The shuttle van driver joyfully shouted “have fun and be safe out there,” while slamming the doors and heading back down the gravel forest road. With the van gone, our group rubbed tired eyes to see the first jaw-dropping view of the day. Mt. Jefferson stared across the open sky wishing good luck and waving goodbye.
The Old Cascadia 20 Mile race is hosted by Alpine Running, the duet of Janessa and Trevor, who also set runners off on 50 and 100-mile races in the early dawn before the 20-mile race started. A gorgeous section of the Old Cascade Crest trail system plays host to the 50-mile lollipop course, with 100 milers completing it twice. Today, my new friends and I would run the final 20 miles of the lollipop from the Quarry Aid Station to the finish.
We gathered at the Lava Lake Sno Park finish line, huddled around a small propane-fed fire to warm our hands, as bibs were pinned and coffee was hastily drunk. A few gnarly 15-person vans and a school bus transported us to our start line for pre-race briefings. Following routine instructions-follow, the orange flagging and agility cones, about every half mile we met a local cross-country coach racing with us today. Her student-athletes were from one of the two beneficiaries and volunteering at aid stations. Who better to support the overnight ultrarunners than high school students?! Isn’t that their peak time of day?
Without much fanfare, we started down the gravel road for mere feet before dropping into a lush single track. A brief downhill brought us to the first of three climbs. Though the shortest, it offered plenty to get the climbing gears going for the day and a preview of the great views and grinds ahead. Following a flowing downhill that was a bit too messy underfoot for me to really let loose, we cruised into the Pyramid Aid Station, the first of our two and located at the four-mile mark. A quick top up of Tailwind and a handful of ruffle chips later, I finished the final stretch of downhill, crossed a beautiful wooden bridge over a mountain stream and began the day’s second climb.
The day’s cool morning temperatures and well-shaded trails made for amazing climbing weather. By now, my legs were well aware of the task at hand. Chugging up the second hill thinned the pack of runners quickly as we each settled into our own pace and rhythm. The trail moderated between steep switchbacks and long climbs with an incredible view between the towering trees.
Make no mistake about it, this is classic mountain running in the Pacific Northwest. Big, beautiful trees, snowcapped mountains in the distance and never-ended greenery treat your eyes at every step. One of the joys of running in the Cascades for me is the changes from Portland’s Forest Park and the Tillamook State Forest. The forest here is its own animal. The climbs are long and the views are epic.
Near the top of the second climb, we headed up a small out-and-back that seemed to be a cruel trick from the race directors. It was steeper, just when the legs needed a break. It was more narrow, right when we had our only a bit of two-way traffic. Yet as everyone passed each other, congratulations and encouragement rained down among competitors. Once we finally finished climbing we were left with a jaw-dropping view of the surrounding Cascades. The small sliver of space allowed us to take turns enjoying the view before heading back down. I took a moment to eat a gel and sit on a rock to soak in the sights with a few others.
After getting down the two-way trail section, the second downhill proved steep with slightly tricky footing at times. One stubbed toe left me inspecting the dirt up close. A quick get up and dust off, then back at it. Most of this downhill was great for letting the pace flow and gravity pull you. I used the rest of the downhill to make up some time and take in calories ahead of the second aid station.
At the bottom of the descent, the trail appears very near to a dirt road. A hard right keeps runners from exiting the trails and begins a slow, rolling uphill towards the second, and final, aid station. I had a bit of mental collapse here once I realized my watch had been pretty off and the aid station would be further than expected. The rolling hills were mostly runnable here and the course showed off some impressively large trees as we bobbed and weaved the final mile or so to an oasis-like Crescent Mountain Aid Station.
Having misjudged the distance left to the aid, I was out of Tailwind and low on calories in a big way. I used my refillable cup for some fresh water while the amazing volunteers filled my bottles. I enjoyed some ripple chips and a slice of watermelon as I made my plans for the second half of the race. Being extra hungry in the front, I decided to grab extra gels and take half a PB&J with a final cup of water and get to walking down the trail while I ate. I figured it’s better to make slow progress than to stand around.
The trail started uphill almost immediately following the aid station. This would be our final climb of the day. It was also the longest and took us to the highest point of the day. At the start line we were told of an optional out-and-back that the 50 mile/100 mile runners had to do at the summit. We were even told the views were exceptional. But after four grueling miles of switchbacks and steady climbing, my legs were finally ready to cruise downhill. I met a runner at the summit who was in rough shape and decided the better thing to do was walking with him for emotional support for a bit and then finding my downhill gears on last time.
Cruising the initial downhill proved to be harder than expected. Those downhill gears were stubbornly slow to be found. Thankfully we had plenty of time to find a gear and let it rip. The course then entered my favorite area. We exited the trees and continued on a gradual downhill through medium-height grasses and wildflowers with exceptional views of the Three Sisters, Broken Top, Bachelor and what I believe was Mount Washington. This incredible moment brought me to a slow walk to merely soak it in and enjoy every last detail. Like my previous stop and soak moment, it was well worth every bit of time added to my race.
We continued descending through numerous switchbacks, entering into the deep forest again. The trail here was exceptionally smooth, letting me really open up my stride and make the absolute most of gravity’s help getting me to the finish. Side note – it’s here that the eventual 50-mile winner (and new course record holder!) passed me. He called out his pass well in advance, and despite feeling like I was flying downhill, I moved over and he flew past while hollering his appreciation. Congrats on the CR; it was awesome seeing you full stride, wide-open running with ease. Wow!
The downhill fun had to come to an end eventually. Crossing a few streams, we headed through more beautiful rolling terrain through the final few miles. I encountered a handful of hikers, all of whom were very nice and exchanged pleasantries.
We eventually found ourselves at a trailhead, heading down a gravel road with enough downhill to lean in and let gravity keep the pace up. This became the longest stretch of sun exposure and the feeling of the afternoon heat finally started to set in without the mountain breeze keeping me cool.
The gravel entered into a paved road that, in reality, was not very long. In the moment of shelled legs and a strong desire to be done, it was an eternity sprinkled with salt once it rolled gently uphill. The heat from the blacktop road and the sight of parked cars was a continual tease that the finish line would be mere steps away.
With a bit more effort, the finish line came into sight. Better yet, my five-year-old decided to meet me at the final turn and run me in. Declaring she’s fast enough to keep up with Daddy we crossed under the beautiful wood finish line for high fives with smiles as wide as can be.
The post-race food and beer were great and the atmosphere around the finish was fun. Chatting with fellow finishers was a fun exchange of sorry legs and full hearts. The Old Cascadia was a great race and likely best served at its 50-mile distance. I hope to return one day for the 50 and see the rest of the route.
Camping close by was plentiful and made for a great getaway weekend with my family.
Cheers to my fellow runners, congratulations to everyone and THANK YOU to the incredible volunteers and Alpine Running for making this race happen.