Orcas Island 50k Race Report

The Empire State Building is 1,250 feet tall. Now, imagine if you could duplicate it and place 6 and a 1/2 of them one on top of the other, reaching wayyyy into the sky – say about 8,000 feet up. That will give you a rough idea of the amount of climbing involved in running the Orcas Island 50k race. Now, it wasn’t all at once like that. The climbs were broken down into four pretty tough stretches and some more gradual ups and downs throughout the course. The four biggies, though about did me in!

The first big climb is to Mt Pickett – about 2,000 of climb by about mile 5. And we were just getting warmed up since this was a more gradual progression in comparison to what was to come. The Powerline section looks like a ski slope — except you’re supposed to run up it – for about 3 miles. The truth is, I witnessed very little running during that section myself and honestly struggled more here than any other point in the race. The climb is another 2,000 of vertical gain. I saw a lot of runners walking sideways up the mountain, switching sides and even walking backwards to share the incredible strain on the uphill muscles with others to ease the pain. I tried it too. I loved looking back since the view was truly magnificent — thick, green forests – tree tops really since we were so high up, fog and the beautiful water below.

Something odd happened to me during this stretch. My heart rate went through the roof. I could hear it thumping in my ears. I felt dizzy and nauseated. I thought I might pass out. I wasn’t running. I was barely moving — but this continued, so I finally stopped, hunched over my and tried to get my heart rate down to normal. I found that I actually needed to sit for a minute on a moss-covered log to recover before I could get up, move a few steps and repeat the process. It was slow going. So slow, that mile 13 was a 47 minute mile for me! I was not alone. Several others struggled through this difficult portion of the race – and we weren’t even halfway done yet! I actually looked at my watch at 13.11 miles – the half marathon distance and laughed out loud. 4 hours and 20 minutes on the nose. That was my PR marathon time in October. It was a very good thing that I had taken the early start at 7:30 instead of the usual start at 8:30. I knew there was a cutoff time of 8 hours to do the race, and would need every bit of grace I could get. On Powerline, I really wondered if I’d be able to muster what I needed to finish in time. The downhills are my strength, so I held onto hope that I could make up some serious time on those and still make it — but I had some serious doubts.

The third big climb is to Mt Constitution – the high point of the race and the second aid station. It’s another 1600 of elevation gain that you reach at about mile 23 in the race. Amazingly for me — I came to life after the Powerline climb and was able to start running comfortably again. The climb up Mt Constitution is a series of switchbacks -which are so much easier on the calves and lungs than the straight up climb of the previous section. This was much more like my training in the Boise foothills and I felt right at home here! I started passing some of those who’d passed me miles earlier and I encouraged them as I went and also stepped aside and clapped and cheered for those who were quicker than I. It was a very positive point in the race for me! I felt strong, I felt clear-headed and I was ready to rock and roll! I hit the summit 7 hours and 4 minutes into my race (since I’d taken the early start.) A volunteer checked my number off a clipboard and said, “How did you feel?” I said, “Like I could run another 20 miles, no prob!” and I grinned and headed for the aid station.

I’d been daydreaming about soup and salted potatoes for the entire race. I’d been too nervous at the start to eat my breakfast, and had taken in several lemon lime GU’s throughout the course, sipped a tiny bit of Coke at the first aid station at mile 11, eaten a couple of bites of a PB and J sandwich there and eaten 1 chocolate chip cookie (which almost revolted on me during Powerline.) I’d also drank a small bottle of Gatorade, but was feeling pretty hungry by this point in the race. When I asked hopefully for soup, I was shown a big pot of beans. Since GI distress has been a problem for me in other long distance races, I knew to pass on those. Unfortunately, there was no soup and no salty potatoes when I arrived. So, I took an orange slice, drank a few sips of ginger ale, ate a GU and refilled my water bottle and was on my way. I was feeling very positive that I’d finish — though at this point, I didn’t think it would “count” since I knew there was still the looming 8 hour cutoff time (which meant 9 hours for the early starters like myself.) There was still about 9 miles to go. And believe it or not — more climbing. Another 700 foot section or so remains to be conquered on very worn down legs. Followed by about 3 miles around a beautiful lake, then to the finish line.

The lake was so beautiful. Too beautiful. While running along, thinking, “I’ve got this”, I took a moment to enjoy the view, taking my eyes off the rolling technical trail. POP! I felt my left ankle roll to the side and knew something was wrong. I wanted to say, “Are you kidding me?! I’m almost done!’ You can’t do that!”, but it had happened – I sprained my ankle and could tell that pushing the pace would probably cause further damage, so I eased back to a quick walk and just kept plugging along.

A fellow runner caught up with me at this point and I we chatted about cheeseburgers.  That’s all I was thinking about the entire time after Mt Constitution. My buddy, Billie caught up shortly after and I could see she was still running strong, so I encouraged her to go on — do her thang and get it done! I was so proud of her!

As I approached the camp, I could hear the cheering as Billie went through the finish line. It cheered my heart knowing I was so close. I looked up and saw my friends Julie and Jay waiting for me on the road. Julie said, “You’re almost there.” and I said, “You’re not just saying that?”! She and Jay started to run with me and Jay said, “Let her go ahead like she’s beating us.” ha ha . That was awesome. Then, I rounded the corner and saw it with my own eyes — the finish line, the crowd, my friends — and I heard the clapping, the cheering and something came to life in me! I started to grin and sprint for all I was worth across that finish line!

9 hours 40 minutes. I did it!!!! And, it turned out, the race director had extended the cutoff time by one hour — so my finish counted! I was ecstatic! I felt like I’d faced a giant and conquered it.

Just a few minutes later, the crowd went wild again. Here was Chocolate (aka Bertha) my best friend in the world and my training partner! She was crying, so relieved and proud of herself for accomplishing this great task! She ran across the line and right into her loving husband’s arms. It was so sentimental and emotional, many including myself, cried too. It was a beautiful moment!

217 runners signed up for this race. 136 crossed the finish line. That is a testament to how challenging this course was. I fell at mile 2, dunking both of my shoes into the icy pool at the foot of a gorgeous waterfall and cutting my left hand in the process. It was bloody and muddy and pretty cool to show off. The scenery was spectacular – I felt like I was running in a Twilight movie and was hoping a good looking werewolf would come popping out of the forest (just kidding, honey!) There were moss-covered trees, deep forests of green, fallen trees to leap over, rocks, roots, single-track, mud, stream crossings, and waterfalls. It was epic! It was amazing! It was difficult and that’s what makes it all the more brag-worthy! I’ll be back!

Stats: 32.67 miles. 8,000+ elevation gain. 9 hours 40 minutes. Came in 135th out of 217 who started. (Only 136 finished.) EPIC!

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