Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Orcas Island 25k

February 6, 2010

Strictly speaking this race had nothing to do with my goals this year (which are to improve my 10k road time). However, a few months ago when a group of my fellow Harriers were planning this trip so I decided it would be a fun weekend and signed up. I would do no specific training for it, but given my current training volume I figured I could pull off a 2 hour effort without suffering too much.

The timing of this race was unfortunate though as the ferry that normally operates between Sidney and Orcas Island (in Washington State) does not run at this time of year. This meant that, despite Orcas being less than 50km away, we had to take BC ferries to Tsawwasen, drive to Anacortas and then take another ferry to Orcas for a total distance of 270km (and about 8 hours). Fortunately, Sonja and I did have great company in the van with our other running friends so that made the trip enjoyable. We had rented a large house which was located about 20 min drive from the race start which turned out to be a quite spacious and was equipped with two kitchens and held the 10 of us quite comfortably. You definitely know you are with a group of runners when it comes to bed time though - the late night owls burned the midnight oil until 10:30! Of course we all had either 25km or 50km to race the next day so a good rest is important.

The PIH Orcas Island Team. Left to right, Front to back: John Catterall, Carlos Castillo, Jeff Hunt, Garth Campbell, Carolyn Goluza, Kathleen Birney, Paul Birney, Sonja Yli-Kahila, myself, Sara Pape-Salmon, Andrew Pape-Salmon, and Jeremy Watts

The Orcas Island race is a low key event, but is quickly gaining in popularity and boasted a field of around 350 runners in both distances this year. Its great to see so many people out for a race where it was all about the challenge and accomplishment of doing it since there was no prizing of any sort. Since this race attracted a completely different field that what I would see here on the island, I didn't really know what to expect in terms of competition. Based on my experience with some other trail races around this distance and looking at the time from previous years, I expected that I would likely be in the top few spots as long as I had a decent race and a win might be possible.

25k Course Profile

25k Course Map

Given the distance, a warm up was not required and after some brief directions by the race director (follow the orange tape and signs) we were off. Very quickly, I found myself running with two others up front and within a couple of km the 3rd place guy fell behind. The other guy, Aaron Coe, showed no signs of slowing down though and I soon realized that if I was going to have a chance to win, I would have to push very hard indeed. He seemed comfortable and while I too was running within my means, it was not slow. After a few km of gently rising trail next to a creek we reached Mountain Lake and ran along the shore for a short while. I had studied the map quite thoroughly before hand so I knew the big climb up to Mount Constitution was coming very soon. This would be a tough climb of about 500m in a short distance. Normally, I do well on the climbs, but as so as we started this one, I knew I was in trouble. The legs felt heavy and I just didn't feel strong even on trails that were not that steep. Aaron took the lead and I struggled to stay in contact, but he was just a better climber that day and I watched him gradually pull away.

I know how to push myself and dug deep to keep moving although my pace seemed quite pitiful at times. I kept Aaron in sight until half way up the climb, but then he disappeared and I would not seem him again until the finish line. Although I almost slowed to a hike a half a dozen times, I manged to keep a running stride for the whole climb. I got a bit of a reprieve after the false summit and there was only a bit more climbing before the summit. The view from the ridge was amazing, but I was in race mode so stopping to check it out wasn't in the cards. I was damn happy to get there as I knew that while there would be some more climbing, that was the worst of it and I could get some recovery on the next descent. I asked one of the volunteers how far the lead runner was in front of me.

"five minutes"

"Damn!" I thought to myself, how could he have put that much time into me so quickly. I didn't panic though as just resolved to try my best to catch back up on the downhills and hope that he slowed on the second half of the race. So I hammered the downhill as hard as I could and while it wasn't technical, navigating the switchbacks on the trail was a bit tricky since I had to slow and for each corner and then accelerate again on the straights. I made good time, but saw no sight of Aaron. The next section consisted of a number of moderate climbs that gradually brought us back up close to the height of Mount Constitution. While my legs where a bit burnt out from the first brutal climb, I thankfully felt much better on this section.

Soon I came to a T intersection. Expecting to see the usual orange tape, I look left and then right, but saw no flagging. I started to panic just a little and started doubting if I had somehow missed a turn off in the last couple of km. I was pretty sure I hadn't though and then I saw a arrow drawn in the dirt pointing right and towards what appeared to be a significant descent. I knew from the map that we should be descending soon and this fact plus the arrow promoted me to take the right. I figured I had a better than 50% chance of being right, but I was definitely nervous for a few minutes until I finally spotted another flag further down the trail and could finally breathe a sigh of relief. If I had chosen wrong I would not have known for sure until the next intersection which was at the bottom. That would have been the end of my race as I'm not sure I would have been able to muster up the effort to climb my way all the way back just to end up finishing poorly anyway.

Heading downhill. Photo Credit: Garth Campbell

The descent was long and much more enjoyable than the excruciating climb. When the trail finally stopped losing elevation, I knew we had just a couple more kilometers to traverse on a pretty flat trail next to Cascade Lake. I could definitely feel the fatigue in my legs, but I kept moving at a reasonable pace. I didn't envy the few 50k racers I saw were were just turning onto a trail to the 2nd of 4 climbs of the day. The run around the lake was uneventful although I was surprised when we didn't get routed around a lagoon as the map had indicted. I wasn't about to complain about it though. I crossed the finish line at around 1:55:00 fully expecting to see Aaron there, but when I didn't spot him I asked about where he was.

"You're the first"

"What? How did I beat him?"

The answer came about two minutes later when he crossed the line and told us that he had taken the wrong direction at the same unmarked intersection that I had trouble on and he had lost several minutes getting back on track. It was bad luck for him and I told him that it was not the way I like to win. The reality is that this happens to the best of us though and I've taken wrong turns quite a number of times on trail races. The race director indicated that the intersection was well mark before and someone must have removed the flagging. This also seems to happen a lot during races although its never clear if it is being done as a joke, someone maliciously trying to sabotage the race, or just a person innocently trying to clean up the trail and not realizing the flagging is there for a reason.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day came a few minutes later when Scott Jurek came across the finish line in 3rd place. I hadn't seen him on the start line and didn't expect him to be there at all and certainly didn't think he would be running the 25k. For those who haven't heard of Scott, he is one of the best known ultra runners in the world and is practically a legend in his discipline. His resume includes 7 straight wins at Western States 100 Mile Endurance Runs, 2 Badwater Ultramarathons victories, and well as numerous other 1st place finishes and awards. He was also very friendly and was introducing himself to the other competitors after he finished. Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to chat with except for a few words, but it was pretty neat to be racing against such talent. Despite coming in ahead of Scott, I can hardly claim to be the better runner. For one, I heard he is just coming back from and injury and/or surgery and second, I'm pretty sure 25k is not his best distance. Since he seems to excel at distances of 100 Miles or more, 25k is probably just a warm up. He obviously has outstanding endurance and is able to maintain a steady pace for a very long time, but may not be as fast at shorter distances.

Jeff Hunt and Scott Jurek. Photo Credit Andrew Pape-Salmon

After the race I really felt the effects of the downhills as my inner quads were quite sore for a couple of days. This is likely a result of pushing hard and not enough training for descending recently. Despite the win, I would rate the race as a average one for me. Andrew Pape-Salmon ran well to place 6th place finish, Sonja was 3rd overall woman, and Sara Pape-Salmon and Kathleen Birney finished their first ever 25k. Unfortunately, Jeff Hunt had some cramping issues and had to drop out of the 50k, but Carolyn Goluza and Carlos Castillo both finished well.

Andrew and myself

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