After a full day at work and then 3 hours of driving, I finally made it to Marble Mountain of Mt. St. Helen's National Monument for the Volcanic 50k! You can rest assured that I was ready to wind down for the day and catch up on luxurious sleep in my Volkswagon Jetta! It seems every time I drive to races, I don't exert the energy to pitch a tent. No, I unfold my sleeping bag, put the back seats of my car down, and throw extra blankets over me to maximize beauty sleep! My sleeping strategy was about as well planned as my race strategy for Volcanic. I ran this course last year and placed 3rd accidentally after taking my camera and snapping pics of the mountain while circumnavigating around it. I passed the 4th placer who told me I took the podium. That is when I powered to finish 3rd last year. This year was more intentional. I knew I had the ability to smash my time from last year and hopefully if all goes well, place even better.
When race day rolled around, I was up and ready to go. The rules of the race state that we need to carry a whistle, blanket, jacket, and hydration pack. The only thing I managed to pack was the jacket and pack...Last year they didn't check this mandatory gear, so I didn't think they would this year and didn't even bother packing them. Big mistake. I found myself for the next hour trying to round up the other gear. Thankfully I met this guy from Portland named Nate. He let me borrow his blanket so I could claim the coveted race bib. Thanks Nate!
At the start of the race, all 200 runners lined up. I took my place at the front of the pack. I didn't see any sense trying to push my way through hoards of people on single track while going uphill for the first 2 miles. As we started, that is exactly what we did. Up, up, and away! Normally I like to take an easy in the beginning and not push the uphills; however, this is only a 50k and not a 50 mile or 100 mile. I don't really have time to take it easy. There were about 7 of us that actually ran the entire 2 miles uphill. Talk about a good way to get the heart going! Things were going very swell. My legs felt comfortable and my breathing was very controlled. This is when we started going over the boulder fields. You can't really run over these...no, it's more like just trying to survive and not twist an ankle or worse. Then we started to climb again. This is when the leaders pulled away a bit. I didn't bother on this section because the grade was much too steep. One could almost hike as quickly as these guys were running them. I knew the course from last year and I knew where I can use the legs for later in the race. In fact, it was in the last 8 miles where I passed 7 people to take my place on the podium. There wasn't much sense in pushing it here this year.
So as we passed from here, the leaders began to make a margin on the rest of the field. I met this guy named Bill Huggins, and we happened to talk for basically the duration of the race. He was a former Seattleite who transplanted to Portland. We discussed life in the PNW. He was just returning from ultrarunning as he hurt his back from last year. Let's put it this way, the guy made a great return. I ran with him for probably 8 miles. We would trade places of who lead between us every now and then. At this point we were sitting in 6th and 7th places. The other 5 were the valiant souls who decided to run every single hill.
It was probably around mile 18 that I decided to leave Bill. As nice as it was to have the company, I was here for a very different reason than he was. He was making his debut back into ultrarunning. I wanted to run faster and place better than last year. After crossing a river and using the rope to get past up the steep grade, this is when I came across the sand section. Basically you are running in sand for about a mile. Oh, and the exciting part is that if you slip, you take a tumble a thousand yards into a dry river that we just crossed about 3 miles back. It was in this section that I started to put the distance on Bill. In fact, I was out there all by myself. I could see mountains far off in the distance. The comical part is that this race is supposed to be ultra scenic as you circumnavigate around Mt. St. Helens. You get to see every angle of the mountain from when it was blown to smithereens back in 1980. However, you couldn't really see the mountain. The fog was heavy and the air cold. Not many scenes that direction. But you could see really far everywhere else. By this time it was fairly smooth and you could run. This is when I ate a GU, and tapped into the reserves! This section I was moving very well. I passed a couple of hikers who said that 2 guys in front of me weren't that far up and that I looked much better. They said they were breathing heavy and exerting a lot of energy. Just what I had hoped for! They burnt their energy on the earlier climbs and now were going to pay the penalty later on in the race! A rule of ultrarunning is to never overexert yourself early on. There are always more miles to be ran.
As I went over this knoll, there was a heard of elk. I would say about 10 doe and a GINORMOUS bull elk with antlers about two of me. It was truly huge. I stopped and gazed at the herd. The does were completely oblivious and kept moving down the hill. However, the bull elk didn't really do the same thing...he kind of stopped and we made eye contact for about 5 minutes. I wasn't about to play the matador because I conveniently didn't bring my cape. The best part is that there were no trees I could run up and the course marker was literally by his hoof. After he decided that I wasn't the most interesting thing around, he decided to carry on his business and followed the rest of the herd. I can honestly say that it was a unique experience, but in the moment, I wanted nothing more than the bull elk to go. In fact, I wish I hadn't seen him because if he had charged, I would have been toast. Glad the rest of the herd left him!
After that encounter I continued on and entered the next aid station. This is where things took a turn for the worse. They told me that the 4th placer left 3 minutes ago. I left and saw him out in the distance a bit. I was following the course and then down, down, down, I went! The weird part? I could see really far out, but I didn't see any runners...There was no way that he had gotten that far ahead...no way! Another dumb mistake I made is that I kept going even though I didn't see any course makings...They had done an amazing job with the markings the entire time up to this point...and then nothing. I went around the corner and saw a parking lot! I definitely didn't remember this from last year! I asked a couple of pedestrians and they informed me that I wasn't on the trail! Fantastic! I had just run 1.5 miles in the wrong direction! I quickly turned around and worked my way up the hill that I had just flew down. Nothing like being punished for a stupid mistake!
I kept going and I could see Bill up in the distance. After wasting 30 minutes to get back to the trail, Bill had finally caught up. I eventually saw him at the last aid station and all of the workers there felt bad for me. Bill had told them my mistake and I soaked up all of their pity. I mean honestly, who gets off course on a circle! All I had to do was make sure the mountain was to the right of me and everything would have been all right. I spoke with Bill for the next 3 miles and our experience of the race so far. I then left him (again) and tried to catch up to the 4th placer. I hopped over some more boulder fields and zoomed down the last hill to the finish in 6:03. My time last year was 6:26. I bested that time by about 25 minutes and the best part is I ran 3 miles further. The Race Directors felt bad when I told them my pitiful mistake. Definitely not their faults! The winner took the crown in 5:21 and crushed the old record of 5:49. Truth be told, had I stayed on course, I honestly believe that I could have contended with him because I know I spent a minimum of 30 minutes getting back on the course. However, as with all speculation, anything could of happened. Very pleased with the overall result. The talent this year was much stronger than last.
Lessons learned this year is to try and pay attention to course markings and just look at the mountain! Never assume that you are on course. Also, I need to remember to bring a whistle and blanket. Oh, and next time, I'll take my cape that way I'm ready to be tackled by a bull elk. Huge thanks to Orange Mud for their amazing gear. The VP2 worked brilliantly (as usual). Hopefully you enjoy the read and have a stellar rest of a Labor Day Weekend!