Sunday, June 3, 2012

Pigtails Challenge: Race Report

by Ras

Pigtails Challenge 200 Mile Endurance Run

Race Report

All photos by Kathy Vaughan

On Sunday, May 27th, at 3:24 am I completed the Pigtails Challenge 200 Mile Endurance Run. I came in 8th out of only 9 finishers in the 200 mile distance. This was the first 200 mile race in the history of Washington State. My official finishing time was 69 hours 24 minutes. 

The race was held on a loop trail around the Lake Youngs Watershed near Kent, WA, with about 1000 feet of elevation gain per loop. Fifteen runners began the 200 mile distance at 6:00am on Thursday, May 24th with a short out and back section. Competitors then had to complete 21 loops of the 9.4 mile course. Runners had a designated area at the start/finish were they could leave supplies such as food and clothing. There was an aid station at the start/finish with water, electrolyte drink, soda pop, coffee, cubed potatoes, bananas, watermelon, pretzels, hot soup, grilled cheese sandwiches, pizza, sports gels, energy bars, and numerous other food and snack offerings to keep the runners fueled. Approximately halfway around the loop was a second, much simpler aid station with water, electrolyte drink, gels, energy bars, potato chips, and a small first aide kit.

The first three loops flew by at just over two hours each and I enjoyed the early speed, all the while knowing it was an unsustainable pace for me. As the day heated up my pace slowed, and I settled into 2:30 to 2:45 times on each loop, plus 10 to 20 minutes in the main aid station at the end of each loop. Each time my wife Kathy, who was crewing me, was waiting and watching for me, ready to help get me the food I needed to eat, loading my pack with calories for the trail, filling my water bottle and nutritional flask, helping me change layers, dispensing  my nutritional supplements, and giving me updates on my times, other runners' times, and how many people had dropped out of the race at various points. This was especially helpful for me since I do not eat any kind of meat, eggs, or dairy, and therefore had to supply the majority of my own food, rather than counting on what was offered at the aid station. Also, my fueling was based not on carbohydrates, but on fats. So I was eating avocados, raw almond butter, chocolate hazelnut butter with toasted coconut stirred into it, ground coconut meat, butternut squash soup, and ginger carrot soup. Kathy also paced me at night, running with me for all of my nighttime loops.

getting 2 hours of crappy sleep

I ran 8 loops before my mind started getting foggy and my judgement impaired. This wasn't good. I had originally planned to run at least 100 miles and as much as 150 before resting. In a 100 mile race I would never have been thinking about napping only 22 hours in. In fact, my pie-in-the-sky goal had been to run the entire race without sleeping.  But at about 4:00am Friday, after running for nearly 22 hours, Kathy and I decided I should rest for a little bit, so I laid down in our car and slept for just under 2 hours. My body had already felt fine, and I awoke with my mind refreshed and clear. I started running again a little after 6am Friday, just after the 150 mile runners had begun, so there was now more traffic on the course. 

Each time you completed a loop, you reversed direction for the next loop, so it made for a very social race, where you constantly saw the other runners. The ultrarunning community is suprisingly small, especially at distances greater than 50k, so I either knew or knew of many of the other runners on the course. "Good job" and "Nice work" were among the most common greetings exchanged, along with high fives, low fives, side fives, whoops, hollering, unintelligible exclamations, or even a quick stop for a brief hug. Eventhough we were all competing against oneanother, each of our main opponents was ourselves and our own limits, and everyone wanted to see as many people as possible finish the race. My friend Dan Paige paced me for two laps, during one of which Jon Shark called from Afganistan to wish me luck and express his confidence in me.

As much as I enjoyed the running, I was not running all that well. I was slow all day, and ground to a crawl after dark. After a single nighttime loop that took 4 hours, Kathy and I agreed I should rest again. Just after 1:30 Saturday morning I was eating some soup at the start/finish aide station in preparation for some sleep when Tim Stroh completed his 21st lap for the overall win. It was an amazing feet of speed and endurance, and I congratulated him heartily before heading off to rest. Tim's only comment as he crossed the finish line was, "Ow." He was done, but I had only completed two thirds of the course, and time was ticking toward the 72 hour cutoff.  I lay down in a tent Kathy had set up and slept for three hours. 

Again I awakened with my mind clear and revivified. By the time I had eaten, changed clothes, and geared up, it was almost 6:00am Saturday and the 100 mile competitors were about the begin, more than doubling the total number of runners on the course and adding to the party atmosphere. Race Director Van Phan, the "Pigtails" of the eponymous race (who also ran in the 200 mile event and finished in an impressive 52 hours 50 minutes for third place overall and first female) had been jokingly calling the 100 miler the "Half". Usually the 100 mile runners are seen as the superhuman badasses in the ultra sceen, and it was an odd turn of events for them to be the ones running the "short" distance.

Race Director Van Phan 

I now had 24 hours, one third of the allowed time, to complete 7 laps, one third of the course, and I was feeling the pressure. Just before I began running again Uli Steidl greeted me with a hug and asked how I was doing. We had run the Wonderland Trail around the base of Mt. Ranier together last year, along with George Orozco (also running the 200 and eventually finishing 7th), Jeason Murphy (who took second at this years Lumberjack 100), and Ted Schmidt. Uli has a brilliant mind for the math of running. He can calculate paces and mile splits faster than a calculator. I told him I had 7 laps left. He glanced up for a split second as he ran the numbers mentally, then said, "Twenty-one hours. You can do it." I wasn't sure I believed him and didn't know how he came up with that number, but I was grateful for the encouragement and vote of confidence.

I headed out again feeling very strong, and peeled off my first three laps with 2:30 splits, including aid station turn around time. As the day heated up I knew I couldn't sustain that pace. I made a rule that I would not run in the direct sun, only in the shade, and would hike the hills also, in order to conserve myself for the rest of the day. I finished my 5th lap just after 9pm. Kathy fed me and helped my change, messaging my legs and applying biofreeze gel to my feet, then leading me off into the gloaming, joining me as she had for all of the nighttime laps during the race. We pumped out two quick laps by our headlamps in the dark, the first in the 2:40 range, and the second in the 3:10 range. And at 3:24 am Sunday May 27th, 21 hours and 14 minutes after Uli had told me, "Twenty one hours. You can do it." I crossed the finish line of the Pigtails Challenge 200 Mile Endurance Run, making me only the 8th person to ever complete a 200 mile US Track & Field certified race in Washington State.

I felt great in every way. I had no blisters, no chaffing, no cramping, no injuries, and energy to spare. Although on the third day I was concerned about making the cutoff, there was never a time when I didn't think I could complete the mileage. I could have run 50 more miles. I could probably have run 100 more miles. I'm not trying to ego-trip here and shoot my mouth off, I'm just reporting on the state of my body at the end of the race. I felt like I could have kept running indefinitely.

Ultrarunning is a search for one's own personal limits. Before I began running crazy distances, I never thought I could complete a marathon. Then I did. But I still thought there was no way I could run 50 kilometers or 50 miles. But it turns out I can. So as I continue to find out what things i CAN do, the question remains; what is it that I CAN'T do? I entered this race partly because last year, before the start of the Cascade Crest Classic 100 Mile Endurance Run in Easton, WA, race director Charlie Crissman had said, "If you have never DNF'd then you need to run harder races." Well, Charlie, I still haven't DNF'd. What's the next test?

My results are bib #203 J. Vaughan

Here's a link to the results page: 


  1. Love the report, Ras!!! It was great sharing the field with you!! You were in great spirits the entire run and truly seemed to enjoy the event!!! I can't wait til our next epic together!!!

    All Day!

    1. Ken, it was an honor and a blessing running with you. We'll have to get some more crazy miles in together soon!