As we rounded the corner following the dirt road up to No Name Ridge, the smell of breakfast awakened me from my stupor. “We have to be close to the aid,” I said, imagining thick, sweet pancakes filled with blueberries and chocolate. Breakfast almost sounded too good to be true and I hoped that the aid station was close. Behind us the sunrise had grown from a yellow hue that lightened the night sky and stole the stars to the fiery orange that preceded dawn and turned the clouds lilac. We had spent the last few hours hiking up the ridgeline and after running more than 80 miles of the Cascade Mountains in Washington State, we were now eager to reach the No Name Ridge Aid Station.
“I can see the aid!” I said, noticing the large green tent, the white van, the camping chairs and patient volunteers through the trees. “Ah, yup. Me, too,” Nick replied, equally glad to have arrived. He had gone through lows with me during the early morning hours and had patiently watched as I wolfed down the entire sweet basil and honey pie we had bought before the start of the race. I was sure he was hungry, too.
We hiked faster, Nick suggesting that we run into the aid station. I blearily got my feet moving into something of a shuffle and we turned towards the aid station. The tent, the cars, the volunteers–all were gone. Tall conifers stood in their place and behind, the sharp descent down to Little Kachess Lake.
“You saw that, didn’t you?” I asked and Nick nodded. We had both hallucinated the entire aid station.
There was little left to do but continue.
Before I had even finished my first 100-miler race, Cascade Crest was on the table. After reading a Facebook post suggesting that runners wishing to experience a beautiful course in the Northwest put their names into the lottery, I added my name–because why not? Two days before Zion 100, I learned that I was one of the lucky ones! Cascade Crest loomed far ahead and I bided my time, taking a few weeks off running completely post-Zion, then incorporating a slow build-up of easy runs to increase my aerobic endurance. When June arrived, I jumped into the Holcomb Valley 33-Mile race, and then continued to train through my MFA residency in Vermont, taking advantage of Montpelier’s hills. 10 days later we were off to Amsterdam where Nick and I ran through the city of canals, weed & poffertjes, incorporating fartlek and tempo runs to make use of the flat terrain. Once back home, I took advantage of the hills east of San Diego to peak, then jumped in the car for our road trip up to Washington.
Exploring Redding, our first stop of the trip.
Crater Lake, featuring Wizard Island
We gave ourselves six days to reach Easton, Washington, the start of the race, but even then it wasn’t enough. Our first night in Redding, CA proved a disappointment, so we hurried to Crater Lake where we saw the bluest of blues and then to Bend, Oregon where we rented tubes and floated down the Deschutes River. On the Oregon Coast we ran by Haystack Rock and camped amongst a plethora of domesticated rabbits let loose. In Portland we saw my high school friend Shoko and bought Voodoo Donuts and in Tacoma we worked at coffee shops and picked up supplies. In all of these places we snuck our dog, Cashew, into motels via a giant shopping bag that we zipped up only long enough to hurry him from car to room. We were never caught! When Nick dropped Cashew off at the Pooch Place in North Bend, I was already ten miles into my race and thinking about everything but the race in its whole. Mostly, I thought about the next aid station, the next stop, as though we were traveling from one destination to another, all just one long road trip.
Start to Tacoma Pass (o-25.4):
And we’re off!
At 9 a.m. 160 runners took off from the fire station at Easton and shuffled down the fire road that would eventually wind up towards Goat Peak. I had been warned by veterans to take it easy on this climb and that if I wouldn’t be running the last third I surely shouldn’t be running this, so I listened. I found myself between two women ahead of me–one of whom turned out to be the founder & designer of the running clothes I was wearing–and a 6-time CC100 veteran behind. We talked and I felt impatient at times to move faster, but stayed where I was. In hindsight I should have moved quicker here and taken advantage of my strength, but I didn’t know what was ahead. The trail here moved between clear-cut sections and then single track that drew up through second growth forest, sword ferns brushing my shins. Breathing in the damp, fresh smell of the forest–all death and decay–I felt alive, as though I was six again, running in my backyard in White Rock, B.C., or fifteen, taking my animals for walks through the forest, or 19, and getting my first taste of trail running with Fairhaven Runners in Bellingham, WA.
The deeper I breathed, the more I felt that I belonged here and I started to move away from the runners I had conversed with and caught up to others, all of us passing and being passed. On the next climb I found myself chatting with Bellinghamster Daniel Probst, but once we reached the aid station at Blowout Mountain Aid Station at mile 15, I found myself alone again. I continued on, feeling great and eating well, conscious to keep myself fueled for the miles ahead. Eventually we plopped out at mile 25, the first crew access aid station which meant the first time I had seen Nick. We changed a sock that had developed a hole in the big toe and I carried on.
“See you at 36, love!” He called out and I was off.
Tacoma Pass to Hyak (25.4-54.3):
Shortly after leaving the aid station, Yitka stopped and turned in her tracks. “Want to run with me?” She asked. I immediately said yes, eager to catch up with Yitka who I hadn’t seen since finishing my internship at Trail Runner Magazine two years before. We chatted and the miles clicked by, especially since we were now running on the Pacific Crest Trail. The RD had described it as “buttery smooth” but the trail still wound up and down. On a climb I found myself pulling away from some of the runners around us, which would only serve to freak me out a few miles later. As the trail transitioned from ridgeline to thick forest, I continued moving at a decent clip, excited to be nearing the next aid station and the second time I would see Nick, specifically because this time he promised to bring me the bag of food(!). Now, however, I heard a loud crack of branches and turned to my left. Fifty feet away and ten feet high in a tree was a large black mass. A black bear! It looked as spooked as I was, so while I prayed it wouldn’t charge at me, the bear jumped down and scampered (though, in its size, lumbered is more accurate) off into the woods. I continued on, moving just a little faster thanks to adrenaline.
At the aid station, Nick pulled me to the side where he had laid out every option from our glorious bag of food: figs, bone broth, Jun kombucha, avocado, a Bobo’s bar and more Muir Energy gels. I gulped down the kombucha and grabbed a few of the items before saying goodbye to Nick again.
My feet were feeling great and my muscles fresh, so I continued on, conscientiously hiking the steeper sections and rolling down the descents and flats. While we had been warned that there was minimal marking along the PCT (since there’s really only one way to go and that’s forward), at times I wondered if had done something wrong since I could see no markers nor any runners. When I ran into Tony, it was a welcome relief to have someone to talk with and we spoke about races we’ve done and my engagement and that this section of Mirror Lake was a tease. As we ran by the campers enjoying sunset on the still lake, I felt vaguely jealous that I wasn’t anywhere close to sleeping let alone enjoying a relaxing evening by a lake. I pulled out my music for the first time here, and prayed that the light would last long enough to get me through to Hyak.
When the trail didn’t end a half hour later, nor did the aid station at Olallie Meadows appear, I knew that I would be facing at least a few miles in the dark alone. The trail continued to get technical but I finally popped out of the forest to see the Olallie ahead. The volunteers kindly asked if I wanted any of the hot food they had prepared, but I declined, hoping to move along and get to Hyak where Nick would be pacing me to the finish. The two miles to the Ropes section were steep, and I stumbled along, suddenly feeling my feet, sore and uncomfortable. It was dark now, and with the bear fresh in my mind, I hurried, hoping not to run in to another, especially alone. When I reached the Ropes, I moved faster despite the incredibly steep terrain. Volunteers had looped ropes between trees so that there was some sort of support going down, and I may have related this a little too much to an obstacle race as I raced down, enjoying the feeling of finally most fast! The trail suddenly ended and I popped out on the John Wayne Trail where I made a sharp right and kept moving. Ahead was the Snoqualmie Tunnel, 2.3 miles of total darkness, except for the light of the two runners ahead of me. I checked the time on my watch as I entered, figuring that I would be able to estimate how far I had left based on the minutes I spent hustling through. My headlamp shone on a rat, then a mouse that jumped along beside me before running directly up a wall and into a hole. Water dripped from the ceiling, creating damp potholes that I avoided, and the reminder that the Hyak aid station volunteers often put out skeletons to spook runners kept my eyes focused on the tall grey walls of the tunnel. Nearing the 20 minute mark, I heard the voices of the Hyak station and saw the festive lights of the Christmas decorated station. And there, ready to pace, was Nick.
Hyak to Mineral Creek (54.3-75):
I had hustled through the tunnel, running 7:30 minute-miles, so by the the time I reached Nick, I suddenly felt tired, my ankles terribly sore. He sat me down and took out the pizza he had bought from a wood fired pizza place in Roslyn, and told me to eat up.
Lucky me, Nick brought pizza!
I took a few bites, the salty taste of the artichoke pesto comforting and warm, and we swapped out my Altra Superiors for Lone Peak 3.0s for the duration for the run. I slathered arnica on my ankles which were beginning to swell and I prayed that this race wouldn’t be slowed down by ankle pain, much like Zion 100. When I stood back up to leave the aid station, my feet severely hurt. We ran out of the aid station but as soon as the lights behind us dimmed, I felt an overwhelming sense of disappointment. This wasn’t what it was supposed to be like–for the past 50 miles I had imagined coming in to the aid station in daylight, seeing Nick, being thrilled to finally spend the last 46 miles of the course with him, but here I was, angry and unmotivated, for the first time that day experiencing a real low.
Time for headlamps
Poor Nick. Though I tried my best to hold it together, the next 20 miles were rough for the both of us. Me, because every step had me cringing as pain radiated through and around my ankles and Nick, mostly because of me. We hiked our way up to the aid station and Keechelus Ridge and hobbled ourselves down to Lake Kachess at mile 69. At times Nick would cajole me into running a minute, then walking a minute and while this sometimes helped get me going, the descent only worsened the pain and brought it into my knees. I was miserable, and praying for day to come. Sunrise was still more than seven hours away.
A portion of the Trail from Hell. Here you see me descending into either mud, a giant hole, a decaying log or the root-strewn “trail”
As we turned off of the dirt road past Lake Kachess, I realized that the best was yet to come (and I say that with sarcasm.) The Trail from Hell, appropriately named, is the slowest section of the race, with rad ultraunner Gary Robbins finishing the six mile section in a section record of 1 hour 19 minutes. Nick, myself and a friendly San Fransisco area runner we bumped into would take more than two hours through here. I worked my way down steep descents, over unruly roots and across logs that had fallen directly across the trail. At times I felt myself waver, teetering close to the cliff that dropped off several dozen feet to the river below (or so it looked in the dim light.) Towards the end, Jack ran ahead and we heard him yell “bees!” Nick yelled at me to run (coincidentally, we’re both allergic to bee and wasp stings), and I knew that getting stung here would be a potential race ruiner. We jumped across a creek and the bees seemed to lose interest. Eventually we noticed the sudden cluster of orange markings, which could mean only one thing: we were close!
At the Mineral Creek aid station, we grabbed my drop bag where I had placed a pie and some sort of special dark chocolate I had picked up–my reward food, if you will. I sat down by a heater lamp and reveled in the deliciousness of the sweet pie. Minutes later, I was thoroughly warmed and had eaten the entire personal pie. Nick gave me ten more seconds to warm myself before he kicked me out of the aid station and into the cool hours of the early morning. It would still be several more miles until morning and the fatigue had begun.
Mineral Creek to the Finish (75-100):
Having reached mile 75, I figured that barring any extreme injury, I would be finishing the race. That said, it was early morning and I suddenly felt incredibly tired. “Quick–what’s something we can fight about to stay awake?” I laughed, but Nick answered his own question by deciding to talk about who we could and couldn’t invite to our wedding sometime next year. It worked for a while, arguing again about Nick’s idea of having a bridal party run up the side of a mountain in order to get to the wedding, and we continued to hike the the gradual climb, taking two minute-long dirt naps–the only naps Nick would allow.
Taking a dirt nap
Each time I awoke, however, I felt vaguely refreshed and hiked on, eager to reach No Name Ridge. As the sky lightened and the clouds turned all purple and pink and the horizon glowed the deepest orange I’ve seen, we reached the top.
Sunrise creeping up
The aid station had been decked out in an obvious German theme, but my eyes glazed over all of that and went straight to the huckleberry pancakes cooking on the griddle. I ate three, and took three to go, thanked the wonderful volunteers and then we were off to chase the sun to Mt. Thorpe and the Cardiac Needles, all of which were as promised: steep. The first miles moved up and down and I swore we had already summited Thorpe somewhere in those first climbs, but when we actually reached Thorpe, I realized just how wrong I had been. I wasn’t feeling great at this point, so I put my head down and focused on what I could do well–climb–and eventually reached the top. Not surprisingly, it was very, very worth it.
Descending Thorpe Mountain
The views were extraordinary, and Mt. Rainier was shining to the southwest, but I knew there were still miles to cover so down we went again.
Going up one of the Cardiac Needles
The Cardiac Needles weren’t so bad–they were steep, and the downhill hurt, but it wasn’t until we were coming off of the backside of the third climb that some despair set in as I saw French Cabin, the 89.2 mile aid station, hundreds of feet below. More downhill…there was little to do but take it one painful step at a time.
At French Cabin, I was handed a plateful of scrambled eggs which I took a few bites of and then passed to Nick. We needed to get going and while we would no longer make my original time goal of sub-24 hours (more on that later), I wanted to finish strong. The remaining 11 miles were more than I had bargained for, and as we wound down through gorgeous forest, tiny creeks trickling through and dark-eyed juncos flashing from tree to tree, I continued to feel worse. Each step made me cringe as pain radiated from my feet and ankles and up to my knees. At times I tried to run, but the downhill and technical trail made that almost impossible. Add to that, my good friend Rib Pain was coming out to say hello for the first time of the race, which meant that I slowed even further. All of these added together made me feel embarrassed in a sense, though that’s pretty silly to think now. Whether I was running off of fuel or anger, I’m not sure, but eventually the trail became very steep and I knew we were only a mile or two from the bottom. The final aid station was a blur as I whipped through, thankful to be on flat ground. Where any speed comes at mile 96 of a race, I don’t know, but we ran the last 4 miles–on trail and road and airstrip landings and finally back through the town of Easton–going sub-8 minute miles, the fastest I had run since the Snoqualmie Tunnel.
The finish line was in the distance, and though I had moved slowly down that last section, I had nearly caught up with Jack Hsueh, our San Fransisco runner, towards the end. He crossed under the Cascade Crest 100 Endurance Run ark ahead of me and suddenly it was my turn and I held hands with Nick and we crossed under and I finished!
At the finish
Bee Stings: 0
Food: 4 Muir Energy gels, half a watermelon, two avocados, an orange, 4 slices of artisan artichoke-pesto pizza, 1 slice of margherita pizza, a mini homemade sweet basil and honey pie, scrambled eggs, black figs, butternut squash soup, Jun kombucha, blueberries, six huckleberry pancakes, three packages of caffeinated reishi mushroom tea and too many boiled potatoes with salt.
Finish Time: 27 hours, 30 minutes
Sub 24-hour goal: Not Achieved
Acceptance of not achieving goal: A-Okay
Going into this race, I had the ever elusive sub-24 hour goal in mind, but I did little research as to whether or not this was attainable for me.
Was it? Maybe.
Would it have been better to set a more realistic goal, given my inexperience running 100-milers? Yes!
Having the (self-imposed) time pressure of a clock ultimately broke me down towards the end of the race, and only Nick can tell you how humiliated I felt for failing myself. It’s only with hindsight that I can now enjoy the final sections of the course, as though reviewing the imagery in my mind. At the time, I was too wrapped up in my missed goal to see how lucky I was to be back in the Northwest, having Nick pace me and feed me and care for me for a whole 46 miles in one of the prettiest areas of the world.
Failing is a hard lesson, but a necessary one. Next time: more fun, less pressure!
Ultimately, I’ll keep chasing my goal, but I’ll be stopping along the way to enjoy the floats-down-the-rivers and camping-under-the-stars of the ultra running journey.
Thank you to RD Rich White and interim-RD Adam Hewey, along with the countless volunteers who spent their days filling smelly camelbaks and their nights freezing atop the Cascades and feeding cold runners pancakes and coffee. Thank you to Glenn Tachiyama for capturing my experience at CC100 with his beautiful photography skills and thank you also to the friends new and old who helped pass the miles. Most especially, thank you to Nick for caring for me more than I cared for myself at times.
Cascade Crest 100, you’re a stunner!
Belt buckle #2