Transelkirks Ultra Leaderboard

 

Why Orcas?

I needed to change things up. When I DNF’d Mountain Lakes 2021 following a previous DNF in 2018, I had just about come to terms with the feeling that perhaps 100-mile runs were not for me. The big blocks of training took a toll on my body, particularly my feet. I was going into these things tired and on the brink of injury. My summers were busy, and it was challenging to fit in the training. I did not particularly enjoy running at night anyway. I had plenty of excuses to leave 100 miles in the past. I took pride in my finishes at Mountain Lakes 2014 and Pine to Palm 2016.

However, after a couple of years, leaving on a DNF gnaws at an ultra runner. It is no surprise that it was likely always in the back of my mind that I would need to try again. This is what we do.

It would need to be something different this time. I’d been aware of the Orcas 100 since it began in 2016. I had respect for those who took part, but I had no interest in doing it myself. Just getting to the island involved a journey and logistical planning. It would mean training through the winter in horrible weather, mud, ice, and snow. All of my weekday runs would be in the dark. This race has a vast amount of vertical; 26,000’ up and down. Training would involve less running and a large volume of hiking up hills with poles. Hello! Maybe this niche event in a remote and mysterious place is the ticket. It would certainly be a change from my previous training patterns. Lean into the suck and embrace it.

 

Joyner Crew Socks For Running | PATH projects $36.00

 

I was aware that the Orcas 100 has a devout following. Many who participate return year after year. I know some of these people. My good friend John Fortner is a devotee. He has participated many times with mixed success, but whenever he talks about it, he lights up and waxes poetically about the island, trails, and people. I trust John, and if he was that into it, maybe I could be too.

I committed after a string of hot weather runs in the summer of 2023. I convinced myself that cold weather running is better than hot, even though I was somewhat traumatized by my experience at Mountain Lakes 2021. After a summer of toasty, dry training, the weather changed abruptly on race weekend in mid-September. Pouring rain, temps in the 30s, and 30 mph wind gusts. Borderline hypothermia. The trails were often running with cold, ankle deep water. The conditions were not the only factor in my DNF, but it was a major one. These would likely be the conditions at Orcas. The race had been canceled or altered three out of the previous four years due to weather. I decided to commit and lean into past failures and fears. Embrace them and own them. Prepare physically, mentally, and logistically for anything. All in!

What is Orcas 100?

Ferry view of the islands.

 

The race venue

Orcas Island is part of the San Juan Archipelago located between Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula and Vancouver Island, BC in the Puget Sound. It’s an island rainforest that is only accessible by ferry. It doesn’t get much more Pacific Northwest than this. Helen and I met up with the rest of my support crew- Shane, Lizzy, Herman the terrier, and Vern the Van as we boarded the ferry along with other runners and crews. The scenic journey from Anacortes, WA, takes about an hour, with a couple of stops at other islands along the way.

 

The Crew (John is not pictured as he took the picture)

 

The race itself is held within the beautiful 5,000-acre Moran State Park. The course is a 25.2-mile circuit with 6,500’ of vertical to be enjoyed four times. A repeating loop course would also be a first for me. The trails wind through old-growth forests, foggy bogs, dramatic lake shores, and tops out on the 2,400’ Mt. Constitution, the highest point in the San Juans. On this summit sits Constitution Tower, a 53’ stone lookout built in the 1930s to resemble a 12th-century Caucus watchtower. Although not officially part of the race course, runners are invited to ascend the 60 stairs each lap and become an exclusive member of the Tower Club. I took part, and for my efforts, got partial views of the sound on the first lap, darkness on the second and third, fog on the fourth, a commemorative T-shirt, and most importantly, bragging rights.

I’m getting ahead of myself. We arrived late Thursday afternoon, checked into our AirBnB, and then attended the pre-race check-in and briefing, followed by burgers and fries with the crew at Lower Tavern in Eastsound. I slept well that night, which is unusual for me before a race, especially a 100-miler. We all rested easier as it had become clear that the weather would be on our side. The low 40s at night and upper 40s during the day, not much wind, and minimal rain—excellent for February.

The Race

The race began in the fog at 8:00 Friday, hiking and jogging up Constitution Rd. As we ascended above the fog, the field gradually stretched out and gained clear views across the sound to the Olympic Mountains. After the first three miles on the road, we turn onto the trail and make a technical descent for 1.5 miles to Mountain Aid Station. Then comes some flat running along Mountain Lake and a long gradual climb to Mt. Pickett, followed by a long gradual descent and eventually to Cascade Lake Aid Station. This section was relatively smooth and went surprisingly fast. I arrived before 11:00 am, significantly ahead of my anticipated time. I waved to Liz, who was emerging from her van. John greeted me from his nearby campsite and navigated me through the aid station, refilling my hydration and grabbing some food. He would be doing a night shift manning the Cascade Aid Station and helping support my crew and me throughout the race.

 

Race photo from Matt Cecill Visuals

 

I left Cascade in a loose pack of runners, so I had company as we began our first climb up the notorious Powerline Trail. I’ve blocked out the exact mileage and elevation gain, but it was indeed everything that was advertised. I was in step with eventual women’s winner Pollee Brookings from Portland when I mentioned that crew member Shane had experience on these trails running the Orcas 50k a few years earlier. I thought he had mentioned the day before that he did not think the Powerline was as steep at the BPA trail Forest Park. It soon became apparent that this was not the case. His memory was playing tricks on him. We cursed Shane a little bit, but this is what we signed up for!

 

Going up Powerline Trail.

 

Eventually, we got to a sharp left turn. We began a long flowing downhill through some of the most beautiful mossy forests on an island comprising myriad variations of lush, verdant old-growth forests. This relatively relaxing downhill ends with an abrupt right turn with the final 1.2-mile switchbacking grind up to the summit of Mt. Constitution, where the aid station and Tower were waiting. I grabbed some aid, punched a hole in my bib (proof of ascent) at the top of the Tower, then headed out of the relatively exposed ridge line trail and took in some decent views of the sound and lakes.

 

One of several lakes on Orcas Island.

 

View from the ridge on the trail descending from Mt. Constitution.

 

After the ridge, the 3-mile descent gradually becomes steeper with more switchbacks and some technicality. The first pass felt smooth and quick, but I could tell it would become slower and more jarring with each lap.

At the bottom, I was greeted by the largest and most impressive tree on the course, a beast of Western Red Cedar.

A majestic Western Red Cedar.

 

From there, it is a long mile of rolling uphill, followed by a quick, sharp downhill trip into the Moran Camp Lodge. Then it is time to regroup, reset, and do it all again.

At the end of loop 1, my biggest worry was feeling hot spots on my toes developing at a concerning rate. I got my socks off and liberally lubed the toes up. I had four more options of shoes I could change into, but I decided to stick with the same. This was probably my lowest point. It was way too early to be getting blisters. I decided that my current shoes were good. Concentrating on decent running form and lubing up again in a few miles was the answer. It worked. Maybe the hotspots were more in my head than my feet. I wore those Columbia Montrails for the next 50 miles. I did change to New Balance MORE at mile 75 just for the extra cushioning. I digress. My crew was on point, refilling fluids and food. I tried to keep my gear as simple as possible. One plastic tub containing 5 different bags dividing up fuel, clothing options, extreme weather and emergency gear, lights, batteries, etc., and another smaller plastic bin with shoe options. I thank Helen and my crew for lugging this around and preparing it for me!

 

Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Poles – Pair | REI Co-op $189.00

 

Loop 2 cruised along without incident. My crew met me just in front of Cascade Aid Station (mile 40) and stuffed me full of pierogies at sunset by the lake. With my belly good and full, I reached the top of Powerline before breaking out the headlamp. I finished loop 2 later that evening and had a few delicious pizza slices for dinner. Pizza and pierogies were my best “real food” meals throughout the race.

Shane would join me as a pacer for the next 5-mile section. It was a welcome change to have the company of my old friend, as the long night was ahead of me, and I did not want to dwell on that. However, the next moment of panic suddenly hit me nearly a mile up the road as I realized my hands were empty. I had left my poles behind at Camp Moran. I had never been a pole guy in the past, but I had committed to and become dependent on them through training for this. We’d come too far to turn back. Shane tried to call the crew but could not connect. Luckily, they would be driving up this road anyway to get to the next aid station to pick up Shane after pacing this section. We flagged Helen down as she was driving past. Thankfully, she was able to return to Camp Moran and retrieve them. However, I couldn’t pick them up until the next aid station, but that was ok. Disaster averted. After the road is the most technical section of trail twisting and turning down rocks and roots for 1.5 miles. Now it was dark, and I was pole-less. Fun! Shane ran 10 or 15 yards ahead of me, calling out “rock!” or “root!” when there was a significant trip hazard. I watched his feet, which helped me descend a little faster and smoother than I might have otherwise. Mostly, it was just a nice change of routine. Soon, we reached Mountain Lake Aid Station, met the crew, and ate some more. I was reunited with the poles, said farewell to Shane, and headed out into the night alone. The rest of Loop 3 went smoothly, and the time passed surprisingly fast. It was a little cool and breezy on top of Mt. Constitution, but I had no complaints.

 

The lush forest descent between Powerline Trail and Mt. Constitution climb.

 

Soon enough, Camp Moran came around for the third time. It was very early in the morning. I changed into the cushioned shoes, devoured more pizza, and headed back out for the final lap. The sun would be up in a couple of hours. Later that morning, I was back with the crew at Cascade Aid Station for a pierogi breakfast at 90 miles. Shane would join me again for the final 10 miles. We began the grind-up Powerline and managed to pass a couple of people. Shane was continuously positive and encouraging, taking photos and videos along the way.

 

At the base of the final push up Constitution, 94 miles in

 

As we approached the Constitution summit and the Tower he suggested just pushing through, keeping the momentum going. “Can I at least grab a piece of banana? No sitting down. One minute.” Coach Shane was OK with this. We ascended the Tower in the fog for the fourth and final time. There was a bemused tourist up there as I punched a hole in my bib. No time to chat.

 

The 60-step tower at the top of Mt. Constitution.

 

We traversed the ridge and then headed down the switchbacks. I could smell the barn and even run some downhill reasonably well. The final mile was more uphill than down, and we had to let some mountain bikers pass from behind just before the final turnoff down to Camp Moran. No matter; my crew and a few others were there as I high-fived race director James Varner and tripped a little on the timing mat after 28 hours and 24 minutes. I was a 100-mile finisher again!

After the first 25 miles, I was in 28th place, but between people dropping and making passes, I moved up to 12th place. I’ll take it!

Lap times:

Lap 1- 5:38

Lap 2- 6:55

Lap 3- 7:49

Lap 4- 8:01

Orcas 100 hoodie and finisher’s buckle.

 

Huge thanks to my crew and Rainshadow Running. This is a unique and special event that I would highly recommend. The course’s significant vertical profile was good for me physically and mentally. My training focused on hiking techniques more than running, and I moved methodically and consistently, not necessarily quickly. I learned a lot, and it was a positive experience.

For Portland area runners, here are my key workouts:

Mt. Tabor 4×4 and a few 6x4s. This is a specific circuit on Mt. Tabor. The 4×4 amounts to 7.25 miles with 3,000’ of vertical. I did this at least one evening a week as my bread and butter.

North Nasty. How many did I do? I’m not going to count, so countless. Key workouts leading up to race day (February 23):

December 23 – Triple North Nasty

January 20- One North Nasty on solid ice

January 21- triple North Nasty on ice, slush and mud

January 27- Quad North Nasty

January 28- 6x BPA

February 4- Triple Dog Mountain plus 1,000’ to get 10,000’

February 10- Double North Nasty

February 11- 2x Kings Mountain

January 21-27 was my biggest week. 97 miles and 30,000’.

Key fuels during the race:

Pierogies and Pizza multiple times, but not at the same time.

Barebells protein bars—I discovered these at Trader Joe’s a few months ago. They are easy to chew and swallow and taste good. I ate loads in training and during the race, and I also eat them recreationally.

Tailwind– I started using it for the first time during training. I drank quite a bit during the race. Cola flavored, caffeinated.

Gu Roctane

Gu Vanilla

Bananas and various other yum-yums

Until next time, Orcas! I can’t say right now that I will run the race again, but I will definitely return to the event to support other runners and maybe just to vacation in the San Juans with Helen.

 

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