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2023 Backcountry Rise 50 Mile: Race Report

Race Report for the Daybreak Racing Event held at Mount Saint Helens National Monument

Mount Saint Helens and Spirit Lake at Backcountry Rise 50 Ultramarathon
Mount Saint Helens beyond Spirit Lake

Back in August of this last year, I ran a lesser-known 50 mile race in the very remote Mount St. Helens National Monument called the Backcountry Rise 50. It would to be my first 50 mile race, and in hindsight, was the wrong choice for a first attempt at the distance. Nine-time 200 Mile finisher Wes Plate recently noted its difficulty on the Distance to Empty podcast, saying he was forced to end at 50K rather than complete the full 50 mile route. It's run at altitude, largely self-supported, and just plain hard, with technical terrain and nearly 12,000ft vertical gain and loss.

A couple days after the race, I wrote the following account of the race and my experience running the 2023 edition.


Starting line Backcountry Rise 50 Mile
Starting corral before dawn

August 19th, 2023

Mile 0.0: The morning started cool and dark. While the Backcountry Rise race weekend would be drawing a crowd of 600+ runners across their three race distances, only 60 of us stood around the starting line at 4:55am for the 50M. Some final pre-race announcements before the 5am start time, a few headlamps illuminating the starting arch and RD Jeremy Long. "Remote, wilderness areas where trails are faint and unmaintained. Thank your aid station volunteers, and there's an option to finish out the 50K on Loop 1 rather than continue for the 50M."

Off we went into the darkness along the shore of Spirit Lake. Even in the faint dawn light, this was a stunning lakeshore trail with mountains rising on all sides and leaves already showing signs of the coming autumn.

Just shy of Mile 5 and the Coldwater Creek Aid, I'm shocked by a wicked pain in my left shin, yelping and reaching down to swat away whatever insect was responsible. Before I'm done shouting, the guy behind me chimes in with a wail. It was too dark to see but the resolution was some sort of bee that was super unhappy to have runners for an alarm clock. A few hundred feet later was the aid station. Runners trickled in, each making a sheepish look and asking if any of us got stung. One person said they had four stings.

Mount Margaret Backcountry
A tiny glimpse of the majesty that is the Mount Margaret Backcountry

From here I started up a 2700 ft climb that would be followed closely by another 1500 ft climb to Bear Camp Aid (Mile 15). The trail is as-promised: rugged, overgrown, washed out in places, but thankfully is pretty well marked. We're running into the Mt. Margaret backcountry which is one of the most stunning places I've ever seen. Bursting with life, wildflowers of all colors surrounded us. At the same time, sweeping views of the valleys below, untouched mountain lakes, and Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams off in the distance as the sun continues to rise. I'm pacing conservatively, knowing that it's far too early to be racing. Nutrition and hydration remain the top priority, informed by my experience at Speedgoat 4 weeks prior.

Arrive at Bear Camp Aid. 9:25am.

Mount Rainier, WA
Mount Rainier

Temperatures are beginning to warm. Onward to Mile 25- Johnston Ridge Observatory. The trail is a net downhill, but rolling and technical in places. The lead pack of 50K runners, who run this same first loop, begin to pass through areas where stepping off the trail to make room is risky and challenging. Wildfire smoke begins to roll in, obscuring Mt. St. Helens just as it comes into view. As huge and dominating as the mountain is, the features are lost in the haze. At Mile 20, I'm feeling the accumulation of 5 hours of running in my legs, but remain on top of my calories and fluids. The vegetation has fallen away as I run into the blast zone from the 1980 eruption. Johnston Ridge Observatory's massive parking lot becomes visible, and feels impossibly far down the ridge. The trail surface is fine rubble, similar to gravel, and stays like this all the way to JRO. I arrive at JRO around 7h and 20m into my run - 12:20 am. There used to be crew access here, but not in the last couple of years due to the road closure. By this time of day, I had anticipated being 4.5 miles farther into the race, at the Coldwater Boatlaunch Aid where crews were finally allowed and Shae would be waiting.

From JRO, the descent to Coldwater Boatlaunch is a steep 4.5 miles, but it goes fast. The trail is softer, sandier, requires less thought and allows for more running. I'm into Aid 4 (Mile 29.5) at 1:25pm. I sit down for the first time here and catch up on some fluids. The heat is in full force now, sun blazing above.

Running after 50K at Backcountry Rise
Running the Spirit Lake shoreline

Shae meets me at Coldwater Boatlaunch, asking if I'm still planning to complete the second course loop for the 50 mile finish. She says some 50 miler entrants have come through already, and most have chosen to end their race with a 50K finish 1.5 miles beyond the Aid, rather than continue for Loop 2.

My legs hurt, I'm pretty tired, and it's getting hot out. I genuinely don't know how I'm supposed to get another 20 miles out of my legs, but the worst failure would be not to try. The risk here was, once I start Loop 2, I'm committed. There are no bailout points where I'm going, so if my legs can get me halfway there, then they are forced to get me back.

I head out of Boatlaunch for Loop 2. It's hot, and this section I had remembered feeling like flat runnable trail no longer feels so flat and runnable. The sun continues to build and the heat slows me to a walk anywhere without shade. A mile past the intersection for the 50k finish/second loop for the 50 mile, I see a bibbed runner coming back towards me. He mumbles something about deciding to go back as he passes. "Did he just throw in the towel?", I wonder.

Coldwater Lake shore during the race
Fall is in the air

I continue as best I can to the next aid at Mile 34, struggling to do math in my head, but know that I have reason to be concerned about race cutoffs. Through this final few tenths of a mile to the Mile 34 aid, I recall the bee presence from early in the morning, trying to recall where I might encounter this unfriendly welcome. In 4 or 5 spots, I suspect it could be "the spot" and somehow summon a few hundred feet of sprinting, waving my hat wildly over my head as I hear a few buzzes start to circle me.

A tent appears through the woods up ahead of me and I breath a sigh of relief as I walk into Coldwater Creek aid.

While filling my bottle, the aid crew asks me a few questions. Feels a little like there listening for how lucid racers are. I mention my concern over cutoffs. "You have so much time!", they say. "It's 8.8 miles to the next aid and the cutoff there isn't for another 3 hours!"

Well intentioned as they were, this was the exact math that concerned me.

From Coldwater Creek, it's a 2800 foot climb in 5 miles before returning to scree-ridden ridge running. I knew a 20min pace on a climb like that was a tall order for me at this stage.

I sputtered up this climb for approximately 1.75 eternities. The valley I'd come from was so far below, I could no longer see the floor of it. The sun was relenting and temps were coming back down as the evening hours set in. Topping the climb, I pushed to establish a running cadence for the remaining 3 miles to the final aid at JRO. In my exhausted state I'd become certain I would miss the cutoff.

Wildfire smoke over the mountains and Spirit Lake
Wildfire smoke as the evening hours approach - Mile 49

Finish Line of the 50 Mile
28 minutes to spare

At 6:33pm I arrived at JRO, Mile 43. With 7 miles to go, it was **almost** all downhill. The finish line was at the top of one final 500 foot climb. The aid station crew reminded me of this. With some extra water in me and one very spicy pickle, I rallied a run that I held for the next 3 miles before breaking stride for some ankle twisting rubble. It was a win to be running over 4mph for this big descent, even though that was my top gear. With only minutes of daylight left in the fading sky, I reached the final turn and climb to the finish. I gave it the best push I had left, drawn forward by the idea of a chair. Then, a quick little jog to the finish as the twilight wound the rest of the way down.

What I once thought would be a 12-13 hour day had ended in 15 hours and 32 minutes. Of the 65 entrants, only 30 of us made it to the 50 mile finish.

New longest distance in the books. Rest assured I paid the toll.


Closing Thought

There's a lot more to say about this race, which maybe I will add in another post down the line. In short, this course, particularly the 15 miles through the Mount Margaret Backcountry, is astoundingly beautiful. Run the 50K.

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