Friday, September 6, 2013

Bless the Ultrarunning Community - Trail Angels

I'll start with this - in my experience, the ultrarunning community is a collection of wonderful people.  A few weeks ago, Brian and I ventured across the country to participate in the Cascade Crest 100 Mile - our first 100-miler away from home.  Fortunately, the west coast running community welcomed us into their arms and made us feel right at home with their support.  I am sure that many have had similar experiences - since the ultra community is amazingly supportive!  Our experience out there is a shining example of the incredible group of people involved in this sport.

Eric Sach offered to pace Brian for the last 32 miles of the race.  Now, racers could have pacers for up to the last 47 miles, so why didn't Eric offer to pace for that entire length?  Because he was the aid station captain of the mile 23 aid station and he wouldn't be done with that duty in time to catch Brian at mile 53.  Eric was organizing for his aid station when we got to registration (at 8am on race morning), then he ran an aid station for hours, and then he quickly headed to mile 68 to catch Brian and pace him to his victory, where they finished just before 5am.  I didn't personally get to meet Eric at the finish line - he had to leave quickly after Brian finished to be at his son's birthday party that day.  He must have been pretty darn tired by the time he was done with the birthday party, and yet he selflessly offered to pace Brian, knowing that he would be flat-out for over a day with all these commitments.  I know Brian greatly appreciated the company and could not have run the race he did without the course knowledge and company that Eric provided - he was integral to Brian's success.

(Brian and Eric, with the RD, just after winning Cascade Crest 100)

With my limited (shall we say) success at the 100 mile distance, I certainly knew I would improve my chances if I had the support of a pacer.  I was fortunate that Pam Smith, this year's Western States Champion, enthusiastically offered to pace me through the final 47 miles of the race.  I think she was willing to throw elbows with anyone else who offered to pace me, just for the opportunity to be my pacer and help me achieve my goals, which just shows how incredible of a person she is.  Pam told me that after Western States, she was temporarily retiring her racing number in lieu of a pacer bib for the summer.  I believe I was the 3rd person she has paced since Western States, and from the comments that I heard from the other folks she recently paced, she helped us all achieve greater than we could have on our own.  What an amazingly caring person, and in my opinion a true champion and deserving of my utmost respect.  I could not have done what I did at Cascade without her support, and certainly would not have had as much fun along the way.

(Me and Pam, at the finish line)

 About a year ago, I met an ultrarunner who had recently moved to the town I work in.  Her name is Steph Robinson.  We met when she volunteered to crew my friend Nick at Mohican 100 Miler, and I was pacing him.  She had never met me, or Nick, but offered and was crew-extrodinaire for his race.  Earlier this summer, she and Nick teamed up to crew for Brian at Vermont 100.  After that she flew to California to visit her friends out there, since she used to live out there.  During her 'west coast' tour, she was going to be in the Seattle area during the weekend of Cascade Crest.  I threw out the idea of her crewing for me, but honestly expected that with her limited time out there she would prefer to be spending it with her friends that she doesn't often see.  Instead, she enthusiastically jumped on board and gave up a weekend of her travel time to crew me through my race.  I know that Steph has crewed numerous times recently, and her runners always tend to do well - it is not a coincidence, she is efficient, good at trouble shooting, and exactly what is needed throughout a 100-mile journey.

(Steph, on left, an ultra crew professional)
One of my crew/pacing team from Vermont 100, Karin, knew one Seattle-area ultra runner, Francesca Carmicheal, and got me her contact info.  Francesca warmly opened up her house to host Brian and I, offering us a bed, shower, dinner, and place to use as we organized for the race.  As a complete stranger, she made us feel completely at home on the West Coast.  She fed us a huge, healthy home cooked meal, with plenty of awesome Italian wine.  She read off course information as Brian and I took over her back porch, organizing drop bags and fueling for the race.  She lent us some guide books for our vacation and lent Brian a headlamp to use for the race.  I can only hope to return the favor if she returns to Vermont 100 again next year.  It was also nice to see her smiling face at mile 80, where she volunteered throughout the night and following day at the race.
(Myself and Brian, with Francesca)
While this collection of folk welcomed Brian and I to Washington and made a race on the far side of the country feel like home, I know that these are just examples of an awesome community of people.  I am sure many other ultrarunners have had similar experiences with what I have dubbed as 'trail angels', the folks who selflessly help in the most amazing and unexpected ways.  I've had competitors offer me gels or treats from their fueling as I was bonking during a race, I've had fellow runners slow down their race to help pace me through a tough section; likewise, I've come across newer ultrarunners who are slowing and cramping and forced salt tabs and water on them, I've offered a competitor a hand to help her scramble up a tough trail, and I've unofficially crewed for any competitor that gets to an aid station while I'm waiting for my runner.  I have one friend who paced 7 miles from mile 70-77 for Brian at Vermont 100 a few years ago, and then doubled back to pace another runner from mile 70 to the finish.  I've seen folks volunteer to pace or crew complete strangers. 
So, what trail angels have you met in your ultrarunning?  How have you helped a fellow competitor during your own race?  Any special folks that you want to call out?

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Brian talks Cascade Crest 100

Brian is a man of few words...even the story of his journey over 100 miles can be summed up in short quick statements.  I attempted to get his account of winning the Cascade Crest 100 Miler in 200 words or less.

(Brian, cruising to victory in 18:45 at Cascade Crest 100) 
Cascade Crest 100 was your first 100-miler that wasn't Vermont 100.  How did you decide on Cascade Crest 100?
It's mountainous but low elevation.  And the pictures made it look cool.

What was your favorite part of the course?
I think getting to the first hill was the best part - getting see views that are different than New England was nice.  Getting to the first hill meant getting started for a long day out in the mountains.

What was your biggest challenge during the race?
At mile 80, the Cardiac Needles came and I felt like crap.  I was trying to hike up and I was sliding backwards - and seeing the reflective markers super high up indicating the how much farther to climb - that was tough.

Any entertaining stories during the race to share?
My pacer specifically told me to be careful on the Trail from Hell to not fall off the trail.  About 2 seconds later I fell off the side of the trail and my pacer caught me by the arm and saved me from falling into the ravine.

(Brian, at finish line with RD Rich White and Pacer Eric Sach)

So you got hooked up with a local pacer - tell us about how that went.
I had Eric Sach pacing me.  He was great - he kept me motivated and told me where to run, lit the trail for me, and saved me from injury when I tried to fall down a ravine.

How was the chafing in Washington?
There was none!  Woohoo!

(Brian's so quick that it's hard to get a shot during the race where he's stationary)

What was your least favorite part of the course?
The tunnel - I couldn't see my feet, I couldn't see anything - it was foggy and I totally lost my equilibrium in there.  I thought I was going to puke.

Overall, how did the race go for you?
It went well - I only felt like crap on the needles.  I ran smart and took it easy till 50 miles, then took it harder from there.  I fell apart through the needles but was able to regroup and finish strong.

(Brian only show up as a blur into the finish line)
You had to wait hours for Amy to finish - what did you do in that time?
I walked around, talked to people, gave an interview to the local paper, zoned out and stared at the walls for a bit...that takes longer than you'd think when you're that tired.

Brian used a Light and Motion headlamp for the night time running (which is a rarity for Brian).  They posted a great article about his race here:

Monday, September 2, 2013

Cascade Crest 100 Mile Endurance Run - Run Report

For the past several years, Brian and I have had many folks independantly tell us that we would likely really enjoy doing the Cascade Crest 100 - something about the amount of climbing (which Brian would love...I would tolerate), the fact that it's a mountain 100 without the aspect of high altitude (which Brian would appreciate), and the beautiful surroundings (which I would appreciate).  So, after our successful 2012 VT100 races, we finally decided we were ready to try a non-VT100 100-mile race (if that even makes sense).  Cascade Crest 100 was at the top of our list of 100 milers across the country we wanted to do!  The course is in the Cascade Mountains, located in Washington about an hour away from Seattle.  It features about 22,000 feet of climbing, views of the Cascade Mountains (and of Mt. Rainier), a 10am start (to ensure that everyone has to run through the night), and some pretty unique course features along the way.  We were fortunate to be selected in the lottery.

I approached this race different than many others I have recently done.  This summer has included many important key races for me - I toed the line having about 235 race miles under my belt since Memorial Day - by the end of the race I would hopefully have 335 race miles.  Most of those races over the summer were races that I took seriously and focused on.  Further, I had decided a while ago that if I were to do a 'west coast' 100-miler, the goal would be to enjoy the scenery and company, have fun, and not ever put myself in a place where I wasn't enjoying myself - because I might only get to run these once, so why spend them puking my guts out, death marching, or staring at my feet in exhaustion, I'll save that for the east coast races where I can always come back next year and get revenge.  This race is called the 'Cascade Crest 100 Mile Endurance RUN' and that's exactly how I planned to do it.  So, I approached this race with two main goals: (1) no puking, and (2) never put myself in an energy hole that doesn't allow me to be enjoying this adventure in such a beautiful location.  I gave my crew and pacer splits for a 24-hour finish, thinking that it was a realistic finish time for me - but I wasn't holding any imporance or meaning to that time.

(Brian and I about to embark on the Cascade Crest 100)

So, at 10am on August 24th, we found ourselves at the Easton Fire Department ready to embark upon the Cascade Crest 100.  I was pleased to find Larisa Danis and Rob Lalus, two fellow New England runners that we enjoy adventures with, who were also running.  I ran about the first two miles with Larisa, catching up with her a bit, but she pulled away from me quickly as I eased into my 'let's have fun' pace.  Rob, who is a strong climber, powered by me the moment the trail turned up.  I ended up falling into pace with a large stream of folks as we headed up the first climb.

(Just a typical view of the Cascades from the course)
The first climb up Goat Peak is tough - the race starts with 2 mellow (slightly uphill) miles before turning up for 3 miles with 3,000 feet of climbing.  This climb is comparable with the opening climb at Western States - except that here the trails were rutted out and in rough shape.  It felt like I was barely moving as I made my way up.  From the top of Goat Peak, the next section of trail was technical, and upward rolling, and I continued to struggle making forward progress.  I started to worry about what the cut-off times were for the race, since I might be racing them!  I started to understand why times for this race are slower than other 100-mile races.

(View of Cascades from the course)
Luckily, after the Cole Butte aid station (mile 10) we hit a dirt road section for a few miles, and then after the Blowout Mountain aid station (mile 15) we turned onto the Pacific Crest Trail.  In this section, I also fell into step with Dana and Mike - who were both running in their first 100-miler, and who were great company to pass the miles.  The PCT was a welcome single track ribbon through the woods and across the fields, and we all began to feel like we were rolling and making good time.  At some point in this section we came upon a 'work party', which was a group of folks out cheering for the race who lined the course with beer bottles.  I picked one up, bummed that it was empty, and promptly had one of the folks there offer me a nice cold beer.  Mike and I stopped for a few seconds to enjoy the view and some fresh local beer! 

(Enjoying a beer from the 'Work Party' around mile 20.  Thanks guys, whoever you are!)

(Beautiful ribbon of single track on the PCT)
At Tacoma Pass aid station (mile 23), I got to see my crew for the first time, and Steph (an ultrarunner from my home who happened to be out in the Seattle race weekend, and who had crewed for Brian at VT100) and Pam (who lives in Oregon and offered to pace me) were waiting for me and cheering.  They quickly helped me with a change of waterbottle and restock of fueling, and I was off.  As I continued to enjoy the PCT, Mike and Dana quickly caught up.  We chatted about adventures we'd had, but I know they both were using me for pacing since I was the only one with 100-mile experience among us - I didn't mind, their company passed the miles and before we knew it we had passed through miles of forest, fields, and single track, over and across the ridge, and through the next aid station at Stampeded Pass (mile 33).

(On course, around mile 47, with PCT single track and mountains behind me)

By mile 35, I was beginning to have some stomach issues, which has happened to me in every 100-mile race, but I had always assumed it was due to the heat/humidity at Vermont.  Heat was not a factor here at Cascade, so I ran easy and did my best to not disturb it further.  As I got to my crew at Meadow Mountain (mile 40), I collapsed into the chair and told them that I was feeling pretty puke-y and needed to regroup with 60 miles left to go.  They immediately told me to stop eating gels and instead focus on eating 'real food'.  They directed me over to the aid station table and told me to pick out one thing to eat - but everything looked unappealing, so I picked up a bite-size chunk of banana, downed it, and walked back to my crew s if I was 'mission accomplished'.  They immediately saw through my weak attempt at refueling, and handed me a cup of potato leek soup - which tasted awesome and I downed the whole cup.  I hate spending time at aid stations, and this was a long stop (for me) of maybe 5 minutes, but I think it was needed to regroup and refocus for the miles ahead.

(Mountain meadow and Cascade Mountains from course)
Soon enough, I was rolling down the last section of the PCT and chasing the sunset.  As I arrived at Ollalie Meadows (mile 48), I enjoyed some perogies and took the time to enjoy the last views of the day as I was about to leave the ridge and the sun was setting - the mountains in the distance were incredible and made me smile as I focused on the night running.  The course dropped quickly downhill on a steep jeep trail with loose stones and gravel.  I picked my way down as best I could in the fading light - however, depth perception was challenging in the low light.  After a mile of this, the course turned off the trail onto a steep bushwack.  I clung to the provided ropes (tied between trees) as my feet skidded out from underneath me on the steep pitch.  I was fortunate to be the last runner afforded daylight for this section.

At the bottom of the bushwack, thr course turned onto a gravel road for about a mile before entering a tunnel.  Looking at the course map before the race, I knew that the tunnel was approximately 2-1/4 miles long.  I guessed it would likely take me 20 minutes, so I used that to figure out how much farther I had.  I tried to occupy my mind by thinking about the upcoming miles, picking up my pacer soon, the fact that Pam Smith was pacing me and would likely kick my butt (or have a first-hand account of how weak I really am), and did a quick status check of my body.  I looked down at my watch, and it had only been 5 minutes.  Oh boy - was I even moving in this tunnel?  It was hard to tell because there was no light and no frame of reference to be moving past, I felt like I was running on a treadmill - where speed is irrelevant because you're going nowhere.  The only sound was my feet hitting the ground, and all I could see was the ground in front of me and the circle of light my headlamp provided.  I kept imaging I could hear another runner, or see the headlamp of the runner ahead of me, but I think my mind was playing tricks on me.  I decided I wouldn't look at my watch until I had sung the entire length of 'Paradise by the Dashboard Lights' in my head - no idea why that song popped into my head.  The song killed another 8 minute of monotomy.  Quickly afterward, I could see a weird orange glow ahead and hoped that it was lights outside the tunnel.  As I got closer, I realized that someone had placed several candles in the tunnel, marking the last 1/4 mile of the tunnel.  I emerged from the endless tunnel into darkness - nighttime had fallen while I was in the tunnel.

(The 2+ mile tunnel - cutting under the mountain)

I breathed the fresh air and cruised the short road section and into Hyak aid station (mile 53).  Pam was ready to roll, so I switched my waist pack for my Inov8 Race Vest and we started off down the gentle 3 miles of road before turning onto a dirt road and climbing 2,000 feet in 4 miles up to Keechelus Ridge (mile 61).  I was feeling good, as we switched between jogging and running up the dirt road.  We quickly passed Larisa, who unfortunately was in rough shape, having puked several times from mile 40 on.  She reported that she was going to drop at mile 60, and we urged her to take some time at the aid station to try to regroup and recover since she was still hours ahead of the cutoffs.  It broke my heart to see such a solid and outstanding runner in such a tough place, and I hoped it would turn around.  Fortunately, Rob was close behind me and I knew that he would provide comfort and allow Larisa to make the right decision for her condition.

(Views from the course)

Cresting the Keechelus Ridge, the course then plunged down 7 miles and 3,000 feet to Kachess Lake, so Pam and I let the legs go and truly enjoyed the downhill miles.  I was so interested in her stories from Western States that the miles passed in no time.  I was quickly in and out of the Kachess Lake (mile 68) aid station, anxious to embark on the next section - the notorious 'Trail from Hell'.  It passed midnight just past Kachess Lake, and I was officially running later into the night than I had in several years.

In looking at past splits, it was apparent that the 5.5 miles from Kachess Lake to Mineral Creek must be challenging - I was anticipating it would take me 2 hours.  As soon as we entered the trail, we were quickly jumping over downed trees, ducking under downed trees, scrambling down embankments and over river crossings, passing over loose gravel that broke away underfoot and tumbled down the steep embankment that was all too close to the side of my foot, and crawling up steep climbs that required hands and feet to make forward progress.  It was slow going, but it was a fun adventure as we ducked, weaved, jumped, and maneuvered on my increasingly stiff and tiring legs.  Seeing the lights of the Mineral Creek aid station (mile 73) was a welcome sight. 

(The 'Trail from Hell' during the day - thank goodness I couldn't see it at night!)

Leaving Mineral Creek, the course is consistently up for the next 7 miles into the No Name Ridge aid station (mile 80) and beyond, so I did my best to hike with purpose and run when possible up this dirt road climb.  Steph was partway up the climb, so I was able to get a fresh water bottle and restock my fueling - I wouldn't see her again until mile 96.  At No Name Ridge, I was excited to see Francesca, who had hosted Brian and I earlier on our trip to Washington, and who was volunteering at the aid station.  She got us warm soup and sent us onto the trail.

(One of the Cardiac Needles)
The next section of the course continued upward, but included a few short but incredibly steep 1/4 to 1/2 mile climbs and decents - which are known as the Cardiac Needles.  I had heard of these before, so I was careful to count them off - I was proud as we quickly topped the first needle and headed down to the second....only to find this climb steeper and longer - and to learn that what I thought was the first needle was just a warm-up climb.  After officially cresting the first needle, we got to Thorp Mountain - an out-and-back up needle #2.  It was about 19 hours into the race, so I inquired if they knew where the lead runner was - and was jazzed to learn that Brian had won the race, finishing in 18:45.  That gave me energy to power up Thorp Mountain and back to the aid station at mile 85.

(On course, around mile 85, enjoying the ridge as the sun comes up)

The sun began to rise as I left Thorp Mountain and tried to muscle up the last needles.  These little buggers were so steep, and it was taking every ounce of energy I had to move forward.  I leaned into the climbs, arms on legs, stumbling around.  I know I was pretty incoherent in this section, often taking a step forward only to stumble sideways for a bit, I got pretty concerned about how I would actually get to the finish in this condition.  Fortunately the sun was rising and starting to light up the ridge and the mountains that surrounded us.  As much as I was struggling, I couldn't imagine a more beautiful place to be.

(View of Cascades as the sun came up)

I was relieved when I finally reached French Cabin aid station (mile 88) because I knew the needles were behind me.  I gladly took a bacon sandwich that they offered and munched on it as I got the legs moving on the downhill.  I was so excited to be done with the needles that I forgot that the course had one more short and steep climb at around 90 miles.  Cresting this last hill took the last of my energy, and I was pretty wasted.  I did my best to use gravity to pull me downhill, but it was slow progress.  At some point just past French Cabin, we passed my longest 'time on foot' since my first 100-miler which I did in 2009.

(Single track running on the last ridge)

It took forever to reach the last aid station at Silver Creek (mile 96); Pam and I splashed through rivers, walked downhills, and did our best to make forward progress but it was slow.  I was completely spent and the finish line seemed so far away.  Pam was an incredibly good trooper, enouraging me, entertaining me with stories as she had all night, and brushing off my apologies for the slow pace saying that she had made a pacer walk to a 29 hour finish at Western States last year.  I was so grateful to have her, otherwise I may have been tempted to lay on the side of the trail and sleep. 

Silver Creek eventually came and went, and I only had 4 flat miles to the finish.  The clocked ticked past my longest 100-mile time, and I was officially going to be on my feet for longer than I ever had.  I couldn't muster the energy to run more than a minute continuously, so we mostly strolled down the road towards the Easton Fire Station.  With 1/4 mile to go, I saw Larisa on the side of the road, bouncing up and down and offering encouragement.  She certainly seemed disappointed in how her race turned out (she ultimately dropped at mile 60), but was excited to cheer me on as I approached the finish line.  I was able to work myself up to a wobbly run through the finish line where I was greeted by the RD with a high five.

(Finally crossing the finish line, with a high five from the RD)
I was pleased to be done, and really excited to ultimately finish this super challenging race in under 24 hours.  I had mustered a 3rd place female and 17th place overall finish.  My time is on the top 10 list for female times on the course (#9 all-time) - showing what a fast field we had at the race this year.  This was all secondary to finishing the race, without injury (and without even falling - thanks to the super grippy Inov8 Roclite 268s!), earning myself a super huge belt buckle, and proving to myself that I can in fact finish these intimidating 100-mile races across the country.  My mind is already filling with other 100-mile races I want to do, now that I have the confidence to know that I can!

(A big hug from Brian is the best finish award!)

Brian was immediately at the finish line to give me a hug and help me to my chair.  I was so proud that he won the race and posted the 4th fastest time ever.  Pam and I shared a beer at the finish as we toasted the success and shared stories of our adventure with Brian and Steph.  The race wrecked me more than any other race I've ever done - I was barely able to walk for the first day, and my face swelled out in an allergic reaction for several days post-race, but the views, the challenge, and the adventure of Cascade Crest 100 will out-weigh any of the immediate effects.  I would highly recommend this race to anyone who wants a fun, low-key, but challenging race (with a kick-ass belt buckle).  However, I am unsure if I will return...there are just so many races I want to do!

(At the finish line with my amazing pacer, Pam)
Funny bonus story - at the finish line, I collapsed into a camp chair.  A super nice volunteer offered to bring me a bucket of water to soak my feet in...which sounded like heaven to me!  Apparently, a random dog hanging out at the finish decided that the water, with my nasty feet in them, must taste great, and kept drinking water out of it.  Likey the funniest memory of Cascade Crest!
(Random dog drinking my foot soak water at the finish!  Rob, who ran an awesome race, is beside me.)
And if you're curious what it feels like to run 100-miles through the mountains, I think my face says it all...
A fellow runner, Martin Criminale, caught some video of me from Cascade Crest - chatting to pass the time: