Race: Orcas Island 50K

Runner: Jon-Erik J

Race Date: 02/01/2020

Location: Moran State Park, Orcas Island, WA

Results: 2nd, 5:08:08

Strava Activity Link: https://www.strava.com/activities/3067128328

orcas island 50k race report
Photo: Glenn Tachiyama

3 Bests – What aspects of the race did you like the most?

The race is held on an island in the San Juans of the Salish Sea giving this even a feeling of getting away, seclusion. By necessity because of the ferry access to and from Orcas Island, runners have to stay the night before on the island and can choose to stay the second night as well. You will have to plan ahead if you want to stay in the cabins in the park and reserve a space for your vehicle on the ferry! The race itself features multiple lakes, waterfalls, challenging hill climbs, single track, paved road, and dirt road, and a spectacular view at the pinnacle of the race: the last climb! Right as you crest the final ascent to the highest point on the island at Mt. Constitution at 2,500′, you are greeted with a panoramic view of the Puget Sound, also known as the Salish Sea – an ecosystem revered by all!

Being a Rainshadow Running race, the event trades out the usual race perks (free shirt, finishers medal, podium prizes) for a more communal experience of live music, fresh-made oven-baked pizza, and draft beer on tap. This experience makes Rainshadow Running events some of the most sought out, especially the Orcas Island events (there’s also a 25K and 100 miler!), because there’s nowhere to go after the race until your ferry reservation is ready for you! Mine as well stick around and enjoy the after-party 😉

Not so much – Aspects of the race that didn’t do it for you

The race is held during a time of year that Western Washington has some of its iffiest weather. I was stressing a little all the way up to race day unsure how to prepare for the forecast that was constantly changing. Our day of the race ended up being clear weather, but we suffered the residual results from weeks of constant downpour. Not much can be done about this – I am assuming that the three weeks of events can only be held at this time of year due to it being the slow season for visitors to the Island. That being said, the race has gained fame for having unpredictable and gnarly weather, which attracts a certain caliber of crazily enthusiastic runners!

Weird factor – What’s the weirdest thing about this race?

There may or may not be a guy in a Grim Reaper costume equipped with a sickle handing out shots of whiskey somewhere along the powerline climb. #sweetreleaseofdeath. This Grim Reaper may or may not be accompanied by a giant chicken.

Highlights of your race – What did you do well and enjoy about your race in particular?

I kept to my plan of going out conservatively after only getting in about half a block of training. This allowed me to think straight, relax my heart rate (which tends to be really jumpy at the beginning of a race) and not push it too hard at the beginning. I ran a very steady race and didn’t bonk. I’m glad I wore my rain and windbreaker jacket over my t-shirt. I never got cold, although the temperatures were relatively warm (highs were 50-51 degrees). I definitely felt like I had an advantage in this race because of the consistent weekends of training on climbs at Tiger, Squak, Teneriffe, Mt. Si, and others along the Middle Fork and Snoqualmie Pass.

Lessons for others – Share your pro-tips on the race to help the next runner

Aid Stations #3 (North Arch Mile 20.3 ) and #4 (Mt. Constitution mile 25.6) are very important. Pack a drop bag for North Arch with extra layers if the weather is iffy. It can get cold heading up to Mt. Constitution.

Lessons you learned that will help you next time around

I learned I still need to work on having my leg muscles massaged out and totally recovered for some hard ascents and descends. My right calve tightened up after the first big climb and descend back down to the First Aid Station. Although I was in first, I was quickly caught by my friend Tyler who seemed smooth and relaxed, while I spent the rest of the race with a minor limp, that was more frustrating than painful. Somehow, I was able to hold on, eat consistently and hydrate (very important!). The limp slowed me down, which may have helped me run my own race and not try to stick with Tyler. I eventually got used to it, was able to ignore the pain and find a rhythm. However, this imbalance of sorts I think cost me the race. I took the lead again at Mile 20 (3rd Aid Station – North Arch) but was soon passed by another fellow who had been trailing me and Tyler for all this while. He was aggressive on the climb, and although I kept him in sight, he put a one and half minute gap between us. I didn’t see him again but was told I was exactly within a minute by the time I got to the top of Mt. Constitution and the 4th and final Aid Station. By this time my legs were beginning to cramp. Instead of wasting time at the AS, I grabbed some Gu, Nuun Hydration, and stuffed my face with watermelon before. I wanted to catch the guy in first but was wary about my cramping legs. I never saw him again until the finish line.
All that being said because this fellow didn’t pass me until after mile 20, roughly 2/3 into the race, I feel like this was a day I could have, and maybe should have won. Nutrition is always the most fickle part of a race, but will consistently make or break someone’s day. I was putting down lots of water mixed with Tailwind, Nuun, or Carbopro, but I was struggling to get down energy gels and chews, and I didn’t linger at AS long enough to fuel up. Part of the issue was that I was struggling to get food down early in the race. I’ve learned I either need to train eating food/gels on higher effort runs, or I need to allow myself more time at the aid stations to get food down while I’m not in motion.

Most important course specific knowledge to know about the race

This is a very wet race, and the course is hazardous at times. Be prepared for temperatures changes as you go up and down in elevation throughout the course. There are multiple stream crossings not all with bridges. Lakes may flood and create marshy pockets, as well as trails overrun with flowing water.
There were quite a few DNFs this year. I think most people undermine the level of work it takes to get up and down these steep climbs. I fully recommend putting in some good solid training blocks that have similar grades of hill climbs for this race. It’s a bummer to come all the way out to a race that takes up your whole weekend, drag out whoever is helping to support you, only to be told you’ve been disqualified for not making it to a checkpoint aid station in time.

Aesthetics – Is it a pretty course?

Absolutely. Perhaps the prettiest I’ve encountered. So many shades of green. Moss covered rocks as far as the eye can see. The sound of eagles chittering away from above. Rushing water reverberating throughout. A vista that illuminates the beauty of the Pacific Northwest.

Difficulty – Is it a tough course?

This is considered a very tough 50K. It boasts 8,400′ of climbing (one of the most in the region), most of it on a single track rocky and rooty substrates. There is a long a hard-going climb called the Powerline Climb which begins at mile 20 and doesn’t let up until after mile 22. It has an average of 14% grade, with the steepest section punching in at 48.6%!

Organized and well run – Did it feel like a well-oiled machine or were they flying by the seat of their pants?

Yes, very well organized. Aid stations are stellar, volunteers are very helpful, the course is marked well. Check-in is very well organized with many people at service so you don’t have to wait long. There is a pre-race dinner the night before ($20) and all you can eat pizza post-race for participants and friends. Lots of goodies to purchase, both new and used (discounted), as well as surprise raffle prizes awaiting after the race if you were lucky enough to receive a bib number with a smiley face drawn on the back.

Competition – Is there a strong field?

There usually is. The race has become more popular in recent years, so the directors moved into a lottery system. This year was not very competitive. No one broke 5 hours.

Logistics – Does it require a special handshake, registration a year in advance, hotels all booked? Give us the low down on the nuts and bolts of making the race happen.

There is a lottery to get in. You can bypass this by volunteering at the Orcas Island event. You can also receive a discount for anyone Rainshadow Running event. I was able to get into this race because I volunteered last year.
You will also need to get a ferry reservation and plan your trip around this. There are many places to stay on the island. Check with Rainshadow Running for services with discounts for participants. Seems like there are a lot of options for places to stay.
You can also stay at the race in any of the cabins. There are large cabins that house many people (coed and male and female) as well as a couple of smaller cabins.

Aid Stations – Standard fare or anything special to know about the aid stations in terms of what’s available or when?

Very standard. I was surprised to find there was the only water available at the Mt. Pickett Aid station (mile 13.9). I would have loved some electrolytes and sugar in my water at that point. Otherwise, they’ve got Gu at every AS, plus Oreos, PB&J, Pickles, salty chips, oranges, bananas, watermelons… it’s great.

Weather and typical race conditions

It was a clear day, despite all the rain the forecast. Temperatures started fairly warm but were actually dropping throughout the day.
This was also the wettest year on record, both for the race and from what locals from the island have witnessed. Trails turned into creeks, ponds, and waterfalls. At some points, near the lakes, runners had to wade through knee-high water! Just as soon as the feeling returned to your cold, wet feet, you would have to run through another massive puddle or traverse a newly-formed creek. It was wild and definitely made the race a lot tougher. But the only way forward is onwards!

Gear – Did you need anything special or is there anything you’d recommend for the next runner?

I had warm layers I could throw on at Mile 20.3 AS (North Arch). I threw on a buff at this point but didn’t really need it.
I definitely recommend a good pair of waterproof gloves. Shoes with traction are recommended. I wore a light waterproof windbreaker which was great to have and two hand-water bottles with pockets for fuel which I alternated wearing between aid stations.

Spectators – Is this a friendly course for your friends?

Yes! 3 out of the 4 aid stations are accessible to spectators. The first you can only walk to, but it’s only 1.5 miles from the start. #3 is also walkable, and #4 is accessible by car, but make sure you have your Discovery Pass, otherwise, I think it’s $5 to park.

How’s the Swag?

Tons of swag for purchase. You can preorder shirts of all kinds, or check out their second-hand options which are spunky and fun. Lots of free stickers and beer cozies.

The Overall Score – How many stars do you give this race and do you recommend that others run it?

I give it a 5! This is my second time running it. Both times the weather was nuts, but that’s all part of the fun, right? I highly recommend this run.

Make sure you get on Rainshadow Running’s email list for updates on registration openings: https://visitor.r20.constantcontact.com/manage/optin?v=001K_4EBhhTrxQKnXBRkxszKHDQ-Mjuv8GtGk3BirYi0XasDQv7ut4x3-ThbEasFjGa3P4FcmPPyZauwIs7xJQKwjiGp1HHZISGhIHo6cX7z6xAUglJX0o628DRkPkqJPWLETuxyjRtufgd7qCZo6enGEYli6Jw7ilkH1OzOGUTOgM

orcas island 50k race report
Photo: Glenn Tachiyama