Cascade Crest 2011.
The day had finally arrived. In the last few weeks prior the most common question I received was “are you ready?” I struggled to answer it every time. I felt ready to attempt the distance, nervous about the reputation this race had to be brutal and of course the amount of time I would be out there. Also the total elevation gain for the course is 20,470′ which comes to a whopping 40,940′ of total elevation change. I told my friend Jen, with whom I’d done some course recon, that it felt like the day before Christmas only more exciting. Ultras have become a reunion of sorts. Familiar faces all in search of pushing themselves further than the last time they’ve seen each other. It is almost like a church, but in many ways more real and pure.
Two days before the race I had driven down to Seattle to pick up my best friend Dave who had flown in from Hawaii to crew me on this adventure. It was difficult to go to sleep that night because, as per usual, we could not stop talking. The day before I laid around as much as I could which was aided by watching Lord of the Rings (extended edition). That afternoon I started getting all my stuff ready for Dave. We went through the course profiles and aid stations that I would see him. We developed a plan on what to bring and when. I had gone off coffee and all forms of caffeine for 2 weeks so that I could have some intake during the night section and towards the end for a boost. I labeled bags “CAFFEINE” which were not to be near me until past halfway. Mostly the ziplock bags were filled with a mix of gels, stinger waffles, nuun, S! Caps and chocolate-covered espresso beans.
The anticipation began to grow stronger as I got ready for bed. Thankfully, I was somehow able to go straight to sleep and got good rest considering all the thoughts flying through my head. We woke up early to pack the car and go get Paul. With all the stuff we were bringing it felt like we were going on a week long expedition!
As we drove to Easton, the messages started to pour in. Race days are always pretty emotional for me but this was in particular. It was new territory and I was experiencing the nervous excited anxiety that comes along with such an attempt. I was overcome with emotion and got choked up with every message I received.
Tall Trees. Tough Trails.
That’s what the shirt in the swag bag read on the back. I think that phrase should have made me more nervous but it just fueled my desire to get going. I met up with Jen before the race and we were both emotional about this whole thing. We knew we were prepared and the day to prove it was finally here.
After listening to the pre-race talk I went to hide out in my car for 10 minutes. I needed some time alone to gather my thoughts. While there, I received a text message from my pastor in Vancouver BC. He, his wife and our friend Claire had driven all the way down and were waiting for me near the start. I went over to greet them full to the brim on emotion. They prayed for me and then we took some pictures and laughed a lot.
The countdown began, like counting the steps down the stairs to the living room on Christmas morning and we were off. It was going to be a hot, dusty day of running.
I carried a copy of the elevation profiles in my pack so I could always anticipate what was coming and when I’d see my crew next. It was split into 4 pages.
The first climb to Goat Peak Trailhead was slow going. I tried to pace myself as best I could walking quickly the whole time. I was given the advice to eat as much as my stomach could handle at the beginning. This would serve 2 purposes: to keep me moving slowly and to begin storing up energy I would need later. As I approached the water station at mile 3.7 I began to realize my shoes were already beginning to rub a blister on my heels. Seriously? I already had visions of not being able to finish, something I had not planned on having to deal with mentally less than 30 minutes into the race. I knew I was without hope until I could get to Dave and tell him to bring my other shoes. They were supposed to be saved until the last half of the race so I knew he would not have them with him at Tacoma Pass (mile 23) so I would have to wait until mile 33 to change. The thought was almost too much to bear this early on. But I pressed on. It was a tough climb up to Goat Peak but the view was amazing. After that I was FINALLY able to run on flat and downhill sections which did not hurt my heels. I was passing quite a few people but still felt like I was holding back. When I rolled in to Cole Butte AS I was greeted by a lively crew to which I requested duct tape. I did a quick tape job on my heels while they refilled my water pack. I grabbed some food to go and started the climb out. (Almost every single AS on Cascade Crest has a climb immediately following)
The next section to Blowout Mountain was exposed dirt/gravel service roads. The heat was starting to hit and I was just trying to get to the Pacific Crest Trail (i.e. shade) as quickly as I could. I took my time but still felt like I was on a good pace. Once I arrived to the PCT I got SO excited. I had read about it and knew this was where I could really kick in and get a good stride going. I had a great time running this portion of PCT partly because it was shaded and partly because it was downhill and took some pressure off my heels.
Rolling in to Tacoma Pass AS (mile 23) was superb. Aside from my heels I was feeling great. I immediately sat down and began to tend to my blisters. I had not planned on sitting down at AS in fear of it sucking up too much time but it had to be done. I told Dave to bring me my La Sportiva’s at the next AS (Stampede Pass – mile 33). A quick fix, refill of my pack, a couple chugs of some Nuun and some laughs with my friends and I was off to make the next climb.
This section was what I believe to be the most difficult of the course. It was steep, hot (observed temperature of 96F [35.5C]) and the initial adrenaline was starting to fade. I ended up being near the front of a long line of people all speed hiking this section. Somewhere along the way I started to fade and they all passed me. Note the guy in the green in the previous picture, you’ll see him again. I slowly made my way to Snowshoe Butte AS (mile 29) which was manned by a local cross country team who had hiked the gallons of water uphill to the spot. I was more than grateful. However, they filled my water bladder too full and it put really odd pressure on my back. I spent the next section struggling to feel ok. I guess the heat was starting to take its toll on me. I began to question my time. I couldn’t remember what the cutoff was at Stampede Pass and I thought I was pushing it close.
As I came in to Stampede Pass AS I could tell from Dave and Paul’s faces that I did not look well. I was so ready to change shoes. Dave helped me out as Paul went to get my water. He came back very concerned that I was not drinking enough and got on to me that I needed to drink more and take more gels. I had asked them what the cutoff was and they did not know. Paul relieved me by doing the math to show me I was actually at a 26 hour finish pace. That helped a little bit but I was still feeling bad. As I left the AS to hike out I turned to Dave and said “I don’t think I can do this.” He grabbed my head, stared me straight in eyes and unloaded the encouragement. I had to choke back tears as I left. It was time to get ready for some dusk/night running which I welcomed because it meant cooler temperatures!
I took my time on the downhills of Stampede Pass but still keeping a decent pace. I felt bad but knew I just needed to keep moving and it would soon pass. And it did! I got in to Meadow Mountain AS (mile 42) and Dave immediately saw the difference. He couldn’t believe the transformation. I changed in to my long sleeve shirt since it was getting darker, ate my normal foods but also decided to eat an orange slice from the AS table. It looked good. Bad decision as I was soon to find out. The hike out of Meadow Mountain was actually pleasant. I was still passing people. Then it got dark. Fast. Had the trail still been runnable I probably would have made up even more time but it was a lot of medium-sized loose rocks with some trail mixed in every now and then. Christmas music came on my iPod. Future of Forestry to be exact. It was an amazing moment along with seeing the stars more brilliant than ever.
I began to feel very bad. Nauseous. I did not know what was wrong so I tried to eat more gels, even though by now the texture alone was making me sick. I tried to drink more water but nothing seemed to shake the awful feeling. I began to get clammy and really sweaty for how cold it was. And then I knew what was about to happen. I looked behind me to see if there were any lights. None. At about 10:40pm, I laid down in the middle of the trail, balanced on a rock, and puked my guts out for about 15 minutes. After my little ‘session’ I instantly felt better and decided to stay put for just a little bit. The only problem with that was the temperature being in the lower 40s (F) and I began to get chilled. I decided it was time to move. I really wanted to see Dave…and tell him I was going to quit. Thankfully I was not far from Olallie Meadow AS (mile 48).
Paul was getting some sleep because at the next AS he would join me for the remainder of the race. I told Dave what had just happened and that I was done and did not want to continue anymore. He was not entertaining the thought. Scott McCoubrey, who is the RD for WR50, was heading up the AS — cooking pierogis. He overheard me talking and brought me some broth and pierogis and told me I was not quitting. He said to eat up because the next section was all downhill and it would give it time to settle. After sitting at the aid station almost 30 minutes (eesh!) I finally stood up to leave. The next section was downhill but totally not runnable. A steep road covered in rocks too big and loose to run on followed by a section so steep ropes were tied between the trees. ROPES! In the middle of the night! A guy in front of me slipped and busted up his right arm. I could see the blood. The lady behind me slipped and the only thing keeping her from falling down the side of the who-knew-how-far-down-it-went cliff was the rope. I turned to ask her if she needed me to come help her but she was able to pull herself back up on the ‘trail.’
I finally made it to the tunnel. Most people said it was freaky. I thought it was awesome. My iPod decided it was time for me to listen to Phil Collins and I decided it was time to kick in gear. The food had worked. My nausea was gone and I was HUNGRY. I arrived at Hyak about 45 minutes FASTER than I or my crew anticipated. I surprised Dave, who was sitting by the road reading a book. He jumped up with elation at seeing me come back from the dead.
It is always Christmas at Hyak AS (mile 53). Do you see a theme for my race?? I changed socks and got some soup, grilled cheese and ginger ale. I ate a full grilled cheese sandwich while Dave refilled my pack and grabbed another to go!
It was an easy run/hike up to Keechelus Ridge AS (mile 61). While there it hit me — I had not been tired yet nor had I had any caffeine. There was a runner who was bundled up in blankets trying to sleep. I couldn’t believe how NOT tired I was. Paul was good at keeping me going always staying a little ahead to show me the pitch of the trail. He told me he was starting to fall asleep while running! At some point during this section I heard a voice from behind me “Josh?! Is that Josh?!” It was Meagan, a lady I had run with/passed back at Snowshoe Butte. I would pass her on the downhills and she would pass me on the uphills. I had no idea how she recognized me from behind because I was in a different shirt and it was the middle of the night. She screamed “I’m back and feeling great! You are looking great too! Keep it up!” She passed me but I caught back up to her a little later only to be passed by her again after Thorp.
We got in and out of Kachess Lake AS (mile 68) at 5:30am and I was worrying if I would make the cutoff at 11:30am at No Name Ridge (mile 82). Yes 6 hours seems like a lot but we had the Trail from Hell (aka Evil Forest) to get through and then nothing but uphill. Thankfully I had done the Trail from Hell a couple weeks before AND I was moving slow enough that daylight had broken. Which was a good thing because climbing over all those tree trunks would have been insane in the dark (one had “hug me” carved in to it because of how you had to get around it…on the edge of steep drop off). It was pretty demoralizing thinking you were almost done only to see a sign reading “2 miles to Heaven.” Really? 2 more miles? I thought it was almost over. I kept running for what seemed like forever and could see another sign. “1.5 miles to Heaven.” Ok, seriously I can’t look at these signs anymore. I finished that section in just under 2 hours, which made me really happy!
At Mineral Creek AS (mile 74) I did not see Dave. I did, however, see a friend from Seattle who I would have already guessed to be done with the race sitting there telling me he was dropping. Wow. Unexpected. With no time to waste Paul hurriedly got me out of there and we began the climb to No Name Ridge. Time was ticking.
I had made it to Page 4!!! My feet were beginning to hurt which made an all uphill gravel road the worst possible thing. I heard Dave screaming my name from up ahead. He had not made it down to Mineral Creek AS yet but was on his way. He got to run/walk the 2 mile climb out of Mineral Creek. I was so thankful he got to run alongside me for a portion of this race as well. At the road I was able to change shirts and take a few big gulps of my coffee. Paul and I quickly made our way and I ran what sections were not too steep and tried to walk as fast as possible on the others. I made it No Name Ridge AS (mile 82) just under an hour and a half before the cutoff! This AS was hilarious, offering ‘spa treatments’ and mimosas.
Alright. Now I knew I could finish this if I just kept moving…and if my feet didn’t fall off. A few of the Cardiac Needles to go to get to Thorp. The Cardiacs are aptly named. Straight up sections followed by just as steep downs. I had to shuffle up and awkwardly run down. Coming in to Thorp Mountain AS (mile 85.5) you had to climb further up to the lookout, retrieve a little orange piece of paper proving you had ascended to the peak then come back down to the AS for check-in. The climb up was HOT but stunningly gorgeous.
Now that I had made it to Thorpe, I knew I was going to finish. And I got emotional. It was tough to keep running and holding back tears. There were 3 more Cardiacs of increasing intensity and then it was all downhill. Sometimes it was a little too steep to run. I was completely shocked at how good I felt, except the bottoms of my feet. I was able to tune that pain out and really step up my running those last few miles before Silver Creek AS (mile 95.7) where Dave was patiently waiting for me.
Remember the guy in green from earlier (mile 23)? I had caught back up with him (mainly because his pacer was struggling with the heat and elevation gains and he did not want to leave her). I came down to Silver Creek AS told Dave I wanted a shot of Mountain Dew a little more water in my pack and back out. I only had 4.3 miles to go and had 2 hours to do it, but my feet were feeling trashed.
As Paul and I exited the last AS, I began to cry. I was trying to tell him how thankful I was to have him by my side and could hear my voice shaking. Immediately after the AS the trail was annoying rolling, like a mountain bike course. I could not get a stride and the irregular footing was only increasing the pain. I ended up walking most of the last 4 miles because my feet just hurt too much. But then, alas, Paul pointed out the finish line and helped me muster the strength to finish strong. A wave of emotions came over me. Here I am, not even 3 years out from finishing my first ever marathon and I was approaching the finish line of a 100-miler!
I ran towards the finish line feeling like I was dreaming. I literally could not believe I was finishing. Charlie, the RD, was announcing my arrival “Here comes Josh from Vanouver BC. Not only is this his first Cascade Crest, it is his first 100-miler ever! Also thanks to him and his crew, Cascade Crest has exploded on Twitter.” I burst out laughing! I ran to give Dave a hug and tried to maintain my composure. “We did it!” was about all I could say.
I turned to thank Charlie for putting on such an incredibly well organized race. He was shocked at how good I looked/sounded. To which I replied, “Yeah but my feet are trashed.” He told me “Ya know, seriously, you’re more popular on Twitter than Justin Bieber right now.” I got a photo with Charlie and my hard-earned belt buckle and made my way to sit down and ice my feet. I told someone that I wanted EMT and I immediately had people at my side. I told them it was nothing serious, I was just afraid of what my feet were going to look like. The lady told me “Seriously? You have some of the best feet I’ve seen come across the finish line today. I mean, you have all your toenails!” I said, “yeah but they hurt really bad.” “Well, you did just run 100 miles!” Noted.
I soaked my legs and feet for a little bit and then was ready to head back to Seattle, where I would sleep harder than ever. All in all I was awake for about 40 hours.
I think the gravity of this accomplishment is still seeping in but as I hold this belt buckle in my hands the weight of it all comes to reality.
Months of focused training, a crew of incredibly generous once-in-a-lifetime friends and all the support from my friends and family has come to fruition. Cascade Crest has been the most rewarding experience of my life thus far. I am already planning out which 100-milers I want to attempt next year, as well as things I will do differently. Part of me was upset with my time. 30:45:34. I KNOW I could have done it better but this being my absolute first 100-miler I am very thankful to have finished and still feeling pretty strong.
I learned a lot during Cascade Crest. A lot about how to run a 100-miler, what all is needed and uncovered more about myself that I did not know was there.