Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tall Trees. Tough Trails. Jerky Owls.

My nemesis!!! Or at least he looked a lot like this . . .

Most race reports begin with something regarding the crack of dawn. However, I knew nothing about dawn on race day because I was snoring away in my hotel room as the race mercifully didn't start until 10 AM. Finally around 8 AM I woke up, ate a bunch of bananas and fruit bars and made my way to Easton for the race start. After a quick 9 AM meeting, there was some general milling about, some pancake eating, a lot of water drinking, and some last minute sitting. The weather was going to be great, high's in the mid 60's with little chance for rain. At 9:55 we enjoyed the Canadian and US national anthems, the latter played on a baritone by a runner in a trucker hat and long colorful socks. Yes, this was going to be a different race.

The view at the start. Hello, Easton!

These are all the supplies that get hauled out to the various aid stations for the race. Tell me these RD's and volunteers aren't the best!

In addition to the above, they haul out all of these drop bags to the various locations.

Warming up for the national anthem? I hope he didn't run with that thing . . .

I particularly respected the fact that the Canadian flag was mounted on a hockey stick.

I don't exactly look ready for a race, do I? More like a saunter . . .

At 10 AM we were off, headed down a long gravel road. The beginning of the run was the usual nervous chatter as each runner found their place in the pack and a little bit of rhythm. After about 2 miles, the grind began as course tilted upwards. I found myself behind my buddy Mike, which told me I was way ahead of where I should be. We chatted a lot as we transitioned from rutted fire road to the single track of Goat Peak. The climb went by relatively quickly, and before I knew it, we had hit the top. I had been thinking about the climb for weeks, and with it under my belt, I realized I could have a pretty good day because it went by a lot faster than expected.
Get out of the way! Here I come . . .

After some rolling stuff, we hit our first real aid station and a cranking downhill where I hooked up with a fellow So Cal guy from Hunnington Beach who was a complete hardass having run just about every major race you can imagine. From somewhere behind me, Mike came blazing past and up the next climb of 1500 feet to the PCT, with a quick stop at the aid station at Blowout Mtn. on the way.

Looking back somewhere around mile 20 at Cole Butte, which was at mile 10 of the course. We ran down those switchbacks, then up a similar set to get to Blowout Mountain, which was the mile 15 aid station.

Almost every race report I read of Cascade Crest lauds the PCT section of the trail, which starts about mile 16 or so, and now I understand why. It is miles and miles of mostly runnable, cushioned trail, with some rocky sections thrown in during the clear cuts. The section from Blowout Mountain to Tacoma Pass was a ball, with lots and lots of fun downhill where you could just put it in cruise control. Somewhere in this section, I heard the sound of gravel falling, and down came the cliff came rolling a pica, which is like a little rabbit, coming to stop right on the trail in front of me upside down. He quickly righted himself and stared nervously at me. Don't worry little fella. I have other things to do than mess with you. Too funny to see an animal wipe out much like I was doing all over these trails. I ended up with 3 or 4 good falls before it was all said and done.

Typical section of trail in the trees . . .

If there were no clouds, you would see Mt. Ranier. You can just see the base above the ridgeline.

Somewhere in this section, I dropped in with John, who was going for his fifth finish, and David, who was going for his fourth. I sucked information from both those guys. The conversation was flowing lightly as we pushed through the forest. Both John and David were behind their normal pace, but I still felt like I was a little faster than I had any right to be. But everyone told me to push during the first afternoon because once darkness hit, it was going to be a long slow night, and by the second dawn, you were in a series of climbs which made it difficult to gain ground. So push I did.
Where is that guy? Volunteer and/or crew looking down the trail at incoming runners at Tacoma Pass aid station. Crews do a lot of waiting, wondering when their guy or gal is going to come bursting out of the woods demanding gels and body glide.

Hey, who's that guy? Took you long enough . . .

As we talked, I realized that David was the same guy who I finished Jemez with. Ha! When you are running these things, you rarely see anyone's face, just the back of their legs if they are in front of you or just the trail if they are behind you. Anyways, he and John and I worked as a team, the three of us pushing each other along for miles and miles. I was happy to pull into Tacoma Pass where Erica was waiting with my new ultra secret weapon - Spaghetti-o's. Yes, that childhood treat that everyone loved. I have a problem getting enough salt in these races because I can't take salt pills easily, so this was my solution - cold, right out of the can. And it worked great. Packed with sodium and easy to swallow, they went right down, and I ate a whole can during the climb out of the aid station. In fact, I probably ate too much, which is difficult to do during these races. And I can say throughout the race, I had no cramping problems, although I attribute the cold weather for some of that as well.
The breakfast of champions. Somehow, I don't think that this is what they are serving the Olympic marathoners this year . . .

My initial goal was to make Meadows Mountain at Mile 41 by darkness or a little after, and I got there about 15 minutes after busting out my light. Somewhere David got a head of the group, but as I busted out of the aid station, burgeoned again by Spaghetti'0's from Erica and some soup, I knew John was behind me somewhere. I also knew per our pattern in the last 15 miles that he would spend more time in the aid station and catch up to me somewhere on the trail. Sure enough, after about 15 minutes, he came barrelling past me, and I waved him on feeling I couldn't keep his pace as the thick dark of a northwestern mountain night took hold. But about 10 minutes down the trail, I passed him back as he adjusted his pack, and we fell in to a rhythm again, not really saying anything, but at least me taking comfort from another light in the darkness.

There was lots of stumbling on rocks and some nasty stubbed toes, but generally the night moved along. I was soon at Olalie Meadows where I wished a quick hello to Scott who is the RD for White River as well as the aid station captain. Not wishing to upset my cooperating stomach by experimenting with one of his famous pirogies, I kept going over what the race director had said would be the hardest section of the course, leaving John to enjoy the hospitality of the aid station. After a very rocky downhill on the PCT, it was up on a service road. And up. And up. The RD joked that he sent us up to the top of the ski hill so we could enjoy the view, even though when we got there, it would be pitch black. Let me tell you, that hill goes on forever. Its never super steep, but steady, and everytime you think you are close to the top, it goes up and around another bend.

Over the top, I enjoyed the view of, well, nothing but pitch black as I looked straight down a ski slope. Here we go. Jemez again . . . . I had heard last year's descent was an impossible slide down. This time they routed us down some of the ski slope which was literally baby step after baby step with a steep decline, lots of loose rocks, and no trail. But then we switched over to another slope which was more runnable. As I made my way down, here came another set of lights. It was John again! Taking some strength from the company, I made my way onto a mountain bike trail with lots of broken bridges and obstacles that looked like they could dump someone into the drink pretty fast. Finally, it was out onto some paved roads, John and I running step for step towards the aid station in the distance. We finally pulled in together around 12:45 AM at mile 53. And there were Scotty and Erica! YES! Time for the halfway recoup. I was a little nervous because I was pretty trashed and everyone had said the second part of the course was harder than the first.

My vest had broken, so I quickly changed into a new one and pulled a hat over my head. Somewhere I had misplaced my longsleeve, so it was going to be a chilly night. It was probably in the low 40's at the station, and probably mid 30's up on the ridge where I was heading. Oh well, just had to keep moving. I had my gloves and hat to keep me warm. I ate a grilled cheese and Scotty handed me some "soup" that ended up being hot chocolate. Oops. Oh well, I probably wasn't going to sweat much in these conditions, so as long as it was warm, it didn't need to be salty. You just can't get upset at these races about things like the long sleeve or not having the right soup or there's a hill you didn't expect or whatever or you will mentally break down. You have to be able to just go with the flow and make the best of what's around you. If you can stay positivie, you will likely finish. That's definitely my biggest attribute at these things. Its certainly not my running ability . . .

I had planned to walk out of that aid station, but there was a little bit of downhill and some lights ahead, so I put it in granny low and started to run. John had left the aid station ahead of me, so I knew there was no chance of catching him again, and I just found my own rhythm. As it was a paved road with a bright moon, I kept my light off and made my way the best I could, proud to be running most of the section, and I even passed a few people. In fact, from this point forward, I would pass 15 or so people and only get passed by 1 person that I could remember, which is a good sign that I paced correctly. Given that I ended up finishing about 10 from the end, I have to assume at least some of those people dropped . . .

As the paved road turned to gravel and I hit the 1800 foot climb to Kachelus Ridge, I suddenly felt my head being pounded and scraped up from behind and a buffeting of wings. I screamed and started throwing my arms around. Whirling about, I saw an owl hovering a foot away, talons at the ready. What the hell?! I watched it swoop away as I hurried up the hill. I put my hand up to the back of my head, and it came away bloody from the owl attack. As I wrote earlier - what the HELL?! As if 21,000 feet of climbing over tortorous rocky trails wasn't enough, they sicked the wildlife on you as well? I thought I had prepared myself for everything the course would have to offer, but I hadn't subjected myself to any avian assaults. My bad! I laughed as I climbed up, picturing the RD with a little remote control hiding behind the bushes . . .
My noggin bearing the results of the owl attack. The talons cut straight through my hat!

Heart pumping now, I moved up the hill as quickly as I could. I saw a few lights in the distance and used them as rabbits to keep me motivated. After a long climb, I pulled into the top of the ridge at mile 60. To my surprise, David was there, and so was John! Glad to see them again, David and I pulled out and headed down the hill. After a few miles, my knees were really killing me from all the agressive downhill on the hardpacked road, and it definitely cut my pace. But David and I generally talked and pushed each other down the hill, pulling into the aid station at mile 67. I took some extra time here to get metally prepared from the aptly named "Trail from Hell", which consists of a 1/2 mile or so bushwhack along a steep hillside over fallen trees followed by an undulating rooty and rocky challenge along the shore of the lake.

John and David beat me out of the aid station thinking I was ahead and they were going to catch up as usual. I headed out on my own and hit the "trail" which was just random footsteps along a 30 degree muddy slope. I was moving slow, trying to keep to the side of the hill, climbing over downed trees and following from glow stick to glow stick when suddenly the hill gave way on me. I slid about 30 feet down the side of the hill bounding off of a few trees on the way down. Ouch. I put my flashlight in my mouth and used all 4's to climb back to where I saw the next glow stick, literally moving 2 steps forward, sliding one step back. Once I made it back, I put my ipod on to listen to Jay Mohr doing the Jim Rome Show which I had taped a few months backed and saved just for this trail, knowing I would need something to keep the spirits up. Disappointed to have lost time, but not wanting another fall, I pushed it carefully over the next few hundred yards . . .

Once I hit the actual trail, darkness was starting to fade, and I have to say that I really liked this part, probably more than others did. I love short steep climbs and technical stuff, as it suits my build. Its also much easier, I'm sure, in the early gray of the morning, which is when I was there, where you can see the obstacles ahead of you and plan the best way to assault them, as opposed to the middle of the night where you need your light to illuminate every little step. Before long, I had caught David, and I would even occasionally see John in the distance around the lakeshore. We finally pulled into the aid at Mile 73, and I was ahead of schedule, having done the trail from hell in about 2 hours and 15 minutes, or about 15 minutes faster than I planned, even with that epic fall (or fail as the case may be!).

A quick trip to the trees to answer nature's call put me way behind John and David on the long grind out of Mineral Creek, and I wouldn't see them again until the end. What I've found at these races is that I always lose ground on the long gradual climbs, and this race wasn't any different as I trailed and ulitmately lost touch with a large group going up the 7 mile, 3,000 foot climb to No Name Ridge. At mile 75, Erica was waiting with spaghettio's, and she walked up part of the trail with me, taking my cold weather clothes and getting me set for a long day still. I knew now barring disaster that I would finish, but I could sniff a PR if I could keep it going, which would be something to set a PR on this course. Unlike most ultras that start early, because this one starts at 10, I still had an entire day of running instead of being done in the morning. With that in mind, I pushed as hard as I could on the road climb, which wasn't that bad at all, if a little long. There were some nice views along the way and soon I was at the station at Mile 80. I threw down a banana pancake and some ginger ale and another new favorite, apple sauce! Brilliant idea, No Name Ridgers! I had two of those as I pushed for the Needles.
On the long climb out of Mineral Creek at about Mile 75. The slope wasn't too bad; it was just a slog.

Runners up in the distance. I could not keep up with them and got dropped. Long climbs are on my "Needs Improvement" list.

The Needles are a series of steep short climbs, maybe 1/4 mile for the shortest to 1/2 mile for the longest which are as infamous and dreaded in Cascade Crest lore as the Trail from Hell. Definitely the steepest part of the course, but as I said about the trail from Hell, I tend to do well on short steep bits as they require brute strength, which, being a big guy, I have some of. My goal was to make it through all the needles without stopping to catch my breath, and I would make it. Small mission accomplished.
View of an Alpine lake from somewhere along the Needles.

The second needle was Thorpe Mountain - and out n' back - and I was told to head up the mountain and grab a ticket to show I was there and come back. It was a 1/2 mile steep switchbacking climb that I was glad to crest. As I reached the bottom, I realized I had forgotten to grab a ticket! Oh no! Wait a minute, what's this in my pocket? Thank God, I did get a ticket. I was starting to lose it. Time to get to the finish.

The section from Thorpe to French Cabin actually went pretty quick as I powered through the 2 needles there and hit the second to last section of the course. I have to say that the Needles weren't all that bad. Yes, they are steep, but they are manageable if you have any legs left. Just one foot after the other and you are through them pretty quick.

At the Cabin I tried some bacon and quickly coughed it back up. Oops. Time to get moving and get this thing over with. I knew, barring disaster, I had a finish and likely a PR. This proved to be the most difficult part of the race for me, because knowing this, I just wanted it to be done, but I still had 12 miles and several hours of running to cover to actually get there. It made the last part of the race seem to last forever.

From the Cabin to finish was downhill with one last needle to get over pretty much right out of the aid station. From there, it was a lot of rooty downhill that seemed to take forever. I thought I would be down a lot faster than I actually was. It was fun trail, but my legs were shot, so I was struggling just to get through, and mentally, I just wanted to be done. I passed a few folks in here, but was getting frustrated as I saw time slipping away. I was so close, I didn't want to give a PR up now. Plus, I had a shot at sub-31 hours which would be great. I tried to power along as best I could. I ran into a couple of guys with a map. How far to the trailhead? 1.9 miles, they said. Great. Then, 20 minutes later, I ran into a race volunteer. How far to the trailhead? 2.5 miles, she said. Not so great. I looked at where we had to get down to, and knew that the race volunteer was correct. Oh, man. I looked at my watch. Get moving!

A particluarly smooth section of the last trail . . .

Finally getting spit out the bottom, my legs were rubbery and my stomach was rumbling, which happenned a lot during the race. It was wild in that I was stripped so raw, my stomach would rumble, I would eat a gu, and I could literally feel my body resupplying. One more cup of spaghetti-o's . . .

I told Erica that I was going to walk it in from there. It was 3:30, I was mentally fried from that last section that never seemed to end, and I had 1.5 hours to cover the last 5 miles to get sub-31. Well after eating some and walking some bumpy gravelly stuff, I felt pretty good and didn't want to go out like a chump, so picked up the pace and started "running" again, which at this point was a distorted lurching motion, kind of like Frankenstein going out for a jog. But it was faster than walking, so off I would go, literally counting down in my head, making myself run for 5 minutes on, 1 minute off. 300, 299, 298, etc. until zero when I started the whole process again. Soon I was off trails and onto pavement, which meant I was a little over a mile away. I could see the overpass that was near the finish, but it seemed like it was so far! Oh well, keep it up. 300, 299, 298 . . .

I passed a deer who was grazing next to the road just before coming back into town, and then it was up onto a trail next to the railroad tracks. I could see the finish! There were a couple of guys yelling and waving. I yelled back and started pumping my fist to myself, listening to the Clash and pushing the last 1/4 mile or so to look good for the ladies at the finish! I recognized one of these guys as Scotty as I got closer. But they were still jumping up and down, and yelling, more than I thought was warranted, but OK. Thanks guys, I guess. Just then I sensed movement over my shoulder as a runner came around to pass me. (At least it wasn't the owl!)

I don't consider myself a very competitive guy, but something deep inside me tripped and I dug into my guts to try to hold this guy off. I mean, who really cares? But I guess I did. As I turned it up a notch, I glanced over my shoulder and he was still there. Damn it, that first burst should have snapped him! I went WAY deep and found one more gear. I still have no idea where that came from, but I was able to muster just enough to keep him off, finishing with a "leap" and a fist pump. I feel like a fool now, battling for 69th place against a guy who was at least 10 years my senior and undoubtedly a better runner, but nice that I could find a little something really deep when I felt like I had to. He was a great sport and was very gracious about my idiocy when I should have just crossed the line together with him which to my mind is more in the spirit with the sport. Oh well. lesson learned, and it makes for a funny memory. About 500 yards from the finish, head down, just trying to make it in. When suddenly . . .

Ah, crap! Where did he come from. C'mon now, dig for something!

Hey, it looks like I'm actually running as I try to hold him off! Or that I'm pulling an invisible tractor . . . Whew! That was tough! Better get out of the way there, camera guy!

So final results were 30:32, a PR on any 100 mile course for me by 40 minutes (and only 5 seconds faster than the guy behind me!). This is a brutal course, much harder than Grand Teton and San Diego, not as hard as Wasatch, but comparable. There were pleny of beautiful views, supportive volunteers, and fantastic runnable territory. As the shirt said, "Tall Trees. Tough Trails". Put it on your list for a beautiful, well-0rganized, well-supported challenge.
My belt buckle. Me: "I ran 100 miles for this?" Charlie: "Why yes, yes you did". Erica looks on proudly (?) in the background. She is the best crew EVER. I recommend her to any ultra runners looking for a crew person . . .

Thanks again to Charlie the race director, all of the volunteers who helped out, Erica for being the ace crew that she always is, and to all my fellow racers who make the sport what it is. Hopefully I'll be running again by the weekend and start thinking about what's next, but right now, its all about savoring the buckle for a little while. Thanks for reading . . .



  1. Great race BJ! I'm still bummed we left before you finished.

    I can't believe you got attacked by an owl. That certainly puts you into total badass category!

  2. fantastic race report, bj, and you always looked good when i saw you, flashing that trademark smile!

    feel proud about your strong finish! mark was winning races back in the day and i'm sure he totally enjoyed a bit of honest competition!

    i hope our paths cross again soon!

  3. BJ --

    Great report! Didn't I mention my remote control owl at the briefing? I'll file down the talons a little for next year.

    That same owl got Jeff Browning when he came over Kecheelus Ridge so you were is esteemed company :)

  4. "Nature! Get if off me!!" Great writeup! You are Legend. (:

  5. Nice report. Congratulations on the finish.