I’ve been chasing a goal for a few years: four loops on the Wild Oak Trail. Four 28 mile loops of rugged terrain, big climbs, and intermittent, runnable descents. I made my first attempt in October 2018 and just returned from my 5th attempt, the February 2021 running. But to really understand this journey, I need to back up a tad further.
I ran my first ultra (50M) in 2017 and was immediately hooked. I loved the training and discipline required to prepare for a 10+ hour adventure. I loved the middle miles when finishing felt almost impossible and the last 10 miles when finishing was not if but when. I loved the mental challenge as much as the physical challenge. I loved the pain I felt the day after, knowing I pushed myself and in due time will recover, building strength for what may lie ahead. I loved the community of ultra runners and the miles shared with strangers. I loved it all. But that first 50 miler was a humbling experience, quickly discovering how underprepared I was for climbing up and down the San Juan mountains of Colorado. While I finished the race, the last 25 miles were a suffer-fest, and yet it took all but a few days for me to relight the fire for San Juan Solstice 2018 where I would seek some revenge.
It was clear I needed more climbing. I needed more time on my feet. I needed to suffer more in training to suffer less in the race. I needed to level up my training. So I sought out trails within an earshot of our home to better prepare myself for another crack at San Juan Solstice and it didn’t take long to find The Wild Oak Trail. Finally, in late 2017 and a month removed from finishing my second 50 miler, I shuffled out to my car at 4:30 am, drove 2.5 hours out 66, down 81, through Bridgewater College, through the busy intersection of Mt Solon, across the North River, and eventually to the gravel parking lot of the Wild Oak Trail. I had not a clue other than it was a 28 mile loop with some climbing. What could possibly go wrong?
Surprisingly, not much. I shuffled up and down the trail, following the white blazes, unknowingly taking the dry route to Camp Todd, and then shuffling across the 96 road crossing and up the old trail to Hankey Mountain. Some miles later I was urgently scrambling down the trail, trying to beat sunset, and mostly terrified I made a wrong turn somewhere. And then a suspension bridge emerges in sight and I knew it was less than a mile back to the car. I finished that loop feeling destroyed. Legs hurt, back hurt, I was dehydrated and hungry. I was physically beat up. The drive home is rather uneventful. Back up 81 and then 66 east until 2 lanes turns to 4 (or is it 5 now?). Yet somewhere around Front Royal, the mind starts to appreciate what was accomplished and the energy for a return trip to The Wild Oak Trail starts to build.
Home life was busy. Ryan was 3, Dylan was 18 months, two dogs, work, plus all the normal life bits. Most months became an exercise in scheming ways to get back to The Wild Oak Trail. So I returned a month later, with some false confidence, and ripped another 6h 30m loop. Like the last time, I woke up the next day in pain. Tight achilles, brutally sore quads, back pain, and a headache from the dehydration. Yet within a few days I was mostly recovered and bouncing around the local trails, evilly plotting my next loop. I had roughly four months to prepare for San Juan Solstice and the Wild Oak trail became my training partner. But there was one special trip that planted the seed for four loops even if it all felt impossible.
I planned for a mid February loop, two months from my first Wild Oak adventure, only to discover theres an event happening that day. I say planned because getting to The Wild Oak Trail required coordination of work and kids and generally unwise to abandon Nicole on short notice. And as much as I wanted to respect the race, my training was a singular focus. So I contacted the RD and let her know I’d be there but would stay out of the way. I showed up Friday morning, snuck onto the trail 20 minutes ahead of the four loopers, and it all felt like another wonderful day on The Wild Oak Trail. I eventually watched John Kelly scoot up Big Bald with ease and enjoyed the solitude as John was miles ahead of the group. About 10 miles later, another runner came up behind me and we enjoyed the last leg back to the parking lot. I finished my loop in 6h to find the RD and her small crew hanging out, greeting runners as they transition between loops. It was there she imprinted upon me, “come back in October for four loops.”
Four loops felt impossible but the seed was planted. I kept coming back for training runs, sometimes twice a month and rarely more than six weeks between visits. The possibility and the idea of four loops grew with each trip. It all seemed to be working as I got my revenge at San Juan Solstice, finishing two hours faster than the year before. Suddenly four loops felt marginally feasible so I threw my name into the hat for October 2018.
From here is a pattern of attempting four loops, doing other races to better prepare for four loops, and generally maintaining a singular focus that’s lasted since early 2018. Everything I’ve done has been geared toward this mission. From running a night 50 miler (OSS/CIA) to The Ring to doing lots of unsupported distances that culminated with 75 miles on the PCT last October. It’s all been a singular focus to finish four loops on The Wild Oak Trail. I dare not bore the few that will read this with every detail of my life but want to recap the attempts with a BLUF (bottom line up front) for each. This is gonna sting.
- Great first loop with Ryan Kidweiler. Rarely easy but still not hard.
- Climbing up Little Bald on loop two was rough. I powered through and charged into Todd, switched on my headlamp, and kept grinding up Big Bald. None of it easy but I kept moving forward.
- Then I stumbled, tripped, and fell for most of the last 10 miles of loop two. My legs were shot and quite literally, everything hurt. The thought of a third loop broke me and I battled a full range of emotions in those final miles back to the parking lot. After eating and resting a bit, I climbed into my car to get some sleep. I realized here that I was massively underprepared for 112 miles and was humbled by my limited ultra experience.
- A few short hours I woke from my car and geared up for a third loop before I could change my mind. This time a painful 9 hour suffer-fest in otherwise perfect conditions. I had zero expectations of a 4th loop and was mostly happy to be out running again even if I was walking more than running.
- Several hours after finishing loop three and well into night two, I shuffled back out to attempt a 4th loop that would have me finish just before the cutoff. This was a bad idea as I made it halfway up Little Bald before descending back to the parking lot. I was stumbling and tripping and my legs were shot. Continuing on just didn’t feel safe; ~90 miles in the bag but 22 miles short of the goal, womp, womp.
- This was my first Wild Oak DNF.
- I was determined for revenge even if the pain of 90 miles was but a few months before so I foolishly signed back up for another four loop attempt. I forced myself to run Stonewall a month after my DNF, all to work on the mental aspects of ultra running. To grind out miles when my body is clearly not up to the task. Stonewall proved just that, with my legs not fully recovered, I hammered out a slow 50 miles, navigating from one aid station to the next.
- Unfortunately I suffered a bad ankle sprain in January and it never quite recovered. I decided to show up for February 2019 anyway because sometimes things work out for the better and the only way to find out is to show up.
- But things didn’t work out for the better. I muscled out a loop in near perfect conditions to immediately call it quits. My ankle nor my mind was prepared for three more loops.
- Another DNF.
- Likely my best attempt even if I didn’t surpass the 90 mile mark from the year prior. Great first loop. I went fast yet conserved energy, only pushing pace when the trail opened up. I changed my socks and got back out for loop two. All was good.
- I recall climbing up Little Bald a second time with relative ease yet the brief runnable sections proved slower. I trucked on and mostly had an uneventful second loop. Uneventful until the last 6 miles brought on some stomach issues. I took some time after loop two to let my stomach settle and some 45 minutes later ripped back out to start loop three.
- Little Bald a third time was certainly harder. Climbing proved a bit slower but shuffling between climbs felt easy. I was cruising along, roughly a mile from the top of Little Bald, and then I sprained my ankle. This was a cartoonish fall, flying into the air and losing my gear in every direction. It was bad. I’ve done enough damage to my ankles over the years to know a mild sprain from a bad one and this was the latter. So I sat on the trail, ate a pop tart, evaluated my options, and eventually limped 4 miles into Camp Todd.
- Nearly 70 miles into my attempt, I called it quits. Another DNF.
The pattern continues, what could go wrong?
- At this point anger and disappointment were driving my decision making which is a very dangerous place. After my October 2019 attempt, I went out to Devil Dog to prove I can finish 100 miles and that I did. It was a strange feeling as it brought relief but didn’t satisfy my hunger. I recall coming home that Sunday morning after 27 hours in Prince William Forrest and it was just another Sunday with the kids. Monday came and it was just another Monday. Completing my first 100 gave me nothing even thought I tried hard to convince myself otherwise, so I looked ahead yet again to four loops in February.
- Loop one was a breeze. Erick Kuhlman kindly joined me in this conquest and we bopped around The Wild Oak Trail, sharing stories and gabbing on like we’ve done so many times. We ate, gathered our gear, and shuffled back out for loop two as if all was right.
- Then things got quiet. We didn’t say much going up Little Bald a second time. I fell behind and we collectively fell into our own paces. He shuffled into Todd a few minutes ahead of me and we both had looks of despair on our faces. Mine was worse. After The Ring, Hot TWOT, and then Devil Dog, I was not mentally prepared to grind through another 60+ miles on the Wild Oak Trail. My legs were beat up but I was far less recovered mentally.
- I quit. Another DNF.
I hit pause on my four loop attempts. The family and I moved to Seattle (August 2020) and life with 3 young boys (6,4,1) meant far less time escaping for long days in the mountains. I knew (or know) four loops will come but it finally felt like something I’d come back to later in life and not now. I started to focus on strength training and rebuilding my body, exhausting most weeks lifting heavy things and then running most days on tired, sore legs. It was a different type of training but it felt productive.
After a tiring move and mostly a need for some quiet time in the mountains, I abruptly planned a long adventure on the PCT. I found a 75 mile stretch from Stevens Pass to Snoqualmie that had big climbs and not a single road crossing. So on zero prep, I started out at midday and ripped south for 75 miles. It all felt normal and at times easy. Two days later I was back lifting and running and the thoughts of four loops re-emerged. How could 75 unsupported miles, 20+ hours, and 15k feet of elevation gain all feel so easy? How could I wake up two days later as if it never happened? Is the gap to four loops really that big?
With some renewed confidence, I kept the pattern while increasing my mileage. Nothing terribly long but I focused on running “more.” There were some 80+ mile weeks but mostly 50-60 miles while staying committed to strength training. Each run was a slow grind. Each run felt like the late stage of an ultra with all the heavy lifting I kept up. So I schemed a way to get back to VA in February to give four loops another shot. What could go wrong?
Turns out a lot. The conditions for Feb 2021 were bad. One amazing individual finished the task but the rest of us proved to be mortal.
- We finished loop one in 8h 45m, roughly 2 hours behind a normal pace and likely an hour behind my target pace. Climbing up Little Bald wasn’t so bad. The frozen, down trees on top of Little Bald were bad. Descending Little Bald was slow where the time you would otherwise make up was largely lost. Climbing up Big Bald wasn’t so bad, the normal slow grind. Descending Big Bald was actually easier but the runnable section into the 96 road crossing was much slower. Even if the conditions were bad, at this point it still felt doable.
- Then the trail to Hankey broke me. And the section after Hankey finished me. This is where runners make up time, navigating the ~easier parts of The Wild Oak Trail, yet each step was an exercise in sinking into the ice/snow and then lifting up and out to do it again. Running was not an option, it was just a slow walk with intermittent attempts to run that were impossible to sustain. I made peace with one loop as a we came down Lookout Mountain. Grinding out 10-12 hour loops with minimal to no running was not what I wanted nor was I prepared for two sleepless nights.
- I sat around the campfire at peace with one loop, mostly thankful for the time spent with friends on the trail and around the campfire. Hours passed and my sore muscles started to wake up again. So just after 8p, I geared up and decided to do another loop. The plan for a third loop was never really a thought, I simply had nowhere to go and I’d rather get more time on The Wild Oak Trail even if the conditions were suboptimal. Climbing up Little Bald was easy. It felt like the first time, hands in pockets, swiftly moving onward and upward. The bushwhacking up high was tolerable even if equally annoying a second time. But I started to slow down coming down Little Bald. I was hungry and eating only gave me a few minutes of satisfaction. I was clearly undernourished and didn’t take into account that my slow first loop burned far more calories than a hard, fast loop. So I started to fade hard. I hit Todd and took some time to eat. My bladder hose was frozen and there wasn’t any water coming if we marched on. It was another 6-7 hours grinding in the snow or 2 hours back to the car. Without water and minimal food and my current state of depletion, it was an easy decision to call it a night. Down the road we went, back to the parking lot.
- I quit. Another DNF.
I don’t know where this journey goes next. I know four loops will come but I’m not sure I can stomach more DNFs. I’ve received all sorts of recent advice, from how to train to how to prepare mentally to how to get past whatever psychological blocker I might have. I know others are trying to help but I never asked for their input. Maybe I should but they only see me at my worst and not the other parts of life.
The right thing to do is likely taking some time away. No racing, run for fun without mileage pressure, keep strength training, and so on. The right thing to do is put family and work first with running a distant third if third at all. I’ve said this many times before yet I keep pushing, I keep chasing.
It scares me to think The Wild Oak Trail is 3k miles from me but I have the Cascades in my backyard and well, the snow will melt soon and the mountains will call my name. When I’m ready, I’ll get back out, and when I’m ready, I’ll return to The Wild Oak Trail, to see my friends, and to finish this damn thing.
Afterthought (March 1)
A week later and I’m filled with anger, frustration, disappointment, and emptiness. I see where my near 9 hour loop went astray (uhhh, lazy nutrition). I see where I completely failed to dig into my bag of mental tricks when things got tough. I see where I let fear take ahold of me. I see where I strayed from my plan, to run alone on that first loop and rediscover what I love most about The Wild Oak Trail, the quiet time by myself.
I didn’t do any running in the week thats passed. I woke up Sunday, a week removed, and went for a walk. I didn’t have my watch on nor a plan. I just walked for a few hours. I’ll admit I shed some tears thinking about it all. Failure is hard, the sacrifices made in the past three years are hard to stomach knowing I’ve fallen short. But I’m excited for San Juan Solstice in June and getting back into the Cascades this summer. The thoughts of October 2021 are hard to escape but Nicole will kill me first before letting me fly across the country again. Whether it’s in 6 months or 6 years, I’ll be back, so no more crying about it, time to keep sharpening my axe.