Let’s be real. That question hits different from someone who might only actually have six months left to live.
|Me and Stacey Lee, instigator of this crazy idea. I knew Stacey could do it.|
I secretly figured I would be dropping out by Bogachiel State Park.
The past few years have not been kind to me athletically. I have spent more time in medical tents, crawling into creeks, throwing up into bushes and slow walking in the end of runs than I care to admit. Heat intolerance and hot flashes plagued me pre and post run. I’ve passed out alone on the trail, cramped my way through drives home, and suffered on adventures. I would train and train and still have no power on the hills. I have felt broken and scared, not willing to sign up for a 50k for fear of not being able to finish.
It was not until I reached menopause in 2020 at the age of 48 that I realized that perimenopause might have been a contributing factor to all of my struggles as of late. My first glimpse of hope came after a long ski adventure around Crater Lake. After 17 hours of backcountry travel on skinny skis, I was still moving and happy. But that was snow, and it was cold. So I played it safe. I focused on coordinating ham radio teams and photographing. I forgot how to run long. And those questions about what I could do? I stuffed them down. Put them on mute.
But now I had this new purpose. Say yes to all the things. Live like you’re dying. Which meant that when given the opportunity to work with the team on Women Who FKT, a grassroots movement to get more women in the backcountry adventuring and setting records, I jumped at it. And when Stacey Lee invited me to join her on the Olympic Peninsula Traverse FKT, I jumped at that too. Trails! Coastal travel! 168 miles (oh, those halcyon days of thinking it was only 168 miles) – I mean, it’s backpacking…so way easier, right?
I remember the moment when the gravity of what we were doing hit me. Stacey and I were discussing training plans, and she mentioned that she was looking over a 200 miler training plan. I started to laugh and tease her about throwing in a 200 miler this summer in addition to our FKT, but then I realized – holy cow, that’s what we were training to do. And not only were we training to do a 200 miler, we were training to do one without support, where we would have to carry everything we needed on our backs, our food in a bear vault, on a trail with significant hazards and restrictions. I felt like throwing up. What in the world was I doing?
But once again Kate gave me a gift. She was famous for her couch to double training plan for the Hagg Mud Runs. Two weeks before the double (a 50k on Saturday and a 25k on Sunday), Kate decided to run. And with two weeks of training, she finished both races on grit and toughness. I was filled with the memory of running together at Miller Lake, where I was sharing with her all of my frustrations and fears with my running. She calmly responded to my long list with reassurances that I could figure it out. This was something I could do. And so I kept moving forward towards the plan, working with my excellent, patient coach, Dana Katz, to build a strong engine. We focused on addressing the weaknesses brought on by menopause, with lots of strength training in the gym and tweaks to my nutrition.
My new way of living was going to be the death of me. The day was finally here, but I really wasn’t sure about whether or not I could pull this off. Just a few weeks prior, I had spent a week in the Sierras at altitude, not able to eat, suffering in the heat, throwing up and generally feeling miserable. All the old fears were back with renewed vigor. What was I thinking? I couldn’t even do a 50k, and yet here I was trying to do this huge, gnarly FKT? 50 years old, and you think you can try something like this? Teri’s greatest hits, playing on repeat. I offered to drop out of the effort. I offered to crew. I offered to roll my ankle. But Stacey wasn’t having it. And neither was Kate.
Kate had passed last May, you see. She fought and she fought, holding on to life well beyond her doctor’s initial predictions. She was with me as I thought about how to proceed. She wasn’t going to let me off the hook. Life is short, she reminded me every time she came to mind. You made a promise, I reminded myself. Her memorial was scheduled for one week after the start of our FKT. I had to at least give it a try.
– day one –
We woke early, leaving my daughter Kirsten sleeping in the cozy cabin at Lost Resort (a wonderful spot to stay or grab a burger) so that she would be rested for her drive home from dropping us off. Grabbing our packs which were light this day – we were doing a self-supported effort so we had left food in an RV we rented in La Push – we quickly walked the 1/2 mile to the Ozette Ranger Station where we would official start our journey. An extra half mile seemed so delightfully insignificant in the beginning…
|Sunrise over the Olympic coast|
|The dreaded Yellow Banks section…not as bad as advertised|
We moved our way through the rocks, but with a fair amount of ease. Perhaps it was because we went through at low tide and could maneuver through smaller rocks, but this section was much faster than anticipated. We hit the Norwegian Memorial, familiar to us from a previous scouting expedition, well ahead of predicted pace, so we continued on down the beach as far as we could before the tide stopped us at Cape Johnson. We were feeling confident, and the weather was cool. Perhaps I wasn’t in over my head after all.
Anticipating the outgoing tide, we hit the pinch point early and continued to motor down the beach. The beautiful and popular Hole in the Wall landmark gave us the push we needed to leave the beach by sunset and start the 4.5 mile walk down the road to La Push with some speed in our step. We rolled into our rented RV in La Push around 10 pm, nearly 2 hours ahead of schedule. We negotiated sleep and departure times and landed on a 3:30 am start the next morning. I slept fitfully, waking at 1:30 and deciding this was the perfect time to answer email. That lost sleep would haunt me.
|Sunset at Rialto Beach|
– day two –
3:37 am, Three Rivers Resort, La Push
We were excited to hit the beach for a new section that we had not yet seen to start day two. Several hours of sleep on a real mattress set us up for a good day, but we had no idea just how long this day would end up being. Our packs were now fully loaded with the food for the remainder of the trip – my pack was 12 pounds heavier than the day before (right around 30 lbs). We quickly covered the four miles of road to the Third Beach trailhead, which had a surprising amount of climb for a trail descending down to the ocean. The morning was brilliant and foggy, and it was hard not to be taken in by the beauty of the coastline.
We reached our first overland route not long after hitting the beach, and this first climb was a beast. Multiple rope sections on sliding slopes made for slow going, and once on the overland, the trail did not allow us to pick up the pace much. Overland routes are always slower than walking on the beach! When we were building the pace spreadsheet, we did not account for this slower pace, and we started to notice that we were falling behind what we needed to make the pinch point at Diamond Rocks. This would become the issue for the day.
|Stacey making her way down Third Beach in the early morning fog.|
|The sea stacks along the Olympic Coast are gorgeous.|
By the time we reached the major overland section on the southern coast section, we knew we were behind. We had hiked this section before, and we knew what to expect. Trail improvements had been made during the preceding months, but even with the improvements, our math was not working out. We pushed ourselves, and then we debated between resting early and rushing to make it. Our indecision may have cost us just enough time to catch us out. Either way, by the time we made it to Diamond Rocks, we were caught in the cove and had to find a spot to wait out the tide…for seven hours.
|Busting ass on the overland trail|
So we waited, watching as the tide went from far out to nearly washing up to where we were camping. The clouds rolled in, and then they rolled out. We baked; we froze. In a moment of pure Olympic magic, we spotted two dolphins playing in the waves. We tried to sleep and we filled up on food. We knew that a long night lay ahead if we were going to come close to our goal of 44 miles for the day.
|Slipping through one last pinch point. This was not an easy one!|
As the sun gave its last rays of light for the day, we were finally done with the ocean section. The long road walk through the private logging forests and on to Bogachiel State Park could begin. Eighteen and a half miles of logging roads lay ahead of us, and for much of it, we were not allowed to camp as it was private land. We loaded up on water (a good choice as the water sources in the next section were very difficult to get to, especially in the dark) and began a long push up and over the small coastal mountains.
The gentle crunch of gravel, the rustle of bushes as small animals scurried at our approach…these were the sounds of the night. Mile after mile – tick, tick, tick. Finally, a turn according to the Far Out App, and thank goodness we were using the app – because the turn looked like it just went into the bushes. Notes on the app mentioned that the beginning of this new road was supposed to look like this, so with trepidation, we followed the app’s navigation, and eventually a rustic road emerged. We spent the next several miles getting slapped in the face by overgrown bushes, dodging large overgrowth as we weaved from track to track.
It was out here in this section that I felt my lowest. Stacey was charging up the hills in front of me, and I was warm, tired and just trying to keep from redlining. Everything hurt, and I found myself wishing to be anywhere else. In bed. On a short trail with my daughter. Floating on my paddleboard. I could feel the panic rising, threatening to send me into hyperventilation. “What do you see around you?” I asked. Shadows. The moon. Gravel. “What do you hear?” Grounding techniques, learned the hard way. I let the tears come, and then I remembered my mantra I had chosen for this adventure. “Feel bad. But don’t feel bad for yourself.”
And once again, Kate came to me. What she wouldn’t have given to be out here making herself miserable on a gravel road. This was torture of my own choosing. Feel bad, but don’t feel bad for yourself. I kept moving forward and slowly the feeling of panic began to pass, and the small, quiet feeling of belief crept in. I could do this.
Around 3:30 am, Stacey suggested stopping for sleep as we were in the last section where we might camp. Yes! I said. I was all for it. We noticed an overgrown road going off to the left. No way this one is being used, we decided. We debated briefly camping right in the middle of this unused road, but then we decided to camp off to the side, just to be safe.
– day three –
|Would you ever guess in a million years that cars were using this road?|
That was more than enough to get us moving again. Quickly repacking our bags, we headed out on two hours of sleep.
Taking full advantage of real restrooms, we dumped trash, washed up a bit, and ate some hot food. Showers were an option, but we did not have the time. Before we knew it, we were back on the road for the hike to the Bogachiel River Trailhead, 6 1/2 miles ahead with a bypass road that climbed us up a steep grade we cursed the entire time.
The next miles were arduous. PUDs, or Pointless Ups and Downs, as Stacey darkly called them. Narrow, winding trail, with warm, humid temperatures. Our mileage goal for the day started slipping away, but we did not have it in us with the trail and weather conditions. We had hoped to climb to Deer Lake in the Seven Lakes Basin, but even our secondary (Hyak Shelter) and tertiary (Fifteen Mile Camp) goals slipped from our reach. We rolled into Flapjack camp with just under 26 miles for the day, and we were done.
This camp turned out to be just what we needed though. With easy river access, we were able to clean off completely and get a good wash of our gear. Some late afternoon sun helped dry out our things, and we regrouped after a long day. I noticed that I had developed a blister under my big toenail on my right foot, and my pinkie toes were quickly turning into hamburger. I drained them and bandaged them the best I could, while also trying to address the chafing that was happening to my feet because they were wet so much. This would be just the beginning of my battles with my body in the heat.
|Flapjack camp – a really lovely spot on the river|
– day four –
5:57, Flapjack camp
|15 mile shelter and the end of trail maintenance|
|A small sampling of the blowdown we traversed.|
First real glimpse of the mountains
|Rolling in to Deer Lake. PNT hikers have a spot set aside for them in the llama camp.|
– day five –
3:11 am, Deer Lake camp
|A rocky climb|
As we crested the first climb, we were greeted by the orange glow of the rising sun – a beautiful, energizing sight. The trail was easy to follow, and the views were astounding. We had one brief missed turn near Bogachiel Peak – one that Tony Hawkes, the male FKT holder, also made. Another brief 15 minute nap for me at Heart Lake, and I was ready to roll. We watched a black bear make its way through the meadow below Heart Lake, and I vowed to return to this magical spot one day. Life was feeling pretty good.
|When you are so tired and warm that you don’t notice that the bridge is broken until you are across it…|
When we finally hit Boulder Creek Campground, I really wanted a break, but Stacey was ready to push on. She had to prod me a bit, and a stop at a lovely, cool creek did wonders for me. We continued our slow march down the road now, and we realized that yes, we could make our mileage today. The heat continued well into the evening, finally starting to break with dusk. We canceled our friend on standby and readied ourselves for the long push to the finish.
|More closed road.|
The beautiful waters of the Elwha River.
After a refuel and break, it was time to head on to our next camp – either Whiskey Bend or Humes Ranch. Not long after starting back up, Stacey startled a bear – so we decided to hike closely together as darkness fell. The miles on this road section seemed to go on forever, but eventually we made it to Whiskey Bend, where we called it a night. One other party was already camping there – the only people we had seen since Heart Lake. We settled into our sleeping bags, watching as spiders crawled across us by the light of the headlamp. Stacey pulled a tick off of her sleeping pad. We were too tired to care and fell asleep for a few hours.
– day six –
That was the question in my mind as we packed up for the day. Would this trail have seen any work? Would there be unexpected climbs? Would the weather be cooler as predicted?
The early morning hours were lovely. The trail was gentle and papered with leaves, and we seemed to glide along. I thought about Kate and how grateful I was to be out there, aching feet, itching butt and all. Dawn’s light revealed more moss covered trail, and the Elwha River provided a musical background to the steady thrum of our feet.
|An old fishing cabin on the river.|
We took a break at the closed Hayes Ranger Station, taking in a hearty lunch and napping for another 20 minutes. The climb to Hayden Pass still loomed – 8.5 miles and 4,400 feet of climbing on unknown trail that could be maintained or not. We were starting the climb around 12:30 pm, which meant the heat of the day was still ahead. And while it was cooler, it was certainly more humid. I did my best to fix my feet and to prepare myself for the challenge ahead.
The first four miles climbed steadily through the forest and were in good condition. It was warm, so I was starting to stop and cool my head. And then we hit the fire zone.
The Olympic National Park has had several fires over the years, and we found ourselves in one burned in 2016 because of lightning. We’re used to burn sections; we work them on trail crew and they dot Oregon’s forests. But burn sections are notoriously warm. Without tree cover to cool you, the temperatures intensify. And because of the burn, now six years old, trees come down regularly leading to lots of blowdown to be maneuvered. Marmots are thriving in this area too, which means making sure you aren’t stepping into marmot holes and wrenching an ankle underneath the brush that is also growing quickly because it gets more sun. The climb was slow and tedious, and I was stopping to wet my shirt and/or my head at nearly all of the creeks we crossed. My feet were wet and unhappy; I could feel a painful blister between my wrapped up big toe and my second toe. I focused on getting to the pass and then being able to take a break.
|That view though…|
|What’s a pass without some sketchy, sliding trail?|
|Descending the now super painful pass.|
How do you articulate to your partner that what your mind really needed was the break that you had promised it? Yeah, you could keep going. But you had really been counting on that break, and now your brain was having a toddler meltdown and everything hurt and everything sucked and wahhhh.
|More rough, marmot holed, brushy trail. Because of course.|
And this is when the barn began to call. We had just under 30 miles to go, and most of it would be downhill. We knew we had some good road walking ahead. We just needed to decide how to proceed.
We stopped in Dose Meadows Camp and chatted with some locals there who could not believe what we were doing. Stacey ran into a fellow PCTA Caretaker while I focused on eating and trying to get a nap (I think I snagged five minutes). This chance encounter energized her, though, and she said that she wouldn’t be able to sleep. So I asked if we should get up and keep going – that maybe we could get through the rest of the brushy, hole filled trail before it got too dark. And that if we got tired, we could stop at a camp below.
It was game on. If we could push hard enough, we might be able to slip under six days.
The next several miles, she pushed. I tried to entertain her with “Would You Rather” questions, but the fact of the matter was that I was working so hard that my brain just could not seem to come up with scenarios. I could think of one option and then dissolve into laughter because I just could not think of something to pair it with.
My brain was running on fumes.
Around 2:30 am, near the Dosewallips Ranger Station, Stacey crashed a bit. She realized that she had forgotten about five miles of trail, dashing our hopes of breaking six days. “Would it be a good idea to take a nap right here on the trail?” she asked. “Couldn’t hurt,” I think I answered.
Once again, we were whipping our sleeping pads or space blankets out on the ground (man, was I grateful for the Exped on this trip – unhooking it from my pack and laying it out made these short naps to easy) – not even off the trail as there was nowhere to go but down an embankment. I was napping downhill with a solid root underneath me, but it didn’t really matter. My backpack, covered in chocolate from an unfortunate incident in which I forgot I had a chocolate bar in the main pack, was going to attract a bear, I was sure. I did my best to sleep and stretch my feet, and before long, the one hour alarm was going off. Time to move.
Navigating the Ranger Station and Dosewallips Campground was challenging in our sleep deprived state. One large blowdown prompted quite a discussion between us as to which way to go, but eventually we worked it out and headed off in the right direction. We were soon on the old road, which made for easier walking, though by now, everything ached and nothing was easy.
|A gorgeous night|
We thought we were done with ropes, but once again, the trail provided. The road is completely washed out in this one section – there is nothing left of the old road. Once at the bottom of this rope, we noticed fairly fresh blood, which quickened our step. Mile after mile of old road – where in the world was the road people could drive to? And why did they hike up so much old road to get to that Dosewallips Campground? I entertained myself with these musings, reminding myself that every step was a good step.
|The end in sight|
And then, miraculously, we could see Puget Sound. The end was actually near, and we walked in together, touching the 101 at 10:31 am, six days, five hours, and 52 minutes after leaving the Ozette Ranger Station. Stacey’s partner met us with cold pizza and seltzer, the most delicious food after days of candy, mashed potatoes, corn nuts, Skratch and bars. Exhausted and proud, we peeled off our old clothes and finally put on something clean. My toe began throbbing, and during the ride home, I felt waves of pain run shock-like through me. Two days later I would be in urgent care, having my toe nail removed because of the infection that had developed from the blister under my nail.
And so, the epic adventure was over. We set the first women’s FKT, and we managed to come within 24 hours of the men’s time, an effort we are proud of. That trail did not give us any quarter.
I left her on the trail. She fell behind when I kept going on no sleep, finding reserves of strength that I did not know I had. She dropped off as I dealt with the heat, and the chafing, and the blisters, and the stinging/itching rash, and the monotonous food, managing it all so that I could continue moving forward. She stayed behind as I found the gratitude for life in all of its pain and misery and beauty and realized that true joy and acceptance comes from within. Our expectations can break us mentally and physically. But leaning in to what is, that can be a super power.
- Ultimate Direction Fastpack 35
- Exped Flexmat Sleeping Pad
- SOL Thermal Bivy
- EE Revelation Quilt (10 degree)
- Patagonia Micropuff Jacket
- Bear Vault 500
- Katadyn BeFree Filter
- Hydrapak 1.5 liter bladder
- Gatorade bottle
- Smartwool Biker Shorts
- Ridge Merino Lightweight Wool Hoodie
- Darn Tough socks
- Wool underwear/sports bra (2 sets – did camp laundry each evening and dried on pack)
- Saucony Peregrine trail runners
Approximately 22,000 calories after adjustments to my bear vault were made at the last minute. Not a fan of olive oil it turns out. Best foods – beef stock + mashed potatoes in a slurry mixture, mini 100 grand bars (minis were so much more palatable than big bars), biscoff cookies, beef sticks, Beecher Old English Cheddar cheese sticks, gummi bears and gummi cola bottles, sweet & spicy tuna with tortilla, dehydrated pineapple, Blackberry citrus nuun and skratch. I definitely benefited from having a wider variety of foods this time. Next time – more gummi candy and less chocolate and more cheese. Tailwind was great for the hot hours of the day when my body was less inclined to want to eat.