Changing Perspectives - From Mountains to Sea: 2013 Fort Ebey Kettles Marathon
By Kathy Vaughan
After having completed 7 ultras, I decided to run an actual trail marathon. I was persuaded by the Ft. Ebey Kettles Marathon put on by Northwest Trail Runs and held on February 17th. My mother-in-law lives only a couple of miles from this beautiful state park on Whidbey Island near Coupeville. Post race meal & accommodations could be provided by my folks in the nearby town of Anacortes. I could have lunch in Seattle the next day with my daughter Angela, who is a sophomore at the University of Washington. It would be a perfect opportunity to visit with family and have a great snow-free day of running on the west side of the mountains in winter.
It turned out to be a near perfect day. The weather was windy and cool in the morning when my husband Ras and I arrived at Ft. Ebey State Park to check in and get our bib numbers. We knew parking would be limited and decided to arrive plenty early. We would finish getting ready from our car and likely visit with other runners we knew. There is always someone new to meet also, as trail runners are a friendly bunch. This is part of the fun of race day.
I have usually run my ultras with Ras, but today I would be running on my own. I had mixed feelings about this, but overall was totally excited about the new challenge. I had been spending some long solo days cross-country skiing in our nearby groomed sno-park and felt prepared to go for it.
The course is 26.25 miles long on rolling terrain with a total elevation gain in the 2 half- marathon distance loops of 5,200 feet. I thought this would feel like a lot of climbing. In my training, I had put in about 12 snow shoe climbs on the Sitzmark Ski Hill where I had spent the early part of my winter working as a lift operator. During my half- hour lunch break, I would strap on my snow shoes and climb the nearly 700 feet to the top of the small ski slope. It was great training and a fun way to spend a lunch break at work. The 360 degree view from the top of all of the surrounding mountains –Bonaparte, Mt. Baldy and Big White, off in the distance in Canada, and all of the Okanogan Highlands with its plowed, winding country roads, made the climb worth it each time.
Cross-country skiing had also been a big part of my training for this race. I had tallied up 183 ski miles since running Rainshadow Running's Deception Pass 50k on Whidbey Island 9 weeks prior. I had enjoyed some amazing days skiing through the Bonaparte Mountain area near my home and the Rendezvous Mountain area in Mazama, the foothills of the North Cascades. On one solo outing, I skied past a bloody carcass, being feasted upon by a mixed group of hungry birds—bald eagles, turkey vultures, ravens and magpies. I didn't pause to see what larger critter might be lurking about. I did know that nothing this intense would happen as I ran a supported race solo in a state park on Whidbey Island!
One of my best winter adventures leading up to Ft. Ebey was the Highlands Challenge I did with my friend Lisa. She had the great idea of skiing all of the trails in the Highlands Sno-Park, only 8 miles from where Ras and I live. I know the park really well and was completely game for the challenge.
We started at 9 am and had a wonderful day skiing 28 miles of trail in 8 hours. We skied through meadows, climbing up high, then flying downhill, exploring every trail through the park. The trails were groomed and the snow conditions perfect. Although the wind blew all day, we hardly noticed because we were able to keep moving so well along the nicely prepared trails. We used our cars as aid stations sometime around 4 that afternoon and finished by headlamp, skiing downhill the last 1.5 miles in an intense snow-plow, in icy conditions that had come after dark. We didn't have enough light in these conditions for the last 1k, but we still reached our number one goal of an epic day.
I was feeling strong on race day and ready to meet my goals. Always, my first goal is to finish. Next, I wanted to finish in 7 hours, finishing the first loop in 3.5 hours or less. If that didn't happen, 7.5 hours was my next goal time. And as usual, I did not want to finish last (commonly known as DFL in the ultra running scene). In addition to these goals, I wanted to remain peaceful and calm in my mind, being kind to others and to run strong, feeling positive throughout the race.
The race started right on the beach. All 4 race distances started together, so it was a big group of runners that climbed up the short slope to reach the single track that would take us into the forest. It was a pleasant start. I felt so relaxed and ready for the run. I had positioned myself towards the back of the runners and thus ended up at a dead stop as we funneled onto the single track. I kept patient and soon was running at a perfect pace, feeling no pressure from behind and grateful for the smooth trail. The pack I was in was quiet and focused. I appreciated this sense of calm over the raucous girls and loud trail talk that had put me on edge during the start of my last 50k in December.
Ft. Ebey State Park is situated in the narrowest part of Whidbey Island. This area is pocketed with forested depressions in the earth called kettles. This made for great curvy dips into these kettles and then short climbs back out again. In between kettles, the narrow, twisty trail was lined with thickets of small douglas fir, cedar, wild rhododendrons, blue spruce, hemlock and other evergreen bushes that don't grow in North Central Washington where I call home.
The contrast in environments from where I had traveled 7 hours just the day before made this trail welcome and interesting. I had been in snowy surroundings since the end of November. My running had all been on snow plowed roads in the 3500 foot elevation range. The temperatures had been as cold as 5 below, but were normally in the mid 20's. I had made some excursions onto the neighboring forest service road also, running on snowmobile pack. This soft, wooded trail felt awesome. The green all around and the damp, ocean air was so invigorating. Singing birds and chattering chipmunks sounded new to my ears. Mountain chickadees had only just returned to my yard back home. The closest I'd come to seeing any wildlife, was finding tracks of snowshoe hares, white tail deer, coyotes and voles on the snowy trails where I cross country ski.
So everything fell into place for me on race day. I hit the first aid station just minutes before I thought I would and that pattern continued on throughout the run. I felt awesome. Its funny how different ones' perspectives can be though. The guy working the last aid station looked down at his watch, jotted my number on his clipboard and said “You're doing another loop, huh? So you're the one we'll be watching for. How many of these have you done?” It was fun to respond to him that it was my first marathon; I'd only run ultra- marathons before, six 50k's and one 50 miler (not to mention many unsupported running adventures, some of them with back-to-back days featuring more than 26 miles). And besides, there was at least one other runner behind me from the marathon distance. I knew I'd also passed a decent number of half-marathoners. I wasn't the final runner coming through on this first loop. The marathon was the longest distance being run at this race. There was also a 10k, a 20 miler, and a ½ marathon.
My favorite section of trail was right on the water front. The course had us twisting through trees and kettles and then suddenly coming out along a bluff trail. This section had ancient, sturdy, yet withered trees along it. After passing these, the trail took us onto a grassy bluff where we could see the start/ finish and ½ way aid station point, but kept us looping down to the water instead. On my first time through, paragliders were hanging out here, part of a -scene that happens here regularly, it seemed. One paraglider was taking off alongside the steep bluff trail I was climbing. He kept having to climb higher to try to catch air and his sail was right over my head. It was crazy! Finally he took off and I watched us he floated out over the cold Puget Sound far below.
I couldn't wait to run through this area again and it kept me motivated to keep moving well. I don't know what it feels like to be fast in these races or to even be in the middle of the pack. On this day, though, I did finally feel what its like to just keep on running well for the full race distance. I was steady all day,4 minutes off an even split. When I hit the final aid station the second time through, a younger, more encouraging guy was there so I had to let go of my plan to flip the other guy some attitude that I was not in the DFL position after all! Only a couple more miles and I would be along the water again. I ran beside those mystical old trees a second time and came out to the opening to see Ras snuggled under blankets in his big puffy jacket at a picnic table, a cold Red Bull right there, my warm puffy jacket in sight also.
Something happened then. I smiled so big I thought I would burst. I almost cried with joy. I took off towards the water, looping down along the ocean shore and up the steep bluff trail, the paragliders long gone now. I'd passed the last one hiking up the trail with his gear loaded into a humongous backpack. The sun was lower in the sky. My breathing became audible. I began to pump my arms, in what could have looked ridiculous, for more power along this smooth, well-worn trail. I was alone and working hard, adrenaline was surging through me as I felt the finish and the renewed energy from seeing Ras. Living in a high mountain desert area, I'm not often around the energy of the vast Pacific and I could definitely feel it now.
I knew I was reaching my goals. I was coming in under 7 hours; the time was 6:38 when I saw Ras. I had been in great spirits, never bonking mentally. I had climbed well all day and I was not going to come in last. I only had one brief moment of panic when after this magical moment along the water, the trail passed through another kettle before coming back around to that start/finish zone. I couldn't remember doing this on the first loop for some reason. I thought I'd missed a course marker. But I soon saw some familiar sights and knew I was still on the right track. I pushed it through to the finish with a time of 6:50:09, less than a minute behind the two runners in front of me and 20 minutes in front of the final two.
This course was marked perfectly and there were lots of good munchies at the aid stations. I have it on my list of runs for next year already and I do recommend it. Those of us who run trails in Washington state are blessed. From the steep, dry climbs in the Yakima River Canyon; the rugged alpine zones and wildflower meadows of The Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier; the lush old growth forests along Baker Lake; exciting rocky gullies, boulder fields and the volcanic blast zone on The Loowit Trail around Mt. St. Helens; to the solitude and distinctive seasons of the Okanogan Highlands, I love exploring and running trail. Whether running a supported race or going on an unsupported adventure run, there is always a moment where I am blown away by where I am and what I'm doing. Ft. Ebey Kettles was no exception.