Confronting Fear on the Wonderland Trail

Janel Lanphere was one of three recipients of our 2019 Women’s Adventure Scholarship. We were inspired by her essay about the power of adventure to accept her internal wild and remote spaces. We caught up with her this fall, after she ran the Wonderland Trail with us.

What do you do when something scares you?  Avoid it or confront it? What about those events that look amazing, but you don’t have the confidence?  Do you make a training plan and stick to it, like you know you should? Or do you put it off for when you have more time, or the kids are older, or when you have the money saved?  Well, none of these excuses worked for me. I won the 2019 Women’s Scholarship Award for the Wonderland Circumnavigation around Mt. Rainier in Washington State. I had to get on board, fast.

Wonderland trail stretches in front of Mt. Rainier
A rare flat section on the trail. Photo: Janel Lanphere

I learned that I won the Wonderland trip with only a few months before the mid-August trip, giving me  mere weeks of preparation time. It was a bit too close for comfort. The short story is that my training did prepare me well for the trip, but this discussion is about the mind.  The preparation I really needed was to start to believe in myself.

Piecing a big goal into smaller steps has always worked for me in the past, so I decided to try it here. Working on my training plan, I added two extreme days that were similar time commitments  to the expected days on the Wonderland trip.  

The Wonderland Trail doesn’t disappoint. Photo: Janel Lanphere

On my first extreme day I paced my friend Helen Galerakis in her first 100-mile race- The Bighorn 100.  Pacing her for around 20 miles wasn’t going to be enough of a time commitment, so I added a warm up/research run and a run to and from the last aid station. The cumulative running over the two days was eleven hours, which qualified as the most running I had ever done over that short time period.  My mindset was expanded on this run. Not only were the muddy conditions something to be endured, but pacing throughout the night and into the dawn was challenging, as well as beautiful. I was inspired by my friend’s grit and strength, and my body and mind handled it fine. I was feeling lighter and not as concerned about the Wonderland Trail.

For my second extreme day I registered for a 12 hr lap style race.  The Parhelic Circle Trail Race is hosted by local company Sundog Running.  I was a little concerned that this event was just two weeks before the Wonderland Trail trip, and would be my longest amount of time running.  It scared the crap out of me! In past long runs the pain started to set in around the 20-mile mark. The thought of continuing on for hours and hours after that seemed unfathomable.  In the end, I made it to 36 miles- which not only was the farthest I had run in a single day, but it also matched the longest distance (day 1) on the Wonderland Trip.  

In my essay submission to the Women’s Scholarship I wrote about conquering my inner demons from childhood abuse.  In last year’s Trail Marathon Championship race, I had no reason to be confident as I hadn’t been able to eat/drink due to nausea and in spite of that I was able to quiet those demons for the first time.  Accepting the situation and taking the Championship race one mile at a time allowed me to solve the nausea problem and get back in the race to finish as Master’s Women’s Champion. In the 12-hour Parhelic I dissected the race one lap at a time. This allowed me to put energy into the task at hand, instead of succumbing to anxiety and fear. I could feel a shift. I was starting to believe in myself and I wanted to do more.

trail runners after a long day on the Wonderland Trail
Sarah and Paula sharing the last piece of pie. Photo: Janel Lanphere

The night before the start of the Women’s Wonderland Trip we shared some of our stories and experiences that led us here.  The apprehensive tension was in the air but instead of hierarchical competitive energy focusing on things like who was the best among us, who had the most experience or fastest time, a sense of community was developing.  In the company of women I didn’t hear these intimidating questions. Each of us entering an unspoken pact to take care of one another and make our way together, each at their own pace. Looking back on it now, it makes me think of the lyrics:

I see you over there, on the internet. Comparing all the girls who are killing it.

Taylor Swift, “You Need to Calm Down”

 While training for this trip I spoke with several people. Some men who had taken on big goals and found their way to making it happen.  Those conversations focused on developing strength, finding my edge and taking chances. When I spoke to my female ultra-running friends the conversation was again, different.  The conversations focused around what was I going to find out about myself during the event and how this experience was going to change me. All of these points of view were helping me change the inner dialogue from one of fear from this unknown territory to preparing a space for something else. 

two trail runners crossing a bridge in Mt. Rainier National Park
Sarah and Paula happy to be getting started on day 1. Photo: Janel Lanphere

Ready or not, it was time to put one foot in front of the other.  Starting out with nervous energy, I had the good fortune of having a similar overall pace to Sarah and Paula-two inspiring women I got to know well over the trip.  We leap frogged many times over the miles, each having our strengths and accepting each other’s decisions to push or hold back the pace based on the terrain at hand.   Day one ended with a mind melting climb up to Mowich Lake Campground. I struggled hard. Having only taken one pole with me (with the inaccurate idea that one pole is really all you need) I was losing the battle.  Paula kindly lent me one of her poles as I was ascending at a much slower pace than she was. It was my turn to accept the community Paula, Sarah and I had developed over the miles on the trail.  

a waterfall amidst glowing green moss
A beautiful creek on the Wonderland Trail. Photo: Janel Lanphere

Day two went off without a hitch. Paula, Sarah and I again ran together.  It was a beautiful run in such amazing country with great company. For day three Paula, Sarah and I discussed our plans: Paula planned to push to do the entire distance. I planned to stop early at Box Canyon and Sarah was going to see how she felt.  Even though we had differing plans, we decided to start the day together. Within the first few miles I caught my last glimpse of Paula and Sarah and never met up with them again. This made for a day alone on the trail, and although my familiar mental demons stayed away, new anxiety came in its place.  

a trail runner selfie
Day three on the Wonderland Trail. Photo: Janel Lanphere

One of the challenges for me on this trip was the point to point nature of circumnavigating a mountain. While Aspire provided maps and route information, and the Wonderland Trail was marked at junctions,  I struggled more than I expected with the lack of trail markings and flags. As my mental control was declining on day three after hours of being alone in unfamiliar country, I had a long low point.  Fear of bears and cougars set in and took hold. As I neared the end of the day my mind starting playing tricks on me, but then I saw a pencil on the ground and my heart leaped at the idea that someone else was up ahead!  Seconds later I discovered it wasn’t a pencil after all, just a stick. It happened again with a rock- it looked like a pack. But it wasn’t, I was hallucinating objects of civilization just to calm my anxiety of being alone. 

Even though there was a trail sweeper behind me (likely hours back), I had completely forgotten about them. I sure was happy to find myself in Box Canyon at my chosen end to day three and to see the Aspire Adventure Running crew waiting. I sat down, started to eat and immediately felt myself falling asleep. I was more fatigued than I realized.  I was so happy with what I had accomplished and at peace with my decision to stop a few miles early.

the clouds fill valleys in Mt. Rainier National Park
Above the clouds. Photo: Janel Lanphere

Grit, intelligence and community are just a few of the qualities of the women I met on this amazing trip.  The qualities of people who work their way up, take on big challenges and find a way to make them happen. They speak up or provide care for the greater good. These are my people.  It was an honor and a privilege to share in the collective shift in consciousness as each of us moved into a space unknown, redefining how we think about running and really how we think about ourselves.

Join Aspire Adventure Running in 2020 for a circumnavigation of Mt. Rainier. Dates, pricing and more information can be found on the course page.