache? Me: (a little worried) Cash? What are you talking about? I actually thought for a moment that they might try to rob me! The man clarified his statement and I relaxed, "oh, ha, no cache".
I ran into trouble at Carbon River. The trail follows the river for several miles then takes a detour over the river and along the opposite side, adding an extra 1/2 mile. I looked at my map. The detour was not on the Wonderland Trail. Did that mean that I needed to take the old trail? A sign stated Danger, that the trail was closed due to rock falls. I've been on a fair number of trails and I calculated that it was likely that the trail was still passable, so I scooted past the detour sign, taking note that the trail was beginning to look overgrown. It may have been closed for years. I brushed the last thought away.
Almost immediately I was lowering myself down the cliff side and through a rock/dirt slide that had taken out the trail. I climbed back up on the other side and thought maybe that was as bad as it gets. As it turns out, it was worse. About a 1/2 mile down the trail, a slide had destroyed the entire trail and there was no trail on the other side to climb over to. Damn. Damn. Damn. I just spent 15 minutes on a dead end trail. I quickly considered climbing overland and scouting out the trail farther up or skiing down the slope to the river and looking for the trail upland. I had alread lost a 1/2 hour and I realized that it was better to back track and take the detour than waste more time on a trail that might not be there.
I had lost valuable time, but my time goals were still within sight. I ran/hiked through the next few miles and was amazed at the sight of the Carbon glacier wedged between Mt. Rainier and the surrounding hillsides. The glacier was burrowing into the ground like a rodent, covered in dirt with the Carbon river rushing out from under it. The trail kept heading uphill past the glacier and into the woods. Sun was setting and as the sky darkened my fear grew. I was all alone. Turning on my headlamps brought some relief (yep, brought 2 so that I could run faster and have an extra just in case). The only way out, as they say, was through--- in my case, the night.
I got lost for a good 10 minutes in a campground at the top of the climb, but with the help of some campers I was heading back down the trail. The miles rolled on, me looking out into the night for shining eyes, and putting one foot in front of the other. Finding the trail was a lot harder to follow at night, but only at river crossings and camp grounds. Most intersections were very well marked.
By mile 50, I had climbed over 17,000 feet. That's more than a 50 mile split at Hardrock. No wonder I was starting to drag... On my way down to White River, my watch warned me that it was getting a low battery. I had brought an extra GPS watch with me, so I turned it on and waited for it to reach the satellites. When it registered (finally, after 15 minutes) I turned on watch #2 and turned off watch #1. It was mile 57.
I got totally turned around at White River. There's a campground and I couldn't find the Wonderland Trail leaving the campground. I searched the area and found the trail down the road a bit. This next section from White River to Summerland to Indian Tie, proved to be the most intense section of the entire run. I was making good time running one of the few flat sections from White River. About 4 miles up the trail, huge glowing eyes stopped me in my tracks. I was jolted in terror, and froze in place. I wasn't alone. Was it a mountain lion? The animal turned its head and I caught a glimpse of a large snout and then it turned a little and the sound of it moving through the woods was big. Too big for a mountain lion. It was a black bear. I backed up the trail slowly, looking for a stick to make myself bigger.
I wasn't really thinking clearly. I was still afraid that the huge animal might be a mountain lion. Or that it might follow me up the trail. I carried a large stick up the trail, finding some amusement in carrying so much extra weight. Now I was really looking around me into the woods. My bad.... only a 1/2 hour later I saw more glowing eyes. This was definitely a mountain lion though. Another jolt of adrenaline. This time, I began yelling like a crazy woman. I figured I would do my best to scare it away. It stared at me for a few slow seconds and it slowly turned. I saw the ripple of its shoulders as it slunk off. I was still holding a big stick to look bigger, and I grabbed another stick to hit rocks with (to make more noise). I had to pass by the spot the mountain lion was to keep going up the trail. One foot in front of the other. I kept making loud noises all the way up the trail. For miles I challenged the mt. lion with my voice. I think this was part of the reason that I was so exhausted on day two.
A little farther down the trail, I reached the glacier sections. The glacier crossings were one of the more challenging spots to find the trail. Especially this one area where the trail appeared to go downhill (lots of footprints) but then petered out a little way down the hill. I walked all around the area trying to find the trail. After 15 minutes of searching, I determined I was lost. It was at this time that the stress of the last part of the trail came flooding out. I collapsed and cried. I cried because I was scared. I cried because I had survived. I cried because I had to slow down and I cried because my personal life was a damn mess. At worst, I determined that I would have to wait until daylight to find the trail. Which was about 1 hour away. This was just the beginning of an emotional roller coaster that would be the last 40 miles of the route.
Stand up! I forced myself up and decided to search within the area I knew I had lost the trail. But not far enough to get lost. Up and down the snow bank and still nothing. Then I saw some foot prints headed up the bank. Straight up. I had nothing to lose, so I followed them, my excitement growing. They abruptly swich backed. And ended at a cliff of snow. Disappointment flooded me. I searched above me to see footprints or a route. Trouble was, I didn't know what direction the trail was supposed to go, so off trailing it could get me even more hopelessly lost. Dejectedly I headed back down the steep route, back tracked to the trail then to my astonishment I saw a trail in the snow up the bank and to the right.
I had found the route. It returned to the rocky terrain and I spotted rock cairns. The trail weaved through more glaciers and rocky trail until I crested a rocky cliff and began running, blissfully, down the other side of the mountain. My emotions were shifting faster than my breathing. I could see a little light on the horizon and I was hopeful that I would in fact survive the night.
My last bear encounter was on a steep downhill of lush alpine meadows. I was still jumpy as hell and watching my back by shining my light around behind me. I heard a noise to my back and right. Shifting quickly onto my right foot, I found myself staring down a sleepy bear. My reaction was to shreak like I had at the mountain lion, and the bear huffed at me in anger. How DARE I wake him shining a bright light in his face?! I immediately toned it down and backed down the trail s-l-o-w-l-y. My voice was lowered and I talked to the bear. I reasoned that the siren noise I had used on the mt. lion was more irritating than helpful for the bear. I decided to sing about the bear that went over the mountain and apparently the actual bear wasn't interested in an encore. As soon as I was around a few corners I split.
The night shadows were being brushed away by a red glowing sunset and I could see Mt. Rainier in its full glory. The side of Rainier that is on postcards. 'Cause there's a side of the mountain that isn't quite as photogenic ladies and gentlemen. Daylight roused some elk(?) from their slumber and a sound like I have never heard, a combination of whispering, whistling, and alien ship noises overtook the hillsides. The beauty was overwhelming and yet, I was overwhelmed by the sheer magnitufde of run I sill had left. 20 freaking miles. For the second time, I sat down put my head in my hands and sobbed under the sunrise and the most incredible view of Mt. Rainier I may ever experience. My despair was as real as the beauty of the surroundings. Still, my only choice was to continue on. I began running up the hills to the surreal elk song. The hills kept coming and when I thought I would never see another downhill again, the trail began to descend.
This was about the time that I began to develop hot spots on the balls of my feet. They turned into blisters but I kept running. For the second time, I was out of water. This time, I didn't care. I was sure that I was so slow that I would be ashamed to even post my finishing time. Then, I was at Box Canyon, confused, trying to understand why the sign said I had 12 miles, not 15. (or something like that anyway). My eyes had been fooling me with halluciations in the trees and trail. I had been embracing the visions, creating a magical world on the trail, but I hoped this was a real vision.
As it turned out, it was. My Garmin watches had lost reception from time to time and over the course of 90 some miles, I was farther along than I thought. Box Canyon spit me out onto a trail along the river and my visions continued. People emerged from dried out stumps, frogs came alive from fallen leaves. Wonderland indeed. The stream on my right seemed like a questionable water source, but... I had neglected my hydration so I reluctanly downed a few water bottles. As I returned to my painfully slow jog/hike I began to feel a deep overwhelming fatigue. I calculated that I had 10 miles left. Crushed, I sank down again in despair with the intention that I would sleep right there on the trail, but visions of hikers finding my broken down, exhausted body propelled me on. I quickly decided that my best bet would be ipod on high (Kesha was just the right mix of angry & loud), running instead of walking, popped a caffeine pill (my 3rd or 4th that day), and sucked down a gel. Damn that was disguisting. Like too sweet strawberry jelly. Ugh.
It worked enough for me to reject my napping idea. I hiked up, ran across and down the bank of the river for endless miles. They seemed to drag on with flies landing on me and the sun settled on me like I was standing still. I began to worry about heat exhaustion, but my focus was growing. I was actually getting closer. Eventually I saw the sweet, sweet road and crossed . I dejectedly saw that I still had 7.5 miles. Fuck.
Keep moving. My body was not happy, but my mind was floating a bit in the trees above and the visions were getting good. If it weren't for my broken body, I could've had some fun. The trail entered the road, some construction, and I was a blissful 5.5 miles from being DONE. I began to run with a zombie like gait and focus. Walking lowered the intensity of pain on my blisters, but slowed my pace considerably. So running like a monster it was. I saw a hiker enjoying the woods on a big rock. Was he real? He said something about the trail, I spouted something back in agreement and kept rambling, fumbling toward Longmire. My excitement grew and roared like the river. I crossed the final river and was 2(!!) miles to Longmire. I would run the entire thing no matter what.
In the last 1/2 mile I amazingly saw two guys who I had seen in the first 20 miles of my journey. My god, it's you, they said. Oh! Hi! and I was off. No time to talk. I was going to cruise into Longmire in a blazing 9 minute mile (ha!). The museum and buildings of the park appeared and I was lost again. Where had I started? I pulled out the map and tried to figure it out. I realized I'd parked in the overflow around the bend of the road. Backtracking a 1/2 mile and I was back at my car. I jogged to the Wonderland Trail sign, and kissed the ground like a pilot out of a storm and cried for the joy of it all. Some hikers paused and looked away quickly. I felt so blessed to have the strength to finish. All my thoughts of never doing another crazy adventure vanished.