Ras Vaughan's Unsupported, Sextuple-Rim-to-Rim
UltraPedestrian sets OKT (Only Known Time) for epic Grand Canyon route
Jason Vaughan, 41, widely known as Ras, and who performs music under the name Jahson Ites, has become somewhat of a living folk hero in the Pacific-Northwest running community, and the only races he’ll likely ever win are the ones in which no one else participates.
A tall, lanky, Rastafarian family man with waist-length dreadlocks who runs in red, yellow and green and lives in a cabin in the middle of sparsely populated, north-central Washington, he’s perhaps the best-known (and most-loved) “back of the packer” in the area. His motto is “An ultramarathon is like a mullet: business up front and party in the back,” and he has been making a compelling case the last few years that slower running is better running.
He’s also at the front end of a project that is likely to intrigue ultrarunners and, well, just about everyone—establishing "Only Known Times" (OKTs) on almost incomprehensible solo endurance outings. Last summer, that meant running around Washington’s Mount Rainier semi-unsupported twice in one push (he picked up a food cache at the end of the first loop, and did have pacers for much of the second), and, recently, in early May, he ran Rim-to-Rim in the Grand Canyon six times, carrying all of his own supplies and finishing in 68 hours 10 minutes.
I sat down to talk with him because the world needs to know about this man.
Hey, Ras, how’s it going? Do your legs hurt?
Things are wonderful. It’s a blessing to be alive. My head is still swimming with the immensity of the Grand Canyon project. It already seems unreal and is vanishing into the mists of projects completed.
I didn’t have any pain afterward, just unbearably heavy exhaustion. Nothing hurts and I’m recovering well, but my legs are still blown out and rubbery, and will probably feel that way for a few weeks.
What inspired your OKT project, and do you have any overall goals?
An Only Known Time is utterly unique from a Fastest Known Time (FKT), because an OKT is a single measurement of performance that does not yet have a context. An OKT exists in a quantum state, where it is simultaneously both the Fastest Known Time and the Slowest Known Time for a route. Said OKT does not resolve into a single reality until another time is put up on that course. And even then OKT can still stand to mean “Original Known Time.”
On a big scale, my goal is to open up some of these distances, just to show that they can be done. Using my pacing and methodology, I keep finding I can do big, fun, non-standard distances—and do them safely, solidly and well, if not quickly.
Beyond that my ultimate goal is to find what I can’t do. There was a time when a 25K was a question mark, because I had never run one before. I kept training and answered the 50K and 50-mile questions satisfactorily, so I asked myself the big 100-mile question. That was Cascade Crest 2011, and at the pre-race briefing Charlie Crissman said, “If you have never DNF’d, you need to enter harder races.” I finished Cascade Crest that year and the next, and still haven’t DNF’d. I keep upping the ante and imagining new challenges, but all I keep coming up with are things I can do. I’m on the quest for what I can’t do.
Tell us about some of your other running accomplishments .
I was one of only 12 people to finish the Angel’s Staircase 50-mile race the only year it was offered. Aside from Cascade Crest, I finished the Badger Mountain 100-mile two times, and the Lumberjack Endurance Runs 100-mile. I was also one of only nine people to complete the 2012 Pigtails Challenge 200-mile race, and will be returning again this year.
In September 2012 I became the first person to complete the 93-mile Wonderland Trail around the base of Mount Rainier twice in a single push, once clockwise and once counter-clockwise.
It’s got to be pretty cool to be able to finish a sentence that starts with “I became the first person to ...” How have you decided on your OKT projects so far?
The Wonderland Trail was a very organic choice for my first OKT project. My history as a backpacker and runner revolves around Mount Rainier. The first time [my wife] Kathy and I hiked the Wonderland, our daughter Angela was seven years old, and as a family it took us 19 days. We carried huge packs full of ridiculous amounts of gear. But we made it. And every couple of years the mountain has called us back. Each time we lightened up our gear, learned new techniques and simplified our approach.
Then one day when I was contemplating the FKTs on the Wonderland, I was thinking about the choice of direction in which you run the trail. Clockwise offers steeper climbs and more runnable downhill sections and is generally considered the faster direction to run. I was thinking about specifically running it counter-clockwise to perhaps establish a separate time for the harder direction when it dawned on me: the only way to completely experience the trail would be to run it in its entirety one direction, then reverse direction and run it again.
And the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim is a highly respected and classic testpiece. I think every ultrarunner is at least tempted by the idea of it. I imagined a way to do something uniquely fitted to my strengths on those trails. Greater than 100 miles is a realm I am comfortable in but which intimidates many more-talented runners. To me it just seemed ripe for the picking, and I thought that if I didn’t move quickly and get it done, someone else would do it.
You’ve done a lot of solo running on these major projects–is it important to you that these things are done on your own, or is it just that no one else can fathom doing the things you’re doing?
There is a scary purity in a long solo backcountry run. But on the Wonderland I did have friends running with me for almost half of the mileage, including two of the four nights. And I was going to run the Triple-Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim with a friend, but he turned his ankle on a shake-out run less than 48 hours before we were supposed to leave.
But this is still kind of a breakthrough period where I am feeling out boundaries and learning possibilities. I love running solo through the night especially and am sure I will continue to do many solo projects in the future. I’m most excited, though, to see what sort of projects and distances Kathy and I can do together as a team, including some of the classic long trails.
A lot of us have a hard time moving for more than a couple of hours at a time. Any tips or tricks you use to keep yourself going when you’re out moving for four days straight?
Eating ginger can disrupt sleep patterns, so I eat crystallized ginger in hopes that it will do just that during nights.
A favorite mental exercise is to ask myself, if my daughter’s life were in danger and the only thing that could save her would be to complete this distance, could I do it? And the answer is always, undoubtedly, yes. I can run. I can powerhike. I can walk. I can crawl. Whatever it takes. At that point I have to admit that I am physically capable of doing it, so it’s just a matter of motivating myself to do so. That line of reasoning takes "can’t" off the table. The question then becomes, how quickly or how slowly?
Another mental game I use is to consider Sisyphus, the damned Greek who for all eternity had to roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down to be rolled up again. He’s the inventor of hill repeats. I take stock of everything that is going on at that low moment, the pain, the frustration, the sluggishness, the hunger, the thirst, and ask myself, If this was what I was doomed to do for all eternity under these circumstances, would it really be that bad?
On long, steep climbs, when my legs are shot and I’m barely moving, I make a rule that I have to take 100 steps before I can stop. It might take a long time, but you can eventually grind out any climb by that method.
Something that’s clear to a lot of us that know you is that you’re also a family man, sending messages of love to your wife from 115 miles in on these treks and so forth. What do your wife and daughter think of your shenanigans?
My Empress Kathy is absolutely everything to me. She is my best friend and partner and teacher and lover. She calls me on my BS and challenges me in my weakness and laziness. We are each other’s Life Crew. She is the person responsible for getting me off the couch and outside.
Fifteen years ago I was eating ridiculous amounts of cheese and sugar-laden processed foods, weighed 260 pounds and couldn’t hike a mile without suffering debilitating back pain. Kathy was the one who used to drag me up to Fragrance Lake (south of Bellingham) on day hikes and out into the North Cascades every weekend for overnight backpacking trips, and it was she who first had the idea of hiking the Wonderland Trail as a family.
We have moved through thousands of miles of forest and wilderness together since then, and there is nothing more natural for me that to tuck in behind her on a trail and just move forward for days at a time. She totally supports my solo endeavors, but it’s running and fastpacking with her that I really love. The hardest thing about my solo adventures is being away from her.
I know it’s a bit challenging for Angela, because she has exceptional woodcraft and backcountry skills. At 20 years of age, she has completed the Wonderland Trail five times, and has worked for years on trail crews for the Pacific Northwest Trail Association and the Forest Service. But it would be easier for her to establish her own bad-assedness if everyone else saw me for the giant goofy dork that she knows me to be. She is intimately acquainted with the man behind the curtain and is aware of all of his quirks, weaknesses and foibles. I know on some level the disparity between who she knows me to be and how others perceive me is frustrating and awkward to her. She is always supportive of my adventures. But the reality is that she is more responsible than I am, harder working, more dedicated, less rebellious, better prepared and overall a far better grownup than I am. I love her beyond words and am excited to see what she does with her life.
Kathy seems to be doing a pretty amazing job at “challenging your weakness and laziness.” Somebody get her a job with Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program. Childhood obesity = solved.