Archives for posts with tag: Cascade Crest 100

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My life has been a series of obsessions.  The first was tennis, back in the late seventies when the sport was in its heyday.  I grew up across the street from a set of courts and my brother and I would be there everyday honing our skills and taking on all comers.  The only breaks we took during the summer were to watch Wimbledon on TV.

I was a huge Bjorn Borg fan and probably the only kid in my little western Pennsylvania town that had Fila clothes, Diadora shoes and a Donnay racket.  Borg would forego shaving during the tournament and would look so cool by the time he reached the finals.  I couldn’t wait to be old enough to shave, so then I could NOT shave during Wimbledon.

My brother and I are only 13 months apart and extremely competitive.  This intense rivalry pushed our games to new levels and it wasn’t until he started beating me regularly that I began to lose interest.  However, his love of tennis has continued and now he’s one of the head teaching pros at Family Circle Tennis Center in Charleston, South Carolina.

After tennis, my obsessions continued one after another through the years: Kurt Vonnegut, golf, Jack Kerouac, the Grateful Dead, snowboarding, Tom Waits, mountain climbing, Haruki Murakami, travel writing, and then for the last several years, running.  This parade of random obsessions has been a great source of fun.  Life is never boring while you’re in the grip of an all-consuming activity.

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I didn’t consciously choose any of these obsessions.  They chose me and would eventually pass just as mysteriously as they appeared.  I never used to worry when my interest in one of these activities started to wane because I knew that something else would soon appear to take its place.

At the end of last year, without any sort of warning, running started to lose its appeal.  It made me sad to think that this thing which has given me so much pleasure may no longer be a part of my life.

Looking back on 2014, I think of all the places running has taken me.  There were races in Texas hill country and in the mountains of Oregon and Washington.  While traveling I was able to do training runs though Sabino Canyon in southern Arizona, along the River Walk in San Antonio, around Central Park in New York, through O’Keeffe Country outside of Santa Fe and over a seven mile bridge linking the Florida Keys.

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One day I saw a bald eagle scoop a fish out of the Willamette during a morning run along the river and another day watched the sun rise and then set while circumnavigating Mount St. Helens.  I feel so lucky to have had these experiences and know that they wouldn’t have been possible without running being such a big part of my life.

So for the first time I decided to not sit back and let an obsession pass.  I tried instead to come up with a plan so running could remain my focus.  Initially the plan involved taking some time off and only running when the mood struck.  For a few months I only ran 2-3 times a week and some weeks not at all.  As time went on, I wanted to run less and less.

Running, they say, is addictive, but you want to know what else is addictive?  Not running.  As my fitness level decreased, running became harder and less enjoyable.  I understood for the first time why most people think of running as a chore, as something to be endured.

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So I started 2015 with a new plan.  Instead of running only when I felt like it, I would now run everyday, no excuses.  It doesn’t matter if it is cold, dark, or windy, I’ll be out there putting in the miles.

It really sucked at first, but then slowly my fitness level started to improve and it started to suck a bit less.  As it got less difficult, it became more enjoyable (funny how that works).  It was a solution so obvious I’m still shocked it actually worked.

Now that March has arrived and the days are getting brighter, I find myself obsessing about running again.  I’ve starting checking all my favorite websites and am now planning my summer racing schedule.  Recently I had a dream come true by having my photo appear in two different running magazines.

The first was in an issue of Ultrarunning and is somewhat embarrassing.

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The photographer caught me at a low point in the race and while the woman next to me appears to be out on a Sunday stroll, I look like a broken down old man with a walking stick.  Luckily in this photo from Trail Runner magazine, I’m looking a little more determined.

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These pictures appearing one after the other felt like fate.  I now know that it’s too soon for me to give up and move on to something new.  There’s still so much I want to see and do in this sport.  And even though this old man may sometimes need a walking stick to get up the hill, I’m going to keep plugging away no matter what.

logo_colorIn 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.

cascade_crest-760x400Two 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.

9432337My 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.

Ultramarathon Aid StationI 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.

irontMy 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.

hooters_tshirtsThe 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.

thorploOnce 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.

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Some races, like certain individuals, are preceded by formidable reputations.  I first heard of the White River 50 when I lived in Seattle in the early 90’s.  One of my roommate’s co-workers at REI was an early adapter of the endurance junkie lifestyle.  He spent every non-working hour climbing glaciated peaks, cycle touring the Pacific coast and running Forrest Gump-like distances.  When he told me that he was doing a 50 mile mountain race, I assumed it was one of those multi-day Eco Challenge events.  I couldn’t imagine anyone running that far in a single day.

These were the days when the marathon had yet to go mainstream–before Oprah inspired thousands of her followers to take up the challenge.  At the time I considered myself to be a serious runner because I used to jog around Green Lake a few times a week.  And like many others I thought 26.2 miles to be the ultimate running goal.  The thought of going nearly twice that far seemed absurd.

When this guy told me how fun it was to spend the whole day running through the mountains, I can remember thinking, “Yeah, I’d like to do that someday (not a real soon kind of someday, more like an eventually kind of someday).”  Well, twenty years later that someday has finally come.  A few weeks ago I ran the White River 50 and now it’s my turn to try and convince you how fun can be to run up and over mountains.

white_river_50My buddy Greg and I drove up there the day before and camped just outside of Mt. Rainier National Park.  The campground was beautiful, right on the White River and filled with old growth Douglas fir, including a 700 year old behemoth with a 9.5 foot diameter.

The 6am starting time corresponded perfectly with sunrise, so there was no need for a headlamp.  At the pre-race briefing the director described the course as having only two hills and then pointed to the pair of mountains towering over us on either side.  Race veterans smiled and chuckled to themselves, while us virgins adopted looks of greater concern.

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The starting line with the first “hill” 3300 feet above us

My goal was to start out slow, get up and down that first hill and save as much energy as possible for the second half of the race.  There were more than 300 people who started the race this year, making it one the biggest 50 mile trail races in the country.  It was fun having so many people to run with and gave the race a real social feel to it.

Early on I met a guy from Portland who lives just a few minutes away from me.  We spent several miles talking about some of our favorite bars and restaurants, which helped to make the elevation gain seem a bit easier.  The climb up that first hill was long (about 8 miles) and steep in places.  Many times we were reduced to power hiking.

The top had some great views of Mt. Rainier and the White River valley below us.  Just before the second aid station we were greeted by Glenn Tachiyama, probably the most famous trail running photographer.  I don’t normally buy race photos, but I could resist one of Glenn’s classics.

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The long cruise back down into the valley was not as fun as you’d think.  The trail was super technical and a momentary lapse of concentration could easily result in some airtime.  A group of 5 of us charged down the trail together like a runaway train.  We got into a collective zone state, not talking at all and just concentrating on the feet of the runner in front of each of us.

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I was happy when the trail eventually leveled out just before the 4th aid station.  The first half of the race was now finished and I was feeling a bit more beat up than I should have at that point.  Psychologically it was tough to be back where we’d started and for a moment I thought how nice it would be to stop now, go back to camp and take an afternoon nap.  But no, there was still one more hill that needed to be climbed before any naps could be embarked upon.

The trail up to Sun Top Mountain was 8.5 miles and had nearly 3000 feet of elevation gain.  It was now almost noon and the climb was long, hot and exposed.  I started to get frustrated and feel sorry for myself.  These are the times when I begin to wonder why I don’t partake in more typical middle aged pursuits like golf or tennis.  Or maybe I should grow a goatee and a ponytail and buy a Harley.  With every step these ideas sounded better and better.

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The volunteers at the aid station on the summit of Sun Top Mountain were having a blast watching our battered bodies roll in.  I chowed down on two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before announcing that these were the best sandwiches I’ve ever had.  That mix of sweet and salty, carb and protein was just what my body was craving.  I grabbed one more for the long descent down into the valley.

The last 13 miles were a bit of a death march.  Even though there were no more climbs, the downhills trashed my quads.  The goal now was to just hang on and keep it together through the finish.  I eventually lost track of the distance and asked a guy hiking the trail how much further till the finish.  He said, “half mile, three quarters of a mile at the most.”  I don’t normally place too much trust in other people’s estimates, but this guy’s answer was so definite.

I cranked up the pace now knowing that there were only about 5 more minutes of suffering to endure.  I passed a runner, then another and then a third and fourth.  The last “half mile” was more like two miles and wanted to kill that guy and his seriously flawed estimate.  But I also wanted to thank him for inadvertently causing me to push harder and finish strong.

Nine hours and thirty six minutes is a long time to run through the mountains (and unfortunately didn’t leave me with enough afternoon for an afternoon nap).  It was, however, a lot of fun and a completely different feel than the rolling hills of many of the ultras I’ve done in the last few years.  In two weeks, I’ll get the chance to see how much fun mountain running really can be when I take on twice the distance in the Cascade Crest 100.  Wish me luck…I’ll definitely need it.

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