Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Twenty-Eight Miles To Go

Twenty-Eight Miles To Go Before I Finish

By Kathy Vaughan

photo by Ras/
     The rain began just as dusk started to set. It was Saturday, and I had been running around Lake Youngs since 6:00AM Thursday. I was starting to feel a little bit tired. I still had many miles to go, though, and I would continue to push on through this rain storm. I saw that underneath a huge cedar tree the ground was still dry. I tucked beneath it for just a minute to make a few adjustments before I continued. I put on my rain shell and pulled my hood up over my head. I turned on my headlamp and once again set out into the rainstorm. It came down in sheets, although the rainfall felt light against me. I leaned my head back so that the cool rain could hit my face. It felt good to have the moisture soak my skin and rejuvenate me. I ran the flats and downhills, pushing to get back to the dry shelter at the main aid station. 

     I wanted to rest during the storm if it was going to continue. I had completely forgotten that I had asked my friend Susie to join me for this last night of the race. She would be waiting for me when I got back to the aid station. I would only have time to change into some dry clothing and head back out onto the course. This would be my last night out there. I needed to move well and get some loops done as quickly as possible.  

     Each Memorial Day Weekend for the last five years, ultrarunners have gathered at Lake Youngs Trailhead Park in Renton, Washington for the Pigtails Challenge. Van Phan, an accomplished local ultrarunner, began the race in 2011 so that she could take on the challenge of running 200 miles. She ran the race while directing it that year, and it has continued to blossom and grow. The 200 mile distance starts on Thursday morning at 6:00, the 150 mile runners begin on Friday morning, and Saturday 100 mile and 100k runners start. These distances must all be done by 2:00 on Sunday. A 50k is also held on Sunday, with the same cut-off time. 

     The loop is 9.4 miles long with 900 feet of elevation gain on each loop. Runners reverse direction on the loop after completing each one, checking in at the main aid station first, by running a short lollipop stick trail to reach it. I was running the 200 mile race and began with a 2.6 mile out-and-back. I would then have to run 21 loops to complete the distance. Having completed both the 100 and 150 mile distances here on this course, I knew a little bit about what to expect. This time I would run 5 more loops than I had in the 150 distance. I felt pretty confident that I had it. 

     I lined up with 8 guys at 6 a.m. The other female 200 mile racer had not arrived. I felt a sense of excitement. If I could finish this race, I would be the only female finisher. I even voiced this excitement to a few of the other runners and some volunteers. Terry Sentinella, the Race Director, counted down the Start, and off we went. 

     Ras stayed with me for the out-and-back. We chatted happily, feeling a sense of relief that this race was finally underway. After months of training, philosophizing about and preparing for this race, it felt good to finally be on the course. 

     I planned on checking in at the Main Aid when I got done with the 2.6 mile out n' back, and then heading out again right away for my first loop. I wanted my turn-arounds at the main aid to be quick and efficient. I planned on handling the first 100k as if it were just that; a 100k race. I wanted to just keep going, without sitting down or taking any kind of significant rest until after I had that first 60 some miles completed.

photo by Takao Suzuki/

     I knew that I would fall behind all of the guys pretty early on in the race. I reminded myself to “run my own race” and not let what everyone else was doing effect how I was feeling. Two hundred miles was a lot of ground to cover; there was no reason to rush this early. Patience with the process would help me to the Finish like it did last year when I completed the 150 mile distance on this same course.

     About a half hour into the race, I saw Amanda (I later learned she goes by Mandee), the other female 200 runner. She had arrived late and was now in the race. She looked strong and happy to be out on the course.  She was also nearly 15 years younger than me. I now had a little competition. She seemed to be going out pretty fast, so early on in the race. While still running my first loop, Mandee came towards me again. It didn't make sense. She should have run the out n' back, checked in at the main aid and then headed out to do her first loop in the counter clockwise direction, like everyone else, even though she started late. I shouldn't be seeing her coming towards me; she might catch up to me and come up from behind, but not towards me. I stopped her just briefly to ask if she had taken the wrong direction after the out n' back and she just answered a short “ No”. I let it go and again reminded myself to run my own race. It did occur to me that she was having a rough start, and as far as competition goes, this was in my favor.

     By evening, some of the other runners had begun to slow down a little bit. Mandee was limping quite dramatically from what appeared to be a calf strain. She seemed pretty stressed out about it, but was still smiling on some of the loops. She was still going quite fast, sometimes power hiking, but we were staying pretty close in our loop finishes. Van Phan paced me for a loop. It was wonderful to have her company and we ran a pretty fast one. We visited about upcoming goals, how this year's race was  going, compared to the past year's races, and about all kinds of other things. It meant a lot to me to have Van offer to run a loop with me when I had seen her at set-up first thing in the morning. 

     Van offered to bring Ras and I a pizza without cheese to have in our shelter, knowing we would be getting hungry as the night wore on. The volunteers at the aid stations were getting tuned into the special needs of all of the runners and the first night we were on our own for vegetarian fare. By the second day, there was black bean soup with avocado & corn chips; veggie burgers; veggie dogs; butternut squash soup; bean burritos and vegan pizza. It was pretty awesome having so much food to keep us all fueled. In addition, I had Honey Stinger Waffles, both Caramel and Lemon; Honey Stinger Energy Chews; Expedition Espresso Trail Butter pouches; Picky Bars in several different flavors including Smooth Caffeinator & Cookie Doughness; several cans of vegetarian soups; instant Starbuck's Via coffee pouches; and some Kickstart drinks made by Mountain Dew. 

     Kathleen and the Mann's, Jules & Mihaela, arrived at the same time to run a loop with me after Van said goodbye. I enjoyed having the evening company, but I told them from the beginning that I would enjoy hearing them visit, but they shouldn't expect me to chime in too often. I said they could lead the way when they wanted to. I was ready to settle into some more “in my head” kind of running. I wanted to run all the flats and downhills, and power hike the uphills. I set out on the loop with these three pacers with a cup of soup in hand, a Mrs. McDougall's Pad Thai with peanut powder sprinkled over the top.  It tasted delicious and I sipped it as quickly as possible as I hiked. I didn't want the pacers to get cold or feel like the progress was going slowly. It was good for me to feel the slight bit of pressure. This was still only the first night. I was also beginning to visualize going out solo on the next loop and what I would need in order to do this. I already had my headlamp out on this loop and would be turning it on soon.

     We got around the loop. By the end I felt done with having company and was ready to head out solo. I like everyone that was spending time with me on the trail, but I didn't want to engage in any conversation. I wanted to listen to my mp3 player and just move for some miles. When we got back to the shelter, Ras was there. He offered to join me for the next loop, and this was perfect for me. I felt safer having him with me, now that it was getting late at night. I was getting sleepy, but it was too early to sleep yet. We would get one more loop in together and then probably both lay down for a couple hour nap. We had some food at the aid station as we sat in chairs. It was fun to visit with some of our friends and other people in the trail running community, as we sat for a little bit. Maudie and Brandi, two young woman ultra runners working at the aid station, took my shoes off for me and fetched my Altra Lone Peaks from our shelter. I had developed a blister that I had successfully taken care of earlier. I now wanted the open mesh, foot shaped toe box of the Lone Peaks. I had been wearing the Altra Olympus 2.0 for the max cushion on the mostly packed gravel trail. Then I changed to the Paradigms, also with a comfy max cush. It was now time to change things up a bit, as I had planned. I also had 1 more pair of 
Altra Running shoes in my arsenal: the Lone Peak 3.0's which I was wear testing and allowed to wear in a race format. I was wearing Injinji toe socks. My feet were holding out quite well, aside from the one blister which was now under control.

     It felt good to have the girls massage my feet and get me all set up with the Lone Peaks and gaiters I could now wear again. The Paradigms don't have the Gaiter Trap, so my gaiters work better with the Lone Peaks. Maudie and Brandi set me up by the heater and fed me, and then sent Ras and I on our way when we were done with our night time adjustments. It was great having the crew help and I feel so appreciative of the supportive community that was around for the whole weekend. I was now ready to get a good night time loop in.

     Instead, I got out on the trail and felt slow and sluggish. It was fun to be out there with Ras, but I lost some motivation. I drudged on, feeling ashamed that I wasn't moving faster and showing Ras how well I had been doing. I had moved without sluggishness up until now. This was not good. We stopped several times to just sit, once on The Bench of Temptation and another time at the midway aid station. I knew this wasn't ideal, but it at least confirmed that it would be helpful to take a nap in our sleeping bags when we got back to the main aid. Our shelter was all set up for this nap time, complete with an alarm clock and instant coffee (to be made using our Jet Boil) at the ready. As soon as we got back, we checked in at the main aid and told them we were both napping. We asked if they could wake us up in two hours and they were happy to do so. I also set the alarm, put cozy, soft fleece socks on my feet and fell asleep before I knew it. 

     I awoke to the sound of the 150 mile racers getting ready in the start area. They were full of excitement. I crawled out of my sleeping bag and made coffee. I wanted to get back out there right away. It was light out and time to be moving. It wasn't as hard as I expected it to be. I was soon out on the course and moving pretty well. I felt motivated again and was happy to think about the miles I had completed. Ras had told me Heather “Anish” Anderson would be showing up and wanted to join me for a loop or two. This was awesome news and I was very excited to be having Heather join me. Heather holds the speed record for thru-hiking, in a self-supported fashion, both the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail. [Note: in the intervening months since the 2016 Pigtails Challenge, Heather set the Fastest Known Time for the Arizona National Scenic Trail in self-supported, feet-on-the-ground style.] I got through the loop as fast as I could, expecting Heather to be there when I got back.

     Sure enough, she was, and she was just the pacer I needed. I was getting deep enough into this now that I needed someone to help me with some numbers. I knew I just had to keep going, but I wanted to make sure I still had time to rest again that night, make the cut-off and take the time I needed between loops to be ready to head out for another 9.4 miles. She knows all about spending time on the trails going after huge goals. She knows what it takes to stay motivated and to be able to figure out splits, pacing and the importance of fueling properly to get it done. Not only did we have a blast chatting, we had a lot in common to talk about; but she was great at helping me feel confident that I would be able to get this mileage done within the allotted time.

     Heather stayed with me for 2 loops and then it was time for her to say goodbye. I made a quick turn around as she first helped me with everything I needed. We had discussed ahead of time what I would need to do before my next loop, and she set me up before saying goodbye. Then I was out there again, on my own. The rain began on this loop, only increasing in intensity as the evening wore on. I got around the loop, grabbed more coffee, hot food and rain protection, and then headed out again into the weather. 

     I got out there on that gravel path and made it around another loop. When I got back, it was time for another nap. It was Friday night and I was getting mileage done. I only had another day and a half of this race left. 

photo by Takao Suzuki/
Race Director Terry Sentinella briefing the runners starting Saturday morning.

     I awoke Saturday morning to the loud and enthusiastic 100 mile and 100k runners. The rain was still coming down. It was damp and a bit chilly outside, as I made my way to the outhouse and to see just what was going on in the start area. It was busy, that's for sure. I needed to feed off of this energy and get back out on the course. I made myself a cup of coffee in my shelter while I put on new layers and prepared for going out in the rain. I would wear my Gatewood Cape and take my hot coffee with me. I just needed to start getting around another loop. I needed to wake up. I felt so sleepy and slightly unmotivated. The busier trail would be a challenge for me, although I would be seeing some friends like Kathleen Leonard and Arya Farahani. I looked forward to this.

photo by Takao Suzuki/

     I got out on a loop and felt almost like a zombie. The rain was really coming down. I had to get to the point where I was awake and actually running. This pace would not cut it. I drank my coffee as quickly as I could with this in mind. I would have to try taking off my cape at some point, as it was hindering my ability to move very efficiently. It was actually keeping me too cozy and making me feel as though I were inside of a warm tent. It wasn't until the midway aid station that the rain let up enough for me to take off the cape and get going again. I was at least making some progress though, and I did not let it discourage me. I was now awake and it was time to move faster.  When I got back to the main aid, I took some other layers off and got back out on the course with food and music. I was motivated to get some miles done.

     I kept going all day, making progress and staying not too far behind the rest of the 200 milers. I felt good and ate well. I was happy to have food to eat each time I came through the main aid station. I had heard that Mandee had a rough night out on the course and Terry made the decision to pull her out of the race at 150 miles. He awarded her a buckle and she went home to sleep. She had given it her all, and then some. That girl has heart.

     I got in one last loop solo, as the dark of night came on for the last night of the race. It felt good to be at this point, although I was beginning to feel quite drained, physically and mentally. Pushing myself to move with any speed was becoming very challenging. I knew it was getting to the point where I was getting close to the cut-off, even if Terry was allowing me to at least be on my last loop by the cut-off time. I had a pacer coming on, Susie. I hoped that this would help get my motivation level back up and help give me the push I needed to complete the mileage and earn the buckle I so desired, the buckle I had trained so hard to receive. 

photo by Takao Suzuki/

     I had asked Susie ahead of time if she might like to pace me for a loop or two. We had met at Evergreen Trail Run's Echo Valley 50 Miler a couple of years ago. I enjoyed her energy and wanted to get to know her better. She had given Angela a tent when she needed one for an internship she did in the Sequoia National Forest one summer. She has a cute daughter named Addy and, both of us being moms, I figured we would have some things in common to talk about. She had invited me to join her for a Wonderland Trail challenge she had last summer. I was unable to make it work. This was a chance for us to finally spend some trail time together. I warned her, it may get ugly. “Dress warmly”, I said to her in a facebook message. “I could be doing more hiking than you might expect.” 

     Susie had already been waiting at the aid station about an hour by the time I got back around the loop. She came into my shelter with me and we started talking about the strategy of getting back out there into the rain, into the dark, into the deep miles. She was game and would do whatever it would take to get me around some loops that would take less than 3 hours each. She had chatted with Ras, and he encouraged her to help get me moving a little bit faster. I was feeling so lazy. I didn't want to try to get in any “fast” loops. I didn't want to quit, I wanted to finish. But as Susie later confessed to me, I wasn't communicating that to her. 

     We took off into the night. It was probably about 10:30 on Saturday night, the final nighttime hours of the race. Susie reminded me of this. This was the last night I had to be out in the dark, cold, tiring hours of the middle of the night. I would get so tired I was staggering around on the trail, like a drunk. I wanted to curl up anywhere and just take a nap. It was so hard to keep moving when my eyes were shutting and I was having little, short dreams. They were just flashes, but when I awoke for whatever reason from my sleephiking, I knew I had just had a little snippet of a dream. This was a part of pushing forward and using my endurance experience. This was not the first time I had gotten “the drowsies” on the trail, and it would not be the last. I had to keep going now. I could no longer afford to take a nap. I divided a 5-Hour Energy into two doses, taking one right when I realized with Susie that I had the drowsies, and then taking the second part of the dose when we got to the aid station. Sometimes these doses worked, sometimes they didn't. It was worth a try.

     Susie and I stopped at the midway aid station, where Brad Hefta-Gaub was kind enough to share some of his coffee from his thermos with me. It tasted so good. I sat in the comfy camp chair, sipping the coffee and listening to he and Susie talk about different things. I just listened. It took too much energy to say much. I was just wanting to wake up and feel more motivated, but enjoying the chair. “Beware of the Chair”, they say.

     Susie and I got up and said good bye to Brad. He had been a big help out at the aid station in the middle of the night. It was good to share his company for a little while. We continued on around the loop and then struggled around for another. It would get light on this loop. We were both looking forward to it. 

photo by Takao Suzuki/

     I know I was terrible company, all drowsie and whiney. Susie was a good sport for sure and tried to motivate in all the ways that made sense. She reminded me that if I dropped, I would really feel terrible about it afterwards. She let me know that I had enough time to finish, especially since Terry was being so supportive in giving me some extra time to do so. Of course, the cut-off had already been extended from previous years when others weren’t able to finish it. Seventy-two hours had been the previous cut-off; beginning this year, it was eighty hours.

     We made it around the loop. I felt a little more awake once the sun rose and the sky was light once again: the final day. Fewer runners were on the course. My feet hurt and I had some piercing pains in my calves, my knees and my feet. These shooting, piercing pains would come and go. I felt pretty beat up. Susie had to go when we returned from the loop. We said goodbye and off she went. I curled up in my sleeping bag for what I hoped would only be a few minutes. Ras came in from his loop and only had one more to go. I had three more to go. He offered to stay with me for a loop. I could get up right then, pull myself together and go out with him. I could still finish this thing off, but it might not be until 5 hours or more after the cut-off. I didn't have a pacer. I didn't know if I could stay awake or keep motivating myself. 

     Ras needed to get going again and so he did. I stayed in the sleeping bag; torn as to what to do, feeling defeated and needing to turn that corner in my mind. I had sheets of paper with motivational quotes and inspirations on them. I had a chart with splits and mileages remaining all written out by hand. I had done the work ahead of time, but here, in the moment, I was unwilling to do the work it took to finish. I was unwilling to have others wait for me as I pursued a goal. I had thus far not been able to keep a good enough pace to keep me in the game with the others. I was too far behind. I gave up and stayed crumpled in that sleeping bag, until finally I went out to the main aid and admitted my defeat. 

     It was up to Terry whether nor not to award me a 150 Mile Finisher's Buckle. He gave me the choice of whether or not I wanted to accept it. I did. I now have two of those. Next year I'll be back to earn my 200 Mile buckle. I know I can do it. There is something special about the Pigtails Challenge, Lake Youngs and all of those involved that keeps drawing us back, year after year.  As I think of it now, Memorial Day Weekend 2017 can't come soon enough.


Friday, December 16, 2016

Why I Don't Carry A First Aid Kit

Why I Don't Carry A First Aid Kit

What I Carry Instead

photo by Gavin Woody / Ultraneering.comby Ras Vaughan

     I'll be the first to admit that I tend to be a bit of an iconoclast. I've spent much of my life questioning the conventional wisdom, and frequently finding it wanting. And this pattern of rejecting the accepted norms has been a key part of my approach to adventuring. Three years ago I published a what-I-would-consider-playful-but-others-might-consider-snarky piece about the 10 Essentials and how few of them I generally carry, which, while it accurately describes my mindset, would be wildly irresponsible to promote as an approach for the masses.  

     In light of Kathy's recent incident it may seem surprising that I haven't reevaluated my minimalist approach. Admittedly, it put me in the position of having to carry her a short distance to a paved road, run more than a mile through the woods in the dark with no headlamp, drive the car around to the gate nearest her, and then run another mile + in the dark with no headlamp and an armful of extra layers for Kathy, and finally hike back out the aforementioned mile + with my beloved wife as she gingerly hobbled along on a freshly injured ankle. 

What One Carries In One's Head

     However, none of this came as a surprise to me. I run through possible scenarios such as we faced at that moment all the time in my head. I don't mean to make it sound like I'm some sort of survivalist savant who perceives every possible outcome in a split second and can choose the right course of action in an instant. It's simply that I consider the possibilities ahead of time, so when I am faced with them in real life they are not new and intimidating ideas. They are, instead, situations I have faced before on a theoretical level, which leaves me better prepared to face them in actuality, should they occur.

     Mental preparedness of this sort is the most valuable asset in an emergency/injury/survival situation. An old adage born of Prussian military strategy informs us thusly: "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy." While I don't consider the natural world to be my enemy, these sage words can be directly applied to adventuring, and even to life in general, and can be paraphrased variously as, "No plan survives initial contact with reality," or, "No plan survives implementation." Regardless of how you phrase it, it comes down to the fact that our hopes and expectations for how the future may play out are invariably inaccurate. Therefore, the need for an alphabet of contingencies, plans B through Z and beyond, is foreseeable. 

     I use Murphy's Law ("Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong") as a predictive principle when running through scenarios in my mind, whether it be before, during, or after an adventure. But I temper the wide open possibilities it implies with Occam's Razor, in that the most common injuries are the most likely to occur. Numerous other aphorisms from everyday life resonate in the adventure realm, such as "Hope for the best, prepare for the worst." Yet it's vital that attempts to be prepared for an emergency don't form the groundwork of the emergency itself. A first aid kit is heavy, whereas ideas weigh nothing.

photo by Matt Hagen/

The Burden Of The Unnecessary

     The Minimalist/Ultralight/Alpinist approach is predicated on the idea that faster and lighter is also safer. Any and all weight carried increases wear and tear on the body and mind, increasing the chances of suffering an injury. A first aid kit is foremost among those pieces of gear that are anathema to ultralight travel: something you hope never to use. I assert that a first aid kit is less a piece of gear and more a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's a fine thing to stick in the trunk of your car just in case, but not in your backpack.

Ready Made Kits and the Illusion of Preparedness

     What injuries are you really going to need to treat on the trail? What first aid are you realistically going to perform in the wilds? Stitches? Sterilizing? Splints? Is there an ointment that will make the difference between escape and tragedy? Sure, we all like to think that we are going to grit our teeth and sew shut a gash on our arm Rambo style, but in reality superglue and duct tape are far more viable options for treating a laceration.

     Staunching bloodflow is an immediate need. Staving off infection, less so. In an emergency/survival situation the number one goal is to remove yourself from the situation; to either get rescued or get yourself to help. Wounds can be flushed and sanitized after the fact. And in a genuine emergency/survival situation, urine can be used straight from the source. When it leaves the body urine is sterile, and it comes out in a lightly pressurized and focused stream, perfect for flushing out wounds. In fact, it makes for a useful litmus test: if the situation in which you find yourself is serious enough to warrant peeing into an open wound, you know you are in a genuine survival scenario.

     In addition to the risks involved in carrying unnecessary weight comprised of items of questionable usefulness, there is a false sense of security that comes free with every pre-fab first aid kit purchased. Placing a red plastic clamshell or a nylon pouch emblazoned with a white cross into a backpack provides a sense of preparedness which is an illusion if you don't know what to do with the materials inside. And if you have the knowledge and skill to use the items in a first aid kit, odds are you would be able to perform the same ministrations without the kit or any of its' contents. To put it bluntly, the most important emergency/survival/first aid supply is your brain, and the most fundamental skill in such situations is the ability to improvise

     It goes without saying, yet bears pointing out, that Human Beings are bipeds. Our upright bipedal movement is the very thing that makes us distinct from other mammals and imbues us with our distinctive ability to cover long distances sustainably. However, this unique balancing act that enables our extraordinary mobility is also the source of our greatest vulnerability: falling. Our very bipedalism puts the "fall" in fallibility.  Injuries to the drive train (the ankle, foot, and knee) and injuries sustained from the resulting fall are the most likely to present an emergency situation on the trail. Gruesome injuries such as that suffered by Dave Mackey are the stuff of nightmares for runners, hikers, and climbers. Cell phones, satellite transponders, and emergency position indicating radio beacons can be invaluable in such situations, but are far beyond the scope of any first aid kit.

First Aid Kits Versus First Aid Supplies

     Commercially produced first aid kits invariably contain an assortment of bandages, gauze pads and ointments that are virtually useless in a genuine trail emergency, or, at best, unnecessarily specific. Band-aides, butterfly closures, and medical tape can be improvised from duct tape and toilet paper, both of which have numerous other uses. Gauze pads (4x4's, etc.), ACE bandages, and hemostatic dressings can be improvised from bandanas and clothing, and can be tied in place or held in place with duct tape. 

     To my mind, the majority of supplies in a first aid kit are designed to address minor nuisance damage, not to treat the sort of serious injuries that bring an adventure to an end and put one in an emergency/survival situation. If I have to choose between carrying 1/2 pound of supplies that I hope never to use versus having a minor owie go untreated and saving the weight, I'll suffer the untreated owie. The owie may or may not occur, but that extra 1/2 pound is going to be loading on my muscles and impacting my joints approximately 66,000 times over a twenty-five mile day. I'll gladly risk the hypothetical owie over the guaranteed 33,000 cumulative pounds of daily wear and tear.

What I Carry Instead of a First Aide Kit

     I see no need to carry specific single use items that can be improvised from existing materials. It's far better to carry items with multiple applications that can be made use of for first aid in an emergency, but don't add useless weight, and the added risk of injury or misadventure that comes with it. Everything from the clothes on your back to the straps on your pack to a stick laying by the side of the trail can be useful in an emergency. 

     First and foremost, anytime I am traveling on anything other than non-technical terrain and for more than a few hours, I use trekking poles, around each of which I wrap six feet of duct tape. This puts a total of twelve feet of duct tape at my disposal, which is to say twelve feet of one of the most versatile materials known to humankind. 

photo by Kathy Vaughan/
Ras loading duct tape onto his trekking poles in preparation for the AZT Yo-yo with Kathy.

     While working as a carpenter I have indeed used duct tape to, brace yourself, tape ducts. On the trail I have used it to repair shoes, mend tights, patch puffy down jackets and pants, repair trekking poles, bandage cuts (with a folded square of toilet paper), prevent blisters, protect cracked skin, mend packs, improvise grass-seed proof ankle gaiters, patch plastic baggies, and make a nose guard for my glacier glasses. And that's just a sample of the ways I've made use of duct tape on the trail; it's far from being an exhaustive list. And, of course, combined with the trekking poles on which I stow it, duct tape can be a key component of an improvised splint for a leg, arm, or neck.

photo by Ras/
Ras protecting his socks from grass seed heads on the Arizona National Scenic Trail.

     On long self-supported or unsupported adventures, from a multiday fastpacking trip up to a 1000+ mile thru-hike, I carry what I call my MacGyver Kit. As I'm sure is obvious, I named it after the mid-1980's television character with a knack for creative problem solving making use of random materials found at hand. However, my MacGyver Kit is not an arbitrary assortment of random odds and ends that I toss into a ziplok before heading out into the wilds (although, admittedly, that might make an interesting premise for a reality teevee survival show). My MacGyver Kit contains a carefully thought out, yet minimal, agglomeration of tools and materials that not only have multiple individual uses, but that can also be used in conjunction with one another to expand their potential exponentially.

photo by Kathy Vaughan/
Ras repairing a broken trekking pole wrist strap with fly fishing leader on the AZT.

My MacGyver kit contains: 

  • approximately five feet of fly fishing leader line 
  • one spool of upholstery thread
  • leather needles (3)
  • one tube of Tenacious Tape
  • toenail clippers
  • super glue
  • two doses of antihistamine (one of the only single application items I carry)
Useful First Aid/Survival/Multi-use Items Also Carried:

  • six feet of duct tape wrapped around each trekking pole = twelve feet
  • two trekking poles
  • disposable lighter (another thing around which duct tape may be wrapped)
  • two large safety pins
  • bandana (probably the single most useful and versatile part of my kit)

My Lethal Weapon's My Mind

      In a real life first aid situation, it's not the quality, quantity, or type of supplies that make the difference; it's the brain that's putting them to use. I have received first aid and CPR training and certification numerous times. I have undergone Coast Guard first responder and open water survival training as a merchant marine. I've studied how-to manuals such as the Boy Scout's Handbook, Foxfire books, Back To Basics, and SAS Survival Handbook, among others. I've spend my entire life reading survival and adventure books. I'm constantly running scenarios in my mind and scoping out my surroundings for materials and opportunities. I lived off the grid with no power, phone, or running water for seven years. And I have worked a ridiculously random assortment of jobs from which I have gleaned a flawed but widely varied amalgamation of skills. 

     The specifics of my life story may make it seem like I am uniquely suited to minimalist adventuring, but that is a reflection of decisions and choices I've made. I grew up a nerdy suburban kid and a social misfit, and I barely have a high school education. But the ability to improvise and the drive to survive are universal Human traits. They can be nurtured and developed in even the most shy, soft, and introverted of individuals. Human beings have incredible reserves of hidden strength and ingenuity, and the ability to access those reserves is a skill that can be learned and developed. Assembling your own mental MacGyver kit of abilities, skills, drives, and experiences is the key to coming through to the other side of an emergency/survival situation, regardless of the materials one may or may not have on hand. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

An Unfortunate Fall

An Unfortunate Fall

By Kathy Vaughan
photo by Ras/
     Ras and I haven’t been in a good place for a while. We relocated a year ago from a quiet, peaceful existence in the Okanogan Highlands of north central Washington, to the busy hustle and bustle of Whidbey Island. A few days after our arrival, we began working for a yard maintenance business. After a few months’ work, we took off for our record breaking yo-yo thru-hike of the 800 mile Arizona National Scenic Trail. We returned from the exhausting and fulfilling 1,600 mile thru-hike, and began working for the yard service again just a couple of days later. We have continued our weekend ultra adventuring, peak bagging, and trail exploring lifestyle. There are factors that have made our life in these circumstances challenging and frustrating. But through it all, we have stayed on each other’s team and tried to remain positive.

     Last week, we had to have our 15 year old Australian Shepherd put down. He had grown up with our 23 year old daughter Angela, keeping her safe and giving her lots of company as she grew up as an only child. It was heart wrenching to say goodbye to him. I had spent countless hours with him on the trails, cozied up at my feet by the woodstove or out in the yard, where he would lay nearby as I did chores. On  Whidbey Island, he spent most of his time in the backyard with his sister Puzzle and our cats Dodger and Peabody, while Ras and I spent our days away pulling weeds. It had been so hard to leave him behind each day, especially as he got weaker and more elderly. Most days, Ras and I walked he and Puzzle ½ mile through the neighborhood after we got home from work. Then we would make a bed for him to come lie inside near us for the night. This change of having to be away from Jesse as he aged was very challenging for me. 

     Ras and I were able to take the day off to take him to the vet to be put down. We snuggled with him and whispered sweet things to him as he died on the table in the clinic. We spent some time with him there, until finally covering him and then leaving the body behind. His soul will stay with us forever. We drove to the beach to sip lattes and process this sad time. We tried to make sense of how we’ve gotten to this point; this hard in-between space of heavy-heartedness, stifled creativity and dreams just out of reach.  We talked about how we must keep making forward progress and create the reality for ourselves that we so desire. 

     To celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary and take advantage of a long Thanksgiving weekend, Ras and I intended on getting out for an adventure. The weather was not cooperating though, and so we settled on a 25 miler on our nearby state park trails. We ran quietly together all day long, enjoying being out but having so much to process. My mother has fallen ill this fall too, having been diagnosed with bone marrow disease. She is on a chemo therapy regimen. Our daughter is away in Madagascar, serving two years in the Peace Corps. I am so proud of her. I do miss her though, and it will be many months before I see her again. 

photo by Kathy Vaughan/

      And just when I thought I could shake off these challenging, yet universal life woes, I was surprised by an unfortunate fall during a most wonderful night time run. The pain came suddenly, taking over my ankle as I made contact with the tree root. I crumpled to the ground. It was wet, but soft and I writhed around a bit, trying to understand what had just happened. I was concerned I had really injured my ankle, but Ras was there, comforting me and convincing me that there was no need to panic. I could not see immediate swelling happening. I was hesitant to put any weight on it by standing up. I tried to figure out a way to sit up comfortably for a couple of minutes, evaluating the damage and what to do next. Ras stood behind me so I could lean against his legs. He told me to take as much time as I needed. The pain was tolerable, nothing like the intense pain of acute pancreatitis, which I have from time to time. 

     Finally, I felt as if I could try to stand. Ras helped me to my feet. I again felt hesitant to put any weight on my left foot. I did not want to create any more damage. I wanted to run again, and soon! I tried to walk with his help. This was too difficult. He squatted down and I climbed on his back for a piggy back ride. He carried me this way up a short climb until the trail intersected with a paved park road, closed down for the season. He knew he could run back and get the car and drive it to the gate that closes off the road. He could then come down and help me up to the car. He got me settled into a somewhat dry spot underneath a large fir tree. Then he took off for the car. I looked at my watch. Ras said it would probably take him about a half an hour. I would try not to look at my watch again. I wanted to get myself settled into this spot the best I could as I waited patiently for his return.

     I took off my Nathan VaporAiress running pack and reached inside, hoping to find a pack of chemical handwarmers. Yes! I had left a package in there. I pulled out an extra Altra buff that was in my pack as well and double wrapped it around my ankle to give it some compression. This felt good right away. I wrapped Ras’ Altra ¾ zip jacket around my legs, put my handwarmers inside my gloves and then put them on while nestling down to wait. The night was quiet. There were stars out and it was not raining. I did not want to catch a chill, so I rocked back and forth, keeping myself moving just enough to stay warm. Ras had hollered back at me as he ran off, “Do crunches if you get cold!”

     It was probably about 49 degrees out. It really wasn’t that cold. A half hour wasn’t that long. I was relaxed and unconcerned about how long it would take him. I trusted that he was doing everything he could to get back to me as efficiently as possible. I looked at my watch and it had been 23 minutes. He would be back before I knew it. And then I heard his hoot. Living on our own acreage for many years, we had a hoot we would do across the property to catch one another’s attention, or to call out to Angela. I heard this familiar call and I answered back. Soon, I saw his headlamp coming back towards me. He had brought a couple of extra layers, which I put on right away. He helped me to my feet. It was time to get out to the gate now, and the awaiting car, about a mile away. 

     Ras asked if I wanted to try to walk out with his help, or wanted him to carry me out, then said those weren't the only options. He continued, "I could bring you some more layers from the car, then I could drive home real quick and get some trekking poles for you to hike out with, or a wheelbarrow to haul you out in, or I could grab the bolt cutters and pop the lock off the gate and drive in and pick you up." These were apparently plans A through E. Ras never mentioned trying to contact a park ranger or any other authority. I assumed this course of action was further down his list, around plan Z or so. I told him I wanted to try putting some weight on my ankle and see how it went.

photo by Ras/

     I played around with the best way to make forward progress, either holding Ras’ arm, or hand, or neither. I moved carefully and soon got into a careful limping rhythm that worked. I held Ras’ hand, the heat from my handwarmers helping to keep his hand warm too. We had been through here a couple of nights ago, when we were out doing our 25 miler. We were each listening to our own mp3 players and just getting through mileage. Now, walking slowly, hand in hand, the experience was much different.  I was thankful for this quiet, careful walk, but also filled with gratitude that I had been able to have a long run very recently. It might now be a while.

photo by Ras/

     Up until the moment of the fall, I had been running quite well. I was moving fast, for me, and loving it. Ras was behind me and also enjoying his run. It had only been dark for about 15 minutes or so. The transition from the fading light of sunset to now, when it was quite dark in the trees, was gradual and evocative. When I was a backpacker and in my earlier days of trail running, I would get anxious as the light began to fade towards the end of the day. I felt nervous about being on the trail past dark. I would want to make camp if hiking, or if trail running, I would want to stay as close to my partners as possible. I wanted to be in the middle of those I was running with and turned around constantly if I was in the back. 

     With practice and a growth in confidence, I have begun to savor and love the night time miles. I enjoy the night sounds in the forest. I love focusing only on what is right in front of me on the trail, whatever it is that my headlamp is catching in its’ beam. I can let go of all of the rest. The focus becomes easier to attain and with some self-talk, I am usually able to open up and run free and less self-consciously.

     I had been in this zone when my left foot landed on a big root, turning my ankle. My headlamp was in need of fresh batteries and therefore, the beam was not very bright. I could not differentiate this root from the other trail surface and it caught me completely off guard while running fast. It hurt and it took me down. But it won’t keep me down. I will see how much time I need to take off from running. I hope I can get back on the trails soon. Running trails is my therapy. The longer the mileage and the amount of time spent on the trails, the better. 

photo by Ras/

UPDATE as of 12/05/2016: The Road (and Trail) to Recovery

Days 1-3: Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation.

Day 2: Evening walk on crutches around the 1/2 mile neighborhood loop.

Day 3: Half mile evening walk without crutches, very easy pace and careful foot placement. The swelling on Kathy's ankle diminishes noticeably and the bruising begins to improve.

Day 4: Return to physically demanding yard service work. 

Day 5: Two and a half hour walk/easy jog on asphalt and smooth, non-technical trail.

Day 6: One hour easy jog on smooth, non-technical trail and some asphalt. 

     Overall, Kathy's ankle is fairly stable, the majority of the swelling has subsided, and she can walk and run easily on it without pain. It's still tender, however, and it will still require time and attention for it to strengthen and heal completely.