Orcas Island 100, another bucket list race of mine. I don’t know how Orcas got on my list but often it’s the tougher races with lots of climbing that are also extremely beautiful. Orcas normally takes place in February, with cold snowy weather making the race even more of a challenge. However, this year the February date got pushed back to October. October sounded like a much better time of year as cold is not my favorite. It also meant two other people I knew (Brigan and Ronnie) were running the race. We made some loose plans to try and run it together when we met earlier in July.
Unfortunately, my training fell off a cliff with a bout of Covid leading to one DNF and then another DNF about 6 weeks later when too much stress and lack of training just got the best of me. I adjusted my thinking a bit going into Orcas to just enjoy the time I got on the course and have fun. I went to the Island solo as one of my friend, Brigan ended up having an interview during the first day of the race and needed to drop. Brigan connected me with Ronnie who was also going to run Orcas. I had met him previously at the Yeti Washington race in July. As luck would have it, Ronnie and I were on the same ferry ride from Anacortes to Orcas Island the morning before the race and sat down creating a plan of how we could run it together. Honestly it was about the least prepared I have ever been going into any race, possibly because I really had not a single thought, I would finish it. I had done a little more training leading up to Orcas but way lacking for the difficulty of this race.
Ronnie and I connected again once on the island and went to our pre-race meeting, further detailing how we would “self-crew” the race and do the best we could. Brigan had hoped to get to the island sometime later on Saturday and hopefully help crew us. Also, we had checked with the race director (RD) to see if she could run a lap or two at some point later in the race. This race doesn’t allow pacers but since she was a signed-up participant that was just starting late, they put her bib aside for her to pick up when she got there.
Race morning, we were off right on time at 8am. We hadn’t gotten any confirmation that Brigan would be able to come later, so we went with the plan of just taking care of ourselves. The race is a 25-mile loop that you repeat 4 times. It sounds simple enough on paper until you start up the climbs, which is almost immediately within the first 5 miles. When you have fresh legs, everything seems much easier and we felt our 15-minute miles on the first big climb was pretty strong. The next section was a long 9 miles with what was called “rolling” hills but soon felt like the longest never-ending section of the course. The only consolation to the end of that section was getting back to our vehicle where we could get to our things and crew ourselves. I immediately found the aid stations not to have the things that I typically want to eat during a race. It’s not that they didn’t have options, just that nothing I really wanted so I had to make sure to get food at the vehicle. With the tough climbs and hard work it takes to run this race, you have to eat well and get your calories in.
Now the last section of the loop was just 10 miles, but it involved mostly uphill for the first five to the next aid station at the highest point called Constitution. The first climb right after heading out is so steep in places, some say you have to practically put your hands on the ground and pull yourself up it. It’s a steep never-ending grind for sure. Of course, the first loop always seems easier than the cumulative miles that each loop after brings you. We knew after this first climb up to Constitution would be a struggle each loop. One rather fun challenge with Orcas 100 is doing the tower climb at the top of Constitution each loop. It’s not required but if you choose to do it and complete the climb each loop you get to be a member of the “Tower Club”. Ronnie and I decided we would do the climb the first loop then after that we could decide, but the first climb of course seemed so easy.
We managed to finish our first loop in about 7 ½ hrs. which we felt was pretty solid. The race has a 36-hour cut off, so that is 9 hours a loop but that would require being very consistent in our loops.
Ronnie’s parents were there to greet us after that first loop and we quickly crewed ourselves again with a sock change for Ronnie. That stop took us far too long and I knew we needed to step up our game on the aid station stops.
We were off again on our second loop hoping it would go as smooth as the first one had. Ultra-runners all know that isn’t how it works. Each loop is usually slower and more of a struggle than the one before slowly eating away at our time on the clock. Honestly, when we got to the top of that first big climb, I thought to myself, there’s no way I can imagine doing that climb two more times. My mind was already leading to a huge mental struggle and this race required your mental A game. I wouldn’t find out until later that Ronnie had the same thoughts. We both kept our mental struggles to ourselves and just kept pushing each other. We continued to push and finished the second loop around 17 hours into the race. We had a hard cutoff to make at mile 75 of 11am Saturday which is 27 hours into the race. Coming in off that second loop we were both surprised and elated to see Brigan there. She wasn’t sure if they would still let her take a late start and run a loop with us or just crew us, but we were all thrilled when they let her get her bib and start. I’m not sure if we would have started it without her. We were both already wrecked at 50 miles into the race.
Brigan led us with a strong push although I’m not sure if we really got much running in those first 15 miles in the dark night. Once we hit the powerline climb for the 3rd time and the sun came up, we started to pick up our pace.
It felt like one of my stronger climbs but still a long struggle, and even when we finally reached Constitution, I remember Brigan saying how terrible those climbs are. We knew now that getting down before the cutoff was not going to be an issue. Brigan now began to push us a little harder on the downhill trying to give us as much extra time as possible for the final loop. While I knew we had to make the 11am cutoff, I had not looked ahead at any of the other cutoffs. We were now slower, tired, and really struggling.
We had to do the next big climb and make the mile 80 aid station cut off. Brigan would now get in the car, quickly run to the store to get a couple items for us and meet us at that aid station. We pushed as best we could, but we were now within 15 minutes of those cutoffs and while we knew we could make the next hard cut at mile 90, we also knew it would not leave us time for the very rough climb up the powerline and to Constitution. We made a plan to run every bit of the long 9 miles section we could to try and give us another 30 minutes to climb Constitution the last time, knowing we would need every minute of it.
Ronnie and I talked several times very unsure we could do it. We knew we were very close to cuts and that climb would be a fight. We still had little confidence when we got to mile 90 with an extra 30-minutes gained, then again were surprised to see Brigan who kept encouraging us saying that we had time. All the aid station workers on that final loop kept encouraging us too and saying we were doing great, just keep moving. We really had no choice but to believe them and just go for it.
With just over 2 ½ hrs. to make that last section of climbing to get to Constitution for the final cut it did not seem like enough time. We chatted a bit about Ronnie going ahead of me if we got close and might miss the cutoff, as I struggled more than him on the climbs. I was determined to keep up and we would make that call if we needed to. I certainly didn’t want to keep him from a buckle even though we had done the entire race together. It was the breakup talk we didn’t want to have. As we were grinding up the final tough climb knowing the cutoff was looming over our heads literally, we both kept a close eye on our time. Finally, we could hear the aid station and knew we were close, we could make it and then Ronnie sees Brigan and I know we made it! It was almost like we had finished because we were so happy to see her and arrive just a couple minutes before the final cutoff time. We had literally done the impossible. This time Brigan joins us in our climb to the top of the tower as we also secure our spots in the Tower Club! I was so thrilled for Ronnie to be completing his first 100 miler and that I got to be part of it. Brigan bid us farewell as she did have to catch her ferry off the island. We could now finish the race in whatever time it took because we had made the final cutoff.
The final miles down to the finish became long and grueling for me. By now my quads were completely gone, my feet hurt, and I was getting the leans a bit as well. While I wanted so badly to run it in and finish strong, I just couldn’t. Ronnie patiently waited for me to make my way and we crossed the finish line together with a cheering crowd. Ronnie’s parents again were there to see us finish. The race director James Varner along several volunteers and other finishers continued to tell us how great a job we did! The volunteers had been telling us that all day even though we continually fought for every cutoff. It’s not a fun place to be as an ultra-runner but you learn how deep you are able to dig and how you are able to push when you feel you have nothing left in you.
One of the best parts of Orcas Island 100 miler is the awards ceremony the day after! The photographer put together an excellent slide show with some great shots from the race and James shared personal stories and words about each runner as he counts from the final finisher to the first. Ronnie and I were given our buckles together which could not have been more fitting as it was a total team effort and working together that got us to that sweet finish line. And for the record we were not DFL!