The idea of circumnavigating the entire Mt St Helens volcanic mountain in a race called Bigfoot appealed to me. In 1980 I was a 20-something kid living in Seattle when the volcano blew. I remember looking out my apartment window to see what appeared to be a huge mushroom cloud exploding in the distance. Mt St Helens threw her wrath on the State of Washington. I remember that I had friends that needed to be rescued not far from the blast site. Their camping plans were interrupted by the ash dumping from the sky. The ash was so thick and heavy that the sun was obliterated and car engines were clogged, stopped dead in their tracks. Police vehicles had to be equipped with a special filter to function and rescue the thousands of stranded motorists. I had nightmares for weeks after watching the devastation on TV. When Mother Nature decides to go apeshit its best to get out of her way.
Fast forward thirty-seven years. If anyone had told me in 1980 that I would be running a race that circled Mt St Helens I would have thought they were from a different planet.
But, that’s exactly what I did. And it’s a wild and adventurous tale indeed.
I was pleasantly surprised when my daughter, Taylor Swanson, decided to join me. Taylor loves ultra marathons as much as me. She is the exact age I was when the volcano blew all those years ago. Needless to say she is now a faster runner than I am but she decided to stay with me for this race. I am glad she did as it turned out to be a challenging event on so many levels!
The race begins at the foot of the mountain in a very remote area of the State of Washington. We stayed at a B&B in Cougar, Washington ( population 150) which was about 25 minutes from race start. Just a quick note about the B&B; when we knocked on the log cabin to check in, the door opened and we were greeted by a hobbit ( no, I am not kidding!) The hobbit was married to beautiful Snow White who is a truck driver ( no, I am still not kidding although the names have been changed for a more interesting story!) So, Snow White and Bilbo the Hobbit tell us that the forests are full of bear and cougars and that there have been many sightings of the legendary Bigfoot. (Hey, aren’t hobbits just small Bigfoots? hmm, interesting) They also tell us tall tales of the Bigfoot living in the Ape Cave near race start… Bilbo also mentions that beaver poop in the streams and not to drink the water unless it’s filtered because it is toxic to humans. Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself!
Race start! We have full packs on loaded with water, water filter( yes!) food, headlamp and jackets since aid stations are very far apart and very remote. We are in the middle of nowhere, at the bottom of a formidable mountain that gives off ominous vibes. Does this sound intimidating? Well it was.
Th day before the race we scouted out the race start and Ape Cave ( Bigfoot is an Ape btw) at the foot of the mountain. I definitely picked up the eerie sensation of someone or something looking at us or following us in that thick brush that leads to the cave. I thought about all those different Himalayan mountains I have experienced across the world. Some of those mountains were peaceful and serene, some of them were otherworldly, some menacing. Mt St Helens is mysterious and eerie. Maybe that’s because of her violent past. I asked her for safe passage as I walked along the Ape Cave trail. I asked to respectfully and safely journey through her footpaths. Yes, I talk to mountains. I don’t mess around. I can’t say I fully understand that surreal energy but it is palpable and I don’t tread lightly.
About 200 or more runners toed the line on that July morning. 100 or so runners in the 100k who would be going 20 more miles than our 40 mile distance. I simply wanted to do the 40 miler to circumnavigate the mountain. Packs fully loaded we were off and up the mountain. Th first seven miles is straight up through thick forests full of ferns. Then we hit the first of the lava fields. The problem with orienteering over lava rocks is that they teeter. There is no stability. So, with a full heavy pack, balance becomes very important. The realization hit that I would be traversing these at night. This was going to be a challenge.
The race had every conceivable footing; lava rocks, sand, shale, snow patches, roots, desolation areas of trail with no shade, thick forests with the trail almost completely covered, valleys of flowers, mud bogs and river crossings…lots of them. The toughest part for me was when we followed a sliding shale trail along a ledge. One wrong step and you are going all the way down the canyon…super sketchy.
There was a sign at the end of the ledge that said ” Use Extreme Caution” and the trail ended in the clouds. Then we saw the rope with knots hanging down off the side of the cliff. We had to repel off the cliff with our heavy packs and swing over to another ledge. I tried not to look at the drop off all the way down to the river. Repelling with a backpack is tricky, it throws off your balance. The fun didn’t stop there. After shimming down the rope surviving aerial acrobatics we needed to cross the raging rapids. Don’t forget to fill your water and load your pack! With a full loaded pack we cross the rest of the canyon and see the course marking that end at a rock wall. Looking up we see another rope with knots. Nooooooo! We need to pull ourselves up to get out of the canyon! After we successfully drag ourselves up the rope wondering why we never lift weights to get upper body strength we drag ourselves down the path about 20 feet only to see another rope. We need to go up another level! OMG!
This race is not for the faint of heart. It is more an adventure race than a trail race. The views were stunning and gorgeous. As we circled the mountain the ever changing sides of the mountain were fascinating. Since we were going so slow and methodically taking our time to avoid injury we didn’t arrive at the first aid station for 6 hours. The temps had hit the high 80’s and we stopped several times at streams to filter and refill our water. At mile 20 I heard a huge roar of thunder. Looking up there was not a cloud in the sky. Looking over the ravine we witness a huge land slide of sand and stone. It shot off a giant plumb of smoke rushing down toward the river. What the heck? This place is ever moving and changing.
We arrived at the second aid station close to 9pm. Taylor cracked me up as she stuffed her face full of quesadillas like a refugee seeing food for the first time in days. Hey, I admit I was doing the same thing. Taylor grabbed a whole ham and cheese sandwich and stuffed it in her backpack hugging every volunteer she could find. After reviving ourselves with food and a Coke we grabbed our headlamps and went back out into the forest. I don’t think I can properly describe the lava rock crossing at night. Trying to maneuver between huge teetering boulders in pitch black trying to follow the small glow of a course marking with a little beam of headlamp…well, it simply sucks. And it went on FOREVER!!! At one point we heard a small voice, ” Can you guys see the markers?” A runner was above us, lost in a sea of dark rocks. She eventually made her way to us. You can easily get disoriented out there trying to stabilize your footing. When you maneuver over boulders and look up into the dark you wonder if the marker you are seeing is behind you and you are turned around or is it in front of you and your are indeed going straight? Everything is pitch black.
It took us 18 hours to finish the 40 miles. Yes, that is correct and I admit it. Taylor and I mutually decided not to race this course but to simply survive it. It wasn’t our A race and we didn’t want a twisted ankle or injury. 15 people behind us didn’t make it to the finish line. Many runners made it to the finish line faster than we did. My sincere congratulations to you all. That is one tough course.
Tay and I crossed the finish line at 3am and promptly starting laughing in hysterics. I almost kissed the ground but didn’t want to be too melodramatic. We did take off our running shoes and immediately threw them away. They were completely trashed…..and so were we. But hey……..we did it!
Big thank you to Taylor for making that adventure fun…..even as hard as it was!
I will never forget Mt St Helens. I would say the gorgeous and majestic views of that incredible mountain and the adventure were worth it. Would I do the race again? Nope. Once was enough for me. But, if you are the kind of person that wants a huge challenge, you are in super shape, and you are not afraid of traversing teetering lava fields and repelling down mountains, then go for it ( watch out for Bigfoot!)
The adventure is unforgettable.
I stood at the start of the Tahoe 200 Endurance Run full of excitement and nervous energy. I had never attempted 200 miles all at once. My backpack was fully loaded to take on the challenge of running 200 miles in 100 hour limit with 40,000 ft of cumulative elevation gain, or was it 70,000 ft. I don’t know, does it matter? The longest distance I had gone was 138 miles continuous in the Himalayas at La Ultra The High race.
Bill Andrews, my husband and partner in this adventure was also toeing the line. We often run races together but usually don’t plan on staying together. Our pace is different and he is definitely the stronger runner.
The race begins at Homewood, California on the shores of Lake Tahoe. It ascends over the ski slopes into a remote area called Desolation Wilderness. In a counter clockwise direction the course circumnavigates all of Lake Tahoe. One big giant loop back to the start finish at Homewood.
The course was stunningly beautiful. At least the parts I saw until my unexpected finish. I also spent about 12 hours in pitch blackness but I am a head of myself! 5 miles into the race at the top of a steep mountain the views into the wilderness area are breathtaking. For as far as the eye can see it is wild untamed forests with scattered lakes. Then the bees came. I got stung early in the race. This year yellow jackets are ruling the forests. I hit a swarm of them and got stung on my leg trying to scamper through a bushy area. It hurt but wasn’t that bad until I hit more brush and branches and scrapped my stinger area which became an angry bleeding welt. I was wishing I wore long leggings like Bill. Onward….. The course continued to a remote lake that was so vast I thought we had returned to Lake Tahoe. But it was just one of the many lakes in an area that is so difficult to get to that few people visit. The lake and rugged shoreline were empty of humans. The day had warmed up and I was looking toward to refueling with water and food at the 18 mile aid station. We past the lake and I kept checking my GPS. I knew the aid station had to be close. Bill and I were both out of water. Arriving at the aid station we were informed that they had run out of water. I was bummed. We had to run back to the lake and use our water purification pumps to pump our own water to refill. It was very discouraging but come on, we are in a remote location and stuff happens. I refilled all my bottles and continued. The next aid was another long twelve miles but at least I had my water.
The course became more difficult at this point. Lots of jeep trails with huge boulders and rocks. The difficulty was that the rocks were covered with a film of thin dust that made them slippery. I found myself slowing down to keep from falling. It was technically challenging. We were winding through this for hours. My pack I realized was way too heavy. I was so worried about being caught in freezing conditions in the Sierras that I packed for the Himalayas. I wasn’t going to be able to see crew until mile 62 so I was trying to be self sufficient. With my shoulders aching as I tiptoed on granite boulders that never ended, I reached in to my hydration pack for my water and realized my bottle that I had refilled at the lake was missing. Somewhere along the last five miles my water bottle had popped out as I bounded up and down on the rocks and I hadn’t noticed. I had 2 bottles left but miles to go before aid. The 30 mile aid station found me dehydrated and my stomach was funky. I wanted some Coke. The aid station had no Coke. Bummed out again I felt like Murphys Law was following me. Everything seemed to be going wrong. I wanted a grilled cheese or tortillas and cheese but they had run out of cheese. I asked for a tea and they had none left. The problem with being a back of the pack runner is that often times you don’t get want you want because everyone else has been there before you!
I ate a hotdog which wasn’t my first choice but I was starving. It hit my stomach like a brick and I immediately felt awful. I continued the long trudge on endless rocks. The longest 14 miles I had ever experienced. I felt awful with my stomach churning.
At 2 am Bill and I were trying to find the reflective mile markers that were leading our way. The markers were well placed but we were in a very remote and dark section of trees.
Bill stopped and said, “Why are the markers over there?” He pointed to the trees then said, “Those look like eyes.”
That’s when I saw the animal.
“Bill” I replied calmly with the hair rising on the back of my neck. “That’s a cat”.
It was a rather large mountain lion crouched on a rock about 15 feet from us. As Bill turned his headlight on the animal it turned slowly towards us and moved into a pouncing position.
I whispered, “Bill, there is another cat to the left of him crouching behind the tree”.
We both turned our lights on the second mountain lion.
We quickly decide to pull out our pocket knives and pepper spray.
I felt surprising calm because I had Bill next to me. He’s 6’3 and a large presence on the trail. Although I never underestimate wild animals I felt safe having him next to me. I was hoping that they were more scared of us then we were of them. We started backing away, both Bill and I holding our weapons as we made our retreat.
Mountain lions are super intimating to see in person. It was surreal to realize how large they are and have them so near to us. I was seriously ready to take them on if I needed to. I was kinda pissed that I didn’t get my Coke at that last aid station and I planned on taking it out on the cat if it messed with me! Ha!
Anyway, Bill and I did tag team, each of us, one at a time, moving about 20 feet ahead while the other one watched to see if the mountain lions followed. It was a tense hour trying to get distance between us and the wild animals.
By then I was mentally done. My leg was festering with the bee stings. I was slow and dehydrated. I was freaked about the mountain lions and sick to death of the endless rocks I was trying to maneuver through without breaking a leg.
Mile 44 aid station came and I was totaled. I didn’t have enough time to regroup before cutoff. It was over.
Bill said, ” I have no regrets. It’s been a great adventure but I’m done”
I always want to finish a race I start. But the idea of trying to run out of the aid station to avoid cutoff wasn’t possible. I didn’t have time to regroup and get my body stable. I would have to run weak for another 19 miles with no aid station in wilderness. It would have been too much of a risk to push it. So the end of the race was at hand.
DNF ( Did Not Finish). I’ve had my share and they certainly aren’t as fun. Finishing an ultra race distance is always a gift. Everything has to click into place and the problems that pop up have to be solved to move on. It’s like a game of chess. Each move counts. Next time I would have a lighter pack, carry a Coke and be prepared for scrambling over miles of rock in the first portion of this race! Ha!
I have no regrets because I did learn and grow from the experience. Will I attempt it again?? Hmmmm, maybe?? Until next time Lake Tahoe 200……..
I signed up for the Salmon Creek 50K after a cold, snowy winter. My first winter in Reno, Nevada. I had never experienced living months on end in frozen conditions having lived in Las Vegas for 30 years. It was never too cold in Vegas to bundle up and go outside for a run. Reno was a new experience for sure. I moved to Reno for many reasons( my family and loved ones!) but also the incredible trails and mountains. Nestled in the middle of the Sierra Mountains Reno is a gem of rolling mountains and thick forests.
How hard could it be to run in the snow?
My first venture outside landed me squarely on my backside hitting the frozen pave-stone in eight inches of snow. This was tricky. 19 degrees was a shocker. How do people do this? I half heartedly ventured out, partly walking, partly hiking through fields of unending ice and snow. My running dwindled down to a crawl during that first dark winter. Right at the end of the season I discovered snowshoeing! Wow, movement in the white stuff was actually fun. But, alas, my weeks and weeks of un-movement made me sluggish and slow.
My first 50K in the Spring was a shocker. My legs felt sluggish underneath me. On the smooth trail I felt as if I was at a slow crawl even though I was giving my full effort. The first six miles was horrid and full of mindless worry. My daughter Taylor and my son-in-law-to-be Chad had screamed down the trail in front of me. Ah youth! Where did you go? My mind kept telling me that I wasn’t going to make it! The long winter had taken my strength! Where was my inner Superwoman? She was buried deep under negative emotions and fear. Fear of losing my strength, fear and worry that maybe my running days were over. For the first time that I can remember I was having seriously negative thoughts and finding excuses on why I couldn’t run.
I turned a corner and looked out over the vast, winding, beautiful trails tucked into a silent canyon of yellow wild flowers. I stopped and studied the landscape. I felt the wind blow back my hair and was surprised at the power that rose up through my feet on the ground. Then Superwomen rose up out of the depths of my soul. She said, “Shut up and RUN! Geezuz, SHUT UP! LOOK AROUND YOU! The world is at your feet. You are free! You are healthy! You have everything you need to move forward. MOVE!!”
And, I did!
I let my Superwoman, Badass runner, rise up inside, past the doom and gloom and lead me fleeing through the forest, climbing mountains effortlessly, looking out over the horizon of green forests and down the shady path of life and abundance.
I choose running to always bring me back to the sanity of peace, happiness and self discovery over and over again. She doesn’t always stay with me, but I know that I can find her on the trails and paths of nature’s wilderness.
I rocked down the trails and just kept moving…..running and walking and filling myself with strength and clarity, fun and joy, power and kickass happiness.
It seems so simple but how easily I forget…Always keep moving. Walk, Run, Move!! Just shut up and MOVE!
My book, Running Past Midnight ” has been launched! Funny thing was having my first official book signing in South Korea!
The people in South Korea and Jeju Island are so warm and accepting. The language barrier was broken by the fact that health and fitness are understood Internationally. I loved every minute returning there, my second glorious visit. This time I was able to run up and over the dormant volcano with Bill. The friends we made there hand made us traditional Korean clothes called hanbok. It was an incredible visit filled with adventure!
It’s interesting how so much can change in just a couple of months. The end of last year, 2014, was full of challenges with the death of my adorable Dad, then a torn tendon in my ankle sidelined me. It was awful to force myself to slow down from running and all activity in a time when running seemed to be the one outlet I needed most.
Time does heal. After resorting to pool running and light exercises while I pondered life’s mysteries and sorted through the passing of my dad I seemed to move quietly through the dark transition into Spring and a great trip to South Korea ( see post below). After my return I headed to China to run the Great Wall Marathon with my two kids, 22 year old Taylor and 32 year old Devin. It was a rewarding trip simply to be able to run again in such an exotic place and to share that experience with my kids. It was a tough and demanding race…but so is life. The only thing to do is move through it with as much strength and grace as possible and, when you get to that finish line, or that quiet place of reflection, look back over the challenges you overcame and hang on to the confidence that you have gained. It will carry you through.