Monday, September 28, 2015

Wonderland Trail, Mount Rainier National Park

I'm not fast; and I don't consider myself to be competitive when it comes to trail running. But for some reason in about the span of a week I decided I wanted to run the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier (93 miles, 25,000' gain) and see if I could come close to the Fastest Known Time for an unsupported trip (25:48 by Yassine Diboun and Brian Donnelly).

This is decidedly not what I normally do on my weekend mountain outings. I normally run a bit, hike a bit, take a bunch of pictures and just enjoy the area I am in. To try and move fast, not during a race, is a little foreign to me. It didn't help that quite a few of my friends (Ben, Ethan, Richard) all had done it and I was starting to feel a little left out!

So, with a beautiful forecast I picked up Sir Hikes (already planning to meet friends in the area) at 4:30am Saturday and we drove down to the White River TH. I put on my "Really I can do it!" game face, left my camera in the car and struck out to enjoy my longest solo outing thus far.

That's a pretty weak game face...Sir Hikes photo, White River TH at 6:47am
I felt weird and twingy for the first 20 miles or so but things started to click when I came upon an elk family (bull, cow and fawn all together) in the woods near Nickel Creek and the trail was smooth dirt with fall's cushy detritus. Steven's Canyon had gorgeous colors and was a nice quiet stretch where I didn't see any people; a big contrast from the crowds I'd encounter momentarily at Reflection Lakes.

Descending to Longmire a trail runner passed me going up and we managed a quick "hey!" in passing. About a mile later he came back in the same direction and introduced himself as Korey Konga, someone I'd seen on Seven Hills' team, who is quite clearly in the front-of-the-pack speedster group. He asked what I was up to and we ran together for 15-20 minutes on the way back to his car at Longmire, where he kindly took and Instagram-ed a photo of me.

It's almost like I'm on social media! Thanks Korey!
Starting at Longmire (if you're going clockwise), the Wonderland takes you on a relentless pattern of climb-descend-climb-descend, repeat ad nauseam, as you work your way over Rampart Ridge, Indian Henry's Hunting Ground, Emerald Ridge, St. Andrew's/Klapatche Park and finally Sunset Park. I hadn't been to this portion of MRNP, so to travel through all those ridges, river valleys and park lands with very few people out in the late afternoon and evening was one of my favorite parts of the trip. The mountain was fully out (morning was misty on the east and south sides), bull elk were bugling and as night started to set in the time arrives that you have to really "commit" to what you're doing. I think that feeling was especially strong Saturday knowing that in late September we have about 11 hours of darkness (maybe more when you're in the woods).

After putting on new socks and all my night-time clothes at 10:30pm I still was ahead of Yassine and Brian's FKT time (through 63 miles in 15:44). However, by the time I got to Ipsut Pass at 1:30am it was cold and windy. The trail was loose rock with a bit of brush and just not runnable for me given the circumstances. That descent of only three miles took me an hour; I got chilled and when I saw at 2:30am a hollowed-out tree that was dry underneath, I climbed in for a nap.

I needed 15 minutes to close my eyes and it was worth it. I switched GPS watches as well and started to think about when the sun would come up.

The climb from the Carbon River up to Mystic Lake was draining, but light started to creep back into the sky and when I crossed the frosty log bridge over Winthrop Creek, with morning twilight lighting up the mighty Willis Wall, it brought a huge smile to my face.

Over the last ten miles I got to say hi to a couple of people backpacking the Wonderland who I'd already run into early the previous day. That was fun to see familiar faces and hear one individual say, "I thought I'd see you again!" Those are moments not lost on me.

I arrived back at White River at 9:23am, 26 hours and 36 minutes after setting out, finishing what probably is the best "athletic performance" I've ever had trail running.

It was fun to try something new and doing it solo and unsupported gave me a very personal appreciation for what I saw, how I felt during the run and how I've interpreted it afterward. While I always enjoy posting photos here, I don't regret not taking my camera. The Wonderland is worth doing, so please, go and enjoy the views in person :) .

For anyone interested, here is what I used on the trip:

Gear and clothing
  • Pearl Izumi EM N3 Road shoes
  • Salomon S-LAB 12L vest - 2013 model
  • Petzl Myo headlamp (primary)
  • Black Diamond Spot headlamp (backup)
  • Black Diamond Carbon Ultra Distance Z poles (used last 60 miles)
  • Garmin 910XT and 920XT
  • iPod Shuffle
  • SOL Emergency Bivvy
  • iPhone
  • Two 20oz bottles  

  • Pearl Izumi Fly In-R-Cool long-sleeve top
  • Pearl Izumi ambassador singlet
  • Mizuno 3/4 tight
  • Champion sport compression underwear
  • Injinji Trail socks (two pairs, switched at ~60 miles)
  • Icebreaker Quantum merino wool gloves
  • Mountain Laurel Designs eVENT shell mitts
  • Arc'teryx Squamish Hoody windbreaker (outlet-store older model)
  • Pearl Izumi Fly In-R-Cool hat (daytime) 
  • Half Buff
  • Patagonia Chuckanut beanie
  • Meister compression calf sleeves (from ~60 miles to end)


  1. Replies
    1. Woah! Didn't see that coming. Congrats on an amazing push. Totally agree on the camera thing, my mp3/camera died early on during my Wonderland FKT attempt, leaving me with just my thoughts. Those are some of my fondest trail running memories. I hope you enjoy some downtime.


    But really, congrats.

  3. Very stout effort, man! Congratulations! I remember thinking, "we can break 24 hours".....and then realized that was out of the question on that very demanding course. Kudos to you putting yourself out there, and going for it. Much respect. (Yassine)

    1. Thanks Yassine, I appreciate the kind words. Yup, it's definitely a full-value route! Hope we cross paths sometime, Luke

  4. Badass, Luke! Agree with Yassine. Great effort and big congrats!

  5. Congratulations Luke!! What a way to cap off your summer. I'm quite interested in what you actually brought with you nutrition wise. I noticed in the photo that you have just a regular size Salomon pack and was wondering if you were able to carry enough food due to amount of cold weather gear you also had to bring..

    1. Thanks Charles; I actually have a list of all the food (and how much of it I actually ate) here (halfway down on page one):

      The old 2013 Salomon model is significantly bigger than the new ones and you can really stuff a lot in.

    2. Thank you. It's interesting how much junk food we like to eat while on the trail. Looking forward to hearing about your future adventures.