Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Orcas Island 50k

In February 2011 I ran the Orcas Island 50k as my first ultramarathon. I learned many things from the experience. For example, it's not a good idea for me to try and run for six hours fuelled only by full-strength orange Gatorade. The memory of my futile efforts to expel the noxious fluid from my stomach - by any available orifice - haunts me to this day. But despite this, the weekend was enormous fun. The race is set within Moran State Park on Orcas Islands; one of the San Juan Islands just off the Washington coast. It's a bit of trek to get here from Vancouver, involving a couple of hours of driving, a ferry ride and then another car journey around the horseshoe-shaped island. But then this all adds to the sense of adventure. A gang of six of us from Pacific Road Runners made the trip; I, David, Nick and Doug were running the race; Amber and Julia came along to support, cheer and help us drink beer. Last time we'd stayed in a 12-person bunkhouse within the park; which was cheap and convenient, but perhaps a little too "rustic". So this time we rented a condo for a couple of days with spectacular views over the ocean and lots of bathrooms.

 After a relaxing evening consuming pasta, Tillamook cheese and a good variety of Pacific Northwest beers, we turned in at a reasonable hour. The next morning we awoke to cloudy skies, but a distinct lack of rain. By the time we'd made it to the bustling start area those clouds were rapidly dissipating; it was shaping up to be a beautiful day. An impressive array of runners was assembling at the start line including a decent selection of local speedsters. Once again, Jenn Shelton appeared to have forgotten her clothes.

Inadvertently advertising the Squamish 50 race all day.
All too soon, the race began and the crowd surged down a short downhill section of dirt road, the keener runners jostling for a good position before we entered the single-track trails. As we were forced into single-file, the pace immediately slowed, which suited me just fine. I'd had a solid start to the year, logging my highest ever monthly mileage in January and around 118 km in the six days leading up to the race. Which is to say, I wasn't really approaching this as a race per se, but more of a "training run with aid stations". What I'm alluding to here, is that this wasn't going to be a race where I hammered out of the start at a blistering pace. Which, when running ultras, is rarely a good idea anyway.

As we snaked through the early kilometres I was joined by some friends, old and new. First was the little ball of pain in my left calf that had been accompanying me on runs for the past week or so. Shortly afterwards the inflamed right Achilles who'd been my run buddy for the last couple of months joined the party. Then the dull aching shins, with whom I'd not run for some time, entered the fray. None of this was hugely surprising, so I just plodded on, waiting for everything to calm down a bit. After a couple of miles, we emerged on to the only section of the race run on roads. It was a pretty gruelling three-mile climb, but the grade looked comfortably runnable. And it would have been had my right calf not completely seized up at this point. I slowed to a walk to try and give it a bit of respite. That didn't seem to help. I stopped to stretch it out. Nope, nothing happening. Bewildered, I plodded up the hill at a snail's pace, as other runners streamed past me. Still, it gave me a chance to enjoy the spectacular views over the island. Having already given up moving at a decent pace, I stopped by the side of the road for a pee-break, only for a fellow runner to encouragingly call out "It's like a penis, only smaller!". Thanks.

Amber and Julia drove past during this ascent. I tossed half my wardrobe into the car - arm sleeves, hat and gloves - and told them that I'd probably be dropping soon and that I'd see them at the finish line. This was not how I'd envisaged my day going. Still, I was stubborn enough to trudge on a little further, and after what seemed like an eternity we crested the hill and re-entered the trails. As we began an enormously fun downhill section, things loosened up a little and I was no longer running in quite so much pain. Things still felt far from good, but I thought that I could at least continue a bit further. Gradually, I passed more people who'd left me behind on the climb, but I was lacking any motivation to race hard. But it was a nice day, the flowing single-track trails were fantastic, and I was starting to enjoy myself.

Finally, about 27 km and three hours into the race I realised that I was at last starting to feel good. All the aches and pains seemed to have receded into the background, I was moving a lot more fluidly, and not only was I passing more and more people, but I was surging as I passed them as the competitive jerk in me wanted to break their spirits a little. I posed cheerfully for a photo when RD James Varner popped up; the distraction was enough for me to take my eyes of the trail and promptly rolled my glass-like left ankle on a rock seconds later. I swore, hopped around on my good foot and limped along for the next ten minutes, annoyed at myself for being so stupid.

After about another fifteen minutes, I spotted a familiar green shirt ahead of me. Nick doesn't really consider himself a serious runner, but a couple of weeks earlier he'd run a 1:22 half-marathon. He frequently leaves me in his dust when running uphill and had surged ahead in the early stages of the race. After those disastrous early miles I seriously doubted whether I'd see him again. "Nick!" I called out cheerfully, happy to see my friend. "Barry", he replied flatly without turning round, his voice that of a broken man. I caught up to him just as we entered a small aid station - basically a pick-up truck with a selection of drinks in the back. He sat down on the back of the truck and told me that he was in trouble. I tried to encourage him to join me for the next section; he said he needed five minutes to recover, but I could tell his day was over. He'd run a strong first half of the race, but perhaps his lack of experience and endurance training had finally caught up with him. I'll be honest and admit that part of me was relieved to have caught him, but I'd much preferred it if he'd been able to carry on and at least finish the race. Just not ahead of me.

After a couple more kilometres I came to the next major aid station manned by North Vancouver ultrarunning legend Gary Robbins. Amber and Julia were waiting there and it was great to see them again in much higher spirits. I appraised them of the Nick situation and then quickly headed out to what I knew was to be the most unpleasant section of the race. There are no words to do justice to the horror of the Powerline climb. It's very steep; at times you're scrambling up a near-vertical grassy bank, it's exposed and it seems like it's never going to end. Somehow, with the sun beating down on me on that early February day, it felt like the middle of summer. Still, I'd climbed it once before and I was determined not to whine about it quite so much this time. I trudged up it stoically, exchanging unpleasantaries with other runners as I passed them or they passed me. After a number of false dawns, the climbing ceased and there followed a couple of miles of delightful downhill trail. It took a little while for my legs to re-adjust to running once more, and I decided not to push too hard as I knew there was another big climb coming up.

Arriving at the start of the climb up Mt Constitution I noticed a sign helpfully stating "Summit 1.2"; so a couple of kilometres to the peak. Not so bad, I thought and started to climb. Somehow, after the ordeal of Powerline, this climb seemed a delight and the time seemed to fly by. I emerged on to a short section of road and soon arrived at the next aid station. I paused here, not to take on food or water, but because the views were simply jaw-dropping.

Seriously. Photo credit: Glenn Tachiyama.
 I quickly checked with a volunteer that there were indeed five miles left to go and headed off down the partly snow-covered trail. Soon, I encountered photographic genius Glenn Tachiyama working his magic. Somehow, this man manages to take pictures of ordinary runners that make us look heroic. A good part of this is down to his excellent sense of composition and on a day like this it was easy to be upstaged by the scenery.

Why yes, I am having fun. Photo credit: Glenn Tachiyama.

Once again, I was distracted by my own sense of vanity, and while trying to look photogenic failed to notice a large branch to my left which I promptly slammed into my arm.

Nah, that didn't hurt. (Ouch ouch ouch ouch ouch).

The trails continued flowing downhill for several more miles and I found myself thinking that I could carry on like this all day. I was now 46km into the race and feeling fantastic. It did cross my mind that I should probably be feeling a little more tired than this if I was truly racing, but I was just glad to be finishing strongly. I passed a few more runners who wished me well, then emerged on to a road near the start of the race. Rather than a pancake-flat finish, the course had a couple of minor surprises left with a couple of small climbs before the final sprint down a grassy bank to the finish line.

I crossed the line grinning, perfectly happy with my 5:42 finish time after what had initially looked like a disappointing day. The post-race festivities were probably the best I've ever enjoyed. Piles of excellent food - freshly-cooked lasagne, limitless supplies of freshly-baked cookies, fruit, hot soups, a variety of sandwich options, and several kegs of Island Hoppin' Brewery beers. I gorged myself shamelessly, pausing briefly to chat with other runners I'd met that day and at other trail races over the previous year or two. The atmosphere was fantastic - no doubt enhanced by the live band and the great weather we'd enjoyed, but also from the sense of camaraderie that develops from sharing such a special experience.

In case you can't tell, I loved this race. I'll be there next year. You should too.


Official web site.
Results on ultrasignup.com.
Glenn Tachiyama's photos.
My Strava activity for the race.

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