My dad used to tell me the story of his own one-day journey around the mountain. He joined a guided trip through the Mazamas. They would run the downhills but mostly hiked at a good clip. He recalls sitting at the top of Gnarl Ridge, resting and having a snack with the rest of the crew, when this beast of a man comes running up the trail, offers a brief “hello,” and continues on. My dad was deeply impressed, to the point that he would continue telling of the moment years later. I wondered if I could do that--run the mountain and, even more, make my dad proud.
On August 28th in1982, John Coffey ran around the mountain faster than anyone would for some time. They put on a race on the trail in those days and his time stands out among the rest, his 6:24:33 besting the competition by nearly 20 minutes. I made some a few attempts to get connected with Coffey because I'm quite curious about what that race and the trail were like. I was unable to make the connection but discovered that he attended the same small private school I work and coach at, which is a fun coincidence to add to the storyline.
You know where this is going, right? I wanted that record.
The Timberline Trail boasts a verty profile and offers a veritable tour of the mountain that rises out of the Portland skyline. To become acquainted with Mt. Hood you can take a trip up to Timberline Lodge or ski its slopes. To know the mountain you must circumnavigate it; descend and ascend its robust canyons, cross its rivers, and see it from every angle.
The Timberline Trail was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. Mountains are dynamic landscapes and this trail has shifted over the years. Wikipedia tells me the trail once stretched 36 miles, but it now registers in at 40.5 miles with 10k feet of elevation gain. A couple years ago a portion of the trail washed out by a 2006 storm was repaired, adding another half mile and 500 feet of climbing.
I’ve run the Timberline Trail every year for the last 5 years. I fell in love with trail running on that trail, squealing with delight as I ran the wide open moonscape on the eastern slope. The next year, in 2015, I went for the unsupported FKT. I’d had a hard season of racing and never let myself recover, but I wanted to take a swing at the unsupported record of 7:30 set by Ryan Ghelfi and Ryan Matz earlier in the summer. I was dealt a perfectly cool and sunny day, but in this game, there is no escape from suffering, so every other aspect of the journey was a steady stream of brutality. I lost the trail for at least 10 minutes, never found my rhythm, suffered from horrible knee and hip pain that I later discovered was a stress fracture, gave up, decided to keep going, bonked, and bonked again. Still, I just snuck under that record in 7:28:15! I was on top of the world!...until Max King went out and demolished it by a whopping 50 minutes.
This year I began thinking about the Timberline FKT once again. I raced early in the summer but left the rest of the season open to freely explore or, when needed, take some time off. I also wanted to keep the early fall open for this speed attempt. If I was even capable of getting close to King’s or even Coffey’s times, I’d need to fully commit and treat the effort like a race. This meant a good build up of training and a quality taper. I optimized other aspects of the effort by choosing an overcast day at the end of September when temps were cooler and starting from the lowest point of the trail. Starting at this low point near Ramona Falls requires a three-mile approach (and tortuous exit), but the reward is worth the vertical cost upfront: the closing 20 miles contain two minor climbs and a long, mostly gradual descent. My plan was to wreck myself early and often over the first 20, then stay swift and hope I could hang on all the way back to where I started.
September 30th couldn’t have been more prime. I was perfectly comfy in my All Day Tee the whole way around as the temperature hovered at 55 degrees and the sun peeked through the cloud layer only once. This is the time to run the Timberline Trail, people! The red and yellow vine maples and maroon huckleberry were a brilliant contrast to the gray day, and the rivers stayed low and narrow. My buddy Jordan drove me out to the trailhead and we took a slow and meandering walk to the starting point. I’d thought about this moment for years, and now it was time.
I glided down to the Sandy River excitedly, made an efficient crossing, and settled into a comfortable pace up the first major climb, a gradual but lengthy 2000 feet up. This grade is just so that running is required if somewhat taxing. From there I got a nice groove down Zig Zag Canyon and back up the sneakily challenging climb to the lodge. I’d covered the first ten miles in 1:32 and felt strong, but that didn’t matter because I’ve learned to not scoff at 30 more miles of rugged terrain. Still, I was tracking a few minutes under Coffey’s record pace with a tough section in the rearview.
The next ten miles are the hardest of the entire trail. The climbs get steep and technical, and the sand is deep and slow. I’d run this section on an out and back while training for the FKT attempt and it rocked me pretty good. That run was considerably slower than record pace and put a dent in my confidence. Crossing these rivers quickly requires experience so you’re not wandering aimlessly in a vast riverbed searching for cairns. I’ve lost my way around here too many times before to commit this mistake again. I plowed through the rocky terrain in the Hoka One One Evo Mafates, which Rachel very fittingly calls her Monster Truck Rally shoes, without a hitch. The sand, however, is unavoidable. It sucks away your life and the early spring in my step was wavering. I chose to be patient in these sections, to focus on finding solid footing, to move smoothly. Ascending Gnarl Ridge had me spooked; it was the first time I felt gassed, and only halfway there. Another 1:44 had elapsed, and I was officially behind schedule. How do you run another 20 miles faster than the 20 you just ran? On belief. Well, on belief and the wondrous fact that you now have a heck of a lot more downhills than ups.
The Flow State is the point at which the challenge of an activity is met with the appropriate level of skill. Time falls away, you become fully immersed and involved in the moment, joy ensues. This is why I’d come to this trail at this time and set this challenge. Climbing up hills on a trail run isn’t much fun, but it tests grit. Running back down is where all the fun is had. I felt solid and attentive to each step and ran the next 10 miles in 1:31. I was back on track. Along the way I had only briefly halted at stream crossings to dip my bottle for an occasional refill. There was never going to be time to treat the water, and I was fine with that. I was consuming two gels each hour as well. The fueling plan was minimal but calculated.
The final ten miles were an exhilarating mixture of emotions and grit. I knew I would be close to Coffey’s all-time speed record. The technical descent from McNeil Point was an absolute blast to navigate each step, but I did take a trip on a root and slid along my stomach. At this point, some five miles remaining, I was feeling the twinges of cramps while hopping over rock waterbars and streams. Attrition was inevitable, so I continued to pour my attention into my attitude and belief that I could do what I’d dreamed.
When I thought of both Coffey’s and King’s times, I really only hoped they were within reach and, if they were, figured they were barely so. Still, I chose to believe I could run around Mt. Hood faster. I held that belief throughout the 6 hours 10 minutes and 58 seconds circumnavigation. I held the belief when I took that belly slide. I held the belief when the cramps began. I held the belief when I decided I wouldn’t walk until I had reached the end. Then, with a mile to go before reaching the place I had begun, I stopped believing and started celebrating. I smiled helplessly. The mile floated by effortlessly and with great joy.
I’m indebted to my friend Jordan for his on-the-ground support of this effort and the regular generosity he offers to the many who know him. Territory Run Co. has encouraged me to dream big the last few years, and I’m deeply thankful for the support and community they provide, as well as support from Skout Backcountry and Evolution Healthcare and Fitness. Braden Spotts was also along for this ride and traveled to a couple spots around the mountain to catch some footage of the run. I’m excited to see how that turns out and will post his project here when it’s available! It’s a simple and somewhat frivolous undertaking, to run around a mountain at speed, but my life-partner Rachel, family, and friends still cheer me on in these ill-conceived endeavors. I’m quite blessed.