Running and Rising Through the Ashes

The Backcountry Rise 50K Trail Run

There are few places in the Northwest more stunning than Mount St Helens’ National Volcanic Monument’s Mount Margaret Backcountry. Here along a row of craggy and towering mountains flanking Spirit and Coldwater lakes lie a handful of sparkling backcountry lakes and some of the best alpine vistas in the country. Taking on the full impact of the 1980 blast, within four decades this area has transformed from a bleak gray landscape of toppled trees to an emerald wonderland sporting a wide array of resplendent wildflowers, regenerating forests, and exceptional wildlife habitat. It’s a backcountry that has literally risen from the ashes. And it’s an area that inspired Daybreak Running’s Jeremy Long to come up with the Backcountry Rise 50 mile, 50K, and 20 mile trail runs.

I have long been drawn to the Mount Margaret Backcountry and first hiked it in 1989 when it was a stark landscape. I started trail running about 15 years ago and got hooked on ultra-running (distances beyond the marathon). A recent diagnosis of polymyalgia rheumatica (an auto-immune condition) and turning 60 led me to ramp up my running and seek new challenges. Upon hearing about the Backcountry Rise 50K (31.2 miles) race with its more than 7,300 feet of elevation change in this breathtaking environment had me hooked.

While the course and the experience of running this race certainly drew me to this event; the fact that the race donates a portion of its proceeds to the Mount St Helens Institute made it even more appealing to me. Like Long an avid trail runner and parent, I believe in giving back to our parks, preserves and trails. “One of our top priorities with having these trail races is to facilitate connecting people with nature, and by extension to support trail stewardship efforts that keep the trails open and in good condition,” says Long. “And to be able to further that goal by supporting organizations such as the Mt. St. Helens Institute and Washington Trails Association through event proceeds is a dream come true and part of our core mission with Daybreak Racing.” Long was also excited to have the race staged at MSHI’s Science and Learning Center which he calls a world-class venue. MSHI was excited and cautiously optimistic about the partnership. But it took little time to realize that the partnership was perfect. Daybreak had an exceptional race staging area, and MSHI got to showcase its center to a community of outdoor-oriented folks.

The Gifford Pinchot National Forest and Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument recognized the benefit of the race as positive to the local economy and for stewardship. Daybreak forged strong relationships with these agencies which granted Long a 5-year permit instead of the usual one-year annual. “We also maintain a multi-year Volunteer Agreement with the Monument, which allows us to coordinate and conduct volunteer trail work parties a few times per year,” states Long.

 So how was the race? Challenging, invigorating, and absolutely mind-blowingly beautiful. Now mind you—I have hiked all of the trails making up the course while researching my Day Hiking Mount St Helens book. But to cover all of this ground in one day really put into perspective how diverse, stunning, and ecologically rich the region is. And even though I was racing and had been on the trails before, I couldn’t resist pulling my phone out of my pack along the way to capture some images—especially along my favorite stretch of the Boundary Trail from Bear Pass to the Hummocks Trail.

 More than 125 50K runners gathered at the start at the Science and Learning Center at 7 am. Many had camped the night before at the center and most of us fueled up on coffee there as well. The race started out fast with a downhill descent on the Elk Bench Trail to the Lakes Trail. It was then east along Coldwater Lake. I ran the first 5 miles fast and was drenched with sweat due to the heavy humidity from the low cloud cover.

 The race then got down to business with a long climb out of the Coldwater Valley to the Mount Margaret Backcountry Lakes. The clouds began burning off as I approached Snow Lake. And as I ran along the ridges above the other lakes—the scene was ethereal with clouds swirling in the valleys below. The trail was in much better shape that I remembered with decent tread in the numerous washouts and gullies along the way. There was one nasty brushy stretch—but 95% of the course was in great shape.

The second big climb to Bear Camp was tough—but an aid station at the camp provided plenty of liquids, food and electrolyte replacements. The next stretch of the trail was absolute running heaven. I have learned in my years of trail running to keep your nose to the ground lest you end up tripping, twisting or toppling. If you want to look out at the gorgeous scenery you better slow down—and Mount St Helens rising above Spirt Lake and St Helens Lake did its best to slow me down!  There were numerous ups and downs as we traversed open slopes across Mount Margaret, the Dome and Coldwater Peak. The natural arch was a blast to run through followed by a steep climb before a long generally downhill run along Johnston Ridge.

By this time I began encountering numerous day hikers. I made it a point to slow down upon each encounter and to thank all for providing me passage. The far majority of day hikers out there were courteous with many encouraging us along the away. I know there is some contention between trail runners and hikers, and I do my best to be a good representative for trail runners by respecting others on the trail.

The third aid station which was located at the JRO lower parking lot was heaven-sent. By his time I was feeling the effects of strenuous exercise under direct sunlight for hours. I rehydrated and refueled and took off knowing that I was now only a little more than a 10K away from the finish. The best thing about ultra-running is that it makes distances like half marathons and 10Ks feel like short little runs.

It was a long downhill on the Boundary Trail to the Hummocks Trail and back to the Lakes Trail. I psyched myself up for the last mile—which I knew when I was running down it—would be a bear to endure at mile 30. And it was. But perseverance ruled and I got over that large speed bump coming into the finish with a huge smile on my face and a huge sense of accomplishment. I finished in 9 hours 10 minutes 33 seconds and was one (and the first) of 7 over 60 years old in the race. Before I started taking medication for my condition, my range of motion was diminishing and I was enduring discomfort and pain in my arms, neck and pelvic
area. To be able to run 50 hard kilometers again is a blessing. I savor it as I have no idea what tomorrow will bring and how much longer I can push my body to such extremes and experience the freedom of the hills.

I spent the next couple of hours relaxing on the center’s gorgeous outdoor seating area overlooking the landscape I had just run through—all while eating a delicious and nutritious burrito prepared by MSHI staff at the center. I chatted with MSHI folks and race participants and felt a strong bond to the community of folks who consider ultra-running to be fun! We all have our reasons why we participate in these types of events. But one theme is universal—a love for the outdoors and a need to preserve and protect the mountains, forests, and trails that provide us with so many life-affirming activities.

The next day more than 200 folks would be at the center to participate in the race’s 20 mile event. A little less daunting but a challenging and equally beautiful course as well. This race started in 2017 and I can only see it growing in popularity. Like Daybreak Racing’s other events, this race is topnotch when it comes to providing an exceptional course, strong support, and giving back to the environment. And while it’s easy to see the satisfaction that participants receive running in this and Daybreak’s other 8 races, Long receives an incredible amount of satisfaction, too. “It's difficult to understate how satisfying it is to promote this area and have that message attract and bring people from all over the US and several other countries each year,” says Long. “In particular, it is really satisfying to attract people from communities who might not travel here otherwise, particularly BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and other communities who might not otherwise feel comfortable exploring this remote area in an unsupported way or on an individual basis,” he adds. For Daybreak Racing it is all about bringing people from all walks of life together to share a collective experience in a beautiful natural area. “That is what we've found connects people to the land, gives that land meaning to the runners and elevates their interest in protecting these lands for future generations to enjoy.” I couldn’t agree more.

-Craig Romano