by Jennifer Madeline
While I love running, I'm not a distance runner. It wasn't until I started working with Team HPB coach Alyssa Godesky that I was really able to increase my mileage without bringing on yet another injury. Most of my long runs are painfully slow, and even my "sprinting" isn't exactly breaking records. But, I'm diligent and persistent with my training, and I managed to qualify for the Boston marathon on my first try. Then I bested my marathon time by 3 minutes at Boston in 30 degree weather with monsoon rain and 25mph headwinds. Needless to say, I think I crave the discomfort of distance running - it makes me feel alive. (Please also allow me these few #humblebrags - I don't include them because I want to show off, but rather because I often could use the reminder that not only am I good enough, but I've also done some pretty bad-ass things since I got into triathlon and endurance sports).
I've also never really been a hiker or trail runner. I run trails casually in the winter, but have never done any trail races and certainly never did any difficult trail runs or ultras. So when the opportunity to run the Trail du Mont Blanc this summer with a friend arose, I wouldn't say I jumped at the chance, but I was intrigued by the challenge and, having no comprehension at all about what I was getting into, agreed to take it on. But only under one condition: while we had a certain number of miles to cover each day, I didn't want to focus on time or pace - I did not want to feel pressured to run faster than I was comfortable and I wanted to be able to pause and enjoy the moments. Another thing about me: I’m a people-pleaser: I will do nearly everything I can to make other people happy, even to my own detriment. Signing up for this challenge meant I’d be toeing a narrow line between making sure someone I cared for deeply was having a good time and not putting myself in a position that could result in serious injury in the remote mountains in a foreign country. My friend agreed to my condition, promised it wasn't about the pace or time but just covering the distance together, so we set about with our planning: we would cover the 110 miles in 4 days. For reference, the elite runners complete the actual UTMB race in about 21-22 hours, and hikers usually cover the distance in about 10 days. So 110 miles with 30,000 ft of climbing over 4 days was going to be a doozy - talk about diving headfirst into ultra-trail running!
While Alyssa prepared me like the amazing coach she is (think hours going up and down stairs with a 20lb weighted vest, trips to more challenging trails along the east coast for long runs/hikes), there was nothing that could really have prepared me for the sufferfest I experienced during those 4 days. Day 1 wasn't terrible - it was the shortest day we had planned, just a taste of what was to come.
The next 3 days were a challenge in physical and mental fortitude the likes of which I could never have imagined, having not attempted anything like this before. Everything hurt - it was like running 4 marathons back to back to back, plus climbing Mt. Everest at the same time. There were tears of pain, tears of laughter, tears of awe at the amazing scenery, grunts and groans as I pushed through the pain of blisters and sore muscles. But, the experience didn't break me...in fact, I have never felt so alive. The going was slower than we anticipated (translation: I was slower than we anticipated), so we faced longer days and later nights than we planned for. We limped into Chamonix late on the 4th night, totally spent. It was the biggest physical challenge I have ever accomplished.
Yet, for several reasons, I felt deeply unsatisfied with the experience in its aftermath. As we debriefed in the days that followed, it was clear that my friend and I had completely different perspectives about those 4 days in the Alps. Whereas I was thrilled, and plainly relieved, to have even covered that distance, my friend had expected a faster and apparently painless trek. While I wanted to truly appreciate the accomplishment no matter how much or little “running” we actually did, and while I experienced the pains and groans as feeling alive, he interpreted these things as signs of weakness. I was amazed at what my body had achieved (my swollen feet and ankles were testament to what I had just pushed through), but I couldn't really appreciate it...I was cheated out of truly giving myself the credit I deserved. And while deep down I know I have nothing to prove to anyone but myself, somehow, I felt like I had unfinished business with "ultra-trail running." I loved my experience of UTMB, but I needed, craved, something more.
I had heard from the same friend about the Timberline Trail, a 40 mile route with ~9,000ft of elevation gain circumnavigating Mount Hood outside of Portland, Oregon. We had planned to run it together, but when it was obvious that was not a good idea, I still couldn't get the thought out of my mind - it seemed like just the adventure I needed to really prove to myself what I'm capable of. Lucky for me, my twin sister lives in Portland, and my annual fall visit was coming up shortly. So I asked her if she would mind if I tackled Timberline during this year's visit: She was trepidatious, but jumped on board to support me on what would be a looong day of trails.
In the weeks leading up to Timberline, I did all sorts of preparation. Physical training ramped up, but I also read countless blogs about the trail, pored over maps, and really sought to understand what it would take to cover 40 miles solo in October in the Pacific Northwest. I knew I would have to start in the dark before sunrise if I was going to finish at a reasonable hour in the evening. I read about how to "ford" a river (I gained a new appreciation of "your wagon tipped over attempting to ford the river...you lost 2 axels, and baby Sue died of dysentery"). My sister and I mapped out trail heads where she could meet me to replenish supplies in the morning, and where she could join me for the last 10 or so miles in the afternoon. I felt ready.
Then, in early September, a woman hiker was killed by a cougar on Mount Hood, just off the Timberline Trail. It was the first fatal cougar attack ever reported in Oregon. Yikes...maybe this isn't such a good idea. But then wildlife officials killed the cougar they suspected of the attack, so I felt a little reassured (but not so reassured that I shared this precious tidbit of news with my parents--surely they didn't need to know about it!). I also reasoned (falsely, yes) that if this was the first attack ever, surely another attack SO soon after would be really unusual...in fact, I rationalized, now was the BEST time to go! The days leading up to the adventure saw constantly changing weather forecasts, but it was clear that temperatures would be near freezing and it would be wet and possibly snowy...not ideal. But there is no reasoning with a woman scorned, and when you add heartbreak into the mix, rationality goes out the window. I admit now that there was really nothing anyone could have said to make me back out of my plan; and it’s a testament to how well my friends and family know me that no one really tried--they just ensured I was doing it as safely as possible. So, I packed a Swiss army knife (:-P) and told myself I could take on a cougar and the cold weather.
On Saturday morning, I dressed in my winter running gear and at 4:30am, headlamp in place, I set off on the snow-covered Timberline trail. In the first mile, I got a cramp in my upper quadriceps, likely b/c I hadn't done anything to warm up before running out into 32 degree weather. So I slowed up my pace until the cramp started to fade, just in time to tackle my first river crossing. I heard the rushing water of the White River well before I could actually see it. When I finally reached the bank of the river, I looked up and down to find the best place to cross (like all the guides suggest)...but despite my preparation, turns out I pretty much suck at river fording. Fortunately b/c rainy season hasn't really started yet, and most of the snow melt that you see early in the summer was gone, the river crossings weren't dangerous. But with the exception of one or two of the smaller crossings, I without a doubt accidentally dunked one or both feet ankle deep into the freezing water. So I essentially ran 40 miles in sloshing sneakers...a point (or 3) for badassery! But lucky for me I had actually gotten trail shoes that fit properly, and miraculously I came away with barely any blisters...more badass points! The river crossings were the trickiest parts of the trail, and figuring out where to cross and then re-locating the trail on the other side really sucked up precious time. It got to the point that every time I heard rushing water, I felt a profound feeling of what I can best describe as "ugh". If it turned out to just be a trickle I could step over, I did a little happy dance.
The first 15 miles were the most challenging - I climbed up to the highest peak on the trail at ~7500ft, which was about 10 miles in. The temps were below freezing and there were several inches of snow at the top. The only saving grace was that at that height, I was above the clouds and caught the only glimpse of blue sky and Mt Hood that I would see all day, and it was just as beautiful as I imagined. I passed one hiker going in the opposite direction, which turned out to be a blessing because I could follow his footprints in the snow where the trail wasn't as obvious on the way down. It was also at this point where I saw some other, less desirable "footprints": those of a 4-legged large feline, i.e. not a house cat. Fortunately, I could tell the tracks were from the night before and were going in the opposite direction, but with the report of the cougar attack in the back of my mind, I clutched onto my Swiss Army knife (yes, yes, I realize how absurd this is...see rationality out the window above) and quickened my pace. The trail in this section once I descended the main peak was pretty rock-free and not too steep, so I was able to knock out several miles in good time. But the freezing temps had taken their toll and I was having trouble controlling my fingers - they were so cold I had lost all dexterity and had to resort to creative ways to access my nutrition and stow my trekking poles when I no longer needed them, since I couldn't actually grasp anything.
At around the 15mi mark, I met my sister at Cloud Cap trailhead for a perfectly timed quick break to replenish food and water, use the facilities and swap out my cold wet gloves for a pair of warm and dry ones. Rejuvenated, I set off on the next 15 miles, which would take me to Ramona Falls where she would be waiting for me in a few hours to run the last 10 miles with me back to Timberline Lodge. In this section, there were several challenging river crossings and switch backs. The new Elliot Glacier crossing that was opened up just 2 years ago after a massive flood/landslide wiped out a good part of the trail was actually really cool. You could still see all the debris and remnants from the landslide on either side of the trail and understand the magnitude of devastation that it must have caused at the time. I lost time at a few of the river crossings but managed to make up some of it on some relatively flat areas with well-packed trail that I could run at a decent pace. I had packed plenty of food/calories for the day's adventure, but had forgotten extra electrolytes, and that started to take a toll. Just when I was starting to feel a little light-headed, I came upon a beautiful waterfall and the site of my beautiful sister...and it wasn't a hallucination! She had hiked the 3 miles in from the Ramona Falls trailhead to meet me and keep me company during the last 10 miles. Having her there for the final push was amazing - it was mostly uphill and a dense wet fog rolled in, making visibility almost nothing. Because we could barely see a few feet in front of us, even with high quality head lamps, the going was slow. But we were motivated to finish before 8pm, which was when the restaurant at Timberline Lodge that serves a chocolate chip cookie a la mode in a skillet and boozy adult hot chocolate closes. There is nothing like a warm fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie and boozy hot chocolate to motivate you to get somewhere as fast as possible. And sure enough, we rolled into the Lodge with shower time to spare!
The final numbers were ~45 miles covered, 9,538ft gained, and just over 13 hours. I wish I could say I feel the profound satisfaction I was craving after UTMB, but I have to admit that hasn't come yet. I do feel proud that I was able to pull it off largely on my own (though I'm so grateful I had my sister there for her support), and I am continually amazed at what my body is capable of doing. Now that I'm safely through it, I admit that, while I don't have any regrets about taking on this challenge and I never really felt unsafe during the day, the whole adventure probably wasn't the smartest or safest thing I've ever done. And that's a lesson in itself...pigheadedness may have an appropriate time and place to manifest, up to a point. But when deep down you know something isn't wise yet choose to ignore all the reasons why, it’s worth questioning the mindset that got you in that situation to start with. When I set out on this fool's adventure, I told myself I had nothing to prove to anyone but myself. But the truth is no single activity is going to be sufficient proof that I'm good enough, which is what I really was hoping for. Believing that takes consistent daily reminders. So if I take anything away from this experience, it’s that I should be proud of where I've been and what I've accomplished, letting those accomplishments stand on their own merits and not in comparison to anyone else, and be thankful that I have the health and physical strength that allow me to do these crazy things. But even more, I should be proud of who I am today, because it’s not a single adventure that defines us...it’s the life we build and the people in it that matter the most. And these past few months have made me appreciate the network of supportive family and true friends that I have around me, and that makes me excited about what else is in store.
Team SFQ'er Jennifer Madeline is not only a badass ultra-running ironwoman; she's an oncologist and professor of medicine in her day job! Next up for her is 70.3 La Quinta in December.