The training for running around Mount St. Helens began in January with a rainy, cold two hour run in Forest Park, but really it began years ago. My good buddy Mark Passmore & I ran the Loowit trail that circumnavigates the blown volcano about ten years ago. Of all the ultras (an ultra is anything over 26.2 miles) I have run over the years, it was my favorite and one that I have been looking forward to repeating. It might be my favorite because we were able to come into fairly close contact with a wolverine, a truly amazing animal that lives and breathes the definition of bad-ass and used to roam these parts of the cascades but hasn’t been known to in a very long time. I suspect this was a once in a lifetime experience for Mark and me. Or it might be my favorite run because it is one of the more difficult for the distance and I like a good challenge.
At 33 miles and 7500 feet of elevation change, it isn’t a particularly hard run in the world of ultras. But, as is often the case, it matters the type of terrain one is moving over. Much of the Loowit trail is deep sand, large chunks of volcanic rock, pumice and sand mixed, drainages that are so steep that ropes are needed to safely go up and down (these were missing from the trail when Mark and I went around 10 years ago, upping the difficulty factor), a lot of exposure to sun & wind and this year brought several snow fields to cross at some challenging angles. But, with the challenging terrain comes almost constant views of every possible angle of an amazing volcano that erupted in 1980. It is pretty special to go through the blast zone and see what plant life has been able to carve a meager existence in a land of volcanic rock & ash.
The broadleaf lupine is a flower common to the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. They typically stand two to four feet tall in most areas, but in the blast zone, they are maybe two inches tall. Life is trying to come back, but 27 years later, you understand while visiting, that it is a lengthy process to get back to what it once was. It is a unique place, to say the least.
I have been wanting a repeat ever since I finished the last run around MSH. For various reasons, it took me about 10 years to make it happen once again and fortunately my good friend Gary Johnson (while running around it in an organized race for the first time a couple years ago) was game for another go.
There was much debate on where to start and which direction to go. Most of this consternation rested on my shoulders. Gary tends to be more laissez-faire about such details. I tend to get a little anal about routes and which is the best way.
The first go around, Mark and I went counter-clockwise and started at Climber’s Bivouac. The annual race starts at Marble Mountain Trailhead and goes clockwise. Most people that post online seem to favor going clockwise & starting at June Lake Trailhead, which is what we eventually opted for. Or should I say, I eventually reached the same conclusion that Gary proposed days earlier. The advantage of this route is more than half the climbing is accomplished in about 40% of the distance, meaning the legs are fresher to deal with more up & down. Also, most of the lava rock sections happen in the early miles, so when the legs are getting more tired, the relatively easier terrain comes at the end.
Any way you slice it, it is a tough run, but proper hydration with Osmo along with trail snacks ranging from nuts to dark chocolate and high-quality energy bars and chews made the miles much easier and cramp free. But, tough run aside, it is a fantastic way to spend a day in the mountains with a good buddy. I am super lucky to be able to do this and very thankful to be injury-free for the first time in over 7 years. I’m also very grateful to Osmo as I have had an obscene amount of muscle cramping issues over the years (and tried virtually everything out there) and muscle cramping has been erased by using their products properly. Life is indeed good.