[Note: 2020 is the tenth year of my blog at Semi-Rad.com, and since I started it, I’ve been fortunate to get to do some pretty wonderful adventures. Throughout the year, I’ve been writing about 12 favorite adventures I’ve had since I started writing about the outdoors, one per month. This is the twelfth in the series. The other stories are here.]
The realization did not come at one exact moment, but as a sort of a slow admission over a few hours on the trail: I had vastly underestimated the whole thing. I’d look up at the angle of the sun through the trees, glance at my watch, do a little math in my head trying to estimate the miles I had left and the approximate time of the sunset, and panic a little bit.
Like a fool, I had “figured” I’d be running and hiking maybe two hours in the dark to the trailhead at the end. This was somewhat based on very rough math, but mostly on optimism. By 5:00 p.m., I had been moving for nine hours, had gotten through 35 miles and the majority of the elevation gain, and was feeling pretty good overall.
I came to a fork in the trail, with two options: go left, to 25-30 more miles of trail with only two hours of daylight remaining, or go right, to a trailhead eight miles away, where I could call for a ride, get picked up before dark, grab a pizza, take a shower, put my feet up, and flop into a warm, comfortable bed at a decent hour.
There were no more good bail spots if I went left, so I’d be committed to the whole thing, making the total day about 60 miles and 12,000 feet of climbing, summiting five peaks. I was tired, unsure if I’d find any water sources in the last 25 miles, and really not physically prepared for it. But jeez, if I bailed, I’d have to come back and do the whole thing over next year. The whole thing being this arguably contrived loop of trails that I’d drawn on a map, a project I’d made up and decided I wanted to try, that no one besides me cared if I completed.
I went left.
I’ve thought a lot about what we’ll remember about 2020 when we look back on it a decade from now. It’s unquestionably been a weird year for many of us, a very tough year for many of us, and probably more than any other year in the past several decades, it has required that we all adjust our lives in not insignificant ways. Working from home, having our kids trying to go to school from home, trying to work from home while having our kids try to go to school from home, wearing masks in public spaces, finding new ways to socialize with friends and family, not visiting restaurants, the list goes on and on—and in 2020, I think the one thing we’ve all had to do is get creative, and adapt.
If you were a person who built at least part of their year around races—something that seems in retrospect both incredibly privileged and a relic of a long-ago life—it was clear that for a few months, or maybe a year, you were going to have to find a way to make your own fun. People started running marathons around their block, marathons in their apartments, ultramarathons on treadmills in their apartments—a guy in Japan ran 100 miles on a single 15-meter trail around a tree, 10,667 laps.
For me, running at all felt like a luxury. After a huge running year in 2019, I ran a 50K race on January 25th, then promptly got a cold, which turned into a chronic (non-Covid) cough. I went two months without running a single step while I tried to figure out what was causing the cough. Eventually, we worked it out that yes, running was OK, and on March 25th, just after our Covid lockdowns were beginning, I was able to run two miles in my neighborhood, crossing the street to avoid getting too close to anyone on the sidewalk, and wearing a buff around my neck just in case. I reminded myself how fortunate I was to be able to move outdoors at all, and breathe freely.
Eventually I was able to run five miles, then six, then eight, and I decided to try to run every street in my neighborhood, which took a lot longer than I figured. Then I started venturing to the park a mile from our house and running around the crushed gravel path there, giving a wide berth to anyone else I passed in either direction. In mid-May, I tentatively drove out to a trailhead to see how things went, wondering if it would be possible to stay six feet away from people on singletrack (it was).
I’d canceled all my race plans for the year, and all my travel plans, and arrived very quickly at a place where I was happy to still have a job and relatively good health. I read someone’s tweet telling people that this was just a pause, not a full stop, and reminded myself of that. I adjusted expectations, and figured if I got to go on a handful of trail runs over the next year, that was still pretty fantastic.
We moved to a new state in July, and had new trails to explore, right at the edge of town. I bought local maps, downloaded apps on my phone, and tried to schedule my trail runs to coincide with less-busy times to avoid other people.
As I got back in shape and increased the mileage of my runs, the running world started talking about 2020 being the “Year of the FKT,” or Fastest Known Time. Elite runners, with no races to compete in, started trying to beat fastest known times on objectives like Nolan’s 14 in Colorado, the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier, and the Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin. NPR did a story on FKTs, then Men’s Journal did a story on them, then NPR did another one.
I am not what you might call an FKT kind of guy, but I had browsed the Fastest Known Time website, and what struck a chord with me were the people who submitted routes that weren’t necessarily going to attract the attention of, say, world-class ultrarunners, but were creative. Someone traversed the entire Mojave National Preserve, from the middle of nowhere to the middle of nowhere. Someone else has the FKT running between all three lighthouses on Nantucket Island. Someone else submitted an FKT of a run that stops at all the PATH train stations in New Jersey and New York (and includes a train ride across the Hudson River).
Yes, it’s a website about people doing human-powered things as fast as they can, but to me, it’s also a site where people create fun things for other people to read about and/or do. In 2020, the Fastest Known Time website went over the 3,000-route mark.
What if, I thought, I could put together a big route that other people could try to do? The first time I did it would be the FKT, but then maybe it’d be interesting enough that other (faster) people would go for it. That would be fun. Or at least “fun,” you know, in quotes, not fun during, fun later.
I sat in our temporary apartment a few late summer nights, looking at maps of the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, running my finger around the trails, looking for a line that made sense. I started tracing a route on CalTopo.com, going over the tops of peaks, trying to piece it together.
By the end of August, I had it: A loop around the Rattlesnake, summiting five peaks, almost completely on trails. According to my mouse-click mapping, it would be right around 60 miles and 12,000 feet of elevation gain. I had been running enough mileage and doing enough uphill that I was in pretty good shape for it. I was ready.
And then, we had a really bad week of wildfire smoke, so I didn’t do it. And I didn’t do any running, playing it safe with the awful air quality and having spent the first half of the year with that chronic cough. And then we moved into a new house, and then I left to teach a writing workshop. My weekly running mileage fell off a cliff and my calorie consumption did not, but the Rattlesnake Loop was still in the back of my mind.
In early October, I thought, what the hell, I might as well give it a shot. Snow would be falling up high in the next week or two, and once that happened, I might as well wait until next year.
As my friend Alan said to me once, “People show up rested or ready. We’ll be rested.”
I parked a car at the trailhead where I’d end the loop and got out in the chilly morning air, hoping to be hopping back into the driver’s seat not too much later that evening. It was 43 degrees, and I was in shorts, a short-sleeved t-shirt and a wind jacket. I pulled the hood up, grabbed my running vest out of the back of the car, and at the last second looked at the thin pair of running gloves I’d brough. Nah, I don’t need these, I thought, glancing up at the sun and then tossing the gloves back in the car.
I started my watch and ran a few blocks across the neighborhood, to the first section of trail. The plan was to stay as high as possible and loop around the entire Rattlesnake Creek drainage on trails for all but about a half-mile, tagging the summits of Stuart Peak (7,791 ft), Mosquito Peak (8,057 feet), Mineral Peak (7,447 feet), Sheep Mountain (7,646 feet), and Mt. Jumbo (4,546 feet), and then descend the last couple miles of trail to my car. The plan was also: to run as much as I could, feel good doing it, not run out of water or food, not experience any chafing or blisters, keep morale high, and not quit early.
I jogged past a few people out for a morning hike or a morning dog walk, a mountain biker, and then started a sustained climb. It was a beautiful fall morning, with leaves turning amber, the sun low enough in the sky to color everything a bit golden, and crisp air. At the Snowbowl Overlook, around Mile 12 at just before 11 a.m., I passed by a mountain biker who had stopped to take a photo. He said, “You’re crushing it,” and I said thanks. He would be the last human being I’d see the entire day.
A friend of mine said to me a long time ago that you basically have two options when you do things for fun: you can find things that other people have made up and do those for fun, or you can make your own fun. This was, if I remember correctly, while a group of us were biking 10 or 12 miles to a place that served a burrito called “The Gut Buster,” which we would all eat and then pedal back home. We assumed at least one of us would vomit, thus making it the “Gut Buster Triathlon” (bike + eat burrito + regurgitate burrito). This was a fun thing we had made up to do on a Friday night. Two other friends had bailed at the last minute to go to a concert, a thing other people had made up.
I am a fan of both making up my own fun things as well as doing other things people have made up, but I have to say, when you’re making up your own fun, the ideation process and the planning are probably half of the enjoyment for me. Maybe you’re talking to a friend and you say, “we should do that, but on bikes instead,” or “how many donut shops are in the whole city?” and then “think we could run between all of them in one day?” or “what about trying to go from Point A to, hear me out … Point C?”
Your idea of fun is your idea of fun. There are no rules. You just make something up and do it, and if other people hear about it, they either think it sounds fun, or not fun. And maybe they do it themselves someday. I think about all the things we do that are accepted as fun—at the beginning, they were probably all met with some skepticism. Like running 100 miles all at once, or standup paddleboarding, or eating really spicy food. They’re all contrived ideas someone had, and shared with other people, to some level of success.
At some point, someone made up the idea of playing poker, and other people probably had a lot of questions:
“OK, so three of these is better than two of those?”
“The ones with the faces are more valuable then?”
“Why don’t we each get six cards?”
“OK, and now I give you all my money and now I don’t have enough money to pay rent next month?”
I have made up things to do for decades, from watching all the Godfather movies in one day, to running a marathon around New York and eating a slice of pizza every five miles, to bicycling the entire length of Colfax Avenue in Denver, to hiking the “Seven Summits” of the city of Phoenix in one day. I cannot more highly recommend making your own fun. I believe it is an eternal spring of enjoyment, an endlessly repeatable process with limitless variations, and will completely eliminate boredom from your life, forever.
That said, I am a pretty big fan of other people’s ultramarathons, when it really comes down to it. Running around in the mountains is great, and when other people are handing you snacks every few miles, it’s almost like trick-or-treating. Also, there’s medical help available, restrooms, and fun things like, you know, talking to other people every once in a while instead of talking to yourself for hours on end.
I planned to carry 3.1 liters of water in my running vest, refilling at stream crossings at the 6-mile mark, 23 miles, and at 31 miles. Beyond that, I wasn’t sure about water. I carried 3,420 calories in my vest:
- 2 packages of Pro Bar Bolt Chews @180 calories each
- 5 Honey Stinger Waffles (gluten-free because the gluten-free versions seem to not disintegrate as much during a long day bouncing around in a running vest) @140 calories each
- 5 packages of Clif Bloks @200 calories each
- 3 bags of Salt and Pepper Kettle Chips (smashed into little bits to pack down and for easier drinkability) @ 220 calories each
- 3 Betty Lou’s Fruit Bars @ 200 calories each
I stood on top of the first summit, Stuart Peak, after almost five hours and 19 miles of running and hiking, then jogged back down to the ridge, wondering if I’d see any sort of social trail up to the summit of Mosquito Peak. There wasn’t, so I kept close to the cliffs atop its east face and followed them to the top, snapped a quick, out-of-focus photo of myself on top, and then turned west for a short bushwhack along the peak’s west ridge back to the trail. This, I thought, would be the biggest route-finding challenge of the day, a grand total of about three-quarters of a mile without a distinct trail.
I tromped down the trail, taking in the view from above Glacier Lake. The lake was a minimum 10-plus-mile non-motorized jaunt by any of the three routes into it, and the trail leading me down to it wasn’t what you’d call buff singletrack—it’s a bit adventurey to run fast on, tight, rough, with some foliage covering it for sections. It was a reminder to be careful where I put my feet. I had a Garmin InReach with me for an emergency SOS message, but a rescue/evacuation from a broken ankle would not be quick—despite the fact I had just parked my car on a city block lined with houses and started jogging a few short hours ago.
At Middle Lake at mile 24.5, I sat down on a rock to filter water through my BeFree squeeze bottle, a process that seems quick when you’re just grabbing a bottle or two, but filling up a 2-liter reservoir and another half-liter bottle seemed to take hours. But with an early fall afternoon next to a mountain lake with some sun shimmering off the water, and steep cliffs dropping into the opposite shore, I had to take a minute and think: If I get one big adventure this year, and this is it, and this is the best view all day during that big adventure, that’s a pretty good year.
I packed up and ran down the trail, weaving through the thick evergreen forest, and the trail widened into rough doubletrack. It was a 13-mile descent, and I enjoyed every damn step of it. I wasn’t sure if I’d see another water source beyond about Mile 31, so I pulled off to top off my bottles twice when I could get to Rattlesnake Creek. And then I came to the fork in the trail. To very roughly paraphrase Helen Keller, life is either a daring adventure, or half an adventure and a slightly demoralizing but entirely reasonable hike out to a pizza and a much earlier bedtime, with a lot less inflammation.
So, I went ahead and procrastinated my pizza with a left turn, immediately realizing how much I’d underestimated how steep the climbing would be for the next five miles. A pair of trekking poles might have been nice at this point. So would a foot massage, or a helicopter ride out, I guess.
In my dream world, the sun would sit at right about the 6 p.m. level, an hour above the horizon, for the rest of my run. Or, maybe I would have brought a brighter headlamp and some backup batteries so I could confidently blast it on its brightest setting. Sadly, neither of those things were true, and from the summit of Mineral Peak near the lookout tower, I snapped photos of the final moments of the day’s sunlight. It’s funny, in almost every long day I’ve had in the mountains, I feel an urgency to hurry as the afternoon fades into evening, and the sunset draws near, and then the golden hour, and oh no if we don’t get moving it’s going to get dark, hurry, hurry, hurry, and then the sun goes away, and I click on my headlamp, and all of a sudden, you know, what’s the rush? It’s not going to get any more dark.
About five miles past the summit of Mineral Peak, the dirt road I’d been running and hiking on passed a trailhead, and I turned onto the trail. It was pretty well traveled, but with my headlamp on a fairly dim setting to preserve the battery, I remembered that I had not ever seen any of the trail for the next 12 miles—didn’t know if it was hard to follow, didn’t know if there were any confusing junctions, didn’t know if it went through a knee-deep bog, led to a dragon’s castle, whatever. I spent a lot of the next couple hours clicking my headlamp to a brighter setting, squinting into the distance, and looking down at a GPS map on my phone to make sure I was on the right trail.
One thing I know about endurance sports, at least as you’re progressing into them, is that the hardest thing you’ve ever done becomes less hard once you’ve done it. And then you do the next, harder thing, and that first thing seems not nearly as bad. And then you just keep going, and going, on sort of a stair-step progression plan for idiots. A mere three and a half years ago, I ran my first 50-mile race with my friend Jayson in the woods in Wisconsin, and at mile 45 I had nothing left, mentally. We walked a lot of the last two miles of the race. I was physically capable of running at that point, but I just didn’t want to. If you had offered to pay me $250 to run the last two miles, I would have declined. Maybe $1,000 would have done it. Or someone pointing a gun at my head. We did run the last few hundred yards to the finish line, and I was cooked. I couldn’t believe we had finished before the cutoff. I got my finisher belt buckle, but honestly felt like it wouldn’t have been undeserved if they threw me a parade, and/or erected a statue in honor of my achievement.
I thought about that for a few minutes, trudging by myself through the night in the mountains in 2020, the year of making your own fun, around Mile 47, 48, 49, 50, of a 60-mile loop I’d designed myself, thinking it would have about 12,000 feet of elevation gain, and looking down at my watch every few minutes to realize that hey, you know what, it’s going to be closer to 65 miles, and 14,000 feet of elevation gain.
Then I heard something big crash in the trees to my right, off the trail. I shined my not-that-bright headlamp in that direction and saw nothing besides thick trees. OK, no big deal, probably not a bear, although my friend Aaron said he’s seen a dozen bears when he’s been out mountain biking in this area this summer and fall, and I’ve seen a bear when I was walking my dog not so far from here a month ago. I’d been running in almost complete silence for hours, in the dark, and I’d heard a couple small animals running through the brush as I approached, sometimes birds, sometimes other things, nothing more than ankle high.
But whatever the hell this was just kept crunching through tree branches, for three seconds, four seconds, six, seven seconds, Jesus, it was like someone falling off a barstool in slow motion, taking out tables and chairs as they tried to catch themselves. Whatever it was, I decided, it was probably best to not hang out long enough to introduce myself.
I hadn’t realized how much my attitude had gone in the shitter for the past couple hours until I finally saw the lights of the city appear again, after hours in the dark. There was hope. I would survive. From the top of Sheep Mountain at Mile 50, which apparently has a great view during the daytime, I got enough of a cell signal to text Hilary and let her know that I would be a few, ahem, hours late.
From there, I told myself, it’s pretty much all downhill. Just have to drop onto the summit of Mt. Jumbo, and then before I know it, I’ll be unlocking my car door and plopping into the driver’s seat and cranking the heat up for a 10-minute drive home. A coyote, I think, chattered its head off somewhere in the trees for several minutes as I got closer and closer to the saddle north of Jumbo, and finally I just said “good evening,” and it stopped until I was well past.
From the saddle, it’s like, what, 100 vertical feet or something to the summit? A walk in the park.
For the record, it is 800 vertical feet. I slogged uphill, pretty much ready to be done with this whole thing, especially since it had grown in distance, elevation gain, and time. Then I was on the summit, the last one of the day, and the town below seemed so quiet, like everyone had gone to bed. This is because I was standing on the summit at 1:45 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, and everyone had gone to bed.
I tried to run down the final, steeply descending two and a half miles of trail to the car, but just couldn’t find the motivation, and walked big sections of it, watching my feet to make sure I didn’t roll an ankle in the dark, and gradually starting to give myself a little bit of a high five. It goes. Made it. Pretty cool.
At the car, I unclipped my vest, stopped my watch, got in the car, and let out a big sigh. Then I drove to my house, where, backing the car into the driveway, I hit the fence and ripped off the front driver’s side fender, which is something I would deal with tomorrow, because this day had gone on long enough.
Thanks for reading.
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