A Day In Wonderland

» Posted by on Sep 14, 2011 in Blog | 44 comments

“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

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.

44 Comments

  1. Wow…incredible read. Having seen prints on snow in Banff during a trail run, I can relate on a much smaller scale, but nothing near the same level. Glad to hear the run ended well…even if it had to be a little shorter than planned.

  2. Shit, fu%k. Jesus, I’m glad you’re alright, Joe. You made the hair on the back of my neck stand up and my stomach turn.

    A nearly identical scenario happened to me in 2004, in Texas, if I recall correctly. Similar to you, I begged safety in a Jeep with some tourists. In the end, Nature’s in charge, isn’t she?

    Recover your mind well, friend.

  3. Incredible Joe. What a powerful experience. Big medicine. Glad you’re back doing what you love.

  4. I can’t imagine how the cougars report reads! Fantastic report.

  5. Beautiful read and hell of an effort!

  6. Wow, glad you’re OK, man. That is waaaaay too close for comfort. Seems like the lion was on the fence about what to do.

    Also in my pack: bear spray. And a knife (last resort).

    That is an epic run. I’d love to see that mountain some day.

  7. What a journey! Makes this rattle snake show on the way down Twin Peaks look like a friendly encounter.

    Glad you made it through, and now much closer from the mountain elements than ever.

    Keep it real

  8. Wow !! I have thought about and imagined this scenario many times. Thank you for sharing your experience. I hope we can all be aware, act appropriately, and stay safe out there as you did. A beautiful encounter, (if chilling) and a reminder that we are not just observing nature, we are a part of it. Glad you are OK.

  9. Joe, amazing read…and encounter. Good call on your decision of taking the road. The style of your journey was inspirational. Glad to hear the ankle is on the mend.

  10. Damn! I thought your description of being the cat’s prey was a metaphor until you jumped in the car. Love your posts whether told by your camera or your pen (keyboard). Glad you get to see another day.

  11. Cannot believe this man. So good to chat the other night and know you’re in good spirits (and that you still have a pulse) All the love..n

  12. Great story Joe and what a journey. Glad to hear that it all ended well.

    best, Adam

  13. OH. MY. GOD. ! ! ! Nick just told me about this while walking home from a party. It gave me chills then and now, after just reading your account, I can’t even imagine how awful and scary that must have been…that’s so intense.

    I’m so glad you’re okay man…Call me when (if) you get a phone!

  14. “A fascinating experiment”! Your life is driven by fascinating experiments. I take token parental comfort from the fact that we only get to hear about the exploding test tubes after you’ve emerged from the lab with nothing more than lightly singed hair. Stay safe!

  15. Thats the real deal man, great story and adventure.

  16. Encounters come no closer. Ergo, GREAT to talk with you yesterday.

    Keep running. Stay safe.

    Nanna and Gramps

  17. Great heavens Joe! SO glad we still have a Joe. I relate totally to what DG The Elder has written! A life-changing experience surely – and that’s just for us, reading your account… Stay safe indeed.

  18. Hey Joe,

    Amazing read. I’ve had a few encounteres with bears and can totally relate to having that adrenalin rush. A really good book to read is “The Ghost Walker” by RD Lawrence, here is the amazon link http://www.amazon.com/Ghost-Walker-R-D-Lawrence/dp/0006377041. Check it out, it is one of the best books I have read. All the best, Gord.

  19. Get a small pepper-spray canister with you next time :) Doesn’t cost much, really light and will definitely get rid of most wild animals in case of an attack, a knife could be of some help as well even though I’m pretty sure that’ll be for last resort use only.

    If this doesn’t work try some whiskas!

    Amazing story Djal, take care of yourself please during all your runs and in life in general.

    PL & R.
    Klaus

  20. Wholly Molly! Psyched you are ok. I’ve always wanted to do that run. Next time I’ll go with ya and we’ll wrestle that cat to the ground. yah right. :-)

    I just saw cat prints in White Pine in the frozen snow last week. Kinda freaked me out, sure glad I was slow getting up there.

    Run well my friend, hope all is well.

  21. Wholly Molly! Psyched you are ok. I’ve always wanted to do that run. Next time I’ll go with ya and we’ll wrestle that cat to the ground. yah right. :-)

    I just saw cat prints in White Pine in the frozen snow last week. Kinda freaked me out, sure glad I was slow getting up there.

    Run well my friend, hope all is well.

  22. sorry bout the double comment..

  23. Thanks for taking us along with you on this amazing adventure, Joe. Glad to have participated — especially from this distance.

  24. When you can perfectly visualize the experience and almost smell the fear in the air, then you know you’ve written something classic.

    As my 5 year old would say, ‘poop on a stick’.

  25. Jaw-dropping read, wow. That is scary to even read about, can’t imagine how it must have felt to you. Actually, you’re such a freakin’ good writer I almost CAN imagine it!

  26. Man, that brought back severe flashbacks of my own encounter several years ago in a National Park. Was stalked for about 20 minutes. Twas a very persistent cat! To this day, I still look behind me when I’m out on the trails in the dark expecting to see those eyes in the beam of my headlamp. The Wonderland Trail is on the to-do list within the next year, or so, but this post has added a surge of adrenaline to my bloodstream as I type this and gives me pause for reconsideration. Glad you’re ok. All the best!

  27. Your words captured the experience, glad you’re safe. I can share the highs and lows of the Wonderland Trail. Last summer did a unsupported solo mission. Trudging through the snow over Panhandle gap as the sunset will forever be etched in memory.

  28. Great read as always, this time with a bit more adventure..

    gear talk:

    why take 2 headlamps, not not just backup batteries?
    I’d assume you are using an Ultraspire fanny pack, but whats that yellow thingy in the pic?

  29. That is pretty amazing! Glad that you are safe. I had a similar experience on a run right at dawn a few weeks ago when I was running up a trail in Wildernest, CO where I found myself in what could have been a bad situation real quick. A large buck jumped across the path ahead of me with a big rack on him. I thought to myself “Wow, that just made my day”. Then I continued a mile or 2 up the trail and around the bend found myself about 20 feet from the biggest bull moose I have ever seen. The ancient power of that animal combined with the vulnerability that I felt at the moment that we locked eyes made a deep impression on me.

  30. Thanks all for the comments and for sharing your experiences. Always learning.
    @Hearsay: I carry two headlamps because of the possibility of mechanical failure. Last year when running the Tonto trail with Scott we had 4 lamps between the two of us, two of which failed and for the 2 others, the batteries ran out. Luckily I also had a Petzl e-lite which is very little light but essentially a weightless back up and we were reduced to running with that for the last 2hrs of dark. I also really don’t like buying batteries but had fresh ones in the MYO from UTMB. Most of the time I just use the BD sprinter as it has a wall charger and the brightness is decent and lasts about 5hrs on full blast.
    The yellow thing is a windbreaker stuffed in its own pocket.

  31. Wow, scary for sure! One reason why my wife Deb always has her pistol with her when we go running here in New Mexico, where we are always seeing cat prints.

  32. Intense, buddy. Glad you made it out without a scratch.

  33. i got chills and the hair on my neck is still standing up. scary stuff. great story though and well written!!!!

  34. Wow! Great read & even better adventure. I shouldn’t have shared this with my wife as I am now banded from doing another solo unsupported trip around the mountain. I don’t know how you are able to go so light. I need to learn some tricks or give up some niceties as my pack was 25lbs+. The wife will forget…The wife will forget… Thanks for sharing.

  35. Joe, just getting into running and really enjoying reading about your experiences. Thank you for sharing.

    I’m curious what shoes those are in the picture?

    Hope you are well.

  36. Thanks, Craig. The shoes in the picture are the Adizero Rockets. A road flat from Adidas that I like a lot.

  37. Thanks for sharing. Sounds like an incredible day that won’t soon be forgotten.

  38. Great story Joe

  39. While running in the desert in the west Antelope Valley, I was spotted by a pack of wild dogs. I picked up some rocks and from a good distance was lucky to hit the alpha male. Might help to throw a few rocks and then keep one or two in hand even for Cougars. Good read !

  40. Stumbled upon this post. Nothing like seeing a lethal predator to add some excitement to a wilderness run (Just ask Ellie Greenwood). Excellent adventures abound on this site!! -J

  41. I learned about your story in today’s Sac Bee. Great story! Thanks for sharing.

  42. Fun to revisit this entry… that trail description sounds like the most vulnerable environment a guy could be in when he's "the hunted"…. Quick question Joe, do  you cut up those adizero rockets at all? They look a bit slender compared to what I find on the Adidas page, or has adidas modified them since that year model you have pictured? Just curious…

    • Thanks, Kevin. That’s the stock version of the rockets. They have replaced them this year with the Hagio which I haven’t tried yet but looks like a great update.

  43. Good guide you got here honda looks just like the newest thing.
    I”m about http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kfjZ3eVHe5o currently.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The West Coast Trail | Alpine Works - [...] I clip my fanny pack around my neck, a gesture that sends a shudder down my spine as I …
  2. Living in Fear of the Lion | Alpine Works - [...] staring intently at the trail ahead. Of course, I see nothing, hear nothing, feel nothing, but I remember. I …
  3. Mt Spokane 50k Race Report 2012 - [...] family members will read this, I won’t mention anything about her encounters with lions, or Joe Grant’s similar experience …
  4. The Tipping Point | Alpine Works - [...] I was pursued by a cougar last year on the Wonderland Trail of Mt. Rainier, I was faced with …

Submit a Comment