2013 Cascade Crest 100: Running a First Hundred Miler
|Finish - all photos stolen from Adam Gaston|
A Quick Race Summary:
The race itself is an old-school ultra on its 15th running - Washington's signature 100 with no prize money, total volunteer organization, and a super tough mountain course in the heart of the Cascades about an hour outside of Seattle. If you finish in less than 24 hours it really means something, because the route has 21,550 feet of elevation gain (and loss), with the vast majority being on single track trail, about a quarter on forest service road, and a couple of miles of paved road. Every race course has features that give it a unique identity, and some of the major landmarks include:
1) 30 miles of beautiful rolling terrain on the Pacific Crest Trail. This year one of the most memorable moments was that three PCT through hikers jumped onto the course at about mile 50 when they happened upon the race, and finished without any gear beyond what they could pick up at aid stations!
2) A two mile railway tunnel at mile 50. Most people get there after dark, but it's pitch black no matter when you pass through. It was decorated with spooky skeletons and candles to add a bit of character, and some rats were kind enough to show up and cheer on runners as well.
3) The "Trail from Hell". Not actually that bad, in my opinion, but a lot of people hate it. It's a flat, but really rocky and rooty 5 mile section starting at mile 68. Most people traverse it in the dark, and there are several dicey stream crossings. Also one of the cooler parts of the course because it runs along Lake Kachess and frequently has great moon-views if its a clear night.
4) The Cardiac Needles - a seemingly never-ending series of short, steep climbs so called, I assume, because they induce heart attacks. I've 'run' that section three times, and for me they are in fact as bad as advertised. Most good views require tough climbs though, and in this case the Needles take you to the most beautiful part of the course, so they aren't without redeeming value. Particularly...
5) Thorpe Mountain. The best view on the course comes at mile 85, right in the middle of the Needles, when you climb Thorpe. There are sweeping views of Mount Rainier and Kachess Lake, and race photographer extraordinaire Glenn Tachiyama has traditionally been at the top taking photos like this, although this year the view will be even better because there were no clouds and Rainier was on full display. The first time I saw him this year, he was hiding behind a rock several hundred feet up, laughing at me and taking pictures while I sat down to try to catch my breath mid-climb. I can't wait to see how those turn out!
6) Aid stations with tradition. Captaining an aid station at Cascade is an honor that you have to earn, and volunteers come back year to year so each station has unique character. The grizzled old mountain men are at the basic station at Goat Peak, the efficient pros are at Tacoma Pass (headed up by Eric Sach), the OG Washington ultra-legends are at Olallie Meadows, with Scott McCoubrey handing out homemade pierogies, every year at Hyak it's Christmas in August, and at No Name Ridge, there's always a surprise theme - this year it was a tattoo parlor.
The Lead-Up to the Race
Even getting to the start line of a 100 requires a long, complicated and arduous process, and for Angel and I it started a week before Cascade Crest last year when we happened to run into Adam Gaston at Boundary Bay Brewery in Bellingham. It was a really random event, because we didn't know each other that well at the time, and neither of us live in Bellingham - we were in town midway through the RSVP Bike ride eating dinner with a friend, and he was meeting his family there. They were running late, so we invited him to sit down with us and have a beer. One thing led to another, and the next Saturday, I was leaving work at midnight to drive to the middle of woods to pace Adam for the last 50k of his race. I came away from the experience with a huge amount of respect for Adam and the other runners, witnessing first hand the series of issues (blistering, vomiting, sleep deprivation, injuries, etc.) that one has to work through in order to complete this kind of event, and the extreme mental toughness required to keep oneself moving as quickly as possible for a day or more through mountainous terrain. But I didn't necessarily feel like it was something I needed to do myself. I'd run one 50 mile race at that point, and had a great experience, but I saw that a 100 brings up a whole different set of challenges.
Angel volunteered to sweep part of the course in 2012 (which secured her a guaranteed entry for the 2013 race - foreshadowing!), and afterwards we both talked about our experience in positive terms, and with a sense of awe for the people who were able to run it, but agreed that it would take a crazy amount of work to get to the point to be able to complete a race like Cascade. Several months went by, and on a fateful day Angel came home from work and said "I think I'm going to sign up for Cascade Crest. I was sitting at work today thinking about what it would take to get ready for a 100, and that I would have to take months off of work just for the training. Then I realized that this Summer we're going to be taking 6 weeks off to do the Camino de Santiago across Spain. If we run that, it's going to be like 100 miles a week of training! There's no way we'll ever have a better chance to finish then now." And so, when registration opened, we signed up. I ended up on the waiting list, but did all of the training with Angel in the expectation that I would get in, as the vast majority of of waitlisters do. (To highlight the difficulty of getting to the start line for this sort of thing, there are 150 entrants to the race, and I was number 70 on the wait list with several others behind me also getting in, which means that a full 50% of people hoping to run were not able to for one reason or another.) We ran/hiked between 110 and 145 miles a week on the Camino (really tuning in our nutrition strategies along the way), and finished out training with another 100 mile week (including 75 miles of the course) in the Cascades and an overnight, really tough, Mt Teneriffe/Mt Si run with the grizzled Cascade veteran Arthur Martineau. We lucked into only a couple of minor injuries through the whole process, and showed up at the starting line on Saturday having gone through essentially an ideal training process.
The Race Experience
In brief summary, the race went much better than expected for both Angel and I. Finishing a 100 at all is never a guaranteed prospect, no matter how well trained you are, and I was fully prepared that I might not make it. More than 1/5th of the entrants this year had to drop. And while finishing time isn't always a perfect measure of how things went, in our case it gives good perspective. We had both personally banked on finishing somewhere in the 29 - 31 hour range. I actually finished in 25:54, and Angel in 26:10. (We ran together for more than half of the race, and she also would've been sub-26, but she stopped to change into a pink unitard at the end to run through the finish with her party of crew and pacers who'd supported her through the race, as you do.) Our nutrition plans worked perfectly (which is in fact about 50% of the battle in this kind of race), neither of us struggled with GI issues, injuries or blisters, and we both felt remarkably good through the vast majority of the race. Without burdening you with too many details, I'll try to give you a sense of the experience by breaking it into sections.
1) Start to Tacoma Pass: Miles 0 - 23
Everyone I talked to about this race advised that, if you're trying to finish and enjoy the experience, it's impossible to start out too slow. The first 4 miles are an uphill slog of about 3500 feet, and it's easy to exhaust yourself early and ruin your chance of finishing from the very start of the race. As such, Angel and I both started out at the very back of the pack (Another runner asked what we were doing in the back with the old fat guys. Executing our brilliant race strategy!) After the first major climb, the course is on generally cushy rolling single track with nice alpine views for 45 miles, so I tried to settle in to a pace that I could keep up literally all day and enjoy the most relatively cruisy part of the course. Things generally seemed to be going well, but at about mile 15, I started to feel some scratching on the back of my right heel. Upon further investigation, I realized that my sock had developed a hole in the heel and I was starting to blister. (The one major rookie mistake I made was wearing old socks.) At that point it wasn't a major issue, but I've always heard that in 100s, if you don't tend to minor issues, they will inevitably become major. I slapped some Compeed on my heel, which generally addressed the problem, but I continued to have some discomfort to the point that I was a bit worried that my race might be in trouble if I didn't find a better fix - I hadn't dropped new socks until mile 52, and I knew by then my heel would be a bloody painful mess, and my mood would be shot. Fortuitously, the Tacoma Pass aid station was the next one up, and it was captained by Eric Sach, who owns the Balanced Athlete Running Store and is the foremost shoe and sock expert in the area. He immediately gave him a high five and asked if I needed anything. When I asked for advice about what to do about my heel (expecting some duct tape and vaseline-based solution), he immediately said "Do you want some new socks?" I said yes, thinking that it was amazing that the aid stations were stocked with socks for runners. I quickly sorted out that they weren't when Eric took off his own socks (brand new, really comfortable expensive ones that he was trying out that day) and gave them to me - an amazing gesture that genuinely saved my race. I don't think it's against race rules to take socks from aid station volunteers. Rich, if you're reading this, Eric was on my crew and this was planned all along. And in any case, I'm not giving back my buckle.
2) Tacoma Pass to Hyak: Miles 23 - 53
After the brief sock scare and an accompanying lull in my mood before Tacoma Pass, this section was probably the most purely enjoyable part of the race for me. I've learned in other races that my mood can dip around mile 30, which it did a little bit, but I felt great mentally between miles 23 and 30 and 35 - 53. This section is all on cushy PCT trail until mile 50, when you drop down to the aforementioned tunnel which is two miles long and takes you to Christmas at the Hyak aid station. I ran the whole way with Angel, and most of the way with our friend and fellow tall lanky runner guy and Seattle Running Club member Kevin Smythe, who was also attempting his first 100. Adam Gaston, who I'd paced in 2012, volunteered to pace me this year, and beforehand was working the aid station at Olallie Meadows at mile 47, so I also got to see him during this section and was excited to be moving so comfortably that I asked him to be at Lake Kachess, where he would join me for pacing duties, a whole hour earlier than expected. Angel's all-star team of pacers and crew were also at Olallie, where they were greeting runners with a light show, hula hoops, and ridiculous costumes. I'm sure they'll be featured in a high percentage of runners' race photos. Angel came into Olallie just after me, and I headed out while she was catching up with the crew and picking up her first pacer, Aggie Hartkamp. Kevin caught me just after, and we ran together through a steep bushwhack descent that requires ropes for safety and through the two mile tunnel.
|Us and a few of the crew at Olallie Meadows Aid Station|
3) Hyak to Kachess: Miles 53 - 68
The Hyak aid station is just off of I-90 and has a full-blown Christmas theme party every year, so it's always one of the most popular spots for spectators - it was a huge spectacle, and felt as much like a carnival as an aid station. It would've been easy to sit for awhile and bask in the glory of being half done, but I tried to grab something to eat and not linger for more than 10 minutes. Kevin picked up his pacer there, and we parted ways in the dark before heading up a long 5 mile climb on dirt road up to Keechelus Ridge. It's the third longest climb of the race, I was moving on my own, it was around midnight, and it was the first time exhaustion started to set in and I really felt like I was dragging. Shortly before the top and the next aid station though, Angel and Aggie (hilariously dressed in a rainbow tutu, dancing, and blasting '80s music from iPod speakers) caught up with me. I hadn't seen them at Hyak, so they must have been making killer time up the hill, and their good mood and pace was a huge boost for me. We were in and out of the aid station at top quickly and really moved down the 8 mile descent to the Lake Kachess aid station - we were moving comfortably and kept somewhere between 8 - 9 minute miles for that section, even with a few bathroom breaks. We came into Kachess well ahead of schedule at about 2:15 am, where I picked up my pacer Adam, and Angel traded out pacers, Aggie for Alicia Woodside - a tons-of-fun Canadian and increasingly accomplished runner who finished on the podium at the White River 50 this year.
4) Kachess to French Cabin: Miles 68 - 88
Having paced Adam in 2012 and previewed the course several weeks before, I knew this section would be the toughest to get through - it contains the "Trail from Hell', an unrelenting 7 mile ascent on monotonous dirt road to No Name Ridge, and the Cardiac needles: the steepest, toughest portion of the course. Viewing the elevation profile for the race, miles 73 - 87 are nearly continuous ascent. And after that, even the short descent to the French Cabin aid station sucks because it is on dusty, rutted out, overgrown trail that I personally trip on every time I go through. For whatever inexplicable reason, I was feeling great through the Trail from Hell - I'd picked up an awesome new flashlight and my awesome pacer Adam, and was moving well, passing other runners and generally feeling optimistic about things. Although I'm sure he was just saying this to make me feel better, Adam kept telling me that he was having a hard time keeping up, and I was generally feeling good about myself - finishing the section in a respectable 2 hours. I generally do well on long road ascents, and was through the Mineral Creek aid station and moving up the way to No Name before sunrise, which meant I was making much better time than I'd planned. (A minor problem arose out of this, because my awesome flashlight was also kind of heavy - I'd planned to drop it at Mineral Creek, at the last drop bag on the course, but I still needed it because of the dark and had to carry it all the way until mile 95 - the next spot where crew could access the course). During this section of the course, I really started to understand the benefit of having a pacer, because midway up the climb to No Name I started to really feel exhausted - it was 6 am, I'd moved 75 miles and been up all night, and I was at the beginning of a hard push. Despite the fact that I had almost no personality left (some people get loopy, but lack of sleep leads to flat affect for me), and would only reply to jokes and questions with brief grunts, Adam kept telling stories and giving me encouragement that I was moving well. He was either loopy or faking, because he'd also laugh at any stupid, disoriented attempt at a joke that I made along the way, which was a nice touch. We made it to No Name before 7 am, had a few pancakes for breakfast that went down better than expected, and kept moving. After that, I was singularly focused on just making it through the Needles - not worrying about pace, but just trying to keep moving and watching my mood to make sure I was eating enough (sure sign of poor nutrition for me - grumpiness and resentment for the fact that I ever decided to become a runner). By Thorpe I was exhausted enough that I was sitting down occasionally to rest (which Glenn's photos will attest to), but still in generally good spirits about the way things were going. The Thorpe climb is a 1/2 mile out and back, and I was starting it as savvy veteran and local stud Arthur Martineau was finishing. Although he would go on to finish an hour ahead of me, the fact that I was within that kind of striking distance of him at that point meant that I was pretty much having my ideal race. The last few climbs after Thorpe were really brutal, and I cursed their existence, but made it through the Needles section at a reasonable pace.
4) French Cabin to Easton: Miles 88 - 100
The top of Thorpe, for me, was always the milestone that meant I was going to make it - when I saw him before the race, I told Glenn Tachiyama that my goal was to have my picture taken by him at Thorpe, because once you've hit that point, unless you get a major injury or don't make cutoffs, you can almost definitely will yourself through to the end. You basically have to, actually, because there are no easy places to drop after that. As such, I was in good spirits for the last section. There's one last short, steep climb after French Cabin, but I felt like I was moving well through it. My pacer told me I was looking really strong there, which is kind of like your mom telling you that you are really good looking. Afterwards, I was feeling great through several miles of rolling downhill on nice trail, over creeks and through meadows. I had been waiting for the other shoe to drop, as it often does in ultras, and to start vomiting or hemorrhaging or something, but for the first time at that point I admitted that I couldn't believe how well the race was going. The only hiccup came at about mile 93 when, after passing a couple of other runners, some stupid bug flew right in my eye (or, I guess, from his perspective some stupid person's eye ran right into his flight path). The resulting pain "bugged" (hahahahhaha!!) me the rest of the way, and was actually the worst injury sustained on the run, because I'm pretty sure I have a scratched cornea from it, according to Angel's diagnosis. (Don't worry mom, I'll be fine - it just takes a couple days to heal.) Through the Needles I had allowed myself to start thinking about potential finishing times, and was calculating that I would probably be somewhere in the 26:30 - 27:30 range. When we made it to the last aid station Silver Creek though, I had made great time down the hill, and was within striking distance of a sub-26 hour finish. We were a little more than 4 completely flat, mostly road, miles from the finish, and I was at 25:15 by my watch. We said a quick hello to Angel's crew who were there in different, but still ridiculous, costumes from the last time we saw them, and Adam pushed me to go. I hadn't seen Angel since Hyak at mile 53, but she's become a monster on the downhills and I was fully expecting her to catch up on the section between French Cabin and the last aid station. As we were leaving Silver Creek I heard her crew cheering loudly, so I assumed she'd caught us. My initial inclination was to try to talk Adam into letting me walk until she caught up so we could finish together, but 1) I knew if I started walking it would be really hard to start running again, 2) I knew she had a big crew of folks that were going to run in with her, and she'd probably be at the aid station for awhile (What I didn't remember was that she had a plan to change into a pink unitard and finish in costume alongside her friends, so she ended up being at the station for about 15 minutes), and 3) I was SO close to the sub-26 point, which I never even imagined I would hit prior to the race. (Although when Adam started encouraging me to push for it at Silver Creek, my initial thought was - "UGHHHH! I DON'T CARE! CAN'T I JUST WALK IT IN!!") Despite my own skepticism about my ability to run 10 minute miles at the end of a 100, I did push it in, and with only a few brief walking breaks we were able to come in, exhilarated and tearful, at 25:54.
|Coming into Easton, mile 98|
|My Pacer Adam and I at the Finish|
|Us at the finish line with one of Angel's pacers, Aggie, dressed like drunk Martha Stewart at the prom|
Even with a friend driving us back, the car ride back to Seattle was excruciating, with knee tendonitis bothering me more than at any point during the race, and muscles, realizing that they could relax, locking up and generally taking the opportunity to protest what I'd just subjected them too. We made it home though, and as I was showering Angel came in and announced that she'd finished making her "nest" - a pile of pillows on our bed surrounded by drinks, bags of chips and a lap top. "That's where I'm going to spend the next day." From the nest we ordered some Thai food, updated our Facebook statuses, and fell asleep at about 7:30. Today my legs are as sore as they've ever been, our house is still trashed with drop bags, and I can't bring myself to do anything requiring physical exertion. But I'm happy, and pretty darn proud.
Our race went much better than first hundreds are supposed to, and here are some of the reasons why, I think:
1) Dumb Luck: the weather was perfect - not too hot during the day, and not too cold at night. That doesn't usually happen on this course.
2) Overkill with training. Because we had the chance to do the Camino, we got in way more miles (and way better recovery time around the miles) than we would have ever been able to here. That was a huge boost and we finished way above our potential prior to the Camino. I'm now a firm believer in high mileage weeks at a slow pace, and back to back to back long runs as one hundred training.
3) Focusing on nutrition. My nutrition strategy was only a little bit different from what it was in 50 milers, which is to eat every 30 minutes, to alternate real food and gels so my stomach keeps digesting but isn't overly taxed, and to eat a bunch of real food at aid stations. I added in a scoop or two of Perpetuum to a 20 oz bottle that I would finish in 1 - 2 hours (every 2 hours at the beginning of the race, then 1 at the end when I was having a hard time with solids). The key, I think, was that I kept forcing myself to eat even when nothing sounded good. At the end my pacer was reminding me to eat every 30 minutes, but I kept that schedule the entire race. I drank water when I was thirsty, and took salt (S-Caps) a couple of times when I felt weird and couldn't figure out anything else that might be a problem. My gels were exclusively Honey Stinger Chews, and for real food I ate peaches and watermelon, turkey/avocado rolls, banana/almond-chocolate butter rolls, and at aid stations soda, soup, pierogies, pancakes, coffee and whatever else sounded good (usually savory foods). I would estimate that my calories came 50% from real food and 50% from sports nutrition products.
Before the race, we spent a ton of time (mostly on the Camino, again) figuring out which real foods we could stomach during extended runs, and I think that was key. Angel ended up only taking two gels and no other 'sports nutrition' crap during the entire race, and ate things like sandwiches, pastries and fruit the whole way. I've never had problems with gels as long as I keep in real food (otherwise the stomach gets too acidic), and Perpetuum goes down really well for me, so I included those as quick, light ways to keep nutrition going.
4) Going out slow. I already mentioned this. I would also say that was key after aid stations. Rather than focusing on eating things that I could run with in my stomach, I focused on eating whatever sounded good, and then walking long enough to feel like my stomach had digested enough to run again - never more than 10 minutes, it turned out.
5) Knowing the course. We previewed 75 miles of the course, and for a first 100 it was great to not feel like I had added challenges like unknown terrain or routefinding difficulties. I guess you could just do a loop course as well, but I'm more of a mountain ultra kind of guy, and previewing really helped.
6) Multi-pronged lighting system. For most of the night I used pretty weak lights because I was on dirt road and didn't need to see that well - a 70 lumen Black Diamond headlamp and a 45 lumen Princeton Tech handheld to give added depth perception. For the only technical section, the Trail from Hell, I used a 120 lumen LED Lenser handheld, and the extra power was fantastic because I didn't feel like there were any hidden roots I was going to trip myself up on.
7) Having a great pacer who I knew well. I've already talked about the advantages of this above, but it was great to have someone I'd run with a lot and who I knew I could trust. The practical stuff is important - having someone to remind you to eat and not slow down, etc., but one of the intangibles of that situation is that it is also great to finish the race alongside a friend who can understand the significance of it all. For me, as much as it was a benefit to have someone to kick me in the butt from time to time, it made the experience uniquely meaningful - to have helped get Adam through his first 100 at Cascade, and then to have had him along to help me through my first 100.
8) Running a 100 mile ultra with your wife. There are very few couples in the world who can say that they've done that. For so many reasons, this was the best thing about the race, which is why I'll conclude this really long post with my unofficial theme song for training and running the CCC100, dedicated to Angel.