My First 100: Cascade Crest

I wake up in the middle of the night to the intense roaring of a train. Mid-dream, I feel like I’m the protagonist of an action-adventure movie, until I realize, oh, ya… the race director had warned me about this!

I’m in Easton, Washington, sleeping about 100 feet from the active railroad that goes through town, and about 50 feet from where I’ll start the Cascade Crest Endurance run tomorrow. With friends and family as my crew, an amazing circle of friends supporting, and a unicorn dress all set to wear during the race, I’m calm and ready, and the train can’t change that.

I’m lucky to be here…

Two weeks ago, that was not the case. I was exhausted by iron deficiency and accidental heat stroke, and I could barely walk up the stairs to the office without feeling horrible. Each time I went to work, I laughed, gauging how difficult it was for me to climb the one flight of stairs, and comparing that to the 21,000 feet of climbing I’d have to do at Cascade. But it was a nervous laughter. I didn’t want to admit that 100 miles on that course was looking like a dumb idea, but… that would be an understatement. I was too far into denial to tell a single other person, but if my health persisted like that, I was indeed planning to can it. Starting out the race on an empty fuel tank didn’t seem like a good idea!

My roommate's dog Benji is impersonating me here.

My roommate’s dog Benji is impersonating me here.

I took three weeks to rest, and took my mom’s advice to pop multivitamins, start eating meat, and dial down the rest even further– apparently biking home up 900 feet was not rest!  And just in time, my dream came true. On Monday, five days before the race, I started to feel like myself again, with full energy. I wasn’t sure where my fitness was at because I hadn’t well run in over a month, but I let that go. I had my baseline health back, I had the energy to do good work and hang out with my friends again, and alas, I felt energized in the mountains. I was so excited to have a chance to simply start the race.

Down in Easton…

tara and alicia storm easton

The night before the race, I eat most of a 12″ Issaquah pizza to myself, (yayyy!) down a few beers with Tara to polish off the pre-race calorie party, and then fall asleep beside the start line, the rest of the crew joining us around midnight.

yup, I ate this singlehandedly!

I’m the image of health! No I did not eat the little plastic white thing in the middle. (Why do pizzas really need that anyway?)

On race morning, I wake up after the interesting train sleep to the most enjoyable pre-race experience I’ve ever had. People are milling around in a low-key manner, hugs are going around like they’re free, and friends and family are eating delicious pancake breakfast in the morning sun, fresh from the volunteer firefighters. 10am start time… brilliant. Even though we all know the race is all about tough trails, the atmosphere is like a family barbecue, with a no-worries kind of vibe.

The source of my inspiration for this run was the people you must meet, Angel and Tim Mathis. In the 2013 Cascade Crest, Angel showed the ultra community how to kick ass in 100 miles, and have a party while doing it. She ate fancy chocolate croissants, wore a pink unitard, had a theme party following her around, and told me the funniest stories of my life, all while finishing in the top ten or eleven women or something ridiculous. I was lucky to crew and pace Angel for the last 32 miles, which were fun and magical, and ended in us becoming international best friends, and inspiring me to run my first 100 at Cascade Crest this year. You may remember this picture, it’s gotten around quite a bit and onto people’s WTA calendars from our run last year:

From 2013 by the talented Glenn Tachiyama!

From 2013 by the talented Glenn Tachiyama!

Before the race starts I’ve already calculated that I’m the luckiest runner around. I’ve somehow lured to this race three of my best friends, my mom and her boyfriend, and my boyfriend, and they’re planning to wear costumes and feed me at various places along the way. My Angel, my American best friend running the race, has even assembled some kind of band for the last few miles. I’m feeling selfish, but I remind myself that the hilarious people I assembled will have so much fun together. They’ve got some beer and some unicorn costumes, and I’ve gifted them my shit car for the day to rip around on the dirt roads. Yesss!

the unicorn crew

Given my recent health b/s, I planned to go out and have fun, with no expectations. It was pretty funny because people expected greatness of me, but I did not… Hah! But before long on the first big climbs, I end up getting told that I’m first female. Ahh! Not what I was planning. Oh well, I think, it’s more about how I’m feeling, not what rank I’m in. Everyone else is irrelevant, except myself. To help me focus within, I develop a system. I figure, I’ll be super chill on the ups and flats, and let myself run faster on the downhills. Yes! For the first ~50 miles, I run with that plan, and I feel great. Yipee!

James Varner always there with his beautiful coconut breasts

James Varner always there with his beautiful coconut breasts

I wasn’t at all aware, but sources tell me that maybe I was running a little fast. Maybe at course record pace? Woops! Funny thing is that I was running oblivious to any of that kind of stuff. Just runnin’ free!

Enough about that, let’s talk about my crew.

My crew is like the best traveling circus you’ve ever seen, minus the tropical animals. I run into Stampede Pass, and see my mom, she has an iridescent cape tied around her neck! Tara, Jo and Nancy are wearing homemade unicorn horns and tutus. Julien never wears costumes, and here he is, wearing a beret coupled with colourful tie-die blouse. They’re like Burning Man meets trail running, and I love it.

Yup... this is my life.

Yup… this is my life.

And here they are all together! This is before they found the costume trunk, I gather.

They almost look normal here.

Don’t you just want to hug all of them?

I’m pretty quick through the aid stations, but they splash some cold water on me, and try to offer me the food I’m already not really loving.

Royal treatment

Running = ropes & tunnels & metallics.

I run some beautiful PCT miles mostly alone, and just before sunset I reach my favourite part of the course, a super fun cliff down-climb with ropes. I’m really lucky, I get to do this in the light! After that I run toward the 2.5 mile pitch black Snoqualmie Tunnel, and after a few minutes of running without light, I decide to turn on my iphone light to avoid stomping on one of the rats running around. It’s fun at first, but soon enough I get tired of weird liquid dripping on my head from above, and of running alone. Mile 53 is soon, and I get my first pacer there!

After the dark tunnel I’m pretty stoked to see my crew at Hyak, mile 53, and be surrounded by a flash hoola-hoop party. Julien, who typically shies away from costumes, is wearing tight silver pants and a colourful blouse to come pace me for 15 miles, up and over another long and gradual climb.

This costume to celebrate my farthest ever miles!

This costume to celebrate my farthest ever miles!

For the first time in the run, I’m starting to feel a low coming on. I’m running one of the few ugly sections of the course, a road beside the I90 highway, and the calorie deficit goes straight to my head. Even though I know the solve, (eating!) it’s so hard to do, and my motivation takes a huge dip.  Why am I doing this? I ask, and in that moment, I can’t find an answer. Julien tricks me into eating, but I trick him back by eating my food reaalllly slowly. The joke’s really on me though, as the dwindling thoughts persist for a good couple of hours up the long dirt road climb up to Keechelus Ridge, and my speed deteriorates into a power hike from hell. I get to the top and I’m still the first woman, but I know it’s going to be short-lived. During that low up the hill, I resigned from my best self, and without a specific goal today, I can’t find a reason or any motivation to recover that other gear. I have no desire to push toward any goal, I just want to enjoy the run from here on out.

Funny how powerful the mind is, because almost immediately after my mental and physical resignation, three girls pass me descending the other side the dirt road during a bathroom break. And so begins my chill running in for the last 40 miles!

It’s true, I learn stuff the hard way.

After my section with Julien, I get to run with Tara for the last 32 miles. Funny enough, we enjoy the parts everyone else hates: the famous Trail from Hell is the Trail from Heaven for us, and the dreaded steep Cardiac Pumps are fun mini challenges with great views. My sense of urgency gone, I go from blasting through aid stations, to spending tons of time in them, hanging out, requesting mimosas, and getting full-on foot work done. I make lots of rookie mistakes which we laugh at, even though they’re painful. Like, not testing my headlamp before the race, it dying, and having to use one I hate on technical trails at night… Equally brilliant is my decision to never change my socks or shoes, pre-tape my feet, or use any anti-blister product on them, and getting swallowed by blisters from mile 70 on. But on the plus side, I learn about true friendship, as Tara offers to wear my dirty, sweaty, wet-dog-smelling socks at mile 80, and is only saved by the kindness of a volunteer I don’t yet know, the amazing Jennifer McCormack, who gives me her nice, dry injinji socks right off her own feet! And meanwhile, friends Deby and Pablo take the leap to touch my sorry feet in order to patch them up wherever possible, while feeding me tater tots. I aspire to be as kind and selfless as the amazing people who helped me at No Name Ridge aid station!

looks like a war scene. But wait, this is a fun hobby!

looks like a war scene. But wait, this is a fun hobby!

To be honest, running with that many blisters for 20 miles is mostly lots of pain, and Tara can attest to the amount of profanity I wielded to get through the rest of the run. What a good friend. She even took these shots of my backside climbing up Thorpe Mountain for me to share online!

Thorpe Mountain

Despite my rookie mistakes, there was definitely joy and beauty in sharing the early morning miles up high in the Cascades…

At this point, I start dreaming about mimosas at French Cabin aid station.

Early Morning Miles to French Cabin

 Shut up and get er’ done!

For months leading up to this race, I was dreading the final miles, which are on the highway. I come into the final aid station and tell the crew that we can all walk the last 4 miles together, that would be fun, right?! But Angel looks at me with a stern and disapproving look, and says, You’re running! Under 24 hours! I’m not messing with that look, so off I go to execute on Angel’s orders! And I finally earn my dream finish, after so long of waiting for my turn to run a 100, and thinking I would have to sit out only two weeks earlier… surrounded by the unicorn crew, and Angel and Tim there for my last turn, a part of my journey from being the original source of my inspiration last year, right to the very end of my own journey.

How can you not have fun while being surrounded with this?!

How can you not have fun while being surrounded with this?!

And this is my favourite memory. Drinking champagne before 10am!

running through the night, champagne for breakfast with the best company, then napping with a beer in my hand, what could be better?

running through the night, champagne for breakfast with the best company, then napping with a beer in my hand, what could be better?

I’m happy to report that my crew captain, Jo, has since signed up for her first 50k! And Tara will now sign up for her first 100! (Nancy? …)

Until next time.

I’ve already forgotten all the pain and looking forward to the next one. (Hopefully learn from all my dumb mistakes.) Here’s to my amazing support team, the race organizers, amazing & generous volunteers, countless friends and family who cheered me on, and the fun little town of Easton with awesome mountains. Cascade Crest is an amazing event, and I’ll definitely be back.

Overdosing on Trail Running

I should have known just by looking at my calendar. The month of June was nuts! The overlapping activities and trips away matched a celebrity partying on speed. Only this was the running-addict version, and we’re talking endorphins, not party drugs. Here’s what insanity looks like, in case you need a reminder like I apparently do:

  • 1 week running around in northern California, over 100 miles and 1 all nighter run pacing at Western States.
  • 3 days at home in BC to do laundry with infected blisters, accidentally kept running lots and biking.
  • drove through the night to seattle to take a flight to Denver, then slept on a sidewalk and hitch-hiked the state as a great way to rest before running at huge altitude every day for a week in Colorado.
  • came home from Colorado and a few days later, despite feeling decidedly exhausted even in short flat runs, took off again to the BC Rockies to run the Trailstoke 60k in Revelstoke.
  • Trailstoke performance shouted to tell me I was way off normal energy and wellness, so I got a blood test. Damnit. Iron deficient!
  • Stupidity won out. I wanted to win this battle with the stupid iron issue trying to get in my way, and I thought the best way to overcome a low was to push past it. Ran another 100 miler week despite just learning about iron deficiency. Whoops!
  • STOP!!!

Angry Camel

At the end of that 100 mile week, the signs were undeniable when I went to do an epic all day adventure run. I struggled to walk up hills that were normally enjoyable to run, and I had to stop for pizza and bubble tea as though I was dying, after less than my normal commute run home. Finally, I became open to the messages my body was trying to tell me. I had overdosed, big time! And for a long time, I had been misinterpreting everything, thinking it would be great training to push when times were hard. But what I had failed to recognize, is there is a difference between hard times to deny and push through, and hard times to accept, listen to, and act with. I think normal athletic pain is the kind that we can choose to deny and to push through. But when the feelings signify the onset of a bigger health issue, it’s definitely time to stop. The two can be difficult to distinguish, and it’s key to get it right. Listening to friends would have been a great start!

I’m finally on the rest and chill plan, but I sometimes suffer from pretty bad relapses. (I totally get what it must be like for celebrities who got onto the party drug path.) Like last weekend, I wanted to run all the way around Wonderland trail, even though all my friends told me that was a stupid idea given my iron problems. Thankfully, logistical issues meant I had to stop at 30 miles. And even after that, I ended up getting mild heat stroke for my behaviour. I think I have all the relapses out of my system now and with two weeks until Cascade Crest, my first hundred miler, there’s no more screwing around with recovery.

Trail running brings us so much joy, but just like party drugs, sometimes we can overdose on an amazing lifestyle.

sunset in CO

Adult Disneyland: the Wonderland Trail

Here are some of my favourite scenes from my weekend exploring the Wonderland trail around Mt. Rainier. Totally runnable, incredibly well marked and with tons of water along the way, it’s runner’s paradise. You. Must. Go!!!