Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Cascade Crest 100 Mile Endurance Run Race Re-Cap

A fellow thru-hiker and friend posted this as her status on Facebook two nights before Cascade Crest. It references a thru-hiking tactic and it made me remember the times I had to just "give it 100 miles": 

"I believe in the 100-mile rule. If you feel like giving up, give it a 100 miles. Something wonderful is bound to happen that will change your mind and give you emotional fuel. It works in hiking and the rest of life, also." 

This thought rattled around in my brain as I got the last minute details together, solved car problems and dealt with a new and mysterious leg pain. "Just give it 100 miles". When thru-hiking that's 3 days. 3 very full, wondrous days. Days that you look back at the end and can't believe that it was only that morning that you were crossing such and such meadow, that you lunched on that panoramic pass, etc. Every mile is packed with life and adventure, wonder. Every minute full and seemingly longer than a minute. And I was about to take the distance of 3 of those over-flowing days and cover it in one go.

The morning of the race I got ready, just as I have for the other 13 races I've run. The ritual has evolved and I was ready in a leisurely manner within an hour. At the starting line in Easton, WA runners swirled in eddies of excitement, nervousness, or anticipation. I chatted with friends and leaped around, jumping with joy and excitement. I had no idea what it was going to be like to run 100 miles, but I certainly knew that it would be an adventure.

And I love adventure.

As 10am drew near we gathered for the singing of the national anthems of Canada and the US. As the final notes of the Star Spangled Banner were being sung I realized I'd forgotten my electrolyte tablets for the first 33 miles. It was already 70 degrees and arid. There was no way I could leave Easton without them.

"3 minutes!" the race director called.

I sprinted to Kevin's truck. I found the hide-a-key, unlocked, rifled through bags, dumped stuff everywhere and generally made a mess. Found the electrolytes. Shoved about 30 into my pocket, relocked, threw the key–sans holder–into it's hiding place and sprinted to the starting line. I settled comfortably into the center of the herd of 140ish runners just as we all began to chant "10...9...8...7..."

A few seconds later I was jogging across the starting line. The thought that flashed through my head was, "Is this really happening? Am I really going to run 100 miles?"

I jogged slowly, no sense in rushing. We start with a 3,000ft climb or thereabouts. It was already hot and sunny. And there were 99 miles in which to make up time. I chatted with a friend, then he pulled ahead. I listened to the conversations of 2 doctors and 2 other friends until they too pulled away. As we left the aid station at mile 4 and began to climb, I fell into line behind the doctors again and hiked steadily uphill. I listened to them, and to the people behind. The gap between our train and the one ahead widened. At some point we reached a rolling flat, then a downhill. It was hard to move slowly behind the people ahead. I passed as people stopped to pee. Eventually I caught the group ahead. They were climbing slowly, ever so slowly. In fact they teeter tottered with each step up. I stayed behind for a while, but eventually it was too much. The trail widened and I went around. A few moments later a voice behind me echoed my thoughts about how slow was too slow. David, as I would discover his name was, has run Leadville and we fell into amiable conversation as we moved along. We paced slowly. 

"This race really begins at Hyack. We just have to get there first," he said.

We rolled into the Cole Butte aid station. Then he got a little ahead. I caught him on the downhill road a few minutes later. We ran the road, then at the bottom, walked up the road. In and out of Blowout Mountain aid station. Then it was up, up and up on trail. I was ahead of him, but by the time we hit the PCT he'd caught me. I cheered at the sight of the PCT emblem and yelled, "Home Sweet Home!"

The PCT was beautiful rolling miles. I pulled away a bit and found myself alone with memories of thru-hiking. Of the Heather that passed through here in the pouring rain 6 years ago. At the time I was wet and cold and miserable. All I wanted was warm food. Dry things. A shower. The restaurant at Snoqualmie Pass. I'd been hiking for 4 months through burly terrain and mercurial weather. I was not imagining I'd cover these miles again on a hot day. I certainly never thought I'd be running them.

And yet, here I was. My heart was light and full of joy. The sheer joy in running trail, climbing over logs, and covering distance was all that mattered. Views came and went. Tacoma Pass aid station was a riot of cheering and energy. A volunteer gave me a wet wipe to wash my face and my-oh-my was it so good to remove that grime! David came in before I left. I said, "See you up the trail" and was on my way, munching a handful of grapes.
From there the route climbed. I don't know how far or how long. It was hot and open and the views of Rainier dominated. I hiked just ahead of Austin, a military man who was also doing his first 100. We chatted. The time and miles were dissipating. Eventually he passed me. I rolled into Snowshoe Butte aid station a few seconds behind him. I ate and got water and set out. He wasn't far behind initially, but after a while I realized I was alone. For the first time I put my headphones in. I'd been moving for 9 hours.

I cruised along as the sun dropped in the sky. I came across a clearcut that was familiar. I'm certain Remy and I had our shittiest, wettest, worst night of camping ever there. I paused at some decayed logs and drank some water. I was fairly certain it was the spot. Another mile. Another memory. I ran on.

On and on...then a powerline. This was familiar too. Forest. A second powerline. The late afternoon light was turning my world to pure gold. I threw my hands out and let the warm wind ride over me. I think I laughed. I know I thanked God for the moment. Beauty.
More forest and then a third powerline. A few moments later I was in Stampede Pass. I rummaged through my drop bag. I got my flashlight. I ate, I drank. I was climbing steeply out. I continued to listen to music and the miles are a blur. I felt great. I was enjoying the run like none other this year. All was well. Dusk fell. I arrived at mile 41.

Junk food was no longer satisfying me. I was hungrier than I thought I'd be. There were grilled cheese sandwiches. I don't eat animal products for a myriad reasons. But I also know that the body is a machine that needs fuel. Without remorse I ate one. I refused the meat ravioli as well as the turkey sandwiches, but cheese got me through this race. Without the calories and fat I wouldn't have made it. I'd reached my limit of cookies, and grapes are just not enough to fuel 100 miles of sustained effort. 

I got my flashlight out and left the station in the deep dusk. I crossed a small creek and started up the climb. I tried to take a drink...from my flashlight.

I'd left my water bottle at the aid station.

I ran back, "You guys are so awesome, I just had to come through again!" Laughter. "I'm going to need this!" Grabbing my water bottle. More laughter.

I went without my light for a while until I started stubbing my toes on rocks. It was decidedly dark. Down I ran under starry skies. Up I climbed. I circled meadowed valleys. Not that I could see them, but I remembered. And more than remembered, my senses just know trails and where trails go and what they go around. My feet found their way along the PCT without much assistance from me as they had all day. I was vaguely aware of PCT markers along the way, but only after my brain had already processed their information and sent my feet the correct direction. Months of following those metal markers is firmly ingrained, much as migratory instinct, in my soul. I wondered if I saw white blazes what would happen. Which instinct would be stronger. 

I passed quite a few people in the dark. The PCT emblems were lost except for the occasional flicker as my light sought them out at creek crossings. Somehow I knew right where to aim the light to discover the familiar blue, black, white and silver trefoils. I thought back to the first dusty miles on the PCT earlier in the day, how I'd hugged a tree with one. And how I'd blown kisses at others. I really did miss thru-hiking.

But this adventure was in full swing and it was reminiscent of a thru-hike in that its scope was outside the realm of normal comprehension. Pierogies at the next aid station rocked my world. I wanted to fill every pocket with them, but I didn't. I ran down, down, down. Finally, the course veered off the PCT and descended steeply to a sharp right turn onto...
Trail? Not quite. A dirty, bushwhacked boot pack led into trees. Ribbons of light and motor hum were just below. I-90 was rushing by. Hyack was near. I thought of David. I was almost to the "start of the race." Within a few minutes I knew why the "Ropes" section of the race was so legendary. The course descended straight down a slope. The dirt and rocks were loose. Ropes were strung like garlands through the thin trees. I sat down unexpectedly. Laughter. I clambered along some more. Another surprise plop onto my butt. More laughing. I was having fun! Then I popped out onto a wide, gravel railroad grade. The John Wayne Trail. Just ahead was another hallmark of the course–the Tunnel.

The tunnel is exactly that–a two mile long tunnel where the railroad punched through the mountain. Now abandoned by the railroad, the John Wayne Trail follows this tunnel, and therefore, so does Cascade Crest. 

Running through a long, dark tunnel at night alone is eerie. Especially when the fog rolls in around you. Derelict high voltage paraphernalia littered the walls. My favorite was one conglomerate of wires and metal that had a jointed paper skeleton enmeshed in it. I laughed at that. Soon the novelty of the tunnel wore off and I just wanted to get to Hyack. The long runnable section was somewhat annoying. I wanted an excuse to walk. Someone passed me. I passed 2 people. Then, I was in a parking lot. I turned left, following the glow sticks.

I realized I needed to pee, which I hadn't done for 30 miles. It was a welcome thing. I had been somewhat worried about my hydration. The dark, empty parking lot was great...I simply squatted where I was. No need for bushes.

After running along, and then under, the interstate I was excited to see Hyack aid station. Remy was there cheering and holding signs. He helped me change out flashlight batteries. I gulped down potato soup and grilled cheese and Vega. I dumped grit and rocks that I'd been carrying since the first climb out of my shoes. 

"I've never run this far before." 

"You're doing fantastic! You've passed a TON of people!"

"Yeah, well, you just can't top the thru-hiker endurance!"

I had jumped and danced my way in...I did the same thing out. 

This was where the race began.

I walked the flat road out of Hyack for a half mile or more. Then I felt the food settling and my mind gearing up for the next 47 miles. I began to run. It was almost 2am.

The gravel road up to Keechelus Ridge was not steep, but it was a climb. I turned my music on, breathed the starry night deeply into my lungs and hiked fast and steady. I've termed it "Anish hiking." Those who've been with me on a backpacking trip will know what that means. I reached the ridgetop aid station all hunger and energy. Soup. Grilled cheese. On my way. Another 7.5 miles of gravel road switchbacking down into the abyss of night. I saw dots of light below as runners and their pacers moved through the darkness. I realized I wasn't scared of the night. Even alone. Most everyone had picked up a pacer–company for the last miles of the race–at Hyack. I hadn't. I wanted to face my fears, as I've been trying to do all year. One at a time I've taken them out and looked at them. It's terrifying. But, I've found  that the more often I uncover them and stare at their ugly faces the less scary they are. Thoughts of mountain lions did flitter through me, but I wasn't scared. I did shine my light into the bushes and behind me now and then, but mostly I was free of worry. Coming down from Keechelus I looked up at the stars and was thankful for the night.

Arrival at Kachess Lake was 3:03 am. I was only 3 minutes behind my friend Candice. Remy again changed my batteries, hugged me, cheered me, and watched me eat soup and grilled cheese and vega. I was soon on my way down the Trail from Hell. I had 50k to go.
I caught a man and his pacer a short distance onto the trail. The Trail from Hell is so named because of it's lack of maintnance, resulting in steep, narrow, loose trail littered with deadfall. As I came up behind him he exclaimed, "How are you moving fast on THIS?!"

"Oh, I'm having fun! It's like a jungle gym!"

I clambered up and over and dropped down to hands and knees to crawl under logs. I laughed and huffed and puffed. I passed group after group. Signs began beckoning me toward "Heaven"–the theme of the next aid station. I balanced on a log across Mineral Creek. I left Hell and arrived in Heaven at 5am.

Another friend was there, waiting to pace a mutual friend of ours. He found my drop bag for me and advised me of the vegetarian options. I swapped my flashlight for my headlamp. Grilled cheese, soup, cookies, go.

Up the road to No Name Ridge I went. Mint chewing gum in my mouth. My teeth felt gross from the junk and not brushing. My tummy was a little gross from the junk and the 72 miles I'd already covered. The gum made both much happier.

I strode along at a strong Anish pace uphill, snapping bubbles with my gum. Dawn was breaking. The horizon grayed, then became gilded. I caught up to Candice. She looked tired, but she was still going. We had a little less than a marathon to go.

Ever upward. That's how the road felt. I enjoyed the sweet fragility of dawn. The fleeting moments when the light is perfect–lavender, gold, gray, pink, inexplicably all at the same time. Snowy, jagged peaks were revealed. The ridge with multiple spires that I would soon traverse did as well. 

At the top I reached the aid at mile 81. I jogged in, whooping and doing a little dance. Friends were there. I did not at that moment want anything sweet. No cookies. Not even the pancakes because they had chocolate chips. I asked for black coffee. Lots of it. I spied a cup of orange juice and excitedly brought it to my lips.

"That's a mimosa!" someone warned me.

I paused.
"Oh, what the hell."

I gulped it down and did the same with the coffee. I crammed croissants into my pocket. They weren't sweet. Neither was the string cheese which i pocketed. It was time to hit the Cardiac Needles.

The Needles are spikes on the ridge. Steep up and downs known on the Appalachian Trail they would be known as PUDS (Pointless Up and Downs). Up, up, down, down. Steeply. Repeat. So goes the next 8 miles of Cascade Crest. At the top of the first one I noticed my head was spinning. "What the..."

Champagne hits hard when you've run 80 miles.

I'd caught up to the friend I was originally running with at the start. He and his pacer encouraged me. He also told me I was running in 4th place among women.
"What?! Holy..."

"The woman ahead of you is pretty tired..."

"No. Don't tell me that."

I fought to put that out of my head as I passed by them. I'd read that the first two needles are the worst. From that I inferred that that meant the rest weren't hard at all. That is completely wrong. In retrospect I hit the first needles and Thorpe mountain much too hard because I misinterpreted that statement. Thorpe is an out and back up to a manned fire lookout to fetch a small piece of paper, proving your ascent. I dropped my pack with the aid station workers at the base and garnered my paper. By the time I got back my extra energy was sapped. I forced down a cookie and headed out. A woman came in as I was leaving.

I was hungry. I was tired. The needles were relentless. I saw a bear. I kept moving.

"Embrace the brutality"

"These are just PUDS, Anish, suck it up."

"Keep running. She's right behind you."

"I need a fricking caffeine IV."

I talked my way along. Finally I put in my music to help me pace.

"God, please let this be the last needle. Cause, if there's another one I think I'm just gonna sit down and cry."

At long last I saw French Cabin aid station below me. I'd volunteered at French Cabin last year. As I bombed down the switchbacks I recognized Jennifer, who'd been there last year, and she recognized me. We excitedly greeted one another as I devoured food. I don't even remember what. Recalling the strategy of another friend of mine had used at Badwater I requested that they fill my water bladder half with coke and half with water. That was as close to a caffeine IV as I could get. 

The next 7 miles or so were the longest of the race. It was mostly all downhill and normally I would kill the descent, but this morning I was jogging. I kept telling myself to run, aloud, but my body would only go just so fast. I refused to walk. She was right behind me.
Several times I had the feeling of waking up. Alertness would suddenly wash over me. My eyes would focus sharply and I had the distinct feeling that I'd been running for an indeterminate amount of time with my brain "shut off". Every time it happened I sucked desperately on the coke and water. Would this never end? 

At long last I saw the aid station. I was in and out in a matter of seconds. I literally dropped my backpack, grabbed a full water bottle and a handful of grapes. I was running along a dirt path. I passed a man and his pacer. The route turned to follow the sandy swath beneath power lines. I could see a white subaru parked at the end and knew it had to be Remy. I ran along. He dumped water on me as I passed by and turned onto the road. 3 miles.

It was hot.

3 miles.

Gravel and dirt gave way to pavement and my pace increased.

2.5 miles.

I crossed above the interstate.

I choked up and fought it back. 

I hope Remy tells Kevin I'm on my way.

2 miles.

I increased my pace. I was digging for how much I had left.

I wasn't sore. I was simply running.

1 mile.

I began to recognize Easton. The race was ending.

I was strong.

I turned off the road and was running parallel the railroad tracks. I could see the finish.
I'd imagined this moment many times in my head in the last year.

But I'd never imagined the thought that was in my brain right now in the reality of the moment:

"If I got some water and food I could keep going. I don't physically have to stop."

A friend high fived me as I went by.

I turned the corner.

I could hear the applause and the race director announcing me.

10 yards.

I was smiling.

I jumped and spun across the finish line.

100 miles.

20,000+ ft of climbing.

26 hours and 39 minutes of forward motion.

Adventure, pure and simple.

39th OA (106 finishers) 4th woman.

I felt fantastic nearly the entire time. I will not say it was easy, because it wasn't. But I won't say it was hard either. It was something other than that. It was an event I lost myself in. The first 8 hours passed without me even noticing. So did the first 70 miles or more. It was effort, but it was bliss. 

I can't wait to do another one.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Angel's Staircase Sweep Recap

I was planning to reprise adventures in the Sawtooth-Chelan area the next weekend in the same general area as the Angel's Staircase 25k, 50k, and 50 mile races. I figured it would be fun to backpack most of the course (plus a bit) and see friends running through. That plan got modified when Kevin asked me to sweep the 50 mile course with him.

"No, no, no...I don't want to go that far in a day. My body needs a break. And I want to sleep under the stars."

"But on the other hand, I could sweep a gorgeous course...."

"Oh well, tapering is over rated, right?"

So, I devised a compromise.

We backpacked our overnight gear to the top of the saddle adjoining the Staircase. From there we continued on with daypacks as sweeps. I stopped and waited at a pass so I wouldn't be doing the entire 50 miles (although, I ended up doing 46 in the end anyway). I laid in the sun on Deadman's Pass and basked in the beauty of the mountains. But after nearly 2 hours I was beginning to wonder where Kevin was. The sun was sinking inevitably westward and we still had 25 miles to sweep.

He arrived sweaty and cranky from carrying heavy signs and a water jug through less than optimal trails. We grabbed some food that the aid station crew had cached for us below the pass and headed out. The trail wound through beautiful meadows and forests and the light played on the peaks. The mosquitoes were abysmal. It was nearing evening when we reached the nearly empty water cache and were able to finally stop carrying the 5 gallon jug. We filled our water rapidly because the mosquitoes were feasting on us. Then we ran.

Long sweeping switchbacks into the valley.

From the pass above the cache and beyond we watched as purple dusk cloaked the eastern hills of Washington. Stars began to ping the blanket of sky. We'd been going for 15 hours and we had 15 miles to go–at a minimum–before we could shortcut to our camp. Welcome coolness covered us as we moved along. We eagerly awaited the next aid station so we could get much needed water and food. It was fully dark when we reached an unsigned junction and for a moment we were confused as we walked tree to tree with our headlamps, looking for weather beaten Forest Service signs. We determined we were only a short distance from the aid station and continued on the trail bending right. About .2 later I stopped.

"If there was no race sign at the junction, then that means the aid station workers took it. If the aid station workers took it, that means they packed up and hiked out already, down the other trail. If they're gone then there is no food or water for us. And there is no one for us to give these signs too."

With that realization we looked at the dozen or more re-bar signs in our hands and turned around. There was no way we were going to carry them 10 more miles!! We got back to the junction and stacked them along the trail for the race director to come get when he packed out the water cache later. Then we continued on.
The forest was dark and silent, except for the occasional sound of creeks. We made noise for bears as we trotted along. We were tired and starting to get sore. We were out of water and food, cranky and dehydrated. Finally we reached the junction to Cooney Lake.

We dropped the signs we had in our hands. There was no way we were going to finish the course tonight and backtrack to camp...our original plan. We'd take the shortcut past Cooney.

As with most accessible back country lakes there were myriad social trails and campsites networking the area and we soon dead ended. It was late and we were tired and we could see the ridge where our warm sleeping bags and a Nalgene of water were. But no trail connecting the two. After a few minutes of detective work I located the trail and we were on our way again. The climb was short, but it felt steep after 17 hours of moving. We shut off our headlamps and climbed by full moon light. Shooting stars raced across the sky. All was silent and wild.

The top of the pass was windy. Since the weather was good, we hadn't brought a tent so we put on every stitch of clothing we had. This included me wearing my rain jacket–and Kevin's swim shorts over my wool pants! We huddled in our sleeping bags. I made a wall from the bear canister and my shoes to block the wind from putting out the stove. Even that wasn't enough and I coiled around it, trying not to catch my sleeping bag on fire. Unfortunately, the efficiency was still diminished by the wind and we ate half cooked pasta before falling asleep.

4 hours later dawn turned the horizon to fire and illuminated the North Cascades with the joyous glow of a new day. We peeked from our bags and I managed to take a few pictures. So beautiful...so beautiful...so....

An hour later I awoke...roasting. The sun was firmly above the horizon and the wind gone. The desperate layering of last night was now cooking us. We quickly packed up and headed down to Cooney Lake, picked up our signs and continued. Thankfully, a couple miles later the final aid station had left us some water. We filled and ran...the mosquitoes!!!

About 2 miles from the finish we met the Race Director coming up and we gratefully let him carry some of the signs and water jugs. When we reached the end he cooked us some veggie burgers and even had managed to save 1 beer from the racers for us to share.

It was certainly not the adventure I'd been planning, but it was "good hundred miler training" ;)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

White River 50 Mile Race Recap

The weeks leading up to White River were mentally tough for me. I had lost focus. This, as well as some personal issues the night before the race, left me feeling like I very much did not want to run Saturday morning. I slipped into the mid-back of the pack fairly quickly. I wanted to drop out at mile 4. I was having a miserable day.

The first 16 miles or so were a long climb. The aid stations were not what I was expecting and I was low on calories. I put my music on loud and early to help blot out the fact that I was running. I mostly tried to think of other things. I found a gel on the trail about 20 miles in and ate it. I hate gels and they usually make me sick, but in this case I figured being queasy would be more enjoyable than bonking...and surprisingly I didn't get sick. When I reached the aid at mile 21 they were calling out encouragement to all the runners and proclaiming "6 miles ALL downhill to the next aid station".

I headed out from there onto the loping switchbacks back down the mountain I'd climbed earlier. Within 2 switchbacks I began to mentally deal with my situation. I was not going to drop. I had 30 miles to run. I might as well capitalize on my strengths and do my best to forget that I didn't want to be out there. I began passing people in a steady stream. I came up on a guy and was behind him for half a switchback. He stepped aside at the apex and allowed me to pass. He said, "I'm just going to draft."

I tried my best not to laugh.
He didn't last a full switchback.

I went to a happy place. I wasn't running, I was tubing. My water bottles were full of lemonade. I relaxed and after passing a lot more people I was coming into the next aid station. Thankfully a friend was volunteering there and he grabbed my drop bag for me while I stuffed my face. Running close to 30 miles without enough calories always sucks. I walked out of the aid station...and continued to walk the flat. Some day I will learn to STOP EATING, even though I am hungry at aid station. I didn't get nauseous, but I certainly felt sloshy and full...perhaps due to the 4 cups of Coca Cola I bolted. I finally started jogging again when I got to the next climb. I jogged, but I mostly hiked fast, up...and up...and up. Then the course wound down to the road and I was thrilled...AID STATION!

But no.

The course crossed the road...and continued up...and up. I was out of water. The sun was beating down. My hike fast speed felt laborious, although the runners I passed who fell in behind me assured me it wasn't. Finally rounding a switchback with stupendous views of Mt. Rainier the aid station was in sight. Again I drank multiple cups of Coke.

The aid station worker asked, "Ice in your water bottles?"

I've read that cooling your hands triggers a lowering of core temperature, which then results in you being able to continue to perform at a higher level. Grasping two bottles full of ice water as I headed 6 miles down a gravel road in the full sun made me a believer. I felt cooler. I felt more awake and less tired. I pushed hard on the road. It was the last down and I wanted to make it count. I looked at my watch and realized that a Western States qualifying time might actually be possible, despite the slow early miles. I passed people. My lower back began to feel like my hips were being permanently pounded into it. Finally, I came into the last aid station.

From there it was 6 rolling miles to the finish. A runner I'd run with at Sun Mountain was there and we headed out together. We kept each other going through the last miles when we both just really wanted to be done. We jogged rather than walked, which I'm sure I would have been doing if I'd been alone.

Then finally...the finish chute!

I arrived tired, but more from the all day mental battle than from physical exhaustion. In fact, my body felt as good physically as it has this entire year. There was no pain, aside from foot pain from bad shoes. 50 milers are beginning to feel physically less demanding and more manageable. I've been consistently in the 10 hour range all year. I feel that this bodes well for Cascade Crest.

10:39...and a Western States qualifying time!