The Cascade Crest 100 is held in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state, on a loop course on high ridges and valleys near Snoqualmie Pass. The race director, Charlie Crissman, bills this race as a throw-back, classic ultra that doesn’t seek fame or crowds, but just wants to share a remarkable trail running experience. That is my kind of race and it lived up to its lack of hype.
I grew up in Washington, and while in high school could be found each Saturday in the winter on the ski slopes at the resorts of Snoqualmie Pass. I really looked forward to returning to my home and experiencing these mountains in a way I had never dreamed of as a youth.
My trip to Washington was somewhat eventful. I made the mistake of putting a home-made Garmin watch charger in my carry-on bag. At the airport, I was stopped by the TSA guys. They pulled out the suspicious unit with its switch and 9-volt battery and asked me what it was. I explained that it charges my GPS watch. “Why don’t you use the wall charger,” they asked. “Uh, because the charge only lasts about 12 hours and I’m still running. I run very far.” More people gathered, three more TSA guys, and two cops. They were all huddled around the unit, pointing at it, making comments. I tried hard not to look like a worried terrorist. A guy sat down next to me to put on his shoes. Seeing the commotion, he asked, “What did you do?” I explained, and he laughed and laughed.
The TSA supervisor came to me again, “Tell me again, what do you use this for?” I told her the same story. “Why are you going to Seattle?” “To run in a 100-mile race.” She noticed my “I hiked the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim” shirt and asked, “Is that shirt an example of the type of running you do?” I replied yes, but thought to myself that the shirt is actually a lie. It should say, “I ran the Grand Canyon Rim-to-rim-to-rim-to-rim-to-rim.” But I thought it best to not explain that. One of the cops came up to me and reassured me, “I have a running friend who has a watch like that.”
They carefully reinspected all my stuff. A TSA guy was satisfied and said, “good thing you don’t have any traces of explosives.” I agreed with him. Another TSA guy said they would have to frisk me. The supervisor told me that I would have to wait around because they called in a bomb expert. I guess he was still at home. She warned me that he might be dressed in bomb stuff which may get a lot of attention. Oh boy! That should be interesting.
So, for another half hour, I tried not to look too conspicuous. They laid out my Garmin stuff on a sheet of paper, along with my ID and took a bunch of pictures. “Great,” I thought, “What kind of no-fly list am I going to appear on?”
Finally the Bomb expert arrived. He asked me what I used the unit for, went and looked at it for about a minute, and then came back and said he cleared me, but the TSA guys would need to clear it through their bosses. They took more pictures. He said, the best thing to do is to next time just put the unit in my checked bag. Finally, I was free. “Have a nice race,” they said. I went away wondering how many cameras would now be focused on me.
Finally in Seattle, without being arrested for carrying a dangerous running watch, I visited my hometown of Federal Way, letting all the memories flood back. It was amazing to see again roads and buildings that still haunt my dreams after more about 35 years being away.
I drove up into the mountains and camped by Kachess Lake. It was beautiful and peaceful expect for the aggressive mosquitoes. These blood suckers didn’t fool around. Instead of flying around you for awhile, they would just zoom in and immediately suck your blood. I went to bed early and had a great night’s sleep.
Cascade Crest 100 started at 10 a.m. It was nice to sleep in, but I knew the late start would be a real problem because the morning started to become hot right away. It would be a wonderful sunny day, are rare event in the Pacific Northwest.
Photos by Chris Gerber and Jeremy Dougherty
Away we went. After running on hot dirt roads for awhile, we entered a much cooler single-track that would climb well over 4,000 feet to Goat Peak. I usually try to hang out with the lead pack for awhile, but because of the heat, I held back and seemed to be with the third pack or runners. The trail up the mountain was amazing. I immediately noticed the lack of rocks. It was smooth and clear, and the switch backs were all modern and maintained. I’m used to the trails in the Wasatch Mountains that are game trails that became hiking trails, with a few planned switch backs thrown in. But this trail was a nice steady climb.
However, well before reaching the top, I could tell I was becoming badly dehydrated. Before reaching the 10-mile mark, I had backed off any attempt to push the pace and race. I knew that if I did, I was in serious jeopardy of crashing and burning. I was somewhat disappointed, but I took it easy and went into more of a survival mode.
I reached Cole Butte (mile 10.8) at 2:21 in 47th place, about ten minutes slower than I hoped for. Going at a slower pace let me look around and observe more. The steep slopes down into the valleys were amazing, covered with fir trees. A couple times impressive views of Mount Rainier came into view.
The trail continued to be tough. One minute we were near 5,000 feet, and a little while later, back down to 3,000 feet. Then we had to climb again. This race start was one of the toughest for climbing that I could recall. One thing I noticed is that with the smooth trails, when the Washingtonians around me came upon a rocky section, more like the trails in the Wasatch, they would slow way down and pick their way through the rocks. I would instead blast over and through them and would get nice compliments. But those sections were short. I wished there were more. (Beware what you wish for.)
I was really struggling when I arrived at Blowout Mountain (mile 15.2) at 3:26. I was in 55th place, but I thought a volunteer told me I was in 25th place. That really surprised me. Things fell apart from there. I started to have terrible GI challenges, probably due to the dehydration, and started to be passed by many runners. Finally, I had no choice but to stop and use the bushes, to try to solve the problem. I was there for nearly 15 minutes, and when I came back on the trail was probably in about 90th place. Tetsuro greeted me with smiles. I explained my troubles and he offered to help if I needed anything. I was feeling much better. I knew that Tetsuro runs a steady pace and finishes strong. I still had a hope to do pretty well.
I felt much better, and quickly ran ahead with new energy ahead of Tetsuro. Very soon the course joined the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) which was a wonderful rolling trail in the cooler forest. My pace increased. As I came upon runners, I could clearly tell that I was now mid-pack. There runners would not run the uphills anymore, they would only power hike them. I tried to run everything and before the next aid stations had re-passed about ten runners.
I arrived at Tacoma Pass (mile 23.3) at 5:26, now in 80th place. I was nearly an hour slower than I hoped for at this point. But I was feeling great, and was all smiles. People called me be name at the aid station and said I was looking good. At each aid station I only stayed for a couple minutes and noticed that each time I passed a few runners who were taking their time.
I really enjoyed the run during the late afternoon. While in the shady forest I could really push the speed, but when it went through hot exposed areas, I had to put on the brakes because I was still feeling the effects of dehydration. I reached Snowshoe Butte (mile 29) at 7:18, climbing to 72nd place, and reached Stampede Pass (mile 34.5) at 8:09 in 65th place. I recognized that the runners around me now were familiar. They were runners who I had seen before my long stop in the bushes. I was pleased that I had at least made up for that. I was very surprised that I caught up to Chris Gerber. He had passed me over five hours earlier looking very strong. I thought I would not see him again before the finish. Thus started a pattern that would be established for the rest of the race. He would push ahead very strong. I would think I that would be the last I would see him, only to run fast by him a few hours later.
It was dark when I arrived at Mirror Lake and could see the fires from evening campers around the lake. I could now also see the lights of runners ahead of me. The trail became much more rugged which I enjoyed for awhile and set my sights on a runner ahead being slowed by the rocks. I passed him and for the next couple miles he used me as a pacer and pretty much kept up with me as we ran very well. But eventually I needed to make a pit stop. He expressed disappointment that I was stopping. Within a half hour, I was again suffering from GI trouble and had to lie down. About five runners passed me, asking if I was OK. I had decided to be very careful during this period. Often during the first major climbs after sunset, my stomach shuts down and I go into a major bonk that ruins my race. I wanted to try several things and see if I could avoid this. So I purposely held back somewhat, ate and drank better, and even though I threw up a couple times, I was able to avoid a serious bonk.
When I am struggling, I think it is both nice and funny when kind runners offer me help and advice, thinking that I’m a rookie 100-miler, in over my head. I assure them that I’m fine. I know that once I get through the lows, they will be surprised to see me sprint by them.
I arrived at Olallie Meadow (mile 47.7) at 11:43, now in 60th place. I had climbed nearly 30 places in the past six hours. Next up was the crazy steep rope section, in the dark, down to the road to the tunnel. We had to descend a crazy steep slope with the nice help of ropes that I hung on to for dear life. To the north, I could both see and hear cars going by fast down from Snoqualmie Pass on I-90. I had heard one volunteer mention that one year while working at Hyak, drivers would come off of the freeway wondering what was going on, seeing all the lights of the runners.
Finally I was down on a very flat dirt road that led straight toward the mountain to a former train tunnel that goes through the mountain for more than two miles. I found speed in my legs. The cool air had solved my dehydration issue and my legs felt very rested. I pushed the speed, doing better than 8-minute pace, and started to catch runners ahead of me.
I entered the dark tunnel. It was a crazy place to run at night. There were no lights, but occasional reflectors on the walls. The tunnel is now used mostly by bikes. I didn’t need much light, the ground was smooth, so I turned on only my blue bulbs on my headlamp and set my sights on faint lights ahead. The runners ahead were either walking or jogging slowly. I had great fun coming upon them and blasting by them with a sprint. The tunnel went on and on and seemed to never end. Toward the east end, it became very stuffy and foggy. I started to have claustrophobic feelings and just wanted to get out of there. Finally the open air arrived.
When I came to Hyak, it was very confusing to determine where we were supposed to go from there. I had expected an aid station in the parking lot, but there was none. I first made a stop at the nice modern bathroom, and then came out and helped other confused runners who I had passed, figure things out. Finally I noticed a glow stick and another guy came who had scouted out the place the day before and knew the way up the road.
I reached Hyak (mile 52.7) at 13:33. I was in 60th place. There were many runners there with their crews and pacers. I tried not to stay long, getting my jacket, refilling my pockets, and grabbing my flash light. I left there right behind Kari Fraser from Colorado, who I would run near from the next 10 hours. We would now run on a dirt road for the next 16 miles. It would do a major climb, more than 3,000 feet and then descend down to the lake I camped at the day before.
On the climb, I started to struggle and eventually had to again lie down on the side of the road and watch about five runners pass me and disappear up the road. I eventually stumbled back on my feet, at first weaving around, but eventually found my balance and could run again.
I put on some music and came upon an old Earth, Wind, and Fire song with the perfect beat. I forced myself to run as far and as long as I could to that fast beat. The other runners ahead of me were all walking up the road. For the next hour, I would run very fast by them while singing, keeping the pace as long as I could, then take a short walking break and repeat. It worked great. I re-passed everyone who had passed me since Hyak and pushed on far ahead of them. By the time I reached the top, I was very surprised to see that Chris Gerber had just left the aid station. I had even caught up to him!
Now, I was feeling super and was faced with a long 7-mile downhill. I flew. I could see lights of runners ahead and down the valley. The chase was on. I first passed Chris and then passed runner after runner. At times I would turn off my lights for fun just to see if I could keep running and seeing the amazing star-lit sky. This was the best part of my run.
With a mile to go before the next aid station, I ran out of gas again. About eight of the runners I had passed all caught up and passed me. They were all moving well. I arrived at Kachess Lake (mile 67.9) at 17:11 in 58th place. My stop was short, enough to refuel, eat just enough, and then to push on.
I knew the next section would be tougher, but it was much tougher than I thought. It started out crazy. There were a bunch of blow downs that we had to crawl over and under. At one point I said in frustration, “this isn’t running.” It felt like we were going through a very bad obstacle course, and in the middle of the night. It reminded me of a section in the Uintas that Matt Watts and I ran through a few years ago.
They call this section the “trail from hell” and it is aptly named. I pushed on ahead and passed all the runners that I could see ahead of me and then had the rough trail to myself above the lake. It was rocky, rooty, with blow downs, crazy short climbs and descents. I was making pretty good progress and commented to myself, “This is great fun.” I was enjoying it. However, after an hour of it, I changed my tune. It drained me. As I made the turn around the north end of the lake, I could finally see reflections down in the dark lake. Up until that time, you couldn’t tell that you were above the lake. But at this point I could look back and see many lights of runners following me on a shelf above the lake.
I ran out of water and slowed down. I had been working so hard that I was sweating like crazy and some very bad chaffing started. I had to stop many times to try to solve. Again, the same pattern occurred. After the aid station I feel great and push a big lead over the runners around me, but then fade before the next aid station. I was passed by about five other runners including Chris Gerber. I finally had to dip my bottle into a stream to get hydrated again.
I arrived at Mineral Creek (mile 73.9) at 19:31, right at dawn. A volunteer announced that I was in 53rd place. That was discouraging news, because I had hoped to be in the top 40. I would have to push very hard to hope for that finish. Dawn arrived, so I could leave behind my lights and jacket in my drop bag.
Next up was another monster dirt road climb up to Thorp Mountain. It took me awhile to find my speed again, but I could eventually run uphill. No one else seen ahead of me were running. The first person I passed was Chris Gerber. He was enjoying the morning and taking pictures of the stunning North Cascade peaks. There was a little cloud cover, which was very welcome, but the heat was still returning.
I reached No Name Ridge (mile 81.5) at 21:42 in 50th place. I had caught up to Dana from Canada who was moving very well. I would see her right up until the finish. I next was introduced to the Cardiac Needles, a serious of steep tough climbs without switch-backs. The first one was amazing. I had very good uphill strength for that one and pushed it up and up. It seemed to never end and just went straight up. I finally reached the top, but was so worn out that my pace on the flats was probably slower than on the climbs. There were a total of five of these very crazy climbs. Where were the very kind switch backs from yesterday? Clearly the second half of this course is much tougher than the first half.
I arrived at Thorp Mountain (mile 85.5) at 23:11. We had to do a short, but tough out and back up to a fire lookout at the top of the mountain. It was good to see where the runners ahead of me. My pace was getting slow and I was being lazy. My feet had the usual Hoka blisters on my toes and I was letting them slow me down. It looked like only Chris and I were wearing Hokas. I saw Chris going up as I was heading back down.
Once I climbed up and over the last ridge, the pain went away from my blisters and I could really fly again. The trail was wonderful, as it weaved through the forest. I was able to push a pace approaching 8-minute pace. When I do, I usually quickly start passing runners. I was puzzled that I wasn’t passing anyone. Finally I caught and passed Dana and later on Brian Fretwell, from Idaho who was really struggling. I thought with the pace I was flying that I could catch enough runners to climb into the top 40, but I didn’t. I had waited too long to make my push.
I reached the last aid station, Silver Creek (mile 95.2) at 26:47 in 49th place. There was less than five miles to go. I had driven through this area the day before so knew what to expect. It was getting very hot as we ran along the powerlines. Dana and her pacer caught up and went ahead. I couldn’t see anyone ahead to catch.
Once we reached the final two miles of pavement, I was able to increase my pace little by little and passed Dana for the last time just as we were entering Easton. I looked behind and was shocked to see two guys (Mike James and Shawn Krause) running very fast toward me, passing Dana. Wow, where did those guys come from? Somehow, I dug deep and found huge speed. It was working, there was no way they were going to catch me. I crossed the finish line with a ton of energy and speed at 27:40:24 in 47th place. It was 90 degrees when I finished. I didn’t wait around, quickly got some drinks and headed for my car to turn on the air conditioning. I quickly recovered, said some goodbyes and headed to Hyak to wash up.
I looked for Chris, but never saw him finish (he finished about an hour after me).
My first Cascade Crest 100 finish was in the books, my 43rd career 100 finish. I ran it about two hours slower than I hoped, but was pleased with the finish, given the hot conditions we had to deal with. It had been a good race. I had fallen to about 90th place and ended up in 47th place. That alone was a victory and showed me something new that I could do.
The aid stations and volunteers were top-notch. The course was beautiful. Much of it was forest tunnels, but there were also stunning ridge runs and open dirt road sections with nice views. That “trail from hell” left me wanting to do that section again. I know I can do it much faster. It was a great challenge. But I’m unlikely to run CCC100 again because of the heat. If they could guarantee me cool and rainy weather, I would be there again.
See 23-minute video of the race taken by Steve Emmert