On a partly sunny 32-degree morning on December 12th I headed up to the Bullitt Fireplace Trailhead on Squak Mountain to participate in Chris Gregory’s Best of Squak Mountain Half Marathon. This was the first race style event that I had participated in since the …
Tag: Squak Mountain
The Issy Alps 100 first came onto my radar when Christophe informed me of the challenge in the summer of 2017 after he set the FKT on the 50K course. From that point the idea of the race was just a thought, but that thought became a reality this April when I accepted a physical therapy position in Issaquah and Apryle and I purchased a condo in Issaquah right in the middle of course. Immediately, Christophe and I began planning, and by “Christophe and I”, I mean Christophe gathered all the data and maps and I said that it all sounded good and tried to learn it as best I could.
Christophe: I’ll credit to Ghislain Devouthon for telling me about this challenge almost two years ago. What attracted me most about running it was the fact that I had been training on these trails for the past three years and the idea of running from Mailbox to home (I live in Bellevue 2 miles from Cougar’s Red Tow trailhead) sounded like an adventure. Considering the elevation gain, I also saw this as a perfect training run for my upcoming participation at UTMB at the end of August, hence it did not take me long to accept when Zach asked me to be his partner in crime on the journey. To challenge ourselves, I studied the recent reports from finishers and put together a plan to improve Richard Kresser 2016 supported FKT (31:17) by 17min and hence our goal was to finish in 31h. With the 31h goal, I put together a plan to leverage the extended daylight and avoid the Si, Little Si & Rattlesnake crowds, and hence came up with the optimal time was to start Friday at noon.
Chrisophe and I began our Issy 100 adventure at 11:50AM on Friday June 29th at the Mailbox Peak Trailhead. We both arrived shortly before our planned start time of noon in order to make final preparations and review aid station plans with my wife, Apryle. Christophe’s wife Juliette and his youngest son Adrian were there along with Apryle to wish us luck on our journey. It was a cloudy, slightly humid day; it seemed that at any minute the rain could begin falling. However, the temperature was a near perfect 60 degrees and when not running, almost felt cold.
We started up the slightly sloping stone road toward the Old Mailbox trailhead with trekking poles in hand. The pace felt quite manageable as the run converted to a hike once we hit the steeper trail. The switch backing path makes a tortuous ascent through the towering Cedars and Firs. Their strong roots worn smooth by countless footsteps anchor the giants to the earth. The soil was slick as we gained elevation and a steady mist engulfed the air. We reached the talus clearing and observed that the mountain was consumed by a thick fog, which persisted until we reached the whimsical summit complete with the iconic mailbox.
We stopped for a quick photograph and gingerly picked our way back down to the trailhead. The descent was uneventful and upon reaching the bottom we stopped to chat a bit with Apryle who was more than a little concerned that we had started to fast, but we assured her that the effort was quite mild. I shoveled down a few quesadilla triangles, grabbed two bars, switched to the larger hydration pack and we were off eastward on the road.
We quickly reached the Granite Lakes Trailhead and followed it upward as it squeezed its way through Salmonberry, Nettle, and Salal thicket. Christophe and I chatted and casually plucked berries to supplement our traditional packaged foods. Despite running through dense understory the plants were not holding much moisture so we remained dry. The narrow trail opened up into a wider graded trail and the canopy became more dense, naturally thinning out the brush from the understory.
We took the Granite Creek Connector Trail down to the NFS Development Road 5600 where we crossed the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River and dove into the towering forest along the Sitka Spruce Trail. This trail may be quite easy to miss after crossing the bridge but the giant Spruces that flank the path are unmistakable. Christophe and I were quite excited to reach the smooth grade of the CCC Road that would take us to the old Tenerife Trailhead. We reached the trailhead almost an hour and half earlier than expected and Apryle was surprised to see us.
This was our second aid station, and we spent plenty of time refueling here. I once again consumed several quesadilla triangles, half a banana, resupplied my bars and made the fatal error of not topping off my hydration pack. Christophe and I were feeling positive about our ability to cruise the course to this point, but I knew that Tenerife Mountain via the Kamikaze trail would be the toughest of the day. Not only is it a 4000 foot climb over a disproportionately short distance, but it is the second major climb in less than twenty miles. However on a positive note after finishing Tenerife, the two largest climbs of the race are complete.
Despite the unrelenting grade of the Kamikaze Trail, it is my favorite climb in the Issaquah Alps. It follows a beautiful tree protected path in the most direct route possible to the summit. Christophe and I were drenched in sweat and completely spent on the rocky peak, but we did not take much time to relax and were quickly onto the next checkpoint. Even though we were 36 minutes ahead of pace, we wanted to keep banking away time while we could.
Christophe: Kamikaze was brutal as usual and glad I had a partner in crime to talk with. It was all foggy at the top and were not rewarded with its 360 view. I had emptied my two water bottles on the climb (it was hot after all…) and looked forward to refilling at the first stream down the forest road.
We descended the Tenerife Trail to the Talus Loop Connector and with quads that were begging for a break from descending, we started back up the mountain toward Seattle’s favorite peak – Mount Si. Fortunately, given the time of day and the weather, there were not many hikers to navigate through en route. Long gradual switch backs occupied the next hour on course toward the overlook. Along this stretch we spotted our first ungulate in the form of a curious Black Tailed Deer who appeared poised to join us in our pursuit, but in the end she was contented to stay put on the mountain side.
After tagging the lookout we descended the steep, tight turns of the Old Si Trail. At this point the quads were reluctantly controlling my descent to the Boulder Garden Trail, which would spit us out on the Little Si Trail. Upon reaching the Little Si Trail, the ambient light began to dim and despite the cooling temperatures I was feeling quite thirsty after running out of water on Si. Fortunately Christophe was not shy about asking other hikers for spare water and it was invaluable to our performance over the final miles before the Little Si TH aid station.
Christophe: I had hesitated carrying my trekking poles on this stretch but ended up using them during the entire adventure. Running down the old Si trail, they helped me twice recover from what could have been a bad fall… When we reconnected with Little Si, it felt like deja-vu where last year I was completely dehydrated and bonked during the last 1h of the Issy 50K route, hence the first set of climbers we saw I did not hesitate to ask this time if they could spare their remaining water, we were both so thirsty that I repeated the ask to another set of hikers coming down.
I love this section of trail because of the geologic interest mixed with the draping mosses, and lush Sword Ferns bursting from the fertile soil. However, due to the traffic volume the trail feels more like concrete than dirt. We reached the summit in just over nine hours and Christophe and I were shocked to realize how close we were to beating his Issy 50K FKT of 9:17 at a 100 mile effort. We descended and ran the road to meet Apryle at the overflow parking lot. Here we spent a long time recharging for the strenuous night ahead.
We were just over an hour ahead of our projected pace and spent almost a half hour preparing for the next segment. I ate half an avocado, the remainder of the quesadilla triangles, refilled my hydration pack, set up the battery charger for my watch, and rigged up my headlamp on top of my hat in order to keep it in place. Apryle debated dropping off water for us at the Raging River Crossing at mile 50, but as we were leaving said that she would be there personally instead. I feel comfortable in saying that if not for Apryle’s dedication to our Issy 100 effort that I would not have finished the race.
Christophe: Also took the opportunity to eat a bit and prepare for the night, picking headlamp and changing to a long sleeve shirt for the rest of the journey.
The next segment of trail was the easiest part of the entire course for me; the Snoqualmie Valley Trail, which seemed to backtrack on our route as it lead us southeast to Rattlesnake Ridge. This trail is a pleasant crushed gravel rail trail that was perfect as we transitioned from running in the light to running in the dark. With the exception of the Kamikaze Trail, Christophe controlled the pacing, but as he was having some digestive issues I paced this section, trying to dodge the cute little Banana Slugs that were making their evening rounds.
Christophe: indeed this was not my favorite part of the course even though it was nice and flat and perfect for a few fast splits… My feet were hurting and I was dreaming of running with my road running shoes with extra cushion and to top it off I knew I had to leverage the bathrooms at the bottom of the Rattlesnake lake. I will remember the cacophony from the frogs as we neared the lake!
We took a brake at the base of Rattlesnake Ridge before beginning the next climb. Christophe quickly took back the lead and I struggled to keep up and more importantly, stay awake. I felt bad on this ascent because it seemed Christophe could have gone a little faster but I was fighting back the urge take a nap on a bed of moss. Something clicked when we reached the east summit and we began jogging and I came back to life. The conversation began to flow again and when we reached the logged clearing near the midpoint of the ridge there were thousands of lights visible in towns to the south and North Bend to the north. This reminded me of Longs Peak ascents back in Colorado, when Boulder and Denver and other Front Range communities illuminated the foothills many miles away from the wild slopes of the mountain.
Christophe: indeed the climb was quiet with very little talking, probably our quietest moment during the effort. Once we started approaching the ridge and its clearing, at first, I thought the light were from someone nearby, instead of Tacoma and other cities in the distance, I guess the fatigue and the headlamp make me imagine things. On the recent cleaned up ridge trail (from the blow down 2 years ago I believe) we head a very loud bang that sounded like someone was shooting at us, followed by the sound of very large tree falling down near the trail, got spooked a bit and woke us up to cruise down to the HWY 18 crossing.
We snapped a few photographs and picked up the pace as we started descending the west side of the ridge to the powerlines. Here Christophe gave Apryle a call to let her know that we would be arriving at the Raging River Crossing at HWY 18 around 2:15AM; about 45 minutes ahead of schedule. Christophe and I previewed this section a few weeks prior to our attempt when Apryle and I were still living in our motorhome at Snoqualmie Casino prior to closing on our condo in Issaquah. Therefore, we were confident with our orienteering.
After following the powerlines along a narrow overgrown path we took a wide forest road with tall grasses reclaiming the middle over to the entrance of a series of mountain bike paths. We knew that we needed to take the first left and keep taking lefts until we ended up at Rattlesnake Road SE. However, at night we missed a left and wanted to continue being Santa’s Little Helpers (name of the trail we continued on) until Christophe recognized that there was a ramp that we had not seen in our initial preview. This prompted us to turn back and make a left on the correct trail. Though we only lost a few minutes the narrow trails, the encroaching flora and the dark was sapping my spirit.
We finished the descent along the forest road to the Raging River Crossing under HWY 18 and we saw Apryle with her four ways flashing on the highway. Christophe directed her to a pulloff near a turning point on the course. Then I stumbled and slipped my way down into the river, which was cold but soothing on my legs after bushwhacking for several miles. Shortly after emerging from the river I heard Apryle cheering in the background and we ran over to the pullout where she and Darwin had chairs set out and fresh quesadillas and cold water.
At this point Christophe and I had lost a big chunk of our time, dropping from over an hour ahead to a mere 13 minutes ahead of schedule. I ate several more triangles, and the top of a muffin, restocked bars, and refilled water. No sooner did we leave and Christophe threw up everything he consumed at the Raging River aid station, but he was immediately back moving like nothing had happened as we made our way over to the second crossing at Deep Creek.
The trail here is even more overgrown than the Rattlesnake side of HWY 18, but we pressed forward and I began to feel quite good again as we were welcomed to Tiger Mountain with a beautiful moon lit sky. When we reached the forest service road Christophe clicked right back into running mode and tried my best to keep the pace, but my eyelids felt heavier and heavier. After a short time on the forest service road we turned onto the NW Timber Trail, which undulated through sparse but dark forest until we reached the Main Tiger Mountain Road. The Main Tiger Mountain Road slowly climbs 3.5 miles to the summit of East Tiger Mountain. This is typically the mountain biking side of the mountain but Christophe’s time choice was impeccable, not only did we avoid hikers on Mailbox and Si due to being a weekday, we avoided the Rattlesnake Ledge traffic with a night ascent and now we avoided mountain bikers with an early morning East Tiger climb.
These were some of the hardest 3.5 miles of my life, I grew more and more tired and I am quite certain that I actually fell asleep as I was ascending the mountain until I tripped on a rock and came back down to earth. Shortly before topping out on East Tiger I turned off my headlamp and pulled it off my head because it was beginning to make my neck sore. When we reached the top we sat on the picnic tables for a while as the sun burst forth from its nighttime slumber.
Christophe: that first Tiger climb was lonely and could feel Zach was not in top form and kept checking on him during the forest road climb to ensure I had not dropped him. We arrived at East summit shortly before 5am and we were both happy to pack our headlamp and the fact that we were done with night running. Knowing we were 6 miles from the High Point trailhead I was re-energized again as we tackled the descent.
We took too long of a rest and our bodies tightened up. This resulted in a slow hobble down the mountain side until we warmed up enough to again begin running at a descent pace. It was a misty morning, which is quite typical for the southeast section of Tiger. The fog in addition to the towering conifers made for an ominous setting. We broke from the trees to cross a freshly logged stretch where the ground was littered in downed trees and our path was non existent. This was our transition from Preston Railroad Grade to E Tiger Mountain Trail and it was a spot that we focused on in an earlier scouting trip. Once we made it onto the road it was trenched out in many sections making passage quite difficult.
The miles along the E Tiger Trail to the Bootleg Trail were a blur, except I always remember the slippery log rounds that sit in the middle of the trail in one particular section. I ate several Salmon Berries through this section and even though Christophe was texting Apryle in this stretch, I still had a difficult time keeping pace. However, once we reached the Lingering Trail I was revived and tried to push the pace knowing that we were only a short way from the High Point Aid Station at mile 66.
We passed by the Tent City and over to the Cable Line Trail where we were greeted by Apryle, Juliette and Michael Hravda around 7:06AM; 44 minutes ahead of schedule. We refueled, drank a little coffee and I ate some grilled cheese that Apryle made and then we were off to ascend the three West Tiger summits. I felt revived and the summits were a breeze, in fact we made it to the top of W Tiger 1 49 minutes ahead of schedule, gaining an additional 5 minutes on the climb. However, the descent down Bootleg to the 15 Mile Railroad Grade were hard on the quads. Additionally, this stretch of trail was quite overgrown making passage challenging.
Christophe: I was so happy to see familiar faces, eat, drink coffee and change shoes for the first time. An ideal breakfast along I90!
I was excited to pass the 15 Mile Gap Sign, which I passed so many times before on runs starting from the Highschool. This indicated that we were approaching the the long descent to our next aid station. We took the TMT to the junction with One View Trail which transitioned to the Poo Top Trail which features some tight switchbacks in the upper reaches before calming to a gradual slope before the powerlines. Several runners and hikers were passing in either direction as we hopped on the Highschool Trail, and some even knew that we were running the Issy 100!
Christophe: West Tiger 3, 2, 1 went fast, and I will remember getting soaked from my waist down on the 15 mile railroad grade trail. On the way down to the high school trailhead, we passed a runner that was going up and he congratulated on our Issy 100 effort and that we were doing very well. Not sure how he knew we are doing this, perhaps it was the look on our face.
We bottomed out at Issaquah Highschool and took the narrow Rainier Trail to the Aid Station at mile 78. Here there were several people to greet us, including our new pacer Quentin, who pushed the pace as we darted across Front Street over to the affluent Sycamore neighborhood. We twisted and turned up the winding residential street, passing well manicured lawns showcased by quintessential Pacific Northwest style homes. Then we took the inconspicuous trail into the towering Cedars as we began the climb over the crest of Squak Mountain State Park. The understory was a mix of Issaquah’s finest: Maidenhair Ferns, Devil’s Club, Sword Ferns, Oregon Grape, Salal, and the delicious Salmonberry.
The East Ridge trail was a series of long switchbacks, but once we reached the West Access Trail, things leveled out before diving down to SR 900. I felt quite at home on Squak, considering that last year Apryle and I lived in Newcastle and I frequently made a loop out of Cougar and Squak mountains. Furthermore, Apryle and I now live on Front Street and therefore, Squak and Tiger have become my official backyard. The West Access Trail emptied out onto the 900 road with a short stint on the highway before entering Cougar Mountain Regional Park on its eastern slope, a section that I traveled many times, including the Cougar Mountain 50K last fall.
As we entered Cougar, Apryle was there to help share the pacing duties with Quentin, and help to push me along while also being sure that I was eating plenty. After 83 miles we were not thrilled about the Wilderness/Gombu Cliff climb, but we pushed as hard as we could and once we reached the Shy Bear/Deceiver section we pushed even harder. Even though I could run Cougar Mountain trails with my eyes closed, I found it quite to be an unenjoyable challenge on race day. Apryle was bugging me to eat every couple of minutes and Quentin was pushing my legs to the limit. We reached the Indian/Quarry Trail turnaround at 1:38PM and 1 hour 12 minutes ahead of schedule.
Christophe: being so close to home I felt quite motivated to push hard in Cougar following Quentin’s lead and seemed to be flying doing sub 14 pace. While in Cougar my calorie deficit started to catch up and I started dreaming of drinking a large vanilla milk shake at the HWY900 rendez-vous to help me till the finish line.
Because I was having a difficult time keeping pace with Quentin and Christophe, Apryle and I did not stop at the sign and took off immediately power hiking up the slope toward Wilderness Peak. Quentin came up to me and said that I needed to make it to the peak in 50 minutes to maintain our time advantage and I looked at my watch and confirmed that I was moving just under 20 minute mile pace. Apryle kept me motivated and helped me keep the tempo high, which paid off when we reached Wilderness Peak at 26 hours and 22 minutes elapsed or 1 hour 18 minutes ahead of schedule meaning that we gained another 16 minutes in just two miles!
The weather started to turn rainy at this point and the drizzle turned to a slightly harder mist while we were descending the million switchbacks of the Gombu Cliffs back to SR 900. I felt like we were crawling and Apryle was having to stop and wait for me, but apparently we still gained another 4 minutes down to the aid station. We stopped a few minutes awaiting Juliette’s arrival with our food and the second Quentin (Christophe’s son) who would help to pace us into the finish. Here, Christophe grabbed a vanilla shake and I ate some more pizza that Apryle made for me before we crossed the busy highway back into Squak Mountain State Park. Apryle relinquished pacing duties and the four of us ascended Squak through the cold wet vegetation.
Christophe: a combination of the milk shake and meeting my son Quentin (yes there are two in this story!) to pace us until the end were reinvigorating. I was dreading the hike back up Squak but the conversations with the Quentin and then Loic (another trail running Frenchman) made that section go very fast.
Christophe offered me some of his milk shake and in the words of Daniel Plainview, “I drank it up;” nothing like a little dairy in the stomach after 92 miles in the mountains. Christophe’s son Quentin made time pass quickly with stories of his cross country and track career and before I knew it, we were descending the east side of Squak back down to Sycamore Street. Shortly before reaching the street another Frenchman (raising the total to 3), Loic joined us for the final stretch and Quentin took a well deserved leave after about 22 miles of pacing. We made our way back across Front Street and to the Highschool Trailhead where we only had 3.5 miles remaining in our journey. The clouds lifted and it seemed to be a little brighter, or at least not raining.
The trail went past Issaquah Highschool and climbed up the last set of switchbacks to the narrow Brink Trail. While on the Brink of finishing, Michael jumped into the fold with camera in hand after just completing a 30+ mile 12-summit run earlier in the day. I remember Christophe saying “and he’s dropping his pacers” as he darted toward the front and helped me push the pace into the finish. Once we reached the Swamp Trail with less than a mile to go, Christophe’s other two kids, Marion and Adrian helped lead us out to the road. Once we reached the road we had a mob, consisting of Apryle, Juliette, Quentin, Quentin, Loic, Michael, Marion, and Adrian. Unfortunately, everyone thought we were finishing at the end of the Swamp trail but Christophe waved everyone on stating that we were to finish at the gate.
Christophe: well said! Seeing more friends and loved ones made the whole finish very special and emotional. It was the first time my family saw me first hand doing an ultra and I was so happy to be able to share this with them.
The entire group spread across the road as we reached the gate for an unaesthetic finish to a stunning spectacular course. We were able to drop the pace into the 9 minute range for our final mile as we had hoped and actually far surpassed our time goal with a finish in 29 hours and 22 minutes. After such a long and arduous journey, perhaps my fondest memory is the love and support we received from our family and friends as we neared the finish line. It is a moment in time I will never forget and I am indebted to many people for helping me cross the finish line in the greatest running challenge of my life.
Without Christophe’s planning which was nothing short of perfection and Apryle’s incredible support on the trail, I would never have made it through. Additionally, the pacing from Quentin, Quentin, Apryle, Loic, and Michael allowed us to push the pace into the finish and maintain morale in the latter stages of the journey. Essentially I felt like I was just along for the ride, Christophe knew the logistics (and was also the stronger runner for the entire event) and Apryle kept me healthy and all I had to do was run. With an event that is won with the stomach not the legs, Apryle’s make shift aid stations, which were better than any actual race aid station that I have seen were invaluable. While Christophe and I were up for over 30 hours; Apryle was too, and helping in the much less glamorous position of keeping the two of us fed and hydrated at all hours, day and night. I owe this accomplishment to my supportive wife, and great friend Christophe.
Christophe: First, I want to thank you Zach for enlisting me as your running partner and believing my endurance. I was scared of disappointing you, as a top 20 Western States finisher in 2017 and being a super-fast young runner who had finished races hours+ before me (Tiger 50K, Cougar 50K). Secondly, I also want to thank Apryl for tirelessly supporting us the entire race, not missing a single rendez-vous and going above and beyond in anticipating our needs with water, food, support, comfort, relaying and coordinating progress to others. Merci beaucoup a Quentin et Loic pour votre compagnie. Merci a Juliette, Quentin, Marion et Adrien pour m’avoir soutenu a votre façon lors de cette aventure, Chamonix est la prochaine étape!
30,302 Vertical Feet
29 Hours 22 Minutes and 1 Second
Thanks George for designing such an awesome course; here is a link to the challenge:
Here is a link to our Strava Results:
In this lengthy post, I plan to briefly overview the trails in the western Issaquah Alps, which I consider to be the Newcastle Open Space, Cougar Mountain, Squak Mountain, and Tiger Mountain. I would love to include Si, Teneriffe, Mailbox and the other mountains further …