I’ll Hold The Pain
(The Cascade Crest Classic 100)
Email to Stan Jensen (100 miler expert and driver of run100s.com):
“Quick question - I'm considering the Cascade Crest 100 for my first 100 miler - do you have any thoughts on whether this is a good first 100 miler?”
Stan’s experienced response:
“NO! The Cascade Crest is a fairly difficult 100, with lots of elevation change and a very difficult second half.” [This was followed by adding Don Lundell (of Zombie Runners) to the conversation, suggesting a number of “easy” 100 milers I should consider, and reference to the realendurance.com race time comparator for solid evidence of where the Cascade Crest ranks in relative difficulty; it ranks high, higher than Western States and Leadville...]
My immediate thought after reading “NO!”:
“I must do this!”
[Editor's note: Gentle readers, please do not ignore Stan's advice!! This can be risky and perilous! He's saved my bacon at more than a couple races... He knows what he's talking about!! All Day! ~Ken]
10 months later, and almost 3 years after running my first 5 miler, I was standing in Easton, Washington, awaiting the start of the Cascade Crest Classic (CCC) 100 miler. A lot was racing through my head - 100 miles and 20,470 feet of climbing to be exact. Was I ready? Was I sane? Should I have waited another year to build a longer base? Should I have lost another 5 pounds? Was my heel going to bother me? Was I going to crap in the woods (or worse, crap myself)? Was my life insurance and will in order? Would I see tomorrow’s sunrise? I would know in about 24 hours (give or take a few hours).
|Strolling around pre-race in my Inside Trail Racing shirt; smelling good.|
The run has a 10am start, which I really dug. I got to sleep in a bit, have a somewhat leisurely breakfast with my wife (aka my crew), and generally relax before the race in the morning sun. CCC is also a dog friendly course so there were at least 20 dogs hanging out before the start and one or two that were going to run sections. This reminded me of the recent study showing that dogs get a runner’s high similar to people.
|Chilling for the final race briefing.|
At 9am the race director (Charlie) gave us last minute instructions, including a reminder that no one really cares if we finish this race or not, so if it’s not your day, go ahead and pack it in. That is, don’t kill yourself out there, no one will think you are less or more crazy for a DNF. He also mentioned that some of the race fees were going to help fire victims from the nearby forest fire, gave thanks to the Easton fire department, and thanked us for all our volunteer trail work (part of the entry is to do 8 hours of trail work - I did mine in Purisima Creek above Half Moon Bay).
As the runners were corralled up for the start I gave my wife a kiss and said what I say to her before every race I run, “see you on the other side.” Of course this race was different, she was crewing me, and she knew it was not going to be sunshine and lollipops. Her face showed a mix of pride, anxiety, and concern. She doesn't really quite understand any of this, other than she knows I love it, knows that I am getting something special out of it - but I know she must be there, this was not something I was doing alone. I have no idea what my face showed, but I hope it was joy.
At 10am sharp we were off, trotting at a comically slow pace for those unaccustomed to ultras, and much slower than my adrenaline would have preferred. I was terrified, yet confident, wondering how hard the lows were going to be, how wonderful the highs, and singing in my head Pearl Jam’s song "Release," and the lyrics "I’ll ride the wave where it takes me, I’ll hold the pain." That was the plan - embrace the inevitable pain and ride it back to Easton.
In the first couple miles we headed down a dirt road and past a couple farm houses. It was an easy warm-up. I was chatting with another first time 100 miler who was from Utah about pace and preparation. I had to interrupt him to point out that a llama was running with us just inside one of the farm fences. I don’t think I had ever seen a llama run until that moment. They are not graceful runners.
Once we hit the hills my mind and body quickly found their rhythm. Things felt good as we headed up to goat’s peak. Goat’s peak was a pretty hefty climb (~3,000 feet), but worth the price. The views of Rainier, and countless other peaks and lakes, were amazing. I ran for a few miles with a CCC veteran, Arthur Martineau, who was running his 7th CCC and another guy, Chase, both from the Seattle area. I peppered Arthur with too many questions before we eventually separated going through an aid station (I was to see him again around 1am and get some more guidance from him on the Trail from Hell).
Eventually we hit the famous Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), and would run it for about 30 miles. This was great forest trail running on soft pine covered trails. The forest cover came at the perfect time in the early afternoon to get us out of the sun for some cool quick running. I also popped out at the first aid station where I got to see my wife, Tacoma Pass (mile 23). I quickly stopped, changed bottles, got a kiss, and was on my way again. Things were going well.
|Evergreens; author not pictured.|
Around mile 28 or 29, just before the Stampede Pass aid station where I would see my wife for the second time, I caught my toe on a rock or root, and stumbled. Instead of rolling to the ground I braced myself hard with my foot to avoid a fall and caused a horrible cramp in my quad muscle. It locked up like never before and doubled me over for a while as I worked on it with both hands. Several runners passed me as I was doubled over and asked if I needed ginger, which puzzled me not realizing that I looked like I was getting ready to puke. The quad caused me problems on and off for the next 30 miles, primarily on uphills, when it would periodically cramp up again. When it happened, I basically stopped and had to slowly walk and massage it until it subsided - obviously this slowed me down quite a bit and hurt like hell. When I came through the Stampede Pass aid station (mile 33), the second place I was seeing my wife, I didn’t mention my quad to her, probably just not to worry her. All I said was “I’m going to fast, so I’m going to slow down a little.” She later told me she knew something was off, that I was a different runner than she saw at the last aid station, but thankfully she didn’t say a word at the time. Little did she know what she’d find at the next aid station.
After leaving Stampede Pass (33) I was plunging deeper into my rough patch, dealing with my quad about every 15 minutes or so and generally slowing down in an attempt to catch up on fueling and hopefully solve the quad problem. Nothing was working and I was becoming increasingly frustrated with my slowing pace and leg issue, knowing I still had a long night ahead of me.
I was able to pick my head-up a bit more during this patch and enjoy the scenery and the sunset. I ran by a camping area and a small lake, Mirror Lake. As soon as it came into view I vividly remembered camping there some 15 years earlier with my wife, sister-in-law, and friends. Along the lake I passed a couple with their kids walking in the opposite direction and heard one of the kids say “are they really racing? They are going so slow.”
|Crew view shuttling from aid station to aid station.|
I fueled up at the Olallie Meadows aid station (mile 47), put my head-lamp on as it was starting to get dark, and mentally came to grips with the high likelihood of dropping at Hyak (mile 53). I just couldn’t imagine running another 50 miles in this condition. I was, however, looking forward to the famous tunnel just before Hyak and thought at least I would get to run through that before dropping. With all the distractions, I had forgot about the steep decline rope section coming up next, just before the tunnel. This was awesome, adrenaline pumping, bad-ass stuff, and I decided to just blast down the hill. The hill was too steep to safely go down (or even stand) without aid so there were climbing ropes connected to trees leading the way down. (My Garmin would later tell me it was a 40-50% grade.) I flew down the hill, with one hand on the rope like a wild man, rocks and dirt flying everywhere (I ended the race with more blisters on my hands than my feet). I wish someone could have filmed me coming down this section so it could be played at my funeral (assuming I looked as bad-ass as I picture it in my mind, but I fear it may have looked more like those guys that chase the cheese wheel down a hill).
After the exciting rope section I entered the tunnel. It’s about a 2.2 mile abandoned train tunnel, with no lights other than our headlights. It was wider and taller than I imagined from pictures I had seen, maybe as wide as two cars and 30 feet tall. The tunnel was interesting and strange (although a shorter tunnel would have been fine). For a long time, I could look ahead and back and not be able to make out anything but the tunnel extending off into infinity. I can see how this might freak some people out.
Hyak aid station (mile 53) - this is where all the action/drama took place, where everything could have turned out differently. The Hyak aid station has a Christmas theme, so I was greeted by a two-story inflatable snowman, Christmas music, and a woman dressed as Santa Claus greeting me with a “Merry Christmas!” All the lights and music were a little strange after 10+ hours in the mountains.
|An odd site for late August.|
My legs were feeling somewhat recovered from the adrenaline of the rope section and coming out of the tunnel, but not 100 percent. The flat terrain and walking breaks seemed to hold off the cramps, and I was feeling marginally better. I knew there would be pain, this was okay, and I thought I could continue after all. This all changed when I sat down to change socks and shoes. My quad, and now my hamstring, started cramping very painfully. I was drinking (Pedialyte) and eating (grilled cheese) in hopes of recovering, but sitting there for almost 30 minutes I started to shiver (temperature had fallen into low 50s). I was ready to quit, call it a day, never run again. My wife looked at me like she might look at my daughter after losing her favorite stuffed animal. She did and said what she needed to, what I had coached her to do. She told me to eat and keep going, I had plenty of time, and could even walk the rest of the way. She got me changed into a jacket, gloves, hat, dry shoes, and socks. She got food and liquid in me and kicked me back out on the road. I told her later that had she just said “let’s go home and get you into a warm bed,” it would have been lights out. I would have sprinted to the car.
|Would you let this guy continue? (This is what you get for ignoring Stan Jensen's advice!!)|
|Back on my feet trying to warm-up before heading to the car, I mean trail.|
From there I headed up a long slow climb, about 3,000 feet over 5 miles or so. I hiked, ate, and drank for about an hour and was starting to feel really good. The farther and higher I hiked, the better I felt. I clicked my headlight off numerous times to more fully enjoy the setting moon and stars. Just walking alone in the mountains.
I started hiking faster, and even running some of the flatter portions of the climb. I even caught and passed a couple runners. I was a new man at the top, where I quickly refueled at the aid station (mile 60) and then started a glorious downhill run. It was glorious because the cramping was completely gone, I was running at a decent pace (decent pace 60+ miles in), and also because I couldn't wait to see my wife at the next aid station (67) to tell her I had recovered and was feeling great. The second she saw me coming into the aid station she knew I was back on track. I had my hop back and was smiling. I was in no real hurry, not worrying about my time anymore, so sat down for a minute or so to eat some food and chat with her. She then hiked with my a quarter mile or so up to the start of the “Trail from Hell,” and I was off, not to see her again until mile 96.
The Trail from Hell was certainly fun to run, but it was not fast, and for many sections, there really was no trail. The course was marked very well with reflective tape that lit up nicely from our headlamps, but there was not a well-defined trail or rut in the ground. At one point the reflectors seemed to stop along a path that paralleled a river, and there appeared to be a trail on the other side, but it was not clear if we were to keep going parallel to the river or cross at this point. Arthur, the guy going for his 7th CCC finish, was just behind me so I waited for him to show me the way (which was to cross the river). I ran with him and his pacer for a few miles with the comfort of not getting lost on this crazy section.
After the Trail from Hell, we started a 9 mile climb of about 3,000 feet. During this climb the sky went from a beautiful starlit night to a beautiful sunrise over distant mountain peaks. It was amazing. During this climb I did a lot of thinking. I thought about the amazing starlight views I had, the amazing views I had all day, and wished I could share them with loved ones. They were too awesome for just me.
I started thinking how I am routinely asked why I took up running, such long distances in particular, the questioner indirectly (or maybe directly) probing for the defect that causes the madness. The follow-up question is often, what do you think about, don’t you get bored? I don’t really have a satisfactory answer for the first question - I honestly just love getting out on trails and running. To the second question, I thought about many different things in the wee hours in the Cascades, great things in my life, great losses, everything. I remembered sitting on my back deck last month with my kids to experience their first shooting star - a moment none of us will forget. I remembered viewing stars with my Dad in Oregon when I was a kid.
I mused that my Dad was never a runner, his release was biking, riding centuries and even the Seattle-to-Portland 200 mile ride, but I think he would get my running, more so than anyone else. Although never spoken, I believe he found calm and joy in testing himself physically and mentally on those long bike rides - I imagine him riding with his thoughts just as I was now running with mine. At that moment, somewhere in the Cascades, I felt connected with my Dad in some small way. My Dad told me many times, do your best and keep your head up. I was doing that and I only had 15 miles to go!
The next 15 miles were no cake walk. I was aware of the “cardiac needles,” a series of 4 short hills poking up between 85-90 miles, but I did not give them enough respect. On the elevation chart they look like harmless pimples near the top of a 3,000 foot climb, but they were incredibly steep climbs. Several times I wanted to stop and pause on them, but decided to merely slow my hike, worrying that if I stopped, I wouldn’t be able to get started again. The reward was fantastic views from the peak of each climb, the most amazing from Thorpe mountain.
After the cardiac needles there was a long steep downhill before dumping into the last aid station at Silver Creek with only 3.6 miles to go. Best of all, I got to see my wife again, waiting with a smile and a kiss. The aid station captain offered me a beer, and pointed out a buckle that was hanging from a tree to mark the trail back to Easton. I grabbed a few snacks, inspected the buckle and was off. I took off quickly out of the aid station and then slowed down to enjoy it a bit. Some part of me just wanted to enjoy this run to the end and not kill myself for a few minutes, and some smaller part wished there was more than 3.6 miles to go. I wasn’t quite ready to be done with the experience.
Returning to the finish line, where we started nearly 24 hours earlier, was surreal. Nothing had changed in Easton or the Cascades, but everything looked different. I saved a final burst of sprinting (probably a 12 min/mile for 200 yards) to cross the finish line as Charlie announced that it was my first CCC and first 100 mile finish! I got a hug and kiss from my wife and then sat in the sun, with my feet in a bucket of ice water and a smile on my face.
Thanks to all who helped me on this journey - I’ll do my best to thank you all in person.
|Post race bliss!|
Time to rest, eat, and be with my family.
Oh dear dad
Can you see me now
I am myself
Like you somehow
I'll ride the wave
Where it takes me
I'll hold the pain
- Release, Pearl Jam