Adventure Run: Circumnavigating Glacier Peak in 35 Hours
On July 27, 2015, Luke Distelhorst and Ben Mayberry completed a circumnavigation of Glacier Peak in 35 hours, a trek that most hikers do as a multi-day backpacking trip. We talked with Luke to learn more about their incredible accomplishment.
Picture a 107-mile hike with more than 27,000 feet of elevation gain in one of the most beautiful areas of Washington, the Glacier Peak Wilderness. Now imagine running it in 35 hours, stopping only for a short nap.
Their circumnavigation of Glacier Peak is nothing short of amazing. Battling thick brush, wet shoes, and rugged terrain, they can safely say they've done something that few others would have the determination to complete. WTA talked with Luke about what motivated the trip and what it took to complete the run.
(Please note: since their run, wildfires have closed sections of their route. If you want to follow in their footsteps, be sure to do your homework about trail conditions.)
How did this trip come together? How/why did you decide on this particular loop?
Last winter I put together a post for my blog with a few ~100 mi adventure run options. Some of them were established routes (Boundary Trail in the Pasayten) and some I just got out the maps for and started adding up mileage!
For this specific loop, the Glacier Peak Wilderness is one of my favorite areas and I love it's diversity as it straddles the Cascade Crest. Looping the mountain seemed “logical” and I saw some reports of people backpacking similar routes.
How much of it was on trails?
Our GPS devices came up with a total distance of 106-107 miles, and only 5.7 miles was on dirt roads (Chiwawa River Rd and Phelps Creek Rd). Essentially 101 miles of trail and 6 of FS road. And as a perfect loop we didn’t have a single step of trail overlap, which was amazing.
How did you research the trail conditions? What resources did you use?
Ben and I had done a good chunk of these trails over the last year so we were pretty familiar with half the route. We didn’t research the PCT because it’s the PCT, but that ended up being a little bit of a mistake since there is a significant section of the PCT that has not received maintenance for quite a long time (five years maybe?).
We still would have done the trip, but maybe been more mentally prepared for that section (Vista Creek all the way through the White Chuck valley). The only section I actively researched was Indian Creek, which I already knew was pretty bad. Reports I checked on WTA and NWHikers confirmed that.
Did you have exit strategies along the way in case you needed to bail? What were they?
On some routes there just aren’t easy exits, and the commitment factor can be very appealing/motivating. Summer 2014 I did a 60-mile point-to-point North Cascades traverse that had zero bail options. Up until the Glacier Peak loop that was the most committing run I’d done.
Other times there may be a trail cutting a loop short that works as a bail. We went to the Pasayten in late June when it was 90 F at 8,000 feet (and 105 F in Winthrop) and I got sick and puked on the summit of Apex Mountain at 8200 feet.
It was too hot to continue and we bailed down Tungsten Creek, which still was 18 miles from the trailhead and resulted in a ~50-mile day. It’s great to have a bail option, but the further you get out, the fewer options there are.
On the Glacier Peak loop after the short road section ended at mile 27, we had 80 miles of trail to get back to the car. Any bail (out at North Fork Sauk or Suiattle River) would have put us on the entirely wrong side of the Cascades, which basically was out of the question. One way or another we were getting back to the car on our intended loop (an emergency like a broken leg notwithstanding).
At what point do you decide you're OK going into unknown trail conditions? What gear do you bring to cover yourself and how did you pack for unknown conditions?
I usually have at least a vague idea of what I/we are getting into.
For navigation, I always bring maps and a compass. When I’m with Ben, he usually brings a handheld GPS, but we never really use it for navigation. It’s a good backup, though, just in case. For running routes I’m almost always on trails, which makes researching easier. For off-trail XC hikes, I try to glean info from online or print resources.
I always have an emergency kit with me: very small first aid and either my SOL bivy or an emergency blanket, hat/gloves, etc. I try to have enough that I can survive a night out if need be. That doesn’t mean a comfortable night, but survivable.
One of WTA's own trail staffers, Ben Mayberry, joined you on this epic. How did you talk him into it?
Thankfully, Ben needs very little persuasion to go romp about the mountains. After I posted my 100-mile route ideas, Ben and I ran together a few times over the winter and he immediately expressed a keen interest when I brought up the idea of the Glacier Peak loop.
He later told me he had backpacked almost the same loop over three days back in 2012 and after he got into ultrarunning had pondered if it was doable in a single push. That pretty much cemented our plans.
After 35 hours together I’m sure he needs a break from me!
Why run it? What do you think is gained (or lost) by taking on big miles in short periods of time?
There is some ineffable quality of doing something in a single push that is deeply satisfying (to me at least). On other days I’m more than happy to go for a slow hike and lounge around, but if I find a route or loop that I want to run, it’s hard to convince myself otherwise.
I think backpacking the Glacier Peak loop is three days at its fastest, and probably more like five to seven at a “regular/average” backpacking pace. Running allowed us to see an incredible amount of terrain in a relatively short time. We went from the White River trailhead to the Suiattle River crossing in under 15 hours (which is about 53 miles with 13,000 feet of gain) and saw some of Washington’s best areas in that time. That felt really special.
On the flip side, wildlife probably is the thing we miss out on most by running. I still see a decent amount, but definitely not as much as if I was hiking, I think. But it’s great to be able to run sometimes and hike others and it’s most important to just get out and spend time in the mountains, regardless of pace.
On a personal note, I am married with two kids and have a full-time job, so being able to do 30-50 mile runs on a weekend day and be home to say goodnight is important.
How did you schedule yourselves to allow for slowdowns, like downed trees?
Scheduling for rough trails usually sounds like this: “It’s supposed to be brushy with blowdowns, so we’ll move slowly through there.” Haha.
Honestly, you have to get through the bad trails one way or another, which usually means just plowing through and trying to keep moving well.
Your feet took a beating on this trip, right? What is your foot care regimen like when you run or fast-hike big miles?
Yes, even rotating two pairs of socks (something I never do on shorter runs), there was no way to keep our feet dry, and we ended up doing almost the entire trip with wet feet (rain and dew meant wet brush everywhere).
By Red Pass (around mile 89) our feet were severely macerated and extremely painful to run on. We were able to run short stretches on the PCT to Indian Pass and some very brief sections on Indian Creek, but it was almost all hiking by that point.
I’ve found shoe-sock combos that seem to work for me and I’ve rarely had to deal with blisters or other foot issues. I usually just use some Body Glide beforehand and carry a small container of A&E as a backup in my first aid kit. Consistent wet feet are tough to battle though, and I’m open to suggestions! I wear Pearl Izumi trail shoes and Injinji or Drymax socks (I’m actually a Pearl Izumi ambassador for 2015, but have been wearing their shoes since I started ultrarunning a few years ago).
How did you train?
I actually ran less for this than when training for the Plain 100 which I ran last September.
Starting in the spring I did a lot of consistent weeks of 50-60 miles of running (15-25 miles during the week and 30-40 mile-long runs on the weekend) with 6,000-15,000 feet of elevation gain.
I had a couple of peak weeks in the 70-75 mile range, and also had a really good four-week block from late June up until late July where I ran 230+ miles with 50,000 feet of gain.
Then I rested for nine days before the loop, never running anything longer than 5-6 miles.
Sir-Hikes-a-Lot had gone out to do a hike in the area and was hoping to overlap with us. He waited around but our mileage guesses had been off and we completely missed him. While he was on the trail though he spoke with a thru-hiker and passed on a message to us.
It went like this: After crossing Miner’s Creek bridge I saw a guy hunkered down in a tarp shelter (it had just been raining for 45 minutes). As we were passing him I see that he is scrambling to get out from under his shelter and he yells out, “Hey! Are you a trail runner?” Having no idea where this is going I only partially slow down and reply, “Yeah.” Then I stop dead in my tracks when he says, “Sir-Hikes-a-Lot says good luck.” I thanked him profusely for passing along that message. To know that a friend had hiked that far back, not seen us, and still passed along a message was very meaningful. Ben and I don’t think the hiker knew the full context of what “good luck” meant … it was a powerful and emotional moment for us though.
The first 50+ miles we covered were incredible as well (Boulder Pass-Napeequa-Little Giant Pass-Spider Meadows and Gap-Lyman Lakes-Cloudy Pass-Suiattle Pass) and I continually exclaimed to Ben how amazing I thought the day was going. Completing the loop was very special, just realizing that it actually could be done.
We also got buzzed by a military jet in the Indian Creek drainage while we were being demoralized by the brush, and normally I hate that, especially in a Wilderness area, but there’s no denying it was a powerful moment and a good motivator (Ben agrees on this one).
Indian Creek brushfest, where both of us were stung by wasps or yellowjackets to boot. To be so close to the finish, not able to run because of our feet and to be fighting through the brush was a real mental and physical test.
What is the most important thing you think you took away from those 35 hours?
We live in an amazing part of the world. Doing a route like this just inspires me to get out more maps, open up Caltopo and start putting together more routes to get excited about.
Any runs or trips that take 24+ non-stop hours will take you for a physical, mental and emotional ride, and it’s fun to embrace those experiences, both the good and the bad. Having good, motivated friends like Ben to tackle these endeavors with doesn’t hurt either!
We wish Luke and Ben the best on their next adventure, and thank them for sharing their incredible story. Keep up with Luke and Ben (if you can), on their blogs for all things running. We also have a WTA youth crew planning to work on Indian Creek in the coming couple of weeks--hopefully they'll get some of that brush off the trail.