Race Report: Orcas Island 50k, or Our First Aquathon

Gorgeous views from the top of Mt Constitution, the highest point in the San Juan Islands

"Let's sign up for Orcas," she said. "It'll be fun," she said.

No matter that's not at all what Ann said when she ran it six years ago. Part of being a runner-- and I'd say most especially an ultrarunner-- is foolish optimism. As soon as it's over, sometimes even while it's happening, you're dreaming about your next adventure and the pain is forgotten.

First views during the initial climb

The Orcas Island 50k is put on by Rainshadow Running, so you know it will be beautiful and hard, and have an awesome afterparty. We've done many Rainshadow races, and truly appreciate all that goes into them. The course is always well-marked, the aid stations well-stocked, the photography top-notch (Glenn Tachiyama, the reigning king of running photos), and the event shirts both useful and beautiful. It can't be easy to consistently pull all of this off, but race director James Varner manages to do it.

All of that said, there's always something.

That river is the trail, crossed by a stream

I mean, there's always something regardless, be it a race or a wilderness adventure run. But with Rainshadow races, I know there will almost always be something extra thrown into the mix to make it more difficult than one would imagine. This time it was water: all of the water.

I drove up to Anacortes with my family on Friday, to take the ferry to Orcas Island. Door to door it took us eight hours, which felt like an adventure unto itself. The ferry ride is magical, with views of dozens of small islands, moody clouds, blue-green water, and the distant, snowy peaks of the Olympic mountains. After settling into our accommodations in Eastsound, we walked to cozy Mexican restaurant Mijitas for dinner.

This bridge is a waterfall on two sides, and is a river crossing an actual stream

When we emerged from the restaurant, it was pouring rain, which continued through the night. I woke up several times to heavy downpour on the roof, worried that it would continue on race day. Luckily, it cleared up and we had beautifully clear skies and surprisingly warm temperatures in the upper 40s (Fahrenheit).

Ann and her sister, Courtney, picked me up and we headed to the race start just before 8am. Making our way from the parking lot to the little cabin serving as race headquarters, we couldn't help but notice the flooding everywhere. After picking up our bibs and hearing that this was the "wettest ever" version of the race during the event briefing, we were off to an uphill start on a winding road covered in running water.

The lake jumped its banks over the trail
Things only got wetter. We ran past raging waterfalls, through streams overflowing onto the surrounding trail, and in lakes that had jumped their banks. It just became part of the course that the trail-- both uphill and downhill-- would be covered in running water. Sometimes you could pick your way along the sides. Sometimes there were no sides. Sometimes it was just deep, still water. But it was always cold, and it was always murky; in anything deeper than a few inches you had no idea where your feet would land, and you knew you'd lose feeling in your feet til they warmed back up.

From time to time we would hear shouting up ahead, and when we came to that spot there would be some fresh, new, watery surprise: the brand-new knee-deep lake/trail, the bridge that was now a waterfall itself, the slippery cascade over a mudslide that was once a well-maintained path. We made lots of jokes about the yelling and cheering we heard, and its prediction of freezing, crotch-deep water.

Over the knees and COLD as heck

Then there were the aid stations. At the first one, Mountain Lake (6.0 miles), we came in 20 minutes before the cut-off time. At Mt Pickett (13.9 miles) we had 15 minutes. By North Arch (20.3 miles) we had just 10 minutes, and we were facing the infamous "power lines" section that everyone groans about when discussing this race. A path is cut straight up the mountainside under ominous, low power lines, making for a painful two-mile slog gaining around 1,500 ft, after which there's a bit of downhill and then the final 1,000 ft climb up Mt Constitution, the highest point in the San Juan Islands. 

This is where we had a conversation about dropping and/or not making the next cutoff. Thing is, we were running together through gorgeous scenery on a lovely day. It just so happened to be about 50% underwater, which made for slow, cold and slippery going. But whether we ran 20 miles together or all 50k, that's something to enjoy and feel grateful for. We decided to go for it. If we made the final aid station before cutoff, we knew we'd make it to the finish.

Good to know

Somehow, between our hacking coughs from clinging colds, the endless uphills, the raging waterfall crossings and the flowing trails, we made up time and got to the top of Mt Constitution (25.6 miles) with 20 minutes to spare. The aid station snacks and glorious views lifted our spirits and we buckled down for the final miles, which seemed to stretch out longer than they should.

As we meandered on the final mile along the road, we saw Courtney & her dog, and my husband & son, and knew we had to pick up the pace as we creaked up the final gravelly hill. Ann grabbed the dog's leash as we passed, and we ran down a cascade of mud, grass and water to the finish, with James Varner giving heavily-gloved high-fives to everyone. 

Lots of these temporary waterfalls to cross

Then it was time for dry clothes, fresh, hot pizza, and live music in the warm cabin. Ann and Courtney headed off to get ready for their dinner reservation, and my family headed back to our condo. But my adventure was about to be extended a bit. I waited nearly 10 minutes for the water in our shower to warm up, but it never did. Dry-sobbing since my dehydrated body couldn't produce real tears, I tried the bath tub without luck. 

Then I called the condo's owner, who promised to send someone-- which wasn't soon enough for me. "I just ran a 50k and I really need a hot shower," I whined sadly, while simultaneously texting Ann. She invited me over to use their shower and hot tub. Without hesitation I threw on a bathrobe and boots, and we drove over. 

Yep, this is the trail, on a steep, rocky downhill
After getting clean in the shower, I joined my husband and son in the hot tub, under the clear night sky and bright moon. It was a relaxing end to a long, cold, wet day and the right decision: it turned out that the water heater for the condo had sprung a leak, so there would be no more hot water for the weekend for us.

All in all, I had a great time and my family had a lovely weekend on Orcas Island. My first visit to the San Juans was absolutely beautiful and I can't wait to go back. The weather was gorgeous and made up for the waterlogged trails; if it hadn't been sunny and on the warmer side, I don't think Ann and I would've continued on the run. Overcoming adverse conditions made for a great story and some crazy photos. I don't think I'll be tempted to run the Orcas 50k in the next few years, but I'm already dreaming about my next Rainshadow adventure.

The trail-stream runs along side the actual stream
Raging and rocky

Despite the amount of water, this was a less-wet crossing than most

A little bit of extra water
The infamous power lines
Underwater conditions, uphill

The San Juans in all their glory
Selfie-- like many folks on the ferry return, I proudly wore my Orcas gear

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