Frölicking trails since 2010

Frölicking trails since 2010
Frölicking trails since 2010

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Jbob's Volcanic 50k Race Report - Mt. St. Helens - September 6, 2014

Holy shit, this thing is still active?!

The race runs entirely on the Loowit Trail,
plus the trail connecting it to Marble Mountain Snow Park. 
First things first, this race runs like a 50 miler, despite that fact that it's only 32+ miles. The terrain is breathtaking, leaving you breathless by its beauty and breathing hard by its ruggedness. The trail is a complete variety of everything, and I'll try to break it down in my report below. But here's a short video of the course if you'd rather not read: Course Preview

The forecast for the nearby town of Cougar, WA was 95 degrees, which is kind of hot. Despite the heat, I still felt like I could break the 6 hour mark for the course (my 2012 course record was 6:03:54, and the 2013 course record was 6:01:19 by friend/teammate/competitor Jacob Puzey). Having ran around the mountain on 4 different occasions, I knew the course well enough to know exactly what I had to do to break the course record. Nobody was going to push me to run faster or slower than I wanted to, I had a plan and I was going to stick with it. It was just a matter if my legs would stay cramp-free for the final push.

Goal #1: Break the course record
Goal #2: Win
Goal #3: Don't break anything below the belt


An uphill climb is never an easy way to start a race. Matt Palilla, Taylor Spike, several others, and myself ran a steady pace for the 2.25 mile climb to the Loowit trail. Taylor jumped in front briefly, but I re-attained the lead when he missed the turn onto the Loowit (easy to do). It didn't matter, we all ran and hiked together and made good company. Plus, the scenery was stunning.

Photo I took in 2012. This is about mile 3, looking towards Mt. Adams
As the trail leveled out, I let my stride go a little bit to run a good pace before getting to the field of lava rocks. For anyone wanting to know what it's like to navigate through the lava rocks, imagine Indiana Jones spelling "Jahovah" in Latin with his feet. You need to pick your footing well, otherwise you could seriously twist your ankle or fall into an endless abyss (not really, but you get the idea).

The beginning of the lava rocks, about mile 4. Photo by Paul Nelson.
The beginning of the lava rocks, about mile 4. Photo by Paul Nelson.
Photo I took in 2012.
There ended up being 5 of us who were navigating the rocks together. The previous weekend, I went for a training run through this section of the course, so the memory was pretty fresh for me. Otherwise, it would have been very easy to make a wrong turn or to take an unnecessarily hard route to find the cairns or wooden posts. We made great time and didn't really make any wrong turns, except for that one time. After traversing two different fields of lava rocks and doing some technical dancing, our group of 5 runners arrived at Aid Station #1.

AID STATION #1 - Mile 6.32 - 1 hour 15 minutes Elapsed

After a quick water top off from sweethearts Anne Crispino-Taylor and TJ Ford (and company), we all jetted. The trail turned fun and twisty, going in and out of the mountain's many little valleys. We then came to a long downhill section, and I let it go like an ice princess. Hoping to make great time on the downhills, I hammered down the trail and pulled away from the guys behind me. After reaching the bottom and crossing a steep rocky river channel (completely dry), I expected the guys to catch up with me shortly thereafter on the climb. However, my hiking and sporadic running kept me steady enough to stay ahead, and when I arrived at the long descent to the Toutle River, I ran hard through the shaded forest with determination to get to Aid Station #2 faster than my split from the 2012 race.

AID STATION #2 - Mile 12.2 - 2 hours 8 minutes Elapsed (7 minutes faster than my 2012 split)

Photo taken in 2012 of the steep
and rocky Toutle channel crossing.
Situated on the south side of the Toutle River crossing was Aid Station #2, where Brian Donnelly filled my bottles with water. Brian is the current speed record holder for the Oregon Section of the Pacific Crest Trail, and he finished the 2012 Volcanic 50k in 6:14 with a cracked rib that he attained at this very same river crossing. He's a tough mother f***er, and an extremely modest and kind human being. Thanks Brian, Sarah, and everybody else for the sendoff. I only spent about 30 seconds at the aid station, but it gave me a lot of energy.

Knowing the next 8 miles were going to be hot, exposed, technical, and slow...I had 3 important To Do items at Aid Station #2: Quench my thirst before I leave, get both my 26 oz water bottles completely full, and get baptized in the Toutle River from head to toe. Having run out of water on this section before, I committed to using my water bottles for ONLY drinking. Being hot and uncomfortable is much more bearable when you're not dying of thirst, so any dousing of the head and neck would have to come from random silty streams that were somewhat few and far between.

Photo taken in 2012,
the sandy climb out of the Toutle basin.
Climbing out of the Toutle felt solid and steady, running most of the trail until the open and sandy section which sucks to run in. Whilst hiking, I took a shot of Trail Butter and made sure my fuel consumption was adequate. Nearing the top of the climb, I saw my friends far below on the first open switchback and climbing strong. I kept looking over my shoulder for the next 2 miles before I switched my focus solely on the trail ahead.

Photo taken in 2012,
Old trees leveled by the blast
The North Side of the mountain is truly amazing. Old trees that were blown over during the eruption on 1980 were still lying down as petrified remnants of a past life. Two separate herds totaling 40+ elk were startled by my presence and galloped across the trail in front of me, so close that I had to stop to let them pass. The terrain soon changed from rolling hills to a flat lunar landscape, the remains of a 34 year old mountain landslide. Spirit Lake to the north was still full of floating trees that were blown away by the blast. And as if it were a mirage in a desert, a natural spring somehow appears with perfectly clean water bursting out of nearby rocks. At this spring lies Aid Station #3.

The blast zone, photo taken in 2013.

AID STATION #3 - Mile 20.25 - 3 hours 45 minutes Elapsed

Joe Kleffner (3rd place finisher in 2012), Bob Baker, and company were manning the aid station that literally takes hours to drive/hike to. There's no water in the world that tastes as good as the natural spring water that was bursting out of the ground, it's life giving shit. After some coke and a quick soak, off I ran...when all of a sudden I heard the sound of a helicopter.

Now, the RDs and the photographer were teasing the night before that a helicopter might show up to take photos of the racers, but I didn't think they were serious. Holy crap, I felt like I was running from the cops as they flew circles around me, with Paul hanging halfway out of the chopper with his 3' camera lens. It had to be one of the coolest race experiences I've ever had, getting chased by a chopper whilst running around an active volcano.

It's the cops!
Photo by Paul Nelson from the chopper.
Mile 21-ish. Photo by Paul Nelson from the chopper.
Photo by Paul Nelson from the chopper.
Running happy around Mile 21-ish. Photo by Paul Nelson from the chopper.
The climb up Windy Pass (the highest point in the course) has only a handful of switchbacks, and before long I was flying down the other side and through the flat Plains of Abraham. Soon, Aid Station #4 came into view at the Ape Canyon trail junction.

AID STATION #4 - MILE 24.3 - 4 hours 26 minutes Elapsed (9 minutes faster than my 2012 split) 

In 2012, it took me about 1 hour 30 minutes to get from this Aid Station to the finish on cramping legs. My legs were feeling great at the moment, so I felt like I had a decent shot at getting to the finish line significantly faster. With 8 crazy miles to go, I spent a good minute fueling up for the final push. There's no reason to hold back anything now.

Arriving at Aid Station #4.
Photo by Paul Nelson.
Photo by Paul Nelson.
As soon as I began running, my legs felt somewhat tired. There was some moderate climbing out of the aid station, and I couldn't push myself to run any of it. For the first time during the race, I freaked out. If I can't run hills, I'm screwed! Game over man! But after a short little downhill section, my legs began to recover on the downs enough to run most of the ups. My legs settled into a groove, and I was happy with how well I was moving in and out of the technical valleys and periodic forested trail. When I arrived at the final lava rock field, I kept looking at my watch. The rock field was a lot bigger than I remembered it being, and time was slipping away. Well, so much for breaking 5:45...can I still break 5:50?

Emerging from the field of lava rocks with 2.25 miles to go, I had 15 minutes to break 5:50. After some final frantic rock dodging and trail finding, I let loose a low 6-something pace on the rocky double-track trail. No matter what my legs were telling me, my mind was content to suffer with the goal in mind. It...was...the...longest...2....miles....ever...But at least it was downhill. When I finally saw the cars through the trees and heard the cowbells ringing, my watch said 5:49. Not knowing how many seconds I had left, I sprinted the final 100 meters and was beyond relieved to see the time clock with 23 seconds to spare!

RESULTS: 5:49:37 - 1st out of 192 Finishers
Pace: ~10:49 min/mile
New Course Record by 11 minutes and 42 seconds

Photos by Eric Lubell using Paul Nelson's camera.
Man hug from Moe Codino.
Photos by Eric Lubell using Paul Nelson's camera.
Proud, happy, and redeemed. My victory in 2012 never sat well with me, given that I took the lead because 3 of the front runners made a wrong turn. This time, I was able to raise the bar on my own terms with a time that I'm satisfied with. This record is by no means out of reach, and I expect someone to break it within the next couple years. But as soon as someone breaks it, I'll be back to try to reclaim it.

Kudos to the Race Directors. Go Beyond Racing did an amazing job organizing this race! This race is so incredibly unique, it has a lot of potential to become a true classic. Trevor, Renee, and Todd had to deal with challenging logistics for this race to be the success that is was, and I'm grateful for their tireless passion to allow people to run in such beautiful places. Check out the rest of their races, they're all great.

Volunteers. Thank you for spending your Labor Day as sherpas, transporting hundreds of pounds of water on your backs to the aid stations. Thank you for spending your Friday marking the course. Thank you for spending all day Saturday hiking food to each of the aid stations, and for making sure everyone stayed fueled, hydrated, and safe. Thank you for the cooking at the finish line, the food was phenomenal, and the Ketchup was the best I ever had (Red Duck Ketchup, check it out, it's delicious and made locally in Eugene). I've never known a 50k to demand so much from its volunteers, and this race definitely couldn't happen without you.

Paul Nelson Photography. Thank you Paul for your passion in capturing the moments that get us hella likes on Facebook. You've got a great eye, and you give us all something to take away from one of the hardest 50K races out there.

Paul Nelson, everyone.


If this race will be your first time around Mt. St. Helens, here are some general tips:

  • Figure our how long you think your splits will be between aid stations, and multiply that time by 1.5. This course is technical and will slow you down more than you'd expect. The gaps between Aid #2 to Aid #3 and from Aid #4 to the Finish are especially long and slow.
  • If it's a hot day, there's a good chance you'll run out of water from Aid #2 to Aid #3 and from Aid #4 to the Finish. It's happened to me several times during training runs, and most the streams are too silty to drink without a filter. Be smart with your water.
  • You have a 62% chance of making at least 1 wrong turn, whether it be in the lava rock field, or some trail junction. The lay of the land makes it hard to distinguish between trail junctions, and they're easy to miss. So when the sun is beating down on you, you're low on water, and you're really tired, make sure you pay attention to the course markers AND the Loowit Trail signs. The front runners from the 2012 race had ran around Mt. St. Helens just weeks before the race, and they all made a wrong turn during the race that cost them at least 10-15 minutes. It happens to everybody.
  • Don't let this be your first ultra. Some people have done it, but it's not recommended.
  • Be kind to the volunteers, they put in days of work for you to run this race.
  • Start out conservative. This year's 3rd place finisher, Nick Kopp, told me before the race that he was going to just take it easy and take a bunch of pictures. Because he started out in 20th place and ran easy at the start of the race, he had enough energy late in the race to finish 3rd while feeling great. This year's 2nd place finisher, the legendary Will Emerson, ran a similarly smart race.
  • Wear sunscreen (and maybe some kind of hat), this race is incredibly exposed.
  • Enjoy the views! I've never run a more scenic race.


This is a special shout out to those who have helped me to greatly improve my running throughout the year:

Trail Butter is a Portland based company, and it's been my pre-race food for the past 2 years. It's a slow-burning fuel comprised of a blend of almonds, peanuts, and hazelnuts (and other ingredients), and it's so freakin' delicious. I never go on a long run without it, especially since it's about 700-800 calories per pouch.

They have been incredibly supportive of my running this year. They both offer ultrarunning coaching, fitness classes, and adventure runs. They currently offer monthly memberships for endless bootcamp classes, speed sessions, yoga, and discounts at Fit Right NW, Udo's Oil, and apparel. Check it out the PACK membership if you're interested.

Floating has been a huge benefit to my training and recovery. I've been floating before and after my races for the past 2 years, and it's become something that my body frequently craves. It offers my body a chance to de-stress and relax both physically and mentally, and there are other lots of other benefits. Check out their website for more information.

Since 2012, this man has helped me through injuries including plantar fasciitis, IT band issues, morton's neuroma, and plenty others. His philosophy of treatment is based on long term healing and injury prevention practices that not only help me become more knowledgable about my injuries, but also help me understand how to prevent those injuries in the future. I trust this man with my life, and he's been a large reason why I've been able to stay injury free all year.

Why does Taylor Swift announce her new album MONTHS before it's released? I've had it pre-ordered for weeks now, and I still have to wait 1.5 months. WTF.

Thanks everyone!

Much Love,