When ultrarunner Kaytlyn Gerbin, of Issaquah, set her sights on breaking the fastest known time (FKT) to run Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail earlier this spring, her aim wasn’t only to best the women’s record, but to beat the overall time.
Gerbin had her sights set on the 93-mile Wonderland Trail FKT for years, but the training cycle had always conflicted with a fall race. Just as COVID-19 hit in March, Gerbin was coming off a win and course record in the Transgrancanaria in Spain’s Canary Islands. As more races were canceled, Gerbin homed in on her big goal: “I thought maybe this is finally going to be the year when I can do the Wonderland Trail,” she said.
Gerbin is no stranger to setting records. She co-owns the women’s FKT for the Ptarmigan Traverse, set just two weeks prior to her run on the Wonderland Trail, and she and adventure pal Alex Borsuk in August 2019 became the first women to complete the mind-boggling Infinity Loop. Borsuk, of Portland, accompanied Gerbin on some of the Wonderland Trail run, too.
Based on two successful race performances in early 2020, Gerbin decided to attempt the Wonderland Trail after an early July ski summit with her husband Ely, her first time back to Rainier since completing the Infinity Loop the previous year.
“I just got there and felt such love and respect for the place,” she said.” I just knew that I knew that I wanted to do it. It means more to me than just a fast time on a trail. It’s something that I just feel drawn to.”
This was before the Wonderland Trail FKT, previously held by Ryan Ghelfi (18:27:42) was bested twice in the same week — first by Gerbin’s friend and North Face teammate Dylan Bowman (16:58:41), and days later, again by Tyler Green (16:40:55). Green completed his goal the evening before Gerbin set off for hers.
“Still, I had Ghelfi’s goal in the back of my mind. I knew that it would be a stretch, but not totally absurd for me to try and do that,” Gerbin said.
The 31-year-old bioengineer finished the Wonderland Trail on Wednesday night, in 18:41.54, beating the previous women’s record by 3 hours and 23 minutes. Bowman — who’d held the overall supported record for less than a week — escorted her through the final 10 miles, returning the favor Gerbin had done him during his record attempt a week earlier.
This FKT is extra meaningful, especially considering Gerbin didn’t start 2020 planning to attempt it.
“It was really, really special to finish,” she said. “Maybe my favorite finishing moment out of any other race that I’ve done. I finished with a time that I was really proud of, pushing through highs and lows to finish pretty darn close to that original crazy goal that I had set for myself.”
Gerbin moved to Seattle from Wisconsin in 2011 to attend a graduate program at the University of Washington. During her interview, she visited Kerry Park, and that postcard view of Mount Rainier hovering over the Puget Sound and downtown left her awestruck.
At the time, she had completed a few road half marathons, but wasn’t otherwise backpacking or mountaineering, yet she felt a draw to the mountain, vowing to stand on its peak one day.
“When we did, then we learned there was a trail around it, so then we said that we wanted to go do this trail,” Gerbin said. “To think that only nine years later, it’s such a big progression to casually running on the roads to tackling two FKTs.”
Gerbin had big plans for 2020, but as her summer and fall races were canceled, she remembered that what got her into running was the adventure and love of the mountains and knew this would be her chance for Wonderland.
“It was a blank canvas, it meant that I could do whatever adventures I wanted, whether or not they were good training for a race,” said Gerbin, who did some skiing and mountain climbing this year. “I think because I haven’t had a regular racing season and I’ve trained very differently this summer, I was out there, wondering what I got myself into.”
Gerbin started her Wonderland Trail record attempt at 3 a.m. Wednesday morning, with the intention of chasing sunset. “Because there were no competitors or anything else to help motivate me, I really liked that goal or knowing that I wouldn’t need to run in the dark a lot at the end,” she said.
Self-doubt creeped in over the first 35 miles.
When she arrived at the first stop at Mowich Lake in seven hours, on pace with Ghelfi’s record, she knew that her goal was possible. Her pacer, neighbor, and regular training partner Bryan Bhark reminded her that this was the toughest section. She was already a third of the way finished and nothing she would have to do the rest of the day would be as challenging.
For the first three quarters of the day, Gerbin’s splits were on pace to break Ghelfi’s time. But around mile 70, at Panhandle Gap, fatigue set in and lingered throughout the remainder of the run.
Feeling challenged by the climbs, Gerbin tried to make up for lost time on the descents. Borsuk, her pacer through this section, continued to remind her what an inspiration she was.
“Kaytlyn and I have been on a lot of adventures together, big and small,” Borsuk said. “We’ve accomplished some really hard and taxing mountain objectives together, having to trust and rely on each other for so much.”
Knowing a friend on that level helps you understand what they might need, even when words aren’t exchanged. Suitably, Borsuk saved some juicy trail gossip and Queen serenades for the lowest points.
Gerbin kept going, motivated by pushing the boundaries of what women are doing in the sport.
“I knew that I would be well under the women’s time,” she said. “I wanted to throw down a good time that wasn’t just good for women, but would help show what’s possible for girls to do.”
Even after Gerbin realized she wouldn’t catch Ghelfi, she strove to finish as close to his time as possible. She ultimately fell short by 14 minutes.
On Wednesday night, Gerbin crossed the finish just after 9:30 p.m., smashing the previous women’s Wonderland Trail record set by Jenn Shelton in 2015.
“She was one of the females that I really looked up to in the sport,” said Gerbin, who had just started trail running when Shelton set the record. “I remember following along and seeing that she had broken the record and being really inspired by it back then.”
Aside from collecting FKTs around the Northwest, Gerbin is passionate about encouraging more women to feel comfortable in the mountains and bringing attention to those who are.
“There are a lot of us, and we often fly under the radar,” Gerbin said. “Women are so strong and so capable of doing things. “I see so many groups of guys in the mountains chugging along, and I just think to myself, ‘Some of them must have a wife or girlfriend or partner who wants to join them, but they feel scared or intimidated.’”
To encourage more women to feel comfortable in the mountains, she invites girlfriends on adventures, teaching them the skills they need so they can go on their own, and, ideally, teach another female friend.
“Really all it takes is someone to slow down and show them the ropes,” Gerbin said. “Before you know it, women are going to be blasting up the hill faster.”