Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Rock Creek Ramble Race Report

Rock Creek Ramble 100k:
A Journey Through Time, Wind And Wonder

photo by Ras / UltraPedestrian.comBy Kathy Vaughan

     Ras and I arrived at the abandoned 20th century Escure Ranch with just enough time to set up our camp. The following morning we would each step foot on the starting line and run 63 miles through the channeled scablands, guarded by huge basaltic rock formations. This terrain would be new to me.  The landscape was open and expansive. The views were unobstructed with no trees; only sage brush, marshy areas with cattails and ponds, and Rock Creek itself meandering through the land along some areas of the course.

photo by Kathy Vaughan /

     I was one of only two women who had signed up for the 100k distance and there were only four men running the race. One of them was Ras. He was running on a foot with a large laceration underneath his big toe and he wasn't sure how far he would make it. Our plan was to run our own separate races, but if he was struggling, he would slow down and run with me. I didn't expect this to happen, so I was mentally prepared to be alone on the course for at least 15 hours. I had run one 100k in a self-supported Fat Ass style along Baker Lake last summer, so I really didn't have a clear expectation of how long this race would take me to finish.

     I had five goals going into the race:

  1. Finish in 16 hours or less
  2. Place 1st Woman in my age group with a pie-in-the-sky goal of 1st Woman overall
  3. Run strong in the dark solo
  4. Finish with gas left in the tank, as I am in training for Pigtails Challenge 150, to be held Memorial Day Weekend
  5. Have fun

     Ras worked to set up the Easy-Up shelter in the breeze while I worked to set up the interior. We had brought our big folding table, a camp stove, our tent, warm sleeping bags and pillows, camp chairs, a cooler, bins and duffel bags of clothing and gear choices, and a Tofu ScRamble I had made ahead of time for us to reheat after our race finishes. (Recipe Here)

photo by Kathy Vaughan /

photo by Kathy Vaughan /

     With the camp set up, it was time to have something to eat before getting a good night's sleep. We heated up pouches of Tasty Bite Kung Pao Noodles and I enjoyed a hot cup of coffee. Caffeine doesn't keep me awake at night, as I have been a coffee drinker for many years. It is one of my favorite beverages to enjoy and it helps me to feel relaxed. It sets the mood and I wanted to sit and mentally prepare now for the big day ahead. Running 63 miles would be a big deal and being in the mental space to review my preparations was the best thing I could be doing at this time. 

     I made sure I had my running clothes organized. I planned on sleeping in my gear as I knew it would be cold in the morning. The race would start at 6 a.m. Taking off my warm sleeping and morning layers and having my running attire on underneath already, would help to make the morning easier. I would only have to drink some coffee, use the bathroom, set up my bin at the start/finish, pin on my number and start running when the Race Director said “Go”. 

     The weather forecast had called for high winds and blowing dust. Some of the gusts would be up to 33 mph. I could feel the cold wind now, as I gathered with the 8 or so other runners now at the start area. The 50 mile runners would start with the 100k runners. Some shorter distance races would start later in the day and the following day, a navigation race would be taking place. Arthur Martineau was going to run the 100k with his pretty dog Lola and we had a chance to visit with him a little bit the night before. I figured he would take the over-all win and finish in a ridiculously fast time. A group of ladies were there and I didn't know if one of them might be the other gal running the 100k, or if she had decided to run the 50 mile distance, or possibly had not shown up at all. Either way, it was time to focus on my race and not worry too much about what any one else was doing.

     It was a super relaxed and pleasant start. Mark Taylor, one of the Race Directors with Northwest Trail Runs, gave the pre-race briefing. He told us we had until 11:00 that night to finish (a 17 hour cut-off), but he wouldn't mind if we finished earlier than that. I thought to myself that I sure hoped he would not be waiting at the finish line just for me at 11:00 that night.

photo by Ras /

     The runners took off through the old tin sided buildings of the Escure Ranch. We took a left after passing the buildings and began winding our way up a gentle incline, into the channeled scablands and open terrain of the Rock Creek Preserve. The guys took off up the hill and I soon lost sight of them. Ras gave me a hug and kiss goodbye and followed behind the other men. I would not see him again on the course. A couple of ladies seemed to be running together and I recognized Gunhild Swansen, an older lady with tons of ultra finishes. I followed her for many miles, and we played leap frog once. Then she was gone too and I could see no runner up ahead, as far as the eye could see. I was on my own.

     I settled into the run, the unique landscape pulling me along easily. I felt awesome. I felt like I could run forever. I was in a comfortable pace that felt sustainable for the miles I would have to cover. As the course was through a currently operating ranch, Eric Bone (one of the other Race Directors), had installed wooden ladders to cross each fence line we would come across. When we got to the first ladder, I took the time to start my reggae dancehall music going on my mp3 player. I love listening to music while I run. It does not distract me, but rather keeps me focused, happy and allows me to keep a solid, consistent foot turnover going. I smiled as the music came through the one ear bud I had in, leaving one ear open to the sounds of nature or other runners coming up behind. I had passed one lady earlier on and had not seen Charles Rose yet, so I assumed he was behind me somewhere. He was an older guy who I had run in the back of the pack with at other races before. I had increased my speed over the past season, and I had now moved up in the pack enough to have him running behind me.

photo by Ras /

     I climbed over more of these wooden ladders and worked my way towards the first of many water drops that lined the course. There would be one aid station at mile 8, and then another 11 miles before the next aid. I hoped to arrive at the first aid in under 2 hours. I hit the first water drop at mile 4 in 50 minutes and felt good about my pace. I didn't need water yet, so I ran past it. I continued on towards the first aid station, cruising along comfortably.

     It took me 1 ½ hours to reach the first aid station and I was really surprised. It was a big boost for me. The course was really runnable, with only some short, steep climbs. Most of the climbing was gentle and easy enough to run up, using form techniques I had been learning about through a fellow Altra ambassador, Damian Stoy from Wholistic Running. I let myself fall into the hill and increased my foot turnover. I leaned forward from my ankles and effortlessly climbed. 

     The wind was definitely a factor. I kept my wool Buff Wear brand buff, pulled up over my head and around my face. I also wore a Smartwool neck gaiter and my fleece UltraPedestrian beanie. I had my Altra shirt and Smartwool arm sleeves on, with a Smartwool mid-weight sweater on over them. It would be easy enough to shed my sweater when I warmed up enough. As it turned out, I didn't need to take it off until about ten that morning, the wind keeping it cool enough to still need the layer. I wore gloves to keep my hands warm and calf sleeves for some extra warmth on my legs. Now that winter was over, it had been feeling so good to run without tights or capris, so I just had on a Salomon running skort, my very favorite brand. The under shorts never ride up or cause discomfort, and the over skirt of light fabric just moves easily with me as I run. Once the warmer weather arrives, I wear nothing but Salomon skorts. I'd worn one completely out on my thru-hike of the Arizona Trail last spring and I have one other lightweight one that is a little big around the waist with no way to tighten it. I like this black one as it has a drawstring to keep tied tight enough to keep it up as the run goes on, and adjust it so the waist band does not settle onto my hip bones causing bruising. 

photo by Ras /

     I had chosen my new Altra Lone Peak 2.0 as my shoe for this first 50k, and would change into my Altra Olympus for the second 50k if my feet were needing the max cush. As a second year Altra ambassador, I'm lucky enough to have an arsenal at my disposal.  At the half way point in the race too, I would know if the trails were technical enough to require the more aggressive tread of the Lone Peaks, or if the Olympus' tread would be adequate. I figured there would be some rock and lumpy ground across the grasslands, but I didn't know how technical it would actually be. As it turned out, the trails were lumpy and rocky, but not like what I'm used to in the Okanogan Highlands. The ground was dry, so mud wasn't a concern. I really liked the trail tread in most ways and found it easy enough to navigate in a fun way – a little dancing through the rocks here and there, speedy sections with no obstacles, and lumpy ground that kept me thinking quickly. Everything about the course was turning out to be better than I could have hoped. I was having a blast!

     As I was getting closer to passing through the ranch upon completion of the first 30k loop, I could see some yellow flags coming up through some rock formations. The flags joined up with the orange flags I'd been following, right at a junction with several ladder crossings. I figured this must be where the 20k loop came in and I must be close to the ranch. This felt good. There was a water drop here and I remembered from studying the course description ahead of time, that there was about 1 ½ miles from this final water drop to the start/finish and the spot where the 20k loop begins. I was pleased with my time and how I felt. I would drop off a couple layers and pick up some Clif Bars at my bin, and eat from the aid station. I like to plan out exactly what I will do at the aid station before I get there, so that I can be as efficient as possible and not become distracted. I got there, filled my water, snacked and took off up the hill to begin the 20k loop. 

photo by Ras /

     Eric had been working on his lap top at one of the picnic tables there, so I had a chance to ask him how Ras was doing. He said that Ras had reported his toe was hurting some, but he basically was feeling good and running strong. I was not surprised that he was still going. His strength and endurance is amazing. I knew he would power through the race as long as he wasn't causing further damage to his laceration that had begun to heal since he injured it, five days previous.

     The first climb up the 20k loop was the most significant one on the course. The wind was howling and I was climbing against it. It threatened to hold me back, pushing at me with all it's strength. I power hiked as fast as my legs could go, climbing along the grassy trail. It felt good to be on the second part of the course. I had wondered how different this loop would be from the previous one. The changes were welcome though, until I got to the most challenging section of the course. This section was double track trail, the tracks being too narrow to run in and the center of the tracks too lumpy to get a good rhythm going. I tried to run in the tracks and wondered how the other runners were handling this section. I knew that Ras, with his feet much bigger than mine, must be having a heck of a time in here. I hopped back and forth from one track to the other. At times, I tried to get good footing in the center. Quick and nimble, I tried to be like a goat as I hopped and trotted along this section, wondering how long it would go on. The trail switched back on itself and this tread continued. Finally, it turned into pleasant single track and descended to the aid station, five miles into this 20k loop. The dad and son team running this aid station were friendly and kind. They said everyone had mentioned the conditions of that last couple of mile stretch, and it gave me a connection once again to the rest of the pack. I asked about Ras, describing him as the guy with the long dreadlocks, and they had of course remembered him. They said he was running great and was in good spirits. I know he likes to joke around with the aid station volunteers and it sounds like he had been doing just that. 

photo by Ras /

    I continued on, now down a dirt road with Rock Creek gurgling and rushing alongside it. It was nice to hear the sounds of the creek. The dirt road came to a bridge which crossed the creek and then continued on for several miles, before heading into a marshy area, with tall grasses. The course was superbly marked and never once did I question which way to go. I was super impressed with this and felt confident that once I was on this section at night, alone in the dark, I could surely find my way with ease. 

     Dark clouds came and went over head. The sun was warm when it was out from behind clouds and the temperature was nice for running, not too hot or too cold. The wind was not letting up and I hoped that it would settle down when evening came as it sometimes does. A shift in the time of day can bring a calm to the air. I hoped for this, but did not really expect it, as the gusts still felt so powerful and relentless. My lips were getting chapped and my face began to feel the effects from the dry, windy air. Being an east-sider, though, my skin is exposed to sun year round, so I didn't feel as though I was getting sunburned. I had forgotten to put on sun screen though, and wished I had protected my skin from the elements, conditioned or not. I pulled my buff around my face and at times, when the wind got really strong, I also pulled the heavier neck gaiter around my ears too. It was easy enough to pull both of these layers up on to the top of my head, out of my way, when I felt too warm. Head layers, are great for this; pulling around my face for protection as needed and easily pushing the layers away. I used these layers for the entire run and never felt like I needed to tuck them away in my Ultimate Directions SJ running vest.

     In just under 3 ½ hours, I saw the familiar spot where the yellow flags join the orange flags at the spot where there are three ladder crossings. It felt so good to be here! I was on the home stretch , completing the first 50k. My 50k Personal Record is 6:42, so I had hoped to finish this part of the race in 7 hours. I would finish it in 7:30 instead, but I was okay with that. I just had to keep moving like I had been and I would make the cut-off. I would stay on track with my time goals, close enough anyway.

photo by Ras /

     My plan was to change into my Olympus, as I could tell by now that they would be great on this course. My feet were hanging in there, but I liked the idea of the max cush now. I also liked the idea of sitting out of the wind for just a few minutes while I changed into them inside our Easy-Up shelter. I also needed to get some more Clif Bars from my bin, snack on chips and bananas at the aid station and make a few other minor adjustments. I filled my water, poured a Mango flavored drink into my second water bottle and took off towards the tin buildings for the second time that day. This time, there were no runners ahead of me though and no mysteries. I knew what would lie ahead on this loop. I just had to keep moving through the grasslands, winding amongst the mystical rock formations, trying to stay on my feet. I'd already taken a couple of falls, once landing so that my left rib cage, hit against some rocks and another time landing in a way that scraped up my shins.  Neither of these falls had caused any serious damage, luckily, but they reminded me of the potential of what could go wrong.

     I wanted to stay steady all day and run even splits on my loops. I figured I would slow down on my final loop as darkness hit, so I wanted to make good time during all of the daylight hours. I continued to push along the trail, listening to music, sipping on my water and flavored drink regularly, and nibbling on bars. Sometimes my stomach would start to feel really empty, so I would take in a Hammer Gel and pull out a Clif Bar. I loved the peanut butter gels that were being provided at the aid stations and found them to be very palatable. I never had any GI issues and really felt good all day. I had used Gu Rocktane on my first loop, then the hibiscus drink from the aid station, later Hammer Mango Endurolytes, and finally, straight coke. I went back and forth, consistently sipping water from one bottle and then the flavored drink with calories from the other. I stayed well-hydrated this way. I never use salt capsules of any kind, relying on salt intake from the salty snacks I eat at the aid stations and what is in the drinks I consume.  I don't have issues with any swelling in my hands and I seem to have figured out a balance that works well for me.

     This race is my final one before Pigtails 150 next month, so I was definitely using it to help determine what I still need to get dialed in before then and whether I'm conditioned for that kind of mileage. Ever since I began ultrarunning, I have used the back-to-back running days format to determine how prepared I am to tackle a distance. When I could run 15 miles two days in a row, then I knew I was as prepared as I could be for my first 50k. Before Echo Valley 50 mile trail run, put on by Evergreen Trail Runs, I ran Yakima Skyline 25k with 5,000 feet of elevation gain one day, and the next I ran Spokane River Run 50k, with 1,700 feet of gain. I accomplished that goal. Echo Valley 50 Mile was the following month, and I was able to complete it. Another goal accomplished. This past January, I completed a 200k Nordic Ski Challenge (read my trip report here). I thru-skied 200k through the Methow Trails system in a 55 hour push, including about 13 hours of napping and getting warm in the camper. After this, I knew I was ready to sign-up for Pigtails 150.  Running this 100k as another test piece for that distance, I knew I wanted to still feel gas in the tank at the finish line and know that I could get up the next day and do it all over again. 

     It felt good to reach the aid station for the second time on the 30k loop. The same teenage guys were still working there and were friendly and encouraging. It was a good milestone. I thanked them for being there all day and went on my way. I never tired of the scenery. I liked the way the course changed from jeep track, to single track, to dirt road, all the while taking turns and twists. Stepping over the ladders changed up the rhythm just enough to keep things interesting. It was so different from running through the damp, thick forests of the west side of the Cascades. It was different in most ways from where I run from home in the Okanogan Highlands, amongst sage brush; through pine, tamarack, aspen, fir and saskatoon trees; climbing steep rocky trails through Whistler Canyon; circumnavigating the tall peak of Bonaparte Mountain on rugged, narrow trail. 

photo by Ras /

     This ground was dry and grassy, like home, but there were very few trees. Saskatoons and willow were growing near some of the small ponds. There were cattails and tall grasses in these areas as well. There were some sweet little wildflowers in bloom too, dotting the landscape and adding color against the new green of the fresh spring grass. It was a very pleasant landscape to take in, all day long. I never tired of it.

     Now I was back at the main aid station, the spot where I would not allow any temptation to call it at 50 miles come into my consciousness. I was not allowing it while running, and I wanted my strength to hold while I was here. My plan was to grab my Black Diamond Ultra Distance Z Poles to help with the climbs on this 20k loop, now that I had 50 miles on my legs, and to aid with the lumpy, narrow tracked section before the aid station. I also needed to grab my headlamp out of my bin and find something more substantial to eat. I was feeling pretty hungry at this point, now just shy of 13 hours into the race.

      I crossed the bridge over Rock Creek and ran the final stretch into the main aid station. Julie Cassata who had won the 50k earlier in the day, greeted me with a high five and a big, friendly smile. It made me feel so good to see someone I knew and to get some encouragement at this point in the run. Then I saw Ras in his puffy jacket and I knew he was done running. Had he finished the 100k this much in front of me, or had he decided to just complete the 50 mile distance instead? Julie said that he had stopped at 50 and then I got to him and gave him a hug. He said his toe had bled through his shoe and he just had to stop. He ended up being the overall winner of the 50 mile with a time of 11:29:18. I asked if Charles was still running behind me and Mark told me he had dropped. I now finally asked the question I'd been wondering in the back of my mind all day. Was I the only woman running the 100k? Yes, I was. I had 13 miles to go and I would be the only woman finisher, first place woman. This was the only way I could ever get a first place finish. I am not an elite, front of the pack kind of gal. This feeling was incredible. I was completely stoked and energized. Mark made me a delicious peanut butter and jelly sandwich on really fresh bread, and I took off up the hill for my final loop, headlamp on my head, ready to turn on once darkness came.

     I had about an hour before the sun would set. I took off power hiking as fast a I could. I wasn't having any of the serious tiredness in my legs I tend to get during ultra runs. I was super focused as I moved forward, each step getting me closer and closer to finishing. My motivation was empowering. I moved well, in good spirits, feeling confident and brave. I knew Dave Lund was way ahead of me, probably just about to finish the loop. Arthur had already finished and he, Dave and I, would be the only finishers. I would be third over-all. 

     I ran everything I could and hiked steep hills. Each moment counted now that dark was approaching. I could move better in the light. There would be no one at the aid station, the volunteers long since had gone home. There would be no sweeper behind me. This was up to me. I had to stay on course and I had to stay strong in every way. I could not fall. I used each landmark I could remember: the place where the trail dipped down into a draw between two tall basalt formations; the spot where it passes close to some little lakes; the kind of crappy section of narrow tracks and lumpy ground from cow hoof prints permanently embedded. My poles helped a lot in this area and I actually enjoyed it. They gave me an extra point of balance and I was so glad I had brought them on this loop. The sunset had been spectacular and lasted forever. The horizon was a soft lavender shade, so peaceful and tranquil. A group of about five deer stood on the ridge in the distance, their silhouettes standing out in the dim light of dusk. I felt calm and welcomed the darkness that I had earlier been dreading.

     With the company of my normal reggae music still playing in my head, I continued to move just I had been all day. I did not let the darkness intimidate me. I looked carefully for each trail marker. They were now my friends, my guides. With each marker I felt connected to what I was doing and focused on the end goal. I moved from marker to marker,  sometimes even thanking them out loud, now lonely from hours on the trail solo. 

     I had grabbed the little baggie of gummy bears and strawberry newtons from the aid station table, since there was no one else behind me requiring aid. I snacked on these a couple of different times along the way. The sweet treats were little rewards and a way to change things up, whenever I began to feel even slightly overwhelmed. I had to stay cool and calm, and so I kept any negative thoughts or feelings from coming to life. When my music shut off between tracks and the silent, still night became too eerie, I went back to the comfort of my music. Suddenly, a little mouse darted in front of me. It was the color of the ground and very hard to see, but my headlamp caught the movement. We definitely startled each other. It ran off the trail ahead of me, darting to and fro until it finally realized I was going to keep moving forward on the same trail. I startled another tiny field mouse a few minutes later, but these were the only critters I saw in the dark.
     And then there I was, back at the junction with the water drop and the wooden ladders over the conjoining fence lines and where the orange and the yellow flags come together. I had grown to love this spot. I said “Yes!” out loud and even gave a fist pump. I was here and now I only had a mile and a half to go. I picked up the pace and ran as if I had just started out for the day. My legs felt fresh. It's called “smelling the oats in the barn”. I smelled them and I was going straight towards the barn, or the old, creaky ranch buildings, rather.  The final wooden ladder, the shortie of the bunch, came upon me faster than I had expected and I almost felt tears well up in my eyes. I had it now. Take the left through the old ranch site and cross the bridge to the finish, that was all I had left to do.  

     I didn't know if anyone would still be there or not. I even figured there was a chance Ras had gone to sleep. The volunteer who'd been helping all day said he'd pull his car up and to wake him up when I finished if he had fallen asleep. But as I got closer, I heard Ras yell “Whoo!” and saw his headlamp ahead. I ran towards it and then stopped running for the day. I was done. 16:41:23 for First woman and Third over-all. The kind volunteer handed me a  yellow potted miniature rose and I thanked him for staying out late for me. Then Ras, who'd driven our car over to the finish to wait for me, drove me over to the Easy-Up shelter where he heated up the Tofu ScRamble and I got into cozy, warm clothes. 

     The day ended perfectly, just as it had begun and had continued to be throughout. My legs still felt strong and I could imagine doing it again the next day. I'd met all of my goals, except my finishing time being under 16. I was still pleased with what I did. Thank you Rebecca Jensen, Mark Taylor and Eric Bone of Northwest Trail Runs! I will be back to run Rock Creek Ramble again. 

photo by Ras /

1 comment:

  1. You guys are hardcore. :)
    Right after the 50k I wowed not to come back next year exactly because of that stretch of narrow tire tracks, now I'm not so sure. I passed an older runner there and we were both cursing (not literally) that part.
    The rest was quite beautiful except for the fresh cow pies. lol
    I really liked the wind, it kept me cool and dry. Got a pretty good sun burn on my calves and neck because I forgot Sun block. Doh!
    After I got to the point where the red and yellow flags join on my last lap I was ready to be done and looking for those metal roofs around every single bend in the trail. They couldn't come soon enough. Thanks for your report, I can't believe you remembered all those details.