Walking. It’s boring. It’s bad for recovery. It’s a waste of time when you’re used to wheels. Before this week, I’d probably walked less than 40 miles the entire year. Mainly to and from the fridge and bathroom. Cyclists avoid it almost as much as they avoid running. We have a similar mantra to the Marines’: “don’t run when you can walk, don’t walk when you can stand, don’t stand when you can sit, don’t sit when you can lay down, don’t lay down when you can sleep.” Except for cyclists, it’s just: “don’t walk…ever.” Especially up stairs. With our fear of not being able to exercise while seated, Spencer and I set out on something harder than any other cyclists has done this year. A long, long walk.
Mt. Rainier is a big volcano. There’s a long hiking trail that goes around the base. It’s 93 miles long and has 22,000 feet of elevation gain (and loss). Spencer and I decided to do a little cross training during our mandatory time away from our bikes, and thought doing a short backpacking trip would do us some good. We’d been talking about it for a few months but didn’t decide on the destination until a few days before the trip. The Wonderland Trail seemed like a good choice…especially since it was the very first map I found while looking through the map section of REI.
The recommended allotment of time to hike the Wonderland Trail is 10-15 days. That’s less than 10 miles a day. Spencer and I quickly decided that distance was for sopping wet wusses and knew that we could do it in about 3 days. That’s over 30 miles a day. I’d done some backpacking before, and had done a 50 mile trip in 2 days when I was 15. I’m 24 now, so if I could do 25 miles a day way back then, I could easily do 34 miles a day now since I’m 9 years older. Who knows, maybe we’d even do it in 2 days? Hell, have you met Spencer and I? We’re absolutely amazing…at everything. Probably the best all around human beings in every category. One thing is certain, we don’t lack self-confidence.
I was so un-concerned about the difficulty of hiking 31 miles a day, I went ahead and did a hard plyometrics workout a few days before. Lots of jumps, running, and sprints and a hard core workout. It left me extremely sore, and I was still very sore the day we started the hike. Spencer was so un-concerned about the difficulty of the hike that he decided to get his wisdom teeth removed a few days before. Spencer, we probably could have used a little of that wisdom—just sayin.
I took the Greyhound up to Tacoma and Spencer picked me up in his really cool yellow car. We stopped to buy a compass and after an un-satisfyingly medium-sized breakfast for lunch at Sharis, we began our drive out to Mt. Rainier National Park. But first we stopped at Safeway for a second lunch. It’s the off-season, after all. Spencer has already gained 27 pounds. Mainly in his head. He’s coming for you, Lang.
We got on the trail at 6pm and immediately took a wrong turn no more than 30 feet from starting. Whoops. We got back on track and burned through 6 miles in 2.5 hours. We were flying. It was almost all uphill. And about an hour of it was in pitch dark. Shit, if we could do 6 miles in 2.5 hours, we might be able to bust out a 40 miler the next day! Man, we’re amazing! No one even compares! We’re unstoppable!
We got up at 5:45 and were on the trail at 7 after a restless night where I dreamt about bears circling our tent all night (we left all the food in the tent with us because we couldn’t be bothered to put it in a tree). Our pace was brisk. I was still very sore from my plyo workout but endorphins quickly kicked in and I felt fine. We treated the course like a race, tearing apart the climbs and trying to rest on the downhill and flat. Except that there was no flat. Ever. And it turns out that hiking downhill with a 35 pound pack isn’t easy. Our knees, ankles and feet started taking a bit of a beating. Not to worry. We can tolerate pain. F’s sake, we’re bad-asses, right?!
We took turns taking pulls on the uphill, trying to shed imaginary competitors and drop the wheel suckers behind us. When our imaginary opponents had been dropped, we attacked each other, trying to crack one another—all in innocent silence while pretending we weren’t savagely trying to defeat the other on a hiking trip (right Spencer? Or was it just me?).
We stopped for a break to take a crap in the woods after 3.5 hours. We downed food and water and had a glance at the map, expecting to have gone 10 miles or more. We had done 6. Crap. We were drenched in sweat despite the cool, misty mountain air at 5,000 feet. We had been going fast—we thought. Maybe this was going to be harder than we thought.
But we were sitting down at the time so our confidence was high while we convinced ourselves that we in-fact could make our planned campsite at mile 35. And that we could actually make it to the next campsite at mile 40! Spencer and I brim with confidence when our mouths are full of beef jerky and chocolate trail mix. We pursued our goal with even more zest.
It didn’t last long. Spencer’s ankles were taking a beating on the downhill. He had been rolling them all morning and had taped them up, but the downhill was destroying them. I dropped him on the descent, taking pride in beating my teammate. At last we reached the bottom and immediately started the next climb. We put in a hard attack and were at the top an hour or two later. A little more cracked than we expected. In fact, we were a lot more cracked than we expected. And the upcoming descent ruined us. At this point, Spencer was employing two walking sticks while grimacing down the hill. It took us over 2 hours to descend it. Our knees were wrecked. My quads were flimsy. Calves cramped. Still plenty of energy though, so we continued on. No flat. We got to the base and immediately started the next climb. Spencer gave me a great lead out up the lower section of the climb, then I attacked and dropped him. I was feeling good. I was tired and sore, but the uphill felt great on my joints compared to the downhill. We stopped twice on the way up to eat and re-group; Spencer was losing confidence in his knees and legs and wasn’t sure that we’d be able to complete 36 miles that day. I was still optimistic and feeling pretty good. So I attacked him again when we got going.
The scenery was amazing. But enough about that. I grew my lead.
The top of the climb came at last and we started the descent. All of a sudden, my ankles and feet cramped up and I became paralyzed like Spencer. We stopped a half hour into the decent for a rest. We started up again and I felt worse. We both hobbled downhill with increasing pain. The map said we had one long decent and one LONG climb ahead of us before we got to our back-up campsite—the one we decided upon if we weren’t going fast enough to make our goal. The back up was still 10 miles away. We had gone…gulp…a little under 20 miles that day. It was now 6:30. We came to the realization that 10 more miles wasn’t going to happen, so we compromised and decided upon a campsite 5 miles away. We slogged on.
20 minutes later we reached a campsite. We still had 5 miles to go. We stared at each other, dazed, frowning, torn to pieces. And without much conversation, both hung our heads low and drug our dead legs and bodies a few more painful steps and set our bags down. We weren’t going a foot further.
What happened next was pretty pathetic. Or apathetic. Or both. I set the tent up while Spencer shit his brains out. We hobbled around like paraplegics as with third degree burns covering the entirety of their legs. We set out our sleeping pads and laid them down in the mud. And lay there.
And lay there.
And finally made dinner. Ate a beautiful dinner of corned beef and top ramen, crawled in the tent and fell asleep at 9:20.
The alarm went off at 5:45. We both lay there, incredibly sore. I don’t think either of us have ever been that sore before. I moved my leg a little bit in my sleeping bag while the alarm went off and a searing shot of acid-fire was sent through my hamstring. We had to make up 10 miles today. That meant a 40-mile day. Twice as much as we did the previous day. We both knew that wasn’t happening. It was raining outside. And dark and cold. And we could barely sit upright. We went back to sleep until 7:30. 10 hours of deep, deep sleep.
We finally got up and started hiking. Back to the car. We were defeated. It only took this conversation to decide it:
Spencer: Kennett, I don’t think we can make it.
Kennett: Yeah I know.
Our new plan was to spend the next two days hiking the 25 miles back to the car. It would have taken us over a week to complete the 93 miles and we were already getting low on food. And there was no way our joints could hold up.
But within 10 minutes of hiking, the endorphins kicked in and I felt good.
Kennett: Hey Spencer, maybe we can make it. At least, we could try. And if we don’t think we can make it after today we can get off the trail at mile 55 and hitch a ride back to the car.
Spencer: Yeah…maybe. I don’t know.
The endorphins weren’t running as strong in Spencer’s legs and he was thinking more clearly than me. We ended up continuing on back to the car.
Basically the next two days went like this: pain, suffering, pain, suffering. Eating. Pain, suffering. Hobbling.
Spencer looked like a little old man with a cane. A broken little hobbit. “Bilbo Fucking Baggins” according to Spencer. I couldn’t stop laughing at his pain. I would be up ahead on the trail, descending on my own, and I would start laughing by myself from a combination of my own pain, and imagining what Spencer must look like back there on the trail by himself. Hobbling, grimacing, bent and broken. Tripping over rocks and rolling his ankles. Getting angry and smashing his walking sticks on rocks. Finding new walking sticks. Walking sticks breaking under his weight. More swearing. Possibly a tear or two. More pain. I laughed at the thought of this, stubbed my toe on a boulder and cursed. Rolled my own ankle and limped over tree roots. Searched for walking sticks of my own. We weren’t meant for this. Our bone density showed it. Being frank, we were fucked. Our legs were absolutely fucked.
The last mile of the trail took us over an hour.
3 days and one evening of hiking and our legs were more ruined than the Tour of Utah, Cascade, Mt. Hood, and Redlands combined. We were blistered. Feet, shoulders, and backs were rubbed raw from the backpacks. Spencer’s ankles and feet were swollen. Our knees clicked when we bent them. We were bow-legged, hobbling, old men. We got a hotel in Yakima that night.
Backpacking is like a stage race. You’re completely consumed in the task at hand. Nothing else matters. You wake up and eat, pack up the tent. Hike. Hike all day and eat all day. You get to camp, exhausted, and set up the tent and get water. And sit around and eat until you go to sleep. It’s an amazing thing. You do so little while doing so much. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had a good thing going. They didn’t spend time wondering what the point of their lives were or if they were living up to their full potential and ‘making the world a better place.’ They didn’t ponder the meaning of their existence. They pondered their existence. Whether or not they’d survive the next day. Survival in the wilderness is the only thing that matters. Just like training and racing. Full concentration and suffering demand every fiber of will and effort in your body and mind. The action in itself gives life meaning. Backpacking and racing are all consuming. And when you’re sitting in the dark on the cold wet ground, little things like a hot cup of apple cider are the cherry on top.
This was heavily contrasted by the comforts (and meaninglessness) of the hotel. Hot water on command. Huge soft beds in a warm room. Food at hand and mind-dumbing entertainment on the TV. It’s no wonder why people are miserable. Life is about pain and suffering, they’re the only things that matter and the only things worth living for.