Sunday, September 23, 2012

Volcanic 50k - Mount St. Helens - September 15, 2012

In the spring, I saw a new race advertised that would circumnavigate Mount St. Helens.  I didn't know yet which races I'd be doing in the late summer but I jumped at the chance to sign up for this unique event.  The Volcanic 50 would be the first of its kind - a 50k+ race around the challenging and wild Loowit trail circumnavigating St Helens.  There was no doubt, this was my kind of race!

After running Cascade Crest and pacing at Wasatch 2 weeks later, I wasn't sure if I should be doing this race one week after Wasatch.  But my legs felt good and I really wanted to see St. Helens.  I decided to do the race but not race it, if that makes sense.  Use the race as a marked and guided tour around the volcano... Enjoy the company of many friends along the way... Soak in the scenery... Having 2 aid stations certainly didn't hurt!

I opted to drive down the morning-of to the race site.  It meant a 3am wake up call and on the road by 3:15.  I packed the car the night before and set off as planned about 3:20.  I arrived at the Marble Mountain Sno Park with plenty of time to spare and even had time to meet some new friends before it was time to start!  I also met up with a friend, Jason, who ended up winning the race.  He has a tremendous story of perseverance this year and I am super happy for him that things are back on track in a big way.

The race started at 7am and it wasn't long before we were treated to some gorgeous views.  I took my camera along and made sure to pause and enjoy all the sights this magnificent volcano has to offer. The race circled the mountain in a clockwise direction starting on the south side. 

My first view of St Helens as I approached the Loowit trail

Shortly after the picture above, about 200 yards from the Loowit trail
At this point, about 2 miles into the race, I'd been cruising up the gradual uphill towards the Loowit trail.  If you are a frequent reader of my blog you know that I love to run uphill.  This uphill was not very steep but found me flexing my legs a bit.  I got caught up in the "race" idea a bit along here and found myself near the front of the women's field.  I followed a group of guys up this large field of large lava rocks.  After about 10 minutes of hard climbing we heard some shouts and whistles below us.  We'd gone the wrong way.  We were all frustrated with ourselves - I even remember the pre-race meeting warning us to turn LEFT at the waterfall - but we'd still gone to the right.  By the time we navigated back down these large lava rocks (boulders is more like it), we were in the back of the field.  It was a good reminder - I'm not here to race!

A waterfall so beautiful that I forgot directions to turn left
The course continued to climb and we passed through several wooded sections.  I enjoyed meeting and chatting with runners as I moved up from the back after the directional mishap.  I got to spend some time with a new friend I'd met at Wasatch.  I brought her some Cookie Butter to take home to a mutual friend! Everyone was in good spirits and really enjoying this unique race experience. 
Photo by Takao Suzuki
As I was running along, I remembered this television program I'd seen about St Helens and the aftermath of the eruption.  I was shocked at how varied the landscape was.  The wooded sections looked much like any other trail I run in the Pacific Northwest.  But with every turn there was different terrain and different obstacles.  The landscape changed in a matter of minutes from dense forest to large fields of lava rocks/boulders and I found myself navigating over these enormous rocks.  It was easy to do on fresh legs but I still found myself almost losing my balance several times.  One fall could be devastating on these large rocks.  It was difficult to follow the route through these lava fields - the course was well marked but I spent so much time looking down that I'd easily get off course as I tried to stay upright. 
Views of the surrounding mountains were hazy that day.  There were several wildfires burning - one as close as Mount Adams - and the smoke was clearly hazing the views.  The wildfires served as yet another reminder of the power forces of nature at work all around us. 

It wasn't long before the landscape changed again and we were soon navigating large washout sections.  There were several major washouts, as pictured below, along the west side of the volcano.  Each one required sliding down some loose scree, crossing a river or riverbed at the bottom, and then climbing back up the loose scree to the trail above.  With each scree descent I acquired more debris in my shoes.  It didn't seem to bother me much, so I left it in my shoes.  By the end of the race, I had a beach in each shoe!

The west side of the volcano afforded some amazing views.  Unfortunately the sun seemed to obscure the photo opportunities somewhat.  It was amazing to me to see how altered this landscape has become since the eruption. 
It's not hard to imagine how much destruction the eruption caused
The washout sections seemed to grow as we progressed north along the west side of the volcano.  Below you can see a huge section we navigated with the trail on the far left of the picture.  We snaked our way up this loose rock/gravel to the top of the ridge.  I could hear loose rock sliding down the slopes as runners ahead of me moved along. 

Once we reached the top of the ridge, the landscape made yet another change.  This time we entered a mostly lifeless area.  Trees that were taken down in the eruption still lay prone on the ground, a reminder of the damage done.  Small grasses and shrubs grew along this section, but little else.  The trail was visible for miles and the gullies we navigated weren't as pronounced as along the west side. 

A plume of gas escaping from the volcano can be seen in the bottom left side of the crater
The north side of the volcano is referred to as the "blast zone."  Here there were very few signs of life.  I saw ants along the trail and a few plants congregated near water sources, but little else.  It was hot along this section and I stopped at each of the creek crossings to splash my face and arms with the cool water.  The water was filled with silt and debris, but it sure felt refreshing on a warm day!

Spirit Lake in the distance

Spirit Lake
The barren landscape continued for much of the remainder of the run.  On the east side the trail became much less technical for several miles and we were able to cruise along.  That is, if you can stop staring at the mountain so close on your right!  As I was snapping the picture below, I was taken back by the beauty of being able to see a mountain so exposed and close-up.

The trail once again navigated through many wash-out sections and gullies.  They seemed less pronounced than on the west side but much more frequent.  The scree was ever-present and shade was hard to come by.  The wind was blowing from behind us and several times we ran through a mini "dust storm". 

View of Rainier from one of the washout sections

As we neared the south side of the volcano, we once again encountered large lava rocks.  These seemed more challenging than the first round, but that was probably because my legs were more tired and I was doing it in the heat of the day.  I teamed up with a friend I'd met during the race and we joked and tried to keep the mood light as we moved at a painstakingly slow pace through here.  We helped each other spot markers and stay on track.  I'd run out of water as well and he graciously gave me a swig from his bladder.  (Trail buddies are the best!)

Soon after the lava rocks I spotted the infamous waterfall pictured above where I took the wrong turn at the start.  I knew we were close.  We made the turn back to the Marble Mountain Sno Park and relished in a nice 2 mile downhill to the finish.  I bombed down this section, enjoying the shade and the promise of a drink when I finished.  I finished in 8:22, 5th place woman. 

At the end of the day I had a race finish and a fabulous day on the trails.  Nature astounded me with her beauty and I greatly enjoyed navigating through the varied terrain of the volcano.  I marveled in nature the entire day, constantly reminded of her powerful forces and feeling darn glad to be there.  The Volcanic 50k+ course is simply amazing and Trevor and Todd put on a fabulous class act event.  Circumnavigating St. Helens is a run a highly recommend, and the Volcanic 50k is a way to do that in style. 

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