Give up or try again? Hear from Mark Hammond on his attempt at an unsupported, counter-clockwise FKT on the Wonderland Trail, a 93-mile trail that circumnavigates Mount Rainier in Washington.
When one door closes, another one opens. One silver lining of so many races being canceled due to the pandemic is that many runners, including me, have turned their attention to setting fastest known times (FKT). Records are being broken at an unprecedented frequency. Ever since I skied Rainier several years ago, the Wonderland Trail has been at the top of my FKT bucket list. That mountain is too amazing to visit just once. The trail spans 93 miles and gains about a 25,000 vert as it loops around Mt. Rainier. It’s regarded by many to be one of the world’s best trails. The FKT website includes this trail in its list of the top 10 “Premier” trails in America for attempting FKTs. Some of the trail is in alpine terrain, so it’s only runnable during the summer.
Deciding when to attempt the FKT was a bit tricky. The snowpack there was unusually large this year and a few bridges had been knocked out by the excess snowmelt, so I was told I would have to wait till August for the trail to be in “FKT shape”. My highest priority was being ready for Run Rabbit Run 100 in mid-September, so I wasn’t willing to delay doing Wonderland so much that it interfered with my preparation for that race. I decided to go for Wonderland on the first weekend in August despite knowing some of the alpine sections of the trail would still be snowy.
On August 1st around 5 a.m., I began my attempt to beat the supported FKT which was 18:27 set by Ryan Ghelfi in 2018. My friends Dan Noakes and Kurt Daniels were there to support me at the trailheads, but I would run nearly the whole trail alone. To keep with tradition and have Ryan’s splits to follow, I started running clockwise from the town of Longmire. After a few minutes of running I passed a woman who was also attempting an FKT and her pacer. Most of the trail is excellent singletrack in the forest and some sections are moderately technical. The places where the trail emerges from the forest to give views of Rainier are absolutely glorious! I had to stop a few times just to marvel at the mountain.
Some of the river crossings gave me trouble. The first one wasn’t well marked so I followed some flags in the wrong direction and wandered around for about 5 minutes untill I found cairns going the right way. The bridge at the next crossing was underwater, so I went downstream to cross on a log. Probably lost another 5 minutes doing that.
I was amazed by how many stream crossings there are. So. Much. Water! There was never a need to have more than one 18-oz bottle. With all that water comes the flowers, those dazzling flowers. They were certainly the best I’ve ever seen. It was a struggle to keep my eyes on the trail and not get too distracted by the scenery.
Around mile 30, as I descended to the Mowich River, it was clear to me that I hadn’t tapered for the run as well as I should have. My legs just didn’t feel as good as they usually do that early in a big run. I should mention that I had climbed and descended nearly a 10,000 vert by that point, and I was a little ahead of FKT pace, but I still should have felt better than I did. The reason I didn’t taper well is that I didn’t decide to use poles for the run until about 2 weeks before, so I did a bunch of training with poles that I think did more harm than good. Essentially, I “crammed for the exam” enough to wear myself out but not enough to be really effective with poles. I honestly don’t like using poles for running but I couldn’t ignore the fact that both Ryan Ghelfi and Gary Robbins used them to set FKTs on that trail (Dylan Bowman and Tyler Green also used them to set FKTs there a few weeks later). I’m still not convinced that poles give a significant advantage in ultras except those with over 30,000 feet of vert, like UTMB and Hardrock. Poles allow you to take some of the pressure off your legs on steep climbs, but the catch is that you burn more energy using them than without them. I now think the Wonderland Trail only has a few climbs steep enough for poles to give a significant advantage. Ideally, you should have a pacer carry them until you really need them.
I arrived at Mowich Lake (mile 34) at 6:40, which was about 10 minutes ahead of FKT pace. This was my first “aid station” where I could restock on gels. Dan and Kurt had cooked some bacon for me, but I didn’t dare eat it during a hard effort! Such a shame to pass up bacon. I then headed over to Ipsut Pass and down to the Carbon River Rainforest. From there, the trail does one of its biggest climbs along the Carbon Glacier. It’s an impressive contrast to go from rainforest to glacier in just a few miles! I found myself hiking sections I knew I should be running so I wasn’t too surprised to learn I was 20 minutes behind FKT pace when I met my crew at White River (mile 62). There were about 30 miles remaining, so I knew I there was plenty of opportunity to make up time.
The next climb was one of the biggest on the trail; a nearly 3,000-foot vert up to Panhandle Gap. The climb went ok for me, but soon after the Gap, I ran into all the snow I was warned about. I saw tracks going in different directions, so I just had to take my best guess in certain spots. I kept thinking the trail would drop elevation out of the snow as soon as I got over the next ridge, but alas, the snowfields just kept coming. The snow had been in the shade for several hours, so it was firm, and I had to really slow down to avoid slipping and sliding down. I knew whatever time I made up on the last climb was quickly being lost on this section. When I finally started descending out of the snow to Indian Bar, I knew the FKT was likely out of reach.
Dusk settled in as I continued to grind through the undulating Cowlitz Ridge. The climbs on this ridge don’t look very impressive on a map, but they are steep and sure do pack a punch. I was desperate to get to the big descent down to Box Canyon where I could see my crew again. It was totally dark when I started descending and the FKT was certainly out of reach.
At Box Canyon (mile 80) I could see Dan and Kurt were disappointed that I was almost an hour behind schedule, but they did their best to keep me going anyway. There were13 miles and about 1,500 of vert remaining. Something about running in the dark at the end of the long day makes everything seem twice as far and tall as it really is. I could have sworn that final climb to Reflection Lakes was a 3,000 vert! I was really unfocused on that climb and walked a lot where I really should have been running. Night running on technical terrain has always been one of my weaknesses in this sport, especially when I don’t have competitors nearby.
At Reflection Lakes I met my crew for the last time in the run and Dan joined me for the final 6-mile descent to Longmire. I completed the loop in 19:50, which was the 3rd fastest time for that trail. Although I missed my goal, I was still grateful to have the experience. I wasn’t nearly as sore as I usually am after a good performance, so I knew I could do much better than that. My training had too much vert (up to 35k per week and a lot of it was hiking) so I should have focused on more runnable grades. In other words, I should have trained more like I have for Western States rather than UTMB.
On the drive home I was already thinking of when I could go back to the Wonderland for another try. I thought it would be next year until I heard that Run Rabbit Run 100 was canceled. So I went back a month later, on Labor Day weekend, for round two. I wanted more time to recover and prepare but it turned out that was my last opportunity of the year.
I decided to run counterclockwise on my second try to see some sections in daylight that I had run in darkness and to admire Rainier from different angles. Just out of curiosity, I also started on the other side of the mountain at Frying Pan Creek. This time I didn’t have a crew, so I was chasing the unsupported FKT (20:39) which Kris Brown set a week prior.
I started at 2:30 am hoping I could finish around dusk and avoid too much night running. Because I was going for the unsupported FKT, I had to carry all my food (4,500 calories) for the whole run (caching supplies isn’t allowed for that category). I also carried a GoPro to better capture the experience.
Around dawn, I rolled my ankle quite hard twice and it took a while to run decently again. Consequently, my stride was a bit off for the rest of the run. Another setback was finding some creeks had dried over the past month and having to go much longer without water (and getting calories from my drink mix) than I was ready for. This led to a couple hard bonks throughout the run.
Around dusk, I arrived at Indian Bar and had 9 miles to go. I ran many of the climbs until that point but the final one up to Panhandle Gap was a big struggle with little running. Once again it was hard to stay focused on pushing hard in the dark on somewhat technical terrain. My stomach was giving me trouble because I had run out of my favorite spring drink mix and was using a mix that I clearly hadn’t trained with enough. Then during the final 4 miles, my headlamp faded significantly (I neglected to bring extra batteries) which forced me to slow down more. So it was a big relief to pop out of the woods and see my car again. I finished the loop in 19:47 to claim the unsupported FKT. I know there is plenty of room for improvement in that FKT, so I hope to go back next year to improve it.
I wore the Altra Duo 1.5 for both of my runs on the Wonderland Trail (and most of my ultras for the past few years). Although those shoes are designed for roads, I find they do very well on trails unless the trail is extremely slippery. The reason I like them so much is they have max cushion but only weigh 8 ounces.
Someone once wrote, “There’s a certain illogical attraction to running. It hurts but it feels good. It breaks down, but it heals. It serves no purpose, yet it means so much.” With all that’s going on in the world lately, chasing FKTs can seem especially trivial and vain. Is there any real value to this game or is it merely a way to boost your ego? Surely many people would be healthier and happier if they spent more time being active in the outdoors. The FKT game has certainly motivated many people to do that. This game should ideally be seen as a team effort in which we do our best to raise the bar and inspire others to raise it higher. This pursuit of excellence can make us better in many aspects of our lives.
Mark Hammond is a professional runner and member of the Altra Elite Athlete Team. You can see more of Mark's adventures on his Instagram.