Orcas Island 50k Race Report – Tyler Sprague

Race: Orcas Island 50k

Runner: Tyler Sprague

Race Date: 02/01/2020

Location: Orcas Island, WA

Results: 3rd OA

Strava Activity Link: https://www.strava.com/activities/3066423971

orcas island 50k race report
Photo: Glenn Tachiyama

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

1. Views — one of the prettiest races out there without venturing into true wilderness or deep into public lands/national parks.
2. People and community — This race has some diehard fans and many people have run it multiple times, making this a kind of pilgrimage for some. The semi-isolated setting also lends to creating the cozy and close-knit vibe, like “summer camp in February” as Rainshadow’s website puts it.

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

The water. As much as I tried to embrace it in the moment – and I think I did alright – it certainly complicated things. There were 48 DNFs in this race. My feet were not only soaked most of the day, they literally spent a large portion of time SUBMERGED. Almost every single trail that wasn’t flat (so almost every single trail) had water running down it, from a trickle to a raging stream. I forded several crossings that had become actual waterfalls, since jumping had long since become futile. Fortunately I didn’t get so wet that I couldn’t dry out, although I came near, running too fast through the deepest section and getting my shirt and gloves wet. The increased weight of every step took its toll on my hip flexors and legs, but at least everyone had to deal with the same conditions equally. Nevertheless, it was fun in a sloggy sort of way and I’ll never forget the legendary waterworld those trails became. I knew this going in, but it can also be mentally tricky to accept and overcome the obstacles that are inherent in trail racing. Sometimes you just want to run on a smooth trail with gentle grades, flowy sections, predictable weather, and fast times, but this race isn’t that. Not even close. Don’t come expecting a PR or even to necessarily have a strong performance and feel great the whole time, although it’s certainly possible. Simply humble yourself and surrender to the experience and the conditions, and commit to enjoying yourself and giving your best.

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

Normally, I’d say there’s nothing too weird, aside from being held on Orcas Island, which is a cute and quirky place, even by PNW standards. This year, however, the sheer amount of rushing and standing water all over the course was super weird.

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

The middle of my race felt good; I’d started conservatively, took the lead around 9 miles, and felt strong and confident running alone for a decent chunk of time. I’m also proud of how I recovered from my bonk, by eating all the calories I had on hand in an all-hands-on-deck maneuver, surmounting a mental setback with negative thoughts looming all around, and salvaging my race when I felt weak, grumpy, and disappointed.

Lessons you learned that will help you next time around

Eat more at Mt. Pickett aid station, save energy between miles 10-20, and don’t bonk.

Most important course specific knowledge to know about the race

It’s probably important to know that the course has over 8000′ of elevation gain across 31 miles, with the majority of that being in the latter third. The infamous Powerline climb starts right after the Peace Arch (3rd) aid station, and is gnarly in its steepness, elusive visibility of the top, and placement in the race. You’ve already covered 20 miles, but when you mount this beast, you’ll feel like you have lifetimes of struggle ahead. Then after some downhill and forested singletrack respite, there’s another final push up to the summit, although this is mentally much easier due to not being quite as steep and along nice tree-lined switchbacks.

Aesthetics – Is it a pretty course?

Gorgeous. If you’re lucky, the top of Mt. Constitution will be clear when you run past, but just to help your chances, drive up there the day before the race, and maybe once more afterwards if you have time. It is so lush and green, alive with moss, lichen, trees, birds (TONS of eagles), whales, salamanders, and more. I like all the little lakes and waterfalls and bridges too. As you’re climbing up the road in the first few miles, you may be blessed with a glimpse of sunrise over the archipelago.

Difficulty – Is it a tough course?

Yes! There is some pavement , some smooth singletrack, and some wide paths, but lots of roots and, this year, lots of rocks as every inclined trail contained a small flowing stream which stripped away much of the dirt. Beyond that, there is a ton of climbing for a 50k and all that up and down will take a toll on your legs, so you must curb your enthusiasm in the beginning of the race, for there is so much more to come.

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

Everything was dialed as usual. Since they put on 3 races on 3 consecutive weekends, the 50k being sandwiched in the middle, and this being the 15th year, there aren’t really any kinks. A bit of flooding in the parking lot/lodge area, but that’s practically to be expected. They do a great job of sharing course conditions in their Instagram stories leading up to the race, and there was one part of the course where the trail was under thigh-deep water. The story said we’d be routed around this, but we weren’t, and I now think that was just a joke I didn’t get until much, much later!

Competition – Is there a strong field?

There’s usually a couple faster runners in the field, but with the lottery and entrants capped around 250, it can be a crapshoot from year to year. This race has a long and storied history, however, so it enjoys a lot of visibility and tradition which attracts the interest of runners from all over, while remaining staunchly local.

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.

Once you get in the lottery (or bypass it by volunteering a previous year), it’s pretty straightforward. Reserve ferry space on Thursday or Friday (and Sunday/Monday) and figure out where you want to stay. I chose the bunkhouses to be right at the start/finish and race HQ, but the race has made arrangements with many local hotels, B&Bs, and small resorts to offer a discount to runners. Just check out Rainshadow’s website. Protip: Ferry reservation space is made available in tiers and released at different times. If the sailing you want can’t be reserved, more space will be released closer to the sailing date, so set an alarm for 7AM PST on that day, and just reserve it then. For more info see the WSDOT Ferries site.

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

Aid stations at Rainshadow Running races are usually well equipped in my experience. At one of them, I wanted a pickle juice shot but had to settle for eating a whole pickle – hardly an issue. GU brand is the gel sponsor, and those always work well for me, although they can be quite viscous in cold temps and the basic flavors can get old. Some runners will want drop bags as all the climbing can make this a long 50k, and I believe 2 or 3 of the 4 allowed them.

Weather and typical race conditions

This year was wetter than ever before, but was by no means an outlier in other ways. We got lucky with no rain and plenty of sunshine on race day, and it could certainly have been colder with temps in the 40s, but the cumulative effect of near-constant precipitation in the days and weeks leading up to the race meant that there was an insane amount of standing water on the course. Snow is present some years and should always be accounted for. Overall, just train, plan, and pack for all possible weather outcomes and you’ll be set.

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

I was glad that I packed plenty of clothing options, although I got lucky and ended up being able to dress pretty lightly. Thin long sleeve technical running shirt, shorts, socks, and shoes. Poles are allowed and some early-starters used them, but nothing is insanely technical, just very steep. Microspikes would be good to have in one’s bag of tricks for a snowy year.

Spectators – Is this a friendly course for your friends?

Yes, spectators can take a pretty short ~1.5 mile walk to the first aid station, the 3rd is on the road at the entrance to the park a short drive from the start, or runnable if you like to run while your person runs, and the 4th is at the summit of Mt. Constitution, accessible by road.

How’s the Swag?

Rainshadow really does the post-race right: beer on tap, food, wood-fired pizza, a bluegrass band, and more. Top 3 finishers on each side get growlers, and there is a shop set up with merchandise, mostly coozies, stickers, and shirts. It is tradition for them to raid thrift stores for sweet finds, screen print them with the race logo, and sell those along with the race registration online. Whatever isn’t chosen is available after the race (not before check-in), and there are shirts and things from previous races that didn’t sell also, priced to move!

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

5 stars! Great production, wonderful course, professionally managed, well marked, classic vibe, and lots of tradition. Couldn’t ask for anything more.

Tyler Sprague is a coach with Team RunRun. To learn more about him or to work with Coach Tyler, check out his coaching page.

orcas island 50k race report
Photo: Glenn Tachiyama