easier to finish than to quit : the pacific crest trail FA race

The Pacific Crest Trail FA was my longest race, both from the standpoint of distance (28 miles) and time (eight hours).  It turned out to be much more than I’d bargained for.

After looking around for an August marathon, I found two free organized marathon-plus runs on the Marathon Maniacs Race Calendar.  This is a busy month for us.  A combination of family stuff, and Kris’ Ironman Canada event limited the open weekends.  The alternative was to buy a $400 plane ticket and fly into Wyoming to do the Running With the Horses Marathon in Green River.  It looked like a nice enough event, but I didn’t feel motivated enough to spend money on airfare and hotel, as well as spending 2-3 days away from home.  So it was the Pacific Crest FA, a freebie close to home then. 

I woke up just before the alarm went off at 4:45 AM on race day.  I had a simple breakfast of a bagel with PB&J.  I varied my normal routine a bit by quaffing down an espresso before leaving home, figuring it was mostly a training run, so what could this hurt?

Just after 6:30, I found myself at the Guye Cabin, home to the Washington Alpine Club signing in and doing last minute prep.  As the race was a point-to-point, finishing back at the cabin, we arranged carpools to drive out to the start.  Just after 7, I headed out with Tate from Portland driving, and three other runners from Oregon scrunched into the backseat.

The directions to the start looked pretty straightforward on paper, right up to the part that told us to stay on Forest Service Road #41 for 7.6 miles.  Have to say that the ride was something though – we had a short line of cars kicking up dust on the FS roads, winding up into the Cascades, navigating past some complex turns.  Tate wondered whether she would be able to find her car again, and the rest of us wondered whether we’d even find the start.  A bit over an hour later, we hopped out.  After a short time spent using the available restroom facilities (trees), and stretching, Jeff our leader said “Okay, it’s 8:17, have fun and I’ll see you at Stampede pass in a couple of hours”.  With that, we were off.

I ventured out early in the pack, figuring I’d get passed pretty quickly.  The early miles has a mild mix of up and down, which I did pretty conservatively.  The directions were easy – just follow the Pacific Crest Trail.  I found out pretty quickly that this was easier said than done.

About 55 minutes into the run, I took a wrong turn onto a fire road, missing the trail, and giving me another mile or so to run.  So much for running towards the front of the pack.  To be honest, I’m lucky I didn’t take more wrong turns on this run, doing so late in the race would have been easy to do, with a huge price to pay.  On the positive side, I got to enjoy a beautiful view of Mount Rainier twice, as I made my way out along Showshoe Butte.

My thinking was that Jeff had overestimated the time it’d take to cover the 10 miles to Stampede Pass.  As I watched the time tick off on my watch though, I began thinking that I’d either missed Jeff, or that I’d possibly taken a wrong turn.  I kept watching the signs marking the trail, to ensure that I wasn’t off course.  When I finally got to the aid station, I was surprised that it had taken me nearly two and a half hours.  I really thought I’d been going faster than the 4 mph pace that this time meant.  I loaded up on water and sport drink, and headed out.

Looking at the map, I’d convinced myself that it had to be longer than 10 miles from the start at Tacoma Pass to Stampede Pass.  As the race unfolded, I realized that the miles along the PCT were a lot more challenging than I’d planned for.

It was another 90 minutes or so before I reached what looked like a plausible halfway point at Yakima Pass.  By this time, I was again low on water and very fatigued.  As I passed the Yakima Pass sign across from marshy Twilight Lake, I wondered how one would go about taking a DNF (did not finish) in this race.  I’d never had a DNF before, but was considering it.  Given how I was feeling, I wasn’t sure I would be able to finish.  I was tired and a bit dizzy with another fourteen miles to go.  Covering the short distances between landmarks was taking a long time, and I had started doing ‘21s’ (two minutes of running, one minute of walking) as a rule.  As I covered the largely exposed route between Twilight and Mirror Lakes, this became mostly walking.

About that DNF though – we were running far from the road.  The best I’d be able to do would be to try to appeal to a camper along the way to use their cell phone (presuming there was any signal at all, which is doubtful).  I’d call Kris and try sketching out a set of complex directions for her to pick me up along one of the serpentine fire roads winding up through the Cascades.  It wouldn’t work, and I thought it would actually take me less time and effort to Just Finish.  With that, I recognized the that only way I would DNF was to be carried off the course by medics.  As tempting as that felt, it wasn’t going to happen by choice.

On the way to Mirror Lake, I ran across a nice cold stream that I drew water from.  I gulped down about 40 ounces of Cytomax and water, and felt quite a bit better.  The lifesaver for me was having a water bottle equipped with a set of filters, enabling me to take water from streams and lakes.  Without this, I would have been in big trouble.

Coming alongside Mirror Lake I took some more water.  The many backpackers and campers there were testament to the beauty we were privy to in the woods.  By now the trail was sheltered and much cooler.  I learned later that the temperature at Snoqualmie Pass climbed to over 90, meaning this was the hottest event I’d participated in, as well as the longest.

Shortly after Mirror Lake I was passed by a group of three runners, two women and one man.  They were all training for the Cascade Crest 100 miler (coming up later in the month).  By now, the combination of the fluid intake I’d had as well as running in the shade had turned things around.  The other big plus was the sign that told me that I was just 8 miles from Snoqualmie Pass.  I had mentally reentered the race and felt I could actually finish.

I caught up with the three other runners and chatted with them for a while.  Friendly bunch – I ran with Caroline for a while, as well as Charles (I’m blanking on the name of the other woman right now).  I think that settling in with them solidified me for the last 8.  Turns out that Caroline had run out of water – although we were headed for another aid station at Olallie Meadow, but we had no feel for how long it would take us to get there.  Indeed, in looking at the course description (which I’d carried along), there wasn’t information telling us how far Mirror Lake was from Olallie Meadows, so we were just winging it.  I volunteered some water to Caroline, definitely appreciating the ability to draw drinking water from the streams along the way again.

By the time we made it to the aid station, according to the maps and descriptions, we’d covered 24 miles.  We’d also been out for well over six hours, already much longer than I’d previously taken to finish an event.  And I was pretty ready to be done.  Banking on the final four to be largely downhill, I picked up my pace and started to run more.  Two big issues with that though.  First, the trail was very rocky, rendering the footing very iffy.  I’d nearly face-planted a number of times already, and the frequency of near-misses picked way up.  The other problem was that we began climbing about a mile or so after the meadows.  The combination of these things relegated me to mostly walking.

By then, I knew I could finish.  But I was definitely feeling a lot more fatigue than I’d felt on previous marathons.  We saw a tantalizing view of I-90, leading us to believe we were right around the corner from the finish.  In fact, we were still over 2.5 miles out, which took nearly an hour to cover.  My sense of distance and scale was totally gone by now.

A short downhill stretch took us to the end of the PCT stretch for the race.  We could see the interstate and buildings for the ski areas, so it almost didn’t matter how we got there (the distance would have been just about the same).  After scanning the fire road a bit, I reconnected with Caroline and crew.  They started jogging when we got down to the ski buildings, which put them a couple of minutes ahead of me.  After enduring nearly ten minutes along a sun-baked stretch of road, I made it to the finish.

8:06:11

I was amazed at how long this took.  Proud that I made it.  And very very tired.  I signed in, then called Kris to tell her I was on my way home.  I will replay aspect of this event in my head for a while, trying to figure out how to better prepare for a 50k in the mountains (a goal of mine for a while).

There were some things I couldn’t control.  First of all, this was the hottest day of the year in the mountains, with the temps at Snoqualmie Pass topping 90.  Also – the information on the course wasn’t what I’m used to getting, and didn’t provide a very clear set of expectations or ability to plan my race (even as I was doing it).  On the other hand, learning that I can complete a race in weather like this, and with sketchy info is good.

Next time, I also need to do a lot more mountain trail running prep.  Essentially I went from running 8 miles over two hours up Mount Si a couple of weeks back, to running 28 miles in 8 hours along the Pacific Crest Trail.  The inclines were actually a lot easier on the PCT, but the distance was very difficult.  I need to scale up in training to an event like this – some runs along the Pratt and Melakwa Lake routes (approaching 18 miles) would be very good.  Also – throwing in several routes up Tiger too.

I thought I’d packed more fuel that I would use.  In fact, I’d packed for a six-hour event, but not for eight.  I had just about enough Cytomax (consuming four 20 oz bottles), but not enough gels (needed another two), and not enough Endurolyte capsules (needed an additional two hours worth).  Again, the filtered water bottle was a life saver. in the truest sense.

All in all, some great lessons learned on a long day in the beautiful Cascades.

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