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...."