Archives for posts with tag: Pacific Crest Trail

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Every year around my birthday I try and seek out some sort of fun adventure. In the last few years there has been a cross country train trip, an extended Airbnb stay in Buenos Aires and long races in the mountains of Montana and through the Arizona desert. This year the plan was to find something a little closer to home.

One of the many things I love about the Portland area is the availability of great public transportation. I often take buses and trains to help with the logistics of long runs. So when I heard that there is now a bus that goes to Timberline Lodge at the base of Mt. Hood, I thought it would be fun to use it to set up a big adventure run.

It was a cool and crisp autumn day when I caught the first Mt. Hood Express bus of the day. From the suburb of Sandy it’s only $2 and a little over an hour for the ride up to Timberline Lodge. I arrived just as the sun was rising along the east ridge of the mountain. At the same time in the opposite end of the sky, the full moon was dipping into the horizon. The rays of the rising sun turned the moon an eerie blood red color. It was an otherworldly experience and felt like some sort of sign.  Whether good or bad was yet to be determined.

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If you’ve been following this blog you’re probably aware that I’m a big fan of the Pacific Crest Trail. The plan for my birthday run was to hop on the PCT at Mt. Hood and run the 50 miles to the Oregon/Washington border, where the Bridge of the Gods crosses the Columbia River. Yoshimi would meet me there at the Thunder Island brewpub to enjoy a celebratory burger and beer (and give me a ride home).

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Everything I needed for the day I’d have to carry with me, except for water which I’d find along the way. Because of the pre-dawn chill I was wearing all of my clothes and my little running pack was filled with a random assortment of energy bars. For the first ten miles the PCT shares the route with the Timberline Trail, which goes around Mt. Hood. The Timberline Trail was my first big adventure run in 2012 and is pretty much responsible for getting me hooked on trail running.

Fall is the best time of year to run. The kids are back in school, the tourists are gone, the weather is cool and the rains have yet to arrive. I was almost 4 hours and 20 miles into this trip before I saw anyone at all–a backpacking couple sitting beside their tent and starting the day with some warm drinks. They seemed to be enjoying the peace and solitude as much as I was.

The sun had now warmed things up a bit, so I stripped down to just a T-shirt and shorts. The next section passes through the Bull Run Watershed, which provides all the drinking water for the Portland metropolitan area. We are lucky to have some of the cleanest, best-tasting tap water in country.

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I bumped into a guy at the abandoned Indian Springs campground. He was thru-hiking the PCT, having started at the Mexican border in May. We hiked a few miles together and he had some crazy stories to share: walking hours through the Mojave Desert without any water, being confronted by a family of bears in the Sierra Nevada and postholing through knee-deep snow in the Three Sisters Wilderness.

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He also said that the popularity of the Cheryl Strayed book, Wild (and the subsequent movie with Reese Witherspoon), has caused a massive increase in the number of hikers attempting the PCT this year. During his first few weeks he passed many people struggling under ridiculously large backpacks and later heard that 95% of the hikers attempting the hike this year dropped out within the first month.

It was fun to hear his stories, but I had to get going and cover the last 15 miles to the Bridge of the Gods and a fresh hopped IPA with my name on it. At this point I split off from the PCT to take the more scenic Eagle Creek Trail. While visiting my sister in 1999, we hiked part of this incredible trail together and it helped to convince me that this is where wanted to live.

Hikers approach Tunnel Falls on the Eagle Creek Trail, Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Oregon.

Eagle Creek is one of the most popular trails in the Portland area and on this beautiful fall day there were swarms of hikers. During the first 9 hours of my run I could count the number of people I saw one one hand. But in this last hour, there were easily more than a hundred.  It was a shocking reentry back into society. However at that point I was running on fumes after having already eaten all of my food. It was the thought of a big burger that pulled me through to the end.

I got to Thunder Island before Yoshimi arrived and secured a table overlooking the Columbia River. My quads were trashed from all the downhill running and I had trouble lowing myself into a chair.  A woman at the next table looked over and asked how far I had run. When I told her that I started from Timberline Lodge, she just shook head and said, “That’s too far.” It is a long way to run in one day, but I can think of no better way to celebrate my 46th birthday.

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Each runner follows a different plan in preparing for a big race, yet these plans all seem to have a similar structure. There is a slow buildup, a ramp up in intensity, some tune up races, a taper and then the target race itself. This is the type of program I was doing this year in preparation for the Waldo 100K. The plan, however, took an unexpected turn when I broke my foot in July.

Initially I felt that the timing couldn’t have been worse–just 6 weeks before my big race. But the more I thought about it (and believe me, I thought about it a lot) the more I realized that I was already 90% of the way there. In the first half of the year everything had gone according to plan. The only variation would be that instead of the usual two week pre-race taper in training, it would now be six weeks.

The top priority was to make sure my foot healed properly, which meant no running at all. The second priority was to minimize fitness loss, so I started swimming everyday at this outdoor pool nearby.  It was a great way to enjoy the crazy hot summer we had here in Portland.

By swimming I was able to maintain a certain level of fitness, but more importantly it took my mind off the race. My foot healed quickly and I was able to start doing a few short runs. To minimize the impact on my heel I ran with trekking poles. European mountain runners often race with poles and it was fun to have something purposeful to do with my arms.

Going into the race I really didn’t know what to expect. My foot felt fine, but it’d only been tested on a few short runs. Who knows how it would hold up over 62 miles of mountainous trail. Eliminating the need to compete was liberating and as a result I felt calm and relaxed. I looked at it as just a long day of moving slowly and deliberately through beautiful wilderness.

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The Waldo 100k is now in its 14th year. The race starts and finishes at Willamette Pass Ski Resort and goes over three mountains (Fuji Mountain, The Twins and Maiden Peak). Much of the race is along the smooth single track of the Pacific Crest Trail and passes by numerous alpine lakes. Each year the Wet Waldo award is given to the runner who takes a dip in the most lakes over the course of the day.

The USFS permit allows only 135 runners and a lottery in March determines who gets in. The race starts in the dark at 5am and runners are given 16 hours to finish. There is also an early start option for those who may need an extra 2 hours to beat the 9pm cutoff.

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I ran a conservative race, power hiking the hills and running the flats and descents. I spent a lot of time at the aid stations, enjoying all the yummy high calorie fuel. The grilled cheeses, pierogies and popsicles were some of my favorites.

There was plenty of time to meet and chat with other runners along the way. A personal highlight was getting to run with Gordy Ainsleigh. In 1974 Gordy cemented his status as an ultrarunning legend at the Tevis Cup, a hundred mile horse race through the Sierra Nevada mountains. He completed the race on foot, without a horse, finishing in under 24 hours and thus “inventing” the 100 mile trail running race.

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Gordy is now 68 years old and runs with a twinkle in his eye like a jolly St. Nick. At Waldo, he took advantage of the early start and I caught up with him late in the race when he was struggling on the hills. However, he soon came rumbling back like a runaway train on the descents. We passed each other twice and then a few miles from the finish he caught me one last time. As he went by he said, “If you were a beautiful woman, I’d follow you till the ends of the earth, but you’re not, so I’ll leave you in the dust.” I hope to be half the runner he is at that age.

Overall I was really pleased with how the race played out. I moved consistently all day long without hitting any real low points. It wasn’t an easy race, but it wasn’t as tough as I thought it would be either. It was also interesting to discover that despite having taken so much time off in the weeks leading up to the race, I was still able to finish (and with 42 minutes to spare!). I look forward to returning to Waldo again and next time with a full training cycle under my belt.

"Waldo 100 k at finish 2015"

I moved to Portland in October of 2000.  For my first six months here the city was socked in with a near perpetual grey funk.  On the rare occasions when the gloom curtain lifted, I can remember being mesmerized by the shimmering appearance of Mt. Hood on the eastern horizon.  Unlike Rainier or Shasta, Hood comes to sharp point at the top and is almost perfectly symmetrical.  If you ask a little kid to draw a picture of a mountain, I bet it’ll look like Mt. Hood.

For most of the last decade I was obsessed with mountain climbing and for me Hood was my classroom, my training gym and my playground.  I’ve probably spent several weeks camping and climbing its many routes.  During that time I discovered that the best way to view the mountain is not by climbing up it, but by hiking around it.

The Timberline Trail was built in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.  The 41 mile trail circumnavigates Mt. Hood, passing by the historic Timberline Lodge, Cloud Cap Inn and Mt. Hood Meadows ski resort.  It is one of the most beautiful trails in the Pacific Northwest and people come from all over the country to hike it.  Most backpackers take 3-5 days to do the loop.  The challenge is not just with the distance and altitude, but in the 10,000 feet of elevation that must be gained and lost.

I hiked the trail a few years ago and got passed on day three by a couple of guys who were running the whole trail in a single day.  All they were wearing were shorts and a T-shirt and carrying handheld waterbottles.  It seemed incredible to me at the time that these guys could travel so light, so far and so fast.  This chance encounter forced me to readjust my perceived limits.

Last month one of Yoshimi’s co-workers at New Seasons asked me if I was interested in joining him on a one day run of the Timberline Trail.  I’ve known Jon for about a year now.  He’s the only one I know personally who runs and races more than I do.  Occasionally we’ll get together for a few beers to talk about this goofy sport of ultra running.  Unfortunately, we have opposite work schedules, so we’ve never been able to train together.  A trip around Mt. Hood seemed like a good place to start.

Almost immediately after agreeing to join Jon, I began to have my doubts.  Circling the mountain in a single day would be a serious endeavor.  There would be snow fields to cross, route finding challenges, difficult stream crossings and a full day of exposure to the elements.  Jon would be fine.  He’s a veteran of several 100 mile races.  It was me I was worried about.

To ease my nervousness, I started doing some research.  There’s a cool website called Volcano Running that provides information about running around several of the major volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest.  Until Mt. Hood become a national scenic area, I learned that there used to be an annual race around the mountain.  In 1982, John Coffey set the couse record in a blistering 6 hrs 24 min.  I also happened across the blog of local ultra running stud, Yassine Diboun.  Last summer Yassine along with several other trail running hotshots ran the Timberline Trail in ten and a half hours.  He said it was a casual pace, but my feeling is that “casual” for these guys would be way fast for me and Jon.  The rest of the photos in this article were taken by Joe Grant on that trip:

My estimate was that it would take us about twelve hours, nearly the full allotment of daylight.  So I picked up Jon at 4am and we arrived at Timberline Lodge just as the sun was starting to rise.  We walked behind the lodge to the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) sign which marked the start of our route.  I love the PCT.  You can go south 2108 miles to Mexico or north 550 miles to Canada.  Three countries and three states connected by a single trail.  Not easy, but simple, clean and pure.

We both touched the sign for good luck and then started off at a slow jog.  There was no need to hurry.  It would be a long time before we’d be seeing this sign again.  For the first eleven miles the Timberline Trail and the PCT share the same route.  It’s mostly all downhill until Ramona Falls.  We chatted about past and future races and talked about our favorite elite ultra runners like a couple of little boys discussing their baseball heroes.  Before I knew it we were at the 10 mile point.  It took us just over two hours.  I can remember thinking, “we’ll easily finish this thing in under 10 hours.”  I laugh now at my naivety.

After the split with the PCT the trail became more technical and involved more uphill sections.  There were also some difficult stream crossings.  We tried to avoid getting our feet wet, but sometimes there was just no avoiding it.  Jon carried two handheld waterbottles.  I had a small hydration pack and one handheld.  We filled up the waterbottles at each stream crossing.  We didn’t filter the water since it was mostly high altitude glacier melt–almost too cold to drink at first.  We didn’t bring much in the way of food, just a couple of energy bars each and a bunch energy gels.  We hit the half way point at five and a half hours.  Maybe that sub-ten hour finish was a bit ambitious.

The north side of the mountain was incredibly beautiful:  crystal clear alpine lakes surrounded by meadows filled with multi-colored wildflowers. We ran with big smiles on our faces and sometimes had to stop just to take it all in.  We only saw a few other people, mostly backpackers weighed down with giant packs.  Just a few years ago I was in their boots, but now I was liberated–free to move fast and light.

The first major challenge was the Elliot Creek crossing at mile 27.  The trail was washed out here in 2007 by a huge landslide.  I’ve heard talk of a suspension bridge being built, but that has been delayed by the inevitable bureaucracy.  There are two options for getting through this section: climb up along a ridge above Elliot Creek, cross the Elliot glacier, then hike back down the other side.  Or downclimb the washout, cross Elliot Creek, and then scramble up the other side.  The second option seemed quicker and easier.  It was neither.

At the point where the trail washed out someone had put in a rope, not a real climbing rope, but a tattered laundry line.  This thing wouldn’t have supported the weight of a wet sock, let alone a falling body.  We wasted more than an hour and a lot of energy getting down, over and up the other side.  We were relieved to have gotten safely across, but were pretty wiped out in the process.  Unfortunately, the next 3 miles were all uphill, gaining 2000 ft to the highpoint of the trail at Lamberson Spur(7500 ft).  It was the hottest part of the day and we were completely exposed to the sun.  The trail was either too rocky to run or completely snow covered.  We power-hiked this section, barely talking at all.  I stopped looking at my watch.

At Lamberson Spur, we took a break, fueled up and emptied the grit out of our shoes.  We both caught a second wind and cruised through the next several miles on the smooth fast downhill trail.  It felt good to be under tree cover again.  There were more difficult stream crossings, not as bad as the Elliot, but still raging at this time of day.  At this point we were both too tired to rock hop across and instead would just plow on through, soaking our shoes in the freezing water.

All the snow was gone at Mt. Hood Meadows ski resort and you could actually see the namesake meadows.  We ran under the abandoned ski lifts.  It felt weird to see something man-made and mechanical after a long day of experiencing only the natural.  After crossing the many branches of the White River, we had just a two mile uphill slog to the finish.  At first glance Timberline Lodge looked like castle backlit by the setting sun.  The last mile was a tedious push through sand-like silt and that lodge never seemed to be getting any closer.  Eventually we saw some tourists snapping pictures of the mountain and then the PCT sign.  We both touched the sign, thanking the trail for a safe journey.

In the 13 hours and 10 minutes it took us to circle the mountain, it felt like we had experienced several weeks worth of stimuli.  We started just as the sun was rising and finished right before sunset.  On August 15th, we were able to squeeze all the energy out of our bodies and every last bit of light out of the day.