A Bruta-ful Race: The review of the 2021 Backcountry Rise 20-miler


I came up with this word as I was slogging through about mile 15 of the Backcountry Rise 20 miler this past weekend. I think it is an apropos term in describing the sheer epic beauty of this Daybreak Racing event, while also highlighting just how challenging of a run this was.

I am going to dive into some of the more specifics about this event in the following paragraphs, but first and foremost, I strongly encourage anyone willing to take the risk, to make plans to register for 2022 or beyond. It really is that amazing.

Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument is not really close to much of anything – basically a long and beautiful 2-3 hour drive from most population centers. While the race takes some planning and travel to get to, don’t let the drive discourage you, as it is absolutely worth every second. Additionally, the overnight availability, if you don’t plan on waking up at the crack of dawn to travel is an awesome set up. The Visitor’s Center parking lot is huge, making it perfect for car, tent, or motorhome/trailer camping, and the main area is open 24/7 for bathroom access for runners, which is not underrated at all. I’m not a professional car-camper by any means, but even driving up late the night before with a foam pad and sleeping bag made my pre-race morning a cinch.

The 50 mile and 50K, runners competed on Saturday, with the “shorter” 20-mile race happening on Sunday morning. Check-in was a breeze, and there was a ridiculous amount of space to prep for the event, however people chose to do that – be that a simple breakfast, some laps around the lot and stretching, or even a little trail work. With a field of about 200 strong, many from different states (I think I saw someone as far as Virginia), there was an absolute energy at the start line with the volcanic mountain adorning the backdrop from the distance. It was only a matter of time, until we all were able to get a little bit closer to the majestic backcountry.

The first stretch was a short jaunt up the parking lot for the first quarter mile or so, which did allow some minor spacing to occur. Things did remain pretty bunched as we entered a single track trail down to Coldwater Lake (which I learned was actually Coldwater Creek prior to the volcanic explosion in 1980 that blocked it and created the large body of water there today). There wasn’t a ton of space to jostle for position, so I think most everybody stayed at a relatively comfortable pace downwards to the Lakes Trail. Though I didn’t know it at the time, holding back my pace from the early race excitement, was absolutely going to be necessary. I was gonna need every drop of energy I had.

We ran along the lake trail until around mile 4.8. This trail seemed to dip in and out of different settings – from tree covered canopies to open fields – proved to be the flattest of the day, and really provided some great views of the hills surrounding it.

The first aid station was at this point, and there was plenty available. The Nike Trail team was encouraging, and made sure that we remembered to hydrate before we were thirsty. I had remembered reading on the course description map that there was a large stretch with no aid between the only two stations that day. In fact, that distance was about 9 miles, which doesn’t sound too terrible for a road race if you have your own pack. But it’s definitely a bit long for a hilly backroad trail race. I grabbed a few snacks, and since I really hadn’t drank that much water from my pack thus far, there was no real need to fill it up. I did grab some hydration by hand before setting off on the first climb of the day.

Across the short bridge from the aid station at the far end of Coldwater Lake, we started heading upwards on the Coldwater Trail. I tried to jog up at least the first part of it when my legs were still feeling relatively fresh, but it wasn’t too terribly long before it was evident that walking I was going to be my future. There were a handful of flat spots to shake the legs out a little bit, and I’m sure that well-seasoned ultrarunners were able to keep up a slow jogging pace, but for solid stretches of the next 4.3 miles after the station I basically just put one foot in front of the other to navigate the 2600 feet of elevation gain.

While the course was clearly marked with orange ribbon, there were a few spots that had some relatively bushy trail areas and I was concerned, in my first stages of tiredness, that I had weirdly lost course. Daybreak’s GPX file came in handy, mostly just to mentally put myself at ease that I was still going in the right direction.

While this continual climb was really tough (especially those parts with loose, volcanic sand), the views of the jagged peaks of the Coldwater Canyon made up for it any discomfort. I remember thinking how lucky I was to be on the trails during this section. The Coldwater Trail is pretty far away from the main parking lots within the monument area, and I imagined that this section probably haven’t seen an overabundance of people over the years. It’s solid trek no matter where you park, so I bet I was with a very small group of people who had experienced this area. I definitely felt like I was a part of a limited brother and sisterhood that was lucky enough to experience this amazing location. It made me even more appreciative to acknowledge the Native lands that we were on. It truly was a magical place, with thie most brutalfull of climbs.

It’s really hard to put into words the views so I’ll just let these pictures do the talking for me.

By the time we hit ~mile 11, non-running traffic picked up a little bit more as we within short-ish hiking distance the Johnson Creek Observatory parking lot. I made sure to thank and encourage every hiker and walker I came across, as I know it was probably not ideal to pull off the side of the trail or a bunch of tired stinky runners.

The 13.8 mile aid station was manned by WyEast Wolfpack, and Yassine Duboin himself was there after crushing the 50-miler the day before. I was in pretty desperate need of restocking my energy stores, as I was completely out of water in my pack, and potato chips, cookies, gels, and other snacks were a welcome reprieve. In retrospect, I probably should have stopped longer and eaten a little more. But with about 7 miles to go to the finish, I was starting to get a little worried that staying stagnant for too long was gonna tighten up my legs more than I wanted them to. Though, come to soon find out, my lower body was going to be spent no matter how long I stayed at that station.

While I felt mostly replenished upon leaving and embarking on the last stretch, this feeling soon dissipated. I found this section of the race to be absolutely the most mentally and physically challenging for me (and I’d venture that many participants would agree with me). While many runners look forward to blazing downhill after miles of climbing, I generally find this to take the largest toll on my lower body. It wasn’t long before my feet and knees were feeling the discomfort of the steady downhill section, and I ended up getting passed by quite a few people here. There was just no way around it. Also, there was a short section in this final third that saw the trail turn from dirt into medium size river rock, which my feet and toes were NOT happy about. I ended up kicking a few rocks accidentally and this time, and I was super happy to leave that behind.

I think this was the only time I had enough energy to snap a picture over the final 1/3 of the race.

The Hummocks Trailhead parking area allowed for the welcome familiarity of paved road even if it was short. We eventually crossed the Spirit Lake Highway and over to the Coldwater Boat Launch day-use area before reconnecting onto the Lakes Trail. 100% full disclosure – for a few seconds I seriously debating just bowing out and spending the rest of the day floating in the lake.

The final few miles were a mind-f*$& with the visitor center starting area visible and within reach. The only problem was, it was on top of a large bluff that seemed to be taunting me and laughing at what was to come. The final .8 mile climb to the finish line was not a surprise, as it was actually a reverse of our first stretch down to the lake. However, after 20 miles of exhaustion and pain, trudging up that last section was a chore. I know a few of my fellow runners, along with myself, were dealing with the beginning stages of leg cramping, and I was absolutely mesmerized by those who were able to even jog portions of the section. That was out of the question for me, and that last walking climb felt like a marathon unto itself.

Like most all PNW races, especially those on the trail, there is a ton of support and encouragement. Even when I reached the final bluff and off of the climb, in a state of discomfort and exhaustion, I felt briefly rejuvenated and humbled by the number of participants, volunteers, and spectators alike who cheered for me on the final hundred feet to the finish line. That encouragement coupled with the experience of the race, makes this one I won’t ever forget.

Dead. Photo by James Holk (@jamesholk)

A full post-race spread was available after the race and consisted of spaghetti, salad, cookies, kombucha, and beer from Loowit. I grabbed a table on the visitor center balcony and just basked in the experience of what was accomplished. There was no cell phone service up there, and it was actually super welcoming to just be able to stay grounded and present after the race.

As I write this, five days after the race, my legs are still struggling to get back to you pre-race status, but I really don’t mind that much. At a minimum, every foam rolling session I have done this week has reminded me of, and brought me back to, the Backcountry Rise. I’m already looking forward to their next events.

Yes, this race was ridiculously hard, but absolutely one of the most memorable I’ll think I’ll ever have. I strongly recommend challenging yourself in upcoming years. Mark your calendar for August 20 & 21, 2022 (as well as registration opening on February 1).

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About Matt Rasmussen (1612 Articles)
Matt Rasmussen lives in Keizer, Ore. with his wife and three daughters. He enjoys watching the Olympics, sampling craft beers, and all things Canada (he was born there). Matt was raised as a baseball player and officially transitioned over to running in 2010.
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