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Cascade Crest 100 Race Report

It took five runners, two engineers, three hours, two coffee makers, four unsuccessful attempts and one near panic attack from a very sweaty girl before there was a cup of hot coffee in our cabin on race morning.

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And that was the toughest low we faced all day.

Regardless of your dependency on a strong cup of joe in the morning, that should hopefully clue you into the fact that I had a pretty great race.

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If you asked me what kept me going at Pine to Palm (my first 100), I would tell you that it was an unwavering confidence in my ability to reach the finish line.

At Cascade Crest, a similar feeling was present as soon as we started jogging away from the start line. Only instead of just remaining certain that I could cover 100 miles, I was sure that I had a good race in me. I knew I was strong enough, both mentally and physically, to throw down 100 miles that I could be proud of. And I trusted that there’s a reason or seventeen why people return to this race year after year. And I couldn’t wait to discover all of them for myself.

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I wasn’t especially worried about the terrible weather forecast, or the fact that I’d inevitably encounter some lows out on the trail, I was mostly just really, really sure that I was going to have a strong and happy day out on those trails.

And then I did.

Let’s back up. To a start line at a fire station in the lovely town of Easton, Washington before 10 am on Saturday morning.

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*PAUSE TO PROFESS MY NEWFOUND AND UNDYING LOVE FOR THE LATE RACE START. That allows you to turn a six hour drive into a carefree 12 hour road trip with a few breweries along the way, and to enjoy race eve beers and late dinners prepared by strange boys you met on a volcano and invited to sleep in your cabin (I would say “more on that later” but I enjoy that better as a standalone statement), and to stay in bed as late as you want on race morning, and to revel in the start line atmosphere of a parking lot party instead of people frantically pinning on bibs over the glow of a headlamp. 10AMSTART4LYFE*

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Okay, now we should talk about running. Because a group of 153 of us did a lot of it last weekend.

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The start of my race was fairly uneventful. There was a big hill (the first of approximately117,000). We ran (or, more accurately hiked) up it to reach Goat Peak, where we found an extremely disappointing lack of goats, but a very lovely view.

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(Taken during training weekend. But it had the same goatless look on race day. Only there were a lot more clouds in the way.)

Then we ran downhill. And then up some more. Somewhere along the way I had to make a couple of shitty pit stops, where I’d watch dozens of runners go by from a front row seat in the woods, catch back up and then pull over again for more QT in the bushes. I’m sure a few of my fellow racers gave me a nickname that rivaled the one I earned during my freshman year of college after an unsuccessful attempt to hang out with Mike and his lemonade, Natty and his ice, Jose and his tequila and the Captain and his rum all in one evening.

Another notable part of the early miles were the killer bee attacks. Luckily, there were plenty of warning cries to prepare you for the assault of stings (#blessed). Every so often, the conversation you’d be having with a fellow runner about the lovely trail and peaceful forest would get interrupted by a train of “FUCK!” “SDFKJNAKJDFNASDLKJFNAKEJFN!!!!” “AAAAAH! SONOFABEEEEEEEEES!”. And then you’d either get stung or figure out where the hive was and bushwhack through the woods to try and avoid it. So that was fun. (Especially when the Race Director called me out for cutting the course and threatened to disqualify me when he saw me at an aid station at Mile 52. I was all, “BUT RICH! KILLER BEES.” And he was all, “You ACTUALLY cut it. I was totally joking, you cheater!”)

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But killer bees aside, I was having a blast. The trail was great. The weather was great. The runners were great. Everything was GREAT.

Especially when we hit the 30 mile section of PCT about 20 miles into the race.

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(Also during training weekend. From here on out, just assume that if sun and beautiful views are present, it most definitely wasn’t on race day(s.))

Back during that much clearer and sunnier training weekend, I had one of the worst runs of my life on this stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail, where I almost gave up on the sport of trail running because it kicked my ass so freakin’ hard. When I got back on it during the race, I was all “you and me, PCT. It’s rematch time!”

And then we decided not to fight and to work together. And it was a beautiful thing. 

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The one picture I took during the race. When I was having a really tender moment with the trail.

I really, truly loved this section of the race the hardest. It was (mostly) buttery smooth, plush singletrack through stunning terrain, which I could run well on, AND I got to see my lovely crew a lot. Plus, the aid stations were serving up pierogis and things stuffed with avocado. It was just the best. And left me screaming some variation of “I’M HAVING THE BEST TIME EVERRRRR” every time I ran into an aid station. And also a few times while I was out in the woods by my lonesome. I hope the thru-hikers and neighborhood bears enjoyed the crazy.

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I didn’t know what else to say because I really, really was HAVING THE BEST TIME EVER(RRRRRR).

With the exception of when someone in a beer gauntlet at Mile 47 accused me of “looking like a wine drinker.” (But it was dark and they gave me a chug of Rainier so I forgive them.)

Sure, there were storms brewing overhead and yes, there were hills, and we still had several miles to run on increasingly tired legs, but I couldn’t stop feeling so incredibly grateful for the hundreds of people who were selflessly enabling us to spend a long day on the trail doing what we love to do the most (with delicious snacks along the way) and so damn lucky to have discovered just how much I love this sport and the community behind it.

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Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end and, what I thought was an undying love for the PCT, met a swift death on the final, very technical descents on that section of trail. These bitches arrived just as daylight departed. They were all rock and I had in no interest in rolling down any of them, so I very gingerly (and slowly) picked my way down them in the dark while vowing to become capable of downhill running before I turn 87.

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Photo courtesy of my friend Alley who freakin’ ROCKED Cascade as her first 100 miler.

Then, shit got weird. After a totally gnarly descent that went on and on and on, you drop onto the “ropes section” of the course. Which is essentially a half mile long hillside (read: cliff) that is so steep, the race decided you need rappelling equipment to cover the ground. So that was interesting, especially in the rain when everything was extra slippery and muddy. But I secretly kind of liked it in some weird and twisted way. Like, what other race leaves you groping your way down a cliff, clinging onto ropes at mile 50 of a 100 mile race? Cascade mother fucking Crest. So ridiculous, it’s fun.

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Photo: Alley again.

The good news is: once you’re done belaying down the Cliffs of Snoqualmie, you get to run on flat ground.

The bad news is: it’s through an abandoned train tunnel that runs underneath a very large mountain, for 2.5 miles. In the middle of the night.

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MORE Alley.

I actually liked this stretch more than I expected to. Minus the rodents scurrying underfoot. And the fact that my brain chose to remember that “Snoqaulmie Tunnel haunted” is the most popular google search right as I set foot in the damn thing. The dripping water, eerie glow, and hidden skeleton (an unadvertised benefit of our race dollars) were also not my favorite. However, I suspect all of the scary shit helped me run this section a bit faster than I normally would (#blessed).

The reward for surviving the skeleton and rats, is that you get to have one of your pacers join you for some miles on the other side of the tunnel.

In my pacer line-up, Sarah was up first.  She had the pleasure of escorting me for 16 miles that included one big up and one big down, mostly on a fire road.

We had an absolute blast during this section (except for the part where she confessed she wasn’t entirely certain she knew we were on the right road immediately after confessing to the brewery pitstop they took while I was running. But we weren’t lost and our friendship is still intact.). 

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My legs were definitely feeling a garden variety of fatigue at this point. Which is expected, they’d been doing things for 50+ miles, mostly things that included moving up and down really steep shit. But they were feeling pretty great considering the stage of the race, so we ran a good amount of the climb and enjoyed the slight mist in the crisp night air. “I don’t even mind the weather. It’s been so long since I’ve run in the rain! This is FUN!” (Spoiler alert: I stopped saying that.)

After the race, a lot of people talked about how miserable this section was. But that was not my experience. I LOVED this part of the run, mostly because Sarah was full of energy, stories, and smart enough not to rub it in when she got to stop and hang out with a hot bowl of ramen while I kept trudging through the cold rain.

After 16 lovely miles together, I picked up my next pacer: Chris. Unfortunately for Chris, he got stuck with all of the hardest sections of the course and the worst weather of the day. And a girl who already had 68 miles and 16 hours on her legs.

The first gem we got to tackle was the Trail from Hell. I basically told Chris I’d given up on this thing before it even started and wanted to walk the entire thing to give my legs a break and to prevent a bad tumble. It’s not that my legs were really NEEDING  a break, but I have enough trouble staying upright on smooth trails, and didn’t want to end my race 30 miles before the finish thanks to an overdose of mud and roots and shit. So I figured I’d use it as an opportunity to rest and reset while avoiding any buzz-killing spills. 

Let me provide some context for the mother fucking Trail from Hell. There are not enough cuss words in all of the languages in the world-spoken, written, and emojied-to adequately capture just how shitty this trail is. But maybe my time from the section will do the trick: 5 miles in THREE HOURS. It was relentlessly steep and hilly, technical as heck, full of precarious cliffs and river crossings and also it was pouring rain, freezing, and 2 am. And 68 miles into the race. You would reach sections where you were CERTAIN they could not be the actual trail because trails don’t have things like 8 foot, slippery cliffs over more cliffs that could make you dead, and then you would realize it WAS the trail and work on finding some kind of log to cling onto while inching your way down and whimpering F bombs in conjunction with the Race Director’s name.

After telling Sarah “I’M HAVING THE BEST TIME EVER. MAYBE THERE ARE NO LOWS IN YOUR SECOND 100 MILER.” I found one, or a thousand, on that hellacious five mile section of trail.

Including the fight I had with Chris over a particularly precarious river crossing. He wanted me to put my foot on a VERY, VERY small rock that was most certainly not large enough for a Hoka, but he claimed was “less slippery” and I had a death wish that involved a much larger rock that could actually host my foot for a second, but was also much wetter and perched directly over a rapid/waterfall/death trap. He won. And I lived to talk about it. This is why pacers are a beautiful thing.

By the time we FINALLY saw an aid station (and another skeleton. Ha. Ha. You hilarious Race Director, you.), I was kind of relieved but mostly just fucking cold. During our lengthy time on the Trail from Hell, every inch of the very minimal amounts of clothing on my body had gotten soaked. Including the socks and shoes that had to splash their way directly through several rather chilly creek and river crossings. And the temperatures had plummeted. To something in the neighborhood of 33.5 degrees. So I found the hottest thing the aid station had to offer (soup. Don’t ask me what flavor it was. I think you need to consume it slower than a chug to detect taste.) and cozied up to the heat lamp under a tent, willing my clothes to dry and my body to warm up. But that didn’t really happen. So I told Chris to give me one more precious minute of warmth while I risked third degree burns from caressing a heat lamp and then we went back into the cold and wet, comforted by the fact that Sarah would be waiting at the final crew access point 2.5 miles up the road with fresh shoes, dry clothes and a heavier jacket.

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Photo stolen from Cascade Crest facebook group.

Except she wasn’t.

This probably should have broken my soul a bit harder than it did. But by 2.5 miles of climbing, I’d warmed up a very small amount and convinced my high-on-75-miles brain that it would all be fine.

And then we got higher up on the climb, out of the woods that were shielding us from the gale force winds and torrential downpour, and I realized it most definitely would not be fine. But also that there was absolutely nothing that I could do about the fact that I was completely soaked and would be the coldest I’d ever been in my entire life for the rest of the race. Unless I wanted to camp out at an aid station and not finish the thing. Which, I most certainly did not. Or steal the pants off a volunteer’s legs. Which, I most certainly did. But managed to control myself.

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More facebook. And pants that I miraculously did not tear off an unsuspecting volunteer’s body before trying to make a quick getaway at a 15 minute/mile pace.

When we got to the aid station at the top of the fire road, we found a tent full of runners who’d been hiding from the storm, some for hours. Plural. Because I was pretty sure the storm and cold weren’t going anywhere, I forced us to to get in and out of the tent as quickly as possible and keep moving. Which was not easy, because the tent was dry and warm and full of blankets. But it was not mobile, and since I couldn’t bring the warmth with me, moving was the only thing that I had in my arsenal to fight the cold. (That and the wet hat and hugs that Chris very generously offered me whenever an “I’m soooooo cold” would escape my chattering teeth. I was trying REALLY hard to not think about it or complain, but occasionally an especially blustery gust of wind would just knock it right out of me.)
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The next section is probably the hardest section of the course. And might have been one of my favorites from the race if it’d been 40 degrees warmer. And maybe even is one of my favorites now that I’ve had 9 days to warm up from the damn thing and forget how miserably cold and wet I was. 

This is where we hit the “Needles”, a series of peaks that you get to climb without the assistance of switchbacks, leaving the trail steep-as-shit and also totally exposed to the elements (AND at 5-6,000 feet. It just doesn’t get warmer as you get higher above sea level. #science). Going into them in a near to full-on hypothermic state felt a little defeating since you knew you had no hope of escaping the ridgeline and warming up for hours. The pitying comments from fellow runners about my lack of clothing compared to their five jackets and three pairs of pants also didn’t help. But I don’t think any amount of clothing was really a match for the elements that day. (At least that’s what I fooled myself into thinking while darting around the atrociously cold, windy and wet conditions in a drenched pair of short shorts and paper thin jacket.)

But climbing was still something I could do okay and feel good about the progress I was making toward the warm finish line (evidenced by someone telling me “you’re a GREAT hiker” on the Needles (yes, they requested an ALL CAPS GREAT in the race report.) That’s a compliment that has never been given to me…ever. And to have someone say it during the toughest climbs of the race at Mile 88: life highlight. I don’t care if my mom paid them all of her dollars, I’m cherishing that moment for eternity.). It was actually kind of fun to hit each new peak and tackle the challenge of a ridiculously tough ascent. Plus, the brutal nature of the climbs were helping distract me from the cold. Okay, that’s a lie. NOTHING outside of a 12 foot bonfire, 6 gallons of hot chocolate and 17 pairs of dry sweats could have distracted me from the cold. But they must have served me the Cascade Crest koolaid at an early aid station, because my spirits remained inexplicably high throughout this sufferfest.

After going over 7-17 Needles (the first rule of the needles is they never end and there’s always at least 7-9 more than you think), enjoying an extra cheesy, gaucamoly-y breakfast burrito at the French Cabin Aid Station, and learning that a whole third of the field had dropped with 9 hours to go until cutoff (not the fun fact you want to hear while you’re trying to survive the storm and make it to the finish line), we hit a “six” mile descent. (Six miles in a world where a “mile” is actually three miles and I’m a wine drinker.) 

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This final bitch of a downhill was not just longer than advertised, but also steep and rocky and rooty and all of the things that don’t let me move real quick like when I have fresh legs, never mind mile 90 legs. (Chris made the mistake of telling me just how not quick like we were moving on that descent. (Note to pacers everywhere: if your runner is barely breaking 20 minutes/mile on a downhill: don’t tell her.) Also, thanks, CG. Your pace skillz are the bestest.) But I kept “running” and eventually it flattened out at Mile 96.

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As a last little treat, both pacers got to run me the four miles into the finish.

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Although, it wasn’t really a treat for Chris and Sarah since my inner race diva decided to finally make an appearance around mile 98.7, where she snapped at Chris for running in front of me (“YOU’RE SHUFFLING AND MAKING ME FEEL SLOW.”) and almost cried when Chris tried to reassure me we were getting closer by pointing out the bridge that was right next to the finish line (“ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME? THAT’S NOT CLOSE AT ALL.” –the girl who just ran 99.7 miles and was looking at a landmark .3 miles away.)

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Live-tweeting or queuing up T. Swift for the finish? Tough call. Sarah possessed all of the most valuable pacer skills.

But then I finished (in 26 hours and 31 minutes)! And everyone was happy!

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(Until Sarah had to force me out of the 117 blankets I was wrapped in (yet still shivering faster than a baby rattler) so she could strip my wet clothes off in the fire station bathroom and get me into dry sweats, one shaky leg at a time. While you might think that sounded like the very desirable and logical option, you have to understand that getting naked also sounded REALLY, REALLY COLD.)

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So, I know I just spent close to 3,000 words telling you about all of the hard parts at Cascade Crest after claiming that a delayed cup of coffee was the worst part of the day. But I stand by that statement. Regardless of how cold I got, or how tired my legs were, I’ve never been so damn happy during a race. (Just don’t fact-check that against Chris’ account of the Trail from Hell.)

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My A Goal for this race was to run at an effort that would make me feel like I’ve become better at doing this thing I love to do, since the first time I did it. (And to feel good enough to enjoy a beer at the finish.) I had no idea how that would translate into a time on the clock, but I knew that I would know if it happened.

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While there may still be plenty of room for improvement, I 100% know that I met that goal. From the first step across the start line in Easton, to that last stumble across the finish, I spent 100 miles feeling stronger, more confident and more in love with running through these rugged and magnificent mountains of the Pacific Northwest.

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I was steady and in control of my effort for the entirety of the run. Overcame the lows, reveled in the highs. Kept running/”running” until I crossed that finish line. And, according to this nifty little chart, executed a reasonably smart race.

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So I feel good about that. And even better about the fact that I had so much fun while doing it. Which is mostly thanks to the incredible and selfless volunteers, the amazing folks who shape this race into the gem it is, the friends along the way-both new and old, the playful course and breathtaking landscape, and Chris and Sarah, who were a hilarious, motivating, and unbeatable crew. My race would not have been as strong or fun as it was without them. (Thanks guys, you’re the best, next 116 beers on me.)

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After all was said and run, people haven’t stopped talking about how special this year’s race was. “A year to measure all other years.” A race that will forever bond us together and never fail to make us feel good about saying, “I was there for Cascade Crest ‘15.”

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I feel really, incredibly lucky that I got to share that experience and really hungry to do it all again.

(As long as the Race Director takes the suggestion I gave him over finish line high fives and hugs to eliminate the Trail from Hell.)

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“THAT WAS SO MUCH FUN. I WANT TO DO IT AGAIN. But only if you get rid of that silly Trail from Hell business.” “Never! Go run another race and see how that works for you. You’ll come back! THEY ALL COME BACK FOR MORE.”

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He’s right. I will. It’s safe to say I’ve officially caught the 100 miler bug and am counting down the days until the next time I get to do it all again.

37 Responses to Cascade Crest 100 Race Report

  1. Holy crap that was amazing!
    What a race! Great race recap- you are my hero.

  2. congratulations!!! I want to do 100 miles I actually have one planned in January!!! Great review and photos
    Bakingrunner.blogspot.com

  3. Congratulations! Amazing to read about your experience, and you crushed it. So bad ass, I am in awe!

  4. Awesome race recap! You really make it sound like a bucket list race. Congrats on the strong finish in such rough conditions! You’re inspiring.

  5. Wow.

    Congratulations on the great race! I’ll echo what someone said above me– you are my hero. (Says the creepy fan girl… sorry!)

  6. So badass… Congrats!

  7. Sounds fantastic, great read! I really wanna run mountains.

  8. Amazing badassery!!! Congrats on an epic feat and thank you so so much for sharing it in your race report. There are no words for how impressive your efforts are. Keep kicking dirt!

    • Well, thank you for that Hilary. I somehow found over 4,000 words necessary to talk about the race and still didn’t feel like I captured it well. Thank you for reading it!

  9. Love love love this. Not that there was any question before, but a) it’s apparent you just LOVE trail running and b) you are a complete badass. Enjoy some offseason and can’t wait to hear what the next conquest is!

    • a) guilty! Thanks, lady. I don’t LOVE the off season quite as much as running trails, but I’m digging it right now.

  10. You’re a certified nut for running and enjoying this race! LOL! Anyway, great job Em!

  11. the train tunnel looks horrifying!! So proud of you, seemed like a hard, but really great race!

  12. You are really, really impressive! Congrats, lady! You killed it!

  13. You must know that when I saw your report was up this morning, I wouldn’t let myself read it until I got home from my run. And it’s a GREAT report and was an amazing motivator. Much like you.

  14. Emily, you are such a badass. Reading this blog the last few years IS the reason I signed up for my first 50k. It’s the Vermont 50 and it’s 2.5 weeks away! Thanks for your inspiration (if I ever even think about a 100 miler, it will be all your fault).

  15. You are simply an inspiration. It’s been awesome reading your blog evolve from road marathons to trail running to sick 100 milers! You’re also super lucky to have such an awesome group of friends crewing you to the finish.

    Pretty sure I don’t have the endurance to even attempt training for a 100 miler, but you’ve inspired me to dip my toes into more trail running … contemplating a 25K sometime before the end of 2015….

  16. Who knew 100 miles could be so fun!? This was a great read, and so inspiring! :) I’m still finding marathons a challenge…

  17. Congrats! You always amaze me and didn’t let me down this time. 100 miles is no joke but those were some crazy conditions (and spooky!) and you conquered them with a smile on your face! And you didn’t even blame Sarah for not making it to that pivotal aid station (at least not publicly) ! :)

  18. Feel like I miss your posts in my feed all too often — however, glad I caught this one! So fascinated by the 100 milers, congrats on ANOTHER one! :)

  19. I LOVE this report!!
    Wow and I thought an Ironman was hard…congrats!! and enjoy a well deserved rest :)

  20. […] Cascade Crest 100 recap took several days, 4,227 words, and many, many beers to write and I still don’t feel like I […]

  21. Holy crap that is intense. Awesome recap. Congrats on completing a wicked hard race and completing it well in tough conditions.

  22. So so SO impressed. All the congratulations.

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  24. You are super inspiring and SUPER TOUGH!!! I know many of the tough female runners who dropped this year — what you achieved is really special. You should be very proud!! :) Your race report made me so cold though! :P
    Hope to see you out there in 2016! wheeeee!!!

  25. […] Turns out, I learned a thing or two about pacing from the first time I did this and managed to actually apply some of those lessons at Cascade Crest. […]

  26. I was suggested this blog by my cousin. I am not sure
    whether this post is written by him as no one else
    know such detailed about my difficulty. You are incredible!

    Thanks!

  27. amazing. that tunnel looked super freaky! also, how did you keep your hat so clean and crisp during such a grueling race?!

  28. […] ALL OF THE STOKE that had me riding a high for weeks after Cascade Crest? Yeah, that went away. And as it abruptly left my life, it grabbed a lot of my motivation, passion […]

  29. […] seemed to enjoy it. I also trusted I could muster up some of the running mojo I lost in the wake of Cascade Crest before […]

  30. […] I was out on a little jog last weekend, I realized it’s been almost four months since Cascade Crest. FOUR MONTHS. That’s probably plenty sufficient for an off season, […]

  31. […] started to dabble in speed work a few weeks after Cascade Crest and then remembered couches, pint glasses, and long walks on the river are more effective recovery […]

  32. […] can read the story of my first jaunt at Cascade Crest here, but be warned: I repeat more jokes than your […]