24 hours of running. Up and down mountains, alongside streams, between the remnants of expansive forest fires and the subsequent new growth; stumbling over volcanic rock and sliding down dusty descents. Grueling, torturous hours. Or, um, a fun adventure, if your brain is wired that way.
Personally, that sounds like something the pioneers endured and nothing a modern human would seek out. And yet, there I was, bush-whacking my way to a trail, nervously hoping my phone’s GPS was keeping me on course even in the dense trees.
When I moved to Seattle a year ago, I wanted to build a new life for myself, pursue the things that I had been afraid to, be brave and make new friends. Part of that was saying “yes” to just about everything. It worked, too well actually, as I have found myself having to restructure that new habit and start throwing in the occasional “no” for sanity’s sake.
This inevitably led me to eagerly (and naively) offer to help my new beau with his “adventure race”. This fun run, the SISU 24 Ultra PNW, is a 24-hour event with participants racing up and down a set variety of trails, earning points for each trail and bonus task that they perform along the way - sounds fun!
Out of My League
What I thought would be a weekend of sitting around at camp tracking racers, was so much more involved. Planning and organizing is my jam, so I quickly became heavily involved in the planning and execution of the race.
A week out, reality hit that 64 miles of trails needed to be marked with course markings and signs. Oh sh*t, that’s a lot of miles to do in one week! (Let’s ignore the fact that athletes were planning to come and run that many, or more, within the 24 hour limit!)
We explored numerous forest roads, under the notion that, when the time came, perhaps we could drop someone off at the top of a route and have them run back to camp while marking, instead of having to go out and back (work smarter not harder right?).
One road, meandering along a ridgeline with breathtaking views of Mt Rainier, led us to a dead end, but according to our maps one of the trails was only a little farther into the woods. Now, I do not have any navigational gear, I can read a road map, sure, but I am heavily reliant on the almighty Google.
Without a Path
Once you’re deep in the woods, with no signal and no clear view of the sky, navigation kind of goes to shit. Luckily, my other half is not an adventure noob like I am and has a Suunto watch that accurately tracks GPS and has a breadcrumb feature. Remember the story of Hansel and Gretel? With the watch you can drop digital breadcrumbs, so if you really get lost and decide to throw in the towel you can at least get back to where you started.
We found the trail and ascended to scout out our artificial turn around point for the race. It took us maybe half a mile to a mile total to get there.
Let me tell you about elevation. Besides a stint in Quito at 9,350 feet, I have lived my whole life between sea level and maybe 1500 feet. I like oxygen. My body is used to having easy access to oxygen. But the atmosphere thins as you ascend, and it makes every exertion increasingly more difficult.
The car had been parked at around 4500’ and our destination was a little over 5000’. It really isn’t that much gain, but when you are used to being at frickin' zero, it is challenging. I huffed and puffed and walked incredibly slow, embarrassed at my pace. Tired, and frustrated by the fact that I was tired, I looked at Google Maps and saw a straight shot back to the car without having to meander back down the trail to where we had originally synced up. In my oh-so-infinite wisdom I chose to leave the trail, on my own, to “see which way is faster”.
Lessons Learned the Hard Way
My experience diving has taught me that everything is safer with a buddy, never go it alone! And yet I broke that rule. And very quickly regretted it.
“What a stupid idea. What if there are bears? A lone target is easy prey for a cougar! My GPS keeps changing directions! Agh!”
Almost immediately I was out of shouting range from my partner, sliding down the steep hill, tripping on underbrush. I pushed myself to continue on, acknowledging that if things really got concerning I could always venture back up the hill to the trail.
It was sweet relief when the rustling I heard in the woods responded to my call and was not an angry bear I had disturbed. Phew. I vowed to never do that again.
Except the day before the race that trail needed to be marked. There were only two of us who knew how to get there but he was the race director and I was disposable staff. Guess who got to go bush-whacking again?
As a safety measure to help keep racers on course, the trails needed to be marked keep participants on track. Think of the colored tape you see tied around trees marked to be cut, or around stakes at construction sites.
I was sent out with a hiking backpack full of markers to pin every quarter mile or so, as well as stakes and directional signs to help racers navigate. The backpack was not mine nor sized to fit me, but I did try a few new pieces of gear on this hike. I have separate reviews for my Eddie Bauer trail shorts and PStyle that get to the point, but also used a hydration system for the first time and highly recommend this to any new adventurers.
The hydration bladder hooks to the top, inside of the backpack, keeping the weight high and centered. The hydration tube is fed through the top of the pack and attached to a shoulder strap up front. Normally I struggle to reach around my side to pull out my water bottle and then shove it back into its slot. Maybe my arms are short or I have limited rotation in my torso, but I always end up having to ask someone for help! Since this hike was solo, it was immensely simpler to grab the straw from my shoulder strap and sip as I went.
As any Pacific Northwest (PNW) native knows, layers are always a must and they served me well. When I was in the shade it was rather cool, but as soon as I got out on the ridgeline the sunshine baked me!
To help handle that sunshine, I wore a ballcap. Unless you are wearing some big bug-eyed sunglasses, there is typically a gap between your brow and the rim of the glasses that the sun annoyingly peeks through. A hat is a very easy fix to that.
Take Two - Try to Not Get Eaten
When it comes to nature, typical black bears like we have in Washington are crepuscular, which means they are most active during the dawn and dusk hours. As are cougars, to an extent.
Of course, I only had early Friday morning before the race to mark that trail, so my solo (not advised), off-trail (not advised) adventure would be just after dawn (also, not advised). Understandably, I was nervous. The volunteer who drove me up to the drop point read me like a book and did a very human thing - he loudly disturbed all of the surrounding nature by honking the car horn multiple times with the intention of scaring off anything in the vicinity.
I like the idea of not interfering with nature, I do generally stay on trail and want to respect the homes of our furry, feathered and scaled neighbors. But I also like the idea of not being someone’s breakfast.
While wandering the woods looking for something familiar, I used a trick to find the trail - I looked for signs of humans. There were plenty of downed trees, but eventually I spotted a few that hadn’t fallen, they had been cut. Lo and behold, a few of those evenly sliced tree trunks led me to the trail!
I hold firm that I will never, ever run up a trail, but I can be convinced to lightly jog on the descent. I tried to maintain a leisurely pace down but honestly, I was terrified. If you have ever played with a cat you know that a piece of string is nothing of note until it starts moving. I viewed myself as one big tasty treat for a cougar that just wouldn’t be able to help chase after me careening down the trail. Every single time my backpack brushed the bushes I startled, wildly looking around behind me before tentatively moving on.
I resorted to singing, clapping randomly, and moved my bear bell to the bottom of the backpack so it would ring more often. Ironically, I ended up startling another hiker with my antics, but he was a good sport about it and picked up my song carrying it on in the other direction.
Challenges Lead to Growth, Right?
For brevity’s sake, I will say that the race went off without a hitch. No racers were lost nor injured and everyone had a grand ol’ time!
Inevitably, come the Monday after, I got to bush-whack to that same damn trail once again to take down all of the markings. At this point, I knew how to get there and refused to go at dawn. It went smoother, but I still hold out that I am not a fan of hiking alone. Safety first!
If you have to hike alone, there are certain safety precautions that are a must. Have a more reliable navigation system and it is incredibly important for someone to know what trail you are on and when you expect to return.
Adventures are more comfortable and fun with a certain element of safety, instead of wild naivety and unpreparedness.