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Volcanic 50

When I heard about the Volcanic 50 course that circumnavigates Mt. St. Helens I couldn't resist the invitation to test my mettle against such seismic extremes in terrain and temperatures.  You know that the race is going to be gnarly when you are told to expect to run the time you would on a course that is 20 miles longer, not to mention that you are required to carry a wind breaker, emergency blanket, and whistle as well as a means of transporting at least 40 oz of water.  Of the four remote aid stations, two were stream fill-ups and aid station volunteers had to pack all the water and aid in to the others - and actually one of the streams because the rain made the water unfilterable. The fact that the morning of the race we were told to be on the lookout for three missing hikers sought by search and rescue would normally appeal to my masochistic side, but at the time I have to admit I wasn't sure if I was actually ready for this type of challenge.

Some of the heroic volunteers who hiked in water and aid at the last minute to an area we were potentially going to be able to drink from that got flooded out.  Photo by Gerad Dean.
To say that I was disappointed after illness forced me to drop from the Waldo 100K a few weeks ago would be an understatement.  I had planned my year and training around one race.  With no regard for my plans, fever and fatigue crushed them.

To prepare for the altitude and mountainous running of Waldo, I spent some time in Central Oregon taking some continuing education classes for three weeks leading up to the race. Despite some solid training sessions with some of Bend's finest - including a scorching 20 miler with Mario Mendoza, a lunge searing speed workout with Max King, and a Cascade Lakes Relay course record - I got to Waldo sick, tired, and unresponsive.  My muscles wouldn't fire.  I ached all over and couldn't stay hydrated.

Video of the Cascade Lakes Relay by Silvain Bauge

I had been going back and forth on the weekends to be with my family, put on a trail race, check on my team, attend some meetings, and teach a few classes, but for the most part I felt I was recovering well and covering all my bases. I did my best to prevent catching my son's cold, but hand sanitizer and zinc lozenges will only work for so long.  I woke up two days before Waldo and could hardly get out of bed.  I still ran and worked on my feet all day and tried to loosen up in the pool after work, but couldn't warm up after getting out of the pool.  I hoped that by Saturday the fever and fatigue would subside and I'd be rested and ready to compete so we made the trek down to Willamette Pass for the race.

Despite having the opportunity to meet and run with some really great people, I knew early on it wasn't going to be my day.  Not that one always has to win, but I could tell by the way I felt an hour into it that I would never be able to catch the leaders with the amount of effort it was requiring to maintain the modest pace I was running.  I was already well off my goal pace and then began worrying about my faithful wife waiting for me at the half way point with my over-active son and needy newborn daughter.

Eventually, I decided to pull the plug, but still had to run another 12 miles just to get to them (making it about 30 miles any way).  For a moment, I had forgotten all of the good times I had experienced earlier this year. "Why did I sign up for this?  This is miserable!"

I hitched a ride to the next aid station with the wife of another competitor in the race, Steven Petretto, and found my family.  Jen had already been warned that I'd be arriving late by Trevor Hostetler who had seen me at a previous aid station and I asked him to let Jen know I was alright.

Trevor is one of the race directors of the Volcanic 50.  He is not only a really smart, nice guy, but he has a way of finding beautiful and challenging courses and turning them into excellent destination races.  As the date approached for the Volcanic 50 I felt bad because I wanted to do the race and I hoped to do well as a means of thanking Trevor for helping me and my family out at Waldo, but I wasn't healing as quickly as I had hoped and I honestly wasn't sure if I'd be ready for the challenge. 

What much of the course looked like.  Daunting and breathtaking all in one.  Photo by Paul Nelson Photography.
The cold symptoms had simply moved from my lymph nodes and sinuses to my chest which kept me from sleeping well.  Work was beginning to pick up with the start of the school year and cross country season and I knew I wasn't in the kind of shape I'd hoped to be in. But I also knew that this would be the last weekend that I wouldn't be at a cross country meet for months and I had to get out of town and enjoy one last weekend in the mountains with friends.

I didn't know until the morning of the race whether I would be racing or volunteering.  I prepared for both, threw my stuff in the back of my truck and made my way to Mt. St. Helens.

To think that such an iconic and historic site lay only four hours from my home and I had never been there is disheartening.  Sadly, this phenomenon is far too common with me.  I live in a very beautiful part of the world, but I've spent so little time exploring it. I really appreciate those who organize races in such places because they enable me to take in such beautiful settings in a much shorter amount of time.

Approaching the second aid station with T.J.  Photo by Gerad Dean.
The course traversed through the most diverse terrain I have ever experienced in one place. Each time the course would open up and you'd begin to feel like you could run you'd hit another boulder field, stream crossing, or canyon.  If it wasn't a boulder field, the ascents and tight rope ridge lines made you feel like you had shown up for an audition for the circus.

River crossing.  Being shown the rope to ascend the other side.  Photo by Gerad Dean.
Crossing the Toutle River Drainage.  Fortunately there was a rope for this climb.  Photo by Brian Donnelly.

The best way to get down to most streams was simply sliding down and the best way up was by hand.  One of the canyons had a rope.  I tried not to use it, but then T.J. grabbed it and it sprung up between my legs.  Despite being overwhelmed with two children you never know when the Mrs. will want another so I figured I should grab the rope before future posterity was no longer a possibility.
Occasionally a path would emerge.  Photo by Paul Nelson.
The ground was wet from rain the previous two days and when we were in the woods it was cool and shady, but then we'd get into the blast zone and be exposed to the sun for hours with no sight of life for miles.  Knowing that it would be both wet and hot, I wore wool Swiftwick Compression Socks to aid in drying and wicking away the sweat and water.  Despite the changing temps, stream crossings, and technical trails I didn't get a single blister or hot spot the entire six hours I was on my feet. This can also be attributed to my trusty Pearl Izumi Emotion N1 Trail shoes which have led me to victory and happy feet all year. 

Over the previous weeks all I had really done was try to get healthy.  I knew I could run with anyone in the race on open flat stretches or non-technical downhills because that is what I do where I live, but I knew that the others had the advantage of mountain experience on their side.  My friend, Brian Donnelly, cracked a rib on the course last year so I wanted to be cautious about how recklessly I took the technical sections.  I conceded to their strengths when we were in the canyons, on the boulders, and on the climbs. When we got to more runnable sections I tried to use my strengths and size to my advantage so I bombed the descents and strided out on the flat sections.
Boulders for days.  Photo by Paul Nelson.
The course and the heat gradually whittled what started as a group of four of us - Brandon Sullivan, Brett Long, T.J. Hooks, and I - down to two.  T.J. and I ran most of the last two thirds of the race together including a little extra detour with some epic climbs reminiscent of Hawaii's Stairway to Heaven.  (The course was clearly marked.  I was having a hard time seeing in the bright sun because I was rushing frm the boys room to to the start and forgot to grab a cap or sun glasses and I was hallucinating at the time we made the detour due to exposure to the sun and lack of water, so the extra mileage was no fault of the RDs, volunteers, or anyone else but my own). The extra climb didn't seem to faze T.J..  He seemed about as content as a kid in a candy store, so I wasn't about to complain.

 Video by Yassine Diboun of one of the more desolate sections of the course where he and Jason Leman ran into assist others with aid.

We eventually found the trail again just as Brandon was reaching the trail intersection on the correct trail.  We waved and proceeded to try and regain the ground we had lost.  The trail was relatively flat for the next few miles so T.J. and I started rolling. We weren't sure if anyone had passed.  I ended up breaking away by a bit going into the last aid station.  I had removed most of my extra clothing and stuffed it into my pack, giving me the false impression that I had more liquid in there than I actually did so I didn't refill my bladder.  I guzzled some soda to settle my stomach and continued on my way.

The last eight miles seemed like they'd never end.  I had gapped the field by enough that I couldn't see anyone.  I was looking forward to the final descent back to camp, but still had some challenging sections to endure.  By the time I got to the final creek crossing and went to finish off drink I had left in the pack I realized that I was out of fluid.  The stream water was too silty to drink.  I dipped my head in and tried to cool off, but having tried to drink silty water before while backpacking through southern Utah as a teenager I figured the silt would probably make me thirstier. I just continued to eat a PowerGel every thirty minutes  With nothing to wash them down and the sun rising in the sky I was really looking forward to fresh water. 

I slowed considerably as I reached the final boulder field.  I had made it that far without crashing and burning (which is a first for me - I even wore biking gloves because I was certain I'd be taking some tumbles).   I wanted to finish no worse for the wear.  T.J. eventually caught and passed me as we navigated the final stretch of boulders and made our way back to the trail upon which we started.  As we reached the final descent T.J. pulled over and waved me by.  I asked if he'd be ok with us finishing together. I had nothing to prove. I am twice his age and I have an affinity for tough young runners.  They make great training partners. He said that his legs had nothing left in them and I should go on ahead.  I know his coach, Karl Meltzer, isn't too keen on the idea of people crossing the finish line hand-in-hand, but I felt like he deserved the win.  We had run most of the thing together and to be honest, had he not been there I would have been perfectly content just taking in the views.  T.J. pushed me and everyone else out there and I wanted him to be recognized for it, but like a true champion he wouldn't let me give it to him and he encouraged me to let gravity pull my much larger frame down the final stretch toward the finish.

Finishing in record time thanks to great course markings, beautiful weather, generous volunteers, and great competition.
Enjoying some hard earned rest time with T.J. Photo by Paul Nelson.
People had said that the race was beautiful, and despite running in some pretty places in my life, I was not prepared for the vast diversity of beauty on the course.  At times I'd be thinking "This is like Flagstaff," or "This is like the Green Lakes in the Sisters Wilderness Area," or "This is like Diddle Diddle, or Stairway to Heaven, or XTERRA in Hawaii."  With Rainier as a backdrop it looked like White River in sections.  It reminded me of Costa Rica and Guatemala in other sections.  The Volcanic 50 has it all.  They don't sell you short when they claim that it is 50K +.  That + is exponential.
If the Volcanic 50 is not on your bucket list, it should be.  It will continue to be on mine.  I only hope I am quick enough to sign up before it sells out next year.  But if I don't get in, maybe I'll be a gentleman like last year's front runners, Jason Leman, Brian Donnelly, and Yassine Diboun, and meet  the runners out on the trail with nutrients I pack in.

I'm happy I was able to make it up to Mt. St. Helens and grateful to the great race directors, Trevor and Todd, and countless volunteers who went above and beyond the call of duty to pull the race off.  With the start of the competitive high school cross country season, I'm not sure when the next time will be that I am able to race, but for now I will try and heal up and focus on my family, my work, and my team. 

I ate a PowerGel every thirty minutes. They got me through some rough patches.  Proof to my friend, Paul Nelson, that it is possible to eat all the gels I pack. Photo by Paul Nelson.
This year has been a lot of fun.  I've seen some beautiful places with some amazing people.  I couldn't do it without the support of my family and my sponsors.  Thank you Pearl Izumi, PowerBar, Bellinger Farms, SwiftWick, TrailButter, and Columbia Court Club.

Also, thank you to Todd, Trevor, Renee, Paul, and all of the Animal Athletes and other volunteers out on the Volcanic 50 course this past weekend and at all of the other races in the Northwest Mountain Trail Series.  Every time I do a race in the series I feel like I am with family - and its not just because Yassine and I are brothers.  You set the bar so high it is hard to get excited about racing anywhere else!


  1. Nice way to cap off a spectacular season. Enjoy the "down" time, my friend. You are an inspiration.

  2. Thank you, Brian, for making it possible! Thanks for the video, the suggestions on gear, hauling aid in, taking pics and sharing them. I hope we can meet up again after once our bodies recover.

  3. Love the write up! Congratulations on all the success!

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