Tuesday, September 10, 2013

2013 Volcanic 50 Race Report - I Did Something that Scares Me, and I Loved It

Wow, this race is still a violent vibrant kaleidoscope in my mind. And two days later I am still all smiles. Volcanic 50 was the hardest race I had ever entered. I was even really scared out there some of the time. This article on Five Ways to Become a Fearless Bad Ass sums up how I view these trail races and why I go for it.

I didn't finish this race, and I'm thrilled with the experience I had.

Wait, WHAT???

Yes, I addressed pre-race that failure to me was not defined in the narrow runner view of the duties of completion or adequate racing performance. It was going out and giving it my all, making memories, seeing amazing scenery, and living far outside my comfort zone. There were 128 entrants for this adventure and ultimately 118 finishers. I was one of a less than 20% female entrant rate and the only person from the Southern United States. My coach said I was trained, and I had put in the time. I had also been sick for the 3 weeks leading up to the race. I was put on steroids a week before the race. I was not too vocal about this, but my race week had meant awful steroid side effects. I was able to get to sleep by 2-3 AM (insomnia) and was completely bloated all week with the 8 pound instant water weight gain as another side effect. The two days before the race, I was up to 10 pounds over my usual weight just a week before, and I was visibly swollen everywhere. With a weak occasional cough still. Lovely. I still thought I would be fine.

Race Day Morning

Hubby Steve came with me, and we made the 1 hour drive in the dark from our hotel in Woodland, Washington, to the Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument, to the Marble Mountain Sno-Park that would be the race site. There was no cell service at the race site. I picked up my bib and my race shirt.
You can see I had already started the uber-small signature ultra bib fold and had to undo it for the picture.
And I absolutely love the color of the women's shirt (men's shirts were kind of a full lime green) and the elevation profile on the back:

A little over an hour to prep my gear and make a potty run. Ironically, I met Lars (we have a good mutual friend so I was hoping to run into him) in the bathroom line.

Posing before the start - geared up!
I met my Facebook friend Shannon who used to live in Texas and had moved to Portland. We have a LOT of the same friends from here in Texas. And then it was time to start the race!

Within the first 6 miles we had climbed about 3000 ft. 4000 ft within the first 13 miles. So most of the climb was very early on. As was a LOT of the technicality.

Beautiful Pine Forest

I powerhiked these climbs in the soft forest soil at the start. I suck at climbing, but I didn't really lose people much and didn't really have people gain on me much in my position, so I took that as a good sign.

It smelled wonderful. It was humid but cool temps. Having fun!

A few miles in was a rockier section with smaller pine saplings, moss and lichen ground coverings, and lava rocks.

And we worked our way through a tiny boulder field around a small canyon dropoff that housed a small waterfall.


Here I took a picture and exclaimed "THIS IS AWESOME" in front of everyone around me.

People echoed the sentiment, and I said, "We don't have anything like this back home in Texas!" Headed back along the path, and I heard "Are you Libby?"
Me: "Yes?"
It was Jeff, a good friend of one of my good friends. And another person I had hoped to meet. We chatted on and off through the next wooded uphill section for another mile of so.

Leaving the canyon with the waterfall

After another big climb through the woods
 Then a flat nice area to run where I noticed the serious pace differential between me and those around me. :-/ Womp womp.
5 minutes of good runnable trail!

What a view

Seriously Scary

And then I would say miles 4 through 13 were downright scary. Those who don't say it is are blessed with one of several things I do NOT have:
1) grace
2) balance
3) speed
4) luck

I do this stuff to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable, and boy, this epitomized that. I always kept moving forward, but audible disbelief, positive self-talk, and momentarily stopping to take a deep breath and clam down took place off and on.

So let's go through the super scary moments through this section.
1. Boulder Fields
2. So Very Alone
3. Steep Canyons
4. Rope Climb!
5. I was being Chased!


It's exactly how it sounds. We had a couple miles of straight sections of loose stacked boulders. Big wooden posts with orange contractor flagging marking it, or a small placed orange cone would help guide us across them.

We would balance and step from one rough boulder to the next. Stepping and hopping along. Hands down at times. Sometimes I would hoist myself down by bracing on two boulders and dropping my legs down. Or putting a hand down to make a 2-foot-high step up. It just kept going as shown in the picture below.
People circled in red to show the expanse of this boulder field. Click to see the image bigger.
I was terrified about hurting myself, all the while I was hurting myself little by little. Afterward, my legs and arms are covered with small scrapes. During the race, my hands burned from all the small abrasions on my knuckles and one on my pinky finger kept bleeding.

In the middle of it all, I offered to take a picture of a couple prepping for a selfie. And they took a picture of me in return.
 Eventually I was getting a better feel for moving through it. Sometimes there were little patches of dirt connecting some boulder field segments. If you moved straight from one flag to another, you might have the hardest boulders. If you were willing to make a wide arc, the terrain might be a little easier. You had to look down to navigate, and then stop to get a better picture of the path you were going to attempt. It was time-consuming.
Official race photo. Photographer was awesome to announce his presence before we came around the curve onto that vista.


After the boulder field, I was now getting to be very alone to go through several smaller canyons.

I became really worried I had missed a marker at one point because it was just SO quiet and kept my panic down the best I could and had to backtrack a couple tenths of a mile to go back to the previous flag. I had been going the right way.

I came around to one canyon and passed a bush where a big ptarmigan bird and I scared the bejesus out of each other. It yelped and squawked and flew away in a ruffle of feathers. I felt my heart pounding and ran harder for the next half a mile with that adrenaline surge, ha.


I had one big canyon around mile 8 where I think I chose the steepest path up possible, because my mind just couldn't comprehend a less steep route. I saw the flagging above me and just went the straightest path to it. Stupid. The very top of that canyon climb was so steep and it was so sandy that my feet were skidding back down and I found myself pulling myself out by my arms on the boulders.

And then my hand pulled a boulder as big as my head out of the canyon wall. With the first "THUNK", I actually thought I had dropped my water bottle. No, I watched this boulder roll down the canyon a hundred feet. And echo as it slammed down there. And then I thanked my lucky stairs that no one was immediately behind me. Scary.

On others, people talk about the steep downs and them "skiing" down them. Yeah, that's for graceful people who aren't worried about doing something stupid like getting off balance and rolling head over heels down that 150 feet. Instead, I would end up sliding at times down on my butt or my back. So much so that when I pulled off my sports bra after the race, dirt fell out and was all over my back inside where the bra had been.


On the other side of the Toutle River at mile 12 was a climb back up out of the canyon. It was basically a cliff for the latter half of that climb. And while I had heard about it, I had to laugh when I did see the rope. And it was very much needed. 20 feet of rope, knotted every foot or two. I rappeled up the wall, because the sand made footing impossible, and I would brace a foot on an embedded boulder in the sand and pull myself up on one of the knots in the rope with my hand, and repeat. Until I slid on my tummy up onto the ground above when I was done.

Where the knots were every 2 feet instead of every one, I got really scared about falling back down.
Photo by Glen Failla

Not me in the pic. Photo by Phil Ullrich

Not me in the pic. Photo by Phil Ullrich


At mile 9, I heard the sweepers about a half mile back, their voices echoing in the canyon I had just come through. A guy and girl, I knew that had to be Marta and Frederick. I had figured out that so much of the climb and technicality was early on that the sweepers they introduced at the pre-race trail briefing were off to a good start in chasing me.

Hearing their voices scared me, and I ran hard. For 3 miles I rocketed through this forested segment. I saw toadstools as big as a dinner plate. It was a gorgeous, overgrown primordial forest of giant trees. It was also super super soft wet forest soil which felt great on the feet relative to boulders but also was narrow and eroded at times and I rolled my ankles about 6 times running this section. I thought about my trainer Donnie and all the ankle stability work we had done and how I was watching it pay off right now.

So these were the scares going on around me.

Caught by the Sweepers

A long while after leaving the Toutle River aid station at mile 12.5, the sweepers caught up to me. I was sad and asked if my day was over. They said if I could keep a pace going, there was no reason I still wouldn't make cutoff.

I had noticed about mile 14-15 that I was starting to have problems with huffing and puffing and a higher heart rate than the exertion level I felt I was going. This was particularly bad on the climbs. I wondered at the time if I wasn't as recovered from being sick as I had hoped.

But I slowed down, sweepers now hanging out with me as they cleared the trail of markers, and I was still moving forward with purpose. After a while I even felt better and ran for a while.

Mile 18-20 though I started to feel progressively worse, and my hacking cough from my cold had returned with a vengeance. And I felt way more tired than I knew I should. I told the sweepers that even if I was close to making the cutoff, this was the end of my day. You know when things aren't right, and I know I was feeling worse as I went.

DNF does not mean No More Mile though
Mile 20.7 I arrived at the aid station. I wasn't on target time for the mile 24 cutoff at this point anyway unless I planned to speed up for the next 3 miles, and I knew I couldn't do that. The Ham Radio Operator, Richard, was parked the closest so I was going to have to hike out with him.

I sat for several minutes after we walked into that station and when they took my pulse then, it was still high. My body was ANGRY. After another 15 minutes of rest, Richard and I started the 3.1 mile hike out of the north side of the mountain. Once we got to his truck, it was a 2 hour drive back to the start/finish. My day was over.


I am not sad for not finishing. I feel like I should feel guilty about that, but I don't. I'm still grinning ear-to-ear about the experience. I saw things I wouldn't have seen if I hadn't tried. I experienced things completely new to me that wouldn't have happened if I didn't have the balls to sign up. And I did so many things right on this race day...

  • Kept my cool - the north side, the blast zone, is notoriously exposed and full sun. I wore a buff and visor on my head and one around my neck. My hydration pack's 70 oz was to drink, but my 20 oz handheld was for squirting on the back of my neck and top of my head. It felt glorious, and I had no heat issues. Since I had heat problems at Tahoe Rim Trail, this was a big victory.
  • Kept hydrated - I never had any hydration issues all day.
  • Carried the load - I had about 9 pounds of gear on me between my hydration pack, the big pockets located in my rain vest, and my handheld. It was heavy. I shouldered it well.
  • Fueled appropriately - GUs sporadically and a variety of food taken at the aid stations.
  • Survival gear used - I got to use my SteriPEN on some stream water we passed about mile 18 and then again with the water I took from a stream before hiking out at mile 20. UV purification for the win.
  • No major owies - scratched up and my upper body is as sore as my lower body, but I didn't get myself hurt.
  • Motivated myself - I kept moving, and I kept in great spirits.
  • Didn't forget to look around - what a shame to be there and not appreciate it. I savored each view and moment.
  • Learned a lot about navigating - noticing where the trail was is a serious challenge for me in that terrain, but I started to notice patterns and how to spot the path of the trail across the canyon after a while. And realizing that the best way to get from marker A to marker B wasn't always a straight line!

To Close

I wouldn't have traded this race for the world. I had the best time. The race directors did an awesome job.

The 21 miles (not counting the 3 mile hike-out) was harder than any race I had ever done. That includes Bighorn 50K. That includes my two 50 milers.

I gained some serious perspective through this experience. I hated the rocks and climbs of Bandera 50K back in January, and that race is known for its technicality here in Texas. Now, it doesn't scare me much. It's all relative! I don't even mind the idea as much about going back to Bandera in January!

My coach Jeremy said that a great way for a flatlander to get better experience at running mountain ultras is to run mountain ultras. If I have to accrue a few DNFs on my way to getting better at this terrain, climbs, and often altitude, I'm okay with that! Maybe someone will read this and let go of the "death before DNF" freakout runners do and realize the gains that come out of a DNF.

What's Next?

Still figuring that one out. I have some ideas. I know that race directing The Showdown Half Marathon and New Years Double will keep me super busy the next few months, so the plans will work around those constraints.


  1. So very proud of you! Awesome race report & love your amazing positive outlook! M&D

  2. Libby, this seems an incredible journey. A journey of personal growth, physical challenge and true bravery!! I can only picture the beauty! I am so proud to know you!!


  3. Wow! all i can say is wow. Congrats!