Bigfoot 40 Mile – Mt St Helens Race Report July 2017
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.
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