COUGAR, Wash. — The scene at the starting line looked like any other race.
Runners fidgeted and stretched, unable to enjoy a few stationary minutes prior to hours of constant motion.
But what awaited more than 100 runners on a recent Saturday at Marble Mountain Sno Park wasn’t your typical 10K or marathon. These were ultramarathoners, a growing segment of the running community whose races typically span 50 kilometers, 50 miles or even 100 miles.
The Volcanic 50 brought them to the south slope of Mount St. Helens. They would spend the next six to 12 hours scampering over lava fields, scaling mountain ridges and navigating steep sandy gullies during a 32-mile circumnavigation of the volcano. Most of the course was on the Loowit Trail, which takes a typical hiker at least two days to complete.
Running’s popularity has grown consistently over the past two decades. According to Running USA’s annual State of the Sport report, more than 15.5 million Americans completed at least one organized event in 2012. That compares with 8.6 million in 2000 and 3.8 million in 1990.
Trail running is one of the sport’s fastest-growing segments. In 2012, those who ran on trails increased 8 percent over 2011, while the growth of runners in general was about 3 percent.
The growth of trail running has spawned a surge in ultramarathons, most of which are run on trails. The past year has seen six events of 50 kilometers or longer held within 75 miles of Vancouver. Four of the six were born within the past three years.
Most runners would say a 26.2-mile marathon is plenty long. So what’s the attraction of ultramarathons?
“I think people are realizing they can go much farther than they think they can,” said Yassine Diboun, one of the Northwest’s top ultramarathoners and a volunteer at the Volcanic 50. “Getting out into these beautiful places is more appealing than a big road marathon. The vibe of ultrarunning and the camaraderie is a lot more fun.”
Victory in finishing
While avid marathoners wrap their identities in personal-best times, the goal of many ultramarathoners is simply to finish. That was especially true for the Mount St. Helens course, which was brutal even by ultramarathon standards.
The first two miles ascended on a forested trail. At timberline, the runners begin hopping over a field of basketball-sized boulders. Sharp-edged gaps big enough to snare a foot threatened to put an early end to a careless competitor’s day.
The route merged with the Loowit Trail near a waterfall crashing onto the lava rocks below. Runners stopped to take photos, then began power-hiking the next ascent.
The course gained 2,000 feet in its first four miles, a stretch that showed a major difference between road races and ultramarathons. Competitive marathoners almost never walk during a race. But in ultramarathons, it’s common to hike uphill sections as conserving energy is more important than any minimal speed gain that running uphill provides.
“Ultras are actually easier on my body because of (the hiking),” Seattle resident Eric Quarnstrom, 44, said while trudging up an incline Saturday. “Marathons involve too much pounding.”
At mile six, runners reached an aid station, the first of four on the course. Hand-held bottles were filled with water or sports drink as runners ate snacks heavy in carbs, sugar and salt. At nearly 4,800 feet high, runners marveled at the mountain’s cliffs above and the gullies that trailed off below.
The scenery might be the biggest draw of ultrarunning.
“I think people love getting out into nature,” said race co-director Trevor Hostetler. “They enjoy getting off the street and getting away from the people. Our lives are already busy and we’re around a lot of noise.”
Hostetler and Todd Janssen co-founded the Northwest Mountain Trail Series, a six-event series in its inaugural year that includes the Volcanic 50. The pair gathered new and existing events ranging from 10K to 100 miles under the series’ umbrella. Points are kept for repeat participants, but the goal is mostly to enhance the races’ community aspect.
“It’s a big family,” Hostetler said. “It’s a big celebration of life, of being healthy and being out in nature.”
Having a blast?
Nature can be beautiful but also harsh. After a long descent to the Toutle River, runners faced a 1,000-foot climb out of the canyon. On one steep pitch, runners used a climbing rope to scramble up the sandy incline.
The reward for finishing that section? The Mount St. Helens Blast Zone.
For five miles, runners trudged through the sandy, alien landscape dotted by cairns of lava rocks. Shadeless, the Blast Zone can be a blast furnace on a hot day. But with temperatures in the 70s and a steady breeze, runners crossed the course’s halfway point without much difficulty.
Runners encountered Diboun, the top-flight ultramarathoner, at a natural spring 20 miles into the race. The Portland resident placed 10th in this year’s Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, which features many of the nation’s top ultramarathoners. Saturday, Diboun was earning so-called trail karma by manning the event’s third aid station.
Diboun co-founded Animal Athletics, which provides training, coaching and excursions for people who want to live an active lifestyle and be connected to nature. He has had a front-row seat for ultrarunning’s growth.
“I’m a big fan of getting people active and outdoors,” Diboun said. “I love being out here at these races because I see quote-unquote normal people doing amazing things.”
Ultrarunning’s growth has raised concerns in some circles. Some, feeling the sport has lost its purity, bemoan corporate sponsorships and the awarding of prize money at top races. Others worry about the events’ impact on sensitive natural areas. Most races cap the field at 100 to 200 participants and employ a strict no-littering policy. The Volcanic 50, like many ultras, sold out in a matter of weeks.
“Obviously, races have a certain capacity for the trails and protecting the wild areas,” Diboun said. “I think it’s important to keep those under control.”
Ups and downs at Windy Pass
Exiting the Blast Zone, runners embarked on a steep climb to Windy Pass, which at 4,900 feet was the course’s highest point. At three quarters through the race, it came at the most difficult point psychologically. The finish was too far off to taste, yet the springy gaits that started the race were replaced by a survival shuffle.
Descending onto the Plains of Abraham, the desolate landscape was actually an oasis as runners relished the flat terrain and even footing. It wouldn’t last, though.
The race’s final eight miles dropped in and out of gullies that prevented a runner from getting into a rhythm.
Near the end, another lava field awaited. With shaky legs that resembled a fawn taking its first steps, runners picked their way across boulders that may or may not be stable when stepped upon. Having come so far, the thought of a broken leg strikes fear in a runner’s heart.
Hope of finishing mixed with despair that comes with deep fatigue. The runner’s mind repeated the manta: every step gets closer to home.
Finally, a familiar sight as the Loowit Trail reached the junction runners passed early in the morning. Two downhill miles of relatively even footing brought the runners to the finish line.
Each runner finished to cheers from dozens of runners and their friends. A medic waited nearby, just in case, as a greeter handed out the finishing prize. Instead of a medal, it was a beer glass emblazoned with the race’s logo. “There’s two kegs by the barbecue,” she said. “Eat and drink. You’ve earned it.”
Beverages and burgers in hand, finishers kicked shoes off their swollen feet. They reclined on chairs and cheered each finisher. They talked in amazement of winner Jacob Puzey, a Hermiston, Ore., resident who finished the abnormally difficult course in a record time of 6 hours, 1 minute, 19 seconds.
“From the first person to the end, they’re all great athletes,” said Hostetler, the race’s co-director. “Even the winners, they encourage people during the race if it’s an out-and-back, or they’ll stick around at the end to cheer people on. Those at the end are just as important as the people who win it.”