Thursday, March 27, 2014

Pancreatitis and Endurance Running

Pushing Past Pancreatitis Pain:
A Misapplication of the Ultrarunner's Skillset 

photo by Kathy Vaughan
By Kathy Vaughan

     For months, my focus and energy towards a big goal of the season has been to thruhike the 800 mile Arizona Trail, starting at the Mexico border and ending at the Utah border. Due to the desert nature of much of the terrain, and in order to avoid the worst of the heat, April is the best time to do the trip.

      I've made arrangements to have a house sitter stay here while Ras and I are away for a month. I've poured over maps and passage information. I've made supply lists and organized my pack, piling gear next to it on the window bench.  I've studied the gateway communities along the trail and figured out where we can resupply and which towns have coffee shops with Wifi, vegan food options and grocery stores with natural food sections. 

     I've trained in a fun, yet disciplined way, averaging 40 mile weeks and running or skiing an ultra distance at least once a month since September. I started joining Ras for his “Fartlek Friday” sessions 2 months ago, and have been having a lot of fun with it. I've stuck with a yoga home practice, realizing the importance of keeping stretched out so I remain injury-free.   I signed for up for the Pigtails Challenge 100 mile trail race, held within the month after I would return from the AZT, figuring I'd be ready to knock that one out, finishing faster than last year and setting a 100 mile PR. I have put lots of energy into all of this preparation, an important aspect of accomplishing this goal.

     Several weeks ago, a few days before a 40 mile run with my friend Lisa to celebrate her 40th birthday, some crazy cramping started in my abdominal area, radiating around to my back. Having a history of pancreatitis, I should have seen this as a red flag that maybe I was having some inflammation in this organ again. But instead, I convinced myself that my “change of life” years were upon me and I was having some intense cramping related to being a 47 year old female. I had been having some of the other tell-tale signs of this including waking up sopping wet with sweat a couple times a night every few months, the dreaded hot flashes, and a couple of missed cycles.

photo by Julie Ashmore

     Lisa's birthday run went better than any ultra distance I've ever done. It was all on forest service road and county dirt road. The first half had some snowy uphill climbing on icy snow mobile track, but transitioned to forest service road after about 8 miles. After 5 miles on this road, Lisa and I were able to stop at Shona's house and refill our water bottles, munch on salty potato chips and make a few adjustments. Shona joined us for a few miles before turning around to head back to her house. Lisa and I stopped at the bottom of my ½ mile long driveway, where we had an aid station set up in my car. We changed into fresh, dry layers.  I changed from my Lone Peaks into my max cushion Olympus for the section of the run that would be mostly dirt road with some sections of pavement. We ate a quick lunch. We restocked our packs with more snacks to sustain us for the next 22 miles and hit the road again. We had two more homes to stop at along the way. They were both log homes, spaced a good distance apart, welcoming and accommodating to our needs. It broke the run up perfectly and it was fun to share Lisa's birthday with some of her other friends.

     After stopping at the second of the beautiful log homes, Lisa and I had 6 miles to go. The early evening light had begun and the almost full moon became brighter in the sky. We started a downhill run now, with only a few more climbs before we would reach the car we had left parked alongside the road early that morning. The run still felt cruisy, the miles continuing to go by pleasantly, even though we were now hours and miles into it.  I had never felt stronger on a run and the endorphins were helping me to feel invincible. This was the furthest Lisa had ever run (22 miles being her furthest distance so far) and it was exciting to reach her car, knowing that she had accomplished a huge feat by running 40 miles on her 40th and that I was feeling a big growth spurt in my ultra distance running. 

     We had tofu scramble for dinner and chocolate birthday cake for dessert back at my house. Ras was away on his Issaquah Alps 100 Mile Unsupported attempt. We had a quiet time, unwinding from the run and enjoying the delicious meal. I was unaware of any pain creeping back. I had not felt any discomfort on the run.  

photo by Julie Ashmore

     Ras and I continued planning towards our spring thruhike and what adventures we would pursue when we got back. In hospitals these days, pain is measured and described on a scale of 1-10, a good way to let the doctors and nurses know how intense it is at the time. When I woke up one morning writhing in pain that was now registering at an 8, I realized I should take some action if I still hoped to do the hike. Ras suggested I call my insurance company 24 hour nurse hot line number and I in no way wanted to do that. I did it only because he insisted and it wasn't very helpful. I ended up calling my local small town clinic to set an appointment, knowing it might be hard to get in that day. Sure enough, no openings until late the following day, so the nurse told me to go to the ER if my pains increased in intensity. I held off as long as I could and finally two hours before the appointment, Ras drove me the half hour into town to check in at the small town hospital emergency room. 

photo by Ras

     I was immediately greeted by the staff who had been expecting me and I felt like I was in good hands. The ER doc was a woman about my age, very sharp and thorough and a University of Washington Medical Center Alumni, the home of the specialists whose care I'd been under since having pancreatic surgery seven years ago. She told me she had written her doctoral thesis on pain and personality type, and said she knew that as an endurance runner I trained myself to compartmentalize pain and ignore it. She also told me this was not a good way to handle the distinctive pancreatic pains with which I was so familiar. After drawing blood to check my lipase levels, it was clear I was in full blown pancreatitis with the levels over 800, far from the normal range. I would be hospitalized while my pancreas “cooled down”.

     Four days later, I'm still here. I have tried clear liquids, but my pancreas isn't ready to handle that yet. It might take several more days before I can eat without causing inflammation or an increase in pancreatic enzymes. 

     Sadly, this puts the AZT on hold. It can't happen right now. The window of time to do the trail before summer heat waves come on is limited and Ras and I will now miss this. I have to see my specialist again in April, to further explore what might be going on in my pancreas. This is hard for me and possibly even harder for Ras to accept. 

     I am coming to terms with this. I find comfort and a sense of excitement for the future if I can now turn my thoughts toward a new goal, a new plan and a future that includes more adventuring.

photo by Ras
Hospital Hill Repeats

     Spring forward to almost a week later as I sit now by the woodstove. I have been home for four days after having spent five and a half days in the hospital. It took that long for my pancreas to cool down enough to come home, some slight discomfort still present. I learned that I can help ease the work load of my pancreas by consuming little to no fats and no sugar. This is taking some adjusting, but now after being home a few days and being conscious of what I consume, I am able to put together meals that are satisfying and healthy.

     I have tried to get back into my normal routine as much as possible. I took a day to rest and get caught up on household chores once I got home. By the next morning, I was ready to go on a hike that would last at least 2 hours. Lisa came over and we ended up going on a 3 hour evening hike near my home. Early spring conditions gave us an exciting hike as we walked carefully over slick ice, hopped around large slush puddles and crunched through soft spring snow. I breathed in the fresh outdoor scents and appreciated every moment of being out in the fresh air. 

     Lisa and I got back to my house just when it turned dark. We had done this on many of our adventures together in the past, not timing it on purpose. We stepped inside to a warm house as Ras had kept the woodstove going for us. I made us coffee and we pulled off our sopping wet socks and put on cozy, dry wool socks to warm our feet. 

     While hiking, I had talked with Lisa about how my plans for the Arizona Trail thru hike had changed. I had not canceled the plans like I had thought I would have to, as I lay in a hospital bed, writing the words that begin the text of this blog. I feel better each day and I still have 2 weeks ahead of me to continue healing before Ras and I will hit the trailhead in southern Arizona. I have an appointment next week to see a specialist at the University of Washington Medical Center. I will have an endoscopic ultrasound that will reveal anything in my pancreas that needs immediate attention. If nothing pops up and I feel ready to go, we will continue with our plans to thruhike the 800 mile trail. If I am not feeling well enough for our thruhike but the imaging reveals nothing, we will still travel to the southwest, day hiking and enjoying ourselves all along the way. If something needs immediate attention and it is not smart to pursue this big endurance effort, we will then set our sights on the next goal. I already have many in mind and I can start planning any one of those adventures to keep my spirits up and my heart in the right place. 

photo by Julie Ashmore

     This morning, I joined Shona and Ras for our regular weekly fartlek session.  I focused on using good form and a strong effort during the intervals. I relaxed in between the intervals, during the warm-up and during the cool-down. I thought to myself, “There is nowhere I'd rather be.” I was glad I had worn my Altra Lone Peaks; snow & mud covering the road made for slippery conditions. I had wanted to wear my Olympus for speed work on the dirt road as they had felt so springy and fast when I tried them during fartleks 2 weeks prior.  The more aggressive lug of the Lone Peaks was just what I needed though. The March morning had met us with a wet snow and gusty winds. I was not bothered by the conditions at all and instead breathed in the air, rich with the scent of damp earth and the smell of ponds formed by melt water, in the surrounding pastures. The sweet songs of meadowlarks were leading us down the dirt road and the flitting wings of the mountain blue birds reminded us that these days of harsher runs were coming to an end. I felt better the rest of the day after this healing session in nature. Spring is a season of transition and I am welcoming the changes it will bring this year. 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

What Does an Ultra Have to Do with a Marathon?

What Does an Ultra Have to Do with a Marathon?
 The Problem of Accurate Terminology in Trail Racing

copyright Tim Mathisby Tim Mathis

     The spiritual motivation for this post comes from a conversation I had with a friend at my job the other day, which I’m sure a lot of ultra runners can relate to.   I’m a nurse in a children’s hospital, and there must have been rumors going around, because he approached me on our unit and said, “Hey, I need to ask you something?  What’s the furthest you’ve run?  No, straight out, did you run 100 miles?!”  

     When people ask you things like that, a million thoughts flash through your head.  I think most of us are at least a little worried that saying “yes” to this kind of question will lead our peers to assume that we’re a little bit off.  I work on the psychiatric unit, and the guy who was asking me is a therapist, so it’s even worse - I’m sure he had at least five categories of illness he could immediately place me in just based on this short exchange. The question must be on a diagnostic questionnaire somewhere: “Do you hear or see things that other people don’t?  Do you worry that others are out to get you?  What’s the furthest you’ve ever run?”

     But at heart, the main reason that I felt uncomfortable answering “yes” to my friend’s question – even though I completed the Cascade Crest 100 Mile Endurance Run last year – is that it isn’t really true.  Like most people who complete a 100 mile race, I actually didn’t run anything like 100 miles.  I’d estimate that I ran 75 max, and I definitely didn’t do that continuously.  
     During the race, I stopped for sandwiches, walked pretty much anything with even a slight uphill slope, drank a beer, and spent significant amounts of time sitting in lawn chairs.  Even when I was technically “running” on the flats and downhills, my pace couldn’t be classified as anything more than a jog, and was frequently more of a shuffle or a labored hobble.  If you want to really talk about running, I’m not sure I’ve ever continuously run anything much over a half marathon.  After that, you can be sure that I’ll be stopping to walk on occasion, wandering through aid stations, and sitting down from time to time if no one is looking.  I have absolutely no inhibitions about hiking.  Maybe I’ve run a marathon.  I’ve completed dozens of ultra-distance “runs”, but I’ve never really run one.  Not all the way anyway.

     Despite all that, for simplicity’s sake, I said “yes”. The guy laughed, slapped my shoulder, and walked away.  “That’s insane, man!”  

     “Running” an ultra-“marathon”?  

     Outside of work, in the bizarre social circle of ultra runners that I live in, conversations about terminology seem to keep coming up.  I know several people who are participating in the Tahoe 200 Ultra that is being put on by Candice Burt this Summer, and some folks aren’t clear what it should be called.  Clearly, 200 miles is a different animal than 100 miles, or 50 or 31, so shouldn’t it be called something other than an “ultra”?  Is it an ultra+ or a mega-ultra, indicating some kind of affinity to its shorter brethren?  Or alternately, is it a stage race?  The vast majority (and maybe all) of the runners will sleep during the race for some amount of time, after all.  
     Along different lines, a conversation keeps arising about the pretentiousness of referring to oneself as an “ultrarunner”, as if moving for longer distances somehow makes you superior to other types of runners.  Even if your neighbor was really good at their job, and spent more time doing it than any of their peers, wouldn’t you think they were a Grade-A turd if they insisted on referring to themselves as an “Ultra-banker”, “Ultra-waiter”, or “Ultra-teacher”?  Deep inside I cringe a little bit every time I hear someone refer to themselves as an “Ironman” (I know  you’re just a swimmer/biker/runner/tights-wearer), but I’m no better with my claims to be an “ultramarathoner”.

     And while the term “marathon” has come to refer to a distance (26.2 miles or 42.2 kilometers) pretty generically, I personally think that it’s misleading to associate what happens in “ultras” with what happens in marathons by referring to them as “ultramarathons”. In most cases, it isn’t as if an ultra is just a marathon with more distance added.  In some ways they’re harder due to added distance and (usually) elevation gain and the occasional mountain ascent/descent, but in other ways they’re easier because no one judges you if you stop in the middle for a several mile stroll while drinking coffee and eating a bunch of cookies.  

     This is especially true with 100+ mile distances: when you can finish a race under the cutoff time while also getting a decent night’s sleep in the middle, it doesn’t have much in common with, for instance, Meb Keflezighi’s seemingly miraculous 2 hour and 10 minute speed sessions.  At the same time, it seems to do some amount of disservice to a mountain runner like Killian Jornet to compare him to a guy like Meb who destroys flats and asphalt.  They’re both beasts, but they’re clearly different breeds of beasts.  And culturally and spiritually, many “ultras” are no more “marathons” than my “stopping to eat a bacon pancake” during Cascade Crest was a “run”. 

     As it is though, trail runners are hamstrung by our terminology.  If we want to explain to our peers what we do with our weekends, there’s not a lot we can say concisely other than that we “run” “ultramarathons”.  I’m a firm believer in the need to delineate things – to distinguish what we do on the trails or in the mountains from what hikers do, or from what road racers do, or even from what those who race shorter distances do – but personally, I think that it would be great to start a larger conversation about terminology regarding these things we call ultras.  

     My proposal: Foot Races and Foot Tours
     Stylistically, I’m more into the classics and the old-school than the cutting edge, so my preference would be if we just stopped with the “ultrarunning” talk altogether, and went back to a designation that has a simple 1800s kind of vibe – Foot Racing.  If we’re organizing long events where the goal is to move overland without the aid of vehicles or other mechanical aids to locomotion, just state the distance and the approach: a 100 mile foot race, or a 5 mile foot race.  It’s all just movement on two feet, and an attempt to see who can cover the course the fastest.  

     But because I love nothing more than coining new terms (my goals in the trail running world relate as much to contributing to the community lexicon as to completing races), I would also like to suggest a new term, which describes other events and activities that don’t involve podiums and speed goals.  Drawing on ski terminology, I like the idea of referring to self-supported or unsupported long distance outings on the trails as Foot Tours.  The term is in the spirit of “foot race,” and complements it.  It’s basic, old-timey, descriptive and unpretentious, and it can be applied to a variety of activities.  It can encapsulate both hiking and running, and one-day or multi-day outings, but it suggests that a lot of ground is being covered.  And for some reason, if a guy at work asked me what I did over the weekend, I would feel more comfortable telling him that I went on a 30 mile foot tour than a 30 mile run.  

     As much as I’d like my own terminology to catch on, if I’m being realistic, the fact is that we’ll probably always be stuck calling what we do “running” “ultras”, because once something’s been branded in the public consciousness it’s almost impossible to make a change. At best we might be able to come up with a name for these new kinds of events, like Tor de Geants and the Tahoe 200 - that fit in a gap between 100 milers and multi-day stage races (any ideas?  I got nothing beyond “Foot Race”), but it’s still fun to have a go at coming up with something a little more apt, and a little more honest.

Tim Mathis lives in Seattle and is a regular contributor to He has been running trails with his wife Angel for a couple of years.  One time they ran across Spain fueled mostly on pastries and espresso.  He blogs occasionally at and has contributed to and Trailrunner Magazine.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Team Seven Hills: Phil Kochik Q&A

Team Seven Hills:
Promoting An Unprecedented Performance Paradigm
Q&A With Team Seven Hills Founder Phil Kochik

Part 2 Of 2

copyright Tim Mathisby Tim Mathis
with photos by Glenn Tachiyama

An Interview with Team 7 Hills Founder Phil Kochik

     In a previous post, we introduced  Team 7 Hills, a new trail running team supported by Phil Kochik’s Seven Hills Running Shop. In this post, we talk to Phil about the team, his vision, and the way it fits into the local community.

Tim: This is a great idea – a team of Washington runners that’s store based rather than brand based. For those versed in the local scene, it is reminiscent of the old Seattle Running Company strategy, but are there other shops around the country that do this sort of thing?

Phil: Thanks, Tim! Yes, I certainly didn’t come up with this idea. I'm kind of trying to replicate the former ultra and trail dominance of the Seattle Running Club, and still maintain a sense of inclusion and community that a club would have.

I know the new Vertical Runner in Breckenridge, CO, put together a team; and San Francisco Running Co has a lot of runners that fly under their banner.

We might add a couple of runners in the summer based on how things are going; and I wouldn’t say we’ll only stick to WA runners. My goal is to have great and/or uniquely talented runners.

photo by Glenn Tachiyama
Phil Kochik at the 2013 Cougar Mountain 20 Miler. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.
T: It’s quite the eclectic group, and this isn’t just a cross-section of selections from race leader boards. How did you pick who you did?

P: Well, first was Adam Hewey. He was a no-brainer and our test subject as a sponsored team guy. He didn’t test me too much thou, because he never asked for anything! I said here, try these couple pair of shoes; and he was like, “okay.”

Expanding the team into 2014, I wanted to include our staff. Scott and Leslie at Seattle Running Co. spread the love financially to all of their employees, and I’ve always wanted to do the same. So that’s Chris BarryBrandon Sullivan, and Stacey Nievweija. Glenn is definitely the team photographer and by his own desire, has been left off the team page since he doesn’t compete anymore.

Beyond that, I wasn’t sure how to add people. Ras and Heather Anderson asked, and they seemed like great fits because of their beyond ultra experience. They both gave stellar presentations in the shop in 2013 so their accomplishments were in the forefront of my mind.

photo by Glenn Tachiyama
Ras demonstrates his technique for wooing sponsors on Phil Kochik, proprietor of Seven Hills Running Shop in Seattle, Washington, and founder of Team 7 Hills. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.

I asked Jodee Adams-Moore because, even though she is a Scott Sports athlete now, I didn’t think Scott McCoubrey would mind. I even asked him about it, and he said it was up to her.

I asked Rose Wetzel-Sinnett because she came in the shop right before XTERRA World Championships last December…and I was like, “you have to be on the team!”

Same with Jon Robinson and Matt Urbanski. Jon came into the shop and we started to talk. We’ve known each other a couple years now, so that helped when deciding. Matt and I had an Ohio connection and I was impressed with both his speed and having thruhiked the “triple crown” of the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail.

One of our best customers residing in Magnolia, Michael Miller, is our unofficial team captain. He was the first and only person to come to our first group run and he’s been to just about every one since. He’s bought more shoes than I’ve tried in the past year! Now that’s team spirit!

T: What are the benefits for team members? For your store?

P: As I’ve told them several times in emails, it’s all a work in progress, but team members ideally get at least 3 pairs of Scott Shoes and 3 pairs of Pearl Izumi shoes this year. Those two brands are the main team sponsors. Thirty percent off at the shop for everything else. James at Rainshadow Running has agreed to allow our team members into each of his races—a pretty good perk because those races are hard to get into!

photo by Glenn Tachiyama
Rainshadow Running race director James Varner. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.

We’re still waiting on our Pearl Izumi Team Jerseys. Hope they come by Chuckanut!!

Cash incentives: $100 for top 5 in any RainShadow event, short or long course. And there are winning, course record, Top 10 and Top 20 bonuses for any key event, “key” being defined mostly as any race for which provides coverage. Local key races include Chuckanut 50k, White River 50, and Cougar Mt. 50k.

Other than that, Altra and Hoka have been really nice and have said they will provide us with a few shoes for sponsored team runners that really want them. They are our secondary sponsors. Works out nice with Altra, since Heather and Ras are Altra Ambassadors anyways!

The shop gets exposure at races; a reason to post on facebook, to tweet and Instagram; and I get to fulfill one of my goals for starting this shop: putting Seattle back on the map of the national trail running scene.

T: Who do you think your team’s potential rivals are? Are you worried that Trey Bailey might start a team when he opens Uphill Running in Issaquah?

P: If Trey started a team, that could provide for some fun showdowns at local races. But really my sights are on getting people like Sage and Jodee Adams-Moore (check!) and the next Sage and Jodee to be on the team. For Team 7 Hills runners to win Western, Hardrock, UROC, and TNF San Fran.

T: Those Klicks road teams from Bellingham are always winning the Ragnar Relay. Do you think your team could take them out? Do you have any ideas for costumes?

P: Rose, can you handle this one? She is Wonder Woman after all.

T: Are you going to have team practice? I’m envisioning Glenn Tachiyama screaming and blowing whistles while everyone does wind sprints at Magnuson Park.

P: I hope to have team runs that anyone can attend! Our Wednesday night and Saturday morning runs are up and running! I do hope to have high quality long group trail runs eventually, but it’s hard getting people together with varying schedules.

T: Have you had to kick anyone off for doping yet?

P: Chris was getting close there for a bit. He would only eat the HoneyStinger products with Lance on the front. Luckily those were phased out.

T: What’s your vision for the team in 2014 and beyond?

P: Really the “team” is everyone who shops at Seven Hills, comes to the group runs, comes to our movie nights or presentations, or wears our gear out there on the trails. I want everyone to realize that. Tim, you’re on #team7hills just as much as Ras. Ras is being sponsored, but you’re both on the team.

In that vein, maybe Team 7 Hills will become more of an official club at some point, like Club Northwest. They have Joe Gray and others who are sponsored but anyone can be in the club.

T: What places will we see Team 7 Hills members this year?

P: Chuckanut 50k, White River 50, all Rainshadow races, and the new Crystal Mountain Marathon. Adam Hewey is going big at Western, UTMB, and Hardrock. Jodee is going big at Lake Sonoma 50 and White River 50. Heather and Ras have some top secret FKT attempts. And Rose will be kicking butt at Spartan races and XTERRA ½ marathon Trail Championships!

photo by Glenn Tachiyama
What happens at Seven Hills Running Shop doesn't necessarily STAY at Seven Hills Running Shop. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.

Tim Mathis lives in Seattle and is a regular contributor to He has been running trails with his wife Angel for a couple of years.  One time they ran across Spain fueled mostly on pastries and espresso.  He blogs occasionally at and has contributed to and Trailrunner Magazine.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Winter Adventuring: Embracing Seasonal Challenges

Winter Adventuring: Embracing Seasonal Challenges 

photo by Jason Llewellyn
By Kathy Vaughan

     I like living in the north central area of Washington where all of the seasons are distinct from one another.  Winter here brings with it lots of snow, although this year it was slow in coming. The past two weeks, lots of the fluffy white stuff has piled up everywhere and it is making for a whole plethora of possibilities for adventuring in the Okanogan Highlands. Aside from a brief stint to the rainy, green side of the Cascades to run Ft. Ebey Kettles Trail Marathon mid February, all of my trail runs have been in the snow. Its been a fun winter and this will be a blog that shares trail experiences I've had throughout late January and the month of February. These months have been extra inspiring for me. As an ambassador for Altra Running, I've wanted to push myself even harder, "Zero Limits" being one of the slogans the company promotes.

photo by Ras

     Ras' mother lives in Coupeville on Whidbey Island on the west side of the Cascades in Washington. Ft. Ebey Kettles State Park and Kettles County Park are just a couple of miles away from her home that overlooks the Puget Sound, and so Ras and I decided this would be a great trail race to run. We ran it for the first time in 2013, fell in love with it, and this year we were excited about returning. Ras was also running the Woolley Trail Runs 50k the day before, just about 30 miles from the Ft. Ebey run. He wanted to try to set a PR on the Woolley course, having learned that it was flat and fast. He also likes to try hard stuff and the back-to-back races would offer him that. I stuck with running Ft. Ebey on Sunday. This is a marathon course with 5,500 feet of elevation gain as the trails dip down into kettle formations and out again over a 13.6 mile loop, run twice. 

photo by Donna Potts-walling

     I was happy to have gotten my first pair of shoes provided to me by Altra for the season, Lone Peaks 1.5 in black and teal. I would be wearing them straight out of the box and it felt good to know my shoes would have great traction in the wet conditions. The weather was very stormy with strong wind gusts blowing branches over the trails and creating white caps out in the water. The race started directly on the water front, before funneling runners onto the smooth single track. Once in the forest, the wind did not feel as powerful. At the end of the first loop, the trail wound its way back out to a steep bluff and the ferocity of the wind was invigorating.  I could hear the howling before I reached the opening to the bluff and I pulled my wool buff up around my face, covering my ears. I focused on running the small lollipop loop along the water as fast as I could, and then climbing the bluff trail that dropped off steeply to the water below. I tucked my head down and climbed up to meet the main trail that would take me back to the start/finish and the mid-way point for the marathon.

     I ran through the mid-way point quickly, filling my water and getting a new bottle of Perpetuem. I wanted to get back into the forest and back into the loneliness of running in solitude along winding trail, the wind howling in the trees high above. I needed to get lost in my mind again, so that I could power through the second half of the race. I was hoping to finish with a faster time than last year, and being only the second marathon race distance I'd ever run, it would be a PR for me.  Ras was trying to catch me all day, sometimes getting behind me for a while, but then falling back as his tired legs from the 50k he'd run the day before were hollering at him.  I felt good all day, despite the storm. The rain came on at the tail end of the second loop.

photo by Donna Potts-walling

     The end of this loop became a highlight in my trail running weather endurance trials.  As I left the forest, I again pulled my buff up over my head and ears. The wind now howled much louder than before and rain pelted against my face, stinging my skin. The finish area looked empty of activity now, runners having already finished their race fleeing to their cars for warmth as soon as they were done running. The light was fading in the sky and the dark clouds overhead were threatening a heavier downpour. I put everything I had into those last few miles. It was crazy to be in that moment, alone and feeling the power of the elements. I pushed up the final grassy slope and over the finish line in 6:38, finishing 12 minutes faster than the year before.  This was my 18th trail race finish since I began trail running in 2011, with 14 of my finishes being ultra distances. 

     Back on the east side of the Cascades, the cold, dry weather was such a contrast. The thick moss and large ferns, the wild rhododendrons and madrona trees, the mud and rich smell of damp earth always seem so foreign to me when I hit the trails on the coastal side of Washington. I love it. When I return home, it strikes me how different the climate is over here. I knew right away I needed to get an adventure in the snow planned, so that I would remember why winter at my home of 3,500 feet was so much fun.

photo by Ras

     I messaged my adventure buddy Lisa with some options and she fired back a better one at me-a 26 mile back country ski on snowmobile routes in the Bonaparte Mountain area, just about 15 minutes drive from each of our homes. We had done some long skis like this together last year, but so far the lack of good snow coverage had prevented us from being able to get out on a trip like this yet. Ras would join us. 

     We met at Beaver Lake Campground, at the base of a forest service road that gets groomed for snowmobile traffic a couple of times each winter. Even if it doesn't get groomed, snowmobilers frequent the area and we figured we would be able to ski on the pack that one of these machines would have left behind. We set off in the early morning, in the shade of the trees and snow with an icy glaze on top. The route started with a steep 3 mile climb, and we all settled in quietly, knowing we had a long, tough day ahead of us. At the top of the climb, we reached Bonaparte road which gets plowed by the county. It was in great shape and for 2.5 miles we were able to make good time, skiing along effortlessly.

photo by Ras

     Our turn up towards the Virginia Lilly trail brought with it mixed conditions, feelings and a good reality check. We would now begin a steep, relentless climb of about 9 miles before we reached our turn around point at the base of Cumberland Mountain. As we began up the road, we lost the snowmobile pack we'd been following earlier.  We were now pushing snow which added to the level of difficulty. Lisa led the way, cutting the tracks into the deep snow. We were in single file, climbing steadily. About 2 miles up, we crossed a cattle guard and snowmobile traffic that had come towards us from the other direction, had now left a good pack to follow. We were surprised to find this and it was a welcome turn for us. The snow was also softening and the climbing became easier. A light snow had been falling on us all day; not enough for us to get wet, just a dry, steady snow. The temperature was cold enough for us to not want to stop long and there were no sunny patches to create a bit of warmth even for a short pause. We kept on moving.

     Finally, we reached a down hill stretch that was narrow and winding. It was also icy and had been shaded from any warmth the hidden sun was allowing. I tried to lead the way on the descent, but fell as soon as I tried the conditions and instead let Lisa go first. She disappeared bravely, as I then cautiously followed along for the approximately 2 mile drop to Vaughan Creek and our turn around point. Ras followed behind me and we all took a short break before turning to climb the icy stretch we had just come down. At the top of this, we would have some down hill and we were all looking forward to it. 

photo by Lisa Eversgerd

     We were surprised to find that the downhill took more work and poling than we had thought it would. It was slower going and the long day of skiing was taking its toll on us. We moved along as well as we could. My heavy Fisher back country boots were squishing my toes and not allowing the kind of room I'm used to in the toe box of my Altra Lone Peaks. My toes were shouting at me and my ankle bones were feeling pressure from the boots as well. I kept on pushing and gliding and reminding myself that I wanted to be out here in the wilderness, in the snow. The downhill fun would come. In skiing, one is always rewarded with some awesome downhill. Sometimes, we just don't know when it will come though. Patience. 

     We reached the section of road where we had pushed snow and made our own tracks earlier on the climb up. This was one of the rewards from our hard work. I settled my Fisher back country skis into the wide tracks and pushed off with my poles. The grade was perfect, the snow was just fast enough and the turns were just smooth enough for me to essentially take a 2 mile rest. I rode it out, while moving my feet within my boots, releasing tension in my shoulders and relaxing my body. I was getting the free ride I so love in cross country skiing. It was a blast. 

     At the bottom of the hill, I changed into a thinner pair of socks to allow for more room in the toe box of my boots for the final stretch of the ski. It was time to pull out my headlamp also and attach my sternum light to my pack. I didn't need to turn them on quite yet; the moon was casting a nice glow and this was the plowed road section where skating along gently and effortlessly would need little light. The end of the road came and we all turned on our lights. 

     It was time for 3 miles of downhill in the dark, on slightly icy snowmobile track. This was thrilling. My headlamp was dim as I'd not replaced my batteries after my last long night run. I regretted this almost immediately, but my sternum light was super bright. I just had to keep adjusting it to get it to cast the light in front of me rather than in my face. It was all good though and I can't put into words the awesome feeling of flying downhill on skies in the dark wilderness, with two of my favorite people. The descent seemed endless and coming to a halt at our cars felt so strange. 

     We all changed into dry and warm boots. Lisa and I got our thermoses of hot coffee and tea out and made a picnic spot right there on the snow. She brought huge banana muffins to share, packed with pecans and dark chocolate. The ski had taken us 10 hours and we had not seen a soul, not even any wildlife on this day in the back country of Bonaparte.

     I took a rest day and then had to get back out onto my favorite loop trail, the Black Diamond Lake Lollipop. This loop has 3,100 feet in elevation in 9.7 miles and travels through canyon walls, pine forest, creek beds, rocky outcroppings and sage brush country. Big Horn Mountain Sheep wander through here and a resident cougar's tracks are always fresh whenever new snow falls.

photo by Ras

     Lisa, Ras and I would be the team again for this adventure. We bundled up against the wind in the Okanogan River Valley and started the climb up into the canyon about mid morning. We did not see the sheep as Ras and I have so often this winter. So much snow had fallen that maybe they had to find just the right spot to feel protected from the weather. We started post holing almost right away, knowing the snow was bound to get deeper as we climbed higher. We knew we had a challenge ahead, but the bluebird day was not going to allow us to abandon our idea. We were all warm enough and all of us had Altra Lone Peaks on our feet. The traction was ideal for the conditions and with gaiters keeping some of the snow out and wool socks on our feet, the set-up was better than a stiff pair of hiking boots, or even snow boots. No traction devices are needed in snowy conditions with the good lug soles of the Lone Peaks and the flexibility they allow for good, secure foot placement. The wide toe box gives lots of room for a thicker wool sock in the cold. I have worn my Lone Peaks for all of my winter adventures with great success.

     We took turns post holing and making tracks for the others to follow. The camaraderie and team work was nice. Lisa is a tough lady and she led the way first. Ras made great tracks for us as we made our way around the frozen lakes, following tracks from two different cougars and looking around us on the high rocks to see if one of the beauties might be observing us from up there. I led the way along the canyon rim as we traversed along it for the final climb of the loop. Then we reached the main trail again and began the 3 mile descent to our parked car, where a thermos of hot coffee and vegan chocolate chip cookies were waiting. 

photo by Ras

    The post holing continued up higher, but gradually, as we got lower the snow depth lessened to a point where we could begin a run. It felt floaty and freeing as we picked up the pace and ran through the snow. The technical ground underfoot was completely covered in snow and we were able to fly down. Lisa disappeared around the corner and I marveled at what an awesome trail runner she has become in such a short time. Having healed up in the autumn from some knee issues, she switched to zerodrop shoes, changed to a natural running form, and is now doing really well on the trails. She can't seem to get enough and is running 20 milers regularly on the snowy country roads around her home.

     I love that in the sport of adventuring we can help inspire and push each other. Now that Lisa is running, I find myself trying to come up with new ideas for what we can do together and she is always game. I helped inspire her to get to the point where she could run again and in turn, her running has helped me to amp it up to the next level. We do this with skiing and finding local peaks to climb too. Tomorrow, we will ski all of the trails in our local nordic ski park, which will total about 35 miles.  The challenges are endless, and with the support and companionship of a friend, they are all possible. "Zero Limits" can mean to each of us what we want it to mean, within our own realm of possibilities. It can change and expand over time. We can push ourselves to reach what we think are our limits and then go beyond. The kind of growth that results, has far reaching affects.