All I could spot was a sliver of pink close to the ground, the slenderest hint of a marking. Gingerly but firmly, I tapped my way across the boulders until I found myself standing next to a half dozen grassy tips with a flattened ribbon knotted around the largest, boulders in both directions as far as the eye could see, three metal poles now visible.
My shoulders slumped, and I stretched my neck by turning my head in a circle. Drawing up my frame to its full extent, I said to the Nobody That Was Here, "It will be whatever it's going to be." I set off for the next pole.
Wherein the Author Makes A Potentially Disastrous Mistake
Until that Friday, 50k had been my limit. I'd never done more, and before 2019 had never thought of nor desired doing more.
When I'd emailed my friend Kevin in early January with a "crazy idea" akin to his crazy idea of riding a 200-miler in the DC/Maryland area during the previous summer, I assumed we'd both get a chuckle out of the thought before discussing a realistic adventure like hiking for 3 days or something.
The timing was right, of course: beginning of August, right when I wanted to be in Washington to visit my parents. But running 40 miles around Mt St Helens sounded a bit excessive, even to my run-obsessed self.
But instead of laughing, Kevin responded by signing up for the race.
I emailed him back the next day: "M-- is down with me signing up, once we have our second paycheck back thank you very much shutdown wanky business. We'll also have to work out childcare or something ... Future me problems. See you this summer!"
The exclamation mark was perhaps a tad compensatory. But when the shutdown ended on Jan 25, I immediately signed up, knowing I wouldn't actually pull the trigger if I really thought about the ridiculousness of the event.
It's not that 40 miles is, in and of itself, a particularly great leap from a 50k. But the Bigfoot 40 Mile goes around the "base" of St Helens along trails that offer almost 10,000 ft of climbing on a course whose times look more like those from a 100k.
Oh well, nothing for it now but to prepare. On our flight back from Glasgow, where I'd spent that late January on vacation, I mapped out a training plan for the coming 6 months, with early segments to improve hill climbs and top speed and moderate endurance while the late segments would enhance hill climbs and long endurance.
The trip seemed forever and a day away until it was a day and a day away instead. Future Me had, indeed, worked out the problems. In order to avoid having an excuse not to try, I advertized the event loud and clear to everyone around. New job? Tell all the coworkers you're going on this trip to run around Mt St Helens. Dance competition? I've got to disappear to run and train for Mt St Helens. Birthday party? Happy birthday to me, next stop is Mt St Helens.
Preparing for the Mountain
Wednesday, August 7, we landed in Seattle, and in spite of a small luggage snafu, our pre-arranged plans got me to Kevin's by noon on Thursday. A couple hours of packing later and we were on the road, cruising the 100-ish miles south to Cougar, WA, a small town that lies at the convergence of access to the ring road at Mt St Helens and I-5. It's also the apparent end of cell service.
We wound our way up the lower section of the mountain and parked in the lot with dozens of other runners. We set up a 2-kid tent for Kevin and a hammock for me, cooked a fine dinner of asparagus and mushrooms in couscous, and chatted up some of the neighboring crazies for the next couple hours, until darkness began to descend and my confused body clock told me it was way past bedtime even though it was still only about 9 p.m.
I disappeared into the hammock and promptly passed out. Around midnight, I awoke with a massive urge to pee. Held fast by the mummy bag, I struggled a while before flipping on a handheld light to find the bag twisted and the pad hiding the exit hole. It sounded to me like I would wake up the whole campground trying to extricate myself. Finally, I shrugged out of the bag, crammed my foot through the hole, and stumbled - thanks to the brilliant light that had wrecked my night vision - blindly into the forest. The handheld came with me to the pisser, and along the way I could hear other people walking the same path but could see absolutely none of them. Once relieved, I went back into the hammock and resolved all the issues by laying the bag over my body.
Around 4:30 I was awake, wide awake, energetic and ready to go. It's hard to kill 3 hours before a race, but I managed by getting dressed, checking in, taking some long-exposure photos, and eating fruits and drinking small sips of water.
When Kevin and I made our way to the start line, most of the 90+ runners were already there. We talked start strategy - I have one, he doesn't - and ended up in the "back of the front third". Until right before the gun, when the RD told us to actually come up to the start line and nobody else would, so I marched up and took one of the front spots. Whatever guys, it's 40 miles and you're all acting like you think your start position will influence how people think about you.
There's Still Time To Turn Back!
Away! Up the forest path, past the split to June Lake, up and up and up at 5-10% grades. I walked almost all the climbs, jogged where I could, didn't worry about other people passing or falling back unless they would be in direct conflict with where I wanted to be.
Now we were talking race strategy. "The way I see it," I told Kevin, "if someone told you this was a 35-mile run with 8000 feet of climbing, you'd be way happier. So just walk the first chunk and you'll get that."
It's weird, but it works, since it brings the scale of a large race into perspective. Running 10 miles (at this point) isn't hard; running it two or even three times in a weekend isn't hard either; running it four or five times consecutively suddenly doesn't sound as bonkers.
The rise continued through a dusty rock field topped by scrub trees, then wound back into the forest. By this time I had relinquished the lead spot and was letting another runner dictate the pace. He cruised through a particular section and hopped mysteriously, then yelled over his shoulder, "Wasps! Wasps!"
I just about shit myself. If there was anything I didn't want to deal with today, it was wasps. In the previous three weeks, I'd recovered from a bee sting and a wasp sting, both of which caused some ugly swelling. Just like me to get into this whole thing and be tagged with a Rule of 3s assault.
I leaped over the area and quick-footed through, crossing my fingers that I wouldn't be stung. And I wasn't! Then I heard Kevin yelp behind me and knew he'd been harpooned.
"You ok?" I asked him.
"Yeah, I think so," he responded. I suggested he take some benedryl; he declined.
We carried on together briefly, the scrubby pines giving way to a regular forest path and tall northwestern firs. Here, Kevin fell back as I continued behind a woman with a steady and only slightly insistent pace. Our heads-down push gained us the boulder field rather soon.
It was around here, on a bouldered switchback heading up a towering hillside, that the clouds thinned, wisped, and finally fell away below. We climbed out of them and were rewarded with the stunning emergence of the glorious Mt St Helens, the first time any of us had seen it since coming to the mountain; distant prominences pocked the low clouds in the valley to the left.
Within what seemed like a half mile or so, the cairns and marked rocks fizzled out and - having passed my pacer - I was once again simply on the path. We switched back along the ash and dirt, bounded along this local shoulder of the mountain, then descended into trees once again, our constant companion returning to obscurity in the fog from whence we came.
This forest path was more packed than near the start. It lowered us slowly into a valley, and I spent a good amount of mental energy making sure I didn't overrun it. I slowly caught up with a 100k runner with a notable snake tattoo on her left calf. We chatted on the descent, and Kevin caught back on briefly to update me on his adventure: no problems with the sting, but a digger near the end of the boulder field that left his hand bleeding. I ultimately popped by snake calf when she slowed somewhat to stay behind another 100k competitor.
"Nice moose!" he said as I passed the two of them. I misheard this as "Nice moves", then way too late realized he was complimenting me on Moosey Elisabeth, my daughter's stuffed moose gift that was strapped to my backpack. I had to shout back, "Thanks, it's from my kid!" like some sort of weirdo. (Kevin stayed back with them, so I hope he explained it.)
The descent continued until the trail split, then increased down the left side of the split and emptied us into the aid station, where volunteers checked and double-checked numbers. Fruits a-plenty, some simple cheese, veggie, and turkey wraps greeted us. I choked down some peanut M&Ms and a wrap, nibbled some watermelon, drank a bit, and refilled my bottles. I also happily emptied my shoes of dirt and rocks, as the course justified every penny spent by others on gaiters.
Finding the Rejuvenating Spring
Shoes cleared and electronics now weighing down my backpack, I headed back up to the split, where the other fork pointed down into the creek valley. At the bottom of the hill, I was the leader of a knot of 6 or 8 folks, but I couldn't spot a marker across the creek that showed where the trail led. Instead, we trekked up the dry riverbed, finding occasional flags - false ones, it turns out, likely from logging. During the trip the guy behind me asked about Moosey E, and we started talking about keeping kids engaged in our activities, finding them positive ways to feel included even when they were absent. I like this guy, I thought. And I'm uncomfortable about this route, I also thought. I yelled back, "Someone check my work!" Finally someone looked at a map and said, "The trail is back where we started!" Down we went.
Now back on the trail, we re-entered the forest, but I was quietly alone, climbing slowly up the long and grinding woodland way to the edge of the ravine we had been running up just minutes earlier. The trail wound away from it, crossed a small stream, and climbed once again, this time to the edge of the substantial cut of the Toutle River.
The Toutle does not approach with any stealth. Where the top and bottom of the valley are ashen and flat, the middle of the walls of the carved valley look like cement packed with large river stones, as though the entire apparatus dropped 30 feet in seconds. As, indeed, it functionally did when the Toutle filled with hot ash and rocks and trees shortly before my first birthday, crashing through bridges and scarring the channel on the way down. Perhaps this center region was the top of the river's flow where all the dust had been scoured from the rock.
The forest opened into a high meadow feel, but only briefly, before a rope-assisted descent to the Toutle. Most of us sipped (through filters) from the river and splashed ourselves with water before tugging up the rope on the other side. (I later found that the women's leader, an alpine climber, simply scrambled up that second side, a prospect that in hindsight seems rather challenging but not impossible.)
Now came the more alpine, condensed trail, with blueberry and huckleberry bushes showing their wares unabashedly in a forest of largely deciduous, relatively small trees. No more of the towering firs: these felt more cozy, a little less imposing.
Switchbacks brought me through these trees, which turnstiled aside to deposit me in a foggy, ashy span along the hillside above the Toutle. Looking down the slope, I could see gray with splashes of lavender and red where wildflowers bloomed.
With a few hundred feet of altitude gain, the fog below dissipated, leaving a grand view of the river hiding beneath, its path through the landscape not a single slash but a series of striations in the valley, each a characteristic color and texture. The trail continued to switch back up the rise, and every turn brought an even more glorious vision.
I was now behind a runner whose upslope place put her in a thin fog; I was gaining at what seemed a tectonic rate. The ashy ground was extremely soft, like running on a sandy beach at the edge of the compacted line: some steps it would hold fast, others it would fall away underfoot, showering the shoes with pebbles and ash. I regretted not having gaiters. (Though this is not for lack of trying to obtain some: my fat ankles are off-limits to quality gaiters, and I can't pull the trigger on something that won't hold up. Suggestions welcome.)
The Toutle finally dropped out of view behind the vertical curve of the hillside, and we caught up with a much slower runner. In the distance, in the fog, another runner appeared, also traversing the course at an almost identical pace. The three of us caught a few more racers near the top of the hill, and the fog persisted into a flat, sparse meadow where life clung to every surface not littered with rock. I passed the rear runner unceremoniously, overtook another two 100k travelers, passed the front runner, and made the sweeping right turn to continue across the plain.
The fog thinned quickly, a distant peak suddenly visible, and immediately after I snapped a photo of the pointed shadow, we emerged fully from the cloud.
Islands of trees and rock drifted through a sea of pure white, next to an iceberg wedged against the hill. To the right, the mountain remained hidden, but this view of her fellow travellers stopped me short. (I snapped some photos, not surprisingly.)
In the open and without the fog, the temperature slowly began to rise. I could see two runners ahead moving about my pace, but as before I was gaining on them, slowly but surely. The trail crossed rock-strewn dips, dry creek beds, and dusty meadows. I caught and passed one of the runners ahead, caught and hung on with the other, and spent 5 or 10 minutes being leapfrogged by the guy I'd passed moments before as he alternated between sprinting ahead and falling back. (I suspect he was a little low on energy at that point, as he would slow significantly then blow by.)
I was now running with Will, and I moderated my pace a bit to stay with him through what I estimated was the midpoint - that is, turning around now would mean a longer run than heading to the finish line. We chatted for 15 minutes or more as we traversed the plain, until we came upon a river.
"I'm stopping for a drink," he said.
I shrugged. Sure, why not? The river was a little silty, but with plenty of eddies that offered better drinking options. We both sucked down water, wet our swiftly warming heads and necks, and carried on. The mountain was half-visible, a blast of clouds cutting straight west off her side.
Our conversation came in and out for another few minutes as we passed the turnoff for the 100k run, and Mt St Helens became fully apparent: a rocky prominence fringed with sloping shoulders interrupted by vertical slabs.
Will and I carried on together for the next 20 or 30 minutes heading toward Windy Ridge. It was pleasant running with someone, having a distraction from my increasing wear. We were around the marathon mark in the course, but I hadn't even considered the fact yet: distance simply went, dictated by the course conditions and not my physical limitations.
The terrain was consistently inconsistent throughout this stretch, with ridges visible in the distance, rocks and dirt mingling through some depressions, dry beds still appearing regularly, wide turns around meadows of low shrubs and flaming wildflowers. It was starkly beautiful, an ancient core wrapped in a shell of recent renewal.
We heard the distinct sound of a river and came upon a copse of trees. Another runner was clearly above the trail, and as we came to the river we found out why. Here was a crystal clear, glacial spring, the frigid waters falling out of the earth in a shaded paradise. Will and I stopped and drank the delicious nectar eagerly, and I wished I could bottle the stuff for the rest of the race. As we enjoyed the spot another half dozen runners came up from behind, and the place felt more like a house party than a mid-race pause.
After 5 minutes or so, I decided it was time to move on, and I shrugged on my pack and skipped over some stones out of the trees. The others followed, and soon enough our gang strung out across a quarter mile of trail, two runners in front of me, 5 or 6 behind. We were all refreshed by the stop, but we were also now all within ourselves.
The trail dropped down to the base of a dirt road beow Windy Ridge, site of the next aid station. I set a pace and stuck to it, held it up the 2-mile climb. It should have been brutally painful to climb those 500 feet, but the refreshment of the stop mingled with the consistent grade and the knowledge of the pending aid station, practically propelling me up the hill. Mt St Helens lay behind, her top clear of clouds, and to the right Mt Adams loomed over the valley but hid her peak beneath a thick cloud.
After a seemingly interminable approach, the aid station appeared, and I tugged Moosey E out of her sling. This stop would be a quick one to minimize mental inertial loss. My shoes were full of sand and my socks slightly damp, so I stripped to bare feet. I felt entirely satisfied, wanting nothing more in that moment than to sit in bare feet with that tingling sensation of 30 miles on the legs and a view of Mt Adams and Mt St Helens.
A Bold Start - A Speedy Crash - A Modest Recovery - A Few Rocks - A Flying Moose
The aid station workers passed me a PB&J and filled my bottles with apple juice and Tailwind, a product I'd never used before. I shook some salt into the Tailwind, thinking it was like Gatorade (oh boy was I wrong...we'll get to that) and forced myself to take a moment to be sure I took advantage of the station. A girl who looked to be about 14 took my backpack to fill with water. Behind the counter I spotted a beer case of Elysian Space Dust.
"Aid station powered by Space Dust?" I asked the station's clear organizer, pointing at the case.
"That's just an empty box," he said. Then he leaned in so say more quietly, "We emptied it into here." He patted a cooler tucked most of the way under the table.
I smiled and nodded. "You deserve it," I told him.
A 200-mile runner moved into the aid station and asked about drop bags. I stepped aside, tugged on my socks - now dry - and shoes - now debris-free - and pulled my backpack on. Water poured down my back. I quickly shrugged out of the pack and re-seated the cap to the bladder, then turned back to the aid station table to thank them. An open beer sat in front of me.
"Just one or two drinks, ok?" the organizer said, grinning.
I took a couple pulls from the bottle, the sweetness of the front end accentuated by my calorie-starved body and cut that much more abruptly by the hoppy back. It was delicious.
I set off about 20 yards behind another runner (I mentally named him "Nathan" for his pack choice but never actually asked) and decided to hurry to catch him. We ran together up the small rise back to the top of Windy Ridge, passing a film crew along the way.
"Nice moves!" the documentarian seemed to yell. I'd heard that before, though, so it took less time for me to recognize he was talking about Moosey E. "What's his name?"
"Moosey Elisabeth," I told him.
"Yup, named by a 6-year old, no way I could change it," I told him.
"And really, why would you want to?" the other runner joined in.
I briefly explained the story of Moosey E, but we were pulling ahead and I was in consistent-speed mode, trying to hold effort as much as I could for the remaining 14 miles.
Halfway down the hill we veered left to go up the adjacent ridge. The climb was steep, the temperature rising, the progress slow, the effort high. But it didn't feel as brutal as it apparently was. The two of us were able to make the trip up the hill together, talking about Montana and Canada and the Northwest and logging and trail races.
At last we reached some pockets of trees and shrubs, each well populated with huckleberries and salmonberries. These lined the trail heading up, then continued as the trail bent onto a wide, flat plain. The mountain was fully out, the sun now almost hot. For the first time all race I could feel sweat dripping down my forehead, and my arms were slick with it.
The trail went up and down here, and I held my pace, moving ahead of my companion and closing the distance to the next couple runners. On a relatively steep climb, I overtook another runner and recognized her from the start of the race, the woman who led me heading into the first boulder field. Now the trail character changed again, climbing out of one dry or slightly damp creek bed via an ashy, rocky ascent, wrapping around the next jutting hill, and steeply descending the dusty and rocky back side - one wrong step here would mean major injury.
The pattern was brutal and pace-killing. There was no way to find consistent performance in this stretch, and it worked on every leg muscle. I began sucking at the Tailwind, but the taste and effect were terrible, like salt water that made my gut contort. To add to the discomfort, the sun was heating the rocks around, causing everything to radiate. It was now uncomfortably hot. The only redemption was the scenery: a pristine view of the imposing mountain standing firm in the sunshine.
After what may have been the 4th or may have been the 10th of these profiles, I felt my calves tense up at the bottom of the descent. I slowed a bit in deference, but another two valleys later, I took a small slip near the bottom of the hill and my right calf cramped. My body twisted, and I dropped onto my butt (or, rather, my phone, which took some screen damage) to keep my left leg from fully cramping.
There I sat, cramping and immobile, at least a minute of simply waiting in front of me.
A runner passed, then another, both asking about my condition and understanding the circumstance but, of course, unable to help because there was nothing to be done about it.
Finally, i gingerly stood and walked. I walked until it felt reasonable to jog a few steps, then jogged those few steps at a time until it felt reasonable to jog more, then jogged more until it felt reasonable to slow to a walk. Strangely, my phone lit up with messages: here was cell service. The chimes sounded almost otherworldly, forgotten relics from a former age where I gave a damn about sending texts.
When it seemed only 6 or so miles remained in the course, I gave myself leave to sit by a creek and take a 5-minute break. My food disgusted me, the Tailwind was gross, and I knew there was no way but through.
Here came salvation, as though I had constructed my own impromptu aid station. The second runner to pass gave me salt tabs, the third was Will, who handed me a couple Gatorade Blocks. I was thrilled to have the boost from these, and I stood up and carried on.
No more than 100 yards down the trail, my straw made that sucking sound I dreaded: I was out of water. The aid station worker hadn't fully filled the bladder, and the spill left it even more empty. This was...bad.
"The mountain will provide," I said aloud. I looked at St Helens, standing calm and strong against the blue sky. "You've provided so far, you'll provide when I need it." I just had to convince myself I didn't need it immediately.
A few dips later was a wet creek, and I sucked at it through the filter. I moved on, and now the top of the rise was a longer, flatter plateau where I found a huckleberry bush covered in beautiful fruit. I plopped down next to the bush and raided it for nutrition. It was here that the last person I would see all race passed by, seemingly amused at my U-Pick picnic.
I don't entirely know how much more of this up-and-down passed, but finally a small boulder field appeared. I skipped over the top of it - a couple minutes at most - and delighted as the trail took a left, descending turn, a dusty slash across the main boulder field into the forest.
No more exposure, just forest from here on out! I rejoiced mentally and set to the task of closing this out - a little over 4 miles perhaps, soft and maybe rolling but under cover at least most of the time.
A half mile later, the trail passed the turnoff to June Lake. This was it! The trail took a right and climbed. Then it climbed straight back out of the woods. I was exhausted mentally and physically, and this steep climb carried me back to the heat and exposure and brutality of rocks and dirt.
And after a few tenths of a mile of careful hiking up the steep ascent, it climbed back into the boulders, this time a seemingly unending pile of them. The trail was marked by metal poles and low-to-the-ground ribbons, and I often found my way from one to the next by following the three or four footsteps visible in the slender strips of dirt that arose occasionally.
Each turn seemed to bring more boulders, each marker pole spawning another two markers yet to achieve. It went on. And on. And on. And on.
Maybe 3/4 mile? Maybe a mile? It's unclear how long this boulder field was, but it was taken almost fully at a walk, a walk where any wrong move might cause my legs to cramp again, a walk where I was out of water and desperate for the end, a walk where I could hear and see waterfalls in the deep, forested valley to my left. "It will be whatever it's going to be," I kept telling myself. The only way out was through. Etc etc etc. It was a run on the Bank of Mantra, which was fresh out of currency.
With about 3 miles left, the boulder field finally came to an end. A silty river drained from the mountain into the forest. I sucked at that thing for what seemed like minutes. Finally (mostly) sated, I stood, rolled my shoulders front-to-back a few times, and went on.
The boulder field was done, but now I was in the dirt-and-rock segment, still fully exposed. It went quickly though, and at the entrance to the forest - that glorious forest! - I stepped off the trail to pee and eat some huckleberries. There were under 3 miles left, somewhere between 30 and 45 minutes if all went well.
This was previously-run terrain, the reverse of the start. The trail dropped quickly, and I noted the ruts that beset it that I hadn't noted on the way up. I was moderating my pace, counting my steps, but still letting gravity do the work. There need not be anything left at the end. After a while I pulled Moosey E out of the pack and started thinking about how to end this thing: a forward dive? a Moose toss? a failed cartwheel?
And then the finish line came into view. As I approached the arch, I tossed the moose, pumped my fist, caught the moose, and waddled to a seat. Crossing the line in just under 11:10, I had met my main goal (finished!), and fallen just short of my stretch time.
The company was great for the couple hours I remained. Kevin rambled in an hour or so after me, and we chilled with the women's winner, a couple from Miami (who found out they lived a block from three other runners in the 40-mile), and a Frenchman. We ate grilled cheese and cake and potato salad and soup, chugged water, and turned to beer once we'd changed into warmer clothes. It was all very relaxed and may have been the most satisfying post-race atmosphere possible, feeling like a casual get-together of old friends rather than the typical cagey post-competitive sizing-up.
Around 9 p.m. the storms moved in. Thunder boomed around us and lightning fitfully exposed the finish area scene. We scattered before the rain got too terrible. Kevin and I set up the other tent, packed away what we could, then turned in. My body was sore, the threat of leg cramps persisted, and my body clock was thoroughly confused. After a pretty poor night of non-sleep, I was up for good at 4 a.m.
I went back to the finish line and cheered on those brave few who had carried on to the finish after waiting out the thunderstorms at Windy Ridge, where many had arrived drenched and cold from the rain- and hail-battered flats. They appeared from the darkness with headlamps illuminated, often looking no worse than those of us who rolled in a third of a day earlier. I couldn't help but admire these folks, nor blame those who dropped at the second aid station after running 80km into a storm.
It's easy in short runs to look at these latecomers as ill-prepared or somehow "not real runners". In an event like this, every person hacking their way through 40 miles or 60 miles or 200 (!) miles is still putting themselves out there and doing the work. There's no shortcut to a day circumnavigating a mountain like St Helens. It ultimately doesn't matter how quickly or slowly you do it - nobody will ask, almost nobody will have a reference anyway to decide if 10 hours or 14 hours or 18 hours is "slow" or "fast" - it matters only that you do your best to press up against your limits, hopefully crossing that line in the process.
Regularly scheduled entry up next.
Mash out. Spin on.
Some runner person. Also perhaps a cyclist & brewing type. But for your purposes, a runner person.