When Ryan Montgomery staggered into Cougar Rock Campground at Mount Rainier National Park after dark last Saturday, Oct. 3, his mother greeted him with a victory hug. Some 20 hours earlier, she had prepared avocado toast for him as he limbered up for a 3:12 a.m. departure to run clockwise around the mountain.
The millennial brunch favorite must have done the trick, because Montgomery, a Suunto Elite Team runner who lives in Truckee, California, but grew up in Auburn, had just set a new speed record for an unsupported run on the Wonderland Trail: 18 hours, 49 minutes, 11 seconds.
It was the seventh so-called fastest known time, or FKT, to be posted on the iconic trail in 2020, a year that has seen a flurry of ultrarunners test their mettle against the clock during a season of pandemic-canceled races. Earlier this year, FastestKnownTime.com, the official repository of such records, highlighted 10 “premier routes” nationwide expected to garner multiple attempts. The Wonderland Trail was the only Pacific Northwest entry, and speed records on the Mount Rainier loop ended up changing hands more times than any of the other routes.
“The Wonderland Trail is one of the most popular in North America and West Coast athletes see the Wonderland as a hot place to run,” Montgomery told The Seattle Times three days after completing his feat.
With winter weather expected to coat the higher elevations of the trail in several inches of snow this weekend, the season for FKT attempts should finally come to a close this month. Barring another herculean effort — and never say never with die-hard ultrarunners — the other current record holders from attempts this year are Tyler Green of Portland (men’s supported), Kaytlyn Gerbin of Issaquah (women’s supported), and Alex Borsuk of Portland (women’s unsupported). Montgomery knocked off Kris Brown and Mark Hammond, who individually set the fastest mark for a men’s unsupported run Aug. 27 and Sept. 5, respectively.
“Unsupported” meaning that runners carried all their own food for the 93-mile trek. In Montgomery’s case, that meant a 2,000-calorie hodgepodge of protein bars, gels and waffles that weighed him down with a 20-pound pack.
“You go mostly uphill for the first 50 [kilometers] and I felt like I was wearing a weight belt,” he said.
While Montgomery’s October run was the latest-ever timing for a successful Wonderland FKT, which normally occurs during the peak daylight months of July, August and September, he timed his run to occur near the full moon, which provided so much illumination that he rarely needed his headlamp — and some suitably spooky views for the season.
“I remember at Mile 12 when I reached the first of many ridgelines for the day, I had an ominous view of the mountain, completely luminated from the night’s full moon,” Montgomery wrote in a trip summary. “I just remember feeling complete bliss in the moment and grateful for being so privileged to be there in that moment.”
The advantage to an autumn attempt was cooler temperatures ideal for endurance running. The day started in the mid-40s and climbed up to the low 70s under sunny skies at Sunrise, one of the higher elevation stretches of trail. Montgomery described feeling “in my element almost the entire day.”
Not that there weren’t mishaps. Montgomery slipped on a wet rock descending from Mowich Lake to Ipsut Creek and cut open his forearm, which bled for 30 minutes as he kept clipping along the trail. Not wanting to sacrifice weight, Montgomery decided against bringing a first-aid kit, which he regrets.
“If I’d had a Band-Aid that would have been nice,” he said. “I didn’t realize how deep it was until after I finished.”
For Montgomery, who finished second place in last year’s USA Track & Field 100-mile trail championship, the unsupported FKT experience was new and eye-opening. “There’s a sense of purity and being one with the trail when I’m completely self-sufficient and dependent on the mountain, like stopping at a river and fueling myself with the streams coming off Mount Rainier,” he said.
While Montgomery would like to work future FKT attempts into his training regimen — perhaps an annual self-challenge against the Wonderland Trail — he misses the camaraderie of race season and is eager for traditional competitions to return next year.
“2020 made me realize I really miss the community aspect that races provide,” he said. “It’s like a family reunion when you have a race.”
At the same time, this year’s reset has also helped him rediscover just why he pushes himself so hard on the trail in the first place.
“We’re not in this sport to race, but for the process, because we love it,” he said. “FKTs allow you to rekindle that love — just being out there adventuring is the core of why I am in this sport, and FKTs embody that concept.”