Photo courtesy of Glenn Tachiyama
Where to begin.... Cascade Crest 100 mile run was one that I was really looking forward to this year. In my heart, I always thought this was a race that really matched up with my strengths in running. Lots of great, runnable single track, long grinding climbs, and an equal portion of very technical trails. However, I'm glad that it takes out some of the surrounding "atmosphere" challenges that are hard to prepare for here in Bend: extreme heat and altitude. Cascade Crest is just a no frills, minimalist, tough nosed race with around 21,000 feet of both climbing and descents. It also has the added challenge of a 10 a.m. start time. This makes all the front runners run virtually all night long which is a change from most races.
Going into the race, I simply was in the best shape of my life. It was a great feeling. I wasn't stressed. I didn't think I needed that "one extra" long run. I was prepared. There was something comforting in knowing that no matter what happened, I had done my best to get ready for the event. Now, I just needed to execute my plan to the best of my ability.
Since San Diego 100, I kept straight through with my training. It started with pacing my good buddy, David Easa, at Western States and I just stayed on it. I had a great final test at the Haulin Aspen trail marathon. It is a tough little course with 2,500 feet of climbing and I ran that in 2:58 for a first place finish. I was proud of that one as it was right in the middle of a 100+ mile week. That helped my confidence knowing that I hadn't lost all my speed. But, more than that, I put in my time on the hills. I kept a steady diet of long, grinding climbs that I hoped would help me at Cascade Crest. Lastly, I had a plan. I had broken the course down and was prepared to run it in a way that compliments my strengths on the trail. I knew where I had to excel and I knew where I just needed to "hold serve".
Race week itself was awesome. One of my oldest and best friends, Chris Csordas, flew out from Boulder and visited Bend for the first time. We have an absolute blast together and make each other laugh constantly. It was a great way to go into the race. I wasn't stressed at all. Chris paced me at Leadville last year and he is a great combination of runner, motivator, and seems to know all the right things to say (or not say) when we are out there. I can feel the care that he has towards me and the satisfaction that he gets from truly knowing that he helps get me to the finish line faster than I would be able to do it alone. Secondly, I also had my good friend, Ken Sinclair drive in from Idaho. We have become great friends over the past few years and I had absolutely no doubts that he would push me hard as well to get me to the finish line.... oh, and he did!
Chris and I drove from Bend to Bainbridge Island on Thursday and spent the night at my mom's house. She was awesome and took care of our every need, cooked us great meals, and got the trip started on the right foot.
On Friday, I got a great "shakeout" run on Bainbridge Island and then we packed our bags and headed to a cabin that we rented in Easton. The only concern I had going into the race was really the taper. I did a good 2 week taper which kind of messes with your head a little bit. I've become so used to running lots of mileage that cutting it way back made me feel a bit lazy and lackadaisical.
Finally, we all met up in Easton, ate (thanks for sending Ken with a meal for us, Denise!), watched a movie and headed off to bed. The drama of the night occurred at 3 a.m. when ALL of the fire alarms in the house started wailing (for no reason). I stumbled around like an idiot not knowing what to do as Chris prodded at the alarms with a broom. Finally, I started calling the owner of the cabin at 3 a.m. when the alarms stopped as quickly as they started. Not a great omen but we headed back to bed.
The morning came and race day unfolded quickly. Breakfast was eaten, clothes were put on, and soon we were on the starting line. I knew I had some tough competition. Past champion Phil Shaw was there and Adam Hewey, Aaron Schwartzbard, and Brian Peterson all seemed like legit threats. I had several series of goals for the race. First and foremost, try my best to win. I have been 2nd place in 3 100 milers and I thought it would be darn nice to move up one spot and get that monkey off my back. Secondly, beat a very, very (in my opinion) stout course record that was laid out last year by my main training partner, Jeff Browning. I wasn't sure if this was within my ability level but I sure was willing to give it a try. I just wanted to make sure I didn't blow my race by chasing a time that was out of reach. So, the strategy? Start at a hard but maintainable pace (no matter what anyone did around me), run the rolling sections smooth, PUSH the uphills, and just maintain on the super technical stuff.
"Go!!!" Photo Courtesy of Mandy Kraus
We got the countdown and off we went! As I thought, Phil Shaw went out hard. My first mile was at 6:40 and he was already pulling away from me fast. 6:45 for a second mile and his lead increased. I settled in comfortably with Brian Peterson as we transitioned from dirt roads to the first nasty climb up to Goat Peak. However, once I got on the single track, I reeled Phil Shaw in pretty quickly. We chatted for a few minutes and he asked me if I was trying to break Jeff Browning's course record. I said I was sure going to try. With that, he said I was moving a little quick for him, and I assumed the lead in the race.
Right away, I knew that my taper was paying off. Climbing steep Goat Peak felt pretty trivial and other than a couple steps near the top, I ran almost the entire thing. It was great to see Glenn Tachiyama up there snapping photos and off I went, happy to have gotten the first big climb out of the way.
Nearing the top of Goat Peak. Photo courtesy of Glenn Tachiyama
The miles were ticking off pretty easily as I slid into the 11 mile aid station. My biggest concern of the day was whether I could use/maintain my strategy for fueling. Unlike other races, I decided to forgo using any gels. My stomach has constantly been one of my main "competitors" at 100 mile races and gels just don't treat me well. I used "Carbo Pro" for the last 50 miles of San Diego 100 and that worked well so I decided to roll with for the entire race. Carbo Pro is just pure Maltodextrin and I have no problem adding it to any drink or water as it dissolves instantly and has virtually no taste. But, it has 200 calories in each bottle. Anyway, on I went and was encouraged as I ran down a long, open road, and as I looked back, I saw no one.
The miles continued and I was getting excited about re-loading my Carbo Pro and Honey Stingers at Tacoma Pass. As I ran down the final hill into the aid station, I scanned the crowd for my crew. I yelled out "Chris" and "Ken"! Jamie Gifford quickly came up and told me that they weren't here. I was totally stunned. I was mostly stunned because my friend Chris is a legendary "stresser" (and I say that in a good way....) and I had to believe something was really wrong. A thousand thoughts circled my head. Did they get in a car crash? Was there a flat tire? It is 100% my fault for letting it mess with me but it really threw me off of my game. Somehow, I didn't grab anything at the aid station and just set off. Half way up the climb, I assessed what I did have with me. A few more Honey Stingers and one "emergency gel" that I kept in my water bottle. I let my mind wander and my pace really drop off as I climbed and ran erratically, tripping on rocks and getting upset with myself for how slow I felt. Randomly, I probably hit my low point of the race at the Snowshoe aid station. The High School kids were awesome and super pumped up as I arrived but I felt like a total downer. I was convinced that I would be caught at any moment and quickly had some bites of fruit and gagged my GU down the hatch.
I started completely stressing about whether my crew would be at Stampede pass but finally got my shit together a little bit and told myself to suck it up and that I could finish this race no matter what. I finally started pepping up and was thrilled to hear Chris hooting and hollering as I arrived at Stampede Pass. Phew! They had new, fresh bottles of Carbo Pro and off I went on the climb out of the aid station.
Respect the race stache. Stampede Pass, mile 33. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama
After Stampede Pass is one of my favorite sections of the course. Buttery singletrack as we entered the Cedar River Watershed. Then I bombed down, passed a small lake and started the climb up to Mirror Lakes. Mirror Lakes are super picturesque and the smell of campfires burning and small tents erected makes me momentarily want to stop this nonsense and spend the day by the lake. But, I kept on trucking and finally hit the famous pierogies from Scott McCoubrey and Brandon Sybrowsky. After they hazed me for a minute or two, I headed to a portion of the race that I had not done before. The "ropes" descents and the run through the tunnel. I had sort of laughed at the thought of the ropes section but it turned out to be a darn steep to climb down to the John Wayne trail and the ropes (for me) were definitely necessary in my navigation to the bottom of the descent. Once there, I headed towards another unique aspect of the race. The tunnel. The tunnel is from an old railroad track route and goes for over 2 miles in complete darkness! The crazy thing is that you can see the light from the other side the entire time! It was fun for a few minutes but quickly grew a little tiresome as I tried to run as hard and efficiently as I could without bouncing into the walls. I would look back every couple minutes to see if I could see any headlamps behind me. Nope. Good. My lead was looking pretty darn solid. Finally I emerged from the tunnel and headed across to the parking lot. I had some trouble finding course markers but finally found my way as we had to run on the highway for a 1/2 mile or so to the next aid station. In the middle of this section, I was convinced that I had gotten lost and was following random construction paint arrows. Finally I told myself I would run to the next "rise" in the road and if I did not see anything, I needed to start running back. Finally, I saw the aid station. Huge relief. Thank God.... I perked up and ran over to the Hyak (mile 53) aid station and picked up my first pacer, Chris. Chris seems to just "get" pacing me. We talk but not a ton and he does a nice job of keeping stride for stride with me and not pushing me out of my comfort range. I should also mention that I had been on Jeff Browning's Course Record pace all day. I would gain on him on some sections and lose it on others. When I hit Hyak aid station, I was informed that I was 3 minutes behind his splits from the year before. We then had about a 5 mile climb on a dirt road that gained a little more than 2,000 feet. I had mentally prepared myself for this climb all day. I knew this was a crux in the race and that I pretty much needed to run the whole thing. This is where I truly lost the race two years ago and I wasn't going to let it happen this year. While I didn't run every step, Chris and I ran pretty much the entire thing. Nothing spectacular but I knew that running was always going to be faster than anyone who was hiking it. When we hit the aid station at Keechelus Ridge, we were informed that we were 8 minutes ahead of Jeff Browning's record pace. Nice, I thought, we gained 11 minutes on the fastest guy who has run this course.
We arrived just in time to see the end of an amazing sunset over Mount Rainier. It was kind of cool to think that we were probably the first runners who have been able to see that before as the sun would be down just minutes later. Although my stomach was "okay", I was pretty burnt on drinking the same Carbo Pro/Nuun concoction for the last 10 hours and although I know it was a risk, I drank a cup of coke. Minutes after leaving the aid station, I was puking it all up. I didn't let it phase me at all and went right back to the Carbo Pro. We now had a 7 mile descent down the Lake Kachess and we just concentrated on running it smooth and steady. We were having a good time. Good conversations and we both knew this was a pretty sweet position to be in. First place in an awesome mountain 100 and enjoying good conversations and running well. It was also probably the last real "fun" that the course had to dish up..... The good news is that we heard that we were about 40 minutes ahead of the last runner at the last aid station.
At the bottom, we knew we were about to encounter the infamous 5 mile "Trail From Hell". I'm not really sure how to describe it without overdoing or underdoing it. It is a lake shore trail that basically is unmaintained. And, with all the severe winter weather, it was worse than I have ever seen it. You have to crawl over and under fallen trees and logs, traverse crumbling and sketchy trails, cross multiple small streams. In short, it is just slow. You eventually just have to take a lot of small risks and jump, duck, and run without fear of consequence. For reference, most of our mile splits were between 12:30-16:45 and I didn't feel like I could possibly run any faster. It is a frustrating place to be when you feel like everyone else MUST be running this section faster than you are. I actually enjoyed it for a while as it was nice not to have my heart rate so high but in the end, it got frustrating and the signs informing us that we were 2, 1.5, 1, and .5 miles from the next aid station )named "Heaven") seemed impossibly wrong as it took us so long to encounter each one. Kudos to my buddy Chris for tackling this with me. Triathlons are his main sport and I'm not sure bushwhacking in the middle of the night was what he had in mind! But, he was a gamer and we eventually made it to the next aid station. After hitting the aid station, I knew I probably had the last real "test" that stood as a serious challenge between myself and winning Cascade Crest. A seven mile, 3,000+ climb could easily help buoy my lead or, if reduced to a walk, could let someone behind me snatch up the lead. I was determined to run as much of it as I could and we slowly shuffled our way up the steep hill. It was hard to get fired up to run uphill a lot more and I was jealous that my friend Chris was going to be trading off with Ken to pace me 2 miles up the dirt road and I could tell he was definitely excited to be done with his tour of duty.... and I sure as hell didn't blame him. We finally hit the junction 2 miles up and Ken jumped into the game. Another great pacer. Ken quickly took the lead and pushed the pace up a notch or two. I was pretty much okay with it but did ask for a couple quick hike breaks during the climb. I felt more and more confident of winning the race as I just found it hard to believe that anyone else was doing my same pace up the hill ( I later found out Adam Hewey was!) We just grinded and grinded until we finally hit the top.
We quickly refueled and got ready for the Cardiac Needles. 5 fairly short but stout, stinger climbs that just had you huffing, puffing, and cursing. With my lead, I felt entitled to get a little sloppy in here and I wasn't running with quite as much purpose. We kept it rolling though and eventually made it to Thorpe Cabin. It is a picturesque cabin (although we couldn't see it as it was pitch black) where I had to run to the top, retrieve a chip, and bring it back to the aid station volunteers. The climb seemed much longer and steeper than I remembered but we got it done and knew we had only one more real climb left in the race. We continued on but the trail was choppy, tough, and steep and was putting a pretty good beating on my legs.
Another weird note. A couple times while I was descending, my entire upper body (head, arms, chest, well you know what upper body means) got completely numb like when your hand falls asleep. It was kind of creepy as I was not sure if it was electrolyte balance, just the jostling of the downhill, or whether something seriously was going wrong with me medically. In fact, I couldn't really talk normally when it happened and I sounded drunk. Anyone have ideas on that??? Anyway, once the trail leveled off again, it went away and we hit French cabin aid station and prepared for the long road home.
This was awesome. If we could have seen it. Near Thorpe Cabin. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama
The trail down to Silver Lake feels like you are in a time warp. They say it is only 7 miles and you only lose about 2,000 feet in elevation but it (and it did last time too) becomes one of the longest feeling sections that I have encountered in a race. It is just technical and choppy enough that you never get in a rhythm. And, once you get about half way down, the trail becomes dusty, tough, with multiple small stream crossing to soak your feet. Not exactly what you are looking for at mile 90 or so in the race. My Garmin watch had shut off so I had no idea how long I had been running for and that was messing with my head and I also got that crazy upper body numbness again. I don't think we ran this section particularly well and I felt downright desperate near the bottom. I was yelling at Ken, "where the hell is the bottom of this thing?". Of course, I was the one who had run the course before and this was his first time here so I don't know what I was hoping for.
By the time we finally hit the aid station, I was relieved but desperate to be done. My upper body was numb and I was panicked that somehow I could be caught even though I had a 40 minute lead. Race Director Charlie Crissman was there an assured me I had the win and informed me that I was 3 minutes off the Course Record. Shit. That almost seemed like bad news. I didn't want to have to bust my ass the 5 miles of the run. Ken did a great job of not forcing the issue. He started at a moderate pace and slowly cranked up the intensity. I pounded my second GU of the day and got a little renewed energy. Okay, lets go for it. I dropped my final bottle and got into the Carl Lewis position. I'm sure this looked ridiculous as I was running 7:30 miles and not sprinting but it felt like the 50 yard dash. Ken stayed an annoying ten yards ahead of me which was definitely motivating and pissed me off as I wanted to catch him! He kept yelling at me to keep pushing and man, was I. Finally we hit the final stretch and I could see the finish line. We bolted hard to the finish and made it in a time of 18:27:52. 3+ minutes faster than my buddy's seemingly invincible time that he laid out there last year. I was overwhelmed. Pure relief hit me and all the work of the day, week, and months this summer became worth it.
Its funny, I had wanted to win a 100 miler SO BAD but now that I have, it doesn't seem that crazy or even that much better to me than any of my 2nd place or even other times finishing an event. It kind of put things into perspective to me. What I really enjoy is the beautiful courses, the competition, and the tradition that I have put forth of having great friends in my life join me for part of the journey to the finish line. That is what I will end up remembering about this race. And of course, now the big, big, big THANK YOU's:
1. My wife, Katie. It goes without saying that I could not do this without her. With three kids, she constantly picks up the slack and puts her own athletic achievements on the backburner to let me do this. She realizes how important to me and who I am and has accepted this and encourages me to train hard and be the best that I can be. I read on Jeff Browning's blog about how he feels a responsibility to race really hard out of respect to his family and the sacrifices that they make for his running. I thought about that a lot before and during the race and he is totally right. If I'm going to take time away from my family, I do need to respect that and race to the best of my abilities out of respect for what they do for me.
2. My employees. It seems silly but without solid crews that I can trust and count on at the shops; I can't do this. They run the stores like they are their own and let me train and leave for races without me having to micro manage.
3. My pacers. Pacing is an intimate and great experience to have with someone. I will always cherish all the people who have paced me. It definitely creates a bond and I enjoy both being the pacer and racer. Both Chris and Ken were motivating, patient, funny, and definitely enhanced my experience.
4. The competition. It was an honor to share the trail with lots of great folks who all had to give it all they had to get to the finish line. Adam Hewey defines grit and toughness to me and I didn't feel comfortable about him not catching me until about mile 98......
I'll always look back on this race with great fondness. It exemplifies "old school" ultrarunning. A really tough course, pristine wilderness running, and a great, great group of folks who put on the race and all the aid stations. Thank you for all that you folks do to make this an amazing race.