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A wild night with William Emerson

October 31, 2001

[This article originally appeared in the October 2001 issue of Northwest Runner.]

It’s 3 a.m., and my companion and I are walking quickly up an unlit, mountainous dirt road miles from civilization. Unexpectedly, a lone car approaches us, and a woman we’ve never seen before rolls down the driver’s-side window and whispers, “It’s just a half-mile up the road. Krissy is waiting.” Then she drives off into the night.

Welcome to the wacky world of trail ultramarathons, in which each race is part hike, part run, and part spy movie. In this case, the event is the Cascade Crest Classic; my companion is CCC competitor William Emerson; and the half-a-mile-away destination is the next aid station, where we’ll be met by pacer Krissy Moehl.

Make no mistake — the CCC is for serious athletes, not out-of-shape thrill-seekers. You have to be pretty fit to cover 100 rugged miles — including 20,000 feet worth of elevation gain and another 20,000 feet of descent — in less than 32 hours, the time at which the course closes. To a sheltered road runner such as myself, though, the event is intriguing mostly because it is dangerous.

Think I’m exaggerating? Then try navigating your way through narrow wooded trails in the dead of night using only a head lamp while battling sleep deprivation. Remember to run the flat and downhill sections fast enough to stay ahead of your opponents, though not so fast that you trip over the hidden rocks and roots beneath your feet. Be sure to eat and drink regularly so as to avoid passing out on a remote section of the course. (Me, en route: “I’ve never really had problems with dehydration.” Krissy: “See that tree? Knock on it.”) And take care to stay on the trail, as there will generally be a steep drop-off to your left and/or right. (When I fell at mile 87, my Gatorade bottle rolled down the mountainside until it was out of sight, though, fortunately, my body did not follow.) Got extra batteries? Good, because your head lamp may go out prematurely. (Mine did.)

Of course, ultrarunning is not all doom and gloom. It can’t be, in fact, because you won’t last 100 miles unless you can maintain some degree of optimism. Aside from one brief outburst coinciding with a lack of trail markers, William seemed relaxed and upbeat throughout the seven-hour period I was with him. He talked freely — fondly, even — of past racing mishaps, and he appeared unperturbed by new annoyances such as the rock in his shoe (which he eventually removed after carrying it for 65 miles). Most of the worrying he did was on my behalf, since I, his inexperienced pacer, wiped out five times during my shift (as compared with zero falls by William himself).

To me, the spectacle of William going through an aid station resembled nothing so much as a NASCAR pit stop. When I met him at the 68.5-mile station, he sat in a chair while several volunteers danced around him, trying to get him back on the road as quickly as possible. One person helped him remove his shoes, another refilled his water bottle, a third checked his batteries, a fourth got him some soup, and a fifth advised him of the progress of his fellow competitors.

The NASCAR analogy has its limitations, of course. Just prior to the aid station, William had been cruising along at about 3 miles per hour — a good brisk walk — and upon leaving the station, he again settled into a moderate walking pace. In a race this long with this much uphill, no one runs the whole way. Still, each opportunity to save time is eagerly exploited. I found that, in William’s case, this meant traversing the tangents of curvy roads in order to take as few steps as possible. William also demonstrated that drinking, eating, and urinating can all be done while moving forward along the course.

In short, you might say that in trail ultras such as the Cascade Crest Classic, you are rarely going really fast, yet always in a hurry. The need to hurry is exacerbated by the fact that you never know exactly where you are in relation to your adversaries; while I was with him, William received numerous conflicting reports about the size of his lead, with estimates ranging from 9 to 45 minutes. When we didn’t see anyone during a 20-minute out-and-back section at mile 85, however, we knew we had some breathing room. This segment of the race involved retrieving a poker chip from a lookout point on Thorp Mountain — perhaps an appropriate reminder of the need to take risks in this sort of event.

By mile 89, I had taken enough risks for one night and was content to let William and Krissy finish the race on their own. Having repeatedly crashed into trees, rocks, and dirt during the previous seven hours, I now retired to my girlfriend’s car for one final crash — a brief, well-deserved nap.

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