The 2013 Orcas Island 50K was my first Rainshadow race – and a real eye opener. I’d run a 50K and a 50M the prior summer, but nothing that compared to this monster – either in beauty of difficulty. The Power Line Trail… that’s all I could think about after. That trail nearly defeated me (and certainly left me feeling defeated at the time). After missing the 2014 Orcas Island 50K, I was really looking forward to a return trip and a chance to test my mettle (and two years of experience) against this beast again…
The Setting – Heading Into the Puget Sound
Part of the attraction of this race is certainly its location. I spent Friday afternoon driving up to Anacortes with friends to jump on a ferry over to one of the jewels of the San Juan islands: Orcas Island. If you can, make the trip during daylight. Not much compares to weaving between these rugged, green islands dotting the Sound.
Orcas is supposed to have much less rain than Seattle – but that doesn’t mean it’s immune to the stuff. The island was thoroughly soaked when we arrived. The race day forecast was an unusually certain 100% change of rain. Having trudged through the mud-pit that was the Capital Peak Fatass 50K last month, though, I knew the conditions could be handled, no matter how much it had rained. In reality, it was only slightly less muddy than Capitol Peak. We never had the sticky clay mud that tries to suck off your shoes – but there were certainly stretches made much more difficult by the conditions.
All you really need to hear is one line from the Rainshadow Running course description: “SPOILER ALERT: This course is gorgeous. And with 8,400 feet of elevation gain, it’ll make you work.”
But to elaborate: The race starts at Camp Moran. Walking to the starting line had me nervous: There was enough mud to even make a minor climb up a grassy hill difficult. I told myself: “Don’t eat it here when you’re running up to the finish line this afternoon.” The course has a little stretch on road before hitting a mile or two of singletrack. Fortunately, I remembered to pass a large group before hitting the trails, so didn’t end up in a conga line this year. Miles four to six (roughly) are a steady climb up a paved road toward the top of Mt Constitution. It’s runnable, but I forced myself to take a few short power-hikes, knowing what was ahead. After the climb, the trail bombs down technical singletrack, made much trickier with the slick, thick mud. When I’d get stuck behind a person on the descent, I found myself getting less stable – so I just kept passing people. Keeping my feet spinning under me kept me from sliding down the trail (for the most part).
The course is deceptively flat and runnable from miles seven to 11. I had described the course to a friend and first-time Orcas runner as “non-stop climbing and descending”, so I started doubting my memory during this stretch. Right on queue, the trail rips straight up. And down. And up. And doooooooown.
Miles 19 through 21 are pretty flat, near Cascade Lake, but my legs were feeling pretty shreded. Which had me scared, because: The Powerline.
The Powerline. Everyone knows the Powerline Trail. It’s about 2000 feet of climbing in a little less than two miles. In 2013, I thought it wouldn’t end. I ended up taking a few breaks and eventually sat on a log and ate for about 10 minutes before I could make myself finish it. It was probably the lowest I’d ever felt in a race (and probably still holds that distinction). For better or worse, I had been thinking about this trail for the previous 21 miles.
It started rough. The mud was so slick, I had to pull myself up some segments using the trees and brush on the side of the trail. (I still have the thorns my hands.) As the trail dried out – and became rockier – things got surprisingly better. I actually managed to keep a good hiking cadence and managed to pass a lot of folks! I got the usual joking complaints from about how it’s not fair how long my legs are; I was tired and focused enough that I declined to point out how much heavier that makes me than other people. My favorite moment of the powerline was seeing the log I was sitting on two years ago. I may or may not have made an obscene gesture at it as I pushed up to the top of the climb.
After the top of the Powerline, you’re rewarded with the softest, lushest, greenest stretch of rolling singletrack you’ll find anywhere. I enjoyed the feeling of the pain draining out of my quads and cruised through this section. There’s a 1.2 mile section of steep climbing switchbacks after this before hitting the summit of Mt Constitution. This was certainly difficult, but passed soon enough.
It’s very easy to feel like the race is over at this point. There are a little over six miles to get to the finish, and they are primarily downhill, wide trails. I spent about a mile feeling grumpy and fatigued. Then, and this is going to sound really corny, I made myself smile for about 30 seconds. There’s something chemical that happens when you smile, I’m sure. I felt recharged, picked up the pass, and cruised in to the finish line. I paused momentarily to pat a few of the largest old-growth trees on the course on the way down. I caught up with someone about 200 yards from the finish and congratulated him on a killer race – I wanted to make it clear to him I had no interest in trying to sprint to the finish. We gave each other an awkward high five that can only happen at the end of a 50K of this caliber (we’re lucky we didn’t injury each other) and ran (carefully) through the mud-pit to high-five James Varner and celebrate long, beautiful six-and-a-half hours.
People love this race. As such, it was great to see so many friends before and after the race (too many to name them all here). There was delicious fresh pizza and kegs of quality beer in the lodge at the finish. The day was warm enough that I was actually able to stand outside and wait for some friends to finish for a while (not for too long). Then, back to the lodge to enjoy some amazing homemade lasagna and a smaller-scale celebration.
I forgot my Suunto Ambit 2 back in the cabin! Bummer – I love to collect data and I like to know how long I’ve been running and how far I’ve run during the race. That didn’t seem to affect my race negatively – but I do miss having the gpx file.
This race killed my Lone Peaks. They’d been falling apart for a while (since about 110 miles in, when the inside of the toebox started to tear) – but this race left them totally blown out. About 285 miles which seems like too few – but I really do like how they feel. Hopefully durability is on Altra’s list of planned improvements!