Cascade Crest 100 Race Report – 8-24-19
It feels good to be finally writing this one. The culmination of what was a three year plan from when I first jumped into the ultrarunning world – starting with a 50K in 2017 (Mt Hood), a 100K in 2018 (Zion), and then a 100 miler in 2019. The first two years of this so-called three year plan went about as well as it could – reaching new maxes in total mileage, race distances, and marathon PRs.
But that all came to a screeching halt when my left post-tib tendon blew out in Dec 2018 after a 50 mile race. I did not think it was too serious at first, but one month in a walking boot and almost three months of no running wiped out all the grand plans I had for 1H 2019, which included a renewed focus on speedwerk and a faster spring marathon to put it all together. Furthermore, as I’m sure most can relate, I succumbed to the google: the googling of injuries that makes everything seem like the end of your life (or running career). Seemed like anyone and everyone on the internet who had post-tib injuries never fully recovered, never got back to their old self. Luckily for me, I had been targeting summer races so there was still hope and time for a recovery.
Enter NY Custom Performance, arguably the best running specific PT in NY, based on the google, and based on social media. Kathleen, my PT, couldn’t believe what she was hearing when I told her that I run in Hokas, with inserts, AND ankle braces on both ankles. Not only was I running in unstable shoes with weak ankles, I was immobilizing my ankles as the fix. Rather than strengthening my ankles and feet, I was letting them get weaker over the years, until they finally blew out. Therefore, the task at hand for Kathleen was three-fold: 1) restoring flexibility in my ankles 2) building up foot and ankle strength and 3) building back up the mileage.
I received welcome news that I got into Cascade Crest 100 via lottery in mid-February, just shortly after starting PT and still unable to run. I discovered Cascade Crest thanks to the famous GingerRunner, Ethan Newberry, who makes awesome short films and videos on trail running (highly recommend checking out his stuff). Cascade Crest was his first 100 miler, and after watching his video “Amongst the Evergreens”, I knew I had it to add to the list of potential 100s. The race is a beautiful but difficult course in the Cascade mountains of Washington, with 21,000+ft of elevation gain, and 21k ft loss. Not exactly an easy course for a first timer. But I had gotten in on my first try, so of course I had to go for it. Deliberately kept it under wraps, but gave the date to Kathleen. She was confident that I would be able to train for it even though I had my doubts at that time. After all, I had planned for a 5 month training plan that started with 40 miles per week, meaning I needed to be up to 40 miles per week in a month’s time when I hadn’t run since Dec 1. After a few weeks of PT and vast improvements in flexibility and strength I finally got the green light to go for a 15-20 minute run. Wow. The feeling of running was amazing. It felt so good to be back. But I was far cry from beginning training for a 100, let alone hit up any trails.
I put together a full on training plan: 4-5 runs per week, b2b long runs, hill workouts, avg 50 mpw, the whole shebang. But it became very apparent very quickly that this was not going to be a normal 100 mile training cycle. Very slow progress was made, first with 2-3 mile runs (that first run back in nearly 3 months was freakin’ amazing), then 3-4 miles, then 5-6 miles, then a setback for a couple of weeks, then finally up to ~20 mpw. All on flat ground. No trails. And in Nikes. That’s right, Nikes. Those of you who know me, know that I began my earlier running career in Nike freeruns because I wanted to look good, which eventually led to my first set of ankle problems. So I’ve always been biased against Nikes (exception: the Vaporfly 4%). But Kathleen wanted me running in something more stable than Hokas, and the Nike Pegs seemed to the trick.
- I didn’t start trail running until Memorial Day weekend, exactly 3 months before race day, while out on Santa Cruz island off the coast of Southern Cal. The feeling of finally letting loose on trails was absolutely liberating – it reminded me of why I loved doing this after so many months of not being able to get outdoors.
- Getting that first longish run in gave me the confidence to proceed forward with my training plan
- Kathleen recommended trying the Salomon Sense Rides as a stable shoe with good tread (Salomon’s are the gold standard for trail running). I absolutely loved them and this became my new whip of choice.
- I planned out for three big weeks of training after that Memorial Day run, with long trail runs up in Bear Mountain building up to 22-24 miles. This would be followed by a recovery week, then a big 1.5 weeks of hiking in Peru culminating with the Ultra Trail Cordillera Blanca 50K in the northern mountains of Peru. Follow with a few weeks of easier running, then the most important run of the cycle, the Palisades Ultra 50 Miler in the remote Idaho/Wyoming wilderness, which would serve as my 50 mile qualifier race for Cascade Crest. Then we would have 5 weeks to race day – recovery week, one more big training week, then three week taper.
- Of course, the plan never goes according to plan and a number of runs were scaled back, with less total mileage than planned. It basically came down to “how is my ankle feeling this week?” and then going from there. But as I have learned in the past, being flexible with the plan is key, and as long as the key workouts were happening, it was all good.
- I spent 12 days in Peru, treating my mom to the Inca Trail, Machu Picchu, and Huaraz as a small token of my appreciation for putting up my with my shenanigans for 29+ years. This trip really fast-tracked my fitness levels. Spending all that time at 10-15k of altitude helped my cardiovascular system (coming back to run at sea level was fantastic), and the amount of hiking / elevation gain we did really gave me my climbing legs back – I totaled almost 40 miles and 12ft of climbing during that trip.
- Despite my acclimatization, the UTCB 50K destroyed me. All of the prior hiking had my legs fatigued, and the altitude really slowed me down (we were basically bouldering at 15k feet!). I ended up dropping to the 25K distance, still a 17 mile race and 4500ft of gain. This ended up being a blessing in disguise as it allowed me to keep fresh for the more important race ahead.
- In order to race Cascade Crest, you had to complete a 50 mile race between Jan 1 and July 31st. Because of my injury and slower than expected recovery, I ended up pushing my qualifier to the weekend of July 24th, which would be 5 weeks before the race. An ideal scenario would be doing a 50 miler 6-10 weeks before the race, but I wasn’t going to be ready so I pushed as far back as I could. As for race choice, it came down to either A) choosing a very difficult race that would be good prep for Cascade Crest but risk not finishing or B) choosing an easy race but then not being as well prepped. I went back and forth on this but settled on option A because this 50 miler in the remote Idaho wilderness was 1000x more beautiful than the easier race in Ohio. Plus, I had to believe in myself and get it done.
- Race was absolutely beautiful and gorgeous. But the race also was extremely difficult. I will likely put together a short report for that one so
won’t go crazy here. But all you need to know is that the altitude really slowed me down – I thought being in Peru just three weeks prior would offset that but evidently not the case. I did more mental math than I have ever done in my life because I knew that I was cutting it close from as early as 33-35. I was at Mile 43-44 and did not think I would make it, but I prayed to god for an extra gear a
nd he delivered. Ran among the fastest split of the race for those last 5 miles, and finished the race with 8 minutes to spare. I broke down and had tears in my eyes post-race as I didn’t think I was going to make it. It would have been devastating to run that far and not qualify for my 100. I texted the crew “Pack your fucking bags because we are going to Seattle!” after the race.
- I never felt like my ankle was back to 100%, and it probably won’t be for a while. It was a fairly serious injury, one that just needed to be managed on a daily basis. This meant an almost laser like focus on doing my strength exercises (I swear it works Stevie Lin try it for your plantar), foam rolling, stretching, and gua sha’ing. Kathleen was instrumental in helping me to get over the fear of aches and pains. She constantly reminded me that my ankles were finally working after years of stagnation. It was normal to be sore after a run. As long as it wasn’t hurting or getting worse during the run I would be fine. And she was right.
- We tried to incorporate lower body strength training, but the added stress seemed to make my ankles worse so we nixed it. Just focused on the ankle and feet specific strength training. I continued to do my upper body workouts, however, because you know the vanity is still there and gotta look fly.
- I did almost no speedwork during this cycle – Kathleen did not think my ankles were ready for any of that. I did do one round of hill repeats when I got back from Peru – the strongest set of hill repeats I had ever done (low 7s pace on the uphills). But that was all I was able to work in during this cycle.
- Starting a new job wreaked havoc on my diet and weight, and it did not help I was injured. But once I got into a groove, was able to get back to my intermittent fasting routine. Also working in the city allowed me to run fasted in the morning, which helped burn a lot more pounds. I finally hit one of my “not so important” goals of getting under 150 lbs, the lightest I have been since high school.
- I was admittedly a bit more lackadaisical in my nutritional planning this around – I generally have a strategy in place but also have seen over the years that my body responds better to real foods, and a variety of them. So I didn’t try to experiment too heavily this time around. Just stuck to my Maurten gels + chips + real foods (ie quesadillas during Idaho, broths, mashed potatoes which I discovered in Idaho).
- I, somehow, was able to continue the tradition of my big bro bankrolling my lifestyle, this time tricking his wife into buying me a $200 pair of Leki trail running poles for Christmas. This is not really an important detail for this report but he and I will get a chuckle out of this.
- You thought I was going to go one race report without referring to the underground didn’t you. Nope! I had always shied away from late summer races, because I was reluctant to give up my degenerate lifestyle that typically involved raving until 5am among other things. But somehow, I got through the summer without giving up my nightlife completely – not sure it was the best idea but I did do a 22 mile trail run on a Saturday morning, then hit up the legend Oh yes! oh yes! Carl Cox at Mirage until 5am that same night. Oh well, c’est la vie.
- And because I was able to do morning runs, I finally got to accomplish another running-related goal of mine: participating in weekly morning Back on my Feet Runs. Most of you know what BOMF is so I won’t explain here. But once I officially qualified for Cascade Crest I decided I should fundraise for them. There is no better feeling than doing what you love most, and helping others out at the same time. So once again, I thank you all for contributing to my fundraiser.
If there was only one thing to take away from this training cycle, it was the fact that I could run such low mileage and still be able to race at these distances. My “ideal” training plan was going to average 50 miles per week for 20 weeks – 1000 miles total. I ran 420 miles for the 20 weeks leading up to the race – less than half of that and an average of 21 miles per week. That just sounds crazy and extremely under-trained. But I felt real confident because I had gotten in the key workouts that I needed – my trip to Peru, that attempted 50k turned into 25k, and the Idaho 50 miler. My ankles and feet were feeling stronger than ever with my consistent PT and strength training – I was marveling at the fact I could run these races without any ankle braces!
For those unfamiliar with ultrarunning, runners typically have a crew with them – people who wait for their runner at certain aid stations and help them with all of their needs: refilling flasks, changing clothes, prepping any special foods or drinks, fixing up cuts and bruises, basically anything the runner might need at that moment. Many of these races also allow pacers after a certain point. The pacer’s job is to literally pace their runner, encouraging them to continue as things get tougher. Many seasoned 100 mile runners go to races solo and are more than capable of getting it done. But as a first timer, I thought it would be awesome to have some support out there. Plus, as most of you know, I am a social butterfly that is constantly bringing together groups of people. I wanted to give some of my closest and most trusted friends a little taste of the ultrarunning world, hopeful that maybe they’ll be inspired to do something awesome in the future (not just ultras but that would be awesome). Because I had chosen a beautiful course out West where I love it and feel right at home, I wanted them to get a small taste of the trails there too.
Enter the A-squad. Starting with Rachel, my amazing girlfriend who has already made countless sacrifices crewing and pacing me in prior races. She would be crew chief, running point and directing everyone else. My three pacers would be the three guys I do most of my trail running with: Francisco aka Cisco aka Latin Spice, one of my closest friends from BC and also a diehard Mets fan. Andrew “BOK” Keem, my roommate and closest non-school related friend, a self-deprecating dude who is actually a stud Spartan racer / ultrarunner but won’t ever admit that to you. And Evan “Big EZ” Odim, who constantly asks why he is friends with the Portes brothers but is the most experienced ultrarunner here (you can ask my bro why named Big EZ). Keem would be the first pacer from Miles 54-69, Cisco would bat second for Miles 69-77, and EZ would bring it home from 77-100. To round out the crew we had Dayna from “Strong Island”, Cisco’s awesome girlfriend who would be the designated driver. Chudi “Where Da Booty”, one of my closest high school friends who is also an avid runner and someone I have been trying to trick into doing an ultra for years now, and Kate aka “Get Out”, Chudi’s better half (literally, dude owns a real travel bag and makes his own bed now) who would be running point on social media and photos/videos – BOMF wanted me to do an Instagram takeover for the weekend. These guys were making a huge sacrifice flying cross country for me, so I wanted to make sure I showed them my appreciation. I wasn’t sure what else to do, but during our pre-race meeting the night before the race I handed out a bunch of Amazon gift cards as just a small token of appreciation. All of them literally threw the cards back at me, telling me don’t jinx the race! Jeez, I was trying to make the point that no matter what happened out there I appreciated them!!
Miles 1-25 – “This course is tough man. Tough”
I got a full 8+ hours of sleep and slept like a baby. The only two times that has ever happened was before my two Chicago marathons; both instances I PR’d. So this was definitely a good sign. The race has a later start than most, 9am, so it felt good to wake up at a more normal hour and feel relaxed driving over to the start for check-in, pre-race briefing, final digestive system cleansings. Got my group pic with the squad, posted to IG, and went over to the start. I was so relaxed before the race I actually forgot to hand in my one drop bag! All good, the crew just needs to make sure they make it so I can grab my headlamp! Gave my final hand shakes and hugs to the crew, and went off to the start. Nice little rendition of both the Canadian and US anthems, and then we were off. Lets. Fucking. Go.
The course begins on a flat dirt road for about 2 miles before hitting the first climb of the day, a nice 3,000ft climb over 3 miles to get your day started right. I made sure to go easy on this first climb, cognizant of Every. Single. Person’s. advice to go slow and easy to start off the race. Started in the bottom/mid pack, felt pretty good, breathing was easy, and I was absolutely excited to be out there. As with most of these races, everyone is super friendly and happy to chit chat whenever around, so naturally struck up conversations with people around. One dude sounded way too legit to be in the same pack as us, talking about running Hardrock, WSER, etc and then spoke about how he wanted to try TDG next (Tor des Geants, a 205 mile race with 80+k ft of gain through the Italian alps, in case anyone was wondering). And sure enough, as soon as the single track widened up, he power climbed ahead, never to be seen again. But not before I had a chance to rattle off that I knew a dude going to Tor (shoutout to Z Man!). That first clearing after the climb was the first of many beautiful views on the course. After the close call in Idaho, I promised myself I would not be taking an photos or videos. Just soak in the moment, and focus on the task at hand. Also at this clearing was the first “aid station”, which was really just a water drop at Mile 4.5 to refill flasks if needed. As I reflect, here was where mistake number one was made. I saw the water drop, had only gone through maybe 1 flask (half and half), and decided I should be ok till the first real aid station at Mile 9. But I did keep looking back at it after passing, somewhat thinking to myself that it would be good idea to top off and drink more. But I never did, and decided that I had gone the first 9 miles in my Idaho race on two flasks and was fine, so therefore I should be fine here too. A sure sign of things to come. After the climb, we had some nice rolling hills in which to run, but I took it easy knowing that there was so much race ahead. A number of people passed me, and I did start feeling slower and a bit lethargic, but to my pleasant surprise my watch was short by a mile and I rolled into the first real aid station at Mile 9. This gave me a nice burst of energy, refilled my flasks, ate some fruit, and was on my way. It was 7 miles to the next aid station, mostly 3 miles downhill followed by 3 miles uphill on a dirt road. Plenty of easy running here to get in a groove. However, during this stretch I began to notice my vision and head was starting to lose focus, a symptom that usually hits me much later in the race. I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, but I generally ignored it. I also stupidly kicked a rock into my right anklebone, which hurt for a while and distracted me from the lack of clarity I was experiencing. I rolled into Blowout Mtn aid station (Mile 15) and decided to take a few extra minutes to eat, hydrate, and stock up on nutrition. Drank some ginger ale as my stomach already started feeling a bit off, but not too bad. And smoothies!! This aid station was serving up some homemade berry smoothies. Wow, that really hit the spot. I felt instantly better with the ginger ale, smoothies, and various salted and sweet items I took down (fruits and pickles w/ salt). At this point I knew I was behind my pace chart schedule, but I had also told my crew to expect that as I wanted to deliberately go slow. The next 5 mile stretch was when you turn onto the PCT and it was just beautiful – rolling hills, running along ridgelines in perfect weather with clear views for miles. I definitely continued to move slowly, a few people passing me again, but I was ok with that. There was actually an optional detour to see amazing views from Blowout Mtn lookout, but I decided to skip it as I was not there to fuck around (ended up passing a handful of people here). Even better, just past the optional lookout was a professional photographer taking sweet photos of us along the ridgeline. I was happy that I still got to feed my vanity despite skipping the lookout. Continuing on for a few miles to Little Bear Aid at Mile 19.5, I started feeling lethargic again. Something just continued to feel off, either in my head, or stomach, or both. But I was in somewhat high spirits because 1) the aid station captain said that I was looking pretty good, 2) we would be coming up on a nice groomed gentle downhill 5 mile stretch and 3) that nice stretch would lead to Tacoma Pass aid station Mile 25.4, the very first time I’d get to see my crew! Pounded back some ginger ale and bananas, tucked my poles away, and got started cruising into the downhill. Passed a couple of people on this stretch, but then an old man came flying right by me out of nowhere. I was very impressed until I watched him eat shit real hard 100 feet in front of me. I came over to help him up and ask if he was ok, to which he responded “I like to fly down these things, and sometimes I fall” then carried on at the high speed as if nothing had happened. Props to this dude for showing me up, but I wasn’t about to blow my load out of pride. Finally, I rolled into Tacoma Pass, heard Cisco first “Justin! Yes!”, before seeing everyone else. Came in around 7 hours and change, about an hour behind schedule but that was ok. Needed to take it easy in the beginning and that’s what I did. What no one realized at the time (myself included) was that I had “taken it easy” out of necessity, not because I was deliberately keeping the pace slow.
Miles 26-43 – “I owe it to my crew”
This report will very much be just as much about my race as how awesome my crew was. Everyone sprang into action quickly – refilling my flasks, grabbing me ginger ale, checking my pain spots, Rachel leading the way with the checklist. I could hear Chudi saying “this is so fun” to no one in particular. Oh man, love that dude he cracks me up. I repeated a bunch of times “this course is fucking hard” to whoever would listen. Ate a bunch of fruit, a couple bites of avocado wraps, and told the crew I would need them to start cooking up broth for Mile 36, the next time I’d see them. I really didn’t want or think I’d need broth so early in the race but this was how my stomach felt. Evan showed me the course profile to Mile 36, which represented the first cutoff of the race. Told me I was good on time but wanted me to take it easy on the climb up to the next aid at Mile 32, then pick up the pace a bit on the downhill into Mile 36. That first cutoff at 36 was 830pm, a full 11.5 hours after race start. Given the slower than expected pace, decided it would be smart to grab my headlamp from the crew at this aid station, in case it got dark before 36 (when running under tree cover, the sky might still be light but basically dark on the trail). One of the things we were reminded of multiple times was that at certain points on the course, there were angry wasp nests, so make sure to move quickly through these areas. Luckily these areas were very well marked, so was able to move through quickly and did not look back for the nest. At some point during these few miles after leaving Tacoma Pass, my brain decided that Mile 39 was the cut-off, not Mile 36. So naturally I started running mental math ala Idaho to figure out how fast I needed to move with adequate cushion. It was early in the race, but I was already feeling the pressure. “Here we go again. Tough course. Oh well.” I muttered to myself. Just gotta get to that first tight cut-off then should be good the rest of the race as more time opens up. I started moving slow again in the miles leading up to Snowshoe Butte aid station (Mile 32), wondering where the hell it was. I saw a runner up ahead stop and yell out “Berries!” and he started helping himself to handfuls before taking off. Next, a random dude popped out of nowhere on the side of the trail, foraging tons of berries stone age style. I was tempted to grab some on my own but with the wrong distance to the cutoff in my head I didn’t think I had enough time. Luckily, my concerns about the Mile 32 aid station led me to whip out my aid station spreadsheet, and lo and behold! The damn cut-off is at Mile 36! Almost instantaneously my spirits were lifted. I had wayyyy more time than I expected. It literally felt like a weight coming off my shoulders. Little did I know that this was not going to be the last time I thought about cut-offs. In fact, this was going to be the largest cut-off cushion I had for the entire race! I finally got to Snowshoe Butte, took down more ginger ale, some fruits, tried to eat savory stuff but stomach wasn’t feeling it so tossed it. Another 4ish downhill miles into Stampede Pass at 36, where my crew would be waiting with broth. Cruised in nicely, with about an hour cushion. “Flasks. Broth. Chamois. [Something]” I repeated these four items to my crew and they sprung into action (can’t remember for the life of me what that fourth item was). Broth and ramen already made. Ginger ale in a cup for me. Someone brought a smoothie, as I had requested after seeing how good the smoothie at Mile 15 was. Was starting to feel some pains in my anterior shin tendons, so Evan got to rolling them out. Chudi had my chamois ready (no, he was not going to rub it on for me!). Told people how figuring out the real cut-off had put me in such a better mood. Went over the course profile for the next section – Evan suggested, take it easy on the climb up to Mile 39, then cruise
downhill into Mile 43 (Meadow Mtn), then take it super nice and easy on the 6 mile climb to get to Ollalie Meadows (49) where I would see some of the crew next. “All you gotta do is get to Hyak man (54), get to Hyak. And then you’re cruising the rest of the way.” I felt good about this. I hit the tight first cut-off, and now had time to pick apart the rest of the course. And then, I hunched over, dry heaved. Oh no. Yakkkkkkkk. Yakkkkkkkkkkkkk. There goes all of the broth, ramen, ginger ale, and smoothie I had just taken down the last couple of minutes. I felt like absolute garbage immediately. This is not good. Once it was over, went back to drinking some more broth and ale, trying to get the stomach to calm down a bit, and to replace the calories I just lost. Took a few more extra minutes to relax myself before Evan told me it was time to get moving. Gave me some tums to use on the trail. I did feel somewhat better, but the mistake here, was not re-hydrating or putting more calories back into me. I had never yak’d before during a race, but hey, there’s always a first time for everything. And new battles against adversity to take on. But this was way too early to be dealing with this.
As EZ said, take it easy on the climb up to 39, then cruise it downhill into Mile 43. Turns out the climb was only to about 37, then it was most likely downhill into 43. The sun was finally gone, so it was time to bust out the headlamps. Unlike most people, I actually enjoy running in the dark. It reminds me of scuba diving at night, there is just something very calming and freeing about it all. And here, we had a nice fairly groomed downhill section to continue on. However, my stomach just wouldn’t cooperate. I wasn’t puking, but I wasn’t intaking anything either. I knew I had to eat and hydrate, but I just had zero appetite for anything. In Idaho, I constantly forced myself to take down my nutrition and liquids even if I didn’t feel like it. But here I just couldn’t will myself. And slowly my running pace deteriorated, until it was walking, shuffling, walking, shuffling. A handful of runners passed me in this stretch, until I was completely solo in the dark. One nice lady said “Hope your stomach starts to feel better” as she disappeared up into the night. At this point I realized how little fun I was having. “Man 90% of this race thus far has been unenjoyable. This fcking sucks.” All due to my stomach problems. The temps were starting to dip into the 50s, which did not help my case. Best part, I would periodically turn my head right to stare out into the abyss with my headlamp, and noticed that there was a huge steep drop-off into god knows where. Normally I would get excited by this, but not tonight. One thing that did make me feel somewhat better, was that I noticed I was tracking about ~13 hours to get to Mile 43, 20 minutes faster than Idaho with around a similar amount of elevation gain. I used this to build some optimism, but it just wasn’t working. As I came to within 1-2 miles of the aid station, I told myself that I would push through to Ollalie Meadows at 49, where I would see my crew next. I owed it to them to get there before dropping out, or get there and let them make the decision. Still had plenty of time to get to Hyak – almost 5 hours before the 3am cut-off to go 11 miles (27min/mile pace) – but the frustration and pain of the stomach issues was coming to a head. I strolled into the Mile 43 aid station in pretty rough shape. Sat down and started taking down broth and ginger ale immediately. Rich, the race director, happened to be there just checking things out, and I saw him chatting an older runner who looked dead and was in process of dropping out. I felt exhausted, tired, dehydrated, so thought maybe busting out some coke shots would help with an energy boost. Big mistake. Instead I proceeded to puke everything out again. Ugh. I sat there, quite frustrated and upset, unsure what to do with myself. At first no one was talking to me, so I just sat in silence staring at nothing. Another runner next to me had been puking, but she seemed to be in good spirits and was out of the aid station after 5 minutes. A new runner came into the aid station and took her place. This girl, however, immediately took her bib off and dropped. Rich came over with one of the aid station volunteers, and immediately I laid out my case to them for why I didn’t feel comfortable going back out there. The volunteer gave me two antacids, and told me I needed to catch up on my hydration after I told her how little I had taken in from 36 to 43. Tears started to come out of my eyes as I tried to explain that I owed it to my crew to get to them at Mile 49 but wasn’t sure I could do it. It didn’t help that I had overheard Rich telling someone that it gets more technical on this stretch. As I’m laying out my case for dropping, others are telling me that it’s ok to drop, that this is how it is in ultra land, that sht happens and you learn from it and come back stronger. I was coming to grips with this, but the tears were building as all I could think about was what a waste of time this was for my crew, how I didn’t get halfway through this damn race. Rich eventually left with the dropped runner, and I almost yelled out for him to wait for me because I would be dropping too. Luckily, I kept my mouth shut. I must’ve been sitting there for 25+ minutes when the sweepers arrived next. I figured my race was done. But one of them, Don, came over and said that because this wasn’t a cutoff aid station, all I had to do was stay in front of them and I would be ok. The woman who had immediately taken her bib off started texting her crew that she was dropping, so I asked her if I could do the same. I texted Rachel “Hey it’s Justin”, and as I begin to type that I am going to drop out, the sweepers tell me to get up and just get going with them. The woman blurts out “you should just go with them” to which I respond ok sure why the fck not and handed her phone back to her without texting Rachel. I get up from the aid station and grab my sticks to what sounded like thunderous applause from everyone around. People were genuinely pumped that I would be soldiering on.
Miles 44-54 – “Don’t Quit Until the Magic Happens”
I figured I would just walk with these guys until I got to 49 or 54, then get timed out because of the cut-off. I really had nothing in me. Still felt like sht, stomach still hurting, nothing appetizing. But these three sweepers were fantastic from the moment I started with them. All very positive, telling me that despite my stomach issues, I was moving very well. That if I could keep this up and get that stomach in order, I have a shot at finishing. These guys were literally just three jolly good fellows’ sweeping it up in the woods, having good banter while grabbing course markings. I told them at the beginning that I would be on the quieter side given my state, but just listening to them started to lift my spirits. The guys kept telling me that it was good to just keep moving, keep the legs moving, keep on going. “These are some of the things I had wished people told me when I first jumped into this, so hoping I could really help you out here man” said Don, who was wearing Born to Run style sandals and 3 inch inseam shorts. We started out at a very chill walking pace – ~30min/mile type pace. I was content to move at this pace. Stomach was still weird, and I figured my race was done. Let me just stick it out so I can get some more distance in and call it a day. But the sweepers kept saying that I was moving well, and making references to seeing me at Mile 69, Mile 96….”yeah ok, whatever that’s not happening” were the thoughts in my head. The guys would prod me to try to run on the downhills and flats, just to get the legs moving, which I obliged. Don gave me his extra bottle of Tailwind and told me to sip on it periodically, get some liquid calories into me, see if it works. Drink it slowly, let the body digest it, and go from there. Get those calories and hydration in. The Tailwind was holding down in my stomach, at this point, a huge win for me. One other sweeper mentioned Payday bars. Told me that it always helps his stomach when he has problems. Described the protein and salt from the nuts, and the sugar from the caramel to me. Sounded like it might work, but was completely unappetizing. So I didn’t bother with it. But he kept mentioning it to me. “It’s like throwing paint on the wall. Gotta see what sticks. Don’t quit until the magic happens.” So I took the payday bar and started out with one bite. Went down ok and I could feel myself getting better. Took another couple bites over the next 10-15 minutes and incrementally felt better each time. Payday seemed to be working. Only problem was that we were still moving at a pedestrian pace, particularly as the trail turned more technical. “Ok. We have 2 hours to go 7 miles to make the cut-off at Hyak (54), that’s about a 17 min/mile pace. We have to make a decision now on if we’re going for it or not.” Don blurted out. One of the other sweepers said something about “don’t think we’re going to make it, that last mile was a 27 min mile”. I don’t know what got into me. But that Portes competitive nature that almost instantly kicks in when someone tells me I can’t do something awoke inside of me. I immediately took off ahead into the darkness, all of a sudden running at 12 min miles (a more normal pace for these things). “I did not come here to get stopped at 54 miles” I repeated to myself over and over. The fire was lit from under me again, and I was moving. I was running through the technical paths, up slight uphills, using the poles to propel. Came racing into the Mile 49 aid station around 1:27am. Rachel, EZ, and Cisco were standing there like ghosts. Clearly they thought they were picking me up to go home, that the race was over. “No! I’m gunna make that cut-off! Get my stuff ready!” I yelled out (not sure if I yelled this out or I just yelled it in my head, who the hell knows at this point). Racheal and Cisco got my flasks refilled quickly. “Take it all. Take it all!” one volunteer yelled as I went straight for the plate of Payday bars. I swear I saw Cisco holding an unopened beer in his hand; turns out he was getting ready to drink because he thought the race was over! Turns out he was telling people that i had a chance to make the cut-off if I left before 1:30am. It was 1:27. EZ told me that I had to run the whole way to Hyak if I wanted to make it, no stopping. Everyone told me to get outta there, and I took off back into the darkness with one of the sweepers who was carrying a plate of perogies. Props to him for keeping pace with me while taking those down. For some reason he thought the cut-off was 330am not 3am, but I was sure it was 3am and had him check my spreadsheet for me since I didn’t want to stop running. I knew that we had the “ropes course” coming up (more on that later) which would slow me down significantly, but then had the flat 2 mile mining tunnel afterward to make up for it. That was where I would push the pace and make up time if I needed. Anyhow, sweeper kept telling me I just needed to be out of the aid station by 3am. “Just check in, grab a ton of food and leave the aid station. Then stop and do what you gotta do, just be out of the aid station.” We caught up to a runner who was walking very slowly, he looked like he was injured. I felt bad for him but at the same time it felt damn good to have caught up to someone for a change. The sweeper decided that he should try to help this guy out, so told me to keep up the momentum and get to that cut-off. I was mentally prepping myself for the ropes, which was basically a ½ mile of a super steep quasi off-trail downhill that had fixed ropes set up to assist you in getting down. Everyone says you have to take your time here, be smart and don’t hurt yourself. But the adrenaline was pumping and I had no time to waste. Pretty much made the right turn into the ropes and dove right in. Basically I boot skied down, using the ropes as a safety to grab onto in case I actually did slip (rather than use the ropes to actually go step by step). Not sure how fast I actually moved through this portion, but am sure I cruised through it much quicker than the average runner. I almost ate it a number of times boot skiing, but like I said, no time to waste. Finally I emerged onto a gravel road. Did not really see any course markers so whipped out my phone and checked the map just to be sure. Took an easy run along the gravel, eating some payday and hydrating. Wanted to prep myself for the tunnel, where I told myself I would move fast and make up time. I got to the entrance of the tunnel – a towering 100 ft high tunnel in the middle of the mountain in the dark (it was 2am by this point). This was straight out of a horror movie. Literally made the sign of the cross, told
myself “25 minutes. In and out. 25 minutes” and took off into the darkness. This is a 2.3 mile long tunnel; you literally couldn’t see anything except for the fog from your breathing, which added to the creepiness. Most people know that the one thing that scares me most are ghosts. Oddly enough I wasn’t scared of ghosts here. Just had weird thoughts of the tunnel collapsing and trapping me in the mountain. Well, gotta move faster so that doesn’t happen! My mind started playing tricks on me because I kept seeing what looked like a light out of the tunnel, but in reality was just some white reflecting marker in the tunnel. I wondered if this is what people meant by the hallucinations that happen upon 100 mile runners later in races. Eventually I came across various skeleton props, put there by the aid station volunteers. Nothing like a little extra motivation to get you to push more. I ended up passing one other guy who was walking, he seemed like he was gassed and ready to call it a night. I couldn’t rely on my gps here but was counting down those minutes from 25. Wait did I enter the tunnel at 2:07 or 2:08? Dammit! Next thing you know another light starts approaching and approaching fast. Guess who it was? It was Born to Run Don! Here to run me into Hyak. I enjoyed this last stretch with him as he prodded me to pick up the pace. The tunnel was endless, but at this point I was running low 9s pace, not bad for Mile 54!! Finally, the end of the tunnel appeared, another flat ½ mile on gravel, and boom! I had arrived into Hyak at 2:38am, 22 minutes before the cut-off. I was galvanized. I was excited. I was ready to go. I was back from the dead.
Miles 55-69 – “You pull this off, this will be the greatest comeback ever”
Only one problem at Hyak. Where the hell was my crew and pacer?!?!?! I must’ve arrived way faster than expected that I beat them here!! Well, no time to waste so I better refill my food and liquids, and tell the aid captain to tell my pacer to catch up to me whenever they arrive. But wait, what’s that white Chevy parked over there with lights on! Ah, there they are chillin’ in the car! Went over and knocked on the window “Hey guys I’m here”. “Oh he’s already here!” everyone scampered out and got to work. God this crew was the best. Some of the stuff I wanted was still in the car, Rachel sprinting back and forth to get it for me. For the first time all race changed into a new shirt, new buff, and new hat. The tunnel was humid af so needed a clothes change particularly now that we were exposed to the cold of the night. “Umm, where is Keem guys??” upon noticing that my pacer was MISSING. Turns out he was in the car getting ready. Haha. “When’s the next cutoff?” “Mile 69 at 8am. We have 5 hours to go 15 miles. We are going to make up a ton of time on this stretch.” Keem replied. We headed out onto what is one of the fastest stretches of the course: 4 miles of flattish road followed by a 5 mile climb and 6 mile downhill, all on a gravel road. If you’re feeling strong and feeling good, this is a great stretch to make up some time. However, I had just expended a ton of energy getting to the cut-off, so I wasn’t really feeling great and needed to walk for a bit.
Keem was an excellent pacer. That self-deprecating mofo will tell you otherwise, but he truly did everything right. He prodded to me to run for bits and pieces, he periodically checked in to see if there were any pain points that needed to be addressed. Every 10-15-20 minutes he made sure I was eating and drinking, this time it was 2 peanut M&Ms. His plan was this – run the flats as best we can, climb the uphill at 20ish min/mile pace, then make up time on the downhill. We definitely went slower than he wanted on the road as it took me longer to get going again, but we gained some momentum into the uphill slog. Keem set the pace: 20-21mi/mile, and I just needed to stick with him. Whenever I fell behind he prodded me to pick it back up. “Stick with me, I need you to stick with me”. To pass the time and distract me, Keem would tell me random stories, stories I won’t repeat here as some are NSFW. He also told me Andrew Luck retired. Good thing we always push our fantasy draft to the latest possible date. We actually made decent progress here, passing a couple folks including one dude whose light was pretty much dying. Felt bad for him but I wasn’t about to wait around so he could use our light. As has become standard in my races lately, I ran a ton of math in my head, deducing that I needed at least 7.5 hours to get through the final stretch, 78-100 (I only remembered this because I had told EZ just a week before the race “hope you’re ready for 7.5 hrs of moving time”). This meant if I got to Mile 69 around 8am (the cut-off) that would leave me 4 hours for the Trail from Hell (which was the average total time it took for a runner), leaving me only 7 hours to get through the hardest stretch. This would not be enough time to complete the race. As we climbed, I progressively got tired. Not tired as in my legs were failing me. Tired as in sleep deprived. At this point I had been moving for 20-21 hours, and just felt like closing my eyes to sleep. Keem noticed I was practically falling asleep. Last time I ever did that walking I was a 3 year old wandering the mean streets of Astoria, Queens. True story ask the fam. Keem told me that I just needed to hang on until the sunrise, and I will get that burst of energy. Just wait for the sun man. Wait for the sun to rise. Impressively enough, I had not taken much caffeine or any advil yet; I was in a precarious situation with my hydration and did not want to take the risk of screwing it all up. I also told him that I was worried about trying to make up time on the downhill – my anterior tendons were in a lot of pain, exacerbated on downhills. We finally got to Keechelus Ridge aid at the top of the climb (Mile 63), where Keem told me to take a look at the food and pick something appetizing. Nothing. Nothing looked good. I was so exhausted I just leaned on one of the tables while he filled up my flasks. I was able to down some broth and ginger ale at least. We continued onto the downhill section just as the sun began to rise. Keem was right. That sunrise really does something to you, I started to feel like a new man with another burst of energy. It was beautiful up there. At first, we started out pretty slow going down, something like 18-19min/mile pace. But at this pace we would be arriving at 69 around 730am, leaving me with less than 7.5 hours for that final stretch. Not good. So I finally spoke up and told Keem that we would need to pick up the pace if I was going to make this happen, otherwise it ain’t gunna happen. And pick up the pace we did. I forgot about the pain in my shins, and we were able to speed up into 14 min miles. I can’t remember for the life of me what we talked about here, but Keem was prepping for my arrival into Kachess Lake by texting the crew what they needed to have ready. I would bark out random things to him “Chamois. Ginger ale. Gatorade. Hat. M&Ms. Chamois! Wait did I say that already?” We definitely made up good time here, and eventually got down into the 12-13min/mile range. “You pull this off, this will be the greatest comeback ever.” Another thing Keem noticed was that I had mentioned to him my pee was much less yellow than earlier in the race – a sign my hydration was back in order. So he suggested that later on prior to the final stretch maybe my hydration will be good enough to start popping Advils, which would mask the shin pain and help me get to the finish. Not a bad thought, and one that would come into play later. Finally arrived into Kachess Lake aid station around 720am, 40 minutes before the cut-off. This would leave me with 7h40min assuming 4 hrs through the Trail from Hell, good good. However, still a tight cushion.
Miles 70-75 – “Another. Step. Forward!”
I was surprised to see Don at the aid station as he had told me he would be at Mile 96, but here he was hanging out. We did another shirt change and buff change, ditched the headlamp. Refilled my flasks with water and watered-down Gatorade (my preferred electrolyte mix at that moment, as I was sick of Gnarly and Nuun). Keem gave Cisco the rundown on what was working for me “M&Ms every 10-15 minutes, make sure he’s hydrating”. I announced to everyone what the strategy from here on out was going to be as follows: “If we’re gunna have a shot at this thing, I need at least 7.5 hours from the time I pick up Evan at 77. Therefore, to pick up extra time we gotta try to go through Trail from Hell as fast as possible. It is daytime now so it might be easier to do.” I was feeling confident about this section. Boy would I be dead wrong. You see, this section, actually named the “Trail from Hell”, is a hellacious, technical section with short steep ups and downs along the side of beautiful Lake Kachess. Most parts of it aren’t even really a trail. You cannot move fast through this section. Well, you could try and then risk taking one misstep and tumbling 500 feet into the lake. The legendary Gary Robbins, for those who know who he is (check out Where Dreams Go to Die on YouTube, I promise it’s worth it and you’ll beat Chudi and Kate to watching it), holds the FKT (fastest known time) for this 6 mile section. How fast? 79 minutes. A 13:10 min/mile pace. I told Cisco the average mile time for this section was 29 min / mile based on historical splits, but that we should aim for 20 min miles to bank more time for the final section with EZ. We started pretty well, running and passing a few runners who were just walking and yelled out to us to be careful. But Cisco and I were pretending to be back in Bear Mountain all over again, where the trails are rocky and rooty. This was home turf for us. Moved quickly on the downhill where we reached a big creek. Ran through it cuz no biggie. But then my shoes got waterlogged. Really weird because this never happened in Idaho, even with the 3 foot creek crossing at Mile 43. Odd, but this was the beginning of the struggles. The waterlogged shoes dragged my feet, slowing me down until we hit the actual crappy parts of the trail, which slowed us to a crawl. The trail was magnificent, don’t get me
wrong. The lake was beautiful, the sun was shining. A number of times Cisco caught me staring at the lake instead of watching my steps. Wish he snapped some pics or vids but all good, had to focus on the task at hand. The sudden struggle and slow to a turtle’s pace was swift and violent. Steep short sections both up and down, and I was walking at tiptoe-like speed. I was beginning to feel lethargic, and my anterior tendons were just killing me. I had no idea how was I going to carry on with the rest of the race. Things are kind of blurry here, but I do remember complaining a lot to Cisco about my inability to move faster despite his prodding. A handful of people who I hadn’t even realized I had passed now caught up, moving much quicker than I was. Cisco resorted to a couple of things, including pointing out every next course marker, yelling “Another. Step. Forward!”, and blasting some Yotto and Hot Skin periodically off his phone. Most know I never use music, but not going to lie, it was real nice to hear some of that out on the trail. I definitely started hallucinating here too, seeing white cars in the trees and pointing them out to Cisco, who would look at me like I was crazy. We stopped a number of times, once to take my jacket off, once to re-apply Chamois (at this point anti-chafe was already a lost cause, won’t go into detail here but you probably know), and once because I got stung by a bee. That bee sting caused me to yell out in a ton of pain and I almost doubled over. But this was actually a blessing in disguise – it masked the pain in my shins! I also finally decided it was time to take one advil. I needed to do something for this pain if I was to have a shot at this thing, so f it, pop the damn painkiller. The trail seemed to drag on forever. The lake had ended, but hell continued. Steep ups, steep downs. Where the hell is the end of this thing! We were averaging 30 min miles here. No time was being made up. At one point I looked at my spreadsheet and saw a Mile 81.8 cut-off at 1230pm. No idea what time it was when we saw this but I thought to myself, wow, we will miss that one. I should just drop at the 75 aid station because I’ve got nothing left. But I kept wondering to myself, how the hell do I drop at Mile 75 when I have to hike up another 2 miles to Mile 77 where the crew was parked? Drop there and then go back down to 75 to tell them? In theory, I wanted to drop. But logistically and practically, I wouldn’t be able to. Guess I’ll just get timed out at the 81.6 cut-off. I never said any of this aloud, so Cisco never heard it as he continuously prodded me forward. Plus the damn aid station was taking forever to arrive. But suddenly I saw it. No hallucination this time. A real white tent and Chudi and Kate were standing there! I guess they hiked down to check where I was. As soon as I rolled in, the aid captain told us we needed to be in and out. We had a cut-off to make. No time to waste. “Push him!” he yelled towards Cisco.
Miles 76-82 – “Time for Some Goggins Shit”
Cisco turned into a drill sergeant (sort of). He set the pace for what we needed to do. And willed me to keep up with him. 17 min miles is what we needed. From 75 to 81.6. All uphill. “I don’t care if you have to cry right now or hate me. You are going to give everything you got and keep this pace.” I leaned forward and willed myself up the mountain. I passed one runner who was casually hiking up with his pacers; clearly he was not trying to make the cut-off. Physically, I was giving it all I had. Mentally, I figured I was pushing for a lost cause. There was no way we were going to make it up.
My watch had been wrapped around my pack during this stretch since I was charging it (I am not fast enough yet to take advantage of COROS’ superior to Garmin battery life), so I never had a chance to look at how we were tracking. I had two miles to get to the rest of the crew, where we would be switching Big EZ for the final stretch. Yet again, it seemed like forever, but at least Chudi and Kate were up ahead yelling out how much further to get to the crew at 77. We made a right turn, then banked left, and Chudi yelled it was up ahead. And finally, saw Keem and Evan up in the distance, waiting for me to appear. As soon as they spotted me I saw them motion the others and everyone sprang into action again. Cisco ran up to get my flasks filled ahead of time. Dayna and Rachel grabbing other items. EZ putting the pacer bib and his pack on. These guys literally looked like a NASCAR pit crew. It truly was a sight to see, and I owe them the world for it. I didn’t stop here, no time to waste. I continued up up and up, and soon enough EZ caught up to me. “You are going to make that fucking cut-off” were the very first words that came out of EZ’s mouth when he got to me. 4.5 miles to the cut-off. The uphill death march continued but EZ had me moving very efficiently. We would hit a flat section and he would point out a starting spot for me to run, and an ending spot for me to switch back to walking. Whenever the grade turned flatter. It was run. Back to steeper uphills. Walk. “Come on brother. Stick with me brother.” Run for 2 minutes. Walk for another 5. Run for 2 minutes. The small short bursts of running were huge differences in something that was being measured by seconds. “30 more minutes Justin, that’s all I’m asking. Push for 30 minutes”. We must’ve had like 2 or less miles to go, with 30 minutes left. I did not think we were going to make it. Despite EZ directing me in a very confident manner, time was ticking. 15 minutes. Run. Walk. Run. Walk. Ugh more uphill, never-ending. 10 minutes left. Where the fck is this aid station. The climb up to the ridge was beautiful. But no time to enjoy. 5 minutes left. “Time for some Goggins shit right now brother. David Goggins shit right now.” It was all uphill, but I had to run, no choice left. I wish someone captured the look on my face as I pushed and pushed with everything I had left. Even if I did make this cut-off, I had nothing left. How could I possibly push through the hardest section of the entire course? Finally, we reached what looked like the top of the ridge, and it turned into a downhill. I ran and ran and ran, pushed and pushed. Where was this aid station??!?! 2 minutes to go. Oh, no. Uphill again. 1 minute to go. I had nothing, but EZ pushed up ahead and saw the aid station, just 500 ft higher. The aid station captain yelled out “Holy shit!” as I approached, with about 15 seconds to spare. Out of nowhere, I had made it. A 6.6 mile uphill death march, somehow I had pulled another rabbit out of the hat. I learned from EZ later that the crew had expected me at Mile 77 at 10:45am, with 11:10am being the latest I should show up to make it to the cut-off. I arrived at 11:15am. Wow. 27hr and 30min had elapsed. How in the world was I going to finish this thing?
Miles 83-Finish – “Buckle Up”
The volunteers at No Name Ridge aid were very nice, telling us that we didn’t have to be out of the aid station right away. Re-filled my flasks, ate some broth, poured some in a zip lock bag to go, ate some M&Ms. EZ wanted me to refuel and refill. I tried valiantly to take down some bacon, but after two bites I just couldn’t and immediately spit it out. Just one of those days. We moved on from the aid station, and EZ asked me for a full assessment. How am I feeling right now and what’s wrong, so that we can fix it now and get ready for the final push. I told him that I felt like I burnt what last bit of energy I had left making it to the cut-off and had no idea how I was gunna get through the last 17 miles. This final section is arguably the hardest stretch of the course, notwithstanding the fact that you are already 83 miles in. A bunch of steep rolling climbs including up to Thorpe Mountain which is the high point of the course at 85.4, then a series of super steep short climbs known as the Cardiac Needles through 89, and then a steep 7 mile downhill before 4 flat easy miles to the finish. If memory serves me right, EZ basically ignored my response. Had me drink up more broth and Gatorade. Told me we would walk for a mile or so to recuperate then we needed to take advantage and run all the flats and downhills we could. Told me about how the two other folks who were in the aid station when I arrived had been an hour-plus ahead of me. Then he suggested I take a nap. Yep, you heard that right. A short, couple minutes nap. I had read reports of people napping during ultras and waking up feeling refreshed. One girl took a nap for 2 minutes every 30-40 minutes for the last 40 miles of her race and it worked. So why the hell not. EZ helped me lay down, worked on my anterior tendon a bit, and I was knocked out. Almost instantaneously. I was definitely dreaming too. After exactly 6 minutes, I heard some voices approaching, and EZ started pulling me up, telling me we needed to get going. It was the sweepers showing up, this time one dude by the name of Nate and the other I have no idea. Just like the sweepers at Mile 43, these guys were cheery and positive, very encouraging. Two things I remember Nate saying “we’re gunna get you buckled up” and a joke cracking on the Mets. Goodness. Can’t I just escape the despair and ridicule of being a Mets fan for just one day!! He didn’t even know I was a Met fan. Given how exhausted I was, I barely reacted. Lots of steep rolling hills here, and the going was very slow. My anterior tendons were killing me and every time I tried to move faster it would hurt more. But Nate and EZ got me going on the downs and flats, telling me to just shuffle the legs, lean forward to pick up speed, and use the poles to deflect the pain. Also decided it was time to start popping some caffeine pills and “Vitamin I” aka more ibuprofen. Needed that boost. All of this got me going at a quicker pace, and eventually we caught up to a runner who I had not seen since Mile 6! She looked like she was taking a break with her pacer, so the sweepers had to stay with her. Nate told me to keep up the good work and that he expected not to see me again. We continued on, EZ periodically making sure I continued to hydrate and eat M&Ms. Passed a hiker who said that I was moving stronger than all the people he had seen ahead of me. And sure enough, I started catching a more runners. We hit the Thorpe Mtn aid station, where we had to make the ¼ mile climb up to the summit and back down. Flashbacks of Ginger Runner’s video came right back to me, aided by EZ filming me climbing up the steep switchbacks just like Gary filming Ethan. The photographer from Mile 19 was waiting, snapping some awesome pics. We hit the top, where EZ marked my bib with the sharpie placed up there to prove I had made it up and back. “Thorpe Mountain. The high point of the course. Primarily, downhill from here” I recited verbatim what Gary Robbins said in Ginger Runner’s video. On the way back down I ended up passing another 3 or 4 people, and high fived Nate at the aid station as he had arrived with the runner I had passed earlier. This time we stopped to refill my flasks, and Nate stuff a huge bag peanut M&Ms into EZ’s pack for the home stretch. Off we went, to take on the Cardiac Needles. For some reason I had thought we already hit the needles before Thorpe, but nope, I was wrong. The needles were coming, and EZ told me to mentally prepare for it. Push hard on the uphills, shuffle/run as best I could on the downs and flats. I ended up passing another 3? runners going through the needles, and each time I caught someone, Evan would call out the total number of people I had caught in this stretch. Some of these folks had been as much as 2 hours ahead of me. And here I was, passing them all. I didn’t realize it, but each time I saw someone ahead it gave me that extra little boost to keep fighting. The steady stream of M&Ms, Gatorade, and water kept the energy levels up. We got through the needles, moving in the 26-28 mile/pace, and finally hit French Cabin aid station at Mile 89. One of the volunteers told us we had about 2 hours to make the Mile 96 cut-off (6.8 miles), that we had time. But I saw another volunteer motion to EZ that we needed to move and move fast. After we left the station, EZ told me that I needed to run as fast as I possibly could, because if we arrived at Mile 96 right at 6:15pm, I would not have enough time to make it to the finish by 7pm unless I could do 11 minute miles. So I packed up my poles and took off as best I could into the downhill. Basically, I turned this into a 6.8 mile race that needed to be completed sub 2 hours (somehow, a ~17 min/mile again!) The first mile was frustrating because it ended up having a bunch of uphills and my watch split clocked a 22 min mile. The next mile we made up some of that, clocking a 15 min mile (so now 3 min behind the needed pace). The third and fourth miles we did in around 17 min miles. I was not moving fast enough. Still 3 min off. I was valiantly pushing through the steep downhills, running through rocks and technical sections trying to push it faster. I was hawking my watch, trying to see how we were progressing. But I just couldn’t go faster. I felt like I was losing energy. EZ noticed, and would implore me to pick it up. “The pain is going to hurt 100x more if you don’t finish this now”. “Come on now brother, Rachel is waiting for you. Get to Rachel.” The Maurten gels finally came into play again, as it was something easy to take down while running. These gave me a renewed boost of energy. But I just couldn’t move faster. We would hit random uphills, and I would get frustrated in my head. I also kept seeing white things that looked like aid station tents off into the distance, only for it to be a piece of dried out wood. The fifth mile hit. 17:13 / mile pace. Ugh not good enough. We aren’t going to make it. EZ was right about how much more this would hurt if I timed out at Mile 96, but I had begun to accept it. I was telling myself that I made a huge comeback after 43, and that there was nothing shameful about going 96 miles. I wanted to turn around to EZ and tell him that we should just walk it in because we aren’t going to make it. Lets just stop pushing and f it, walk it in. But he kept rattling off remaining distances much shorter than what my watch was telling me. During this stretch we passed two more people, the 10th and 11th person I had passed since 84. Then the sixth mile split hit my watch. 19:04 / mile pace. “It’s definitely over” I muttered to myself as I begrudgingly pushed on, making a right turn down the switchbacks and another slight left. And all of a sudden, the aid station was there. The white tent. People cheering. Holy shit. My watch was off by over .75 miles, and here I was arriving at Mile 96 at 6:08, 7 minutes to spare before the cut-off! I was instantly galvanized. I told EZ we weren’t stopping, but he already knew that and had texted the crew to have a flask of water ready for a quick pass. Asked for another Maurten for the final 4 mile push. We ran straight through the aid station as I yelled out “no stopping which direction!”. Rachel jumped in to lead the way with EZ behind me. And for the first time in 33 hours, I actually felt like I might have a shot at this thing. I think we were doing 11-12 min miles, but to me it felt like 7 min miles. If we ran at this pace we would get in around 6:54 EZ told me. I felt good about that cushion, but I knew I needed to hang on. Kept telling myself to just get to the airfield. Get to the airfield then it’s the road and you’re done. After 1.5 miles of flat easy groomed trail, we popped out onto the airfield. Now I could sense the finish. I could hear the cars of the highway. Just needed to get around this damn airfield, then pop out onto the road and get to the finish. EZ ran ahead and implored me to pick it up, telling me not to let the runner behind catch up. But I had no kick in me to go any faster than that 11:30 min / mile pace. We finally got to the road and I started looking at my watch thinking we were only 5-10 min away from the finish. That was a fast “4 mile” stretch. Just hang on for a bit longer Justin. Just a bit longer. But whoops I was way wrong. Still 2 more miles of running on road to go. At one point Rachel dropped back, but then caught right back up 30 seconds later. Turns out a combo of frozen pasta TV dinners, not really running for the past 4 months, and hittin’ dat Juul wasn’t the best combo before going on a run. But she rallied fine, and continued the charge along with EZ ahead of me. “Come on brother, don’t cut it close.” Rachel kept turning back to smile at me, she knew I was gunna finish. But I didn’t want to smile back as I didn’t want to jinx it. The comeback was not complete yet, had to get through this last stretch of road that was now turning into a slight incline. And then, finally, I saw the train tracks and the fire station off into the distance. One last ¼ mile stretch along a semi-rocky road then a right turn across the tracks and to the finish. That was all that was left. I saw freakin’ Don again.. “Sprint to the finish. Sprint now.” That’s all he said. I made that right turn and gave whatever kick I had left for the final 200 feet into the finish. 33:50:48, just under 10 minutes to spare. Came back from the dead, and got it done.
I had expected to cry if I made it to the finish line, after all of the demons I faced on the trail. But when I got to the finish, I had nothing left. I was exhausted, physically, mentally, emotionally – incapable of any real feeling or thought. Everyone was so pumped for me, Rachel and EZ hugging me, Kate screaming while recording the finish, Chudi facetiming Cisco, Dayna, and Keem (who were at the airport to catch red eye back to NY), Don doing his leg kick in the air. But I just sat there staring into the distance, trying my best to muster a smile. It didn’t really hit me what I had just done, let alone the manner in which I got it done. Left for dead at Mile 43 and ready to quit. Somehow found new life and made it to the Hyak cut-off, then continued on and caught No Name Ridge with 15 seconds to spare, passed 11 people en route to the Mile 96 cut-off by 7 minutes, then getting to the finish with 10 min left of race time. How in the world did I pull this off? Easy. My crew, pacers, and the sweepers.
I can say with 100% certainty that I would not have made it without their undying support, encouragement, tough love, and sacrifice. They believed in me throughout the entire race even when I had already given up and made peace with the fact that I would miss the cut-off at various places. The sweepers’ positivity, cheerful banter (minus the Mets joke), and small suggestions were crucial to the comeback (payday bar, start shuffling to get those legs moving). The Payday bar singled-handedly turned my race around. “It’s like throwing paint on the wall. See what sticks.” Well, that payday bar stuck. “Don’t quit before the magic happens.” My pacers. My god damn pacers who willed me through the course. I would have called it quits and walked it in many times if it weren’t for them. Just by luck I had each pacer exactly where I needed them. Keem helping me to make up as much time as possible on a faster section of the course. Cisco pulling me through the nastiest technical parts. And Big EZ bringing me home on the most crucial parts. My brain had mostly shutdown over the last 15 miles and I was completely reliant on him for thought. My crew, who were literally a Nascar style pit crew, springing to action, getting everything for me in lightning quick times. These guys saw me at my worst, watching me puke everything up so early in the race looking defeated. Thank you for putting up with all my bullshit and orders. Rachel, my rock and the backbone of the whole operation, the best girlfriend a guy (and ultrarunner) could ask for, my crew chief who directed and organized everyone (and paced me into the finish too) and probably got less sleep than I did the entire weekend. I always make it a point to thank the aid station volunteers everytime I leave the station, but I realize I didn’t do that nearly enough for my crew. These guys were so invested in my success, I don’t know how I’ll ever repay them (Cisco even broke his no smoking habit to de-stress himself after he switched off to Evan). As I wrote on IG, I owe them my first-born son, a lifetime debt that will never be repaid. I didn’t earn the belt buckle, they did.
I did finally shed a few tears writing this report. Part of it was re-living the experience thanks to Kate, who made an awesome post-race video that you should watch: Justin Portes Cascade Crest But going through every congratulatory text or family threads or the crew thread of people updating each other on my progress, I could see just how much people from all over were rooting for my success. The damn tracker even said DNF at one point, which led to my brother sending me a nice cheer up text. But 10 minutes later it said I was on Mile 63 so of course he told me “ignore that last nice text”. My aunt was texting people that she needed to go to church again to pray harder for my success, “please follow tracker and keep me updated”. EZ told me at some point in the 80s “I’ll tell you what man. Your friends love you. You’ve got a good group here.” Random people at the finish, staff, volunteers alike, came over to chat me and congratulate me after. The community of ultrarunners is very tight-knit and supportive. But it feels good to have people all over so invested in me in whatever way possible, and I hope I can repay that somehow in the future. That includes everyone who contributed to my fundraiser, so thank you again.
So a lot of people wonder: What’s next? Was it worth it? Would you do it again? It really took me awhile to comprehend what I had accomplished. This was, after all, a three year plan culminating with a 100 mile race. I have gone into great lengths in prior reports as to what ultrarunning has done for me and why I love to do it (just ask me if you want to know why). But to be completely honest, I did not enjoy the vast majority of this race. Don’t get me wrong the trails and views were beautiful and that’s huge portion of why I do this stuff. But unlike past races where there is a healthy balance of highs and lows, this one had wayyyy more lows than highs because of the stomach issues. But that’s what ultrarunning is all about. Shit will almost always hit the fan, and it’s up to you to figure out how to troubleshoot and deal with it. Plus, most people will tell you that the difference between 50 and 100 miles is all mental, and this couldn’t have been more true here. Some say that completing a 100 mile race will change you. Going through everything one does while out there on the trail, in the mountains and forest, running through the night, dealing with whatever hand is dealt to you, something does happen. I can feel the change in me, I just don’t know what it is yet. But I’m excited to find out. So to answer the question. Yes, it was well worth it. Worth going into the pain cave, hitting the lowest of lows, battling demons, digging deeper than I’ve ever gone, and emerging victorious. Coming back from the dead. And yes, I am already thinking about what 100 mile race to go for next year.
PS I tried to quantify with statistics just how crazy this comeback was. The average runner historically took about 8hrs and 14 minutes to get through Miles 78-100; I completed it in 7hrs 35 min. From 89 to 100, the average runner took 3h 15 min. I did it in 2h 35min, averaging ~14min miles for that last stretch. The first 50 miles took me 16h 30min, the second half took me 17h 20min – practically an even split I would say for this distance. Granted, I had no choice but to push it hard. But still pretty fckin’ awesome after the disastrous first half of a race.
PPS Evan and I emailed the sweepers to thank them profusely for their role in getting me to the finish, here is what they had to say:
It is very nice of you to take time to send this e-mail. That says a lot about you.
We have all been exactly where you were. As Tom pointed out, your legs were fine, so once you got some calories and got through the low, you had a chance. That being said, as much as anyone does to encourage or suggest do x or do y…it all comes down to you. At that point it was all up to you, and you did it. It is very hard to be at the low and still continue, to want to stop, but not stop. Tom is a great encourager, and I am sure that he helped you to push it, but being where you were and still pushing through it is motivating for all of us.
So, thank you for letting us be part of your 100 miler.
Very, very well done.
Thank you for reaching out. Congrats on your first 100 finish. What an epic performance!
As Daro said, it was inspiring to witness you hang in there through that really tough stretch, while you were up against the cutoff, no less. You getting up and walking out of that first aid station with us showed a ton about what you are made of, regardless of if you made it to the finish.
I also echo Daro’s sentiments that it was you who put all the pieces together. We were happy to provide some encouragement and a few ideas (Payday Bars… who knows why), but it was your grit, your “faith,” your problem-solving that got it done. And, t was really cool to play a small part in your first 100-mile finish.
Welcome to the 100 mile finisher club! Hope to see you on the trails again sometime.
“Don’t quit before the magic happens.”
Hey Evan – I totally remember you and Justin!
After we saw Justin get back to rolling, Damien and I caught that other pacer/runner and stayed with them until she dropped at French Cabin. I had a good feeling when we never saw you guys after Thorp. When I got to the fire station I saw Justin’s name and was incredibly stoked for him and impressed that he turned it around from No Name. I’m even more impressed that he put up with my jokes in his condition.
The way I see it, each runner deserves a great experience and to feel that they have the whole race’s support, because they do. If the last thing any runner encounters at Cascade Crest is the grim reaper of ultrarunning, then that reaper might as well encourage him/her to stay in motion and push until they absolutely can’t safely go anymore. Justin seemed like he wasn’t injured, just needed a change of headspace to get rolling, so I’m very happy that he got his mind right and hammered it out.
Send my congratulations to Justin for a gutsy performance and wish him a quick recovery. I’m sure he appreciates your friendship and commitment to getting him over the line
A Bunch of Pics (the last pic is the best):