- Date: January 27, 2018
- Location: Tillamook State Forest
- Start: Elk Creek Trailhead
- Distance: 42 miles (only completed 39-ish)
- Duration: 10 hours 15 minutes (breaks not included)
- Elevation gain: 3950 feet (one way)
- Type: Out-and-back
- References: Oregon Hikers
Stupid. Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid. That was the only word (minus a certain descriptive expletive preceding the word “stupid”) racing through my head as we stumbled through the Tillamook State Forest in the pitch black. Our inadequate sources of light barely lit up the trail a few feet in front of us. I became more and more paranoid with each step, terrified that I would take a fall and injure myself, or that we’d have a surprise encounter with any of the nocturnal predators that lurk in the forest. The rain was coming down hard at this point, but it was fear that saturated me, seeped into my skin, resonating deep within my bones. Why had I thought this would be a good idea?
We started late in the morning just before 7 am. It seems silly to call that “late” since the sun had yet to rise, but 42 miles was a very new distance for us. We weren’t entirely sure what to expect but I anticipated needing the entire day. It was already raining when we started up the first hill leading out of the campground parking area. Once we were in the trees we were somewhat protected. Mack had me lead so he wouldn’t end up running too far in front of me. My legs were still getting reacquainted with this sport. Mack had been doing a fantastic job of keeping up his big mileage weeks over the past couple of months since our previous race in November. I, on the other hand, stopped running entirely for 20+ days in December and early January. I could blame that hiatus on my busy schedule but, at the heart of it, was lack of motivation and feelings of defeat. My hope was that Wilson River would light a fire under my ass and reignite the spark that had been missing from my most recent attempts to get back into it.
We weren’t greeted with sunshine, just cloudy skies and fog, but daylight allowed us to put away our headlamps and pick up the pace. Silhouettes and shadows were replaced with a sea of green. Sword ferns, salal, and Oregon grape blanketed the slopes while moss coated the trees and rocks. Despite being the dead of winter, the forest was already exhibiting signs of spring. Even from a few of the viewpoints from up high along the route, snow was nowhere to be seen as we looked out over the forested mountains of the coast range. At least it was one less obstacle to deal with. Although the trail itself offers some of the best (if not the best) tread for running, its constant undulating elevation profile makes it deceptively challenging. The first 9-10 miles alone (from Elk Creek to Diamond Mill) gain 3500+ feet!
The Diamond Mill suspension bridge over the North Fork Wilson River brought an ironic sense of relief. We weren’t quite halfway through our end-to-end (and barely a quarter of the way done with the entire run!). I think the relief I was feeling stemmed from my memory of running the Elk-Kings 25K back in 2015. At this point in the route, there were less than 3 miles left to run. If only the same could be said about our current situation. We took a short snack break after crossing the deceptively slick bridge then continued on more mellow terrain past Lester Creek Falls (which we’d never noticed until this run), Jones Creek Day Use Area, and the beautiful Tillamook Forest Center. Another false sense of relief swept over me when the Wilson River Suspension Bridge came into view. If this were the Go Beyond Racing event, we’d be running across that bridge to a victorious finish, nourishing food and refreshments, and warm and dry clothes back in the car. On the contrary, all was silent. There was nobody and nothing waiting for us across that bridge. We were alone, and the comforts I was fantasizing about were miles away at Elk Creek Trailhead.
We enjoyed a few more miles of minimal climbing, taking in the views of Wilson River now that the trail was practically hugging it. The rain continued off and on, and the seemingly endless creek crossings left our socks perpetually soaked. Continuous movement was the only way to stay warm. There were some upsides though. I absolutely hate running in the heat (basically any temp above 70-75 degrees), so the cool 40-50 degree weather kept me from burning out too fast. In addition, the cold and wet kept potential crowds–well, Wilson River Trail never gets that crowded per se–at bay. I’m pretty sure I could count the number of people we saw all day on one hand.
The final stretch between Wolf Creek Road and Keenig Creek Trailhead saw another 1000+ feet of elevation gain over the course of six miles. It wasn’t much compared to that of the first 9-10 miles, but we were very much ready for a break (and to be halfway done). I was starting to feel a bit of pain in my right knee, which made the miles go by even slower and caused my level of stress to skyrocket. Thankfully, as soon as we hit Cedar Butte Road, the pain seemed to subside (or was just overshadowed by my immense excitement that the rest of the way was downhill). We flew down 1.5 miles of switchbacks before bursting through the trees and into the empty parking lot, exhilarated and exhausted. 21 miles down, but 21 to go…
What goes down must come up. After a fairly brief snack break and some reluctance to begin again, we headed back up the switchbacks I’d been so ecstatic about earlier. Now I was groaning as I forced my tired legs to hike uphill. High spirits resumed once we reached Cedar Butte Road again and were able to pick up the pace. I took my final photos of our run–though I was still under the impression I’d be taking a couple more back at the car when we finished–shortly after we crossed Wolf Creek Road.
Reaching the Wilson River-Footbridge Trail junction (just over six miles in) felt like forever and definitely hampered my will to continue. It was already getting late into the afternoon, too. Sunset was about an hour away and we still had 15 tough miles remaining. I can’t speak for Mack, but my body started to shut down at this point. I shuffled along the best I could but ended up having to walk–more like crawl–at a time when we really needed to be moving fast.
The sun was already beginning to set by the time we reached the Tillamook Forest Center. At the pace we were going (because of me), I knew it would be hours before we reached Elk Creek Trailhead. Of course, we’d forgotten to bring along our Garmin inReach and had absolutely no cell service to call and let our emergency contact know that we’d be running very late. I could feel the panic start to fester in me (mainly because I didn’t want SAR called on us due to lack of communication). I even suggested to Mack that we bail at the Jones Creek Trailhead and run along Hwy 6 to Elk Creek Trailhead (which would’ve cut our remaining mileage in half) so we could return at a reasonable hour and get in touch with our contact. He thought it would be more dangerous, so we stuck to the trail.
It was completely dark when we crossed the North Fork Wilson River and headed back into the forest to work our way through the most difficult/strenuous section of the route. It was primarily uphill so I wasn’t running. Hell, I was barely able to power hike. Emotions began to pour out of me. I was angry and frustrated with my abilities, as well as the fact that we’d forgotten to bring such an important piece of equipment (that we’d specifically purchased for situations like this!). At some point it started raining again. We picked our way carefully up and down the trail, depending primarily on Mack’s handheld flashlight since my headlamp was completely inadequate. We ran whenever possible, but moving in the pitch black was slow going to say the least.
At long last,–literally, we’d been moving for over two hours since crossing the North Fork–we reached the junction with Kings Mountain Trail. Our trailhead was still nearly four miles away and it was already 8 pm. We decided to head down to Kings Mountain Trailhead (a short 0.1 mile away). Upon reaching the parking lot, every last ounce of energy that I’d sustained with adrenaline for the previous two hours suddenly left me. My entire body seemed to go limp. I could barely see straight or stand up. Mack headed down Hwy 6 in the rain to pick up his car at Elk Creek about 2.5 miles away. I was too drained to move and sat in the rain shoving Goldfish into my mouth. I finally picked myself up and spent the remainder of my time shut inside the toilet, shaking and shivering in the 30-something degree weather. This image, sitting in a trailhead toilet, beat down and unable to even complete the final 2.5 road miles to the car, felt like the epitome of failure in that moment. I sat dazed in the car on the way home, staring at the streaks of water splash across the window, dreaming of BBQ and pineapple pizza to take my mind off of my immense disappointment.