When I signed up for the Cascade Crest 100 miler it was with the full knowledge that attempting to run 100 miles just six days after directing three trails races over two days, plus a film festival component was never going to be easy. The Squamish 50 is my baby and I’d never do anything to compromise the race day experience, so I went about business as usual and waited until the show had concluded on Monday to take stock. Nine hours of sleep was what I’d managed over the three days of the race and in all honesty that was more sleep than I’d expected and right in line with what I was hoping to pull off.
The week leading into Cascade involved unavoidable daily naps flanked by pulling course flagging and attempting to tackle all the post-race logistics. Our very close friends Eric Purpus and Kelly Bolinger had rented a cabin (house) in the forest just fifteen minutes from the starting line of Cascade Crest and on Friday Linda and I drove down to Easton, WA. Around dinner time I realized I hadn’t run at all in four days and thinking that couldn’t possibly be good prep for running 100 miles the following morning I hopped out the door to run up and down the service road for twenty minutes.
“That should just about do it. Alright body, you ready for this?”
“Not at all.”
“Perfect! Nothing could possibly go wrong.”
Cascade Crest is a race that Linda’s been trying to get me to do for quite a few years now. The only reason I hadn’t yet targeted it was due to the timing surrounding UTMB. Having gotten sick in France last summer and failing miserably in my attempt at a top ten finish I was starting to wonder if it were possible to direct a high level and highly stressful event just a few weeks before a big goal race. Cascade Crest was an experiment in timing as much as a test of fitness and resolve. Given that the start/finish is all but a six hour drive from our door in North Vancouver there was little to lose, at least in terms of the financial investment surrounding international travel.
Race morning came early, though with a 10am start time it’s quite a civil environment. The CCC (Cascade Crest Classic) has a strong family feel to it, especially for us given that Linda is from Washington and has run the race herself before. The RD, Rich White was in Linda’s wedding party and most of the aid station captains and volunteers are good friends of ours. We arrived on site about an hour early and simply got wrapped up in social hour, which is quite pleasant in contrast to the stress that normally prefaces such endeavors. In hindsight, I realized that I only drank a few cups of coffee prior to the 10am start, as in no water, no other fluids and a very slight breakfast. Fatigue and dehydration were about to become the themes of the day.
That National Anthems were sung and off we went. A competitive field had gathered which included pre-race favorite and recent 2nd place Western States finisher Seth Swanson (15h19m!). In all honesty, my goals going into CCC were to shoot to better the course record time of 18h27m (Rod Bien) while also recognizing that barring injury, Seth was sure to better this mark himself. Secondary goals included shooting for sub 18 hours and attempting to be within fifteen minutes of Seth with twenty miles to go.
After a few flat and easy miles the race climbs over 3000ft through Tacoma Pass. I told myself going into this race that I’d be certain to start off slow and easy and I’d successfully done just that over the first sixty minutes. Seth was leading away with Matt Hart in 2nd and myself, feeling comfortable in 3rd. A pack of runners including Phil Shaw (former winner), Jeff Hashimoto and Andy Reed trundled along just behind us.
Two and a half hours passed without issue. I’d let Seth and Matt pull away slightly as I stuck to my “take it out super easy strategy” and I found myself running alone in 3rd. We started into what appeared to be our first sizeable descent and it was evident very quickly that things were off, way off. My legs started cramping up. It was a warm, sunny day with temps getting up into the thirties, but it was also the end of August and I’d been running in these temps all summer long. It was mid-day and the sun was beating down, but this was very abnormal pain. I started the self-assessment, where had I gone wrong? What did I f#$k up already? I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I hadn’t take it out too hard. I was on top of my calories and fluids. Was it just pure fatigue from the weeks leading into the race? I had no idea, but I went about rectifying it in the only way I could, I slowed down further and ate more.
By three and a half hours in it had only gotten worse as my legs were fully seizing up on me. I’d only had this happen to me during a race twice before, in the 2009 Western States 100 and the 2011 CSP115 in Spain. At Western I was 80 miles in and at CSP I was half way to the 115km finish line. In both instances I sucked it up and walked my ass to the finish line. In both races race day temps were pushing 40 degrees.
I was now forced into a full walk on any downhill terrain as my legs were completely tweaking out on me. I could power-hike uphill just fine but could not run uphill. Flat terrain was runnable but not without shooting pain in my quads. WTF was going on?
Stampeded Pass is at mile 33 / kilometer 55 and I was death marching my ass there with what seemed to be a certain DNF awaiting me. This angered me to no end. I had DNF’d UTMF back in April with a foot injury and UTMB one year prior after falling sick on race day. Prior to that I’d never DNF’d a 100 miler in my life and for a brief period in time I was convinced I never would quit on myself in a 100 mile race, yet here I was, about to quit for the third time in my last four 100s. There wasn’t a monkey on my back; there was an ape that had me in a headlock. How could I be so weak? What has happened to my resolve? Who am I and what’s happened to character I used to know as being stubborn and tough enough to finish anything no matter the cost? Why, just why?
As I slogged my way towards Stampede runners started streaming past me. Canadian Andy Reed was first to do so and I patted him on the back and told him to have a great run and to make Canada proud. The towel had been tossed. My day was done and the self-loathing had already begun.
“I’m done with this sport. I suck at this. I’m too old for this shit. I’m a quitter and I’m okay with it.”
“Are you Gary? Are you really? Does any of this sit well with you?”
“F#$K no, of course not!”
“Then find a way. You used to be really good at just finding a way.”
“The finish line is still over 110 kilometers away.”
“How much time do you have left to get there?”
“All damn day, 24 hours or so.”
“Then let’s go just go for a walk and see what happens. You can do that right?”
“Sometimes the moments that challenge us the most, define us.”
―Lewis Gordon Pugh
I had to let it all go. Ego, expectation, hope, every single goal I’d had for CCC save for one. Just to finish.
As I approached Stampede Pass good friend Phil Kochik from Seven Hills Run Shop was out cheering runners in.
“G-Rob! Yeah man, good stuff!”
“It’s not my day Phil.”
“Sure it is! Still lots of race left to go buddy!”
I stumbled into the Stampede Pass aid station. my crew consisted of my wife Linda Barton-Robbins, Justin Jablonowski (5th CCC 2013), elite WA based runner Maxwell Ferguson who was to meet up with us later in the race, and Ben Gibbard who ran my SQ50k race in 2013.
This was the second time my crew had seen me, and even a few hours earlier they knew that my day was not progressing as we’d all hoped. As I arrived plenty of friends were cheering me along, but I stepped aside to chat with my crew and I asked to sit down. Aid station captain James Kirby looked at me in disbelief,
“YOU DON’T SIT DOWN! YOU CAN’T SIT DOWN HERE!”
It was the tough love that any great aid station captain should deliver, but Linda gave him a solemn look and he understood immediately.
“What can we get you Gary?”
“I don’t know, watermelon I guess.”
Ben darted away only to return a few seconds later with the lowest chair in the history of mankind. I sat down all of two inches from the ground and questioned if I’d ever get out of the thing under my own steam.
I ate, I drank, I sobbed internally and maybe even a bit externally. Runner after runner came through, spent less than a minute on site and continued on. Linda, Justin, Ben and now race director Rich White were all gathered around attending to me. Time stood still for me but not for anyone else and twenty minutes had passed before they were all attempting to get me out of there. James Varner of Rainshadow Running came over in his coconut shell bra and frilly grass skirt. James has been a good friend for years.
“What’s going on Gary?”
“I don’t know, my legs just aren’t working; they’ve seized up solid over the last few hours. I can’t run at all and it’s gotten to the point where even walking downhill is painful.”
“What have you eaten? How much fluid have you consumed? How’s your electrolyte intake?”
“Lots. Lots. Not much actually.”
“It’s pretty hot out here today, here take four of these electrolyte tabs now and two more every thirty minutes for the next little bit. What’s the worst that can happen right?”
James’s words rang out like an air raid siren in my head. Had I really made a rookie mistake like this? I know electrolytes are a “hot topic” of debate these days, but on a personal level I’ve always needed a regular consumption of electrolyte tablets to race cramp free, especially during hotter races.
James Kirby came over to check on me and give me a nudge that it was time to get out of his aid station. He saw what was going on and had heard everything I’d said. He asked me point blank:
“Do you want to finish this race?”
I looked at him, “Hell yeah I do.” And I did. I didn’t care how. I just did.
While I was downing my electrolytes and going over things in my head my crew were up in my face mocking me to no end, in that loving “you need to get the f#$k outta here way.”
Justin “Do you need to poop? Maybe you just need to poop?”
Rich “I always feel better after I poop. You should poop.
Linda “Don’t poop your pants?”
Ben “Pooping your pants would be bad, you should poop.”
Me “FUCK YOU GUYS! I’M OUTTA HERE!”
Having the right crew saved my ass, from poop. They got my poopy pants off and got me moving again. I walked outta Stampede in 8th or 9th place, but at least I was moving again and I now knew that no matter what, I was going to finish the damn race, even if I had to walk the damn 110km to get there.
Maybe the heat was getting the better of me. Maybe fatigue from race directing the week before had taken it outta me. Maybe my lack of actual water consumption prior to the race had dehydrated me. Maybe I just gaffed on my electrolyte consumption. Core body temperature can also be a factor in cramping, so on top of adding in regular electrolyte consumption I started detouring to every water source on course to get myself cooled down.
Go Time - Take Two
Within thirty minutes of departing Stampede, I started to rally. I had honestly given up on much of a turn around and was just content to continue working towards an actual finish, but all of a sudden the seizing ceased. My legs started to work again. The damage had been done, however. My quads were fried. I felt every single step in each quad muscle, but something wonderful was also occurring: it wasn’t getting any worse. I started to up my cadence a bit and shortly thereafter I passed a runner. This simple act of passing one person completely triggered my compete level again.
“Maybe it’s not over just yet.”
Mile 38 and I passed Phil Shaw who was also suffering from what appeared to be cramping. I offered up what I had but he said he was “fine” and he cheered me on as I ran past. Gotta love the comradery of ultra running.
By mile 40 I was feeling better than I had all damn day, minus the quad tightness, but again, it had gotten no worse. I resolved myself to the fact that I’d feel every step all the way to the finish line; however, not only would I reach the finish line, I would do so while competing and attempting to salvage my race.
At the mile 40 aid station I congratulated Ultra Pedestrian Raz on his then recent accomplishment of a fully self-supported traverse of Washington State, though in the moment the details eluded me and I spit out something along the lines of,
“Raz, congrats on your, uh, thingy-mer-bob. Nicely done and stuff.”
To which of course he laughed. My crew were here including my dog Roxy and I went about my new mission of eating each aid station out of soup. After about five minutes I was politely ushered out.
At mile 47, Scott McCoubrey of Seattle Run Co. and White River fame was taking care of business, as he does every year.
“You look great! You’re in sixth. Second through sixth are all within ten minutes of you. Second looks terrible and is likely gonna be the first to falter.”
“Yeah man, they’re all within striking distance.”
“What about Seth.”
“Off the front.”
“Figured as much.”
I delved into the soup and spent far too long at the aid station, but I knew that my body was still fickle and the best way to ensure success over the final 53 miles was going to be utilizing the aid stations and not rushing through them.
“Time for you to go Gary!”
Hyak Lodge is the virtual mid-way point of the race at mile 52. You arrive at Hyak via a decommissioned rail tunnel that’s two and a half miles long! Hyak was but five miles away and the pack were about ten minutes up on me. I wanted to get back on board while I was feeling well and I told myself I’d close that gap now before it became too late and in case things started to truly go sour again. I pushed harder than I had all day, a little too hard however for as I was clicking out the flat miles through the tunnel at slightly under seven minute mile pace my entire left chain, from calf to hip, completely lit up. I hadn’t experienced pain like that since my first 100 miler at Stormy back in ‘08, but I didn’t even care. I felt like I’d already been through too much to give it a second thought and I grimaced as I plowed through. I knew that the flat running was brief and it seemed to be aggravated by flat more than anything.
Hyak Lodge, the mid-way point. My full crew in attendance including Max as he was now ready to jump in and pace me. They erupted.
“You look amazing! One guy hasn’t left yet, he’s still sitting in a chair. The rest have only been gone five minutes and they all took their time getting out of here. You definitely looked the strongest coming in just now.” (minus Seth who for all intents and purposes won’t make an appearance in this write up again until the finish line, much like on race day :)).
I took this with the grain of salt that a parent compliments their child, but outside of the shooting pain in my left side, I did feel great. My head was in a wonderful space and I was 100% back in the race and shooting for 2nd, 1st if Seth faltered at all.
“Okay, headlamp, soup, electrolytes. Let’s GO!”
I had scouted the CCC course with RD Rich White in early July and knew what lay ahead. Fifteen miles of service road with a few thousand foot climb at the apex. I thought there was no way I’d have the legs to run this, but with my music in one ear and chatting and singing with Max we collectively lay into this climb. We picked off a runner after about twenty minutes to put me in 5th. Ten minutes later we caught good buddy and my former teammate while I ran for Montrail, Matt Hart. Matt definitely looked rough and in that moment I didn’t think he would finish. I said hey and cheered him on as we ran past but he said little in response. Post-race he says to me,
“I had so many things I wanted to say to you there, most of them really funny, jokes, but my brain wasn’t fast enough and you were gone before I knew what’d happened.”
Post-race I say to him “Nice work on toughing it out. You looked like you were in a rough spot when I passed you.”
Max and I pulled into the Kacheelus Ridge, mile 60 aid station just as Jeff Hashimoto and Andy Reed were departing.
“Gary! Nice rally.”
Max to me: “You just ran the fastest split for that section in the history of the race.” (1h27m) (at which point we did not know that Seth was faster still 1h20m)
“You’ve gotta be shitting me!”
“We’re crushing it, man.”
I had just made up an eleven minute gap (splits from aid station to aid station), in eight miles. Game on! The sun had since set and after taking down another half-liter of soup, we were outta there and chasing two beams in the darkness.
I dialed it back a notch on the descent into Lake Kachess aid station. Lake Kachess prefaces The Trail from Hell. In my pre-race course scout this was the one section where I knew conclusively that I would outpace everyone else. The Trail from Hell is a five mile stretch in which the fastest times in the history of the race are all about ninety minutes. It’s non-stop undulation with short steep climbs and descents that are littered with highly technical roots, rocks and natural obstacles, and it’s run at night after 70 miles are already on your legs. In my scouting run, I’d knocked it off in 45 minutes. I hit the aid station at mile 68, continued on my soup mission and after another five plus minutes, Ben and Linda were pushing me outta there. I walked the road through the campground while finishing the cup of soup I took to go, then I looked at Max. After my soup consumption mission at Kachess and my walk through the campground 2nd was 10+ minutes up and 3rd was 7+ minutes up.
“Whadaya say we go about getting back into 2nd place right now?”
I devoured the trail, dropping Max three times in the process as I danced through the nastiest bits of the route. Max would push hard on the less technical to catch back up and by the half-way point we caught up to Andy and his pacer Simon Donato.
“Nice work, Andy.”
“Great job, Gary.”
And then a perfectly timed high-five from Simon as we flew past, into the darkness and into 3rd place.
Jeff Hashimoto was no slouch on technical apparently and it took right up until the final mile heading into Mineral Creek to catch him. Turns out Max knew him and they started chatting as we all hit Mineral Creek collectively. Two miles from Mineral Creek you’re allowed to have your crew drive in to meet you. I was switching pacers here between Max and Justin, so we simply tagged the aid station and continued up. It was the horrible grade in which you’d run if you had the legs and you know that others around you are running it and gaining time on you. I’d put forth the effort I’d hoped to on The Trail from Hell and bettered the fastest times by over ten minutes at 1h19m, and I even gained ten minutes on Seth in the process, not that that was going to change anything in the running for first though :)
As I walked the two miles up the road to my crew, Jeff cruised on past like it was nothing. My brief stint in 2nd lasted about twenty minutes but I still held hopes of regaining it again before the finish.
Max and I reached the crew and I decided to sit down for a minute to get some hot fluids and calories into me. This proved to be a terrible idea though as the warm day had given way to a very cool evening and within minutes of taking a seat I started to shake, eventually violently. Shit, I thought, this is bad. Linda and Ben threw a blanket on me as I took down the final calories. Max’s pacing duties were done and Justin was in. He was sporting a blue wig I’d worn to pace Linda at Grindstone and a crazy mish-mash of brightly coloured clothing, including some insane print tights. I put on every layer I was willing to carry to the finish and as I shakily stood up to depart, I turned to Andy Reed’s family and crew, teeth fully chattering:
“Be sure to tell Andy I looked like a million bucks when I left here, okay? :)”
Justin and I headed out on a painfully long six mile uphill walk. I knew that the final 20 miles are almost all single track while going over what are known as the Cardiac Needles. Smack dab in the middle of that you reach your highest point on the course, Thorpe Mountain at around 8,000ft and there is a 4,000ft descent into a flat final four miles to the finish. Like is the case in most 100’s, the race doesn’t even really begin ‘til mile 80.
Seth was gone and he was all but guaranteed to smash the course record. Jeff had passed me before I sat down so he was likely closing in on a ten minute gap ahead of me and Andy was just minutes behind me. It appeared that I was fighting for 2nd, 3rd, or 4th. I really wanted 2nd, but also really didn’t want 4th, so I started playing a bit more defense rather than offense.
Up, up we went. Justin almost begging me to run.
“I need this. I’ll run the final 20, promise, but right now I need the physical and mental break until we get to No Name AS.”
Good friend Laura Houston manages No Name year after year and this year another good friend, Besty Rogers joined her. Less than a mile from the top there is a quarter mile long sweeping switchback in the service road. All of a sudden my light was shining directly down towards Andy’s, him being all of a few minutes behind me now.
Hi to Betsy and Laura, more soup and more soup to go and Justin and I were out. It was now back to offense for the remainder of the race and I got my mind locked solidly into catching back up to 2nd place.
At Thorpe Mountain there is a one mile out and back. I crossed paths with Jeff just as he was completing his out and back and Andy crossed paths with me just as I had completed my own. We were all about evenly spaced in ten minute intervals. This meant that I had made up a few minutes on both Jeff and Andy over the last few miles.
French Cabin is the second to last aid station on course and Eric Purpus told me that if you’ve got the legs, it’s less than two hours from there to the finish. I arrived in about 17:03. Sub 19 hours was somehow still in range and that became my only goal. If I could close out in under two hours I’d happily take whatever position that gave me, whether it was 2nd, 3rd or 4th.
I absolutely thumped down the final 4000ft descent with a complete disregard for the now excruciating pain my quads were suffering through. Nothing else mattered and I simply cranked up my music and let gravity do its job. I still held illusions of catching 2nd as I knew I was moving incredibly well.
Along with Justin, we came screaming into the final aid station. I didn’t even ask for splits I just grabbed some chocolate and started in on the last four miles to the finish. The barn was near, the result all but certain. Neither Jeff nor Andy were anywhere in sight, but I wanted this thing over, and I wanted my sub 19 hour finish time.
Justin to me: “If I knew we were start sprinting for the finish at mile 95 I would have packed my track spikes.”
I felt no pain, only pride. Some twelve hours earlier I had my head in my hands, anger in my heart and my butt in a really low chair. The finish line wasn’t just in doubt at that point, it felt like mission impossible, yet here I was about to snag 3rd while closing out with a faster pace than I’d sustained all day long. We made our way through Easton and the finish line came into view. Emotions swelled up inside me and I damn near sprinted across the line.
18h54m. 3rd place and the 7th fastest time in the history of the race, and somehow, all of this after facing demons, doubt, cramping, crying and having my crew use the word poop no fewer than a dozen times. It’s a funny sport this ultra running. Just when you think you know something, it’s time to step back and remind yourself that you know nothing. No two days are alike, no two races are alike. Show up, put your heart into it and don’t quit on yourself. Sometimes you might just surprise yourself with the outcome and the resolve you find.
Race Director Rich White handed me my belt buckle and almost immediately it lept outta my hands and onto the rocks below, getting dented and scratched all to hell in the process.
“Shit, do you want me to get you another one?”
“No. It’s perfect. Just like my race.”
Gotta throw a huge shout out to the best crew ever.
Linda Barton Robbins, Maxwell Ferguson, Justin Jablonowski and Ben Gibbard. I honestly have no idea how I would have finished this race without all of your contributions to it. Thank you so much for helping to make this race such a special experience for me.
Sponsor Shout Out:
Salomon – Sense Pro / S-Lab Adv Skin 5 / S-Lab Light Jacket / Start Tee / Trail Short
Suunto – Ambit2
Princeton Tec – Apex rechargeable
Hammer – Bars, gels, endurolytes, seat saver
Drymax – Maximum protection trail running
Moveo Sport and Rehab – for keeping my body from breaking down on me and allowed me to start these races in the first place.