Monday, August 31, 2009

Cascade Crest 100 Mile Trail Run

On Saturday August 29th, I headed out to Easton to attempt my first 100 mile trail run. I decided early this year to choose the local 100 mile race, Cascade Crest, as I would know a lot of the other runners in the race and I could pre-run the course. The race filled up the day after registration opened in February. Luckily, I was in.

It started to rain Friday evening, and continued to rain as I drove out to Easton Saturday morning, finally clearing up as I reached Hyak. The rain never materialized on the east side of the crest, making for perfect weather in the 50s and 60s. It easily could have been 20 degrees warmer.

The race started at 10am, and I settled in to an easy pace, trying to stay behind James Varner and Jamie Gifford, who I knew had enough experience to run the race wisely (Jamie completed his 10th Cascade Crest race this year). We climbed about 3000' steeply to Goat Peak, then on to Cole Butte. I got ahead of both James and Jamie, and I remember thinking that I might be going too fast, so I tried to slow down even more. Another 1500' descent and climb led us to Blowout Mountain.

I had given Andrew (my pacer) a timeline that had me finishing in 23 hours 15 minutes, and I came into Cole Butte and Blowout Mountain right according to that schedule. I suddenly had severe cramping and GI issues, however, and visions of DNF'ing flashed through my head. How could I be having problems at only 14 miles in? Was I going to blow out at Blowout? I was almost doubled over at one point, but after some ginger ale at the aid station a couple minutes break, I felt better. I did not have any more problems like that for the rest of the race, thankfully.

After Blowout, a long sweeping downhill led us to Tacoma Pass. James Varner passed by me like a blur. Adam Hewey caught up with me as well, and we ran together for a while through Tacoma Pass. Adam had high aspirations for his finish time, and so in short time he also moved on. Mist and clouds enveloped the ridge beyond Tacoma Pass, making the afternoon almost but not quite too cold. The weather was perfect for running.

I came into Stampede Pass (mile 34) at 4:15pm, 45 minutes ahead of my timeline. I was developing some hotspots, however, so I spent 10 minutes playing with my feet while I ate a pasta lunch I had packed in my dropbag and some soup from the aid station volunteers. Johnathan Bernard pulled just as I was leaving. He seemed to be having a reasonable race.
I grabbed my iPod from my dropbag at Stampede Pass and listened to tunes on my way to Hyak. I knew this part of the course as I had run most of it on a rainy day the previous month. Luckily, the rain did not arrive today and I stayed dry through the bushy parts. Although I was mostly alone, I did start meeting and passing people who were struggling a little more than I was.

Oddly, I did not feel like I was racing a race against the other people on the course. We were all fighting our own battles, and some of us had harder battles to fight than others. My job was to find the easy battle to fight, so I kept listening to my body and not trying to push it too hard.
As the tunnel was closed, the course was rerouted this year to go over the ski slope at Hyak and down. The RD (on advice from James Varner?) chose a challenging rock strewn gully-like path for us to come down. I was happy that there was still just enough light by which to navigate it.

I pulled into Hyak just after dusk at 8:15pm (an hour ahead of my timeline for a 23:15 finish). Andrew and Kathy were both waiting for me with a chair set up for my and all my gear spread out. I enjoyed more pasta and soup while they looked at a blister that had developed and patched it up. I switched shoes and socks as well, and the blister did not bother me for the rest of the race. I spent about 20 minutes in the aid station; I was not really in a speed racing mindset. I gave Kathy and hug, and Andrew and I headed out for the second half of the race.

Andrew and I ran the frontage road for a couple miles before it became unpaved and headed upwards. Jamie Gifford and his pacer, Jim Kerby, caught up with us, and we traded spots back and forth all the way up to Keechelus Ridge aid station. Kerby is extremely friendly and enthusiastic, and while trying to give me a pat on the back and wish me luck at the aid station, managed to get me to spill potato soup all down my shirt. I looked like I had vomited, but that is all part of the image, I thought.

We sped down the other side of Keechelus Ridge with only slight twinges from my legs. I felt great. Andrew and I pulled into Kachess Lake aid station (which had a Halloween theme) and got ready for the Evil Forest. I spent more time than I should have, once again, rummaging through drop bags and deciding what food to bring; I vowed to be quicker at Mineral Creek. As I checked out, I found out that I was in 12th place. If we could pass a couple more people, I'd be in the top 10... We headed up the road a short bit to where a skeleton beckoned us to climb a dirt slope and enter the Evil Forest.

The five miles along Kachess Lake are the most technical section, and required us to scramble up/down difficult sections, climb over logs, and crawl through the branches of downed trees. It certainly did feel spooky at night time. Andrew brought his mega-powered mountain biking light which really helped (it also helped on the logging roads, too, so that we could see the grade of the road for the next few hundred yards and know when to run vs. hike). We moved along quite well, and I only fell on my face once, with no injuries. We passed Chris Twardzik here, who described himself as being in "a difficult spot". He looked like a ghost. We pressed on.

Andrew and I quickly moved through the Mineral Creek aid station at mile 74 and hit the road. I started to feel like racing now - only a marathon to go. That marathon included a 3000' climb up to Thorpe Mountain, however. We headed up the logging road at a fast walk, and caught up with another runner at the crew stop a couple miles up the road. I was feeling better and better.
As we were approaching the Noname Ridge aid station, we saw a sign at the side of the road. It had a walkie-talkie attached to it and a menu. Apparently, you could call in a food order and they would prepare it for you while you hiked the next five minutes to the aid station. All the items had cheese in them though, but I was not in a cheese mood, so we did not order anything.
I was shocked at Noname aid station to see James sitting in a chair. "What are you doing here?" I blurted out. Another runner was also there saying that he had had enough and was going to drop. It seemed like there was a lot of carnage going on in the front part of the field. Andrew and I quickly moved on, and Laura Houston (one of the volunteers) wished me luck from afar as we were already headed up the trail.

The climb to Thorpe was not as difficult as I had remembered from my practice run the other month, and Andrew and I ran a lot of the flat to slightly rolling parts. We passed by Arthur Martineau, who was looking a bit peaked. The climb from the aid station to the lookout and back down certainly was hard and steep, though. As Andrew and I started up the climb, another runner and pacer came down, looking strong-tacular. We timed our out and back as being 15 minutes long, so they would be incredibly hard to catch up with, looking as good as they did. As Andrew and I came down, we saw another runner heading up. Chris Twardzik? Apparently he had come back from the land of the dead and was now 10 minutes behind us. I had visions of him passing me at the last few minutes of White River the other month, and vowed not to let that happen again. We picked up our pace some more.

The Cardiac Needles after Thorpe were quite steep, and definitely got our hearts racing. As we topped out on the last of them, we found the strong-tacular runners sitting by the side of the trail. They said "this is where runners come to die". I guess looks are deceiving. Our climbing for the race mostly over, Andrew and I descended towards the lights of French Cabin aid station.
I had been looking forward to the bacon at French Cabin for the whole race. As we arrived to the aroma of bacon cooking, however, I became worried that trying something new (meat and grease) might cause my stomach problems. I had come to a gentleman's agreement with my stomach on how we would work together, and I decided not to upset the balance, so I had a PBJ instead. The aid station volunteer said the bacon was not ready in any case. Maybe he was just being nice.

After a final short climb out of the basin, it was all downhill, and we picked up our speed. We dropped down into Silver Creek basin and started to motor along. My legs and body were feeling great, and a steady flow of endorphins kept me feeling electric. I told Andrew once or twice to pick up the pace, and when he started to walk up on of the hills (which had been our MO through the night), I chided him. Now is the time to run with the wind. Or like the wind, or whatever.

As we dropped down to Silver Creek aid station, I ate three Gus (which was more than I had eaten during the rest of the race combined) for quick energy, and we motored right through the aid station and onto the roads/paths that would lead us back into Easton. I caught myself glancing behind us, nervous that someone would catch up with us at the last second. Once we were entering Easton, however, I saw there was nobody close (the next finisher was 20 minutes behind us) and I relaxed enough to pick up aluminum cans along the way to recycle when we finished. Andrew and I crossed the finish line in 21:23:20 in 6th place. Kathy arrived 10 minutes after we finished, and while she did not get to see us finish, I'm glad she was there.

We all hung out at the finish line for a couple hours, chatting with other runners, pacers and volunteers and enjoying the camaraderie of the sport. Special thanks to Charlie Crissman, the race director, for all of his efforts to make this race happen, as well as to the numerous volunteers who spent the whole night out on the course and made sure that we runners were healthy and happy. I was definitely happy.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Ptarmigan Traverse

The Ptarmigan Traverse is a classic 5+ day traverse along the crest of the North Cascades. John Commiskey and Susan Ashlock joined me on a recent trip. John and I had tried doing the traverse two years ago, but I had an inflamed tendon before we started (from running White River 50 mile trail run the week before) and I made us turn back at Koolaid Lake when I realized I was going to be limping (or worse) the whole way.

On Monday morning (8/17) we met Bob Coleman, who travelled with us to Suiattle River Road to drop off the car, then shuttled us up to Cascade Pass TH where we would start our trip. Thanks Bob! We all hiked up together up easy switchbacks to Cascade Pass, then Susan, John and I said our goodbyes to John and headed out on the climbers trail up to Cache Col. We ascended the glacier unroped to the col and dropped down scree fields on the other side to Koolaid Lake. Not wanting to stop quite yet, we headed over to the Red Ledges, which is a short scrambling section on an otherwise modest day. We scrambled about twenty feet from a steep snowfield up onto the ledges, then traversed across one or two gullies before it opened up again. John dislodged a boulder as heavy as he was during the climb to the ledge, and it crashed down into the moat between snow and rock. Susan was luckily out of the way below him, but it reminded us that mountaineering is an inherently dangerous activity that requires constant attention. Shortly after bypassing the Red Ledges, we found a heather bench next to a stream, and settled in for beautiful views of Formidable and a gorgeous sunset.

We rose at dawn on Tuesday (6am), our usual wakeup time. We made a descending traverse to bypass a rib, then climbed alongside the Middle Cascade Glacier to about 6600 feet before roping up and walking onto the glacier. We dropped a short bit to avoid icefall and crevasses above us, then headed straight up the center of the glacier, occasionally bypassing a crevasse in the way. We reached the Spider/Formidable col, then dropped down a very steep snowfield on its backside before traversing right towards a saddle on a ridge south of Forbidden.

At the saddle, we prepared to climb Formidable. None of us had a summit pack, so we dropped food and gear from our packs that we did not need. John decided to stay with the packs after eyeing the scree-filled gully we would have to descend; he was on vacation after all and had enough scree for the day.

Susan and I use the beta from summitpost to choose our route to climb Formidable. We traversed across a basin a then traversed a rib that bisected the south basin. In order to bypass a cliff band above us, we could either choose a gully option or a ledge option - they said the ledge option was easier except for a very exposed section, so we decided to choose the gully, as we felt good about our climbing abilities. I felt like everything was fairly exposed, but at least in a gully you get to use your hands and your feet. We stayed right up the gully and climbed past a short class 5 alcove before reaching easier grades above. We scrambled the upper sections, aiming for the leftmost of several summit stacks, and made it to the top after some exposed but fairly straightforward scrambling.

Getting down made me a bit more nervous. I spent extra time downclimbing in order to focus on what I was doing and not slip or dislodge rocks on Susan below me. We downclimbed the gully (one at a time) that we had gone up, and eventually made it to easier ground below. A traverse back across the basin brought us to John and our packs. Whew! The route was a bit more chossy and exposed than I liked, but the day was perfect and the views were incredible.
We grabbed our packs and dropped down to Yang Yang Lakes to camp.

On Wednesday, we followed a trail onto a ramp that headed up to the ridge leading to LeConte mountain. At the upper end of the ramp, we had to scramble up a steep dirty section for a couple hundred feet to attain the ridge. The ridge itself is was wide and flat and very easy going. After we reached the low point in the ridge (good bivy spots, but not much flowing water) we hiked up a couple hundred more feet and then traversed leftward onto snow, then made an ascending traverse of the snow onto the side of LeConte mountain. From afar, the traverse looked very steep, but it was quite moderate. We continued to traverse, dropping to a corner of LeConte glacier where we roped up and worked our way up past a couple crevasses, then headed up towards a gap on the right of the glacier below Sentinel Peak.

On the other side of the gap, we traverse rock/scree all along the west and south side of Sentinal Peak until we could drop down onto the South Cascade Glacier, a fairly flat glacier which stretched the length of the valley below us. Crossing the upper part of the glacier (no rope or crampons) , we crossed a gap on its south side and then descended steep scree slopes to White Rock Lakes. It was a hot day, and we enjoyed a good foot soak. John wanted to camp at White Rock Lakes (it was 3pm), as Pat had mentioned what a beautiful spot it was. Susan wanted to go on to Itswoot Ridge to be in good position for Dome and Sinister tomorrow; I decided to stay at White Rock Lakes - it was a classic camp site and we had it all to ourselves. We would get up in the morning at 5am instead of 6am, however, so that we could have a good shot at Dome Peak the next day. We camped with beautiful views of Dana Glacier across the valley, and we pondered at what our route would be, as it all looked impossible (foreshortening at work again). Susan, always full of energy, decided to hike part of the next day's route as a scouting mission, and came back at dinnertime with reports that the route was once again very moderate.

I woke up in the middle of the night, thinking that John was grinding his teeth. No wonder he needed a vacation. It must be the stress of work. I looked outside our tent to see a goat chewing on the heather a short ways off. After shooing it away, the grinding noises stopped. We put our boots and poles in the tent (we always kept our food in the tent, in odor-proof bags) so as not to lose them to the goat if it came back.

On Thursday, we woke pre-dawn to alpenglow. Susan led us on her pre-scouted route to the base of the Dana Glacier, and we climbed along rock and snow sections until we reached a spot where we could easily enter the glacier, although we ended up much higher and to the right of the area for which we were aiming. We crossed a lot of blue ice with small crevasses and melted out sections and ascended to the pass at the top of the glacier near Spire Point. From here, we traversed a snowfield and climbed down scree/boulders on the other side, trying to figure out how to start traversing east without losing too much altitude. In retrospect, we should have dropped all the way down Itswoot ridge to the bivy sites, left our packs, and took an established trail across heather below the many scree fields and ribs on the south side or the ridge that aimed for Dome Peak. We went a harder way with our packs, and after much scrambling, decided to leave them in order to make better time to Dome and back. John decided he had enough scrambling for the day and planned to meet us back at our gear drop in five hours or so.

Susan and I headed out for Dome Peak with lightened loads, gradually ascending up snowfields aiming for the upper part of the Dome Glacier. We crossed some very tricky glacier-scoured slabs. A few moat crossings between the snowfields and rocks were tricky as well. We attained the Dome Glacier and traversed over to a flat area below the Dome/Chickamin col. From here we had to skirt between several huge crevasses at the base of the col (I was a little more nervous as there was only two of us now on the rope), then climb up dirt/rock (ok in crampons), dropping onto a steep snowfield on the other side. From here we climbed a couple hundred more feet up steep snow to sandy benches, then headed up the benches to the summit. I opted for the easy summit (probably two feet lower than the true summit) that I could comfortably sit at, while Susan scrambled around on an exposed 100 foot long arete in an attempt to see which of the small bumps on the arete was the tallest. Once she was satisfied, we headed back down the way we came, and met back up with John - round trip time from our gear drop was 6 hours.

With our full packs again, we decided to drop down to heather meadows and pick up the established trail that took us easily to Itswoot Ridge. A stream ran briskly by the camp spots along the ridge, and Glacier Peak commanded our view southward as we settled in to camp. Shortly before dark, a thunderstorm passed 15 to 20 miles east of us, and we saw the lightning flashing east and north of Dome Peak. Five drops of rain fell on us.

Friday morning, clouds filled the valleys a few hundred feet below us, but dawn sparkling off Glacier Peak enticed us out of our tents. Enjoying the last views of the mountains, we dropped down into the clouds for the long slog back to the car. Slick dirt, wet brush, slide alder and avalanche debris awaited us during the course of our 15 mile trek down Bachelor and Downey Creek basins to the trailhead. The road was closed due to washouts, so we slogged another 9 miles down Suiattle River Road to the car. The trail was quite reasonable for the most part, though, and bountiful blueberry bushes helped soften our sorrow as we winded our way slowly back to civilization and milkshakes at the Darrington Burger Shack.

Between Cache col on the first day and Downey Creek on the last day, we saw no other people. The skies were sunny and beautiful every day. The mountains were gorgeous. We climbed a couple very remote peaks and crossed several glaciers that you cannot see from any road. We are definitely happy campers.

GreenTrails Expedition

James Varner had apparently hooked up with GreenTrails and contracted to GPS several of the trails down by Mount Rainier for them. He asked if I'd like to help provide logistical support for him for the first half of the week (aka a car), and I told him to sign me up. Time for a run-cation!
We also decided to get a training run in on the Cascade Crest course before heading down.

I met James and his friend William on Saturday evening (August 1st) at the pizza place in Rosalyn. Our mission was to run from Kachess Lake (mile 68) to Silver Creek(mile 96) on the CC100 course. We drove to Silver Creek, set up tents and dropped off a car, then headed over to Hyak, arriving at 10pm. From Hyak (mile 53), we drove the logging roads on which we would be running all the way to Kachess Lake. Then about 11pm, we got ready to run.

I can understand now why people go so slow on this section of the course. The rocks, roots and off-camber trail kept us alert and on our toes, especially at night. We spent an hour and a half to go the 5 miles to Mineral Creek, and we were fresh. The next dozen miles took us up over 3000 feet to Thorpe Mountain, where there is a lookout. We couldn't see much at 3am, though. Next came the Cardiac Needles (some steep up and downs that will be painful after 90 miles of running) , and then a nice long downhill to Silver Creek. We arrived at 6:30am (7.5 hours) and promptly crawled into our tents for a four hour nap.

James and I dropped off William at his car back at Kachess Lake, then we headed down to Clearwater Wilderness area to do some trail running. We drove up a road just off the Carbon River and hiked in a mile or so from the trailhead to set up our tents at Twin Lakes.

On Monday we "ran" a 27 mile loop through the Clearwater wilderness. The first few miles and the last few miles were well maintained, and had beautiful views of Mt Rainier. The rest of the trail was either overgrown or covered with blown down trees, and we struggled to stay on track for most of the day. The last section of unmaintained trail traversed the top of a rocky ridge that required some scrambling. After 10 hours of running/bushwhacking/scrambling/wandering, I wondered what I had gotten myself into.

On Tuesday we went to Poch Peak area, along the road to Mowich Lake. The trails here were ORV trails, but many were in reasonable shape for trail running. We saw one vehicle the whole day, so we didn't have to worry too much about motorized traffic. In order to cover all of the trails, we made several loops, and retraced our steps in spots. 4WD roads criss-crossed the trails as well. This area was not a place I would normally go to run trails, but it was interesting to see once. We covered about 25 miles that day, then headed to Mowich Lake campground. We ran the Grindstone trail (a short trail that really goes nowhere) before bed.

On Wednesday, we ran the Spray Park loop plus some extra side trails. The trail started only yards from our campsite, so we could roll out of bed and start running. I really enjoyed running on well-maintained trails again, especially through such beautiful scenery. The Wonderland Trail is definitely one of my favorites. The wildflowers were abloom up in Spray Park as well. We dropped down to the Carbon River and followed it down to Ipsut campground. Then we headed back up and over Ipsut Pass, which was a somewhat technical grind at the end, and the hot sun took its toll on me. My ankle was killing me as well, and so I threw in the towel. I headed back to Mowich Lake to finish the loop, while James added an extra 3.5 mile side trip to (I forget) Lake, and met me back at the campground. He also had an extra spur section to run on the Wonderland Trail, so I drove him down to the park entrance, from where he ran the spur out to the Wonderland Trail, then ran the WT back up to our campground. Meanwhile, I made us dinner and drank a cold beer.

James' friend William showed up late Wednesday night to take over for me, just in time, too. I was beat. I had covered 100 miles of somewhat difficult terrain over the last four days, and I was ready to go home. James continued on for the next 3 days, covering trails between Mowich Lake and Paradise, and then into the Tatoosh range. He'll definitely be ready for the Cascade Crest race, having put in almost 200 miles over the course of the week. Impressive.

White River 50 Mile Trail Run

I decided to "become a runner" this year and upped my trail running to a base of 50 miles per week. My ultimate goal is to run Cascade Crest 100 mile race coming up on August 29th, but I also decided that I wanted to do well in the Washington Ultra Series. After a solid performance in the Capitol Peak 50 mile race earlier this year, I might even win the Ultra Series, so I decided to try my hardest at White River this year. I really wanted to to beat Chris Twardzik, who I always seem to be chasing down at the end of trail races this year. He has started to run a lot of 50km trail runs this year and has been doing really well.

I drove up to White River with Murray Maitland on Friday night to check in. Adam Hewey heckled me a bit about just turning 40. He is 41 and had his eye on the prize money for the top 5 Masters finishers; however, I decided not to join the USATF and so was not eligible. I was pretty sure that I could finish in the top 5 Masters, but I wanted to enjoy my race without feeling like I was competing with everyone. Murray and I headed back to our campsite at Buck Creek (within earshot of the starting line) to prepare for the morning's race.

The race started at 6:31am on Saturday morning after we waited an extra minute for Scott Jurek to get to the starting line. I intentionally stayed in the middle of the pack for as long as I could, and after 15 minutes of warming up, I moved my way slowly up through the field until I was right behind Chris Twardzik. I ran behind him for a while, but once we reached the hills, I decided to push myself a little harder and see if I could create a sizeable lead before the turnaround at Corral Pass at mile 17. I caught up with the next group of runners and followed them as we worked our way up to Ranger Creek. There were two women in our group of runners: Kami Semick and Prudence L'Heureux. They would be fighting it out for first place.

At Corral Pass (mile 16.9, 2:44), I was feeling great. I remember two years ago, I reached Corral Pass and I didn't want to leave the aid station as I was already feeling the pain. It's amazing how much training helps. Chris Twardzik was two minutes behind me. As there were a lot of early starters, I couldn't really tell how I was doing as far as position went, but I was definitely on pace for a sub-8:20 finish (10 minutes/mile), which was my goal.

The downhill from Ranger Creek to Buck Creek was the best part of the course: soft easy downhills with long switchbacks let me pick up the pace without hurting myself. I was feeling even better. I heard footsteps behind me and saw Adam Hewey trying to reel me in. At Buck Creek (mile 27.2/4:10) , I stopped for him so that we could run together up the steep climb to Suntop. It was good to have company, and time flew by as we mostly hiked the climb under mostly cloudy skies. We caught up with Phil Kochik as well, and the three of us stuck mostly together all the way to Suntop. We passed Kami Semick during this section, which really made my day. Kami was more worried about where Prudence was, but we hadn't seen her and figured that she was a fair ways back. Kami seemed relieved.

At Suntop (mile 37/6:05), we started the quad-busting 7 mile downhill on a logging road to Skookum Flats. I had a blister on my heel that was increasingly bothering me, but I ignored it and pushed on. Phil, Adam and I all ran this together, although I was working a little harder than they were. I still felt good, but in retrospect I should have been more concerned with eating and drinking in preparation for the last section through Skookum Flats.

We quickly breezed into Skookum Flats aid station (mile 43.4/6:50). I looked for a few Gus to pep me up, but didn't see any. I quickly filled up one of my bottles with water, thinking that was all I would need for the last 6.6 miles to the finish. Adam and Phil left the aid station and I charged after them, but after a few hundred yards, I had to stop to eat something. After that, I couldn't get going again. I had bonked. I struggled to run, but hiked some of the harder parts. I nibbled at another cookie that I had in my waist pouch. I drank the last of my water and realized that I was overheating as well. The day was really heating up. The minutes seemed to drag by, and Adam and Phil were long gone. Then Chris Twardzik flew by, looking good. Ugh. I pushed myself to run as much as I could. Only 15 more minutes. When I saw the road, I gained some renewed vigor and ran in to the finish: 7:50:15. Very respectable and about a half hour better than I had been aiming for.

Adam and I headed down to White River to soak our feet, where we joined some of the trail running luminaries (Uli Steidl, Mike Wardian, William Emerson). Then I hobbled to the medical tent to have them clean the grit out of my blister, which covered most of my heel. I really enjoyed hanging around and chatting with the other runners. The finish line at White River is a very social place and most people hang out and cheer on the other runners that are coming in.
Murray said that he was planning on running in 10 hours, so I had a few hours to relax and recover while waiting. After Murray finished (10 seconds ahead of schedule), we enjoyed some post-race BBQ and then drove home, happy and satisfied. I'll definitely be back next year.