A Journey of Discovery in the Wild

Category: Uncategorized (Page 1 of 3)

Peak 9: Mt. Ellinor

Peak 9: Mt. Ellinor

Elevation: 5944’

Total Mileage: 5-ish

Total Gain: 2361’

Date: May 4 & 5, 2019

Mount Ellinor stands out as one of my favorite peaks from this 40 for 40 adventure, and it’s easily in my top three greatest campsites of all time. There are few things more exhilarating than waking up on top of a snow-capped summit to watch the sunrise over two mountain ranges. It also felt like a celebratory occasion, as the night before Seth and I decided to move in together, taking a big step forward in our relationship.

I had climbed Ellinor a few years earlier, but on the summer route. I’d heard about the sweeping views of the Olympics and Cascades Ranges, and the steep climb required to earn them. The mountain was socked in that day, so no views, but it still came with the steep climb. I nevertheless enjoyed the experience and was glad to go back. This time, we would be taking the winter route.

We parked at the upper lot, which was quite full. A guy in a flannel shirt and jeans headed out in front of us, then came back saying that he thought he heard a cougar. (There was a note at the trailhead about being aware that you’re in cougar country.) He wanted to walk up with us, but after I assured him that what we heard was, in fact, a bird, he went ahead to catch up to his friends. I understood his anxiety, and there was a time when I might have made the same mistake. I believe that I was tactful enough not to say out loud that he wouldn’t hear a cougar if one was stalking him. I noticed that this guy had no pack or layers. He carried a water bottle and nothing else. For me, it’s impossible to imagine going into the wild so unprepared. You have to tread a fine line, though, between trying to educate people and not policing the mountains. I have no idea how to address the issue of hikers venturing into wild places without basic essentials like food and layers, but it strikes me as important to reach beginners with important information about how to access the natural world safely and responsibly. I see hikers like this one all too often, but I haven’t come to a satisfactory solution for how to engage with them in a helpful manner. What are your thoughts on this? If you’re new to outdoor adventures, check out this helpful overview that can get you out on the trails while keeping your own safety and well being in mind.

Breaking out above treeline and onto the snowy slope.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

The trail winds through an evergreen forest before opening up onto a steep, snowy slope lined by forest on each side. We brought along pickets, rope, ice axes, crampons, and other climbing equipment in order to use this ascent as an opportunity for mountaineering practice. Finding a nice, open area off the main trail, we roped up and worked on setting pickets, something that I’d not done before. This was a great place to learn and test out new skills, as the slope was quite steep, but there was no real danger of cascading off a cliff or into rocks. Next, Seth demonstrated self-arrest from a variety of angles and situations, and then it was my turn. I fared quite well with self-arrest in the standard positions, so Seth said it was time for him to (without notice) pull me backwards to simulate a rope teammate falling and pulling me backwards so that I could practice self-arrest in this scenario. The prospect, admittedly, scared me. While he had me on a belay and I wasn’t going to fall off the mountain if I couldn’t self-arrest, the idea of falling backwards and potentially hitting my head, even while wearing a helmet, was terrifying for me. I was slightly worried that I wouldn’t be able to properly self-arrest, but more so my fear stemmed from the trauma of my TBI and not wanting to hit my head again, ever.

My mountaineering school instructor showing me the ropes.

To help me work through that fear, I first kneeled down and then fell down backwards, sliding down the mountain head first and on my back. It was incredible how quickly I was able to use my ice axe to flip myself around and self-arrest. It felt instinctual and immediate, much to my surprise and delight. With that confidence boost, I stood up and fell backwards, with the same result. Out of excuses, it was time to let Seth pull me without notice. I absolutely hated this, but I understood the necessity. Each step was agonizing, tense with the anticipation of him jerking the rope and yanking me backwards at any moment. Because I was waiting for it, though, I had a split second to feel his pull; as such, I immediately flopped down on my belly and went into self-arrest before I could be pulled backwards. I joked that I had done what one should do by going down into position, but I had failed the test all the same. Being the perfectionist that I am, this bothered me the rest of the weekend, and I knew that I was going to have to retake that exam.

Self-arrest workshop over, we did some additional picket practice, this time with me leading, as we made our way to the summit. Hitting a notch that leads to the false summit, we laid the final round of pickets and then came off the rope to trek over to the last steep pitch up to the summit. It was late in the day and only a few parties remained. This time, the summit treated me to expansive views into the heart of the Olympics. I don’t know this range as well as I do the Cascades, but this panorama inspired me to get better acquainted with them soon.

Photo op before the final climb to the summit, with snowy Olympics Range as the backdrop.
At least I have all the gear in hand to look the part of a mountaineer!
View of summit from below. You can just make out another party up there.
Summit view, looking into the Olympics.

The bonus to this trip was that we were going to spend the night on the mountain. We briefly considered pitching camp on the summit, but there’s not a lot of room there, and we didn’t want to impede the experience of anyone coming up early for the sunrise. Glissading down to the plateau below the summit, we found a lovely spot off the trail, close to the cliffs overlooking the summer route. There was one other party camped below us, but we couldn’t see or hear them, so it felt much like having the mountaintop to ourselves. I think this photo about sums it up. I went to sleep giddy at the thought that I was sleeping on top of a mountain. It was a first for me, and my heart thrills at the thought of it as I write this more than six months later.

Stoked!!
Photo Credit: Seth Wolpin

An inversion enveloped the scene at sunrise. Ellinor’s neighbor, Mount Washington, peeked above the clouds, the jagged rock summit protruding from a blanket of snow. From the tent door, I could see the Brothers in the distance, along with other Olympics peaks whose names I do not know. Breathtaking. Coming out for a survey of the horizon, the volcanoes of the Cascades hovered above the clouds; St. Helens, Adams, Rainier, Baker, and Glacier all made an appearance before the clouds rose and curtained them.

View from inside the tent. This was the most incredible wake up surprise of my life.
Best campsite of the year, and one of the best ever. You can see Tahoma in the distance.
Reluctantly breaking camp.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
Quite the memorable sunrise, with Mt. Washington, The Brothers, and other Olympics peaks peeking above the clouds. Be still, my heart!

The descent would prove tricky, as the morning snow was rock hard ice. This meant no speedy glissade down the steep snow slope. Instead, we plunge-stepped as best we could in those conditions. Coming down through the notch was a little scary, as it’s quite steep, so I tossed on my crampons for a little extra purchase. The clouds broke, though, so the mountain treated us to clear morning views of Lake Cushman below. All too soon, we were back at the car, and our mountaintop adventure came to a close.

Descending a steep slope on frozen snow, with Lake Cushman below.
So steep! So frozen!
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

This outing whet my appetite for sleeping on mountaintops. Sadly, I haven’t had the opportunity to do so again, as plans to bivy on Mount Catherine, and then Mount Aix, followed by DeRoux, and then later on Koppen all fell through due to weather (extreme wind; snow; heat; and snow, respectively.) While I have enjoyed countless beautiful backcountry campsites over the past two years, nothing has compared to being on Ellinor in terms of grandeur, novelty, and excitement. Come next summer, my goal will be to sleep on as many mountaintops as the weather will allow. Thanks to Seth for the mountaineering instruction and for sharing this experience with me. Looking forward to bivying on many more mountaintops together!

Peaks 6, 7, & 8*: Tiger Mountains

Why hello there, blog; it’s been a while. It’s been tough to keep up with my personal writing, with trying to make article deadlines, preparing and submitting a tenure file, and keeping on top of all the other facets of my job. I’ve missed writing trip reports! The good news is that the faculty just voted in support of my tenure and promotion, so my hope is that this leads to a little extra time for my personal writing.

Catching up posts will be a great exercise in brevity, if only because I have 35+ peaks to report on. No time for my long-winded accounts! [Update: they’re still mostly long-winded.] I’ll share here the highlights that stand out and give you a taste of the experience. [Update: In some cases, more detail that you probably want. Fair warning!] I fear that this means I can’t always take my standard approach of looking at a broader topic elicited by each experience, but I’ll do so as much as possible.

And now, on to Peaks 6,7, and 8*.

Peak 6: West Tiger 1: Elevation: 2948’

Peak 7 : West Tiger 2: Elevation: 2757’

Peak 8*: Poo Poo Point: Elevation: 2021’

*Technically not a peak; see below

Total mileage: 12.53

Total elevation gain: 3436′

Date: April 7, 2019

I’ve spent many a Sunday doing triples on West Tiger 3 but somehow managed never to tag West Tigers 1 or 2, and I’d never been to Poo Poo Point. This was an opportunity to make up for that omission. (and, strangely, I have yet to climb WT3 once this year.)

Seth joined me for this Tour de Tiger. We started on the power line cut and hoped to take it down to link up with a trail on the east side, but things got swampy, so we cut down to the road and made our way down through the homeless camp, Tent City 4. While I’m glad that there’s a place where people can set up camp, I wondered what their access to resources is here. It’s far from any grocery stores, running water, and other services. Are service providers coming to them? It’s something I wanted to learn more about. After a little googling, I learned that residents have access to bus passes to get to work, doctor appointments, etc. There are organizations that bring services to them, including some that can help residents to find permanent housing. The organization that runs the camp also invites employers to come by to share job opportunities with residents. One article mentioned that hikers passing through bring donations of food, coffee, and blankets; it’s a nice gesture and I’ll remember that for next time.   

Into the foggy forest.

Moving into the misty emerald forest, we headed up the Lingering Trail over to Dwight’s Way, and ultimately to the Preston Way trail, which took us to the summit of West Tiger 1. It’s not the most remarkable summit, with its chain-linked fence and radio towers. No lingering here. As we started running down the road to connect over to West Tiger 2, we saw signs on the side of the road, but we didn’t process the warning in time. As a result, we apparently experienced some serious RF exposure. Fortunately, our internal organs didn’t melt in the process.

Catching the view from WT1, minutes before cooking our internal organs with radio waves.

Laughing off this potentially brain-frying exposure, we jumped back on trail and headed over to West Tiger 2, making a requisite stop at the Hiker’s Hut (which I’d never visited before.) It was fun to see what others had left there, such as hats, blankets, and candles, for the cold hiker to enjoy. West Tiger 2 wasn’t much more inspiring than WT1, so on we ventured to Poo Poo Point.

The famous Hiker’s Hut of Tiger Mountain.

Seth took an opportunity to rest in the sun and watch paragliders while I climbed the last 50 vertical feet or so to what looked like the highest point. Later, my friend Rich would insist that Poo Poo Point is a point, not a peak, and he determined to look over my list of peaks and subtract “poo poo points” for anything else that didn’t qualify (Grouse Mountain and Poo Poo Point are the only two that I would concede should be disqualified as peaks, so I plan to make up those poo poo points by tagging two additional peaks.)

Seth taking a break while I climb the final slope up to the highest spot on Poo Poo Point, not realizing at the time that the effort was futile. Thanks, Rich.

From there, we headed down a nice runnable hill, then looped past Tradition Lake and the old bus and then back to High Point. It was fun to explore a place that I had visited so many times and yet hadn’t seen so much of it. As the snow sets in and cuts off the Cascades, I look forward to returning to Tiger Mountain and doing some more exploration.

Mossy trees and ferns abound on Tiger.

Peak 5: Hugo Peak

Peak: Hugo Peak

Elevation: 1,790′

Total Elevation Gain: 922′

Total Mileage: 4.5 miles

This trip report will be a practice in brevity. Wish me luck.

It’s been too long since tagging my last peak! I’ve been spending Saturdays learning to ski, which has been its own interesting adventure. It’s tough not being good at something, and doubly so when small children mock me by effortlessly shredding the slopes in the pow-pow that the sky just puked, brah. (I think that’s how skiers talk?) It’s been a fun experience, all the same, and I show promising signs of improvement.

I’ve been missing the trees, though, so a writing retreat with a colleague at Pack Forest proved the perfect antidote. We rented a cabin for a night in order to work on drafting our tenure narratives. It’s amazing how productive you can be with fewer distractions. After a solid day of work, we hit the trails right outside the cabin and embarked on a sunset hike up to Hugo Peak.

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Our cabin at Pack Forest. Amazing 1970s interior decor, complete with orange carpet, not pictured.

As we wound our way up along the Hugo Peak trail, we had occasional views of the nearby foothills, many of which were clear cut, as well as flatter terrain to the south and west. Rain clouds threatened to the east but didn’t make us think twice about pressing onward.

The setting sun wore a brilliant orange glow that deepened as it sank toward the horizon. I didn’t even try to capture it with my phone camera, as it surely would not have done justice to the incredibly rich color. I’m not sure that I’ve seen such an orange-colored sunset before. It was absolutely brilliant.

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Peek-a-boo view from the trail, the sun sauntering toward the horizon.

My timing was off, so we missed a summit sunset. Nevertheless, a narrow gap in the trees opened a slivered vista of twinkling lights in the valley below. To the north, we could see Graham and Spanaway. Closer, the lights of Eatonville flickered. Randy signed the summit register on our behalf, noting that this was his first peak and #5 of my 40 for 40.

The spring peepers started peeping in the twilight, and a break in the clouds revealed a starry night. The wind rustled in the evergreens, and we enjoyed some summit wine and took it all in. As we sat on log benches, chatting and stargazing, it struck me how much at peace I felt in this moment. Life has been quite stressful, and I’d arrived at the cabin quite wound up. Sitting among the stars and trees brought a much needed sense of calm. I reflected on how long it’s been since I’ve spent the night in the woods; clearly, it’s been too long. Nights in the forest and mountains allow me to recharge and recenter myself; it’s high time that I return to this world.

Hesitant to leave this outdoor sanctuary, we eventually made our way back down the dark trail. From time to time, we covered the beams of our headlamps to look up at the night sky, more stars emerging with each glance. We heard an owl’s call and, later, that of a creature not identified (I thought perhaps coyote but couldn’t quite hear well enough.) Coming around a bend, two glowing eyes confronted us from the dark, which soon proved connected to a lone deer. It crashed into the thickets and vanished out of sight.

All too soon, the lights of cabins greeted us. The experience was, fortunately, a good one for Randy, and he said that he would love to do this again sometime. I’m happy to have been there for his first peak and night hike and look forward to the next one!

40

“The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm.” –Aldous Huxley

 

I thought that perhaps if I traveled a few thousand miles away, I could elude 40, but it caught up with me all the same. If I couldn’t escape it, then at least I should make it a memorable day. Armed with a long weekend and enough frequent flyer miles to get me to Cuba, we traded the drab Northwest winter for a few days of dazzling Caribbean sun.

Seth’s mother and step-father live in Old Havana, so we were treated to a glimpse of Cuban life, something cruise ship tourists miss on their brief forays into the city. We rose early to run along the Malecón; had tea with Cuban friends; took in a jazz concert at an art museum; strolled through the streets in search of flowers and vegetables; sampled Havana’s emerging food culture; gorged on Rafael’s black beans, rice, yucca, and plantains; sipped rum from a fresh coconut on the beach; and watched the evening unfold from a rooftop terrace. It was a much-needed vacation from the rush of our lives, and a cultural experience that allowed us to see how varied human existence can be.

 

 

Examining Cuban life between the lines was the difficult part of this trip. The everyday conveniences we take for granted simply don’t exist in Cuba. A man pushes a cart down the street offering leftover government vegetables, because there is no grocery store. Another man pushes a cart as he collects your trash. As a resident, you might not have running water in your house for days. If you’re lucky and in the know, you’ll score a coveted loaf of bread that isn’t a stale brick. Bony horses pull heavy loads down busy roads choked with exhaust. Dogs wander in hopes of scraps. Buildings crumble before your eyes. Citizens have only the appearance of moving freely, and bribes unapologetically grease palms in broad daylight. While it seems that things are changing, many Cubans nevertheless live a difficult life. You won’t necessarily see this on the surface—my impression of Cubans is that they are warm people who would never offer a complaint—but the subtext is there all the same. It’s something we reckoned with throughout the trip and after. Traveling there was an interesting experience, and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to visit this country, but I also don’t want to view it through rose-tinted glasses, ignoring the everyday challenges faced by many of its residents. In the end, I believe it’s good for us to see how others live in this world, to give us perspective, instill empathy, and compel us to recognize our own privilege. Perhaps we will also use that advantage to do something for others, both human and nonhuman alike.

 

For my birthday, I, naturally, wanted to get out of the city and into the wild. Pico Turquino caught my eye, as it’s Cuba’s highest peak. Unfortunately, it would have been a long bus ride from Havana, and hiring a guide is compulsory. My sights then landed on the Valle de Viñales, a Unesco World Heritage site and national park a few hours drive away. Photos of the limestone mogotes rising above the valley drew me in, and whispers of how to sneak into the national park without a guide sealed the deal.

Viñales is a small rural town that sees a lot of tourists yet manages to maintain an authentic vibe. Vast agricultural lands, limestone mogotes, jungle-cloaked mountains, and lush valleys enfold the town in all directions. It’s a spectacularly beautiful place. We called a lovely casa particular home during our stay, which offered stunning views of the landscape from our balcony. Our hosts handed us fresh-squeezed mango juice as we reclined in rocking chairs, rocking away the tensions of the city’s noise and chaos.

 

After a welcome siesta, we ventured out to scout routes for the next day’s big adventure. This took us through tobacco fields and rural roads dotted with simple homes, the mogotes calling in the distance. Hitting a trail, we continued north toward the mountains, running through a jungle-like setting. We identified a notch leading to the Valle de San Vincente beyond and considered coming back tomorrow to explore it further.

 

We retraced our steps, trying to connect trails and dirt roads all the way, but a small river and deep mud turned us back the way we came. As the sun set and the magic hour light bathed the fields, we saw farmers retiring to porches after a long day’s work. It was a pastoral image straight out of a Constable painting, with a pinkish filter on the mogotes, voices tinged with the contentment of being at rest, chickens clucking in the yard, oxen unyoked in the fields. It was impossible not to romanticize the scene.

After dinner at a vegetarian restaurant (where our eyes were decidedly bigger than our stomachs), we strolled through the lively downtown, walking off our excess. With the weight of that ominous number 40 looming, I grew a little sullen, and Seth made an admirable effort to pull me out of that funk. He reminded me that I still have much to accomplish, and plenty of time in which to do so. We spent the evening dorking out over maps and potential routes for the morning, which, in my book, is the perfect way to end the day.

If I remember one thing from this trip, it will be the orange glow of sunrise to the east silhouetting the mountain ridges, and the cacophony of roosters crowing in the dawn. I’ve never heard anything like it, the cock-a-doodle-doos from all directions, not another sound audible in the otherwise still morning. 40 was off to a pretty amazing start.

As the town awoke and children made their way to school, we trotted toward the national park. Along the way, we picked up four street dogs, who immediately incorporated us into their pack. Running through the streets, the dogs would bark at passersby, the pack protecting, and claiming, us as their own. The dogs seemed as happy as us to be running in the cool morning, heading for the hills.

 

The innocent fun took a turn, though, when they ran after a flock of young sheep. Not wanting them to cause harm, we regrettably had to turn on our pack and attempted to chase them away (ok, admittedly, I made Seth do the dirty work because I couldn’t chase off the dogs myself.) They shot us heartbreaking looks of having been betrayed, but we couldn’t create a situation where they killed a lamb. Eventually, all but one retreated. When we reached a rocky scramble, the hold out could no longer follow, and we rushed away from its sad whimpering. [We saw one of the dogs in town the next day, so we feel confident that they all found their way back.]

 

Our plan was to link up with a trail in the Parque Nacional Viñales, which would take us part way up toward the peak of Mogote del Valle, in the hopes of tagging it for my birthday. The trail gave way to scrambles up gnarly limestone; we hesitated and assessed whether to continue on. Seth climbed up ahead, while I pondered if I would feel comfortable coming back down this jagged rock. He called out to say that things evened out a bit, so up I followed. The trails crisscrossed through limestone mazes and jungle foliage, and our GPS trackers had trouble locating us correctly on the map. It was clear that people used these trails, but it still felt quite remote. They weren’t park trails as you might imagine, with blazes guiding the way. Eventually, it became clear that bushwhacking to the summit would not be possible (maybe with climbing gear, which we didn’t have.)

 

It really wasn’t a big disappointment not to reach the top of Mogote del Valle, as we’d had a great adventure regardless. Making our way back down, Seth listed all of the things I had accomplished in my thirties, as a way of reinforcing that I have done more than I give myself credit for, and that there’s much that I can still achieve. Once again, I appreciated his attempt to assuage the palpable dread with which turning 40 filled me. Winding down the wild landscape, we expertly navigated the dodgy scramble sections, said farewell to some foraging piglets, and returned to the valley below. The map suggested that we might take a trail to the other side of the mogote, so, not wanting the fun to end, we ran over to check it out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Down into the valley.

A steep staircase built into the mountainside led up to Cueva de la Vaca (Cow Cave). At the foot of the stairs, Seth found a tiny puppy, eyes not yet even open. It whimpered and rolled around on the ground, and I instinctively scooped it up. It quieted and nestled into my warm body. There was no mama dog in sight, and we weighed the options. Take it to a farmer? Wait and see if mama returns? My inner dialogue said, “I guess I’m bringing a puppy home from Cuba.” As we deliberated, a group of tourists came down from the cave, mama dog in tow. She immediately sniffed the ground where the puppy had been, so we knew that this was mom. I placed the puppy back, and she licked it all over. Yep, she was mom. Anxious for food, she continued to follow the other tourists, so we broke up a Clif bar for her to find when she came back. This way, she’d have some food, but wouldn’t associate it with us.

 

Relieved that the puppy would be ok, we tramped up the stairs to check out the cave. Having left my headlamp in Havana, we carefully made our way through the dark, trying not to think about what type of animal was making those high-pitched noises. Soon, we caught natural light ahead, and we realized that the cave was, in fact, a tunnel. Reaching the other side, a view of the valley and imposing mogotes spread before us. It was breathtaking. Later, reflecting on the trip, we both cited this as the absolute highlight. The surprise view, coupled with the unexpected trail leading down the other side, was an absolute thrill. It was one of those rare, magical moments in life, when it feels as if the universe has singled you out to receive a precious gift. Tickled, we bounded down the backside of the cave and into the valley below. Here, we wound our way through tobacco fields, saying hello to old farmers, petting goats, and reveling in the pastoral beauty of this lovely place.

 

 

 

 

Magical Valley

Running through the magical valley. Photo by Seth Wolpin.

Running through the maginal valley

 

Cool tree

Cool tree. Photo by Seth Wolpin.

All too soon, the trail turned to dirt path, which soon shifted to paved road. Back in town, our casa particular host greeted us with a special birthday breakfast (she had noticed on my passport that it was my birthday, so she surprised me with balloons and a beautiful spread.)

 

 

 

We didn’t want to leave Viñales, but at least we did so in style: in a 1948 Buick. Back in Havana, Seth’s mom organized a party at a gorgeous old hotel. It was Rafael’s 87th birthday and their 25th wedding anniversary, so there was much to celebrate. The lounge was filled with an eclectic mix of Cubans, expats, visitors, and refugees; a Cuban jazz band performed as we sipped sangria. Seth made my wish for a dance come true, twirling me to the beat while everyone looked on. Unfortunately, we couldn’t convince anyone to join us, but we get an A for effort.

 

 

With one last run through Habana Viejo and down the Malecón, it was time to say chao to Cuba. Overall, it was an interesting experience, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to have visited this country. Our adventure through Viñales was truly memorable; as we ambled and scrambled, I did not fret about my age and, instead, was simply happy and present in the moment. I can’t imagine a better way to greet this new year of my life.

Peaks 3 & 4: Mount Washington and Change Peak

Date: 26 January 2019

Peak 3: Mount Washington / Elevation 4,450′

Peak 4: Change Peak / Elevation 4,320′

Total Elevation Gain: 3,691′

Total Mileage: 10-11-ish

This was a delightful outing in an unexpected place. Seth suggested that I plot a looped route on Mount Washington, which is just to the east of Rattlesnake Ridge and Cedar Butte. I’d never been there and welcomed the opportunity to check out a new place so close to home. After some fun with Caltopo, I mapped out two potential routes: one was roughly 13.9 miles and tagged Mount Washington, then came down the new Ollalie Trail and then back up the Iron Horse Trail. The second route was a little over 16 miles and tagged Mount Washington, then went over to Change Peak, and took its time meandering down another section of the Ollalie trail to then run down the Iron Horse. We were both interested in trying the longer route but decided to see how we felt once up there.

It was a gorgeous, sunny day, and my heart leaped when the Issy Alps came into view. We remarked about the impressiveness of Rattlesnake Ridge, which rises up from the Raging River valley and dominates the south side of I-90, and identified favorite peaks to the north as we passed them. We were excited to explore the south side and anticipated the view of the Middle Fork Valley that it would offer.

We made our way up through a mossy forest, with beautiful exposed rock walls dripping with water. I was a bit irritated to see that climbers had left anchors on one overhung wall, bucking the Leave No Trace philosophy that outdoor adventurers should always respect.

 

The trail offered occasional peek-a-boo views of the Issy Alps, which we paused to admire. So often we adventure on the north side of the highway, so it was a nice change to get the view of this section of the Issy Alps spread out before us, from Si to Bandera. Hitting the snow line quite a ways in, we stopped for a snack and enjoyed the warm sun streaming down into the clearing. Donning microspikes, we continued to the summit, which boasted stunning views in all directions.

From various vistas, we could see the entire Olympic Range in the west; Rainier and the Central Cascades to the north, south, and east; and the Issy Alps surrounding us. Below, the Cedar River Watershed revealed the source of Seattle’s drinking water. Snowy peaks contrasted with bright blue skies and the emerald green of the forests flanking the nearby foothills. It was a beautiful spectrum of colors, and we sat to take in the beauty of this place while identifying familiar peaks and wondering over those unknown to us.

 

Being a bit short on time, we opted for a modified return route. We would head toward Change Peak, assess if we had time to tag it, then take a shortcut down. With glee, we bounded down a lesser-used trail, thumping through the snow and laughing in acknowledgement of the sheer joy of it. Linking up with a forest road, we noted a host of ridges and peaks beckoning us to return and explore them.

 

Dancing across the snow, it struck me just how absolutely joyful I felt in that moment. A welcome sense of happiness worked itself through me. It felt wonderful to be playing in the mountains. The bright, sunny day; the perfect snow; the foothills and mountains unfolding around us; a companion with whom I could share the experience–life was good.

 

Reaching the Change Peak trail, we decided “what the heck!?” so up we went. A man on snowshoes passed and asked where we were going. “Change Peak!” “Be careful!” he advised. Well, apparently sometimes men even tell other men to be careful. This was a fun little trail that took us up through a small boulder field and narrow stand of evergreens until we reached the summit. The best view came just beyond, from which we could see Mount Baker, Glacier Peak, and the expanse of the Middle Fork. Again partaking in a favorite past time, we identified peaks and ridge traverses and dreamed up future outings. Seth sweetened the experience by surprising me with a Twilight Bar, my favorite chocolate treat.

Zooming back down from the summit, armed with the confidence of wearing microspikes, was a true highlight of the excursion. I’m pretty sure that I said “Yeehaw” more than once.

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Yeehaw! Descending from Change Peak. Photo by Seth Wolpin.

From there, we ran down the forest road, pausing briefly to check out some tracks in the snow, then linked up with the Ollalie and then Great Wall trail. Back on snow-free footing, we popped off the spikes and continued to run down to the Iron Horse, which delivered us back to the parking lot. Overall, we’d encountered maybe a dozen people, which reinforced Mount Washington’s reputation as being a less-crowded alternative to Si and Mailbox.

The excursion included an interesting array of conversational topics, but our relationship with social media became the most prominent. Seth is deleting all of his social media accounts tomorrow, and I’m heading that direction. We discussed so many facets of this, and talked through the inner conflict between wanting to disconnect from technology and reconnect with friends in “the real world,” and the ease and convenience social media allows us to maintain friendships and acquaintances. It’s a bit frightening to consider the links we may lose as a result of deleting these accounts; that’s what keeps us plugged in. To counter this visceral reaction, we explored ways that we can nurture true friendships using more old school means. Those methods worked for most of our lives. It was interesting to see the response that Seth’s friends had to his announcement of departure; many of them had been contemplating the same move, but were afraid to take that leap. I recently heard an interview on NPR in which the interviewee said, “I keep wondering when we’re all going to wake up from this,” meaning, when are we going to wake up to the massive time suck that is taking over our lives. I’ve often wondered the same. I’ve always been the reluctant social media user, but even I understand the dopamine rush provided by the validation of likes and hearts. Once, I did the math: 15 minutes of social media per day equates to four full days per year. That’s staggering, and it’s probably the push I need to step away for good.

Moving forward, I’d like to use that time instead for my personal writing, something I don’t often find time to do. It occurred to me during this hike that I run the risk of having experiences for the sake of a blog post, though, and that’s a trap I want to avoid. All the same, I found myself pausing more frequently than usual to take photos, thinking, “Oh, that will look great on my blog.” I want to be more mindful of this, and not let a good photo op come between me and the experience. I’ve found that I tend to remember something more vividly if I haven’t taken a photo. It’s a reminder to remain present and not see the world through a viewfinder all for the sake of a more interesting blog post. I want to find a healthy balance between documenting my journey, and living it.

While I’m only a few peaks in to my 40 for 40 challenge, these two summits will stand out as memorable, and this will surely hold steady as a favorite day from my larger adventure.

40 Peaks for 40 Years

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan- like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.” –Henry David Thoreau, Walden

“That number 40 is really bothering you. Why is that?” –Mark Bayer

40

Good question, Dad. That number has been bothering me for a solid year, and its arrival is now imminent. I think, for me, it has come to represent an age at which you should have accomplished the greatest achievements of your life, while also demarcating the age at which you, well, start to get old. Of course, there are plenty of examples of people who accomplish incredible things long after 40, and those who continue to live young well beyond that number as well. To be honest, I’ve never entirely grown up. All the same, that worrisome number stands there in its full symbolic weight, staring me down and asking what have I done with my life, and what am I going to do with the time that remains. Good question, 40.

My sense is that it’s not all that uncommon for people confronting 40 to feel as if they haven’t reached the dreams and goals that they’d imagined for themselves. That’s certainly where I’m at. As a sophomore in college, I said to a friend, with complete sincerity, “I just know that I’m meant to do something big, something that will make a big impact. I know that I will do something great in my life.” Sophomore translates as “wise fool,” so perhaps you will forgive my naivité–or arrogance. I wasn’t interested in recognition for an accomplishment; I simply felt driven to do something meaningful with my life. Twenty years later, and here I am, with not much to show for it. No books published. No work that is making a large impact on the planet. No big adventures. Yes, I’ve published in my field; yes I’ve impacted some students; and, yes, I’ve had some great adventures–I just have nothing epic to show for my 40 years on Earth.

Of course, as one student pointed out to me last summer as I lamented not having any grand expeditions to my name, from her perspective I’m the one doing epic things. Touché. So, to an extent, this is all subjective. The feeling that I’m capable of something much grander, though, nags at me. “It tasks me; it heaps me,” to paraphrase Ahab. What I’ve done is not enough, and time grows short. A strange new panic lurks inside me, a sense of dread: a poignant fear of having wasted so much precious time, of getting a late start, and of running out of said precious time.

In short, it appears that I’m having a run-of-the-mill mid-life crisis.

40 for 40

Enter this corny 40 Peaks for 40 Years idea. I honestly don’t know when or where I came up with this–or why. Some friends have done things to mark milestone birthdays: run a 50k for age 50; do 30 cool new things at 30; etc. I realize it’s a little contrived, but I’m an incredibly goal-oriented person, so a challenge like this suits me well. I remember mentioning it to my Dad in a phone conversation; perhaps I made it up on the spot then? His reply: “That’s a peak per week almost.” Gulp. I hadn’t thought of that.

I hadn’t mentioned it to anyone else until the other night when my friend Jen and I sipped ciders after indoor climbing. She enthusiastically encouraged the endeavor and helped me to set the parameters. I was troubling over what constitutes a peak. Does rock climbing count? Jen supplied the perfect answer: “You can make it whatever you want! If you climb up it, and you’re on top of it, it’s a peak. It doesn’t matter how you got there, whether it’s rock climbing, hiking, or mountaineering.” I like those guidelines.

Here, then, are my arbitrary guidelines for this arbitrary game that I made up for myself:

  • Getting to the highest point of a given landscape by my own power counts as summitting a peak, for the purposes of this challenge. So, hiking up Mt. Si, climbing up Mount Rainier, or doing a multi-pitch climb up The Tooth would all count as peaks.
  • If tagging multiple peaks along a ridge (say, for example, Defiance to Putrid Pete to Webb), each peak counts as an individual summit. (so, three peaks in this example)
  • Each peak only counts once. So, if I do repeats on Mt. Peak or climb Mailbox twice this year, they each only count once. I want to climb 40 distinct peaks.
  • There is no prize for accomplishing this goal, and no penalty for failing. It’s a made-up challenge with made-up rules that no one but me cares about. Ultimately, it’s meant to give me something to do for fun which will also get me out to explore new places. That sounds like a good use of time, even if it won’t change the world.
  • I must understand and agree that this challenge cannot fully address the concerns I have about turning 40, nor will it resolve my sense of having a dearth of great accomplishments. If I complete this challenge, it still won’t be the epic and elusive thing that I’m longing for. I must realize that even if I achieve the most profound feats of wit, intelligence, endurance, and badassery, it will probably never feel like enough. In the end, the 40 for 40 game is meant to serve as a catalyst for pushing me to start truly giving this life my all and doing what I can with the time I’m allotted. I want to be able to die knowing that at the age of 40, I kicked it into high gear and worked toward making a useful contribution to this world. Like my hero Thoreau, I want “to live deep and suck out all the [vegan] marrow of life.”

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Peak 1/40: Mt. Peak (January 13, 2019)

Elevation: 1,808′

Total Elevation Gain: 2,142′

Total Distance: 5.7 miles

40 is still three weeks off, but the sun was shining, and I was in sore need of trail time. After four months of essentially no running, I’ve been eager to get back to it. Mt. Peak holds a special place in my heart. My friend Tyler took me there a few years ago, and I’m eternally grateful for the introduction. Mt. Peak (also known as Pinnacle Peak and Mount Pete) helped me get some serious vert training for my first Barkley Fall Classic (the Goat Path gains 1000′ in 0.78 miles), and it was the first place outside of Tacoma that I would go for solo trail runs. It helped me build confidence at the same time that it strengthened my calves. It initially appealed to me because there were always people on it, no matter the day or time; this helped me feel a bit more comfortable venturing out on my own.

Repeats on Mt. Peak became my Saturday ritual. The day began with picking up a chai for the road, then driving out through Puyallup and up into the foothills. It was a time to leave the city and daily life behind, listen to music, and head for the peace of the hills. Near Enumclaw, you turn off the main road to see Mt. Peak rising up out of cow pastures. It’s a relatively low elevation, so it tends to be reliably snow-free all year. As such, it’s more of my winter go-to route. My standard route is as follows: Goat Trail –> summit –> down the backside –> up the backside –> summit –> down the Cal Mag trail –> repeat. After a number of repeats, I jump into warm clothes, crank the heat, stop at Wally’s drive-in for some delicious french fries, and enjoy a satisfying drive home.

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Rays of angelic light fall upon Mt. Peak, while Rainier looms in the distance.

 

I’ve neglected Mt. Peak over the past year, so it felt right to make it the inaugural 40 for 40 peak. It felt good to return to this tradition. The relatively warm, sunshiney day was an added bonus. Not surprisingly, there were a lot of other people out enjoying Mt. Peak that day. While I have reached a point where I prefer to be in wild places with no other humans in sight, Mt. Peak remains an exception. I actually enjoy encountering other people here.

I started up the Goat Path. It’s a steep climb, and I was panting. Being out of shape sucks! (According to Strava, this was, remarkably, my second-fastest assent of the Goat Path. I find that hard to believe, but Strava knows all.) It was great fun all the same, and the route gave me a little surprise when a view of the Olympics offered itself. This was perhaps the first time I’ve been here when it wasn’t rainy or cloudy, so I believe this is the first glimpse I’ve ever had of the Olympics from here. They stood snowy and majestic off to the west.

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The snowy Olympic range spreads out to the west.

 

 

 

 

Cresting the steepest part of the climb, I dusted off my running legs and eased into a little jog up to the summit. Tagging it, it was down the backside of the little mountain. It felt good to open up my legs a bit and run down. Here, people chatted with me along the way. One runner, on his way back up, asked if I was going up again. “Just one more today,” I replied. He asked if he could join me, but I said, “well, I’m out of shape and will be power hiking most of the way up.” He laughed and we chatted about races and about loving Mt. Peak, and we parted with me promising to run up with him next time our paths crossed. Tagging the gate on the far side, I headed back up in the company of a woman hauling a heavy  pack. “Are you training for something?” she asked. “I’m just getting back into things. How about you?” “Mount Rainier,” she proudly replied; thus, the heavy pack. She was heading up for her third summit of the day. “Good for you!” I cheered. We chatted about her training and also about our love for Mt. Peak (which became a recurring theme in all my interactions that day.) I was able to run slowly up more of the incline on the backside than I had imagined, so I soon left her and resumed my way to the summit. At the one good Rainier viewpoint on the route, I stopped to take it in. A woman with her two kids said, “Here, stand in my place; it’s the best view.” As we traded places, she said, “I don’t know why I like this trail so much; this is the only decent view.” I laughed, as I had been thinking the same thing. “Yeah,” I replied, “I find myself coming back all the same.” She told me that there is talk of rebuilding the fire lookout on top, which would be neat.

 

 

 

 

Continuing up the backside, I started to daydream about hosting an informal “race” here. It’s something I’ve thought about before, and I let my mind work out some potential details. Maybe have participants complete 3 summits using 3 different trails? There would be no course markings, and everyone would choose their own routes. We might call it the “Mt. Peak Threesome?” Hmmm, maybe not. “Mt. Peak Three-Peat?” Well, there’s time to work on that. The idea would be to treat it as a fatass race to raise a little money for the park and gather a group of people together to share the place with them. I’m going to reach out to Tyler and see if he’d like to collaborate on something like this with me.

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View near the summit of Mt. Peak, from the backside trail.

The final descent brought me down the Cal Magnusen trail. This is the main trail, and it’s where I learned to let go of my fear of downhill running. On past runs, there always seemed to be some crotchety old guy there (not necessarily always the same one) who would yell, “You’re gonna break your neck!” as I zoomed by. There was no such chiding on this occasion. It was fun to leap over roots and rocks, and bonus that the trail wasn’t its typical mudfest. It was over all too quickly, and I was back at my car.

Thanking the little mountain, I turned my car in the direction of Wally’s, where hot fries awaited. Passing through Bonney Lake, Mount Rainier loomed large in my rear view mirror, beckoning me to add it to my 40 for 40 challenge.

IMG_0314

Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.

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Peak 2/40: BCMC Trail, Grouse Mountain (January 19, 2019)

Elevation: 1,093 m (in meters because it’s in Canada, eh)

Total Elevation Gain: 845 m

Total Distance: 6.84 km

While in Vancouver for the On Sustainability Conference, I took advantage of the city’s close proximity to the North Shore Mountains of the Pacific Ranges. I knew of the BCMC trail from reading about Gary Robbins using it for Barkley training, and its neighbor, the Grouse Grind, has a reputation for being a steep beast. Both lead up to a ski resort, from which you can reach the peaks of Grouse and Dam Mountains–why not tag two peaks in one go! The Grind was closed for the season, so it was off to the BCMC trail. Due to wintry conditions, the only way to reach the true summit would be to rent snowshoes and use the resort’s trails up.

The BCMC winds up through a peaceful rainforest of emerald green. The trail itself is pretty gnarly, consisting primarily of tangled roots and rocks. At times, a creek flows straight down the rocks on the trail.

 

 

 

I learned at the conference that Vancouver sits on unceded Coast Salish territories. This means that the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations did not cede their traditional territories to colonists through treaty, war, or surrender. The city of Vancouver formally acknowledged this in 2014, and representatives from UBC, the host university for the conference, explained ways in which they have attempted to recognize Coast Salish peoples’ relationship with the land on which the university stands. I was a bit embarrassed not to have known this about the city, and I thought about the implications of this aspect of colonization as I journeyed through the forest.

The BCMC is “easier” than the Grouse Grind thanks to its short, sharp switchbacks. This makes the trail less vertical, but, in my experience, it led to getting off trail a few times. In the first instance, I had just passed a man, and then continued on what turned out to be a boot track and not the official trail. Passing the man for the second time, I said by way of explanation, “Took a wrong turn back there!” and laughed. It took a moment for this to register with him, but once it did, he sped up to catch me and said with incredible earnestness, “That is very dangerous. There are orange markers on the trees. You must follow the markers and go from tree to tree.” Laughing off the mansplaining instead of letting it irritate me, I returned, “I know; I just wasn’t paying close attention,” and moved ahead.

Not two minutes later, I’d done it again. Another older man, who’d overheard the first incident, said, “I thought my sense of direction was bad, but yours is terrible!” I couldn’t argue, given the amount of evidence against me, so all I could do was once again laugh and say, “I actually have a great sense of direction; I’m not sure what’s going on today!” We laughed and chatted; he took a bit of a grandfatherly tone, and I reassured him that I had everything I needed in my pack to ensure that I was safe and could figure out where I was (ten essentials plus gpx tracks and Delorme satellite device.) He climbs the BCMC once a week, and it showed! I had to work hard to stay within 3-4 meters of him. After about 20 minutes, he pulled up, breathless, and said, “You’re pushing me too hard; I need a break!” Surprised, I replied, “I was just trying to keep up with you!”

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One does not lose this trail due to lack of signage.

I passed a range of people on the ascent, from serious trail runners doing repeats for training to men in designer jeans, button up shirts, Ralph Lauren sweaters, and loafers.  Everyone was friendly. One runner passed me and said, “It’s never easy!” to which I replied, “But it’s fun!” “Yes, it is!” It’s true. While there were quite a few people out on the trail, I still had some moments of solitude, and the scenery was quite lovely. The temps were perfect for a cool weather hike, and there was no precipitation. I am particularly fond of steep, technical climbs, so this fit the bill. I’d say it wasn’t steeper than the best parts of the Goat Path on Mt. Peak, but it was vertical enough to make me work to get up some sections.

The trail is 3km one-way, and I hit snow at exactly the 2km mark. It was relatively hard packed and not too deep, so I kept on without my spikes. About a half kilometer later, a descent into a creek bed changed my mind. While putting on my spikes, my climbing friend caught me up. With honest relief, he said, “Oh good, you’re still on the trail. I was worried about ya. But you have your crampons on and look ok.” Overlooking the patronizing sense of worry, and without correcting him about the crampons, I explained that I was well prepared to be out here (listing the contents of my pack) and that I also had a satellite device with an SOS button and two people tracking me. “Oh, ok, sounds like you know what you’re doing.” “Yes, I do, thanks.” He explained that he’s afraid of going out into the backcountry, especially alone, because he’s afraid of getting lost. He sticks to the BCMC because it’s tough to get lost there (although apparently a tourist got lost in the canyon between the BCMC and Grouse Grind a few years ago and died.) It occurred to me that perhaps this man was projecting his own insecurities about being solo in the backcountry onto me.

 

 

 

I get quite irritated by this not-so-uncommon experience with men on trails. I’m not reckless and don’t take risks that I shouldn’t, and just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean that I’m incapable of traveling alone through the woods. It’s an unfortunate reality that, more often than not, during my solo adventures into the natural world, some man will make a comment that implies his sense of my incompetency. My response has typically been either to make a smartass comment (“Not my first rodeo, dude!”) or to laugh it off and keep going. No matter how I respond, though, it gets under my skin, deep, and I proceed to unload some serious fury on him in my mind. This is something I’d like to reflect on more: how should I handle these moments? What’s the best type of response? How can I get men–who are total strangers–to recognize that they are patronizing me? How can I push them to see that their sense of concern for me, and sense of themselves as thoughtfully offering insight or advice, is actually insulting, despite their good intentions? They would never say these things to another man, which makes it all the more infuriating. Did anyone say anything to the two dudes in loafers and sweaters, not a single essential between them? Doubtful.

My companion and I trekked the final half kilometer together and had a friendly chat, despite my frustration with his concern (admittedly, I perhaps gave him a little cause for concern, since I went off trail twice in two minutes, but we’re talking 5-6 steps off trail before recognizing my mistake, and not me wandering blindly for hours.) We reached the Grouse Mountain Chalet, which is the base for ski resort operations. Most hikers opt to take the gondola down, which my new friend planned to do. “My knees would hurt for weeks if I went back down the trail! Good for you for taking the tough way down.” We shook hands and parted ways.

It was time to decide if I was going to push for the true summit of Grouse Mountain, or head back down. This amount of inner debate called for hot chocolate. Fortunately, the chalet coffee shop not only had delicious hot chocolate but also vegan cookies; score! Grabbing a seat by the window overlooking the valley below, I weighed my options. It would cost about $60 US to rent snowshoes and purchase an alpine access pass from the resort. Was it really worth that much money just to say that I tagged the official summit? True, it would be fun to snowshoe and check out the mountain, but I wasn’t convinced that it was necessary for my 40 for 40 game. Then, I thought about Jen’s words when she helped me determine the parameters for the challenge: I had climbed up something, and I was (essentially) on top of it. Gaining 845m in 3km was certainly a tough climb, and the view from the chalet gave one the sense of being on top of a mountain. The verdict: good enough.

 

 

 

Trekking back down was fun! With the overconfidence that comes with wearing microspikes, I bounded down through the snow. Wheeee! Postholing up to my hips stopped me in my tracks once, but, laughing at myself, I zoomed on and ran most of the 1km covered in snow. Taking off my spikes, I took it easy the rest of the way down, navigating root and rock and the ever-growing line of hikers. Ruminating on my decision to head down, I thought about the intention behind this challenge. The main idea is to have a goal that gets me out and allows me to see new places, all while having fun. As far as that goes, BCMC was a mission accomplished. In the end, this is a silly game that I’ve invented for myself. I really don’t care if someone else thinks this shouldn’t count as a peak because I didn’t tag the official summit. It honestly feels great for me not to care. In the past, I almost certainly would have felt a sense of failure for not reaching the absolute top of Grouse Mountain. While I do want to drive myself to do great things–that is, in fact, the driving force that motivates me so much right now–it is also liberating not to care so much about the technical details of something.

It’s nice to feel content simply by being present, out in the woods.

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Our Type of Fun: An Issy Alps 50k Trip Report

The Fun Scale, as defined by Kelly Cordes

Type I Fun – true fun, enjoyable while it’s happening.

Type II Fun – fun only in retrospect, hateful while it’s happening.

Type III Fun – not fun at all, not even in retrospect.

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Introduction

It’s 5:10 a.m. My running tights are soaked through, and I haven’t even left the driveway. Torrential rains fall from the sky in theatrical fashion, and, in closing the trunk of my Outback, I send a bucket of pooled water cascading down onto my legs. I own two pairs of tights, and the other pair is packed for use later in the day. Sighing at this characteristically bonehead move, I hop into the car and head toward the Little Si Trailhead to meet Seth and begin our Issy Alps 50k adventure.

A series of interconnected paths has led to this moment. It was during Lap 18 of the 2016 Carkeek 12-Hour race that I first learned the concept of an adventure run. I ran this lap with Dan Sears, who I had just met, and we covered a lot of conversational ground in that short time. He explained that he was more interested in adventure runs with friends these days than in competing at races. They would choose an interesting location, devise a fun route, and just enjoy the experience together. My competitive racing life was still in its infancy–I was a mere 6 hours away from my first win–but the idea of adventure runs captured my imagination all the same. That chance course encounter also resulted in Dan introducing me to Rich White as a potential running partner. Rich would, in turn, introduce me to the Issy Alps Ultras and the Harvey Manning Peak Challenge. These challenges, not quite races but a bit more formal than an adventure run, spoke to me. I was drawn to the prospect of playing in the Cascades, covering a difficult route without the support of aid stations and helpful volunteers. The same factors led me to research the Ultra Pedestrian Wilderness Challenges, another great opportunity for adventure in my backyard. Yassine called my attention to the Angel’s to Alpine challenge in Oregon, which stoked my interest in this new (to me) type of ultra.

The Bob Graham Round was the first of this sort of endeavor that I’d heard of, and I was very keen to give it a try. I’d had the great pleasure of doing a recce on the first part of the course early last summer, further fueling my desire to embark on these sorts of adventures. During my BGR recce, I learned that, while most fell runners bring a pacer, navigator, and mule along on their attempts, it is possible to get an official finish as long as you have one other person with you to confirm that you summitted all 42 peaks on the route. Two runners had done so the year prior and had verified each other. The runner who told me this did so with a thinly-veiled tone of disdain in his voice; this wasn’t the proper way to do a Round. All I could think about was how I’d love to meet someone who would happily attempt the BGR with me, foregoing the standard crew and just vouching for each other.

Enter Dr. Wolpin.

In the midst of all these running and peak challenges swirling in the air, the universe also conspired to bring Seth Wolpin into my world. We’d had a brief written exchange in regards to my first story on the Boldly Went podcast, and I’d read some of his trip reports. Knowing of my curiosity about the HMPC, our mutual friend Angel Mathis offered to do some scouting with me and suggested that we invite Seth; “Do you know Seth?” she asked, coyly. “You two should know each other.” Two weeks later, Pablo Cabrera introduced us at the White River 50 finish line. In the correspondence that followed, Seth mentioned being a “Bob Graham geek.” He had my attention. In the following weeks, we bagged some incredible peaks, traversed stunning ridge lines, and bushwhacked to secret alpine lakes (some details of which I recount in this episode of the Boldly Went podcast.) This was the type of guy who’d be there by my side for a BGR attempt, just for fun.

Before long, he had my heart.

That was just over seven months ago, and we’ve enjoyed some pretty spectacular adventures in that time. Two weekends ago, we agreed to start adding more big pushes and micro-adventures into our life. Seth tossed out some ideas for the inaugural weekend: wandering the bluffs and canyons of eastern Washington; modifying Stuke Sowle’s Grand Tiger Traverse into a point-to-point route; or attempting the Issy Alps 50k. He tasked me with doing some research and making the final call. Initially, I was drawn toward bluff running in the east, after seeing a photo posted in the Seattle Mountain Running Group page and longing for sunshine. With the forecast calling for rain over there, though, it seemed to defeat the purpose of heading across the mountains. Better to wait for sun. The Grand Tiger Traverse seemed like a fun option; I ran my first trail half on Grand Ridge and my first post-broken fibula trail race on Tiger, so it would be fun to link up those places that were formative parts of my trail running life. I do doubles and triples on West Tiger 3 pretty regularly, and this would give me a chance to explore other parts of the park. As for the Issy Alps, I wasn’t sure about the prospect of dealing with snow on the climbs and rain all day. After reading lots of trip reports, studying maps, and considering all the options, I began composing an email to Seth. Much to my surprise, I was writing an argument in favor of doing the 50k. It would be more epic than the other adventures; I’d only summitted one of the four peaks; and it would give me the chance to use microspikes for the first time. Plus, I quite fancied the idea of sitting in a hot bath after hours spent in the cold and pouring rain, reflecting on the beauty of a tough challenge. Naturally, he agreed.

We debated whether to formally announce the attempt; we weren’t going to set any records and intended only to have fun. Around 9:00 p.m. on Friday, we decided to make it Facebook official. I joked that we would be going for the SKT, Soggiest Known Time, given the appalling weather forecast for torrential rain and a volatile windstorm. We received some nice well wishes, plus we would now have the eyes of local ultra runners upon us, adding motivation not to bail. We planned to meet at the Little Si Trailhead at 6:00 a.m. in hopes of being ready for a 7:00 a.m. start. After too little sleep, alarms buzzed early.

Peak One: Mailbox / Fun Scale: Type 1

I had never climbed Mailbox. Upon my first arrival in the Pacific Northwest, I learned a lot about the much beloved hiking routes in the area. Mailbox consistently came up as a must-do hike, but friends warned me that it could be pretty scary for someone with the extreme fear of heights that I had. I envisioned a rocky scramble with razor sharp edges, vertigo-inducing cliffs where one bad step would send you plummeting to your death. I imagined a mailbox teetering on a narrow precipice, verging on the abyss. You’re laughing because you know this is far from the reality, but it was the image my mind took away from those early descriptions. Later, as I began proactively confronting my fear of heights, I would avoid Mailbox due to its popularity; I had no use for crowds. I would see it towering above as I made my way to other trails in the area, always thinking that someday I’d get around to it but never feeling pressed to do so. Today, I was happy to have an excuse to finally see it for myself.

After a white-knuckled drive/swim through unbelievable rain, I rolled into the Little Si parking lot where Seth waited patiently. We transferred gear between vehicles then headed over to the Mailbox trailhead. There were very few cars at the lower lot, which is apparently a rarity these days. The ungodly weather probably facilitated that. We took a few minutes to load our packs–both of which Kathleen Egan graciously loaned us. I don’t know the exact model, but they were Ultraspire fastpacks, and they were incredible. Thanks, Kathleen! We opted, perhaps at my insistence, to go self-supported. Seth typically goes unsupported, but in this weather, I felt no shame in having a dry set of clothes and shoes waiting in the car. Plus, we’d be able to travel pretty light up Mailbox. Final preparations in order, we left behind our creature comforts and headed for the trail. It was 7:01 a.m.

The route calls for ascending and descending the Old Trail, which, I’d come to understand, is the best way to experience Mailbox. The WTA description of this route suggests that it’s a soul crushing, relentless climb. Reaching the turn off for the trail, we noted signage warning hikers of the many rescues performed on this route each year. I can see where all of this was coming from, but I soon realized that such descriptions and warnings are for the average hiker. Don’t get me wrong, Mailbox’s Old Trail is a formidable route; it just wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen before, and it wasn’t the greatest challenge I’d ever encountered. Things were pretty quiet as we zig-zagged up, switching back and forth. I’m a slow climber and, as my friend Jen says, I’m like a diesel truck: I take a while to get rolling. As such, Seth soon pulled ahead. All the same, I moved with intention, my favorite motto of RFP–relentless forward progress–cycling through my mind. It was too early to get frustrated at myself for not being able to keep up on the climbs.

Eventually, the trail littered with pine needles turned to one covered in a sheet of ice. It was cartoon-slick. In my attempts to avoid slipping, I’d end up getting off trail and more than once had to look for blazes to orient me. Eventually, I caught Seth, only because he’d stopped to put on his microspikes. I’d purchased mine months ago, but this was the first opportunity to try them out. I had no idea what to expect and certainly didn’t anticipate them being so incredibly fun to sport. I charged up the ice sheets with a new velocity. This was awesome! It was a wild sensation to move so sturdily over ground that just moments before threatened to break my neck. The past year has been full of similar new experiences. For the seasoned outdoor adventurer, this is just another mundane detail. For the newly-initiated, the first time you float on ice is a memorable moment. A stupid grin spread across my face.

Two tall figures made their way down the trail, both decked in heavy winter garb and toting large packs. One of them grumbled a greeting of sorts while the other remained silent. Catching Seth at the clearing near the final climb, he told me, “They didn’t summit. Too cold; too windy.” Perhaps that explained their mood. Well, not summitting wasn’t an option here, lest we sought defeat on the first peak. Here, without the shelter of the tree canopy, deeper snow covered the landscape. We worked our way over to the rocky steps leading up. Seth pointed out the wells formed around large rocks and cautioned me to be careful of my footfall to avoid post-holing. As we ascended, I moved in awe of the labor that went into laying the “steps” made of giant boulders along the route. The wind picked up, without the body of trees to break it. The view was the trade off. Despite the rainy, dreary day below, the Issy Alps stood on full display from this vantage point. Many “oh mys” escaped these lips.

How fortunate we are to live in this place. How fortunate we are that this is what Saturday looks like for us.

“There’s the summit,” I hear Seth say. Sure enough, that infamous mailbox came into view. Happily, there were no insane scrambles to reach it. There were a few trinkets inside, plus a pair of ski goggles. Seth thought I should take the goggles, but I’d forgotten to bring something to leave in the box and felt that it would be bad luck to take without giving. Instead, we took in the view and identified neighboring peaks. We were presumably the first people on the summit that day, and we had it entirely to ourselves. The wind continued to build, so we didn’t linger long.

After the easy-ish ascent, I figured the descent would be nothing. I wasn’t prepared for vertigo to smack me in the face, but it came on in a rush as I made my way down. It’s such an odd feeling; it’s the closest sensation I’ve had that replicates the feeling of being in a nightmare. It didn’t last long, but it was intense. Add to that the fierce wind and, now, snow, and conditions were a bit on the treacherous side. Suddenly, my confidence in the security of microspikes flagged, and I was more cautious in my steps. Each wind gust threatened to whisk away my lucky hat, so I held onto it with one hand, poles in the other, trying to keep sight of the path to follow. Seth bounded down the boulders like a damned mountain goat. I gingerly picked my way down like a pig on roller skates.

Soon, other hikers came into view, all looking a little stunned by the deteriorating weather conditions. The one exception was a cute little black Corgi-esque dog that bounded up the boulder steps with a little doggy smile on his face. I couldn’t help but smile back. Seth was out of sight at this time, and I took care to make sure I didn’t get off trail and continue forward at a junction he had pointed out earlier where hikers tend to get off route. Hitting the Old Trail, there was the benefit of tree cover, so the wind gusts and snow subsided. It was time to put the microspikes to a real test and start running down the trail. With a few “yeehaws!” I zoomed over the ice sheets, still amazed at the grip the spikes provide. Running soon became difficult, as the trail was now littered with hikers, mostly in large groups. Many were clearly training for bigger summits, decked out in their mountaineering boots, helmets, and giant packs. It was a bit of a circus, though, and lived up to the vision of Mailbox that had kept me away. It was surprising to see so many hikers on the Old Trail; my assumption was that most people took the new one instead. Several groups stopped me to ask how close they were to the summit, anxiety in their voices and eyes. I’d encourage them that they were close and that the view was worth it, but it also became a bit irritating to be stopped so frequently. Fortunately, Seth paused to pet every dog along the way, which helped me catch up to him. Admittedly, I silently took some pride in the thought that, to these people, summitting Mailbox would be a day’s work, while, to us, it was just the start of the day. That’s not to belittle their achievement by any means; I just took pleasure in knowing that I’d be pushing some of my limits today.

Hitting the gravel road, I ran ahead to get a start on my wardrobe change. We had done Mailbox in 2 hours and 25 minutes; this was one of only 2-3 times that I looked at my watch during our 50k attempt, as I wanted to just take in the experience and not worry about time. Going self-supported was a good call; my hardshell and rain pants were soaked through, which meant my under layers were soaked as well. My shoes and socks were sopping wet, too, and I felt confident that we easily had the SKT in the bag after only the first peak. We both swapped out all clothes. I’m fortunate to have a boyfriend who has stockpiles of gear, as he loaned me an extra hardshell since mine wouldn’t be dry anytime soon. My appearance was rather clown-like, with baggy rain pants and a too-big jacket, but I’ll take comfort over fashion any day. Those dry clothes felt so incredibly lovely. You have no idea how wonderful it is to be in dry clothes until you have been in soggy, squishy clothes for hours in the cold. We loaded up packs and munched on avocado sushi rolls and inari, which tasted sublime despite being at least a day old. We were relatively efficient during this gear swap, eating and changing and packing all at once. Never one to idle the engine, this felt like a time for an exception, and I blasted some heat for a couple minutes to chase off the chill. Our turnaround time was about 20 minutes; not lightning speed, but not bad either. This was our one and only resupply stop, so we made it count, then pressed on.

 

Interlude: Granite Lakes, Sitka Spruce, and CCC Trails / Fun Scale: Type 1

From the Mailbox trailhead, the route leads down the Middle Fork Road a short ways to the Granite Lakes trailhead. We had taken this trail on our first camping trip after having spent six weeks apart. It was early November, and the autumn foliage of the lower trail eventually gave way to a winter wonderland as we neared the lakes. It was absolutely magical to step from one season into another. Not finding a suitable spot to pitch a tent at the lakes, we came down below the snowline and found a gorgeous little spot on a new section of trail leading to a new trailhead. The snowline descended overnight, and giant pillows of snow plopped down onto the tent, waking us with a jolt at what sounded like someone lobbing snowballs at us.

It was nice to return to this little trail, which seems to be underused and underappreciated. Once an old logging road, now a narrower track that edges along a steep hillside with beautiful exposed rock walls along the way, Granite Lakes trail is a runnable, pleasant respite from the big climbs of the route. The trail becomes a sort of ledge that hugs those rock walls and steep, tree-lined drops, and we wondered if the original road had been blasted out. It seemed too perfectly sculpted to be natural, but the blasting would have taken quite some amount of labor. The answer remains a mystery to us. Reaching the junction, we turned down the new trail. We paused briefly to say hello to that great campsite, then bolted down the hill. It’s a buttery, cushy trail meant for cruising. It was pretty slick, though, and Seth had some spectacular wipe outs as we descended, sending us into fits of laughter. Reaching the new parking lot, he was stunned at its appearance. Only a year before, there was nothing of the sort here. Seth opined the days of having the Middle Fork to himself. We weighed the pros and cons of making the wild more accessible, but failed to arrive at a satisfying answer to that question.

Hitting the road, we crossed the bridge over the Middle Fork, where we saw rafters dropping catamarans into the river. Noting that it would be fun to return in warmer weather for a pack raft trip, we continued to the hidden trail on the other side, where we would drop down to meet the Sitka Spruce trail. Seth had pointed out this spot on numerous occasions before while driving past, as it can be easy to miss. Somehow, we lost sight of each other here, Seth going under the bridge to look at the river, me continuing onward. As the trail forked, I stopped, not seeing him in either direction. I let out some yips, but heard nothing in response. Choosing the wrong fork (naturally), I continued down a deer trail but sensed something was off. Backtracking, we reconnected, and then scouted for a good place to cross a feeder creek. Apparently, there once had been a great big log bridge, but someone had, for some unknown reason, recently sawed it away. No other options presented themselves, so into the water we went. Seth opted to go in with shoes on. For me, it was far too early to get my feet wet, so I chose to take off shoes and socks, and then roll up my tights above the knee. The creek was cold but not too wide, and we forded soon enough.

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Fording the feeder creek. PC Seth Wolpin.

The Sitka Spruce trail was my favorite section of the entire route. You move through a lush, fern-sprinkled landscape, punctuated by small creeks and lined with its namesake tree. Spring flowers were emerging, and the trail treated us to the colors of salmon berry flowers, skunk cabbage, and trilium. The trail is easy to follow but clearly does not see many hikers. It gives you the sense of stumbling into your own secret forest. Seth suggested that the greenery was the very definition of verdant. The trail soon climbs to a ridge, and the spruce needles cushion the path like a carpet. Words fail me in this moment to convey the wonder of this ridgeline. Traversing its spine, we felt completely immersed in a green world of our own, far from the hordes on Mailbox. All too soon, it delivers you onto the CCC road. Farewell for now, Sitka Spruce Trail. Seth took a moment to point out the trail to Green Mountain, which we would have to save for another day.

The CCC road is a flat gravel stretch that we should have been running. It was too early for walking; perhaps we had been lulled by the serenity of the Sitka Spruce into a walking slumber of sorts. I wanted to pick up the pace, but before the suggestion could leave my lips, Seth confessed that he was always tempted to walk flat sections like this. I suggested that we at least make good use of the time and eat our sandwiches while walking. That accomplished, and out of excuses, we chose a landmark tree stump in the distance and agreed to start running there. Having stiffened up a bit, it began more like a shuffle than a run, but finally our legs were moving at a respectable speed. As the CCC dipped downhill, my pace quickened, leaving Seth behind. It felt good to open up the legs and compensate for walking the flat section above. Not wanting to outpace him by too much, I slowed to a walk until Seth came into sight, and we stopped at the private sculpture garden he’d mentioned earlier. Not long after that, we reached the Teneriffe trailhead. Anticipating the climb to come, we had a quick snack, then were off to bag Peak 2.

Peak Two: Teneriffe / Fun Scale: Type 1

Teneriffe made me nervous, and I was anxious to get past it. My main goal with the entire trip was to be safely off Teneriffe before dark. I’d read a recent trip report that spoke of potentially fatal conditions on top, leading me to imagine a razor’s edge ridge covered in slick snow and ice, promising to send me plummeting to the beyond with one wrong step. Last summer, a hiker fell 100 feet off Teneriffe and wandered lost in the wild for several days. As I would learn soon enough, my imagination ran a bit wild in its expectations, but at the time, it loomed as a formidable challenge.

Several people were finishing up their hike for the day as we headed out. I soon pulled ahead of Seth, running what I could. The trail eventually forks; our route went right, up the Teneriffe Falls Trail (also known by the less culturally sensitive name, the Kamikaze Falls Trail.) We passed a few groups coming down from the falls, some warning of the slick rock ahead. We passed a couple with a cute little dog; they were the last humans we’d see the rest of the trip.

I miraculously kept the lead, pressing forward with a sense of urgency. I paused below the falls, which we could hear above. We debated getting water here, but decided to wait until reaching the falls proper. Mistake. At the foot of the impressive falls, which cascade in spectacular fashion from far above, we paused to admire its beauty and majesty. We also refilled our water bottles and were thoroughly drenched by the misty spray as a result.

From here, the route picks up a boot track, which grows steeper by the minute. Seth mentioned that upon reaching the ridge, we’d find a nice spot for taking a break. Sure enough, cresting the climb, we came to a nice little rocky outcropping. It offered a wind break and comfy seats to enjoy a snack and take in the view. We also used it as an opportunity to prepare for snowy conditions moving forward, adding layers and wrapping our feet in plastic bags. We ate vegan marshmallows and other junk food, sharing with the other the treats we had brought and chatting about this and that. As I finished up, Seth got a head start. I asked, “Where’s the trail?” not seeing anything obvious, but also not seeing many options. “That’s the trail,” he answered, pointing to something that looked more like an absolute vertical incline than a trail. I was afraid of that. Looking at my watch for the second time, I saw that we’d been out for nearly 9 1/2 hours. The thought took my breath away. We were 1/3 of the way through in terms of distance, but still had three summits to go. I’d never expected another 50k to take me longer than it took me to run my first Barkley Fall Classic, but the Issy Alps was going to change that, handily.

This is where the real fun began. Perhaps it’s thanks to my experiences on the Barkley course, but I absolutely love stupidly steep climbs. Maybe it’s because they level the playing field a bit; I’m a slow climber, so naturally I enjoy a climb where I’m not left behind. Coming up right behind Seth, who had a start on me, I joked, “You know it’s rough if I’m on your heels.” He laughed that this climb makes Mailbox look like child’s play; agreed. Again, it wasn’t necessarily the toughest climb I’ve done on a run, but it was a beast all the same, and I loved every inch of it. We soon reached snow, so out came the microspikes. Donning spikes on a steep incline is no easy feat! This pulling on and off of the spikes also slowed us down considerably throughout the adventure, playing a role in our markedly slow pace.

The snow grew deeper as we climbed, and we began to posthole. At times, it seemed best to step in the tracks of climbers who had come before us. At others, that seemed to be a fast track to postholing. We had to avoid tree wells and other similar hazards, and the slow going became a thicker grade of molasses. Despite the challenge, it was fun all the same. As the summit came into view, I saw that my fears had been unfounded. There was safe passage to the top, and only the uncautious would tempt the obvious cornice. We sat on a bit of exposed rock and admired the view while sharing a Twilight bar (the vegan’s answer to a Milky Way, and pretty much my favorite treat on the planet.) We could see where we’d been on Mailbox, and where we were heading, toward Si. We took a look at Green Mountain and its sketchy ridge that the HMPC asks you to traverse. Seth pointed out the different route options for connecting Green to Teneriffe, none of them ideal.

 

For the descent, we would make a sort of triangle and link up with the new trail, which was more like a road than trail. Seth dropped down first, and the pitch appeared incredibly steep from my perspective, making my legs wobble as he quickly disappeared down the slope. There were no other tracks here, and I found it tough to kick in steps. When Seth fell and slid wildly for a moment before catching himself with veggie belay, I froze. Seeing him careen out of control, even only for a moment, reignited those lingering fears. Sensing my hesitation, and seeing my difficulty in kicking steps into the snow, Seth made some for me, being the thoughtful guy that he is. It’s humbling to say, but I was grateful to have him there to do so. I find it difficult to admit when I need help, but humility won the day and I accepted his kindness.

The worst of it over, and none of it nearly as terrifying as I’d anticipated, the trail leveled off a bit, and we made our way down the new trail, heading toward the Talus Loop Trail, which would connect us to Si. The descent was marked by constant sliding, falling on butts, postholing, and lodged poles. The falls were harmless, but caught me off guard,  and I couldn’t help but laugh each time. The postholing was obnoxious more than anything. Under different conditions, this would be a section to bomb down with abandon. The snow made it an entirely different animal. True, our pace was faster than it had been for a while, but already the sun was setting, and we hadn’t even entirely descended from peak two.

 

Nature called at one point, and I sent Seth ahead while I answered. It seems we always separate at important junctures. Wearing so many layers makes even a pee break drag out interminably, and I had to rush to rejoin him. Coming to a T-intersection, I considered the options. Seth had mentioned a higher connector trail over to Mt. Si. My instinct told me that this was that trail, but that it was the higher route used for the HMPC. For the Issy Alps 50k, we needed to descend to the bottom of the mountain before turning over toward Si. Of course, I could have easily consulted the map on Gaia, which was on my phone, but stowed so inconveniently far away in my pack. I could have also listened to my gut, which said, “go left, no doubt about it.” For whatever reason, I did neither, and started up the trail to the right. In my head, it somehow made sense at the time. Fortunately, logic prevailed before too long. Not catching Seth after 5 minutes, I hauled out my phone to see that I had, in fact, chosen the wrong trail. With quickened steps, I retraced my path and flew down the mountain to find him waiting below. It was a good lesson in keeping the map handy and trusting your gut.

Snow marked much of the descent, and daylight waned quickly. Finally reaching solid ground, we removed our microspikes and debated whether to get out headlamps. We wanted to try to make it a bit further without them, but deny the falling darkness as we might, a few minutes later found us stopping yet again in order to pull out the lamps. I was relieved to have the toughest climbs behind us, and to be safely off Teneriffe before dark. As night fell, we met the Talus Loop Trail and began our traverse over to Mt. Si.

Peak Three: Mt. Si / Fun Scale: Type 1, mostly

It’s funny how what should be the easiest parts of a run can sometimes be the most challenging. Perhaps it was due to getting behind in calories–we hadn’t stopped to eat since sharing a candy bar on the summit of Teneriffe–but whatever the cause, my energy flagged on the Talus Loop Trail. As I am wont to do, I had completely minimized the remaining two climbs in my mind. We had bagged the toughest two peaks on the route and had covered more than half the mileage. I had previously climbed Mt. Si, long before my ultra days, and at a respectable pace. Little Si was for people who can’t do Mt. Si, I arrogantly told myself. This might be the beauty of the Issy Alps Ultras: they tempt you to underestimate the difficulty of the route. I was still in this mindset, but my body was gassed. Sometimes holding RFP as a personal motto gets me into trouble; I’m reluctant to stop and eat or rest or look at a map because I just want to go, go, go. I’m not the fastest runner by any stretch, so I make up for it by not taking breaks. Occasionally, it works to my advantage. Sometimes, it comes back to bite me. My sense is that this instance was an example of the latter.

A trail juncture along the way gave us pause. The left descended, while the right ascended. Seth felt sure we go down, but I was inclined to think we went up. Trusting his knowledge of the route, and our shared sense of having to climb all of the peaks essentially from ground zero, we went left. We would go a little ways then check Gaia to see if we’d chosen wisely. Despite the downhill grade, I was moving slowly, so we soon decided to stop for a snack break. The plan was to save the chocolate bars for summits, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and that last Twilight bar was devoured. We also took the opportunity to check our route decision. Good thing, because we were off course. Back up the hill we went. Fortunately, we discovered our mistake before getting too far down the trail, but the mistake did seem to zap some energy out of us, not from the added mileage but from a mental perspective. It was dark and getting cold. We were tired. Bonus miles were less welcome at this stage. Retracing our steps to the juncture, we happened upon several salamanders. It was wild to see them winding down the trail, their bright red skin shining in the artificial light.

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There’s a salamander in there, somewhere. PC Seth Wolpin

The sugar must not have kicked in, as I continued to lag behind after regaining the route. Seth pulled ahead and disappeared around winding bends, leaving me to focus on my slow pace. This is the exact moment when you don’t want to be in your head, that moment when you linger on your weaknesses and criticize yourself for not being stronger. I was angry with myself for being slow and feeling sluggish. I chided myself for not training hard enough. I cursed my concussion and slow recovery. The Fun Scale dipped dangerously close to Type 2.

Before things could completely spiral in my mind, we met the Mt. Si trail. Something about this landmark gave me a jolt, and, suddenly, I was renewed. I found my ultra legs and characteristically upbeat perspective, moving up the climb with a new sense of urgency and glee. Seth fell behind, which is quite the role reversal for an ascent. For once, I was the one who got to stop for a breather to let him catch up. This gave me a mental boost, and once again this adventure was firmly rooted in Type 1 fun. Casually leaning up against a log railing on a switchback, I smiled as Seth strolled over. “We need a real break,” he said. He was right; we’d been pushing through and breaking only long enough to split a Twilight bar. We stopped and raided his gourmet vegan cheese stash, spreading it on table water crackers. Doesn’t everyone carry table water crackers and gourmet vegan cheese on their outdoor adventures? We sure do, which is just another reason why I love adventuring with this guy. We have a shared vision for ultra snacking.

Cheese devoured, onward we went. Once again, I pulled ahead, admittedly loving it. Hey, maybe I can only climb faster than Seth Wolpin once he’s worn out and doesn’t get enough breaks, but you have to take the small victories when you can. It was also nice to be on a familiar trail, and I reflected back to my previous trip up Mt. Si. After reading Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run, I was excited to try Mt. Si for myself and aspired to do a double or even a triple. At the time, I hadn’t yet run an ultra. I researched the FKTs and set a goal for myself. In recounting the story to Seth, I remembered my goal being something like 53 minutes and that I achieved it (but this was ultra brain talking and I’m pretty confident there’s no way I got up it in that time. Maybe it was just over an hour.) I also went on and on about how if I could do the Haystack, anyone could. I recalled being a little nervous scrambling up, but I’d done it, and now I could look up at the Haystack whenever I drove down I-90 and know that I had been up there. Imagine my surprise when, upon reaching what I thought was the summit of Mt. Si, Seth continued walking past the “haystack.” My haystack, it turns out, was just a little rocky outcropping, and the summit lay beyond it. This would then, technically speaking, be my first actual summit of Mt. Si. There was no other option but to laugh at myself.

It was dark, windy, cold, and rainy. You know, typical PNW early spring. We trotted over to the summit and looked down on North Bend, its lights twinkling through the mist below. It was wild to be atop one of the most popular mountains in the area with no one else around.  A few city sounds made their way within ear shot, but mostly the wind and rain provided the only audible backdrop. It struck me in that moment that climbing these popular routes in the middle of the night might just be the best way to experience them. We were, in all probability, the only humans out on the trails in that area at this time. There’s something quite cool about that, about knowing that in the morning, once again the masses will make pilgrimages to these hiking icons of the northwest, none of them even imagining that two crazy runners were up there in the wee hours of the morning, edging toward the summit one cheese cracker at a time. We then moved toward the Haystack. Despite the darkness, you could see its outline in the night and feel its presence looming above you. It was spooky and awe inspiring all at once. The true sublime. I felt like it was watching us, which unsettled me a bit. I definitely had not climbed this thing! Someday I’ll come back for it, but the route didn’t demand the scramble, so we pressed forward.

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Mount Si (maybe; or maybe Little Si). North Bend below. Note the laser beams/rain drops. PC Seth Wolpin.

Snow was patchier on Mt. Si, probably thanks in part to the many visitors it sees year round who tramp down a trail. We hadn’t needed the spikes for much of it, and it was a relief to be done with them at this point. The descent follows the Old Trail, and we had wisely taken note of the juncture on the way up so as not to miss it coming down. We hit the mark right on cue this time. While it has some steep and technical components, the Old Si trail has many runnable sections. Seth caught his own second wind and barreled down. The previous descents caught up with me, and my knees were wrecked at this point. Each footfall sent pain shooting through both knees, albeit the left knee is always more sensitive. It took some teeth gritting and will power to push on at a run. It’s rare that I experience pain on long runs and races, so this definitely registered. Fortunately, the thrill of being on Si in the middle of the night, coupled with the fun of the Old Trail and knowing we had one summit to go, helped propel me past the discomfort and cruise (so it seemed) to the finish. Despite the physical challenges, my heart was open and joyful, filled with gratitude to be capable of such an experience. I let out “Yip Yips!” and “Yeehaws” along the way.

Then we got to Little Si, and I promptly fell apart.

Peak Four: Little Si / Fun Scale: Type 2

Hubris is a bitch. My arrogance in minimizing the difficulty of Little Si–even the name suggests it’s a negligent climb!–bit me in the rear. On its own, of course, it isn’t a particularly challenging trail. At the end of an incredibly tough 50k, it’s another matter. A sign post at the trail juncture said that it was 1.4 miles to the summit. 1.4 miles. That’s nothing! That’s not even a warm up! But those 1.4 miles out to the summit were eternity personified. The rain continued to gain momentum as puddles formed along the trail. There was little talking at this stage; I had gone silent. In an incredibly rare move, I put my head down, determined to just grind out the final miles. It’s my nature to always find joy in running. Even in the most challenging situations on a course, I’m still smiling and grateful and happy. This was a new side to me; this was the me who wanted to just finish this thing. It wasn’t quite the soul crushing experience of the final 5 miles of Bryce 100 (the only other time I’ve felt this mentally crushed on a course) but it was close. Seth mentioned that Doug McKeever had sent us some words of encouragement. “I’ll read them to you on the summit,” he offered as a carrot. It was what I needed. There were no “Doug signs” on the course, but at least I would soon hear welcome sentiments of support.

The trail winds around the summit, so you essentially travel past it and around to the far side before climbing. Something about that made the experience all the more difficult, the trail teasing and taunting you as it slowly wraps around and around. As the climb began, the technical nature of the trail caught me off guard. Gnarly rocky and rooty sections marked the route. The rain, now pouring, sent rivulets cascading down, making the rocks all the more slippery. My legs wobbled wildly, and a fatigue set in that turned me into a walking zombie. Everything hurt. I couldn’t say that I was having fun. “One point four miles my ass!” I exclaimed. Onward I trudged, literally encapsulating the very definition of the word. After eons, we reached the summit. Modest celebrations ensued. Seth read Doug’s messages, which made me smile and provided a much needed lift. Of all the positive mottoes, my favorite was the one borrowed from the great Dr. Horton: “It doesn’t always get worse.” Indeed! Thanks, Doug! You have no idea how your kind words helped me keep moving forward.

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Still managed a smile! Little Si summit. PC Seth Wolpin.

Jelly legs and brain exhaustion made for a tricky descent. Despite being less than 2 miles from the trailhead, I needed a quick break to refuel. We munched a quick snack as Seth observed, “If we push, we can finish in under 20 hours.” How incredible that a sub-20 50k finish was something we’d have to work for! That goal, ridiculous as it may seem, spurred me on. The trip down felt treacherous. The snack had helped calm the wobbly legs, but my fatigue was nearly debilitating. It had recently become clear to me that I still have some fear of falling on the trail to overcome, fueled by the knowledge that a fall could be disastrous for someone recovering from a TBI. All of these factors compounded and led me to run down the slippery trail much slower than I would have liked. The clock tick-tocked away, the 20-hour mark nearing ever so quickly. As the trail flattened out a bit, I mustered every bit of energy left, but there was not much left to give. Head down, teeth gritted, I pushed as hard as humanly possible yet moved at a pathetic pace. No longer caring about dry feet, I plowed straight through giant puddles, shoes soaked.

Tick-tock. Tick-tock.

At the trail juncture, the sign post read 0.3 miles to the parking lot. We laughed maniacally, relieved that we had it in the bag, but that 0.3 miles dragged on and on, and soon it was no laughing matter. Pushing through everything, I managed a jog hobble, questioning out loud the accuracy of the trail signage, cursing whomever measured the distance. Just when I began to think that I was in some Twilight Zone time warp, the glow of streetlamps came into view, and the Little Si parking lot appeared. We ran over to Seth’s truck and tapped it with joy.

After nineteen hours and 54 minutes, we had successfully completed the Issy Alps 50k. It was 2:55 a.m.

Afterword

We laughed giddily on the drive over to the Mailbox trailhead to retrieve my car, heat blasting, chocolate bars procured, dry clothes enveloping us. I explained the Fun Scale to Seth and said that everything had been Type 1 fun for me, except for Little Si. Even then, it had already become fun with a little distance. All it took was being warm and dry and sufficiently sated with chocolate, and already I saw the grind of Little Si through rose tinted glasses. Pulling up to my car in the now empty lot, we saw an owl just beyond, picking over the dinner he’d just caught. We marveled as he sat and returned our gaze before flying off to munch on his late night repast.

In reflection, I’ve wondered if this race is tougher than the Barkley Fall Classic. They are roughly comparable in distance and elevation gain. My BFC podium finish still took 11 hours, but that pales in comparison to the nearly 20 hours spent on the Issy Alps course. Both have unique challenges that make them difficult, so perhaps it’s like comparing apples to oranges. Whatever way you slice it, both courses appeal to me because they don’t pamper you. They both ask so much of you and, as such, have so much to give in return. As the HURT 100 saying goes, “We wouldn’t want it to be easy.” You don’t stand to learn much from the easy path.

The experience solidified a few things for me. First, it confirmed my sense that adventure runs have an appeal that organized races lack. There are no volunteers there to baby you; no course markings; no cut offs to chase, or to push you. You might go for an FKT, but often it’s really about the finish. They take you off the beaten track and provide character building experiences. I find myself struggling now with a desire to abandon organized racing and turn my full attention toward wild runs. I’m torn in two directions, part of me craving the thrill of competition, part of me longing for the personal satisfaction gained from the less traveled, unmarked route. I want to have my cake and eat it, too. I want to do both, but I wonder if it’s possible to train competitively and embark on crazy adventures. I suspect that an answer will be found in the months to come.

The Issy Alps 50k also serves as further evidence that I have, in fact, found true love. True love for adventures on the trails, yes, but also in the person of one Seth Wolpin. Sometimes, I think back to something an old boyfriend said to me years ago: “If you want to go hiking, then you need to go make a friend.” In other words, it would never happen with him. The trails have called to me in various ways over the years, and, save my horse Whisper, I’ve never had a trusty trail partner. I’ve enjoyed solo runs through the mountains, and I’ve shared happy trail miles with friends, but part of me longed for a partner who shared a similar drive to test limits and push boundaries. Someone who would put in big miles, and love every minute of it. Someone who would rate spending 20 hours on trails in the cold, wind, and rain as Type 1 fun. Someone who would do a Round or adventure run or informal ultra simply because we could, and not for any public approval or recognition. Someone who would run with me for the sheer love of it, and for love of the exhaustion and aching and adrenaline and contentment that come wrapped up in big pushes. As much as I appreciate solo experiences and alone time on the trails, I can’t help but return to the revelation that resonated so strongly with Christopher McCandless at the end of his life: “Happiness only real when shared.” It gives me such great pleasure to be out on an adventure, and to look over and see this man by my side.

Perhaps, in the end, this is less of a trip report, and more of an open love letter to the incomparable Seth Wolpin. I raise a local IPA (which you have taught me to appreciate) to the incredible adventures we’ve shared thus far, and to all the wild and wonderful and possibly ill-advised journeys yet to come.

 

 

 

Mulligan: An Orcas Island 100 Race Report

Mulligan (noun): A second chance to perform an action, usually after the first chance went wrong through bad luck or a blunder. –Wikipedia

Introduction: Hotdogging

At 6:30 a.m. an alarm is ringing. I am laying in the back of a truck parked at Camp Moran on Orcas Island, long since awake, a single question looping through my mind: “What the fuck am I doing?”

The Orcas Island 100 Miler will begin in 90 minutes, and I’m supposed to toe the start line. I’m fairly certain that this is a terrible idea. There’s no way I can finish, and in this moment I’m not altogether convinced that I even want to try. Much to my chagrin, a spontaneous and last minute insurance policy kicks in–I gave my students the link to my Delorme map share so that they could follow my progress–and it forces me to silence the loop, emerge from the warm coziness of the sleeping bag, and begin my pre-race rituals.

This race had called to me during its inaugural year in 2016. I was drawn to its beauty, old school vibe, and challenging nature. The Project Talaria documentary of that first race, paired with Glenn Tachiyama’s gorgeous photos of runners in action out there, fueled my interest. Running the Orcas Island 50k in 2017 sealed the deal. When registration for the 2018 100 mile race opened, I entered immediately and am willing to bet that I was the very first person to do so. Glenn said, “Ellen, this course was made for you!” Yassine expressed a similar sentiment. I hadn’t even run my first 100-miler yet, but I knew that I would love running that distance, and this particular course was both a stunner and a beast. Yes, please! The race involves four 25.2 mile loops around Moran State Park on Orcas Island and has 26,000 feet of vertical elevation gain and loss. Some runners find loop races boring, but, for me, they put me into a meditative state and create a sort of rhythm. I like making landmarks along the way, too; sometimes by the end of loop races, I also start talking to them.

Things derailed in September when I fell during the Barkley Fall Classic, hitting my head on a rock and sustaining a concussion. The injury was worse than I imagined and kept me from running for the next three months. As a result, I lost my fitness and was essentially starting over once my TBI doctor gave the green light to resume life as usual. I knew that he was the doctor for me because he didn’t flinch when I asked about running a 100-miler in February: “Go for it,” he encouraged. I wasn’t sure, though, how possible it would be. In December, I showed up for the Deception Pass 50k with no real training miles on my legs and hotdogged my way through it. If it wasn’t for Seth dragging my butt around that course, I might not have made it. It was incredible to me to hurt that badly during a 50k. It was humbling and humiliating, frustrating beyond belief to be that out of shape. Still, I finished.

A couple of weeks of travel in December and January didn’t help matters, as there was no time for running. I went into the Capital Peak Mega Fat Ass 55k slightly more prepared, but still shuffled across the finish line at the back of the pack.

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Capitol Peak Mega Fat Ass 55k. Photo by Seth Wolpin

Serious doubts had set in. Out on a run with my friend Jennifer, I confessed that I wasn’t sure if starting Orcas was a good idea. My first hundred miler had been such a complete disaster. Coming into the second one unprepared could result in failure, which would only further crush my confidence. I needed a do-over, not a do-worse. Giving up my bib started looking like the smart option. Of course, choosing the smart option isn’t in my nature. I knew that I could handle the mental component of running Orcas; that wasn’t a concern. It was the physical aspect that troubled me. I convinced myself, and Yassine, that I would be willing to call it mid-race if things got bad. It’s unclear whether either of us believed that, but a DNF was a real possibility given my circumstances. In the end, I decided it was worth the risk. A couple of solid runs in the week leading up to the race provided some much needed confidence, enough to trick me into feeling like I might just be able to hotdog my way through this race.

In our pre-race talk, Yassine sensed my doubts and told me to stop playing the “I’m so out of shape” loop through my head. It was time for a new mantra. His words, as per usual, snapped me out of it, but by race morning, the loop had devolved back into negativity. In that impulsive moment of giving my students the map share link, I hadn’t actually thought I would need the push. In the end, I might not have gotten out of that truck without it. Having Yassine there saved me, too. Each time that I voiced some form of doubt, he would redirect my thoughts without even acknowledging the negative worry I had expressed. “Hey, look, you’re lucky number 7!” “You’re gonna be great! You’ll have the biggest cheering section at Cascade Lake!” “It’s a beautiful course; you’re gonna love being out on those trails! I wish I could be out there!” He chipped away at my doubting outlook, but, sensing it might  require something more, he stole off to put on his aid station attire: an orca costume. How can you not smile at a guy dancing and laughing at the start line while wearing an orca outfit? Yassine’s positive energy was infectious, and at last a new mindset took hold. I could do this. Seth held my hand as the RD, James Varner, counted down to the start; we enjoyed a sweet little kiss, then were off.

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Getting ready to run. Trust me, I’m more excited, and awake, than this photo suggests. Photo by Seth Wolpin.

Lap 1: Getting Acquainted

Start Line to Mountain Lake (Mile 0 to Mile 4.7)

The course opens with a climb up the Mt. Constitution Road. It’s a paved series of lazy switchbacks, the occasional view of the San Juan Islands peeking out around a curve. We began running at an easy pace, slowly moving up through the field. I had left behind all the negativity and self doubt and found the sense of joy that usually guides me through races. The morning was crisp, there was no sign of rain, and the runners projected good energy into the air around us. As the climb became steeper, I felt myself slowing. Seth and I had agreed to run our own races, so after three attempts at kissing goodbye while running, we parted ways. I watched as he made his way up through the pack and tried to keep up as much as possible, moving back and forth between a power hike and slow run. As my hero, Van Phan, passed me, she said, “So he dropped you, huh?” I confidently replied, “Oh, I’ll catch him on the downhills. I’m not worried about that.” Joke was on me; I wouldn’t see Seth again for hours.

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View from Mt. Constitution Road. Photo by Seth Wolpin.

Along the way, I chatted with other runners, everyone in good spirits. I liked that this was a small field, as it gave the race a more intimate feel. I had lost sight of Seth but was happy to know he was pushing himself. Finally, the Little Summit trailhead came into view, and we started down the first descent. It’s a fun downhill of winding single-track but can be a little gnarly in places, with rocks and roots and creek crossings. Caught in a cluster of runners, my anxiety spiked as I was on the heels of the runner ahead of me and felt at any moment my own heels would be clipped by the runner behind. We bombed down quite quickly, fortunately without incident. Before long, we reached the Mountain Lake Aid Station. I quickly checked in with my bib number and kept going.

Mountain Lake to Mt. Pickett (Mile 4.7 to Mile 10)

This section is quite runnable as it meanders along the edge of Mountain Lake before rolling over to the Twin Lakes. I passed quite a few runners who were power hiking, my plan being to cover as much ground as possible during the daylight. I wouldn’t push too hard, knowing there were many miles to go, but I did want to get as far as possible into Lap 2 before the sun set. I took note of a particularly boggy section crossed gingerly on slippery, questionable logs; “this will be interesting come lap 4,” I offered as neighboring runners laughed uncomfortably. Reaching the Twin Lakes, the trail diverges toward the second climb, Mt. Pickett. This is one of the most beautiful stretches of the course; the forest opens up, letting streams of sunlight filter in, and it’s carpeted in bright, spring green moss. It’s also the easiest climb. Nevertheless, I’m a slow climber, so runners passed me on the ups, as I leap frogged them on the occasional downhill parts. Some of the climbs felt runnable, so I slid between a slow run and power hike, picking up speed on the descents. After summiting Mt. Pickett, a double-track trail winds down to the aid station. This provided a welcome opportunity to pick up speed. As I sped past a runner who had leap frogged with me throughout this section, I assured her, “You’ll pass me on the next climb!” Reaching the Mt. Pickett aid station, I grabbed a pb & j and kept moving. The captain, Doug McKeever, told me he was a fellow Tacoman and sent me off with good wishes.

Mt. Pickett to Cascade Lake (Mile 10 – Mile 14.1)

This section is also quite fun and very runnable. It’s a little rolly with some gradual downhill sections and few climbs. I left the aid station with a small group, and we made good time, cruising past the south end of Mountain Lake and then following a stream that wound its way down to a waterfall. Glenn Tachiyama was waiting at the bottom, capturing a great shot of runners in action with the waterfall serving as a cascading backdrop. It was just such an image that led me to this race, and now here I was, the one in front of the lens.

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Feeling strong on Lap 1. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.

I was surprised not to have caught Seth by this point, having assumed that I’d out pace him on the flats and downs. At the same time, I was excited that he was having a good race and felt a sort of pride in the fact that I hadn’t been able to catch him. Glenn provided photographic evidence that Seth looked pretty incredible as he passed by before me:

Seth Chasing Waterfalls

Look at the back kick on this guy! Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.

After some more rolling terrain accompanied by the rushing stream, Cascade Lake finally came into view. Yassine would be waiting there at the aid station, and this knowledge gave me a boost that picked up my pace on the stretch of road that hugged the edge of the lake. I rolled in feeling happy and strong, and Yassine, true to form, was yelling my name and cheering like crazy. There was something incredibly reassuring about having my coach there at this race; I would pass him four times over the course of the event, and on each loop I told myself, “Just get to Yassine.” He noted how strong I looked coming in, and I admitted to feeling great. A volunteer had made some delicious vegan energy balls, which I devoured as Yassine filled my water. Seeing another runner grabbing a beer, Yassine joked, “Hey, do you want to chug a Tecate like that guy?” I laughed and, raiding the fruit bowl, replied “I think I’ll just stick with this banana.” Yassine guessed that I was only 10 minutes behind Seth, so with my coach’s words of encouragement fresh in my ears, I left with a sense of urgency, knowing the climbs to come would widen that gap.

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I wouldn’t want anyone else for a coach. Photo of Yassine Diboun in Orca costume by Seth Wolpin.

 

Cascade Lake to Mt. Constitution (Mile 14.1 to Mile 19.9)

Last year, during the Orcas 50k, I found the Power Line climb to be a fun challenge. It’s relentlessly steep, but I’ve climbed worse, so I initially looked forward to it. As I chugged up it this time, I tried not to linger on the fact that this was the first of four ascents I would make up it in the next 30+ hours. Hands on knees, one foot in front of the other, I made slow progress up the beast. A runner who I had met earlier, Jason, caught me, and we climbed and chatted, which made the time pass more quickly. The woman I had passed on the downhill caught up, too. I laughed that I had told both of these runners that they would catch me on the next climb and joked, “I need to stop saying that to people.” We all exchanged names, and she tried to commit ours to memory. I joked, “By Lap 4, we’ll probably just make up names for each other.” She forced a laugh, and I asked how she was doing. She sighed and said, “I’m just trying to take it a step at a time.” Jason and I both encouraged her (Jennifer) to take it aid station to aid station. She thanked us and moved out of sight. I didn’t see her again, but looking at the results, it looks like she finished ahead of me, so way to go Jennifer! Jason and I would be roughly in the same vicinity throughout the rest of the race.

As we finished Power Line, the course turns left onto a delightfully downhill single-track trail that contours through the forest along the side of a hill. It’s probably my favorite part of the course. After such a tough climb, you’re rewarded with a beautiful stretch and can let gravity do the heavy lifting for a while. I fell in behind a runner named Mike, and we both let out a few Yeehaws along this section, taking pleasure in the trail itself. Eventually he pulled aside and asked me to lead; he didn’t want to go too fast. I had intentionally not passed him for the very same reason, but went ahead and took the lead. “Yeehaw!”

All good things must inevitably come to an end, I suppose, and the contour trail soon deposited us at the foot of Mt. Constitution. Mike soon dropped me, and other runners overtook me as well. This is an endless source of frustration, but I refused to focus on my deficiencies as a climber and committed to pushing up the switchbacks as quickly as was possible. A runner fell in behind me, and we puffed up and back, up and back, until we heard cowbells and cheering in the distance. “That sounds promising,” I offered. “Yeah.” Sure enough, the Team Seven Hills aid station was just ahead. I grabbed a quick nibble of food and scanned the crowd for my friend Sudheer, who had said he’d be there. Disappointed not to see him, I checked out and headed toward the Tower.

After having just completed the two most difficult climbs on the course, runners have the option to climb a bit more. By making your way to the top of the Lookout Tower on each lap, you gain entry to The Tower Club. Of course I would attempt to join this elite company! In a room at the top, the race directors had placed a hole punch, which runners used to mark their bibs in a designated spot. Someone had also placed an “Easy” button. As I punch my bib, someone tapped the button, which led a mechanical voice to declare, “That was easy.” With a chuckle, we spiraled down the stairs back to the course and the final descent.

Mt. Constitution to Camp Moran (Mile 19.9 to Mile 25.2)

The Power Line and Constitution climbs had taken a lot out of me, but the next five miles were mostly downhill, so it was time to put my running legs on and cover some ground. Winding down the edge of Mt. Constitution can offer expansive views of the Cascades and San Juans, but there was a lot of cloud cover, and the winds were picking up. I passed Glenn for the third time and thanked him for braving the gusts just so that we runners could have the perfect photo backdrop.

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Happy to have those climbs behind me–for now. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.

In my memory, this section was an interminable series of switchbacks. I recalled Van Phan mentioning in the documentary that she counted 36 switchbacks on the descent. While I love downhill running, I tend to get a little bored on switchbacks. To my surprise, there was more to this section, with some small climbs, flat and muddy parts, and some rocky technical sections. It was much slower going than I had anticipated, and it’s not until further down that the trail reaches a higher “butter factor” and becomes easier to run. On the descent, I thought to myself, “In 24 hours or so, hopefully I’ll be coming down this for the final time.” It would be longer than that, but it was a wild thought to consider: What a crazy endeavor we’d all set out to accomplish.

The trail finally morphs into a fir-needle cushioned path with few obstacles and longer stretches before turns. You hear water flowing and know this must mean you’re inching closer to a lower elevation. Near the bottom, there’s a hair-pin turn punctuated by an enormous old tree. It’s such a grand old soul, that I couldn’t help but stop to hug it and say “Hello, Old Tree.” It would become for me the beacon assuring me that the lap was coming to a close. Soon thereafter, Cascade Lake came into view. The trail jogs left there and leads to two last climbs, the second of which another runner appropriately dubbed “Power Line Jr.” It felt a little cruel to have these climbs stand between you and the end of the lap, but I guess none of us signed up for this because we thought it was an easy course. The last push behind me, I rolled down into Camp Moran, the first of four laps in the books in a time of 5 hours and 57 minutes.

Stepping into the lodge was an incredible experience. Volunteers flanked me within seconds of crossing the threshold. One took my pack to refill. Another noticed that my fingers were swollen and assessed that I needed electrolytes. In many ways, the volunteers treated me like a helpless child, and I say this in the most positive sense. Trail running can be mentally exhausting, and sometimes you need someone to take charge and do the thinking for you. As one volunteer brought me a glass full of pickle juice, another said, “Now, I want you to just chug that. Hold your nose and drink it all.” Yes, ma’am. It was both delicious and disgusting at the same time. Another volunteer snagged me a piece of vegan pizza while another swooped in to grab my drop bag. Bringing it over, he said, “This was laying on top of your bag.” It was the chocolate bar that I had given Seth. An enormous smile spread across my face. We weren’t running together, but we were thinking of each other. I took a square of chocolate and felt a warm glow inside.

The day had grown surprisingly warm on the first lap, so I opted to change out of my sweaty clothes, knowing they would bring on a chill as the day cooled. A volunteer helped with this as well, given my fat fingers were incapable of doing anything productive. I touched my socks, debating whether to swap them out. The volunteer said, “Just change them. Do it.” He pulled over a chair and started taking off my shoes and socks. My feet were dirty and sweaty, but this guy didn’t bat an eye. The moleskin had fallen off, so he grabbed some athletic tape and doctored my disgusting feet. It was incredible. I told the volunteer that he was a saint, and he asked if I could put that in writing for his wife. That tape stayed on my feet for the duration of the race and prevented any blisters from emerging. Thank you, Saint Volunteer!

It’s dangerously easy to get lulled into comfort here, and it soon occurred to me that I had stayed too long. Throughout Lap 1, I had either not stopped at aid stations, or had limited myself to 2 minutes. I had been at Camp Moran for nearly 15 minutes. While the food and self-care were all necessary, it was too long, and I needed to get moving before I stiffened up. It was a game of chasing daylight, now. I asked the volunteer to put the chocolate bar back on Seth’s bag. He handed me a Sharpie and instructed, “Leave a little note. It will pick him up when he needs it.” A few hearts was the best I could do before heading out the door.

Lap 2: Chasing Daylight

Camp Moran to Mountain Lake (Mile 25.2 to Mile 29.9)

Back up the Mt. Constitution Rd. I went, mostly hiking this time around, but doing so with a sense of urgency in my stride. I chatted intermittently with runners as they zoomed past, but I was finding myself alone for much of the time on this course. I like it this way, having occasional company interspersed with long stretches of welcome solitude. Often I get a snippet of song or a mantra that loops through my mind. For this race, the last line in the refrain of the Birds of Chicago song “Remember Wild Horses” was on repeat: “You’re just rememberin’ wild horses is all”–over, and over, and over, for nearly the entire race. It’s the closing song in the Orcas Island 100 documentary, which explains why my brain chose it. Why it lingered on one line for 30+ hours, I can’t explain.

As I neared the top of the climb, the Delorme started beeping like crazy. I pulled it out and saw that a number of people, mostly my students, had sent thoughtful words of encouragement. Some made me laugh out loud; some made me smile; all were most welcome. That positive energy gave me a lift, and when I reached the Little Summit trailhead for the second time that day, I moved down it with intention and an extra spring in my step. My legs were a bit stiff, so this downhill was slower going the second time around. Given my talent for rolling ankles, I went a bit more conservatively, knowing I was getting tired. I don’t recall even seeing another runner until I hit the Mountain Lake aid station, where I was greeted with avocado sushi rolls and mango and sticky rice balls. In that moment, they won the Best Aid Station Food award. I tried not to be greedy and resisted the temptation to just bury my face in the plate and eat every last bite. Thanking the volunteers, I pulled myself away from the goodies and headed down the trail.

Mountain Lake to Mt. Pickett (Mile 29.9 to Mile 35.2)

It took a little more mental prodding to run parts of this section that I had blown through on the first lap. Gentle inclines felt a bit steeper on round two, but I knew that run them I must. It was a slower pace, but I pushed myself, always conscious of the waning light. I heard two runners quickly closing in behind me, and they soon breezed past with ease. Exasperated by their fleetness, I forced a smile and hello. How demoralizing. “Hey there! We’re the Safety Sweepers. Just making sure everyone’s ok. How are you?” Laughing, I replied, “Happy to know you’re not looking that fresh at mile 30!” They laughed then floated away on those fresh legs.

I don’t remember much else from this section, other than another runner zooming past me on the descent into Mt. Pickett aid station. I was still at a point of trying to avoid getting my feet wet and remarked that I shouldn’t waste energy on that and instead should embrace the inevitable. He advised me, “No, it’s too early for that!” He was right, so I continued to pick my way down so as to avoid the sloppy mud fest sections. It was slower, but I would be happier running with dry feet. Turns out he was another Safety Sweeper, which took the sting out of the ease with which he dropped me.

Another quick stop to grab food at Mt. Pickett aid station, and I pressed on.

Mt. Pickett to Cascade Lake (Mile 35.2 to Mile 39.3)

My tentative goal had been to make it 55k before needing a headlamp, and I was glad to have achieved that. Twilight fell as I journeyed to Cascade Lake. I don’t remember much about this section, other than that I was losing light and pressing forward, clinging to the waning day. When I hit the road that leads to Cascade Lake aid station, I picked up the pace and once again came in to the sounds of Yassine’s cheers, smiling and still feeling happy and strong. “I knew that was you! I could tell!” he exclaimed.

After telling me how good I was looking, Yassine took a serious tone and said, “Seth’s still here, and he’s not feeling well.” “He’s here?” I was shocked. “Yeah, you need to get him moving.” Looking across the shelter, I saw Seth talking to some runners. It had taken me nearly 40 miles to catch him, and then it was only because he’d waited here for me. We congratulated each other on strong first laps and decided to head out together to face the coming climbs and the falling darkness.

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Dusk at Cascade Lake. Photo by Seth Wolpin.

Cascade Lake to Mt. Constitution (Mile 39.3 to Mile 45.1)

I’d picked up my trekking poles at Cascade Lake, hoping they would help save my legs a bit during the two brutal climbs. I had always felt reluctant to use poles in a race, and this was, in fact, the first time that I had run with them. Perhaps more practice in advance would have been a good idea, as I don’t feel that I was using them effectively or efficiently. Seth and I chatted about our first laps as we made our way up the Power Line then over to the contour trail. Mike caught up to us here, and I commented on us getting to run this section together again. Seth pulled ahead as we wound up the side of Mt. Constitution and waited for me in the comfort of the Team 7 Hills tent at the summit. Sudheer was there this time, and he shared kind words of encouragement. Unable to linger, we made our way over to the Tower, which we both climbed for the second time. “That was easy.”

Mt. Constitution to Camp Moran (Mile 45.1 to Mile 50.4)

Darkness, coupled with ever more stiffening legs–and, admittedly, some fear of falling–led me to run a bit more conservatively on the descent. I also opted to use my poles, thinking it would add some insurance against a fall. The runner who had followed me up to Constitution on Lap 1 was now behind me on the downhill, and Seth was ahead. I kept insisting that the runner pass me, feeling that I was slowing him down. He, in response, insisted that I wasn’t slowing him down, so the three of us formed a team snaking down the mountain. At some point Jason joined us. There was intermittent conversation, but overall it was a quiet ride down. When we reached the grand old tree near the bottom, which Seth had also mentioned hugging on Lap 1, we all gave it a pat, and the runner behind me said in an appreciative tone, “That’s a big old guy.” As the trail jogged left at the road, I let out a wolf howl in the direction of the Wy’east Wolfpack aid station, taking comfort in the fact that my coach was right across the street. Onward and upwards, we took out the unwelcome last climbs and trotted in to Camp Moran, which I had left 8 hours earlier.

Half the race behind us, there was still a long, cold night to confront. On a whim, I had tossed an old puffy jacket into my drop bag, and it proved to be a wise decision. I donned a winter hat, heavy gloves, multiple layers, a hard shell jacket, and the puffy. Temps were falling below freezing, and the wind gusts were reportedly reaching 24 miles per hour. We would be moving slower and couldn’t rely on producing enough heat to keep warm. I’d been prepared for Lap 3 to be the worst but also determined to go into it with a good mindset, acknowledging it would be tough but not dwelling on it. At Camp Moran, Team Rainshadow’s Colton took care of me, grabbing food and my drop bag, filling my water, and attending to everything I needed. As with the first lap, I was in capable hands and was so grateful for that. Having felt the noticeable difference new socks made on Lap 2, I took an extra minute to put on a fresh pair. We made a quick turnaround and headed out for Lap 3 munching big slices of vegan pizza. Photographer Matt Cecil stopped us on the way out to take our halfway point portrait. I was clearly looking a little rough on the outside, but the smile was genuine. (You can view Matt’s stunning portraits here, and you’ll see one at the end of this report.)

Lap 3:  Night Falls over Orcas

Camp Moran to Mountain Lake (Mile 50.4 to Mile 55.1)

I expected Lap 3 to be my slowest of the 4. It would be dark for its entirety, limiting vision to a tiny orb of light on the trail. Stepping out the door at Camp Moran, the noticeable drop in temperature took us both aback. As we climbed, the winds became a more significant force. I hadn’t expected to feel sleepy, but on this third climb up the Mt. Constitution Road, I felt my eyes grew heavy and a strong desire to lay down for a nap took hold. I was more anxious about a potential fall than I would admit. It took some mental strength to push all of this aside and focus instead on moving forward. Seth is a much faster climber, and I encouraged him to drop me. He refused. I insisted. He pushed back, saying he was worried about me on my own out there at night, since I was coming back from a traumatic brain injury. Runners were more spread out, and if I fell or rolled an ankle, it would be a long time until someone got to me. I began to tense up, stating that I could take care of myself and had, in fact, gotten myself out of worse situations. “I’m not leaving you at night.” “If I was a dude, you would leave me.” “Not if I was dating him.” While I understand now that it came from a good place with the best of intentions, in the moment, it struck me as my boyfriend not believing I was strong enough to do this on my own. In truth, we simply should not trust our words or interpretations at Mile 55.

After a moderately tense and quiet descent, we could smell the campfire at the Mountain Lake aid station. The volunteers offered a most welcome cup of miso soup with tofu. A few runners were huddled around the fire, but I was reluctant to get too cozy. It would make leaving all the more difficult. One runner appeared to be in rough shape, and we came to realize it was Joel Ballezza. It seemed as if his race was over, and we wished him well. The volunteers mentioned that several runners had come in mildly hypothermic.  The thought troubled me, but the puffy was doing its job, and the upcoming flat section offered an opportunity to run and warm up. We left and walked for a few minutes as I drank some soup, then shifted into a shuffle. “Ten easy miles to Yassine,” I reassured myself.

Mountain Lake to Mt. Pickett (Mile 55.1 to Mile 60.4)

Throughout the flat section, we alternated between a power hike and a shuffle. I knew we should have been running most of it, but it was difficult to convince my legs to do anything other than this pathetic shuffle, my feet barely leaving the ground. I was starting to hurt, and your mind tells you that it will hurt less if you shuffle along. The truth is, running probably would have felt better, but good luck convincing your brain of that. We laughed while passing the Twin Lakes, recalling a mnemonic one of us created to remember this location on the course map (I’ll spare you the details, lest you get the false impression that one of us must be a fifteen year old boy.) I made a couple of feeble attempts at lightening the mood by singing the “Erie Canal” song and making up a song that ran something like, “Mt. Pickett, you are a friend of mine” (which, in hindsight, appeared to be a thinly-masked version of that Jose Cuervo song.) We greeted Mt. Pickett at its summit before launching down the double-track to the aid station below. This was a welcome opportunity to pick up my pace. I wanted to reach the aid station first so that I had a couple of minutes to sit down and eat some hot soup.

Fatigue had set in with full force, and the thought of sitting in a camp chair for five minutes called like a siren’s song. For the first time in a while, I was running instead of shuffling. I made an important discovery on this descent: once I pushed past the initial stiffness, it actually felt good to run. This was an important lesson to learn, and I would draw upon it throughout the remainder of the race. At the aid station, a few runners were huddled around the heaters, some of them appearing to be in rough shape. A volunteer handed me a cup of lentil soup. I tossed in some potato chips and felt warmed by the food. Seth arrived and had a nice chat with Doug McKeever. I wanted them to keep talking so that I could rest for a minute. Seth looked to me and said we should go, and I asked if I could have another cup of soup. I was stalling, but I also needed the calories. That’s one tricky thing about running at night; I just don’t consume enough calories, and I knew I was really behind in this department. My mind rationalized the extra minutes as paying dividends in the future, and perhaps there was some truth to that. A second cup of soup devoured, there were no more excuses, so back into the cold, dark night we went.

Mt. Pickett to Cascade Lake (Mile 60.4 to Mile 64.5)

I caught a second wind from that stop and took the lead, picking up the pace. Despite some minor irritations, I still felt happy and relatively strong. Of course it wouldn’t be a race if I didn’t make at least one bonehead move. Coming down along the end of Mountain Lake, chatting about something and watching only the ground for footing, I neglected to notice the fallen tree leaning across the trail and ran smack into it, hitting my head. For someone still recovering from a concussion, this isn’t ideal. Fortunately, my headlamp took the brunt of the impact, and I shook it off. I maintained the lead through much of this section, the rolling hills, descents, and flats being my stronger suit. At one point, we reached a climb, and we both simultaneously remarked, “I don’t remember this climb.” This was our third time around the course, and it’s funny that we both hadn’t noticed this hill until now. These things must stand out more prevalently when you’re tired.

Reaching the Cascade Lake aid station, I launched into a complaint about Seth refusing to drop me because he felt that I might get myself into trouble. Yassine immediately redirected that negative energy; “Hey, how about some soup?!” Seth went to the roaring fireside, but I feared it would only make the night feel colder. The hot broth warmed me from the inside. I grabbed some heavier gloves in anticipation of the colder temps on the exposed Power Line. I reached around to grab my poles, only to discover that they were gone. My heart broke. Not because I felt like I needed them for the climb, but because they had been a Christmas present from Seth. A nice volunteer at Camp Moran had put them into my pack for me. He’d had trouble breaking them down, so I managed it with my swollen fingers. I should have taken that as a sign that he wouldn’t know how to secure them in my pack, but I was lazy and didn’t want to take it off. As a result, they were somewhere out on the course. Just as we were leaving, a volunteer ran over exclaiming, “Are these your poles? A runner found them on the trail and brought them in.” They were mine! It was too bad not to have seen the runner so as to thank them. It felt like a good omen as we embarked on what I felt sure would be the most difficult part of the race.

Cascade Lake to Mt. Constitution (Mile 64.5 to Mile 70.3)

As we began the climb up Power Line, we ran into Maudie, who seemed a bit distressed. Earlier, she’s had an asthma attack, but she rallied and eventually passed us at Mt. Pickett. The ascent made it difficult for her to breathe, and she was in the middle of trying to make a difficult decision. We encouraged her to go back to Cascade Lake and get some rest; she could always recover and continue on, but it wasn’t worth attempting this climb at night, in the freezing cold and gusty wind, if she was having trouble breathing. I could fully appreciate how that was a tough decision to make; she’d come so far, and I completely empathized. As we continued on, Seth had trouble staying on course, so I took the lead so that he could just follow. I was happy to have something to contribute to this partnership. A few times I stopped and exclaimed, “Seth, look at the stars!” The general absence of light pollution allowed the stars to shine their brightest; immense clusters of them gathered all around us. That’s mostly what I remember from this third trip up Power Line: diamond stars and bitter cold. Oh, and Safety Sweeps bounding past like god damned gazelles.

As usual, it was a relief to hit the contour trail that led off the Power Line. Through the trees, I saw a city of lights and stammered, “There’s a city over there!” Seth seemed to think that I was hallucinating, but I clearly saw a long stretch of glittering lights through the trees. Its beauty in the dark night held my attention as we wound along the side of the hill, descending down and down, deep into the woods. It was wild when the side of Mt. Constitution came into view and we could see headlamps winding their way up it. At the top, I saw a huge light, which at first appeared to be an enormous spotlight. Upon closer examination, I realized it was the moon peeking through the trees. It was simply beautiful.

Seth wasn’t having too much fun at this point, yet, strangely, I was enjoying myself. He was incredibly tired and decided to slip off the trail for a ten-minute nap. Worried that he was potentially hypothermic, I offered to wait for him. He insisted he was fine and urged me to keep moving. He wrapped me in a firm embrace, whispered, “I’m so proud of you.” I replied, “Next time, we’ll do something that makes you happy.” He corrected me, “We’ll do something that makes us happy.”  I was uncomfortable leaving but reassured myself that he does this sort of thing all the time and knows how to take care of himself. I took a mental note of what that spot looked like in case I needed to direct a search party to find him later. With each step, I questioned leaving him and debated whether or not to tell someone at the next aid station where he was. He didn’t give me much time to worry, as shortly thereafter Seth zoomed past. I dug deep to push as hard as I could up the climb, hoping to warm up with the effort.

During this time, some strong runners came past, all offering words of support. It struck me that they must be the front runners, finishing their final loop. How impressive. Cresting the summit, we trotted in to the ever effusive Team 7 Hills aid station, where a party raged on through the night. Sudheer and Michael took care of us as we paused a moment to enjoy the comfort of camp chairs. Unfortunately, they had no hot vegan soup, so we munched on pickles, potato chips, and pb & j, foods that I was ready never to eat again. Sudheer said that about 12 runners had come through on their final loop. It was incredible to see how strong they looked at mile 90+. A few runners still on lap 3 hunched in the corner and looked to be in rough shape, trying to pull things together and warm up near the heaters. Seth and I were somewhere in between, the full spectrum of running experiences represented. We moved outside to catch a little warmth from the crackling fire as dawn broke.

Mt. Constitution to Camp Moran (Mile 70.3 to Mile 75.6)

Walking toward the Tower, the rising sun cast a warm glow across the water, and the snowy Cascades unfolded before us in all their majesty. It was a sunrise unlike any other, the purples, oranges, and yellows swirling around the blues of the water and soft white of the mountains. It absolutely took our breath away. “This is why we do this.” He agreed. Our spirits rose with the sun, and we spiraled up the Tower stairs for our third hole punch.

Dawn over Orcas

Dawn over Orcas. Photo by Seth Wolpin.

 

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Dawn breaks. Photo by Seth Wolpin.

With the new light, the descent would be easier, and faster. At one turn near the bottom, I happened to look into a clearing to my right and realized that it was the Power Line. This had escaped my notice on the previous laps. Runners were mounting the climb, and it occurred to me that they were probably on their fourth lap. The realization came with a soft punch in the gut; we were clearly toward the back of the pack. It took some prodding to remind myself that I was only here for a finish, but the competitive side of me sank with the sight of runners so physically close to me, yet so far ahead.

It was a pleasant surprise to see Yassine waiting for us at Camp Moran. He was tired but still exuding his characteristic good cheer. We walked into the lodge 10 and a half hours after we had left, making Lap 3 the slowest by far. We discussed the strategy for Lap 4. All along, I’d assumed that Lap 4 would be faster than Lap 3. We would smell the barn, it would be daylight, and we had gone easy through the night. Seth wasn’t as optimistic and felt like we needed to account for unforeseen problems. Yassine agreed with his assessment. I didn’t quite see it that way but agreed we should get moving a.s.a.p. I did the now routine sock change and ate real food (although I don’t remember exactly what I ate this time. I just remember eating a lot of food.) Yassine took my puffy with him back to Cascade Lake so that I could pick it up later, since it would likely be dark when I finished Lap 4. It was hard to wrap my mind around that. We left Camp Moran at precisely 9:00 a.m., two hours before the cutoff and eleven hours before the course closed. Seth was incredibly anxious about the timing; I was wildly optimistic. I should have known better.

Lap 4: The Hazards of Ultra Math

Camp Moran to Mountain Lake (Mile 75.6 to Mile 80.3)

If you’ve ever read one of my race reports, then you’re probably sitting in anticipation of the moment when things inevitably unravel. That moment has come.

Making our way up the Mt. Constitution Road for the fourth and final time, I suggested a plan for how to approach our last lap: “You’re faster on the climbs; I’m faster on the downhills and flats. We each have our strengths, so let’s take advantage of that and hope that it will balance out with us ending up together on the course at some point.” He understood what I meant and agreed to the strategy. I’m pretty sure that plan makes sense, as I reflect back on it. Seth jogged up the rest of the climb as I power hiked up. I kept him within my sights for a while, but eventually he loped out of sight. That’s when my stomach turned on me. Terrible nausea struck, and my pace slowed to what felt like slow motion. I felt lightheaded and a bit dizzy. Perhaps I had eaten too much at Camp Moran; perhaps I was also dehydrated. I’d consumed more caffeine in the past 24 hours than I had all of last year. Things compounded when that old familiar feeling in my gut made its grand entrance. 75 miles had passed without incident, but this was a long race, and it only stood to reason that my GI luck would run out.

The nature of the climb, with its looping switchbacks on a relatively well-used road and surprisingly few clusters of trees, ruled out popping off to the side to take care of urgent business. There was a restroom at the trailhead, but I was convinced a construction crew had added extra turns in the road. It dragged on, and on. The Delorme started beeping, so I took it out to distract myself with messages from friends, family, and students. Their words cheered me up and spurred me on, but they did not make that outhouse appear any faster. It was a pretty agonizing climb on several fronts, but at long last I reached Little Summit, took a great sigh of relief, concocted a threat-level midnight strength Pepto cocktail, and sauntered over to begin the descent.

With tired legs and a tired brain, it seemed wise not to rush the downhill too much. I’d come too far to twist an ankle or hit my head now. I ran what I could, shuffled here and there, and gingerly crossed creeks that seemed to have doubled in size since I last saw them. I thought back to the reckless abandon with which I first attacked this same descent, in disbelief that such speed was ever possible. The impact of hopping down over roots and rocks jostled and jolted me, which served only to slow my pace even more. After what felt like an eternity, the Mountain Lake aid station came into view. I hadn’t seen anyone else since Seth dropped me on the climb.

The volunteers greeted me and asked what I needed. I just wanted some food and was delighted that they had a tray of mango and sticky rice balls left. I grabbed a couple and kept moving. Heading out, I paused and asked, “What time is it?” “11. It’s exactly 11:00 a.m.”

It just took me 2 hours to travel 4.7 miles.

“Oh my god. Can I make the cutoff?”

“You have nine hours! You’ll definitely make it!”

My brain flat out rejected their confidence. My brain imploded.

Mountain Lake to Mt. Pickett (Mile 80.3 to 85.6)

This is my thought process at Mile 80.3: “I just blew my 2-hour cushion. I’m chasing the cutoffs now; I lost my 2-hour cushion on that climb. I WASTED my 2-hour cushion on that climb. Now I have no margin for error. If it took me 2 hours to go less than 5 miles, then it’s going to take me over 4 hours to get to Yassine. That leaves me less than 5 hours to do the hardest climbs on the course, and I’m tired and don’t feel good. I’ll never make it. I will not make it in time.”

The reality was less grim, but trying telling that to an ultra runner 3/4 of the way through a hundred miler. My logic was obviously flawed. In my head, it made sense that, since I had started lap 4 with a 2-hour buffer ahead of the cutoff, and since the first 5 miles had taken 2 hours, then that buffer was now lost. The cutoff at Mountain Lake was 12:40 p.m., so I was, in fact, an hour and 40 minutes ahead of it. I had lost 20 minutes of my buffer, which wasn’t negligible, but it also wasn’t the tragedy my mind perceived it to be.

So, I did the only thing that made sense to me in that moment: I ran.

There’s nothing like panic and the dread of a DNF to help you find your running legs. This section of the course was relatively flat along the lakes, with a semi-gentle climb up Mt. Pickett, and all of that glorious double-track downhill leading into the next aid station. I ran it at a pace not seen since Lap 1. Even during much of the climb up Mt. Pickett, I willed my legs to continue in a general running-like gait. Talking out loud to myself in the third person seemed a good idea.

“Come on Bayer, you got this. Get it together. You have nine hours to finish. Try to cover these next ten miles in three hours, and that gets you to Yassine. You’ll have six hours to do the big climbs and final descent. You can do that. What are you thinking, Bayer? It won’t take that long. You could even finish in under 34 hours at this rate. It will take less than three hours to get to Yassine, and it will take about 5 hours to do the rest. That’s 5 hours to go the last 11 miles, much of which is also downhill. Wait, what are you thinking, Bayer? You’ll barely make the cutoff. If it takes X amount of time to reach Yassine, then it will take Y amount of time to do the final climbs. You’re tired and feel terrible, so those climbs will more likely take Z hours to the power of 2, and that’s just not enough. You’re screwed. Oh, just shut up and run, Bayer!”

This is why everyone tells you not to do ultra math. It never adds up. One moment, I convinced myself that I could still finish in my rough goal of 32 hours. The next, the numbers only led to a down-to-the-wire finish. I’d oscillate between relief and terror, all the while talking out loud to myself and running as hard as I could. Passing another runner, he cheerfully greeted me, “Hi there! How’s it going?” “I’m just trying not to do ultra math!” “Oh yeah, don’t do that. You have plenty of time! Don’t worry!” I didn’t trust his confidence, either, and ran on. This time, I barreled through the mud pits coming down to the aid station. I didn’t care about wet feet anymore. All that mattered was the path of least resistance.

Flying into the Mt. Pickett aid station, I saw Jason and the runner who’d paced behind me a few times casually reclining in camp chairs. “Why aren’t they in a panic?!” I wondered to myself. A volunteer asked if I needed anything. Grabbing a GU packet, I replied, “I just need someone to tell me that I’m going to make the cutoffs.” Everyone in the tent seemed to respond in unison: “You’ll make it.” Jetting out the door, Doug McKeever said, “You’re looking great, Ellen. Seth is about 15 minutes ahead of you. Go catch him!” My heart was grateful for those words. I was closing the gap. In my head, the logic was that if I could catch Seth, then I would regain the buffer. I could make the cutoffs. With that, I bolted down the trail.

Mt. Pickett to Cascade Lake (Mile 85.6 to Mile 89.7)

Instead of a snippet of song or a helpful mantra, the ultra math now looped through my thoughts. I couldn’t turn it off, and the “not enough time” equation dominated. It never occurred to me to marvel at the fact that I was running this fast at mile 85; I just ran, futilely crunching numbers. There were lots of hikers and tourists along this stretch, and I must have been a sight, tearing past with panic in my eyes and a grimace on my face. Bombing down to the bridge with the cascading waterfall backdrop, I saw a few runners grouping up for a photo shoot with Glenn. One yelled, “Hey! A female! Come join us!” They were laughing and having a great time; I wondered what was wrong with them. Why was no one else worried about making the cutoff? Seeing a friendly and familiar face in this moment of doubt, it took all I had not to break down and cry, which is perhaps why my face is averted in the photo that Glenn snapped:

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Looking tired, seconds before bursting into tears. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.

And then I broke down and cried.

Glenn greeted me; tears came rolling down. “Glenn, I’m so worried about the cutoff. I’m not gonna make it.” “The cutoff at Cascade Lake? That’s at 4:00. You have plenty of time!” “No, the cutoff at Mt. Constitution. I’m too slow on the climbs.” He seemed genuinely surprised by my concern. “You’re doing awesome, Ellen! You’ll make it!” “How long ago did Seth come through?” “I don’t know; not long. He’s not too far ahead.” “OK, thanks, Glenn.” “You’ll make it!” Glenn’s voice was sincere and reassuring, so I tried to will myself to believe him.

I passed the three men who had invited me to their photo shoot, and they asked me to run along with them. I politely declined, pressing forward with my absurd sense of urgency. It didn’t make sense to my tired brain why no one else was worried about the cutoffs. It began to register that I was also probably blowing myself up by running so hard; there’d be nothing left to give on the climbs. The remaining miles on this section were a mental montage of inexplicable math.

Hitting the road that shoulders Cascade Lake, I summoned every scrap of strength to speed up and get to Yassine. I felt so defeated and ashamed, and those emotions gripped me as I ran into the aid station. Yassine was cheering like crazy, and that triggered the tears. Shaking my head and making a “no, stop the party” motion with my arm, I arrived a smoldering wreck. “Everything fell apart, Yassine. My stomach turned, I was lightheaded, I had GI issues, and it took me 2 hours to go the first five miles. I screwed it all up. I blew my buffer. Then I blew myself up just to get here. I won’t make it. I’m too slow on the climbs.” With characteristic calm, Yassine informed me that it was only 1:30 p.m. “You’re doing great! You have plenty of time! You’ve got this! What do you need? Let’s get you taken care of and then get you back out there.”

“It’s only 1:30?”

“Yeah! Plenty of time left!”

I had just run 10 miles in 2.5 hours. That’s means that since the first aid station, I had run more than twice the distance in almost the same amount of time. I was 2.5 hours ahead of the cutoff at Cascade Lake. And, I had caught Seth. He had arrived only minutes before me. I drank some hot broth and attempted to compose myself, embarrassed to have come in such a mess. I was behind on calories, and Yassine went through my drop bag, pulling out snacks, trying to entice me to eat. Everything was on the extreme end of salty or sweet, and I was tired of it all. I’d been on a steady rotation of GU and Clif Bloks punctuated by potato chips, pb & j, pickles, and bananas. My rational self knew that I should eat, but my stomach said broth was the limit. I took a cup for the road and left to confront Power Line.

Cascade Lake to Mt. Constitution (Mile 89.7 to Mile 95.5)

Seth and I debriefed during the approach to Power Line. I urged him to drop me on the climbs, but he insisted on helping me get up this one. Then, we’d see. Still doing faulty math, I worried that waiting for me would, in turn, make him anxious about the cutoffs. Still, if he was anxious, it never showed. He had nothing but kind words and encouragement during that climb. When he would pause and turn back toward me, I cringed thinking he would express impatience. I should know him better by now. Instead, he was supportive, telling me I was doing a great job. His kindness carried me up that monster climb.

Despite the vertical movement; despite having made up time; despite being well positioned to finish comfortably ahead of the cutoffs; I reached my lowest point during this climb. Physically, it was tough. My legs were trashed from pushing hard the last ten miles, and my Achilles were screaming with each step. Power Line is so steep, that you essentially climb on your toes, which was the worst possible scenario for sore Achilles.

It was the mental component, though, that brought me down. I began to recognize what an idiot I had been. What a selfish egomaniac I was. I had put two people I cared about in a tough position by insisting on running this race when we all knew that I wasn’t physically ready for it. For Yassine, I hadn’t given him enough time to help me train and prepare for this distance. Last year, Bryce 100 was the end point on a long, carefully planned trajectory of training. I was as fit as I would ever be. Here, I’d had, all told, maybe a month of actual training. I was coming back from three months off and still having issues from the concussion. He knows how stubborn I am, though, and knew that I would have fought, kicking and screaming, had he suggested I sit this one out. Just the mention of dropping would have led me to dig in my heels and resist. As for Seth, here he was worried about making cutoffs, in part because he had waited for me at certain points throughout the race. He was stressed and not necessarily having a great time. I felt responsible for making things uncomfortable for them. Here I was, chasing cutoffs; I really didn’t have any business being out there on that course.

It became clear to me that I was here for the wrong reasons. It was more about my ego than about my own personal joy. I was too proud to drop out. I was too concerned with proving to others that I’m tough and can do whatever I set my mind to. Those aren’t the reasons that I started this running journey, and they weren’t healthy motivators. In the beginning, it had been about proving something to myself, competing only with myself, and doing this solely for myself. Something changed after I won my first race; that taste of a win shifted my priorities. To a certain extent, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. That said, it had taken me away from my true self. I wanted approval, validation, recognition. That wasn’t me. Instead of doing ultra math, I now dwelled on what an asshole I was, filled with shame. I grew sullen and repentant, composed apologies in my head. Looking back now, I can see that much of this overly dramatic thought process was fueled by exhaustion and the warped perception that comes with running stupidly long distances. But the general notion that I had started running for others instead of myself was true, and I wanted to change that.

Occasional conversation snapped me out of these dark reveries. Part way up the climb, Seth did his own calculations: “If we can get to the top of Power Line in 30 minutes, then do the contour trail in 45 minutes, and climb Constitution in another 45 minutes, that will give us more than 3 hours to finish the last 5 downhill miles.” His math sounded more reliable than my own. Near the top, a group of mountain bikers parted to the sides of the trail, creating a tunnel of sorts for us to walk through. “You guys are crazy! What you’re doing is insane!” They were all smiles and expressed sincere admiration, while Seth said that to us, riding down a steep mountain on a bike seemed nuts. I managed to half-jokingly retort, “What we’re doing is stupid!” Seth looked surprised, and later admitted he’d never heard me talk like that before. It was truly out of character. Twenty minutes later, we crested Power Line. “We did it 10 minutes faster than we planned!” he exclaimed. His optimism bolstered me. We were doing this. The toughest climb was behind us. We would make it.

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Possibly fake smile. Photo by Seth Wolpin.

The contour trail was my strong suit, so I willed my revolting legs to engage in a running motion. It took a lot of will power, but once I pushed past the initial groan, it actually felt pretty good to be running. I ditched my poles, feeling that I could run faster without them. My plan was to get a lead on Seth here, knowing he’d catch me on the climb to Constitution. It was quite rewarding to look through the trees in daylight and see a city on the shores across the water. I hadn’t been hallucinating last night! Soon, Seth was out of sight, and I was cruising down the contour trail. Finally, an appreciation for still being able to run after 90+ miles sank in. How incredible! I chose to focus on these thoughts and to shelve the gloomy self loathing.

The climb to Constitution never failed to slow the momentum built during the gradual descent off Power Line, and this fourth round was no exception. Seth caught me on the third or fourth switchback up. He had a ping in his knee and was moving more slowly, but still faster than me going up. As with the fourth climb up the road, it seemed as if someone had maliciously added switchbacks to this climb; it felt endless. Landmarks that had given me something to work toward on earlier laps had seemingly disappeared. It was now a blur of back and forth, up and up, hands on knees, step by step. Finally, the cowbells of Team 7 Hills came within earshot. Seth and I both laughed at our shared sense of this climb seeming strangely longer than before. Nevertheless, we’d covered the contour trail and the Constitution climb faster than projected; it was around 4:00 p.m. We had arrived two hours and ten minutes before the cutoff at this aid station, and we had four hours to finish the last five miles of the race. We breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Mt. Constitution to Camp Moran (Mile 95.5 to Mile 100.8)

This aid station had a great party vibe, but we still felt compelled to make a quick turn around. The day was coming to a close, and we’d be finishing in the dark (and, presumably, in the cold.) Reaching the Tower for one last sprint up the stairs, the glory of the Pacific Northwest was on full display below. Mt. Baker and Mt. Rainier, along with the Canadian Rockies, stood sentinel. The snowy and wild North Cascades sparkled brightly, leaving me speechless. Dazzlingly bright peaks stood out in sharp relief against a Robin’s egg blue sky. Emerald islands bejewelled the deep blue waters below. The morning had given us a stunning sunrise from this same vantage point, but that didn’t compare to the spectacular sight now on view. We paused longer here than at the aid station, smitten with the scene of such astounding natural beauty. In the end, it’s not the dark moments that stick with you; it’s the jagged peaks wrapped in snow blankets, the largeness and grandeur of the wilderness, your own smallness in comparison, that sears itself into your very soul. That mental image will forever linger in my inner eye.

The ping in Seth’s knee caused him serious discomfort, and running made it worse. “You go ahead and run down. I’m gonna have to walk it in. It might take me three hours to get down.” Slyly smiling, I sarcastically echoed his words of the previous night: “I’m not leaving you. It will be getting dark soon, and you could fall and hit your head or roll an ankle.” He only rolled his eyes but there was a smile in there, too. I probably could have run down faster, but what was the point? This wasn’t going to be a podium finish. At this point, who cares if I came in at 33 or 35 hours, as long as I finished. He got me up the Power Line as well as through the previous night. We’d run nearly half of this race together; it was only right to finish it together.

Our moods had changed drastically, having the worst of it behind us. In part, we were a little loopy, but we could also smell the barn. We joked and laughed. I granted Seth dibbs on the first shower and gifted him a guilt-free long and hot one at that. No nature girl judgement shall pass tonight. We thought about clean sheets. I fantasized about sitting in a chair for more than five minutes. We were, you might say, having fun, merrily making our way down the mountain. At one point, Mike came barreling past us. He yelled, “It’s gonna hurt whether you run fast or slow, so may as well run fast!” It made sense, although it’s tougher to convince your feet of this. Seth occasionally attempted to run; it hurt, but he’d push through it. So we commenced a jog/hike. That was killing me, though, as the transition back and forth never allowed me to loosen up. As we neared the lower trail that had the high “butter factor,” I decided to run ahead. I’d need to get a jump on those last two sadistic little climbs. It felt good to open up and run, and the effort left me amazed at the things my body was capable of, with some nudging from my mind. Over 95 miles in, and I was still running. That was quite the psychological boost after walking 81.5 miles at Bryce.

A few “Yeehaws!” escaped as the trail got buttery and my pace quickened. Running past the grand old tree, I stopped to hug and thank it. Dusk was quickly turning to dark, and Seth was nowhere in sight. I pressed on and planned to wait at the top of Power Line Jr. Bottoming out by the road, I let out a wolf howl toward Cascade Lake, although the aid station was dark, the final cutoff having passed almost 2 hours ago. At the top of the first climb, I slowed and looked over my shoulder. No headlamp. I hesitated, not wanting to get too far ahead. After a few minutes, a light came into view. It was a female runner, someone I’d never seen on the course. I let her pass by, and she was reluctant. She said, “You’re probably faster than me; you should go in first.” I told her she looked great and that she needed to go finish this thing. For once, it didn’t wound me to be passed by a runner. I walked, glancing over my shoulder every few steps. Finally, I heard Seth’s wolf call, and I responded with a coyote yip. We had about a mile to go and only one last mini climb to dread.

We started planning our post race priorities. We had treated ourselves to a hotel room for the night, instead of climbing into the back of the truck. I didn’t mind leaving the post-race party early in favor of showers and clean sheets, but, I said, “I just want to sit in a chair. Maybe for 15 minutes.” He agreed. As for dinner, we both were so tired of race food. For the first time in my life, pizza didn’t sound appetizing. “I just want raw vegetables,” I insisted. “I just want to eat a bunch of broccoli.” He was on the same page.

Plans settled, it was time to run it in and finish the race. Seth asked if we should race in, or cross the finish line holding hands. He answered his own question with a smile, “Together, holding hands.” As we rounded the final corner coming in to Camp Moran, a crowd of cheers rose up. Someone yelled, “Sprint it in! Sprint it in!” He looked at me, and we both launched into a sprint. It was probably a 10-minute pace, but it felt like we were flying. We were laughing wildly, and just before crossing the line, he grabbed my hand and we took our last steps, high-fiving James as our race came to an official close. Yassine was dancing with excitement. There were hugs and deep breaths, laughs and sighs. We finished Lap 4 in 8 hours and 45 minutes. After 34 hours, 11 minutes, and 15 seconds, we had completed the Orcas Island 100 Miler and joined the Tower Club.

Orcas Finish Line

Happy for the experience, and happy to be finished with it. Photo by Yassine Diboun.

There was some banter at the finish line, much of which is hazy to me. James said something about us looking perfect, and Seth said, “I smell perfect!” Yassine led us toward the lodge and said with excitement, “You’re gonna love this…” He opened the door, and the entire room stopped to clap and whoop for us. It was surreal, and all I could manage was a grateful smile and a small wave. As per usual, volunteers swooped in to take care of us. This is something that set this race apart from most others; the volunteers were so attentive and competent, taking the best care of you throughout. To my great delight, one woman brought us over a plate of hummus and fresh veggie wraps. The presentation even showed care; she had arranged fresh veggies and avocado slices tastefully around the wraps. It was exactly what I needed. Yassine sat down with us to debrief. His positive nature and supportive words never end, even after he’s worked all weekend and had little sleep himself. He asked about our lowest moment on the course, and Seth said it surely must have been when I came into Cascade Lake in tears. “No, it was right after that. When I realized how awful I had been, and that I owed you both an apology.” I tried to explain my thinking and offered apologies, but neither of them saw things as I did. They were quite generous and thought I was being too hard on myself. Yassine saw this as a do-over for Bryce. It was a way to show myself that I could run a hundred miler. The fact that I wasn’t my most fit only served as further proof that I’m a strong runner. Seth thought it was an opportunity to inspire others to push themselves beyond their perceived limits.

bib

My bib, with hole punches and hanging chads to prove I climbed the Tower four times.

It was wonderful sitting in a chair, talking with my coach, and feeling like I had accomplished something. The band played on, and runners filed in to applause. It was nice to be there to celebrate their achievement. To our surprise, Joel walked in, having rallied and finished. Someone remarked that he had “died seven times on the course,” but here he was, a finisher. It goes to show how far the mind can carry you when the body gives out.

We lingered for some time. Seth scouted out a veggie platter, and I ate the equivalent of a head of broccoli. It’s not my favorite vegetable by any means, but its fresh, crunchy greenness was so satisfying after 34 hours of carby, fatty junk food. Eventually, we hobbled out to the truck and made our way to the hotel. Extensive chaffing in sensitive areas made my shower a bit painful, and bending over to wash my feet seemed impossible, but I reveled in the hot water and the refreshing scent of soap. Under clean sheets, we laughed in delirium, shivering as our bodies tried to regulate our temperature. Craving water at the finish, I hadn’t had a celebratory beer and decided to drink one in bed. I woke up some time later, half-consumed beer teeterting precariously on my chest. Depositing it onto the night stand, I shut out the light, and slept the sleep of the content.

Epilogue: Mulligan

Orcas taught me a lot. It reminded me that I am capable of doing anything that I set my mind to. My mind is stronger than my body. I learned that, once you push through the initial stiffness and pain, it’s easier to run; it actually feels good. I learned what it feels like to run with 100 miles on your feet, experienced the awe of that fact. Yassine was right; it was a do-over for Bryce. As he said, “You had to get that monkey off your back.” I ran a 100-miler, and finished before the cutoffs. I may not have been at my peak fitness, but I finished, and that did unloosen a burden that I’d carried since Bryce.

The experience reminded me that I have wonderful people in my life here to support me, whether that’s sending long-distance messages; providing guidance and support on the course and off; or pulling me up a soul-sapping climb.

I learned some practical stuff about running this distance: athletic tape prevents blisters; next time, tape your Achilles, because that chaffing is not healing anytime soon–ouch!!!; changing socks is worth the time; always pack layers; definitely carry electrolyte tablets; use the stronger headlamp; hold off on drinking caffeine; liberally reapply glide, especially in sensitive regions; keep eating, especially at night; for the love of god, buy a replacement water bladder that fits your pack; practice with poles if you’re going to use them; no more than 5 minutes at an aid station–ever; make time to cook pancakes to  put in your drop bags, as you would have been so happy to have them out there; just don’t do ultra math.

Orcas also gave me the opportunity to share an unforgettable experience with the guy I love to adventure with. I came to realize a while ago that I needed an ultra boyfriend who could keep up with me on the trail. Seth has proved to be all of that, and so much more. His patience, endless support, and encouragement helped to push me out there while also pulling me up. Plus, without him, there would be far fewer photos in this race report. I can’t wait to see what we do next.

Most importantly, the experience gave me a needed reality check. I’d lost sight of why I run ultras, drifted away from the personal journey. Moving forward, I will prioritize the personal endeavor and not get caught up in the public one. I will be my best self, training and racing hard for the pleasure it brings me in itself, not in relation to others.

Orcas also whet my appetite for more. It was, dare I say, a lot of fun. At Bryce, I learned that I could travel 101.5 miles by my own power. At Orcas, I learned that I could travel 100.8 miles, running much of the way, and despite not being at my peak fitness. During the race, while I was out there running along, the lottery for Cascade Crest 100 was held. When I finished, I learned the results. Come August, after months of dedicated training, I will have the opportunity to enjoy this distance again, and to see what it’s like to run 100 miles at the pinnacle of fitness. I cannot wait, but I will strive to remain present and delight in every training mile that leads me there.

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It’s Ultrasignup official.

Orcas 100 Finishers

Happy finishers! I’m so grateful to have shared this experience with Seth Wolpin. Here’s to many more adventures together. Photo by Matt Cecil.

 

buckle and Orcas

Obligatory buckle photo. View from the ferry deck, Orcas in background.

 

 

 

Chasing the Dragon: A White River 50 Race Report

“In ultra running, we’re always chasing the dragon.” –Yassine Diboun

White River 50 was loaded with extra significance this year. It took on the burden of being a sort of redemption race after my Bryce 100 death march. While only half the length, I needed White River to reassure me that I am a strong runner capable of great distances. Even though the disasters of Bryce were out of my hands, the experience shook my confidence and shredded my pride all the same.

I also viewed this year’s WR50 as a yardstick by which to measure my growth over the past year. It had been my first 50-miler, and I was eager to see how much faster I could run the second time around. Last year, it took me 12 hours and 51 minutes to finish the course. It was only my second ultra, and I had run my first marathon a mere 5 months earlier. I was green. I lingered at aid stations, even going so far as to sit in a camp chair at Buck Creek to chat with friends, eat a sandwich, and change my socks. It would be easy to trim a good 45 minutes off my time simply by being more efficient in aid station stops, but I was aiming for more. My goal for 2017 was to go three hours faster than 2016: 9 hours, 51 minutes. In our pre-race talk, Yassine repeatedly encouraged me to let go of time goals. The forecast called for melting temps, and the BC wildfire smoke had made its way to the central Cascades. Some painful Achilles issues rounded things out. Conditions were not ideal, and this wasn’t the “A race” for the year. Me being me, it was difficult to revise that goal, but I’ve learned that Yassine knows best. I drew up my pace chart using the 10 and 12 hour splits, and decided to keep within that range while sticking as close to the 10-hour splits as possible.

The week leading into the race didn’t come with the phantom pains and jitters of last year. I felt ready and was excited to get out on the course. My amazing physical therapist, Chad McCann, stretched the hell out of my Achilles, helping to ensure they wouldn’t flare up during the race. There were no anxiety-fueled nightmares the night before; I slept soundly and toed the line well rested, eager to get out on this course that I love.

[Photos from a July 23 recce of the first half of the course. The air quality was drastically different on race day.]

Buck Creek to Camp Sheppard (Start Line to Mile 3.9)

In the past, starting races with set ground rules helped to keep me on track, but I’ve reduced them down to one simple commandment: don’t be an idiot. It’s a more streamlined version that encompasses everything: hydrate; eat; keep your core temp down with ice and water; run with urgency but don’t go out too fast; spend no more than 2 minutes at aid stations; make smart decisions.

ladies of WR

Pre-race smiles with my badass trail sisters, Karey and Nicole. PC: woman in parking lot.

There was a buzzing excitement in the air at the start line. RD Scott McCoubrey gave his helpful pre-race talk (“There are two hills on this course; this one here, and that one over there”), the countdown commenced, and we were off. My friend Mark Young, an incredibly fast runner who was out for his first 50, started with me, and I explained my strategy along the way. It was a safe bet to bank some time on this first section; it’s relatively flat and not too technical. This would help with the climb up the Palisades trail on the way to Corral Pass. We wound our way up through the pack on the road so that we were better positioned once hitting the single track. The 10-hour pace called for an arrival time at Camp Sheppard of 45 minutes, but we would be well ahead of that. It was fun to see Van Phan directing us onto the trail along the creek, cheering on runners with her amazing positivity.

There’s not much to report along this leg. I chatted with Mark and another runner who was training for his first 100. We passed runners but tried not to overdo it, settling into a strong but not break-neck pace. Camp Sheppard appeared 33 minutes later, putting us 12 minutes ahead of the 10-hour pace split. I was carrying enough water to get me to Corral Pass, so there was no need to stop. Soon thereafter, the climb would commence. I could tell Mark was eager to pick up the pace, so I told him to drop me. “I don’t need to stop at Ranger Creek, so maybe I’ll catch you there.” That was the last of Mark that I saw until the finish line.

Camp Sheppard to Ranger Creek (Mile 3.9 to Mile 11.7)

The first mile and a half or so of this section is still relatively easy-going, so I continued to push, knowing the climb to follow would slow me down. Yassine reiterated that banking time on a climb isn’t really possible; it was fine to push, but a strong power hike would be smarter than trying to run up the big ascents. Climbs are still my weakest point, and it’s incredibly frustrating to feel as if I’m pushing hard yet still being passed. Climbs are the parts of courses that take a lot of mental work for me, as I have to get out of my head and not let being smoked by other runners leave me feeling defeated.

This is a strange race report to compose, because from this leg on, I didn’t do much talking or thinking. A tunnel of focused concentration guided each step. I was here to race and find redemption; everything else was peripheral. One conversation did catch my attention on this climb. Two men were celebrating the fact that their respective partners had allowed them to go out for long runs two weeks in a row. As a single person who might one day like to have a partner, this sentiment made me bristle. It helped me realize that someone who would understand, encourage, and, preferably, join me for regular long runs would be a bare minimum requirement for any potential partners. [Update: I met him at the finish line of this race.] This was the final conversation to filter through to my consciousness during the race.

This ascent typically has a few peek-a-boo views of Rainier, but with the smoke of the BC fires, it offered only one brief glimpse. I blew a kiss to the mountain as I rounded the corner and swept into the woods. After that initial big climb, this section of the course makes its way through the forest with some rolling sections. Even though the downhill sections are brief, I was able to pick up speed and begin passing some of the runners who got me on the climbs. This included Rainshadow’s Elizabeth Reese (who I didn’t recognize at the time because I was so focused), with whom I would play leap-frog throughout the entirety of the race. She got me on every climb, and I returned the favor on every descent.

Soon, the log lean-to of Ranger Creek came into view. There was no need to stop for water, so onward to Corral Pass.

Ranger Creek to Corral Pass (Mile 11.7 to Mile 16.9)

This is one of my favorite sections of the course (most of the photos in the collage above are from this section.) After some additional climbing, the single track delivers you onto a ridgeline that is just plain fun to run. It’s rocky but rolling, a tad dusty but a sweet respite from the monster ascent that precedes it. On a clear day, the views are spectacular. This is also where the front runners appear on their return journey. As per usual, each front runner offered words of encouragement to those of us still outbound; this aspect of ultras is perhaps one of my favorites. It speaks to the healthy community of mutually supportive runners when someone who is working hard to get themselves to the podium still has the presence of mind to say “nice work” to those of us who are running a very different type of race. I took note of the fact that I made it further along this segment before seeing the front runners than last year. I passed Gucci here, looking strong as he crested a hill, and he shouted out supportive words as we crossed paths. The third female appeared at the juncture of the lollipop and main trail: this meant I was, at worst, in the front of the middle pack. This gave me a boost, and I picked up my pace heading in to Corral Pass. The appearance of photographer Jarad Long meant that the aid station was only 3/4 of a mile away, so I pushed even harder when he came into view.

Corral Pass

Barreling in to Corral Pass. Rainier conspicuously absent in background. Photo by Jarad Long, Pronounce Photography.

The Corral Pass aid station had made a strong impression on me last year. Upon arrival, a volunteer came up, took my hydration vest, asked what needed to be done, and instructed me to go eat while she took care of it. This amazed me, and I have since made a point of emulating this in my own volunteering endeavors. This year proved no different. Not only did the volunteer take care of my needs, but she also checked in about how much I was drinking and asked about my electrolytes, joking, “I’m going to be your mom for a minute.” Seeing my bladder wasn’t drained, she scolded me, but when I showed her my empty soft flasks and said, “I’m drinking, mom,” she relented and laughed. I popped a couple of Endurolytes, she poured water on my head, then sent me on my way. This all spanned maybe 90 seconds.

Corral Pass to Ranger Creek (Mile 16.9 to Mile 22.1)

While I usually avoid bananas, due to their negative environmental impact, they were speaking to me today. I grabbed a handful of Ruffles and a banana, and followed the advice of the Corral Pass volunteer from last year: “Eat and climb.” On the way out, I saw Ron, whose story had been a big inspiration to me last year. Surprised to see me so early on, he gasped, “You’re killing it this year!” Grateful for the kind words, I trotted out feeling charged. I munched my food quickly then broke into a slow run. Knowing that I wasn’t all that far behind the lead females added incentive to push; I felt really strong and confident.

After the climb, the lollipop is mostly downhill. The catch is that the trail runs in a narrow groove that makes finding good footing tricky. On my recce run, I took this slow, but race day was a different story. I approached the trail with mindfulness, but didn’t overthink it. This allowed me to pass several runners along the way. Regaining the main trail, I knew that friends would be coming the opposite direction. This led to my mistake of watching for familiar faces instead of watching my footing, which resulted in a tumble. I stood up and dusted myself off; just some minor scratches and a sore hand that would surely bruise. Mostly, it was just embarrassing; some runners asked if I was ok, to which I replied, “Yeah, just wanted to get my bonehead move out of the way early.” Eventually, I passed Matt, who looked strong and happy. Soon after him came Karey, Nicole, and Bill, all smiles and moving with purpose. You could see in their faces that they were going to show the course who’s boss this year.

Moving closer to Ranger Creek, I fell into a line of runners who were chatting along. They were a bit faster than me going up, but much slower on the downhill parts, so I hedged about what to do. When one runner started talking about conducting brain trauma autopsies, making me woozy, I decided it was time to leave this party. The lead runner, jokingly suggesting I insulted him by passing, threatened not to reveal to me the secrets of silver duct tape to address injury. I laughed and replied, “I’ll take my chances.” I flew through Ranger Creek in a flash. The volunteers yelled out, “You need water?!” “No, I’m good!” These volunteers line the trail with signs that remind runners to keep hydrating, so they seemed particularly concerned that I kept going. I was gone before they could protest.

Ranger Creek to Buck Creek (Mile 22.1 to Mile 27.2)

Five miles of switchbacks define this section of the course, which offered an ideal opportunity to make up time and move up in the field. A year ago, I ran it conservatively. Today, I bombed it. How much difference a year can make; my confidence in the descents had grown exponentially, thanks to Yassine’s coaching.

This was all too good to be true. My stomach started rumbling in a familiar manner, signalling the GI issues that were about to unleash, forcing me into the cover of trees. Bryce redux. Runners I had passed soon caught me; I’d pass them again only to break off into the bushes. It was clear my day was taking a drastic turn for the worse. I had some Pepto with me but decided to keep running and do some self care at Buck Creek.

I plowed into Buck Creek in anticipation of seeing familiar faces, but I was apparently too early. A volunteer brought me my drop bag, and I switched out nutrition while another volunteer took care of my hydration vest and another told me how much water was left, saying, “So you know much you’re drinking, or not drinking.” I had gotten a bit behind in nutrition and hydration on the descent from Ranger Creek, so I needed to make up for it now. I saw a runner propped up against a tree, Joe, who I had met at the Dirty Turtle. He looked like he wasn’t doing well; I wasn’t sure if saying hello would be helpful in that moment, so I opted to leave him be (I was glad to see on Strava that he rallied and finished.)  I popped some Pepto and Endurolytes, grabbed a banana, and took of for Fawn Ridge.

Buck Creek to Fawn Ridge (Mile 27.2 to Mile 31.7)

Trouble found me as I embarked on the second half of the course. Like last year, it was tough to run the first easy mile out of Buck Creek leading over to the Suntop trail. My stomach was a mess, and the GI situation spiked my anxiety. I realized about a half mile out that I had forgotten to put ice in my sports bra and soak my head; that was a stupid mistake that would come back to bite me on this section. The climb to Fawn Ridge really is one of the toughest parts of this course. It’s essentially all climb, some of it open to sun exposure just as the day is really heating up. It’s an absolute slog. With my gut problem growing more agitated, I lost some of my drive. My legs felt wobbly and unsure. A sub-10 race seemed impossible now, so I told myself that as long as I was faster than last year, that’s all that mattered. My competitive self wasn’t buying that. I didn’t see anyone on this section after the climb started. It was a lonely stretch that left too much opportunity to think about the steady decline of my race. It took effort to push aside those thoughts and concentrate on getting myself to Fawn Ridge. It’s my favorite aid station on the course, because it’s like an oasis that appears when you’re at your lowest. I planned to have some Coke as a pick me up, plus they would have ice and cold water, all packaged in a festive atmosphere.

Rounding a corner, the first hopeful sign of relief came into view, as sunlight glinted off the inflatable fish hanging from a tree. Fawn Ridge was just beyond the sea creatures that lined the trail. This beacon spurred me on, and finally two volunteers appeared. One said, “You look strong! You’ve got a top 20 [female] finish going!” Stunned, I gasped, “Are you serious?!” “Yeah!!!”

Suddenly, I found my racing legs.

I made a quick turnaround at Fawn Ridge, downing a cup of Coke, throwing ice down the hatch, soaking my head, and refilling water. I was gone in less than a minute.

Fawn Ridge to Suntop (Mile 31.7 to Mile 37)

A renewed sense of urgency moved my tired legs as I continued the climb toward Suntop. Not having asked where in the top 20 I fell, I worked under the assumption that I was #20. My job now was to pick off a few women while not letting any pass me. Soon enough, I caught #19. She was walking slowly and dejectedly; her race had somehow gone south, and I felt for her. There were no words exchanged as we passed, as it was clear she was in no mood for words of encouragement.

This is another fun section of the course, as it meanders through shaded groves, across streams, and along ridge lines before cresting the highest elevation on the course. There are plenty of downhill sections, which allowed me to catch woman #18, Elizabeth Reese. She had me on the climbs, but I kept her in sight and knew I would push past her on the descent from Suntop.

[A word of caution: things are about to get gross. Not Bryce 100-caliber gross, but still, you’ve been warned.]

Unfortunately, my off-trail bush excursions didn’t cease; in fact, they took quite a turn along this stretch, as I discovered blood in my stool. For lack of a better phrase, and no pun intended, this scared the absolute shit out of me. At Bryce, a runner had told me that since there was no blood in my stool or urine, I wasn’t experiencing kidney failure. Here at White River, my brain made what seemed like the only logical conclusion: now that there is blood, I must be having kidney failure. The slightly more rational part of my brain insisted that I wouldn’t be able to keep running in this manner if I was in kidney failure, so I listened to that voice and kept pushing.

At last I reached the interminable half mile that leads to the summit of Suntop. I swear it’s the longest half mile on the planet; it’s mostly exposed, dusty switchbacks; Rainier looms behind your back, but you don’t realize it because all you can think is “climb, climb.” I knew Glenn would be waiting at the last switchback, which gave me a little boost. I was determined to look strong coming around the bend, unlike the photo from last year in which I’m hunched and exhausted (but smiling all the same.) Rounding the bend, there he was like clockwork, and I offered a “thanks, Glenn!” as I zoomed up the final stretch to the top. Out I popped onto Suntop summit, the SRC and 7 Hills aid stations there to greet me.

Sun Top Climb

Oh yeah, totally running up this year! PC: Glenn Tachiyama

Sun Top

The mountain may be hiding, but the smile is there. PC: Glenn Tachiyama

Wanting to travel light down the Suntop road, I opted to fill only my bladder, not my bottles. I wouldn’t drink from the bottles while running downhill and could fill them at Skookum. This became the penultimate bad decision I made on the course, as we soon shall see. In the moment, though, it made sense. Andrea Morrison took my pack and filled the bladder with water and ice, the ice being the final bad decision of the day. I grabbed a banana as Brian Morrison put my vest back on me. Tempted over by Jerry Gamez to the 7 Hills station, I took a shot of pickle juice while he hosed me off and I joked, “I love this banana and pickle juice combo!”

With that, I zoomed away, unknowingly toward disaster.

Suntop to Skookum Flats (Mile 37 to Mile 43.4)

During our training run, Mark and I had run the six miles down Suntop road at a sub-8 minute pace, so it was clearly the place to make up for time lost on climbs. Here, I passed Elizabeth again, as well as several men. This descent is no one’s favorite, because it’s a rutted gravel road where cars drive too fast and kick up too much dirt; you never find the right side of the road with the best footing; it’s exposed to blasting sunlight; it slowly snakes down the mountain over six miles, and is tedious at best. Still, it was an opportunity to widen the gap between myself and the women behind. Skookum would be tough, so now was the time to go all out and gain as much ground as possible.

Within a quarter mile of leaving Suntop, I felt water streaming down my rear. Thinking perhaps the volunteers hadn’t fully latched the water bladder, I stopped to assess the situation. It was tightly sealed. Forging on, the same sensation stopped me again in disbelief. “What the…?!” The latch was good; the problem eluded me. Running again, it hit me: the ice had punctured the bladder, and soon I would be out of water. Panicked, I started drinking as fast as possible. This minor disaster would leave me without water for 6 miles on the sunniest and hottest part of the course. My GI issues were already dehydrating me, and this would surely exacerbate the situation. It seemed the best solution was to crank out 7-minute miles and get my ass to Skookum Flats stat.

What an idiot.

Running full tilt propelled me past more runners, but three trips to the bushes allowed them to catch up. By the last trip, there was an alarming amount of blood. The other runners hadn’t caught me this time, though, and, determined to hold 17th place, I willed myself not to leave the road again. Where the downhill meets the flat is always a killer here, and this day proved no exception. Still, I powered on, pulling myself together at the sight of a crowd at the trailhead. I saw Ron again, who yelled, “Damn, you’re crushing it!” Apparently, I’m a good actress, because the wheels were coming off.

I plowed into the Skookum Flats aid station a hot mess. In a complete panic, I begged for water, and, dazed, mumbled, “my bladder broke; I didn’t have any water.” The volunteers, all Cascade Crest affiliates, pointed me toward buckets of river water, in which I doused myself as they filled my bottles. I drank several cups of water, but nothing could repair the deficit. I introduced myself to Wendy Wheeler-Jacobs as her CCC double-leg sweeper; I was such a mess in that moment that she surely must have regretted taking me on for that role. There was a moment of hesitation before leaving; I would have 34 ounces of water to take me the final 6.6 miles to the finish. For me, that probably wouldn’t be enough, and the thought of running out fed my anxiety. The possibility of kidney failure lingered as well, but, not wanting to get pulled from the course so close to the finish, my lips stayed sealed, and off I went to face Skookum Flats.

Skookum Flats to Buck Creek Finish Line (Mile 43.4 to Mile 50)

Last year, Skookum Flats got in my head, and I had anticipated the rematch for a year. With its gnarly roots and rocks, all coming at you when you’re most tired, it had nearly got the best of me due to my fear of falling and breaking my ankle again. As a result, I had walked much of it in my first White River attempt and had been determined to make up for that this year. How frustrating it was, then, to get there and feel mentally prepared for it but have an unwilling body.

A combination of factors compounded here. I was severely dehydrated and would surely run out of water along the way. Thoughts of kidney failure haunted me, inducing a panic attack. At least, I told myself it was a panic attack. My vision darkened and flickered, the world closed in. There was a disconnect between mind and body, a barrier between them. “It’s just a panic attack, you know what this is, it’s just a panic attack. It’s ok.” I was only partially convinced, which served to fuel what was, I’m now sure, just a panic attack. Each time I tried to run, though, I felt faint and on the cusp of passing out. In disbelief, I would try again, only to be overcome with the same sensation. Even on the downhills, letting gravity do the work, my efforts met the same results. The fear of blacking out warred with the desire to hold my position in the field and to conquer Skookum, but the reality soon became clear: I couldn’t run.

Walking as quickly as possible, I pushed forward, hoping to keep the female runners at bay. I knew Elizabeth would catch me before long, and I reassured myself that two additional women could pass me and I’d still have a top 20 finish. About 3 miles in, Liz breezed by. I said, “there’s no more downhills, so you won’t be seeing me again!” She laughed and sped off. Soon a runner appeared on the horizon, and it was in disbelief that I saw it was Gucci. “Oh no, I shouldn’t be catching you,” I offered. “Yeah, I can’t keep my heart rate down, so I’m walking it in.” “Do you need anything?” “No, I’m ok, you go ahead!” “Way to gut it out, man! Hang in there!” It’s awful to see such a strong runner have a bad day, but I admired the grace with which he finished out his run. He’d still finish with a time that most runners would envy.

As I suspected, my water supply didn’t last through this section, which spiked the panic. Incredibly, two campers appeared next to the trail. I stumbled into their camp and the man pulled out a rifle. I laughed nervously and asked for water. He put down the gun and gestured to their supply. Thanking them, the tense mood eased, and he invited me to douse my head or stay and drink more. I was a little rattled and filled only one bottle before thanking them on my way out, “Thanks, but I have a race to finish.”

Soon thereafter, two runners moved toward me coming from Buck Creek and shared, “you’re about 20 minutes out!” I wasn’t sure if they meant at their pace or mine, but, looking at my watch, I saw that a sub-11 finish was within my grasp. It would just take some RFP, but it was possible. Still unable to run, I nevertheless moved my legs with a renewed sense of purpose. A runner passed me about ten minutes later, and I asked a question I never allowed myself to ask before: “do you know how much further?” I felt ashamed the minute the words left my lips, but I was in bad shape and knew I didn’t have much left. “About half a mile, I think. Surely not more than a mile, though.” “Anyone can run a mile,” I told myself.

He wasn’t far off, because the light that signaled the open road soon came into view. From there, it was a quarter mile to the finish. Too proud to walk it in, I drew on that to help me find enough strength to run the home stretch, which would be lined with spectators. It really was all I could do to keep from passing out, but the sounds of cheering voices, and my sheer stubbornness, carried me across the finish line.

WR50 finish

This should be an Academy Award-nominated performance. PC: Jarad Long.

I collapsed into Eric Sach’s arms and said, “I don’t feel good.” At which he proceeded to drag me over to the medics tent and deposit me on a cot.

I was a smoldering wreck.

After the medics posed a series of very personal and humiliating questions, they offered a few guesses as to the cause of my GI and blood issues and ruled out kidney failure. My body temperature couldn’t regulate, so they wrapped me in a blanket, shivering on an 80 degree day. Mark found me and offered congratulations, which felt funny given that I was on my back in the medics tent. He had an outstanding run, and I was so happy for him. Jason Weekes showed up and pointed out that I was the 13th female (not 18th, as I had believed), which gave me a lift in spite of my humiliating condition. Later, Pablo found me and came bearing the gift of a baked potato while offering to spoon feed it to me. Declining his kind offer, I still enjoyed what was, decidedly, the most delicious baked potato of my life.

Laying there, a plate of half-eaten baked potato on my chest, and feeling embarrassed, I noticed David Horton walk up. He looked at me and said, “You look pretty comfortable there.” And so, I replied, to one of my ultra heroes. the most idiotic thing that came to my head: “I’m just practicing to win Best Blood at Mountain Masochist.” With that he laughed, pulled up a cooler, and sat down to talk to me. How surreal, to be laying on a medical cot, chatting with a runner whose career you’ve read so much about and whose races you’ve aspired to run. How surreal, an hour later, to have him sitting in your lap, taking selfies and asking for your number so that he can send them to you. In the end, it was worth the humiliation of a pathetic finish to share that time with Dr. Horton. Some of his words will stay with me, echoing in my mind and motivating me in my future endeavors.

best selfie ever

When David Horton sits on your lap and asks to take a selfie, you say yes.

Graduating from the cot to a chair, I could relax and cheer in runners. Bill and Matt were there as well, neither having had the day they’d hoped for, but both being models for making smart decisions. We anxiously awaited for Karey and Nicole to appear. During this time, Pablo brought over Seth and introduced us. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that would be one momentous introduction, a most welcome one that would go on to change the course of my summer, and of my life. He’d soon become the guy who would be out on those long runs with me, but that’s another story, for another time.

I was so proud to see Karey and Nicole come in for their finish. These women had trained their asses off for this race, and they both demonstrated such determination and grit. It was such a sweet end to the day to see them beaming as they crossed the line. It had been a long, hard day, but they dug deep and accomplished their goal, which was truly inspiring to witness.

************************************************

In our post-race debrief, Yassine and I talked through my theory about the source of my GI distress (Tailwind), and I lamented the fact that yet another race had gone south. In his infinite wisdom, Yassine said, “In ultra running, we’re always chasing the dragon. That perfect race is elusive, but we tell ourselves it’s out there.” He went on to remind me of his own races that hadn’t gone as planned. It was reassuring to hear this from my coach. Sometimes I forget that he’s human, too, and even elite runners have bad days. Few, if any, runners go out and have seamless races on every outing. With so many variables in the mix, the odds of hitting a hiccup are in your favor, be it minor or major. Hearing this helped me to take some of the pressure off of myself that I had been piling up since Bryce. I had believed that if I just trained well and tweaked the little problems, then a flawless race was guaranteed. Yassine’s words reminded me that’s not how ultra running, or life, works. There are no guarantees–and that’s exactly what we love about the sport.

Chasing the dragon can be fun; it can motivate us to push ourselves and to seek that golden run, but we also need to see the beauty of, and lessons in, the races that don’t go exactly as planned. I’d been so hung up on the defeat of Skookum Flats, I had failed to recognize that I had set a 2 hour and 5 minute PR on the White River course, finishing in 10 hours and 46 minutes. Initially, I was too absorbed in agonizing over missing my time goal and feeling a sub-10 finish had cruelly slipped from my grasp. In retrospect, and with the help of others who gave me perspective, I saw that moving from 57th to 13th place, from a 12:51 to a 10:46 finish in one year was an incredible achievement. If we’re too caught up in perfection, then we’ll never see the progress we’ve made. No, don’t hide behind the royal we, Ellen: if I’m too caught up in perfection, then I’ll never see the progress that I’ve made.

Perhaps, then, this is the dragon that I should be chasing, seeking a place within myself where unfulfilled expectations and small defeats don’t signal failure but, rather, herald new forms of growth.

 

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