Orcas Island 50K: A Whale of a Time

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By Yvonne Naughton

What attracted you to the Orcas Island 50K and what aspects of it did you like the most?

One of the biggest attractions is the location. It’s difficult to top a magical Pacific Northwest (PNW) island when it comes to trail running. Race weekend is a very special experience, from riding the ferry, experiencing the slow pace and artsy vibe of island life, cruising along some of the greenest forest trails you’ll ever see, soaking in panoramic summit views from Seattle to Canada, the Cascade Mountains to the Puget Sound, and indulging in an abundance of good food and beer in the quaint town of East Sound.

Another huge attraction is that it’s a Rainshadow Running event. Everyone in the PNW knows that these guys host amazing trail races! The pre- and post-race events and festivities are always fantastic. This year there was a wonderful pasta dinner the night before the race. Then after receiving your high-five and hug from race director, James Varner at the finish line, there was a smorgasbord of snacks, freshly made wood-fired pizza and local beer waiting for you. Live bluegrass music was provided at the Camp Moran Lodge courtesy of The Pine Hearts and ensured that the celebrations went on well into the night.

What were the highlights of your race?

I think that my patient and steady pacing was well-executed. Having completed each of the 25K, 50K and 100-mile distances at this event in the past, I was very familiar with the challenging course. I began knowingly, committing to an easy, comfortable pace, having learned from the past not to get caught up in the initial sprint up Mt. Constitution Road. Even on the early downhills it’s wise to be conservative. You still have the big climbs of Pickett, Powerline and Constitution. And that final five-mile descent from the summit aid station is bound to be painful and slow if you don’t have the quads for it. It’s so important to be honest with yourself about your perceived effort and not to let your ego get the better of you early in the race. I was 7th female at the first aid station, 5th at mile 20, North Arch aid station and 3rd at the finish. Your patience will be rewarded.

Looking down the Powerline climb. Photo: Yvonne Naughton

Secondly, this race requires a lot of grit and gratitude, and I’m glad to have found both on race day. Having just raced the Wicklow Way 100 in Ireland in December, I wasn’t sure if I was quite in 50k race shape. However, I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity. The first 10 miles or so didn’t go so well. It had been over a year since I’d run a shorter ultra race. A nagging lower abdominal pain seemed to fuel a growing sense of anxiety and doubt. And then, while tearing down one of the early technical downhills, I miss-stepped crossing a creek and landed face first in the icy water. An absolute gentleman and multiple-time Hardrock finisher, Allen Hadley, was right behind me and almost before I even realized I was actually on the ground, he picked me up by my shoulders and put me back on my feet. I was soaked and cold. My quads and hip flexors had tightened under my wet shorts and I began to have doubts about my ability to haul myself up the big ‘Powerline’ climb. Still, I knew I was too stubborn to quit. So, the pep talk I gave myself was basically the faster you go, the quicker the finish and the sooner you’ll be warm with pizza and a beer in your hands! I put my head down and started grinding away at the miles. Slowly I started gaining ground and getting back into the flow of some nice running. I arrived at the North Arch aid station which is at the base of Powerline with two other girls and we were told we were in third position. I was the second of the three to leave the aid station and as we huffed up the rough, seemingly endless climb, I saw I was pulling away from the third girl and gaining on the other. Patiently I hiked, cautious not to push too hard, too fast. There were still the Mt. Constitution switchbacks, the long five-mile descent from the summit and those few, short but steep uphills right before the finish. Before long, I was right beside the other girl. This was her first trip to Orcas and she was eager to know how much farther we had left to climb on Powerline. We chatted for a bit and then I gradually pulled away. The descent from the summit is one of my favorite stretches of trail and that day, I ran it with so much gratitude for having overcome those initial difficulties and felt fortunate to run in such a beautiful place.

It sounds like this is a difficult and challenging course?

With nearly 8,500 feet of climbing, this is definitely a challenging course. The infamous ‘Powerline’ climb is probably the toughest section of the course and tends to get all the attention. But there’s plenty of other climbs that shouldn’t be discounted, especially Mt. Pickett and the switchbacks up to Mt. Constitution. To balance out all the climbing there’s plenty of rolling sections, technical, rocky, rooty stretches, and a couple of good old screaming downhills.

What are the typical weather and race conditions?

February in the PNW can be chilly but sunny, raining or even snowing. If it’s wet, the trails can be muddy and slick turning both the climbing and descending into a tragic comedy spectacle. But challenging race conditions just add to the fun!

Is this a friendly course for spectators, family and friends?

Absolutely! The race follows looping trails within Moran State Park. Two of the four aid stations have direct spectator access, and another requires a mile hike to get to. However, if your supporters are up for some additional hiking, it’s easy to view runners at multiple points along the course. The finish line is also a great place for friends and family to congregate and the post race party is free for the families of registered runners.

Photo: Yvonne Naughton

So, what are the logistics regarding this race?

Race registration is on Ultrasignup, and there is also a group registration option. Because the race is so popular, it’s now a lottery. If you miss out though, Rainshadow Running allows bib transfers and you’ll find the details on their website. It’s very likely you’ll find a bib in the months before the race when people have schedule changes and need to rearrange their plans. There’s bunkhouse lodging at Moran State Park and several resorts, hotels and cabin rentals elsewhere on the island. Be aware that this race is on an island that requires a ferry. On race weekend the ferries are busy, and it’s recommended to make a reservation.

What lessons or race tips do you feel would help other runners taking part in this race?

  1. The course has a lot of climbing. Make sure you incorporate power hiking in your training even if it’s on the treadmill or Stairmaster. It’s not ridiculous to consider trekking poles for this 50k but practice using them beforehand.
  2. There are long steep downhills on the course. You’ll need to get your quads in shape for these by practicing your downhill running.
  3. The trails can be a little technical at times. Be familiar with rocks, roots and wet, wooden bridges and walkways.
  4. Remember there’s no bad weather just bad gear. If it’s wet and slick, shoes with good traction will be helpful. Even if the temperatures are mild, consider carrying a rain jacket. In the PNW it can rain on a whim. But it’ll certainly be colder at the top of Mt. Constitution and the extra layer will be helpful.
  5. The Powerline climb at mile 20 tends to get all the attention but there’s plenty of climbing before you even get to that point. Be patient and power hike as much as you need to. These early climbs are tough and if you expend all your energy on them, you’re not going to have the legs for Powerline. I’ve seen people reduced to almost a crawl and it looks like a soul-destroying experience.

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1 Comment

  1. Cary Stephens on

    My favorite race!! Great Summary!! I think you nailed what makes the race (and entire weekend) so painfully magical.