An unbearable chill was pulsing through my bones. Freezing rain and relentless wind attacked me from every direction. My running gear was as wet as the sky and my bare skin trembled harder with each step against the howling storm. I was despairingly far away from dry clothes, and the only source of warmth my pacer could offer me was a damp hug.
I’d never been so cold in my life.
And I spent 25 years in the tundra of Vermont.
I was on a ridgeline at mile 88 of the Cascade Crest 100. I had a lot of ground to cover before the finish line and what my non-existent medical degree would soon diagnose as a nasty bout of hypothermia. The promised vistas were buried in dense storm clouds and my muscles had stopped working about 17 miles ago.
It probably should have been the worst race of my life, but it was among the very best.
Which might make, like, zero sense.
Or maybe it makes all the sense in the world if you’ve experienced a race like Cascade Crest.
I’ve only run Cascade Crest in its entirety once (spoiler alert: SO FAR) but I suspect it’s just the kind of race that can top the charts rain or shine, through hypothermia or heat stroke, on the best day or the very worst.
And I couldn’t be more excited that I’m officially heading back to Washington to test that theory out with another 100 mile rendezvous through the Cascades this August. (!!!!!!!)
One of the first things I learned about Cascade Crest is that runners can’t get enough of it.
The question “have you run Cascade Crest before?” is usually answered with something along the lines of “EVERY YEAR”, “twelve times!” or “can’t stop, won’t stop”.
I began to understand this allegiance during my first jaunt on the course when I traveled to the sleepy town of Easton, Washington to preview 72 miles of the race over a long weekend. After rolling past the town saloon that’s coated with campaign posters for Lucky the Labrador’s mayoral bid (SERIOUSLY), I hit the trail to Goat Peak, the race’s first big climb.
While there was a disappointing lack of mountain goats at the summit, that was the trail’s only shortfall. That first grueling ascent challenged my legs in all of the very best ways and rewarded their work with absolutely stunning views. Rugged Cascades flooded the horizon and Kachess Lake razzled and dazzled me from their feet.
Every single run I’ve done on or near that course has continued to deliver tough, but spectacular, terrain. Which is the perfect combination for this trail runner. Even when it’s a little grey, or a lot stormy, that 100 mile stretch of trail and forest roads is easy on the eyes and hard on the legs.
So it’s got that going for it. But a lot of races are pretty, and pretty tough. Cascade Crest offers more than that.
The race is endlessly interesting in the challenges it throws at you. Which is mildly infuriating when you encounter the 12th strange obstacle after 17.5 hours of running, but also quite fun, in that terrible/wonderful Type 2 kind of way.
One of the most infuriating is the stupidly technical, overgrown, relentless roller coaster of the “Trail from Hell”.
“SURELY, this can’t be the trail,” I exclaimed at the first cliff I encountered on the aptly named stretch of dirt, rocks, and abrupt drop-offs. But it was the “trail” and it’s tough to describe just how hellacious that section was, but maybe the fact that it took me over three hours to “run” five hours will do the trick.
And then there are the “Needles”, a series of extraordinarily steep climbs that start at mile 80-something, right when your legs are nice and fresh. They contain exactly no switchbacks, forcing your super springy legs to climb straight UP without any relief from the gradual turns that one normally expects to help them zig zag their way to a mountain’s summit.
“The first rule of the needles is that there’s always one more needle.”
That was the second thing I learned about Cascade Crest. Those relentless spikes are seemingly never-ending and whenever you think you’ve crested the last one, the course throws another sharp peak at you and your dead legs. It’s just lovely.
And then there are the more garden variety trials and tribulations like the two mile abandoned railroad tunnel through the belly of a mountain after nightfall and the “ropes section”, that requires you to repel your way down a steep mountainside with the help of a sailor’s favorite tool.
So that’s all just great.
But an even greater thing is the community that’s responsible for so much of the race’s irresistible charm. The loyalty of racers is matched, if not surpassed, by the incredible volunteers who return to its aid stations and sidelines year after year. It’s a 100 mile party, the trailside explodes with energy and generosity from start to finish.
And the race mysteriously fosters incredible friendships. At least in my experience. Apparently there’s an undeniable chemistry between individuals who share an affinity for long walks through haunted train tunnels and clifftop quesadillas.
I’ve met so many of my favorite trail runners through the web of Cascade Crest. Running it, pacing it, playing on its trails just for fun.
A lot of very real and very wonderful friendships have been formed beneath those tall trees and atop its tough trails. Maybe it’s coincidence, but maybe it’s Cascade Crest.
Back on that frigid ridgeline, I’d truly never been so cold.
But I’d also never felt quite that strong as my quads got ready to ascend just one more needle. For the third time.
And I’d never had quite that much fun, at least not while simultaneously being so damn miserable.
August 27th (and 28th) might be another one of the worst days of my life. But it will also probably be among the very best. And I just can’t wait for every terrible and glorious and gloriously terrible and terribly glorious step.
You can read the story of my first jaunt at Cascade Crest here, but be warned: I repeat more jokes than your dad.