Ultrapedestrian Treks

January 13, 2016

Practicing untraditional adventure

By Yitka Winn

Photo at right: Kathy and Ras Vaughan ham it up at the Deception Pass 50K. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama


After almost two decades of marriage, raising a family and a multitude of adventures, Ras and Kathy Vaughn have grown passionate about a different sort of adventure: tackling multi-day, self-supported “ultrapedestrian” treks.

It’s a phrase Ras coined to encompass running, power-hiking, jogging, walking, meandering, stumbling, skipping and even frolicking.

“Calling myself a ‘runner’ or a ‘hiker’ seemed too constraining,” Ras said.

Off the Beaten Path

The couple, who live in a small cabin in the Okanogan Highlands of north central Washington, have eschewed many traditions of modern society over the years.

Rather than pursuing traditional, full-time careers, they frequently work seasonal odd jobs — everything from operating ski lifts to harvesting greens on organic farms to leading outdoor trips — to bridge the gap between the days, or months, they spend traversing wilderness on foot.

They often volunteer their time in exchange for entries into races and otherwise live frugally.

Radiance at First Sight

A tall, stoutly built runner with dreadlocks down to his waist, Ras hiked and ran his way through the hills of the Columbia River Valley outside of Kennewick, Washington, at the 2012 Badger Mountain Challenge, a 100-mile trail race.

After 98 miles the exhaustion and sleep-deprivation-fueled crankiness fell away from his face as he caught sight of Kathy ahead on the trail, cheering, waving and beaming in the late morning sun. From here, she accompanied Ras to the finish line.

Kathy’s radiance caught Ras’ eye in the yard of a small house near Anacortes nearly 20 years earlier. However, different circumstances set them apart in the beginning. At the time, Ras was a heavyset, relatively sedentary frozen food delivery driver, attempting to drum up new business in the neighborhood by knocking on the doors of strangers.

Kathy was operating a day-care program out of her home, and was passionate about gardening, hiking and cross-country skiing in her free time. After her initial chance meeting with Ras outside her house, she signed up to receive frozen stir-fry veggies in hopes of seeing him again.

It was the beginning of a relationship that, in the coming years, would blossom into a profound love centered on the tenets of joy, simple living and spiritual connection with the wilderness and imaginative feats of endurance.

A Family Affair

Though Kathy says it was initially a struggle to encourage Ras to join her on hikes, she eventually talked him into joining her on a backpacking trip: the 45-mile Devil’s Dome Loop in the Pasayten Wilderness, east of North Cascades National Park and south of the Canadian border.

“We were so inexperienced, it was ridiculous,” says Kathy, now 49. “We carried plastic gallon jugs for our water and used all rented gear. Our feet got terribly blistered and we hiked for hours in the rain on our final day.

“We were hooked.”

By the time their daughter, Angela, was just 4-years old, they were bringing her along on hikes in the North Cascades. When she was 7, the family completed their first major backpacking trip — a 94-mile thru-hike of the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier.

Ras, now 44, came from a martial-arts background ranging from aikido to kickboxing to jiu jitsu. The similarities between martial arts and long-distance hiking were immediately apparent to him — patience and practice — as well as a host of other outdoor sports and disciplines like mountaineering, “Much of my inspiration comes from mountaineering and alpinism, which fosters the ethic of doing something ‘in good style’ or ‘by fair means,’ ” he says. “Basically, this means fast and light, minimal impact and reliance on equipment, and maximum application of skill, ingenuity and self-reliance. But it also implies something more — an artistry, a cleanness and purity.”

With time, he grew curious about the limit — or lack thereof — of his own endurance. He began running trail races and eventually 100-mile and even 200-mile ultramarathons as a way to chase his goal of using “whatever means of movement is the most enjoyable, efficient, and sustainable to journey through beautiful and brutal places.”

Though Kathy was slower to dip her toes into the proverbial ultrarunning lake, she eventually flocked to the sport. It was a way for her to stave off melancholy when Angela, whom she’d homeschooled for many years, left for college.

This year, Kathy was one of only two women to complete the Pigtails Challenge 150-mile run around Lake Youngs in Kent, Washington.

Currently, Ras and Kathy are attempting an unsupported roundtrip 1,600-miler along the Arizona Trail which goes from Mexico to Utah, following the entire length of Arizona.

Due to the extreme elevation loss and gain along this trail — the fluctuation varies between a low of 1,700 feet and a high of 9,600 feet — the Vaughan’s have christened it the “yo-yo” hike. It will be their longest trek together to date, and the first to take them into winter-like conditions.

“There is a scary purity in being deep in the wilderness with no one else to rely on,” says Ras. “In some ways that’s a big, crazy thing — taking your life in your hands and running with it. But in another sense it’s a small thing; a human being moving through the natural world.

“That’s what I love: the big, crazy, ordinary simplicity of it.”

Yitka Winn is a freelance writer and avid mountain runner. Follow her adventures at www.yitkawinn.com or on Instagram @yitkawinn.

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