I learned to run very late in life, a mere 3 1/2 years ago. When I started running, like a lot of people, I stuck to the roads because that's all I knew about. Driving to work in the mornings I could see evidence that suggested that runners run on roads. It would be some time before I knew the sport of ultra running existed.
My own love of the outdoors and the trails started when I was very young boy growing up in Wenatchee, Washington and thats where the story begins.
My family was not close and that remains true to this day. I don't speak to my parents or my siblings, an older sister and younger brother. I also don't know if they speak to each other. My Mother is MIA and I wouldn't even know how to find her. Growing up in my home was awkward. As if we were all biding our time and waiting to escape into our own lives. Away from each other. Which is exactly what eventually happened.
There is, however, one shining light in my childhood and it's all that I recall when I let my mind drift back to the time when I was small, as if all the faded memories lent their energy to the one I value most.
That's how I found myself back in the Cascade mountains on October 5th, establishing the FKT on the Ingalls Creek Trail.
My Dad was a blue collar guy. He worked hard and was gone a lot, but he set aside one week, every summer, to take me hiking and camping on that very trail.
My Dad and his siblings were raised near this trail and had spend a large part of their own childhoods there. My Grandfather hunted deer and elk along this trail and I know it was a special place for him as well. It may be the only family tradition we ever established, and it wasn't even intentional.
My family never went on vacation together. I didn't even stay in a hotel until I was an adult. There were no trips to Disney or extended family outings. The annual hike up Ingalls Creek was the only trip I was ever taken on and we certainly didn't do it as a family. Only now, looking back on it, does it seem odd to me.
I was 8 years old the first year we went and I vividly recall stuffing Dr. Seuss books into a small WWII-era Army surplus backpack. I had no idea what backpacking required, but I was certain I would need a little Suess on the trail.
We hiked one mile into the trail, made camp and spent an entire week playing in the creek, fishing, hiking and exploring the woods.
The following year, we did the same thing. I had grown stronger and we hiked further up the trail before making camp. I also left Dr. Suess at home. Those books were for little kids, and I was NOT little anymore.
The pattern continued for several years. I would get bigger, and we would hike further. As I started Junior High, my Dad told me about an alpine lake that feeds the creek. His description sounded otherworldly, almost hard to believe, and I grew fascinated. Together, we vowed to reach the lake one day.
But it was so far.
We made several failed attempts to find the lake, but I couldn't handle the distance and we could only devote a week to getting there and back. It just wasn't enough time.
In the final summer I spent in my parent's home, we finally made it. It was a perfect confluence of my growing strength and my Fathers failing strength. It was a small window in time that allowed us to make it there. Together.
And we never hiked that trail again.
While running ultra distance races, I often thought back to those years on the trail with my Dad and quietly remarked to myself that I need to go back to the Ingalls Creek Trail and run it someday. I thought about this often and was determined to make it a reality.
So Jo and I flew to Seattle and drove to Leavenworth to make it happen.
We decided to stay in a little B&B on the Icicle River, complete with a sweeping views of the snow capped peaks surrounding this little Bavarian village. It was a stunning little spot to relax and prepare for my run. Especially during Oktoberfest, which is a big deal in Leavenworth. I had my reasons behind the timing of this trip!
After a great dinner and a solid night of sleep, we woke up at 3:30 so I could get ready to head up the trail.
I knew this was going to be a special day and I suspected it would also be very emotional. I was unable to really process everything I was feeling and decided to let it play out on the trail as the day went on. I just gave into it.
Last Minute Preparations
After a short, quiet drive to the trail head, we found ourselves sitting in the dark, staring up the trail that was illuminated by our headlights. It was about 41 degrees outside and I wasn't excited to leave the warmth of the car but I knew it was unavoidable. My plan was to begin my run at exactly 6:30 and there was no way to postpone the arrival of time.
There is no official FKT for this route but there are a few causal notations that a local man had covered the entire distance in a little more than 8:30. That seemed really soft to me and I wasn't terribly worried about being able to beat that time. Although that feeling of security would fade in the middle miles of my run.
I stepped out of the car into the crisp cold morning, adjusted my gear one final time, checked my Garmin, kissed my wife, and set off into the darkness.
On My Way!
This trail is essentially uphill for 16 miles but has a lot of rolling terrain along the way. I would characterize the trail as technical because of the rocky footing, scree fields and a few boulder scrambles between me and the lake.
My plan was to take the first several miles at a slow pace, especially during the hours of darkness. I wanted to arrive at the lake with plenty of energy for the downhill run back to the trail head.
An Exceptionally Nice Piece of the Trail
I finished the first mile pretty quickly. At one time, there were mile markers along this trail but they've all vanished over the years. I've memorized the milestones by the different campsites along the side of the trail. The campsite at mile 1 is the camp I stayed at during my first trip into these mountains. It was still dark when I got to it but I could still make out enough detail to know where I was.
It was 1981 when I first camped there and I remember the hike being an extraordinary feat. Now I had just run to it in less than 9 minutes.
I blazed right on by and continued up the trail.
Falls Creek Confluence...5.5 Miles In
The next major milestone is the confluence at Falls Creek. I always knew this camp was somewhere between mile 5 and 6 and my Garmin confirmed it was 5.5 miles in.
Falls Creek was always a favorite place to camp for the week because it was far enough up the trail to avoid most the day hikers and it also gave us another trail and creek to play in when I was small boy. I could wander these woods all day and never get bored of that spot.
It was during one of these hikes that I discovered this grave, tucked into the woods about 100 feet off the main trail. The years haven't been kind to the grave marker, but everything is still in place. The man that lies beneath is Fred Ericson and he died on this mountain in January, 1928. There are a few rumors about how he met his demise, but I prefer to leave it a mystery.
Fred Ericson Grave Site
I pushed on from Falls Creek and was beginning to get into the rhythm of the run. The sun was starting to rise above the adjacent ridge line and I was running under a perfect blue sky. I let my mind wander into the past as I recognized certain subtle characteristics of the trail. Some rocks and stumps were exactly like I remember them. Most of which served as a spot to rest when hiking the trail as a boy.
I definitely remember some of the climbs from my childhood. In those days, I would have been making the ascent with a loaded frame pack, bearing the weight of a weeks worth of provisions and gear. Now I was unburdened, except for my loaded hydration pack. I was light on my feet and I was moving up those climbs in a way that I never would have imagined as a child.
View Along the Trail
The trail stays close to the creek for the most part but frequently drifts away for short periods before bringing me back again. The water was running high and the creek was exceptionally loud. I was amazed by how silent the mountain was whenever the creek and I parted ways.
Near the 7 mile mark, I noticed a well worn cedar stump directly off the side of the trail. This was likely a remnant of a distant logging project, probably during the time of my own Fathers reign in these woods. There was nothing particularly special about the stump other than it was once used to assist my Father in administering a painful butt whooping when I was 9 years old. I can't recall the granular details surrounding this particular spanking, but I can certainly remember it happened and I know without doubt that this was the spot. This little bout of corporal punishment came during a day hike when we were camped at Falls Creek. I did something snotty to my Dad and he caught up to me on the trail in search of some justice. How fortunate for him that there was a convenient butt whooping stump for him to sit on while bending me over his knee? Fate! I wonder if I would have escaped that spanking if there hadn't been a stump for my father to sit down on.
We'll never know...
I Wish I Knew More About Mushrooms...
Somewhere around 8 miles, I entered a burn area that has been recently logged. The lack of forest canopy has spurred an overabundance of brush along the forrest floor, making it nearly impossible to see the trail, and more importantly, my feet. I was forced to slowly pick my way through this area. And to make matters worse, the loggers weren't concerned with where they dropped their timber and the trail was blocked by a downed tree every 100 yards or so, forcing me to bushwhack around it.
It was becoming increasingly obvious that this part of the trail is seldom used.
When I saw the sign for the Hardscrabble Creek, it brought back a flood of memories. I had only been this far up the trail on one other occasion and I specifically remember my Dad leading us up the trail, looking for the Hardscrabble Trail. He himself, had not been to that point since he was a young man. He knew where the trail was, roughly...or maybe approximately...but definitely not certainly. When we finally found the Hardscrabble Trail, it was clearly a meaningful milestone for my Father and I'm sure it was linked to a series of his own childhood memories.
When I got out of the burn area, the forest became even more lush than it had been before entering the clearing. The ground was covered with ferns and there was a familiar, sweet smell to the woods. They say the sense of smell is the most powerful memory trigger and after traversing this section, I have to agree.
Somewhere around eleven miles, I was lost in my own thoughts and didn't notice I had run right into the middle of a herd of elk as they were grazing on both sides of the trail. I continued to be unaware until I spooked them and the forest came alive with their thundering hoof beats. I nearly jumped out of my skin at the sound of it and stopped dead in my tracks. I could only catch random glimpses of the fleeing beasts as they scattered deeper into the forest. I was a little saddened that I didn't notice them earlier, but it was still a cool experience.
Site of the Great Elk Stampede of 2013
It was in this area that I began to encounter a lot of fresh bear tracks in the snow. They weren't scattered, random or rare. They were everywhere! They were also different sizes, indicating multiple bears, including cubs. Not a heartwarming thought. This close to hibernation, they're totally focused on fattening up for the winter. I tried to make myself look as unappetizing as possible.
Snow Covered Trail in Bear Country!
View Looking Back Toward the Thrailhead
Beautiful Peaks Above the Lake
Before the final big climb to the lake, I entered a small, open valley and immediately lost the trail in the snow. The snow was now above my knees and the top layer was frozen over, creating a sharp crust that was clawing against my legs with every step. I was thankful to be wearing my Zensah calf sleeves because they saved my legs from certain carnage.
Lost The Trail
I circled the area for a while, looking for some sign of the trail, but never found it. I knew the general direction and with time ticking away, I started to bushwhack toward the lake. I set my eye on the peak that hovers over the lake and marched in that direction.
The last bit of climb was steep and had some exposure along a few dramatic drop offs. My footing was iffy and I inched my way along the cliffs, holding onto dwarf pines for support. My potential fall would have been at least 200 feet, straight to the rocks waiting below. I was a little tense.
I quickly scampered up the final rise and dropped my feet onto flat ground again. I instantly recognized the creek flowing through the woods. This was the outflow from the lake and I was only a short distance from being able to see it. I hurried along as quickly as I could, through the snow and water, trying to make up as much time as I could along the way.
Ingalls Lake Outflow
I Made It!!!
I wasted no time at the lake. I had planed on lingering for a while but I didn't anticipate how slow the last 2 miles were going to be. It took me 70 minutes to cover that short distance and I suddenly felt rushed to get back down out of the mountains. After snapping a few pictures, I turned on my heels and pointed my toes downhill.
I quickly found the trail on the outbound trip and realized I had been off it, but parallel to it for the final mile. It was impossible to see if you weren't standing directly on it.
The Only Human Tracks in the High Country Were Mine
My immediate focus was to get below the snow line as fast as possible so I could make a hard push for the trailhead. I slipped, scrambled and slid for 2 miles before the trail cleared up enough for a serious bit of running.
Happy to be out of the snow!
I was able to run hard for the next few miles and I quickly returned to the burn area that had slowed me down on the way up. Once again, I moved through this area with caution because I couldn't see my feet on the trail surface and rocks were always a threat on these trails.
I eventually lost my patience and began to move faster through the undergrowth. Then I ran, deciding not to worry too much about the lack of visibility. About a minute into a serious running pace, my right foot landed on a rock, rolled off, and produced a loud SNAP! The pain was instant and severe. I realized right away that I had sprained my ankle. I reluctantly rolled my calf sleeve up and rolled my sock down to reveal the damage. My ankle was beginning to swell but it wasn't bruised interanlly like other, more severe sprains I've had. I walked gingerly for a half mile while I tried to decide how bad I was hurt. The pain subsided a little and I resumed my run. Each footfall was painful but bearable. Walking the last 10 miles was NOT an option.
Coming Through the Burn
When I got back to the Falls Creek trail, I knew I was 5.5 miles from the finish. I decided to reward myself with some music and I fired up my iPod for the final miles. My mood was high, I was running strong and feeling really good (minus a wonky ankle). I started singing as I ran. Partly for my own amusement, but also to warn other trail users of my presence before I rounded a corner and flew into somebody.
I never saw any other trail users.
One of my favorite features of this trail is the "Air Conditioning Rocks". These rocks are located somewhere around 4 miles in and are easy to miss if you don't know where to look. This large rock slide is made up of enormous stones that have been piled on this spot for thousands of years and for some reason that I can't explain, they exhaust cold air from the openings in the stone pile. At this time of day, and with my level of exertion, I was feeling warm when I ran by and noticed them. I slowed down and took a few minutes to enjoy the cold air that blew from the belly of this beast.
It was enjoyable because the cool air was very soothing, but I also enjoyed it because this was always a ritual for me and my dad during our long hikes in the summer. I would unsling my pack, toss it on the ground, and park myself in front of the opening in the rocks and soak up all the cold air.
I was happy to be doing that again and it put a broad smile on my face.
Air Conditioning Rocks
My remaining miles would be on a nice, gradual descent and I was able to get my fastest splits of the day in the last 3 miles.
The sun was on my face, the sky a beautiful blue, and I was almost done. I was filled with elation and soaked it all in.
1 Mile Left!
The last mile of this run was a series of complex emotions. Completing this run is a meaningful experience for so many reasons. I felt grateful to be able to be back here, not just for the opportunity to run, but also for the opportunity to embrace and relive so much from my childhood. All my experiences on this trail have been meaningful and important to my development, and this run is another example of those experiences.
My uncle was there to see me finish my journey. I hadn't seen him since we laid his Mother to rest several years ago. We've always had a special relationship, including trips of our own on this trail, and I was happy to have him there with me.
Getting a Hug From My Uncle
After a quick kiss from my lovely wife, I absconded with a cold beer and headed to the frigid creek to soak my legs. I only wanted to stay in until my legs went numb, which didn't take long in these glacier fed waters. It felt great and the cold beer was delicious!
Nothing Says "Great Job" Like a Mylar Balloon
My day on the trail was emotional and definitely cathartic. It was something I really needed to do and would have always regretted if I had failed to seize the opportunity. I couldn't let that happen and I'm glad I finally made it a priority and got it done.
I really want to thank the people that supported me and helped to make this happen:
Hammer Nutrition- www.hammernutrition.com/
All these great companies became invested in my idea to run this trail and their support was critical to getting it done.
I also want to point out that I had the privilege of using the new Osprey Rev 6 hydration pack for this run. I've been using the Osprey Rev 1.5 in some recent races and training runs and the Rev 6 is the big brother to this pack. It has more storage and a few more features than the Rev 1.5. With this run being unsupported and in questionable weather, I really wanted the ability to carry everything I might need. The pack had the same great feel that I always expect from Osprey and it was the perfect size for my trip. I carried 10 gels, a rain jacket, a wind breaker, a headlamp, 3 Hammer Bars, a Steripen, 2 tubes of Hammer Endurolyte Fizz Tabs, a pair of gloves, sunglasses and more than a liter of water. I still had plenty of available storage if I needed it. I'm a fan of minimalist packs and was worried that this pack might bounce or feel awkward but it didn't. I really enjoyed its functionality and ride. Osprey will have the pack available for purchase in 2014 and will retail for around $100 compared to the Rev 1.5 that will sell for $70. Both are great choices for our sport.
I really enjoy this type of running and may incorporate more of these into my schedule. Its nice to have the feeling of accomplishment without the pressure of an actual race. It was only me out there and it was liberating.
I don't know if I'll ever see this trail again and I don't have any plans to return. But if I do, it'll be during a time with less snow so I can really test myself and see what I can get done on my trail.
I have two weeks of rest before running the Pony Express Trail 100 in Utah. I hope to see some of you there.
If you skimmed this report and want to see the video version, you can link to the video right here...