“How do you spell kung fu?” asked Marie. We were enjoying some down time before race day in our little rental house on the island. I spelled it out for her.
“Is that one word or two?”
“Two. Kung and eff you,” I replied. Cue ironically placed rimshot.
I usually reserve my acerbic wit for people I’ve spent way too much time with in outlandish situations. Meet Marie. I figured my flippant remark was a little payback for talking me into this little adventure after I survived the Squamish 50k back in August. The gales of uninhibited laughter that followed let me know I didn’t offend any tender sensibilities. We were here with Karen who was also part of the Squamish Conspiracy Group. She ran Orcas last year and was looking to find a little redemption of her own. If she’d asked me to spell out a word I’m sure I would’ve come up with something equally as caustic.
But first we had to get there.
It’s a commitment to get to Orcas Island, the largest of the San Juan Islands. From the Bay Area it’s a two-hour flight, a two-hour drive north to Anacortes, and a car ferry over to the island. Arriving felt like releasing a collective sigh of happy with deep breaths of fresh air and silence that you can’t hear in a city. I was glad we had an entire day before the race that didn’t include travel to explore the island. We scouted out parts of the course, hung out in Eastsound (hiker cookies, what?!?!), and had a relaxing evening getting into race mode while a squall brought unsettled weather into the area.
I started paying attention to the forecast about a week before the race. The report was for a cold, rainy day. I had recently done a cold, rainy 21 miles in the Marin Watershed and had turned into a miserable grump toward the end. It was a put-your-big-girl-pants-on sort of day and while I got it done it wasn’t without a little drama. I watched as the rain poured, the trees whipped across the sky, and the ocean boiled with frothy waves. I knew the squall would pass and lo and behold, race day dawned with perfect running weather. I had no qualms running in a storm if I had to, but I didn’t have to. Sometimes the weather gods smile.
I haven’t stood on a start line since Rio Del Lago in early November and I haven’t wanted to either. A part of me was in denial that I actually had a race in February but I got ready for it as best I could. I wanted to have fun and finish the race. I wanted beautiful. I didn’t want to suffer. I’ve had enough of that of late. That doesn’t mean I needed easy. There is a difference between “hard” and “suffer”. I wanted to feel good about what lay before me, to accept when it would get tough (this too shall pass) and be grateful when it felt effortless (because this too shall pass). And I was more than willing to work for it.
The race starts at Camp Moran and winds up the paved road that leads to Mt. Constitution. At a little over 2400 feet it’s the highest point in the San Juans. We’d get to the summit eventually, around the 26 mile mark, we were just taking the long way to get there. I got good at counting to twenty on this climb. Twenty breaths running followed by twenty breaths walking, repeat over and over. The race has a 9-hour time limit with cut-offs at the four aid stations. Last year there had been an early start which Karen was able to take advantage of. This year we didn’t have that luxury and we were both nervous. I knew, with the difficulty of this course, that I’d need all that time. Squamish is my benchmark for tough 50ks and I finished that one in 9:58. Without an early start I wasn’t sure I could finish this race.
I had a battle ahead of me and I knew I needed to keep pushing. The plan – on the climbs run a bit more and walk a bit less, run as much of any rolling terrain that I came across, and attack the descents. That’s how I found myself on a climb that I would have normally power hiked counting to twenty on repeat. I stayed with Marie and Karen, even giving Marie a friendly pinch on the butt on the occasions when I’d pass them on one of my twenty-second run intervals. It was fun and funny as I tried to keep things light on this seemingly endless first climb. It was just the beginning after all. Three and a half miles and 1600 feet of elevation gain later we reached Little Summit. With the first of six significant climbs done I turned on the jets and dropped down to Mountain Lake.
I don’t know what it is about the Pacific Northwest races I’ve done so far that seems to turn me into what Karen calls a downhill ninja. I feel comfortable taking risks here but it certainly isn’t without mishaps. On one particularly sharp turn I was carrying too much speed, picked the wrong line, and found myself heading off the trail toward a downed log. A very long internal dialog transpired playing out different scenarios and outcomes:
a. Smack straight into log with shin; do face plant
b. Get foot caught under fallen branch or concealed hole and hyper-extend knee; do face plant
c. Slide on sturdy body part; avoid face plant
All this in a split second of real-time. I went with option “c” as face plant was a recurring theme and avoiding it sounded like a good idea. I don’t remember what happened next. I somehow cleared the log and came to a sliding stop on my shoulder and hip. I probably looked about as elegant as an albatross coming in for a landing but I after a quick inspection that no body parts were missing or falling off I continued on my merry way relieved I had no witnesses.
I was reeling off the miles in workman-like fashion on the rolling terrain around Mountain Lake when I saw a guy wrapping his ankle. I made eye contact and an implied query. He shook his head. He soon passed me and we leapfrogged each other for a while. I could see him wince ahead of me or hear him gasp when he was behind. After a particularly sharp yelp I asked him if he wanted some Advil. He did so we both stopped what we were doing and stepped aside to let a few other runners go by. He thanked me and we carried on our separate ways, still occasionally passing each other until the start of the ascent to Mt. Pickett. He thanked me one last time as he disappeared up the climb. He found me again at the end. He told me the Advil helped a lot and I was happy to see that he had finished.
I was having fun, running well and keeping myself in check every time I’d look up a wall of earth that I knew I had to somehow crest. The linchpin for this race is the climb up to Mt. Constitution that starts immediately after you leave the North Arch aid station at mile 20. I had to keep enough in reserve while also trying to give myself a buffer to make the 3:30pm cut-off at the summit. The first two miles is on Powerline. I had peppered Marie and Karen earlier with questions about this section trying to wrap my mind around this climb and wanting to relate it to something I might have experienced.
Is there anything like it in the Bay Area, like at Quicksilver? “Maybe the steepness in short sections but this goes for two miles,” said Marie.
How about Diamond Peak on the Tahoe Rim Trail course? “It’s worse,” said Karen.
Ooookaaaaay. Worse than the worst climb I’ve ever done.
But first I had to get there.
I found myself struggling as I got closer to North Arch. I wanted to get to Powerline so badly and there is nothing worse than having “where is the aid station?” bouncing around your head intoned in various shades of desperation, anger, and frustration. The course was taking me around Cascade Lake and my eyes kept scanning the shoreline looking for anything that looked like an aid station only to find nothing. This was definitely one of those times where firsthand knowledge of the course would have reduced my anxiety but then again I didn’t think this relatively benign section would cause so much anguish. I know better than to obsess over where something is or isn’t but I couldn’t seem to keep that particular hamster wheel from spinning. So now I know (and so do you) that when you cross the wood bridge you are very close to North Arch.
It’s not what a person would normally do for a trail. It’s a power line trail. It’s trail for machinery and equipment and not for people. That’s what makes it so tough.Randall Gaylord, Original Race Volunteer – Island Resident
If Powerline was worse than Diamond Peak then I knew it was going to take an hour or more just to cover the first two miles. I was kicking myself for not bringing a set of trekking poles with me. I could have easily picked them up at North Arch and left them at the summit since both aid stations accepted drop bags. So I used the next best thing, a tree branch. Not as effective as a lightweight carbon fiber pole but it was better than nothing. It helped, or at least I thought it did, and sometimes that’s half the battle.
“Fun Size! Ka-kaw!” It was Marie and Karen. I hadn’t seen them since Little Summit and was overjoyed that they had made it through all the cut-offs. Karen had been resting a touchy ankle to save her efforts for race day. She was doing so well. I looked over my shoulder at them and waved. I was careful not to stand up. On such a steep grade it felt like you were falling backwards. It was reassuring to know they were below me and every once in a while I’d glance back to make sure they were still there.
The course took a sharp left and started descending. I knew from studying the elevation profile that I was going to lose half of what I’d just worked so hard to gain. Each step of that two-mile descent was unsettling. It felt like someone was stealing money out of my piggy bank. I said farewell to my walking stick and ran that section as hard as I could until I finally reach a sign that said “Mount Constitution 1.2 mi” and climbing began again in earnest. I had about 45 minutes to go 1.2 steep miles. I can do this. It would be a grunt but I’d make it.
“I’d kneel on the ground and kiss it except I don’t think I could get back up again,” I said to the aid station volunteers when I got to the top. I had 10 minutes on the cut-off and took 3 minutes to catch my breath and refuel for the 5 mile drop to the finish line. I consumed a weird cocktail of chicken broth, Coke, and a gel. I’d pay for this odd mix well after the race but at the moment I felt fine. As I left the aid station Marie and Karen arrived. Hallelujah! I knew there was celebrating in store for all of us in about an hour or so.
It took a bit to get my downhill legs to kick in. For a moment I thought this descent was going to take a lot longer than I had originally anticipated but as the grade increased it all came back together. I still had wheels and by god I was going to use them. Once I was at the bottom I had about a mile to the finish. Marie and Karen had warned me about the “insult” hills that I’d have to contend with, hills (more like bumps really) your legs have no interest in dealing with so late in the race. I tossed out a couple of choice curse words and kept motoring.
Crossing the finish line always conjures a mix of emotions for me. On this day it was disbelief that I crossed the finish line in a time that didn’t start with a nine (8:32 to be exact) and ecstatic at having no real issues to speak of crop up during the race. I had stayed focused and felt like I had been on a mission all day, not letting the inevitable low points last too long or get the better of me. I was anxious to see Marie and Karen come in and ignored the growing cold by talking to random strangers about their day. They came in about 15 minutes later crossing the finish line together. I was so happy to see them and Karen killed it with a one hour course PR. I was so proud of her. She didn’t need that early start and I guess I didn’t either.
“Are you writing?” asked Marie. She was sitting a few rows ahead of me on the plane and I could see her almost child-like glee at the question as I hunched over my iPad. What do you write about when nothing goes horribly wrong? The struggle to overcome provides a ready source for engaging drama but there was none of that here and I couldn’t be happier. It has been a long time since I felt this great in a race and it reminded me of why I got into trail running in the first place. I started, I hiked up some hills, I drank some water, I ran down some hills, I ate some gels, then I finished. I mean, that’s basically what happened but never has something so mundane felt so good.