We reconstruct the behavior of a catastrophic sustained radial pyroclastic density current as it waxed then waned during its brief lifespan. By subdividing the deposit into 8 time slices using a chemical tracer, we show that the sustained current initially was topographically restricted, but that its leading edge advanced in all directions, encroaching upon and gradually ascending hills. During peak flow the current reached its maximum extent and overtopped all topographic highs. After this, and while the current direction from source was maintained, the leading edge gradually retreated sourceward. High-resolution analysis of the depositional architecture reveals how the flow dynamics evolved and runout distance of the sustained density current rapidly increased then decreased, reflecting the dominant influence of changing mass flux, as demonstrated in numerical models but not previously distinguished in a natural deposit.