26 August 2018

pacing Dave VanMiller at the Cascade Crest 100 Mile Endurance Run

Sometimes (read: usually) it's not about me.

This weekend I had the chance to pace my friend Dave VanMiller at the Cascade Crest 100 Mile Endurance Run and it was awesome! More to the point, Dave was awesome!

Pacing and volunteering have got to be the best ways to give back to this sport of trail running. Pacing and being paced has also been some of the best experiences I have had running.

For the past several years I have been running with my sister Lucca at the Seattle Marathon. Some years it's just been for fun and some years she was really going for it and I believe her Marathon PR was set on this course one of the years we ran together. It's become somewhat of an annual tradition. We have also run all of the Sun Mountain 50k together.

I had the good fortune to happen onto a pacer myself when I ran Cascade Crest and it was a fantastic experience. So when Dave said he was looking for a pacer and my weekend was free I jumped at the opportunity.

Cascade Crest lets you pick up your pacer at about the halfway point. Dave's wife Gretchen was going to run with him from mile 54-69 and I was going to take him from 69 to the finish. Since I wasn't going to start running until about 11:00 PM and since there isn't much you can do prior to running except for relaxing, I opted to drive to the halfway point (the Hyak aid station) early to meet Gretchen and Dave.

It was a little surreal sitting there in the John Wayne Trail waiting for runners to show up knowing what they had just covered... One thing that always impresses me is how comfy I am running in these relatively mild temperatures but how freaking cold I get just sitting around in them. Glad I planned for this and packed some layers.

And it was comforting to see that not everyone else was immune to the relative cold.

I met tons of friends that were also pacing. It felt like half of my ultra running friends had either gotten into this race or were helping out. So cool!

Gretchen and I connected, discussed logistics, and then there was nothing ot do but chill until Dave showed up.

Watching the leaders come and go was impressive. The first runner had a 50-minute gap on 2nd place! I was told this guy has won this race twice and was going for a course record. When he took off with just his wet t-shirt and two handheld bottles into the cold night and the higher elevation sections of this course I had my doubts... turns out he did win but didn't beat the record.

Dave arrived a little ahead of schedule and looked like he was having a super day! We gave him his pitstop and I managed to snap a quick picture.

After Dave and Gretchen left, I just cleaned up Dave's drop bag, put everything in Gretchen's car, locked it up and drove myself to the next transition.

And had absolutely. Nothing. To do.

This is the tough part for pacers (or a support crew). You show up early to ensure you don't miss your runner and then you wait.

It was too cold to hang out in just my running clothes so I put layers on over the top, got all my shit ready, reclined my car seat and tried to relax/nap.

Except you can't really nap or you'll miss your runner. I was parked in a turn on a dirt road and the runners would come by me pretty quick. I could only see each one for perhaps 10 seconds and then they were past my car and heading up the road to the aid station. I was really hoping I didn't screw it up.

Luckily I saw Dave and Gretchen approaching. Thank goodness most people have a unique running style which I can recognize immediately. As they ran past I got out and proceeded to grab my gear. Funny how you think you have everything laid out and ready and then it takes WAY longer to actually shed your outer layers, put on your vest, your headlamp, grab your trekking poles, lock the car, reassure yourself that you really locked the car, run through the mental checklist, and jog up to the aid station.

"Dave! Dave, are you here?"

But it worked. I found my runner, found Gretchen, gave her the car keys, told her where it was, and then Dave and I disappeared into the night. And onto the most technical trail of this race - the "trail from hell".

Dave had told me before the start that his goal was 22-24 hours. Gretchen had told me he was having a great day but didn't mention any specifics. I figured if we just didn't slow down much it would be a super finish. The next aid station - Mineral Creek at mile 75 - was not far away in terms of distance but because the trail is so tricky and because it's always up or down, it takes most people about 1.5 hours to get there. Dave is a pretty good trail runner and didn't slow down at all here. I ran in front so I would occasionally turn around and shine my headlamp on the more technical sections to help Dave descend without tripping. There is one creek crossing just before you get to the aid station and you had to rock hop across. I made it over dry but Dave dipped the toe of one shoe in the water. He didn't seem worried so I wasn't either.

We arrived at the aid station and Dave was Mr. Efficient so we were moving again in no time.

From Mineral Creek (mile 75) to No Name Ridge (mile 82) is one big dirt road climb. The one time I ran this race I walked most of it. Not Dave. He kept breaking into a jog. Even when we were walking Dave was moving. On this road we slowly caught another runner, I think he was a great carrot.

Up on the ridge it was colder for sure. Dave was in and out of the aid station again but I grabbed some soup to warm up and had to catch up.

This section of the race takes you along the "Cardiac Needles" so named because the elevation profile looks like an EKG. Our carrot was really strong and it was a challenge to stay in touch. I checked in a couple of times to see if the pace was okay and each time Dave said it was. Dave was really impressing me up here. This is not fast terrain, especially after 80+miles, but Dave was moving really well.

The cherry on the top of the Needles is the Thorp Mt fire lookout. To get here you need to do an out-and-back from the aid station at mile 86 and climb to the high point of this race. Dave (as do most people) opted to skip the aid station on the way up. To prove you ran this section there was a book attached to the lookout and you had to grab the page that corresponded to your bib number. Dave was all business and so we arrived at the aid station again in a hurry. Dave grabbed some food, I filled his bottles, and we were gone.

Suddenly Dave said, "I forgot my poles!" Damn, I had failed one of my pacer duties and let Dave leave equipment behind. I was just about to tell Dave I could run back and get them when he said, "Forget about it. I have a friend at the aid station and can pick them up from him later." Turns out this was a prescient decision.

Dave was still pushing hard. I was SO impressed with his ability to move. Our carrot was still around too, I was starting to worry about Dave blowing up but this guy has loads of experience so I just tried to help and encourage him along.

Dave is the most appreciative and humble runner I know. Every time I told him, "Good job!" or, "You're doing great!" he would say thanks. He even apologized for the occasional grunts he was uttering from the effort. I was like, "Grunt away Dave, you are killing this!" A few minutes after leaving the Thorp aid station Dave slowed just a bit and grunted. I stopped, turned around and he had thrown up. Now this is not a super rare occurrence in ultra running, especially when you are pushing hard (which Dave was!), but people take varying amounts of time to recover from it. Dave took about 10 seconds. I've never puked while running but I imagine it can actually feel good depending on the circumstances... We didn't stop to discuss this topic as Dave was already moving again. What focus!

The climb to the Thorp fire lookout is not the last "needle" and on the next climb, Dave suddenly asked for my trekking poles. No problem! Glad to help. My poles are longer than Daves but the difference is not extreme. At the top of the climb, he just handed them back. Nice! This is how we rolled over the next couple of hills.

Dave was still doing okay when we got to French Cabin (mile 89) although he had slowed a bit on the climbs. Our carrot kept pulling away on the ascents and we would catch him back up on the descents. I filled another bottle here for Dave and we were off.

Over the course of the last big climb and the next few miles, our carrot slowly pulled ahead. Suddenly he was going faster on the climbs and descents. Dave didn't get rattled and we just continued on as best we could.

I thought we were in no man's land so when a headlamp started to approach us from behind I tried to stay calm. When it came time for them to pass, they said hi, it was our carrot! He had taken a break to fertilize the trees and was just catching up. Dave took it all in stride but we couldn't hang with him as he ran past and slowly, very slowly, his light disappeared up the trail again. On the upside, no one had caught us. :)

As we approached the Silver Creek aid station (mile 96) Dave had the presence of mind to ask me if I would fill a bottle for him as he ran straight through. Yes! It only took me about 60 seconds and then I was chasing Dave down.

I'm no maths wiz and my watch was not displaying the time of day so it was hard for me to give Dave any sort of ETA or time goal to shoot for. Luckily Dave was content to, and able to,  just go as hard as he could. As we hit the pavement, we closed just a little on our carrot but we couldn't catch him. When we finally started running along the train tracks toward the fire station, Dave looked at the finish line with the giant clock and said, "It's not 22 hours yet!"

Oh man, if you can sprint after running 99+ miles then that is what Dave did. Wow!

This guy is amazing! I only hope I can channel this much focus during my next 100-mile race.

Kudos to you Dave!

18 August 2018

Pacific Crest Trail - Section J (Stevens to Snoqualmie)

I have had Section J (Snoqualmie Pass to Stevens Pass) of the Pacific Crest Trail on my long list for years. Funny how things can suddenly come together.

Turns out my friend Bryan Estes has wanted to run this too. Bryan has hiked this section, and various portions of it, numerous times but he has never done it in one push. We had been talking about this since we both ran the Seattle Stairway Foot Tour in June so when his calendar opened up a few days ago, and I was free too, I jumped at the chance. Did it fit in perfectly with my training and racing calendar? No, but when opportunities come along you need to grab them. You also need to keep your racing in perspective - I do this for fun and fun is exactly what I hoped this run would be about. Fun and adventure.

Warning: this blog post contains pictures of bloody knees. :) Nothing too gross hopefully but just so you know.

We did not plan much! Bryan is a very experienced ultra runner, backpacker, and outdoor enthusiast, I could not have picked a better partner. My only decisions were how much of what types of food to carry. Ironically, I made some bad ones in this category. But other good decisions helped me through.

Transportation also was a dream. I was able to drop a car at Snoqualmie Pass Friday evening with Bryan's help and Saturday morning Bryan's in-laws just happened to be driving to Lake Chelan over Stevens Pass and offered to give us a ride. Nice!

At 11:00 AM we were ready to head out from Stevens Pass.

Let me just say that the PCT is amazing! In WA there are so many lakes, views, spectacular trails; we were taking pictures ALL THE TIME.

One of the first treats was running (pun intended) into my sister Lucca. Turns out she was running from the end of Icicle Creek Road to Stevens Pass and we met about 2.5 miles from her finish/our start.

I'm still blown away by how much trail running has helped us reconnect, so grateful for this sport.

The PCT is really well signed. At about 90% of all the intersections, you see this.

And if there isn't any sign it's obvious which way to go. You just follow the natural flow of the trail and avoid the path that is not "natural" or deviates from the obvious line.

Bryan and I both brought along four 500+ ml containers for water but never needed more than two at a time. There are tons of lakes and streams this time of year and we only got low on water twice but each occurrence was not a crisis and I was able to catch up on my hydration eventually. Something to keep in mind is that we were "running" and a hiker would need more time (and water) to cover the same distance. I put running in quotes as any trail runner knows, running usually includes some hiking. And it can include a LOT of hiking when you go this far.

I seem to have a reputation for falling down while trail running and on this trip I, unfortunately, kept my streak alive. :( The first tumble looked spectacular but once I got myself cleaned up it was no big deal.

Here is the "I just fell down" picture.

And here is me a few miles after washing my legs in the creek above.

Magic, right?

The second fall was a bummer. It happened less than 8 miles from the finish and as usual, it was because I was getting tired and not lifting my feet high enough. This one was a little worse.

Most of the rock around here is granite and when I landed I scraped my right thigh across a wedge of it. But again, looks can be deceiving and after a warm shower, I looked much better.

This second fall managed to put a significant gouge in the Gorilla Glass of my watch!

Okay, no more gross stuff, I promise. And rest assured I was super conscious of lifting my feet those last few miles... I think on longer runs I get into this mode of trying to maximize my efficiency and lifting your feet less is more efficient than if you lift them more. Until you trip.

Technology is fun! Of course, you should not rely on it 100% when out in the wilderness but having a GPS tracker along that let me send people progress reports and which let the recipients of these reports reply (great motivation!) was really cool. It was also fun to be able to check our progress on our phones with a mapping app and to have the ability to take all these pictures! Remember giant SLRs? And disposable cameras? Hahaha... We did have a printed map for backup.

I was amazed by all the through-hikers we saw. The PCT is freaking popular! I guess this is the time of year most folks are finishing their north-bound journey. There were also loads of other hikers and backpackers. Don't go here this time of year if you want solitude. :)

I'd like to apologize to those campsites we walked through in the middle of the night with our headlamps on... Normally it would make perfect sense to camp really close to the trail or even right in the trail, right? I mean who's going to show up on a trail at night? One tent was literally in the middle of the trail and it was right at a river crossing so Bryan and I walked around this spot multiple times to be sure we were headed in the correct direction. Finally, the guy in the tent mumbled, "Go down to the water..." I suspect he really meant, "Get the eff out of here NOW!" Sorry guy. Did I mention I love my new headlamp? It's super bright and lasts all night long.

Lately, Seattle has been inundated with smoke from various forest fires and we saw it and felt it on this adventure. Sunday evening it hurt a little to eat and I can still feel my throat Monday but I wouldn't say it's terrible. This trip was so worth it and my throat is already 90% again.

We still had super views but they were not the "I can see for miles and miles" kind. Cases in point.

We didn't have an agenda or time goal but ended up covering ground faster than anticipated. I was hoping to run the last 30 or so miles in daylight as that scenery is some of the most spectacular but we ended up there in the dark and really only had light again for the last 10-12 miles? Rats. But a very contextual rats, this was a freaking awesome trip.

Movies really are the new pictures so here are a few fun snippets of video.

Leaving a lake after filtering water.


Running along the PCT.

There was plenty of water and various cool "bridges" across it.

Climbing at night.

The weather was perfect! It never got too hot and we never needed to put anything on at night! Bryan and I spent the entire time in the same outfit. In fact, during the night we commented numerous times how warm it was, the few cool breezes we did get were very much appreciated.

At night all the smoke was unfortunate. I was hoping for an amazing night sky with zero light pollution. Instead we got a blood orange half moon amidst total blackness. Pretty cool, but not what I was hoping for.

My nutrition was not perfect, Or rather, I need to figure out some alternative fuels for adventures when I'm not racing or when there are no aid stations. I experienced my most dramatic case of "sweet fatigue" and within perhaps 10 miles I was already sick of food bars and within 20 miles the mere thought of a food bar or gel was enough to almost make me throw up. Thank goodness I had brought along alternative fuels! Even so, there were stretches where I was running on fumes more than I wanted to. Hammer Nutrition Perpetuem and Endurolytes Fizz turned out to be lifesavers! The mild flavor of Perpetuem was something I could stomach start to finish and Endurolytes Fizz was always delicious and the electrolytes in them helped drain the water from my gut in a way I have never experienced. There were a few times when we guzzled plain water and each time I felt bloated and like the water was sloshing around in my stomach. That was never the case when I drank water + Endurolytes Fizz. Both of us packed way too many food bars (better safe than sorry I guess) but the number of bars I brought along was laughable. I think it was 20? I ate two and choked down the third. Ditto for the gel. On the upside, we were SO ready to help anyone on the trail that had run out of food... :)

Retelling the entire journey step-by-tedious-step would be just that, boring! I'll try to just provide highlights.

Getting shit ready. And by "shit" I mean nutrition. Everything else (technology, shoes, gear) is pretty much on autopilot these days.

Turns out both Bryan and I like to take pictures, but I think Bryan won that contest on our adventure. Here he is documenting the PCT logo at the trailhead sign at Stevens Pass. I think it was the 10th picture he had taken and we hadn't even started running yet.

Climbing the very first hill through the Stevens Pass resort. There were wildflowers start to finish!

I hear that equestrians use the PCT a lot. We only saw horses once, it was on this same first climb. The riders were really friendly and the horses were very well behaved.

We encountered almost every type of terrain you would expect in the Pacific Northwest. Flowing singletrack, switchbacks, rocky shale (is that redundant?) and water crossings. Sections of this trail were AMAZING, other sections were amazingly resistant to efficient forward motion. :)

At 54 years old I still like to pose next to big rocks. I also like to jump and touch low hanging signs while walking down the sidewalk, see how far I can make it down a beach while only stepping on driftwood and not on the sand and balancing on parking lot dividers as I walk from my car to the mall/hospital/store. Sue me.

It really was cool to be able to communicate with friends and family while out on the trail. Here I am typing an update into my phone (which was connected to my GPS tracker via Bluetooth) while walking. Barely. I almost tripped a couple of times while doing this but we didn't stop moving! :)

I couldn't get enough of all the water! It helped me clean up, was delicious, and even sounded awesome as you approached it.

We were able to stay dry for all but one water crossing.

The one where we had to get wet was about 20 miles from the finish, right where we woke up that camper in his tent. It was the middle of the night and perhaps there had been an alternative route but we didn't feel like searching. And the water felt REALLY GOOD. In retrospect, I should have stood in it a little longer and cleaned up my legs.

Water from that wet river crossing was the only issue I had the entire trip. My feet stayed wet the rest of the way and 20 miles at our pace was a long time so I had some peeling skin on my heels and the balls of my feet at the finish. But it cleared up within 24 hours so no biggie.

I guess even filtering water can be a blast!

The Kendall Katwalk never fails to impress. Even if it is socked in, just knowing about the exposure and potential views makes it awesome.

Here I am sending another update from the south end of the Kendall Katwalk. This shot captures a lot, some epic scenery, a small person next to big mountains, the smoke, what a day!

Our shoes at the finish.

Two happy guys at the finish after spending 21 hours together.

I learned a lot doing this.

  • Nutrition - it's not (thank god) just about bars and gels. Next time I plan on packing some things like cheese curd (Lucca gets credit for that suggestion), potatoes with olive oil and salt, smashed up avocados in a ziplock bag, you get the idea. All of these things should keep fairly well.
  • Good friends are, well, good. Turns out Bryan and I were very compatible fitness-wise on this adventure and neither of us complained which is a HUGE BONUS. We also love talking about things besides running. That is so refreshing to me.
  • Good gear, especially shoes, are so, so, SO important.
  • The pack I wore was too big. Sure, it's nice to have the room but even if I had needed all of my clothing (I was carrying a wind shirt, raincoat, undershirt, buff and light gloves) it would have fit in a smaller pack. What I wore had a 22-liter capacity, what Bryan wore had a 15-liter capacity and even he had his pack synched way down to minimize the bounce. That 10-15 liter size seems to be the ticket for most outings.
  • My favorite pack has almost everything in the front. That includes TWO bottles, trekking poles, your phone/camera, food, lip balm, etc. The main compartment in the back should really just be for extra clothing or larger items that you won't need very often. I have not found my ideal pack yet but I'm still looking... the Ultimate Direction BP Adventure Vest 3.0 (not the 4.0) comes really darn close. The pack I wore today (because I ripped my Adventure Vest and have not replaced it yet) was comfy on my back but is going straight to eBay. Don't get me wrong, it's freaking well made and freaking technical, it's just not for me and it's too large (in terms of fit, not in terms of capacity necessarily).
When I ran the White River 50 Mile Endurance Run I chose the Topo Athletic Ultrafly 2. Officially this is a road shoe but in my day-to-day training, it's been so darn comfy that I figured why not run an ultra in them? Boom. I have a new favorite ultra shoe. The Terraventure is normally my go-to trail shoe (and it still is), it has a rock plate and lugged sole but if traction will not be a big concern and the course is not especially rocky, the extra cushion of the Ultrafly pretty much compensates and it just protects your body that much more.

Here are all of Bryan's and my pictures. And there are a lot...

Nutrition (before)
  • Water
  • A smoothie around 7:00 AM
Nutrition (during)
Nutrition (after)
Gear (that I used, I carried a lot more)

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