Friday, April 20, 2018

Gnarly - The Napa Valley 50K

gnarl·yˈnärlē/NORTH AMERICANinformaldifficult, dangerous, or challenging

I signed up for this a few weeks back as I was looking for a 50K three or four weeks out from the Canyons 100K coming up on April 28th.  I didn’t know anything about it, and hadn’t run on the trails up there at all.  But I could see from the elevation profile and 7,500’ of elevation gain and loss that it would be a tough one that should give me a good opportunity to get some climbing and descending in.  It also was an out and back course with the start/finish in downtown Calistoga, so instead of telling Heather I was taking off for an entire Saturday for a race I got to tell her I was taking her to wine country for the weekend….but I’d be gone for a “few hours on Saturday”.
7,500'  of ups and downs

A few days before the race I came across a link to a race report from last year’s inaugural event.  It was written by the female winner Penny Macphail (so by definition a bad ass) and included the following:

 " ....just fantastic, weird ' is this a trail?' running. You are leaping and bounding and slathering around rocks and creeks.  At times you are in dark, cool shadows, diving though rocky caverns, ducking around and under achingly beautiful twisted trees......stunning high drama vistas of craggy mountains stretching for miles should you dare to look up and take your eyes off your feet for a second....It's interesting how exhausting this stuff is mentally, I had to remind myself to breathe and unclench my teeth now and again I was concentrating so hard..."

That description of how technical portions of the race were got my attention, so I started looking at the finish times from last year and digging into to compare those runners’ times to other 50Ks they’d run.  Across the board, it was considerably slower.  This thing was going to be tough.  Instead of a six to seven hour day (pretty much the range of my previous 50Ks), I was looking at eight to nine hours!  A little more than I bargained for, but too late now.

First ten miles

After a few words from the race director we were off for about a half mile on the streets of Calistoga before heading up the trail.  My goal for the day was to 1) finish healthy and 2)…well, that was pretty much it.  Keep the real goal in mind, a 100K race (and Western States qualifier) in three weeks.  My calf has recovered pretty well but I’ve been fighting some mild plantar fasciitis, so that was the major concern – do no harm.  I settled in to a power hike as we headed up a fire road that after about three miles became more of a rocky doubletrack trail.  It continued to get rockier, and then we took a turn on to the “Palisades Trail”. 

Old school, low key start
It began innocently enough, some technical sections, mud, and while we got a break and the forecasted rain had stopped Friday night, the 3”-4” that had fallen the previous day was absolutely pouring down the trail.  I guess that’s what the RD meant by “these trails drain well”.  I might have said “these trails are the drain”, but that’s just semantics, I suppose.  We got to the first aid station at mile 6 or so and it was perched up on the edge of a cliff, and there was the previous-year’s winner, Penny.  She cracked jokes, took pictures (with her rubber chicken in frame), and sent us off on a section of trail that I can only describe as “gnarly”.  Barely-there muddy trail carved into the side of the mountain.  Crawling around boulders and trees.  Rocky sections that required lots of careful foot placements.  Waterfalls.  You know a trail is technical when your fingernails are dirty.  But the views were just incredible, as several times I came to a stop, in complete awe. 

Starting to get rocky

Having fun at the aid station, and a rubber chicken.  pc Penny Macphail
There's a trail there?

Hard to race and take pics, but those views!

We then came upon a section of huge lava flows, weathered by centuries of wind and water, that you had to pick your way across.  A final descent led us down to the aid station around mile 10 and the base of the major climb in the race.  It had taken me 3:15 to cover the 10+ miles, and I was starting to worry that this was going to be a 9-10 hour effort out here!

Working my way down the lava

The middle ten

But this section of the race turned out to be the easy part, as after a short technical climb we were on fire road for most of the 5 mile climb to the top of Mt. St. Helena. It was a nice and steady grade made for power hiking (or running for those beasts a few hours in front of me), so I just geared down and grinded the thing out.  A quick pic at the top, with unfortunately no views to speak of due to the (cold) fog, and then it was a long downhill run back to mile 20.  It’s the longest, easily runnable descent I’ve experienced in the Bay Area, and I may have to work it in to future quad-toughening training sessions.  Thanks to some 9-10-11 minute miles the middle ten miles was a full hour quicker than the first 10, putting me back at the aid station about 5:30 in, a time in a “normal” 50K that would have me in the final few miles. 
Proof I made the summit.  

Great runnable downhill section on Mt. St. Helena.  pc Chihping Fu

...and that first ten miles again

That just left another 10-11 miles of the gnarliest trails in the Bay Area.  But after that strong middle section I was in a pretty good mental space, and I just tried to embrace it.  It wasn’t even “the suck” I was embracing, as I just decided to have as much fun as I could out there, which was much easier knowing exactly what I was in for.  It was some slow going (23 and 24 minute miles????), but after getting through the mile 25 aid station and completing the final climb, it was back on to the fire road.  I hooked up with a runner named Scott who was also running Canyons in three weeks, and we settled in to a nice rhythm and knocked out the descent back down on to the streets of Calistoga, and finished strong.  Final time 8:35:29, 36th/50 finishers.
She asked for a flip, I managed a skip.  pc Penny Macphail

All the water
I came out of it feeling pretty good, probably because even though it was such a long day, there was so much hiking.  My foot hurt a few times, mostly during awkward foot plants as I picked my way through the rocks and mud, but it definitely didn't get worse.  The quads had that "good sore" of a solid effort the next day.  So other than the gnarly poison oak I have on both legs and arms, I accomplished exactly what I wanted to with my first big race of the year on the horizon.

All in all a really fun race, on some of the most scenic and challenging trails I've run on in the Bay Area.  Scena Performance put on a great event, the volunteers were amazing, and the beans and rice at the finish were some of the best I've ever had.  This isn't the race to try and set a 50K PR, but if you want to challenge yourself with a great long day on the trails, this is the race.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

2017 Western States - Not as Tough as I Thought

No, no, I'm not talking about the race itself.  Sure, I had heard from ultrarunners I respect that I'd already run "tougher" 100 milers in Cascade Crest and Pine to Palm.  And those races are tough, no doubt.  But Western States, the supposed "easier 100" was in no way that.  I have never had a better training block.  My diet was as good as it's ever been, I followed the Jason Koop plan of intensity earlier in the year and then had my most consistent volume and vertical ever in the two months leading in to Statesmas.   I took into account my racing over the past five years, what I had learned over four years of pacing and crewing this race, analyzing the Ultrasignup and Ultrasplits data, and I just knew I was capable and ready for a finish around twenty-seven hours. I was ready.

"Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." - Mike Tyson

And then the race started.  Fifteen miles of snow and ice bridges and mud that pulled the shoes off your feet.   It wasn't just me.  All 369 runners got punched right in the mouth.  Any buffer you had against your goals, whether that was a course record, silver buckle, staying ahead of the cutoffs, or my twenty-seven hour goal was simply gone by Red Star Ridge at mile 15.8.  So I found myself in a situation I really didn't imagine, fighting the cutoffs from the start.  But I didn't stress, just like I knew I was in shape for twenty-seven hours, I knew I was tough enough to get this done.  After all, I'd never DNF'd a race.  I've fought wrecked IT bands, trashed quads, a shut down stomach, heat, mud, smoke, and the mountains themselves.  And I'd always made it to the end before the cutoffs.


The University of Kent's Samuele Marcora has published multiple studies that show a common theme - fatigue largely isn't a muscular issue, it's a mental one.  From a December 12, 2014, New Yorker article titled What is Fatigue
"Marcora believes that this limit is probably never truly reached—that fatigue is simply a balance between effort and motivation, and that the decision to stop is a conscious choice rather than a mechanical failure......Considerations like heat, hydration, and muscle conditioning, Marcora says, “are not unreal things, but their effect is mediated by perception of effort.” In other words, they don’t force you to slow down, as happens with the failing frog muscles in the petri dish; they cause you to want to slow down—a semantic difference, perhaps, but a significant one when it comes to testing the outer margins of human capability."
I'd say 100 mile mountain runs in 100+ degree heat qualify for "testing the outer margins of human capability," especially mine.  Thanks largely to the tough conditions in the high country, my goal of a 27 hour finish, one that would have me comfortably ahead of the cutoffs the entire race, was out the window before I hit the fifteen mile mark.  I was behind the average 30-hour finisher splits all day long.  By the time I got to my first pacer, drained from puking on the climb up to Devil's Thumb and another tough climb to Michigan Bluff, I was almost exclusively walking.  I just couldn't run much, I was spent.

With my final pacer.  PC Richard Walstra

But as almost always happens, that external push from Jim got me running a bit more. "Dude, you have to run this part."  I switched pacers at Foresthill and Wally used cajoling and constant pace reminders in an effort to keep me moving faster that I wanted to.  And then Jim picked me up again at the river telling me, "you're probably going to hate me for awhile." He knew he was going to have to push me.  He negotiated, bargained, pleaded, ridiculed, distracted, joked.  Whatever it took to keep me moving faster than I wanted to.  And of course I could.  Oh I was physically fatigued, but my muscles weren't shutting down. "You can puke, but you have to walk while you do it," said Jim at one point Sunday morning near mile 90.  So instead of sitting (again) on the side of the trail, walk I did.  And then I ran, and ran a little more.


Tim Noakes first put forth the Central Governor theory back in the early-2000s.  From an iRunFar article written by Joe Uhan:

"Noakes’s model, the Central Governor Theory, proposes that it is the brain that dictates exercise intensity and duration in order to ensure its own survival.
The brain is inherently selfish: it only cares about itself. It will do anything necessary to ensure it gets a steady flow of oxygen and sugar, and a reliable mechanism for transport. That said, any physical effort that might jeopardize those values will be tightly regulated. If not, the conscious brain might team with the body to literally run itself to death by either destroying skeletal or cardiac muscle, or by starving the nerve tissue of sugar and oxygen."

I feel like I haven't yet shown in a 100 miler that I'm tough enough on my own to overcome my brain, my Central Governor.  So while I'm extremely proud of all of my race finishes, I want to test my own mental toughness, to prove to myself I can push through.  I'm not talking about putting my health at risk, just finding a way to keep moving, keep running when my brain is trying to convince me otherwise.

So with some first-time lottery luck, a few months back I got in to the Angeles Crest 100, solo division.  No crew. No pacer.  Just me and my Central Governor, battling it out.  I'm looking forward to the fight.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Run Baby Run - 2017 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run

It's all downhill from here
Find out who you are before you regret it
'Cause life is so short there's no time to waste it
So run my baby run my baby run
Run Baby Run, Garbage

On my last long run before Western States, I switched to the "Run You Fools!" playlist on my iPod, a collection of songs that inspire me and get me going.  I rarely listen to music while I run, I'm much more of a podcast guy, but the mood hit me.  As I was cruising down single track trail in the Indian Tree Open Space near my home in Novato, trying not to focus on the knee pain that had come out of nowhere during the Memorial Day Training runs, one of my favorite songs from one of my favorite groups came on.  The song isn't about running at all, of course, but the chorus and many of the lyrics taken out of context really hit home and seem fitting.  I had been thinking about Western States the entire run (and many of my waking hours for months), and I started to tear up thinking about what was to come in a few short weeks, my vision blurring as I moved down the trail.  Ever since my first experience with States in 2012, crewing and pacing my buddy Jim Hammond, this race has been an obsession.  A five year journey to the start line was nearing an end, and the real adventure was about to begin.

Excited?  Scared?  Yes.  PC Luis Escobar
Twenty days later, I'm lying in bed in Tahoe City, trying in vain to get some sleep.  Tomorrow is the day I've thought about, dreamed about for so long.  Hearing that shotgun blast and starting to climb up to the Escarpment, and seeing the sun rise on the way up.  Running through the high country, the 30 miles of the course I'd yet to experience.  Suffering through the heat and climbing of The Canyons, but persevering.  Having some quads left to run well on Cal St, and crossing the river in the night ready to hit the last 22 miles.  Crossing No Hands Bridge and climbing Robie Point and running through the neighborhood down to and onto the track at Placer High.  Hearing Tropical John say my name as I rounded the home stretch.  As it had so many other nights, the visions are bouncing around in my head, keeping me awake.  A few hours of fitful sleep, and at 1:30 AM I give up and listen to some Ultrarunnerpodcast interviews, maybe I'll pick up some more last minute tips. Then it's time to get up, fuel up, gear up, lube up, and drive up to Squaw.

A 20 time finisher, two time top-10 female, and nine time sub-24 finisher.  Pretty good people to get advice from
The day before had been a bit of a blur - check in, catching up with friends, and searching for last minute advice.  Dave Mackey helped check us in. Nikki Kimball put the wristband on me, the one that, if cut off, would signify the end of my race.  And I hung out in the Ultrarunning Magazine tent for awhile, getting advice and even sitting down for a quick interview - which I totally choked because I forgot to mention Heather, Kylie, and my parents!  Hey, it was my first interview, but for a total ultrarunning fanboy like me it felt like a bit of a dream.  But now, Saturday morning as 5:00 AM approached, it was a reality.  And I was a little scared.

This might be a....bit of sh*t show!  It's gonna be awesome!
I connected with my buddy Surf who is running for the third time in four years, and when the gun goes off we begin the climb together.  The atmosphere is electric, the lights glowing above us, the crowd full of family, friends, spectators, and the ever-growing ultrarunning media surrounds us.  We stay together for the first two miles or so, and I tell him to take off whenever he is ready (he's a low 2:50 marathon guy with much faster goals than me).  We hike steadily up until we hit the first snow, and then he gives me a fist bump and takes off up the road.  The scene is amazing, everything I had imagined with the sun beginning to rise and everyone excited as we hike up and up to 8,713'.  We're on snow now, slipping and sliding a bit which is just a precursor of things to come.

Worthy of a selfie as we approached the Escarpment.  SO.MUCH.SNOW!

Once we are up top and things level off a bit, the opportunity to start running is supposed to present itself.  But as we had been warned about in the pre-race briefing, things were just so sloppy up top.  Snow fields and snow bridges that runners ahead of me had broken through led to miles of slipping and sliding.
Just after Red Star, 11 miles in
When not on the snow there was so much water from the rapid melting caused by a week of 90 degree days that the mud was a foot deep in places, making that sucking sound as I moved through it, threatening to remove my shoes from my feet.  When we did hit sections of trail, water ran down it like a creek.  It was just impossible to move quickly, at least for most of us mere mortals.  At times, it was hard to even find the trail - the markings were buried in snow or mud, and several times I found myself several yards off course and then would see a flag in the distance to work back towards.  Jamil Coury from Run Steep Get High posted a great video that captures the conditions pretty well. The impact was that whether your time goals were a course record, sub-24, or to stay ahead of the cutoffs, any buffer was just gone before we even hit the first aid station at Lyon Ridge.  I just "knew" that my training and preparation had me in position to run around 27 hours, and that cutoffs wouldn't be an issue.  And that was all gone before I hit the Red Star Ridge aid station at mile 15.8.  Seventeen runners DNF'd there, many missing the cutoff.  Seventeen people that had qualified and trained their asses off and showed up ready to go, and it was over almost before it started.  This was going to be a battle.
Mile 15.8, 4:25.  252nd out of 354

Cougar Rock on Lyon Ridge.  pc Facchino Photo

After a final 30' slide on my butt down a snow drift, the conditions finally started to improve.  But the altitude was getting to me more than I expected.  Being up around 7,000' for much of the first 30 miles just made the effort so much harder.  I just wanted to get to Duncan Canyon (mile 24.4) to see my crew for the first time, and get a fresh pair of shoes and socks.  The aid stations in the first half of the race straddle a canyon with no road through it, so you need two separate crews if your're going to have one at each possible spot.  I was honored and blessed to have my family with my girlfriend Heather, daughter Kylie, and parents Dave and Sharon serve as one crew; and my college buddies Jimmy, Rob, and Jared along with iFriend Wally that flew out from Chicago as my other crew.  This sport can be so selfish in so many ways with the long training on weekends, travel away from home for races, and dragging your significant other along to trail running film festivals and local running store events.  That is only magnified on race day with a crew and pacers when you consider my parents and two buddies all drove down from Oregon and Wally flew out from Chicago, all to help me achieve this goal.

I think the knee pain I had experienced that led to a sharper taper than I'd planned was related to some issues in my glute and hip.  Thanks to a few emergency sessions with Dr. Chappy Wood in the two weeks going into the race I didn't have any knee pain the entire race, but I did have a dull ache in my left glute, and I must have stubbed my left foot on rocks a dozen times in the high country.  That was new, although it ended up going away about 40 miles in.  But I never actually tripped, and more than six hours in I finally rolled into the Duncan Canyon aid station, already well behind the 30 hour pace for the first quarter of the course and with not a lot of time on the cutoffs.
Coming into Duncan.  PC Tonya Perme

Rob and I had spent a few moments chatting the night before the race, and I told him that regardless of what happened out there on race day I just wanted to be ahead of the cutoffs enough that I didn't have to worry about them.  I've been there before (2014 Pine to Palm), and it's just so stressful.  Thanks to the conditions in the high country, that was already gone and it was going to be part of my experience all day and night.  The fellas knew I needed to get out of there, so they went to work like a Nascar pit crew, getting my shoes and socks off, cleaning my feet, lubing them up, and new socks and shoes back on.  A volunteer apparently asked if they needed some nail polish to complete the pedicure they appeared to be giving me!  But it was so awesome how efficient and ready they were to get me out of there and back on the trail.
Mile 24.4, 6:18.  246 of 344

From there it was around six miles to Robinson Flat and seeing my family for the first time.  I had hoped to be there a little after noon, but didn't arrive until 1:11, less than an hour before the 2:00 cutoff.  We were still up around 7,000' and my effort level was so unexpectedly high on the climb up to the aid station, the temperature was rapidly rising (90s by then?) and my discouragement was growing.  As I finally crested the last bit of the climb and saw the tent, I tried to get myself in a positive space before I got to the crew - fake it until you make it, I guess.  I spent about 10 minutes there getting cooled off, restocking my pack, and updating them all on the challenges of the first 15 miles.  I asked about Surf, and they said he was also way behind his pace, and reported that he felt "worse than he ever had" at that point in the race - and he's struggled each year coming into Robinson.  The conditions were taking a toll on everyone.
Mile 30.3, 8:11.  254 of 328
Thanking the A-Team for waiting around for me for so long at Robinson Flat.  PC Kylie Grove
The amazing volunteers doing everything they can to keep the runners moving toward Auburn
I left Robinson knowing that from there we would finally start to lose elevation, telling myself that things were about to get a lot better for me as we finally moved down from the mountains.  After a short road climb the downhill began, and I think the mental boost kicked in before the increased atmospheric pressure boost did.  Sure enough, I had my best stretch of the race through here, including my best between aid stations split with a 13:36/mile pace from Miller's Defeat to Dusty Corners.  I cruised in there with a positive mindset again, excited to once again see the fellas for another pit crew style sock change.  The volunteers at both Dusty and Miller's were just incredible - at times I had 3-4 people at once working on me, filling pockets and arm sleeves with ice, refilling my bladder, sponging me off.  I had actually clawed my way back to being right on the 30 hour pace and over an hour ahead of the cutoffs here, and tried to prepare myself mentally to head into The Canyons.
Mile 38, 10:02.  249 of 331

I had started to feel a little soreness in my quads on the final descent into Dusty, and that began to get a little worse as I continued the descent down into Deadwood Canyon.  This was pretty discouraging as all of the downhill running I had done during training was to try and condition my quads so I could hold that off that feeling until as late as possible so I'd be able to move well down Cal St.  I was running with another guy who was moving pretty well and we were chatting a bit so I stayed with him down the road and onto the singletrack.  But when someone else caught up to us I backed off and let them go, deciding to take it easy down to Swinging Bridge - I had to try and conserve the quads as much as possible.

As I approached the bottom of the canyon I recapped in my head my plan for the climb up Devil's Thumb, one I'd come up with as a result of already done the climb twice this year, once during The Canyons 100K and once during the Memorial Day Training run.  I'd decided the key was to get a gel in as soon as I heard the rushing water below on the descent, as that would give my stomach 15-20 minutes to process it before heading up the other side.  I was also going to lay in the creek a few hundred yards on the other side of the bridge to try and get my core temperature down, figuring that would also help ensure the calories were through my gut before the hard work of the 36 switchbacks climbing 1,800' up to the top.  Check and check, and I started up the steep stuff hoping to just grind this thing out.

Get wet, stay wet.  pc Facchino Photo
What's that saying about the best laid plans of mice and men?  Even though it was late enough in the day that we weren't in direct sun, it was still really hot and a little humid.  Within a few minutes my effort level felt much higher than I'd hoped, and shortly after that my stomach started to turn.  I would stop and grab my shorts, giving myself five deep breaths to try and get everything under control before continuing up, but it wasn't really helping.  I was taking little sips of electrolyte drink trying to keep up my hydration.  But it was a spiral I couldn't pull out of, and about half way up I found myself sitting on the side of the trail puking.  I had ginger chews, pepto, tums, and a few other things with me, but with the stomach often goes the mind, and I sat there, helpless for a few minutes, emptying the calories and hydration I'd been trying to force through.  After a few minutes another runner came by and offered me a ginger chew, and I eagerly accepted.  She told me it was her last, but she had more up top at her drop bag - a great example of the spirit of this sport.  I finally got up and struggled to the top, puking a couple more times along the way.

"It's the day you got"
I finally got into the Devil's Thumb aid station and plopped into a seat.  My head was in my hands, facing the ground, trying to figure out how to continue on.  I heard a soft-spoken voice asking what I needed, and I didn't have to scan upward very far to know who it was - Dave Mackey, who I had met the day before at check in, volunteering here at one of the key spots of the course.  I asked for some broth and water, and told him I just needed a few minutes to try and pull myself together.  "Sounds good, but you don't have long - you need to get moving again soon," he said.  I had arrived about 45 minutes ahead of the cutoff, so spending too much time here with two canyons still to traverse would have been fatal.  After about 10 minutes I thanked him and the rest of the volunteers and headed off down the trail toward El Dorado Canyon.
Mile 47.8, 13:11.  261 of 314

Too late for solutions to solve in the setting sun
So run my baby run my baby run
-Run Baby Run, Garbage

My stomach wasn't great, but one of my favorite mantras "it never always gets worse" came into play here, and I was able to just keep moving.  Down into the canyon, up the long and often exposed climb to Michigan Bluff I trudged.  Just keep moving.  Get to your crew.  And, in what was somewhat bittersweet, I knew that I'd get a pacer starting here - something only allowed at Michigan Bluff after 8:30 PM, and going into the race that was just inconceivable - I was thinking closer to 7:00.  I shuffled down the hill into the aid station, happy to see my family, Jimmy, and Robbie again, and saw that Jim was ready to run.  I sat in a chair, frustrated at being now less than 40 minutes ahead of the cutoff.  It was time for a full on pity party as I complained about what had been going on.  I stopped talking for a minute, then yelled out, "DAMMIT!  This is NOT the day I planned for!"  Robbie, an experienced (and bad ass) triathlete instantly and calmly responded, "But it's the day you got."

That snapped me out of my funk a little, and a few minutes later Jim and I turned on our headlamps and marched out of there and up the road toward Volcano Canyon.  This was the exact same spot I had picked him up back in 2012, and I was a little behind his time here, a scary thought considering how close he cut things.  He kept stressing we were going to have to run, keep moving, hike with purpose, pick it up, and a bunch of other ways of saying the same thing - move your ass, or you're not getting to Auburn in time.  My quads were feeling it even more through here, but we were able to move ok down the road, and onto the more technical singletrack leading to Volcano Creek.  Even though the sun was down it was still hot, probably 90ish, and I took a moment in the creek to repeat what I'd been doing whenever I'd had the opportunity over the past 17 hours dipping my hat, arm sleeves, splashing water on my face.  We started the climb back up out of there, and he would point out someone ahead of us, "there's your next target,".  Pretty sure I told him to shut up more than once, I'd catch them when I caught them, but I knew he was right in pushing me.  We hit the pavement of Bath Road, and he told me once we reached the top we were going to run the mile or so into the Foresthill Aid Station so run we did, passing 2-3 runners along the way.

Foresthill is the biggest aid station along the course, as it's really the only one in civilization (no offense, Michigan Bluff residents!).  There are cars parked all along the main frontage road through town, and the runners move through for almost a mile before making the left turn onto Cal St. and heading back onto the trail.  Well, I should say earlier in the day there would have been cars parked all along - by the time I got there just after 11:00, it was mostly deserted.  Guess that's what happens when you are 30 minutes behind 30-hour pace and only 40 minutes ahead of the cutoff.  Jimmy and I were met by Robbie and Wally, and after a quick stop in the actual aid station we headed down the road to were Heather was set up, and Wally and I got prepared to head down into the iconic Cal St. trail into the American River Canyon.
Mile 62, 18:04.  268 of 288

Cutting it close
Wally and I had never run together before, and he had never experienced anything like this I'm sure.  I took the lead, and he did his best to keep me moving and distracted, chatting and telling stories.  Of course within a mile or so we were so distracted we missed a turn and went a hundred yards or so off course. Thankfully another runner and pacer came along and saw us and called us back, as that could have ended the effort right there about 63 miles in!  I had planned to put on my Garmin charger and wear it through the night to keep it going, but after it died on the way into Michigan Bluff I just took it off and gave it to Heather, so I was reliant on Wally to let me know how we were doing.  Being a numbers guy, he was throwing them out there!  Net net was that just to stay even and 30 minutes ahead of the cutoff at the river, we had five hours to cover the 16 miles.  It's almost embarrassing to look at that now - 18 minute miles on a largely downhill section of trail!  But my stomach had never really recovered so I was struggling to get calories down, my quads were sore, my IT band was acting up a bit.  And I was just damned tired, mentally and physically.  I think we moved pretty well down to the first aid station at Cal 1, the first 4 miles or so.  Just having the chance to share some miles with him, chatting away, got me running a bit more than I had been.  But when we left Cal 1 I hit another mental and physical low point, not helped by the fact that much of the uphill on this Cal St. occurs during this 5 miles, and we pretty much just hiked.  I wasn't doing the math well, but I'm sure Wally was getting nervous as I slowly moved along.  And for good reason, as we stumbled into Cal 2 at 2:15 AM, with just 15 minutes to go on the cutoff.

I got some soup down and I think that combined with just straight up fear got me moving a bit more again, and I was able to run more on the way down through Cal 3 and to the river.  It's always so much longer than you think to get there, as you run just above and along the river for a good three miles before the final short climb and descent into Rucky Chucky aid station.  Wally just kept encouraging me, telling me I was moving at an ok pace when I was running, and keeping me moving forward.

Crossing the American River, 78 miles in, 22 to go.  Jim is obviously fired up and ready keep me moving.
pc Facchino Photo

So you're not gonna crack
No you're never gonna crack
Run my baby run my baby run
-Run Baby Run, Garbage

"I'm going to be mean"
I had hoped to be at the river around 1:00 AM, but it was almost 4:30 when I actually arrived.  Jim was back to pace me again, and Robbie was still awake as well helping me to get in and out of there quickly.  24 hours after check in, and these guys are still awake and out here for me.  Amazing.  I sat on the ground for a few minutes to re-lube my feet and change socks, as I'd started to feel some more hot spots during the last 16 miles of mostly downhill.  And then it was down to the river and onto the rafts that were to take us to the other side - this winter's atmospheric river has just had too much water to allow crossing on foot.  I actually was kind of happy about that as I had done that three times before as a pacer, and it was kind of nice not to have to worry about wet feet.
Mile 78, 23:26.  262 of 270 (yes, that means 99 runners were out by this point)

Jim had warned me during the stretch from Michigan to Foresthill that he was going to push me, and that I probably wouldn't like him very much.  He's pretty much the most affable, likable guy ever...yet I knew he was right.  I was glad we had the two mile climb up the road to Green Gate to start, as I was still hiking pretty well.  But once we got through there and back on to the rolling single track heading towards ALT I knew I'd have to run as much as I could.  We passed through Green Gate still about 30 minutes up on the cutoff, and onto the trail we went.  He led the way and told me I had to keep pace with him as much I could, so I tried to just shut up and grunt through it.  This had been such a great section of trail during the Memorial Day training runs, so runnable.  I kept trying to remind myself of that as we alternated running and walking as fast as I could.  We had figured we had to do 15 minute miles to the finish to make it, and Jim set his watch to beep every mile and every 15 minutes, and would reset it regularly - that gave the audible signal of whether I was ahead or behind.  But I also started to figure out he was probably fudging the numbers here and there to try and keep me moving quicker, some things just weren't making sense.  But considering I'd been on my feet now for 25 hours, I didn't argue.  I also knew I couldn't afford to give up any time, this was going to be close.

Jim was also on me to keep trying to eat and drink, as he knew I was way behind there.  My stomach, which hadn't been happy but had kept things down since the climb up Devil's Thumb the day before (yes, the day before!!!) started to get worse as the effort level and temperature increased.  At aid stations I was strictly drinking broth and Coke, hoping that would give me enough to keep trudging forward, and Jim would encourage me to try and get down a shot block or gel between.  Somewhere around mile 84 I tried to take a salt tab, gagged, and puked again, emptying everything I had choked down for the past hour or two.  We finally got to ALT a few minutes later, and I tried to start over with more broth and Coke.  But we were back down to 20 minutes against the cutoff here, so it was chug them down as quickly as possible and get out of there.   Only three other runners made it out of there after me and before that 7:00 AM cutoff, while 11 others saw their epic efforts end here.
Mile 85.2, 25:40, 250 of 253

It was starting to warm up again quickly at this point, and I tried one more time to get down a shot block.  As I tried to chew it my stomach let me know it was simply not welcome, and I puked again.  Jim said if I was going to puke, I couldn't stop to do it anymore but had to do it on the move!  At that point I realized I had some ginger gummy candies, and I was able to keep one of those in my mouth to dissolve, which kept me from puking any more.  Ok, maybe once more.  Who pukes on the second day of a 100?

More Nut Butter!
The other big issue I had been having was, well let's just call it chafing in the undercarriage.  Every aid station I was applying more Squirrels Nut Butter, but after 27 hours of salty sweating my compression shorts had the texture of 80-grit sand paper.  As we finally pulled into Quarry Road at mile 90.7 I saw Hal Koerner there running the aid station, and chuckled at the thought of the story of his epic UTMB bonk, complete with similar chaffing that had him use a ziploc bag to try and alleviate the issue.  I was going to ask him if he had one (I had a little sense of humor left), but didn't get the chance - Jim had told me I had 1 minute to sit, then it was out of there.  Every step was painful, but no time to worry about that.  We had one big climb left, up to Highway 49, and we knew we were going to give a couple of minutes back to the course and the cutoffs there.

And what a climb it was.  Of course it's nothing like what we had done the day before in the canyons, maybe 900' over a couple of miles, but after 91 miles it was such a struggle.  Jim kept up a power hiking pace that would have been oh so easy on a training day, yet he kept having to slow down to keep me in sight.  I knew once we finally crossed that road there'd be just one more short climb up to the meadow at Cool, and then the final climb to Robie, so I just kept focusing on that.  One foot in front of the other, you're almost there.

We crossed over the highway where the aid station used to be, and started up to Cool.  We heard someone yelling out in pain, almost crying, and came upon a runner cramping up hard on the trail.  Her pacer was cajoling her to keep moving, but her legs weren't having it.  Jim said under his breath, "you're doing better than her.  Let's go!"  She ended up crossing the finish line about 10 minutes after the cutoff, what a display of guts and determination.

"You've got this"
I've had several people tell me that the meadow in Cool is their favorite part of the course.  In almost all of those cases they were either hitting it as the sun was going down on their way to a top 10 finish, or as the sky was just starting to brighten as they headed in for a sub-24.  When I got there at 9:15 AM, it was just hot.  We saw Mike Hernandez, the volunteer who had been such a big part of Jim's 2012 Western States, and he recognized us as "the Oregon guys".  He looked at his watch and told me, "you've got this, you'll finish in about 29:50, but you have to get out of here."  Time in to the aid station, 9:15 AM.  Time out, 9:15 AM.
Mile 94.3, 28:15, 247 of 251
Near Pointed Rocks aid station, feeling the pull of the track

I'd been so stressed for so long, pushing for what my mind could convince my body to give that I don't think I really let myself dwell on the very distinct possibility of not finishing.  It was like a cloud hovering over me, or maybe considering my physical appearance more like the cloud of dirt hovering around Pig Pen from Peanuts, but I had just tried to ignore it.  I just kept telling myself there was no way I could let down my parents, Heather, Kylie, Jim, Rob, Wally, Jared, and everyone else rooting for me through all the years of training.   My dad had repeated to me in the days leading up to the race, "you're doing this for you, nobody else."  But that just wasn't true.  And those words from Mike just led to that cloud finally lifting. It was this huge feeling of relief - I was going to do this.  We were going to do this.

Down the trail to No Hands Bridge we went, hikers and dog walkers giving "good jobs" and "almost there's" as we came across them.  My legs were pretty much done at this point, and my "running" down the hill was probably a little comical, but I was doing what I could.   We hit the aid station there, and as the heat was picking up and I knew the rest of the trail was pretty exposed, I loaded up one more time with ice - in my arm sleeves, in the front pockets of my shirt.  I probably should have tried some down my shorts to quiet the fire going on down there.  Then it was up toward Robie Point, more hikers and people just starting their days, some aware of the race and knowing what they were seeing when they looked at this wreck of a man, others with confused looks.  I asked Jim what time it was.  "We have to keep moving," he said, and I snapped back, "WHAT TIME IS IT?!?!".  I think (I hope) that was the only time I snapped at him out there.  I got a little more water over my head with a double, walking sponge bath at Robie Point aid station as the volunteers moved with me, dousing me while I hiked up the hill.  Then it was into the neighborhoods of Auburn, people out on their lawns, on the street, cheering runners on.  Cheering me on.  I tried to acknowledge everyone, but I kept getting choked up.  Up the final climb, and then left onto the final downhill to the track.

Add caption
A few hundred yards into it we see Wally(!), who had come up so he could alert the rest of the crew of my impending arrival.  After the race, I read through the over 100 texts that my crew had exchanged during the event.  I've read those over and over again in the past two weeks.  I know from 2012 with Jim how that felt, waiting on the road for him to show up, time ticking down.  And then there it was, the track.  I had taken pictures three years in a row after lottery disappointments of that entrance, of those WS100 emblazoned footprints painted on the asphalt.  It was finally my turn.

I came down the ramp and saw my friends Eric (Ultrarunnerpodcast) and Karl (Ultrarunning Magazine, and again a 24-hour finisher here), and high fived them.  And then I saw Rob, and there was Kylie waiting for me to run with me and finish this thing out.  I'm glad she had the GoPro going, because I honestly don't remember much after that.  I asked how she was doing, and where my parents were.  I saw another local Marin runner on the bend of the track who gave me a big "right on man!".  And I finally heard Tropical John's voice, but with the clapping and cheering and, really, the tears welling up in me, I couldn't hear what he was saying.  I think I heard, "from Novato, California, Sean Grove" at some point.  And then it was done.
No words.  pc Facchino Photo
Mile 100.2, 29:47:41.  244 out of 248 finishers, 369 starters.

I was in a bit of a daze for the next few minutes.  I shook hands with board member Charles Savage, who had given me some advice at check in on Friday, and a few others.  Medical asked if I needed anything.  And then I found Heather and we shared the biggest hug.  I stumbled out into the infield of the track, and finally collapsed on the ground, and was again overwhelmed with emotion for a moment.  The crew all gathered, my parents made their way over from the bleachers, and we were all together again.  These special people that had sacrificed their time to help me reach this crazy goal.  I'll be forever grateful to all of them.

After a few minutes, Heather asked if I needed anything.  I realized it was 10:56 AM, the final few minutes of the race and replied "help up, so I can go see the last finishers."  I really didn't expect that I'd personally be a part of "The Golden Hour", the greatest time and the greatest place on the planet - the Placer High track from 10:00-11:00 AM on the last Saturday in June.  No matter, I wasn't going to miss witnessing the end of it myself.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

I Am Ready

As I've written about before, the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run became a bit of an obsession for me back in 2012.  To someday be at that start line in Squaw the last weekend in June, the white bib pinned to my shorts, staring up at the climb up to the Escarpment while awaiting the shotgun blast signalling the start.

Three straight years of qualifying and attending the December lottery ended in disappointment, but it gave me the opportunity to run more races, and to learn more about myself and this sport.  I knew my time would come eventually, and I drove up to Placer High this past December hoping this might be the year.  And then Tim Twietmeyer called my name:

Since the Cascade Crest 100 in August, my running had been a little sporadic.  I was still getting out and enjoying time on the trails, but without any real focus.  After the lottery I had a trip to Oregon planned in late December, and a work trip to Vegas in early January, so I just focused on trying to get a little more consistent for that six week period with a plan to begin training in earnest in mid-January.

The break had also given me some time to re-evaluate my running and training.  If I'm honest, while I've learned more about how to run ultras, I haven't really improved my fitness much the past few years.  Looking back, that shouldn't be much of a surprise as I've lacked year-round consistency, and have pretty much just gone out and run easy most of the time.  I'd been reading Jason Koop's Training Essentials for Ultrarunning, and even had the chance to chat with him a bit up at the Ouray aid station during Hardrock last year.  So I decided to adopt his principles which are essentially:
  1. Train the least specific aspects farthest away, most specific closest to event
  2. You must incorporate all three key intensities during a training block - SteadyState, Tempo, Intervals
  3. Work strengths closes to race, and weaknesses further away

This was a departure for me, but led to planning out a three-week block of vo2 max-focused intervals (2 x per week) in January-February, a short Endurance phase to ramp up my long run for Way Too Cool, a Tempo phase that went up to The Canyons 100K, and then the final several weeks leading into States were to be Endurance/SteadyState focused

Way Too Cool played out like I had hoped, I'd almost describe it as uneventful", which is exactly what I was looking for.  I ended up at 6:08:21, 14 minutes off my PR from 2015. But considering the muddy conditions and an extra .3-.4 of a mile (including a climb) on the course due to a washed out section of trail, I was really pleased with the result.  The purpose was to get in a long, supported training run, practice my nutrition (gel every 30 minutes plus 1 bottle/hour electrolyte drink), and come out uninjured.  So I considered the day a success.

Training went pretty well after Way Too Cool, and I ramped up to The Canyons 100K feeling pretty good.  If you haven't run that race, I'd highly recommend it.  I've run it the past two years, camping out in the back of the car behind Foresthill School, the race just has a cool vibe and provides the chance to cover 30+ miles of the Western States course.
Dirtbagging in the Duckmobile
This year brought the added bonus of Eric from Ultrarunnerpodcast and his lawn darts camping out beside me, and we threw those weapons back and forth across the lawn while sipping beers and telling stories for a couple of hours - a great way to relax before a big race.  And it is a big race, with over 15,000' of elevation gain over 63 miles.

Other than some blown quads on Cal St. thanks to taking the descent into Volcano Canyon a little quicker than I should have, the race went well for me and I came in at 16:40:53, over an hour and 20 minutes faster than the prior year.  A solid, long effort in my build up.

I recovered well, especially considering I had thought about dropping to the 50K going into the week to be sure I could keep training going.  After a single down week, I put in four straight weeks of 10-12 hours and decent (5800'-8800') vertical.  I did develop some pain in the back of my knee during the first 34-mile day of the Memorial Day training runs, so I took Sunday off but was able to run the 22 miles on Monday with no real issues. 
Robinson Flat looking a little different than I've seen it on race day
The pain in the back of the knee crept up anytime I went over 90 minutes, so after one more 20 miler I tapered a little more aggressively than I had planned.  I also got treatment from Dr. Chappy Wood, asking him to throw everything at it - electrostim, Graston, lasers, even cupping.  Along with 7-8 sauna sessions and a couple of runs in 90 degree heat while bundled up head to toe, I've done everything I can to be ready for this thing.  
110 degrees in the car
This has been the most consistent, focused training block I've put in since I started running ultras in 2013, the year after I first experienced Western States as a crew member and pacer.  I've dropped 20 pounds since January, rolled out my troublesome calves and IT bands daily, and put in 119 miles on the actual course.  As I stand here writing, hitting F5 on the Auburn weather forecast page every few hours (100 degrees on Saturday!), 2 days and 10 hours from the starting gun, I of course have doubts.  I'm scared.  I'm nervous. I'm excited!  But most importantly, I just keep forcing my mind back to the same mantra - I Am Ready.


Monday, September 5, 2016

Tall Trees and Tough Trails - The Cascade Crest 100

It was about 1:00 PM on Sunday and I'd been running and hiking since 9:00 AM.....on Saturday.  I struggled up the final steep climb of the race going into mile 90, stopping repeatedly to catch my breath.  "Get your heart out of your ears and back into your chest," said my buddy Surf, who had been pacing me since mile 55.  We finally hit the top, with 6 miles of the Silver Creek Trail ahead of us to the final aid station, and I remembered the runners guide describing this section of trail as "steep downhill, moderate downhill, steep downhill."  If you've ever had IT band issues, as I'd been dealing with for the past 30 miles, then you know that's not what you want to hear.  My slow pace up and down the six short but steep climbs of the Cardiac Needles from miles 81-86 had put my pre-race time goal out of reach, but Surf maintained some ability to do math and determined that we still had a chance to beat my previous 100 mile finish time.  A chance for a PR, but I'd have to pick it up a bit through this section.  So I pushed down the hill, "running" when the trail was smooth, and painfully picking my way down the steeper sections.  When my watch finally beeped to indicate the mile split, I looked down and laughed out loud - I had been trying hard, and it wasn't even the slow pace I needed to average for the final 10 miles.

I slowed back down and tried to even out my effort, as now it was about just getting to the finish as efficiently as possible.  But that short push had set me back.  I'd been taking in calories, but only 100-200 per hour, not the 250 or more I knew I needed.  And I couldn't stop drinking.  I finished my 1.5 liter bladder in an hour, and was stopping to pee every twenty minutes.  I took another salt tab, trying to get my system back on track.  I had a bottle left and tried to slow down on the drinking, but I was so thirsty.  It was becoming a warm afternoon, but I realized my shirt was totally dry as I was no longer sweating.  Are my fingers puffy?  I wasn't sure, but it seemed like they might be.  As I kept moving slowly down the hill, I could just feel myself getting hotter and hotter.  I finally told Surf that something was wrong, but that I just needed to take some time at the next aid station at mile 96 to cool myself off.  Ice in my pack, ice in my arm sleeves, ice on my neck, ice water.  I poured the last of my water over my head, and as we started to hear the aid station off in the distance, Surf ran ahead to get me some ice water.  A few minutes later he came running back up the trail.  "They're out of ice," he calmly said.  My heart started to sink and my head started to spin just a bit.  I didn't come this far to only come this far.....

Pre Race

Karl Meltzer has famously said "100 miles is not that far." Considering the 'ole Speedgoat is out right now trying to set the record on the 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail, that may be true for him. But for most it's a long, long way. It's a distance I've only covered once before, at Pine to Palm in 2014. But after not running a 100 last year I knew I wanted to try another in 2016, so after being shut out of Western States (again) and Hardrock I threw my name in for the Cascade Crest lottery early in the year.  As a qualifier for both of the above races the popularity of this old school ultra seems to be growing, so it wasn't a big surprise in February that my lottery streak continued - now 0-7 in various ultra lotteries! But I was in the 20s on the wait list, so the odds looked pretty good that I'd end up getting in. And after submitting my qualifier and trail work information in June, on August 1st I was officially entered in the race.

Handies Peak
The view from 14,058' Handies Peak on the Hardrock 100 Course
I had recovered pretty well from Canyons 100K back in May, with no lingering achilles or IT band issues. After a few weeks off I ramped back up through June, and had the opportunity to once again pace Surf at Western States. I then took advantage of my daughter being on vacation with her mother for a couple of weeks to head out on a "dirtbag runcation" road trip in July.  Such an incredible adventure with runs and hikes in Flagstaff, around Silverton and on the Hardrock 100 course (highlighted by going up Handie's Peak at 14,058'), and in Moab on the way back home, all while sleeping in the car and camping for free every night.  What an opportunity to experience real mountains and trails unlike any I've ever been on, not to mention spectating an amazing race at Hardrock.  Combined with good consistency and solid efforts earlier and later in the month, and July was my biggest month ever in terms of miles, hours, and total elevation gain.  After a two week taper I was feeling pretty good and confident in my training heading into the start.

Cascade Crest Elevation Profile
These things never quite capture what it's going to be like!

Start to Tacoma Pass (Miles 0-25)

The start was the typical nervous energy as 164 runners and their family and friends milled about.  The unusually civilized 9:00 AM start allowed for a more relaxed morning routine than normal, and after the pre-race meeting and yet another porta-potty stop we lined up and were off.  We ran down a road for a bit, and as always I started comfortably at the back of the pack.  As we transitioned onto the trail I chatted with fellow Bay Area runner Chihping Fu who I'd seen at other races but had never met before.  It didn't take long before we began the initial 3,000'+ climb up to Goat Peak which would take us to almost the 10 mile mark and the Cole Butte Aid Station.  The miles ticked off slowly but easily, mostly power hiking before we finally hit some downhill switchbacks that allowed me to open up the stride and run for a bit.  Of course that only lasted for a couple of miles before it was back up, up, up to the Blowout Mountain Aid Station, still feeling good and enjoying the cool weather.
Cascade Crest Start
8:59 AM, let's do this!

Two things that had me anxious going into the race, besides of course the sheer enormity of the challenge of 100 miles, were bees and the Snoqualmie Tunnel.  Runners from previous years had reported running through swarms and suffering 5, 10, 15 bee stings, and most occurred on the section that was coming up.  I'm not allergic but I'm no fan, so I ran slightly behind runners in front of me, thinking I'd get a warning yell if we hit a heavy bee section and I could try and sprint through.  At one point I was cruising along some rolling single track, the last runner in a group of six when all of a sudden "zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz" and BANG BANG, I took a sting on each leg.  One was on the outside of the right leg near the knee, and the other was right above the ankle bone on the left leg.  I let out a yell and took off, passing a couple of the runners in front of me - none of whom had gotten stung!  I guess they had gotten them riled up just enough to take out their aggression on me.

We soon hit the iconic Pacific Crest Trail, where we would spend the next 50K or so.  I kept an eye (and an ear) out for more bees while we cruised along, moving well (10:30-12:30 miles) on the downhill section after taking the suggested quick detour to the peak of Blowout Mountain.  It was foggy and cloudy up there so we missed out on some views, and the runners just in front of me had seen a military jet fly by - below where we were up on the mountain!  But the fog kept it nice and cool, perfect running weather.

Cascade Crest Single Track
Feeling good on the PCT (photo Glenn Tachiyama)
The first crew aid station was Tacoma Pass, just over 25 miles in.  I had created a chart with 28, 30, and 34 hour splits to give me an idea of how I was moving, and as I hit the aid station I was 6:30 into the race, about 10 minutes behind the 30 hour pace splits - pretty much where I expected I'd be.  It was great to see my parents and Surf, I was feeling great, energy was good, and other than the bee stings nothing really hurt.  As I would do each time I had access to my crew or a drop bag I cleaned and re-lubed my feet, changed socks, and filled the bladder in my pack.  Then it was back down the trail.

Tacoma Pass to Hyak (Miles 25-55)

Cascade Crest Tacoma Pass Aid Station
Trying to keep the feet happy
This next section of PCT was still mostly nice and smooth, starting with an almost 4 mile climb out of Tacoma.  At one point we could hear cheering, but I knew that we were still at least two miles out from the next aid station.  The trail dropped into a clearing, and there we found a real trail party.  A PCT trail crew had set up "The Gauntlet", with beers lined up on both sides of the trail and a table full of beers and whiskey at the end.  I smiled and ran through to some cheers, and when I grabbed a Ranier off the table and threw a little down, the cheers got louder.  Thanks for being out there all, fun distraction!  The trail continued on, mostly rolling with some moderate climbs, and it took a little less than three hours to get to the next aid at Snowshoe Butte.  Just over eight hours for a 50K, pretty slow but faster than my first half at Canyons 100K by an hour and right about where I hoped to be.  It was another hour or so to my next drop bag at Stampede Pass where I took care of the feet again, and set back off on the PCT about 6:15 PM with the goal of getting to the next aid station without pulling out the headlamp.

Cascade Crest Views
Incredible views
We hit some pretty heavily wooded sections through here as the sun set, and continued to see PCT thru hikers who would cheer us on.  Many of them were starting to set up camp for the night, getting fires going and making dinner, which was starting to look pretty good after eleven hours on the trail.  I spent much of this section on my own, on occasion catching up to a runner or group running together and passing by when I had the chance.  I caught up to three or four runners moving together, with a thru hiker wearing a full pack keeping up with them!  I followed behind for a few minutes before finally passing by, and came into Meadow Mountain aid station at mile 43 just before dark.  As I was getting ready to leave, that group of 3-4 runners and the thru hiker came in to the aid station - we couldn't drop the guy!

I left with the headlamp turned on and headed out into the night .  The trail turned more technical here, and I started to get a little frustrated with how slowly I was moving as everything was seemingly steep or rooty or rocky.  I think I got a little behind on calories as well, as I was starting to get tired of the Tailwind in my hydration pack and anything sweet in general.  I passed by a campsite with thru hikers near Mirror Lake, laughing and enjoying a fire, and I started to wonder why the hell I was doing this.  Another series of climbs, then I dropped into Olallie Meadow aid station a little after 10:00 PM. Scott McCoubrey handed me a plate of pierogis at the aid station, and I'll be damned if they weren't the most delicious things I'd ever eaten.  After a second helping, I headed off and down a super steep and rough dirt road, spirits lifted again, looking for the ribbons marking where we would plunge down into the trees.

Snoqualmie Tunnel
Snoqualmie Tunnel.  It's creepier in the dark (photo Doug MacDonald)
Yes, that's correct, at about mile 50 the course leaves the road and drops straight down a hill side.  Ropes guide you from tree to tree, with a grade my Strava file showed to range from -20% to -45%!  Pretty much straight down, and then it spits you out onto a fire road heading toward the tunnel.  The Snoqualmie Tunnel is a former railroad tunnel that runs 2.3 miles under 1,400' of mountain.  I had been a little concerned about feeling claustrophobic in here, so I turned off my headlamp, turned on my flashlight, and pointed it at the ground in front of my feet.  Just focus on that circle of light and run.  And I ran, and ran.  I saw a light up ahead and passed one runner, then another.  I started to realize that I was just too tired to worry about claustrophobia, and actually looked around a bit - enough to see the mice scampering about on the edges of the tunnel (what the hell do they eat in here?).  I passed a third runner and a few minutes later emerged on the other side, letting out a big "whoop" to alert the runners behind me that the end was near.  Then it was into the Hyak aid station, where my parents and Surf were waiting.

Hyak to Mineral Creek (Miles 55-75)

Hyak Aid Station
Surf ready for 55 miles of pacing duties
At Pine to Palm in 2014, I was at my lowest around the half way point.  I was struggling bad, and barely made the cutoff at mile 52.  But here I was at mile 55 feeling good, and looking forward to having some company on the trail as Surf was going to pace me from here.  I was about thirty minutes behind my projected 30-hour splits, but still moving well.  I put on some warmer clothes, said goodbye to my parents, and off we went.  After running on the frontage road for a bit we finally hit dirt again and began to climb, up 2,000' over four miles on a gravel road.  It was a bit of a grind, but it was good to have company out there.  We came into the Keechelus Ridge aid station, and I started to see the toll the miles were taking on some runners.  Three or four runners huddled around a propane heater, and one was asleep, wrapped up in a poncho.  An aid station volunteer woke him up, letting him know he'd been there for an hour and he might want to get moving.  I thought he might be done, but as we were running the four miles back down the hill he passed us, moving well.  Sometimes you just need a nap!

My body had been holding up pretty well so far, although my right IT band band had been tightening up a bit.  This long downhill finally put it over the edge, and I started to feel that all too familiar pain in the outside of the knee.  I was pretty happy that it had held up until the 100K mark, but I knew this was going to be with me for the final 40 miles or so, and the downhills were going to hurt.  Surf and I came into the Kachess Lake aid station at mile 69, where I put down some grilled cheese sandwiches before we were sent on our way and wished good luck.  Good luck??

The Lake Kachess Trail is better known as "The Evil Forest" or "The Trail From Hell".  I had seen bits and pieces of it thanks to the Ginger Runner's short film last summer, but that just doesn't do this section of "trail" justice.  Beginning with a log crossing six feet over the creek, it is basically four miles of scrambling.  Up steep but short climbs.  Under logs.  Over logs that have foot and hand holds chainsawed into them.  Down small drops.  Along the lake where the trail is completely washed out.  It was relentless!  The elevation profile looks totally benign, almost flat, but I sure don't remember any flat.  While we struggled through we tried to keep our sense of humor, laughing at how ridiculous this was.  As we neared the end the sun started to rise, bolstering the spirits a bit.  We finally crossed the creek that marked the end of this section and came into Mineral Creek aid station around 7:00 AM, beaten down more than just a little bit.

Lake Kachess
Sunrise over Lake Kachess, near the end of "The Trail From Hell"

Mineral Creek to the Finish (Miles 75-100)

I had a drop bag here, and again cleaned and lubed my feet and put on new socks.  A few other runners sat around, trying to regroup after that tough night time section.  I knew from the elevation profile that the final quarter of the race was basically 15 miles of climbing then descending back down to Easton over the final 10 miles.  Surf and I headed off on a long fire road section, chatting with other runners as we passed them or they caught up to us.  We finally came into No Name Ridge around 9:00 AM to find a beer garden set up, complete with volunteers in lederhosen.  I promised to come back for a beer after the race (sorry, Deby, that I didn't make it back!), and we headed off to tackle the Cardiac Needles.

The course guide describes this section as "the prettiest and toughest on the course".  Yup, the toughest section begins about 82 miles in!  We spent the next few hours climbing up some of the steepest, most relentless climbs I've ever experienced.  More than once, Surf or I looked up and exclaimed "you have to be kidding me!" as false summit after false summit kept us moving into the sky.  There were sections through here that reminded me of what I had seen of the Hardrock course, narrow, rocky trail carved into the mountain side with steep drop offs.  I definitely understood now why this race was a qualifier!  And like Hardrock, it was indeed beautiful, although I was too exhausted to take out my camera to capture any of it.  We finally came up to the Thorp Mountain aid station at mile 86, and were told to climb the half mile up to the summit and come back before getting any aid.  This was the only out and back section of this looped course, so it was cool to pass runners as we went up and back down, encouraging each other.  And the views were indeed worth it.  We spent a few minutes up there soaking it in, reminded yet again of why we do this.

Thorp Mountain
Climbing up Thorp Mountain (photo credit Glenn Tachiyama)

The short and steep climbs continued after Thorp, just relentless, before hitting the highest point of the course just before the French Cabin aid station at mile 89. I had noticed my thirst increasing, I figured as a result of the effort I was putting in to get up the climbs.  I struggled to handle the downhills thanks to the pain in my knee, and while I knew it was "only" 10 miles to go, that still meant over three hours of being out here.  And I was ready to be done.  So we pushed, to see if I could pick it up and make that PR....

Cascade Crest Silver Creek
Trying to cool off in Silver Creek
After Surf told me there was no ice left at Silver Creek aid station, I struggled in.  His wife and kids were there, which was a nice surprise, and my parents were waiting as well.  I sat in a chair and told them I wasn't doing well, totally overheated.  Before UTMB earlier that weekend, Zach Miller had posted on Instagram "I didn't come this far to only come this far.  #perseverence".  Those words bounced around my head, as I struggled to figure out how I was going to get myself back together.  I could hear people talking, and I was responding, but I wasn't right.  Then I heard Surf say, "get in the creek", and my crew helped me over and into the cold, cold waters of Silver Creek.  I sat there for several minutes, trying to get my core temperature under control.  I was helped back into the chair, and the amazing volunteers kept helping - bringing over Coke, putting wet rags on my neck and head.  I was starting to feel better, feel a bit more "normal", and a medical volunteer came over to talk to me.  He said "you sound coherent, so I think you're ok to continue", and that was such a relief - my biggest fear was that I would be held there for too long, or worse yet just not allowed to move on.

I finally got up and got ready to go, and my dad put his hand on my shoulder and said "finish strong."  After what I had just gone through I kind of chuckled and said something like, "oh, I'll finish," but he said again, "finish strong."  Surf and I headed off down the trail, but my equilibrium was so off that I was shivering so bad my teeth were audibly chattering!  It took a good ten minutes or so for my body to figure out what was going on and reach some sort of stasis, and then I was running again!  Shuffling, very slowly, but shuffling along.  Then bam!, I felt a sharp pain in my little left toe.  Oh come on!  I knew right away it was a blister, and I just couldn't put any weight on it.  We found a log to sit on, I took off my shoe and sock, removed a pin from my race bib and started punching holes in the blister.  That damned pin was the dullest one I've ever seen, so that sure felt good, but I was able to get it drained and get my sock and shoe back on.  Surf had needed to do the same thing at about mile 85 of Rio del Lago 100 last year when I was pacing him, and I remember telling him that the next few steps would be the most painful he'd ever taken.  And now it was my turn!  It took another 5-10 minutes of limping along before the toe numbed up enough that I could shuffle along again.  We hit the final road section and Surf mentioned we could still make it in under thirty two hours, and it's funny how stuff like that matters at mile 98.  I got passed by a couple of runners, but then managed to pick it up and run it in (a 12:22 mile 103 on Strava!).  We crossed the railroad tracks toward the finish line, Surf reached out to give me a fist bump, and I finally crossed at 31:54:29, 94th out of 127 finishers and 164 starters.

Cascade Crest 100 Finish
It is done

Huge thanks to Rich White and the rest of the Cascade Crest crew, and all of the incredible volunteers for taking care of us out there.  A really well run race, with a great old school vibe.  And of course thanks to my parents for being out there until midnight, and again the next day.  And to Surf for keeping me moving.  I pretty much always train by myself, so between pacing him at three 100s and now him pacing me here, I've now spent more hours on the trails with him than anyone else!

Cascade Crest Finish
"Thanks for the buckle, but I'd like to have some words with you about that Trail From Hell...."