Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Double Wonderland, Reversing, part three: Actualization

by Ras

Double Wonderland, Reversing, part three: Actualization
The Subjective Nature Of Reality And The Objective Reality Of Nature
     It wasn't even light yet at my target departure time, 6:00AM on Thursday, September 6th. But that was fine, because I still had some sewing to do. I had bought some ripstop nylon, upholstery thread, leather needles, and nylon webbing in order to fabricate Raidlight style water bottle sleeves to add on to my GoLite Rush pack. I was finishing up the last few stitches as sunlight finally began to hit White River Campground. 

photo by Kathy Vaughan
Photo by Kathy Vaughan

     I took my copious supplements, ate a few spoonfuls of Justin's chocolate hazelnut butter, drank a cup of coffee, turned on the SPOT transponder that Trey Bailey of UphillRunning.com was generous enough to sponsor me with, and tried to set my mind in order. But it was too big, too huge, simply too large a thing to mentally metabolize in a single serving. When people ask me how I can run 100 mile races, I often jokingly admit that I CANNOT run 100 miles, but I can run ONE mile one hundred times. I knew what I had to do. I simply had to start running. I needed to run the first section, from White River, up to Summerland, over Panhandle Gap, down through Indian Bar, and on down to Box Canyon. I just had to run to Box Canyon.

     Then I did the hardest thing I ever have to do on these journeys, I kissed Kathy goodbye. It's so odd and so rare for me to be on the trail without her, separate from her, that it's counter-intuitive to run away from her. But I knew that as soon as I did, as soon as I was out of sight of my Beloved, the character of the run would change. From that point on I would be running back toward her, which would make all the difference, mentally.

photo by Kathy Vaughan
Photo by Kathy Vaughan

     At 7:45AM on Thursday, September 6th I left White River Campground heading clockwise around the mountain. I quickly cruised out the Four miles or so to Frying pan Creek sipping on water and Perpetuem, then pulled out my poles and started the climb up to Summerland. As I came around one of the forested switchbacks I saw a marten scramble up a tree, watching me pass from its perch. It was sunny and just starting to warm up when I passed Summerland and got into the more technical loose rock of the glacial moraine that makes up the bowl at the source of Frying Pan Creek. I ate a couple spoonfuls of nut butter and drank some Perpetuem. The first snow sections were a little bit treacherous, there still being a somewhat icy crust, but I was able to quickly kick steps and ascend to Panhandle Gap. 

     At the top the view was absolutely glorious, the air tasted sweet, and life itself seemed to flow invigoratingly in and out of my lungs with each breath. The jeweled meadows of Summerland sparkled below the grey line of the moraine's verge, and continuing forward, Panhandle Gap was a fairly easy traverse of well traveled and well marked snow, and permanent rock-lined trail. A Search And Rescue helicopter flew directly over me as I cruised easily across, stopping to refill my water bottles, watching for mountain goats but not seeing any, then topped out again at the far side of Panhandle Gap, stowed my poles in my pack, and began the drop down to Indian Bar.

photo by Trey Bailey/UphillRunning.com
Indian Bar shelter. Photo by Trey Bailey/UphillRunning.com

     This was a particularly good year for Wildflowers on the Wonderland. The Late, wet spring, and late, warm summer were the perfect recipe for dazzling, dumbfounding blankets of color in the alpine meadows. As I bounded down the rather brutal erosion steps that lead into Indian Bar, I found myself constantly aghast and agape at the sheer quantity of wildflowers. They had filled in and opened up even more since our reconnaissance run just two weeks before. The Lupine was so thick that the purple overpowered the green. The Indian Paintbrush was splashed and dotted about the meadows like a pointillist afterthought in an expressionist canvass, and the white flower stalks of beargrass evoked the negative spaces defined by the legs of baby beasts. I repeatedly thought to myself how thankful I was to be able to move through places immersed in such beauty, and it felt right, it felt proper, like fulfilling a calling.

     I continued moving well, up and over the spires along the Cowlitz Divide  (where I always smell goats) which I can never seem to count correctly no matter how many times I pass through them. Are there three? Five? Eight? Yes, there are as many as you choose to perceive, but today they were more passable than usual, and before I new it I was floating down through forested single track, past the Ollalie Creek Trail, past Nickel Creek Camp, and hitting the bridge over box canyon in only five hours and fifteen minutes. I was running amazingly well, the best I ever had on that section of trail. I was in my favorite place on earth, doing my favorite thing, and doing it rather well. What a blessing to be alive.

     I ran a couple more miles of easy trail (for the Wonderland), then sat down for a fifteen minute fuel stop. I took my six hour supplement regimen, mixed up an electrolyte drink, and ate some soy jerkey, a Tastey Bites Bombay Potatoes packet, and some dried mango, then began the climb up to Reflection Lakes.

     I kept a moving but easy pace up to Reflection Lakes, continuing to eat and drink the whole way, knowing that after five easy miles down to Longmire, one of the toughest stretches of the trail would begin. I moved quickly through the Reflection Lakes area, past the tourists (possibly instigating a Sasquatch sighting as I breezed hairily by) and floated the five miles down to Longmire in under nine hours total since my start at White River.

      Two tenths of a mile from Longmire I turned to stay on the Wonderland and began poling my way up past Pyramid Creek and Devil's Dream to Indian Henry's. In the thirty-six mile section of the Wonderland heading clockwise from Longmire to Mowich Lake, the trail negotiates five major climbs, totaling over ten thousand feet, almost half the elevation gain of the entire trail, packed into only one third of the total mileage. I knew this was a make or break section, where my possibility for an FKT on the first loop would most likely be decided. 

     After plodding through the first two hours of climbing I topped out at Indian Henry's Hunting Ground. For the second time a Search And Rescue helicopter passed over me, circled around and passed over me again, then flew on. Curiouser and curiouser. I checked the SPOT transponder to make sure it was flashing two green lights like it was supposed to, and it was. In the back of my mind I began to wonder if I had accidentally leaned against the 911 button and summoned Search And Rescue, but dismissed the idea as just my brain looking for something to gnaw on.

     Again, the wildflowers were simply astounding, astonishing, overwhelming, almost unnerving. I felt like too ugly and ungainly a creature to be moving through such absolute beauty. A ballerina visiting from Japan had asked me a month or so prior how to distinguish between the English words "pretty" and "beautiful". If only I could have shown her Indian Henry's. That place has the deep, thorough, all-consuming quality of true, essential beauty, in comparison to which mere prettiness pales.

photo by Trey Bailey/UphillRunning.com
Photo by Trey Bailey/UphillRunning.com
     Thankfulness and Joy; what more could I feel? Giving Thanks for feet and legs and lungs I pressed on. The Wonderland has very few flat sections, and none of them are in this stretch. I down-ran a few miles to the suspension bridge, my watch beeping at me every ninety minutes to remind me to take my electrolytes and Hornet Juice. I climbed up through salmon berries, blueberries, thimbleberries, and huckleberries to the high, raw, exposed glory of Emerald Ridge. I breathed in the scenery and ate a spoonful of Coconut Manna and some dried mango. I ran down the abrasive loose rock of glacial moraine where the forest is slowly working to reestablish itself, worked my way down into the canopy, then cruised. I dunked my bottles into a cold, fast-moving creek, drank half of a bottle, then topped it off again and got moving.

     At the South Puyallup River I was roughly halfway through my first loop, and just on the outskirts of on time for the FKT. Time was beginning to stretch and morph and run away from me. My watch seemed to beep at me every few minutes, and I could't keep up with its recommended intake of fuel and fluids. But I was still feeling good, still climbing well, still running the flats and downhills, and feeling better and better as the cool of the evening set in. I hoofed it up to St. Andrews Park, trotted over the top to Klapatche, and descended to the North Puyallup River as dusk was turning to dark. Again I filled my water bottles and nutrition flasks, and I dug out my headlamp and waistlamp while I was stopped. 

     While I had my pack off I checked the SPOT transmitter and noticed that it was not flashing two green lights like it should be. I dug the extra batteries out of my pack and installed them, then restarted the unit. It returned to its double green flash, but I had no idea how long it had not been working.

     For climbs I was just using the waistlamp on its lowest setting, to conserve batteries. For runable sections I was using the waistlamp on high and my headlamp on high, so that there was good three dimensional definition of the trail. This made it possible for me to run fairly well through the night.

     I pushed on up through the ghost forest to Golden Lakes, topped out the roller coaster, and began the long descent to the South Mowich River.
I caught a Pika off guard as it was crossing the trail, causing the fat little alpine guinea pig-like creature to scramble and scrabble furiously to get out of my way. I received a whistle at my back for my rudeness and apologized over my shoulder, ineffectually, in English.

photo by Allen Skytta
Ghost Forest. Photo by Allen Skytta

     At this point I had lost track of my fueling schedule. I had a couple spoonfuls of Coconut Manna, for fat, and began eating crystalized ginger to sharpen my quickly dulling mind and disrupt my sleep patterns. A couple of times when I felt overwhelmingly sluggish I sat down on the edge of the trail and rested my head in my hands, allowing myself to sleep for two or three minutes. Just that small amount of sleep would be enough to take away the worst of the fuzziness in my brain so I could continue on. 

     Although I remember running and making the effort to move the whole way, somewhere between Golden Lakes and South Mowich River, I began losing time on my FKT goal. I reached the beginning of the twenty-three hundred foot climb up to Mowich Lake around four in the morning and began the brutal uphill trek that on good days I have pumped out in ninety minutes. With three two minute nap breaks, it would take me two hours and fifteen minutes to complete the climb.

     Jenn Hughes of Run Pretty Far was originally scheduled to meet me at Mowich Lake at three in the morning and run with me to White River for the last twenty-five miles of my first loop, and then back again to Mowich Lake for the first 25 miles of my second loop. However, I had gotten started almost two hours late, so even though I was still making decent time, I was over three hours late getting to Mowich to meet up with her.

     I sat on the tailgate of Jenn's car and ate some more nut butter and slurped some Perpetuem while Jenn got her gear ready. She had been there watching for me since two AM and was more than a bit worried and frazzled. The old ultrarunning joke goes "CREW stands for Cranky Runner, Endless Waiting." In most instances I can't do anything about the endless waiting, but I try my best to ensure that the C stands for Cheerful, or if I can't quite muster the energy for that, at least Courteous.

     I felt like I was still moving okay, and by the clock there was still a chance of setting a new FKT for my first loop, although perhaps not by much. I moved well out along the lake for a mile, Jenn stopping to adjust her pack and telling me to continue on. I dropped over the top of Ipsut pass, downclimbed the tough, technical section at the top, then began running once I hit the soft singletrack of the faerie forest. Jenn caught up to me a few miles down while I was filling my water bottles and we ran together down to the Carbon River. 

     When the trail bottomed out I did, too. My legs felt spent and my head was lightly spinning. The sunlight of early morning was painfully bright and I was suddenly feeling sluggish both mentally and physically. Jenn was happily chatting away about running and family and artistic vision, but I was having trouble mustering the energy to respond. My voice felt tired. My mind felt tired. I'm afraid I was rather poor company. After almost two thousand feet of climbing, leaning rather heavily on my trekking poles, we watered at Dick Creek, then tucked in for another fifteen hundred feet of elevation gain. 

     Nine hundred feet above Dick Creek we entered the mouth of Moraine Park, one of my favorite parts of the Wonderland. Usually this section would be gentle, runable uphill, but I was struggling to even keep a solid powerhike going. I watched the numerals on my watch sprint forward as my body staggered and struggled to continue moving at all. My mind was frantically running and re-running splits and possibilities, and the results were looking more and more grim for my first loop FKT ambitions.

     As we reached the headwall at the top of Moraine Park and faced the final Five Hundred feet of the climb before it topped out above Mystic Lake, my drive and determination faltered. I ran the numbers in my head one last time and realized it was a no go. Even if I suddenly started putting up twelve minute miles I was not going to beat Adam Lint's FKT. It was time to shift gears toward the big goal. I needed to sit for a few minutes. I ate some chocolate hazelnut butter and dried mango. It had been almost two hours since I last ate something, but it only seemed like a few minutes. Looking back, I think I had accrued a substantial calorie deficit during the night, and now it had caught up with me. I leaned back on the edge of the trail and closed my eyes until I suddenly snored myself awake with a loud snort. I checked my watch; ten minutes. Time to get moving again.

     Moraine park is one of my personal litmus test strips for the health of the park. When Kathy, Angela and I first hiked the Wonderland, Moraine Park was full of healthy, wild Hoary Marmots. We would round a bend and see numerous marmots sunning themselves, until the first one would notice us and sound an urgent whistle to warn his or her compatriots, who would all dash madly for the safety of their dens. This behavior is characteristic of Hoary Marmots, but is rare in the animal world as a whole. An individual puts itself at greater risk by sounding a warning and calling attention to itself, acting for the greater good of warning friends and family of impending danger. 

     Six years later the marmots didn't whistle any more. Many of them seemed morbidly obese and they would waddle right up to the edge of the trail to beg for treats. Obviously visitors had taken to feeding them, and they no longer sounded the warning whistle that defined their character as a species when humans approached. They had learned to view humans as a source of food, and had devolved one of the very attributes that made them who and what they were.

     It made my heart glad as Jenn and I passed through Moraine Park to once again hear the whistled warning and see those shaggy grey butts dart off for safety. There was one fellow who just watched us pass, sniffing in our direction hopefully, then gave an indignant high tone at my back once we were past. Is it anthopomorphising to imagine disdain, disappointment, and disapproval in that mammal's mean-spirited chirp?

     We topped out and began another long, runable downhill section past Mystic Lake and on for five miles to the Winthrop Glacier. Then another two thousand feet of slow climbing through forested switchbacks brought us to mile eighty five, and the turn toward Sunrise that meant a mere two hours to White River Campground. At the base of Skyscraper Peak, Jenn asked me how I felt. I said, "Tired. I don't know how I'm gonna do this. But I can't imagine giving up." 

     Due to my tardy arrival at Mowich Lake and Jenn's pressing schedule demands for the following day, she had to turn around at this point and get back to her car and her life. I really was not at my best at that point, still recuperating from my overnight calorie deficit. But I was so thankful for her company and that she would invest the time and resources to come run part of the Wonderland with me. The kindness and generosity of the many friends who encouraged and enabled me to attempt this feat of daring-do still blows my mind. It is humbling and inspiring that so many extraordinary people would have faith in the silly little Rastaman that is I. It means more to me than I can adequately express. And it was yet one more factor spurring me on toward a goal that was seeming not only more and more possible, but more and more probable.

     I moved over those last eight miles, most of them downhill, in a bit of a fog. My mind was a bit muddled, noticeably not as sharp as usual, but still functional and still moving me forward. I stopped one time in that last stretch to finish off my mango and soy jerky, stow my trekking poles, and drink some  electrolyte mix. Then I plunged the final few miles into White River Campground. My body was begging to hike, but my mind forced it to run.

     I re-entered the White River Campground thirty-three hours and thirty-five minutes after I began my first loop. I was about two and a half hours over my FKT goal for the first loop, but as few as three years ago my time would have been the Fastest Known Time, and I was quite happy with it. My pie-in-the-sky goal was now off the table, but goals #1 and #2 were still solidly in my crosshairs. 

photo by Kathy Vaughan
Photo by Kathy Vaughan

     I walked down to our camp just as Kathy was walking up to check for me and was ever so thankful for her greeting hug. I had been really looking forward to getting to spend a couple of hours with her at my turn around. I had a bunch of food to eat, a trekking pole to repair, layers to change, an mp3 player to recharge, and a short nap to take to which I was rather looking forward. 

     I had a stash of food all ready, so I pulled it out and set to it. I ate a Globespun Gourmet Thai Wrap and drank an FRS Cherry Lime Energy Drink. I inhaled Salsa Fresca Rice Chips and avocado and another FRS. I ate a PCC vegan brownie and downed a cup of coffee. I drank a bowl of  Butternut Squash Ginger soup and had a third FRS. I really was rather hungry, and I knew I would be starting out again with a couple hours of climbing, so I would have plenty of time to digest whatever I felt like eating, and I felt like eating just about everything I saw.

photo by Kathy Vaughan
Photo by Kathy Vaughan

     My down puffy, Turtle Fur hat and rainshell were all soaked through with sweat from the backpanel of my pack, so I hung them up to dry while I ate. I pulled out the sewing kit I had just put away thirty-four hours ago and used it to repair the torn wrist strap on my trekking pole. I took off my socks and shoes to let my feet air out, put on some sweats and my giant gangsta puffy coat, then laid down for forty minutes with the alarm set on my cellphone.

     Kathy sat with me as I slept, and it was wonderful to wake up next to her. I slowly got myself up and changed into fresh shorts, shirt, and socks, reapplied 2Toms Sports Shield liberally to all the bits that needed it, treated my feet and knees to a brief massage with Biofreeze, and packed all my calories for the second loop into my pack. I had only eaten about sixty-five hundred calories for my first loop, so I only took seven thousand calories for my second loop, not wanting to take any more food than necessary, as a few of my Cliff Blocks had gotten a 93 mile tour of the Wonderland only to be returned to my ultra bin. I stuck with what I had actually eaten: Justin's chocolate hazelnut butter, sixteen hundred calories worth of dried mango, about twenty-five hundred calories worth of Perpetuem, two packets of Tastey Bites Bombay Potatoes, soy jerky, crystalized ginger, peppermint candies, my various supplements, spare batteries for headlamp, waistlamp, and SPOT, my Brooks LSD shell, my puffy down jacket crammed into a ziplock, gloves, my Turtle Fur hat, and a smartwool long sleeve shirt. 

     I changed the batteries in my SPOT transponder and started it up again. Kathy hiked with me up to the trail head and just as greater dusk was turning to darkness in the forest, I began my second loop. Kathy waved and called goodbye to me, and I to her, then I turned and started climbing. 

     This was where it finally started. Scott Jurek famously said that the Western States 100 doesn't really start until the Rucky Chucky River crossing, almost 80 miles deep. I use this same mental tool during races. And on the Wonderland I had been telling myself all through the first loop that it was just a commute. The real Double didn't start until the second loop, and now here I was. This was where it got challenging and crazy and real.

     I felt physically and mentally revivified for about fifteen steps until a sharp pain in my left hip brought me up short. I powered through the pain for a few more paces until I was out of sight of Kathy, then stopped and tried to work out what was hurting and why. I used one of my trekking poles to try and roll out my iliotibial band, and I stretched and rotated the leg, thinking I had perhaps slept on it funny for a half hour, or that something had just tightened up during that time and would soon shake out. But nothing helped, and I eventually just continued with my climb. I would not have another single pain-free step with my left leg for the next Ninety-three miles.
photo by Kathy Vaughan
Photo by Kathy Vaughan

     I was in pain, but it didn't really matter. Pain is only a spice in the ultrarunning recipe; it adds a zing, a savor, a contrast for the sweet moments. Pain would slow me down. Pain would leech a little of the enjoyment out of the running. But pain wouldn't stop me. I couldn't imagine what would. I needed to keep moving.

     Just as I climbed up above the Sunrise Campground I saw glowing eyes a few feet off the trail ahead. There a dark dog-like shape with a wide light-colored band around its midsection stood looking at me. It darted off a few feet, turned and looked at me again, then darted off once more, this time more completely. I followed it with my headlamp as much as possible, but never got a great look at it. I was left with the impression of a large fox.

     Then another hundred and fifty feet up the trail I saw another one, and got a better look. This clearly was a dark fox with a light band around its middle. We stood looking at one another for a moment, then it used the same dart-and-look, dart-and-look method of exfiltration that its compatriot had.

     I later learned these were Cascade Foxes, a rare subspecies of fox that are only known to live on Mount Rainier and Mount Adams. Unfortunately, due to being fed by tourists, they are a bit problematic around some of the campgrounds. This sort of tourist culture seems like a bi-product of imperialism. It focuses on what the tourist gets from the experience, and doesn't concern itself with how the tourist's actions impact the place it is visiting. Maybe if we stop feeding both the foxes AND the tourists the situation will sort itself out.

     I was climbing fairly well, despite the pain in my left leg. But once I topped out and started into what should have been miles of cruisy downhill to the Winthrop Glacier, my hip really started affecting me. Each time I placed my left foot it sent a small, shocking, aching jolt up to my hip, and the movement and rotation of my entire leg felt stiff and off through my stride. I did everything I knew to do form-wise to find a smooth pace, but nothing worked. I shortened my stride, increased my leg turnover, slowed my pace, but no matter what, my running mechanics were clunky and lopsided and uncomfortable. I alternated between clunking along at my best approximation of a run and speed hiking, which was much more comfortable and seemed more efficient, albeit slower.

     This was my second night on the trail, and despite my physical discomfort I was enjoying it. My mind felt at home. I find moving through the woods and wilds at night to be exhilarating, seemingly pregnant with possibility. But I also enjoy the simple focus of following a spot of light on a winding and seemingly random course, like a kitten chasing the red dot of a laser pointer. Technical terrain can be simpler in the dark, because you aren't distracted by your surroundings. All you need pay attention to are the next couple of yards, the next few foot placements, the immediate topography of the trail. The focus is narrow, simple, intense, and effective. 

     Somewhat effective, at least. I was moving slow. It took me all night to go from White River Campground up over the top by Sunrise, down to the Winthrop Glacier, up to Mystic Lake, and through Moraine Park. This was great ground to cover in the dark, as it wasn't very technical and much of it was runnable; or, at least, as-close-as-I-could-come-to-running-able. I refilled my water and made up my mixes and took my supplements at the mouth of Moraine Park just as dawn was beginning to break.

     The pain in my left greater hip area (psoas? I thought, or piriformis?) would flood and then ebb. Climbing over the spires between Mystic Lake and Moraine Park it was bad, and I must have been a hilarious site. I would stop every few minutes to attempt to alleviate the pain by wedging the handle of a trekking pole into my left buttock and leaning against it, in hopes of a triggerpoint release that continued to elude me. I would sit on the erosion steps and try to massage the muscles I suspected to be the clenching culprits by rubbing my but back and forth. I'm sure I more closely resembled a poorly behaved pet performing an embarrassing and unsanitary intimate scratching regimen in front of guests than I did an elite endurance athlete. Regardless, I had to keep moving.

     I performed poorly and awkwardly downrunning almost four thousand feet along the Carbon Glacier and across to where the Ipsut Creek Campground trail splits off. I climbed the first few hundred feet up toward Ipsut Pass, then stopped at a nice watering spot to again fill my bottles and eat a Tastey Bites packet. I still had about twenty-five hundred feet to climb up to Mowich Lake. This particular climb alone is good reason to travel the Wonderland clockwise, which makes it a mostly runnable descent. Counterclockwise, the direction I was traveling on the second loop, it is a long, steep, relentless, and merciless climb. It ends with the final vertical blessing of particularly steep switchbacks completely exposed in the direct sun up the headwall to Ipsut Pass. I felt the beginnings of a hotspot on the underside of the second toe of my left foot. I knew it was because I was twisting my foot in an extraordinary way, as a means of compensating for my limited and altered leg movement. Even the salmonberries didn't cheer me during this climb. But whatever. I was here to enjoy myself, and part of what I enjoy is not enjoying myself. So this was perfect.

     I topped out, and began working my way over the single mile of easy trail along Mowich Lake to the parking lot. Whenever I saw other people I would run. Whenever I was out of sight of them, I would do this limp-hobble-scrabble thing I had been working on. I didn't want to reflect poorly on other trail runners, who tend to be both more skilled and more disciplined than I. Also, Human Beings are bar far the most dangerous creature one is likely to encounter on the Wonderland, so I try to move briskly past in a non-threatening manner and minimize my interactions with them.

     Allen Skytta was meeting me at Mowich to run with me to Box Canyon. He had expected me as early as 3:00AM, but I didn't get there until after 10:00AM. Allen greeted me with a hug and got his gear ready while I sat down on a log, ate, and adjusted my layers. I removed my shoes and socks, massaged my feet with Biofreeze, reapplied 2Tom's Sports Shield, and was ready to hit the trail once again.

photo by Allen Skytta
Photo by Allen Skytta

     Allen and I dropped over the edge from the lake and started down the twenty-seven hundred foot plunge to the South Mowich River. Mediocre would be a flattering characterization of my movement through here. I would run decently well for three quarters of a mile, then my will would fail me and I would insist on sitting for three minutes. Then I would alternate running and speed hiking for a while, then insist on taking a two minute sit break. I must have sat down four times in that five miles stretch. Perhaps Allen was considering Sisyphus. 

     We grabbed some water then started the long climb up to Golden Lakes. We had a climb equal to the descent we had just run to look forward to, over about five miles. I pulled out my trekking poles and tucked in, finding I could still climb relatively well. At this point I was about one hundred and twenty-six miles deep and on a relative scale, then end was in sight. I was at least smelling SOME oats in A barn, if not THE oats in THE barn. Trekking along felt good, felt efficient, and felt relatively easy. As Allen and I roamed literally over the flanks of Mount Rainier, we wandered conversationally through a confounding and mesmerizing global village populated with Eighties punk rock bands, outlaw hillbilly woodcutters, running club politicos, marijuana farmers, elite runners, Rastafari victims of government massacres, junglist DJs, and a fairly exhaustive list of early deathrock bands (what the kids would now call goth, but a bit before Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson), to name some of the tamer topics we covered. We also noted large, blue, berry-filled piles of bear scat, and discussed methods of preparation were one in a survival situation and forced to ingest said scat. (My recommendation: use a water bath to float the fibrous vegetative matter free of the berries, then boil the berries [bear-ies?] into a poo-rridge, um, er, porridge.)
photo by Allen Skytta
Some of the best blueberries ever, and we weren't the only ones who thought so. Photo by Allen Skytta

     We reached the top of the ridge and ran into one of the greatest challenges I ever face to my race times: wild berries. I love wild foods, especially berries. And I think it's good to eat a little bit of the edible things around you in order to give your body information about where it is, what sort of environs it is inhabiting at that moment. If you include currents, I've had eight berry days on the Wonderland, there is such a variety available. At first there were just small, tart, greenish huckleberries which we stripped and ate as we passed, without much care or precision. But as we came around onto the sunnier side of the ridge, we started finding big, fat, dark, sun-swollen blueberries, which eventually brought us to a halt, grazing on the side of the trail. We would high grade out the best of a patch, then run a few hundred yards to the next patch. 

     I thought back to the brilliant blue berry-filled bear bombs we had seen not so far away, then Allen pointed beyond me and asked if that was a bear. I looked about a hundred feet up the trail and saw a dark shape behind a small evergreen tree. It looked like it could be a bear, or could be a stump. The berries drew my attention away as Allen waffled between these same potential conclusions for a moment, then said, "yep, it's a bear." I looked again just in time to see the young black bear peak at us for a moment from behind the tree on the uphill side of the trail, the turn suddenly and run across the trail, off down the slope. He was not stoked when he realized we had seen him, and he got out of there. He had access to lots of berries elsewhere and didn't need the risk of a Human encounter. 

     Bears don't have health insurance. Neither do cougars. An injured limb can mean death for one of these animals, a slow and unpleasant death from internal hemorrhaging, infection, and starvation. It's unlikely that either a bear or cougar is going to risk its own well-being attempting to attack a fit, healthy animal almost as big as it is, let alone two of them. This bear just wanted to be left alone, and I could relate, I could respect that. Simply seeing him had been a blessing to us.
 Now we needed to get moving again.

     We pushed on. We ran, laughing. We talked about running while we ran. Hardrock was tossed about; just wanted to put it out there. We ran down. We hiked up. Sweating and breathing, eating and peeing. There was some cussing, but it was generally of the good-natured variety. More running. More hiking. I wondered, does this trail go on for ever? I answered myself, it might, but that would be okay. I occasionally saw flashes of light in my periphery and wondered if it were lightening, or just a bi-product of running for sixty hours? We ran through scattered raindrops. The underbrush slathered us from the waste down with friendly moisture, like the salivary offerings of an affectionate mastiff. 

     Although we were still moving consistently, the earth continued to spin substantially faster, and night began to lap me for the third time as we climbed up to Klapatche park. I was amazed to see Aurora Lake shrunk to less than half its usual size. I had been through here in the dark on my first lap and hadn't seen the state of the lake. 

     Two weeks prior, on the four day trip Kathy and I joined, which I was making use of for both training and reconnaissance, a young ranger had stopped us here to ask for our backcountry permit. I was explaining to him that we were just running the trail and meeting up with a support vehicle at night so we didn't need one, when Beth Glander came running up, waved her hand over the ranger's eyes, and full on Jedi mind tricked him.

   She said, "Our permit number is 27935." The ranger stared glassily, and in an odd monotone repeated, "Your permit number is 27935." Beth said, "These are not the trail runners you are looking for." The ranger repeated, "These are not the trail runners I am looking for." And we were on our way. When we were out of earshot I asked, "Is that really our permit number? Is that even the right number of digits?" 

     But the lake had been normal in size for late season, evaporated down six or eight feet from its banks. Now there was more than forty feet of muddy flats surrounding the squalid, mucky little pond of a lake. Fortunately I had neither planned nor counted on it as a water source. I would not have wanted to drink it unfiltered.

photo by Allen Skytta
Photo by Allen Skytta

     We continued up and over to St Andrew's Lake, because continuing was what this was all about. We ran lovely alpine trail through rocky traverses and switchbacks, Heather, Lupine, Indian Paintbrush, and other plant friends silvery and iridescent with dew. We reasoned (because who would want to diss and cuss?) about philosophy and spirituality and the revelation of the Divine in the Human as we wound our way through the wildflowers. We meditated verbally on WordSoundPower as we allowed gravity to pull us down switchbacks of unspoken truths. As our visual focus narrowed to our headtorch beams, our minds expanded beyond the reaches of the conceivable to the possible. Flashes of distant lightening were now seen by Allen as well.

     We had crossed the South Puyallup River and started the climb up to Emerald Ridge when the enormous beast attacked. We were just on the periphery and suffered no more than a nerve-wracking lightening show and a few brief squalls. There was distant lightening all around us all night long, but never immediately near us.

     But all the way from Indian Bar to White River the storm vented its rage on the flanks of The Mountain. Neither of the gargantuan entities cared about the Human Beings caught in the middle of their clash. Tents were flooded. Sleeping bags were soaked. People out in the open were forced under the shelter of trees. And lightening all around was a constant reminder to carefully consider where shelter was sought. As I would come to find out the next night, this storm had wrecked havoc on other parts of The Mountain. And as we sould come to find out on the drive home, it had walked its way north up the state, linking valleys Yakima to Wenatchee to Okanogan, starting hundreds of fires along the way.

     Allen and I climbed on. I announced my plan to sit under a tree or rock or rootmat and wait out any squalls, which is always my plan. We ended up doing this two or three times on the way up to Emerald Ridge, and another two or three on the way down to the suspension bridge. A couple of times we just leaned against a tree in its rainshadow and waited three or four minutes for the raindrops to ease up, then got moving again. 

photo by Allen Skytta
Photo by Allen Skytta
     At another brief sheltering I took my second longest nap of the trip (twenty minutes) in the lee of a large tree, leaning against it. My arms were wrapped around my legs and my fingers were interlaced to hold my position, and every few minutes my fingers would slip apart, waking me. The final time when my fingers released and I jerked awake (falling awake, anyone?) my left arm flew out and I backhanded the ground rather forcefully. Yeah, you heard me correctly. When I was in a borderline dream state and my conscious mind was taking a break, my subconscious took control of my body and bitch-slapped the Wonderland Trail. You're not projecting if you read some serious shit into that. I locked my Id back in its reptilian cage. I had to get moving. That was always the thought in the back of my mind. Get moving again. Keep moving. Move, for crying out loud!

     Another mental technique I use when I am losing the drive to keep moving, or am tempted to stop, or feel overwhelmed by the distance, is that I consider Sisyphus. Rolling a rock uphill only to watch it roll back down, then again roll it up, for all eternity would be a rather brutal form of fartlek, a punishing type of interval, a star-crossed sort of cross training. In comparison, spending eternity hiking uphill simply to run back down and then began hiking up once more doesn't sound all that bad. In fact, it's a fairly apt trail description for the Wonderland. If this was all I was going to do for the rest of eternity, I was okay with that. I could settle into that, find my pace, and keep moving.

     After the suspension bridge we climbed up to Indian Henry's dodging one or two more squalls, but nothing serious. In the dark, and dazzling with water droplets, Indian Henry's was still one of the most gloriously beautiful spots on the Wonderland Trail. The wildflowers were wrapped in their finest silvery raiment, as if they had expected to be viewed by LED headlamp, and had dressed themselves accordingly. The range of colors was gaudy even expressed in shades of grey from white to black.

     Down through Devils Dream we dropped as the sun made its first efforts at cresting the horizon By the time we bottomed out and crossed the road near Longmire it was full dawn, although a somewhat watery one. Allen and I both sat down and leaned back on the side of the trail and fell asleep for a few minutes, during which time a hiker passed us. I will forever wonder what that person thought. But again, a few minutes was all it took to take the edge off, and and it was time to get moving. 

     With a final push we climbed up to Reflection Lakes and on down to Box Canyon. Again, I had hoped and expected to be no later than 6:00AM arriving at Box Canyon, and here we were more than seven hours late. Would Trey still be there? Would Tonya still be there to pick Allen up? There is no cell service at Mount Rainier (with the exception of Summerland), so there had been no way to update people on my time, to notify them of set backs, to inform them I was still making a go of it. But fortunately Trey was still there, and Tonya returned soon afterwards. I ate a little, accepted a cup of coffee from Trey and Sarah Kay, bid farewell and thanks to Allen, and Trey and I began the final leg of the first ever Double Wonderland.      

photo by Trey Bailey/UphillRunning.com
Allen Skytta & I arriving at Box Canyon. Notice the instant resting posture.
Photo by Trey Bailey/UphillRunning.com

     At this point I felt I had it for sure. There were only eighteen miles to go, and there really isn't such a thing as a day where I can't cover eighteen miles by foot, even if I'm just hiking most of it. Eighteen miles is solidly in the "doable" column. But this is exactly the point where I often have trouble in races, six or eight or ten miles from the finish, where I know that I will finish, and I have trouble caring whether I can shave another half hour or hour or hour and a half off my finish time. It's so easy for me to just shift down and power hike that I often end up hiking ground I should be running. Today, though, one hundred fifty miles deep, and having been awake and moving almost non-stop for close to eighty hours, I was happy with any progress I could make.

photo by Laura Kay Young/UphillRunning.com
The multi-talented Trey Bailey joining me for the last 18 miles and 5,000 feet of climbing.
Photo by Laura Kay Young/UphillRunning.com
     Climbing was still treating me well. I folded out my poles, shifted into trekking mode, and powered up to the Cowlitz Divide rather well. As usual I smelled goats up on the Cowlitz, and Trey could smell them, too, but we couldn't see them. I kept scanning the adjacent hanging valleys in the distance for mountain goats or herds of elk, but could only manage to spot rocks for Trey to zoom in on disappointingly with his camera. And if we couldn't see any elk, we could definitely hear their desperate treble trumpeting.

     As we hiked and ran Trey and I talked about running and being connected to the natural world, and the jeopardy modern humans are put into when that connection is severed. We spoke of the Nyahbinghi one-two heartbeat that unites us all. We reasoned on the meaning of hair, and the value of its length and parallelness, or the lack there of. As our bodies ascended into the heavens, our minds ascended into the Ites.

     Once again surrounded and uplifted by wildflowers, I had some good moments running the flats and short downhills along the Cowlitz, but the steeper descents into Indian Bar brought a higher level of pain to my left leg. It was a slow, painful hobble down the erosion steps into Indian Bar. I ate and took my supplements and looked up the valley at our intended path. The earliest hints of night were upon us and there was low cloud scrunching up against the mountain all around. 

     The year before George Orozco and I had a mildly epic time coming through Panhandle Gap in the dark and mist, and I had planned this trip out to avoid that very scenario. Even by my slowest estimate I should have been hitting Panhandle Gap by noon. Instead, here I was again heading into the gap as both dark and cloud rolled in. I had to laugh at the wonderfully frail vanity of my tiny Human plans.

photo by Trey Bailey/UphillRunning.com
Photo by Trey Bailey/UphillRunning.com

     Dusk descended quickly as Trey and I slowly climbed up out of Indian Bar. The first wisps of cloud were swirling around us and beginning to limit our vision as the light rapidly disappeared. About three hundred feet below the top of the climb, I stopped and scanned the short steep slope off to the right of the trail. I saw a bear make its way toward us up to a dark, bushy mound, peer at us over the top of it through the mist, then turn and vanish down the hill away from us. I called out to Trey, "There's a bear! Do you see it?" He couldn't see it and moved uphill toward me to try catch a glimpse. Then the bushy shape the bear had peered over resolved in my vision, and for the first time I saw the Mythical Mama Beasts. 

     The dark, bushy shape was the silhouette profile of some vague, large ruminant laying in the lodged attitude, with softly glowing eyes. Then I noticed near her head was a young one standing. Then the pattern matching portion of my brain kicked in, like when you are hunting mushrooms, finally find a specimen, and look up to see them littering the forest floor ahead of you, where you had previously seen none. 

     Every dark, bushy mound revealed itself to be one of these Mythical Mama Beasts, each with softly glowing eyes, each with a young one standing near her head, twelve of them, maybe twenty, I couldn't be sure, each a cow-calf unit. I was amazed and entranced, and had trouble interacting with Trey through my fascination. "They're Elk!" I said. "Can't you see them, all along the slope?"

     Trey very kindly and patiently explained to me that he could not, in fact, see them, and that he suspected they might not exist at all. I found myself feeling very reasonable and rational about the whole thing. I had never hallucinated during an ultramarathon, but I know that it is not uncommon, especially in hundred mile and longer races. So I knew it was possible that Trey was telling the truth, and I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But I also believed my own eyes, and I was looking at dozens of these haunting creatures. One of us was right, but we couldn't both be, so I needed to get Trey to see them. To me it seemed obvious that I should throw rocks at them, hoping to incite a stampede, thus proving their existence to Trey. He wouldn't be able to argue with with two dozen Mythical Mama Beasts and their offspring galloping around us down the mountainside.

     I tossed a rock toward the first Beast, the one the bear had peeked over, but the rock landed short and elicited no response. I gathered up a few more rocks and flung them with increasing vigor, but somehow they never hit or startled any of the majestically stoic Mama Beasts. Trey kept saying that we should probably get going, although later he did admit that I was convincing enough that he threw a couple of rock himself. 

     I desperately wanted to prove the existence of the Mythical Mama Beasts to Trey, and was struck with the idea of climbing down off the trail to reach them. I said so to Trey, yet somehow he convince me we needed to get moving again. This was a rather steep section of trail with a precipitous drop off just fifteen or twenty feet out. Venturing off the trail here, in the dark, in rapidly closing cloud, could have been disasterous, and I'm thankful Trey was there to convince me to continue moving. I reluctantly began climbing again, glancing back over my shoulder at the shaggy and immovable matrons who refused to reveal themselves to my friend. 

     In a development that I, to this day, find far more confusing than clarifying, just a couple hundred feet further up the trail, we actually did flush a tribe of twelve or so mountain goats who had bedded down for the night in the high alpine meadow just below the snow line. Trey saw them clearly. I saw them as shaggy black shapes with faintly glowing eyes that bounded of ahead of us up the trail and off toward Panhandle Gap. So I had seen Trey's herd of reclining ruminants. Why couldn't he see mine? 

     Obviously the universe was having a laugh at me, which I suppose is only fair, in light of what I was attempting. "What? Shaggy beasts along the side of the trail? Sorry, no such thing. Oh, but another two hundred feet up? Yes, those ones are real." However, I suppose that being the butt of the universe's jokes is a calling, a purpose in life of sorts, so who am I to complain? If I can bring just a small amount of joy to one giant swirling space cloud of gas, rock, and cosmic debris, then I figure I've made the four dimensions of space-time a little better place.

     As we topped out the cloud closed in thick around us, limiting our vision at times to as few as four feet. My headlamp was reflecting back in my face off the cloud, so I had to take it off and hold it in my hand, shining it at the trail at oblique angles so as to not blind myself with it, my head bent low to see the trail. How long would it take to hike a mile in four foot increments?

     Not only was visibility an issue, but the trail itself had changed drastically, even though I had been through this section twice in the last three weeks, the most recent time just three days ago. That mean monster storm had doused Panhandle Gap in rain warm enough to melt a significant amount of snow. Where I had easily followed footprints, rock cairns, and National Park Service wands on my clockwise trip, many of these markers had changed, and I had to find the new trail in the dark, in cloud, and in four foot increments. footprint trails had drifted downhill with the melting snow, beginning nowhere and leading nowhere. Sections of permanent rock-lined trail and popped up through the melted snow where none had been just days before. It was a significantly different route.

     After a couple of starts and stops along some right and wrong trails, I began to recognize one set of heavy lug-soled hiking boot prints coming in the opposite direction, from Summerland. These prints seemed to move confidently, as though route finding was easier in the opposite direction. In retrospect I realize that nobody passed up coming down as we climbed up out of Indian Bar. So whoever had made these stout impressions had done so while it was still light. We slowly backtrailed these prints, using cairns and orange-blazed rocks to link together sections where the prints didn't show. It was tortuously slow going, but in the long run it was effective.

     When we finally completed the traverse across Panhandle Gap and started to drop down along the rim of the bowl at the head of Summerland, trail conditions had changed just as drastically, and weather conditions had improved only marginally. The slow, painstaking, and monotonous descent continued, much of it over technical and confusing loose rock trail that had been easy snow routes just a couple of days before. More than two hours after climbing into the cloud, we finally broke out of it just above Summerland. We crossed a creek and it was like crossing from Kansas into Oz. On one side of the creek was the harsh monochrome of millions of jumbled volcanic rocks. On the other side of the creek was rich, brown dirt trail lined with wildflowers and alpine foliage of every color and variety. Our pace picked up as much as my hip would allow. The stress of working through the clouds melted off me and I relaxed for the first time in hours. And I knew we had only six miles to go.

     I was eager to be reunited with Kathy. We rarely spent this much time apart, and I was ready for that part of the challenge to be over. And for one of the first times ever, I was ready for this run to be over. Every step with my left leg hurt me and slowed me and reinforced the point that I was not going to cover these last few miles quickly, by any standard. There was no question now. I knew I was going to finish. But I was disappointed with my performance. It was going to take a hard push to trek this out and even break ninety hours. My original goal of eighty hours (which I thought was fat and easily achievable when I announced it) had been missed by an embarrassing margin. Yes, I knew for sure I was going to accomplish this. But I also knew for sure that I could have accomplished it better. I was happy and amazed and bummed and disappointed. My internal emotions were like electrons, inhabiting every possible emotional path simultaneously. Externally I lacked the energy and motivation to express much of anything at all.

     I painfully picked my way down along Frying Pan Creek itself, and across the traverse over to the junction where the Frying Pan Creek trail hit the Wonderland, leaving me just two point six miles to go. I sat down on the side of the trail to rest for two minutes and drifted off to sleep sitting upright. Trey awakened me twenty seconds later (he said he timed it with his watch), and then he pulled out a fascinating, useful, and amazingly effective set of skills he had learned during his time in the Army. He went all drill sargent on my ass.

photo by Trey Bailey/UphillRunning.com
The final trail junction on the way from Frying Pan Creek to White River Campground, mile 183.4 out of 186. I had just nodded off when Trey took this picture. He said he let me sleep for twenty seconds, then woke me up. Photo by Trey Bailey/UphillRunning.com

     Admittedly, he was the kindest and most polite drill sargent to ever bellow at a worthless maggot, but he got the job done. Trey just started talking to me and wouldn't stop, until I had no choice but to get up and start hiking. He sid, "We're gonna get up and start moving. We're just gonna hike this out. Two point six miles, that's nine times around the track. You can do nine laps. We're gonna keep our pace strong and keep moving, just keep moving forward, that's all we're gonna do, and we're gonna power out those miles. FKT! This is a world record! You are doing this, Ras!"

     As I said, this is fascinating stuff. Trey and I didn't know each other all that well. This was the first time we had run together. Yet somehow he was able to verbally hack into my person, bypass my fatigued and useless brain, and command my body to start moving. Surprisingly, it did.

     My goal had been an unsupported Double Wonderland, and to a great extent it was. I carried all of my own calories and gear from start to finish. No one prepared food for me or carried anything for me. And I would have finished one way or another, but not under ninety hours. Without Trey there to gently browbeat me into moving, my time would have been in the ninety-one to ninety-two hour range.

     With a continuous barrage of compliments and motivational exclamations Trey marched me up to White River Campground. "Nice pace, keep it steady. Good poling. We're just gonna keep it steady, right on up this next climb. You're doing it, Ras." Each time I would catch a toe and stumble, I would hear, "Good recovery. You still got legs." The only time Trey faltered was when we finally got to the river crossing by the campground. I tried to hop up onto a log bridge, and my legs didn't give me quite as much propulsion as I thought they were going to. One of my feet missed the bridge and I began to swing backward out over the swiftly churning water. Fortunately my hands caught the handrail and I was able to right myself. When we got across Trey said, "You scared me for a moment there, Ras." Then we hiked into White River Campground, me returning for my second time, eighty nine hours and thirty-five minutes after first leaving.

photo by Trey Bailey/UphillRunning.com
This is the very moment that I completed loop two. Photo by Trey Bailey/UphillRunning.com

     The Double Wonderland, Reversing, is by far the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. But it is not the hardest thing I will ever do in my life. I'm certain I haven't done that yet. I had to dig deep at a couple of points during the Double, but I never had to dig the deepest I ever have. I never had to tap heretofore unexplored resources. I never felt as though there was a chance I wouldn't finish. In some ways I had failed to meet my own hopes and expectations, but it always felt solid, and possible, and doable. 

     And the simple fact is I will most likely do it again. I know for a fact I could have performed better and done it in better style. I strongly think I can do it purely unsupported, without pacers, and complete the Reversing Double in under eighty hours. But I'm in no hurry. I already have two big OKT projects in mind for 2013, in addition to supporting Kathy on a couple of big running projects she has planned. Maybe 2014 will be the year for that. Right now I am stoked and amazed to hold the Fastest Known Time (FKT) for the Double Wonderland. And it's really an OKT, Only Known Time, because no one else on the planet at this point knows what it is like to run the Wonderland Trail twice in one push, once in each direction. For that unique accomplishment I am humbly grateful.

     I in no way could have done this without the love and support of my wife Kathy. And the list of friends in the ultrarunning scene who inspired, challenged, and encouraged me in this endeavor would be almost impossible to make complete and exhaustive. But I specifically want to thank Jenn Hughes, Allen Skytta, and Trey Bailey for being not only willing but eager to invest their time, resources, and life energy in helping me. And special thanks to my sponsors UphillRunning.com, and Run Pretty Far. Without their various forms of generous support my attempt would have been impossible.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Volcanic Victory: The Loowit Trail

By Kathy Vaughan

Volcanic Victory: The Loowit Trail

     We both saw the post on Facebook:  Mt. St. Helen’s Circumnavigation Group Run   32 miles, 6700 feet of elevation gain,   September 22, 2012.    Hmmm, should I click “Like” or  “Attending”?   Turns out I clicked both and was now committed. 

photo by Ras

     I had first learned of this trail when I was a backpacker in my early 30’s.   I looked at that 14 mile no-camping area through the blast zone and saw it as road-block to a circumambulation of the volcano for me.   I could not handle that kind of mileage, no way.   But last October I completed my first 50k trail run after 6 months of training and the possibilities for what I could now accomplish had opened up a whole new world for me.    I could now make it through the 14 mile blast zone, not to mention the entire trail, in one go.   Since that first ultra, Baker Lake last fall, I had run three other 50k’s, the Yakima Skyline 25k, Echo Valley 50 miler in June, and encircled and climbed to the top of Bonaparte Mountain three times.  

photo by Ras

     My husband Jason (widely known as Ras) and I had run the Wonderland Trail in September in 4 days with a great group of ladies, including Lori Moriarity, who I was very happy to learn would be running around Mt. St. Helens with the group also.  Two weeks later I returned to Mt. Rainier to run a 32 mile loop starting at Chinook Pass with new friends Tim and Angel Mathis, Deby Kumusaka and Adam Gaston.  Tim and Angel had organized the Mt. St. Helen’s run and after meeting the two of them I knew it would be a great adventure with good company.  Two other new friends, Shumai and Brandon from the Chinook Pass trip, would also join the Mt. St. Helens loop run.    I felt trained and ready to run this rugged trail.

      We would camp at Cougar RV park the night before and begin the run at 7:30 the next morning.   The group of runners was 26 strong and it was really cool to see everyone gather, gear-up and hit the trail in the dampness and cool air of the morning.  My new friend Lisa Keith would join us for an out n’ back run, turning around when she had explored far enough.   Ras had some more organizing to do and we had decided to offer to sweep the trail, knowing I would probably be the slowest in the group and that Ras was still recovering from an epic Double Wonderland Run earning him the Fastest Known Time for his effort just 2 weeks prior.  I saw the last of the pack disappear around the corner, my last sighting of the group, as I waited patiently for my running and life partner to be ready.   We left a full 40 minutes behind everyone but said to each other, we’ll just do our own thing and it will be challenging and fun.  And it was!!!    

photo by Ras

     We started at the June Lake trailhead which took us 1.4 miles through deliciously scented forest on our approach to the Loowit Trail which encircles the mountain.  We got to the Loowit and turned left for a clockwise run of the trail.  The autumn colors were vibrant and evocative.    It was not long before I saw the first of the infamous boulder fields and it was almost breathtaking.  I had not seen an environment like this before and I could not imagine what else might lie ahead.  It took a while before Ras and I could spot the first of the posts that would be our trail markers for the rest of the way and we soon learned how to follow these through the boulders.  

photo by Ras

     It was here that Lisa said good-bye, knowing that navigating through these areas alone might not be the best plan.   These huge rocks were stable and grippy and it was slow going but not too difficult.  I enjoyed the challenge and found it exciting to be moving through trail that was unique.   Sometimes there were short sections of trail between boulders and we could step up the pace on these bits, only to be slowed again as we picked our way through the best routes across these deposits.
photo by Ras

        Soon we came to the first water source and I could see a lovely little waterfall and an inviting trail heading down-stream.   We took off in this direction and wondered why the trail sign now indicated a winter ski trail name, but we looked at the map and decided we were on the right track.  We glided down hill easily and I thought to myself “this is the section Kristen told me about—nice runnable trail in between the more technical sections”.  This is awesome!!!    Uh oh—more confusing cross-country ski trail signs, now I’m feeling like we are going the wrong way.   We checked the map again and this time could clearly see where we had gone wrong.  We retraced our steps and an hour later I could see the post at the top of the lovely little waterfall.  We got some fresh water and went on our way, now on the correct trail.  I hoped that the group would not worry about us and that enough of the runners knew that we had competent abilities in the back-country. 

photo by Ras

     I was 14 years old when Mt. St. Helens blew her top.   I grew up in a little town called Mossyrock, nestled in the foothills of Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier and Mt. St. Helens.   For weeks, my family and I had watched the plumes of smoke belch up from the mountain and then spread across the sky.  The morning the mountain erupted though, the plume was very different.  It was huge and as it spread, I knew that ash would have to fall somewhere at sometime.  My parents were out of town and my sister and I were spending the night at different neighbor’s homes.  My sister’s host drove to pick me up so we could go home and put our horses, dogs, cats and rabbit into safe shelter. This mysterious ash plume began to create a darkness around us that was eerier than anything I had ever experienced, darker than night and the thickest of fog. The car’s headlights barely helped guide us along the empty country road.   The power had gone out and when I went inside I must have tried to turn every light on in the house because my mom remembers getting home later to a well lit up home.    The neighbor took us to her mother’s house where we spent the day in complete darkness, not knowing when it would get light again.   Ash was falling everywhere and accumulating like snow outside.   Breathing became difficult and the unknown made everyone quiet and nervous.  

     Of course it did become light out again and the power came back on the next day.  My parents returned home and life went on.  My classmate had lost her father in the eruption as he had been fishing on the Toutle River.  Her grandparents had been camping somewhere near the mountain also and had a dramatic escape story.   They lived to tell it, but both of them had burns from the exposure.  It was a big deal for me in my childhood.  My family and I had spent time camping at Spirit Lake and we have pictures of my sister and I with feathered hair, in cut-offs, tube socks, and halter tops sitting on a big log with our Husky dog near the lake, lush forest all around and the perfect mountain lake for swimming.  I remember a high school cross-country running team was there camping also and it was fun to meet these older teenagers.  In my youth, I was unathletic and felt dorky around these high school kids.   Little did I know, I would return to the mountain 33 years later as a trail runner and see that barren landscape with Spirit Lake in the distance now looking completely different.  

photo by Ras

     As Ras and I made our way around the mountain, the views finally began to open up and the mist lifted.  The sky was now blue and I could see Mt. St. Helens for the first time.  It was turning into a gorgeous day.   As we ran along, Ras said “You don’t even want to know what I’m scheming on with the Loowit trail now!”.  Being with the guy for as long as I have now, I already knew he was planning on at least a double… I wanted to remember to ask him about this in some later miles.   I felt good moving along the trail, running in the mellow sections and carefully working my way down into these crazy rocky gullies and then back out the other side, over and over again.  I had heard about these.   I had heard you get tired of the rock by the end of the trail.  I have been through challenging terrain before that seems endless, I’ve gotten tired of wildflowers even, after going through fields and fields of them! Their scent becomes intoxicating and overwhelming after a while.  These gullies were relentless though and I longed for wildflowers and forest by the end. 
photo by Ras

     The Toutle River gully was a force to be reckoned with.   I side stepped and slid down to the river, wondering where “the rope” would be on the other side and not yet worried about the actual river crossing.  Ras could have rock hopped across in minutes, but because of my shorter reach and some hesitation about where to cross, we wondered the bank seeming like forever before we found a place where I felt comfortable.  The river was loud and rushing, silty and deep, yet not wide.   With Ras’ strong grip on my hand and a careful couple of leaps, I was across.   We didn’t see the rope yet, but made our way up the other side of the river bank until finally, there it was.  It wasn’t so bad though and I must admit I felt like a bad ass holding on for the mere 15 feet or so that I used it to reach the trail above.     

photo by Kathy Vaughan

     We came across a forest service ranger on the trail and visited for a good while, as he was really curious about our one day run around the mountain. Wanting to keep trail runners in a good light with the park rangers, we carefully worked our conversation, taking our time explaining to him how prepared we were for the adventure we were undertaking.    I got the feeling that it’s only  a matter of time before he will be out running around the mountain himself!!

     I was really focusing on staying well hydrated and fueling myself with real food, along with the perpetuem and cliff blocks I was using to keep me going.   I was aware that this is how I would stay physically and mentally strong during this endeavor and that bonking was not an option.   Technical trail can wear on you and my fueling would help to keep me alert and positive.   We stopped for a lunch break, sitting on large rocks, looking down to a nice butte below.  After spending most of my trail time around Mt. Rainier, the Okanogan Highlands, and the North Cascades, I was really enjoying the views all around me of an ecosystem so different.   Mt. St. Helens had some snow on it, but it looked desolate and rugged.   I wondered if any climbers were up there.   

photo by Ras

     Even though the Loowit  trail just loops around the mountain, there were many times when we pulled out our map to make sure we wouldn’t accidentally take a spur trail or access trail, adding on more than the 3 plus miles we had already tacked on to our day.    We became very careful after that initial mistake.  We couldn’t waste anymore time or energy.  I absolutely love spending time with Ras on the trails.  He is confident, competent, relaxed and positive.  He has been so supportive of me as I’ve gotten into running, helping me to believe that I could run that first 50k, that first 50 miler, crazy training runs and now this technical, self-supported route around a volcano.    I feel blessed beyond belief to have him as my husband and trail running partner.  He was hurting on this day.  Deep inside his left hip, he was feeling discomfort still from his long run around Rainier.    But half way around the mountain, it began to ease up for him and he could move much more efficiently and comfortably. 
photo by Ras

     Much of the trail becomes a blur, as the day wore on.  Above the Toutle River was a switchback climb along a steep ash slope.   I could see signs at the top, and it was awesome to reach these and take a turn to reveal the crater and be inside the blast zone.    The landscape was so cool and I kept thinking I was in the Plains of Abraham, singing an old church song in my head “Father Abraham, had seven sons, and seven sons had Father Abraham” .  This little ditty kept going for  what seemed like endless miles and I still don’t know exactly when we were in the Plains of Abraham.  It didn’t really matter.   We ran into two guys that asked about the Toutle crossing and camping down below.  I assured them that if I made it across the river, they wouldn’t have any problem with it.  They had left from June Lake that morning also and were travelling counter-clockwise.  They couldn’t believe we were heading there now and figured we were about half way around the mountain.  That was discouraging, but there’s no room for discouragement in ultra-running.

photo by Ras

       On we pushed and  I began to run through the wind as if I had found some new strength within me, new energy, mostly mental.   I felt this way for many miles.     I soon heard the loud roar of a river.  It had gotten incredibly windy and I could see Spirit Lake far below.   We were now on Windy Ridge and I was ready to get around the mountain into some new territory.  The sun was setting behind us and showing shades of red, pink and orange only nature can provide.  We stopped at the river to get water.   I felt that mental strength subside and I verged on panicky feelings as dusk was approaching.  I was soaking wet with sweat and the wind brought on a chill very quickly upon stopping by the river.  How should I put this into words to Ras?   There were many miles ahead and I had to stay with it.  There was no option and I knew it.  I wasn’t looking for another option, just a way to relax my mind.   I put on my merino wool arm sleeves and sweater, my light-weight yet effective rain/wind shell and zipped the hood tightly around my head.  I put on my gloves and sorted through my perpetuem, nuun and water bottles so I could fill them for the last time on this journey, grateful for the fresh water being provided to us, so incredibly close to the source that we couldn’t even hear each other as we tried to speak.  The wind was very loud also.    I shook uncontrollably, but knew as soon as I began moving again that I would get warm.    I finally said to Ras that I didn’t know how I was going to do it and he said “just like we’ve been doing it, we will just keep on going and I’m right here with you”.   I put on my headlamp and attached a super bright light to the sternum strap on my running vest and we got up and began moving.   We soon saw a trail sign and the mileage ahead was overwhelming, yet doable.  Looking at the map,  we could see that we had a 600 foot climb and I knew that would warm me up.  Before I knew it, I felt cozy and comfortable with my lights and thought to myself, “this is great training for my first 100 miler”  What the heck?  Where do these thoughts even come from? 

photo by Ras

       At the top of this climb, the trail became very runnable and we may even have now really been in the Plains of Abraham.  The half- moon was bright and guided us as it sat just atop the mountain, one of the beauties of being on the trail at night.  We cruised along, chatting, dreaming, laughing.    Soon we came to two more river crossings that were sketchy in the dark and made our way through more of the rocky gullies again, the nice runnable trail behind us now.  Looking for the cairns and posts in the dark became a whole different ball game.  Far down below I saw a headlamp and a wondered if someone from our group was coming back towards us.  I didn’t want anyone to—I wanted them to be warm and well-fed after their adventure and I didn’t want anyone worrying about us at all.   I really hoped that was not what I was seeing and when I could tell the light wasn’t moving, I realized it was most likely a camp nestled in the trees.  It  was someone camping out, but not in a little wooded area.   The guy was just sitting out in the rocky zone, reading, in his sleeping bag and he called out to us letting us know there was another campsite right next to his.   We surprised him as we told him we were moving on to June Lake and he said “Go get It!”    We moved on and Ras joked that he sounded hopeful that we might camp next to him, “I tidied up this site for you”   ha, ha.  

photo by Ras

       Finally we saw a sign-  5 ¾ miles to the June Lake trailhead and I just mentally dismissed the mileage along the June lake trail itself.  Yes, I had it now!!!   This section took forever!  We were down to a crawl when we got in some more of the rocky gullies, eventually traversing the side of the final boulder field.    I so wanted to be in the musky smelling forest again, out of the rock and barren landscape, into the comfort of soft wooded trail and then the lake, the car,  hot food, coffee. . . . . When I finally saw that rustic, silvered sign for June Lake, I thrust my poles into the air with a silly victory cry and then took Ras up on his suggestion that we take advantage of an inviting trailside log.   We most certainly had it now.  I half trotted, half speed walked, I don’t even know what you might call the way I was moving.   I recognized this area now and I was so happy to be in it.  Moving through the flat, sandy lake shore,  I suddenly saw many tents, all seeming to be exactly the same, yet very quiet and still.  It was kind of creepy and I have no idea why some 20 tents were pitched here.   Again, it didn’t matter.   

      On we went and then, ahead, was the big trailhead sign and we were back at the car.   I climbed in, laid the seat back and only answered Ras with guttural sounds as my mind raced with what I had just completed.   Firing up the stove for hot coffee and food would take way more energy than I could muster.   Ras drove us back to Cougar RV Park and pulled up to the showers straight away.    Shivering and cold, I climbed in the shower and washed the sweat, ash, mud, and everything else I had physically acquired along the trail, down the drain.   But the mental strength,  sense of achievement, new friends, new skills, will never be washed away.    I will now carry this with me next time I set out on a trail adventure, and the next, and the next. . . . . .