The orange and red Madronas contrasted sharply with the dark green evergreens, all clinging to a steep rocky slope spilling into the sea. Our ferry had just left Lopez Island and was rounding the northern point of the island on our way to Orcas Island. The four of us lounged in the cushy seats of our booth on the ferry. The sun was blinding and irresistible. I stared out the window, blocking my eyes from the sun with my hand and soaking in as much as I could. In the grey overcast winter of Seattle, sunlight is the most prized commodity. No amount of money can buy you sunshine in Seattle. You just have to wait and hope. But when it comes out it’s glorious. Something that I don’t notice until the sun comes out is the lack of shadow and color in the normally overcast weather. When it’s overcast everything is muted. People and objects lose depth in appearance. The trees and water are a bland shade of the their true colors. Skin pigment fades away. And then it happens. The blue water glimmers. The vinyl seats shine with warmth. The evergreens of the islands bursting from the sea are bright green. The white seagulls drift in the cloudless blue sky. The faces of my friends, chatting and smiling in our booth, have a depth of shadow, shades, and light that give a better glimpse of who they are. And the Madronas… wow. Light is beautiful.

Photo by Feist, Micheal via flickr.

We were on our way to run the Orcas Island 50k. I was nervous because I hadn’t been running much over the winter and didn’t know how I would do. With 8000 feet of elevation gain, Orcas is known as a tough 50k. Looking at the previous years results a lot of people were finishing in the 6.5-8 hour range which gave me an idea of how hard it is. Also, I am signed up the for Copper Canyon Ultra, which is a 50 miler I’ll be running just a month after Orcas. My performance at Orcas would be a good indicator for what to expect in the Copper Canyons. It can be hard for me to train in the winter, especially when choosing between a nice, warm bouldering gym versus a run in the drizzly 40 degree city gloom. Let’s just say that I’ve been getting a lot better at bouldering. Regardless, mentally I had a lot hinging on how things would go at Orcas.

I was excited for Orcas. I had never been to the San Juan Islands, the weather was supposed to be perfect, and the course is mostly soft single track through old growth rain forest in Moran State Park including summiting Mount Constitution. Orcas is a Rainshadow Running event and I had heard really good things about Rainshadow events.

I was lucky enough to catch a ride with a great group of people.Tom, who just joined us at LUNA; Yitka, who I had only met once at the Vashon Island 50k; and Glenn, who I had never met, and who was going to be shooting all the official race event photos. We pulled off the ferry and drove around the island to the Moran State Park as the sun set with golds and oranges. That night there was a potluck style dinner and a lot of people hanging out in the lodge. I don’t do very many events but I recognized a lot of people there. It felt good to talk to friends I hadn’t seen in a long time and to meet a lot of new people. That night we stayed in one of the bunk houses that slept about 16 people. It was interesting sleeping in a room with 15 other people. Im glad I remembered my ear plugs, I woke up quite a bit in the night but still got good sleep.

Mountain Lake
Mountain Lake, the first time by.

In the morning everyone was up early. I had decided to run the early start at 7:30 rather than the normal 8:30 start. On the race’s website they suggest you start early if you expect to take over 7 hours to finish the course. Being that my plan was to take it easy, enjoy it, and just finish I expected to take over 7 hours. I put on my sandals (LUNA Leadville with ATS laces) and strapped on my water bottle waist belt and was out the door to the starting line. It was chilly and beautiful. James, the race director, said a few words, gave a countdown, and we were off. Down a short little stretch in the campground then into the soft singletrack forested trails that would make up most of the course. Right away I realized I had made a mistake by not starting closer to the front of the early starters. I was close to the back and on the singletrack I was stuck behind lines of people going considerably slower that I wanted to go. It took two to three miles of leap frogging before I got into a place between people going a similar pace. Once we were running and on the trails a lot of my anxiety slipped away as I breathed in the crisp air and ran by giant old growth Douglas Firs. Coming up the back side of Mount Pickett I caught glimpses through the trees of the sun rising over the sound and Cascades. After the summit I started down the easy graded and surprisingly soft fire road leading back towards Cascade Falls and let my legs spin and pick up some speed coming down. I was feeling good and rolled onwards.

Cascade Falls, Moran State Park
Cascade Falls. Photo by stevevoight via flickr.

I pulled back into the campground lodge and first aid station at mile 9.7, grabbed some snacks, and was back on the trail. Shortly after leaving the lodge the front runners started passing me having started an hour later than me. It was pretty amazing that at mile 10 they had already caught up to me. I strolled next to Cascade Lake before turning to head up the infamous powerline climb. It’s definitely steep and full of false summits. Going up my legs were starting to feel worked and were actually getting a little crampy. Which got me worried. Did I just need to eat and drink? I started eating and drinking more and trying to analyze what was going on.

I finally made it to the top of the powerline climb and the trail flattened out and then started heading down around the back side of Mt. Constitution. My legs were still feeling a little crampy but as I moved from the steep climbing to the flat and downhill running my legs started to feel better. I really liked the varied terrain. When one muscle group was feeling tired the terrain would change and I would use another group for a while. The backside of Constitution and the run around Mountain Lake were very meditative. It seemed like a time of transition from a little anxiety about my crampy legs to determination and hope by the time I rounded the lake.

When I reached the aid station at mile 19 at the base of the climb up Mt. Constitution I was feeling pretty good. My legs were getting a little sore but not cramping any more. I climbed up Mt. Constitution and the view from the top was spectacular.

Coming down the steep switch backs of Mt Constitution my quads really started feeling my lack of training. By the time I was at the bottom they were pretty shot and I still had another big downhill coming up. I rounded the mountain and the last big downhill was brutal. My quads were done. I pitter-pattered slowly down the steep hill while others were racing by me. My friend Danielle flew by me ecstatically, urging me to run with her. I had no delusions that I could run that fast right then and she was two switch backs below me in no time. Near the bottom of the hill I stopped to look at a huge old growth Red Cedar towering above the trail. This was an amazing course. Back on flat ground my legs felt great and I was flying around the lake on the last couple miles to the finish line. Finishing felt amazing as it always does.

20 yards to the finish line:

Besides my quads being brutalized I was feeling pretty good after the run. Orcas is actually a little over a 50k at 32.75 miles. I think I had a tiny bit of gas still in the tank (Im telling myself that now, after the fact) so that leaves me hopeful for running 50 in the Copper Canyons. We’ll find out soon. CCUM is March 4th!

Urique, Barrancas del Cobre. Photo by Ravi.

My LUNAs performed great. The course was a little muddy in places with a tiny bit of snow at the top of Constitution but nothing we couldn’t handle.

On the journey back home that evening I was sitting in the car feeling completely satisfied. It’s funny how quickly memories of struggling on the course fade and are overshadowed by these celebratory feelings. I felt warmly content like I had just purged every ounce of anxiety out of my body. I wanted nothing, well food and a shower sounded nice, but really I was completely happy just to be. I remembered and I felt why I love to run in the wilderness.

Thanks to Tom, Yitka, Glenn, Rainshadow Running, and everyone at the event for facilitating such a wonderful time!

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