Monday, September 5, 2011

Cascade Crest 100

From the runners manual: “Cascade Crest has a deserved reputation as tough and scenic 100-miler. Race founder Randy Gehrke set up an excellent course and a low-key friendly atmosphere during his seven years at the helm. The race remains an all-volunteer effort with help from across the Northwest running community and from our friends in the town of Easton. Easton, WA is 70 miles west of Seattle on interstate 90. The community of Easton has supported the event since its inception and we are happy to continue a strong partnership with the Volunteer Fire Department.”

The current race director is Charlie Crissman. Charlie and his crew did a stellar job. The race was very low key, but executed with the kind of attention to detail that you only get with dedicated people behind the scenes.

CCC would be my second 100-miler. Training had gone pretty well, and I had completed a few races in the months leading up to this one. The usual suspects had been complaining some (knees and shin), but not too badly. My first goal was to finish the race, my second goal was to come in under 27 hours.

I had asked my very good friends and running buddies Gaby and Guy to crew and pace me. I was real happy when they both agreed. We drove to Cle Elum, just east of Easton, on Friday afternoon, and stayed at the Stewart Lodge. We had dinner and finalized some plans. The race has 17 aid stations, many of them crew accessible. Guy would pace me from Hyak (mile 53) to Kachess Lake (mile 68). Gaby would pace me from Kachess to the finish. If possible, Guy would meet us at the last aid station, Silver Creek, and the three of us would run the last 4 miles together. There would be additional crew stops at Tacoma Pass, Stampede Pass, and Mineral Creek.

CCC is a loop course that starts and finishes at the fire station in Easton. It should have been easy to get there. The drive from Cle Elum to Easton is a short trip up I90. There are two exits to Easton. I took the wrong one. Or I thought I had. But I really hadn’t. In any case, we had to make a few course corrections, even before getting to the start. A line out of the driving directions in the runner’s manual came to mind: “If you can’t find the fire station, you are in for a long weekend…”.

We arrived at the fire station early … 7:30ish I think. The race start was at 10:00am. Time to check in, ditch the drop bags, talk with folks, and get nervous. It was good to see some familiar faces. Mike and Jason would be crewing/pacing William. Gary would be crewing Cheri. Guy had been looking forward to the breakfast here … pancakes and sausage … glad they had that waiting for him. At 9:00 Charlie gave the pre-race briefing. It was short and sweet. He did mention that there was a lot of blowdown on the course. At 9:55 they played the Canadian and US anthems. It was nice to see the Canadian flag, hanging from a hockey stick :)

At 10:00 we were off.

The day was clear and warm. The forecast was for something in the low 80’s, but I think it got hotter than that. The first major climb was to Goat Peak, about 3,000’ in less than 4 or 5 miles, much of it in the open. I was trying to be very careful with my pace on this piece. Another line out of the runner’s manual repeated in my head (a warning really): “Many CCC DNFs start on this climb”.

The rock outcrops on the peak were cool, as was the view. The run from Cole Butte (mile 11) to Blowout Mountain (mile 15) was an uneventful mix of road and trail. But it was hot and I was sweating lots. Course markings were very good … didn’t have issues with navigation. Shortly after Blowout Mountain we were on the PCT and into some fine running.

When I rolled into Tacoma Pass (mile 23) there was a big crowd, including lots of kids and dogs, and so much cheering that I asked someone if this was the finish line. Guy and Gaby were there waiting. Guy refilled my bottles while Gaby brought me stuff to chow down and I reloaded gel packets. This pattern would repeat several times during the race. I left Tacoma Pass feeling pretty good.

I don’t remember much about the run to Snowshoe Butte (mile 30), other than it was a relatively long piece of about 7 miles. The stretch between Snowshoe Butte and Stampede Pass was short. The trail passed under three sets of high voltage power lines … I had remembered reading about those. Stampede Pass came shortly after the last set. This was another busy aid station, and Gaby and Guy were waiting. I loaded my back pack with a jacket, gloves and lights … it would be dark before I got to Hyak. As I was leaving the aid station, I saw a really nice Belgian Tervuren … had to stop and say hi … his name was Crash, apparently because he bumped into things.

There were 20 miles and 2 aid stations (Meadow Mountain and Olallie Meadows) before Hyak. During that stretch I had the chance to run a bit with William. It was nice to have his company. We talked mostly about hunting as I recall. We parted ways after a while. I passed one poor fellow who was really being pestered by mosquitoes. He eventually stopped to ask a camper on Mirror Lake for bug spray. There were several campers on this lake. The run along the lake shore, the smell of campfires, was nice. It was getting dark. I put on my head lamp and fired up my flashlight.

At Olallie Meadows I had perogies. They were very good. I also had a bit of coke … sooner than I had hoped, but I had been yawning a bit on the way into Olallie. It was getting cooler and I put on my jacket and gloves, and continued on. I was feeling a bit down on this stretch. I remember running a section that seemed more like a dried up stream bed, fumbling over river rock. Was I even on the course? My knees ached and I had a brand new pain, somewhere in my hip. I popped a couple of Advil and trudged on.

I finally got to the rope section. This was fun. A hundred meters or so of very steep downhill. I went down backwards, both hands on the rope. I was glad I had gloves on. I slipped once, sending rocks tumbling down into the dark. Once at the bottom, it was a short jaunt to the tunnel.

I had really looked forward to the train tunnel ... two miles long, straight, now surfaced with crushed gravel. It was fun, easy running. The Garmin choked here, as it couldn’t get satellite signals. After a while, I was getting a bit bored …the ‘view’ never changed. It was a long two miles. Near the end, a pack of 4 or 5 runners passed me at a brisk pace. Perhaps sensing my disappointment at being passed so thoroughly, one of them mentioned that they were volunteers heading to help out at Hyak. That made me feel better. A little while after leaving the tunnel, I pulled into Hyak (mile 53), where Gaby and Guy were waiting.

I stayed at Hyak for a few minutes, ate a wrap, a bit of a grilled cheese sandwich, soup and coke. Then Guy and I were off. Guy gave me a review of the course ahead. It would be forest road most of the way to Kachess, with some turns here and there. There were no confidence ribbons here; that would have normally bothered me, but with Guy navigating, I didn't worry. It was on this stretch that my stomach gave me faint signals of trouble. Just a very slight tinge of nausea. I haven’t thrown up during an ultra before (knock wood), but I have been at a point where nausea slowed me to a crawl. I began to wonder if that might happen here, and how that might all unfold. Then I thought I better stop thinking about this stuff. So I decided to stay away from any real food for the rest of the race … except for my standard fare of potatoes and bananas. After a while, things settled down, and my stomach was fine after that.

We power walked the long climb to Kecheelus Ridge. Once at the top, we turned off our lights for a bit to check out the stars … they were awesome. We debated whether that really bright ‘star’ was Mars or Venus. Running with Guy really picked up my spirits. We talked about the sort of stuff we usually do on our runs (important stuff, like time travel, Dual Survivor, Myth Busters, etc...).
The time went by fast. And in spite of our relaxed attitude, or maybe because of it, we were getting ahead of the 27 hour schedule. Before I knew it we were at Lake Kachess (mile 68). Gaby was waiting and ready to go.

I re-fueled. We bid Guy goodbye and were on our way … to the Trail From Hell. I couldn’t understand why splits for this section in previous races were so long. I do now. The 4 mile stretch along the lake is a gnarly, up, down, around thing. Stumps, roots, logs, over, under … narrow sections on steep drop offs. Somewhere down there in the darkness was the lake, waiting for anyone who slipped.

Gaby did a great job navigating here. I rarely checked for markers as we scrambled along … I just followed her. I had long since forgotten the directions for this section. Gaby mentioned something about a crucial right turn. I couldn’t figure how a right turn would be a good thing at this point, given that the lake was to our right. But I also knew my thoughts were getting foggier with every passing mile. Sure enough we eventually came to a right turn. And in a little while, arrived safely at Mineral Creek (mile 73).

We didn’t stay long at Mineral Creek. There was a two mile walk uphill on road from the aid station. Guy was waiting for us at the top (crews weren’t allowed at the aid station here). I think I changed socks at this point … if I did, I’m sure that it felt good to have dry ones. And we were off.

It was about 5 more miles to No Name Ridge (mile 80). That was mostly uphill on roads as I recall. Gaby and I were chatting much of the way, and again, the time passed by quickly. We were now well ahead of the 27 hour schedule. During this stretch the sun came up and I packed up my lights.

I was at a point now where it was difficult to run anything that had any kind of uphill slope. And while running downhill was possible, it was painful. Level ground was fine, but there was not much of that to be found here. In addition to my knees and hip, a few of my toes were complaining … blisters I figured. I took the last of my Advil.

The stretch to Thorp Mountain (mile 84) would introduce us to the first of several “cardiac needles”. These are short but very steep climbs and descents … steeper than anything I can recall in any other race. I was reduced to very short steps ... "baby steps". That was my mantra up these slopes … “baby steps, baby steps”. Gaby was providing encouragement and gentle prodding all along the way, and keeping on top of my gel and Scap schedule. We were exposed on these slopes, but it didn’t seem too hot.

It was clear to me that Gaby was enjoying the race more than me. My slow pace gave her lots of time to enjoy the scenery and take pictures. Her positive energy was infectious and it was difficult for me to be grumpy, in spite of my aches and pains. I think I used the f-word only twice … and one of those was in the positive sense, as in “What a f-ing awesome view”. Indeed, the view from the top of Thorp Mountain was spectacular. There was a tiny ranger station on the peak, and the ranger came out with her dog to say hi. My spirits were lifted quite a bit here.

We continued on towards French Cabin (mile 88). There were more needles to deal with. Somewhere along this stretch a nice fellow, Vince from Virginia, caught up to us, stayed with us for a while. Chatted. He had run the Canadian Death Race, a 125K ultra … I was keen on hearing about that. Vince had hiking poles, which at this point seemed like a really good idea. After French Cabin there was I think one more good climb, through an opening in a cliff face. That was kind of cool.

We eventually got onto some nice wooded single track trail, mostly downhill. Under normal conditions, this section would be great running. But all I could do was trudge along. There were several stream crossings. At the bigger ones, Gaby would test the conditions and guide me over. All the while she continued with words of encouragement.

As nice as the trail was, it seemed to go on forever. But eventually, we got to Silver Creek (mile 96). Guy was waiting for us. It was good to see him. I took off my pack and left it with Jason. I took one water bottle. Then Gaby, Guy and I left for the final stretch. Guy had run from the finish to Silver Creek, and so knew exactly what we were in for. He explained what the next few miles would be like. Most of it was on pavement. Level ground. Finally. For the first time in a long while I felt like I was actually running … flying, actually. Turns out we ran those last 4 miles in about 40 minutes … a ‘blistering’ 10 minute pace … which, after 96 miles, maybe ain’t so bad :)

We crossed the finish line at 26:11:00. I was really happy. All the aches and pains disappeared for a while. Charlie was there to hand me my buckle. I couldn’t have asked for more.

Many, many thanks to Gaby and Guy for making this such an excellent adventure. You helped me do way better than I could have on my own, and made it a ton of fun in the process. You rock!