We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. -T.S. Eliot
More than any other trail running adventure, I love a good loop around a Cascade volcano. I grew up on the eastern flank of Mt. Tabor in Southeast Portland, a volcanic cinder cone and one of the city’s greatest parks. Over the years I’ve run the same loop around that lil mountain countless times; down Belmont, along 60th, up Lincoln and back home. What I’m saying is, running around a volcano means something to me. A couple years ago I accomplished a long-held goal to set the speed record on the Timberline Trail around Mt. Hood. It was a dreamy day and I wanted more like it.
As with many runners this year, I set my sights on some special FKTs as races were cancelled one by one. The Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier is the king of them all and had captured my imagination the year before when Rachel and I traveled the trail over three days. On top of that, I thought the Loowit Trail around Mt. St. Helens would serve as a challenging training run in preparation. Together, Timberline, Loowit, and Wonderland would make up the Cascade Trifecta, the three proud circumnavigations of the Pacific Northwest.
As I dreamed this up, I knew it was mostly a pipe dream as so many others would target these trails over the summer as well. I only hoped that I could hold all three records concurrently for even a day. I couldn’t control what others would run on these routes, so I focused on my process of running as hard as I could. The rest was up to circumstance.
Sure enough, these records took a beating as my buds Dylan Bowman and JT Lehman shaved the Loowit Trail FKT down to nearly 5 hours, the Timberline Trail withheld some strong efforts by Stephen Kersh and Drew McComber, and The Wonderland Trail saw action from Mark Hammond. I wasn’t quite sure how my effort on the Loowit Trail would go, but I managed to eek out a new FKT in 4:59:54 and set my sights on the Wonderland Trail with growing confidence. Then, just 5 days before my own attempt, Dylan smashed the Wonderland record by nearly 90 minutes. I didn’t sleep much after I saw that.
It took me a couple days to recalibrate my intentions for the Wonderland Trail as the goal time had shifted so greatly. I’ve always approached long races with patience in the beginning miles, but this would force me to get after it from the start. I also began to strategize my attempt by eliminating any and all idle time. With that in mind, my crew and I planned for no stops but, instead, a moving aid station and quick swap of hydration packs.
All those details matter little if I hadn’t begun to believe it was even possible to chase Dylan’s record, and, at first, I didn’t believe it was possible. However, my community assured me I was capable and that true belief they had in me somehow seeped into my own mind and heart. This trail and record weren’t things to fear, they were invitations to a new understanding of what I could do.
Longmire to Mowich Lake: 34 miles, +9800/-7600
I confess I was frantic these first few miles. I’d decided to run this stretch as swiftly and comfortably as I could and arrive at Mowich to see how I stacked up to Dylan’s 6 hour effort on this section, believing that only a perfect day would get me close to the record. The problem is, chasing perfection leaves one tight and second-guessing rather than finding flow and gentle focus. Only two miles in, I lost the trail by heading downstream rather than slightly upstream on a tricky river crossing. I pushed further in the wrong direction and trashed about in a thicket of young alders before finally admitting I’d made a mistake. I wasted four minutes and figured that was it. If I was on a razor thin edge between success and failure, I was done already.
As I reached Devil’s Dream CG a few miles later, I noticed a group of guys on the trail who cheered me on and then joined the journey. Vert monsters Brad Leatherbarrow and Aaron Long had seen my FKT attempt announcement the day before. They were starting their own 2-day Wonderland journey and were able to join me for a few miles. The company was unexpected and so welcome. The next 8 miles were filled with effortless chatting and I completely forgot about chasing records and what was or wasn’t possible...the worries that had plagued me the last 5 days. When they said goodbye I had settled into a nice groove.
Five canyons to run into and out of, I ticked them off one by one and connected with Rachel at Golden Lakes, just one descent and a big climb to the first major checkpoint at Mowich Lake. As naturally as ever, Rachel and I floated down a long and blissful descent and then got to chugging up the long but gradual climb to Mowich. Rachel kept a steady stream of encouragement and when I reached the lake I checked my watch: 5:52. I’m in business.
Mowich Lake to White River Campground: 26 miles, +6900/-6900
The descent off Ipsut Pass is fun, and my pacer Brandon (a killer downhill runner) and I let it fly as we rode the wave of exhilaration and adrenaline that I was ahead of schedule. Shortly after that came the largest climb of the entire route, so that exhilaration was short lived. The ascent along the Carbon Glacier is steep and exposed, in the heat of the day. When I thought about the climb as a whole I would really struggle with the process of putting one foot in front of another, but when I focused on the present moment, taking stock of how I was feeling then and there, it wasn’t so bad. So, I brought my attention back to my breath and continued the slog, reaching the top only to remember that another major climb lay before me after just a minor descent. I hadn’t remembered this additional climb, and the realization knocked me down. I started to despair about how slow I was moving and, without any actual data to back the claim, figured I was losing time. This lapse in positive focus is meaningful. I’ve come to see these middle miles of an ultra as a battle to stave off apathy, to keep caring when it inevitably gets tough.
I reached White River CG and didn’t ask about my time, assuming I was falling behind and the record was out of reach.I was unclear about the running time Dylan had taken to get to this point, and that was playing with my head. I stopped for a minute or two to collect myself, and then my crew shoved me out and told me to keep going, crossing the White River bridge that had water gushing over it at this time of the day! I’m glad they gave me no time to complain and recognized the need to inject me with urgency.
White River Campground to Box Canyon: 19miles, +6200/-7600
The climb up to Summerland is long but gradual, which was infuriating because it left me with no choice but to continue running rather than hiking. My pacer Sean and I stayed fairly sharp, but while he encouraged me that I was right where I needed to be, my internal dialogue said that I was continuing to lose time. I asked him not to give me any split comparisons with Dylan’s run so I could focus on my own process. Later Sean explained that I was actually gaining some extra time, but I don’t think I would’ve believed him in the moment. My climbing started to falter as we crested Panhandle Gap, the high point of the entire trail, and I felt myself swaying from fatigue with still many miles left to travel. We descended well into Indian Bar and then I continued my wavering ways up and out of a shorter but very steep ascent. I knew this wasn’t an extended climb along the Cowlitz Divide, but my mindset had me thinking too far into the future, yearning for a descent rather than taking care of the business at hand. When I finally crested this and began my descent, I started to find my groove again, simultaneously doing the math in my head to figure out if I was ahead, behind, or right on track with Dylan’s time. When I reached my crew, they had to work really hard to convince me that I was in fact ahead of the record. Their excitement felt real and I fed off of it. All of a sudden my new pacer Jordan and I were cruising in the evening light and I was feeling good.
Box Canyon to Longmire: 14 miles, +2500/-2500
I was still concerned about the upcoming final climb. The hope that comes with approaching the finishing line was starting to grow, but I kept remembering how poorly I had been climbing just an hour earlier. Jordan has paced me for multiple big efforts now and prepares for the job with incredible intention. I hope you have the opportunity to receive from such a dedicated crew member someday. He knew what to say and when to push me, and we began the final climb with renewed freshness, chasing the sunlight as it dove behind the western horizon, where we’d begun this incredible day. I surprised myself with the strength of my climbing and reached the top at Reflection Lakes clearly with enough time to set a new record.
What that final descent felt like, with all the miles and climbing and descending fully alive in my entire body, is what I seek from an extreme effort like this. The fatigue is real but the weight releases and I run free and happy. I redirected myself when I got to thinking about what it would be like when I finished and focused on the moment I was living in. Rachel joined us for the final mile and we ramped up our finishing speed as we caught a glimpse of headlamps signaling the finish. My dad had come up to see the finish and Sean and Brandon were there to welcome me home in a new Wonderland Trail Fastest Known Time of 16 hours 40 minutes and 55 seconds.
There’s plenty more to share, but I’ll leave it at that for now. Here are some other places to hear bits and pieces of the story:
On competition as cooperation: Dylan and I rehash our battle on his podcast.
On my volcano roots: My brother interviews me for Willamette Week.
On breaking free from the ultrarunning pecking order: Jeff Stern writes a recap.
On feeling ready: an interview with Meghan Hicks from irunfar.
On going for it: KGW does a little news story on the attempt.
I'm indebted to my wife Rachel for her endless encouragement and belief in this endeavor and always. Many thanks to Jordan Carey, Brandon Drake, and Sean Haworth who all took time away from work and family to support me as well, and my dad who drove his motorcycle up for the finish. I received advice and encouragement from Mike Irvine, Jeremy Provenzola, and Ryan Ghelfi leading up to the run that was also invaluable. And I owe deep thanks to my friend and competitor Dylan Bowman for his mind-bending run around Rainier a few days prior. He brought the best out of me by reimagining what could be done on that trail.