Washington State is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Visit in the summertime and you’ll see the clear blue skies and the holographic majesty of the Olympics and the Cascades. Hiking in the mountains was my first love when I moved to this area in 1998, and hiking has morphed into trail running, bringing me closer to a community who shares this draw to the mountains. Ultra-runners have a warped perspective of distance, you could say. 20 miles is commonplace for a weekend jaunt. 50 miles has replaced 50 kilometers as the unspoken standard, and each year, 100+ miles seems to be the new norm with some crazies doing 200 miles - yes, all on foot, all in one go. While I enjoy the 50 km distance, I haven’t had the urge yet for anything more than that until I heard of the Wonderland Trail.
The Wonderland Trail is a 93 mile trail that circumnavigates Mount Rainier. It is a destination for backpackers all over the world, who typically aim to complete the trail in 10-14 days. The views along every mile are spectacular, allowing you to get as close to the mountain as possible while still observing its full glory from every angle. While “circumnavigation” may elicit images of a rolling terrain around a ginormous bump in the earth, the trail traverses an aggressive 22,000 feet (6,700 m) of elevation gain that is extremely challenging at some points with 4- to 6-mile uphill grinds, roots and rocks, and hazardous river crossings. Before you even set foot on the trail, Wonderland challenges you with the requirement for a backcountry permit which is obtained by fewer than 20% of the people who enter the lottery for one. However, where there’s a will, there’s a way, and if you’re willing, you can do the trail in 3 days (or less!) by taking advantage of the car camping destinations, evenly spaced along the 93-mile trail, which do not require a backcountry permit. And so this was our plan.
We took the clockwise route around the mountain, starting in Longmire on Day 1 to run/hike 34 miles (9,000 ft of elevation) to Mowich Lake. Day 2 covered 28 miles (7,000 ft of elevation) from Mowich Lake to White River. And Day 3, brought us the final 31 miles (6,000 ft of elevation) back to Longmire.
Though Wonderland was arguably the most hardcore challenge I had ever attempted, my approach to training was substantially more relaxed than it has been in the past. After Vancouver, I needed to heal my ego and my feelings of failure. Being on a trail, for me, is primarily about connecting with nature and secondarily about conquering a challenge; versus triathlon and marathons which is the exact opposite. I also lacked the experience of doing three back-to-back 50 km runs, so I didn’t know what was needed or what my body would handle. Knowing that I was approaching this from the viewpoint of digging deep to find my personal boundaries of distance, strength, and patience, rather than speed, my main objective was to keep my body healthy. I know from experience that my body breaks down with more than 4 days of running per week, so I didn’t exceed this, and continued at least one day of cycling or swimming, along with a few sessions of core and lower-body weight training. Long runs on the weekends were usually between 15 and 30 miles, including two 50 km events (Rainshadow Running Sun Mountain 50k and Evergreen Trails Echo Valley 50k). My biggest training weekend was the weekend of the Echo Valley 50k on Saturday, followed by a brutal 23 miles and 10,000 feet of elevation gain on Sunday on Icicle Ridge in Leavenworth. During this summer on the trails, I grew to be unintimidated by distance. My appreciation for my backyard grew, as did my confidence. I started to believe, once again, that I was tough enough to face pain, stare it down, and overcome it when I need to.
Finally, our Wonderland weekend arrived and the troops gathered. Since Barry and I were getting married a couple weeks after this trip, we joked that this was our Bachelor & Bachelorette Party. We are so lucky to have a group of friends, as crazy as we are, with which to share these experiences. I will always have a bond with my compadres on the trail as well as our support crew - Barry, Nicola, Liz, Danny, Michael, Corrie, Loka, Stephanie, Luke, Rochelle, Kem, Robert, Duane, Ben, Johanna, Nay, Genn, and James.
It was extra special to have my sister experience this with me as our support crew chief. This trip would not have been nearly as enjoyable without our support crew, who had the difficult job of lugging our gear around, securing a campsite each day, setting up tents, making us food, and just generally ensuring that we could relax when we weren’t on the trail. Their job was exhausting and chaotic - every bit as much as running the trail itself. Enough THANKS cannot be given to everyone who played a role on the support team.
We met at the parking lot at Longmire at 5:45am on Sunday, August 5, for a 6:00am start. When most of the group started on the trail, Barry, Luke, and Rochelle were left behind. After a few minutes on the trail, I lost the group in front of me and I knew that Barry was behind me, so I slowed down to wait for him. I started walking and looking back, but no Barry, Luke, or Rochelle. I stopped for a few minutes, and then started to worry. Should I go back to the parking lot to make sure they’re ok? I kept moving forward, but at a slow walk. After two miles, I realized I was going the wrong way on the trail - headed counter-clockwise! Now I had to backtrack two miles, putting myself four miles behind the rest of the group, literally right out of the gate.
I was really, really frustrated for a few minutes. I wanted to cry, and I even wanted to give up. First, I was mad at myself for having a horrible sense of direction. I had studied the map and thought I knew exactly what to look out for. Then, I was pissed at the group for taking off so fast without keeping everyone together. Then I was angry with myself again for not staying with Barry at the start, after I had asked him to stay with me. Finally, I realized I had to let it all go, as I remembered that the purpose of this trip was to connect with nature. I had a long day ahead of me, and being flustered and aggravated wasn’t going to make it easier. Accepting and moving forward was the only thing to do … and, hey! I will get bragging rights for running an extra 4 miles on this adventure, right?
I settled into my pace and after about 13 miles (4 hours), I caught up with Rochelle. I was so happy to see someone else that I knew, and it was nice for each of us to have a buddy. We stuck together for 6 miles. During this time, we ran into a couple hiker dudes who randomly asked me, “Are you Cortney?” “Do I know you?,” I replied. They said, “No, but Barry wants you to know that he is up ahead.” It was cool that Barry was communicating with me this way, and I could imagine that he was pretty confused about where I must be, since he likely expected to pass me within the first mile on the trail. Getting the message from Barry made me antsy about the possibility of catching up with him. Rochelle wanted to stay at her pace, and was comfortable hiking alone, so we parted ways. I picked up the pace, and at the end of a long descent, around mile 20, I saw Barry. He was laying down, taking a nap, and said he had been waiting an hour for me. To say that I was happy to see him, and felt unbelievably loved that he would wait this long, not knowing where I was, is a gross understatement.
We still had another 14 miles to cover that day, so we moved forward, but chatted excitedly for the next hour about what happened at the start and how we had gotten separated. We ended up staying together for the remainder of that day, as well as the following two days. Running and hiking this trail with him was one of my favorite adventures we’ve had together and will absolutely go down in our personal history books. We arrived at Mowich Lake camp after 13 hours on the trail that day and were ready to eat. Barry had pre-made Thug Kitchen Pumpkin Chili for everyone, and it hit the spot.
I slept amazingly well that night and when I woke the next morning, I was pleasantly surprised that my legs were not sore. I was energetic and anxious to start Day 2. The second day, the group stayed in a big pack for awhile. It was wonderful having a group to run, hike, and suffer with. I loved seeing how tough everyone was. Like I said to them all when we finished, anyone who completes this trail is a badass motherfucker!
The last day on the Wonderland Trail - White River to Longmire - was the most extraordinarily beautiful part of the trip. The whole day felt like a rite of passage, and I spent a lot of time reflecting on what I accomplished in the past three days. Here’s what I learned on this trip:
My body was up for the challenge - I don’t give it enough credit. It was amazing that the little niggles I felt along the way never turned into anything. Day 1 achilles pain turned into Day 2 shin pain, which turned into Day 3 ankle pain. Over the miles, I could feel my body adjusting and it became conceivable how a human can run 50, 100, or even 200 miles. Your body knows what to do if you listen to it, are patient, and don’t do anything stupid.
I learned that I’m a really positive person. They say that when you are faced with big challenges, you learn who you really are. Day-to-day, I tend to be critical of myself, and probably have too much of a glass-half-empty outlook. But, during Wonderland, I found that under my cantankerous nature, I’m a really positive and happy person. Being pushed to my boundaries brought out the best in me. It’s interesting how easy situations make me miserable and difficult situations make me super happy.
In ways that I didn’t expect, Wonderland was my redemption for Vancouver. I always thought that “redemption” would look like a marathon PR, or better yet, a Boston Qualifying time. But I realized, truly honestly deeply for the first time, that those things are arbitrary labels attached to something much more important. The redemption was the fact that I was positive and therefore had a positive experience. This doesn’t mean that I’ve lost my competitive spirit; it just means that I finally understand and appreciate that the purpose is the process, not the end result.
It is with this joy in the process that I’ve decided to make some major changes in my life; changes that will support a purpose-driven life. More about this in Part 3 of this story.