by Bill Hoffman
At the end of August, the Cascade Crest 100-mile trail race (CC100) through the Cascade Mountains of Washington state brings together an amazing group of runners, crew and race volunteers to spend an entire weekend celebrating mountainous wilderness and the human ability to endure. This was my third 100-mile race but first time running the CC100. I have completed the Leadville 100 race (LT100) in the Colorado mountains twice, in 2018 and 2019, in what I thought was the hardest race I would ever run; the CC100 would prove me wrong.
Although not required, it can be very helpful to have pacers run with you in these long races. Typically, in 100 milers you are not allowed pacers until the second half of the race. For Leadville, I had a team of three pacers, for this race I was able to convince my friend Tim to run the second half of the race with me. Due to the course layout this ended up being about 44 miles, with 10,000 feet of climbing. In addition to a pacer, my wife Naomi was the support crew. She met me and Tim at various aid stations along the way, providing food, supplies, and emotional support.
Naomi, Tim and I flew in Wednesday morning before the race to give us some time to become familiar with the racecourse and enjoy the area. After landing at Sea-Tac and a short shuttle ride to the rental car lot, we were given the option of any of the cars in a row. The choice was obvious; there was an off-road Jeep with our name on it, perfect for dirt roads and mountains. We drove our trusty steed to Hyak where we had rented a house. Due to forest fires the CC100 course had to be altered from its usual loop starting in Easton to an out and back section starting in Hyak and continuing back to Easton along the usual course. This meant we were staying a short walking distance from the start line and halfway point of the race.
The day before the race, as we were checking out the aid stations that allowed crew, our Uber off road Jeep got a flat tire! Tim and I had to change it on the side of the dirt road. The jack did not get the vehicle up quite high enough to get a fully inflated tire back on, so Tim and I dug a hole in the dirt to make room. All in all, way too much drama for the day before running 100 miles. It was decided Naomi would skip this aid station during the race.
The race started in three different waves, an over-60 wave at 5:00 a.m., a 7:00 a.m. start for those expecting to take more than 27 hours, and my wave at 9:00 am. Since I ran LT100 in 26 and 27 hours, I thought the 9:00 a.m. start time would work. It did mean getting a pretty good night of sleep, in contrast with the 4:00 a.m. LT100 start. This is nice because you are already committed to missing an entire night of sleep during the race. Naomi and I walked to the start at 7:15 for runner check-in and returned to the house for some more rest before the fun got started.
After arriving at the start and picking up the race-provided GPS tracking device, I realized I had forgotten my headlamp, which I would need immediately to traverse the dark 2.2 mile long 1800s vintage train tunnel turned into a footpath. By now Tim had joined us so he volunteered to quickly run back to the house and grab it for me. The third and final staring wave began promptly at 9:00 a.m. With cheers and screams of excitement from the crews, the runners were released from the starting line. Finally, nothing left to worry about, just focus on relentless forward progress for as long as it takes to get to the finish line.
For me training for 100-mile races is a decade long ambition interspersed with race-specific training. My training for the CC100 had not gone according to plan. While Tim and I were running the Great Range Traverse in the Adirondacks for a final long run before the Manitou’s Revenge 54-mile trail race, I fell near the peak of Mt. Marcy and broke my arm! I endured a long painful 10-mile hike back to the car. This canceled two races I was planning and changed my running plans significantly. As a run streaker (I run at least a mile every day of the year), I didn’t miss a day, but the first week of broken arm running was slow and very painful. Naomi had to secure my arm to my body with an ace bandage to keep it from flopping around too much while I ran. Trail running was off the menu, so it was slow moving on the roads with my arm in a sling for about four weeks. I was out of the sling just in time for a family trip to the Aspen area in Colorado where I was able to get some good trail running in along with plenty of vertical feet of climbing. I was also cleared by the orthopedic doctor to run Wakely Dam Ultra. This is a 34 mile unsupported trail race. It went well, but despite having run it many times I managed to make a wrong turn and ran an extra two miles.
Given my less-than-ideal training block, my plan was to go slow and try and have as much fun as possible. I certainly had some doubts that I could pull this off. The first couple of miles through the tunnel were nice and easy. About a mile after exiting the tunnel, the race took one of its many crazy turns. Runners are greeted with a trail of loose dirt and rocks so steep a series of fixed ropes is the only way up. After the rope climb, runners pick up the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT), which was followed until the turn around point.
The PCT is a long trail that goes from Mexico to Canada. The 20+ miles of it I ran for this race is stunningly beautiful. I passed enormous trees and clear blue lakes. At the first aid station I picked up a few oranges and continued on. At one point I ran by a lake that was so nice, I had to stop and take a picture.
I made my way along the PCT occasionally running with someone else, but mostly running alone. The next aid station was really awesome. It was a remote aid station where you would not expect much, but they had a generator and a blender and were making smoothies! They had guacamole and PB&J burritos. After this, the trail rolled up and down towards the next aid station at mile 18.
Shortly after the aid station, I started running with a woman and as we talked about running, we discovered that I had met her on Hope Pass in Colorado! She was fast packing the Colorado trail with a friend, and I was hiking Hope with the family! We ran together until the next aid station. I spent a bit too much time futzing around with my drop bag and gear and she left the aid station first, and I never caught up again.
After passing the aid station run by a group of singing middle school kids, with 4 or so miles to the turn around point, I started to have runners pass me going the opposite direction. Gary Robbins (famed runner of the Barkley Marathons) was still in the front pack. Apparently, I am terrible at counting runners. When I reached the turnaround and started back, there were only 3 or 4 runners behind me. Which meant I had passed over 100 runners, but it seemed like 30 or 40. About a mile after the turnaround I caught up to "the other Luna Sandal runner" Don. I annoyed him with a "Hey, are you running this in flip-flops" greeting. His immediate reaction was yes, but they are sandals. Then he realized it was me.
Don convinced me that I was in danger of hitting a cutoff at the 38 mile aid station, so we started to hustle. I left him at the singing kids aid station and made my way to the 38 mile point where Tim and Naomi were allowed to crew. I found out it was two hours before the actual cutoff! However, I was running in the tail end of the 9 a.m. starting group. Don came through the aid station in a hurry, forgetting to even grab some food as he was chasing after me! I was sitting in a chair out of the way and said hi, to which he said I left him at the last aid station, so he was leaving me now.
I rested, ate some food and switched packs. Then I was off again.
I will take a quick break in the narrative to describe my plan for eating during this race. At both Leadville 100 races, I had stomach issues and was not particularly happy with my fueling plan during those races. This time I had had a new simple plan that I had experimented with in the past year but had not had a chance to put to the test. The plan was simple: Tailwind, water but mostly Tailwind, Huma gels, PB&J burritos, avocados, fresh pineapple and watermelon. Nothing caffeinated until after 50 miles. After that, Coke, caffeinated Huma gels and Tailwind were on the menu.
Not long after leaving the mile 38 aid station, darkness fell on the trail and the headlamp came on. Gone were the big views and heat of the day, replaced by a narrow headlamp-lit path and the cool of the night. I passed several PCT hikers with tents pitched on the side of the trail. One of the runners was hobbling along with some poles, working his way to the nearest exit with a torn calf; his day was over. At night the aid stations resemble tiki bars with Christmas lights, humming generators, and glowing heat lamps. An oasis of human activity and comfort in the dark wilderness. Always a welcome sight and difficult to leave, so it is best not to stay too long. Once back on the trail it always seems to be a bit colder than when you arrived, but this quickly passes as your body heats up again with the work of relentless forward progress.
A small group of four of us formed a pack as we retraced our steps from earlier in the day. Don, the other Luna sandal runner, was one of the pack. At this point, I was climbing well but was not as sure footed on the rocky trail as I had been in the daytime. I would pull ahead on the climbs a bit and the group would catch up on the flats. We all gathered at the last aid station prior to Hyak where some of us would be picking up pacers. I made it a quick stop, drinking the first Coke of the race and moving on alone. The next fun obstacle would be descending the ropes course in the dark. I came out unscathed and then entered the mines of Moria for a solo traverse of the tunnel. Near the exit sat two skeletons with pacer bibs, nice touch CC100 crew!
Upon reaching Hyak, Naomi and Tim were waiting patiently for me with a chair, new pack, and best of all some company for the rest of the race. Before reaching them as the night wore on, I certainly had my doubts about finishing, and goal finish times were all history, it had become all about survival. I told Tim it was going to be a long day. Tim was excited that I was one of the few runners to run and not walk into the aid station. He was also excited to get started.
He was able to get me moving at a nice pace with some 12-minute miles along the road. I had not gone that fast for a while and it was nice to be moving again. The pavement quickly turned to a dirt road, and the dirt road ascended a mountain. We passed a few runners from the 7 a.m. start time, but mostly ran/hiked alone. Eventually we reached the next oasis (aid station) where I sat by a fire, ate some food and prepared for the next section. Huddled under a blanket was what I assumed was a tired volunteer but turned out to be a fellow runner taking a nap.
It was all downhill to the next aid station where Naomi would be waiting for us at mile 70. Once again with easy terrain and a downhill quick progress was made and we even passed another runner. This would be the last spot where we would see Naomi before the finish line! I swapped packs for the final time. As we left the sky had already started to brighten and night would soon turn to day.
Next, the Cascade 100 course throws “the trail from hell” at you. This is a 5mile section that traverses the steeply sloped shore of a beautiful mountain lake. The trail is 6 inches wide at points and constantly goes up or down with plenty of blowdown stream crossings and other obstacles. At one point a 5am start (over 60) runner slipped right in front of us and slid off the trail towards the lake cursing the “trail from hell”. We helped him up and made our way forward.
After the trail from hell, Tim and I took another quick break at an aid station, then climbed a long dirt road. In the shade it was still cool from the night, but the sky was blue and the sun was hot. I was starting to think overheating would be in my future. After the dirt road, the trail enters what is called the cardiac needle section of trail. This is a beautiful section of pine needle covered trail traversing one after another small peak meaning that you are basically either going up or down.
The sun and distance were starting to take a toll on my mind, and for some reason even with lots of fluids in my pack and feeling generally good (all things considered), I stopped drinking. We reached the next aid station and were told there would be no aid until we climbed that peak and fetched a ticket from the top! I was allowed to leave the pack, which I did, but sort of regretted it. I was very thirsty and it was a mile round trip to the peak. The top of Thorp Mt. was the best view of the day, including a great view of Mt. Rainier.
By the time we made it back to the aid station I was overheated and a bit dehydrated. On the bright side there were only about 12 miles left, however, there were 12 miles left!
I made my way slowly at this point. I had looked forward to this section, as it is mostly downhill. However, the trail was covered in loose dirt and rock, which became difficult for me to go fast on. We passed another aid station and I filled my soft flasks with Coke. The trail conditions continued to be difficult for me.
Tim did his best to coax me along, but I was struggling to gain any momentum and it was more of a slow march forward than a run. There were really interesting tree stumps and logs all over the woods that began to take on interesting shapes in my mind. I looked at one and saw an old lady holding a plastic grocery bag. I knew that could not be what it was but could not unsee it. Think of one of those pictures that is both an old lady and a young lady and your mind gets fixed on one making it hard to see the other. It was both a tree stump and some logs and an old lady, but my mind wanted to see the lady.
Around this time, I thought it would be a good idea to eat a caffeinated gel. Almost immediately after ingesting the gel, I felt a surge of sugar and caffeine hit my system. It was not a great feeling and I had to stop for a minute. I think my body did not appreciate the jolt!
The trail finally started to clean up a bit with more stable dirt and less loose rock and dirt. Around this point another runner started to catch up and that was enough motivation for me to actually run downhill and into the final aid station. We were told it was only 3.5 miles to the finish! I spent almost no time at this aid station as this was something I could get excited about! This beast of a run was almost over! In less than an hour I would finish the Cascade Crest 100!
At 32 hours and 37 minutes this was the longest run I had ever done 5 or more hours longer than my previous 100 mile Leadville races. This was a tough course, but I would love to come back for another try some day. Although I ran slower than I had hoped, it was a great adventure and my nutrition went very well.
A big thanks to my minimal crew. Thanks to Naomi for being at all the aid stations with a fresh pack and everything I needed. Thanks to Tim for running 44 miles and climbing 10,000 feet with me. Thanks to all the volunteers who made each aid station fantastic.