Wildwood Trail Forest Park Portland Oregon

30 Miles on the Wildwood Trail: My First Ultra Run

Milestones are funny things. I’ll never forget the elation and exhaustion I felt after my first 5k race. My first 10k race felt more like a building block than a spire, but I still enjoyed the pride that came along with pushing myself beyond a previous boundary. My first half marathon distance run was sadly punctuated by my first realization that I needed to either wear better shirts, strategically place band-aids, or lubricate certain, ah, sensitive areas of my upper body. Finally, there was my first marathon, whereupon finishing, I had to take several minutes to compose myself as the combination of pure joy and raw emotion nearly overwhelmed me. I may be more sentimental than most, but in the world of running, I have plenty of company.

The past year has found me acquiring a new obsession with trail running. Almost by association, I have also discovered a passion for ultra running. That may sound strange coming from somebody who has only finished two road marathons so far and whose longest trail run up to this point was 16 miles, but I assure you, the eagerness to run far is real. I have learned many lessons about when and how to slowly build up distance in my training. I recognize that I have plenty more work to put in before I can call myself a true endurance athlete, but after this past weekend, I feel comfortable identifying myself as an ultra runner.

The Wildwood Trail in Forest Park is described with awe by many who have traversed it. I have read endless accounts from runners and hikers extolling the beauty of this singletrack wonder. I myself have run the southernmost 8 miles of the trail on previous occasions, but I had never been north of that on this 30-mile trail. Knowing that the trail was well-marked and having the course mapped out on my trusty GPS watch, I felt encouraged setting my sights on Wildwood for my first ultra run.

I prepared myself on the morning of September 19, 2015 with coffee and dry cereal (Peanut Butter Panda Puffs, if you must know). I had already loaded up my hydration vest with 2.5 liters of water. I also loaded up a 1/2 liter handheld bottle with water. One of the 1/2 liter soft-flasks on my hydration vest also contained an electrolyte tablet. Other nutrition consisted of various GU gels, GU chews, salt tablets, and three slices of Sizzle Pie Raising Arizona pizza. Don’t judge me. 30 miles is a long time and when I get down, I crave pizza. Do not knock it until you try it. When I was satisfied that I was fully prepared, I ordered up an UBER cab.

The driver had been waiting around the corner at Stumptown and showed up in 15 seconds. I was surprised, but eagerly snatched up my gear and stepped out the door. At that moment, I realized I was still wearing my slippers. This was a fortunate catch. I grabbed my Altra Lone Peak 2.0s and bounced down the stairs toward the car in my socks. Michael, my driver, apologized for the quick arrival (which wasn’t really a problem at all) and away we went.

I chose to run the Wildwood Trail from north to south. I recognized that this would mean a difficult climb between miles 25-27 and 3,000 feet of elevation gain overall. I’m training for the Silver Falls 50k on November 7, which has 4,000 feet of elevation gain, so it was important to me that I test my mettle before that race. I wanted a baseline to provide myself with a goal to shoot for in November. The drive to the trailhead took about 25 minutes and required one u-turn to find the trailhead, but it was all good. Michael was an interesting person with great stories and I got to watch the sun rising over Mounts Hood, Helens, and Adams. Plus, any day I get to see the gorgeous St. John’s Bridge is a good day.

I jumped out of the car and walked for about 50 feet before finding the actual sign for the trailhead. I quickly stuffed my jacket in my pack. The weather felt much warmer than 55 degrees and I was happy to strip down to shorts and t-shirt from the start. I triggered the activity start on my watch and dropped into the forest.

I didn’t bring my GoPro on this run. I had my phone with me in case I needed to get in contact with my wife, but I wasn’t shooting any photos or video on this run. I also wasn’t listening to headphones. I wanted this to be a pure running experience with no distractions. More so in trail running than on the road, the sound of my breathing is cathartic to me. I feel more in tune with my body as minor aches and pains pass through from time to time. I am more prepared to make adjustments to my form and stride when necessary. As I began my first descent, I immediately noticed the stillness of the forest. My next realization was the greenery. The colors and thickness of the forest were spectacular. This place felt as remote as any hike I’ve ever done. And it’s in the city.

The next thought caught me by surprise. I skipped over a few roots and stones and hit the first foot bridge. Looking up, I saw the blue diamond spray painted on a tree marking the Wildwood Trail. A few feet above that was a sign that read “30 Miles.” For a split second, I felt actual dread. I wasn’t expecting this. I was excited for 30 miles. I was prepared for 30 miles. There was no problem. Something in the far reaches of my mind jolted me for a moment. I shook my head and smiled. There was only one other car at the trailhead and my UBER was long gone. I was on my own. The panicked part of my brain had no choice but to sit down, shut up, and hold on for the long, arduous ride for the next several hours. The dedicated part of my brain that has been pushing me on my running journey for the last 2 years took over and during the next mile, I calmed down and settled into a comfortable rhythm.

Soon enough I had a new issue. There are markers on the Wildwood Trail nearly every quarter mile with a blue diamond and a mileage marker. It wasn’t long before my GPS watch was underestimating my distance. If not for the markers, I don’t know that I would have made it. At mile 5.5, my watch was off by more than 2 miles. As time dragged on and mileage increased, it would have been really discouraging thinking I was at mile 18 instead of 25. Identifying the issue, I shrugged and persisted. This is always a possibility with trail running and the blue diamond trees were going to guide me home.

My plan was to eat every 45 minutes for the first few hours. Knowing my nutrition history, I would begin to detest food somewhere around the 3.5 hour mark. At that point, I would only be able to eat something every hour. After 45 minutes, I ate a caffeinated gel. After 1:30, I went after one of the pizza slices. But I had made a miscalculation. The slices were from a large pizza. A small would have worked better. I unthinkingly devoured the entire slice and kept running. In the end, I don’t regret eating the pizza, but it did throw off my nutrition plan. I felt full and sluggish for a mile or two, and I couldn’t eat again for over an hour. Despite my nutrition schedule getting off track, everything was going great. I resolved to move back to my every 45 minutes eating routine and avoid the giant pizza slices unless I craved them later on.

There are myriad feeder trails throughout the Wildwood Trail and plenty of people as you move south along the trail. In the first 6 miles, however, I only saw 4 other people… and 3 dogs. None of the dogs were on leashes and all were more than 20 feet ahead of their owners. I’m all for having dogs on the trail and all of these dogs were well-behaved and posed no threat, but there are signs everywhere on the trail requiring leashes. When you’re totally alone and come around a corner face-to-face with a huge dog, it takes your brain a moment to register what sort of animal this is. It takes a moment to see the people trailing way behind and breathe a sigh of relief. Even for someone who loves dogs like myself, it’s a disconcerting feeling. There are so many people who have had unfortunate run-ins with dogs that leave them with a debilitating fear of all dogs. Irrational or not, this is a note for dog owners. No matter how well-behaved your dog is on this trail, put it on a leash. The next runner, hiker, walker, or bike rider you meet may have been attacked by a dog in the past. Please give that person peace of mind by having your animal on a leash. It’s not only common courtesy, it’s the rule in this particular park. And not to harp, but the two dozen bright plastic bags of dog refuse littering the trail did very little to improve my view of dog owners on this day.

Back to the run. It was around mile 15 when I first started to feel fatigued. I didn’t have any major aches, but there was a dull pain beginning to set in at my major joint areas. I was still moving at a good clip. I did some quick calculations and realized that I was a little behind on water consumption. I was planning to refill my bottles at Pittock Mansion, which lies around the 27-mile mark of the trail. I resolved to drink more water over the next several miles to get back on track.

Mile 17 marks a comfortable downhill stretch followed by a 350-foot hill climb. I was cruising down this stretch when I caught my toe on a root. I thought it was a leaf when I saw it so I didn’t hop over it as aggressively as I should have. I began to tumble to my left and started to roll to prevent a major collision with the ground. Pressing my handheld water bottle into the ground, I braced myself for impact. Instead of rolling, I awkwardly smashed into the dirt, which gave way completely and sent me several feet down into a small ravine. My shoulder had taken the brunt of the impact, but I had knocked the wind out of myself as well. I stood up and brushed myself off, climbed back up, and walked until my breath came back to me. Strangely, just as I fell, another runner 50 feet in front of me caught a root and hit the deck as well. It was the only other fall I saw all day. He landed much harder than me and was covered in dirt, but was no worse for wear. We congratulated each other on our good fortune. We would leapfrog each other from this point on for the next 6 miles. Unfortunately, this marked the first big uphill climb of the day and the fall had taken all the wind out of my sails. I wound up hiking nearly all of the climb before reaching level trail and breaking into a run.

Somewhere around mile 23, my wife called me. She had parked at the zoo/Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial where the trail ends. The plan was for her to run to Pittock Mansion and back, with the intent that I would finish my run somewhere around the same time as her. I was moving at a good clip at this time and I was feeling pretty confident. I encouraged her to run the 3 miles from Pittock to the zoo and I would catch up to her at the parking lot. I advised her that I was pretty sure that I was approaching the stone house on the trail and would be beginning the major 700-foot ascent from there to Pittock Mansion. We hung up and I cruised along the descent to stone house. On my approach, I was struck by how many people were hanging about. I scanned the crowd nonchalantly until my eyes settled on a familiar figure.

My wife had run all the way to stone house, 5.5 miles from the zoo. Completing the circuit back to the zoo would make this her longest trail run. I could not have been happier to see her. This was the best surprise I could have received and it took me a moment to say anything (see above where I talk about being a bit of an emotional wreck when I push my physical limits). We ascended together on the steep trail to Pittock Mansion, running when we could and power hiking when we had to.

Somewhere around mile 21, I had taken a salt tablet. It seemed to help a lot and I should have taken one right before this ascent, but I decided that I was done with food at this point, which included salt tabs. This was a mistake. Any food at this point would have been advisable and I should have stuck to the plan. I took on another gel around mile 26, but it was too late. It did some good, but didn’t have the impact it might have a couple miles earlier. Lesson learned. Eat before the going gets really tough. Stick to the plan.

My wife had brought me enough water to make it to the end and I was happy not to have to stop to refill any water bottles as we passed Pittock Mansion. Reaching the trail on the other side of the Pittock parking lot, we finally began to descend again. After 27 miles and all that elevation gain, I found descending to be extremely painful for my knees. I spent the first 1/4 mile getting my footing back and adjusting to the new terrain and finally was able to run intermittently when the trail was either gradual downhill, level, or gradual uphill. At this point, I stuck to power hiking on steeper hills and gingerly toe-tapping down steep descents.

I was excited to be back in familiar territory by this point and I know these last couple miles well. I was somewhat nauseous. I controlled that by maintaining a slow jog or walking when necessary. Beyond the challenge of crossing Burnside Road without becoming roadkill, this part of the trail went smoothly. Honestly though, a 45-mile per hour road with 4 lanes passing through a forest with no lights, no bridge, no tunnel. Come on, Portland. Figure this one out before somebody gets killed here.

After a moderate uphill the last 1/2 mile was level and mostly downhill. After a couple false starts, I was able to improve my pace to a full run and finish strong. I crossed the finish line exactly 6 hours and 31 minutes after I started. Specifics of the run are below.

I could not have done this without my wife’s support. I could not have done this without such a beautiful trail right here in my backyard. In another post, I’ll detail how I dealt with the mental and emotional side of running these distances without company. Loneliness on the trail is very real. How you react to loneliness has a great effect on the success or failure of your run.

As accomplished as this milestone makes me feel, I recognize that it is simply another building block. Still, it feels pretty spectacular to call myself an ultra runner for the first time. Hopefully, on November 7, I’ll be able to call myself an ultra race finisher at the Silver Falls 50k.

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