Rite of Passage: End to End On the Wildwood Trail

"I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree." - Joyce Kilmer

Portland’s Wildwood trail winds 30.2 miles/48.6 kilometers through the trees and ferns of a Pacific Northwest rainforest. The northern trailhead is a non-descript sign in Forest Park right off Newberry road. The southern trailhead is near the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington Park. If you drew a straight line between the start and end points of the trail, it would be about nine miles.

The trail is very well maintained – thank you Forest Park Conservancy! - and runnable as long as you keep your eyes out for lurking tree roots. There are lots of small elevation changes on the way with only one big climb up to the Pittock Mansion. If you go south to north, you’d also have to climb up from Balch Creek to the Birch Trail, a not insubstantial climb. Total elevation gain either way is around 3700 feet/1130 meters.

I chose to go north to south since that would let me finish closer to home. Gear and food was minimal: my Saucony Peregrine shoes, Suunto running watch, Ultimate Direction running vest, some M&M packs, two 16 oz water bottles, NUUN tablets and an extra singlet I anticipated changing into about halfway through the run. My friend Ian agreed to support me, mostly to keep my water bottles filled.

The day I chose to do this happened to be the hottest day in Portland this year with highs nearing 100 F/37.8 C. I got an early start, just a bit after 6 AM, so the temperature was still pretty tolerable, somewhere around 67 F/19.4 C.

Ian ran with me for the first half mile or so. It was still a little dark in the forest, even though the sun had risen. I had a couple minor ankle rolls and slowed down a bit to avoid any early accidents on the first gnarly miles. This far northern end of the trail was the section I was least familiar with!

The bad thing about being first on the trail: running through all the spider webs! At one point I had to flick one of the buggers off my neck. I was about three miles in before I saw another person on the trail. A couple runners flew by going north, and shortly behind them came a hiker. By the time I reached Germanstown Rd, about 5.5 miles in, I had seen a grand total of four people.

I was running comfortably, but I wasn’t particularly quick. I saw a couple more hikers not far from Germanstown and then I was alone on the trail again. An hour in and I was feeling pretty good. It was a little close under the canopy, but the heat was still pretty tolerable.

I was about a mile from Springville road when I heard a ruckus of snapping twigs in the forest up to my right. Whatever it was it was big enough to make a lot of noise. I picked up my pace a bit and continued on, and the noise followed me for a good five minutes before it stopped. I’m not sure what it was, but cougars are not unknown in Forest Park. There are also occasionally reports of large owls that like to swoop down on people.

Ian met me at Springville road 7.7 miles/12.4 kilometers into my run. We refilled my water bottles, I dropped some NUUN tablets into them and was on my way again. I was heading into sections of the trail I was more familiar with now.

More spider webs! At one point I felt I must have been covered in them. About half an hour after I left Springville another runner passed me. I was happy to have someone else breaking the webs ahead of me!

I made it through this section a little quicker than anticipated. There was an occasional bit of cool breeze and I had found a comfortable loping pace. I was chugging plenty of water and eating M&Ms every hour or so. By the time I saw Ian again at Saltzman Rd, I was feeling pretty good. Another quick water refill, change of shirt and a scarfed granola bar saw me on my way into the southern half of the trail.

I had trod this part of the trail many times. I was familiar with every turn and hill, at every trail or fire lane junction I knew how far I had come. I was definitely slowing down. My right knee was starting to hurt a bit on the downhills. I hit the uphill to Fire Lane 1 and found myself alternately jogging and hiking. I had hoped I’d still be strong enough to run this section, but my mental toughness wasn’t there.

I stopped at Fire Lane 1 for a moment, ate, drank and moved on. Ian was just a couple miles away at the NW 53rd Trailhead. I managed to jog along for most of that since there were no significant hills. I got to NW 53rd, 21 miles into my run, around 10:30 AM, 4 hours and 15 minutes after I had started. I still had 15K in front of me. I was disappointed in my time, but I would see this to the end!

I would see Ian again at Lower Macleay, four miles ahead of me. Most of this section was downhill, often steep, and my knee was hurting badly. I ended up hobbling down but managed to run the uphills and flats. There were quite a few other runners and hikers on the trail here and I found myself having to stop and let people by frequently. It took me an hour to get to Macleay.

Now shit was gonna get real. Ian brought me plenty of water and a Coke to help me up the relatively short and very steep climb to the Pittock Mansion. I’m generally a pretty capable hill runner, but I have yet to master hitting a significant hill towards the end of a long run.

Ian went up with me, keeping me moving and distracting me with conversation. I was very grateful for that. We alternately hiked and jogged, passing by a lot of tourists on their way to the mansion.

Right around noon I reached the Pittock Mansion! To say I was relieved to have the Pittock climb behind me is an understatement! I was giddy! I still had another 5K to go, but the hardest part was now behind me! It was hot now and I wanted to shed my vest and shirt, but Ian (wisely) advised that I keep my vest and two full water bottles with me.

I started the steep downhill from Pittock. The knee pain was excruciating. My right calf cramped up on me so I guzzled one of my bottles of water. It didn’t bother me the rest of the run.

By the time I got to the bottom of the hill at Burnside, I was limping a bit. I pushed on, though. The rest of the journey was on some rolling hills through the Dawn Redwood Grove, on into Washington Park and past the Arboretum. I was hot, sweaty and slow, but I was making progress!

Finally, after six hours and 45 minutes, I reached the southern end of the Wildwood trail right around 1 PM! I had hoped to do this in closer to 5:30, but I was happy to finish! Ian was waiting with beers and sandwiches, and I gave him one of the Wildwood tee shirts I’d bought from a local running company as a thank you for his support. He loved it!

This won't be the last time I run the entire Wildwood. I’d like to do it again when it isn’t so hot and when the trail is softer but not a morass of mud. Fall would probably be perfect, before too many leaves cover the trail and make it a slippery mess.

Running the entire Wildwood is a rite of passage for trail runners in Portland, and I’m glad to now be one of those who’s completed it!