05 August 2018


Entering the final 10k of the race after having nearly completed the circumnavigation of Mount St. Helens volcano.
I had the fortune of spending a week in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado recently, where I met one of the awesome photographers in our sport, Paul Nelson, who told me about this amazing race that had runners circumvent volcano Mount St. Helens. Circumnavigations of various volcanoes and mountains had been on my bucket list already, so here was an opportunity to do so in a fully supported fun setup. Even better, I had to be in Portland for work, so clearly things aligned for a reason:-)

I realized very quickly that while the Volcanic 50 was a fairly young race, it had been running for 7 years, it was organized and run by a very professional crew. The race course itself starts and finishes at Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument near Cougar, Washington, taking runners on a 33 mile circumnavigation of Mount St. Helens with nearly 7500 feet of vertical gain. Runners travel across lava and pumice fields, cross rivers, through dense forest, deep ravines and even the blast zone.
16yo running his first ultra marathon.
 I decided to travel to the race start from my AirBNB in Portland on the morning of the race, but many other racers decided to take advantage of the car camping option offered my the race organization directly at the site of the race start/finish area. It created an awesome atmosphere. On top of that, race organizers provided hot coffee on race morning while waiting in line to show your mandatory gear and to get your race bib. In addition, they sold some pretty sweet race swag, truckers, hoodies and shirts.
Orange cones pointed the "path" through extensive volcanic boulder fields.
My race plan was simple, take it easy and take plenty of photos. This was a training race for me in prep for UTMB and more importantly, I wanted to enjoy the journey and take in the amazing landscape. I realized quickly that running too fast wasn't going to be a problem. I also figured out why finishing times seemed rather slow when compared to other 50K races. While 7400ft of vert is certainly challenging, the real effort was the result of the large volcanic boulder fields requiring not only navigational skills but also mental focus to avoid stepping into a gap between rocks and boulders to prevent serious injury. It was as much an adventure as it was an ultra. 
Above the clouds.
Sticking to my plan, I lined up in the middle of the pack of about 280 runners and once the start signal was given, we started the gradual 3 mile ascent towards Loowit Trail that would take us all the way around Mt St. Helens before descending again to the finish.
 The initial climb was pretty challenging as I was working to keep my heart rate reasonably low in the excitement of a semi frantic race start. The front of the field of runners took off and were out of sight pretty quickly. It allowed me not to worry or even think about keeping up with the front of the field. I had had a pretty rough experience the previous month in a race in the Swiss Alps were I pulled the plug after 80k and I had no desire for another rough day on the trails.  
Actual "trails" through boulder fields were not the norm.
With last month's DNF and with UTMB clearly on my mind as the goal race, I had no problems keeping my pace easy. I had no idea where I was in the field and I did not care. I kept my iPhone close and ready to take pics along the course. Looking at my pictures after the race, I am glad I did. This race offers not only some of the most challenging terrain, it also provides some of the most spectacular views, which easily explain why the PNW is such a popular trail runner destination.
Runners had to navigate through volcanic rock and boulders by spotting either orange cones or wooden posts.
Just a couple of miles before the first aid station, someone yelled "Yellow Jackets"! Oh great, I thought. I left my Epipen in the car to safe weight, instead opting for a tiny ziplock bag of Benadryl pills. Hopefully, they would leave me alone. Nope, they didn't. Instead, I got stung 4 times, both in my ankles and on my back. I responded by quickly chewing 2 Benadryl and washing them down with Nuun electrolyte drink and slowing down even more. 
I would keep an eye on my response to the stings and decide if I could continue once I reached the first aid station. Speaking of aid stations, they were more proof for an exceptionally well organized race. All of the food and water had to be carried in by volunteers the same way we came as this is a very remote area. Some of them had to carry it in days before the race. Thanks to all those volunteers and to the guys that marked this beautiful course.
"Bouldering" required 100% focus to prevent injury and I loved every minute of it:-)
 After arriving at the first aid station, I realized that I would be able to continue. Other than swollen painful ankle and back, I seemed to be fine. No swelling of the hands and face indicated that I should be ok to continue, so I did.
I settled in with a group of runners for most of the race and didn't really run alone until the final 10K. Even then, I "teamed up" with another runner as we pushed each other to the finish. Sub 7 hours was now the goal and we did everything we could to accomplish that. 
 Unfortunately, while I did manage not to fall the entire time we crossed some of the more treacherous boulder fields, I did take a hard fall on the final 2 mile downhill section when we tried to pick up the pace. It took me a minute to gather myself. Thankfully, the runner ahead of me turned around and helped me up. I was a bit dazed, but slowly started to move again. Adrenaline made me forget much of the pain I would later experience following the race. Nothing serious, just a few cuts and bruises that still haven't completely healed nearly 3 weeks later.
Spectacular views in every direction and beautiful single track trail the entire way.
I crossed the finish line in 7 hours and 1 minute, more or less in one piece. If you want a blow by blow report of this amazing race course, you should go and check it out for yourself. Trust me, it is well worth the trip. Remember, how often do you get a chance to circumvent an active volcano:-)  
 Check out the 2018 Volcanic 50 race results here.
Runners were dwarfed by the majestic landscape.

Hard-packed single track provided a nice reprieve from the more technical sections.

A couple of sections required "repelling" into and climbing out of ravines by rope.

There were surprisingly lush sections of landscape and trails in start contract to the volcanic blast zone (Plains of Abraham) we crossed.

The only way around these volcanic ravines was through the ravines.

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Climbing out of one of the larger volcanic ravines.

"Backside" view of Mount St. Helens.

The varied terrain challenges even the most experiences ultra trail runners, sometimes soft, sometimes hard-packed and sometimes massive boulder fields without a distinguishable path.

Lots of photo ops along this most beautiful volcanic circumnavigation.

Beautiful single track as far as the eye can see.

Isolated Spirit Lake at the "backside" of Mount St. Helens.

Mount St. Helens as seen from the trails across the Plains of Abraham.

Early trail section after the initial 3 mile climb to Loowit Trail.

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