45 miles into the 2014 Cascade Crest 100. My mind went back to a year ago, when I was dealing with my first race DNF: the prior year’s edition of the very same race. I had spent the better part of the year preparing for this race, but now I had come to terms with a second DNF. Maybe 100 milers just aren’t my thing? 50s had become simple enough; I should just stick to those. Running through the Snoqualmie Tunnel on the John Wayne Trail, I picked up the pace, despite the pain. My headlamp shown into the darkness, not yet finding the end to the dark, damp walls. I weaved between the water streaming from the ceiling of the old railway tunnel. It was time for this race to be over and I wanted that to happen ASAP. I just had to move forward for a couple of miles, then I could go home and get a good night’s rest.
However, my friends were waiting for me at the end of the tunnel with other ideas…
The Cascade Crest Start
The Cascade Crest starts at a oh-so-civilized 10 AM on Saturday. 170 or so runners meet at the Easton Firehouse, enjoy some huckleberry pancakes, try to hide the nerves, and get a race briefing. Afterwards, we head to the start to sing the Canadian and American National Anthems… then we run.
The race starts with a couple of flat miles on the John Wayne Trail. I made an effort to keep things slow and easy during this tempting stretch. Things quickly take a turn for the vertical, with the jeep roads and single track up to Goat Peak. Around here I caught up to Angel Mathis; about the same place I was running with her and Tim Mathis last year. Nerves were still pretty high and I had been running solo, so it was great to have a friendly face to run with for a bit.
Despite the forecast of a scorcher, we were fortunate to have some decent cloud cover. Nevertheless, the popsicles at the second aid station were just perfect! Sugar water in frozen form? Yes, please. A number of ascents and descents on open forest roads finally brought us to tree cover and the beginning of the Pacific Crest Trail.
The Pacific Crest Trail
There’s nothing bad I can say about the PCT. It’s a gem. There are lots of runnable stretches (plenty of tough climbs, too), soft trails, evergreen canopies, and beautiful views. While not overly technical, there are plenty of roots and rocks at places, and this is where I started my theme of accidentally kicking things with my right big toe. I didn’t think much of that at the time, but would pay for it later.
Tacoma Pass had an aid station I was really looking forward to hitting. Eric Sach and The Balanced Athlete run this one – and they do a great job with this potentially crowded station. It’s a small opening on the trail and the first access point for crews, but I still felt like I had plenty of room to grab my food (delicious turkey/avocado, avocado, or hummus wraps), take a breath, and get moving again. It was also great to see my crew for the first time, especially since I wasn’t expecting to see anyone at this aid station. My wife, Alison, and Phil were there. I didn’t need anything, yet – but it was nice to have some support.
More of the same to get to Stampede Pass, which was the next big aid station. Here was the first drop bag, so I could replenish my pack and pick up my trekking poles. After the failure of my back during last year’s race, I had been practicing with trekking poles this year, with the goal of using them for the last 70 miles of this race. I was still feeling solid, but definitely appreciated having these now. Jeff and Kelly joined the crew here, and they were phenomenal. I sat down to rest for a couple of minutes while they moved new food into my pack and filled my water bottles. This aid station was run by Phil Kochik and Seven Hills Running Shop. I know a lot of the Seven Hills crew and try to hit their group runs often, so it was great to see so many smiling faces here, greeting me by name, eager to help. Still feeling good, I headed back out…
On the way to the Meadow Mountain aid station, I started hearing lot of yelling/cheering. This was pretty frequent and I was hearing it for about 40 minutes. I was a bit confused, as I couldn’t imagine there were so many runners out in this area – and it sounded a little rowdy for an aid station. I eventually reached the source: the infamous Cascade Crest Beer Gauntlet. A group of locals who do amazing work on trail maintenance, and who show up on race day to cheer us on and tempt us with cold brew. They were so enthusiastic that I had to take the offered Rainier and have a sip. I was not expecting it to be so delicious; I had to quickly hand it back and keep moving!
The climb up to Mirror Lake (mile 42 – 44) was where things really started to fall apart for me last year – and, unfortunately, this year was starting to look the same way. The back was tightening up, my toe was screaming, and my legs were starting to feel wobbly. I was here just around sunset, so it was time to get my headlamp on and figure out what to do next. I ran into Angel again here and was bummed to hear that she was injured and would need to drop. The descent is technical and challenging in daylight; nighttime is exponentially tougher. I was solo on this stretch, which was giving me too much time to think about how the race was falling apart. Before I got to Olallie Meadow (mile 47), I had come to terms with dropping at Hyak (mile 52). I tripped and slid my way down to the John Wayne Trail, where I aimed for the tunnel and just ran to go home.
The Turning Point
At around 10:30 PM I showed up at Hyak with my full crew waiting for me (Greg had joined). Kelly was ready to start pacing and everyone was excited to see me. I just sat down and shook my head: “This isn’t going to happen, guys.” Greg pulled my shoes off and got my new shoes ready, while telling me they’d get some food in me and get me ready to go back out there. I argued, but was consistently told I’d be back out on the trail in a few. Alison worked on trying to get some of the knots out of my back. I took a couple of tylenol. I was angry that nobody was listening to me; I was done and didn’t want to run anymore. For whatever reason, I ended up back on my feet, shuffling out of the aid station with Kelly. I couldn’t talk, I was so mad and in so much pain. Kelly tried to keep my spirits up by talking to me. Then, something funny happened… I started talking back. Then, I lifted up my head and stood up straight. I started making jokes. I even asked Kelly if we could pick up the pace for a little bit. I was back. I didn’t really understand how, but I was back in the race.
We climbed up 7 miles of forest roads to the Kachelus Ridge aid station, where I had dropped last year. I wanted to get in and out of this aid station. I sat to drink some soup, then we left. At this point I was also running with first-time 100-miler Matthew Abel and his pacer, Ben. They were great company and the four of us ran in the dark together for a long time. Every step I took from now on was the furthest I’d ever run.
Things took another turn for the bad after Kachess Lake during the Trail from Hell. I had never run that trail at night and now understand how it got its name! We got to the Mineral Creek with me ready to drop again. Once again, Greg was having none of that. I layed down on my back under some blankets for about 10 minutes to help my back release. Greg tore into some of the more painful knots after that, then made me eat, got me standing, and we headed back up the trail. More forest roads ahead, and once again I was feeling good. We made short work of the seven mile climb to No Name Ridge, but the real work was about to start. Thorp Mountain and the Cardiac Needles layed ahead.
Really, the total climbing in this section isn’t too bad. What’s bad is that is comes from mile 80 to 88, is a series of extremely steep climbs, and has downhills so steep and loose that they can’t really be run. The first major climb is up Thorp Mountain to the ranger lookout. This is the signature spot of the race. We get up to almost 6,000 feet and the views were amazing. I was exhausted, but could still appreciate it.
Bringing it Home
There’s not much to say about the last 10 miles of the race. Everything hurt. I often questioned if this was worth it. Greg kept me moving. I had no way to go home other than to finish. The blisters on my feet had gotten pretty bad, as had the knots in my back. We were going downhill now, but the trail was so full of roots that I didn’t trust myself to safely get over them, so we moved slowly. Naturally, a freak thunderstorm came through and hailed on us with about seven miles to go. My body was no longer doing a good job of regulating temperature, so I got pretty cold, pretty quickly.
A lot was a blur, now. I was mentally done and not a good conversationalist anymore, but Greg kept trying to keep me positive. Eventually we made it back to Easton and to the railroad tracks that headed to the firehouse (and finish line). I started to see friendly faces: My wife, Alison; my crew, Jeff, Kelly, and Phil; friends, Tim and Angel; many others. I could hear Rich White, the race director, announcing my arrival as a first-time 100-miler. I forgot about everything for a good 20 seconds as I cruised into the finish, accepting my high-five, Cascade Crest belt buckle, and sweatshirt. I was expecting to be emotional at the finish, but I honestly had nothing left for that. I shuffled to a chair, smiled at everyone, and closed my eyes.
This thing is no joke. Here’s a breakdown of the 21,000 feet of elevation gain:
I had to set my watch to 1 minute polling intervals, to keep the battery lasting long enough. That lost some mileage, but you can see the general route.