As 2020 marches on without racing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, athletes continue to seek out safer, independent pursuits in wild places. Enter Dylan Bowman, who just set a men’s supported fastest known time (FKT) on Washington state’s Wonderland Trail, which is about 93 miles long, has roughly 24,000 feet of climbing, and encircles Mount Rainier. His time of 16 hours, 58 minutes, and 41 seconds bested the previous men’s supported FKT which was set by Ryan Ghelfi in 2018 at 18 hours, 27 minutes, and 42 seconds.
In this interview, which was transcribed from a phone conversation a couple days after his effort, Dylan talks about why he chose the Wonderland Trail for a 2020 personal adventure and how he prepared for the effort, how his 17 hours on trail played out, and what he thinks will come of this unique year in our community, our sport, and himself.
[Editor’s Note: Just a few days later, on August 24, Tyler Green reset the men’s supported FKT to 16:40:31. We’ll attempt to report this story shortly!]
iRunFar: Congratulations! How are you feeling?
Dylan Bowman: Good! It’s still catching up with me a little bit. I haven’t slept very well. I’ll probably try to catch a little nap here this afternoon and then try and relax through the weekend. Overall, though, I feel awesome. I’m happy with the effort and on cloud nine. Who can complain? It’s been pretty great.
iRunFar: Can we start with some beta on the route? The name of the route and the fact that it circles Mount Rainier has captured the attention of trail runners and ultrarunners far and wide. But the trail’s actual ground feel might be more local knowledge. Did the route run like a 100 miler?
Bowman: Yeah, definitely. I think it runs very similarly to UTMB–not only due to the fact that it’s a circumnavigation, but it’s really hard. Mile for mile, I would say it’s more difficult. At least UTMB has more… faster miles. Even though it was about 17 hours for me and UTMB was 20 hours, it felt just as difficult. It may just be recency bias, but it runs like a mountain 100 miler. It’s certainly slower than the Western States 100, for sure. I ran that in 15:30 or similar.
It was certainly a worthy objective and an amazing route–one that totally blew my expectations out of the water.
iRunFar: The route measures 92 or 93 miles with 24,000 feet of elevation gain, right?
Bowman: Yeah, but I think it depends on who’s measuring it.
iRunFar: What’s the trail like? Is it pretty technical?
Bowman: Yeah. It’s pretty difficult the entire way. There are a couple downhills that are easier to cruise than others, on parts of the mountain that get more hikers and general foot traffic. There are a couple of wider, less technical descents, but they make up maybe seven or eight miles of the total distance. The vast majority of the route is difficult, and it’s pretty relentless.
In the first 50 kilometers, you get about 11,000 feet of climbing. That’s, theoretically, the most concentrated dose of vertical on the entire route. On the next section you have the biggest climb of the day, which is 3,500 feet. Then you drop 1,500 feet and then you climb again another 2,200 or 2,500 feet. You basically climb 6,000 feet out of that section. Yeah, it keeps coming at you. My experience was that no section was easy. There’s no opportunity to click into autopilot and coast. It was really challenging every step of the way.
iRunFar: It does sound like UTMB in that respect: It’s relentless in getting at you.
Bowman: Yeah, totally. Even the last climb is 2,500 feet or so. When you look at it on an elevation profile it looks pretty benign compared to the rest of the route, but it’s a really tough last climb. Especially when you’re getting close to the end and you keep wondering where the top is. You’re desperate for a final downhill that seems to never come.
Yeah, it’s a proper route. It’s definitely one of the coolest things I’ve ever done and something I would recommend to anybody.
iRunFar: This is a summer of FKT and adventure attempts. How did you decide to focus on the Wonderland?
Bowman: I’ve actually wanted to do it for a decade or more. I remember when I first came into the sport, Kyle Skaggs had the record. Of course, I came up [through the sport] in the generation of Skaggs and Anton Krupicka. I derived a lot of my early inspiration from those guys. Since learning about the Wonderland back then, it has always been in the back of my mind. I’ve considered going after the record in each of the past three years, but because of other competitive goals, it never made sense.
As you alluded, with the Hardrock 100 being canceled for the second year in a row, I wanted to devote my energy and focus toward something, rather than just sitting on the couch. Now that we live here in the U.S Pacific Northwest, it was the perfect opportunity for me to transition my focus and check it off the bucket list after 10 or 12 years of thinking about doing it.
iRunFar: I feel like, in COVID-19-ean times, people are self-disclosing that they fall into one of two categories: Either they have no problems getting out and doing their training, or they need to come up with some sort of adventure or goal to get them off the couch.
Bowman: I’m very much the latter. I’m not tremendously disciplined unless I’ve set a very focused goal. The first couple of months of COVID-ean times were spent developing a new taste for IPAs and sitting around, kind of being a waste of space. Eventually, when Hardrock was canceled, it became a somewhat tedious exercise to just sit around, twiddling my thumbs and wondering what to do. Luckily, when I do have a goal set and I am focused on training, every other part of my life comes together more efficiently. That was the case here, and that was why I wanted to race.
iRunFar: When did you put this FKT attempt on your calendar, and how much time did you have to prepare for it?
Bowman: Well, since we’re on COVID-ean time, I can’t remember exactly. It feels like 100 years ago [laughs]. I think Hardrock was canceled in early June or late May. At that point I had already done 2.5 months of quarantine, so I was already well-recovered from Transgrancanaria [the race in the Ultra-Trail World Tour that took place in March, where Bowman finished third]. Coming off 2019 where I was injured the whole year, I’ve definitely been motivated to be training and competing.
Without races, this was the perfect opportunity for me to set the FKT goal. I think I had a solid eight or 10 weeks, maybe, leading into it. It all went super well. I’m healthier than I’ve been in two years. Overall, I just felt really, really great. It was a nice, little build-up. Like I said, I approached it as I would any normal race, working under the guidance of my coach, Jason Koop.
iRunFar: The FKT concept is so unique. You have Ryan Ghelfi’s 2018 performance, his time, his splits–all of the beta that he shared. Did you train on the route and do reconnaissance? How did you prepare?
Bowman: Having just moved to the Pacific Northwest about eight months ago, it’s been really fun to explore around our new neighborhood here and there’s so much cool running to be done. Because I had set this goal, I did key long runs that mimicked the Wonderland Trail. I did a circumnavigation of Mount St. Helens, which is about 50k. I did a circumnavigation of the Three Sisters, which is 47 miles. Those were two really big, important days for my prep.
Most critically, three weeks ago, I went up to Mount Rainier and did the Wonderland Loop over three days. I used that as an opportunity to learn the trail, understand where the hard parts were, understand where the water sources were. I started formulating a plan about when I wanted to start, and from where. So, that’s how the training played out for me: A couple of other volcanic circumnavigations and a practice lap around Mount Rainier.
iRunFar: I have to ask about the circumnavigation or circumambulation concept. Is that becoming a thing for you?
Bowman: I find it to be an appealing objective. There happens to be a lot of those around here in the Northwest, these volcanic mountains in the Cascade Range. Whoever created the concept of these awesome circumnavigation trails around them, we owe them a debt of gratitude. They’re the coolest long, single-day pushes you can do, at least in my experience as a trail runner. And they’re all here in my backyard. It’s pretty fun. It’s also a trend in Europe, with UTMB. The Ultra-Trail Mt. Fuji used to be a full circumnavigation of Mount Fuji as well.
iRunFar: I think there are lots of cultures where walking around a mountain is a very intentional, spiritual thing.
Bowman: I think I touched spirituality during my experience on the Wonderland Trail last Wednesday [laughs].
iRunFar: Given that you did reconnaissance, did you set up goal splits or did you decide to just run by feel? How did you plan your day?
Bowman: I’m never really a “splits” guy. My brain doesn’t operate well with numbers and stuff. I like going by feel and keeping things simple. That’s what I tried to do with this as well: Go at what I thought would be an intelligent, steady, and maintainable pace. So, even though I had done the lap over three days [in training], I wasn’t necessarily chasing whatever I’d done during that practice lap. I think I was quite a bit faster in the single push, as is expected. I didn’t put a lot of thought into the math until the very end of the run. When I realized I had a chance to go under 17 hours, that was really the only math that I could do: Understanding that I had a razor-thin margin of error and I had to pick it up.
iRunFar: Can you walk us through your day?
Bowman: I started at 4:00 a.m. from Cougar Rock Campground, which is on the south side of the mountain. In hindsight, I think that was a good decision. It seemed to work out really well. Starting at 4:00 a.m. meant that I had an hour-and-a-half of darkness on the front end and only half an hour of darkness on the back end. I’m naturally an early riser. I like to get things started as soon as I can. I’m not somebody who enjoys the European starts at 5:00 p.m., or midnight, or whatever. So, I started at 4:00 a.m. to take advantage of the daylight. Starting and finishing where I did also seemed like the best and fastest place to go from.
I think most people who do it start from Longmire, which isn’t far from Cougar Rock Campground, where I started. I think I probably would’ve started in Longmire had it not been for Ghelfi, who started at Cougar Rock. For me, being something of a sports historian, I wanted to run the same route that he did, since he had a record. That’s just a personal thing. I know some people pursue FKTs that start and finish in different places. For me, to keep it standard, I wanted to go from where the record was established.
iRunFar: You said that the trail keeps coming at you. Did you have highs and lows throughout the day? If so, did they reflect what the trail was doing? What was the physical journey like?
Bowman: I felt pretty strong throughout the day. For the first 50k I felt amazing. It was still relatively cool. I was feeling fit and well-rested. That’s always a good feeling going into something like this. That was evidenced by how quickly I was covering ground over the first 50k.
Around midday, about halfway through the effort, it started to get pretty warm, much hotter than I was anticipating it getting. We were expecting clouds to come in, but they really never came [laughs]. There was probably a five- or six-hour section where I was pretty darn hot. I had some problems taking in calories, but I was still able to move relatively consistently and at a respectable pace. I had a little bit of a low patch going up to Panhandle Gap. But, looking back on it, it’s rare that things go absolutely perfectly. This run wasn’t absolutely perfect, but it’s hard for me to complain about it too much.
iRunFar: You had a passel of crew and pacers!
Bowman: We had an awesome crew come and support. First and foremost, my wife, Harmony, [gave the other crew and pacers] an “Intro to Babysitting” me [laughs]. She made sure everyone knew how to give me everything that I needed, and, of course, she has a lot of experience. She’s a great babysitter.
The stops were very minimal, and that was a testament to us having our systems dialed. Aside from Harmony, we had Ethan Newberry. He was there to capture some content. Along with him we had Ryan Thrower who produces my podcast who also does some work with Ethan. Then, to help with pacing, we had Yassine Diboun for seven or eight miles. He was mostly capturing video and photos, but it was nice to have his company for the times where he was out there. And then Kaytlyn Gerbin ran with me for the last 10 miles and picked me up at a point where I was pretty low. Without her encouragement for the last 10 miles, I probably would not have gone under the 17-hour mark. So, it was a great crew. Everybody contributed in a really valuable way. It was such a blast, so fun.
iRunFar: Often we are motivated by these arbitrary thresholds, like 17 hours in your case, and “I want to get under this time.” How did the last miles go for you?
Bowman: So, Kaytlyn picked me up with about 10 miles to go. At that point we had that final climb that I described earlier that’s pretty demoralizing. All along on that climb, I had at least a cursory understanding that it would’ve been possible to finish in under 17 hours, but it certainly wasn’t a major focus. I wasn’t doing the math quite yet at that point.
At the top of that climb, there was a point to receive aid at Reflection Lakes. You then have four miles of downhill from there to where I started. At that point I think I had 32 minutes to cover it. We basically had to run 8:00/mile pace… I don’t know exactly what pace, but it was a razor-thin margin. At that point we understood that we not only didn’t have any time to spare, but I wasn’t going to be able to stop and receive aid at this final oasis. So, I dropped my poles. I even dropped my pack.
iRunFar: Oh, wow.
Bowman: Yeah, I put on my headlamp and just charged down the last descent as quickly as I could. Then, with two miles to go, I rolled my left ankle pretty well. As you know, I have a history of doing that. It scares the daylights out of me whenever it happens. At that point, I hopped around a little bit and I told Kaytlyn, “Okay, I’m not going to chase this. I need to finish safely. I don’t want to hurt myself.” Because we were in the dark and it was pretty technical.
Anyway, we started moving decently well again and I started looking at my watch. At 16:57 we heard the crew cheering for us because they saw my headlamp. At that point you have a last little river crossing and a rocky little moraine traverse and you’re done. So, as soon as we heard them holler, we had one last little spurt left in us. We crossed the river and we were done.
iRunFar: You kept it interesting all the way to the finish by rolling your ankle there!
Bowman: Exactly. Yeah, it was a little bit scary. At that point, I could’ve easily walked it in even if it was a catastrophic ankle roll. Luckily it was just a modest roll and it’s a little sore now, a couple of days later. It went numb pretty quickly and I was able to get moving again pretty well.
iRunFar: This next question is part of my informal poll with everyone I’m interviewing this summer: With no racing, people are coming up with adventure runs and FKT attempts and the like. Where does the FKT now stand for you personally? Do you think you’ll do more of them in the future? Will you prioritize racing as soon as that’s back? Does the FKT take on new meaning or a different shape because of this year?
Bowman: It’s definitely my preference to race. I love the atmosphere and the environment around races. It’s what gets me most motivated, too, in terms of buckling down in my training and setting my own goals. I expect to make that my priority again as soon as it’s safe for us all to do so. Especially as I get a little older and start to feel the urgency of time on the competitive side of the sport. Yeah, racing is certainly going to be my focus for the foreseeable future.
That’s not to say that there aren’t other worthy things to tackle, like the Wonderland Trail. It was one that I had my heart set on for a while, as I said. There isn’t anything else that comes to mind, so maybe not right now but in the case that something does come up, that I do find motivating… I mean, it was one of the coolest days of running of my career. It was something I’d put up there with even the best race experiences I’ve ever had. I’d love to continue to do FKTs or long, single-day adventure-style runs in the future. I’ll just kind of follow what the opportunities are, and what my motivations are.
iRunFar: Last question: You’re such a student of the sport and I always love hearing your takes. Where do you think our sport is going in the next year or more of COVID-ean time? What will change and what will stay the same when this is done?
Bowman: I don’t know. The hardest part about all of this is that everything is uncertain. That’s as true for “What am I going to do tomorrow?” as it is for “What races will I do in two years?” It’s my hope, at least, that people won’t be scared of one another. It’s been my experience that at the beginning of the quarantine, if I’d see people on the trail, we’d go out of our way to say hello and make eye contact and wave at each other while maintaining social-distancing requirements.
Recently I’ve felt like sometimes people are legitimately scared of others. There doesn’t seem to be as much willingness to say hello, make eye contact, or wave as at the beginning of quarantine. I think it’s the increasing fear. It’s my hope that once things are safe, people will feel comfortable gathering again. That we’ll feel more comfortable waving and saying hello to our fellow trail users, gathering together and hugging each other at races. Those are things I miss a lot. I’m desperate to have those come back as soon as possible.
iRunFar: We never knew how valuable the finish-line hug was until we couldn’t have it.
Bowman: No kidding! I am dying for hugs right now.
iRunFar: Thank you for this interview and congratulations on setting the Wonderland Trail FKT!
Bowman: Thank you, Meghan. It was good to chat with you. Thanks for the convo.