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The Cascade Crest Classic 100 Miler

By Mike Mason

Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream. It is not dying. Lay down all thought. Surrender to the void. It is shining – The Beatles, Tomorrow Never Knows

August 22, 2006

I awake the Tuesday night prior to race weekend no fewer than three times, the result of a recurring nightmare – I am about to run a 100 mile race in a pair of shoes other than the Montrail Vitesse, my favorite for the distance. The dream also involves me closing the gap between myself and the race leader but ultimately getting lost in the always-difficult shopping mall garage section of the course. Strange. Stranger still, Tom Corris is for some reason present and delivers a fantastic lecture on the importance of following trail markings. Perhaps I’ve still not let go of my 2005 Chocolate Bunny DNF.

Anyhoo, I bust hump the following morning to obtain a pair of Vitesse.

August 25, 2006 – Race Eve

Photo of Mike Mason
Mike Mason at Cascade Crest. Photo: Glen Tachiyama
(more of Glen's Cascade Crest photos)

Steph, Sheila (my mother in law) and I arrive in Snoqualmie Pass, WA after spending a couple days in Seattle (the race start is just over an hour from Seattle, making CCC a great “vacation 100”). We later synch up with my mom, who has been tooling around the Pacific Northwest for the better part of three weeks in an RV with my aunt and uncle. She tells me how nice it will be if I finish in the top three as my aunt Loraine’s birthday is Sunday. Sure, mom. Cute. I was 25th last year. No pressure…

Dee and Todd Walker, Donna and Bill Utakis, Steph and I attend an optional race briefing Friday evening. We catch up with Bryon Powell at the meeting. Bryon, who has just six days prior run (another) breakthrough performance – this time at Leadville – drove to Washington for the purpose of crewing and pacing me.

August 26, 2006 – Race Day

Team Mason rolls out of bed at 6:30 a.m. The race starts at 10:00 so there is plenty of time to fuss with gear and such the morning of the race. I’m surprised with my laidback disposition. I drink a cup of coffee, eat a brownie and make some notes on Steph’s crew sheet regarding the segments where I will want the hydration pack versus handheld bottles, where I will need Big Headlamp versus Little Headlamp, the riding gloves, etc and we’re off.

The pre-race breakfast and trail briefing (mandatory) start around 8:00 – the breakfast includes eggs, huckleberry pancakes, fruits, juices, meats of some sort, and is open to everyone – runners, pacers, crew and dogs. Runners may even run with a dog, but special crew rules apply to ensure dog safety.

The race starts at 10:00 sharp.

Eric Clifton, Todd Walker and I take off together and remain together for a solid 100 yards. Eric starts hammering. Todd stays with him. I hang back and allow seven or so people to pass me before making it to the first aid station at mile ~3.5, the trailhead of the first major climb. I’m alarmed that my heart rate is well above 160. I need to stay below 153 during long races to effectively metabolize fluids and other fuels. Anything above 153 is not sustainable during a 100 mile race. I convince myself the heart rate is the result of nervous energy and not the result of, say, the heat associated with a 10:00 start (in retrospect I believe the heat was the primary factor).

The next ~18 miles go by uneventfully, save the spectacular views. My heart rate is now in the upper 150s – lower but still way too high – and it is quite warm. Too warm. I pass a few people. There are a few sections during the first 22 miles that are rocky and exposed. I wear an orange hat now streaked with salt stripes. Not good and I am approaching an emotional and physiological inflection point. And it is early.

I run into the Tacoma Pass aid station (mile 22) in 5th or 6th place. People comment on how great I look. Steph is not one of them – nor is Bryon. My posture and speed likely look pretty good from a distance but the eyes never lie. I spend a minute or two in the aid station – not long but longer than ideal. I drink an Ensure and half a Red Bull, pop a Zantac and an E-cap. Steph and Bryon tell me I need to drink more water. I look like “Skeletor” – the gaunt, dehydrated, boneheaded bizarro Mike Mason.

About 100 yards up the pine-covered trail everything gets bright and the sounds of those behind me at the aid station are suddenly muted – like someone hit a switch. My stomach flips a couple times and I’m cast in the Exorcist IV, projectile vomiting with delirious conviction. Three times. Big ones each. Someone runs down the trail in the opposite direction and congratulates me. I thank them and smile. Bet it’s a pretty one. The absurdity.

I consider returning to the aid station and dropping out. I instead decide to drop at 33.5, the next crew aid station. But, I feel much better post-vomit. I start fast hiking. I consume two gels and start drinking. My legs come back and, for a brief while, I find cruise control. I remember little of miles ~24 to ~32. I move into 3rd place somewhere between 29 and 31. Things always improve but…

Running into the Stampede Pass aid station at 33.5 I fall into an emotional abyss. Lots of self pity and doubt. How strange that it is so late in the day to have run only 33.5 miles. I’d be well into the “back nine” if this were MMT or just about any other 100. My quads hurt. I switch from hydration pack to handheld bottles and pick up Little Headlamp (mandatory at the Stampeded Pass aid station). Both Steph and Bryon look worried about Emaciated Mason.

Shortly after leaving the aid station I’m passed by two runners and the world again begins to swim. I reach the rocky, exposed summit of the next climb, nearly pass out and am very sleepy. I vomit again. The taste of copper fills my mouth and I vomit blood. Lots of blood. Dry heaves. Not cool. I will definitely drop at the next aid station – mile 40.5. While not a crew aid station someone will surely give me a ride to the Olallie Meadows aid station – mile 47 – where Steph will be waiting. I’m a mess. I can shower at the hotel and we’ll drive into Seattle for dinner. It’ll be great.

Why is this race so hard?

It is 100 miles, Mike. It’s supposed to be hard. You want it to be hard. No one would be here if it were easy.

But why must it be so much harder than MMT and WS? Doesn’t make a lick of sense.

Dumb question. Irrelevant, really. You’re harder than the race, Mike. Remember that. You proved as much last year after spending 3 hours at the mile 53.5 aid station, 2.5 of them in a sleeping bag. You finished that race and you’ll finish this one. Just keep moving, son. Recall David Horton’s experience last summer on this trail – this very trail – the PCT - God spoke to him and told him to simply do his best. Do your best.

Okay. Got it.

I am walking. For a long time this is my best. A couple people pass me. Big deal. This is my best. There you go. Keep it simple. I begin to jog, eat and drink and somehow hold onto 7th place. A mile or so before reaching the Meadow Mountain aid station – mile 40.5 – the trail passes through fields of waist to chest-high purple and yellow flowers. There are so many flowers. They so densely pack the landscape and edges of the trail I cannot see my feet.

I stumble-jog into the aid station and immediately sit down.

Eric Clifton’s wife Noni is there and her personality relaxes me. She tells me Eric dropped at the previous aid station, brings me drinks and food and actually makes me laugh for the first time all day. Humor - it’s an ally. The sun is getting lower, the shadows longer, and the air cooler. I leave the aid station in much better spirits than I arrive.

A delicate breeze swishes the trees and leaves around.

I can always drop at 47.

I run. I drink and eat more. No longer do I gag on the gels. The fruity ones actually taste pretty good. Approaching the Olallie Meadows aid station my head is well wrapped around the race. I completely emerge from the mental funk. My legs, having been deprived of electrolytes most of the day, have not entirely caught up but are gaining ground. There are some rocky stretches in this section, which I like. I like the rock rhythm. I reach the aid station. I cannot drop here if for no other reason than the RD advised this is where most people drop. Real runners drop at 53.5.

In anticipation of the ropes-course descent out of the aid station I switch from bottles to hydration pack and put on my riding gloves. I am impressed with myself for remembering to wear gloves and not carry bottles – such will provide distinct competitive advantages when negotiating the ropes. I literally think, in the voice of the Karate Kid’s sensei, “No burning hands and no bottles make for very rapid descent, Mason san.” I joke with Stephanie about how filthy I am. I am a dust-covered wreck. More humor.

Scott McCoubrey, owner of the Seattle Running Company, provides inspiring words and much needed solid food – proagies! Bill Utakis provides even more inspiration: “Donna is like 8 minutes behind you. You could be chicked.”

I’m off… Things are looking up and Bryon will jump in at the next aid station – mile 53.5.

I run the next 6.5 miles in 1:04. I leave the train tunnel and the sun is entirely set, having all but completed its red-orange explosion. It is dark and cool – almost cold. The resurrection is on.

It is not dying.

I blaze into the aid station. Bryon and I immediately leave and begin a brief section of asphalt. I drift a bit while thinking about one of the Grateful Dead’s last shows – August 1995 – specifically, a Jerry Garcia ballad. So many roads to ease my soul… All I want is one to lead me home…

Bryon barks with authority, “We’re going to run some diagnostics. We’re going to figure out what’s been wrong and fix it.” He has my attention. For the next nine hours or so I will do everything he tells me to do.

I tell him what is wrong, what is improving and so forth. We settle into a groove going up the long climb to Keechelus Ridge (mile 60). Every 15 or 20 minutes I’m told to “hit the gel flask for a half serving.” Every hour I’m told to take 2 E-Caps. Every 10 – 15 minutes I’m told to drink. Before cresting the climb and reaching the aid station Bryon tells me to pop an Advil and prepare to hammer the downhill into the Kachess Lake aid station (mile 68). We cruise through the mile 60 aid station.

We hammer.

We catch someone at the Kachess Lake aid station (mile 68). While he and his pacer leave ahead of us, we spend less time in the station. I eat a grilled cheese. Thank you, Carol O’Hear. The stomach is definitely back. Steph hands me Big Headlamp in preparation for the technical section, kisses me and divulges some intelligence on the runners ahead of us. Someone ahead has dropped. I move into 6th place. We’re off. I won’t see Steph and Sheila again until mile 95 - a long stretch without them… But something to look forward to.

We follow the 5th place runner closely through the next section; a 5 mile technical section affectionately referred to as the Evil Forest. Definitely evil, but not eeeevvvil by MMT standards. We pressure #5 a bit but do not attempt to pass. We catch him at the Mineral Creek aid station (mile 73). He and pacer leave before us, but are running too hard too soon. Running a little scared perhaps. We hang back, keep our heart rates in the mid 130’s and eat and drink like wild Bird Knob goats. All Bryon’s advice. The man just placed 6th at Leadville. Trust him.

On the long climb to the No Name Ridge aid station (mile 80) we move into 5th place without exerting any more effort. We turn off the headlamps for a while after moving into 5th. The stars are wonderful from this altitude. Splattered. I’m humming Bob Dylan. The stars they’re just beginning to shine… Fortune telling lady…

We encounter Dee Walker who is leaving the aid station after crewing Todd – a good sign as I’ve not seen her all day. If Todd is in 1st or 2nd (Todd holds the course record of 19:54) and we’re 5th there must be a couple people close. Try not to think too much about passing people. The next section of trail, the Cardiac Needles, will indeed be eeeevvvil because of the many steep climbs and descents.

Lay down all thought. Turn off the mind.

Focus on the trail. Got it.

We encounter runner #4 on the steep climb up Thorp Mountain (mile ~85). He and pacer are heading down but are very close. We hold back on the descent. No need to rush it.

Float down stream.

Let them do the work.

Works again. We move into 4th place around mile 87. Just keep the heart rate down and keep eating and drinking. We want to run the last 10 miles (the “easy miles”) hard.

Mason, hit the flask. More gel.

Descending into the French Cabin Mountain aid station (mile 88) the horizon is turning a gentle pink and orange behind the jagged peaks of Cascades. Tomorrow is officially here. Mount Rainier is there all white and fluffy and massive and hovering in the pink-orange. Impossibly turquoise Kachess Lake is seen 6,000 feet below. Bryon bursts, “My God this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. This beats Hardrock.” If we were in 25th place, as I was last year at this point, we might set up shop. One of the toes on my right foot is killing me. With all the Leadville junk in his legs, Bryon is having no picnic.

We spend no time in the aid station. I eat two gels and drink two cups of Mountain Dew. Bryon fiddles with his hydration pack.

We run the next section to the Silver Creek aid station (mile 95) at 8 to 8:30 pace yet fail to catch #3. We fly into the aid station and ask Steph how far ahead #3 is and she smiles while also looking a bit confused and corrects me – “Sweetie, you’re #3 and Todd just left.”

It is shining.

We run most of the last section but take some fast walk breaks on the asphalt. We round a corner onto a stretch of trail that follows a railroad track. More Dylan. It’s all over now baby blue. We soon cross the finish line in 3rd. As it turns out, a runner ahead of us had crawled into a sleeping bag at the Thorp Mountain aid station (mile 85). A sleeping bag. Gather what you can from coincidence.

And Happy Birthday

Mike Mason
Alexandria, VA

Virginia Happy Trails Running Club
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