Cascade Crest 100: Weathering the Storm

And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in.
— Haruki Murakami
Larry and me at the start line (photo by Sarah Duncan).

Larry and me at the start line (photo by Sarah Duncan).

It is no secret that I do not tolerate cold well. Despite spending the better part of my childhood and young adult life in Montana, my body simply shuts down in cold temperatures, and it does not take long. I suffer from Reynaud’s (a condition that causes my appendages to vasoconstrict quickly in order to draw heat to my core), as well as cold urticaria (a significant sensitivity that causes me to break out in hives when exposed to the cold). I have suffered hypothermia three times, two of which led to me not finishing races. As the 10-day forecast for the Washington Cascades started to change from sunny and warm to stormy and cold, my anxiety began to increase. I planned, knowing I’d need to eat more to stay warm, and packed nearly all of the layers I own, knowing I’d need to constantly change clothes. Thankfully, the day before the race, my friend Dennis and I decided we would run together as long as it made sense. Dennis is strong and experienced, and his offer of company helped calm my nerves.

Race morning was cold and breezy, but, ever the optimist, I held out hope that the weather would clear, even as we drove to the start line and it started to rain. I knew that a dry race was too much to ask for (the storm was coming and it was inevitable), but I hoped that the weather might clear enough that I didn’t have to start the race wet. I got my wish. An hour before the race started, the clouds parted and the sun shined through.

The Start to Tacoma Pass (mile ~23):

Dennis and I found each other in the crowd of runners at the start line and, from the first step, we ran together. The sun continued to shine through the clouds and it quickly started to feel warm and humid. Until about 5 miles in, when we crested an exposed hill and the wind picked up again, the weather was dry and calm. My goal was to make it as far as I could before the rain started. That was ~14 miles.

The first 10 miles or so of the course consist of steady climbing. Larry warned me that this climb was deceptively hard and not to overexert myself, so I took my time, treating it like the Escarpment at Western States. Once through that climb, it was steady running to Tacoma Pass, sometimes on fire road and sometimes on singletrack, often above 5,000 ft., where is was so windy and cold that I knew I could not stop moving for too long. It was beautiful and I felt great.

Running in to Tacoma Pass aid station (photo by Glenn Tachiyama).

Running in to Tacoma Pass aid station (photo by Glenn Tachiyama).

By the time I made the long descent to the Tacoma Pass aid station, I was soaked from the rain, but warming up as the elevation decreased, and I was beyond elated to see my crew (Sarah, Jeremy, and Eric) for the first time. I quickly refueld, changed my shirt, let them know what I would need when I saw them next, and I was off.

Tacoma Pass to Stampede Pass (~mile 33):

From Tacoma Pass, Dennis and I ran together and leap-frogged through Snowshoe aid station (~mile 28) and on to Stampede Pass. Sticking together, even when neither of us felt like talking, was comforting, and the time seemed to fly by. Entering Stampede Pass, I was again thrilled to see the smiling faces of Sarah, Jeremy, and Eric, and was ready to prepare for the night. At TRT100, not having a crew, I got into the habit of going through a mental checklist as I entered each aid station (food, clothes, medical, body temp), so I was ready when I saw them, and knew exactly what I needed. At the aid station, I changed my shirt, bra, confirmed I had my light, grabbed some food, and headed out into the dim forest, just behind Dennis. As I left, Sarah told me that I had about two hours before the storm really hit. She was right; in two hours, the heavens would unleash. 

Stampede Pass to Olallie Meadows (~mile 47):

Due to Cascade Crest’s atypical late start time (10:00 a.m.), the sun started to set at a much earlier point in the race than that to which I’m accustomed, even while running a 28-29-hour pace. By the time I reached the Meadow Mountain aid station (~mile 41), I had to pull my light out of my vest. 

After changing clothes at Stampede Pass (photo by Eric Lubell).

After changing clothes at Stampede Pass (photo by Eric Lubell).

The next ~6 miles to the Olallie Meadows aid station were dark and quiet. I left the aid station ahead of Dennis and, consequently, ran most of those miles entirely alone. The trail soon changed from smooth singletrack to very rocky terrain (similar to what I’m accustomed to seeing in areas of the Columbia River Gorge), and I had to slow my pace significantly to negotiate the rocks in the dark. I continued to eat on schedule and to run as well as I could, but my spirit was waning. I was tired, soaked, and incredibly nervous about navigating the trail, something that usually isn’t a problem for me. I knew, though, that I just needed to get to Olallie Meadows and my crew. I knew Sarah would know what to do, and I knew that Jeremy would be allowed to start pacing me there, provided he was willing to cover a few extra miles (despite pacers being allowed to start at Olallie, we hadn’t planned on him starting until Hyak).

The miles to get to Sarah, Eric, and Jeremy took what seemed like an eternity. By the time I turned the corner and heard the cheering at the aid station, I was severely depleted and in tears. Sarah sat me in a chair and I buried my head in my hands: “I don’t know what’s wrong. There’s nothing wrong with my body,” I said as I started to tear up. “You need food,” Sarah said. Sarah and I have logged thousands of miles together and she has been there for me at all but one 100-mile race.  No one knows me better, so when she handed me 1,000 calories in food and told me to eat it all, I did what she said. As I ate, Eric, knowing that my back had hurt since I woke that morning, rubbed my shoulders. Within minutes, I felt like a new person. With a tearstained face, I looked up at Jeremy, who was sympathetically standing over me with a look of concern, and said “I need you. Are you okay with starting now?” Before I could finish my food, Jeremy had left and returned in his running clothes, ready to run.

I changed my shirt once again, finished my food, and stood from the chair a new person. Jeremy gave me a hug and we were off, sailing down the trail like it was any other weekend. 

Olallie Meadows to Hyak (~mile 53):

The distance from Olallie Meadows to Hyak is short, but precarious and unnerving. The first mile or so was fun, runnable singletrack, and then we reached the rope, which we had to use to navigate down an exceptionally steep section of singletrack. It was so ridiculous that all we could do was laugh. Once at the bottom of the rope section, we quickly made our way into the notorious 2.5-mile, abandoned railroad tunnel.

Sarah and Eric, patiently waiting under a tarp (photo by Jeremy Long).

Sarah and Eric, patiently waiting under a tarp (photo by Jeremy Long).

I knew the tunnel was coming and I tried to narrow my thoughts and just think about the other side (Hyak aid station), but it was difficult for me. I struggle with enclosed spaces and the air in the tunnel was so stale and laden with mildew that I started wheezing. A short section mileage wise, but a long one mentally, Jeremy helped me get through by distracting me with stories. At one point, another runner ran past us and suggested we turn our lights off. Reluctantly, I turned mine off, as we moved through the tunnel in complete darkness, appreciating the eeriness, I tried to be present in the moment. 

We reached Hyak aid station (literally the light at the end of the tunnel) in great spirits and ahead of my predicted time (11:00 p.m.). I ate and changed into dry clothes once again. As we left the aid station, a volunteer commented on how skillfully I changed my clothes. At this point in the race, it had become second nature for me. “Lady Gaga has nothing on me today,” I said, and we left the aid station to continue our journey to Kachess Lake, where Sarah would take over pacing.

Hyak to Keechelus Ridge (~mile 60):

My energy was waning a bit as we hit the flat pavement, but I knew that, although a steady climb lie ahead, the terrain would be easy to navigate. From there we had a fun, comfortable run/hike in what had become a light drizzle. That drizzle was short lived. Within a couple miles the heavens unleashed once again and the downpour resumed. At this point we were climbing to Keechelus Ridge and, although moving as well as I could, I was moving slowly uphill. I was getting cold.

It took much longer to get to Keechelus Ridge than I anticipated and, by the time we arrived, I was freezing. I knew I needed to take some time there and get warm if I was ever going to be strong enough to finish.  I sat down among a group of runners huddled around a small propane fire as Jeremy got me soup and helped me put on every layer I was carrying with me.

As I sat there, listening to the wind blow over the ridge and the downpour hit the tent, I heard drop after drop come over the ham radio. The water pooled under our feet and portions of the tent started to sink as water accumulated. I did everything I could to get warm. Still, I was freezing. My anxiety increased. I sat in that chair for what must have been at least 30 minutes, hoping I’d get warm or, better still, that the storm would lighten up. I didn't. It didn’t. Jeremy kneeled next to me and told me we needed to go. “I’m terrified to go out there,” I said. “I’m so afraid of getting that cold again.” As tears welled in my eyes, he stared at me: “I’ve got you,” he said. “I won’t let anything happen to you." I closed my eyes and took a deep breath of trust and confidence in his words, and I stood from the chair. “107 out,” I said. “Be safe, 107,” I heard a volunteer yell back.

Keechelus Ridge to Kachess Lake (~mile 68):

The volunteers told us we had over 6 miles to go to Kachess Lake, further than we’d anticipated. We knew that we needed to take advantage of the downhill ahead of us to increase our body temperatures, and so we ran as consistently and as fast as I could hold pace. I was quickly surprised by how well I was able to move, despite being so cold, and that I was still able to stomach food. My body temperature increased and my spirits lifted. When we reached Kachess Lake aid station, Eric and Sarah were waiting outside the car in the pouring rain. I changed all of my clothes, my socks, and my shoes, ate some soup, and Sarah and I were off for the remainder of the night. We wouldn't see Eric and Jeremy again until after sunrise.     

Kachess Lake to Mineral Creek (~mile 73):

As difficult as the preceding 68 miles had been, I knew that the moat difficult portions of the course lie ahead, as did the worst of the weather. Sarah and I ran ~1 mile of nice trail, feeling relatively dry before we turned down the infamous Trail from Hell. We quickly had to cross a stream that, during dry weather, probably wouldn’t have been any harder than a couple hops across. In the rain, the water level had risen, and the moss-covered boulders were too slippery for me to negotiate on tired legs. After several failed attempts to cross via the rocks, I resigned myself to getting wet once again and forded the stream. My dry socks and shoes, the luxury I had enjoyed for all of a mile, were now drenched again and would be for several more hours.

The Trail from Hell lived up to its name. I was cognizant enough to recognize how much fun it would have been on fresh legs to jump the trees and rocks, to climb the needles, and to slide down the rock faces, but, in the dark and the rain, wearing a poncho, it was all I could do to stay upright. Hours passed. The sun began to rise and, again, it started to feel strange to be where I was in the race at that time of day. It was then that I decided I didn’t like the late start.

As we descended to Mineral Creek aid station, the rain lightened up briefly, and Sarah and I started to warm. We stopped at the aid station to refuel, but forgot that the one and only bag I had dropped, one that had dry layers for both of us was there. We continued on.

 

Jeremy, Sarah, and me climbing from Mineral Creek to the car (photo by Eric Lubell).

Jeremy, Sarah, and me climbing from Mineral Creek to the car (photo by Eric Lubell).

As we climbed the gravel road out of the aid station, we were surprised to see Jeremy walking down from the car. We knew he and Eric would be meeting us above the Mineral Creek aid station, but it didn’t register with either one of us that we had reached that point. I don’t think I smiled that much at any other point in the race.  Seeing them was amazing.

As we made our way toward the car, I asked what time it was. When they told me, I was surprised. I thought the previous section would take much less time than it did. I was discouraged: “I’m stronger than this,” I said to Sarah as she, Jeremy, and I hiked to the car. “I ran a faster race than this. I’m better than this.” I said. “Then move your fucking ass!” Sarah said. I started to run again until we reached the car, both frustrated with myself and smiling from Sarah’s levity (I should have known she wouldn't let me feel sorry for myself). Sarah and I both changed clothes and then continued the climb to No Name Ridge.

Mineral Creek to No Name Ridge (~mile 80):

As we made the climb to No Name, Sarah and I found ourselves leap-frogging with another runner and his pacer, who expressed their anxiety about making the next cutoff. As quickly as I perked up seeing Jeremy, my mood instantly changed at the thought of missing a cutoff. “What cutoff?” I asked Sarah. “Just keep moving,” she said. “When is the cutoff?” I pushed. “You have 1:40 to go two miles,” she said. "You need to keep moving." It seemed like so much time and like not enough. My left heel was starting to hurt from all of the pounding on the wet terrain, and we were climbing. I was moving as quickly as I could, but it didn't feel fast enough. I started to get upset, but I didn’t stop moving.

We reached No Name Ridge well ahead of cutoff. There was no need to worry. As always, I should have listened to Sarah.  We visited briefly with Matt and Betsy as we refueled. Matt assured me that I was going to make it, that no one drops at Thorp Mountain (the next aid station). “Oh, I'm not dropping," I said. "I have run 280+ miles of this slam. They’ll have to pull my ass off the course." I ate another serving of tater tots, grabbed a couple of pancakes for the trail, and Sarah and I were on our way to Thorp Mountain.

No Name Ridge to French Cabin (~mile 88):

As Sarah and I made our way to Thorp Mountain, the weather started to get worse and worse, though we’d expected it to gradually improve. The wind picked up, especially in the exposed sections, and it started to rain harder.

It was difficult for Sarah and me to keep our body temperatures up because we couldn’t hold a consistent pace. We were climbing. Up along exposed ridgelines, through the needles, and to the summit of Thorp Mountain, we were climbing continuously. My teeth were chattering and I was shaking. We continued to climb. Tears welled in my eyes. We continued to climb. “I’ve come too far for this to fall apart, Sarah.” We continued to climb. “I’m getting hypothermic,” I finally yelled back to Sarah against the wind. “You are not getting hypothermic on my watch, Des!” Sarah said. She’d seen it happen twice; she wasn’t going to let it happen again. “I need to get off this fucking mountain,” I said. "Keep moving," she yelled back. This section, probably the hardest for me, is the one of which I’m most proud. I was suffering, truly suffering. I was freezing and I was scared and I was crying, but I never stopped moving. I hiked and I ran and I ate when I needed to. I never death-marched and I never gave up. With relentless forward motion, with every single step, I gave everything I had in me, and I never stopped moving. 

As we finally started to descend the mountain, the temperature started to increase noticeably and we heard an aid station. “That can’t be French Cabin,” I said. “It’s too soon.” We turned a corner and saw a sign welcoming us to French Cabin aid station. We had made it to mile 88. “Wipe your tears, Des,” Sarah said. “We don’t cry at aid stations.”

French Cabin to Silver Creek (~mile 95):

We stayed at French Cabin just long enough to get some soup to take with us. As soon as we finished eating, we crumpled our cups and began running the long descent from the aid station, I with renewed energy knowing that we were running to Jeremy and Eric, who would be waiting to see us at the final aid station.

Sarah and me running in to Silver Creek aid station (photo by Jeremy Long).

Sarah and me running in to Silver Creek aid station (photo by Jeremy Long).

Despite being mostly downhill and very runnable, the journey from French Cabin to Silver Creek aid station seemed to take a long time, partially due to anticipation and partially because it was further than we originally thought. “I just want to get to Jeremy and Eric,” I’d tell Sarah over and over. For me, reaching them, getting to that aid station, meant that I would finish. I knew what the aid station looked like from when I’d crewed before, but every switchback started to look the same. Finally, after another eternity, we heard cheering. “We made it off the mountain, Des!” Sarah said. I couldn’t have been happier or more energized. I had made it through the storm and my goal of a sub-30 hour finish was in reach. 

Silver Creek to the Finish (mile 100):

Jeremy and me at Silver Creek aid station.

Jeremy and me at Silver Creek aid station.

Sarah and I stayed at Silver Lake just long enough to drop some gear with Eric and Jeremy and eat something. I turned to Sarah: “Let’s finish this effing race.” It was 3:00pm, and I had just under an hour to make it to the finish if I wanted to break 30 hours. I ran and walked as fast as I could, but my ankle was in excruciating pain. “You need to push harder,” Sarah said every time I slowed down. “I’m running as fast as I can,” I replied. “I feel like my ankle is going to fucking rupture.” “Your ankle isn’t going to fucking rupture,” Sarah yelled. “Run faster.” My watch had long since died and I relied on Sarah to monitor my pace. She knew how much  I wanted to break 30 hours, and she pushed me. I had plenty of time if the distance to the finish line was exactly what we anticipated, but, since so many aid stations had been further than we expected, we didn't know for sure. I must have asked her every 30 seconds what time it was. She pushed me harder. 

As we ran down the road and into Easton, I could see the fire station where the race starts/finishes in the distance, but it never seemed to get any closer. Another runner ran by and told me how much time I had if I wanted to break 30 hours. It was his goal too. I moaned in pain, my ankle burning with every step. Finally, we reached the train tracks outside the fire station. “I fully expect you to drop me, Des,” said Sarah. “I can’t keep up with you.” With that, I took off as hard and as fast as I could. I rounded the corner to the fire station, Jeremy and Eric there to cheer me in. I crossed the finish line in 29:52 and I threw down my water bottle, completely dumbfounded by what had happened over the course of the last day.

If a picture could write a blog... Sarah and me running to the finish line (photo by Glenn Tachiyama).

If a picture could write a blog... Sarah and me running to the finish line (photo by Glenn Tachiyama).

I never toe the start line of a race with the presumption that I will finish. I toe the line knowing that I will give everything I have to give on that day and hope with every fiber that it’s enough. I planned for this race, but I was terrified to run it. I didn’t want to believe that the outcome was predetermined by the weather, and so I fought. When I finished, and even now, I’m still amazed by and proud of what I was able to overcome. I have never been so scared. I did not finish Cascade Crest the same runner I was when I started it. With that, I am both humbled and proud, excited and terrified as I make my way to southern Oregon tomorrow to toe the line of the final race in the Larry Slam: Pine to Palm 100.