In February of this year while visiting family in Florida I received notification that I had won the lottery. No, no, not THAT lottery…the Cascade Crest lottery. Every year hundreds of runners register for this beautiful 100 mile mountain race in Washington state. To retain its pure wilderness integrity, the organizers limit the number of participants to 150 and hold a lottery to determine who gets in. I was one of the “lucky” ones.
I spent the last six months training with this one goal in mind. It was a long slow buildup with a few tune up races along the way. It’s a struggle to find the right balance between too much and not enough training. I’ve found that the biggest challenge for me isn’t getting the finish line, but rather, figuring out how to get to the starting line feeling healthy, rested and injury-free.
Two years ago I ran my first 100 mile race in Arizona. It was an incredible experience running through the Sonoran desert for nearly 24 hours. That race, however, was pretty straightforward–multiple 15 mile loops on smooth trail with minimal elevation change. Cascade Crest, on the other hand, is one giant 100 mile loop through the mountains, much of it on technical single-track trail and with over 21,000 feet of elevation gain. Aesthetically it’s an amazingly beautiful course, but also one of the toughest races in the country.
My plan was to take it slow, power hike the steep uphill sections and keep my competitive instincts in check. It was the first time in any race where my goal was simply to finish. I didn’t care about my time or place. I just wanted to get in done before the 32 hour cutoff time. And hopefully have a (relatively) good time in the process.
The race has three volunteers for every one runner and the 15 aid stations were staffed and stocked to the gills. A tremendous amount of energy is needed for a race of this length, so I used these pit stops as an opportunity to consume calories like my life depended on it. Some of the many things I ate along the way were: pizza, guacamole, bacon, ramen, quesadillas, turkey avocado wraps, PB&J’s, pretzels, Pringles, M&M’s, granola bars, hummus, watermelon, chicken noodle soup, and pierogies. I might be the only runner in history to put on weight during a 100 mile race.
I hit the halfway mark at around 12 hours, at which point I got to experience one of the unique aspects of this race–a 2.3 mile abandoned railroad tunnel under Snoqualmie Pass. This section is part of the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, which runs from Seattle to the Idaho border. It was cool, damp and kind of creepy inside the tunnel. I ran in the bubble of light created by my headlamp and could hear the echo of footsteps behind me. It was nice to run on smooth flat terrain for a change, but still, I was happy to finally see that light at the end of the tunnel.
My buddy Jon met me at the next aid station and would run with me for the rest of the race. Having a pacer is a traditional component of 100 mile races. Not everyone chooses to have one, but it’s nice to have a friend along to share the experience and to help get you to the finish. Jon is a veteran of nine 100 mile races, so I was thrilled when he offered to pace me.
Running through the night was psychologically the most difficult part of the race. Jon and I spent hours swapping stories and then sometimes went miles without saying a single word. Every once in a while we’d shut off our headlamps and gaze up at the cloud-like density of the stars overhead. The miles really started to drag in the last few hours before sunrise and one section, nicknamed the Trail from Hell, took us more than 3 hours to go just 5 miles.
I caught a second wind with the rising sun (and a bottle of Starbucks Frappuccino someone gave me at an aid station). That stuff is like jet fuel! We started passing other runners, using the Beastie Boys’ “Body Movin” as our mantra. The No Name Ridge aid station was staffed by several women dressed in Hooters uniforms, serving fresh-off-the-skillet chicken quesadillas. It was like a dream, and now in hindsight, I wonder if I was, in fact, hallucinating.
The next 10 mile section of trail was referred to as the Cardiac Needles, an intimidating-sounding proposition 80 miles into a race. This series of steep ascents and descents completely trashed my legs. Many people used trekking poles to get through this section. I was happy to find a walking stick to help take some of the pressure off my quads.
The highest point on the course is the Thorpe Mountain fire lookout. Everyone was required take a paper ticket from the base of the lookout to prove that you actually tagged this high point. I felt like Charlie from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, running down the trail clutching my golden ticket.
Once the Cardiac Needles were behind me, I knew I’d have no trouble finishing before the 32 hour cutoff. As we dropped back down to civilization an afternoon thunderstorm rolled in. It cooled things off and dampened down the trail dust. The rain was cleansing and gave the nature surrounding us a newfound freshness. I felt revitalized and started to fully savor the magnitude of this journey. In a world filled with near-constant stimulation, there is a noticeable lack of time for contemplation. I feel incredibly blessed to have had this opportunity to let my mind and body aimlessly wonder for more than 30 hours.