By Kathy Vaughan
Rolling Mindfulness: the 2012 Baker Lake 50k
I awoke in the darkness to a clear sky with endless stars and the scent of dried maple leaves in the air. It promised to be a perfect day for running in the woods. But these were not just any woods and this was not just any day. It was my one year anniversary of having completed my first trail ultra marathon, the Baker Lake 50k. I was here to run it again and I had goals in mind. I wanted to beat last year’s time by a full hour and a half. I was confident that I could. I had been on some really challenging trail adventures throughout the summer including running a supported four day trip on the 94 mile Wonderland Trail that encircles Mt. Rainier; a 32 mile loop run in the Mt. Rainier National Park starting at Chinook Pass and running along the Pacific Crest Trail to the Ohanepecosh River valley through old growth forest rich with some of the most scenic streams and waterfalls I’ve seen anywhere; a circumnavigation of Mt. St. Helens on the 32 mile Loowit Trail; my first 50 mile trail ultra near Lake Chelan, the Echo Valley trail race put on by Evergreen Trail Runs; and many long runs out my back door in the Okanogan Highlands where I can access sections of the Pacific Northwest Scenic Trail.
The Baker Lake 50k begins at Kulshan Campground. My husband Ras and I had camped there the night before and we would take the early start together at 7:00 a.m. In the dark of the morning, I made us coffee and we went through the routine of getting ready for the race start. I filled my water and perpetuem bottles and pinned on my number. It was pretty cold and I decided to start in a hat and gloves, along with my rain/wind shell to stay warm enough. It was fun to see friends in the start area as I took my drop bag to the tarp where volunteers would transfer these bags of personal items for the runners to the half-way point. This was also the turn-around and single aid station for the entire 31.5 miles. It was important to have what you needed with you and be prepared with a complete drop bag for the turn-around. My drop bag had a neoprene ankle wrap, fresh perpetuem bottles, cliff blocks and some nuts. I planned on refilling my water bottles, dropping off layers, snacking and being on my way as quickly as possible. I had to get here in 5 hours to beat the noon cut-off time and I knew that I could.
My friends Shona and Steve Hilton would both be running their first 50k. I run with Shona once a week usually and Steve and Shona both run regularly with the trail running group I started, Middle of Nowhere Trailrunners. I was excited to be on the starting line with Shona. Steve would take the regular start.
The race director counted down the start and off we went. We started on pavement as we began to climb towards the crossing of Baker Dam, just around the first couple of bends. I heard gasps and exclamations as runners looked to their right and saw the glaciated Mt. Baker and the rugged defined peak of Mt. Shuksan. The Baker River was far below at the base of the dam’s spillways and to the left were the still waters of Baker Lake. It felt strange to be on this huge man-made concrete structure as I looked at this incredible mountain scape, with the distracting golden and burgundy colors of fall all around.
After the dam crossing, the course turned to dirt road for a 1.5 mile gentlish climb to the all single track Baker Lake Trail. I made good time on the road section and had visualized doing this prerace. Now I was on the single track and I wanted to move well. I knew the trail was rooty and rocky in places with mostly gentle climbs and in contrast to what I had been running recently, I felt I could run efficiently and beat last year’s time. I also wanted to set a 50k PR. I have been a pretty solid back-of-the-packer. My goal is to become a bulk-of the-packer. After 18 months of trail running, I was now feeling like I could be that. My background in trail time comes from about 20 years of backpacking, hiking and 15 years of cross-country skiing. I don’t have a running background, other than a short stint in track in junior high school. I was not fast or talented, but I enjoyed running outside in the spring air with my classmates. I think of fresh cut grass on the school grounds as I remember those days. I’d usually get weezy from it and I felt like the wimpiest runner on the team.
My goal was 7:30. I had run a 7:51 at Spokane River Run in April, the day after James Varner’s infamous Yakima Skyline Race. I had run the 25k with around 5,000 feet of elevation gain and was happy with my finishing time, even though I came in just seconds behind Adam Hewey who was the winner of the 50k race!
As I started down that inviting single track, I could feel myself open up and really get going. It felt amazing! I was so happy with how quickly I’d climbed that road and I was full of glee as I sucked in the crisp air and looked around at almost fairy- tale like surroundings. The trees were huge and the ferns almost as tall. Various colors of green mosses and lichen were everywhere and to the left were these mountains, towering over the race as it took place.
It happened pretty fast. I was down with a rolled ankle before I could even realize what was happening. I was not happy. I’d barely hit the single track. My legs felt strong and fresh. Everything was perfect. But, I had lost focus. I was not being mindful and I went down. Then, before I knew it, the pack went by me as I lay in the soft moss to the side of the trail. Yes, the early-starter pack. I had been in front of the early-starter pack! For me, this was a huge victory already. If even for that short time, I had been able to hit a comfortable pace in front of other runners! Too bad I could not sustain it.
One nice guy suggested I get up when I was ready and start walking slowly to see if it would work itself out. I didn’t know what my game plan was yet, but Ras was running with me and he was willing to slow down with me for a stretch to see if it was injured or not. I was surprised at how soon I began to feel like I could run on it. I wanted to so badly, but I was practicing patience. I was bummed that so many runners were now in front of me and that I would likely never catch up to them. I did not want to DFL. No way. That was one of my other goals. Back-of-the-packers have to include that one.
Soon I was off. I was running well again before I knew it and Ras pointed out that I could still reach my goal time. I caught up to one runner. Then another. Another. Soon I was confidently, comfortably cruising along again and I was surprised, yet loving every minute of it. I heard a voice say “Hi guys” off to the right and Shona was there, taking a quick trailside pause. Now we had caught up to Shona! She knew she would go out fast and try to reach the aid station quick. It was her first ultra and she thought she might bonk towards the end and do some hiking anyway. This was her strategy. I’m often chasing her when we are on our weekly runs together, but lately she had pointed out my increasing speed on down-hills. I really enjoy running with Shona and I was happy to see her now. She ran behind us for a while and later commented that she’d had a hard time keeping up with us. I had some speed that day; my kind of speed and it felt good.
Then a quick reality check had me on the ground again. I had just said the super speedsters would soon be on our tail. There they were, just as I went down that second time. The front runners from the regular start time were now caught up to us. This time, I knew I was out. We were over halfway and I would just have to hike it out and have my first DNF (Did Not Finish). It was not what I wanted, but the pain was pretty intense as I dropped to the ground after rolling this ankle a second time. Why the heck was my ankle wrap in my drop bag?
I got up and Ras grabbed a couple of sticks for me. This time was different. This might be an injury. There is no other way out than to hike. I should have turned around the first time, I thought to myself. All of my running buddies began to come up now: Adam Hewey, Adam Gaston, Tim Mathis, Angel Mathis, Matt Hagen, Betsy Rogers, Vivian Doorn, Arlane Olson. Matt gave me four ibuprofen and a nice hug and I continued on. Angel had blood running down her knee from a fall she’d taken. We exchanged quick stories and hugs and then she was off, uninjured from her fall. (She later came in 3rd lady). Steve came upon me early on after that second fall. I was sitting in some soft moss below a tree, feeling pretty discouraged and realizing the pain was making it hard to move along the trail. When he and Shona caught up to each other, they imagined a scenario wherein he and Ras were carrying me out! I had about five miles to go and I thought it could take hours. I got cold quick and put Ras’ gloves and shell on over my own and looked ridiculous with these huge walking sticks. It was all a pretty discouraging experience.
An ultra race gives you time though and I learned to not lose hope. I was now in a hilly section and the climbs felt better on my ankle. My mind began to think over my options as I moved along, not saying much. Before I knew it, I wanted to hold those two huge sticks in one hand like I do with my lightweight Black Diamond Z poles when I’m using them on trails with more elevation gain than this. I can hold them both in one hand while I run. I was ready to run now. I tried and it felt good. The trail became mellower and I was soon in the Baker River bottoms. Friends were reaching the aid station, turning around, and giving me good energy as they ran back by Ras and I. Steve brought me more ibuprofen, others passed on the news at the aid station that I would need a ride back to the start, and others offered me kind words or a hug.
I wondered if I could just turn around and head back out onto this inviting trail. The weather was perfect, I wanted to run and enjoy this opportunity to be out with these other runners, loving the scenery and enjoying the fragrant autumn air. I could put on that ankle wrap, have a good snack and be on my way. Ras said he’d support that decision and when I got to the aid station, the race director looked at his watch and encouraged me to take my time before I decided to drop. I had time before the cut-off to decide. I went about my business there as if I were going back out, another part of my mind making the decision. I guess I knew it all along though. It was like being at the top of a ski slope that is a little bit challenging looking and you are psyching yourself into dropping down it. Then you just go for it. It was like that. All of a sudden I was off down the trail. I knew Ras would catch up to me. I wanted to hit the trail before everyone in the entire race was out of the aid station. I had seen the last of the early starters take off and I knew I could catch up to him. Ras later said it would take me an hour or two, but that I would and this would mean I wouldn’t DFL. (I caught up to the guy in a half hour or so.) Back-of –the-packers from the regular start were behind me on the trail and they kept me motivated to keep moving as well as I could.
I’m addicted to trail running, especially ultra distances. I love it. The joy I experience after completing a long run lives within me and accumulates. The peaceful feelings I pick up on the trail, I can carry through to non-running days in between. Its healthy and fun. Doing half the distance was not going to cut it today. I had to finish.
This 14 mile stretch of trail along Baker Lake is magical seeming and as I cruised along feeling some pain in that ankle, I felt at times as if I were floating. I made better time than last year and I could still run up some hills all the way to the end. I could feel the improvements I’d made in a year’s time and it felt incredible. I think adrenalin is probably a pretty cool mechanism that kicks in when we need it and I was feeling those effects on this return trip.
Crossing the dam for the second time that day, I felt thankful for the finish being just around the bend now. I could see the kids coming out with their balloons and a few folks still around started to cheer. Shona and Steve were still there. I’d made friends along that final stretch with a crew of everyone finishing this race at the back. A couple of young, healthy runners finishing their first ultra together, having only decided at the turn-around to run the whole distance; another gal limping it in yet still smiling, completing her first also; the stereotypical Clydesdale runner still behind me somewhere, running with so much heart, and a few others trailing along. This is what was playing out on the final stretches of that lakeshore trail.
I hadn't come close to my goal of 7:30, but I had avoided my first ever DNF. I hadn't reached the turn-around in 3:35, but I made the cut-off despite slow miles of limping along with improvised trekking poles. And I couldn't hold my position further up in the pack than I'd ever been before, but I'd had a brief taste. In essence, I turned what should have been a fairly easy 50k into a challenge for both my mind and body, a challenge I hadn't expected but was up for none the less.
I crossed the finish line 10 minutes faster than last year, and I’m happy with that. Ras and I visited with folks still around the finish area and then wandered back to our camp where we had a delicious vegan dinner I had made the day before—Tofu scramble with Indian spice kidney beans and peanut butter bars for dessert. Sitting amongst the maple leaves eating our yummy dinner, we talked about what our next trail adventure would be. The completion of one exciting day on the trails, brings about the dreaming of the next.