12 months, 12 Ultramarathons with the Kumo Backpack

12 months, 12 Ultramarathons with the Kumo Backpack

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!

Mother and Daughter Forever Connected through the Trail

Mother and Daughter Forever Connected through the Trail

By: Kathy Vaughan


She disappeared into the ancient grove of giant trees, following the trail as it twisted into the drizzly forest. It all felt like a dream from which I hoped I would not awaken. I felt an inner sense of joy, relief, awe, and pride. As hard as it was to believe, the lithe, tanned-skin, beautiful young lady running through the woods, strides ahead of me, was indeed my daughter, Angela.

mother and daughter on trail

Angela will turn 25 next month. She returned just last week from having spent 27 months in Madagascar, serving in the Peace Corps. As I sit here in the dappled spring evening sunlight, I view the picture she just sent me on my phone, of her in front of a lovely tulip field in full bloom. Some of my earliest pictures of her capture her amongst flowers, trees, mountainscapes, and streams. She is a nature lover. She graduated with a degree in Environmental Science, and her service in Madagascar was as an agricultural volunteer, helping to grow food in the small village where she served. She specialized in Soil Sciences and taught the Malagasy people she lived amongst how to improve their soil to optimize the quality and quantity of foods that could grow in their surroundings.

When she returned home, she suggested to Ras that they arrange a surprise for me, by having her show up at the trailhead where I thought Ras and I were just going for our regular afternoon run. I should have known that our reunion after two years apart would be at a trail.

Before Angela was born, I spent afternoons taking long walks. I was strong and healthy during my pregnancy, giving birth to a 9 lb. 21 oz. baby naturally. I remember putting her in a stroller and taking her on a packed gravel trail, about two weeks after she was born. When she became unhappy, I lifted her from the buggy and hugged her close to me. This little one was going to have positive experiences on the trail, and comforting her was the upmost priority to me, to ensure this. She relaxed into my chest as I pushed the stroller clumsily with one hand. This first four-mile hike together, along the Padilla Bay Estuary in the Anacortes area of Washington, was the beginning of a relationship with Angela that, to this day, still includes shared time on trails.

mother daughter and father on trail

My husband, Ras, and I, took Angela on her first extended backpacking trip when she was seven years old. We took on the 93-mile Wonderland Trail that circumambulates Mt. Rainer. We allowed 21 days for the hike, taking two complete rest days in camps so that she could just simply play and explore all day long. Before this, our young family had enjoyed riding bikes together and shorter day hikes, but we had not yet taken on overnight hikes seriously. I had always been the one to initiate family outings like this, and I spearheaded this Wonderland Trail thru-hike. I envisioned gentle trail meandering through lush forests that broke out into mountain views, reading a paperback book out loud to the family in the tent at night, and enjoying camp food after a long day of hiking. All of these experiences did happen, and so much more.

Angela hiked along humming gently and soothingly to herself. She carried her own pack with her clothing and trail food. She used a walking stick that she had made in summer camp. Ras helped her fit a rubber foot on the bottom and she hand-drilled a hole in the top so she could pull a piece of red webbing through it. She collected discarded bamboo trail marking wands from the alpine zone; she was given sunglasses by an older mountaineering couple after crossing the permanent snow fields caused sun damage to her sensitive, doe-green eyes; and she lost one of her two front teeth while on the trail, making it so the Tooth Fairy came in the night for a visit. The trail took us by a couple of the National Visitor's Centers and she chose a canteen in a suede satchel for a souvenir. She carried that on many hikes to come.

daughter with walking stick

We went on to hike the Wonderland Trail as a family six more times. The summer when Angela was nine, she and I hiked the trail together with family friends while Ras was away working on a tugboat. Angela worked on trail crews during the summers throughout high school and college, followed suit when Ras and I started trail and ultrarunning, and continues to find time to share the trails with us when she is around. When she took off for college, I knew I would miss her like crazy. I started training to run ultras so that I could fill that empty spot, to overflow it with the strong thread that had always been a part of "us." Ultrarunning expanded into long trail thru-hikes and going after Only Known Times. As a 51-year-old mom to this amazing young woman, I can honestly say that she has been my underlying inspiration for wanting to spend my time in the outdoors.