Volcanic 50: Racing Around Mt. St. Helens
“There is no way I am racing this in two weeks!” I scream ahead in frustration to Tad as I am crawling like a baby monkey over a vast boulder field. Fast forward two weeks, and I have crossed the finish line of Go Beyond Racing’s Volcanic 50km with a swollen butt cheek from a hornet (my signature sting location), black and blue palms, a busted hip, and the most incredible feeling that I did something that was so far out of my comfort zone despite the voices of anxiety trying to talk me out of it.
Here is how I got there:
Two weeks before the Volcanic 50, a “rugged, remote and challenging 50K+ course” circumnavigating Mt St Helens with 7,400 ft of elevation gain and loss, Tad and I drove to Cougar to run the course as a preview knowing this race could trigger all manner of anxiety for me (boulder fields, drop offs, scree fields, being alone, getting lost in some remote canyon, etc.) The weather man was warning us of severe temperatures topping off in the mid-90’s and cautioned people to stay indoors. Not what you want to hear when you know you are going to be completely exposed with little water for hours. To make a (very) long day short, we got lost in the first three miles, stopped a total of 5 times at every water source to filter water for half an hour and still ran out, cooked like wienies, and barely made it back to the car in 12.5 hours.
I couldn’t imagine doing this all over again in two weeks. But something kept nagging at me despite the anxiety and doubt. It would be a completely different experience having a marked course, support from aid stations and the company of 250+ other racers. I really wanted to run this race to prove to myself that I could. How many times in your life do you get to run around an active volcano, over lava and pumice fields, cross rivers, and run through a blast zone? Not many. So, I decide to attempt it.
We left Bellingham Friday morning around 10:00am and arrived at the Cougar RV campground around 5:00pm after hellish traffic. Immediately after pulling into the campground, I had a bad feeling. I just did not get a good vibe from this place and felt a sense of unease. We met the owners and they were very nice people. They showed us to our campsite and it was right beside the RV owners who reside there. They had nice private tent spots in the back, but the owner said there were hornets’ nests and I might not want that before my race.
Let’s just say it was like staying on set of a Twin Peaks episode. Very unique characters walking around and doing tasks like searching for something (no idea what) in the bushes or tinkering with their RV. While we were eating dinner, this extremely malnourished cat with a pink collar crawled over to us by using only it’s front two legs. His back legs drug on the ground it a splits formation. It was one of the most upsetting things I have ever seen. Tad had to give me a pep-talk before I was convinced to use the bathroom which gives me the heebie jeebies just thinking about it. At least it’s quiet, I said aloud. Then, almost on cue, a caravan of Latinos pulled in around 10:00pm and continued to scream, shout, and laugh until 4:00am, when our alarms went off. Did I mention there was no wi-fi?
We survived the night and got out of there as quickly as possible to head to the race start at Marble Mountain Sno-Park. The volunteers of this race were nothing short of spectacular. The check-in process had three lines: one for a mandatory gear check, one to get a ticket stub with race number, and one to receive your bib.
Before sending us off, Todd and Renee reminded us of bees, gave us courtesy instructions for the rope climbs and assured us that we were going to experience the best water of our lives at The Spring aid station around mile 20.
Start to Butte Camp (6 miles)
The first couple miles climb gradually on an access trail to the Loowit trail. Once we popped out on the Loowit trail we were smacked in the face with gorgeous views. I could hear a lot of “oohs” as “aahs” as we started up the first climb through the forest. Around mile 3, we were in a conga line of sorts and up ahead somebody yells, “BEES!!!” Suddenly, panic ensues. I stopped for a second and asked the guy behind me what we should do. *Cue all the Forrest Gump references* He responded, “Run!” and I said “Okay!” and off we went when something jumped up and bit me directly in the buttocks. It hurt, but I figured if I was going to get stung, the ass was a good place to get it. Plus, I have a running history of getting stung in the butt. The poor guy in front of me had bees stuck in the liner of his shorts and got stung multiple times in the groin.
Once we recovered from that trauma, we hit the lava fields. This was the section we were on when I told Tad I wasn’t running this race. I knew that my timid approach from boulder to boulder would get me passed by many fearless technical runners. I climbed as aggressively as I could considering that we were only at mile 4 of 32, but I still got passed by many men and 4 women. Once the ground became runnable again, I surged to catch up to the group being led by my good friend Jeff Fisher. Before the race I was hoping that we could run together, but I knew that he is more skilled then me on all the boulders. It worked out that I got out ahead of him early so that I could get a head start on the lava field knowing that he would catch me there.
Butte Camp to Toutle River (6 miles)
I ran in the back of a small pack of people wearing La Sportiva’s as calmly as I could, but I still felt like we were running way too aggressive for this early on. “What did I get myself into?” I started thinking. I felt like I was in way over my head. I chatted as much as I could to try to get out of my own head. Jeff, eventual women’s winner Cassi Knight and I stayed together all the way around the edges of the steep canyons and down the 1,600-foot drop through dense forest to the Toutle River crossing. I am pretty quick through the aid station, so I thought I would get a head start on the rope climb down and back up again.
Toutle River to the Spring (8 miles)
We were only allowed on the rope one at a time, so once you got to the top, you had to yell down “FREE!” so the person at the bottom could start. It was stressful having people wait on me to get up the rope, so I went as fast as I could. Let me remind you that this is mile 13 of 32. I needed to calm the F down. Once I got to the top of the rope, Cassi was just gone, and I was alone which was bad news for me because the next section was the part I was most afraid of – the scree field switch-back. I made it to the opening of the field and hesitated. I knew Tad was up top to take pictures, but I still froze there and waited until the next man came up behind me to cross. He was going slower than I would have liked and eventually stopped half-way through the field to take in the views! How dare he when he’s supposed to be helping me across this thing! Then Tad starts screaming at me to keep moving so I eventually make it across and up over this thing. By this time the lead women have minutes on me, but the trail flattens out and I can finally run. The only problem is we must run right on the edge of another cliff. It’s a very short section, but again, enough to make me stop and wait on the person behind me. At this point I am racing the demons in my head and want to just make this a fun experience. Luckily that’s just what happened.
Jeff caught up shortly and then we weaved in and out of canyons and rolled through the expanse of the blast zone enjoying the views, smelling the musk scent of elk, and telling stories, namely how the impact of the blast moved Spirit Lake to the location it is now.
As I was running, I went to drink from my full water bottle and suddenly, I feel this splash of water in my face. I don’t know how it happened, but my bottle burst just like a water balloon. I lost all the water I had, plus my bottle, but luckily the aid station was 3 miles away and I had a spare bottle in my pack.
Todd and Renee were not joking when they said how good the water was going to be at the Spring. Safe to drink directly from the source, it was the most satisfying liquid that ever touched my lips. Not to mention the aid station volunteers were dressed up like astronauts (because it looked like we were on the moon) and just the sweetest people ever.
The Spring to Ape Canyon (4 miles)
Between the Spring and Ape Canyon is the highest point on the course, Windy Pass, which sits at 4,950 feet. I caught up to 3 men hiking the climb and then we all carefully made our way down the other side which was the craziest part of the course because there was literally no trail. Just extremely loose, unstable sand and rock. Everyone was just sliding down in plumes of dust. I slipped on my butt and used my hands to slide across instead of down. We plopped out on the bottom, dusted ourselves off, took rocks out of shoes and then were off again.
All the way to Ape Canyon the trail was flat, compact, and runnable. In Brian’s words, “just what the doctor ordered!” I cruised with Brian Eckerling all the way to Ape Canyon aid station. We were so excited to finally be running, I tripped on a pebble and went down hard on my left knee and right hip. It stunned me for a second as it was pretty painful, but there was no blood that I could see so we kept going. It took about a mile before my knee loosened up. Two days later I am just bruised, luckily no serious injury occurred.
Ape Canyon to Finish (8 miles)
At the aid station, I heard several of the runners saying how it was all downhill from here. I knew better and they figured out pretty quickly how wrong they were. The course profile is deceiving as we go in and out of countless canyons that really test your patience and resolve. I felt the strongest through this section and wasn’t bothered this time by the forever canyons. Jeff ate a couple berries on the side of the trail and took off like superman. I should have eaten some berries.
I ran the last 4 miles mostly alone. I knew we had one more climb and boulder field to cross before getting back on Trail 244 to the finish so I put my map up on my watch just in case as I am terrible at following the orange cones. Tad appeared just before getting to the June Lake Trail and told me Jeff was just ahead. I caught up to Jeff only because he was cramping and as soon as we hit the lava field, he was gone again. When I finally got off the boulders I had a hard time getting back on the connector trail. I got off course twice but got myself back on track using my watch and footsteps in the sand. I was so happy to be on the final 2 miles I ran as fast as I could. My last full mile was 6:48.
Full results here.
I crossed the finish line so happy and so proud of myself. I didn’t care that I didn’t win or that I was so far behind. I had just run the longest race of my life around this freaking volcano on some of the toughest terrain. Sure, I wanted to win. Sure, I wanted to come close to the record. And the more I am removed from the race the more the immediate post-race satisfaction dissipates, and the criticism and self-judgement set in. I am so proud of myself that I started and finished this race, but disappointed how much my anxiety gets in the way of performing to my full potential. I am faced with a decision of whether I should only run races that suit me, or should I run races that challenge me and push me out of my comfort zone where I may not come out on top? I am deciding on the latter because, in my mind, I did come out on top. I won in so many ways on Saturday, how can I be disappointed? It isn’t an easy decision given the demands of sponsorship, the pressure to perform competitively, social media, etc. All of which I know is in my head as my sponsors are the best people and there is never the hint of pressure and my social media followers are a wonderful, supportive group. However, just like my anxiety, knowing it is all in my head doesn’t make it one bit less real so I must continually remind myself of the positives despite the occasional whisper in my head that I lost by half an hour.
Mt St Helens may not have seen the last of me!
If you made it this far in my report, thank you. I am learning that the longer the race is, the more stories and lessons there are to tell.
Congratulations to new course record holder, Cassi Knight and runner-up Elizabeth Helland on two spectacular performances.
Thank you to race directors Todd and Renee for creating this event and bringing some of the best humans together to share this incredible landscape. The volunteers and medical team were the most hands-on crew I have experienced; I am grateful for their time and expertise in helping me get around that mountain. Big thanks to the Mountain Shop for the awesome water filter!
Thank you to Jenni Hulburt of Wild Wellness and doTERRA oils. I was so stressed that night of camping, I’m glad I had a lavender-scented pillow to stick my face in and calm down.
Thank you, as always, to the usual crew who make my life possible: La Sportiva, Trail Butter, Native Eyewear, Prime Massage, Align Chiropractic, Terrain Gym, and Lily Trotters.
Thank you to YOU for reading and to everyone who has left a comment or encouraging word – you fill my heart.