Orcas Island 50km, 2016 Edition

This was my second year in a row doing Rainshadow Running’s Orcas Island 50km, and the fact that I chose to go back to this race despite trying very hard not to sign up for more than a couple of key races this year speaks to just how beautiful it is. Everything about this race is an experience – from the ferry ride through the San Juan Islands to the windy, rolling farmland that characterizes the sleepy island – and I decided to treat it as more of a vacation than a race. Yeah, I know, my definition of vacation is a little warped.

Luscious rainforest abounds. Photo credit: Hilary Matheson
Luscious rainforest abounds on Orcas Island.

Because of a host of last minute changes, I ended making the trek down there by myself, and it made the trip even more of a getaway. There’s something about travelling by yourself that is so darn freeing… you can do whatever strikes your fancy along the way, stop to pee as many times as you feel like it, and sing karaoke loudly for as many hours as you can handle it. It’s a beautiful thing.

Once on the ferry, it began to feel like a proper adventure. Several hundred runners plus volunteers and an assortment of family and friends converge on the island for this weekend, and the fact that we are all heading to a small, isolated place makes it feel a little bit more inclusive – we are all stuck in the same tiny place together for the weekend, might as well make new friends!

Speaking of friends, I was very fortunate to be able to crash with some awesome local running friends of mine when my plans fell through, and it was a blast. I am 100% sure I spent more hours eating amazing and massive family-style meals than running from Friday to Sunday. Plus, our mansion of an Airbnb rental featured a leg-saving hot tub nestled next to our parked cars and featuring a scenic view of the driveway (can’t have it all, and one does not complain about hot tubs no matter what the view), as well as an epic panoramic landscape of the surrounding islands, with Mt. Baker presiding over the skyline. Very nice indeed.

A stunning sunset post race, captured just outside our airbnb.
A stunning sunset post race, captured just outside our airbnb.

After my typical carb-heavy pre-race fare (Pasta! Wine! And repeat!), I headed to bed early to try to catch some sleep before our early morning start. I had been battling a really nasty cold all week that unfortunately for me morphed into a flu, complete with full body muscle fatigue (the type where raising your arms above your head is too much work), paired with some nasty migraines that just wouldn’t go away. Part of me questioned whether or not I should actually be running this race at all. I hadn’t run once in the past week in an effort to kick whatever was infecting me, and I could feel that my muscles were tight and unhappy. Not great. But to date I’ve never NOT started a race, so I figured I’d at least do that much and see how far I got. Always the best plan, right?

I wrote a post just before the race about my recent shoe woes, and aside from the more obvious flu symptoms, this was my biggest dilemma of the day. Right up until race director James Varner yelled “GO”, I was waffling about what shoes to wear. Do I go with the Salomon Speedcross 3, which have excellent tread for the mudslide trails that I remembered from Orcas Island 2015, but are also slightly too small on me and might take all 10 of my toenails off when I start bombing downhill and my toes try to break through the tops of the shoes from the impact? Or do I go with the more roomy but decidedly less grippy Pearl Izumi N1’s, which I am just starting to play with but don’t have much confidence in for technical and treacherous trails? I couldn’t decide, but luckily the start of the race decided for me, and I was left trotting out of the start line in my Speedcross with no backup plans. Perfect.

Let’s talk about the course! Aside from a vicious road climb that starts the race off and that we shall not speak of, other than to note it goes up, and up, and up endlessly, (and have I mentioned how much I hate roads?), the rest of the course features miles of luscious trails that feel like they are part of a magical land full of gnomes and fairy sprites. I love pacific northwest trails. The weather was beautiful, especially when compared to last year’s cold and foggy course, and I enjoyed seeing glimpses of islands and ocean and lakes as we romped through Moran State Park. Or shall I say, others romped while I stomped. Sigh. I realized very quickly that the muscle fatigue that had slayed me all week leading up to the race was still lingering, and the fact that I was forced to walk the entire first big climb, hanging onto the rear of the pack, was not a good start to the day. I managed to pick up some speed on the downhills and flats, but on anything requiring more effort I had no gears. None at all.

At least the views were alright.
At least the views were alright.

This became one of those mental training days. I decided I was just going to stay positive, not give a damn who was in front of me or behind me, and do my best to finish as quickly as my body would allow, so that I could eat and sit and not move anymore. The cozy hall that hosts the finish line party at this particular race is one of my favourite places, featuring amazing pizza and a live band, and I really just ran towards that all day. The sooner I could make it there, the better.

While I chatted with friends both old and new at various stages of the race, I was mostly content to mutter to myself and work at moving in a forward direction. I wasn’t necessarily in a bad mood, just not enthused by my body’s lack of participation in the day’s activities. Thankfully this was only a training race for me as I build towards the Gorge 100k on April 2, and my overall race placement wasn’t something that I was particularly fussed about. Finishing just seemed good enough.

On challenging days like this one, I’m so glad for all of the experience that the dozen 50k races I’ve now completed has taught me. There’s a certain amount of comfort in knowing that eventually, things will get better. No guarantees when, tho. 🙂

As I reached the crux of the course, a nasty, almost vertical climb from hell called Powerline, I unfortunately was plagued by some of the worst leg cramps I’ve gotten in a few years. Really good stuff, that. My inner quads were both spasming simultaneously, and the fact that I was pushing them up the bulk of the elevation of the entire race while they tried to go on strike didn’t help. I powered up the last climb to the viewpoint at Mt. Constitution with gritted teeth, knowing that past the summit lay the last 5 miles of technical mostly-downhill, and worrying they might put me over the precarious edge and rend me entirely incapacitated with the finish line tantalizingly close yet impossibly far.

I was miraculously saved here as I limped, pouting, into the last aid station of the race, by the wonderful duo that is my friends Josh Barringer and Dianna Christopolous. Once I explained my issues, they helped me literally stuff my face with pickles (that totally took the edge off of my cramping, thank god for garlic dills), and pushed me down the trail towards the finish line. I was passed during this last stretch by eventual 9th place female Lisa, who looked so strong when she flew by me that I didn’t even try to give chase. My ‘don’t care’ factor was in fine form on this day, and I was ok with it.

Side note on my shoes. The trails this year were MUCH drier than last year’s swampy version, and I probably could have made do with my N1’s just fine. That said, the comfort of knowing I had such solid tread beneath me allowed me to open up more on the descents than I might otherwise have. The fact that I escaped with all ten toenails intact and only a few minor blisters is just gravy.

Headed towards the finish line after cresting Mt. constitution, now saved by pickles! Photo: Glenn Tachiyama

As I crossed the finish line after what felt like the longest 5 miles ever, I was thrilled to see that the clock read 6:21:37. Compared to last year’s finish time of 7:07, this was an awesome improvement for me, and a great confidence boost on a day when just finishing was good enough. The thing I love most about these races is you can only ever compete with yourself and try to be better than yesterday, and it was nice to see that, even with the flu issues, I was still stronger than last year. Managed to just squeak into the top 10 women as well… I’ll take it, by hook or by crook! Not my easiest race by effort, but actually one of my better time results, which just goes to show the value of simply putting one foot in front of the other. On to the Gorge 100k we go!


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