“How fast is your slow, Gabe?” I thought to myself, as I was resisting the urge to keep pace with the few huffing and puffing speedy guys that blew by me on each downhill early on in the Orcas Island 100. The first 50k of a hundred mile race are all about keeping your pace in check, taking care of yourself, and not getting caught up in the competition. It’s all about how fast your slow pace is. After running almost exclusively on snow and ice for the past two months, and a epic bout of the flu in January, I wasn’t sure how 100-miles of cruiser soft trails would go. Fortunately during that first lap, the speedsters who ripped by me never got more than a minute or two ahead; I would drift by them all again on the next climb, and then we’d repeat the process over again. And so the first lap went at Orcas Island 100.
Nestled between the straits off the coast of Washington, Orcas Island is about the last piece of America before you reach Canada. The island is rugged, steep, outrageously green, and has a couple of the most quaint and charming towns I’ve ever visited. Jenny and I have not taken a trip with just the two of us since before we had kids—and our oldest is about to turn six. We don’t have any family that lives nearby in Wyoming, so getting some time for even a date is about as rare as sunshine on Orcas Island. My parents were kind enough to come from Wisconsin to spend some time with our kiddos while Jenny and I went on a vacation-date-hundred mile race adventure. Between the Seattle areas rockin’ gluten free restaurant scene, stunning Pacific Northwest beauty, and a groovy hundred mile race, Orcas Island 100 made for the perfect trip.
Our trip started out flawlessly smooth with a fine flight into Seattle Wednesday night. Ms. Fatouma, at our car rental company, was about the all-around nicest lady ever and upgraded us from the “economy” package to a brand new Mercedes GLC 300, with the condition that I had to win the race. Gulp. It was definitely the nicest car I’ve ever driven so I agreed to the deal. We rolled in style out to enjoy a scrumptious dinner at Revolve Food and Wine Bar, and then binged on breakfast the next day at Shambala Bistro which was all the stuff of a foodie’s dream. Thursday we boarded the ferry at Anacortes for a short cruise through the San Juan Islands to Orcas, Washington. I’ve spent next to no time on boats, and I thought the ferry ride was one of the coolest experiences I’ve had. After checking into our VRBO rental (more on that later) and a couple of shake out runs on the course it was time to get ready for some racing.
James Varner and the Rainshadow Running crew sent us on our way at 8AM sharp. Orcas Island 100 is a tricky course, with a mix of very runnable climbs and super cruiser descents, but also some legitimately steep hiking and fun technical downhills. They claim the four laps have 26,000 feet of climbing and descending, but most folks GPS watches put it closer to 28,000 feet. I settled into a relaxed pace for the first lap and played leap frog with four guys for the first five hours or so. For the second lap, I spent many miles running with Colin Miller, a Vancouver area guy who will also be at Bighorn 100 in June. We chatted about other races, compared the Rocky Mountains with the coastal ranges, and had a good ol’ time enjoying the mix of sun, clouds, and what I’d call lovely warm temperatures for February.
I knocked out the initial climb of the third lap just before dark, and if memory serves me right, I never saw another front-of-the-pack racer the entire third or fourth lap. However, Jenny was keeping me updated at each aid station and Colin was never more than ten minutes behind me, which isn’t all that much for a hundred miler. I still kept the pace relaxed, not planning on pushing hard or making any moves until lap four. Towards the end of lap three, some volunteers at the Cascade Lake aid station warned me that it was freezing cold up on Mount Constitution, so I geared up with extra warm clothes before making the notorious 2,000 foot climb up the powerline trail. The powerline climb is definitely steep, but not the nightmare many folks make it out to be. I actually looked forward to the hiking after the first fifteen miles of each loop were non-stop running. Turns out folks in Washington have a different definition of “freezing cold” than Wyoming runners, as I got really overheated and sweat hard during that third powerline ascent.
I ditched the extra warm layers for lap four, and went back to my Salomon 9-inch S/Lab shorts and Arc’teryx Motus long-sleeve t-shirt and Incendo wind jacket and felt much better. My legs, mind, and spirit were fantastic for mile-75; but by mile-80 my stomach started to rebel a little bit. I had been enjoying my Honey Stinger Waffles all day, but I rather suddenly lost my appetite for anything, and felt on-and-off nauseous on the runnable climb up Mt. Pickett. Soon, of course, I got kind of low on energy and I did my best just to sip on Green Tea Skratch, which still tasted good and thankfully has a bit of caffeine. I’m not sure if getting overheated messed up my digestion a bit, but it took me 5-10 miles to get my mojo back.
And boy did I get my mojo back! I knew Colin must not be too far behind me after my low energy slog, and as I approached the Cascade Lake aid station for the last time I swear I saw a speedy looking headlamp only a couple minutes behind me. With only 11-miles and 3,000 feet of climbing to go, it was time to make a move. I made myself take in some more food, took a good hard pull from my Mountain Dew bottle, and charged up the powerline climb. I kept looking over my shoulder as I marched up the steep grade, ignoring my heart pounding out of my chest. I never saw a headlamp below me, but I wasn’t convinced—he must be only a couple minutes back. I finally let loose on the short downhill Mount Constitution traverse, before red lining again up to the summit tower. Jenny didn’t give me a time update at the last aid station, but she gave me what I interpreted to be a serious look and said “Run hard, Gabe”.
So I ran hard, really hard, down the dark, technical, and steep descent off of Mount Constitution. This was my fourth time on the trail, so by this point I had my foot placing all picked out, and I ran with reckless abandon. My legs still felt surprisingly good for the last gasp of a hundred miler, and I kept running strong up the final bit of road and rolling trail to the finish line. Jenny and James were there to greet me at the finish, and I was thrilled to be done and just take a seat. Turns out Colin was still 10-minutes back from me at Cascade Lake and not right behind me as I thought. I’m not sure if that light was someone on their third lap or if I was seeing things, but in the end I finished in 19 hours and 39 minutes, and Colin put in a heck of an effort to finish in 20 hours and 11 minutes.
Jenny carefully drove our fancy Mercedes through dark and winding Orcas Island road to our cabin on the Red Rabbit Farm. We may have gone a little too rustic with our accommodations, as there was one only small electric heater in the cabin that had apparently stopped working. It was a balmy thirty-some degrees in the cabin, and after climbing up the ladder to our sleeping loft I ended up sleeping in my cozy Arc’teryx Cerium SV puffy coat just to stay warm. We woke up three hours later and decided to try and warm-up in the outdoor shower, even though it was just above freezing outside. The water stayed warm for Jenny’s two minute shower, but regretfully I was not so lucky. We hurriedly packed up our car and made a blurry eyed dash for a coffee shop in Eastsound where we tried to warm up and rally for the rest of the day and the trip home. It’s hard not to make sacrifices while traveling on an extremely tight budget—but it turns out ladders, no heat, and outdoor showers are not great ideas after running one-hundred miles. Lesson learned, I hope.
After cheering on some other finishers and enjoying the Orcas Island scenery one more time, we made our way back to the mainland on the ferry again, and binged on a fish fry at the Shambala Bistro. We met up with some Christikon friends in the evening before falling fast asleep in our hotel that night. We ended up making it home by about 6:30 Sunday evening with the help of some Park City Running Company coffee, and were back to work on Monday at 7:45AM. Whew.
Reflecting back on the whirlwind trip to Orcas Island, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for so many folks. My wife Jenny was incredible, as always, at every aid-station and as a travel and adventure partner. I’m so grateful my parents took such great care of our kiddos so that Jenny and I could enjoy some quality time together. Thank you to James Varner, the Rainshadow Running crew, and all the race volunteers for being dialed in, friendly, and creating a wonderful race experience. I’m so thankful for Arc’teryx and Salomon for providing me with a primo race kit that kept me comfortable through all of Orcas Islands microclimates and for the hundreds of miles of wicked winter Wyoming training runs leading up to the race. Thank you to Honey Stinger and Skratch Labs for keeping me fueled and hydrated, and thank you Park City Running Company for your continued support. These companies all support runners, and I hope you can do something to support their businesses as well. Also nothing but gratitude for Coach Ty Draney and Dietician Heather Goesch for getting me in bangin’ shape—especially for February. Lastly, I’m thankful that I could keep my promise to Ms. Fatouma!
I’m resting up now letting a few aches and pains heal, and then it’s time to get back in the saddle and ready for Bighorn 100. One hundred miler down, two to go. Thanks for reading.