Orcas 100: Why Not?

Photo credit: Glenn Tachiyama

On the ferry ride over between Anacortes, Washington to our destination, Orcas Island, Nick replayed his whys over in his mind. I had a difficult time concealing my giddiness at a trip to Orcas–for one, I had never been but had heard of the island magic; for another, it was the Pacific Northwest and as a proud Pacific Northwesterner, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to smell coastal brine and the cleansing dampness of cedar forests. When Nick asked me my why, my reason for running Orcas 100, I almost laughed. Did I need a reason to run this race? Wasn’t the sheer beauty of the place enough?

“Because it was a chance to take this trip,” I said, my mind still full with images of our night in Seattle, stuffing our faces with seafood bisque and piroshkys and wandering so far and so long our feet were swollen before the race. Even on the drive to the ferry terminal earlier that morning, we had watched trumpeter swans, maybe even a tundra swan or two, huddle in fallow fields (which, for us birders, is pretty cool). It just happened that these neat events culminated with a very long race. The reasoning seemed good enough to me.

By the time the race rolled around on Friday morning, I was ready to explore Orcas Island by way of the second annual Orcas 100.

Loop One

At 8 a.m., 57 runners lined up outside of Camp Moran, on the southeastern side of the horseshoe shaped island. It was crisp and cold, and I briefly wondered if I had become a wuss since moving to San Diego and expecting 70 degree days and sunshine year round (answer: yes). The race started casually, and within seconds Nick had broken out of the pack and was leading the 5K climb. Most people had decided to power hike this part, but I figured that I might as well run to keep warm. Already a mile into the climb I could see snow dusting tree branches, and the snow only thickened toward the top. I hadn’t eaten breakfast that morning, my stomach too nervous to take anything more than some water and tea, so forced myself to chew on a frozen Honeystinger Waffle as we reached the top and began the technical descent down to the first aid station at mile 5. My coach, Alec Blenis at Complete Human Performance, suggested that I try to negative split between the first and second loops, so I attempted to keep a sustainable pace. I flew through both the first and second aid stations, relying instead on the Honeystinger Waffles in my pack. I quickly found myself between two male runners and a female, who I assumed to be Katie Mills, the person closest in age to me on course. We introduced ourselves and ended up running together for the majority of the loop. It was her first 100, and while I was on my third, it would be my first time running without a pacer and therefore running through the night alone. We were both anxious for a partner.

Katie descended quickly on the downhills, but I caught up to her on the uphill climb and the flatter sections that skirted the lake. At the Cascade Lake aid station, I saw my dad who had laid out a full spread of fruit and sandwiches and delicious hot soups from the local Eastbound Co-op, but declined as I stuffed more waffles in my pack. My preference for real, hot food would come later that night, I knew, and anything heavy wouldn’t sit well with the upcoming Powerline Climb. Katie and I took off from the aid station just seconds apart, and I somehow knew that I’d be sharing the next 85 miles with her.

I had read about the infamous Powerline Climb in previous race reports (see hereand here), but hadn’t thought too much about it. I’ve always loved climbing, and it’s typically my strength in a race, but I had greatly underestimated both the length and grade of this section. The single track opened onto double track that continued up and up and up, until I looked back and could see other islands far below me. Even then we weren’t done with the climb. Katie and I hiked up most of the way together, until the trail finally ended and began an annoying descent through snowy single track once more. Finally the descent concluded with a bridge and we were switchbacking our way up the backside of Mt. Constitution, the highest point of the race (and the highest point on the San Juan Islands). The aid station crew were exceptionally kind, but Katie and I once again concluded that we didn’t need to stop and hurried on to reach The Tower.

The Tower was introduced the night before, at the pre-race briefing, where RD James Varner suggested that the best views were seen from here. Not only that, but runners who climbed The Tower all four times and delivered the card to the Camp Moran aid station (the end of the first loop, and the start of the second) would be part of the lauded Tower Club. Well, sign me up.

Katie and I went up the climb together, then descended the remaining five miles back into the cheering camp.

25.2 miles, 5 hours, 8 minutes

Loop Two

The weather hadn’t turned for the worse, and I was just cool enough to warrant the extra sweater and gloves. Once again I grabbed waffles, swallowed a salt tab for good measure, and headed out. While I ran the first climb last loop, I figured that there was little point in getting my heart rate up without really gaining much time, so I hiked this section, then hurried a bit more on the descent down to Mountain Lake and back up to Mt. Pickett. Katie would run ahead, but I would catch her once more so we quickly concluded that we might as well run together.

Camp Moran Aid Station (and the start/finish of the race)

It was nice to run with Katie, and I was getting more excited with the course as the miles went by. I had started the race almost apathetic, but quickly reminded myself of how much was on the line: my 77-year-old dad, who had driven down from Vancouver, B.C. and would be crewing me the entire night, the work Nick and I had done to both afford and make space for this trip, the effort that Alec had put into training me for this race (just five weeks earlier!), the volunteers and RD that were putting their time into this event, and the fact that I was on Orcas Island without anything but the task to finish 100 miles. I could do that.

Katie and I flew into the Cascade Lake station, and I quickly grabbed some more food and a headlamp. We had decided that we would make it to the summit by sunset, so we powered up the climb. By the time we reached The Tower, the sun had just set and the sky was pink and yellow. Even Mt. Baker was visible in the distance!

The absolutely beautiful sunset atop Mt. Constitution. Photo by Katie Mills

On the way down, I tried put off turning on my headlamp, trying to lessen the length of night, but the trail soon became too technical and the forest too dark. Camp Moran shone bright and I finished fifty miles feeling great and excited to change. I swapped my pants for warmer tights and changed out of my rabbit sleevie wonder and into a smart wool top for the night.

50.4 miles, 10 hours, 59 minutes

Loop Three

The night air felt suddenly colder than it had been just ten minutes earlier when Katie and I had come into the aid station. My eyes felt heavy, and while it was still early in the night, I felt as though I could nap. Still, back up the road we went. At the Mountain Lake aid station, I downed a large cup of coffee. I don’t drink coffee or caffeinated tea, so I felt the effects of the caffeine quickly. Suddenly I was moving faster, so at the next aid station, I had another cup, and another at the Cascade Lake station, too. Katie and I zoomed up the third Powerline climb, and I briefly wondered whether it was better to know how far I had climbed, or be oblivious to how far I still had to go. I followed Katie down through the section towards the switchback, and we decided that either weird conversation or singing songs would help keep our spirits up and pass the time. Fortunately, she decided on Disney songs, of which I am horribly ignorant of, so I hummed along and tried to keep my end of the partnership up.

The third time up The Tower was cold, and we stopped in for food at the Mt. Constitution aid station for, of course, more coffee. By this point I was feeling a bit nauseous, and realized that having coffee wasn’t smart past a certain point for me. I hit that point, took in the refreshing nighttime air, and descended back down to Camp Moran.

Mile 75.6, 17 hours, 36 minutes

Loop Four

I was all smiles leaving Camp Moran. One of the volunteers had kindly let me borrow her poles for my final loop and I was thankful I had them–especially since my calves and achilles were tightening and Powerline was going to hurt the fourth time around.  I had not experienced a genuine low during the race, save for the fleeting apathy on the first loop. Once I started loop four, I knew I would finish no matter what. We hurried up the first climb together, thankfully bidding farewell to all of the endless climbs and technical descents we wouldn’t have to do ever again. At Cascade Lake, I ran into camp and hugged my dad, thankful to have him out here with me. I had inquired about Nick each lap and was happy to hear that he was in first and likely finished by now. Katie’s crew informed us that first place woman, Janessa Taylor, had just taken off, and I could tell Katie was anxious to catch her. I grabbed a slice of pizza to go and we headed off.

As Katie and I followed the short Cascade Lake trail section out onto the road that would take us to the start of Powerline, a car approached. I couldn’t make out of the face in the dark, but knew immediately it was Nick.

“You finished!” I exclaimed, and he ran to hug me and cheer us on. Somewhere in my delirium I didn’t process that he had finished, so I spent the rest of the loop wondering how the race had gone for him.

We said goodbye to Nick, then moved up the hill, intent on just getting the race done now. I had assumed I would power up this last climb, but I suddenly felt out of breath. I coughed, then coughed some more. With dread, I realized that I still wasn’t over the cold that I had carried for the last three weeks. This was going to be a long, long loop. Katie had fat blisters and a nagging IT band that wouldn’t let her slow down, so she said she had to hurry on. I watched as her light moved farther away, and attempted to put on music to lift my spirits, but had little patience to deal with the knotted cords. Feeling myself getting crankier still, I ate another waffle and some fruit I had taken at Cascade Lake. Still my cough worsened and I felt myself on the brink of wheezing.

The end of Powerline never seemed to come, but sunrise was breaking and I wanted to be finished with the race. I pushed up the switchbacks and crested the last bit of ascent, then hurried to the top of The Tower to grab my final card. I attempted to control my breath as I descended this final section, but I could hear the phlegm in my chest. Hold it together, Jade, I told myself. It wasn’t long now.

In the final mile, I heard Nick’s encouraging words and saw him as I popped out of the forest and hurried into the final winding trail to the finish. I watched as he got back into his car and drove to the finish to be able to watch him come in. Even with 100 miles now under me, I was nervous in this last mile. It felt as if I couldn’t breath, and I tried both speeding up and slowing down to either get past it or through the wheezing.

Finally, there was RD James and my lovely Nick and my dad who was still awake after all this time, cheering me in. Orcas 100 was complete! I hacked my way through hugs, then proceeded to cough for several more hours. I wish that the finale of 100-milers amounted to more exciting post-race parties, but I felt more like sleeping than anything else (as seen below).

Lesson learned? Don’t run with a cough or a cold.

More importantly, realize that people run 100-mile races for different reasons, and each race is completely different. For me, I was enamored by Orcas Island and the people that made this event possible. Part of the beauty of these races is that I don’t often know why I’m out there until I’m running. And while that can, at times, be dangerous in terms of committing to a race, it also opens up the possibility to reasons I couldn’t have imagined: to make a new friend, to make my dad proud, to be able to talk endlessly about the race and the course and what animals we saw out on the trail (an owl, a million deer) with Nick, and to simply experience something I couldn’t have imagined myself doing just one year ago. After all, why not?

100.8 miles, 24 hours, 45 minutes

3rd female, 7th overall

Some final notes

What a beautiful, gorgeous race. Thank you to all of the cheerful, smiling volunteers and thank you especially to the volunteer who gave me his grilled cheese that looked especially delicious at 2 a.m. Thank you to the Race Directors and everyone else who helped put together such a fun, supportive event.

I was so lucky to have my dad out on course–his first ever ultra event!–and was so excited to see him at each aid station, from mile 15 to mile 100. I was also thankful for Katie’s presence throughout the race and for her crew who handed me pizza, let me use the foam roller, and constantly checked to see how I was doing.

A big congratulations to my fiancé, Nickademus Hollon, for taking first place overall at this year’s event and, more importantly, running the race for himself.

Thank you, Orcas!

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