WritingsThoughts, ideas, comments, diatribes, and rambles. A subjective take.
Running Around Mt Hood: The Timberline Trail
The first painless run after an injury is a startling joy, a cautious joy.
“Can I do this? Will the pain come back? Am I pushing it too soon? I have to push it sometime, might as well be now.”
When the pain doesn’t come back, all of the runs that I’ve spent nursing the stinging knee quickly fade from memory. The coddling, the careful steps, the painfully slow descents, they all get shelved. Finally, without pain, I can hurtle through the woods without thinking about each step.
After pacing Ethan at the Pine to Palm 100, my IT band pain had returned. Why exactly, it’s hard to say, but even with careful tending and strategic resting, I was not feeling really confident this past week that I could pull off a long run without the pain rearing its head and shutting me down. I was training and planning for the last two months, preparing to run around Mt Hood, and now my knee was going to make me wait for next season.
Still, it was fall break. The weather was perfect. And, improbably, I had a partner.
Sigurþór Einar Halldórsson, or Siggi as we call him, is an Icelandic idiot who is also dumb enough to enjoy running long distances for no reason. He caught wind last week that I might have something up my sleeve, so I told him to pack his shoes, and when I decided to give it a go, he was ready and willing.
The Timberline trail, to give some quick stats, is 40 miles even, with around 10,000′ of elevation gain, seven river crossings, and innumerable creek crossings. It runs almost entirely through wilderness land, crossing once through Mt Hood meadows ski resort. It is high quality trail but offers few bail options, and limited cell service. It’s manageable, but committing– almost anywhere on the trail, if you ‘fail’, you’ll have to walk at least 5-10 miles to get out.
We started at ten-past–seven, under clear skies and with insane winds out of the West that were whipping sand into the air. By the time that we finished the first descent into White River Canyon, I had a handful of grit in my left ear and I was tired of squinting. The nerves that I’d felt pacing around the cabin, making coffee at 6 am, dissipated as we headed off, dissolving into a healthier, process-oriented approach. No matter if I tanked and failed, it was good to get out and try.
For the better part of the day, I played the horse and Siggi played the reins. I like the feeling of moving quickly and with few pauses, but with more experience, or perhaps just an extra decade under his belt, Siggi calmly reminded me to slow-the-f-down on the uphills. His temperance likely saved my ass later in the afternoon, but for much of the morning I couldn’t help but think that ‘at this pace, we’re going to see the sunset’.
The course is just one little adventure after another through an ever changing landscape; often we were running over a dense pummice trail, but at times it was sand, or dirt, or mostly stone. Though I had run most of the trail in pieces during my training, it evolved differently during our run. I was able to appreciate both the sheer size of the mountain, but also the joy of being a capable being covering ground. Our progress wasn’t imperceptible- instead, distant volcanoes revolved about the horizon at each glance, and the mountain continued to reveal new faces.
After having bragged to Siggi about how each river crossing could be accomplished with dry feet, we both fell in on the second crossing as a likely log bridge proved deceptively elastic. At the far end of the crossing lay the first of the enormous hills, and our wet feet were soon forgotten as we emerged from the trees and the Timberline trail earned its name.
The first ten miles were easy, fast, and joyful. I still felt like we were moving slowly, but each time we passed a mental checkpoint we were beating my fastest predicted splits. So, I shut my mouth and kept walking the hills. There was plenty to look at.
Crossing Lambertson spur, we hit the high point of our run (7320′) with ten miles under our belts, before the trail dove down into moraine towards the Eliot Glacier. It’s amazing to run this part of the trail, with your head in the clouds and Mts Rainier, Adams, and St Helens dotting the horizon.
At the edge of the Eliot Glacier crossing, we were met by my girlfriend Taylor (@tschef) who visited us twice throughout the day to provide moral support and a bail option. Though she hiked in with the dog twice and threatened to bring cold soda, we stuck to our guns and remained unsupported throughout. She was the unsung hero of the day, driving for hours with poor directions just to give us glimpse of a smiling face.
The Eliot glacier crossing is the site of much confusion when runners try to onsight the loop. Years ago the trail made a sanctioned crossing below the tree line which was washed away in flooding. There, the trail now ends suddenly in a large and chossy cliff.
Instead of using the old crossing, or the sanctioned high-crossing on the ice of the glacier, runners (and hikers) piss off the forest service by crossing closer to the toe of the glacier, where a trail has been scratched out of the unstable moraine. On either side, a fixed rope tied to a questionable boulder provides some mental protection for scared hikers. In reality, the rope probably poses more danger than the trail, and the crossing is fairly casual if God has equipped you with even mediocre balance.
The Northwest aspect of Mt Hood evolves slowly from miles 10 to 30, where the trail eventually crosses Ramona falls. This is where most of the running happens, as the trail is smoother and largely downhill, cutting through burnt forest, dense trees, and across enormous valleys.
The West side is a special side of Mt Hood for me: I had never explored it before circumnavigating the mountain on skis, and I discovered then that this hardest-to-access side saves some of the best secrets for those who will put in the effort to access it. High at 9000′, the glaciers are most spectacular than anywhere else on the mountain, but are invisible to all but those who stand on them. At 6000′, where the Timberline trail skirts through the forest, the meadow grasses were showing fall colors as the mountain was shining above.
From around mile 22 to mile 30, the Timberline trail is almost entirely downhill. ‘Good!’ you say, ‘must have been fast!’. Indeed it was, but after all of those miles, I think that I’d rather run up them twice than down them once. The whole time that we ran that hill I was wondering when my knee would open the pain faucet. It occasionally talked to me, letting me know that it was paying attention and would punish me for any transgressions. I minded it, but still took a chance and let out the pace a bit. If only I could get to 30 miles at Ramona falls, I would smell the finish line.
At mile 26, Siggi and I were running through the woods when were we ambushed by a whippet. I thought that I was hallucinating. We were miles from Ramona falls, so what was Taylor’s dog doing here? Surely it hadn’t followed us since the Eliot Glacier. This, I thought, is what kidney failure is like.
Still, Siggi saw him too, so we waited for a few minutes and sure enough, Taylor came sprinting down the trail, winded and sweating. She had gone to the wrong trailhead (my poor directions) and had just missed us at the last trail crossing. A hiker told her that we had just turned the corner, so she sprinted after us. What a girl, and how good to see her there.
We made it to Ramona falls at 30 miles feeling tired, but with no major malfunctions. My knee held, painless. We could smell the barn. However, as these things go, the trail saves the best for last. 4,000′ of the trail’s 10,000′ comes during the last ten miles, 2,500′ of which comes immediately after Ramona falls in the mind-bending climb to Paradise Park.
This was a slow time. I was stronger than Siggi on the hills, with a winter of skimo training, a spring of mountain biking, and summer of running hills in my legs. Still, on each downhill, he flew past, running eight-minute miles before slowing to a hike on the ups. We leapfrogged each other as the miles slowly ground away.
Having driven to the end of the trail and hiked towards us, Taylor met us at the top of the last big climb with only two miles to go. Together, Siggi, Taylor, and I ran the welcoming but dishearteningly uphill miles to the lodge. We must have looked fairly haggard, as all of the usual tourist crowd yielded us a wide berth.
It was a sweet success to finish where we had started. I hurt all over, but nowhere in particular, and that was as it should be. Siggi too had a fine day, managing some stomach cramps only with about 100 yards to go. We made amazing time, finishing at 8:48:16, a time which made me quite content having planned to be out for likely 10 hours or more.
There was no knee explosion. No blister which could not be popped and taped in the field. No vomiting. No renal failure. Just a beautiful loop and a beautiful effort with a good friend on some great trail.
And Taylor… leave it to Taylor… She had BBQ potato chips, huckleberry ice cream, and beer waiting for us at the car. What an amazing girl. Those things sound like an awful combination now, but just then, when it hurt as much to sit as to stand, they were perfect.
Also perfect was the contentment of seeing a dream of mine through to a successful conclusion. It is one thing to barely suffer my way through to a goal, and another more satisfying thing entirely to get there in good style with a smile on my face. Hazarding the risks of failure and pain paid off in spades this time.
Stats: Timberline Trail, 40.05 miles, 9605′ elevation gain by GPS, 8:48:16 C2C. GPS data. — Gear:
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