Thursday, October 11, 2012

Volcanic 50k

Marne, Willow, our friend Amy and I pulled into the parking lot around 7 p.m. on the Friday night before the race and set the tents up just in the nick of time as a thunderstorm rolled through.  (It was Amy's first time camping, WTF!  Well, she is from Texas.)  It poured for about twenty minutes as we waited it out in the car.  This did not help my nerves as I was beginning to wonder if this was a good idea.  I thought maybe I bit off a little more than I could chew with this one and now I have my family down here camping in the RAIN!

I started to get nervous during the drive to Marble Mountain Sno Park on the south side of Mt. St. Helens where we would be camping for the next two nights.  Was I really ready for this kind of race?  I started doubting my training and my lack of knowledge of the course.  I had gone over the Cle Elum (see previous post) course maps many times and thought I knew what to expect. But I didn't have a chance to study the course at Mt. St. Helens.  It would be the most remote race I had ever run and I've had only one day to prepare.  O.K., I told myself, this is still only 50k, I'm trained for this distance.  And so my mantra would be; enjoy the journey, and appreciate every single step, you know it's going to be a challenge so enjoy this one because you don't know when your next will be."

So for those who don't know, my wife, Marne, is pregnant and due on December 23rd! We are having a baby boy! That means we are going to be knee high in baby shit for about nine months, maybe more.  Which means I will be taking a break from racing for a while.  But how awesome is that!  We are having another kid!  Our five year old baby girl, Willow, is going to be a big sister!  We are all super excited.  Also, I just found out that Willow could start cross country in 5th grade.  I can't wait to watch her race! (If she wants too, of course).  With Cle Elum being canceled, and then getting into this race last minute, my emotions were running pretty high.  Knowing my next ultra is likely more than a year away I wanted to enjoy this one to the fullest.  I thought about my family a lot during this race. Wondered what they were doing and that hopefully my kids will find that they love to run sooner than I  did.

I always ran but it was to get in shape for an upcoming season of whatever sport I was participating in at the time.  But trail running is it's own beast and it's own reason to get in shape.  It gets you out there where anything can happen, so the more experience you have trail running and the better shape you're in, the better chance you'll be able to enjoy it.  Especially when things aren't going your way.   You have to count on yourself to get you through.  It's one of those, "had to see it too believe it" experiences.  In this case, you just have to get out there to know what I'm talking about.

Back to the race, "50k is doable, it's what you've trained for," I had to keep telling myself that.  My new strategy would be to take it easy, keep moving and make up for loss time on the downhills.  But don't push the downs in the early miles. The Volcanic 50k  circumnavigates Mt. St. Helens on 100% single track with only two aid stations.  It is partially self supported, which means you are mostly on your own.  There is a creek at 20 miles that you can get water from.  There are two boulder fields that are about one to two miles in distance on both the west side and then again on the east side that you have to spend the time rock-hopping and deal with, so I guess it's not 100% single track, there's no trail through the boulders.  Oh, and on the north side, where the volcano blew and wiped out everything in its path for miles, you are completely exposed and running on what seems like Mars.  Everything else is butter.  But it's only 50k, right?

The race started as I was still getting my pack and water belt on running across the parking lot to join the other runners.  It was a nice start, though, as I packed everything the day before so all I had to do was throw it on, tighten it up and run.  I was soon talking to other runners on the way up the hill.  I ran with Eric Quarnstrom and Jay Walker, who we ended up camping next to the night before, for awhile on the first uphill.  No more thunderstorms or clouds since last night.  Beautiful star filled night and a gorgeous sunny day for running.

first view, from the south
The first five miles are uphill, and you get your first view of Mt. St. Helens around mile two.  At that point I just kept following the people in front of me as we just kept climbing on what seemed like a trail, but turned out not to be.  Before the race started, Trevor, the race director, told us that there would be orange flags or cones about every 1/4 mile.  So if we'd been going for a while without seeing orange, we were going the wrong way.  After about 15 minutes of climbing through rocks on what seemed like a half ass trail, I said to another runner (who I think was Lynn Longon), "where are the markers?" Just then we heard some people yelling from below that we were going the wrong way! Shit!  I looked across the valley to see if we could cut across and jump over the river but the banks were solid rock and to sketchy to attempt a jump.  Found out later that one runner did and said it was a very sketchy crossing.  So we had to back track down to the trail where it was safe to cross.  In all, there were at least a dozen runners that went the wrong way. Apparently, this was a common thread for many runners at different points on this course.  I looked at my watch when we started to head down and saw that it took me 5 minutes to get down to the trail, so I estimated that it took me 15 minutes to get up, for 20 minutes round trip out of the way.  Bummer, the first time I took a wrong turn in an ultra. That's trail racing, so the say.

the creek we should have crossed in the first place
Back on the trail I crossed the creek and headed up the other side of the hill.  Found Jay, who had also taken a wrong turn, and ran with him through the first boulder field.  He was taking a nice straight line so all I had to do was follow his path.  The tricky thing about boulder fields is that you have to look down for every step and that makes you lose your line to the next orange cone.  You have to stop running to look up to spot the next cone then look back down to make sure you're stepping where you should. Thanks Jay, you made it easy on me on the west side of the mountain.  I didn't realize how easy until I got to the east side where I had to navigate the other boulder field on my own. I followed Jay until we caught back up with Eric and then I continued on at a faster pace.
view from the west side

another west side view
There were a number of small, sandy, scree filled gullies that we had to cross on the west side that were steep enough that you could just slide down some of them (and then your shoes would fill up with sand and small pebbles).  You then had to scramble out of them as well.  Some people wore gaiters, wish I had.  I ended up emptying my shoes out twice. We then reached a forested part where I thought I took another wrong turn.  I was by myself and hadn't seen any orange ribbons for awhile.  I turned around and began running back until I ran into somebody, (I think it was Seth Wolpin) and asked if we were going the right way, he thought we were so I turned and ran and soon found another orange flag.  I was starting to become a huge fan of the color orange.

one of the many gullies we would be crossing during the day
So far the race was mostly going uphill and I would occasionally notice small cramping feelings in weird spots in my legs where I had never felt before.  Like in my medial quads and new spots in my calves.  I just focused on my breath and technique and the spots would dissipate.  It made me become aware that these might be areas of concern later in the race.  I  figured I would deal with them the best I could if they resurfaced.  Stay hydrated and don't forget to eat.  But for now they were not an issue.  Around mile 11 there's a downhill that drops 1,600' in about a mile or so.  I was rollin'.   I really had to hold myself back because I knew I could blast down this section, but it was still early and the trail was actually a little overgrown here so it was hard to see your footing and what was coming up around each turn.  Plus the early cramping in the legs made me a little nervous.  They showed me a side that I had not seen from them lately in my training so I was going to make sure I took it easy on them.  I also knew that if I hurt myself here I would be limping out for at least ten miles.  Didn't sound fun.

I reached the first aid station at mile 12, Toutle River, in 2 hours and 49 minutes.  8th place.  I had no idea I was that far up.  These aid station workers were awesome!  They had to hike in 4 hours carrying food and water for all 50 runners and themselves.  (I told you it was remote)  Thank You!  I filled my camelback and water bottles and was on my way.  We had to slide down another sandy scree gully, cross the Toutle River on huge boulders and then look for a rope on the other side.  That rope was the only way we were going to be able to pull ourselves out of the Toutle River gully as the embankment was to steep and sandy to just hike out of.  Then there was about 1,000' of climbing in 2 miles on mostly a sandy trail that crossed a huge scree field. I used to run in the sand quite a bit when I lived in Hermosa Beach, CA and I knew this sand would tear my calves up if I ran so I just power hiked it.  Each switch back seemed like a mile long.  By now I was by myself and searching for orange cones all the time.  I could see a runner up ahead about 1 1/2 miles and occasionally see one or two behind me about a mile.

Toutle River, see the rope?
the sandy hill out of the Toutle River valley
northwest side
northwest side
Once I got out of that big valley we were on the northwest side of the mountain and running on a packed sandy trail through short grassy bluff like areas.  You could see forever on this section of the trail.  There were some beautiful deep canyons coming off the volcano that looked like they were carved out by glaciers. Steep and deep.  I was tired on this section, around miles 14 through 18 and would run a little, walk a little. Started to notice a little belly issue coming on.  Took some sodium caps and that seemed to work for the time being. On the north side it was like we were transported to another planet.  It was just black, grey and brown everywhere, little to no grass.  Mostly sand and lava rocks with a path marked through them. Creepy, desolate, isolated and there you could see the north side of the volcano that blew out during the eruption in 1980 and the effects it had on the land we were running over.  It wiped out everything.  What used to be an old growth forest was now, basically, a desert.  They are trying to let it grow back naturally and only let about 100 people a day on the mountain to keep the human impact to a minimum. Nature is very impressive.  I felt very small and insignificant on this part of the trail.  Click to see some before and after pics and fun facts about Mt. St. Helens.  I even wondered what I would do if it blew while I was running around it.  You think about crazy stuff while you're out there.  I kept hearing helicopters and knew that they were doing tours and taking people up to see inside the crater.  But in my mind, they were there following the race so everyone could watch the action as it unfolded.  This might have been where I started to lose it.


I finally reached a river at mile 20, it was an oasis in the middle of this barren land.  I filled my camel back, splashed my face in the water and soaked my hat.  I was closing in on the guy in front of me.  I think it was David Chilson.  But I was not feeling strong.  My belly had been bothering me for the last few miles and was making me work a lot harder than I wanted to.  I caught David a couple miles after the river but had to let him go as I had to stop to get some gels out of my pack and fill my hand helds from my camel back with electrolytes.  Marta Fisher caught me soon after that and asked how I was doing.  I told her I was fine but I was not feeling great right there.  Legs were tired but still able to run on them.  The belly was getting worse. I spent a lot of time thinking about my family on this stretch, about what they were doing and hoping they weren't too bored.  I hoped they were having fun.

The second aid station, Ape Canyon, is at 24.3 miles and could not have come soon enough.  It was a very welcome site.  David and Marta were still there when I arrived. Marta was looking strong.  While we were there another guy came in, I think it was Kevin Downs.  The volunteers were pleasant and up beat with words of encouragement.  They were so good that they actually tricked my mind into telling my body it was feeling better than it actually was.  Well done.  They told us we were all around 12th overall.  This was the first time I had any idea what place I was in.  It was hard to believe I was up that far as crappy as I was feeling.

From here it was mostly downhill to the finish but it didn't really matter.  I left shortly after David and Marta and within 10 minutes my body was telling my mind that "no, you actually feel pretty shitty right now."  I stopped to empty my shoes and had to be very careful when I bent over to tie them back up because my hip flexors would cramp right up.  It took a few tries, but was eventually able to get them back on and start moving.  We came to another creek and as I bent over to soak my hat Kevin passed me.  I was in no condition to give chase.

We were moving across the northeast side to the east side.  Up and down, in and out of canyons. Mostly downhill in this section.  I had to walk the uphills and most of the downhills.  Every time I would try to run it would upset my belly.  Any jostling was getting more painful by the minute, especially going downhill.  I thought about throwing-up but was worried about getting dehydrated.  Ever since I left the second aid station I couldn't eat or drink anything.  I tried to at least keep taking small sips of water.  At this point I just wanted to finish but knew if my belly could sort itself out I might be able to finish this one with some fight.  I had been walking a lot the last 7 miles and strangely felt like my legs still had some life in them.

Peter Courogen caught me as we reached a wooded section.  We finally made it around to the the southwest side.  It was nice to finally run in some shade.  I forgot to ask him for a sodium cap.  I was hoping that would help.  Soon after Peter was out of sight and right before I reached the second boulder field Julie Leasure caught me.  I asked her and she just happened to have one to spare.  I remember telling her about my stomach, and that I felt like I still had some downhill legs left if I could just get over this stomach hurdle.  I should've just thrown up.  Next time.  I followed behind her about twenty feet through the boulders and at one point I came around a big one and didn't see her.  Where did she go?  How did I miss her?  I thought maybe she hid behind a rock to pee.  Then I wondered if she took a wrong turn.  So I yelled out "Hey!" Then saw her coming up from behind me and it turns out she did go the wrong way.  I'm sure she was happy to be back on the trail...... errrr the boulders.  At this point, any time I took a mis step or landed on a rock that wobbled even a little, it felt like every muscle in my legs wanted to cramp up.  I'm pretty sure Julie felt the same way as I heard her let out a little screech at one point, I turned around and she had just stepped on a loose rock and mentioned that her legs felt like they were going to cramp up.

Soon after that we were back on single track moving through the woods. My stomach started to feel a little better as I tried running and was able to.  Julie and I passed each other back and forth for the next mile until my stomach allowed me to pick up the pace and was able to create a little distance between us until we came to an intersection and I wasn't sure which way to go.  They had taken down all the orange markers.  Luckily there were some guys above us on the trail telling us to head down the trail.  Thank goodness because I would've went back up that damn hill!  (Found out later that some did.)  This part of the trail was the first 2 miles and the last 2 miles of the race.  Ahhhhhh, the last downhill.  I had been waiting for this.  I started to cruise down but slowed up due to the fact that I didn't see any markers.  Julie caught up with me and said it was the right way and that she remembered running past this one stump.  I thought it was funny that she remembered a stump from eight hours ago.  I said O.K. and started cruisin down the hill.  My stomach had released it's death grip on my bowels by now and allowed me to start running.  I was picking up speed with every step.  I couldn't believe it!  I was finally flyin down the hill.  The downhill training paid off.  I did the last 2 miles in under 15 minutes.  I didn't want this downhill to end.  I heard a car and knew I was close so I floored it to the finish line.  8:16:53 for 13th place.  It was only the 4th time I had run for over 8 hours.

It's like a great ending to an average movie can make that movie great.  That's the kind of race this was for me.  Even though I had a hard time in the middle, being able to end like I did, made the whole race for me.  The course itself was phenomenal!  The winning time by Jason Leman of 6:03:54 would be considered a respectable middle of the pack time for most 50k's.  But not this one, due to the boulders and all the sand it was more like 40 miles than 32 miles.  When I start training again I will definitely try to get back into this race.  I'll be going for 7:16.

Thanks to all the volunteers, you were great.  Thanks to Trevor, the RD, for letting me in at the last minute.  Thanks to Amy for coming on your first camping trip with us and keeping Marne and Willow company during the day, you're an awesome Texan.  And of course, thank you to Marne and Willow for putting up with me in general and especially during this training period.  I met some great people before, during and after this race and was reminded of how great the ultra community is and am glad to be a part of it.  It was fun hanging out at the finish line eating the BBQ drinking a nice IPA from Rogue brewing, and listening to other runners stories.  With all that happened in the 2 days leading up to this race it's pretty amazing how everything turned out so great. 

Now I have to figure out what went wrong with my stomach?  I don't think it was too much water, I never had that water jostling feeling.  I don't think it was from drinking out of the river, I treated my water and know that many others drank straight from it.  I'm sure I drank enough electrolytes.  Never got higher than 4,800' in elevation.  There's only two things that I can think of;  I ate too many gels early on that contained caffeine, or;  I had some lemon lime electrolytes that I hadn't trained with in the past.  But citrus has never bothered my stomach before.  After we moved to Seattle and had Willow, I had a mocha a day  for a week straight (we lived 1/2 block from Top Pot) and started getting headaches.  I never get headaches.  So I think that's what it was.  I've trained with caffeine on long runs but would spread them out and alternate between them and gels that didn't contain caffeine.  So unless someone has a better idea, I'm going with that. 

I wanted to take it all in, and I feel like I did.  I took some pictures to have as reminders.   It was also a good distraction when I was still able to think about something other than the pain.  Here's the rest of the pics.

southwest side
northwest side

north northwest side

Mt. Rainier, and there's a runner on that trail up ahead

northeast side
east side

losing it on the north side


  1. Nice, Drew. It looks like there's a lot of exposure in that race. It sounded like a fun race until I saw your pictures. I don't like to see that far ahead when I'm running.
    WB doesn't even have a high school cross country team any more. The few kids that do go out have to run with City High.

  2. I agree with you Jon, seeing that far ahead was a little demoralizing, but you're going in out of gullies so there's plenty to keep your attention on right where you are. You also get to stare at a frickin VOLCANO!, who could get sick of looking at that?

    It was more like an adventure race, this was no groomer. That's the part I loved the most of all. Like I said above, you had to count on yourself to get around that thing. I would and plan on doing it again. They are talking about possibly getting two more aid stations in the future, but I hope they keep it the same.

    That's too bad about WB not having cross country anymore, still a football and golf school, huh?