Friday, June 13, 2014

Love & Trails in New Zealand

Love And Trails In New Zealand

copyright Tim Mathisby Tim Mathis

     There is an archetypal story that we might call “The One Who Got Away”, about a young man who falls in love for the first time, but loses the girl (the reason why doesn’t really matter). The man goes on to settle for another woman whom he marries and builds a life with, but he always secretly wishes he was with his first love, and wonders how his life might have been different if they’d stayed together.  

     If you plug me into that storyline, “The One Who Got Away” was a country, rather than a woman – New Zealand, to be exact. While I’ve settled down with Washington State in the last 9 years, and we’re happy, the biggest piece of my heart has always belonged to Aotearoa.

     I moved to NZ from Kentucky in 2003, with my (actual, human) first love Angel. At the time I was there partly on a spiritual quest to sort out my religious beliefs and career path by completing a Masters Degree in Theology, and partly on a classic “OE” (Overseas Experience) focused on learning a bit about a world that seemed big and foreign, having spent my upbringing entirely in a small town in Midwestern America.  

     Stepping off of the plane in Dunedin, an old Scottish South Island settlement, I was immediately in love with the most beautiful and unusual place that I’d ever been. During my two year stay in the country, I developed my first deep connection with a geographic location. The dramatic green hills of the Otago coast and the nearby Otago Peninsula, the Southern Alps and Fiordland National Park were all places that were beautiful beyond anything else I had previously conceptualized, and they sucked me in, drunk in love.  

     When the fling was over two years later, my student visa was expired and our travel plans were complete, leaving was traumatic. We moved to Seattle so that Angel could pursue an advanced degree in Nursing, and I spent the first several years here comparing the place unfavorably to New Zealand. Despite a few cursory flirtations with Mt. Rainier and the Olympic Peninsula, I obnoxiously told anyone who asked that while WA is fine, “it’s not as nice as New Zealand”. And while a new trail running habit ultimately convinced me to settle down with WA – a beauty I learned to love reluctantly, but eventually deeply – I always envisioned New Zealand as the ideal place.  

     And so, when we finally planned a return trip for March 2014, nine years after we’d left, I was a bit nervous. I wondered if she would still be as beautiful, and if I would still love her as much now that I’d travelled more and had a broader range of experiences.  

The Plan

     Having devoted much of our time to studying and establishing ourselves in careers, for the first several years we lived in Seattle Angel and I generally suppressed our international wanderlust and spent most of our time in the Pacific Northwest. However, following my graduation from nursing school, a 2013 trip to walk/run Spain’s El Camino de Santiago reminded us of earlier commitments we’d made to prioritize travel, and we immediately began thinking about another trip. That impulse quickly materialized into plans for an overdue return to New Zealand, and a conversation in a bar with friends developed the plans into a multi-week backpacking (or “tramping”, in Kiwi terms) and trail running group outing through the wilds of the South Island. 

     Tramping is a national past-time in New Zealand on par with any other sport, and they have a remarkable trail and hut network, including a system of nine multi-day Great Walks – veritable wilderness highways that attract walkers from around the world – alongside thousands of kilometers of other less-utilized trails. Our plan was to spend a few weeks completing four multiday trails in the Southern Alps around Queenstown, and in Fiordland National Park in the Southwest of the country, some as hikes and some as runs. We would backpack the 60km Rees-Dart Track with our friend Christie. We would then spend a night in the small town of Glenorchy and wake early to complete the 32 km Routeburn Track (a Great Walk) in a day, camping at the start of the connecting Greenstone-Caples Circuit (another 61km). Then we would catch a shuttle to Te Anau, a small tourist town on the edge of Fiordland National Park, and rest for a few days before running the 60km Kepler Track (another Great Walk) in a day. The Kepler is the site of one of New Zealand’s most iconic races of any type – the Kepler Challenge ultramarathon – and when we’d lived there, it seemed unfathomable that anyone would be able to complete it.  Returning as mildly-seasoned trail runners, it seemed like a fitting ending to our trip to run the course. (See the Appendix at the end if you want more logistical details on how to organize this trip!) With side trips, this would allow us to see around 150 miles of New Zealand trail in about 10 days, and get a mixed experience of both relaxed tramping and challenging push days. (Angel, who arrived earlier than the rest of us, also ran the Northburn 50k outside of Cromwell, near Queenstown, a race that was won this year by American Sage Canaday, who had coincidentally also destroyed the field and course record at our local WA race, the White River 50, when we ran it in 2012.)

     In both spirit and practice, our trip was divided into two sections: the first half spent in the mountains and on the trails in the Southern Alps, and the second spent on the coast and in the city in Dunedin near New Zealand’s Otago Peninsula. During the first part of our trip we would be experiencing the country as explorers again. While we had visited some of the areas we would be in, we hadn’t seen mosty of the 150 miles of trail we’d be covering. We also spent this part of our trip as low-rent tour guides for our friends Adam and Broeck, who had never been to the country. The second part of our trip was experienced as locals –  at least sort of – as Dunedin was the town we’d lived in, and old friends would be putting us up.

On Trail

     A complex set of emotions overlaid the experience in the Southern Alps.  It felt nostalgic to be back in NZ and exciting to be experiencing one of the most beautiful places in the world in a new way. We’d come back in much better shape than we’d left, and in the first two weeks of this trip we spent more nights on the trail than we had during our two years of life there, experiencing the country as hikers and trailrunners rather than as student travelers.

     And we were a bit anxious about how Broeck and Adam would experience the country. They are our good friends, and both seasoned travelers and outdoors-people. Adam may know Washington trails as well as anyone in the state, and Broeck spent her childhood vacations in the remote Alaskan wilderness. We had bragged up New Zealand as the undisputed best place in the world, and we were worried that 1) we might have overplayed our hand and 2) they might not love it as much as we did.  

     And, there was of course the trepidation that comes along with seeing an old love for the first time after a decade of separation. Would it still seem as unique and beautiful, now that we had more worldly experience?  

The Rees-Dart Track

     By the first morning on the Rees-Dart track, all of the concerns were overshadowed by excitement and overwhelmed by natural beauty. We hiked up the Rees Valley on a rainbow-filled day that was both sunny and rainy in a way that only New Zealand can be, with its mix of alpine and island weather patterns. Our group, which included our friend Christie from Invercargill, made stupid jokes about stepping in cow poop (a very common experience on this first day of our trip) and looked forward to the days ahead in the mountains as we headed towards higher country.      

photo copyright Tim Mathis

     On our second morning, we headed out early in an attempt to get to our destination by mid-day so that we could fit in a 20km side trip up to a spot called Cascade Saddle that we’d heard was spectacular. The morning’s hike itself included a relatively short but steep climb over the Rees Saddle, before a long drop to the hut on the Dart River. On the descent, Adam and I pushed ahead a bit, but were surprised to find ourselves waiting for 30 minutes at the hut before the women arrived. It turned out that Angel had suffered a near disaster, and took a misstep that pitched her forward and slammed her knee against a rock, causing a bloody incision that would have required stitches if we had not been two days’ walk from the nearest clinic. Angel is tough. She once dropped a knife, point down, onto her toe in our kitchen and superglued the resulting puncture wound together rather than paying a medical bill. With assistance from our friend Christie (who, like Angel and me, is a nurse), she managed to clean and tape the wound in order to continue ahead. When they arrived at the hut, there was nothing to be done but elevate her knee and hope that it didn’t get infected, because continuing the hike was the only real option short of a helicopter ride.

     Angel seemed optimistic about her wound care (and as a former emergency department nurse, she was qualified to make an assessment), and she encouraged Adam and I to continue with our planned side trip to Cascade Saddle that afternoon. The trail passes through a valley formed by the massive Dart Glacier before climbing steeply to the saddle, which has panoramic views of the glacier, NZ’s iconic Mount Aspiring, and the Metukituki river valley on the opposite side of the mountains. On the return to the hut at dusk, concerns about Adam not being impressed with New Zealand had disappeared as he suggested that the route was possibly the best trail run he’d ever been on. I silently gloated that my assessment was being vindicated, that New Zealand is in fact the best place in the world.

photo copyright Tim Mathis

     Located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, New Zealand is one of the world’s most active tectonic zones, which makes for a landscape that is constantly, if slowly, changing. In other terms, New Zealand is alive. Angel’s leg, thankfully, held up, and on our hike out of the Dart Valley we got a firsthand experience of that alive-ness. Several months before our trip, a massive rock slip blocked off the Dart River, creating a new, 2 mile long lake.  The flora and fauna in New Zealand have evolved separately from the rest of the world for several million years and already make for a surreal environment. The addition of a lake covering live trees to a depth of several meters made the trip seem like something out of a fantasy novel. (I wonder if anyone has thought to make a Lord of the Rings analogy?)  

photo copyright Tim Mathis

The Routeburn in a Day

     The Routeburn is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks – trails through some of New Zealand’s most beautiful genuine wilderness that are maintained as well as most city-park trails in the US. After we finished the Rees-Dart, we stayed for a night in Glenorchy at a classic New Zealand Hotel/Pub, the Glenorchy Hotel (we camped in their yard), and then were dropped off by Christie to tackle the Routeburn as a day hike. It was a bizarre experience in some ways, walking 19 miles from the middle of nowhere to the middle of nowhere and finding dozens of half-ton bags of gravel that had been helicoptered in for trail maintenance, and passing huts with full electricity and stoves, and hundreds of beds for hikers.  But it was also remarkable that there was literally no trash visible anywhere on the trail. The Routeburn was, in my opinion, the most beautiful day of walking on our trip, and we used the trail to cross from Glenorchy to the start of the Greenstone-Caples track in Fiordland National Park, a trip that would have taken three hours to drive due to limited road access to the area. It was a long day, and we shared the trail with hundreds of other hikers, and a couple of runners, but it was still genuinely spectacular.

photo copyright Tim Mathis

The Greenstone-Caples

     The Greenstone-Caples sticks to lower elevations than the other tracks we were walking, so we expected it to be the least spectacular. But it isn’t just alpine scenery that makes New Zealand seem like Narnia.

     Because New Zealand split from Australia before they evolved, the country has no indigenous mammals aside from a few species of bats. The ones that have been introduced are an interesting hodgepodge of pets, stowaways, and beasts that Europeans thought would be fun to hunt: mountain goats, Australian possums (cute things that resemble the offspring of a house cat and a raccoon more than the rat-faced opossums we have in North America), hedgehogs and wild pigs. There are even legends about moose wandering Fiordland National Park, the probably mythological remnant of a small population introduced in the early 20th century.  

     Though there are some indigenous reptiles (and one dinosaur-like creature that evolved separately from the reptiles – the tuatara), New Zealand is really an island of birds, the descendants of winged ancestors who happened upon the island by chance or misfortune, depending on your perspective.  The Moa was a giant ostrich-like flightless bird that was likely hunted to extinction by the Maori, NZ’s original human inhabitants, before Europeans arrived.  Everyone has heard of the iconic kiwis, but they exist mostly on offshore islands now due to predation by introduced mammals. So perhaps the most interesting, extant, and readily visible species in New Zealand now is the Kea. The world’s only alpine parrot, Keas are quite endangered, but also quite social and are often visible approaching hikers (or drivers) above the treeline. Commonly described as “cheeky”, they are well-known as camp robbers that destroy boots, tents and weather stripping on cars in their quest for food and nesting material. They are named after their call, which is frequently audible for miles in the mountains, and have a typical parrot look, if not coloring. Their feathers are dark green, except for a distinctive flash of dull orange under their wings.  

     On our first morning hiking the Greenstone, Broeck and Adam had a magical and rare experience of being approached first by one kea, then by six more simultaneously. They resisted the temptation to feed them, which apparently frustrated the band of marauders. They seemed to block their path as they attempted to move forward, and followed them as they hiked ahead before eventually giving up and flying away.  

“There’s a Dead Sheep in the River”

     Each of the Department of Conservation huts on the trip had a register where hikers could state intentions, note where they were from, and offer comments on the trail.  In the evening we would routinely read through the register, and on our first night on the Greenstone we laughed about one commenter, who simply wrote: “There’s a dead sheep in the river.”  

     Like the Rees-Dart, the Greenstone-Caples is named after, and follows, two river valleys. Our second day’s hike was a warm day along a particularly clear and inviting stretch of the Greenstone, and about mid-day we arrived at a perfect swimming hole: deep water, a slow current, and multiple rocks to jump off. Just as I was stripping down to jump in, Broeck yelled: “Oh gross! There’s that dead sheep in the river!”

     And indeed, on the opposite river bank from where I was preparing to dive, there was a dead, bloated sheep with feet raised in the air almost comically. It was downstream, and after considering the likelihood that it would be a long time before I would have this opportunity again, I jumped in. The water was cold, and I didn’t seem to catch anything.

photo copyright Tim Mathis

The End of the Hike
     A few years back, New Zealand officially introduced its own long distance through-hike: Te Araroa (“The Long Trail”), which traverses from the Northern tip of the North Island at Cape Reinga to the South end of the South Island at Bluff. On the second-to-last night of our hike, our hut happened to sit at the intersection of the Caples track and a section of Te Araroa. In the evening, after the day’s walk, we followed it up the hill to a viewpoint of the Caples Valley, and then followed a cattle trail down the hill to the river. In order to get back to the trail we had to ford the Caples, and while it wasn’t the last thing we did on the trail, it is the lasting image that I have of the end of our hike: shoes off, crossing a crystal clear river with friends, mountains on either side at sunset: 100% Pure New Zealand.  

photo copyright Tim Mathis

The Kepler

     The day after the Caples crossing, we hiked out and caught a shuttle to Te Anau, a small tourist town on the edge of Fiordland National Park. We spent a few days recuperating, sight-seeing, and catching up again with Christie (who had dropped us at the start of the Routeburn before heading off to work for a few days). The Kepler Track starts within walking distance of town, so Te Anau made a great base both for exploring Fiordland and preparing for our planned run.  

     The Kepler is another of New Zealand’s Great Walks, and one that we thought would be too difficult to tackle when we lived in the country. Running it was one of my main personal goals for the trip. I hear that it features some of the best scenery of any New Zealand hike, and it seemed like the perfect capstone project for our trip.

     Fortunately, on the day of our run, we had great temperatures and no precipitation. Unfortunately, we had dense low cloud cover that persisted throughout the day. We spent a large portion of our day traversing along a ridge at the top of a mountain range, and I’m sure the views were spectacular. We just saw cloud. After 12 straight days of beautiful weather, we couldn’t really complain, but it was disappointing. Still, we finished the run and finished off our time with Broeck and Adam with a satisfying bit of evidence that we had significantly improved our personal fitness in the time since we’d left.  


     After the Kepler, we had completed the first, and trail-focused, part of our trip, and we reluctantly parted ways with Broeck and Adam so they could return to Queenstown and then on to home, and we could return to Dunedin – our own home, of sorts.

     Dunedin is a much different place from the Southern Alps, despite its relative proximity (just a three hour drive away). It is an old settlement, New Zealand’s first major city and a very Scottish place. “Dunedin” is the old Celtic word for Edinburgh, and Mark Twain said of the original settlers that "The people here are Scots. They stopped here on their way to heaven, thinking they had arrived." It is spectacularly beautiful in its own right; surrounded by dramatic bald hills and spectacular ocean views reminiscent of the San Francisco Bay area, only greener due to the rain. (The hills in Dunedin are bald because they were cleared for sheep, which still shear the grass, not because things won’t grow there.) The town is comprised of cute bungalows, spectacular stone cathedrals, and stately manors built by 19th century gold barons.  

     It’s also the place that I had personally loved the most, and I was strangely nervous about returning.

     I have to admit that the first few days there, though nostalgic, felt vaguely disappointing, not because things were bad, but because they felt so…average. After years of fantasizing about moving back any time things weren’t going well in Seattle, and playing it up as the place where the grass is always greener, returning felt like meeting a celebrity in real life, or seeing a much-hyped movie for yourself. It was great, but it was also pretty normal. The setting was still spectacular, but it also rained for most of the time we were there. The architecture was still beautiful, but the city also smelled a bit like the coal that is used to heat many of the houses. And our friends were still our friends, but we had all changed in the last 9 years, and we sometimes struggled to find points of connection rooted in the present rather than just our past together. 

     But after spending several days catching up with friends and the place, we managed to redeem Dunedin, and make it feel more than normal again.

     When I had come to Dunedin before, I had done so for religious reasons. While I was returning after having left the religious world, one of the lingering lessons I’d kept had to do with the power of ritual. Religious ritual, in its daily routines and organized communal activities, comprises a set of physical actions that are, among other things, aimed at connecting people emotionally with the spiritual aspects of life. In basic terms, and at their best, they are things that you do so that you will experience the meaningful aspects of existence more fully. Even no longer practicing an organized religion, I still participate in rituals, intentionally or not. And in the last four years the ritual that has most reliably connected me to the meaningful aspects of existence is running, and particularly running long.

     After we moved away from New Zealand in 2005, one of our friends, Steve Tripp, had become both a mission worker in the slums of Cambodia and an avid long distance runner. (He completed his first ultramarathon with Angel at Northburn Station.) He and his family moved back to New Zealand just a few months before we visited, and he insisted on both putting us up for a few nights and taking us out for a run on some of his favorite trails on our last night in town.

     Dunedin has actually achieved a small amount of fame within the trail running world.  The town is home to Anna Frost, one of the world’s top ultra runners, and it was featured in a promotional video from Solomon that profiled some of her favorite trails. We went for a run in some of those profiled places; to the top of Mt. Cargill, the highest point in the city, across logging roads before bushwhacking through clearcut to get to one of the most rugged trails I’ve ever run on; through dense bush, all ferns, vines, streams and birdsong, and back down a long road descent into town. 

     The run was beautiful, but not the most spectacular of the trip (that honor belongs to the Cascade Saddle route that Adam and I ran after Angel’s injury). But it was among the most meaningful runs that I’ve ever taken. Dunedin was a place that I loved, and that shaped me in my early 20’s. And it was a place that I’ve always viewed unrealistically as a less-crazy version of Billy Madison’s “Happy Place”. After spending he first part of the visit trying to recapture a relationship to the place that had passed, experiencing Dunedin again as a runner helped establish a new relationship. Neither Dunedin nor I were the same as when we’d last parted, but there was still something meaningful and beautiful there, something that helped me to experience Dunedin (and by proxy, New Zealand) again like home.         

photo copyright Tim Mathis

A Brief Logistical Appendix: The Central Otago/Mt. Aspiring/Fiordland Tramping Route      

Rees-Dart > Routeburn > Greenstone-Caples > Kepler

     When we were planning our trip, we wanted to maximize our time on the trails and minimize travel time and costs, and we wanted to spend the bulk of our time in New Zealand’s most beautiful areas. While the route we came up with was intuitive and would work well for anyone from the average hiker interested in about 2 weeks in the NZ bush to an intrepid runner who wants to cover a lot of beautiful terrain in 4 – 5 days, I didn’t find anything similar outlined on the internet, so I’d like to take a minute to describe our logistics for anyone who might be interested in using the template.  

     The starts of the Rees-Dart, Routeburn, and Greenstone-Caples tracks are all in relatively close proximity to one another outside of Glenorchy, and the tracks can actually be combined in a number of ways. Some automobile transport is necessary, but shuttles serve all of the trailheads (none take more than 45 minutes or so from Glenorchy). This map from the shuttle service we used illustrates the layout nicely.

     Flying in to Queenstown, our basic strategy was to 1) get car transport to start our trip with a night in Glenorchy (hitched with a friend but buses run regularly), 2) catch a shuttle to the start of the Rees-Dart, 3) shuttle back to Glenorchy for a night and resupply (2 notes: the Rees-Dart Circuit is a horseshoe rather than a loop, so you have to shuttle from a different point than where you started.  Also, Glenorchy has a small grocery, but it’s really expensive and selection is very limited.  We stocked up on our food in Queenstown and most any accommodation will allow you to leave things to pick up on the return – their economy is based on backpackers.), 4) catch a ride to the start of the Routeburn and walk it in a day at which point we could, 5) camp at the start of the Greenstone, which intersects the Routeburn, 6) walk the Greenstone-Caples circuit, 7) catch a shuttle from “the Divide” (just a carpark, no services) to Te Anau, 8) stay a few nights in Te Anau and 9) run the Kepler, which is a loop trail within walking distance/a 5 minute shuttle ride from Te Anau.

     The advantages of this approach were:

1) It was convenient: it was possible to start each trail the day after completing the previous one.

2) It was flexible: no forward booking required. The disadvantage of having popular trails (the Great Walks) is that forward booking is required to stay in the huts, and they fill up months in advance on the Routeburn in particular.The huts on less popular trails generally don’t. In our case, because we never spent a night on a Great Walk, we weren’t locked in to our itinerary if something came up, although this did require us to carry tents in case huts were full (only happened one night) and to camp at the start of the Greenstone.

3) It was pretty cheap. NZ does require payment for camping and hut use, but it is generally cheap, except on the Great Walks. The huts on the Routeburn were $52/night, which included a bed, running water/toilet, and gas stoves. The Kepler huts were similar, but slightly cheaper. Camping was $15 on the Great Walks. All other huts in the country are $15/night max, which generally includes a bed w/mattress, toilets and a water source. Backcountry camping permits are $5/night, I believe. The nice thing is that you can purchase a 6 month pass from any Department of Conservation office (DOC) for $96 as of 2014, and that gives you unlimited hut access (excluding Great Walks, which are on their own system). Pretty cheap rent for really excellent facilities on this circuit. And if you’re going anywhere else on the trails, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to use the pass – there are 950+ huts in the country covered by the DOC! 

4) It covered amazing, varied scenery: four mountain Saddles (five with the side trip to Cascade Saddle), four river valleys, three major lakes, multiple glaciers, two national parks, high country and low country.  

     From the map linked above, you can see that it would be easy to mix things up with these trails. Either the Greenstone or Caples could be used to connect back to Glenorchy rather than shuttling on to Te Anau. And Te Anau can be used as a base for a ton of other trails, including the Milford Track, which is supposed to be amazing. 

     One word of caution is that if you hope to cut out the Routeburn but want to see Fiordland, it’s a three hour drive (or so) from Glenorchy to Te Anau. The Routeburn is actually a much more direct route to Fiordland from the Queenstown area than the road, and you could probably run the trail from end to end as quickly as you could drive from one end to the other due to the peculiarities of mountain passes and Lake Wakatipu’s location. 

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.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

2014 Echo Valley 50 Mile Race Report

Sun, Sand, Dust & Determination:
The 2014 Echo Valley 50 Mile Trail Race

By Kathy Vaughan

     I awoke early and the camping area at the Echo Valley Ski Resort above Lake Chelan was silent. It was only about four in the morning, but I had 50 miles to run that day and I was apparently ready to start my preparations. I was able to use the warm bathroom in the quiet morning while everyone else was asleep. I appreciated this very much and helped make my race morning very relaxing. I went back to the tent and crawled into the warm sleeping bag, pulled the cozy wool afghan over the top of me and changed my alarm clock so I could doze for another 20 minutes. I began to visualize the start of the race, the climb up the dirt fire road and the turn onto the single track. I was excited and ready.

     When my alarm did sound, I was in a calm state of mind. I had my race gear in the tent and put everything on while I stayed inside the warmth of the down filled sleeping bag. Ras slept beside me, not needing to get up quite yet. The air outside was cold, but not uncomfortable. I pulled my down jacket on over my race outfit and walked over to the check-in area inside the ski lodge. I was immediately greeted by Roger Michel, the race director. He was friendly and showed me how to sign up in exchange for Ras' volunteer gig he would be doing while I ran. I got my bib number, picked up some fun freebies (a sample of Flora oil, a fruit leather and some Irish Spring sports wash), and headed back to camp. I then set up our Coleman camping stove. I wanted to make coffee and have a bite to eat before the start of the race.  

     I laid down a soft towel in front of the stove so I could sit down and feel the heat of the propane flame as I prepared the coffee. The grass lawn was soft underneath me and I felt comfortable. I had my pack beside me so that I could make the last minute preparations I needed to make and filled my water and Hammer Perpetuem bottles. Now it was time to enjoy my coffee until the pre-race briefing. 

photo by Ras / copyright

     The camping area was still quiet since I was taking the six a.m. early start while most runners were taking the regular start or running a different distance. Only about 12 runners were at the start area when Roger called us all over to explain some important details about the race. Ras had gotten up with me and packed up our tent. He walked to the race start with me and would take my puffy jacket and coffee cup off my hands when it was time for me to start running. I liked having his company at the start and it felt good to have his support.

     I knew or recognized a few of the other runners. I was one of only three ladies and I knew there were only a few others taking the regular start. I had a chance of finishing in the top three in my age group or over all. This was kind of exciting for me. Taking the early start, this wouldn't be official; just a statistic that I would be aware of and a chance to have this happen could only occur in this type of situation: a small field on a hot day with lots of miles ahead of us.

     Roger said “Go” and we unceremoniously started our 50 mile trod through the trails of the Echo Valley Nordic Ski area. I felt relaxed and calm as I got going.  My gear and layering felt good and I wasn't distracted by any immediate discomforts or mistakes. I was ready to take this on. The front of the pack put a gap between myself and some other runners, but I still had a few folks behind me. I didn't want to put too much energy into worrying about my place in the back-of-the-pack yet. The race started with an immediate 1,000 foot climb. I power hiked up the hill and cut onto the single track, mixing in running on the gentler sections of the climb. I passed one if the other women, Shelley, who had hiked strong in front of me from the start. I liked that I felt in a good groove so early on in the race and had strategies and plans flitting about in my head.

photo by Ras / copyright

     I had run this course two years ago and had some familiarity with where it would take us. After the initial climb, I knew there would be some nice, runnable trail for several miles until I got to the first aide station. Ras would be volunteering there and I was looking forward to seeing him. I knew he would give me a hand with whatever I needed and lots of encouragement as well. I didn't know the exact mileage, but I thought the aide station was about five miles from the start. I pushed hard on the good trail, in the cool of the morning.

     When I got there, it was fun to see him. I had a couple of snacks while he refilled my water bottle. I took off pretty quickly as I had lots of miles ahead of me still. I had gotten there in 1:03 and I was happy with that.

     I thought Roger had explained at the pre-race briefing that we would run the loop that leaves the aide station twice. This was confusing for me and I hadn't remembered doing that the previous time. I knew that once I got around this loop and back to the aide station, I would get it all straightened out. It seemed to take a while and I wondered at one point if I had missed a turn. I went by a water supply point and decided I didn't need any quite yet. I thought it was cool to have the water there though and it reminded me of my recent thru hike on the Arizona Trail where water stashes were part of how Ras and I had water to carry. Trail stewards would set these out for thruhikers in remote locations that they could access by four wheel drive.  We were very grateful for these water supplies left by local, kind volunteers so that we could enjoy the trail.

     When I hit the aide station again Ras explained to me that I would run the loop another time only when I came back around for my second 25 mile loop of the race. Now I understood. I had wasted energy in those miles wondering and worrying about whether I was doing the right thing or not. It gave me renewed energy to know that I was done with that loop for now. I took off in the right direction and enjoyed the rolling single track trail for about seven miles. It then dropped down to soft fire road for a mile run into the next aide station where my friend John was working. 

     I was happy with how the race was going so far. I had lots of energy, was running well, staying well fed and hydrated and enjoying my reggae music on my mp3 player. I ran up to John's aide station and had some delicious, juicy watermelon. He was impressed with how I was doing compared to my first year and this gave me a good confidence boost. There was a four mile loop to run from this aide station that would bring me right back around to it for a second time. Then I had a 2.5 mile descent to the main aide station & start/finish/turn-around area. I enjoyed this shorter loop after the long run that was near the other aide station. There had been a burn through some sections of this trail and other sections were fragrant with bright green foliage and grasses. It was about half uphill and half downhill as I made my way around the loop and before I knew it I was back at the aide station again. I snacked on some more watermelon and took off for the fun trail downhill to the turn-around. I knew I wanted to change into my Altra Olympus at this point and take advantage of the max cushion comfort, now that my feet were feeling the miles.

     There were tons of people around the area now as shorter distance races were in progress as well. Finishers from the 10k and half-marathon were flying by me and running into the chute. I came through and got cheers, although most folks were completely unaware that I had another 25 miles to go. I grabbed my drop bag and changed into my Olympus. My Altra Lone Peaks had been great so far, but I was ready for some cushion. I quickly changed out a few things in my pack and went to the table to fill my bottles and have a snack. I grabbed some Clif Blocks and put my drop bag back, used the sani-can and went on my way. I was on my own now for the climb up the road. The other runners were elsewhere; ahead of me, behind me, in the chaos & crowd of the start/finish area. I didn't know, but I was fine being on my own and climbing away from the hustle & bustle below. I climbed quickly away from it, again being reminded of my days on the Arizona Trail. When Ras and I would arrive in resupply towns, it was always very distracting and overwhelming. We were in such remote quiet areas and then suddenly surrounded by people and noise, food scents, gasoline vapors and unhealthiness. This start/finish area reminded me of that with pizza boxes on the tables, barbecue smells wafting through the air and beer being consumed by thirsty runners already done with their miles for the day.

     The further I got away from this scene, the better I felt. I paused in the shade of a large pine tree and took in a deep breath. I had about 23 miles ahead of me and I knew I could do it. I was still feeling lots of good energy and my legs wanted to run. I kept going.

     Before I knew it, I was at the first aide station on the loop again. Ras was gone now. He would be sweeping the course, coming up behind the last runner and picking up the course markers as he went. The new volunteers were helpful. My friend Bob Wismer was here filling his water and it was fun to see him. He said he had just seen Ras on his way down the hill to sweep. Bob, his wife Amy and I had run Pigtails Challenge 100 mile trail race together the previous year. With runners becoming so spread apart on the course, it was nice to see a friendly and familiar face.

     I enjoyed some fruit at the aide station and went on my way to run that loop for the second time now. It went by much smoother since I knew what to expect. I stopped at the water station to fill my bottles and wet my bandana. I liked having the water here and I popped one of the provided  Nuun electrolyte tablets into one of my bottles to help manage myself in the hot temperatures. There was a nice cloud cover and breeze for the most part, but at times the clouds would shift and the direct sun was hot. I kept my pink Altra hat and my bandana wet and this helped immensely.

     Hitting the aide station for the second time, I now had 14 miles to go to the finish. I didn't feel overwhelmed by the distance, but I knew I had to continue to take good care of all of my needs. I stopped in the shade for several minutes and sat down to make some adjustments. I knew it would be worth investing this time now to take care of these distracting needs. I was right. It paid off. I took care of everything quickly and efficiently. I was then able to pick up the pace after changing my music, taking some supplements and having a Clif bar. 

     Staying well hydrated, consuming low fat & low sugar foods and paying attention to stomach discomforts were all on my mind. I had to consider these aspects to prevent pancreatitis from occurring. I have to do this every day as with only a partial pancreas, I am prone to chronic pancreatitis. If I want to keep running and hiking ultra distance, I have to pay even closer attention to this while on the trail.

     Clif bars and fruit are good sources of nutrition for me while running and hiking. I used both of these foods during the race. Clif bars are fortified with nutrients and about five grams of fat per bar. I need to stay at 20 grams per day. It adds up fast. I also used Perpetuem in the early miles. I forgot to pick up my resupply stash of it at the half way point, partly due to the chaos there, but I used my extra bottle for Nuun from the aide stations instead. Sipping on both Nuun and water was a good way for me to stay on top of my hydration needs and I did not have any problems. I also used Clif Blocks and Shots that were provided at the aide stations. These gave me quick energy and were really easy to consume while on the move. Bananas and watermelon were provided and they tasted good in the heat of the day. I stayed away from sweet cookies and acidic oranges and my stomach stayed strong. I had ginger chews and Tums with me in case it decided to go south, but I never had to use either. I had a few cups of Coke throughout the day as well. This helped to make me burp and release gases being built up in my tummy. I think its a good thing to have a little bit of carbonation to encourage this release. I had one Hickory Smoke flavored soy jerky which helped provide some salt and a nice savory flavor for a change. I do not take any S-Caps or other form of salt capsules, but I do like to take in some salty snacks if I'm sweating a lot on hot days.

     Back on the trail after my brief self-care stop, I felt really good. The running felt nice in the Olympus; springy and light. The downhill felt like less impact on my feet with the max cushion protection. I could easily dodge rocks. The rocker effect helped me lean forward into the hill and let gravity assist me, and seemed to encourage a fast gait for the uphill power hiking. I liked the way the Olympus felt on my feet and I feel like they helped my performance. I had no hot spots or problems from them, this being the first time I'd worn them on anything but dirt and gravel roads. Going into the race, I still had some residual foot soreness from my long, 800+ mile trek through Arizona. When I switched from my Lone Peaks to the Olympus at the half way point, it was such a good decision. I had done this on a 40 miler back in April and I liked how the Olympus felt on tired feet. It was the same during this race. They revivified my feet and encouraged me to keep going at a good pace, miles deep. When you love both shoes so much, it's a good way to take advantage of the positive qualities of both. I wanted to check out the rocky conditions of the trail in the Lone Peaks for the first half as well as what kind of traction would be necessary for the descents. When I scouted this out, I could tell the Olympus could handle the terrain fine and the max cushion would make a difference just when I needed it for the second half.

     Now having passed through the first aide station for my second time, I had a rolling stretch of single track to run. I couldn't remember much about this section from my first time through for some reason. I knew that this was the biggest remaining challenge. It would be about a seven mile stretch. After this section, I had a mile of easy fire road and then the final aide station. Once there, the 6 miles were all fun and the final stretch would feel welcome. I began to run with ease and confidence. I knew I would beat my first year's time on the course and by a good margin. I was happy and motivated. I pushed hard and greeted John with a huge smile. Jerry Gamez, Roger's co-race director, was there. He had helped me get back on course when I went off of it my first year. Both of these guys were amazed at my improvements in two years time. I smiled with glee and took off for the final time on the four mile loop called the “Outback”. I thought to myself that I would like to cross country ski on this trail sometime. I hiked to the top of the first little climb and turned left toward the start the loop. I could see the aide station down below. I only had to make my way around this loop and then down the hill to the finish. I had this.

     Just before the aide station, I had passed a young woman who had been way ahead of me for all of the race. When I got to her, I could see she was struggling. I wanted to make sure she was okay. She said she thought she might have to drop at the aide station as she was having problems from the heat. I encouraged her to take her time at the aide station and cool down. She could wet her headband and wet down her head as well. She could sit down in the shelter there and drink some cold water. She had plenty of time before the cut-off to still finish the race. I ran past her and would not know what she had decided to do. I didn't know if other runners were still behind me or if I would be last. I just knew I would PR and that made me feel good.

     I got back around to John's aide station and had a vanilla gel. I was feeling pretty depleted and I wanted some energy for the final 2.5 miles. I was really excited about being so close to the finish. John told me I was 5th woman and that the younger lady had decided to continue. This gave me the encouragement I needed to wave goodbye and hit the single track trail with the fun little dips. The tread was soft, sandy and dusty. I kicked up a cloud behind me and descended easily, now turning onto more fire road. This meandered gently through aspen forest, fragrant with wild rose bushes. Bird song came from the trees and I felt as if I were floating along. I turned up the final single track stretch that went by old ski hill equipment to the finishing chute. I could see the colorful flags and people ahead. I laughed out loud and ran with all the strength I had left. “Leave it on the course”, the saying goes. I ran towards Roger and Jerry waiting at the finish and gave Jerry a High Five. Roger said, “This must be a course record for you by about an hour!”  I finished in 12:44, exactly 44 minutes faster than my first year's time on this course.  

     Everything came together for me at Echo Valley. My thruhike fitness gave me the strength I needed to keep running for 50 miles. I had the endurance I needed. My mind was strong and used to spending hours on the trail. I was conditioned to the heat and I knew how to take care of myself to prevent issues from happening. I utilized my available gear well and was fortunate to have both Altra Lone Peaks and Olympus, provided to me by the supportive and innovative company. After DNFing (Did Not Finish) at mile 53 of the Pigtails Challenge 100 mile race only 10 days after finishing the Arizona Trail, I had made the decision to run Echo Valley 50. I knew I had enough time to get more rest and be ready for it. I would have two weeks. I wanted to test the strength and endurance I had gained from my long hike. I felt like I could run a good race and I did.  

photo by Takao Suzuki / copyright http://Runners.Photos
Kathy being paced by her daughter Angela (at right) during the 2014 Pigtails Challenge 100

     After the race, Ras posted a picture on Facebook he had taken of the six o'clock early starters. It was a little bit cool, but we all knew the temperatures would heat up and our bodies would warm up as soon as we started to climb. I like the photo and what it evokes. We are taking our first few steps of a journey of 50 miles. I watch the ground, smiling for the camera, anticipating the day's adventure. I know how the day played out for a few of us in the photo: my friend Chris (a 280 pound runner who calls himself “The White Buffalo”) dropping to the 50k distance after missing the cut-off at the turn around, pushing on for 6 more miles to have another ultra finish; the young woman in the photo being the same strong gal who continued on despite thinking she might need to drop due to having a hard time in the heat; my new friend Shelley, also opting for a 50k finish.  

     I look at myself and I see a different “me”.  I am 20 pounds leaner after hiking through Arizona. I look almost unfamiliar to myself. My childhood friend Tabby saw the photo of the race start on Facebook and said I looked “fit”. It makes me think of my high school days and how different I was then. I would never have imagined at that time in my life that I would be physically fit and mentally tough enough to run 50 miles, 100 miles, or to hike 800 miles in 35 days 5 hours and 2 minutes (establishing the Women's Fastest Known Time for a thruhike of the Arizona Trail). I was shy, soft and had exercise induced asthma. I cried easily and had spells of brooding. I was scared of balls in any sport whether it was softball, basketball or dodgeball (which I especially hated). I was on the track team in junior high school and I wanted to run the longer of the distances, 2 laps around the track. I loved it, but I was slow. I was always the last to be chosen for any team during physical education classes and I was surrounded by athletic, tough country girls. I enjoyed going for long bike rides or walks by myself on country roads, downhill skiing on the quiet slopes of White Pass, canoeing peacefully in Riffe Lake near my home with my friend Norma, or coming home from school and playing the piano by myself for hours while my sister and brother participated in after school sports. I had always liked being in nature, but I never would have guessed at that time that I would become someone who could move for miles and hours, sometimes all day and night, through the wilderness on my own two feet.

      We all have this capability. We can all make changes in our life to reach goals or become what we want to be. For me, it's been to explore ever further on trails, both my surroundings I'm running or hiking through and my own ability to push my limits of endurance. I've had life experiences that have forced me to be strong and courageous in the face of intense challenge. These have happened during different eras of my life, in my teenage years and beyond. Now, nearly 48 years old, I have the strength, endurance, perseverance and mental fortitude as an endurance athlete to handle whatever may come my way. I can even prevent some life events from feeling like obstacles or crises, instead approaching them as puzzles to solve and enjoy working.

photo by Takao Suzuki / copyright http://Runners.Photos
Kathy during the 2014 Pigtails Challenge 100

Monday, June 9, 2014

2014 UltraPedestrian Wilderness Challenge

2014 UltraPedestrian Wilderness Challenge
art & design by Ras Scott Mosher of Ites Design
Each participant who completed the 2013 UPWC
received this custom designed patch. For the
2014 UPWC there will be a unique finisher's patch
for each route, and a special award for those
rare souls adventurous and badass enough to
complete all three routes, aka the Triple Crown.
    The second annual UltraPedestrian Wilderness Challenge is a multi-faceted multi-media adventure blogging contest open to Trailrunners, Fastpackers, and Backpackers. This year we are offering three unique routes. Entrants may attempt any or all of these. There are no aid stations, no course markings, no start/finish, no lemming lines, no cut offs, no set date, in fact, it's all up to you. 

     Route #1, chosen by Heather 'Anish' Anderson, is the Olympic Coast Route. This route runs 52 miles point to point between the Shi Shi Beach Trailhead in the north, and the Oil City Trailhead in the south. The Olympic Coast Route will test your logistical skills, as it involves timing tides, difficult creek and river fords, and nine miles of road to access the bridge across the unfordable Quillayute River. The Olympic Coast Route may be completed North to South, South to North, or as an out-and-back for the Epic Double.

     Route #2, chosen by Kathy Vaughan, is a 45 mile figure eight route connecting the Mother Mountain Loop and the Northern Loop in Mount Rainier National Park. This is a brutally tough and jaw-droppingly beautiful sampling of the trails in the park, with only a few miles overlapping the Wonderland Trail. Kathy will be largely out of touch until early May. The Mother Mountain/Northern Loop Route may be begun at any point on the route and traveled in either direction, so long as it is done as a figure eight ending at the same point at which it began.

     Route #3, chosen by Eric Sach, is the Alpine Lakes Route, which includes a variety of distance/difficulty options. The specifics of this route are still being finalized. As soon as they are, official information will be posted in the UPWC Facebook Group. Those souls brave enough to sign up for this route before the specifics are posted, will be e-mailed that information as soon as it is available.

     All participants must at all times comport themselves in accordance with Federal, State, and Local laws, as well as Leave No Trace backcountry ethics.

     Registration via must be completed before a route is attempted. Entrants may participate solo or as part of a team. Teams can be independent, self-supported athletes than just travel together, or team members can mule for one another. But teams will not be allowed to receive any outside support from non-running personnel. Every member of a team must be a registered entrant in the 2014 UPWC (registration for minors is free). 

          All participants must submit proof of having completed the route via Spot Transponder, GPS/Garmin/Suunto/DeLorne/Other data, photographic evidence, and/or a convincingly detailed trip report/blog. If you are submitting your entry for speed based awards you MUST provide SPOT/GPS/GARMIN/SUUNTO/DELORNE/OTHER data as proof. 

     Each entrant or team must submit a detailed blog, photo blog, video, and/or podcast segment detailing their trip. The more details the better, everything from technical nuts & bolts (gear list, food/fuel list, pacing, strategy), to wildlife spottings & encounters, to personal/phycological/spiritual experiences, and beyond. There are no limits to what you may include in your trip report. How you experience the trail and how you present that experience are up to you. The goal of this event is for all the participants to share and compare one another's unique experiences and perspectives.

     Everyone who completes a route for the 2014 Ultrapedestrian Wilderness Challenge will be awarded a unique finishers' patch (only available through UPWC participation) for every route they complete. Each route will have a unique patch design, and there will a distinct award for participants who complete all three, the 2014 UPWC Triple Crown. In addition, there will be other prizes and awards based on a variety of criteria, including speed, good style, best photograph, best blog, gnarliest SNAFU, most diverse team, and numerous other aspects of backcountry wilderness adventure. Additional categories may be added based on submissions. 

     Sign up will close Monday, December 1st, 2014. All trips must be begun no earlier than April 8th, 2014, and completed no later than Sunday, November 30th, 2014. Results will be announced on on Saturday, November 15, 2014. Prizes and awards will be mailed out (unless we will be seeing you in person soon).

     The entry fee for the 2014 UltraPedestrian Wilderness Challenge is $20.00 per person per route. All proceeds beyond the cost of prizes and awards will go to support and the UltraPedestrian Podcast.

How to participate in the 2014 UPWC:

1. Sign up on before Monday, November 1, 2014

2. Between the dates of Tuesday, April 8, 2014 and Sunday, November 30, 2014 complete any or all of the routes: the Olympic Coast Route, The Mother Mountain/Northern Loop Route, and/or the Alpine Lakes Route.

3. Email your proof and documentation to with the subject line, "2014 UPWC PROOF DOCUMENTATION" no later than Friday, December 5, 2014.

4. Visit and on Sunday, January 25, 2015 for complete results & awards.

5. Watch your mailbox for your UPWC swag envelope.
     Complete results will be posted on on Sunday, January 25, 2015. Prizes and swag will be mailed out soon thereafter.

     We strongly encourage all entrants to join the UPWC Facebook Group to ask questions about the routes, gather and share trail beta, connect with other UPWC participants, scope out the competition, and keep up to date on the most recent news, information, and general goings on. Otherwise, please post any questions below in the 'comments' section.

     Don't forget to check out our other utterly unique event the Highland Halloween Hundred Trail Unrun, aka H3, offering distances of 42, 84, and 126 miles: