This post first appeared on Portland Running Company’s site.
Running the Volcanic 50k, a race with almost 8,000’ of gain during its circumnavigation of Mt. St. Helens, seemed terrifying, but I signed up anyway. I persuaded two familiar faces around PRC, Stephanie and Tiffany, to run as well. They are both very strong runners, and I knew they could at least give good directions to the rescuers after my legs had broken off. I am, after all, fairly new to this running thing.
The race on Sept. 5 began on the south side of the mountain and followed the Loowit Trail clockwise. The first four miles were relentlessly uphill, gaining more than 2,100’. Just as the trail was finally leveling, we reached a mile-long boulder field that felt more like hopping than running. In hindsight, this was good for my overall race as it forced me to slow down and get my heart rate down after the climb. I am particularly talented at going out far too hard in every race. Plus, jumping around on huge rocks with quick glimpses of the volcano through the clouds was an absolute blast (pardon the pun). There are a lot of trail races out there but how many run all the way around an active volcano?
We left the tall trees and began the descent to the Toutle River crossing at Mile 12. We were all warned at the pre-race briefing that the crossing was tough and that we shouldn’t trust the ropes (ropes?!). We had to run/tumble/slide down the scree to the river itself, hop on boulders across, then run/claw/trip up the other side. As strange as it sounds, this was one of the highlights of the run for me.
Around the west side of the mountain, we entered the blast zone and pumice plain from the 1980 eruption. Sprit Lake came into view, and felled trees were perfectly aligned in the distance like matchsticks. That the landscape was still so altered thirty-five years after the raw power of that eruption helped to make this runner feel really small right when the miles were starting to add up and go by more slowly.
Tiffany was about four minutes ahead of me and began to pull away. Stephanie was about the same distance behind and began to catch up. She pulled into the third aid station about a minute after I did, and we ran the entire rest of the race together. It was just so nice to have a friendly face around for the final dozen miles. There was a tough (walking) climb to the high point of Windy Pass. After a technical descent and with mountain goats in view, we picked up the pace as we ran around the flatter east side of the mountain. This section, the Plains of Abraham, was one of the most breathtaking and other-worldly places I have seen.
As we ran into the final aid station, we were excited to hear there were only eight miles left. That wouldn’t take long, right? Wrong. We crossed ravine after ravine and never settled into a flat section. Just when my legs were as wobbly as possible, we reached the final boulder field. This one was more than a mile in length and far more difficult and technical than the first. It just kept going, but the thought of the final three-mile downhill to the finish was strong in my mind.
Stephanie and I started running downhill hoping to break the eight-hour mark. We weren’t exactly sure how far the finish was so we pushed the whole way. It was amazing! After more than 30 miles averaging 14 minutes per mile, we were bombing down to the end with the last two miles below a 7:30 pace. I was probably more sore from this than from anything else that day…aside from the bees or wasps or yellow jackets or some other horrible singing/biting monsters that were angry about a few hundred of us stepping on their house. We came in fifteen minutes under eight hours and about fifteen minutes behind Tiffany. She and Stephanie were the eighth and tenth fastest women to ever run this course.
The race was so well organized and so well marked. We never had trouble finding our way. The aid stations were manned by the most incredible volunteers I’ve encountered in a race. There was no vehicle access to the Loowit Trail, and everything for the aid stations had to be packed in. From gallons of water to Oreos, these great people carried everything up to eight miles to their stations.
This race was difficult for sure, but I found myself smiling for almost the whole run. I’ve never had that much fun in a race. It was just so beautiful.