My First 100k, First Western States Qualifier, Castle Peak 100k Race Report
Written by: Brandon Galvez
Their website boldly states, “Facing the brunt of fate. Indomitable. Unafraid.” I won’t lie, I was afraid. I’m not a morning person and have no problem sleeping 8-9 hours everyday given the opportunity. The week leading up to the Castle Peak 100k I awoke early every morning and couldn’t fall back asleep. In an effort to start accumulating Western States qualifying races I had signed up for the Castle Peak 100k back in January. I chose this race because it was the closest qualifier to my house that did not have a waitlist or a lottery and was occurring prior to the school year (I’m a science teacher).
I never imagined I could love running. I ran cross country for two seasons while in high school to improve my endurance for soccer. Years later I realized that the period of my life when I ran everyday was the happiest and healthiest I had ever felt. Approaching my 40’s and missing the health of my 20’s, I signed up for a marathon to force myself to adopt a running routine. I hate roads and cities and spend nearly all of my free time in the woods but I didn’t know of any other way to motivate myself to run. Because of running, I ran into another local runner who ran ultramarathons. This stuff sounded crazy to me. A few months later another local runner asked if I heard of the Elkhorn Crest 50, an ultra put on by Alpine Running in the Elkhorn mountains (near my house). I looked at their website and it looked like the most amazing thing ever! Several people told me that I should not let the 50 mile race (actually 53+) be my first ultramarathon because it was a truly technical and difficult ultra. So I signed up for the “marathon” distance, kissed the flat farm roads goodbye and began training in the hills surrounding the Grande Ronde Valley. I immediately loved that I was looking at trees instead of fields and fast moving cars. In July of 2018 I ran my first mountain marathon and I was completely hooked. I began to immerse myself in the sport and knew immediately that I had found my tribe. There are different personalities drawn to ultrarunning and, without going into detail, the more I learn about the ultrarunning community the more I know I am “that guy”.
One attribute that makes me an “ultrarunner” type is that I really enjoy planning and problem solving. The 2019 Elkhorn Crest 50 would be my Castle Peak “qualifier”. I was somewhat relieved when Race Director Peter Fain told me that the Elkhorn Crest 50 was a good race to prepare me for the Castle Peak 100k. And, post race, I couldn’t agree with him more (they’re both hard as hell). Afraid that I had gotten in over my head, I did as much long distance preparation for CP100k as possible. I downloaded the course GPX file, then uploaded it to Garmin Connect, and then started breaking down the course section by section between aid stations. Focusing on elevation gain and loss and relative slope. Then I assigned the sections difficulty rankings. I made sure to spend nearly all of my training, from January until race day, running on roads and trails that were similar to those on the course. I got this idea from Jason Koop’s book “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning”. From January through August, I logged nearly 120,000 feet of vertical climbing (with 120,000 feet of descents of course.) And after running the Castle Peak 100k, I am so glad that I did!
Part 1: The Animal at Sunrise
After a crazy, somewhat sleep deprived trip down to Truckee, California, my wife and I parked the R-Pod at Prosser Family Campground the day before the race. I liked the fact that I could wake up and walk down to the start line. I was up at 3AM and headed down to the start line by 4AM, just as the shuttles were arriving. The race started promptly at 5AM. As I ran past our campground I stopped to tie some warm-up clothing to a gate for my wife to pick up. As I began running again I was at the back of the pack. I noticed a runner who was gliding along at a cadence that seemed perfectly in tune with my preferred pace. I started running with this runner and continued to pace them. After we crossed the highway we hit the dusty trail up “The Animal” (Note: the recommendation to carry and use a buff for trail dust was definitely a good thing for the first several miles).
An hour into the race we had gained some elevation and the sun was just starting to reach the horizon, dimly illuminating Prosser Reservoir. I had been quietly trailing my “running partner” for awhile and then I started up a conversation. As daylight began to take hold EVERYONE seemed to know this guy. “Hey Dan!” I heard repeatedly. The runner I was pacing turned out to be Dan Baxley, one of the original organizers of the Castle Peak 100k. He’s pretty popular!
When I reached the first aid station, “The Animal” I didn’t feel the least bit fatigued. Although (in hindsight) I hadn’t drank enough water. I continued to feel great up until the second aid station at Euer Valley. Leaving Euer Valley aid station is when I started to realize I had not taken in enough nutrition. During this first year of ultras, nutrition and hydration has been my Achilles’ heel. I think I read somewhere that around a third of DNF’s are the result of GI issues, so apparently I’m not alone. I still haven’t figured out my magic combination yet and this fact would play out for the duration of this race.
By the time I had reached the “Andromeda” aid station I was definitely hungry and dehydrated and losing my ability to eat anything solid. I was looking forward to meeting up with my amazing wife and dogs at Johnson Canyon. I took the last of my electrolytes and headed up the last climb before the descent into the Johnson Canyon aid station. While cruising on the trail I tripped on a rock and landed on my hands and knees in a bear crawl position. I felt spasms in about five different spots in my legs, the worst in my left groin. I quickly rolled over so I could straighten my legs and sat stiff legged on the trail. A few runners passed by and asked if I was okay. I said I had tripped and that my legs were cramping from it, but that I was fine and off they ran… When I got up again the spasms weren’t going away. I knew from previous races that SaltStick caps and water or strong Tailwind would be a near instant fix. Unfortunately, I was out of salt, and for the first time in the race there were no runners around me. I hobbled up the remaining climbs and phoned my wife so she would have adequate nutrition and hydration waiting for me at the Johnson Canyon aid station. I temporarily changed my running form from midfoot to toe strike and this allowed me to move quickly down the hill.
At the Johnson Canyon aid station I spent nearly 45 minutes consuming as much electrolyte solution as I could, changing out gear, and massaging my cramping muscles. I ended up having an excellent recovery from the first part of the race but couldn’t have done it without the help of my wife, Sarah. I had pre-packed a second vest to change into at the aid station. It had a lot of food but very little Tailwind. Unfortunately, I would come to realize that, in this race, my body was responding well to liquid calories but poorly to solid food and I had failed to reorganize my vest.
Part 2: Storming the Castle
I charged up the hill from Johnson Canyon feeling renewed. The change into roomier softer shoes and thicker softer socks was AMAZING! Because I had camped out so long at Johnson, I had lost all the runners that were moving at my natural pace and now I was passing a lot of the folks that had come through the aid station during my recovery. I felt fantastic all the way up to the Summit Lake aid station. At Summit Lake they informed us to stock up because we wouldn’t have any nutrition and would have very little water for the next 10 miles until we reached the Castle Valley aid station. Today Tailwind Nutrition was working for me (last race it didn’t) and of course that is the one thing I left with my crew at the bottom of the mountain… I continued my charge up the hill toward the “Devil’s Oven” aid station.
The vistas throughout the next portion of the race (miles 28-35) are breathtakingly beautiful (as well as literally breath “taking” at elevations between 7-9,000’). As I approached the Devil’s Aid station I was feeling the slight pang of cramps and a little nausea. After cruising through the Devil’s Oven aid station, I headed up the ridge that leads to the Castle Peak. Now it was challenging to fully appreciate the jaw dropping beauty surrounding me because I was beginning to have so much nausea that I couldn’t move much faster than strolling speed. I decided to sit down for a few minutes near Castle Peak.
After summiting the races namesake I worked my way down to the Castle Valley aid station. This station was GREAT! I sat in a chair and drank iced Coca Cola in the shade and then I ate a strawberry popsicle as I hiked towards the aid station. The rest at Castle Valley had returned me back to my regular cruising speed but that only lasted for about 3 miles before the nausea returned. I spent the next three miles travelling as fast as my wounded stomach would allow me to. Suddenly, I had to deal with chasing the 8PM cutoff at the Van Norden aid station.
I arrived at the Hole in the Ground aid station and runners were dropping or planning to drop or having negative conversations about the impossible task of reaching Sugar Bowl by the Western States qualifying cutoff time. I put up a mental force field to the negativity and even inspired one DNFer to run down the hill. A runner named Ajit Narwal ended up running to Van Norden with me. He shared some really cool stories from previous ultramarathons and made the trip enjoyable. We reached the bottom of the hill and despite missing the trail that takes you to the pavement and wasting nearly 10 minutes figuring out our mistake, we made it to Van Norden aid station with about a minute to spare. I had planned to desperately zip through the aid station and adapt my race at the next station but as I reached the aid station, running much faster than I should have been, given my current state of wellness, a race volunteer said, “You’re fine! The cutoff has been extended to 8:30!”
Part 3: The Palisades
On the one hand, I was happy to have time to recuperate with my wife, and on the other hand, I knew that making the 1AM WSER cutoff would be that much harder if I only had 4 ½ hours to get through the notorious Palisades section of the course. It didn’t matter, I needed some recovery. First thing I did was laid on the cot at the medical station. They would only grant me 5 minutes on the cot (for my own good.) As I laid there Sarah grabbed my gear boxes and the cooler so that I could prepare for the final push. My glorious and heaven sent angel of a wife worked fastidiously to get me prepared and back on the trail before the 8:30 cutoff. Wearing dry socks, a dry shirt, a dry hat, a dry vest, and a headlamp I headed back out on the trail. Initially, I tried to follow a runner and their pacer. But their powerhiking pace sent my legs into spasms. So I stopped for a moment and then thought that I might be able to jog instead of hike and sure enough I could! Something kicked in and I was off to the races. I fell into my groove and began to move.
From my training I had expected to finish this race in 18-19 hours. My GI tract, however, seemed to follow a different race plan. Having left Van Norden aid station with only 4 ½ hours to reach the 20 hour WSER cutoff I was passing as many people as possible ahead of the “Palisades” section. Since the Palisades is “cliffy” and uses ropes, runners are not permitted to overtake other runners (I had a fear that I would work really hard to make the cutoff only to be stuck on the Palisades.) The very last person I encountered was just past “Crow’s Nest” around 11PM. We were both pushing for a qualifying time. We had only two hours to Summit Mt. Lincoln via the Palisades and then run “down” to the Sugar Bowl Ski Lodge. Naturally there were a few ascents in our way (Thanks Peter!) We carefully worked our way through the Palisades together and arrived at the final aid station at Mt. Lincoln at 11:45PM.
The gentleman continued on ahead of me while I sipped some soda and rested for a few minutes. I discovered after the race that the “gentleman” was Jim Cannon, the 2016 Western States 60-69 age division winner. As I worked my way down the hill, passing more people, racing only an arbitrary cutoff time, I met up again with my Palisades friend. His watch had died, and so I gave him as much info as I could. It seemed like we had 15 minutes to cover a mile, but you never know how accurate the distances are using your watch. I eventually moved past him and finally reached the finish line just 2 minutes ahead of the cutoff where I promptly laid down on the ground and blissfully admired the stars. A minute went by and I told Sarah that I was sad that the guy I was just running with might not make the cutoff. Suddenly I heard cheering and clapping. I leapt up and, sure enough, it’s my new friend (although I’ve never seen his face) his time is almost up, I’m screaming at him from the finish line, “run, run, run!!!” As he reaches the finish line, I open my arms and he opens his arms and we have the biggest, warmest, most sincere, celebratory embrace two people could have and yet we don’t even know each other’s names. This is ultrarunning.
The Castle Peak 100k was my longest effort to date. In the past 13 months I have participated in 6 ultras and my love of the sport only grows with every effort. Surprisingly, I’ve noticed my wife seems to enjoy it with me, even though she’s not a participant. I’ve learned how to eat intentionally. I’ve learned to be absolutely in the present and maintain a positive attitude. I’ve seen how individual runners perform better collectively than independently. I’ve seen generosity. And of course I’ve seen some incredibly beautiful places and people. If you had asked me if I would run the Castle Peak 100k again in the last two hours of the race, I might have said, “Hell NO!” But by Monday I was already taking careful notes while the memories were fresh so that I could have a stronger race next year. If you love technical mountain ultras and monumental scenery, then I think that the Castle Peak 100k should absolutely be on your bucket list!