8,400 feet of gain? Sure!
Rainshadow Running is awesome. Their races are in the most beautiful places in the Northwest, they are run by nice people, and they are really well organized. They do, however, all have at least one thing about them that really hurts. In this case, it’s the power line trail (more on that below).
One of the things about this race that really attracted me was the bunk beds. Really. Run on Orcas Island in far northwest Washington, saying this race is remote is an understatement. From Portland, we drove four hours and took an hour ferry ride to get on the island. While Orcas is a great place to vacation, there isn’t really space (or low cost lodging) for the 250 runners who come to test (torture) themselves. To combat this, Rainshadow rents the large group camp at Moran State Park and offers space in bunkbeds to runners and volunteers for the weekend for only $50! If adult running sleep-away camp seems fun to you, sign up for this race! The start was 100 yards from our cabin and, with the great post-race festivities, no one had to drive home right after the race on sore or tipsy legs.
The race itself:
The course looked like a loopy and contrived nightmare but it didn’t feel that way to run. It didn’t flow as well as a big circle (Volcanic 50) or as a point-to-point (Gorge Waterfalls 50k) but the course was very well marked and intuitive.
To start, we ran up a paved road for 3.5 miles and 1,800′ to the “Little Summit.” Turns out, this name was a lie… not little, not exactly a summit. Well, there is a summit, but we took a left turn a tenth of a mile short of the spur trail to the top. It was a great way to get the field to shake out a bit before the single track trail started but it was also a great way to get my heart rate up too high and my calves aching in the first tenth of the race. This would come back later to be a problem. You can get a hint as to why by looking at the elevation chart:
After the peak, the first decent was a blast! The trail is technical and steep and the group I was with just bombed down, quads be damned. Again, this would come back later to be a problem.
This course is just stunningly beautiful but there are no real “easy” sections. With 8,400′ of gain, there is rarely a time when you aren’t running up a huge-ass hill or down a huge-ass hill. The flattest sections in the chart above are on trails that border the four lakes you encounter on the course. These are good spots to focus on laying down consistent and quick splits. Some of the trails are technical but it is all very runnable.
The night before the race, everyone seemed to be talking about the power line. I knew there were some really tough climbs but I was not prepared for the unyielding awfulness that started just after the aid station at mile 20. Rolling into that aid station, I was surprised by how many people were there and how excited they all seemed. Little did I realize that they were all just trying to talk us into running 2.5 miles up a hill that was, at times, steeper than stairs. It got its name because it runs straight up the cut that was made for the electrical lines. We were told at the pre-race briefing that there “might” be downhill mountain bikers screaming past during our ascent. Wee…
I’ve never taken a video of myself suffering during a race before but this section was so hard that I thought it a good idea to document the moment for posterity. The video doesn’t do justice to the grade.
Seeing the top of that hill and starting the descent was bittersweet since I was well aware that all the elevation I lost, I would have to gain again on my way up to the highest point on the route, Mt. Constitution (2,400′). This highest point in the San Juan Islands also came at mile 26 of the race. This was cruel. This was wonderful. The last long hill push to the summit was one of the most difficult mental and emotional things I have encountered while racing. My legs were just shot from pushing too hard in the opening climbs and descents and from being undertrained on hills. It felt like I had run out of gas and instead of coasting into the filling station, I had to push my car (in this case, a dump truck full of cement) to the only gas pump around that just so happened to be at the top of a damned mountain.
Is it crazy to say the view from the aid station at the top was worth it? Yes.
My phone was dirty, my hands didn’t work correctly, I was trying to eat an Oreo, and breathing was tough so you should check out Glenn Tachiyama’s offical photos here. He’s amazing.
Running down from the top was hard but I switched on “total disregard for my body” mode and let gravity help out. Finding that place right on the border of control/out-of-control on tired legs at the end of a race is pretty exciting. I didn’t fall down and am both surprised and mildly impressed with myself.
I got to the bottom of the hill and realized that I had not looked at the elevation profile closely enough. The course didn’t run downhill to the finish, it ran downhill to mile 30. I had a mile to go of rolling trails. Above, I wrote that the push up to Mt. Constitution was the hardest part. That was not true. Running those rollers to the end was worse. Power line was insanely steep; Mt. Constitution was insanely high; the end was just insane. I might have cried if I hadn’t been so excited to be close to the finish.
6:11 - It’s not screaming fast but it beat my Ultrasignup projection so that felt like a win. I was pushing for sub 6:00 but with my too-fast start and my under training on hills, I’ll take it. This was one of those races for me where finishing was the point, where the forest was the point, where the struggle was the point.
All the Rainshadow post-race parties are great, but this was the best. Pizza Jim and friends made pizzas until well into the night, there was beer (lots of beer), and many racers/volunteers/spectators stuck around for a long time to hear the blue grass band, eat/drink, and relax around the big campfire built by a very friendly intoxicated Canadian who was profoundly interested in everyone having a great time.
It was so nice to be able to walk up the hill to our cabin after the sun set, chat with my fellow racers and friends, and snuggle into my bunkbed just after 9:00pm. Cell service is spotty at best and having a phone-free weekend just added to the magic that is Orcas. The photo below was taken as the evening was winding down but while the band was still playing - many people had found their way out to the fire. We got a seat in the corner and just watched all the happy people hanging out.
When I signed up for this race, my friend, Pam Smith (who won Western States in 2013) said this race was “Brutal.” When Pam says something is hard, everyone should believe her. It was hard. It was also worth it.
So, is it crazy to say the view from the aid station at the top was worth it? No. We do this for that view. We do this for the chance(s) to confront our limits and realize that we had underestimated ourselves once again. We do this to spend some time in the woods. Plus, I got an awesome t-shirt that the Rainshadow crew scavenged from a thrift shop and screen printed over.
Things that worked out well:
- Earliest afternoon ferry to Orcas on Friday so we could get there while the sun was still up.
- Late morning ferry home on Sunday so we could take our time and drink coffee overlooking the dock.
- Bunkhouse lodging.
- Food/Hydration plan. I ate about 100 calories every 30 minutes and drank about 75oz of water total.
- Taking a shower right after I finished when there was no line.
- Being able to bypass the lottery because my awesome wife volunteered!
- Bought the thrift-store shirt.
For next time:
- I will run more hill repeats in training
- I will run more stadium stairs in training
- I will get more practice hiking steep stuff in training
- I will slow down on the first third of the course
- Scott Kinabalu 3. Best trail shoes I’ve worn. These are a late beta version and are very close to the model that just came out.
- Feetures Elite Merino+ Quarter Socks. Wool is rad. High cuff keeps out the crap. I like this level of cushion because it adds a little warmth and takes the edge off pine needles and dirt in my shoes.
- Mountain Hardwear Fluid RaceVest. This pack is really stable but stretchy. It doesn’t hinder breathing but feels secure. A 2-liter reservoir fits and carries high for comfort. There isn’t much extra space so it’s perfect for a 50k.
- Garmin Fenix 2. After all the running, I still had 65% battery - neat.
- And of course, Portland Running Company Hat. I run with the Portland Running Company Race Team. They are great people. If you live in Portland, check them out. Everyone is welcome!