Editor’s note: On the night of August 24, Tyler Green, of Portland, broke Dylan Bowman’s record when he completed the Wonderland Trail with a new Fastest Known Time (FKT) of 16:40.55.
Two miles from the finish line of a clockwise run around Mount Rainier, ultrarunner Dylan Bowman rolled his left ankle. But if he kept up the grueling pace, he could finish the 93-mile loop on the Wonderland Trail in under 17 hours, demolishing the previous men’s fastest known time (FKT) by almost an hour and a half.
So the Red Bull and North Face athlete blocked out the pain and kept running by headlamp, finishing a single push on Aug. 19 that started before dawn and ended after sunset. He followed Issaquah-based North Face teammate Kaytlyn Gerbin, who ran the last 10 miles with him as she trained for her own Wonderland record attempt (she also holds three local FKTs, including the truly insane Rainier Infinity Loop). Bowman’s watch glowed 16:56:30. He was convinced the 17-hour mark was outside his grasp when he heard his support crew hollering at him in the dark. They could see his and Gerbin’s headlamps bobbing in the dark across the Nisqually River.
Bowman began sprinting across the glacial moraine that covers the final paces to Cougar Rock Campground, where he had started the day at 4 a.m. When he stepped back into the campground, the stopwatch read 16 hours, 58 minutes, 41 seconds.
“Then I immediately collapsed,” Bowman told The Seattle Times the next day from Ashford, where he was recuperating at a rental cabin by soaking his ankle in an icy creek. “I was at the very bottom of the well at that point, the far outer reaches of what I could sustain.”
Bowman’s new FKT is just the latest to be shattered in 2020, another bizarre byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic as endurance athletes pursue solo objectives during a summer of canceled races. FiveThirtyEight analyzed data from Fastest Known Time, the official repository for FKT records, and found 3.8 times more submissions in June 2020 compared with a year ago.
In Bowman’s case, the Portland-based athlete initially had his summer sights set on the rugged Hardrock 100 endurance race in Colorado. He shifted gears in May once the race was put off. The 34-year-old, originally from Colorado, hiked in Mount Rainier National Park as a kid, and his father still glows about a successful summit nearly two decades ago. In the insular world of ultrarunning, meanwhile, the Wonderland Trail is a prized objective. Ashland, Oregon-based athlete Ryan Ghelfi set the previous FKT in September 2018.
“It holds a special significance in the sport. For people who are fans of mountains and trails, it really doesn’t get much better than Mount Rainier National Park and the Wonderland Trail,” Bowman said. “Everybody who I know who’s done it over multiple or single days just comes back raving about it. It’s always been at the top of my bucket list.”
But the short season without snow anywhere on the trail, which reaches an altitude of 6,800 feet at its highest point, also coincides with the main ultrarunning race season in western North America. “I’ve always had conflicting goals that don’t really allow for a focused training block for something like the Wonderland Trail, even though it’s something I’ve wanted to do for 10 years,” Bowman said. The silver lining to the canceled reason season presented Bowman with a rare window of opportunity.
When he set off on Aug. 19 with just a one-liter-capacity running vest, a lightweight jacket, an emergency blanket, trekking poles and a pair of North Face prototype trail running shoes, the predawn temperature was pleasant in the low 50s. Bowman quickly determined that he was on pace to break the FKT, potentially by a wide margin. “I felt like I was in control of my own destiny the whole way,” he said.
But any run of that length is bound to have ups and downs, just like the trail.
When the mercury was pushing 80 degrees in the heat of the day, around Mile 50, Bowman skipped a water refill and ended up running thirsty along the exposed alpine stretch of Berkeley Park before reaching Sunrise, one of four resupply locations where his wife, Harmony Bowman, met him over the course of the long day as she, a photographer, and a videographer drove around the mountain to follow Bowman’s progress.
“She is a huge part of my life and my success as an athlete and she has a lot of experience crewing for me in races around the world,” he said. “Crewing isn’t the funnest, most rewarding, spectator-friendly thing, so it says something about the national park that she has been glowing all day about how much fun she had yesterday.”
Late in the day, around Mile 75, Bowman was struggling on an undulating stretch of trail heading to another resupply at Box Canyon. “You’re constantly looking for the trail that’s going to take you downhill proper after doing a lot of climbing over the last five hours,” he said. “I was feeling pretty rough, low energy, kind of puking a little bit, not able to eat a lot.”
Unbeknownst to Bowman, his friend Jamie Staples — one of a handful of supporters from Seattle who came out to provide encouragement — had hiked out from Box Canyon to meet him. When Bowman thought he had 6 miles before the resupply, Staples told him it was just 4.5 miles to go. “He was a sight for sore eyes at that moment,” Bowman said. “Seeing a friend and knowing that I was closer than I thought I was gave me a little bit of a morale boost in a moment when I really needed it.”
At the finish line, Bowman said, “I spent some time lying on the ground, puking in the bushes, and shaking uncontrollably.”
Why would anyone put their body through that kind of punishment?
“When you push yourself through something like that, you feel like you’ve achieved something and improved yourself in a certain way,” he said. “It becomes something you want to keep pursuing. It’s addicting.”
In the short window left before the first winter snows — last year, sections of trail were covered by the end of September — Bowman expects more attempts to best his new FKT. “FKTs are falling all over the world by pretty significant margins,” he said. “My intention was to make it as strong as I possibly could so that other challengers would have a harder time.”
That hypothetical competition pushed him to keep up the pace even as a runner more used to racing in real time. “It’s easier to be more motivated to push yourself when somebody is catching up from behind or you’re chasing somebody out in front,” he said. “You have to find ways to motivate yourself when you’re out there alone. When I was not feeling great, I tried to use that motivation of thinking somebody’s coming up from behind in a real race.”