Midlife Grit Crisis: Wonderland Trail in 3 days

I used to do things that were hard. It seems not so much anymore. As I approach my 55th birthday, I'm beginning to wonder if I'm losing the mental edge along with the physical. Over the past years I developed a "system" that worked well for me and my family life. I would train to the minimum for an event, so that I would at least be able to hold up physically without damaging myself, then make up for the rest with mental toughness, or "grit." I used to run Boston, and 4 times I qualified with less than 2 minutes to spare. Twice I qualified for Western States with very narrow margins. I was able to pull this off with my grit system.

Backpacking and ultrarunning developed hand and hand for me. As I became busier with everyday life, I found I had some choices to make. Either do shorter trips, or do the same trips in a shorter time. When I was doing the Wonderland in 4 days, I started running 50Ks. When I did it in 3 days, I ran 50 milers. When I did it in 36 hours, I ran 100 milers. I figured that if I could do the Wonderland over a weekend, completely unsupported, then a race like Western States was a go. It wasn't until 100 milers or 24 hour races that I truly discovered my inner grit. Dealing with the mental aspect over these distances makes all the difference in finishing. Even 50 milers are a day run, you have breakfast and you're sitting at a table eating dinner. But go out for up to 30 hours, and the mental and physical landscape changes dramatically. The big question for me was, if I was able to train in mental toughness in the past, would that be lost too along with my fitness? Or is this something that stays with you?

All these factors brought me to a 3 day Wonderland Trail hike. I could get out annually like tradition dictated, and test my mettle to see if I still had the grit. At first I was going to take a bivy bag and a puffy jacket, but when weighing the options my tent (Gossamer Gear The One) and bag (Feathered Friends Vireo) actually weighed the same. I decided on this more traditional approach, especially since I had permits for established campsites. I must say in retrospect I had way too much food; I wanted 4 days worth to give myself extra for that option but my food bag still weighed almost 3 lbs on my return. Total weight including the huge food bag was 18 pounds. This does not include my camera gear, which I keep in a front pack.

Day 1. I had planned on a clockwise turn starting from Longmire, staying at So. Mowich on the first night. Since I had to get a permit, I arrived at Longmire in time for a civilized breakfast that included mandatory pre-pumping of my coffee/cappucino requirement. The beginning of a hike is usually the same, you feel good physically for quite a few hours before the rigors start to take their toll. The day was unusually warm for this time of year, and sweat factor was rating high on the climbs to Emerald Ridge and St. Andrews Park. The last climb of the day was to Golden Lakes, and by then my legs were feeling the toll. Of course I knew that I wasn't going to cover the distance in speedy days of old, but when I arrived at Golden Lakes it was apparent that I would not get to So. Mowich until well after midnight. One of the advantages of hiking this trail for over 20 years is familiarity; I knew there was a spot right before the descent for the Mowich rivers that would do nicely for an impromptu camping spot. This would allow me to get at least 5 hours of sleep before the next big day but put me 4 miles behind in the itinerary. Eventually you have to pay the piper, and I knew that time would come.

Day 2. I slept fairly well and got up at 5. I had been in cloud since the prior evening and everything was wet with the continuous moisture. There's nothing like packing up your tent and ground sheet when they're soaked and, in the case of the ground sheet, dirty. I started hiking right when there was enough light to preclude using a headlamp, with the intention of covering the distance to the Mowich rivers expeditiously while I was fresh. I was anticipating a grind on that climb up to Mowich Lake but met up with an old friend. When I was training I could fall into a zone I call Kinetic Meditation. Your body is fit enough where it goes on autopilot and your mind can detach and go someplace else. I remember being able to run on a treadmill for 6 hours with no entertainment in front of me. Mr. Kinetic paid me a visit most of the way up to Mowich Lake and I scarcely remember any effort to the climb. At the campground I pulled out my tent to shake it off and give it a chance to dry out while I had lunch, as the thought of pulling out a wet tent late that evening was not something I was looking forward to. Mission accomplished, I headed for the low road, though Ipsut Pass, as last year my daughter and I had taken the high road through Spray Park.

I had my video camera with me for the purpose of recording 2 things; 1, I was working on a Podcast on lightening up for Gossamer Gear, and 2, I wanted to record a travelogue of my trip as a companion piece to another film about the trail. I remember pulling out the camera saying, "did I say that this climb to Mystic Pass was relatively easy earlier? Because if I did, I was an idiot." I was hurting somewhat, not feeling strong on that climb, and I still had to descend around the toe of the Winthrop Glacier, climb back up to Sunrise, and end up at White River for the evening. Lets just say those following hours were difficult, not without their rewards, as I truly enjoy night hiking, but by the time I went through Skyscraper pass I was searching for alternatives. As I limped along I decided on stopping at Sunrise, hoping the bathrooms were still open, but knowing from past experience that they were probably closed up for the season. They were, and I found a spot under the telephone booth and just laid out my bag, staying in my clothes and keeping my pack packed so I could make a speedy exit in the morning. This put me about 3 miles in deficit but I knew I had to get 4 hours of sleep to pull off a 36 mile day. Unfortunately, my legs were barking this time and I kept waking up for a few hours with stabs of pain and discomfort as my lower body protested the abuse.

Day 3. It was the best day. I had an inauspicious start as I couldn't get myself up when I planned and didn't start hiking until 7 AM. Not good. Not very gritty. Although I covered the distance down to White River quickly, my body was not acting the well oiled machine. I began to really worry on the ascent to Summerland as it appeared things were on a steady decline. Then, right before the switchbacks to Summerland, I took a break and fueled up and presto, I started to feel strong like a few years back. This renewed vigor lasted until Nickel Creek, and I got to enjoy one of the most pleasant and spectacular days on the trail as perfect weather, cooperating body, and high spirits carried me over Panhandle Gap and through Indian Bar and the Cowlitz divide. All those little things that make being outside so spiritual visited me during those hours. Perfect breezes, sounds of water and wind, the moonscape of a snow-free Panhandle Gap littered with bright red bushes, but only if viewed from the down-sun side. Critter call; I was tooling down the Cowlitz Divide and startled an elk, which I didn't see but heard crashing through the trees and bugling just feet away. I stopped to pull out my camera and as I looked up I was exchanging glances with a bear, who seemed totally nonplussed at my presence. It was one of the coolest moments I've ever had on the trail. I never saw the elk (but heard them all along the divide) and the bear and I shared the trail for a bit before he moved off into the woods. That morning I came across a doe and her offspring, who again were not concerned with me being there. And I had at least 2 encounters with mountain chickens and their brood, a lone owl hooting in the night, and a mouse frolicking on my foot. It seems my body cooperated during this entire time so I could enjoy the sounds, the sights, the smells, and the details of the moment with no distractions of physical discomfort.

It was the worst day. It was payback time, and my late start and extra 3 miles were calling. After descending off the Cowlitz Divide, which was the end of daylight, my body decided to test my mettle. And I had to deal with the especially crappy part of the trail, the climb out of Stevens Canyon, at my most vulnerable point. Just like climbing or after violently puking coming out the canyons at Western States. Some of you may remember a book that came out about 10 years ago, called "The Measure of a Mountain," I forget the author, but his over dramatization of hiking this trail made him come across as a big pussy. I don't want to sound like that, but the climb out of Stevens is a dangerous part of the trail. Years ago I was coming up this section and a guy with a horse solicited my help in finding his partner, who had fallen off the trail on his other horse. The section in question was way too steep to consider downclimbing without a rope. Eventually we heard his buddy, who had escaped uninjured and crossed Stevens creek, climbed up the other side, and was waving and hollering at us from the road. The horse was toast. The narrow footing, the brush crowding you from the uphill side, the sudden drop offs, the holes and rocks, and doing this at night combined to make a potentially dangerous setting. I had to muster everything and concentrate at my most tired, and make my feet go when I was most fatigued. At one point I stopped and commented to the camera that earlier this part of the trail was closed due to washout, and you had to hike 4 miles on the road. The road is a much better option.

By the time I finished the climb to Reflection Lakes I was knackered. Hiking became the endurance event of trying to make your floppy legs and feet continue down the trail and not think about how much further you have to go, but that each step brings you closer to your destination. At least I could look up in the clearer sections or between the trees and see another beautiful starry night, with the Milky Way putting on a show. My numerous breaks from this point on, when I would flop on a log, had some muted satisfaction of enjoying the woods in the dead of night. If you have tinnitus you will discover it during these times of absolute quiet, a rare occurrence in modern civilization. I was reaching into the grit zone for hours, something I had planned on at the outset but absolutely grueling in the doing. I guess that's what makes it grit.

About a mile from the trail junction right above Longmire, where I had turned left 2 days prior, my mind must have told my body that it's services were no longer required. I could barely stand up, let alone move forward. I could barely see. Suddenly I had shooting pains in my left foot. My shoulders ached. Everything gave way. The timing was not coincidental, I was experiencing the ultimate let down. It just had to be especially bad for the last bit of trail, to remind me why I had come out. When I reached my truck, it was 2:20AM. As I write this the next day, I'm already starting to forget the painful parts, but this was truly the most difficult physical challenge I have done for the last 7 years. It encompassed so many of the elements I learned from running, mountaineering, and backpacking. I guess I am still a believer that no matter your age, it's important to remind yourself that you can still reach down into the grit zone.