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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.