Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Finding The Perfect DNF Cocktail at the 2017 Cascade Crest 100m


What is the recipe for a DNF cocktail? Is there a specific blend of physical and psychological ingredients, shaken or stirred, that guarantee an unforecasted “Do Not Finish” result? Ah, the contemplation that sets in with the post-drop reality of a cot that has become your personal finish line for the day. This was me at the turnaround point (mile 52) of the 19th annual Cascade Crest 100m Trail Run, an epic adventure in the mountains brought to an early and unexpected close. Yet I got up and walked away with a smile and no regrets, posing a mystery (and bartending analogy) worth further contemplation.

I’ve been quite fortunate that in toeing the line at 100+ ultras and marathons, the dreaded DNF has only popped up a few times, and usually with pretty obvious physical symptoms. If you’ve ever had a fever before the race has begun, have peed blood for over six hours, or had to stop because a gash didn’t pass the “if the bone ain’t showin’, keep on goin’…” test, then you know what I’m talking about. These obvious physical symptoms are the double straight shot DNF – a hard to swallow chug that hits like a Floyd Meriweather haymaker, and with similar body-slap-on-floor results.

My DNF at the CC100 was more akin to a classic cocktail - a unique mix of physical, spiritual, and emotional elements that brought me to a perfect and undeniable conclusion. All ingredients were simple and known, and no one ingredient large enough to take me down single handed. Yet somehow they magically combined into a delectable ambrosia, as if at the hands of a three-Michelin star chef or master bartender.

After some analysis, I have concluded the recipe is as follows (consume at your own risk):
  • One part injury – as previously mentioned, injury is the hard liquor/high proof element to a DNF cocktail. Any semi-serious injury will do, as long as it packs a punch and cannot be ignored. Perhaps it is a sharp pain that overrides the senses like a cheap tequila, such as a groin pull, wasp nest attack, broken toe, nettles, severe nipple chafe, or those poor souls who run through hours of rain just to sluff off the bottoms of their feet like old carpet. Or it could be a dull pain with an aged, smoky flavor akin to a whiskey, such as a hip injury you have let simmer in a dark cave of ignorance and stubbornness for years, untouched by therapists, doctors, or cross-training. Either flavor works, adding just enough to give the cocktail its bass notes. 
  • One part fortified “whine” – like a good Manhattan that needs vermouth (a fortified wine) to balance out whiskey, a fortified “whine” is essential to the DNF cocktail. Take a gripe that your ego/mind has brought along for the run, let your ego defend your position by injecting sugar and sweetness (fortification), and heat until it become that saccharine sweet, deceptively complex elixir that morphs into a perfect drop excuse faster than Mystique from the X-Men
  • Two shakes of bitters – no DNF is complete without the bitters. A good DNF bitter has a solid foundation of regret (ironically tastes like cherry), a hint of “I could have been a contender” (orange), and essential “I’ve failed my crew” face-contorting tartness, often with the salt of a few tears for balance. You’ll feel the desire to pour about 50 shakes into your cocktail (aka, “pity party”), but don’t. Just one or two shakes will do. Get over yourself. 
  • One slice of hope for zest – all classic cocktails have that curl of lemon, that twisted rind of orange, that uplifting and citrusy sunshine that attacks the nasal system with optimism before the first sip hits the tongue. For the DNF, this zest is hope. Hope that you will live to fight another day. Hope so instant and clear, you are already thinking of the next redeeming race to wipe out this blasted DNF cocktail heading down your gullet, even before you’ve taken a seat at the terminal aid station. I can’t stress how important this ingredient is – if you don’t have that hope, you will never give yourself permission to stop the race at hand. Just make sure it’s a slice of hope, and not the whole fruit…there’s no prize for first DNF, no matter how delicious a fruity cocktail tastes (or how much healthier it is for you). 
Stir the above ingredients, and serve straight up in a mason jar or paper cup (for added humility). There you go – the DNF cocktail.

If served properly, the DNF cocktail can take down even the greatest of race experiences. I found that out at the 2017 Cascade Crest 100m (CC100), a challenging and low key hundo that is a perennial favorite among the ultra crowd. The CC100 has always had fun and experienced volunteers, and this year (led by the extraordinary Race Director Rich White) they took the local forest fires in stride and dynamically created an out-and-back course that promised 25,000’+ of climbing and over 60 miles on the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT) for 150 lucky runners. They even managed to double down on the ropes section (so steep you need ropes to descend/ascend) and a 2-mile tunnel that used to be the only way to access this area 40 years ago. Now this epic course was set up for a one-of-a-kind brag worthy adventure!

(New course...now with even more vertical!)

(A hot day greeted us at the 9am start)
(Jimmy Dean Freeman and Carly Koerner are stoked to get going)
(Amy Burton and I calorie up with some pancakes before the start)
(Ready to rumble!)
We had great weather, and my trusty crew chief was one of my favorite co-pilots, my Dad, Larry Dunlap. He was in the Class of 1960 from nearby Bellevue High School, so I particularly enjoyed his many stories and historical references that gave me a special appreciation for the course, lakes, and mountain towns of the area. I was in good physical shape, and a stay at the McMenamins Anderson School Hotel had lulled me to a few long, relaxing pre-race nights with their unique combination of microbrew, live music, theatre, and great food (overtaper?). How in the world could a DNF cocktail even conceive of attacking this stacked deck?!?

(Dad and crew chief, and we are ready to go!)
(And we're off!!!)
But as I sat on the cot at mile 52 and looked back, I can see how this special DNF concoction took shape.

First, there was an injury. It wasn’t a big injury, but when it hit at mile 42, it conjured many hours of struggle to come, and a steadily growing percentage of losing the rest of the season. I had enjoyed a conservative pace through the big climbs in the first 20 miles, but once we hit the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT), I couldn’t help but open up my stride on its delicious, runnable single track. When I did, every 50th step would send a tuning fork surge of pain up my left leg that reminded me of a tumble I had a few weeks back, when I got caught in some brush that took 20 minutes to untangle. At the time that crash didn’t seem big, just weird cramping at odd angles as I pulled myself out, but that F# ping of pain was an unmistakably familiar note. No problem, I figured, slow down and I’ll be fine. We’ll walk some flats and downhills, but we can still make it. Onward!

(Smoke on the morning horizon, photo courtesy of Gary Wang)
(The PCT did not disappoint!)
(The volunteers at Blowout Mountain get us refilled and full of popsicles)
(More yummy single track!)
(Glad to be above the forest fire smoke from nearby BC fires)
(The canopy is the place to be!)
(The most helpful shark I have ever met at an aid station)
Next, a tall glass of fortified “whine”. At its core was a sense of regret that I don’t spend enough quality time with my Dad. I think we all feel this way as our busy lives fill the calendar, but the 24 hours prior to the race was so much fun just to hang out, it was a vivid reminder. Without the constant interruptions of grandkids, spouses, and the day-to-day of a planned vacation, our conversation was rich, deep, and revealing. The detailed reality of his best friend losing a battle with Alzheimer’s hour by hour, sharing decades of relationships with women and what we have both learned (and refused to learn), and his pride and struggle with my half-sister, Claire, who survives (and in a unique way, thrives) on the verge of homelessness in nearby Tacoma, WA. As wise and grey as we have become, he remains a fountain of endless knowledge and perspective, and I the perennial student. But instead of having a few beers to engage even deeper, or meeting his old friends in person, we are pulling an all-nighter in the mountains again. I have more buckles than I can possibly wear already…wouldn’t it be sweeter to spend more quality time with the old man? Yes it would. Fortified sweeter, in fact.

(A trail crew at mile 24 was handing out ice cold PBR and Sierra Nevada...we say YES!)
(Getting through a hot spot)
(Descending down the ridge)
(The 2 mile tunnel was something!)
The two shakes of bitters were a bit harder to decipher. Few things can cleanse the soul of bitterness like the start of a 100-miler, since, let’s be honest, it is unneeded baggage. If that baggage tries to make the trip, you ain’t gonna make the trip, so best to chuck it at mile 0. When I started the race and joined some Canadians and first-timers for the first insane climb, there was no bitterness at all, only joy. As we shared whoop-whoops through the canopy of the PCT, in and out of the forest fire smoky dryness, finding costumed volunteers who loaded us with popsicles at each aid station, and my Dad who nearly cashed in our rental car insurance with every trek up a pass to meet me, I was all smiles. But as the injury got tougher and the inevitable “why should I finish” dialogue began, I found this little bug that wouldn’t go away, reminding me that my main motivation to sign up for this race was to get points for UTMB. A month prior to the race, the Race Director of CC100 (and Hardrock and others) sent an email saying “your points won’t count to UTMB because…[don't want to pay $100 to UTMB because it isn't right]”. At the time of that email I was bummed, of course, but I never thought twice about not racing the CC100. Yet, here it is, offering up two shakes of bitter to the cocktail. Finish or not, there was no UTMB in my future thanks for placing a bet on this race.

(Rolling with the Canucks in the early miles)
(Slowing down, but getting there!)
(Volunteers were crazy good all day)
And then comes the zest. Why do we do these 100’s, anyway? There's always a chapter of an ultra where you have to ponder this question, and it's actually one of the fun parts of the journey. For me, it's to get out of our comfort zones, to have a shared adventure with like-minded warriors, and to mix with Mother Nature on her terms….yup, got all of those. In fact, got them all by mile 52. Herein lies the rub, and the more challenging mental hurdle of out-and-back courses – the first 52 miles were so perfect, full of amazing trails, lakes, trees, views, heat, suffering, wildlife, new friends, and the best tasting perogis I’ve ever had (served by legend Scott McCoubrey), my spiritual cup was already overflowing. If I kept going, I could get more, and there was no doubt my crew would see that I found that finish. Or I could drop and spend the next 48 hours exploring the area with my Dad, hearing more stories and wisdom, visiting his friends and our long-lost family, and taking him back to the McMenamins Anderson School for a night of relaxed enjoyment. A different and possibly greater adventure dangerously unfurling in the eye of this beholder.

Mmmm, that went down easy! A perfect DNF cocktail.

(Female winner Kaytlyn Gerbin cheers on finishers; both she and overall winner Lindsay Hamoudi clocked impressive times on this difficult course)
(To the winners go the spoils, silver if you're finishing your 5th/10th)
(Getting it done! Yes!!!)
And so, that’s what we did. I dropped at 10pm, 13 hours into the race, injured but likely capable of making the finish on any other day. We helped a few more runners get through the turnaround, then packed it up to enjoy a few beers and gas station sandwiches on the curb. After a full night of sleep, we came back to cheer on the incredible runners who cranked through the night/morning, then took the long way back through Leavenworth (awesome Danish style town complete with beer halls), cruised along Hwy 2 where the mountains rival Hawaii and Switzerland, spent the night at the McMenamins Anderson School for beers/swims/long chats, and reunited with my half-sister Claire (after 18 years!) to spend a few hours sipping milkshakes before heading home. It was one of those trips you would never do if planned, but wouldn’t trade for anything once it was done. No buckle, but no regrets. And to be honest, I have CC100 to thank for opening this adventure to me...without that race, none of this would have happened.

(Catching up with Claire after almost 20 years)
Back at home, my 52-mile legs had no trouble jumping back into training fully motivated, and I set my sites on the Tussey Mountainback in October (yeah, zest!). The DNF cocktail has no lingering hangover this time.

I hope you don’t taste the DNF cocktail often, but if you do, may it be as delicious and life-changing as this one. See you on the trails!

Cheers, Scott

17 comments:

  1. Nothing more impressive than a runner that knows when to call it a day! I've never been good at this. But I've never run ultras, I imagine I'd get a lot better at it if I did. :) Great post!

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    1. Sounds like it's time for you to ultra!

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  2. Now I know why that DNF tastes so good! Mine all come with a hangover.

    I'm glad you mentioned the bitter feeling when all those race directors RETROACTIVELY retracted UTMB points from RRR100, CC100, and the others. I would have completely understood if they wanted to take that stand for the following year, but to do it after we all signed up is poor leadership. It left us all with no options.

    Good luck on the next race, Chris

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    1. You know, it's a lot of smart Race Directors who all came to the same conclusion, and felt they needed to do it immediately. Inconvenient for us, but I can't imagine they didn't think and debate that thoroughly. It gave me a shake of bitters when the cocktail needed it, but I'm already over it. Let me know where you're racing next, Chris, and perhaps I'll meet you there. I suspect we are bound for Europe. ;-)

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  3. Double bummer for the DNF cocktail (seems too familiar of a taste still a week after UTMB...) and the last minute UTMB-qualifier withdrawal for you; this surely isn't fair in the era of ultra advanced planning. Wishing you a good rebound and redemption at Tussey mOUnTaiNBACK!

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    1. As you know, it happens. Onward and upward!

      Come meet us at Tussey if you can!!!

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  4. congrats, you guys look like you had a lot of fun but we know is not easy to run that distance. Cheers! Vic

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    1. Thanks, Vic. This race is incredibly fun. Good people, good community, and simply amazing mountains and trails. This whole valley feels like Europe or Hawaii to me the way that the mountains just go straight up on both sides of the valley. Well worth the trip if you're thinking about it!

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  5. Great report. As someone who DNF'd at CC a few years ago for no mojo that day at 30 miles in, I totally get it.

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    1. You can't go into CC100 without 110% commitment, that's for sure. But I imagine you saw some gorgeous country in those 30 miles!

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  6. Great to see you out there Scott!

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    1. Great to meet you! And you saw me in my DNF bliss state. ;-) I hope you got your runner to the finish line!

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  7. Great read Scott. Keep up the great work!

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    1. Congrats on your win, Lindsay! I tried to get your picture on your return trip, but it was already getting dark and it didn't turn out very well. You crushed it!!!

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  8. So what type of cocktail is it when you train for 6 months for a 100, then come down with a viral infection a month out? No training and a possibility that it won't be gone in 3 weeks means I may be a DNS at a race I've been looking forward to all Summer.
    Sorry to see you drop, but great attitude about it...you only have one Dad and to share time with him is priceless.

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    1. That's the DNS cocktail! I'll have to think about that one. I bet it has a couple shakes of bitters too.

      Hang in there, and be proud of the training you put in. I bet you'll rebound soon enough!

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  9. Thanks for writing this! So good. And I'll see you at Tussey! :)

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