Trail runners don't talk too much about results.
Unlike the road crowd, where questions about 10k and marathon PRs are part of the standard small-talk repertoire, trail runners might be curious if you've completed a certain race, but distances and times are usually not common topics. There is, however, one exception:
"Run a hundred yet?"
The last two years haven't been particularly kind to me with regards to racing. I haven't had a single vomit-free ultra in that time, and have missed out on a bunch of races for various reasons. I was keen to start 2018 off right, with clear goals and expectations. Orcas 100 is a race that's been on my radar for a while; it's a challenging hundred that runs over trails to my liking (steep, relatively smooth) and at a very convenient time of the year. It's also the only one I can see from my house.
From the outset, the goal was simply to finish. Competition is fun, and time goals can be motivating, but I have also found that getting too worked up about them can hide the fact that just finishing these long races can be freakin' difficult, regardless of how quickly you think you could run on a perfect day. Prior to the Fat Dog 70 mile last year, I had just come off the high of winning the Buckin' Hell 50k, and so had spent most of my time planning on running a fast race. When it became clear that I was going to have a slow and rough day, I had nothing to fall back on, and dropped because of a lack of motivation. Having learned my lesson, I decided to focus on just making it across the line, preferably in decent shape, and set 24 hours and 30 hours as B and C goals to suppress the urge to take a nap halfway through. Forward progress under all circumstances.
Although I spent much of November sick, and much of December fighting off (imaginary) injuries, I had significant mileage in the bank from October, and January went very well, totaling 478 km with 19,900 metres of gain. My peak week involved running the Finlayson Arm 50k course at 80% effort, followed by fifteen repeats of my favourite hill the next day, with the overall week at 150 km and 7,500 metres of gain across 16 hours. Physically, I was feeling very well prepared entering the race.
Apart from conditioning my poor legs, I also went to work on my digestive system, eating chipotle avocado veggie burgers and chocolate almond sea-salt bars mid-run to get things used to the concept of eating all sorts of normal foods while marching up hills. I've shown that I'm capable of running without food for long periods of time, but I don't want to have to push myself to those extremes more than a few times in my life if I can possibly avoid it.
"It's not a question of can or can't; there are some things in life you just do"
Mentally, I had prepared by choosing the foulest weather to train in, imagining just how terribly I was going to hurt, and making the decision to ignore that and keep moving. I believe that the ability to consciously become emotionally inert (temporarily, one hopes) is extraordinarily useful under a broad but specific set of particular circumstances. It's something that I've found myself able to accomplish particularly in difficult or tense social situations and strenuous outdoor activities (or sometimes both - bonus!). This was a goal of Orcas - the de-dramatization of my race. Essentially, I wanted to approach every situation in a competent and professional manner - I would not celebrate the highs, and wouldn't despair at the lows; I would not think of the miles to come, nor those that had passed; I would only think of what needed to be done to keep moving, and then simply settle back and allow the miles to flow.
I had forgotten just how gorgeous Orcas Island is, and although the bunkhouse lodging is good fun, I thought I might appreciate the option to go somewhere quieter to calm my introverted nerves now and then. We booked into the Rosario Resort, just a few minutes from the finish line, and were really impressed by how much they were into the race (course maps printed out at the front desk, notes all around specifically for runners, it was really nice) - I'd definitely recommend staying there if you are looking for a more conventional place to stay on Orcas, it is an absolutely spectacular property (there was a waterfall beside our room, for goodness' sake). In theory we could've made things feel even more like home by perhaps bringing in our waffle iron and enjoying fresh waffles immediately after the race. In theory. Next time I want to bring an inverter and get cooking waffles on the tailgate of the Baja at race finishes!
As good as I had been feeling beforehand, the night before the race was a shambles. I was convinced that I was getting sick, with a burrowing headache that felt similar to a virus I'd picked up in November. My mind was a wreck, my knee started to ache, and I had trouble falling asleep for longer than 30 minutes without waking up drenched in sweat. No matter how often I get taper pains or pre-race nerves, they're still alarming experiences.
"Start easy and then back off"
Race morning came around in that nervous way they do. Wake up just before my alarm, settle down to try to eat, and barely get anything in. Ironically my feet got colder than any other point in the race just walking across a deceptively wet field to the start line.
Each loop starts on the driveway out of Camp Moran (I am going to try so hard to not have typos as "Camp Moron"), and proceeds directly up the road towards the summit of Mount Constitution. It's a steady climb, neither too steep nor obviously runnable. On the first lap, you'd run maybe 50-80% of it, depending on speed, the third lap was maybe 70% hiking, and the fourth was a walker. It's 450 metres of gain over slightly more than 5k, but doesn't seem to take too long. The descent that follows is technical in some places, but very runnable for the most part.
One of the best-sounding pieces of advice I read in my pre-race blog search was to try and negative-split the first two loops. This sounded brilliant, as it is all too easy to go out quick, but much easier to run at an easy pace after you've already been running for 40k. I intentionally started in the mid-pack, without counting the number of people ahead of me. I never wanted to know where I was in the race, so that I could keep my mind calm and unambitious. I ran much of the early part of the first loop with Walt; a truly crazy runner whose race calendar boggles the imagination. It was nice to be able to just chat with someone, as it let the time fly by pretty quickly.
From the base of the first climb, the trail heads north along Mountain Lake and to Twin Lakes. The trail is wide and flat, with nothing much to distract from the beauty of the island. Next up was my favourite part of the course - Mt Pickett. The trail varied from grassy dirt doubletrack to soft earthen singletrack, surrounded by the greenest moss forest in the world. The trails weren't particularly steep, allowing for a decent pace and clear powerhiking decision points. The descent was similarly smooth, making for a quick descent even early in the race. I like to cruise the descents as my quads never get tired from downhills, so I went on ahead and let loose to the extent that felt reasonable.
It's a long ways from the top of Pickett to the Cascade aid station at the base of Powerline, with most of the singletrack being nicely groomed, some of it bordering on steep drop-offs next to a cold river, and a couple of km along the road to the end. Powerline starts a few minutes after the aid station, and slaps you in the face almost right away. There's a super wet and muddy traverse along the base, where the only way to avoid wet feet is to step on the highest hummocks of grass. From there, the trail turns left, and up.
It's steep. It's not crazy steep, depending on what you've trained on (it's not Red Bull 400, let's put it that way), but the initial climb is steep, and looong. I passed a couple of the runners from Japan, and found myself alone. There's one spot on powerline about a third of the way up that is just ridiculously steep. It's only maybe 30 metres high, but the grade is downright stupid. I just stopped and laughed at it on the first loop, and looked forward to it each time. There are also a surprising number of flat or downhill sections. They're not very long, but allow for 2-10 seconds of welcome jogging to loosen up the calves before the grade starts again. I started to think about how long the climb could go on for, then caught myself. Nope, I shouldn't be thinking that. This was my moment to put the de-dramatization practice into play. Time to break out The Secret Weapon.
The Secret Weapon (apparently)
For as long as I can remember I've had the ability to listen to music in my head. Not in a sort-of-imagine-it way, but if it's something I know well, in a detailed, almost auditory-hallucinatory way. Maybe this is typical, maybe not (nobody knows what it's like inside other people's heads). It's good fun though, being able to alter the beat, singers, or instruments at will. I guess it's simply a strong expression of subvocalization. Anyway, I put this to good use. Whenever I started thinking about something unproductive, I would break out what is now my ultimate weapon in ultra-endurance. Some people use mantras, some people use chants, lots of people use motivational cliches to motivate themselves.
I've found something better.
I probably shouldn't be sharing this.
I might lose my competitive advantage.
Thankfully the visuals don't manifest as readily as the auditory recollections. Use it at your peril.
It's good to think about things that are both important and actionable - deal with nutrition, make sure you have your next aid station planned out, but there are so many thing in an ultra that will try to take your attention that have no place in your consciousness. They can't be changed, don't matter, and should be blocked; "we're in the middle of the second loop, so that means we have how many miles to go? Oops, right - WAH-TERLOO! HOW DOES IT FEEL, YOU'VE WON THE WAR?!" Instant grin. You came to the event just to finish, and now you're wondering what your finish time will be? Easy - take your average loop time and multiply it by "WAH-WAH-WAH-WAH-WATERLOOO, FINALLY FACING MY WAH-TER-LOO!" Get some instrumentals in there, shift your gait to the beat, do a little dance, and you'll have your answer in no time.
Repeat for 25 hours. I am deadly serious.
With my newfound distraction providing a nice lack of emotion, Powerline was literally a breeze as the wind picked up near the summit. I spent a fun five minutes struggling to pull my half-zip jacket over my pack, getting stuck, trying to get it off, realizing I couldn't, laughing a bit at how ridiculous this was, finally extracting it and getting it on just before I had to ask for help. Ah, trouble where we least expect it.
It's a fun smooth flowing descent from Powerline around the north side of Constitution. From there, it's the last climb of the course, some 300 metres up perfectly graded and consistent gravel switchbacks to the summit. A guy behind me had clearly had fun on the descent, and we started running together on the switchbacks up. His name was Dale, and he is awesome. We would spend more than half the race running together. It's really rare that you'll find someone who is running exactly the same pace as you, but we never really had to slow or speed up for one another, and since we got along like two runners on a trail, we stuck together and chatted for a long time.
After the Mt Constitution aid station is the climb up to the top of the tower to be part of the Tower Club (alternately known as the almost-everyone-who-wasn't-trying-to-win-or-didn't-forget-to-do-a-tower-because-they-were-hallucinating-too-badly club). It might sound crazy to try and add on some extra vert and distance in a long and vert-y race, but it's such a tiny portion of the overall distance that it's not a big deal. And the views are nice. And you get a cool t-shirt. Honestly the worst part was how the freezing wind would blast you every time through the open windows. That was cold.
This race report is getting way long, but that's okay because frankly I don't remember much of either loop 2 or 3. Between continuous chatting with Dale (subjecting him to my atrocious rendition of Waterloo whenever we started talking about something we shouldn't - it might sound good in my head, but not when I try to convert it into singing) and generally plodding along, each loop seemed to go by incredibly quickly.
It got cold once the sun went down, and the wind was howling up high until near sunrise. One advantage of this was that any muddy portions of the course near the summits started to freeze over, allowing my sandal-clad feet to skip over without getting wet. Oh yeah, I ran the whole thing in sandals. I've been getting into some heated arguments with my shoes lately, and did all my training in Lunas, so I decided to just run the race in my standard Leadville Pacers. They worked just fine since the trails were pretty smooth and I wasn't trying to go too fast.
One thing of note was my headlamp. I had put in a LOT of effort with lighting for this event. I chose a new headlamp very carefully - the Gemini Xera (oh look, someone wrote a great review of it over here, wow, so well written!) - and had purchased not one, but three batteries for it. Couple that with my love of Microsoft Excel, and I had a full spreadsheet to optimize my lumen availability while securing sufficient battery life to last through the 14 hour night. Oh yeah, forget Beast Mode, Nerd Mode is ON! Anyway, despite all my effort, and borrowing a super-bright backup Black Diamond from Andre before the race, as night fell I realized that I had taken my headlamp, but none of the batteries! No matter how well you prepare, always check the basics people - does your fancy headlamp actually have a battery connected to it?
I heard Gary Robbins mention that the best way to ward of sleep deprivation is to have a bright (250+ lumens) headlamp on full the whole night. I set mine up to provide 760. You know, just in case. It's like having a car headlamp strapped to your head. Sleep deprivation and visibility were never concerns. And since each battery lasts 2.4 hours at 760 lumens and swapping them out takes 3 seconds, it was easy to maintain that through the night. Give it a few years and everyone running hundreds will have Gemini lights, they're amazing. And Victorian!
At each of the two main aid stations (Cascade and Moran) my dad would hand me two new bottles of GU, some Vega and fruit2go bars, and we would exchange one headlamp battery for a charged one (I carried two, with my dad charging the third during the loop).
At the end of the third loop, things took a slight downturn. I'd been falling behind a little on calories, and although I felt 100% when we came into the aid station, as soon as I was standing still nausea rushed over me. I sat down and it got worse. Pretty soon I was shaking uncontrollably and my temperature started fluctuating rapidly - signs that my stomach was off, and general fatigue after running 120 km.
I took some time, and when Dale came over to see how I was doing I told him to get outta there - it would've been awesome to share the last loop with him, but I knew I'd be holding him up and it was time to part ways. Good thing too, as he rocked the last loop to finish 7th in under 23 hours!
I, meanwhile, ended up staying at the aid station for 1:45, tended to by the best aid station crew ever. Everyone worked constantly to get me food and warmth, Darren got my feet up which helped with my shaking, Myke was the aid station boss, and made some decisions for me that turned out to be spot-on, Andrew, Matt, David, race director James and others all helped get me back on track. I felt really guilty for being so pampered. Thanks everyone.
In the end, I just needed to get some calories in, let my stomach settle (I never threw up, huzzah!), and change clothes into my warmest layers to feel better. I also backed the laces of my sandals way off, as my feet had swollen by at least one shoe size since the start. It was great to have a break, and I left on loop four feeling good apart from my right ankle, which had been hurting for 30km and was now getting swollen. Running was painful, but hiking was fine, and so loop four passed without much event, simply Waterlooing my way through the painful descents, and enjoying the beautifully clear night on the climbs (well, clear except for the light pollution my headlamp was creating). Despite bringing an unopened bottle of GU roctane drink mix for the race, I exhausted the supply by the middle of the last loop, and so transitioned to apple juice and sandwiches, which went down well enough. Sweet foods are so gross after nausea, but avocado sandwiches are actually quite good.
The sun rose behind me as I started the Constitution climb, the same place where it had set fourteen hours earlier. It was blood-orange, with a black Mt Baker silhouette ahead. The monochromatic forest was lit with patches of vivid red-orange. Not bad.
I'd assumed that it would be an emotional end to the race, but I think as I had spent the whole race being emotionally stable, some of that experience was difficult to process. The sense of accomplishment, however, was not diminished in the slightest. A hundred miles is a ways to run, and 25 hours is a while to keep moving, and it's going to be very nice to be able to look back on this event as a success, regardless of how the rest of my 2018 race season goes.
Every trail race is a remarkable atmosphere filled with awesome people, but being around a tough hundred miler is quite different. It was humbling and yet affirming to be a part of such an incredible group. Normally, running a hundred miles is considered crazy, but in this small camp on this small island, there were 69 people who would accomplish that feat, and on one of the steeper hundred miler courses in North America. This is not a place for complaining or hyperbole - in this group every story and incident you can speak about could be immediately one-upped by someone nearby if they so chose. Walt's race schedule was repeatedly called "insane", and you know you're doing something right if other ultrarunners are calling you insane. My petty ankle pain was nothing - despite looking properly swollen by the awards ceremony, I knew that I had endured far less pain than others - by far the most impressive performance of the weekend was by John, who twisted his at mile 8, then made his way through 148 tough kilometres of sprained-ankle running to finish. At 19 years old. You got guts, man.
It's genuinely inspiring to me that my story is by no means the most remarkable of the weekend, and so it feels all the more special to be a part of an accomplished group. It's not possible to run a hundred miles and not have some story about training, background, or racing.
Apart from my slowly-shrinking ankle, my body suffered remarkably little damage from the race. My calves and quads feel like they ran a fairly easy 50k, and my motivation to run has not diminished in the slightest, as opposed to my first ultra where I didn't want to run for almost five weeks. Competing at hundreds sounds like a pretty painful experience, and I'll probably limit competition to 50 km/milers for a year or two, but this event did give me a taste of running long distances for the sake of being part of a community, an event; a fixture of a landscape for a day, or more.
Biggest thanks go to my dad for being a stellar crew once again, never missing an aid station, and keeping all the logistics perfectly sorted during the race. Huge thanks to not only James for dreaming this crazy thing up, but also to the massive number of volunteers out. It's a big time commitment for a lot of people to attend to runners for a day and a half (or more) in addition to travelling to a small island, and hard to adequately thank them all. I suppose the only way I can is to say that when you run the event, I'll probably be there as part of the volunteer crew to return the favour.
Additional details for anyone interested:
Shoes: Luna Leadville Pacers with Injinji heavyweight crew socks (changed once, at end of loop 3).
Daytime gear: my trusty 2014 Salomon 5 litre pack with whistle and space blanket, 2x500 mL softflasks with 2 scoops of GU grape roctane each per 1/2 loop, an old Nike t-shirt (warmest one I own), Salomon Intensity 3/4 tights, gloves and S-Lab jacket, a buff, Arctery'x hat, and Brooks arm warmers - I'm a big fan of having removable items coupled with tops that have a zipper - remove or add items to deal with big temperature shifts, and zip up or down depending on the direction of the wind.
At the end of the second loop I switched to MEC Mercury 2 thermal tights, swapped the hat for an old touque, and added my headlamps - Gemini Xera with 3 2-cell batteries (2 carried while 1 charged).
At the end of the third loop I switched out tops to Salomon Pulse longsleeve with a heavy MEC 1/2 zip running shirt, with two waterproof jackets over top to keep out the wind.
Strava activity link
Writing words here and there on adventures running out in the forests and mountains