Friday, February 11, 2011

Orcas Island...of Pain

This past weekend I partook in the Orcas Island 50K out in the San Juan's. I had been looking forward to this race since forgetting to sign up for it back in September thus locking myself out of registration. Fortunately for me and a few others James, the directory of Rainshadow Running, kept a few spots open for individuals who volunteered to participate in a trail work party the week prior to the run. As such one week prior to the race I found myself mucking it around on some trails, wielding a MacLeod, cutting a pretty sweet new trail through Moran state park with fellow trail runners while being directed by Ranger Rich. Fast forward one week from there and I found myself toeing the line with about 200 other runners, a few of which were still feeling the residual affects of said trail work party. Runners may have a metric ton of endurance packed into their muscles but most of us lack any significant amount of upper body strength. The trail work party convinced me that I need to work my core and upper body a bit more I just really wish I had realized this before running this race. Lesson learned I guess.

Runner Arms = T-Rex Arms

No Thank You

With my arms still feeling the after affects of a whopping 5 hours of amateur MacLeoding I decided to start off slow and steady with Danny, a fellow trail work buddy and new running friend.  The single track was soft, the weather was holding (Rain in the forecast but it hadn't yet made an appearance) and my legs felt ready.  Shortly into the run the trail starts a steady series of climbs. Danny took this opportunity to get past a majority of the pack so we wished each other luck and settled into our respective paces. I was shocked to find myself running with a veteran finisher of many "real" ultramarathons. I had never met this guy before but Glen had finished several 100 milers and as such I decided to follow his pace up most of the climb to Pickett. Glen warned me after a few miles that we would be passing through an area that reminded him of the movie deliverance. This actually made me a little nervous as I signed up for a 50K not some horrible life changing experience. (Thought some could argue that the 50K itself is pretty terrible) The "Shacks" turned out to be a yurt, a house with a tarp for a roof, and a wood fired hot tub. The wood fired hot tub was also occupied by the resident of the tarp house. I think I may have unconsciously increased my pace here...

Our first real climb consisted of approximately 1200 feet of gain in about 3 miles. Nothing too incredibly crazy (8% Average Grade) though the course profile for this race has been shown to have low balled the elevation gain. Unfortunately this first climb turned out to be the easiest one of the bunch by a long shot. 

There can be only one
Towards the top of Picket we ran through a section that actually looked familiar. This turned out to be the section of a trail that we had rerouted around a huge pond that had flooded a 100 yard section of the course. The lack of the rain this past week made the work almost entirely unnecessary as the "pond" had receded and was little more than a large puddle. At least I got to wield the MacLeod solo.

Following this we turned up a pretty steep climb to top out and then descended two miles along a forest service road passing streams, little waterfalls and a few hikers. Thankfully after a mile or so of slightly boring road running we turned back onto a nice piece of single track, passed more mountain streams, a few ponds and then dropped down into the first aid station back at camp moran. I ran into Danny as he was on his way out and noticed he had ditched his jacket and was now running in a short sleeve with some gloves. We said hi and good luck as we passed and I decided that ditching the jacket would be an excellent idea. The volunteers were lively and extremely helpful. They made a point of asking each runner what they needed in our hydration systems, filled everything up while we stuffed our faces with cookies and made sure we were all feeling okay. After an abbreviated stop I took off back across the grass field, gave words of encouragement to all the runners that were making their way down to the aid station and proceeded to enjoy the next couple miles of fairly flat, soft running. This was not to last...

The easier section of the climb
The second climb is a fairly monstrous beat with over 2000 feet of elevation gain in a little over a mile. This pushed the average grade well over 20% with sections that slowed the hardest of racers to a crawl. I actually passed quite a few people on the first part of this climb and then in turn was passed by a few others about halfway up. There were several instances in which the trail would tease a descent and then rocket back up the mountain 50 yards later. This was by far the most difficult hill I've ever hiked. (I didn't see anybody run it) The arches of my feet felt like they were going to tear apart. I'm fairly certain that I started to develop PF over the course of this one mile section of the race. Despite slowing to a crawl I'm fairly certain I went up too quickly despite my pace being 1.5-2.0 MPH.

After what seemed like an eternity I finally reached the top, tentatively increased my pace to a jog on the short flat and then cut loose on the downhill. This turned out to be a huge mistake. Metering out your effort is one of the most important aspects of ultrarunning. You cannot outrun your stomach, quads, lungs or any other piece of necessary gear during the race. In this case I'm not sure what I pushed too hard but my body crashed out out about halfway down the hill. I went from a 6.5-7 minute per mile pace to about 8.5-9.0 minute per mile on technically easy single track. I really wish I would've held onto the faster pace but I just haven't trained my hill legs enough to maintain my earlier pace. After this we came down to mountain lake and ran the length of it.

Where is the lake?
This section of the trail was nice but I hit a real low spot despite the picturesque quality of the entire length of trail. I sucked down some more nuun, drank some gel and just focused on getting some calories and re hydrating. This seemed to work as shortly thereafter I felt good enough to pick up the pace a bit heading into the water only aid station. Despite being only 4 miles away from the second full service aid station I decided to top off my hydration pack and chatted with a fellow runner for a minute or so who had rolled his ankle three times over the last few miles. He finally decided to pull the plug on his race and hitched a ride back to the start. Big props to him for making it 19 miles on a bum ankle.

To Constitution and beyond!
 After the aid station we headed skyward again up a ridiculously steep section trail. The objective here was to make it from Mountain Lake to the top of constitution, another 2K plus of elevation with long sections well over a 20% grade. This painfully awesome portion slowed me to a crawl again and I ended up chatting with a fellow runner as we ascended, both discussing how unbelievably difficult the power line trail was. I started feeling pretty good, told her that I was going to try to use my energy while I had it and power hiked/ran up the remainder of the ascent to Constitution. (She would later fly by me on the descent) I ended up passing a few other people along the way, snapped what I hoped to be some pretty cool photos,  and found myself on the top of constitution at the mile 23 aid station.

The face of an Ultrarunner?

The aid station offered a large variety of food though I didn't really feel like eating. That being said I decided to muscle down a small piece of PBJ, some chips, a pretzel, some mountain dew and an orange slice and then shot down the trail like a rocket without any jet fuel. My quads were blown, the trail though not particularly exposed to switch back repeatedly and offered many opportunities to trip and roll a hundred feet or so down a nice steep hill so I took it super easy and just tried to keep a pace that I felt I could maintain over the next 8-10 miles. Eventually I came to a flat section and started running with a few fellow racers. I settled in behind a tutu girl and a tall dude that looked like he was getting ready to hibernate in his pain cave. We ended up dropping the guy who was struggling and then followed the pace set by the tutu girl who I would end up finishing with.  Lisa was super fun to run with, seemed to have words of encouragement for everybody we passed or passed us, and kept me going over the last 1.5 hours of the course despite me wanting to curl up and sleep on several of the moss covered boulders. We chatted a bit which helped pass the time, almost turned our ankles on several occasions and all around had a fantastic time running the gradual uphill and the descent back down to cascade lake. (At one point I tripped, caught myself, watched my left calf cramp and then ease up all within the space of about a half of a second. A severe cramp would've ended my day...) At this point we ran into a volunteer that said we were "almost" there. It turns out "almost" is a pretty subjective term.

The finish line...about an hour after
Reinvigorated Lisa upped the pace and we ran pretty solid until we hit a section that turned us away from camp and looped us around a few other lakes for at least 2-3 miles. This was extremely demoralizing as the "almost there" didn't quite mean the same thing as we were hoping. Our pace slowed a bit and since neither of us knew exactly how far away from the finish we were we didn't really know how much effort we could meter out. After looping around for what seemed like an eternity we came back on a familiar section of trail and were informed that we had about 600 meters to go. We pushed as hard as we could and were told we had 29 seconds to finish under 7 hours by a volunteer with about 100-150 meters to go. Lisa really pushed the pace here since I didn't really understand what the volunteer meant by 29 seconds and I hadn't really looked at the finish clock. I started to settle back behind her but she told me I needed to push the pace and finish along with her. Sprinting down the final section we both ended up coming in under the 7 hour mark with huge smiles on our faces. It was funny because afterwards she thanked me for pushing the pace, keeping her motivated and helping her over the past 8 miles and I pretty much said the same thing to her. Never underestimate the power of running with a like minded individual. For much of the middle part of the race I was running solo, which while fun can become a bit taxing when you reach a low point. A fellow runner can really help you get through the rough spots and I'm extremely grateful she was there to help me at the end of the race.

After we finished I headed inside and found my new friend Danny sitting with his family enjoying the warmth and some hot soup. We gave each a congratulatory guy hug (Hand shake with the one armed back pat) and then immediately settled into discussing the power line climb. I think this was a common topic of discussion at the after party. He ended up finishing in about six and a half hours, an excellent time for this type of run. Shortly thereafter he and his family headed back to their rental cabin for some recovery food at a recovery hot tub soak. I still had an hour or so before Brandi was coming by to pick me up so I settled in, drank some beer, listened to some live bluegrass and chatted with a few other trail work friends and fellow runners who I had chatted with a bit out on the course. Keri, a trial work friend, had finished about 45 minutes before me and had a pretty good race. Ron, the guy with the bum ankle, had iced and elevated his foot for a good two hours after hitching a ride back to the start and seemed to be in good spirits in spite of the injury.

At the finish
I then chatted a bit more with Lisa about the race. Brandi showed up with the new Nikon Camera that she had been playing with most of the day and after introductions we talked for a few more minutes before saying goodbye and heading back to the car. (I mistakenly thought she would be picking me up at 5:30 instead of 5:00. Big thanks to her for walking around the camp and finding me as my legs were pretty shot)

In conclusion...this is the first Ultra I've run that actually felt significantly more difficult than a marathon. I'm pretty sure that is a bit of an understatement...

31 Miles, 8000 feet of elevation gain, Shower, Hot Tub, Dinner at Allium...Great Day. Onward to recovery...and Longer Races.

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