Every mountainous 100-mile race offers something different. Cascade Crest will possibly remain unique in being the only 100-mile race where I was able to sleep in my own bed the night before the race (unless someone knows of a good job in Durango). After a great night’s rest, I drove one hour up Snoqualmie Pass in early morning light for the very respectable 9am race start.
I arrived at the start line in the best shape of my life, having completed a fantastic 10 days of training at high elevation in Colorado, as well as enjoying some amazing experiences on trails throughout the Pacific Northwest. When race director Adam Hewey asked about my target in the calm before the start I felt comfortable to tell him about the 21:30 pace chart I was carrying. As a stretch target, I had also worked out a 20-hour pace chart to understand what that would entail in case I was able to pull ahead of plan.
I set off from the start line along the flat John Wayne Trail for the first mile at around 8:15 min/mi (just over 5 min/km) pace. If the profile had remained flat and the trail smooth for 99 more miles then I might have finished in under 14 hours, but we soon took a right turn and started the first climb of almost 3,000 ft (900 m) up Goat Peak.
After passing the peak I relaxed on the 1,500 ft (450 m) descent that leads to an almost mirror-image ascent, plus a little bit of extra climbing for good measure. We turned onto the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which we would follow for almost 32 miles, and reached the first half’s highest point at Blowout Mountain. During the race briefing, we were highly recommended to take an optional out-and-back segment to reach a 360-degree viewpoint at the very top of the mountain. Of the five other runners within view when I took the turnoff without hesitation only a single runner joined me. When we reached the top, the other runner seemed confused by the end of the trail and asked me in Japanese-accented broken English which way the course was. It appears I was the only one interested in the view, which was impressive although somewhat limited by the grey skies that were keeping the temperatures very pleasant for running.
I was feeling fantastic on the journey down so I allowed the pace to pick up. The Japanese runner tucked in just behind me and we rolled along all the way to the Tacoma Pass aid station at mile 25, a quarter of the way through. A good crowd were cheering runners in, and I arrived in time to see two-time Western States winner Hal Koerner set off just ahead of me.
From Tacoma Pass the next 22 miles would all take place within an elevation range of approximately 1,000 ft (300 m), with no major climbs and very runnable gradients. While running one of the climbs I caught sight of Hal walking ahead of me, but he broke into a run and surged forward when he spotted me closing in. Over the next few miles, we would repeat the exercise a few times as I would close on him before he spotted me approaching and surged away once more; while he doesn’t seem to race often these days it appears that he has not lost his competitive spirit. I pulled into the Meadow Mountain aid station (mile 43), just in time to hear the volunteers there mentioning to Hal that they serve pierogi (eastern European dumplings) at the next aid station. I was quick in and out of the aid station, leaving ahead of Hal and would not sight him again. I was a little disappointed that he hadn’t let me catch up, as it would have been great to share a few miles of trail with him.
My nutrition plan started with an exclusive reliance on solids, predominantly in the form of Clif bars, nuts and dark chocolate that I was carrying on me, supplemented with the odd biscuit or muffin from an aid station. In previous 100-mile races, I have relied heavily on solids until my stomach starts to struggle, and only then switched to fluids and fruit. But in this race, I took a different approach by incorporating non-solid calories while my stomach was still handling solids, drinking a mix of water and energy drink, and consuming fruit from the aid stations. My stomach was feeling great so when I arrived at the Ollalie Mountain aid station I suggested that I had signed up for the race after hearing that they serve the best pierogi in the Cascade Mountains. They pointed out that their dumplings were purchased from the frozen goods aisle of the supermarket, but 49 miles of running certainly made them taste great, enjoying one at the station and carrying another with me as I set off.
I turned off the PCT and followed a steep gravel trail to the rope section of the course, dropping down a very steep off-trail route to another section of the very same John Wayne Trail that we had started on. Reaching the bottom I retrieved my headlamp from my pack, despite having another hour of sunlight. I was approaching the Snoqualmie Tunnel, a 2.3-mile unlit tunnel underneath the mountain summit. I cruised through the flat tunnel, feeling very good considering the light at the end would bring me to Hyak aid station at mile 52.
At Hyak I met up with Becca, who would pace me for the 15 miles to Lake Kachess. We set off on a section of tar before the surface turned to dirt and we started the ascent over Keechelus Ridge. I started out conservatively on the climb, knowing that the last quarter of the race involves some considerable ascent, gradually increasing the amount of running between walk breaks. When we crested the ridge we picked up the pace on the descent in the fading light, and a few times Becca checked in that we weren’t overdoing it, but I was happy to maintain the pace with some slower sections of the course ahead.
After saying farewell to Becca I joined onto the Trail from Hell, a rough section of the course with a number of fallen trees, and a lot more ups and downs than I expected while running alongside a perfectly level lake. It was mentally demanding but I was feeling strong, and soon enough I turned around the northern edge of the lake to start the final major ascent. The grade of the climb was moderate so I decided that I wanted to complete the first half without walking. I kept my walk breaks short, mainly using them as a great opportunity to turn off my headlamp and enjoy the amazing view of the stars above, and even spotted a falling star. I wished for a strong finish to the race and continued to the top.
As I started the long descent I realised that I could have afforded to attack some of the earlier climbs harder, particularly going over Keechelus Ridge. But running the fastest possible time requires managing a very fine line between perfection and destruction, and I knew that I wasn’t mentally prepared at this race to risk blowing up.
I enjoyed the long descent, passed on the offer of a deep-fried Twinkie at the last aid station, and cruised over the flat last few miles on my return to Easton. I crossed the line 20 hours and 42 minutes after starting. After chatting for a while, I managed a nap in the back of a friend’s truck before enjoying a well-earned breakfast and then driving back home for a shower that was even more earned.