A Day In Wonderland

"Well, in our country," said Alice, still panting a little, "you'd generally get to somewhere else — if you run very fast for a long time, as we've been doing."

"A slow sort of country!" said the Queen. "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"

Lewis Carroll - Through the Looking-Glass

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My first thought is

this is a beautiful animal

. It’s within arms reach and I look straight into its sage colored eyes, wildly enhanced by the beam of my headlamp. It remains completely still other than the gentle swaying of its tail. I instinctually start edging away, ever so slowly, transfixed by its stare.  When I’m about 20 to 30 feet past it, it moves out from the bushes, facing me on the trail. I brandish my arms in the air, start yelling at the top of my lungs and toss the stick I’m carrying in its direction. It seems unimpressed by my antics but moves back into the underbrush. The foliage lines the singletrack at about chest height, forming a narrow, dark corridor up the hill - a perfect set up for a lethal pounce. As a token gesture of defense, I clip my fanny pack around my neck and while doing so, feel a warm gush of adrenaline pumping through my body. I wonder how it would feel to have its teeth sink into my flesh. I can hear my heart pulsating, louder than my shouting. I continue to pick my way up the trail, half backwards, half side stepping, as steadily as I can. I reach a clearing where the path is cut in to a steep washed out scree bank. Once across it, I stop for a minute and look back. The cougar emerges from the shadows on to the moonlit rock. The hunt is on.

I’ve been wanting to run the

Wonderland Trail

for several years now but timing had always been an issue since when the window for a snow free circumnavigation opens up, I’m either running a race or recovering from one. However, with this year’s UTMB mishaps and my ankle on the mend, I thought it to be the perfect opportunity to run it. There was only one way I wanted to go about it: fast, light, solo and unsupported. Part of this was driven by a sort of rebellious internal counter effect of my experience in Europe, where an over saturation of mechanized, corporate mountain madness lead me to crave more deeply for a pure, aesthetic line, uncluttered, that I could execute in my own style, with my own parameters - a cleansing mechanism so to speak. I jokingly told

Shane

, with whom I stayed the night before, when discussing what gear I was going to take, that on a run like this you can either go for comfort or for a vision. In this case, the latter sounded more appealing.

I set off at 4am with a water bottle, 27 gels, a windbreaker, a map, 2 headlamps, $20 and a photocopy of my ID, stuffed in my fanny pack. I also had an emergency space blanket with a note of my itinerary and my wife’s number to call just in case. I didn’t carry my camera or any other superfluous accessories as I wanted it to be as clean as possible. For now, that is about as light as I am willing  to go for a single push of just under a 100 miles.

Conditions are perfect - full moon at the start, warm and not a cloud in the sky. I quietly make my way out of the woods on to Rainier’s majestic flank. It’s massively imposing stature is both inspiring and a little intimidating. I come across the first hiker about three and a half hours in and we exchange greetings. I usually feel awkward when passing hikers who are taking their time, enjoying the slow, tranquil pace of a walk in the woods while I seem in such a hurry. Though today everything feels so right - meditative running movement, marked in rhythm by the undulating terrain, accompanied by the grandiose spectacle of the mountain. The highs aren’t without lows though and the inevitable bonk brought forth by an exceedingly lean calorie consumption has me entering the hole in pursuit of the white rabbit more than once. Somehow, I hardly brake stride, stopping only briefly to fill my bottle in creeks. I reach the Carbon Glacier, moving clockwise from Longmire, in under 10 hours and know then that barring any major issues, I’ll comfortably finish in under 24 hours.

After about 20 hours of running and approximately 10 miles to go, I can smell the barn and am already arrogantly congratulating myself on a most perfect execution- how I barely even needed my headlamp since the moon was so bright, how in tune I’d been all day with my body, mind and the elements. That’s until I stare into the cats eyes and begin yelping, thrashing the bushes, trying to escape, ever so helpless. The cat is silent, patient and aware of my every movement. I’m terrified not so much by the creature itself but by what I know of it. It’s not aggressive, doesn’t growl, it just follows. Its tactics are painfully agonizing. I do what I’ve been taught to do in this situation. I feel silly and out of place being so loud and obnoxious when everything around me is so quiet and peaceful. My fear is of association with what the cougar could do, not what it is doing which deceivingly makes me think I could just stop, sit, drink some water and it would probably just go away. I will not stop though and while it must sense my weakness, I won’t let on any impression of surrender.  I think of how the gazelle must feel during persistence hunting. It’s an awful feeling. I think of how people feel during war, where at every turn there may be someone trying to shoot or bomb you, never at peace and living with that constant excruciating anxiety, ever on edge, fueled only by the instinct of survival. It’s an awful feeling.

Finally, I cross a rather long foot bridge and can’t see the cat behind me anymore. After 20 more minutes or so I reach a road which is incredibly reassuring in that I have a more open view of where the cat may be and a direct link to civilization. I stand in the road checking my map for a place to seek shelter. There are several lakes along side of it, hopefully with a restroom where I can hide. I only have about 5 miles to go on the trail to finish the run but the road sounds infinitely more comforting. Just as I’m about to set off again, I hear a slight crackle in the bushes and the cat crosses about 20 feet in front of me. I resume my routine of dissuasion and proceed down the road until I spot a car parked on the side. I reach the car and bang on the window. To my surprise and great relief, a woman lets me in. She had dozed off, waiting for morning to capture the sunrise on Reflexion Lake. We peer out of the window, flashing our headlamps trying to see the lion. Nothing. Quietly came - quietly gone. She offers me a beer and some chips which I gladly except. This is the first time I’ve stopped all day and I suddenly feel the full effects of having just run 90 miles. I try to explain the last hour and a half struggle but find myself nodding off, overwhelmed with the intensity of the experience. For a second, I contemplate waiting an hour or so and then finishing the run but before I can even seriously consider that option, I am asleep - and to be honest still plain scared. Morning comes and I sit in the car watching photographers line up along the lake. I have not the slightest desire to walk the last 5 miles to my car. Harrowed by the immense effort of the previous day, I feel ever so thankful to be alive.

Running the Wonderland Trail was one of the more powerful and unique experiences of my life. In one day, I found myself touching extremes in both strength and vulnerability. Learning to ride that line of consciousness with grace is not always comfortable but certainly makes for a fascinating experiment.