What can I say about the Volcanic 50km? Actually I’m guessing a lot. But the first things that occur to me are all just noises like “Whoosh!” and “Uuunggh.” This was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Maybe the hardest, from a physical perspective. It was also incredibly hard emotionally; I was terrified of this race. I seriously considered backing out a couple of times. I didn’t feel fit. I didn’t feel strong. And I didn’t know if I had the strength and courage to finish a race that was so personally meaningful, and so utterly daunting.
I chose to run the Volcanic 50 because of where it is, and what it is. A loop of Mt. St. Helens on the Loowit Trail. When I was almost six, I was in a van with my sisters and my father driving over the mountains on May 18th, 1980 – the day Mt. St. Helens erupted. Our memories differ on exactly which road we were on, but all of us agree it was a harrowing, terrifying day that is permanently burned into our history. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like for my father to drive three children through a volcanic eruption.
My father and I had a complicated relationship. And for me, returning to the mountain, to the place he protected me and escorted me through danger, through the unknown, and through fear, was an important way for me to address the challenges and difficulties I have with my own manhood, maturity, and sense of courage and belonging as a man in the world. I wanted to settle the path I’ve walked with my father in life. I wanted to face the fear and challenge in my own way on my own terms, and to celebrate how my father shepherded us that day.
The race started at 0700 from Sno-Park at Marble Mountain. I’m not sure what Marble Mountain is. We were on the south slope of Mt. St. Helens. We got there at about 0600 and I had yogurt and granola, cold coffee, and prepped for my run. I was scared, but I was determined. I’d been scared a lot leading into the race, but I usually feel ok on race day. I find my nerves settle and I can just go out and face the test.
And that’s what happened. The first four miles of the race are a long slow-and-then-steep climb of about 2200 feet. Overall, the race is 33 miles and 7500′ of gain. So you do more than a quarter of it in the first four miles. But based on my recent training, the gain never felt too oppressive. I did some big days this summer getting myself fit for this and other races, and so I was well-prepared for this day.
The views were breathtaking, and I was feeling good for a long time in this race. Miles clicked off slowly, but fast enough. I had to maintain a pace of 22:30 minutes/mile to hit the cutoff at aid station 4 which was at mile 24. And that was proving in the beginning to be no trouble. Lots of 15-19 minute miles through the first two aid stations (out to mile 12 or so).
There was a lot of really varied terrain in the first few miles. Forest, boulders, high meadow. The pictures I took don’t do it any justice, but the videos are a bit better I think. After the second big canyon was a long slow sandy, dusty climb, and then a long challenging traverse of the moonscape of the blast zone before reaching the aid station #3 at the spring, one of the only sources of water for miles on the Loowit trail. Where the aid station workers dressed as astronauts because of how barren and austere the landscape is.
Click to embiggen the images. It’s worth it. And the overall impression in this segment of the race is one of utter desolation. Blasting sun, relentless miles of parched desert. At mile 18, before the astronaut aid station, a young man in front of me stepped to the side and just sat down in the dust, absolutely defeated. I stopped and told him, “Nope. No stopping here, what’s the matter?” He lifted an empty water bottle, and croacked, “I’m thirsty.”
I carried a lot more water than I thought I’d need. So I gave him a 20 oz bottle of electrolytes and told him to drink it. He downed half and said, “That’s delicious.” I walked with him the next few miles to the aid station. He would go on to finish about a half-hour after me.
The drive from Aid Station 3 to 4 was a good hard push up over Windy Pass. I had to get to AS4 by 4pm in order to be allowed to finish the race, and while I’d been going slowly through the blast zone in the heat and dust, I was on a good pace. I knew Windy Pass, a hard 600′ climb on sand and dust with sheer drops, would be a challenge. But in the end it felt pretty good. I ran into a group of five women who knew me from facebook and a podcast I did, and we chatted as we climbed the pass and then ran/slid/fell down the other side. I made good time on this section, and came in to AS4 with 50 minutes to spare.
Now I knew I could finish. But I still had 9 miles to go. And I had the canyons and the boulders still ahead of me. There were at least 8 terrifying, grueling box canyons to get through. Dangerous scree and talus descents, soul-destroying sandy climbs back up. I was lucky at this point to be hiking along with a man from Sacramento who was a geophysicist and gave me a very cool and very welcome lecture on the volcano and how all the various things I was seeing formed. It got me out of my head and out of my pain and I was able to mosey along for about two or three miles with him.
Finally we passed out of the canyons and into the boulders. A couple of miles of pumice boulders, razor sharp and treacherous. I started to feel sick to my stomach, but a few gels and extra water helped. After a long while I found myself back in a forest and able to actually run a bit. Then I unhappily discovered that this was a fake out and there was another mile-long boulder field to go at mile 30.
Absurd. Just a wicked mile of hopping from one giant pumice boulder to another, with the sun in my eyes and a difficult to follow trail. At one point I was thinking I was lost, and I remembered what my friend Nancy told me: “If you’re confused, cool down.” There was a small stream and I soaked my feet in ice-cold water. Suddenly I saw the trail again.
I finally emerged from the boulders and back into the forest. Two miles of gentle downslope on non-technical ground. Of course I managed to turn my ankle on a pebble after being fine through some of the hardest terrain on the planet. But I was able to walk it off and keep running. I ran my last mile as my fastest mile. Finding the finish line and collapsing into my folding chair that Melissa had set up for me.
I could not be prouder of myself, or of finishing this race. A huge adventure. A brutal course. And a long, long day. But I finished uninjured and happy. No terrible low points. I helped others on ropes and with water. And I felt good about what I did and who I was. And I think I answered some questions about myself, and who I am in relation to my father.
And I ended it with the coolest GPS track I’ve ever seen (and a little 3D movie of it is here).
Thanks for coming on the journey with me. If you’re looking for a hard, self-defining race with the power to change your life? Well, this one was that for me. Fear, doubt, and determination all came together into a single perfect day of putting everything I had into the mountain, and coming up with enough to finish it.