Alex in Wonderland | Loneliness, Hallucinations, and Failure around Mt. Rainier
PATH projects KREW member Alex Barkley is no stranger to Fastest Known Time attempts, with several FKT's to his name such as Flagstaff Fearsome Four (AZ) and The Boy Scout Trail at Joshua Tree NP (CA).
The Wonderland trail (WA) is a viciously beautiful trail that circumnavigates Mount Rainier in 93 miles with 22,000ft of elevation change. Recently Alex Barkley attempted to break the unsupported Wonderland FKT. Sometimes things go according to plan and sometimes you experience many challenges along the way.
Below is a guest post by Alex about his FKT attempt.
As the sun began to rise, I rinsed the blood off my elbow and watched it trickle down an unnamed stream along with my dreams of setting a new unsupported speed record on the Wonderland trail. So far I had only run 20 miles and enough had already gone wrong I could fill a small book with excuses. I lay there alone feeling embarrassed, angry, confused, and above all else selfish. So much had gone into this and so many people have helped me along the way, this wasn’t how I had envisioned this day which I had looked forward to for years.
The Wonderland is a viciously beautiful trail that circumnavigates Rainier in 93 miles with 22,000ft of elevation change. It was originally created in 1915 for park rangers to access more sections of the park by foot. Shortly after its creation, the Mountaineers Club of Seattle became the first group to hike the trail in its entirety, taking around 3 weeks to complete and marking future camp grounds with triangle aluminum plates. By 1920 the trail had been improved and rerouted to include more scenic terrain. It began attracting recreational adventurers and the NPS began a marketing campaign declaring the New Wonderland Trail as “The most glorious trip in the World”.
Growing up in Seattle I had a topographic map of Mt. Rainier on my wall. Every night before falling asleep I would imagine myself flying up the mountains steep trails, climbing up prehistoric glaciers, or fording massive rivers. Summer weekends as a teenager were spent exploring the trails around the mountain, often the Wonderland itself. My Dad and I always had planned on doing the full circumnavigation in one push but never seemed to get around to it. Once I found trail/ultra running, I knew this was eventually going to be my biggest goal.
I now live in Flagstaff, AZ and trips to the Pacific Northwest are few and far between. When all of my races for the year were cancelled due to COVID it was clear I was going to need a new project to obsess over to keep me sane. Originally I thought next year would be the year for the Wonderland. I am still yet to have run over 70 miles and Rainier’s brutal terrain is no joke. But hey, sometimes you just have to go for it. My training had been going well, the trail/weather conditions were looking ideal, and my fiancé Jenny and I were going to be making the drive up to Bellingham, WA for her sister’s wedding. What a great opportunity to sneak in a quick FKT on the Wonderland!
How our schedule panned out, my only real chance to go for the record would be Friday morning. With a wedding in Bellingham Thursday night, it was going to be a squeeze. We drove back from the wedding, I dropped Jenny off in Seattle. As we said our goodbyes I could tell she was worried and had a bad feeling about the run. She has a powerful intuition and ability to tell when something isn’t going to end well and I knew she wanted to say something. But she knew how much this meant to me so she only hugged me and wished me the best.
I drove the two hour drive from Seattle to the Longmire Visitor Center. By 1:30AM I had all of my gear in order and I was starting to feel the nerves. While it was easy to second guess myself, I was about as prepared as I could have been all things considered. I had a good idea of where the more challenging sections were going to be, I had a great taper leading up to the day, my nutrition plan was solid and well tested, I was familiar and happy with all my gear (especially my PATH shorts ☺). But running 93 mile alone is freaking scary! I tried to close my eyes and catch some Z’s, but I knew it was a lost cause. I rolled out of my car and started quadruple checking everything. At 3:00AM I took a really weird selfie at the Wonderland sign and started my attempt.
The First 34 miles contain about half the elevation change for the whole route, so my plan was to go out smooth and conservatively, then run the “easier” section with whatever I had left. I was staying true to my plan and kept things easy as I jogged through the dark. On the first river crossing I caught my first glimpse of Rainier. It is so massive and so close that it feels like a giant glaring down at you. A similar sensation to when you think a cougar is stalking you. It was oddly frightening, and made me feel microscopic.
About 12 miles in I realized I felt horrible. I was absolutely exhausted and was already struggling to keep my eyes open. The thought to call it now before things get worse crossed my mind. But as they say “things don’t always get worse”. My day was still young and if I kept pushing surely things will get better, not to mention I have been dreaming of this moment for years.
I push on, trip on a rock, and slice open my elbow open. Not a huge deal, but it doesn’t help. This really makes me question why I am out here, away from all my friends in this beautiful (but kind of evil feeling) place, torturing myself. I was maybe planning on feeling like this at mile 70 or maybe mile 50 but I am still just 20 miles in! This is where I wash the blood off my elbow in the creek and felt sorry for myself. This is also where I start to really dread the fact that my race report isn’t going to be an exciting mile by mile description of how majestic my day was as I effortlessly glided along the trails slam dunking on the climbs and flying down the technical descents. In reality, I was just stumbling over myself like a fool wishing there was a coffee shop nearby.
It was time to call it quits. There was no way I could keep running all day let alone just stay awake. I pulled out my inReach to message Jenny, to let her know I was okay but I wasn’t going to finish and I am going to turn around and head back to my car. That is when I realized I would still have to do that crazy 20 miles all over again. Suddenly, continuing didn’t seem that bad. I tucked my inReach back into my pack, took in a bunch of calories, drank as much from the stream as I could handle and continued on my death march around the mountain.
Mt. Rainier is one of the most beautiful places in the World without a doubt and I was starting to see those colors again. I was also beginning to remember small sections of trail from my childhood and now I was out here giving it my best, trying to make some childhood dreams come true.
Soon I realized I was still back on pace to set the record. I couldn’t really believe it but I was feeling amazing. I couldn’t help but to pick up the pace a bit and start thinking “hey, this race report might turn out okay after all!” I got to Mowich Lake and was feeling okay but was starting to have trouble running again. My legs were not really feeling it so I continued to power hike in hopes that the cool “invincible” sensation would come back. What do you know, it did!
The section between Mowich Lake and Carbon River is the most nostalgic section of trail for me, this is where I have camped countless nights and I still remember the trails like they are the back of my hand. I began climbing up Carbon Glacier which is the biggest climb of the day at 6000’ gain with a little 1500’ decent in the middle. After this, things should ease up a touch. About a mile in I saw four construction workers off to the side of the trail. They were certainly not real. This was my first hallucination. Later I saw a sailor smoking a pipe, a Chihuahua, a wizard, a leopard, a green sea turtle, even Jenny and her friend (they then turned into crows and flew away). I knew this wasn’t real so it didn’t really alarm me too much. A few miles later I could really not keep my eyes open. I sat on a rock for 20 minutes rested my eyes to see if that would help. Unfortunately, no such luck. I felt like garbage, through and through. I had to stop.
The inReach came back out of the bag and I shamefully explained my situation and begged for a ride back to my car. The 12 mile shuffle to the nearest road seemed to take an eternity. Alone with my thoughts (and delusions), I began to reflect; I just failed my biggest goal, I scared Jenny half to death, and used up all my vacation days. Going into this trip I thought nothing could be better than being alone on a trail that has tremendous meaning to me personally and battling it out with myself taking things as close to the limit as possible. Now, I think it’s clear there is a lot more to why I run.
Unsupported running is becoming more and more fashionable and for good reason, in many ways it greatly simplifies things, and largely evens the playing field for people who don’t have as many resources. While it may amplify the adventure, I greatly underestimated how much I love sharing miles with friends. How amazing our running community is and how eager so many people are to support me. Something powerful comes out of two runners pushing one another and mutually improving. I think running is more special when it is shared. It’s meant to be shared.
I’m not saying I will never run alone again, but I do think I want friends with me for my bigger adventures, I am going to plan things differently and really make sure that when I do take big swings, the ball is over the plate. As for the Wonderland Trail, I’ll be back. Next time I’ll be ready.