By Micah Rice The Columbian
COUGAR — The scene at the starting line looked like any other race.
Runners fidgeted and stretched, unable to enjoy a few stationary minutes before 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 often span 50 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.
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.”
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 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.
“Ultras are actually easier on my body because of (the hiking),” Seattle resident Eric Quarnstrom, 44, said while trudging up an incline. “Marathons involve too much pounding.”
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.”
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. But with temperatures in the 70s and a steady breeze, runners crossed the course’s halfway point without much difficulty.
Runners encountered ultramarathoner Diboun at a natural spring 20 miles into the race where he was earning so-called trail karma by manning an aid station.
“I love being out here at these races,” Diboun said, “because I see quote-unquote normal people doing amazing things.”
Some people feel the sport has lost its purity. They bemoan corporate sponsorships and the awarding of prize money at top races. Others worry about the events’ impact on sensitive natural areas.
“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.”
Exiting the Blast Zone, runners embarked on a steep climb to Windy Pass, which at 4,900 feet was the course’s highest point and the most psychologically challenging.
The finish was too far off to taste and the springy gaits at the start were replaced by a survival shuffle.
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. Having come so far, the thought of a broken leg strikes fear in a runner’s heart.
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. 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.
Beverages and burgers in hand, finishers cheered each runner as they came in.
They talked in amazement of winner Jacob Puzey of Hermiston, Ore., who finished in a record time of 6 hours, 1 minute, 19 seconds.
“From the first person to the end, they’re all great athletes,” organizer Hostetler said.
“Even the winners stick around at the end to cheer people on. Those at the end are just as important as the people who win it.”