12 months, 12 Ultramarathons with the Kumo Backpack

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John Haffner | Nov 26, 2019

This story all started with a dog named Cupcake in Alaska's Denali National Park.

My wife and partner in crime, Christine, and I were working in the National Park in a particularly rainy month of August last year. We decided that the most appropriate thing to do with our free time was to volunteer by running with sled dogs (we didn't have many consecutive days in a row to backpack or see the rest of Alaska). During the summer, these natural athletes turn into pudgy pups due to their lack of work, which is primarily in the winter. Because I'm 6' 4" and wanted a challenge, I wound up with the biggest and most energetic dog of the pack, Cupcake.

I was told five volunteers had already given up on Cupcake this season, and they desperately needed to get him exercise. We were happy to volunteer, taking them out on runs to keep these adorable endurance athletes in shape.

After a few weeks of running the dogs, we got really comfortable with running, giving these dogs as much exercise as possible. Slowly, we built up our mileage–to about 10 miles.

I was feeling really proud with that distance, having never really run much before in my life. Then, while browsing the internet, I noticed that the Mount Mitchell Challenge lottery opened up, and I decided this was my shot to participate in a race that had caught my eye ever since moving to Asheville, North Carolina.

Wikipedia describes the race as such: "The Mount Mitchell Challenge is a 40-mile Ultramarathon run in February of each year from the town of Black Mountain, NC to the top of Mt Mitchell, the highest point in the Eastern US, and back down again. This race, intentionally run in Winter to ensure harsh conditions… the course has seen every type of weather imaginable… rain, ice, snow, sun… " unner. Having heard rumors about the lottery selection process from other runners, I knew there was no way I was going to get into run the race by just entering once. Many athletes enter year after year without getting in. So, without too much thought, I filled out the application. Under "best marathon time," having never run anything resembling the distance, I wrote, " hiked the PCT in 4 months."

A few days later, I woke up to an email saying, "Congratulations! Your entry into the 2019 Mount Mitchell Challenge has been confirmed!" I was dumbfounded, and immediately felt doomed. I had run a half marathon once many years ago, but that was about it. Now, I had to train for a 40-mile race up and down the tallest mountain in the eastern United States?

Enter the Gossamer Gear Kumo backpack.

In order to even start training, I needed a high capacity running pack. Looking at the packs I had, it looked like the Kumo could do the job. I could fit water, a purification method, an emergency blanket, a trowel for bathroom breaks, Lightheart Gear Rain Mitts, a Wind Shirt, Microspikes, and many layers, including an entire bag of clothes to be kept dry no matter what. In addition, I could stash plenty of Gu's and snacks (my favorite being microwaved red potatoes).

For me to train in the tallest mountains on the East Coast during winter, it would be absolutely necessary for me to be able to carry all of these items. The Kumo was the perfect choice because it could collapse to be comfortable with an empty load and also could carry way more than I could possibly need for a day-long run.

In training, I ran ultramarathon distances in the dead of winter. With highs around 20 degrees and windy, I wouldn't have had the courage to run in those conditions without the Kumo with a Nightlight Sleeping Pad and hip belt. It was a no-brainer to upgrade the pad for more support and potentially more insulation in case I got injured and had to wait for help in incredibly cold conditions.

On race day, the weather was 35 degrees and raining at the starting elevation. The Kumo allowed me to "comfortably" run in the harsh weather conditions, since we were not allowed to stash additional gear or layers at any aid stations. I was probably over-prepared, but still needed 80% of what I was carrying in my pack to keep warm on the rainy and freezing day. At one point, my fingers were so cold that I needed help zipping up my fleece at an aid station. The volunteers kept checking runners for hypothermia, but I was even more impressed that these volunteers were spending hours, some even spending the night at these remote aid stations just to help us complete this course.

The day after the race, I thought to myself: "I should run an ultramarathon in each month of the year in order to 'stay in running shape.'" I went from never running a marathon to committing myself to 12 more. Maybe not the smartest idea, but it made sense to me at the time.

In the following months, I continued to run on some of the toughest trails I had seen in the southeast, as I was not interested in running on streets or setting personal records, but rather my main intent was to enjoy the mountains. I mapped out routes each month that would take me over the marathon distance on-trail, and each time I took my Kumo with me. Some notable runs included running from my front door to the top of Mount Mitchell, an out-and-back on the Shut-in Trail, and a day run of the Art Loeb Trail.

Months down the road, a friend was interested in backpacking an approximately 28-mile section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. The trip he planned involved meeting him late at night and driving another car to where we were supposed to start. I wasn't interested in staying up late and thought that this is a great opportunity to attempt a run with a full pack. I was going to run the shuttle on foot leaving my car at our finish point and setting up camp at our meeting location (which was their starting point). Problem solved! I got to sleep and get a nice run in.

I packed the Kumo with three days of food, a quilt, Gossamer Gear's "The Two" tent, and some rain gear, and then took it out on the 28-mile run. The pack weighed 26 lbs, but I definitely over-packed on food. Feeling hungry that morning, I bought a pizza and packed out half of it on top of the food I had already decided on bringing. Running that distance with a heavy pack definitely resulted in chafing, so it would have been smart to bringing tape to cover up those areas. In the end, I was able to run the distance one way in an afternoon and then walk back with my friends over the next two days. The perfect trip, really.

I would definitely recommend this versatile pack for trips similar to the ones I've described and for those expecting loads of less than 25 lbs (with small periods around 30 lbs probably being okay) on backpacking trips. For running, the hip belt can be raised to accommodate a more running appropriate ribcage hugging style along with tightening the shoulder straps. At this point, I have logged over 1,500 miles of running using the Kumo since starting my training for my first ultramarathon last year. The only way I can imagine improving the design for running purposes would be to make the shoulder strap and hip belt pockets slightly more durable. With all the bouncing, the items stored in those pockets wore holes in the pockets, which are my most accessible and favorite pockets.

It is now November, and I have ticked off 11 out of the 12 ultramarathons I told myself I would run this year. Meanwhile, in Denali, Cupcake the sled dog undoubtedly went on to run just as many miles as I did all last year during just the winter months, while he dragged a sled. Without a blog or social media, but with treats and praise from his fellow Denali rangers, he will have just started his working year dragging sleds full of gear and rangers into the backcountry and dragging debris and garbage out.

All that is left for me is December's ultramarathon, and I will have accomplished my goal. Any suggestions for my final run are welcome!

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Author Bio

and Christine Martens are outdoor enthusiasts who have hiked several long distance trails, including the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. They call Asheville, North Carolina their home, where they’ve worked as hiking guides for Blue Ridge Hiking Company in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. Learn more about their adventures on their blog: https://just2hikers.wordpress.com/