Thursday, July 31, 2014

Baker Lake 100k Fat Ass Trip Report

Baker Lake 100k Fat Ass Trail Run:
Friending Frogs, Ferns & Five Finishes To Become A Hall of Famer

By Kathy Vaughan

     Two fisherman came towards Ras and I as we started out on our 63 mile run at around 7 a.m., the light having been in the sky for almost 3 hours now. It didn't look like they had caught anything, except a startle as they saw two runners coming towards them in the cool of the morning along Baker River. Ras and I had wanted to get an earlier start than this, but we had traveled across the North Cascades Highway to reach the Kulshan Campground around 10 p.m. The night before, after having gotten a surprise day off from our summer work at a local organic fruit orchard. The apricots needed more time to ripen and this gave us just the window of opportunity we had been looking for to run the Fat Ass Style 100k offered by Terry Sentinella, the race director of the official Baker Lake 50k Trail Run held the beginning of each October. Baker Lake 50k had been my first ultra, my first trail race, and my first organized event of any kind back in 2011 and I had run it every year since. I was determined to finish this 100k distance, not knowing what it would feel like to be running that second 50k until I was actually doing it.

     Ras and I had set out to run the 100k, Fat Ass style, in November, when Terry had offered it last year. The weather was frigid and wet, the days were shorter and we got 50k in before we called it due to running in standing ice water as snow continued to fall on us. This time around, we were using the same system we had used in November, by setting up a camp at Kulshan Campground and beginning the run at the Baker River Trailhead parking area on the other end of the lake, 15.5 miles away. We would run to our camp to change layers and access food and then run back to Baker River Trail head, twice. We had a cooler, stocked with burritos, veggie wraps and energy drinks. We had a bag of ice cubes to fill our water bottles with ice and the campground itself had a spigot we could use. Our car would be at the Baker River Trail head, stocked with a cooler, food and fresh clothing options as well. We would cover each 15.5 mile stretch, without support or filtering water, but then have a good resupply session at each turn around spot.

photo by Ras/

     The first 15.5 miles went smoothly. I started to sweat almost immediately from the humidity that hung in the damp, rich forest canopy. I enjoyed the views of the river as it braided it's way toward the lake. There were many alder trees, thimble berry bushes, salmon berries, horsetail, broad & narrow leaf plantain and varying grasses growing in the river valley. The trail crossed the Baker River on a sturdy suspension bridge. The trail was gentle and smooth, easy to start out the run at a good pace. Soon, we were to the lake and crossing bridges over drainages coming down off the steep hillside to our left. A rustling in the bushes drew our attention to a mama bear. We at first didn't see her young cub, but heard it as it climbed up a large fir tree. We said hi to the bear and then moved past it calmly. She stayed with her cub as we passed. It energized us to have this bear sighting. Ras and I had seen a yearling bear just 2 days previous in the East Pasayten Wilderness while on a portering job. I like seeing these wild creatures, so big and powerful, yet mostly wanting nothing more than to be left alone. In all of the bear sightings I've had over the years, they've always vanished into the wilderness as quickly as they could. The cubs have always climbed trees while the mother stays below. I respect the protectiveness they show of their young. Ras would sometimes joke with me while our daughter, Angela, was growing up, that I was like a mama Grizzly.

     The old growth trees stood like majestic giants along the trail, causing us to occasionally point out one of these beauties to each other. The old trees were mostly cedar and hemlock. The deep greens and lush undergrowth were pleasing to the eye. Ras and I live in the north central part of Washington, where the forests have been logged of almost all old growth; it is a rare joy to see ferns growing and the forest floor more open, hosting wild rose bushes, pine grass, lupine, currants, wild strawberries, and aspen groves. There are only a couple of cedar groves left in our area, special spots known only to a few locals.

photo by Ras/

     I love spending time in these rich forests on the western side of the Cascade range. Ras and I ran quietly for miles, taking in everything this forest and the lakeside views had to offer. After about 14 miles, we were off the single track and on dirt road, for the final descent to the Baker Dam. We crossed the dam, Mt. Baker nearly within an arm's reach, and then finished our first of four 15.5 mile legs.

     We ran up to our awaiting tent. The campground was peaceful yet active. Families were enjoying a nice summer day and an old timer had arrived, setting up his trailer in the camp neighboring ours. He watched us, seemingly curious about where we had come from and what we had planned. Ras ate a burrito he had made for himself, and I discovered that the spinach tortilla I'd used to put together a veggie wrap had become a soggy mess. I couldn't eat it. I had made two of these for the day, already cutting myself a little short. I had other food with me, but these wraps were meant to be my lunch and dinner, a little more sustenance than the Clif bars, gels and package of Clif Blocks I had brought. The last minute decision to drive over to Baker Lake and run 100k, had meant I'd put less time and energy into preparing food for the run than I normally did. While Ras was making his burritos, I made the decision to try to use up these spinach tortillas I had and stick with raw veggies rather than beans and rice. I should have stuck with our normal standby, bean & rice burritos. “Nothing new on race day” is a saying you hear in the running community. I've changed it to “Nothing new on adventure day”.

photo by Ras/

     We left Kulshan Campground after nearly 45 minutes spent adding new bars and other snacks to our packs, refilling our water bottles and mixing in a Nuun tablet, eating and resting. We decided that we would move steadily for each 15.5 mile stretch and take rests at each end as needed. We hiked the paved section to the dam, ran across it and then continued the steep dirt road climb back to the single track. We had seen a senior citizens' hiking group coming towards us as we finished this stretch on our way to Kulshan nearly an hour ago. We were now seeing this same group as they made their return hike back to their cars. They were spread apart now and very curious as to what we were up to, running towards them from the opposite direction. We answered their questions in whatever format seemed appropriate, depending on to whom we were speaking. Most folks would be to overwhelmed if we tried to explain we were going to run the length of this trail four times. One friendly man understood what we were in the middle of, as he had been on the trail in the fall when the official Baker Lake 50k and 100k trail race was being held. He had an understanding of ultra running and he cheered us on. I liked seeing this diverse group, trekking poles and oversized packs, proud of being on this hike they'd likely planned for weeks.

     It was now midday and the sun was hot. The humidity hung heavy and we continued to drip sweat. The creek drainages offered a wonderfully cool breeze, the air cold from the mountain streams. I wetted my bandana and Altra visor at each of these creeks, splashing water on my face as I did so. This helped keep my body temperature cooler. Nearly to the Baker River again after having run the length of the trail a second time, Ras and I stopped at a large bridge to take in the cold air coming off the hillside, being washed downstream with the ice cold water. He wet his dreadlocks and splashed water all over him. I wet my bandana and sat in the soft moss in the cool shade of a large tree. We wanted to keep making good progress on the trail, but we also knew that taking care of ourselves in this heat was important and would allow us to complete this run. Lowering our core body temperatures would keep us safe. We both love finding special spots along the trail to enjoy what nature has provided. This was one of them.

photo by Ras/

     After 9 hours of running, hiking and enjoying mountain streams, we made it to the Baker River Trailhead, where our car and cold drinks were waiting. At this turn around, I changed into dry Smart Wool toe socks and my max cushion Olympus. I had been wearing my Lone Peaks and they were giving me all of the traction and maneauverability I needed. I was now ready for some max cushion, my feet feeling the 31 miles they'd taken me so far. I have done this several times now on really long runs, starting out in the Lone Peaks and switching to the Olympus at the half way point, when my feet are ready for some max cushion love. This way, I get to run in both of my favorite shoes and enjoy the benefits of both styles. (Ras did the opposite, running the first 50k in the new Altra Paradigm sent to him by Phil at Seven Hills Running Shop, then changing into his trusty Lone Peaks for the second 50k.) As an Alta Ambassador, I'm blessed with owning both pairs and always interested in how they function in differing conditions, allowing me to share this information with others.

     As a newbie ultrarunner in 2011, I ran this very course and rolled an ankle after only a couple of miles. I then rolled it a 2nd time about ten miles deep, yet still refused to quit the race. This experience slowed me down for over a year, on downhill and rocky trail, nervous about reinjuring my ankle. Now, with a lot more experience and confidence, I was able to put on the Olympus, which has less traction than the Lone Peak, and know that I could handle the more technical sections of trail without the more aggressive lug.

photo by Ras/

     It felt good to sit down on the car seat while I changed into dry socks and the Olympus. I slammed a sugar-free, ice cold Rockstar energy drink, cherry flavored. What a treat! I like to trick myself into thinking the B vitamins, taurine and caffeine give me a much needed boost, but in reality, it just tastes good. I don't drink alcohol or soda, so this is the beverage of choice I turn to when I'm wanting a treat or reward during a hard endurance effort.

     I switched out of my Ultimate Directions PB vest into a Nathan vest. The UD pack, which has water bottles riding up front, was bruising my ribs. I loaded the Nathan vest, included my headlmap and extra batteries and mentally prepared myself to head out for a second 50k. I knew that once I got going, I would settle into the distance. Ras took care of his needs as well and we started off along the Baker River again. We began hiking, finishing the food we had been eating and softly chatting with each other about some of our strategies for the second half and giving each other positive feedback about how well our run had gone so far, despite the high humidity.

photo by Ras/

     I had changed into a dry Salomon skort, my favorite skort because the inner shorts provide compression and do not ride up while running, and I had hung my Altra shirt to dry, while we were on our last break. Starting out in fresh, dry clothing and different shoes, was a luxury I appreciated. Many of my runs are unsupported, and there is no option but to stay in the clothing and shoes in which I start. On my 800 mile thru hike of the Arizona Trail I'd completed in May with Ras, we both hiked in our same outfit every day, washing our clothes out whenever we had a chance to be by an appropriate water source. We were hiking in a minimalist style and carrying as little gear with us as possible. On the AZT a fresh outfit to change into would have been an unnecessary luxury, as pack weight in food and water was the priority.

     The air had not begun to cool and the thick mugginess was still present. We listened to our mp3 players and made our way along the trail, now mixing in more hiking on the steeper sections as the miles began to take their toll on our bodies. The course gains a total of about 7,000 feet in elevation, which makes for a mostly rolling trail, with only a few sets of switchbacks. The trail winds along a high point in one section, away from the thick forest canopy and exposed to the breeze coming off of the large lake. It felt so good to be in this more open air. We picked up the pace and before we knew it, we were running down the dirt road for the 2nd time, almost to the dam crossing and then Kulshan Campground for our final turnaround point.

photo by Ras/

     Darkness had settled over the trail now and with it, a slight cooling in the temperature. I still felt sweaty, yet with the cooler air temperatures, it had become even more uncomfortable. At times I felt clammy & cold, and then I would feel uncomfortably hot. I had changed into a long sleeved shirt when we got to Kulshan, thinking I was going to feel cooler in the night. I had to keep pulling up my sweater to get some air to my clammy skin. I also began to feel drowsy, the dark night progressing as we worked to finish up the miles.

     The moonlight shone down on us and cast a dim light over the lake. The grand outlines of Mt. Baker and Shuksan could be seen in the distance, the moon allowing just enough light in the sky. We had gotten inside the tent at Kulshan to stay warm on our break. We decided to get under the sleeping bag, but our damp clothing and clammy skin wouldn't dry enough to allow us any comfort during the rest. Ras suggested we take a several hour nap and then finish off the last leg. He would need to drive us back to the Okanogan when we finished, and at that time we had thought we would just drive straight to work at the orchard. He thought the nap would help. I just wanted to take a brief rest and then get this run done. I knew the final 15.5 miles could possibly be a suffer fest, but I also knew I could do it. And I was ready to do it.

     Falling asleep while running/hiking in the night is a very disorienting thing to experience. My breathing began to change to a deep, relaxed style, the way one breathes when lying in bed ready to fall asleep for the night. I would start to have little dreams and then find myself off to the side of the trail, stumbling. The music I had playing in one ear had sounds to it that would sometimes startle me and for a moment I'd think it was coming from something in the woods. At several points along the way, we gave in to the tiredness and took very short trailside naps. The first time we did this, I had been stumbling along quietly, trying to stay awake. I did not know that Ras was struggling in this same way until he said, “I'm going to try to make it to Kevin's aid station, but I really need to sit down and take a short nap.” I was so relieved to hear him say this, as I was fantasizing about snuggling down in a soft bed of moss. Each place that looked even remotely inviting along the trail as we passed, would send me into one of these fantasies. Our friend Kevin Douglas had captained the Maple Grove aid station during the Baker Lake Trail Runs in the fall, so we now referred to this spot as “Kevin's Aid Station.”

     It seemed to take forever to get to Kevin's spot, but when we did we both remembered some nice logs surrounded by grasses that would be the perfect place to get a little rest before pushing forward. We kept our packs on but turned out our headlamps as we nestled into our sleeping spots. I wanted to keep a balance between fully sinking into the ground and allowing myself to sleep, yet not going into a deep enough sleep from which I would not awaken in 10 minutes or less. From Kevin's, Ras and I still had 10 miles to go. We could not afford to nap for too long.

     We got up from this rest and continued along the trail. Large frogs were enjoying the damp nighttime trail and sometimes it was hard to not step on them. We must have seen over 50 frogs, once darkness had come. By headlamp, the frogs' little eyes glowed in the dark while they slowly crawled off the trail, into the bushes along it's edge, more scared of us than we were of them. We saw only a couple of smaller frogs, most of them were large and pokey.

photo by Ras/

     Suddenly, Ras called out “What's that?” I looked ahead in the trail and saw a small, smoothed off stump in the middle of the path. Ras thought he had seen a calico cat, ready to go down into a burrow in the trail. We had been seeing many holes in the middle of the trail, made by marmots or ground squirrels. I told Ras he was hallucinating. He told me, no, it was merely a figment. We were both tired.

     Picking, sorting and packing organic fruit on our feet for nine hour work days had not prepped us well, as far as rest was concerned. We were tired going into this run, and now that night had fallen, we were just very sleepy. We took several more of this type of a trail side nap. Finally, we could see the sky lightening and the lake was once more fully visible. I could see the end of the lake, the Baker River dumping into it, bringing with it the Sockeye salmon that the floatilla of fishing boats had been after when we started this run the previous morning. I was ready to be out of the forest, running along the river, and finishing up at the car before too much light was in the sky.

     Ras and I passed by the cave entrances that had sent a draft of cold air our way as we passed them earlier in the day. We passed by the huckleberry and thimble berry bushes that had offered us juicy treats as we ran by their bushes in the hot daylight hours. Ras looked at his watch and said if we ran with everything we had left in us for the final river stretch, we could finish in under 23 hours. We pushed as hard as we could, leaving it all on the trail, to come in with a finishing time on this self-supported 100k of 22 hours 49 minutes.

     We were so happy to be done. We had just completed our 5th Baker Lake run, the place where it all began for me 3 years ago, where I had my first ultra finish. Now, I had earned a spot in the Baker Lake Hall of Fame for having five finishes on this course. And I'd completed my first 100k. I can't wait to get that belt buckle. The middle of the night naps and tears had been replaced with the day's first light, a big smile on my face and endorphins raging throughout my system. Announcing to Ras on that last leg that I was not going to run Baker Lake 50k again in the fall, was premature. New rule: No making proclamations of what you will never ever do again when you are in the throes of an adventure. Now, my goal is to run along that lake again, the maple trees colorful and fragrant with their fall foliage, having a blast doing it, setting a course PR for myself in the process.

     We drove back to our tent at the Kulshan Campground and crawled inside. Ras was asleep and snoring within minutes. I tend to toss and turn after a big run, my feet aching and my mind racing with memories of what I have just done. I rested for a couple of hours and then got up to make veggie burgers and coffee. I visited with the old timer camping next to us and enjoyed the relaxation of being in the scenic campsite, my year long goal of running the Baker Lake 100k now accomplished.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the fantastic narrative of what was a a great adventure. It was well written and inspirational! I have run Baker before and will run again with my wife (her first ultra :-) on Saturday. So, your account is very vivid in my mind. Nice job!