Monday, September 3, 2018

New Wonderland Trail Funnest & Fastest Known Time

I was crawling through the window that seperated the cab of my truck from the seating area when I hit the panic button on my keychain. WOO! WOO! WOO! My truck screamed through the parking lot, all eyes on me stuck partway through the almost-too-small window. If I angled just a bit, hip upward, I could squeeze through but this wasn't the first time I'd set off the truck alarm while climbing through the window, it was a tight fit.

The trail work crew that was circled around their truck holding rakes and shovels was surely staring at me wondering why I was horizontal in the open window my head and chest poking through to the backseat and my feet and legs in the bed of the truck. This was me trying to be discreet as I'd slept in my truck the night before in the National Park and I wasn't sure if that might be frowned upon. I was running the Wonderland Trail today, hopefully faster than any other woman had ever run it while carrying all her own gear.
Night before my run prepping gear

The Wonderland Trail is a tough and rugged trail that circumnavigates Mt. Rainier, Washington state's biggest volcano. The trail is somewhere between 93 and 95 miles total, depending on who you ask or what you read and gains 25,000 ft of vert as it climbs up the peaks and valleys that make this mountain one of Washington's most stunning and domineering landscapes.

I knew I wanted to go back and run the Wonderland Trail after setting an unsupported FKT there in 2012 when I was just getting into ultra distance trail running. It was my first really big solo adventure and for some reason, perhaps because I'm competitive or perhaps because it gave me extra motivation, I chose to try to do the route as fast as possible. It's really a delicate process of pushing, but not pushing to hard, it's almost 100 miles after all. This time, I would again go for the unsupported record that had been set the year before by two women who ran the route together in August 2017 in 29 hr 12 minutes, about 1:59 better than my 2012 time. I was pretty confident after having run it in 31:11 that I could knock off a few hours if I didn't get lost like last time.

Unsupported means that you have to carry all your own gear and food from start to finish. You can get water from natural sources along the way. I also consider unsupported to be solo however the official site does not. Running with another person means you won't be navigating alone, you may not carry 2 maps or 2 GPS and you will have a safety fall back plan and company to keep you awake and alert... to name a few of many reasons.
Can you see the trail?

The car alarm is still screaming out. My keys are in my hand and I locate the panic button, pressing it hoping it will stop bringing attention to me climbing through my cab like the sketchy fucker I am. The noise stops abruptly and I grunt as I pull myself into the backseat, sitting for a moment wondering if the trail crew is still staring over at me. Opening the side door I'm cool as a mountain lake, as though nothing was amiss. I covered my messy hair with a pink Tahoe 200 trucker hat and calmly beelined for the trailhead bathroom with brush in hand. I don't take a single glance in the way of the trail workers. Cool as a fucking mountain lake. 

I was scared to run through the night, and I couldn't stop thinking about the dark. In 2012 while running the route solo I had to scare away a mountain lion, twice. It was one of the most frightening experiences of my life. There was no hiding in ignorance or denial this time around. I knew wild animals were on the mountain, in abundance. It is their mountain and I am a visitor. As I thought about the wild beasts standing at the back of my truck, tailgate down, I decided to pack an additional headlamp, making it three lights I was bringing. Probably overkill but fuck it. Two of the lights were headlamps and one was a waist light. I was going to light up the trail! It made me feel a little better but the fear still lingered. I knew if I wanted to overcome my fear I had to put myself in a place where the only way out, was the way through... in this case running through the trails at night until the sun came up again.
My pack at the end of my run, much emptier from the food being gone!
I began my bid for the new record a bit after 10:20am on Wednesday, August 29 at the Box Canyon Trailhead. Before you judge my late-as-shit-time, know that no matter what I'm going to be running through the night so starting time was somewhat irrelevant. Plus, I didn't arrive at the Box Canyon parking area until after 1am. Starting rested was a good plan. The stress and adrenaline of running in such an intense environment had deeply fatigued me the last time, almost requiring a nap on day 2 so I wanted to start out as rested as possible. Despite the sleeping in, my visual hallucinations the next day were on point. But I digress.

I hit the start button on all my GPS devices. I had 4 devices if anyone is counting: my Garmin Fenix watch, my handheld garmin 64st, my Inreach explorer for live tracking for any remote spectators (and to prove that I was doing/had done the route in the time I said I did it in), and my phone with the Gaia app. My pack weighed an impressive 19-22 pounds depending on how much water I had at any given time, still nothing compared to the backpackers I encountered! Scroll to the bottom of the page to see my (almost) full list of gear.
Alpine views early on day 1
To me, a 20 pound pack wasn't too big of a deal. I had just come off a 120 mile week course marking for the Bigfoot 200 Endurance Run, one of the many events I organize year around as a full time Race Director (see my website here: Destination Trail). We carry that kind of weight up to about 40 pounds every day for a week while doing 15-25 mile segments to mark a 200 mile course. I was used to the chaffing, the weight on my neck and shoulders, the pounding on my legs. I figured it was all good training for today, the day I'd go for the FKT. Although in all honestly I wasn't sure I was doing the route until just a few weeks before I did it. It was just a thought and the thought grew and grew until I could no longer ignore it.

Right away, the views of Rainier were stunning. The trail climbed and climbed. In 10 miles I'd climbed 5,000 feet. In 23 miles it was 9,000 feet. I didn't notice the climbing too much, the pace felt easy and I was enjoying the quickly changing views. Overall, the entire route is well signed at intersections so early on I didn't need to navigate much. I paid careful attention through washes and over rivers as it can be easy to lose the trail when you're just going over rocks and scrambling up riversides. I'd forgotten how technical parts of the trail were. I took a lot of pictures (96) and a few videos (10). I wanted to document my journey and I was averaging 3.5 miles an hours it wasn't too hard to stop and take a few pics. In hindsight, I might have saved a bit of time by taking fewer pictures. Fun first, fast later. 
My first view of Rainier
With all the little things I had to do to take care of myself, time was adding up and I kept slipping under the 3.5mph average I was hoping to keep: filtering water (I stop filtering to save time), getting food out of my pack, changing layers, taking photos. On top of that, I started to worry that I wasn't going to have enough calories. I had brought about 200 calories per hour for a 26 hour run. There wasn't much past that. Shit. I need to start conserving and I was only 10 hours into the run. There was no other option though, it was conserve or run out completely. I would make it work. It was all just part of the ever-changing challenge. Go with it. Go. GO GO!

"I hope you're not going to fast to enjoy the views," A man with a camera remarked as I glided past him on a downhill. The thought crossed my mind that many people who don't run really don't understand how much fun it is to enjoy the scenery quickly. I get to see far more in a shorter period of time. It's not better and it's not worse than any other speed. It's just the way I enjoy the mountain. There's something incredibly powerful about moving like this through the environment. Just thinking about that feeling of ease and speed, it gives me goosebumps writing about it.

As night began approaching, a new emotion emerged. Surprise. I was surprised that my fear wasn't growing. I strapped on two of my three lamps and proceeded down the trail. As the light faded away I descended farther and farther into river valley that thundered with the force of the melting glaciers coming off the mountain's impressive face. In this commanding environment I was both humbled and reverent. I was exactly what and where I should be.

I crossed the river and about 1/2 mile later came to a closed trail sign. Dammit, I'd done it again, only the opposite direction. I remembered trying to go down this trail 6 years ago and losing a good 30 minutes. I turned around and proceeded to take the detour that took me around the washed out trail.
Running into the night
For the next 9 (or was it 10?) hours of darkness I counted down the hours and minutes until daylight knowing that my mind was my biggest challenger. In my mind, the night was the only thing holding back from finishing this route. For 9 straight hours I listened to episodes of Radiolab out of my phone's speaker in an attempt to scare off wildlife and to feel some human connection. Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich investigating a strange world as I navigated a strange, wild world pushing through brush, one step after another leading me up, up, up through brown forests of thick old growth trees. Noises reverberating across the valleys. The mountain slope angling above me as though there would never be any sky or any light ever again. Science and philosophy blending into a harsh, beautiful and magical world.

The daylight met me at the top of one of the many climbs, I was eating berries hoping to get some extra calories. As I rounded pillars of rock, a beautiful and light (light!) meadow greeted me at the top, and the most perfect deer was just standing there. I gasped she was so perfect. Her coat was light brown and as shiny and thick as I'd ever seen. I couldn't believe she was real. Not afraid of me, just staring at me, curious. Her baby stepping out of the brush, just as perfect as she was. They walked off and the metaphor wasn't lost on me I, too, was born into day 2 of my journey. My fear was gone and there was a lightness that couldn't just be explained by my quickly diminishing calories. It was time to get this shit done.

If I was going to claim back the FKT on this route, I had to run the last 30 miles faster per mile than I'd run the first 65 miles. Shit. Shit. My brain was still calculating, an impressive task after so many hours of running and pushing. What were the chances I had it left in me to push so much harder? I shook my head as if that could dislodge the reality of the pace I needed to hold and refocused on the task at hand. Get that time. Go get the time or come back in 2 weeks and try again. The mere thought of having to come back so soon was enough to kick my legs in gear. My legs, the ones that felt like they were made out of glass that was slowly shattering. Focus.

For hours I kept calculating the miles, the time, the mph I needed to move and the mph I was moving at. Could I do it? I kept having to stop: to eat, to put on a jacket, take off a jacket. Each pause was agonizing. I was so tired I was nodding off on the trail running. It must be the adrenaline from the stressful night I thought because I wasn't up for that long. Suck it up. I slapped my face, wake up! I popped a caffeine pill, ate some food, forced myself to drink some water. The water helped because basically since 10:20am the day before I had virtually no saliva and chewing was difficult. This always happens to me when I run. I can't barely chew or swallow. Each bite takes like 2 minutes until I eventually give up and choke it down. Probably didn't help that I brought peanut butter sandwiches with me. Six of them. I know, right? I set myself up for chewing failure.
Water source, no filtering. I used LEKI poles the entire way and fell in love with them
As I got closer to what was no less than Heaven to me... Box Canyon... 16 miles... 12.5 miles... an energy began growing in me like that melted glacial water. I was on the move! Now you might not think it sounds too impressive, but I was roaring down those trails 82 miles in... 26 hours in... clicking off 8, 9, 10 minute miles. I hadn't sat for more than a few minutes and certainly had not rested for all those 26 hours and now I felt like I was sprinting. From the outside, I probably appeared to be a dust devil that was exhausting her tornado like tendencies, slowing turning back into dirt. But I was just gaining speed, whirrling with a new found energy.
Some technical running early on
I was so excited 6 miles out (BOOOOX CAAAANYOOON I'm coming for youuuu!), I KNEW I was going to do this. In the last 30 miles I had just hoped to get a few minutes under the previous FKT of 29:12, but in these last 12 miles I'd gone from being a minute or two from getting the FKT to what was going to be about 30 minutes faster than the time, if I continued at this pace. I cannot explain how my brain was able to process this high level math so far into an ultra, but stay with me here, I wasn't going to just get the FKT. I was going sub 29 hours baby!!!

And there it is. That's how I set a Funnest and Fastest Known Time. I set a goal, slept in my truck, ran all day and all night and part of the next day until I got back to my truck. As I unlocked the door to my truck, my heaven, I even managed to not set off the panic button, and I collapsed into the front seat crying with joy. Trying to hide my emotions from the busy parking lot and wishing there was someone I could share the moment with, who might understand melting glaciers, strange worlds narrated by Jad Abumrad and perfectly groomed deer. Instead, I wiped my eyes, put on my sunglasses and changed my clothes as quickly as I could before my fingers turned white and my body shook with cold.

The Official FKT website:
My Garmin at the finish. Finish time: 3:05pm!
I also took a screenshot of the time of day when I got to Box Canyon. 
My gear:
Ultimate Direction hardrocker pack
LEKI poles Micro Trail Pro
Kogalla Light
Black Diamond Headlamp
Petzl headlamp
4 extra AAA batteries
2 extra AA batteries
Battery pack
3 cords
Ultimate Direction Rainjacket with hood
North Face taped seams Rainjacket with hood
Smartwool long sleeve shirt
Extra t-shirt
Altra Superior 3.5 Trail Shoes
Injini socks
Trail gaiters
Garmin 64st handheld GPS
Inreach Explorer Live tracking device
Fenix Garmin watch
Aftershokz Trekz headphones
iphone headphones
Katadyn Filter Bottle
2 - Ultimate Direction Soft Flask 16 or 20oz bottles
6 Peanut Butter sandwiches
variety of Muir gels
10 (ish) Larabars
Honeystinger chews (2 packages)


  1. This is golden! Loved your report and the fact that you are just a strong, no holds bar running chick! Love ya Candice and congrats!

  2. Very nicely done. Thanks for the good read. Not many people are that tough and resilient.

  3. Candice, I am speechless. This is absolutely amazing. To knock almost 30 minutes off the precious FKT, take 96 pictures and 10 videos all the while with 19-22 pounds on your back is so incredible.

    You are an excellent writer and I really enjoyed reading your recap. It makes total sense that unsupported means to be completely solo. So glad there was no mountain lion encounters this time. Congratulations on such an incredible accomplishment! :)

  4. Such an awesome solo expedition. Congrats on reclaiming the title. Just windering why you dont carry a first aid kit? I know their bulky & extra weight. Curious to hear your thoughts.

  5. Candice, I am with you - unsupported - AND self-supported - means SOLO!!! Only and only solo is the real deal, everything else is bs, and not simply a "team", but rather "supported" by definition, as in "helping each other", as you described and many more reasons. So, I, too, am thrilled you "took back what you never lost". Congrats.


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