Another record falls on the Wonderland Trail! On August 26, it was Kaytlyn Gerbin who set a new women’s support fastest known time (FKT) in 18 hours, 14 minutes, and 54 seconds.
Kaytlyn’s effort surpasses the previous record set in 2015 by Jenn Shelton at 22 hours, 4 minutes, and 41 seconds. Washington state’s Wonderland Trail is about 93 miles long, has roughly 24,000 feet of climbing, and circumnavigates Mount Rainier. In this interview, Kaytlyn talks about why running the Wonderland Trail was natural for her due to her long and personal relationship with Mount Rainier, her ambitious time goals, and the highs and lows of her effort.
iRunFar: Hi! Congratulations! How are you feeling?
Kaytlyn Gerbin: Tired and very hungry. I just ate a bowl of cereal, so I’m crushing life right now. Not bad, otherwise.
iRunFar: It’s so fun to watch where athletes are concentrating themselves this year. The Pacific Northwest went “kah-boom!” on the Wonderland Trail with you, Tyler Green, and Dylan Bowman’s FKT efforts.
Gerbin: Yeah. It’s been a lot of action in the last seven days on the Wonderland Trail.
iRunFar: I don’t think I’ve ever talked about the Wonderland Trail so much as I have this week while watching you three. I have to ask, were the three of you planning to attempt around the same time, or was this all a coincidence?
Gerbin: I knew about Dylan’s attempt. We had been chatting before and sharing data. I had also met up with him a couple of weeks ago to train on the trail. At the time, he had a date set, and I wasn’t entirely sure when I would do it. I was kind of planning for this week and, I guess, reluctant to commit to a date. Dylan found out about Tyler’s attempt a few days before his own, because Tyler asked Dylan to pace him. So I knew that we were all going for it within a few days, but it wasn’t planned. And actually, I don’t know if you know this yet, but Kris Brown was down there and I think he just set the unsupported record yesterday.
iRunFar: Oh, right on.
Gerbin: He was at White River Campground. He saw me come through and I didn’t know that because it was kind of a whirlwind.
iRunFar: That’s super cool. Anybody else lingering in the shadows, waiting to go?
Gerbin: I know of one other person, but I don’t think I should say anything yet.
iRunFar: The last time iRunFar saw you was at Transgrancanaria in early March where you won. That was just before the pandemic’s doors swung shut on the world. What have you been up to since then?
Gerbin: That feels like ages ago now, a different world. It took a while to grapple with what was happening with the race season. There was just a lot of uncertainty. At first I was still hoping that UTMB would happen. But at the same time, I saw what was happening around the world and started to come to terms with the fact that, maybe even if races were happening, that wasn’t where I wanted to put my efforts, given the conditions.
We had a lot of land closures in the Pacific Northwest with COVID-19. As soon as things reopened, I started getting out in the mountains locally. I have been having the time of my life doing mountaineering routes and objectives. These types of efforts I always tend to squeeze around my running training, but I’ve never really focused on them. It’s been a fun summer in that regard.
iRunFar: I follow you on Strava and watching some of your adventures, I am like, “I wish I could be in her pocket for that one.” It looks like you’re doing less running-based stuff and more multi-sport stuff.
Gerbin: I’ve always done that, but again it’s always sandwiched in between training and racing. I was walking to my husband Ely [Gerbin] about this, but if my Wonderland attempt was successful, then it would be pretty dangerous for my training moving forward because I didn’t really do a lot of running before it. It speaks to the fact that if you’re doing things that you’re inspired by that aren’t your typical running training, it can still work.
iRunFar: That’s one of the coolest parts about our end of endurance running. There’s no single, proven recipe for how it works. How did you choose the Wonderland Trail?
Gerbin: It’s been on my list for years. Almost every summer, especially after doing the Western States 100, I consider dropping a second fall 100 miler and doing the Wonderland Trail. For whatever reason, I’ve always done a race instead. After Transgrancanaria, when I was looking ahead and thinking that maybe races would be canceled, it hit me, “Maybe this is the year that I do Wonderland.”
In addition to that, you can see Mount Rainier from so many different places in the Northwest and in Seattle, it’s this iconic, dominant thing on the skyline. Even if you see it every day, you still stop and stare. That draws me to climb and run around it.
A lot of my previous experiences on Mount Rainier have been really long sufferfests. I have an intense draw to that place. I feel very connected to it, in a way that’s hard to describe. In July, I skied Rainier with Ely, and that was my first time back after the Infinity Loop. I was in awe the whole time. That was the moment I realized, “I need to do the Wonderland Trail.”
iRunFar: Listening to you makes me want to pack my bags and get there. Let’s talk about your attempt. You fired off at 3:00 a.m. What was your strategy?
Gerbin: A 3:00 a.m. start would mean that I was chasing sunset at the end. I really liked that motivator, because I hate putting on a headlamp on at the end of the day. I had some ambitious goals. At the very fastest, I would end up with minimal headlamp time. Even if it took me an extra two hours, it would mean only two hours of headlamp time.
iRunFar: Can you share a few thoughts about those early morning miles?
Gerbin: The first section of the trail goes all the way to Mowich Lake. It ends up being around 35 miles with 11,000 to 12,000 feet of climbing. So it’s definitely the most concentrated section of technical trail and climbing and descending on the route. I knew it would paint a picture for what the rest of the day might look like.
I ran by feel. I had my friend Bryan Bhark running with me and he has paced me at Western States before in the dark and we run and train together all the time. That was really fun. We ran well and I came in to Mowich at exactly seven hours, which was, I think, the same as Ryan Ghelfi’s and Gary Robbins’s times. At that point, I was like, “Game on. Let’s see what we can do today.”
iRunFar: Did you have your mind on a certain goal time at the outset?
Gerbin: Back in March, when I first thought about doing Wonderland seriously this year, I wanted to go after the overall time, which was 18:30 from Ryan Ghelfi. After Dylan and Tyler both ran their times, I thought that maybe I could run faster than 18:30, too. My secret goal was to see if I could get under 18 hours. But at the outset it was Ghelfi’s 18:30 that I was thinking about.
iRunFar: You came really close to 18:30!
Gerbin: I was close throughout most of the day. And then, there’s always something to manage and you just roll with it.
iRunFar: What did you have to manage?
Gerbin: I tend to hit my low points early on. It often takes me 20 miles to feel like I’m in a groove. And it was in the dark, but that almost helped. So I had a few low miles in the beginning, but then I mostly ran smoothly until probably miles 70 to 80, where I hit a little nausea. I haven’t really had to deal with that before. I tend to be able to eat pretty well during runs. I’m not sure what caused that.
iRunFar: What were your daytime temperatures like?
Gerbin: The temperatures were relatively decent, but there was zero cloud cover. I did get hot on the climbs and I think that contributed to the difficulty in eating. Being up at altitude and in that exposure with zero tree cover, it wears you down a little bit. It’s not super-high elevation, but for living at sea level, it gets pretty high. You’re up above 6,000 and 7,000 feet quite a bit.
iRunFar: That puts a ding in things. All day you were just “out there” in terms of setting an FKT, way ahead of previous women’s splits. That makes for an interesting set of motivators in that, there’s nobody around you and you’re chasing something really intangible.
iRunFar: Yeah. Can you talk about that time?
Gerbin: I was definitely thinking about how I was still pretty close to Ghelfi’s time, even when I was hitting my low points. At that point, it was kind of an arbitrary goal because the record had already been broken twice, but it was still a number in my head.
At the same time, I tried to block it out and focus on completing the route and running the terrain. And I still had that goal of trying to get as far as I could before I needed to put on a headlamp.
Even when I was struggling, I didn’t have an issue with motivation. I like to think maybe that is because I have so much personal connection to the trail. Of course, it’s awesome to set a cool standard, but at the same time I was doing it for personal reasons.
iRunFar: What mile did you have to put the headlamp on at?
Gerbin: Around mile 85 or 87.
iRunFar: Oh, you got so close!
Gerbin: I only had an hour of headlamp running.
iRunFar: Watching you and your support teams over the years, it seems you all ride the line pretty well between being super professional and having a really good time. Can you talk crew and pacers?
Gerbin: COVID-19 complicated things. We wanted to keep things dialed in a small group. I had four people pace me throughout the day and they jumped in for their pacing section and then were off and not part of the crew after that. Bryan Bhark paced me for the first 35 miles. Then Tara Fraga paced the next 25 miles. Then Alex Borsuk, who was my partner for the Infinity Loop, we have a lot of memories on those trails together, she took me the next 20 miles. Finally, Dylan ran with me for the last 10.
For crew, my husband, Ely, he’s awesome and super dialed. He was in charge of all the crew stuff. My The North Face team manager, Esther Kendall, came out to support. She took over a lot of crew roles because Ely ended up running up on the trail a few miles to see me.
iRunFar: I love it, like an excited puppy!
Gerbin: That was awesome. And Esther did great. This is also so different because there are only three places where you have a major crew access. Everything else is pretty remote. I came through these crew stations and took a little more time to eat food and make sure I had everything I needed because it would be another five or six hours before I saw them again.
iRunFar: That’s a really interesting aspect of FKTs. You’re a lot more on your own.
Gerbin: This trail, too, has sections which are very remote. The first seven hours that Bryan and I ran together, we passed a few rangers who were doing some trail work and I think maybe two backpackers. It definitely adds intensity, especially when you’re trying to run fast. There’s not a lot of room for mistakes. You want to be light enough to move quickly, but also have enough between the two of you, that if something happened you could take care of yourselves when you’re out that far.
iRunFar: Wow. Seven hours and just a couple people. It’s a big world out there! I know this is the weirdest question to ask in the weirdest year, but do you have anything else planned for 2020–besides surviving?
Gerbin: I’m focusing on eating a lot of ice cream over the next week. I love fall in the Northwest. I’ll probably do some little adventures locally, and probably not a lot of running.
iRunFar: Thanks for the interview and congratulations!
Gerbin: Thanks, Meghan!