Crystal Mountain Sky Marathon

The western hemlock is the state tree of Washington. This is one of many lessons I learned during last weeks Crystal Mountain Sky Marathon just outside of Mt. Rainier National Park, but in a race full of suffering, that little factoid stuck in my mind and is the only lesson that may benefit me on Jeopardy!. 

No pictures from the race so instead you get pictures from our last trip into the Bitterroots

Friday morning I loaded the two dogs and drove an uneventful eight hours to Crystal Mountain Resort. I had the opportunity to drive through Mt. Rainier National Park on a clear day, which is the first time I've seen the mountain not from SEA-TAC, and boy is it big! I was definitely surprised when I crested the ridge and was blindsided with a wall of snow filling the sky in front of me. Unfortunately I couldn't spend much time looking at the mountain since the road started winding and descending at the same time: not a great place for mountain gazing.

I arrived at the Resort in time to check-in and get situated for the evening with a campsite a few minutes from the startline. Despite being part of the US Skyrunning Series, this race had the feel of a local 5k. Everything was run by a few people, smaller turnout, and done cheaply. That's not necessarily a bad thing, just different from the other Sky races I ran this year.

The course was slated to have 9,100 feet of climbing over the 26 miles. Most of that came in three big climbs: a three thousand foot ascent over the first three miles, a 4k doozy from mile 14-20 and a 900' climb hiding in the last few miles. According to satellite maps that I looked at before hand, the course appeared mostly treed so I was expecting dirt and more solid footing than the Rut, and I was not wrong.

We started at 8:00 sharp on Saturday morning. Since this was only my second marathon, longest run in a while, and I had been sick the week leading up to it, I decided to go out pretty easy on the first climb (seriously this time). I wanted to stick with Stevie Kremer who had shown up last minute. Since I finished either just in front of, or just behind her, in the last two races despite getting a huge lead early, it seemed that pacing with her would be a good idea.

I began running a couple steps back of Stevie, but soon realized she had other plans for pacing that day. She was running in the front (top 5 overall) and not looking back. I slowly dropped back and ran within myself the rest of the climb as we wound through a few meadowy buttresses overlooking a misty, sun-spotted valley.

Zeno shaking it off
Eventually I popped up onto the ridge and was rewarded with a wonderful clear morning view of Mount Rainier with a little ominous lenticular cloud forming on top. At this point we had a short out and back along the ridge to the first aid station. I still had a mostly full bottle so decided to continue through the aid station and a few minutes later ate my first gel (mmm...root beer).

With the gel consumed I was ready to start the long descent to the second aid station. The course dropped straight off the side of the ridge into a series of glorious meadows that we traversed on single track(?). The trail was more fit for elk, which I think are the primary trail blazers in this area, but worked great for running as well. After a few meadows a short climb took us back up to a single track trail along the ridge for the rest of the descent.

The next few miles were incredible. I was trying to keep it under control so I was able to enjoy the descent and got (mentally) lost in the green tunnel that is Western Washington. Mosses covered most things and there were multiple creeks running, even with no snow on the higher slopes. Eventually I pulled myself out of my reverie to realize I had backed off way too much and the next two women had closed on me. I picked it up enough to stay just in front of them to the aid station and at this point still had Stevie just in sight. I filled up water here, since my bottle of Fluid was empty, and grabbed two Fig Newtons for the road.

Another short climb brought us to the last few miles of descending. At this point we were well below the elevation of the start line and looking at a long, long climb back up to the top. Although my energy still felt good, I was starting to notice a few warning signs in my legs. As I crossed the 13 mile mark I told myself it's just like starting a long run, but after a late Saturday night: tired, but still manageable. That thought got me through the next mile of descending, and into the start of the 4,000 foot climb.

Trying to get Sequoia to swim
A mile into the climb I hit aid station number three. Here I refilled water again, snatched a couple packets of GU Chews and continued to climb. I was rocking the shuffling hike and it felt great for another 400 yards. Then it stopped feeling good. The climb became really steep and I started running out of energy. I kept eating the chews and that helped a little, but my stomach stopped handling them too well. I kept moving ok for another mile or so, but then I just had nothing left to lift my legs in any sort of consistent pattern. I was also kicking myself for leaving my new poles in the car. I figured with the better terrain I'd be okay, but the trail was still steep. So, I did what any sensible, fatigued runner-turned-hiker would do, and grabbed two appropriately sized sticks from the duff and employed them as poles for a mile or so.

The sticks turned poles seemed to help for a bit, but then I ran out of energy in my arms. At this point I was losing it mentally. I started regretting driving out to this race. I was doubting my strength in the entire sport of Sky Running. I was trying to talk myself out of going to Flagstaff for another one. Basically I was ready to retire from running altogether. I kept going though, mostly because I had no other choice, and somewhere in the back of my mind I knew I had to be getting closer to the top.

Eventually people started passing me. Even as I reached the ridge and the pitch lessened I couldn't keep from losing ground. Mentally this kept sending me to darker places and I struggled to justify moving forward at all. A few times I did start feeling ok again, and I took advantage of that to run what I could. I ran out of water and couldn't stomach any more gel or chews. But just before reaching the 4th aid station at mile 21 and the top of the ridge, I passed a couple hikers and learned that the Western Hemlock is the state tree of Washington. For some reason I mentally latched on to that and started thinking about trees and hemlocks (which I know nothing about) and forgot that I was suffering. Before I knew it I was at the aid station and able to eat and drink as much as I could handle.

It turns out I couldn't handle much at that point. I took a few minutes at the station and after filling my bottle, grabbing a slice of watermelon, and downing a cup of coke I continued on my merry way filled with dark thoughts and tired legs. Starting the descent did not go well. The first couple miles I was barely jogging. I still had no energy to lift my legs, but on the plus side my feet felt better than at the Rut by this point. Switching to Stance socks helped. Gradually though the calories started doing their thing and I started to feel a little life. I managed to keep those passing me in sight and even started feeling a little positive!
Checking out the mountains, and squirrels

By halfway up the last climb I was actually gaining on the runners that had passed me since the aid station. We hit the top of the climb at mile 24 and I was definitely coming back to life. I also didn't care how bad the descent hurt, I wanted to be done. I tried to take off down the trail, but my hamstrings immediately went into full on cramp mode. So I adopted a sort of shuffle descent that seemed to work and I started gaining on the next runners. Gradually my legs let me return to normal descending stride and I let loose.

Over the last couple miles I made up five of the spots I had lost and just about caught a sixth, but rounding the last turn with 25 yards to go he spotted my orange Cycling House shorts and took off sprinting. I chased after, but couldn't close the last stride (my hamstrings had become ok with descending, but absolutely refused to sprint) and ended up in 14th overall and 8th male. (Or something like that. Results are estimates at this race seeing as I'm listed as 45 seconds behind the guy who beat me by a hair).

If the race had ended at mile 21 I would have been completely unhappy with my race. Fortunately I had enough time to bounce back and finish strong though, so now I'm more ok with my performance. Obviously I need to figure out what I can eat that my stomach agrees with, and probably eat more of that. I have my nutrition dialed on the roads, but in the mountains not so much. I also think I went through more water in this race than normal because I was still recovering from the cold I had all week. Despite also having very low mileage the last six weeks, I think with proper nutrition and hydration I would have been at least five and possibly ten minutes faster that day.

Fortunately I get another chance to figure it all out at the US Skyrunning Championships in Flagstaff on October 3rd. That's right, heading back to the hometown trails! Also, after last weekend I'm sitting in 3rd in the Sky Series rankings so there's a chance that I can take home a podium spot if I put it all together. (A couple people right behind me have only race twice compared to my three races so it will take a great day on my part)

See you in Flagstaff,



  1. Forrest have you tried Hüma gels?

    1. I have just tried a few samples of them and love the taste. I have yet to use them during a long run or race, though, it's worth giving them a shot. Thanks for the suggestion!

  2. Forrest! Great to hear the updated, and way to stick it out. Amber has had trouble getting calories in most solid and gooey forms later in races. What seems to work well for her is liquid calories- some kind of drink mix instead of water. That way you get a slow trickle of calories the whole time, along with electrolytes. Coca cola from an aid station in the hand bottle is good too, some people dilute it with water a little.


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