Monday, August 25, 2014

Cascade Crest 100 - Race Report

I haven't posted in awhile. I've been training, and working (a lot), and trying to get myself ready for my next 100 mile attempt. It hasn't been a great build-up period. The 10 weeks off running (6 of that non-weight bearing) between January - March seemed to take a toll. Then my back/hip issue got worse (started last September, still trying to get it worked out) and limited my ability to run and do hill training. July rolled around and I still hadn't gotten much in the way of hill work.

But then I had a few solid weeks - the final three weeks in July were good training. I hit an 85 mile week the last week before the taper began, I got in a solid 50k training run, and had a night run that felt great. My peak was only a 22/21/22 (Fri/Sat/Sun) as I was limited in time due to work conflicts. Unfortunately, during the 50k my old nemesis, my IT Band, reared it's ugly head and gave me new cause for concern. I spent the final 8 miles of that race cursing the downhill with significant pain in my right IT band and knee. Then three weeks before the race both my big toes started causing me trouble, and were extremely painful by around the 14 - 15 mile mark whenever I pushed off. My surgeon had told me three years ago when I had my right foot operated on that it was likely I would need more surgery on my right foot and surgery on my left foot as well - it's looking like that time may have come.

Cascade Crest 100 race profile. You think that hill training might be important with this one?
Regardless, the solid weeks were encouraging. I had a great 26 mile run in the gorge that left me with a confidence I hadn't felt in a long time. And the 50k race was run at a faster clip than I had done in several years. Both left me feeling like I might actually be able to make it through CC100.

Pre-Race
I was lucky to have an excellent crew of three to assist me during the race. We left Friday afternoon and drove up to Ellensburg to crash for the night, leaving us with a short 35 minute drive on race morning. They asked me what my top physical concerns were for making it through the race. I couldn't really put them in order because they were all top-level concerns: back/hip, right IT Band, big toes, and stomach stability (I have always gotten nauseated in runs longer than 8 hours). My PT had taped my right IT band to try to help it through the race. Unfortunately the tape came over before the race start so I wasn't able to test whether or not that would help. I had The Stick in my bag of tricks for crew access points to rub out my legs. We had Icy Hot, Capsaicin patches, and a full med kit to try to work through these issue. I was also ready to deal with pain. I knew I was going to experience pain at some point during the race in my back/hip, and in the IT Band. The question was, would I be able to continue moving through that pain or would it stop me?

Then we went over the other concerns: being on the trail alone in the dark (it may be cliche, but I am very afraid of the dark), getting lost, and not making it to the finish. My crew had fun plans to help me fight my fear of darkness, we talked through the course guide a number of times to work through the fear of getting lost, and the fear of not making it to the finish? What can you do with that one? In 100 mile race no finish is ever a given. My crew tried to reassure me that they were out here to support me and didn't care if I made it 10 miles or 100 miles - they would be by my side either way.

Race Day
At the pre-race briefing.
I didn't sleep well. The nerves were getting to me. I got up before my 6am alarm, showered, and got dressed in race clothes, carefully lubing my feet before putting on my compression socks. My crew expertly packed up the room and got the car organized and by 7:15 we were on the road. A quick stop in Cle Elum for some coffee and then we arrived at the race start at the Easton Fire Station. We had to be there no later than 8:30 to get my drop bags in the right place (one for mile 33 and another for 73). There was a free breakfast for racers and crew (suggest donation for crew members). It felt like way too much time to mill about and get more and more nervous. The pre-race briefing started at 9am. Lots of thank yous to volunteers - ultra-volunteers are an incredible breed, you really can't thank them enough - a quick discussion of course markings, and a few other notable mentions before a break at 9:45. 10 minutes for last minute porta-potty stops, then the national anthems - Canada and US - before the gun went off at 10am.

Miles 1 - 23
I started very conservatively. The goal was to run with a HR below 145 for the entire day. The race starts on a dirt road and there's a little time to spread out before hitting the trees and the first climb. As we came around the first turn, less than a mile in, I looked up and could see a very recognizable feature way up in the distance. Even never having seen the course I had a strong hunch that this was Goat Peak and we would be climbing up to the top.

We split off onto single track about 2 miles in. It's this conga-line feel at the early part of races that I truly hate. When I go to the woods I tend to want quiet, and things are never quiet in a conga-line. There's always a few chatty people and for some reason listening to this chatter just makes me crazy when in such close proximity to others. I put on my iPod to try to drown them out, but quickly realized I would have to jack up the volume so high to make that happen that it wasn't worth it. Instead I worked on looking inward, trying to find inner happiness and peace, and find my own sense of quiet.

The first aid station came up pretty fast and I broke free of the conga-line. Unfortunately I found myself right back in another one about 1/4 of a mile later. Thankfully once we reached the top of Goat Peak I was able to break free and after that I had no problems with groups.

The climb up to Goat Peak was a good solid climb, with 3,000 ft of gain in about 3 miles. But if felt nice to get some climbing in early and it helped to moderate the pace. And then the miles just started to roll along. The scenery was incredible, the weather was about as good as anyone could ask for on race day - high in the upper 70s with occasional clouds and a light breeze - and I felt good. I was forcing myself to eat to stave off the nausea later in the race.

I ran alongside some folks and had great conversations - yes, I know I said that I dislike the chatty people, but somehow it's different when there are just a couple of you and you aren't trapped in a group of 20 unable to break free. Chatted with Melissa, a woman I had met three years ago at the the inaugural Gorge 50k, and we had time to catch up. She introduced me to her friend Dave who I ended up running with for a bit later in the race. I met Liz, who I had always previously referred to as "the woman who kicked my ass at Waldo," who is 65 years old and got married on the summit of Maiden Peak at the Waldo 100k last weekend - I aspire to be her when I grow up!

Once we hit the PCT the terrain was just lovely. I got to let me legs loose and really just run for a ways. This section seemed to go by pretty quickly, and before I knew it I was seeing crew at Tacoma Pass. I surprised them by coming in earlier than expected. I made sure to flash a big smile so they knew I was feeling good. They were ready to take care of me, asking me how much I had eaten, helping to get me pack filled up again with food and water, and getting me back on my way. I knew I would see them again at 33 and it was nice to be able to look forward to that.

Mile 23 - 53
The start of this section involved some gentle ups and downs. Lots of hiking on the ups, but I was looking forward to the downs where I knew I would make up time. I hit the first downhill just before mile 28 and felt a solid twinge in my left IT Band. What? Now this I wasn't expecting. The right IT Band has been a problem in the past, but never the left. I moderated my pace a bit and tried to just run through it.

It was up to Snowshoe Butte for what was supposed to be a water only aid station. Instead it was staffed by a huge crew and they had a ton of food and support - what a great surprise! I didn't need much here as I wasn't expecting food support, so I made it in and out quickly. Had a nice little jog uphill before heading downhill again. At this point the IT was worse. I couldn't actually run downhill. Instead I did some sort of weird, speed-walking shuffle and worked my way down to Stampede. I stopped to stretch a few times, hoping it would alleviate the pain in the IT, but it didn't really help.


I was excited to see crew at Stampede. I had lost time on this section due to the slowness on the descent, so they were ready for me. I got to sit down for a bit of a break and they once again went through my pack and got me loaded up and ready to go. By the time I saw them next it would be dark so I needed lights and a long sleeve shirt to head into this part of the course. Dana had created a "Sarah's Happiness Kit" with all sorts of treats and encouragement to keep me moving - what a fun surprise!  I explained the situation with the IT. We got out The Stick and they helped me try to roll it out. Even with the pain and the problem descending I was in a great mood. I joked and laughed with my crew. I didn't have a migraine, it wasn't 106 degrees, and my stomach was stable - so all in all I felt good. One focus I had going into the race was to find my joy out on the trail. I couldn't find any joy during WS100 b/c of the migraine and it is big source of sadness for me about that day.

Adam trying to roll out my
hip/IT Band at Stampede.
Before I knew it I was back off and on my way to Meadow Mountain. I hooked up with a couple of folks on the trail and got to spend more time in conversation as we clicked off the miles. I met up with Dave once again, and, seeing how much I was struggling as I was stopping often to rub out the IT, he made me take a tube of Arnica out of his pack and carry it with me, saying that he thought I needed it more than he did. We ended up staying in close proximity through Meadow Mountain, and had to don our headlamps about a mile out from that aid station as it was getting dark enough that it was hard to see the trail.

At Meadow Mountain (mile 40), I took the time to strip my sweaty tank, put on a long sleeve shirt, break open my two glow sticks - when you are afraid of the dark something about glowsticks just makes you feel safer, especially the blue ones - and eat a bit, before setting off, solo, into the darkness.

Something about the time between when it starts to get dark and when it is full dark is the scariest time for me. Perhaps it's the threat of the darkness, that it's coming and you really can't do anything about it. Once it is fully dark I was surprised that I actually felt way less scared than expected. About 3 miles from Meadow Mountain I saw a light behind me and slowed a bit, hoping that whoever it was might want to hook up for a bit.

It was a woman named Kellie from Hawaii and she proved to be more than happy to stick together until Olallie. Less than a mile after meeting up with her a took a nasty fall in a boulder field, badly cutting my hand. She helped me clean it out with a nice stream of water from her Camelbak, but the pain was intense enough that it brought on nausea and a feeling that I was going to pass out. I had to stop, she was good enough to stop with me, and try to hold pressure on the cut long enough to get the bleeding and dizziness to stop.

In a couple of minutes we were back on our way. I was trying to elevate my hand while holding pressure to staunch the bleeding, and we continued to power-hike our way to Olallie. She had forgotten to put new batteries in her light and had gotten the dreaded blinking that indicates low battery as soon as she turned it on. I was carrying extra lights so gave her one in case we got separated and her lights failed - I didn't want to think of someone out on the trail, alone in the dark with no lights.

This section of trail was, in my opinion, just a bunch of rocks in many places, but it was still really beautiful. The stars were out, the air was cool, and I was plowing through the night having great conversations with people I had just met. Overall, good times.

Pulling into Olallie I was excited to see my crew once again. It was only 5 miles to the next aid station from here, but in scrutinizing the runner's manual I had noticed that you could pick up a pacer here if you arrived after 10pm - there are benefits to being slow! Knowing full well I would get here after 10pm we made sure that they would be here and that Adam would be ready to go.

I arrived earlier than they expected but they quickly scrambled to meet me and were set to manage all of my needs. My hand was still still bleeding so we had to work to get that fixed. A packet of roller gauze, an improvised pressure bandage, and some athletic tape seemed to do the trick. Getting pressure on it alleviated a bit of the pain. My back was starting to spasm badly, and Dana had just the trick for that. A Capsaicin patch from Walgreen's - truly amazing, everyone should have one of these in their med kit. She slapped this on my back and within 15 minutes the heat was providing some incredible relief. I credit this patch to me making it as far as I did. Some biofreeze on my IT to help alleviate that issue, more calories, Ginger-Ale, glowstick bracelets, and then Adam and I headed off to tackle the fixed ropes and the scary tunnel.

I was actually still able to run a little bit at this point  on the flats and uphills, but not much. We made it to the downhill "bushwack" to get to the fixed lines in relatively short order. The angle of this descent was the steepest of the day and the pain exploded like little fireworks in my brain. I could take about 5 - 10 steps and then I would have to stop to let the pain subside a bit. 10 more steps. Stop. This was not a good sign.

Making it to the fixed ropes was a relief. I could put all my weight into my arms for a change. There were more ropes than I was expecting, but all in all I felt this section, which I had been rather nervous about, was quite fun. Once down off the ropes it was a short trip into the 2.3 mile tunnel.

Being afraid of the dark and claustrophobic does not lend oneself to enjoying tunnels. I was able to keep the feeling of panic down to a manageable level. Strangely, my first thought upon entering the tunnels was a flashback to being in Germany last year and touring through Hitler's bunkers below the Eagle's Nest. This brought to mind actual movie footage recorded during WWII by the Nazis that they were showing in one of the bunkers that had some terrible imagery of Nazis killing Jews ... these are not the things you want to think about when you are in a dark tunnel in the middle of the night.

Just before the tunnel we met back up with Kellie and stuck with her through the tunnel. We alternated walking and jogging. I was disappointed that my IT was now causing pain on the flats. Prior to this my experience with this pain was that the flats and hills stay runnable. This did not seem like it was going to be the case today.

After the tunnel it was a short trip on pavement (I think) to the next aid station, Hyak, at mile 53.

Mile 53 - 68
My amazing crew was once again ready for me, this time with hot mashed potatoes filled with butter and salt. This has to be one of the most wonderful tasting things in the world of ultra running and I'm frankly surprised that they don't have them at the middle of the night aid stations. No chewing is involved, and you can load them up with fat and salt. Absolute perfection!

I was still happy, still chatty. The theme of the day continued to be "I don't have a headache, I'm not nauseated, and it's not 100+ degrees so things are going really great!" Dana rubbed me down with Biofreeze, Lowrey worked on my back a bit. Sadly sitting did not help things as it caused my back to seize up even more, so although I really wanted to sit, there was no incentive to linger.

The pack was loaded back up with food and water, I grabbed one pole to use on the next downhill section in the hope that it might help. Ideally I would have had two, but with the wound on my left hand I couldn't hold a pole with it.

The next 15 miles involved 3 miles on flat pavement, then a long climb up to Keechelus Ridge on dirt road, before descending 7 miles on dirt road to Kachess Lake, where I would see crew again.

And this is where things really fell apart. I tried to run out of the aid station but my IT screamed to the point that it was just wasn't possible. My left leg felt like it was going to seize up. My right IT was also getting crabby, and the spot behind my knees was starting to hurt. My hip and back were sending shooting pains down my right leg, and I was starting to get a numbness and weakness in my left leg, where it would just feel like rubber all of a sudden and I felt unable to control it. I was able to keep up a good pace on the flats - a 15 minute per mile walk, and on the uphills I was maintaining around an 18 mpm pace.

On the way up to Keechelus we saw a person ahead had come to a sudden stop. We caught up with them and asked her if she was OK. She flashed her light ahead on the road and pointed - "bear" - she said. And most certainly there was a black bear in the middle of the road. I was delighted! I had always wanted to see a bear out in the wild and never had. It looked small, probably a juvenile, but most likely not a cub. He scampered across the road and up into the brush on the other side. The woman seemed a bit nervous to continue. We told her not to worry, that we would pass that section as a group and it would be OK. We passed by, flashed our lights up into the hills and saw the little green eyes looking back at us. He didn't seem overly interested, and we saw no signs of momma, so we continued on. I tried hard my desire suppress my desire to go up the hillside and try to hug the bear.

It was here that I had my only real low point of the day. My brain got a bit foggy. I was starting to realize that I didn't think I was going to be able to finish the race and the pain was getting to me. Adam encouraged me to eat, saying that it would help. Initially I fought him but then forced down a Payday bar (thanks go to Yassine Diboun for turning me on to this gem of a fueling strategy - even when you don't want to eat, they seem to go down easy). Within 15 minutes I was back to happy/chatty mode and feeling good, mentally at least.

The uphills were starting to get a little painful, but nowhere near as bad as the downs. I had to stop occasionally and lean over to ease the pain in my back. We kept on pushing towards the top. There were several clearings as we neared the aid stations, and we turned off our lights to marvel at the beauty of the stars. The Milky Way was on full display and it was gorgeous to behold. I am always in awe of the immensity of the night sky.

The Keechelus aid station proved to be wonderful, just as all the aid stations had been during the race. They had a little propane powered fire that was delightful. Cheerful workers, great food ... it was a nice little respite from the walking. We didn't linger here as neither of us needed very much, and were on our way within a few minutes.

It was on this downhill stretch that I think I knew my race was over. The 7 miles to Kachess is a perfectly runnable, dirt road. I should have been able to make up time on the course here and just float the 7 miles to my crew. Instead I lurched, stumbled, and spasm-ed my way down. My 18 minute uphill miles became 20 and 22 minute downhill miles. I tried all sorts of crazy ways of moving my legs to alleviate the pain, but nothing was working. My left leg didn't want to bend at all and the right leg would only bend slightly. I had to repeatedly stop just to take a breather from intensity of it. And I knew the angle of this road was nothing compared to what was coming up later in the course.

Just for fun, about four miles from the aid station I started getting serious twinges in my right Achilles (the one I hurt during Peterson Ridge in April last year that prevented me from running for 4 weeks).

Yet we still chatted and laughed our way through. I told Adam that I was trying to figure out where I fell on Allie Brosh's "More Accurate Pain Scale." I was leaning towards the upper end of the scale. Is Jesus coming for me? Am I almost definitely dying? "I think perhaps I am being mauled by bear," I settled on. "Clearly not," came his reply, "as we passed by the bear and he was not mauling you." Then it's time to ramp this up a bit, "I think I must have Stigmata, that must be the pain I'm experiencing." There was no response to that other than a chuckle.

Lurch. Shuffle. Wiggle. Can I make my legs move any faster? Try to run. "I'm going to try to run again." Despite the fact that I had said the same exact things 4 or 5 times already and my attempts had been miserable failures, the quick reply was "OK, let's go!" I tried. Explosion of pain. Desperate lurching. I stopped. Leaned on the pole. Continued walking.

When we arrived at the aid station Dana was ready to keep me moving. She was energized, had her Pacer bib attached, and was ready to go. We talked for a bit. Talked through options. Talked about just making it to the next aid station. I really wanted to keep going. I wanted that finish. But after 15,750 ft of climbing, and 15,300 ft of descending and 68 miles, I felt that my legs weren't going to go any farther on this course. I made the decision to drop.

The way this course works is once you get past 68 extraction is very difficult. The course manual explicitly states that you need to do a serious evaluation here as to whether or not you can continue. We wouldn't get to see crew again until mile 95, and if my legs failed anywhere between here and there it was going to be hard for volunteers to get me out.

There were a few things that went into this decision:

  • I was seriously concerned about creating a true and lasting injury. My gait was so altered that different parts of my legs were starting to complain. The twinges in the Achilles were concerning. I wasn't willing to push through another 32 miles and potentially break my foot again, tear my Achilles, or do true damage to my IT band. I knew it was a true risk and I wasn't willing to accept that risk. I kept envisioning 10 - 12 weeks in a boot, on crutches, etc ... Not something I wanted.
  • At some point you have to do an honest assessment of where you are at and try to remove emotion from that assessment. I learned this in WFR training and I learned it in outdoor leadership. There are times when your head wants to take you in a place that does not make sense. I had now been going 40 miles on a compromised leg. I knew that running 30 miles with an injured back is what had caused me to break my foot in January. The pain was getting worse with every step, my back/hip had been spasming for 20 miles, I had numbness in weakness traveling down both legs, my Achilles was twinging, the back of my knees was aching, my hand was throbbing and continued to bleed through the bandage I had on, yet I had 32 miles to go, 4 peaks to descend, and the race finished with 11 miles of downhill. Yes, ultra is about enduring pain and pushing through, but none of this was adding up for me. I couldn't see how I could make my legs move to get me down downhill terrain that was described as being "steep, then moderate, then steep."
  • I think I knew, deep down, for 20 miles that my race was going to end this way. My crew and I had tried everything we could think of for 40 miles to keep me going, but none of it was helping. From stretching, to topical solutions, to massage, to trying new ways to move my legs, I still couldn't make them truly function. I shed a few tears as I conveyed this to my crew because more importantly than finishing for me, I didn't want to let them down. They had given up their time, they were up in the middle of the night, all to help me reach my goal. 
My crew was wonderfully supportive. They helped me get changed into dry clothes, they got the car packed, and just after dawn started to break we were back on our way to civilization, 19 and a half hours after I had starting running, a full 12 hours before the course would close and without me returning to Easton under my own power.

Reflections
The drive home was surprisingly fun. There were no tears. For the moment I was OK with my decision. It's been coming for a long time. I know that I've hit a point where I need to truly get back to basics. I've got to get my body healed and strong before I can continue doing this type of mileage. I've gotten myself into an injury/poor health cycle that has lasted 2 1/2 years. Racing has been nothing but a disappointment in that time. My times have gotten slower, my legs have gotten weaker, and the fun level has declined. At some point you just get tired of your hobby, the part of your life that is supposed to be fun, being about nothing but overcoming pain and filling you with feelings of failure. 

I can't say that I don't feel like a quitter. Even when you know you made the right decision it's frankly easier for someone else to make it for you than to make it yourself. Being cut due to timing out, or because I was vomiting, anything other than having to utter the words "I think it's time to stop" seems like it would be easier. There's something about seeing the letters DNF next to my name that makes my heart hurt. I like to think of myself as tough. I saw an old friend a few weeks ago and at one point during a canyoneering adventure he said I was "one of the most stubborn people he knew." For some strange reason I took pride in that stubbornness, the idea that I was too strong to quit.

By stopping I gave up on getting another ticket into the WS100 lottery, so I'll go at least a year without a shot at that race and when I enter again I'll be back to one ticket. I could try to go to Javalina at the end of October, but I know that is my heart talking and not my head. If I want to get off the chronically injured list I have to listen to what my body is trying to tell me, and it's clearly telling me something important. I just have to be smart enough to listen. I think if I can do that, and try to find some peace with why I am out there doing this at all, perhaps I can come back stronger, and run with greater joy than ever before.