Castle Peak 100k is the brainchild of Truckee local and bad-ass ultra-runner himself, Peter Fain. As described to me by another local after the race, “Peter basically just connected all of our favorite trails in the area, and then decided to finish the race on his favorite ‘trail’, the Palisades Traverse up to Mount Lincoln.” It seems to be growing a bit in popularity every year and in 2018 featured a starting field of 153 runners. I wanted to try it before it got silly with some sort of lottery and also saw the opportunity for another 5 UTMB points, which would put me in the running for that lottery if I so desired.
I had heard about the Castle Peak 100k for a couple of years now, often through drawn-out in-race tales of runners trying to beat the cutoffs as they made their way through the Truckee area mountains. Tales of finishing firmly in the dark, running out of water, missing a turn and going off course. I was intrigued – could a local 100k really be that difficult? This summer I was determined to find out for myself.
This race was also the end of a summer experiment of not really running but “cross-training” in kayaks and canoes in beautiful British Columbia. I had done a ton of adventuring in the mountains this summer, but not a ton of running. We completed our first successful family backpack trip in Sequoia National Park two weeks before Castle Peak, including camping for multiple nights above 10,000 feet, plus a bunch of off-trail hiking with a heavy pack. I was feeling more mentally clear and tougher than ever – the only question was whether I had the physical conditioning to make it through.
We got a bit of a late start leaving town on Friday night as my buddy Lucas had to wrap up work and we opted to get some dinner and avoid some of the traffic before leaving town. We rolled into the group campground about 10:30PM up in Truckee after a productive ride through the mountains working our way through the Outkast and Fugees record catalog. I was exhausted already and threw my sleeping bag down in the dirt about 30 feet from the registration table, not entirely trusting my alarm clock, but knowing that the hustle and bustle of the race would wake me up in the morning. I kept my eyes open long enough to catch a couple of shooting stars across the picturesque Truckee sky before passing out and being woken up at 3:30AM.
The 5:00AM start came soon enough and we were heading out of the campground on a paved road some 150 runners strong. I had literally never run on any of these trails before, so it was a 100% fresh race for me in that regard. I had zero idea what I was getting into. I did have the forethought to organize enough to meet my wife at Mile 50 so that she could “pace” me into the end. Before the race we thought it would just be a good excuse to run together for a bit in the mountains!
Start to Andromeda aid station
I was determined to start this race slow as I knew I had a long day ahead of me. Also I was running without a heart rate monitor, which was a first for me. Usually I use an HRM for an entire 50k and at least half of a 100k to pace myself and make sure I am not going out too hard. I was a little scared about my physical preparation for this one, and decided to heed the advice of Bob Shebest and run a little bit by feel (even though I still had a watch giving me distance, time, and pace).
The trail started dusty and I quickly whipped out my bandanna for an Antifa-type facemask. It worked great and certainly kept some of the dust out of my nose and lungs. The climb up to The Animal was gentle and beautiful as the sun began rising over the Truckee area. I opted for my Black Diamond Carbon Z poles right away, eager to be in a race that both allowed for the poles and was steep enough to use them. I cruised through “The Animal” aid station and was feeling good so far, the worrisome tightness of taper week subsiding quickly.
The trails were a nice mix of single-track and fire roads and I chatted it up with some other runners as we worked our way through the Euer Valley. The first section of the course where I was really impressed was the descent into Coyote Valley. The singletrack was as buttery as they come – smooth, bermed, and just oh-so-pleasant to be running on. At the bottom we crossed a beautiful meadow with a quaint-looking warming hut right in the middle. If only I knew how to back-country ski, I would definitely return to this location!!!
I was so engaged in reminiscing about previous climbing careers with a runner from Walnut Creek that I totally missed the right-hand turn heading up to Andromeda…. along with about 30-40 other runners. We still don’t know if the turn wasn’t marked or if we were all just as spaced out, but we soon figured out the error, backtracked, and hit the aid station staffed by the Red Antler Running Club. So far so good – by my calculations I was on pace to pick up my wife at Mile 50 about 4:00 PM, and we’d be cruising through the Palisades and at the finish before dark.
Andromeda > Johnson Canyon > Castle Valley
The descent into Johnson Canyon was wicked fun – more buttery singletrack with the sound of the freeway getting closer and closer, meaning we were approaching a large aid station and our drop bags!! The aid stations so far had been adequate but not amazing. What I now realize is that many of the aid stations on the course are back-country aid stations with food and water hiked in because cars can’t get there. That makes the real deal aid stations all the more special. I do think Peter should communicate this a bit better in the race packet, as racers were getting mighty frustrated that they were being rationed water and food at certain points. I definitely couldn’t put up a fuss when I learned that volunteers had hiked water in for us. That’s commitment!!
Johnson Canyon was the first and only time I sat down to get into my drop-bag. I grabbed a new pair of socks, although didn’t put them on because everything in the foot department was going smoothly. I was eager to grab my two king sized Payday bars as the aid stations didn’t have much variety up until this point. I reapplied sunscreen, dropped my beanie, and headed up the trail for the rest of the day.
It was here that the real business was about to begin – about 10 miles of up and down climbing that would eventually lead us over 9000 feet to Castle Peak. This was also the part of the day that was heating up, so I remained focused on taking it easy, being efficient with my poles, and eating and drinking. I had a timer set for every 30 minutes to eat something – a gel, part of a Payday, or a bar – and was trying to drink little sips and make sure that I was drinking at least every mile. The summit lake station at 7500 feet was back-country and basically just had water and gels, but I filled up and kept on going, heading up to the big one. I could now see Castle Peak in all of its beauty, but didn’t know that we were about to start heading around it before we headed to the peak.
The most challenging part of the climb for me was the heat – I was thankful for my South Carolina heat training in June and the week I spent at altitude schlepping packs in Sequoia. I had water rationed decently, but finally caved and filled up from a snow-melt stream at about mile 32. It seemed clean enough, I could see the source, and I was thirsty. So far so good as my intestines seem okay some 5 days later. It was deliciously cold and provided a nice little boost to the Devil’s Oven aid station – another minimally stocked back-country endeavor.
We hit Basin Peak first and then I saw “the ridge” that everyone had been talking about – a beautiful mile or so between the two peaks, wind-swept on one side, and fairly exposed on the other. It was the stuff that mountain runners dream of, and I was about to cruise across it. Unfortunately it was over too soon and I was back on the poles, slogging up the steep scree to Castle Peak. We didn’t hit the true summit, which I think is on one of the middle spires, but instead immediately began the descent down golf-ball size loose scree and trail. I kept my poles out and bombed it skier style (even though I am terrible at skiing) which seemed to keep me upright and work just fine. I was really looking forward to the Castle Valley aid station, the first car-access station in a while, and my dreams became a reality when I was greeted with ice, Sprite, and tater tots dipped in salt (oh my gawd how have I never tried those before?!?!?)
I didn’t get super dark during this run, but Mile 38 – 44 was the darkest point of the day. For some reason the rollers were just destroying me – we weren’t climbing enough to use the poles, but it was kind of runnable at the same time. That combined with the fact that I matched up with a guy who was deep in the dark pain cave and spewing negativity everywhere – talking about how we were at the back of the pack, we were racing the cutoffs, the hardest part was yet to come, we’d be lucky if we finished by 3:00AM… I knew exactly what I had to do, and yet it’s so hard in the moment – finally I bid him adieu, lit a fire under my feet, and got ahead of him on the trail. I met another woman who had been stuck with him too at the next aid station and he had literally brought her to tears with his negativity. I assured her it wasn’t us, it was him – gave her a fist bump – and affirmed that we could do this thing, just keep moving down the trail.
It’s a tough move to make in a community-focused ultra, but there’s really not much more you can do in that situation. You have to let the person in the pain cave soldier on alone and hope that they can keep going and that it gets better for them (or better yet their crew or pacer pulls them out of the darkness). It’s a horrible feeling – I would have loved to help him along – but I could barely keep myself moving at that moment.
At the Hole in the Ground aid station I perked up again (thanks to the pickles and ginger beer on ice perhaps?!?!!?). I knew that I had 6 miles to go until I met my sweetie for pacing duties, and I knew that she would get me to the end of the race!!!
I cruised the next section, partly because it was exactly my running style (slightly downhill on semi-technical terrain) but mainly because I was trying to get to my wife. I was cruising so much that one fellow runner exclaimed “you’re moving pretty good for 45 miles” and I immediately shot back “I’m trying to get to my wife!!”. The trail-angel pop-up aid station at mile 47 certainly didn’t hurt (nor did the fig newtons and cold spring water) and I felt invincible heading into Mile 50 and the Van Norden aid station.
This was the first race I had employed the use of a pacer. If you had asked me why a runner would bring a pacer beforehand, I would have answered something about keeping them running fast enough, or helping to change their socks, or some other physical advantage that a pacer would bring. I now know that the beauty of a pacer is that it’s like a shot of mental-edge adrenaline deep into the race. My mind had locked on the task of getting to Mile 50 because I knew, 100%, that unless I was deathly injured my wife would get me to that finish line. That’s the biggest advantage you can get in a day like this, and man was I glad to see her!!!
We took off from Mile 50 at 6:00PM and it was now looking like we were going to be in the Palisades pretty close to dark. She was a natural despite never having paced anyone before. She told me stories of what the kids had been building with Legos that day, made me run the runnable sections without pissing me off, and made sure I had enough water and food leaving every aid station. We climbed up to Crow’s Nest just as the sun was setting and paused for a moment to soak it all in. This was my life partner and soulmate and we had spent many days and nights in the mountains together. This was no different than the others, really, and we were just feeling blessed to have the evening together.
At the aid station I exclaimed that I really had planned on making it through the technical part of the Palisades in the daylight. A crusty old-timer volunteer wearing an Imogene Pass t-shirt heard me and said “You know what? The mountains don’t care about your schedule.” It was a good reminder, and truth as well. We donned our headlights and jackets and headed into the Palisades Traverse.
I had heard about this section for years and really didn’t know what to expect. It turns out that the Palisades are a 1.4 mile section of faint use trail with some notable Class 3 sections where you have to use your hands or ropes (if they are up). The rock is okay – it’s conglomerate, so it’s good until it’s not – but hopefully well traveled enough that the sketchy stuff had already been knocked off. The exposure was decent – there were certainly places where you wouldn’t want to fall – but not terrifying by any means. We made good progress and even caught some people as we channeled our previous lives as rock-climbers and kept moving while keeping it safe. By the time we got to Mount Lincoln it was fully dark and our cheap headlight batteries were dying more every minute.
Here my wife showed off her pacing prowess again as she deftly found the trail down the side, around, and up to the top of Mount Judah. I guess we were technically staying clear of the PCT but it sure felt circuitous in the middle of the night after 60 miles already. We took our time on the somewhat rocky fire-road down into Sugarbowl, deciding that since we couldn’t really see with our lights it was not worth a rolled ankle at this stage of the game. We crossed the finish line to cow-bells and applause, at 17 hours 18 minutes, 53rd overall finisher.
So now I get it – why Castle Peak is so “tough”. It’s an incredibly tough 100k to begin with, at altitude, with a bunch of climbing. A good portion of the trail is on loose scree or so steep that you’re just fighting for traction. There are numerous back-country aid stations where the supplies are limited and rationed. And then at Mile 57, when you are ready to be done, you get to the Palisades. Where it’s not necessarily dangerous, but you do need all of your focus and attention to turn over a 40 minute mile. And unless you’ve been really moving all day long, it’s gonna be in the dark.
That, my friends, is a mountain ultra (and now my favorite one as well).