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    Run Journal

    A Day in the Huayhuash

    “THE SIZE OF THE PLACE ONE BECOMES A MEMBER OF IS LIMITED ONLY BY THE SIZE OF ONE'S HEART.” GARY SNYDER

    I filtered water by headlamp in the morning darkness and sat on a creekside boulder watching my partners’ lights arc across our camp in the distance. So many stars. I tucked my frozen fingers into my armpits and felt them slowly burn back to life.

    It was the start of our third and last day on the Cordillera Huayhuash, a remote and rugged 80-mile loop around a cluster of world-class peaks in the Peruvian Andes. I was with two dear friends, Nick Triolo and Willie McBride. A long day lay ahead, starting with an arduous climb to Cuyoc Pass at 16,665 feet.  

    We came to Peru to live in that wide-eyed sort of way that you live when traveling through foreign places, but I think we really came for the unknown. Most visitors to the Huayhuash (“why wash”) hire guides and donkeys to complete the circuit in about 12 days. We intended to run and hike the loop in three days with no support and little acclimatization.

    IT WAS A FEAT JUST BIG ENOUGH TO EXPOSE THE UNDERBELLY OF OUR FEARS, TO FEED THE HUNGER WE ALL FEEL DEEP IN OUR BONES, THAT PART OF OUR BIOLOGY THAT EVOLVED TO BE IN TOUCH WITH SOMETHING BIGGER, TO DO HARD THINGS, TO OVERTURN THE SHELL GAME OF OUR EVERYDAY LIVES.

    The Huayhuash is an intimidating 18-mile long spine of ice-crowned limestone, sandstone, and shale. It comprises the largest collection of peaks above 19,000 feet outside the Himalayas, with its tallest peak, Yerupaja, rising above 21,000 feet. Its sheer chasms are surrounded by an expanse of isolated valleys, rivers, and turquoise lakes, and the entire area is inhabited by only a few seasonal shepherds. Through the early 1990s, the Huayhuash was a safe haven for the brutal Shining Path guerrillas, and in ensuing years it became a dangerous place for foreigners due to a number of assaults and murders. Though now considered to be generally safe for travelers, the Huayhuash remains undeniably wild.

    We climbed out of our layers toward Cuyoc, toward warm rays of sunlight, each of us finding our own contemplative path on game trails and boulder-hopping through clumps of frozen grass and rocks. We were so deep, so committed, two days overland by bus and car from Lima, then another two days by foot. I felt untethered, adrift in the thin mountain air, lungs and legs burning, each pass lifting us further into the lucid lofts of the most sacred earthen temples.

    After Cuyoc Pass, we rolled through the Huanacpatay Valley. With the miles flowing under our feet we knew without saying it that we’d push through the night back to the tiny town of Llamac where we started. There was a collective buzz. We felt the kind of unspoken knowing that happens when you share such raw beauty, when you suffer and celebrate together through multiple laps of the sun, one cook pot and one shelter.

    Our thoughts and conversations wandered along the big circle we knew we’d complete, the mysterious thread that lead to that day—our health, the good weather, the people we met in Lima, Huaraz, and Llamac, every new connection enriching and harmonizing with the next. We talked about Moti, our adopted dog, the wayfaring soul at the center of our pack. Moti joined us the morning we started our loop and never left our side. He gave us a gift, a guide, a friend to look out for other than ourselves. He snuggled with us at night, all of us caked in stink. We fed him, hurled him across raging rivers, up cliffs, and fended off feral dogs when he felt threatened. He never wavered and he left us wondering whether we were taking care of him or him us.

    By afternoon we were climbing countless switchbacks toward Tapush Pass at 15,649 feet.  Then we tumbled down another long descent into the Ocshapata river valley. My stomach had turned sour earlier in the day and I was no longer able to eat what little food I had left. As day slid into night, one final pass remained between us and Llamac. The trail dropped through sketchy drainages, traversed cliff bands and disappeared into steep, dense thickets of bayahonda thorns.

    We bushwhacked and burrowed through spiky tunnels toward the sound of the river below, fatigue settling into our bodies like cool nighttime air in the canyon floor. We turned up river and climbed above slot canyons, crossing unmapped bridges, feeling euphoric but exhausted from the long days in the lean mountain air.

    We stopped to put on extra layers and sat in the dirt against an old rock wall, gathering and gazing at the curves and contours of our maps, spellbound by all we’d seen. Our location and the lines on paper weren’t quite agreeing. We knew where we were but it was an unknown trail and we were on the wrong side of the Jahuacocha river.

    Sitting there in the darkness I thought about our journey and why I’d come to this place. It reminded me of a poem I’d memorized years ago, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, by William Yeats. The poem describes a peaceful island on a lake in the middle of Ireland, but it’s really about the places we connect with deep within, or as Yeats puts it, “in the deep heart’s core.” I thought about how far away from home we were in the massive folds and creases of this wild place but also how connected I felt, how the mountains, close friends, and our circuitous route made our own island within an island.

    This is why I’d come, why we’d come here, to continue our stories of toil and transcendence, to let this wild and untamable landscape seep into the marrow of our bones, and to stay connected to our own wildness within.

    After scanning the water’s edge looking for a safe crossing and knowing it was too cold to risk getting wet, we circled like wolves and bedded down for the night on the river bank. So many stars. Our return to Llamac would wait until the morning when we’d arrive just in time for the town’s annual fiesta, embrace as brothers, drop our packs, and dance like absolute fools in the town square.  

    The Trail Runner Diaries N°3

    "The splendors of trail running have as much to do with the relative remoteness of the wooded, leaf-covered trails I weave through, as it has to do with its unexplainable ability in transcending oneself. Running through parks, meadows, forests, and mountains allows our senses to roam free and clears our mind of the minor and major stresses of everyday life. In my solitude, as my feet spring across the wooden planks of a boardwalk, I am left with time to think, process, and engage in introspection, in order to experience self-awareness and make sense of reality. Running has taught me not just about life in general, but about myself as an individual, and it has opened countless windows of opportunity I have been eager to accept. Running has unmasked my limitless potential, given me a sense of invincibility, and the belief that with the right amount of effort and perseverance, and especially a strong mindset, anything is possible. I run to get the best out of myself, to prove to myself my capabilities and power, and to inspire others to achieve their own dreams in life. As I become lost among the trees towering overhead, I am happy to say I have reached a better understanding of why running isn't just a physical passion for me, but a passion encapsulating my entire being.

    - Patrick Caron

    I run to find the in-betweens. I run to fly, to soar, to feel weightless, immaterial. I run to feel my feet on the ground, feel the earth rise up to meet me with each long stride. I run to feel strong and powerful, capable of pushing myself faster, farther, harder than each time before. I run to feel week; humbled by the endless trail and space the earth provides and my own relative insignificance. I run to put myself and my own body in perspective, lining up at a starting line racing only wind, dirt, and water. I run to feel the wind in my hair, to feel frost on my eyelashes, and smooth rocks beneath my feet. I run to feel nothing, but to fade into the comfortable obscurity of a wooded trail. I run for community, to connect with others who seek fast fellowship on the trails and roads. I run to be alone, to throw myself forward into the silence of earliest mornings, and late nights with only the sound of my feet and the faintest shadow. I run to go places, to travel swiftly and efficiently from place to place. I run to wander, to go nowhere and everywhere with only the strength of my own two feet. I run to think, to ponder myriad questions with the utmost clarity that only running can grant. I run to clear my mind, to obliterate the thoughts that crowd and clutter my mind. It is in this space that I find myself- the crossroads of strength and weakness, communion and solitude, thought and emptiness. That is why I run. 

    -Zoe Rom

    I run to remind myself that I can be happy today. More bluntly, I run to kick in the teeth of the unfriendly notion that I need to sacrifice today for the perfect tomorrow. There’s a popular trail where I live called the “Big Baylor Bitch,” and every time I feel like I’m smoldering under the weight of everyday stress, I lace up my shoes, and I run the Bitch. Once I leave the trail head, any frustrations about life are burned away like a flame held to a safety pin purifying it for the task at hand. My task is a grueling one: 3.2 miles and 1,600ft of gain via washed out single-track bordered by lineup of some of the most unfriendly desert fauna around. As I make my way through the first few arroyos my run begins to crackle with a fiery lust, and my focus shifts to my form: proper posture, check; hands brushing gently against my sides, check; preferred breathing rhythm, check. Once I green-light my system, I sink into the type-two fun and grimace at the taste of sweat and sunscreen bleeding down my face and into the corner of my mouth. Nevertheless, as I near the top, my mind begins to roar like a supercharged steam engine ablaze with excitement: Did I push hard enough at the start to PR today? I swat the idea away, and I push my hardest--heart beat is soaring out of the 180s now and my breathing is drum-rolling—but as I eye the bald patch designating the top, I go all in and sprint the final 50m. My mind screams “Yes!” as I force myself to remain upright sucking in gulps of glorious mountain air! After winning this moment and feeling the glory of a successful climb, I plunge back down the same trail I just came up. Now, with a shoulder-width smile stretched across my face, I dance down the more technical parts, touching my forefoot gently atop a pointed boulder, before dropping my body three feet onto the hard-packed trail. I twist my torso 90° to dodge an overgrown acacia bush, and quick step a few paces ahead of a patch of melon-sized rocks before jumping up to quickly place my foot on the side of another boulder and calculatedly push off in the direction of the bending path. As I turn, a stretch of smooth trail appears with about 30 feet of naked hard-pack, I savor a few upward glances at the surrounding peaks without breaking stride, and these picturesque seconds tickle me with joy. Looking down at my watch, I calculate another two miles to the car, and I couldn't be happier.

    -Ryan Conklin

    I run to disconnect from the chaos of this place and be transported somewhere else. To be removed from the speed and pace of everyday life. I run to stop the Facebook posts, to miss the tweets, ignore the Instagram likes, and let the unread email messages pile up.  Because for those moments when I run I am connected to a different world.  A world where Wi-Fi and data packets fail to matter but foot falls and gel packets do.  A world where I hop over rocks instead of sitting in traffic.  A world where I avoid standing in line and chose to follow the contours of the trail wherever it may take me.  This world has no airports so there is no waiting for takeoff or checking your bags.  You depart and return on your own schedule.  This place is dirtier than my regular world. The outsoles of my shoes seem to know this and hide a little debris in them to remind me of my travels and my need to go back. There is no TV here but the views are wildly entertaining.  Music is replaced by the sounds of wind, birds, squishing of mud, and the rustling of leaves.  This is a world where everything is boiled down to the simplest of forms.  To thrive here I only need movement, water, and a few calories. This is why I run.

    -Travis Liles

    The Trail Runner Diaries

    A collection of short essays from our community around the world.

    DISCOVERY

    Discovery. That is why I run. To discover how far I can really go. How far I can push my body & mind till they break. How high I can climb and how fast I can go. I run to discover new trails, new places, and new people. To go where I have never been before. I run to discover the things that others cannot, being fully aware that someday I will not be able to run myself. I run to discover if my doubts are correct. My doubts that tell me I will never be able to run an ultra-marathon. My doubts that tell me my asthma-infested lungs will defeat me. I run to overcome these doubts. To prove to myself that I am strong. To prove that I can endure suffering long after my body tells me to stop. 

    I run to discover pain that will kick my ass and leave me temporarily defeated. I run to discover a new me. One that is grateful for every moment of life that I am not suffering. Yet one that is far more grateful for every moment of life that I have the privilege to be suffering, knowing that it is only temporary. I run to discover a connection with nature. A connection that is at it’s strongest, when I am at my weakest. This connection pushes me to go further and continues to bring me back to the trails time and time again. I know someday my body will eventually fail me. It may be in 20 years or it may be in 50 years. But one thing that is for sure is that while I am able to put one foot in front of another, I will be running. I will be discovering. And the more I run, the more I will discover.

    -Nathan Wendell

    TO FEEL ALIVE

    So why do I run? At 16 years old it was because the training staff ordered me to ‘get f*&kin’ moving’ in an attempt get the pampered bunch of momma's boys to act as a seamless military unit and get from point A to point B in the fastest time possible to engage the enemy with all the kit they needed!

    Twenty Eight years later I run for completely different reasons; the enemy is an expanding waistline, long-haul flights and groundhog day hotel rooms, prolonged pointless meetings and the constant chirping of my mobile or desk phone. To run is to escape, to regroup, to re-establish order from chaos, to be in control of the pace, to feel, to conquer, to survive!

    Running makes me physically and mentally stronger, helping to connect and align with what is important and what is not. Feeling the concrete, tarmac, paths, sand, mud, roots, rocks and snow under my feet gives me choices; easy route or hard, fast or slow, long run or short.

    Whooping down the single track, digging deep for the long climb, breathing in the smells of wild garlic, the grass and pollen, the feeling of the sun, the wind and the rain against my skin, the aches of my joints, the release of the tension, the stress and the weight of the world.

    I run to feel alive.

    -Neil Brannagan-Fuller

     

     

     

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    YOU'VE GOT TO BE A RUNNER

    I run for peace of mind and peace of heart. I run to fill my soul and empty my mind. I run from my fears and my self-loathing. I run to feel strong and proud. I run to fill my lungs with new air and my mind with new thoughts. I run to get those feel-good endorphins flowing. I run because I can. I run because I fear a time when I won't be able to. 

    I run to feel my muscles, to feel them grow weak and grow strong. I run to check in with my body, to feel where I am sore and where I am growing stronger. 

    I run because I like when I'm getting my blood pressure tested, and the nurse checks the numbers and says, "You've got to be a runner." 

    I run because I like to sweat. I run to push myself. I run because it's fucking hard.

    I run because I like cheeseburgers and pizza and beer. 

    I run because running is a natural laxative.

    I run to be in the woods, on a trail, in the sun, in the rain; I run to be outside.
    I run to be out in a twenty-degree snowfall, to see a fellow crazy runner, and smile a knowing smile to them; "Yeah. This is awesome."
    I run because I am an animal, made for motion. I run because I’m a badass.

     

    -Joan Williams

     

     

    MY BEST

    I run because it's an adventure every time. An hour, or 12 or 28 hours, it's an adventure with all that an adventure entails. I run because I like when it feels like I'm the only one awake. I run because I feel wild, like an ancient warrior or a wolf. Sometimes I imagine I'm carrying a spear.

    I run because it's simple.


    I run for the feelings I have during the run, the way I always feel great after I run and for the lessons and gumption I get through the mental and emotional process that occurs before running; especially when i don't want to go, and i go anyway. Can do anything after that.
    I run because, for example when I turned 50 (fuck...) I ran a 50 miler (fuck yeah).
    I run for me. I run for my kids. I run because it makes me a better person and thats good for everyone and for the entire planet (ripple effect). I run for present, future and because of past romances. 


    I run because every few weeks Led Zeppelin's Kashmire will cycle through on my i-pod while I'm running. A special sort of spiritual uplifting occurs when this happens (try it)
    I run because when I'm way out there on a long trail run, regardless of my condition, i always smile when i can be present and aware of how awesome and cool it is that I am this far from the car, and i ran here, and I'm gonnna run back.


    I run to see sunrises, it's always magic. I run to see mountains, plains, animals, birds, people, weird stuff you can't explain and to be close to this planet, it's creatures and its Spirit. 
    I run because amazing things happen to me inside and out before, during and after i run. I run because it's me being me, at my best.

    -T. Scott Richards

    IDENTITY

    My mother ran with me in her womb and then when my legs stopped wobbling I ran on my own free will. I ran for the cheering and the ice cream and the ribbons and the spandex and the trips with grandpa to the races and the trade shows and I ran until I broke down on a track 15 years later and wanted to walk away from it all. And I thought I did. But I was wrong. For a few years it was sporadic runs. In the streets. Down a path. A weird snowfall in the city, I would drop everything with a need to run. And I would run. And then it hit me hard one day and I got a dog and we started running and we found the lonely trails and the mud and the mountains and the streams and the steep, rocky climbs and I remembered who I was, my identity as a runner. And it all came back except the speed. But at least we got to keep the ice cream.

    -Taryn Graham

    The Perfect Race

    By Willie McBride

    To enter wilderness is to court risk, and risk favors the senses, enabling one to live well. —Terry Tempest Williams

    My adventure on the Bailey Traverse in Olympic National Park began with disillusionment and wildfire. 

    As an endurance coach for athletes of all levels, it’s been unsettling to witness an increasingly comparative culture, born from social media, and how we portray our lives and accomplishments.  Instead of enjoying the beauty of nature or how good it feels (or how lucky we are) to be out there, people seem more often to be lamenting how long it took them versus someone else.  Folks fixate on comparing numbers when time is just one, extremely limited metric in which to measure an experience. That's the disillusionment part. 

    I can fall prey to it sometimes too of course, and I think it’s crazy.  I mean, what are we really doing these things for?

    After training all summer for a race, it was cancelled due to fire danger—that’s the wildfire part.  I was left to make alternate plans so I pulled out my stack of maps to brainstorm a non-race adventure.

    I remembered hearing tales of the Bailey Traverse in Olympic National Park over the years but didn’t know details, so I began digging and found an old blog post by Rainshadow Running director James Varner outlining the route.  The Bailey was exactly what I was looking for: a truly wild, remote adventure that would test all facets of my outdoor expertise.  I found additional information on Herb Crisler, the pioneer of the route, and a few backpackers’ trip reports, but little else.  James mentioned wanting to try the route in a single push, but after contacting him he said he’d never given it a shot.  To his knowledge no one ever had.

    Here’s what I found: “The Bailey” is a mostly off-trail point-to-point traverse of the Bailey Range in the center of the Olympic wilderness.  It requires a wide range of mountain skills—route finding, bushwhacking, sketchy 3rd class scrambling, glacier travel, and serious isolation.  Wildlife is abundant.

    For such a demanding challenge, I called Brian Donnelly, a truly exceptional athlete and the most well-rounded mountain traveler I know.  I enlisted my friend Matt Smoot to shuttle the car from start to finish, luring him with the tease of a detour to the Olympic coast’s exceptional surf.  Our plan was to begin at Sol Duc Hot Springs at 2:30 am and end on the southwest corner of the park at North Fork, some 55 miles later, estimating a best-case scenario of 20-24 hours.  Having never been on the route before, the most pressing goal was to be off the major cross-country section and back on established trail by nightfall.  I clung to the comfort of knowing I’d traveled 16 of our final 20 miles a couple times before, on the North Quinault-Skyline Loop.

    We arrived at Sol Duc on Friday night later than hoped and threw our sleeping bags out in the grass beside the parking lot.  Not even three hours later we awoke, finished packing and activated our SPOT tracker.  Matt wished us well as we set off into the darkness with high fives and coyote yips of excitement.  It was about 12 miles of gentle ascending along the river through lush, moss laden rainforest and up to the High Divide and the Catwalk to where the maintained trails stopped.  Beyond that, for as far as our eyes could see, was a world of animals, devoid of human interruption—true freedom.   

    The trees thinned and we stood with ridiculous grins as the bright fire glow of sunrise lit the glacier-strewn sides of Mt. Olympus, the centerpiece of the park across the Hoh River valley from our vantage.  Animal trails lead the way from there, threads of wild hoof-worn dirt navigating the features, weaving and branching at will.  We were soon in full cross country mode following these primal paths, heading straight across the steep mountain face below Cat Peak for hours.  We tiptoed in and out of frightening loose gullies that dropped like elevator shafts for thousands of feet, underlying the fact that this was far from any sort of “trail run.”  Our paced slowed to ~1 mile an hour.  I watched as Brian made climbing moves across one particularly exposed gully—his hands gripping the rock face, feet trying to find safe purchase—and then glanced up to see a pair of mountain goats surveying us from above.  Their white coats and stark, coal black eyes were an arresting and appreciated sight, but we yelled warnings and tried keep our space as best we could.  A man was once killed by a goat on the Bailey—a singular, freak occurrence but one we kept in mind nonetheless.

    Traveling cross country changes everything.  A single track trail, even in its blessed minimalism, is a constant reminder of the front country, a tether to civilization, a lifeline to safety if something goes wrong.  Without it you are truly cut off, like an astronaut drifting away from their spacecraft into the great unknown.  That freedom is both deeply liberating and frightening to our domesticated minds; it’s both a precious gift and a great responsibility.  We knew we were committed and we weren’t turning back, though what lay ahead remained a mystery, only to be unlocked peak by peak.  There were no clocks, no finishing place to consider; only the sun tracking across a perfect late-summer sky, wild blueberries as edible course-markers.  A “perfect race” was making it out alive and uninjured.

    We finally made it through the painstaking side-hilling of Mt. Carrie and Stephen Peak and into the Cream Lake Basin, though a mental and physical toll had been taken; we knew now just how serious an objective we’d undertaken and felt the gravity of our position with every step.   After dropping into the basin we refilled water and began our climb up to the saddle between Mt. Ferry and Mt. Pulitzer—the highpoint of the route—hopping boulders and scree above turquoise lakes.  Atop the saddle we basked in the view of peaks in all directions, layer upon layer, feeling our insignificance.  Our route ahead was impossible to decipher at a distance, a looming, intimidating puzzle with no clear solution until we were right upon it.  Because of this constant uncertainty we had to exercise faith; faith in ourselves, faith that somehow we would make it through despite the myriad difficulties and dangers.  We exercised it when stepping across crevasses on the glacier near Lone Tree Pass and when jumping the moat back to the rock on the far side. 

    As we made our way along the range and looked down into deep, trail less valleys filled with some of the biggest trees on earth my mind drifted to Herb Crisler—the pioneer of the Bailey—and his fascinating life devoted to celebrating these wild places.  How must he have felt traversing those mountains for the very first time, unlocking a route through a wild labyrinth likely no one had ever traveled before?  The thought of it gave me goosebumps.

    Crisler grew up in Georgia and fell in love with the Pacific Northwest during his time working in the U.S. Army Signal Corps Spruce Production Division. He relocated to Port Angeles on the Olympic Peninsula after that and opened a photography business there, which led him to eventually buy a newsreel camera and begin filming the wildlife he witnessed during his explorations of the little-visited park.  By 1934, he’d become a full-fledged wildlife photographer and was joined by his new wife, University of Washington English professor and Seattle mountaineer Lois Brown.  Together, the Crislers began tirelessly recording Olympic habitat and wildlife, often living in modest accommodations deep in the mountains, producing several films and screening them in national lectures they gave.  Their most widely recognized work was a 1952 Walt Disney nature film entitled The Olympic Elk, filmed on foot in the midst of the vast wilderness. 

    I imagined the immense love Herb and Lois Crisler had for the park and the connection with it they cultivated over time; I felt like I was getting a taste.  Brian and I paused regularly to stare in disbelief, often speechless at the scale and power of our surroundings.  We pushed on as the sun lowered, breathing sighs of relief at each difficulty we overcame, hoping it would be the last.  From Bear Pass it was an enjoyable cruise to Dodwell-Rixon Pass and then down the giant, tilted basin over waves of rock and scree to the narrow slice of what becomes the Elwah River.  This valley often holds snow late into the season in a thin strip along (and mostly covering) the river at the bottom—the “Elwah Snow Finger”—and often times it’s the most dangerous part of the traverse.  A ranger told us the snow finger was totally clear so we thought we were home free as we dropped down into the valley.  We rounded a bend in the river and with distinct horror saw a 30 ft. high, 100 yard long blue-white fortress of ice guarding the valley from wall to wall. 

    Brian looked downright scared for a moment (a sight I’d never seen) but I quickly reassured him we’d find a way.  There was a large tunnel, carved by the river that led straight through the monstrosity but the 20 ft high rubble heap of fallen ice blocks at the entrance made us decide against that option—we didn’t want to risk getting crushed if any more ice decided to part ways.  Instead we climbed up steep dirt and scree up onto the behemoth of ice and then had to walk the length of it, knowing at points there was nothing but air beneath the frozen bridge. 

    At the far end we stepped back onto dirt with relative relief but were still kept at full attention, knowing any slip could mean disaster.  Using a mix of climbing, skiing, daredevilry and parkour we made it back down to the river, feeling a weight lifted as we paused to fill our bottles in the fading light.  A moment later an elk herd thundered through the forest, an earth-shaking train of flesh, bone and blood, leaving broken trees branches and churned dirt in its wake.  We weren’t back to the front country yet. 

    The terrain continued to claw at us all the way to the trail out of the Elwah and up to Low Divide.  We climbed over and through endless snags and tangled logs jams in the river bed, over huge, slick boulders, leaping rock to rock, wrestling thickening brush, slipping and twisting and sliding.  I thought about risk and vulnerability, seeing the light of the SPOT tracker blink, reminding me of family and friends at home watching our progress on the computer.  Those complex topics often occupy my thoughts.  It can be an uncomfortable truth but I do believe, as Terry Tempest Williams puts it, risk enables us to live well.  It’s just a matter of how you balance that with people who love you and want you to live long, not just well.  Another quote—by Brene Brown—entered my mind as I stumbled toward delirium,.  She says:

    Vulnerability is not weakness.  Vulnerability is the birthplace of…creativity, and change.  It’s also the birthplace of joy, faith, and connection.  To create is to make something that has never existed before.  There’s nothing more vulnerable than that.

    Brian and I were creating something, an experience, a modern day vision-quest in the form of the first non-stop traverse of the Bailey.  We were focused and scared and alone, with heightened senses from the moment we’d left Matt in the dark at Sol Duc that morning.  Finding and cultivating deep love and connection with another human being requires great risk and vulnerability; finding and cultivating deep love and connection with nature and in the mountains requires the same.  Safety is not guaranteed, though the rewards are unequaled.

    There were a few flags tied to bushes marking the beginning of the trail that would lead us out of the Elwah and back to eventual civilization.  When we finally had a defined tread beneath our feet there was relief and the comfort of familiarity and perceived safety.  Present too though—as always—was the unpleasant twinge of leaving those beyond-human places behind, at returning to the madness of the man-made.  Part of me always wants to stay there forever. 

    The trail grew more defined until we were finally back on fully maintained, properly signed National Park Service trails.  The single-minded, zombie-like death march then began, just 20 miles to the end where Matt would be waiting.  I was fading fast and starting to fall asleep on my feet, struggling to navigate the never ending roots and rocks along the North Quinault River, while Brian charged on ahead.  

    We hit 24 hours and couldn’t care less, the clock was meaningless, all we knew was finishing, moving our feet over the ground until pavement appeared.  We were swimming in an endless ocean of sleep depravity and constant movement, adrift in the universe of the wilderness, part of the constellations.  The trail passed tents with inhabitants fast asleep, reminding us that we hadn’t seen a single human since we left Matt a day before. 

    Then it was done, and like a dream Brian and I stood beside each other looking at the fogged windows of my white Toyota Forerunner, with Matt asleep inside, curled up next to his surfboard.  The exhausted, elated relief of survival and accomplishment washed over our beaten bodies; that was our finish line prize. Our traverse was measured based on the risks we took, the wild and deep vulnerability we felt because of them, the feelings of living well, and the connection with a good friend.

    The light on the SPOT tracker blinked its last blinks before we shut it off, threw our sleeping bags onto the earth, and crawled in. 

    When Brian and I talk about our experience on the Bailey now, there is an unspoken knowledge and understanding between us.  We can reminisce about how gnarly and difficult and remote it was, talk about the beauty of the scenery, the animals, but those are just the obvious details.  We felt something different out there that neither of us had before, in our bones, something nearly impossible to put words to.

    I don’t think I’ll ever be the same.  

    The Art of Instinct

    By Brett Farrell

    There is a mysteriousness about Brian Donnelly to those who don’t know him well.  You may hear that he is so competitive that it keeps him from racing or even running with others. People talk of him like a legendary figure often seen trotting along the Northwestern sections of the Wildwood Trail in Portland, Oregon among the fir trees, the moss and the rain.

    He’s known for setting the fastest known time on the Oregon section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), a 460-mile, seven-day push that would intimidate even the most intense distance runners.  When you meet him you’ll find a tall man, soft-spoken, choosing his words carefully in order to express himself in a true manner, a sincerity. He carries a refreshing level of modesty, landing his accomplishments in a higher regard. You wonder what makes him tick, what’s inside that drives this runner, this husband, this father of two, to pursue his passion with such consistency, grit, and fight in him to run over 60 miles a day for a week straight on the PCT?  

    Is it his fierce competitiveness or something more?

    GROWING UP OUTDOORS

    Upon hearing about Donnelly’s childhood it is easy to think that his passion for the outdoors wasn’t developed over time but something more innate. His grandfather endearingly called him “Iroquois,” because he spent all of his time outside--sleeping in teepees, building forts, and, for three Halloweens in a row, he dressed up as a Native American. He would read books on how to make weapons and spent hours creating his own. He hunted, lived off the land for days at a time in the canyons outside of Forest Hill, California with his best friend in high school, and eventually fell in love with running.  He later designed his life around outdoors and foot travel. He couldn’t be pried away from it.

    Donnelly first became enamored with running when he joined the cross country team in high school after moving to live with his father and brother in Auburn, California. His brother was the stand-out runner at Placer High School, and, when he graduated, that role transitioned to Brian.  Between his all-league and state meets, and success as a high school runner, he was searching for a deeper sense of home.

    “I wanted to stay in the same place for high school,” Donnelly says. “My parents divorced when I was young and I moved back and forth between parents, never in the same school for much more than a year. When I was a sophomore my dad couldn’t make ends meet and had to leave the area.”

    When his father decided to leave, Brian and his brother put their foot down. They were determined to stay. His brother moved in with his girlfriend’s family and Brian transitioned to living out of his car, to the bedrooms of girlfriends, and eventually the house of his best friend and teammate, Ron Turpin.  

    “It was a step forward in taking control of my situation. It was a big deal to say ‘I am not going with you. I am staying.’”

     

    THE FIRST JOURNEY

    It wasn’t the first time he took a stand to control his life.  

    When he was eleven, he spent the summer with his father who was busy working days and gone most nights. Brian wasn’t happy and wanted to move back with his mom. Here, he embarked on a daunting journey into the unknown.

    He dreamt up the idea to take his dad’s bike and ride to Martinez, where his mother lived, 60 miles away. The thought of being able to travel that far by his own human power lit a fire under him. It was the spirit of real adventure filling a child’s mind and not some act of play--a chase to find where he wanted to live.

    He planned it days in advance. He took his father’s bike and set out with no maps, only a general sense of the direction to go.  With each passing mile, he ventured further away from what he was provided and closer to what he truly desired. He had been riding all day but his energy faded as the sky grew darker. He knew he wouldn’t make it before night, when the unknowns of the dark set in.

    He unknowingly ended up in San Ramon near where his father worked, happened upon a police station and was later picked up by his father. He didn’t make it to his mother’s home, but this act of reaching for the places he felt he belonged wouldn’t fade.

     

    THE WHY OF RUNNING

    Running in high school opened Donnelly up to launch himself further into adventure and the outdoors.

    “It’s a magical thing if you can gain fitness and feel that in your body. It’s a connection to a different way of being. I always felt close to it and it never has gone away.”

    Donnelly remembers an art teacher, Mr Ferrante, embedding the idea. “He told me, ‘I can’t believe how far and fast you run. That’s going to be with you forever.’ If you have that ability it shapes your vision for what your body can do and helps you see further. I felt invincible- this power from running at that age. It opened up possibilities.”

    Donnelly’s home track of Placer High School happens to be the finish line for the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. He would watch the race happen throughout his years living there and would think those people were crazy for running 100 miles. The thought of doing that distance didn’t grab a hold of him until years later.

    Racing was not a big part of his running after high school. Donnelly says that, while he does enjoy racing and the community of it, it changes something for him. It goes from the peaceful nature of his own rhythms and desires to something else. He has a harder time staying motivated when training for a race compared to committing to running and the outdoors because he knows that he simply needs it, the meditative benefits and the time to let the mind wander. 

    “Joy floods your body after a hard workout,” Donnelly says. “We’re not meant to live with such convenience. We’re meant to work hard. That’s why I think so many people get so much out of running. It’s part of our biology.”

    He spent his post high school and college years creating his own adventures, running with his brother in the Grand Canyon and the Marin Headlands. Years later, he moved to Portland, Oregon, and started to hear about people running around volcanoes in the Cascades. He connected with this pure circuitous line of the route. It created more visions of what he could do with his power of running.

    THE OREGON PCT

    Donnelly met Yassine Diboun in Portland and as their friendship grew, so did their idea to run the length of the Oregon section of the Pacific Crest Trail.  He became fixated on the idea.  

    When Donnelly talks of his desire for doing the PCT, it sounds like the attraction was just how basic the idea was, its simplicity--a straight line from one point to another. He describes it as “a foot-and-a-half wide trail, like a ribbon, stretching the length of Oregon that you can just step on and follow.”

    Brian studied maps and the terrain for over a year, planning out the detailed logistics of executing this 460-mile journey. “It was a whole year of asking, is it possible to run over 60 miles a day for over a week?” Donnelly says. “We had an idea but we didn’t understand.  It was the unknown.” He hadn’t ever ran more than a 100k in a day at this point in his life.

    After they set out on the PCT, the situation quickly became real. Yassine and Brian were separated on the second full day of their run and that night Donnelly saw a mountain lion not far away looking directly at him.  “I felt so little and vulnerable,” he says. Yassine later dropped from the route and Brian didn’t see him again for the rest of the journey.

    The day after he lost touch with Yassine, Donnelly ran nearly 70 miles trying to make up time. It was hot, water sources were scarce, he became dehydrated, and peed blood. That night, he questioned some things.

    “I always felt like I never crossed the line of being stupid and careless, but I got close to it,” he says.

    It became the hardest thing he had ever done in his life. Each night he would try to sleep in his lightweight bivy, his body still buzzing from all the miles on his feet and he would question if he could even walk the next day. But each morning he would wake up surprised with his ability to keep running.

    On the fifth day, Donnelly walked into the cafeteria at the Big Lakes Youth Camp. It was filled with families eating together. People living regular lives next to him, having everyday conversations and not having a clue of the miles this man had traveled on foot. He was overwhelmed with emotion and started to cry. It made him realize how deep in this survival place he was and still needed to be. “I felt like no one could understand me and I couldn’t possibly share it either.”

    The experience was raw, survivalist raw.

    “My conscious mind knew I could have walked away from it but I was steeped in the mindset of, I am fighting and thinking I have to get back home by my own power. My feet were hammered but there was no question in my mind of stopping. It was so clear to me that I wanted to run towards home and the people I loved, this natural pull.” For Donnelly it was perhaps a recurrence of themes from his younger life, embarking on a grand journey, a simple and powerful pull to get to where he felt he belonged.  

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    It took Donnelly seven days, 22 hours and 37 minutes to reach the Bridge of the Gods at the Oregon-Washington border. “It’s funny to think about; why would someone do that?” Donnelly says. “When you connect to possibility by being empowered by your fitness you think: why not?  It’s about seeing what you can do.”

    Donnelly remembers the sunrises standing out the most. “Sunrises were full of possibility and starting over after being alone in the woods at night, scared, feeling like a kid in the dark. Then the sun comes up in this quick transition and you feel so hopeful and invigorated.  I also remember passing Jefferson Park. It was beautiful and fascinating to wake up looking at a huge peak right in front of me and by late afternoon looking south at that same peak far in the distance. Covering that kind of vast distance every day on foot made me so intimately involved with the landscape. It was wild.”

    RETURNING HOME

    Donnelly had a three month long recovery after the PCT and then got back to his regular schedule of running and life at home. His house in Portland, in which he lives with his wife and daughters, sits on the edge of Forest Park, over 5,000 acres of dense urban forest. The 30-mile long Wildwood Trail is but a stone’s throw from his backyard, the perfect place for a young fort-builder, now grown up, to spend his lunch hour each day.

    “I don’t think it’s an accident that I live where I live next to this park with a job where I work from home and can play on the trails each day,” Donnelly says. “It’s about making work fit into your life and passions.”  

    Each day on the trails, he is learning its curves, its smells and its features over and over, like the bodily contours of a lover. He knows the exact locations of which rock to leap off, to propel himself. With each tree a familiar face, he observes and documents the arrival of flowers each year and dives deeper into Earth’s rhythms and trips around the sun.

    What drives this runner is the same thing that drove him during his childhood. It’s not to see how fast he can run or how he measures up against others, but more to experience the elemental basics of life. It’s his quest to live like so many human beings did before him, to coexist with the natural world. To follow his suite of senses to the awe of a sunrise, or a long meandering 460-mile trail through the Cascades, towards understanding the possibilities of the human body, towards a place called home. While staying true to his instincts, Donnelly remains the “Iroquois” that his grandfather clearly saw and lives now where he truly belongs--in the forest.

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    Donnelly works, lives, runs, and plays fiddle in a bluegrass band in Portland, Oregon. He hopes to one day return to his home track of Placer High School--this time at the end of a 100 mile race.