“This is old school ultrarunning,” said Charlie Crissman a year ago, when I was facing my first 100-miler. “Your family and friends don’t care if you finish this race,” he reiterated this year. “There are no awards for winning this.
He then called last year’s winner of the women’s race up to receive an award. Shawna Tompkins received a rather nice looking jacket for having tied with the course record the previous year.
So maybe there’s a little something.
Winning this race wouldn’t enter my imagination, which was straining to imagine a sub-24-hour finish on this course. Doing so would mean bettering my previous time by three hours and would have put me in the top 20 finishers for 2012 – a year that would see only 96 finishers of 142 starters. Eight runners wouldn’t even start, which is seen as a far worse transgression than not finishing, since the race lottery fills instantly and leaves a waiting list of 100 people – a few of whom managed to secure last-minute entry.
The Easton Fire Department graciously hosts the event and is beneficiary of much of the proceeds. This year this seemed particularly appropriate since there has been a large brushfire just East of Easton, and many of the firefighters were no doubt involved in its suppression.
From the fire department we started along a gravel road and then up Goat Peak, a climb of 3,000′ in just under six miles. But out of the gate a friend of mine jokingly jostled up and elbowed me aside on the 30′ wide road. He was all grins, which made it irresistible to shoot him in the face with my water bottle. (Oops. Was that the one with Gatorade?)
Last year I deliberately sandwiched myself in a troupe of silverbacks to prevent overzealously burning out on the climb, which worked a little too well. This year I simply jogged and marched uphill at a significantly faster clip along with a friend, Nic Plemel, and reached the top in decent shape and continued jogging along at an easy pace.
There wasn’t supposed to be any aid at the Cole Butte aid station due to a road washout, but Cascade has a well-deserved reputation for excellent runner support. Instead of the expected unmanned water drop there were volunteers ready to fill bottles and a huge cooler filled with popsicles, handed out by a cheerful lady.
“I’m very sorry. They’re hard to break apart, so you’ll have to take a whole one.”
“You’re beautiful,” I replied.
From here it was just a lovely run down fire roads and along singletrack trails through subalpine forest with Mount Rainier poking out occasionally to say hello. The sun was full and it felt about 80°F, which is perfect weather in my opinion.
Others weren’t having such a good time. My first indication of this was when Shawna Tompkins met me at Stampede Pass (mile 33), asking, “What do you need? Can I fill your bottles? Change socks? You know you need a light from here, right?”
I stared at her, and the empty spot on her shorts where her number had been previously pinned. “Uh… I’m not supposed to be seeing you. Are you okay?”
She was okay. Her heart was simply turned toward her husband Joe, who was running his fifth Cascade Crest, rather than on her own race. She had dropped from the lead position, pulled her number off and began assisting every runner she could. As Joe passed she would drive ahead and begin again. Shawna is the model of the generosity of the ultrarunning community, and she was more concerned about making sure her friends (and many a stranger) have a good day than she was about her own race. When I grow up I want to be half the woman she is.
Well… er… You know what I mean.
More singletrack comes next. More rolling hills. The sun sets to the sound of gunfire around Mirror Lake and the recognition that peoples’ concepts of recreation are varied indeed.
I was about 30 minutes ahead of pace from the year before and felt good, but the goal of a 24-hour finish had left. Heading down toward the evil little descent and the ropes course down a small cliff I saw the flashing red lights of Robbie the Robot ahead of me. It turns into Genia Kasey – a friend of mine who has a fondness for visibility. She comes with a soundtrack. Modern country and some alt-rock are coming from speakers stashed in a pack. She’s having asthma problems so I run behind.
The two miles of train tunnel is extra chilly this year and the wind is in our faces, so I was happy to have thrown on an extra long sleeved shirt. Afterward I make a point of stopping by the bathroom at the Hyak parking lot for the John Wayne Trail because I know within these cubicles are heaters, running water and hand driers. I wash up a bit and direct the hand drier down my shirt. It feels incredible.
The Hyak aid station is across the highway and decked out in Christmas decorations as always. Once again, last year’s winner grabs my bottles, helps me change socks and gives me a very welcome metaphoric kick in the ass. Thanks again, Shawna!
My competitor in the Washington Grand Slam, Van Phan, passes me on the road up Kecheelus Ridge. She’s having asthma problems. Her pacer Gwen jokes around with me, since we both have advanced degrees in smartass. Van ignores us.
It’s all road up to Lake Kachess, with a bit of gunfire and hollering from the ridges to keep us awake. We discuss dimming our headlamps to minimize our target profiles, but we don’t.
After the Kachess aid station comes the Trail From Hell™. The name is really an inside joke because far worse is yet to come, but it’s not easy and a fall to the right can result in free fall and a swim, assuming one misses the rocks below.
Along this trail I met a fellow runner (names ceased to stick several miles ago) who is making pretty good time, but he’s a road runner and hasn’t run this trail before. He doesn’t, so he says, like taking gels while running, so he’s limiting himself to real food – except that he doesn’t appear to have eaten much of it and he doesn’t appear to be carrying any. He simply ain’t eating and it’s beginning to show. I’m feeling great, so I decide to keep half an eye on the guy.
We stick together through the T.F.H. and have a great conversation, until I begin to helpfully announce that I can hear Mineral Creek up ahead and that the aid station must be just around the corner.
I do this for about four miles. Each time I claim that no, really, this must be Mineral Creek and the aid station. I can hear this poor guy’s knees knackering behind me as hope drains from his soul, replaced by despair and hunger.
“Sure you don’t want a gel?” I offer helpfully. Repeatedly.
“Can’t stand those,” he replies the first few times. Later I just receive silence in return.
Eventually we see lights and find the aid station. My friend collapses in a chair while I shotgun a cup of chicken noodle soup and tell my friends at the aid station, “Put food in this guy,” and head up the road. He later will finish the race – his first 100.
I march up the road, feeling buoyed by the knowledge that my lovely wife will be at the next aid station. I pass several people, and unfortunately one of them is a good friend Arthur, who should be several hours ahead of me, but who has had a rough day and will finish just behind me. This sequence seems entirely wrong. The sun also rises.
When Betsy appears from the aid station I burst into tears. My race has been fabulous so far, with minimal discomfort (considering this race is four marathons long and comprises 21,000 feet of upsy-downsy on rocky trails) but emotions do tend to bubble to the surface at times like this, and my love for her is extra ebullient. She hands me a bacon-chocolate-chip pancake. I have married well.
There’s a kiss, an admonition to be careful, and a reminder of the location of my finish beers and I’m off.
Cascade’s final 20 miles are also its most difficult. The trail is narrow and steep along the crest of a series of ridges aptly referred to as the Cardiac Needles. I mentally deny the concept of nominative determinism and march on.
Thorp Mountain is the first and hardest of these climbs, and it entails both a difficult out-and-back to the fire lookout and an encounter with noted ultra photographer Glenn Tachyama.
“You look better than last year,” Glenn says as I stare up with eyes half-closed. I grin back.
Later in the day Glenn will fall ass-over-teakettle here, bloodying his chin and breaking his hand. It’s that steep. I fare better, returning to the aid station where they have filled my pack with water that has been carried up on the backs of volunteers. Thank you!
More singletrack, more ridges. Beautiful sights, tired legs. Hands placed on knees push hard to climb these dusty goat tracks, but I’m moving better than last year.
At French Cabin they shout and holler as I turn a corner and pratfall. Unfortunately I do this behind a tree so the volunteers miss the show. I turn the corner laughing, with a bloodied knee and dusty face, apologizing for not timing the fall so that they could see it. They reward me with a bacon-egg-bacon-avacado burrito, which gives me five miles worth of energy.
It is seven miles to the next aid station. Several of these are through a gentle downhill meadow that is without doubt the most runnable section of the entire course. The slight grade and bacon in my belly give me boundless energy and I pass a couple of runners, lamenting how we’re running out of trail and how much I’ll miss it.
The following two miles of steep rocky downhill disabuses me of this thought, as do the four miles of dusty whoop-de-doos and pavement leading back to the fire station. But this year I’m able to run here instead of the defeated walk of the year before. I run past the airfield where I crashed in a glider at age 16. I run past the lodge where I had the first confirmation of my epilepsy (although I hold out hope that it’s just demonic possession, since that’s more fun).
And I run through the wooden arch of the start/finish of the Cascade Crest Classic 25 hours 46 minutes and 26 seconds after I started. Charlie Crissman gives me a buckle and a handshake, and Kathy Vaughan hands me a small cooler where she has guarded two bottles of India Pale Ale. Soon my feet are in a bucket and an examination reveals that there is only one slight blister, unlike the previous year when my feet looked like they had been deep-fried.
I won’t be conscious for the drive home, but I will be ready for the Plain 100 in two weeks.
Thanks to everyone who helped along the way, whether on-course or off. None of us runs 100 miles alone.
…except at Plain.