The Rainier Infinity Loop

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In the spring of 2017 myself, my wife and our 6 month old daughter took many road trips out west to climb at places like Indian Creek, often listening to podcasts to help the road miles fly by as the sun set. On one particular trip I noticed a new episode for The Dirtbag Diaries had been released titled “To Infinity”.

“To Infinity” is a 2-part episode that talks about Chad Kellogg, an alpinist who had a knack for moving quickly in the mountains and a vision for adventure, regardless of how much grit and determination were required to get it done. Although I never met Chad in person, I’m inspired by his dedication to living a life of perpetual motion in the outdoors and his ability to seek out experiences that are guaranteed to change your life and perspective.

One of the mountain journeys that Chad had dreamed up that was guaranteed to offer some perspective shift was the Rainier Infinity Loop. Sadly, on February 14, 2014 Chad was killed by rockfall in Patagonia and unable to experience his own vision firsthand.

 Chad Kellogg Sept 22, 1971 - Feb 14, 2014

Chad Kellogg Sept 22, 1971 - Feb 14, 2014

He had a saying that resonates with me: “You are the story that you tell yourself.”  To me, that quote simply says you have the power to do things that define who you are and to actively pursue the lifestyle you want.

The Rainier Infinity Loop is an all encompassing ultra-mountaineering adventure that takes you on a journey through Rainier National Park, climbing to the 14,411’ summit of the glaciated peak of Mt. Rainier not once, but twice, and circumnavigating the entire mountain by way of the iconic Wonderland Trail.

Specifically, start at the John Muir Steps at Paradise Trailhead and climb the south face of the mountain via the Disappointment Cleaver Route to the Summit of Mt. Rainier then descend to the North East via the Emmons Glacier to White River Trailhead. Once at White River, run 30 Miles clockwise back to Paradise Trailhead. Climb Mount Rainier again via the same routes as before, then finish the loop by running the remaining 67 Miles of the Wonderland Trail counterclockwise back to the John Muir Steps, effectively tracing an “Infinity Loop” around Mount Rainier National Park. The Mount Rainier Infinity Loop covers 135+ Miles and has over 47,000 feet of elevation gain.

 Paradise is the southern junction, White River to the northeast.

Paradise is the southern junction, White River to the northeast.

In 2016, Ras Vaught & Gavin Woody put brush to canvas and completed Chad Kellogg’s vision, the first ever Mount Rainier Infinity Loop, in just under 100 hours.

A year later in 2017, Nate Smith and Sarah Morris took on the loop and carved 3 hours off the previous time setting the bar at 97 hours 37 minutes.

I had been inspired by this journey ever since I heard that Dirtbag Diary podcast and now after seeing a few folks complete the loop I knew I had to experience it for myself.

In February, I sent out an email to 7 friends that I thought would be equally inspired by this feat and qualified to get it done:

Guys, I’m geeking out on the Rainier Infinity Loop. I’m in need of some mountain meditation, it’s been too long since a good soul searching visit to the inside of my skull and I really think this is the ticket...

You are on this email because you expressed an interest and I have faith in your abilities to travel on a really fucking serious mountain safely (while sleep deprived for 100 hours) and stay really psyched in the process!

I knew there was no way all 7 would make it to Seattle in the summer. However I was confident that over the course of the months to follow, a dedicated 1 or 2 would join me in the Cascades for this mission.

You see, this line not only requires time, it requires a skill set unique to other ultra-endurance adventures. Not only do you need to have backcountry ultra-running experience to the tune of 100 plus miles, you also need to be a solid mountaineer capable of negotiating the crevasse riddled flanks of Rainier quickly and safely.

As winter turned to spring, and spring to summer, that original list had been whittled down from  7 people to myself, Erik Sanders and one other responding as a “maybe” .

I got to know Erik Sanders on a blind date. I wanted to go do the Grand Teton Triathlon known as “The Picnic," but couldn’t find anyone to join me on short notice. Another friend recommended that I connect with Erik. In short we had a blast together completing that classic day around the Tetons. I knew instantly he would make a good adventure partner on that trip. Erik has a deep background in Adventure Racing. He’s strong when it comes to endurance outings, knows how to take care of himself and most importantly - I’ve never heard him complain. Ever.

 The first time Erik Sanders (left) and I ever hung out, 3/4 through with the Grand Teton Triathlon, aka "The Picnic" and applying liberal amounts of chamois butter.

The first time Erik Sanders (left) and I ever hung out, 3/4 through with the Grand Teton Triathlon, aka "The Picnic" and applying liberal amounts of chamois butter.

That “maybe” was Sam Ritchie. Sam would be the strongest endurance engine of the trio, but he wasn’t sure he could make the outing as he was currently 4th on the Hardrock 100 waitlist that was scheduled for a week after the proposed Infinity Loop finish time. The Hardrock 100 Mile mountain endurance race that some (myself included) have been waiting years to participate in requires one to be drawn in a very low percentage lottery. In late May, with less than 2 months before I would fly to the Pacific Northwest, Sam committed. He knew the Rainier Infinity Loop, regardless of the outcome, was too great an experience to pass up.

We spent the next 6 weeks planning, getting in a few final training missions and dialing in our glacier travel systems.

Doing something this big with 3 people has both pros and cons. The more people you have the more “lows” you have to deal with. Because of that we came up with three goals:

  • Do this in the style in which Chad Kellogg dreamed up

  • Achieve the Fastest Known Time (FKT)

  • Stick together, regardless of pace.

With a few weeks out we booked tickets, wrote up an itinerary and crossed our fingers for good weather. We were very confident we could shave a few more hours off the existing time of 97 hours and create one heck of a memory in the process.

With a week remaining before the three of us would fly to Seattle, I received several personal messages from friends who knew of my interest in the Infinity Loop. They had forwarded me the Instagram profile of @Ropesandsummit (Scott Bennett) who was in the middle of the Infinity Loop! It was inspiring to watch him take on this endeavor.

Scott took on the challenge solo, this time starting and ending at White River. Scott moved impressively fast on the mountain and set the new FKT for this endeavor on June 25th, 2018 at 66 hours 22 minutes. Shaving over 30 hours off the existing speed record meant that if our goals were going to remain consistent, we had to change our strategy.

On Sunday July 8th, 2018 I flew from Muncie, IN after visiting family to Seattle-Tacoma Airport in Washington. I met Sam and Erik at the airport and we loaded all of our gear into a black Dodge minivan. My good friend Brandon Worthington was hiking a section of the PCT and wanted a little entertainment (our suffering), so we picked him up at the Amtrack Station and headed South, stopping along the way for groceries to fuel us through this adventure.

 Weather and route discussion at Whittaker's Bunkhouse, Ashford, WA

Weather and route discussion at Whittaker's Bunkhouse, Ashford, WA

Later that evening we reached our home for the night, Whittaker's Bunkhouse in Ashford, WA. Whittaker's serves as the final outpost for Mt. Rainier climbers from all over the world. When we arrived, Erik started taking the manufacturer's packaging off his foods and putting them in his own smaller ziplock bags. Sam and I did a little organizing and jumped in bed early.

We spent most of the next day organizing gear (see my complete gear list here), predicting calorie needs for the adventure and sorting out gear and supplies into 2 different bags: one to be cached at the White River Trailhead, the other would be stashed in the back of the black minivan parked at the Paradise Trailhead.

 

 The Black Dodge Minivan, our gear cache for the Paradise Trailhead   

The Black Dodge Minivan, our gear cache for the Paradise Trailhead

 

Once we had everything organized, we headed to register for the climbing permit at the Paradise Rangers office. I was anxious about this conversation. During my last trip to Mt. Rainier, the rangers seemed very apprehensive, almost interrogative in the process of issuing the permit. Not to mention, on that trip we were only looking to climb and ski rainier once!

When we walked into the ranger station I was nervous. I talked to Scott Bennett a few days prior to see what his conversation was like and he said the rangers were a little confused at the concept, but overall supportive.

When I met face to face with Mt Rainier Ranger Jason Olsen I started to explain our game plan, but before I could finish my explanation of what the Infinity Loop entailed, he interrupted me with a smile and said “Oh cool, Infinity Loop, when are you guys starting?”

He was incredibly helpful, documented our detailed itinerary and sent us on our way.

Our next and final stop for the night was White River Trailhead and Campground located on the Northeast side of Mt. Rainier. We reserved the campsite closest to the start of the Glacier Basin Trail (D17) and started setting everything up. We pitched a 3-man tent, inflated our sleeping mats and unrolled sleeping bags. We organized all of our food in the bear-box so it would be ready for us when we reached this transition area after our first lap up and over Mt. Rainier.


Leg 1: Tuesday July 10th, 2018 5:01AM

 

... the most luxuriant and the most extravagantly beautiful of all the alpine gardens I ever beheld in all my mountain-top wanderings.
— John Muir

This is what is etched in the granite steps at the start of the Skyline Trail located at Paradise.  We aren’t completely sure where all of the other finishers of the Rainier Infinity Loop started, but we used “The Muir Steps” as our official starting and finish line.

 The Muir Steps at Paradise Trailhead, the start and finish of the Rainier Infinity Loop  Joe Boyle Photography

The Muir Steps at Paradise Trailhead, the start and finish of the Rainier Infinity Loop
Joe Boyle Photography

At exactly 5:01am, we started our GPS watches and marched with purpose up the steep paved sidewalk. Sam and I wore light mountain boots, Erik wore a pair of hybrid trail running shoes with a built in gaiter system. We were moving well, chatting as the sun began to rise. After 90 minutes we began a descent and knew we had missed a turn. In our excitement, we blew right passed the turn for Pebble Creek. Erik checked his paper map to give us some guidance and after 35 minutes, we worked our way into a bonus lollipop loop, ending on the Skyline Trail, downhill of our highpoint. It was an early frustrating moment for all three of us, but proved to be a crucial lesson to navigate as a group and avoid any further navigational errors. We were bummed. Our strategy wasn't to be super fast on the climbs on Rainier and we knew we couldn’t set a blazing pace on the Wonderland Trail - our speed needed to come from efficiency, and at that moment so early in this endeavor we were far from that. As we agitatedly discussed timing, and how we made the error, Sam cut the tension: “We have at least a guaranteed 100 fuck-ups today, let’s just try to keep them small fuck-ups.” Erik and I nodded in agreement and we plodded on.

We hit Muir Camp after 2.5 hours. The sun was shining bright on Rainier and we were officially above the clouds. This was Erik’s first time on Rainier, and the first glaciated peak climb for Sam The big mountain feel of Mt. Rainier was starting to set-in.

 Sam Ritchie cruising above Muir Camp, 10,080'

Sam Ritchie cruising above Muir Camp, 10,080'

We continued on, gaining ground up to Ingraham Flats before taking a brake to pull out our technical gear. While roping up we conversed with a foursome from Colorado who was taking their final exam from the Colorado Mountain Club’s HAME Course. We parted ways and headed towards the route’s namesake feature: The Disappointment Cleaver.  Approaching the Cleaver, we stepped over the first of a few fixed bridges spanning gaps ranging from 3-5 feet. I found joy in knowing this was Sam’s first time gazing into the black & blue abyss - a found memory of my own. Explaining Mt. Rainier to Sam, I told him it’s casual and horrifying. Casual because for someone of Sam’s fitness level, it’s not that big of a peak - he’s done more 10K days than he can count. Horrifying because that mountain claims lives every year, often without any notice at all.  Big catastrophic events occur in big mountain terrain, as was evident by a slide area just above us from the massive serac that fell two days prior, luckily in the middle of the night when nobody was on route.

 

 Recent snow and icefall that wiped out the climbers path on the Dissapointment Cleaver Route

Recent snow and icefall that wiped out the climbers path on the Dissapointment Cleaver Route

As we approached the recent slide area we stopped. In areas like this the goal is to move quickly, minimizing your exposure to the hang fire lingering above. When we were all ready, we took off - moving roped and in-sync through the massive debris.

 Erik and Sam navigting crevasses on the Dissapointment Cleaver Route

Erik and Sam navigting crevasses on the Dissapointment Cleaver Route

Once through the debris field, we continued our upward rhythm with myself in the lead. A steady, unbroken pace had us at the summit crater faster than I expected. As we crossed the mouth of the volcano towards the summit, we chatted. We discussed Scott Bennett’s strong ascent pace and more notably, his super fast descent down the DC - a feat we could certainly not match on the Emmons.

6 Hours and 5 minutes after leaving paradise we stood atop Mount Rainier (14,411’). The weather was nice, barring a constant wind, and we were joined with a dozen or so fellow summiters. After a few quick photos, I started leading us towards the Emmons-Winthrop Glacier.

 Sam, Erik, Myself. After 6 hours and 5 minutes we reached the summit of Mt. Rainier 14,411'

Sam, Erik, Myself. After 6 hours and 5 minutes we reached the summit of Mt. Rainier 14,411'

At 11 o’clock in the morning, I was surprised at how firm the first thousand feet or so from the summit were. I remember the ski descent I did of that exact same route feeling casual, but as my crampons crunched through the icy surface with each step, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had positively mis-remembered that portion of my ski descent.

 High on the Emmons glacier near the summit of Mt. Rainier

High on the Emmons glacier near the summit of Mt. Rainier

Our rope team was configured with myself in front, Erik in the middle and Sam on the caboose. We moved downward as a team, breaking our own trail down the Emmons. We moved slower than I expected, working towards that first transition area at White River. I felt the rope holding me back, and looked over my shoulder. I watched Sam moving over the glacier with an erratic pace, not uncommon for someone new to the art of snow walking.

 Sam and Erik navigating some deeper snow just below the summit on the Emmons Glacier.

Sam and Erik navigating some deeper snow just below the summit on the Emmons Glacier.

I called to reverse the rope team, with the hopes that Sam could route find with some verbal help from the rear and set his own tempo. The modification worked and our fluidity as a team seemed to increase.

Not long after, we had descended the 5,000 vertical feet to Schurman camp. Shortly after that we surmounted the final snow section of the route, the Inter Glacier. Greeted by near whiteout fog conditions we continued downhill following a well trodden path through the snow. After a few minutes, we encountered a glissade track and hopped aboard, still roped up as a trio.

We hollard aloud as we slid nearly 2,000 feet down the mountain to the end of the snow in Glacier Basin.

Where dirt met snow we picked up the Glacier Basin Trail. We refilled water, and traded our mountaineering boots for trailrunners. We still had 5.5 miles of trail to cover before reaching White River Trailhead and running in mountain boots is a quick way to beat up your feet, especially with 120 miles still left in the adventure.

We ran the gentle downhill grade almost the entire way down. The heavy “mountain” packs were noticeable, but we enjoyed the quicker tempo. It took us 3 hours and 55 minutes for the entire descent and we came running into White River trailhead at 3:02PM

The three of us were feeling good when we entered White River. Even though we had a very long way to go, it was nice knowing one of the Rainier climbs had been put to rest. As soon as we reached White River Camp, we located our gear cache at Campsite D17. We opened the various duffle bags full of our gear and supplies, making  a concerted effort to consume a good amount of calories and hydrate right away. We then stashed our first mountain kits in the depths of the duffles and grabbed everything we would need for the “short” run section, including our food and electrolytes for the trail which we had calculated and packaged separately for each leg of the Infinity Loop.

I’m typically very strict with eating during endurance events, consuming 200 calories every hour for long endeavors such as this. Sam and Erik also followed this plan, making sleep deprived fueling reminders drastically easier. I also carried 2x Salt Stick Electrolyte Pills per hour, but consumed these based on feel.

After hydrating, changing into running gear and starting off down the Wonderland Trail, 43 minutes had passed.


Leg 2: Tuesday July 10th, 2018 3:45:53 PM  

We were 5 miles into run when I yelled back to Erik and Sam. “Having only run what we’ve seen, if you were to tell me that the Wonderland trail was rugged, I’d think you were insane.”

The next part of our journey would take us down a 30 mile section of the Wonderland Trail, traveling clockwise towards Paradise trailhead. The first few miles were soft and mild. The pine needles on the trail cushioned each step, and it didn’t seem like we were gaining much elevation at all. We continued running and chatting into the late afternoon and early evening.

Then we began to climb.

 Myself and Erik overlooking Rainier National Park from the "short" section of the Wonderland Trail.

Myself and Erik overlooking Rainier National Park from the "short" section of the Wonderland Trail.

We power hiked the switchbacks that took us above tree-line.  Beautiful alpine landscapes were now in view and I vowed to myself that I’d take Jenny and Avery backpacking here soon.

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 Enjoying the incredible Wonderland Trail as the sun begins to set.

Enjoying the incredible Wonderland Trail as the sun begins to set.

Breaking into the alpine we observed evidence of rockfall from a cliff above that recently exfoliated. What was was left on the rock face seemed to be a very clear "smiley face." We joked that the mountain was telling us to “have a nice day” as we trudged on.

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The trail was rugged, often covered by snow. Our feet were soaked and as night fell, we often struggled to see exactly where the trail was heading.

When the sun set, I settled into the caboose position thinking our pace was too strong. I struggled to run the flats and rollers. In part because my body felt tired, heavy and banged up. I felt more fatigued than I thought that I should. Considering that we still had a hundred miler, and another summit of Mt, Rainier ahead of us I began to worry about my body and making sure it would hold up and see this thing through.

In 2014, I attempted the famous Nolans 14 with Brandon Worthington.  At the time I had just finished the Leadman Series, I had run more than I ever had before and felt I was in the the best endurance shape of my life.  I thought running injuries were excuses from people who couldn’t handle the pain. I was wrong. Atop the first summit of the day, a shooting pain in my leg came out of nowhere. I thought I had torn something. I hobbled through a few more 14’ers with Brandon before finally calling it quits at Cloesy Lake, knowing there was no way I would finish the remaining peaks within the 60 hours window. I handed Brandon our SPOT tracker, and watched him blaze over peaks, making up time I had cost us to finish in under 60 Hours.  It turns out that the year’s training had finally caught up to me, and I had a nice little case of IT Band Syndrome.

That was my first “DNF,” but it weighed heavily on my mind as the three of us grinded through the night. I truly knew how important the Infinity Loop was to me, but I felt rode hard and hung up wet.  “Are we going too hard?”

 Hobbling behind Brandon Worthington during my failed Nolan's 14 attempt in 2014. 

Hobbling behind Brandon Worthington during my failed Nolan's 14 attempt in 2014. 

I know what it takes to get these things done. Eat. Move. Drink. Move. Repeat. However I also believe that you should try and keep your body feeling stable until you are 60% finished, then it’s time to bang. I could hear Sam and Erik chatting and sharing life stories up front, while I bided my time silently in the hurt locker. With less than 30 miles into the adventure, I had been in the dark place for the last 4 hours. I took 3x salt pills and chewed two pieces of military grade caffeine gum that Sam brought. It took a mile or so to set in, but on the final climb to Paradise, Sam and Erik had ceased their conversation about all things life and I finally felt a little pep in my step. I was excited to feel the snow underneath my crampons, and I looked forward to methodical, steady movement up the mountain into thinning air - to me, it’s a comfortable place and it beats pounding trails any day.

There was no talking for the last mile as we approached the Paradise trailhead. It was 12:52am The witching hour had arrived, and I was chilled. I looked forward to the stove and some hot foods. We climbed the final steps to the pavement at Paradise and walked over to our black Dodge minivan.

We turned on the van, blasted the heat and climbed in. We sat in silence for a few minutes, then slowly started eating and drinking. I fired up the JetBoil stove. We sat in the dark heated van for a few minutes. All I could hear was the sound of Erik, Sam and myself eating and the sound of gulping liquids - a sign of experienced endurance partners. You may be cold. You may not feel great. But not refueling is one of the worst things you can do and both Sam and Erik knew that. The sounds of eating are the sounds of experience.

“I think it’s not the smartest thing for me to go back up the mountain right now,” Sam said to me as we sat in the darkness of the van.

At first, Erik and I tried to convince him to head back up Rainer with us for the second lap, but then I realized that he was making the right choice. Mt. Rainier is a big mountain, with big mountain terrain and big consequences - not the best environment for anyone after being on the go for 18 hours straight, let alone one with very limited snow climbing experience. Sam really wanted to be part of the Infinity Loop, and wanted to do the final section of the Wonderland Trail as well, but he stayed in the van. After 2 hours and 7 minutes,  Erik and I shouldered our packs.

 Myself and Erik Sanders ready to tackle the 2nd Rainier Summit in 24 hours, this time without Sam.

Myself and Erik Sanders ready to tackle the 2nd Rainier Summit in 24 hours, this time without Sam.


Leg 3: Wednesday July 11th, 2018 2:59:22 AM

We stood on the John Muir Steps for the second time, tightening the straps on our packs ready to trudge back up Tahoma. Erik was silent. Moments later he doubled-over and vomited all over the steps. All his work to rehydrate and fuel had just been for naught. I asked him if he was ok, he quickly bent over again and puked.

He stood up, wiped his mouth and smiled. “I feel much better now.”

 Mt. Rainier's Pyramid Shadow as seen from the approach to Camp Muir during our 2nd ascent in 24 hours.

Mt. Rainier's Pyramid Shadow as seen from the approach to Camp Muir during our 2nd ascent in 24 hours.

We started up the Skyline Trail at a good pace. The movement made us both feel better. We stopped frequently in the darkness to make sure we didn’t miss the turn off towards Pebble Creek.

After 3 hours, we reached Muir Camp. No one was up and about, except for one lone client horking down an American Spirits cigarette. My lungs were tired and that was the last thing I expected to experience high on the mountain.

As we approached the Cleaver we crossed paths with a guided party from Alpine Ascents International, as the guide running point got closer, I identified that big smile and knew it was Eddie Schoen. It was nice seeing Eddie on the mountain, we chatted briefly and he let me know that icefall section just up ahead was still active and that there was a very close call earlier that morning.

We moved through the Cleaver and then roped up. We rested here. Within the next hundred yards we would encounter terrain full of objective hazard, likely the most dangerous part of the entire mountain.

“Ready, Go!” I yelled to Erik tethered to me 20 meters away. We scrambled up, over and around massive ice blocks that had just fallen earlier that morning. When we reached the other side we took a break then continued up the mountain, passing fewer and fewer parties into the mid-morning heat.

Eight Hours and 10 minutes after Erik puked all over the Muir steps, we stood atop the summit of Mt. Rainier for the second time in 24 hours. It was warming quickly, and Erik and I were eager to get off the Emmons glacier.

 Standing on the summit for the 2nd time with Erik Sanders. This ascent took us 8 hours.

Standing on the summit for the 2nd time with Erik Sanders. This ascent took us 8 hours.

We moved together in-sync off the crater rim, navigating around the bergschrund guarding the summit to the North. My crampons were balling up with snow so I would whack them with my ice axe every few steps to clear them. On one particular stroke to clear the snow, I bashed the crampon right off my foot on the steepest part of the Emmons Route. The impact from the ice axe on my crampon had snapped the metal toe bail in half, rendering them useless. I asked Erik for a ski strap, and grabbed one of my longer prusik loops. Ten minutes later, I once again had foot traction. I went first, reminding Erik that he needed to be head’s up on the back of the rope team, should my DIY crampon strap fail.

The crampon incident slowed our pace, but probably for the best. The warming conditions present on the mountain had us moving carefully as we descended the 5,000 vertical feet towards Schurman camp, taking extra time to probe the snow with my ice axe looking for weakened snow bridges masking the dangerous crevasses below.  

We didn’t see anyone on the entire Emmons glacier above Schurman camp. It was eerie, but when we marched into camp we were greeted by several folks who were aware of our adventure. The warm greetings boosted my energy. We exchanged a few high fives then continued down to the Inter Glacier.

 Descending the Emmons glacier again, this time with one fully functioning crampon.

Descending the Emmons glacier again, this time with one fully functioning crampon.

This time, the sun was out and route finding was much easier.  After a little searching, we located the glissade track and rode it down all the way to the valley floor where the Glacier Basin trail can be intersected.

Once again we drank water from the creek using our Katadyn Filter bottles that Scott had recommended to us, and changed from mountain boots into light trail runners. We talked about timing and how much sleep we should try to get when we reached White River.

We ran down from treeline and I enjoyed the movement, knowing it was the last time during this adventure I would be wearing my “heavy pack.”

Once we got to within a half-mile of the White River trailhead, we were greeted by Sam, my wife Jenny and daughter Avery! It was great to see them and after 12 hours and 30 minutes on Rainier and I was excited that we had reached our final transition point.

 Surprise visit from Jenny and Avery at White River

Surprise visit from Jenny and Avery at White River

We jogged into camp, ate some food and hydrated. We wanted to capitalize on sleep so we set aside 3 hours and crawled into our tent. It was 3:30PM and although we’d been awake for 30+ hours, sleep was a challenge. Erik is pretty sure he got at least an hour, but I’m not sure I managed more than 15 minutes or so. After tossing and turning for about 2 hours, Erik and I agreed to get up and start getting ready for the final leg. I loaded my Ultimate Direction Adventure Vest with a headlamp, a few light layers of clothing and 6,000 calories worth of food. My nutrition consisted mostly of Clif Bar shot blocks, with some Lara Bars and the occasional snickers bar to mix things up.

Sam was bummed to have foregone the 2nd summit of Rainier, but was excited at the prospect of summiting Mt. Rainier and running the Wonderland Trail in the same weekend. The three of us left White River Trailhead for the last time after being there for 4:10:45.


 Erik and Sam ready to tackle the remaining 67 miles of the Wonderland Trail at Sunset.

Erik and Sam ready to tackle the remaining 67 miles of the Wonderland Trail at Sunset.

Leg 4: Wednesday July 11th, 2018 7:40:13PM

Heading counter-clockwise on the final 67 mile section of the Wonderland Trail we marched up rising switchbacks. I instantly felt better than the last time I was on the wonderland trail. I’m not sure if it was the 4 hour break, or the fact that we had just entered the final section of the Rainier Infinity Loop and I knew, no matter how long it took, I would return to Paradise on foot.

We moved strong during that first uphill. It felt good to have a light pack, moving through terrain that I now felt a close connection to. As we crested into the Sunrise section of the Wonderland trail the sun was beginning to set. We ran the rolling alpine trails with a glowing Mt. Rainier in the background, stopping to take pictures of what was maybe the first time we knew for certain that the Rainier Infinity Loop was going down.

 Incredible alpine running kicked off our final leg of the Rainier Infinity Loop

Incredible alpine running kicked off our final leg of the Rainier Infinity Loop

With still a 100K ahead of us, we began a long descent into the night. After nearly tripping several times, we stopped to turn on our headlamps. Our downhill pace increased as we ran down the switch backs.

We didn’t talk much about our projected arrival at Paradise, we just kept moving together at a pace I was excited by. We hiked the ups, or as Erik called it “mall walking,” ran the downs hard, and were able to consistently run the flats and rollers.

This entire section seemed to fly by, at least much faster than the first section of Wonderland Trail that seemed to drag on forever. I never wanted to know our distance, I just liked to know how long I needed to push for. I knew we had a maximum of 24 hours left. “1 Day, you can do anything for 1 day” I yelled out to the guys - joking about the exercise mantra that you can do anything for 1 minute.

We moved through the night really well, it almost felt like 100 mile race pace and we were having a blast. We pushed the pace, but still made time to have memorable conversations about topics like African Ant-Killing zombie fungai, David Goggins, Gary Robbins, and the iguana vs. snake army episode on Planet Earth, among other things.

As we tackled one of the bigger continual climbs on the Wonderland Trail we witnessed the glowing green eyes of a mother black bear and a cub near the top of Ipset pass. From the top of the pass, we ran hard all the way down to the South Mowich River.

We continued moving great through the night. At the first inkling of usable light we hit the most challenging river crossing of the trip. A series of cairns led us to what seemed to be a dead end. We finally agreed to cross a series of unstable logs, barley staying dry in the process. It was challenging with our skimpy running vests and we joked about the poor backpackers with 60lb packs trying to repeat what we had done.

 One of the more challenging river crossings

One of the more challenging river crossings

We climbed out of the river bed into some of the lushest, most green forests I’ve seen in a long time. Head’s down, we marched up switchbacks for what seemed like forever. I started to fall behind, and Sam stopped on the trail ahead, letting me pass him. Throughout the night, we came up with a plan that if someone was dragging they went into the #2 position, also known as the penalty box.

I scarfed down some salt and caffeine and only had to spend a short time in the penalty box before I was firing on all cylinders again.

For the next several miles, it seemed we were repeating a process of big climbs and big descents, all of which we managed to complete at a good pace.

It was mid day, and we knew we only had 2 climbs and one big descent left. I was excited and the steep climbs and steep descents felt good. It was the rolling terrain that was becoming increasingly challenging to run.

We reached the last big descent that starts from Klapatche Park and goes 6 miles down to Longmire. Excited for another hammering descent, I took my trekking poles and affixed them to my vest. A short downhill later, I was faced with another uphill. After a few more encounters with the rolling ups and downs, I re-deployed my trekking poles.

The personality of this section would continue with rolling down terrain; thus far the hardest part of this final section. Pressing these rollers on legs full of 130 miles and 45,000 feet of climbing was challenging. We were 2 miles out from Longmire, and the terrain finally shifted to a straight down hill descent.  

There’s a saying in ultra running: “When it hurts to run, walk. When it hurts to walk, run.” We’d reached that point and were hammering the downs in silence hoping to numb our legs and feet with the increased pounding. The trail spit us out at the Nisqually River and the Longmire Trailhead. The final grueling descent was over.

All that was left was 3 miles of rolling up, to a final steep 2,000 foot climb to Paradise. I asked Sam to calculate our time, as his “trail math” is far better than mine. We all knew that the Rainier Infinity could be done in under 60 hours, but could Erik and I pull it off? We were out of water, and needed to average 2 miles per hour to come in under our goal time.  

We ran the rollers to the base of the final climb. Passing a creek, we refilled our bottles quickly and tried to rehydrate.

After completing the Wonderland Trail, we turned uphill and marched on up Narada Falls trail. The magnitude of the adventure was starting to set in, and my legs were starting to feel it.

We were ½ mile out and the passing tourist gave us some interesting looks.

We hit the pavement of the Paradise Trailhead and Erik and I broke into a poor looking run, known better as "the ultra shuffle." We shuffled across the parking lot, passing the hundreds of tourist taking pictures of Mt. Rainier.

We stood atop the John Muir Steps for the 3rd and final time of this trip after 59hours 21minutes 7seconds, shaving 7 hours off the previous speed record. Experiencing the Rainier Infinity Loop for myself was one of my most memorable and challenging adventures. While I will never get the opportunity to meet Chad, through his dream he has shifted my perspective of what is possible in the mountains and I am thankful for his influence.

IMG_5254.JPG
 We used a Garmin InReach Device to track our progress

We used a Garmin InReach Device to track our progress

 

 

*When Erik and I completed the self-supported route on Thursday July 12, 2018, we took 59 Hours, 21 Minutes and 7 Seconds from the John Muir Steps to the John Muir Steps at Paradise.  Here is a link to our GPS Data. If you are interested in analyzing it down further, here is the breakdown of our splits during the Rainier Infinity Loop:

Start: Tuesday July 10th, 2018 @ 5:01AM

Leg 1 - Mt. Rainier (Up DC, Down Emmons) 10:01:07

Base to Summit 6:05:40

Summit to White River TH 3:55:07

Transition 1 @ White River Campground 00:43:39

Leg 2 - Wonderland Trail Short Section 9:06:19

Transition 2 @ Paradise: 2:07:11

Leg 3 - Mt. Rainier (Up DC, Down Emmons) 12:30:06

Base to Summit 8:10:42

Summit to White River TH 4:19:21

Transition 3 @ White River Campground 4:10:45

Leg 4 - Wonderland Trail Long Section 20:42

Time on Wonderland Trail 29:48:19

Time on Mt. Rainier 22:31:13

Total Transition/Down Time: 07:01:35

 

***To see my complete gear list, click here.

 

How I Tricked My Sister Into Running A 50K...

…and 5 tips for running an ultra marathon.

Although I wouldn't be caught dead calling myself a runner, a few years ago I signed up for an ultra trail race. I was a little nervous; as a former football player and self-proclaimed MOG (man of girth) I was under the impression that only gazelle-like humans should be signing up for races of this nature.  At the time, I’d never (and still haven’t) run an official road marathon, and I knew I’d really need to get focused. So I immediately signed up for a few trail races that would, in theory, help me reach my running goals for the year.

I trained hard for my first 50K in April of  2012.  The race went well and I learned a whole lot that day. Now, less than 2 year later I managed to somehow still be running ultras and I decided that I should finally convince my sister to sign up for her first 50K Trail Race. I did this by writing her a training program and offering to help advise her as she takes on this goal. My advice to her is below, in the form of 5 tips to help her (and now you!) finish and enjoy a 50K trail race.

  Runners battle up a steep section of bedrock late in the day during the Headless Horsetooth 50k

Runners battle up a steep section of bedrock late in the day during the Headless Horsetooth 50k

 

 

1. RUN YOUR OWN RACE

You’ve probably heard it before and you’re going to hear it again, but undoubtedly, without feats of incredible discipline you will be excited and anxious at the starting line. The gun goes off and you feel like a rabid honey badger. You start passing runners, weaving through traffic cursing the fact that you started so far back, fighting to seed yourself among the many other runners in the singletrack conga line.

You’re nervous because 33 feet from the starting line your Garmin GPS watch is telling you that you’re on pace for a 19 hour finish so you start passing people, and eventually your ego and lack of experience take the reins.  You’re jamming stride-for-stride with some ultra-runner stud through the beautiful rolling trails. This snowball gains momentum for about 17-20 miles until you’ve realized you’ve just made a big mistake. Your calves have seized, your feet are hamburger and you’re thinking negative thoughts that even Tony Robbins couldn’t reverse.  You must now resort to the all-too-often seen “ultra shuffle” with 11 miles of misery to overcome. You’re in survival mode. Welcome to the pain cave.

The good news is that none of this needs to happen: Don’t let your ego or race pressures dictate your pace.  Go into your first few races with a plan.  Running by “feel” is much more difficult when you’re new to ultras.  I would strongly recommend wearing a watch and sticking true to a pre-determined pace that you have proven to be realistic given your training and preparation for the 50K.  Your body and mind will thank you as the race progresses and you will know late in the race (mile 29 or so) if you have extra juice left in the tank to burn.

  A pack of runners logging some early miles on the Headless Horsetooth 50K course.

A pack of runners logging some early miles on the Headless Horsetooth 50K course.

 

2. NUTRITION PLAYS A MASSIVE ROLE IN ULTRA SUCCESS

You’ve trained hard, you’re feeling strong and you’re following an efficient pacing strategy to a T.  You’re a well-oiled-ultra-machine, but with all feats of endurance, you need fuel to preform.  This is another unfortunate cause of many DNF’s (Did Not Finish) or painful ultra sufferfests.  To run an ultra, you burn an incredible amount of energy.  It takes training and discipline to run the race well hydrated and well nourished.

I remember the first time I found the real value in proper and proactive fueling. I was running a trail race fast & furious with a pack of about 7 other runners.  We hit the first aid station 8 miles in, and I was the lone runner that veered off to check out the delicious assortment of trail treats.  I felt like the fat kid at a super buffet and doubted my decision to derail and lose momentum from the running pack.  I stuck to my fueling plan, scarfed down a few fig newtons and half a PB&J sandwich and continued on.  I ran the entire race this way, methodically eating and drinking on a set schedule, regardless if I “felt like eating” or not. I ended up passing every single person in that running train many miles later.

When I ran the Headless Horsetooth 50K, I burned 6,391 calories during the race. That’s a whole lotta GU’s! Running nutrition is an entire blog entry in itself, but it’s incredibly important that you figure out what types of things you enjoy consuming during a race and are diligent about fueling. It significantly affects how your body and mind feel during and after the race.

3. THE ULTRA COMMUNITY IS AMAZING

I knew what the typical road race and triathlon crowds were like, but the ultra-community is a completely different animal.  Maybe it’s the nature or humility of an ultra-race; nipple band-aids, a well-greased undercarriage and the occasional trail-side squat are just a few common occurrences at any ultra. You will meet some incredibly interesting, modest and talented people during your race. The community is tight-knit, and everyone genuinely hopes that you will have a successful day(s) on the trails! Use the energy and encouragement of your fellow runners – you’re all out there together working towards that common goal of getting to the finish line.

4. NOT ALL PAIN IS SIGNIFICANT

Pain is weakness leaving the body.  Well, maybe, but sometimes when you’re running an ultra, you might feel like your entire body is made up of weakness. Running in general has an awful reputation with injuries that I think a lot of people are very sensitive to, and with good reason.  We run because it’s fun, keeps us healthy, and we enjoy the challenge – so there’s no use in being sidelined due to a lasting injury.

  16 miles in, a few runners reach the summit of the Headless Horsetooth 50k, and the half-way point.

16 miles in, a few runners reach the summit of the Headless Horsetooth 50k, and the half-way point.

 

However pain and injuries are two very different things: It’s almost guaranteed that you will, at some point, become “uncomfortable” during the course of an ultra.  It may be a blister from running through a stream-crossing, the strained groin from slipping on that patch of ice, indescribable chaffing or that fussy__________(insert joint) that won’t seem to stop nagging you. It’s up to you as a runner to determine ahead of time what the race is worth to you, and what you are physically and emotionally willing to endure to reach the finish line.

With anywhere from 5-10 hours of trail time for a 50K, you do a lot of thinking.  Sometimes a little too much and it’s easy to over analyze every little thing that your body is doing or trying to tell you. It’s easy to just say “I’m going to listen to my body” but that’s not going to cut it, at least until you have a few races under your belt.  For most people running their first 50K; 31.0686 Miles is the furthest distance their bodies will have travelled at one time. Because of this, it is common that you will feel some discomfort from various body parts during the race.  The way I determine significant pain or ultra-discomfort is the 10 minute rule.

This obviously does not apply to issues like a blister or chafing that can be instantly resolved with a strip of duct tape and a handful of Vaseline – but when it comes to that tweaky knee or sore hip, continue running.  Make sure you are well hydrated and properly fueled, then glance at your watch.  Run for 10 minutes. Chances are that fuel you just took will kick in, and after three minutes you will have forgotten about what was hurting you.

  Mindset goes a long way: Air guitar on tope of Hope Pass during the 2012 Leadville 100.

Mindset goes a long way: Air guitar on tope of Hope Pass during the 2012 Leadville 100.

 

If that’s not the case, slow down, stretch, and re-evaluate the pain for 10 more minutes of forward movement.  If after 20 plus minutes things aren’t getting any better, then you need to determine if the pain is your body telling you that something is really wrong and you are creating irreversible damage, or you’re just experiencing a “standard” ultra-marathon experience.  Welcome to the club.

Ultimately it’s up to you as the runner to determine what “real” pain is, but I have found those precious 10 minutes have ruled out many issues, and won’t allow my mind to get too caught up in typical race pains. I’ve usually completely forgot about it after a few minutes because I’ve allowed my mind to move on.

5. MINDSET

Humans are incredibly powerful machines. We are genetically designed to run and travel great distances at one time; it’s just a matter of re-training our body and mind to do so – and to do so efficiently.  The MOST Important piece of advice for running, and more importantly enjoying your first 50K is to have a positive attitude and mindset.  Take obstacles as they come, and embrace them as part of the ultra-experience.  We run these distances to challenge ourselves mentally and physically and the sooner you embrace the experience, the more you will enjoy it.

With long races, your mindset can be drastically affected by your race strategy and nutrition.  One little negative thought and you could spiral down back into the black hole of self-wallowing. Don’t allow it.  My first 50K was hard.  I had a few visits to the pain cave that took me a while to escape.  However after a few races under my belt I have run much longer distances and truly enjoyed every step of the experience.  Attitude is a huge dictating force in your ultramarathon experience, and I didn’t realize how powerful my mindset affected me in my first few races.

  You won’t find a ticker tape parade at any ultras – most post-race award ceremonies consist of war stories, good beer, and great friends.

You won’t find a ticker tape parade at any ultras – most post-race award ceremonies consist of war stories, good beer, and great friends.


The Headless Horsetooth 50K went great. I ran those 50 kilometers as closely through the eyes of my sister, trying to pinpoint the most challenging parts of the day, and translating them to advice that will hopefully aid in her success come June. As with all ultra-races, you can plan as much as you want but nature and your body will undoubtedly throw you a curveball…or five.  Even after participating in ultras for a few years, I’m always learning new things. Start with these five tips. Take the race in stride, one step at a time, relentlessly moving forward.






*This was one of my first blog posts ever that was originally published on Gociety.com. I thought this bit of writing has been relevant to several of my friends taking on thier first ultra, so I wanted to post here as well