I apologise in advance. There is no puking, no extreme cramping, no spectacular collapses 70 miles in, no high speed falls with bloody knees; not even an immense, spectacular bonk from a lack of calories. I understand if you stop reading now.
The Cascade Crest 100 is an old school race. Originally it was known as the Cascade Crest Classic we are told, hence the CCC100. There is no fanfare, no razzmatazz. There isn’t even an awards ceremony. It has a refreshing and gritty quality. It starts and finishes at a Fire Hall in a tiny town, with a diner, a drive through espresso and not much else. Blink on the I-90 and you’ll miss Easton. I imagine Hardrock to have a similar feeling. Of course, it has the Cascades, and it really is a course of unparallelled beauty. And it’s hard. The course has officially just under 22,000 feet of ascent.
At the race briefing we are told to do our best, and be proud of our effort, even if we don’t finish the full century. So very ‘un-Leadville’. The course marker describes the first fifty, then stops - “well the second half” she says, “I’ll just leave that up to you to experience it. Have fun with that!”
Beginning in Easton, Washington, it is at the harder end of the spectrum in terms of mountain 100 milers, winding it’s way in a massive loop around the Cascades, from Easton to Hyak at Snoqualamie Pass, and back. The course profile is scary on paper. The altitude is never extreme, but the climbs are steep, especially in the second half. Everything I read suggested that the second 50 was the harder. Save something for the second half, the old veterans suggest. Go easy or pay the price. In fact the race manual even states that many Cascade Crest DNFs begin on the first climb up Goat Peak, which starts after 2 miles; and mention of the dreaded Cardiac Needles - the hardest part of the course, and which start at an unsporting 80 miles - is a stern warning to back off on the early climbs and save some juice.
So as I lined up at the start, and listened to the national anthems of Canada and the US, a great CCC100 tradition, I went through my game plan in my head. Run easy early on. Keep the breathing relaxed. Walk the steep climbs. “If you wouldn’t run it in the last 30, don’t run it in the first 30” sounded like sound advice from a previous multiple CCC100 finisher. My goal, as always, was to fuel and drink well, and hopefully get to mile 53 to pick up my pacer, Simon, feeling (relatively) good.
This was officially my 3rd hundred miler. On paper, after Leadville and Pine to Palm, the numbers would stack up significantly higher in terms of ascent/descent and overall difficulty. It would be a challenge undoubtedly. In both my previous races,I had had epicly bad times, a combination of going out too hard and poor fuelling strategy. I was fully prepared for more of the same, but hoped to avoid it this time.
I have raced a lot this year, with good results, but I went into Cascade Crest with some anxiety about form. Two weeks beforehand were spent in and around the Bend, Oregon area, in temps that reached 37C. Runs were short and sporadic, though on beautiful, groomed singletrack for the most part. A nagging sore throat that would not leave me until the day before the race was causing doubts. Erratic HRV values added to my concerns. My achilles tendons have been bothersome all year, though not really enough to stop me, and this was yet another minor bump in my pre race profile. In addition, I’d drunk a lot of fantastic micro-brews in Oregon! Maybe not ideal race prep, but fun. Still, I was well rested, maybe too well rested I thought. 9-10 hours sleep was the norm leading in.
The course profile is undoubtedly vicious, but I felt it played to my strengths; a lot of vertical, steep climbs and descents; minimal flat pavement. Canmore is the perfect place to live and train for a race like this, and I had concentrated in training on getting in a lot of steep climbing, long descents and long steep hikes. I did very little high intensity training this year, instead working on keeping my HR low. I like the Maffetone principle, and aside from my races, 95% of my training has been done around my MAF heart rate.
After the national anthems, and a brief countdown, we are off. It’s 10am and the temperature is pleasant. The pace is slow, ridiculously slow. Obviously we are all daunted by the task ahead. Seth Swanson is the race favorite, with a second place at Western States to his credit this year. Gary Robbins, Matt Hart, Steve Moore are all fast guys with experience, and together with a few others we split from the rest of the 170 starters. I actually question whether I want to be with these guys, but the mood and pace are so relaxed in the early miles, it seems fine. There is a lot of good banter in the early miles. Gary leads the talk. Matt is fresh off a win at the Transrockies run in Colorado. Gary is the multiple time Hurt 100 champ. Steve is a bit of a legend in Texas. I recall racing him in Bandera. The last time I saw him he was vomiting on the final climb at Bandera after taking 2 shots of bourbon at an aid station! A skinny guy called Gabe looks good. And the Easton high school cross country coach, Jeff Hashimoto, looks fresh, fit and lean. I don’t talk much; talking takes energy I tell myself, but Gary pumps me up in the group, mentioning my Canmore quad exploits. In this company, though, I feel a bit out of place.
Soon the chat settles to be replaced by heavier breathing as we climb up towards the first summit. It’s getting warm, but there is a lot of shade in the forested sections. We run most of the initial climb, but I power hike the steeper sections, remembering my game plan. I find that I am hiking almost as fast as those running. As we hit the first water station, Seth and Matt take off ahead of us. I suspect that’s the last I’ll see of them. Gary is behind me, but he seems to be running faster on the small descents along the ridges, and after a few minutes I sense he wants to go with the leaders so I let him by. And Gary is gone. I run with Gabe for a while, and then I am alone. I feel good. The views and the trail are beautiful. I eat a gel or some Heinz baby food every 20-30 minutes. I drink often.
At around mile 16, I see Gary ahead walking. I am quickly behind him, and after a few minutes, Gary pulls aside. He is moving slowly, hands on knees. He wishes me luck, says he’s cramping and feels terrible. And so I drop into the Tacoma Pass Aid station (mile 23) in 3rd place. Crew chief, Saira (my wife) looks concerned and tells me to slow down. She has seen me blow up spectacularly in races before. To be ahead of Gary Robbins so early seems unwise. I reassure her. My kids, of course, love that I’m in third place. I reassure Saira that I’m going easy, but I second guess my pace briefly. Maybe I am pushing? In fact, I feel like the pace has been very, very conservative, and this is exactly what I wanted, but the early miles of a hundred mile race always feel easy. I make a conscious decision to back off more.
Soon I am on my way. The beautful forested single track climbs of the Pacific Crest Trail soon give way to a long dusty road descent. This is a quick section but I hold back. I see Matt Hart in the distance, moving away from me, much further down the trail. He looks to be flying. I won’t chase him - plenty of time for that later. Soon we are climbing up hot and dusty singletrack again. It feels like we are in the hottest part of the day. I drink lots and continue on my 200-300 calories per hour regime. So far, my legs feel good, my breathing is very easy and my stomach is cast-iron.
Eventually, I see Matt just ahead of me. Whilst I am power hiking the steeper climbs, Matt seems to be running everything. It’s impressive and he says he feels great but he doesn’t gain on me despite this tactic. I remember making the decision to run behind him for a while. We run together and the miles tick by quickly. We don’t talk much, each of us is managing our effort. I feel slightly guilty sitting behind Matt, a bit like a wheel-sucker on the bike, but he doesn’t seem to object.
The trail is incredibly beautiful, as the singletrack winds around lakes and across talus slopes. It’s as gorgeous a trail as I’ve ever run. Then we are dropping down a long steep descent to the ropes and tunnel section. The trail down to the old railroad tunnel is loose and direct. Ropes have been set up to aid us down the tricky decsent. I almost burn my hands as I fly down quickly. I passed Matt at the start of the descent, and now he is nowhere to be seen. As I hit the 2 mile long dark tunnel, I switch on my headlamp and stretch the legs. It seems never ending, and I glance back as I near the exit and see lights not far behind. I run quickly into the Hyak aid station (mile 53) in second place. As my crew and Simon Donato, my pacer for the next 47 miles, ready my gear for the night section and I gulp down some food, Matt and Jeff Hashimoto arrive. Jeff has crept up on us and looks good. It’s a fairly quick stop, maybe 4 or 5 minutes then I’m off with Simon. We run on pavement for a few miles, and Jeff passes easily. He is looking strong, and is obviously enjoying the road section. In the fading light we climb a long road. I continue to hike the steeper sections, and Jeff is not far ahead, but soon he is gone as we power on our headlamps, and we don’t see him again.
The cold night air seems to be settling in small dips and troughs, and every time we drop the temperature cools significantly. Damp grass soaks our legs, but my feet and socks remain dry, and remarkably blister free. My morale is good as my legs remain spritely and the technical rooty trails seem to bring relief after sections of gravel road. We are soon on the infamous ‘Trail from Hell’! We are moving quickly along this very technical trail. It’s a 4 mile section, and there are numerous steep ups and downs. We traverse across steep rocky off-camber slabs. I don’t look down much but I get the impression it’s a long way down and a fall would be disastrous! Suddenly, lights are upon us and Gary and his pacer are right on our tails. They are absolutely booking it! They fly by us and I am now in fourth place.
Gary is grunting hard, the hammer fully down! ‘Wow Simon, they are moving fast!’ I later learn their tactic was to intimidate us with their speed, and it works. Gary tells me later that they watched our lights for a long time, and he realised we were running a lot of the climbs, which encouraged him to keep the pace high. Still, if you’d told me that Gary Robbins would only catch me at 70 miles, I’d have taken it! I realise I am having the race of a lifetime, and I consciously keep knocking back gels, sometimes 2 at a time.
We soon arrive to our crew at Meadow Mountain (mile 73). My kids tell me that Gary looked terrible a few minutes earlier, shivering uncontrollably; they encourage me to chase him, but I suspect he will finish strong, especially knowing how fast he blew by me a few miles back. The temperature is dropping now, and I put on a lightweight shell, and knock back a coffee. Saira has a jetboil stove to heat soup and water; its a definite boost to gulp down some warm fluid.
We leave the aid station, and climb to No Name Ridge. Its 7 miles with 3000 feet of climbing. I continue to feel good, awaiting the inevitable crash, but it never comes. The gels are still going down well, especially the strawberry GU Roctanes. I have continued to eat Heinz baby food, which is going down a treat, as are some packs of squeezable Mamma Chia! I stick with water in my soft flasks, and drink coke and soup at aid stations. The aid stations are certainly entertaining, especially the Hooters themed aid, where I am flashed by a well endowed volunteer! Simon vows to return when it gets light, to promises of bikini clad girls. It’s all a bit surreal.
In no time at all we are hiking the infamous Cardiac Needles. The stars are out and I can vaguely make out the terrain. I am sure this would be spectacular in the daylight. The initial climb is a grunt. For the first time all day I ask Simon to give me a moment at the top, as I am breathing hard, hands on knees. The effort is telling now, but I know that soon the climbing will be over. The out and back climb at Thorp Mountain is also desperate, this far into the race, but as we near the top, and the turnaround, Gary and his pacer fly by on their way back down. They are still moving well, and they shout encouragement to us, but they are maybe only 10 minutes ahead. My competitive spirit is reignited, and the remaining needles fly by.The pace is great as we clear the needles and the trail is mostly flat or gradual descending. Simon runs a few metres ahead of me and does a stellar job keeping me moving quickly and on course. The last of the hard climbs are done; everything has gone to plan.
Soon we begin the long drop towards Easton. It seems to drag by, and for the first time in the race I feel mentaly ready to be done. The trail is steep and loose. It is technical and I almost stumble headlong down a rocky drop as I catch my foot on a rock. I back off the pace a little and make a mental note not to crash and burn now. Simon begins to whoop as he sees lights ahead and we drop into the final aid station. It’s now an easy 5 miles to the finish. Saira and George are there at the Silver Creek aid, and they give me the splits. I won’t catch Gary or Jeff, and Matt is an hour back. We can relax a little. Barring disaster I’ll be fourth, and better than that I’ll annihilate my previous best 100 mile time! 19 hours is within reach.
George is keen to run me in with Simon, and he has his headlamp on and looks ready to go! At age 14, this is a great adventure for him, running at 4am in the mountains! Saira is worried about my headlamp battery and gives me a backup. It’s a good job as my lamp dies a mile later.
As we leave the final aid station, George comments on how well Simon and I are moving are moving 95 miles in; less than an hour later we cross the finish line. No drama. No big fanfare. 19 hours and nine minutes. Redemption. I finally nailed that hundred miler.
Seth Swanson won the race and in the process broke the course record in a time of 17 hours and 56 minutes. Local XC coach Jeff Hashimoto ran to a stellar second place, in 18 hours and 44 minutes, and Gary Robbins was third in 18 hours and 54 minutes. In the end I was 15 minutes back of Gary. Matt finished almost an hour behind me.
So what was the secret sauce this time?
Who knows, it;s more of an art than a science, but I believe that lots of rest, minimal running in the 2 week taper, tons of sleep, and keeping the pace super easy early on were probably the ingredients for a good finish. Staying on schedule with drinking and eating 2-3 times per hour kept me well hydrated and fueled through the whole race. I managed 200-300 calories per hour. A good dose of Oregon micro-brews probably helped too.
Shoes: Salomon Sense Ultra SG - no blisters or hot spots
Lamp: Petzl Nao
Best food: Heinz baby food and Mamma Chia squeezables; Saira’s Wonder bread, butter, jam sandwiches; Strawberry GU Roctane
Compression for recovery: Compressport
Post Race Nutrition: Easton Fire Service BBQ and beer from random finishers!
Best Aid Station: Hooters and the High School XC team
Thanks to: Salomon Canada, Suunto and Compressport for the tools to do this daft sport. Thanks to Muscle Milk Alberta for the recovery nutrition.
Special thanks to Crew Chief and number one supporter Saira Reed for keeping me honest, to aid station crew Albert and George Reed for the never ending enthusiasm, and to pacers Simon Donato and George Reed, for getting me to the finish.