It’s a little after midnight and I’m stuck at the Heather aid station (mile 53) atop Flattop Mountain in the middle of an epic storm. As I sit hunched over in a camp chair covered in emergency blankets, I’m shaking and shivering, and wondering if I’m hypothermic. A part of me hopes I am so I have a legitimate reason to drop out, get off the mountain and be warm and comfortable again.
14 hours earlier I was lined up at the starting line…
Day 1 (miles 0 – 41)
As 10:00 AM passes 220 runners start shuffling along the narrow, steep trail that leads up Red Mountain; the start to our 120 mile journey through the Canadian Cascade Mountains. Less than half of us will finish, 99 of us to be exact. The weather is perfect, for now; sunshine and cool, dry mountain air. I settle into a pace as I begin the nearly 5,000 foot ascent, the first of several mountains I will climb.
I climb and climb and the hours pass. As I reach higher ground I’m met by wide open meadows, ridge lines and beautiful, jagged mountains painted with streaks of white snow. There’s a noticeable haze in the sky from the nearby wildfires.
I reach the top of Red Mountain and I’m met by a beautiful alpine tundra across an expansive and gradual dome that connects to a wide ridge. I feel exhilarated and filled with energy! I make my way across the mountain and pass through a small boulder field, stepping carefully. I come upon a runner who had not stepped so carefully holding his scraped arm and what might be a broken wrist. I offer him help, but he declines and assures me he will be fine. Fat Dog runners are a hardy bunch. As I start to make the long descent down the other side of Red Mountain descent my legs feel good. I enjoy letting gravity do the work for a while.
I pass through Ashnola aid station (mile 18) where I’m met by a surprisingly large crowd. I don’t have a crew, but Michelle is there waiting for Tim so she helps me track down my drop bag and mix some Tailwind.
Leaving the the aid station I follow a gravel road for a while and then meet up with the trail, which heads up the second mountain. This is the second of four significant climbs on the course.
The afternoon sun is getting warmer. I notice dark clouds moving in. The prospect of some nice cool rain seems appealing. Little do I know what those clouds have in store.
After Trapper aid station (mile 22) the trail leads into a burnt forest; trees stand bare all around me, scarred by the flames of the past. Skies grow darker. It feels eerie.
Large rain drops and sleet start to fall from the sky. With each gust of wind the temperature seems to drop significantly. I stop to put on my rain jacket. Lightning flashes in the sky followed by deep roars of thunder. The wind gets stronger and I hear a tree fall not far from me. I worry about the stability of all the other burnt trees around me. I worry about how serious this storm might get as I climb higher into the mountains.
Rain and sleet flood the trail and it flows like a river in places. There’s a fog in the air that gets thicker the higher I climb. I reach an exposed ridgeline. With no trees to protect me, the wind gets stronger and a gust of wind knocks my hood off. Hail starts to fall. I put my hood back on and keep my head down trying to protect it from the hail that is now pelting me. Lightning flashes across the sky. I feel exposed. I consider finding a safe place to wait out the lightning, but decide it’s too cold to stop.
In my pack I have a merino wool baselayer. I’m thinking about putting on. Eventually I find a spot behind a couple of trees that provide some protection from the storm. I stop and change here. It feels good to add a layer, but I quickly realize it might not be enough. I don’t have any more gear and I’m still uncomfortably cold. Wishing for my rain pants and gloves does me no good. All that’s left is to run and create my own heat.
As the trail heads back into the trees it becomes less windy. The rain continues to fall, hard, but my body temperature seems to rise again. I’m feeling grateful to have made it off the mountain and out of the storm. I pass through the next aid station quickly. Only a few more miles to Bonnevier, the next major aid station. I’m especially looking forward to this one because I’ll get to see my parents and Conner.
I approach the Bonnevier aid station (mile 42) from the shoulder of the highway. I’m glad to spot Conner and my parents right away. I sit down and take my shoes off; changing into dry socks, eating some hot food and re-stocking my pack to prepare for the night. My mom offers me a freshly made burger. After carefully considering the possible consequences of eating a half-pound of meat in the middle of a race, I decide I could use the calories. It tastes delicious.
Feeling satisfied I head up the gravel road as night falls.
Night 1 (miles 41 – 62)
Minutes after leaving Bonneveier I notice some pain in my left ankle. It’s the Death Ankle! (i.e. anterior tibialis tendinitis). I stop and put on a compression brace that I have just for this reason. Unfortunately it only seems to make things worse, so I take it off.
The climb up the Three Brothers mountain pass is another big one. As I climb I notice my stomach feeling upset. Maybe that burger wasn’t a good idea.
Feeling sick and a little sleepy I decide to lay down on the side of the trail for a quick nap. I set an alarm for 20 minutes and close my eyes. A couple minutes later there’s a bright light in my face and a runner asks me if I’m alright. I assure him I am and he continues.
I close my eyes again. A couple more minutes pass and another runner stops, shining his light in my face and asking me the same question. The interruptions continue so I decide to give up on my nap and keep moving. To my surprise just laying there for a few minutes seemed to help my stomach feel better.
As I get closer to the top of Three Brothers, rain starts to fall again. Winds gradually get stronger and next thing I know I’m on another exposed ridge with strong, cold winds and rain. It’s not long before I’m a shivering mess.
No lightning or hail this time, but in all other regards it feels like I’m in the same storm as earlier. I march on through the night, hoping for the Heather aid station that should appear any minute now.
I finally see a light in the distance that seems like an aid station. I let out a cheer and a laugh, filled with joy at the idea of reprieve from the storm. I sit at the aid station for close to an hour, shivering and scared to go on. Rain drops echo throughout the shelter. Wind gusts punch the walls, threatening to blow everything away.
Runners continuously stream into the already full shelter. Volunteers scramble to help each runner, offering warm broth, quesadillas, and emergency blankets. I’m not sure how long I’ve been here. Thirty minutes at least, maybe an hour. I know I need to get going, but I’m scared. Scared to go back out in the storm and the unknown that lies ahead. The next aid station is nine miles away, most of which is along an exposed ridge line. I want to stay in the shelter and find warmth, but I only seem to get colder. I realize sitting here is doing me no good so I get out of my chair and tie an emergency blanket around my waist before slowly moving towards the exit. As I walk towards the door I run into Nate and Brad. They offer some encouragement and company. The three of us head back out into the stormy night together.
When I leave Heather aid station I immediately realize the storm is not nearly as bad as I thought it would be. I feel foolish for having let fear grab a hold of me and consume me for so long. Nonetheless I feel good again and much warmer than when I was sitting at the Heather aid station.
Day 2 (miles 62 – 100)
I arrive at the Nicomen Lake aid station (mile 62) as the sun is rising. I’m feeling cold again so when I see a campfire I immediately huddle around it. Despite the rising sun, fog and clouds make the morning feel dark and dreary. I drink some coffee and eat a few pieces of bacon before heading back down the trail with Nate and Brad. Shortly after leaving I separate from Nate and Brad. My mood and energy is all over the place so I feel like being alone is the best way for me to handle it. I walk a few miles feeling tired and sore, but then find a surge of energy that has me running well. The pain and fatigue in my legs, ankles and feet disappear. I reach the Cayuse Flats aid station feeling well and take a few minutes to restock and eat before heading towards the Cascades aid station, just 5 miles away.
The section between Cayuse and Cascades is deceivingly challenging with lots of short steep hills. Looking forward to seeing my parents and Conner at Cascades I decide to push the pace a bit. My legs take a beating.
I arrive at Cascades (mile 78) at about 10:30 AM. My legs feel achy and sore. Death ankle has gotten steadily worse. I spend some time with my parents and Conner; sitting in the chair, changing my socks, eating, and resupplying my pack. It’s nice to see familiar faces.
Eventually I put my shoes back on and slowly get out of the chair. I say goodbye and head down the trail, immediately noticing a tight painful sensation in my knee. I consider going back to the aid station to get it wrapped, but decide to just go on. Reasoning, it probably just needs to loosen up.
I jog slowly and painfully along the shoulder of the highway, favoring my ankle and knee, hoping they can hold together for another 40 miles. Vehicles pass at fast speeds and uncomfortably close distances. I’m eager to get back on the trail.
The next 20 miles follows the Skaggit River. It’s flat, but scenic. The forest is filled with large redwood trees and rock formations covered in moss. The rushing, clear waters of the Skaggit River is never far from the trail and often visible to my right.
I’m hoping to make up some time here, but my ankle and knee make running increasingly painful. I decide to walk for a while. Before long it’s raining, again. I want nothing more than to see the sun shine. The thought of another stormy night in the mountains has me feeling uneasy.
After a couple hours of rain it reduces to a sprinkle then stops. I notice the sun peeking through the clouds. I can’t help but smile. The sunshine is energizing and I find myself running.
Some hot spots on my feet start to bother me more and more so I decide to stop and take a look. My feet aren’t looking good. I notice it’s trench foot causing the pain so I let my feet breath for a few minutes before putting on dry socks and continuing. Dry socks feel amazing, but the pain in my feet doesn’t go away.
The Skyline aid station (mile 99) is the last major aid station and feels like a huge achievement. Despite feeling a little loopy from a lack of sleep, I feel determined and energized. Everything I’ve read suggests the Skyline section is the hardest. Even the race guide indicates most runners take over 9 hours to complete it. I’ve decide I’m not going to let other people’s experiences define my own. One more mountain pass to the finish line. It’s not raining and storming. I feel fortunate… I am fortunate to be out here.
I feel steady and strong as I power up switchback after switchback to the top of the biggest climb of the race.
Night 2 (miles 100 – 120)
As I near the top of the skyline climb darkness sets in. Soon thereafter I reach Camp Mowitch, the first remote aid station on the Skyline section. It’s beautifully peaceful here. A calm, cool and dry night and an inviting campfire make me want to stay, but the finish line is tugging at me to continue.
As I head out I notice more affects from sleep deprivation. I feel weird, like I’m in a dream. I start to lose my concept of time and space, questioning my own whereabouts and worrying that I might be off course or heading in the wrong direction. At one point I see what I think is a trail veering off to the left. I glance at it as I pass, but also notice a runner up ahead.
As I get closer to her I yell, “Have you seen a course marking lately?”
“No,” she responds.
Just to make sure so I decide to turn around and double check the trail I saw. When I get there I see it’s not a trail at all, just an opening in the trees. I turn around again to continue on the course. I start looking intently for an orange flag. It feels like a lot of time has passed since I’ve seen one. I’m worried. Finally I see a course marking. I feel relieved.
The trail seems to get narrower as it wraps around the sides of the mountains. There’s a steep drop off to my right. I can’t see beyond the beam of my headlamp so it’s hard to know whether a fall would just hurt a little or be deadly. To be safe, I approach it as though it’s deadly, stepping very carefully. I’m focused on nothing but the 5 feet of trail in front of me.
The last aid station, Sky Junction is a small one right on the trail. I down some coffee and eat a few bites, then narrowly dodge some vomit from another runner as I head out. I can tell I’m on a beautiful mountain high above everything, but I don’t get to see the views. I imagine what they might look like. I feel the energy of the mountains.
The final descent begins. Running hurts a lot, so I’ve completely transitioned to some vigorous mall walking. Descents are even worse and I’m doing some kind of weird limp, hop thing with my trekking poles to try to lessen the impact. I can tell my ankle is in bad shape, my body pleading with me to stop. Just a few more miles.
Still struggling with the concept of time and space, I question where I am again. The trail seems oddly familiar, a lot like the one that took me up Skyline nearly 20 miles ago. I contemplate whether I’m in the right place and going the right direction. I start to convince myself I’m not, but when I consider turning around I can’t seem to gather enough evidence to justify it. I haven’t seen another runner for a while, but I continue to see the orange flags. I know I’m at least on course, but I can’t seem to stop worrying that I’m going the wrong way. Finally, a bridge and some signs for Lightning Lake confirm I am headed the right direction, and very close to the finish!
I follow the trail around the lake and spot the finish line on the other side. As I make my way down the final stretch it’s lined with glow sticks. I feel like I’m on a runway.
I muster up enough energy to jog a few painful steps across the finish at 2:38 AM; 40 hours 38 minutes after I started.
My parents, Conner, Tim, Bunda and Nate are all there to congratulate me as I arrive. One of the race volunteers hands me a Fat Dog belt buckle. I sit down in a chair and enjoy the cool, calm night. Sitting has never felt so good. Comfort has never been so great as these few moments. I try to move and notice my body has already started to get tight and swollen, transitioning into a state of rest and repair as though it knows I crossed the finish line.
As I sit, I reflect on the race. The storms. The cold. The fear. The power the mountains displayed and the strength I had to find in myself. On so many occasions I felt overwhelmed and underprepared, wanting to quit. At times the mountains seemed so harsh and cold. I realize now, the real struggle was always within myself. My own ignorance and arrogance put me in some unnecessarily difficult situations, leaving me nearly hypothermic. My own thoughts created some unnecessary fears, leaving me frozen at an aid station, wanting to quit for nearly an hour. The mountains simply continued about their business as usual while I tried to share in its way of life. To experience the mountains as they are, because as John Muir wrote, “the more savage and chilly and storm chaffed the mountains, the finer the glow on their faces and the finer the plants they bear.”