Finding My Fitness: From Swing-and-a-Miss to Baby Oil Photos and Brutal Mountain Ultras

Sprinting to glory at Grand Ridge... ok, glory of 5th place

Sprinting to glory at Grand Ridge... ok, glory of 5th place

Like remembering every detail of your child's birth: the day, time, statements said and emotions felt,  I can clearly recall the moment I became an athlete. My birth was spiritual. My afterbirth was sore legs and a beaming grin. I was the ripe age of 27 and had just ran my second trail race, a local 10-miler where I (amazingly) earned a fifth-place finish. I sprinted the last two miles of the course as the trail switchbacked down a ridge, and overtook a few 40-something dads. My lungs burned, but my will was decided.

"These guys aren't passing me" I thought with determination as I pumped my arms and kicking my legs. A few minutes of suffering later and I made it to the finish line of the Grand Ridge Solstice Run.

Wow. So this is what I was missing!?!

Elated with my performance and thirsty from the effort, I sipped dixie cups of Mountain Dew and repeatedly thanked the race director, Roger. While a modest achievement, that afternoon run in 2009 forever changed me. It was a long time coming, but I finally discovered how I could compete and succeed as an athlete.

My birth was spiritual. My afterbirth was sore legs and a beaming grin.

Growing up I was no couch potato, but I never excelled at traditional team sports. To get me engaged in Little League my parents bribed me with post-game sodas. Despite the sugary reward, every game felt like I had to pretend to care. Meanwhile I failed to master the basics in practice or competition, and dropped the sport after two seasons. Hits? Nope.

Soccer in the New Windsor Rec. League; I think my hair was a political statement

Soccer in the New Windsor Rec. League; I think my hair was a political statement

I lasted longer in the weekend soccer league, but my foot-eye coordination was still rudimentary. I could catch up to other players and my enthusiasm was top-notch, but then I'd fumble the ball game after game. I failed to score a single goal in my entire soccer career.

What's the equivalent of a strikeout in soccer again? Whatever that is, I had LOTS of those.

Ridin' big since '81

Ridin' big since '81

For a period in my youth I also got into cycling influenced by Greg Lemond's win in the Tour du France. These were the "clean" days of professional cycling when feats of endurance were celebrated universally with awe and accolades. Watching Lemond's accomplishment—and later Lance Armstrong—I was inspired (and a bit goofy). I wanted to feel that suffering and to wear those laurels.

For my birthday my parents bought me a road bike, but it was much larger than my body could manage. 

"You'll grow into the frame" they promised.

I peddled that 24-speed around my neighborhood wearing an oversized helmet and seated on a saddle wrapped in a bright pink cover. It looked very 1990s and screamed awkward pre-teen. Despite this, I felt empowered and pumped my legs while looping the block and fending off chasing Terriers. 

When I was in grade school my dad developed a passion for speed skating at a Yonkers, NY rink and brought me, my brother and mom along to skate, too. We weren't great, but it was still a blast. During the warmer months my dad also ran on the road from my house, climbing a steep hill on Rt 33 on a four mile circuit. At the time the distance sounded unfathomably far. He also shared stories of running marathons. His thin frame, Type I muscle fibers and patience made him perfect for endurance sports. I wanted to be like that.

I looked up to my dad, literally (he is 6'3''), but also athletically. My father was talented. While I never quite could get the basics, he demonstrated with patience: baseball, basketball, soccer, etc. He never pressured me. My dad expressed pride in my attempts.

Posing with my childhood friend Joey

Posing with my childhood friend Joey

In junior high and high school I rowed crew and started to connect with my maturing body, but never felt the "rowers high" I was promised. Sports were ok and I loved the social component and excuse to interact with girls on the coed team.

Rowing was fun I just lacked the dreams of setting new school records or capturing stardom in another sport like my peers. I yearned to be physical, but struggled to find a way to work the itch.

Sports in school were worse. Each high school class in Newburgh Free Academy was identical to the last. Coach Bucci would have all the boys form into six teams, three games. I would either attempt to play in the "bad players game" or not even attempt; spending the entire class sitting on the bleachers while dramatically expressing my teenage angst with fellow athletic flunks. 

You’re gonna need to own this. You’re an adult

After graduating from high school I worked crumby jobs: cart pusher at Home Depot, front desk clerk at a shabby hotel, and customer service rep at a mall. The jobs were terrible enough to inspire me to dream bigger. With honest and raw words from my mother, "You're gonna need to own this. You're an adult now", I eventually figured out how to get to college. It was there that a new athletic chapter began: the weightlifter. 

But first, I got fat.

Freshman year, Spring 2002. I wasn't exactly looking my best.

Freshman year, Spring 2002. I wasn't exactly looking my best.

My freshman year was full of overindulgence in sweets and cereal. Luckily in my sophomore year I registered for a class on strength and conditioning. This move proved transformative. 

Taught by an intense type-A trainer, the class was held twice weekly in the campus gym with the time divided evenly between detailed lectures and hands-on iron-banging. I LOVED IT. I found the instruction and homework on anatomy and training technique immensely intriguing, and the actual strength conditioning almost immediately demonstrated results. My body was changing.

Within a few months I went from violently quivering while attempting to complete a single bench press to loading on plate after plate as my limits grew. This class also touched on nutrition and diet supplementation so by mid-semester I had traded the sugary snacks for clean eating and a stack of whey protein and creatine. While the supplements made my farts horrendous, the nutrition and exercise routine replaced fat with muscle. For one of the first time in my life I felt like I was tapping into my power.

Each meal now had a purpose: to grow. I'd grill skinless chicken on a George Foreman and added spicy mustard for flavor. Microwaved broccoli from Trader Joe's was my roughage. I ate this meal countless times while reading Gregg Valentino's column in Muscular Development (Men's Health just didn't cut it). I even bought a "dip belt" so I could hang weight off my hips while doing pull-ups to maximize the intensity. It's was beautiful.

In the headphones? Ruff Ryders' Anthem.

Joel Ballezza Lifting Heavy Weights

Eventually I earned the nickname "Well Oiled Machine" from one of the school gym managers for the way I'd move from one lift to the next (and probably for my habitual perspiration, too). I wasn't close to being the biggest or strongest guy at the gym, but I adopted a lifestyle, community and identity.

This was my church.

By senior year I was now walking around at 200lbs, could benchpress about 1 1/2 my bodyweight, and deadlift over 400lb. Nothing to write home about for the gym elite, but I knew where I started from a few years earlier and was proud of my progress. And so I did what any regular college student would do at that point. I nair-ed off all the hair on my body and hired a fellow student coworker from my job at the admissions office to take photos of my heavily-oiled physique. Pic or it didn't happen.

I nair-ed off all the hair on my body


After picking up my diploma I felt a shift. I knew that that chapter of my life was coming to a close, and not just my undergrad. I realized that the gym might not be in my future. Maybe I was destined for something else?

After college, I moved west to Seattle for grad school at the University of Washington. Shortly after setting into my new home, I sold my car and used the money to buy a nice lightweight road bike and a motorcycle. Moving to Seattle and selling my car felt novel and reckless, and I LOVED IT. Suffering through rain was worth the story.

Seattle is known for more than just Starbucks and Sleepless. It's also a place full of incredible everyday athletes who use the surrounding mountains to run, ski, climb and explore year round. After you've drank all the coffee and read all the books, roaming outside is just what Seattleites do.

Leon and I climbing up Mt. Rainier shortly after arriving in Seattle

Leon and I climbing up Mt. Rainier shortly after arriving in Seattle

In his mid-40s, Guy Browne was my first landlord. He had an intense passion for cycling and the shredded physic to go with it. As one of the first people I met in my new city he made an immediate impression on me.

These people are different. 

Guy's weekends were spent suffering up hills, and riding long miles through all the tough weather Washington could throw at him. And he was just one of many everyday people who I met in my new city during that first year who did epic, epic things on the regular. I couldn't have been more excited to be a part of this community. 

After being in Seattle less than a week, Leon, a college friend and my housemate, decided to head to Mt. Rainier thinking it wasn't that big of a hike. We had grown up not far from each other in the Hudson Valley area of Southern New York. There were mountains there. Surely Rainier couldn't be that much different? 

On our drive to Ashland, Wa, the giant volcano continued to grow and grow and grow in our field of view, dominating the skyline on the brilliant July afternoon. We soon realized this mountain was different than the ancient hills we grew up around. Jesus. This thing is immense.

Leon and I started the hike up Rainier from the Paradise Visitor Center, climbing high up the mountain and into July ice and snow before realizing our folly. I trekked in Timberland boots, and lacked the food or gear the hike required. Leon was similarly unprepared. Our wits finally got the best of us just above 8,000'.

"What are we doing? We should go down."

Leon and I turned back and headed back down the winding trail. We lived to hike another day. And we did many times throughout that first fall.

While my days and nights were packed with work at the University of Washington and graduate school, I couldn't keep the mountains from calling. Every chance I got I explored the trails around my new home. A friend recommended Beyond Mt. Si, a popular hiking guide listing the top treks around Seattle, including the namesake and one of the most popular climbs in the state., Mt. Si.

I wanted to do them all.

Atop Mt. Si with an appearance of Rainier in the background, 2006

Atop Mt. Si with an appearance of Rainier in the background, 2006

Soon I was backpacking in the Central Cascades and exploring the trails on the Olympic Peninsula while gaining confidence in my abilities to move in the outdoors. A few years later my father and Uncle came out and we climbed Mt. Rainier. While an injury kept my dad from the summit, my uncle and I had more luck and reached the crater of the 14,411' volcano on a bluebird day. I was exhausted when we finally made it off the mountain and sat down to enjoy a meal, but we had made it! I felt transformed. I wasn't a weightlifting gym rat anymore. I had become something even better. 

And it turns out my metamorphosis from Northeast urbanite to Northwest alpinist was just getting started. But first... I get a little fat again.

After graduating from the University of Washington with my masters, I focused on work and life. Somewhere along the way I strayed from my fitness lifestyle: consuming too many burritos and mojitos, and added a roll of fat around my waist. I wasn't obese, but I definitely wasn't baby-oil-trim either. My doctor even asked about my sudden uptick on the scale.

"Well Mexican food is delicious." I sheepishly admitted.

Seattle has great mountains and wilderness... but it also has great tacos. For a bit, I lost my fitness edge and started to gain weight. 

Seattle has great mountains and wilderness... but it also has great tacos. For a bit, I lost my fitness edge and started to gain weight. 

Unrelated, but around the same time in 2008 I began experiencing significant jaw pain emanating from my Temporomandibular Joint. My jaw hurt all the time. After the condition worsened, I saw a few specialists who shared some sobering news: 

  1. To resolve the issue, I'd have to get braces (again)... as an adult
  2. Following braces, I'd have surgery that would break and reset both my upper and lower jaw

After grappling with my options, I finally committed and had dental hardware attached that summer. The following June I had the surgery. I was grateful that my folks came out to visit and to support me through the recovery.

Once I got out of Swedish Hospital in Seattle I spent the first 3-4 weeks with my mouth mostly bound shut with rubber bands. The only nutrition I consumed was slurped in through the sides of my mouth. The arrangement inherently imposed a caloric deficit on my body and the extra fat I carried immediately dropped from my body. Within a month I lost 25 pounds, plummeting from a high of a chunky 195 to a slim 170. While my face was still swollen and I still wore braces across a rubber-band-bound grin, I was making progress. The knew the worst was behind me.

Who needs Weight Watchers when you have jaw breakers?

A month and a half after the surgery the pain and most of the swelling had subsided. I finally felt strong enough to get outside. Looking for a social place to be active I headed down to a popular running route in Seattle, Green Lake. My plan was to loop the lake as I had done many times before. I never considered myself a runner, but I could do three miles, and so I started off on the trek. The day was perfect: mild, sunny and alive with fellow Seattleites enjoying the humidity-free air.

Greenlake: The place of my destiny

My new, slimmed down body felt great on the August morning as I started out on the loop. My grill was still sparkling with orthodontics and rubber bands guiding my jaw shut, but I didn't care. I was happy! Distracted by the runners, cyclists, roller-skaters, kids and dogs, the loop just flew by. As I rounded the final corner by the paddle boats and fishing docks, something odd happened.

"What if I do another?" I thought.

In all of my 27 years, I had NEVER run further than 4 miles. This was uncharted territory. But alas, I trotted on. When I was a few hundred meters from finishing my second loop, six miles, I committed even bigger.

"I'm going to run a half marathon... right now."

And so I did. I stopped at water fountains for water and just kept trotting along knowing that four loops and half would get to me this newly acquired goal. I didn't have a GPS watch, technical running gear or anything fancy, but I eventually finished, aching feet and all. 

Thrilled but exhausted, I limped to my car and drove the mile and half to my condo. When I got home I immediately called my mom in NY and reported my discovery in an excited tone, "I'm a RUNNER! I just ran a half marathon. I just ran 13.1 miles on my own!". Her reply was classic, "Isn't that a bit extreme?" Maybe, but a fire was now lit inside me.

Little did she know what was to come. 

Within days I threw away my ancient $20 Champs gym shoes and headed to REI to invest in real running sneakers. After consulting one of the sales reps, I settled on a pair of Adidas Supernova road shoes that were on sale for what I thought then was still an astronomical price of $80. WHAT?!? I also bought real running socks, 2-in-1 shorts and eventually started eyeing GPS watches. I was all in, in heart, body and wallet. This wasn't a sport I was picking up. This was an identity I was internalizing.

Soon I started staying downtown late after work to join Niketown evening runs. I loved the excitement of running with a group and the post-miles gorge on cookies and grapes. Every conversation with a veteran runner was informative and every recommendation I'd take detailed notes from. I devoured Runner's World, and the books Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, and Ultramarathon Man and 50/50 by Dean Karnazes.

I started running self-designed road routes around my neighborhood and beyond, pushing the distance and finding new challenges. The fall after my self-rediscovery I ran my first half-marathon with my aunt, cousin and father: the 2009 Philadelphia Half Marathon and finished in a respectable 2:03:17.

Not bad for a kid who thought for years he just wasn't a runner.

The Ballezza & Rudolf Family Posting Post-Race

While I had previously questioned why anyone would pay to run a race when they could just do the road miles for free, when I crossed the finish line next to the Philadelphia Art Museum and Rocky sculpture, I knew realized why. The cheers. The community. Without sounding too cheesy: the glory. It was amazing.

Running wasn't easy for me, especially as I logged more miles, but it connected with my soul more than any other physical activity I had ever experienced. This wasn't a runner's high. This was something deeper. Every mile I logged etched in an identity.

In 2010 I continued to run and hike until one fateful Saturday while hiking on Tiger Mt., a 3,000' six-peaked behemoth situated in the heart of what is lovingly called the Issaquah Alps, a series of mid-sized mountains about a half-hour from Seattle. That morning I had trekked up the Highline Trail, and just as I summited the Tiger 3 peak, I see a man wearing running clothes and wrap-around sunglasses emerge from the trees on an adjacent trail. He was middle-aged, fit and looks serious in his short-shorts and light running longsleeve. I could tel this wasn't a weekend mountain run. He wasn't just seeing the sights. This guy meant business.

Sheepishly, I approached him and asked my assumption.

"What are you training for?" I posed in the most masculine tone I could muster. 

"White River" he replied.

I had no idea what that was but shot back with a quick "Oh, yeah" and a nod, then reconsidered. 

"What is that?"

He must have sensed my confusion but offered offered only slightly more detail.

"White River 50"

And then, like a Olympic ghost or a mountain goat with a Garmin, he ran back into the woods, and down off Tiger Mt. I never saw him again. Luckily I wrote down what he shared with me and was determined to figure out this puzzle.

When I got home I googled "White River 50 race" and immediately got what I figured had to be the bullseye. That guy was training for the White River 50, a 50-mile trail endurance run held on Crystal Mt, just adjacent to Mt. Rainier on a figure eight course. Over two big climbs the race had over 17,400' of ascent and descent. Held in late July, the race was six months away.

While I had never run a trail race, and had yet to complete a 50k (the standard entry distance for an ultramarathon), within a day or two I committed and paid my race entry fee. I was convinced that I could prepare.

Instead of fear, I was excited. In the same way that I had jumped into weightlifting and hiking, I jumped into ultra running. Over the coming weeks I researched and found the Rome Marathon (yup, the when in spot) and decided that I would take a side tour on a trip to Italy and make that my first full marathon. A few months later I found a trail 50K Lost Lake. The race turned out to brutally difficult due to technical trail and 8,000' of climbing packed into ~31 miles. Despite a twisted ankle at mile 19, I 'death marched' the last 13 miles to a finish. Ain't no way I was quitting!

After crossing the finish line at White River in 10:28:40, I immediately thought "I will do this four more times". And I did.

After crossing the finish line at White River in 10:28:40, I immediately thought "I will do this four more times". And I did.

The kid who wasn't athletic. Who couldn't dribble, hit or score had just became an ultramarathoner at the Lost Lake 50k. And that's pretty cool. A few months later an even bigger goal was realized. 

Just days after my 29th birthday I successfully battled my way through the stunning White River 50 Mile Endurance in 10:28:40 seconds. While drinking views of Mt. Rainier just across the valley from the run, I was patient with my body on the climbs. I put my head down and trotted when my body wouldn't perform. The race director Scott's guidance rang loud in my head, "micromanage the course". When I could run, I ran. When I had to walk, I walked. 

But eventually. I made it to the finish.  While I never saw the mythical athlete at the race I met atop Tiger Mountain six months earlier, I silently thanked him. Whether he was real or imagined. After finishing I also immediately committed to myself that I would run this race for a total of five times. That concept just sounded cool. 

Over the coming years, each summer I returned to White River. In 2014, I dropped halfway when the person I was running with fell ill, and in 2015 I had to skip the event due to travel. It took seven years, but in 2016 I finally scored my fifth finish in a time of 10:41:40. Not my fastest WR, but I had set a goal and realized it. In my eyes, that was HUGE. I had become a runner; a trail runner; an ultramarathoner!

Over the following years I would run dozens more trail races and start to build an Ultrasignup profile I was proud of including many more 50k, 50 -ile and 100k races. I even finished five 100-mile races on some wild mountain courses including a particularly challenge one call IMTUF, each time earning a fancy belt buckle as a souvenir.

I'm now closing in on a decade of running and continue to learn from the adventure. I've found a place to complete, an identity as an athlete and a humbling practice I get to grow from, always.

For those reading this who might not think they are an athlete, or that they can't feel at home in movement or in sport. Just keep looking! I promise you'll find it. Humans are an athletic species. We were designed for this. Just because you can't hit a ball with a stick, doesn't mean you can't do great things. Just keep trying. Keep exploring. You'll find your fitness, and it probably won't even take 27 years like it did for me. 

Underestimating the La Bohn Traverse

“I may have underestimated this” I thought, forcing a reluctant chuckle as I fought uphill on a scree field at 5,200 feet in the Central Cascades.

I was all by myself for miles, but I felt like speaking aloud would be soothing. I wasn’t scared or panicking at this moment, but I was definitely managing my emotions and started to take account of my resources. A Gu shot, Outdoor Research Helium hard shell, gloves, hat, water filter, iPhone…

The "fun" part of the run had ended hours ago and now I just needed to get home safely.

For the past 11 hours I had been running, trekking and stumbling solo from the East Fork Foss Trailhead off Highway 2 southbound towards my goal of Snoqualmie Pass. There my buddy Laura would pick me up, we’d share high-fives, toast drinks and enjoy a feast at Commonwealth. My problem was I was still miles away, and hours late.

As I climbed up over the notch in the trail close to Lunin Peak I didn’t have to look at my watch to know it was between 24-25 minutes past 7 pm. I hold no innate, supernatural ability to calculate the passage of time, but I could tell from the sky that the sun was setting and knew it would be lights out at 7:30. I was now facing the night with just a micro emergency headlamp and was low on calories, water and clothing. Yes, I did underestimate the La Bohn Traverse Ultrapedestrian Wilderness Challenge.

How did I get here?

It started in a running shop five months earlier at the local favorite Seven Hills Running. There the ultrapedestrian couple themselves, Ras and Kathy, and their wild compatriots introduced the newly selected UWC routes for 2016. I was inspired.

Among the night's presenters local mountain runner and alpinist Arya Jonathan Farahani described the La Bohn route, showing PowerPoint slides of the run he had charted the season before.

As an alternative to the longer, but 100% trail PCT, Arya’s route linked well-maintained trails with six miles of off-trail travel and extremely rustic routes to make a 30-mile course with 9,000 ft of climbing.

Imagined or true-to-life I recall Arya promoting the sights, adventure and ease of the experience over and over. Probably in reality he guaranteed vistas, but also warned against the tough terrain and route-finding. I guess I was too drunk on the promise of the outing, to yield his warnings.

“Wow. I could do this” I thought while seated at Seven Hills.

“Instead of depending on a race, I get to make my own adventure” I thought.

I had never attempted a UWC route, but from Arya’s brief description of the point-to-point run it seemed like a lovely weekend outing. Fast forward to last week, I knew I had a weather window that looked promising and a buddy who could crew me for the P2P run. Saturday was my “go” day so I announced my plans on the UWC Facebook Group (because FB makes it real), updated my Delorme InReach and watch with maps, and geared up my Ultimate Direction Wasp pack.

While picking up Laura on Saturday morning I realized I forgot two pieces of gear I normally bring on off-trail outings: 1) shoe gators to keep twigs and rocks out of my Hokas and 2) Black Diamond Z-poles. Laura didn’t have the gear to lend and I viewed those as nice-to-haves anyway, so I just picked her up and headed north.


The East Fork Foss Trailhead is just a mile or so off Highway 20. While the parking lot was full, Laura was just dropping me so it didn’t matter. We hugged and then I headed south into the Necklace Valley as she pulled away with my dog Luna wagging in the back.

The thing about the Ultrapedestrian Wilderness Challenges are that they’re unmarked courses and come with only general route information—no course markings or lovely detailed GPX files. You depend on your fellow runners to share local knowledge and trail beta to ensure you’re bringing the right gear, have accurate maps and know where to turn. The routes often link together trails, but in many instances the phrase is used in a very loose fashion. Some of the paths see more goats than people. And the people who do try them are mostly goat, anyway.

For the first six miles I ran on the Necklace Valley Trail, rolled through lush forest and aptly-named Jade Lake.  I encountered a handful of hikers doing loop and out-and-back hikes. Everyone was in good spirits. The sky was bird blue with a few puffs of white for accent. Just past Opal Lake the route takes a hard left and changes from defined trail to goat path. The only way I knew to go this direction was because I had downloaded multiple GPX files from other UPC runners. Within a few minutes I was cairn-finding on a rock field that ascended up to the namesake La Bohn Gap.



My body felt great and I was excited to get the off trail section done as early in the day as possible, but as I climbed the blue skies now were replaced by heavy cloud cover that hugged the very mountain I was traversing. Within just a few minutes of climbing on a bolder field the intensity went from run-in-the-park to PAY ATTENTION AND BE PRESENT. The sky darkened. The air was dry but the wind picked up as I climbed to the pass, a flattened ridge of slab stone and ponds wrapped in heavy white clouds.

The ascending wasn’t the hard part, staying on “trail” was. As I topped out on the pass I knew I had to make a series of turns up and around ponds and rock outcroppings, but the fog was so heavy that I couldn’t run for fear of going off course, or worse, falling off a drop. This was bonkers and I immediately knew I made a mistake by not bringing a physical compass, and instead depended on my watch and InReach electronic devices to tell me direction. If they failed, I could easily get turned around in these conditions. I was eating cloud soup and rocks, and dining solo.


At mile ten I hit was looked like the far side of the pass I was excited to a see a bolder field that descended out of the weather. Seeing color, not just black and white, also brought me a boost of confidence. Whew. The climb down was slow, but I didn’t want to make a speed record. I figured if I broke my ankle on the descent, no one would happen across me so I took each step with intention.


Finally, at mile 12 I connected back with the trail at Williams Lake. While the path wasn’t runnable, every step had confidence—a big relief. From there I connected with the Dutch Miller Gap Trail and rolled next to the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie. This is where I put in my fastest miles and also where I chatting up a few hikers who were doing multi-day outings.

After crossing the river I made my way to Goldmyer Hot Springs, a place of hippie respite and sulfuric springs. I stopped and chatted with the camp host and got my pack filled with water. In my mind I knew I was running way behind schedule, but thought that I had the hardest part behind me. I knew I had to ascend up to Snoqualmie Pass, but hey, its just trail. No big deal. That’s when I checked my printed instructions again and GPS map stored in my InReach.

Wait, I’m not really taking the trail up…it looks like I’m just going up the side of the mountain. Ummm…

At mile 23, you leave Goldmyer at 1,800 feet and immediately begin climbing on the long, long forgotten, forsaken "trail".

How bad is this trail? Let’s personify a storm. Mr. Storm, ate bad take-out food of trees and vegetation. Later, in the middle of the night Mr. Storm spend hours and hours taking trips to the bathroom (aka scamble up from Burntboot Creek) defecating and vomiting plant material everywhere on an already poorly kept lavatory.

This is my way of saying that the trail was a mess with dozens of huge blowdowns and lots of route-finding. Only when you get to about 3,700 feet does the trail become less dense and reasonable, but at this point I was tired and concerned about how much light I had left in the day.

So there I was.

I made it over the notch next to  Red Mountain and now was descending towards Red Mountain Lake where if the trail description was right would bring me to the coveted PCT trail. All I focused on at this point was using the last few moments of glow in the sky to get to that trail.

I squinted to see the rustic trail in front of me, but finally reluctantly strapping on my emergency Black Diamond headlamp. This was admitting that I was both in a worse situation that I expected, and also that I hadn’t prepared for this run properly—that I should have starting earlier and brought the right gear.

The one tool I did bring that proved immensely beneficial was my InReach Explorer. It allowed me to share my location with friends in real-time and also to message Laura letting her know I was safe, but hours behind schedule. I knew if things got bad, or if I got lost I could also use it to get help so that significantly tamped down my anxiety level, too.

After death marching for a few miles and down 2,000 feet I finally made it to the PCT. I was close to home. However, my GPS trek routed me to the Old Commonwealth Trail, instead of the PCT for the last mile of the run, so I spent a good 15 minutes wandering in the total darkness, now navigating entirely by the light of my iPhone. #Fail.

I was SO close, but couldn’t find the trail anywhere due to a half dozen fallen trees. Just bog, tree and me making circles. Laura messaged me "Getting close?"

I finally get my whereabouts and make it to the parking lot where Laura was waiting for me. Sure, I was happy to survive this more-intense-than-expected outing, but I had more pressing concerns when I hoped in the car. It was 9:30 and the Commonwealth was closing in just a few minutes.  We needed to make it there STAT!


Yah! I survived, got to enjoy a meal at Commonwealth before they closed, and learned an important lesson about route research and gearing for wilderness adventures. (Just do it.) I hope to never make the mistakes I described above ever again.

Thank you!

Huge thanks to Laura for crewing me, Arya for designing this route, Jessica Kelley for offering route guidance, Ras & Kathy for dreaming up and hosting the UWC concept, and to the ultra community for just being a group of awesome goats.

Finding My Inner Ultrapedestrian at Chinook Pass

img_9070While it was one of last year’s Ultrapedestrian Wilderness Challenge routes (trails don’t go out of style, right?), Chinook Pass looked to me to be the best place to dip my toe into the UP water. Or really, both feet. While I had heard of these tough, self-supported routes for some time, and have known Kathy and Ras for years, I had never attempted one of these running challenges. The Chinook Pass route looked the like the perfect introduction. The 31-mile loop route is easy to access from just outside of Rainier National Park in the Wenatchee Forest, is entirely on marked trails and includes a trek on the PCT.  Triple win!


The night before the run I loaded the GPS track into my watch and filled my pack with essentials—water filter, 2-liter water bladder, cliff bars for hours, etc. The weather looked perfect—one of those goldilocks days—not too hot and not too cold with a bonus of sun for miles. After telling my roommate where I was headed and who to call in case I never returned, I walked my pup Luna a little past 6am and then drove out to the backside of Mt. Rainier. At the trailhead I met another skinny old man wearing Altras and a race vest (a twin of how I sometimes view myself).


This mountain runner sported a hydration pack and Altras, so I knew he’d probably spent a few miles on the trails. A quick conversation with him confirmed my guess. John and I shared pleasantries for a minute, then he headed off in the opposite direction and I proceeded to cross a bridge that arches across highway 410 before dropping down at the start of the trail. As I headed out in the morning air a touch of fog rolled over the pass and burned off in dramatic fashion. The air—so fresh and so clean (start humming Outkast in 3…2..).

Now because this was a loop trail you could either experience the course in clockwise or counter-clockwise directions. John suggested I go in a clockwise direction so I took his advice and began the loop floating down the rolling trail. Instantly I was rewarded with beautiful meadows, mossy trees and alpine lakes, and I had yet to even enter Rainier National Park. The first six miles or so were all in the national forest. I knew this for certain because there were a half dozen other hikers out on the trail and they trekked along with dogs, something that is prohibited at most locations in the park. (Luna, I’m sorry, we’ll have to come back. If I knew, you’d join me on a lovely out-and-back.)


The miles just flew by mostly because for the first few hours the route descended in a series of steps. The pass is at 5,800 feet but by the time you hit mile 19 I was at 2,200—my type of running. I stopped for plenty of photos and to enjoy the scenery. Moss, trees and sky--this is why I love trails.

One of the most attractive qualities of the UWC concept for me is the fact that it’s not a traditional race. If this was a 50k competition, or really any distance, I would feel pressured by my own internal persistence to limit my snack breaks and chit-chat. Instead I would push myself to get across the finish line as fast as possible—giving up sightseeing just to shave a few minutes off my time.

For me this practice really makes no sense because I’m not going to win any races or grab endorsements, but races just do that to me. The Ultrapedestrian Wilderness Challenge though is different. I had permission to meander, to investigate lakes and to pause for photos. I wasn’t racing anyone else, especially myself.


At mile 20 I began to climb—up, up, up. Around this time I also ran into a few hikers completing the same loop I was running, but they were hiking over three days instead of fitting the miles into a single push. Both were engineers with Boeing. As a group we reflected on the day—remarking on how perfect the weather was, how scenic the vistas were and how lucky we were to enjoy the day outside. When I wrapped up my break and began pressing on the couple offered me a quick, but ominous warning.

“There are lots of blow-downs in the last five miles—like 50!”

“Thanks!” I called back, but as I took in the number they shared I didn’t fully believe their count. So far the trail had only a scattering of trees crossing its path.

“It’s probably like a dozen and they’re just being dramatic”, I thought.

In reflection, this mental note did not take into account that the couple were trained ENGINEERS—as in people known for their expert precision and attention to detail. Soon I’d learn the truth.

Miles 20-25 climbed, but at a reasonable grade. Just a little past mile 25 I turned onto the Eastside Trail and began to encounter fallen trees. First, just a handful of branches—easy to step over. Soon thereafter smaller, young trees also crossed the path. Within a half mile I began to enter the meat of the blow-downs. Yeah, so this is what the hikers were talking about. Tree after downed tree. Each required me to climb up and over, down and around, or if I'm lucky, duck under.


There were fallen trees that dropped parallel onto the trail to obliterate any discernible way forward. I crawled, climbed and scrapped my way over each mountain of branches, dirt and roots. Each one I passed, I made a mental note, “5….6….7”. The Eastside trail was definitely not loved by the Forest Service. They might just have a vendetta against this section of dirt because it was obvious no one had cleared it in years, NAY!, decades.

img_9114After it was all said and done, I counted exactly 52 blown downs on the trail making the final five miles of the Chinook Pass Ultrapedestrian Challenge a beasty affair. All in all, the day was perfect. I got to spend it outside in a beautiful place, challenge myself on the trails and made it home in time for beer and pizza with my pup.

Thanks to Jessica Kelley for intel on the trail, and of course to Ras and Kathy for finding special outings around the region and for promoting the practicing of exploring the outdoors.