Orcas Island ½ Marathon – May 11, 2019

“This course is well marked! In fact, you’ll probably find it the best marked course you’ve ever run” I overhear the announcer say at the pre-race meeting. This is about all I glean from the pre-race meeting as we are saying good bye and good luck to our friends, family, kids and dogs standing in the grass field surrounded in tall timber at Camp Moran in Moran State Park. My wife and I have talked a few friends into doing this race with us, so we are three families strong having rented a large house on the Island for the weekend. This is only our second trail run and the longest trail distance we’d ever attempted. The sky is blue, the weather is perfect and we are in one of my favorite places in the world, the San Juan Islands.

The race begins with 165 runners departing the field and filtering onto the campground road which allows the group to space out a bit before hitting the single-track. Within a few minutes we are single-file on the Cascade Lake trail along the beautiful shores of this forested lake. It’s classic twisty NW trail with embedded rocks & roots, and short hills.

I’m running with a few people right behind me when I come to an intersection with no clear indication of which way to go. There is a no arrow, but just a marker clipped to a tree branch on the left side of the trail, which we decide must mean a left turn is in order, so we go left. I can hear runners ahead of me confirming we made the right choice. “Oh good” I think to myself. Then suddenly we pile into a bunch of racers who are shouting “wrong way!”, and are coming back at us. Nearly the entire field has taken this wrong turn and the conga line is doubling back on itself, forcing some runners into the bushes on the both sides of the trail. I laugh about the only thing I remember from the pre-race meeting being the ‘best marked course’.

orcas island half marathon
Photo: Howie Stern

The climbing begins

Just before the first major climb lies the first aid station, which comes about 15 minutes into the race. I grab a gulp of water for good measure as I am not carrying water during this event and I’m unsure how far until the next aid station. This course is mainly comprised of two major hills. The first one is on steep, well-used single-track which is too steep for most people to run.

Most competitors are power-hiking their way up and I can see who is ahead and behind as we wind up the switchbacks. I notice my wife, Julie, is fast approaching so I try to I hold her off, but she catches me and we battle our way to the top changing positions a few times. It’s a long grind taking us about 45 minutes before cresting the first summit.

Magic Forest

The first descent leads us on perfectly winding ribbons of smooth brown dirt lined with squishy green moss and towering old growth timber. This forest could be a scene from a children’s book about a magic forest, it’s just perfect. This mostly downhill terrain is currently not my specialty so runners, including Julie, pass me and disappear into the magic forest. I hate getting passed in a race, but this place is so magical feeling that it just doesn’t bother me and my mind ponders the beauty of this pristine forest.

Mt. Constitution

After 30 minutes of bliss, the trail turns back uphill to climb up the storied summit of Mt. Constitution, which at 2,409’ is the highest point in the San Juan Islands and the second tallest mountain on an ocean island in the contiguous 48 states. The trail is a bit wider with more gravel and rock and it’s painfully steep. I see no smiles on the faces around me. Some are even stopping to catch their breath. I am relieved to be off of the downhill terrain and feeling pretty spry. Finding a good rhythm, I begin passing people on the way up. Glancing at my watch I realize we are 1:45 in and still no aid station. I definitely should have brought water as I need to do a bit of fueling, but can’t do it without water. I catch up to Julie, who is really in need of water and beginning to fade. I tell her there is an aid station at the top and give some encouraging words. The last bit of trail is very steep and I have to back off the pace to keep from going anaerobic. Finally reaching the top, I am dangerously close to bonking. Reaching the aid station, I slam some pickles from a Dixie cup, chug some electrolyte solution, take on some Hammer Perpetuem, and sneak a quick a bite of banana before sauntering off with a giant steel insulated water bottle that I just bummed off of my daughter who was cheering us on.

Views back down

There is a lot to be happy about leaving the aid station up top. For starters, this marks the end of the serious climbs in the race and we have mostly downhill terrain from here to the finish line. More importantly, this is where the race treats you to sparkling blue views of the Salish Sea with green forested islands seemingly placed at random below. It’s in this picture perfect place that the photographer finds us and captures the moment. Many racers succumb to the beauty and put their race on-hold to take cell phone photos of this panoramic scene. The rolling hill terrain in this section is quite enjoyable and the forest is gorgeous. The looping course delivers us back to descend that steep trail from the first hour of the race. For me, it’s a slow-going, quad-burning hike back down. I’m trying to save my legs for a 50k in three weeks and don’t want to flair up the knee strains that plagued my training a few months ago.

orcas island half marathon
Photo: Howie Stern

Finally some running

I have done a lot of running the last 6 months but not much on steep terrain, and virtually no hiking. This course has me hiking more than running and at this point, 3 hours into it, I really just want to run. So when I finally get back to the relatively flat Cascade Lake trail, I decide to let it loose. My race plan doesn’t call for any fast running, but at this point I don’t care. Man it feels good to open it up a bit and pass back many of the racers who got ahead of me coming down that hill. I dial it up to full race pace the last two miles and finish strong. The last few hundred yards are uphill and take me completely anaerobic, but I make it across the line in 3:14 which is good enough for 2nd place in the M40-49 age group. Julie comes through in 3:30 which puts her in second place in the F40-49 age group which is a nice Mother’s Day accomplishment for her.

Finishline festivities

Runners are finishing under the inflatable arch and are immediately treated to beer, pizza, ice water, lemonade, soda and all matter of snack. It is a festive and inspiring scene watching competitors finish from the three different races throughout the day. Total positive vibe with a great bunch of folks. We enjoy sitting in the sunshine and cheering as racers cross the finish of the 50 mile, Marathon and ½ Marathon courses. The weather, venue and event organizers could not have been nicer. Things are just better in the San Juans.

Lessons Learned

-Bring enough water to cover you for two hours.
-The half marathon course is actually well over 14 miles. Fuel accordingly.
-Make that ferry reservation early. We had to walk on and rent a car on the island because the ferry was fully booked for cars.
-Make sure to include steep terrain and hiking in your training.
-Stay an extra day or two in the San Juan Islands. It’s a special place.
-Keep your eyes up the trail as runners are traveling in both directions on portions of the course.
-This is a difficult course. It might not be a good choice for first half marathon.
-This race is worth the trouble to get there. I hope to come back again for one of the longer distances.

Photo: Howie Stern