I was a basket case in the weeks leading up to my first ultra. I had managed to freak myself to the point that I had knots in my stomach. Even my runner friends were stressed to be around me – particularly as they were running the same race. 8400 feet of elevation gain, and lots of climbing wasn’t going to make for an easy first ultra.
Friday morning, a few of us headed to the border, planning to stop for lunch and some running shoe shopping (of course) on the way. A second car was to follow later. We were full of nerves and pre race anxiety which we all handled in our own way, and poor Emma was going to take the brunt of it for the weekend.
Upon hearing that we were headed to Orcas Island for 50km, the border guard wanted to know how many times we would have to run around Orcas Island. Lovely.
We caught the 3pm ferry – for some reason, we thought there was a 2 pm ferry (which as it turns out only went to Friday Harbour). Oops. This made for a 2 hour wait at the ferry terminal, in which we (a) tried work (Melissa) (b) unload our pre race jitters on Emma (me) and (c) when all else failed, scramble along the rocks at the beach to burn off energy.
On the ferry, we peered out the window, trying to pick out Mount Constitution, a particularly brutal climb we would face the next day. As if we had not pysched ourselves enough. We have to climb that??? If you must know, we played this game again driving to camp Moran… probably not a good idea…
We had rented a cabin at Orcas Island for the weekend. We arrived late afternoon, and set to work laying out the pre – race gear, drop bags, etc.
Friday night was race bib pick up and chilli dinner at Camp Moran- I was a little leery of the wisdom of eating chilli the night before an ultra but oh well. We limited ourselves to one bowl each and hoped for the best.
We checked in for the race – two of us girls decided on an early start, and the third decided to join later. The race being my first ultra, coupled with the last-minute email from Rainshadow Running, informing the runners that cut offs would be earlier at each of the first 3 aid stations in order to add time to the Mount Constitution cut off solidified my decision. I did the math, and decided my predicted time based on one puny little trail race (for whatever it was worth) was cutting it too close. I didn’t want to worry about cut offs for my first ultra. Basically – the early start was open to all except anyone fast enough to reach the aid stations before they were set up. No chance of that happening. I felt less guilty when I realized that nearly half the field had registered for an early start.
After dinner, we headed back to the cabin, where I had a glass of white wine to ease the pre race nerves. I’m not sure it worked.
As the early start was 7:30am, I set my alarm for 5:30 am so I could choke down breakfast. We ate mostly in silence, and had to go to the bathroom, no less than 3 times.
Emma, our awesome friend and crew for the weekend drove us to the start in the dark – and dropped us as close to the start as she could, before heading back to gather the others who planned to start at 8:30am. Somehow, I managed to drop my garmin in the car (though it had been on my wrist when we left the house!). Must have come off my wrist when I was pulling off my hoodie and puffy jacket in the car. Sigh.
I didn’t discover I was without my garmin until I was standing in the bathroom line up inside the lodge. Oh well, I guess I would be running sans garmin for the day. We made it through one bathroom line up, posed for the requisite pre – race photo, lined up a second time, and just as the last of us came out of the bathroom the second time, the countdown to the early start went off.
We were among the last of the early starters to cross the start line, and it was single track for the first few km, and runnable, I tried to work my way to at least mid pack. In my head I thought, hey, I’m doing this and it’s not too bad. Hah!
It wasn’t long until we hit the climbing. Climbing the pavement was a slog, with long winding switchbacks and I walked parts and ran parts. This turned out to be the easiest part of the day. In hindsight, I should have walked all of it. The views were stunning, and I made it to the first station just past 10km unscathed. I didn’t eat at the first aid station – except for some grapes and a few m & m’s. Not the brightest idea.
I took off from the first aid station, met some very nice runners who were also from Vancouver and then promptly rolled my left foot running across the board walk. Rats. I think I yelled out loud, and the woman I was running just behind was kind enough to offer to stay with me. I told her I would be fine and I would walk it off. The moment I rolled my foot I thought – it’s just past 10km – and how choked I would be if I had seriously injured myself. Luckily, I was okay. I slowed my pace and was super cautious for the next few km, and careful to watch my footing the whole race.
My strategy was to enjoy the day and to make it across the finish line. I hit the second aid station at 14.6 miles, and I was feeling pretty decent. This is where my girlfriends caught up to me. We posed for a photo and then headed off. I was still chatting – they were not – and they had earphones jammed in. Soon, we were each running on our own.
Between the second and third aid station – mile 14. 6 and 21? give or take is where I started to feel a little rough. The North Arch Aid station seemed so far away. And there were some nasty switchbacks, which I had to hunker down and power hike up. I didn’t eat enough at the second aid station and so had resorted to cramming down salted caramel gels in between aid stations. I believe I had two or three within a 10km span. I silently berated myself for not eating nearly enough at the first and second aid stations. This is also when the leaders who took the regular start started to blow past me – one of them on a nasty switchback. And then they came in droves – flying by like they were racing 15 instead of 50km. Oh so humbling…
By the time, I reached the third aid station, I was very hungry and tired and sweaty.
I looked at my watch – because I had taken the early start – it was barely noon – and I had 3.5 hours to climb Mount Constitution. I decided it would be wise to take advantage of the contents of my drop bag. I sat down and promptly got a calf cramp which I had to work out. I changed my top, and oh, dry clothing never felt so nice. Emma was at the Mount Pickett aid station. When she saw me struggling to pull off my shoes, she promptly offered to help. She was amazing.
The third aid station is also when I saw Barry fly by hollering out some encouragement before he disappeared. Amber came up to me to ask how it was going – can’t quite remember my response now. I don’t think I looked super happy at this point in the race.
I also decided that I should eat properly. I had two cups of soup, some chips, grapes, peanut m & ms and a cup of coke. I also grabbed a few gels for good measure. In hindsight, I should have eaten more earlier. Better late than never right?
Though I had been warned about Powerline, and seen photos, nothing quite prepares you for the sight of the trail you are to climb stretching out in front of you with no end in sight. Still, I was optimistic that perhaps I would do slightly better than I had anticipated in this race. What I had not factored in was the 20 plus miles and 4.5 hours of mostly climbing already in my legs. And what I had not counted on was just how long it would take to climb the 5.5. miles or 10km to Mount Constitution.
I hunkered down and began to climb. My quads were screaming… I have never been more grateful to meet fellow runners who kept me company as we slogged up powerline. I met runners, from Seattle, Portland, Victoria, and many from Vancouver. Sometimes, it’s nice to know you are not suffering alone. Not long after, Alan, who had started an hour later, passed me on the uphill climb.
As we hit the end of Power line, a fellow runner I had just met, mentioned some nice trails ahead. I took this to mean that the miserable climbing was done. Ha.
There were some amazing downhill sections – but I knew we would have to climb more. Switchbacks. Endless switchbacks. I steeled myself and resumed my death march. I got passed by elites, and by a guy with walking poles. This is also when I noticed there was snow on the ground. In desperation, I asked one of the guys who had just passed me, how far to the next aid station. About 800 meters he told me. I perked up. But the switchbacks continued. I saw a guy stretching out his calves and I marched past him determined to pass one person. Finally, at the top of a switchback, I heard a woman tell a runner ahead that the Mount Constitution Aid station was just around the corner. As I ran past her, standing there – she spoke words of encouragement to me. I was numb at this point. And cold, and hungry.
I could have cried when I saw the Mount Constitution Aid station . It had taken me more than 1 1/2 hours to climb 5.5 miles. The volunteers were amazing. I crammed down soup, chips, more m&ms and I felt my left calf cramp. I asked for a salt pill and grabbed two more gels to go.
I told one of the volunteers someone advised me Orcas 50km would be a good first 50km. A runner over heard and laughed. Sucker, he told me. I couldn’t agree more. I may have sworn. One of the volunteers told me his girlfriend had run Orcas and called it her first “big girl race.” He patted me on the back and told me I was doing well.
I had managed not to get lost or gone off course, so far , but as I left the last aid station, I looked around for a pink ribbon, and not seeing it, almost went back down the same way I came up. “No, this way!” a volunteer yelled. I did a 180 and ran towards the direction of the now visible pink ribbon.
Not two steps in, I was treated to an incredible vista – and for the first time, realized how um, exposed the trail was. It was a pretty big drop. I was unnerved for the first time in the race. I tread carefully until I was surrounded by forest once more.
I wish I could say I took advantage of the downhills, but my legs were trashed. Every step sent shockwaves through my body, and my quads protested. I was happy because we were going down, and that was about it. No idea how long it would take but I didn’t care.
I climbed the “bump,” followed the trail, and as I crossed the paved road to the parking lot of Camp Moran, I heard a woman call my name. She was a fellow runner who had since finished. I was less than 50 meters from the finish line and I stopped briefly to talk to her before plodding to the finish. I turned the corner, and I tried to sprint for the finish line. I could hear Emma scream my name. I turned briefly in her direction, ran across the white finish line and was greeted with warm hugs and cheers of runners I had only met that day on the trail.
I was done. I had finished my first 50km – 7.5 hours later. And hard as it was, it wasn’t as horrible as the picture I had painted in my head. The views were breathtaking, the trails were soft, we ran through mud, on soft moss, around lakes, forests, over logs. And the climbs, well, they were relentless, but I expected nothing less from this course.
It was a wonderful weekend full of laughter, nervous energy, good food, and good friends with a 50km trail race sandwiched in between. The trail running community is amazing, and I can’t wait to run my next ultra, after I can walk properly again.