Posted by: pointlenana | February 10, 2015

Orcas Island 50k 2/7/15 – The Mud

As I arrived at Aid Station 3, I heard someone say, “Don’t hang around here long, you only have 9 minutes until the cutoff.”  “Really???”, I thought, “I’m so slow that I’m flirting with cutoffs???”  It was not a pretty day for me at the Orcas Island 50k.

The Orcas 50k is a Rainshadow Running event – beer+pizza+banjos+running – that takes place in the auspicious month of February, known as a particularly sunny, warm, dry time of year in the Pacific Northwest.  Not.  Race day was a bit rainy with some wind, but it had rained for a few days before and the real problem for me was that the 200 people in front of me had churned the trail into a fine lather of slippery mud.  Well, that and the fact that I wore shoes (Altras) that have almost no tread.  The Orcas 50k is known to be hard – 8000+ feet of climbing (and descending) – but I did fine on most of the ups.  What crushed my day – and my soul – were the muddy downs and even the levels.  2% downhill grades with the trail sloping slightly sideways towards something steep turned into planning exercises.  Stop.  Estimate where I’ll start sliding.  Look ahead to see if momentum will carry me to something more solid.  If so, just do it.  If not, look for a slightly different path where I don’t go down and/or fall over the edge.  This is not a fast way to run trails.  Nor is it especially fun.

The weekend started well enough – we ran into/met Hal Koerner on the ferry over.  Once the race started Saturday morning, it got rough fairly quickly.  By mile 0.1 we had started up a 5 mile 1500 foot climb.  By mile 0.2, I had a bloody nose (lingering aftermath from a cold).  At mile 1.5 we left the gravel/pavement and I got my first experience with mud.  From miles 3 to 5 we were back on pavement, I climbed well, and I worked my way into the front 1/3 of the 300 person pack.  At mile 5 we left the road again and got into the serious mud.  In the next mile or so, about 100 people passed me.  My shoes simply wouldn’t grip, and it wasn’t working for me to throw caution to the wind and flail my way through it.  This was partly because I’ve been nursing a hamstring problem for a couple months and didn’t want to aggravate it.  But beyond that, the effort to recover from near-wipeouts over and over was more than I was going to be able to sustain through 50k.  So I slowed and concentrated on staying upright.  It worked, until I went down hard 50 yards before the first aid station.  Rolling into the aid station with an inch of mud on each hand, I tried to clean myself – and my water bottle – but from that point on I was pretty much eating mud every time I drank or ate.  By the end of the race, I was wearing shorts made of mud with a thin fabric scaffolding.

The next 8 miles or so were pretty hard.  I remember a few miles along the lake where I could run reasonably well.  I remember long downhill stretches where I went slower than walking.  With the cloudcover and trees, it was also pretty dim and at times hard for my ancient eyes to see the trail clearly.  I fell several more times and considered dropping to spend the day having fun instead.  For my last fall, I went down so hard that the lid exploded off my water bottle – I found it eventually and carried on, in a sour mood but vowing that this run wouldn’t result in my first running DNF .  Around this point, my friend Lee caught up to me.  I’m usually faster than Lee, but only because his training system is running one (or more) marathons/ultras every weekend and doing nothing else (and this year his goal is a 100 mile race every month for the year).  I was able to hang with him through some flatter stuff, but then the trail went downhill again and he pulled away.  I shuffled on, eventually making it to Aid Station 3 where I was told about the cutoff.

Shortly before the 3rd aid station.  That's mud on my face, not a mustache and soul patch.

Shortly before the 3rd aid station. That’s mud on my face, not a mustache and soul patch.

Lee was just leaving Aid Station 3 as I arrived.  I grabbed some food and took off, and we started up Powerline.  This is the crux climb, about 2000 feet in 2 miles.  I’ve done things like that in training.  But this climb started with steep, slick mud and grass.  Over and over I found myself standing very still, trying to shift my weight gradually from my downhill foot to my uphill foot because if either foot slipped I was headed backwards downhill at high speed.  Lee grabbed a stick to use as a pole but it was all I could do to sustain forward/uphill momentum without looking for sticks.  Plus, as I told Lee, I’d have my pick of great sticks at the top of the climb from people who went through earlier.  At this point in the race I lost interest in ever doing the Barkley Marathons.  Somehow I passed Lee, and gradually left him behind.

From Aid Station 3, I had 2 hours 10 minutes to travel 5 miles.  This is 26 minutes/mile.  No problem, right?  Even figuring that Powerline would eat one hour, that left me 70 minutes to go 3 miles.  I moved on, running when I could, powerhiking when I couldn’t.  Time ticked away.  I got to the final climb up Mt. Constitution and pushed on.  I heard the aid station ahead – I thought.  Never, ever think you hear the aid station – it’s always runners ahead of you talking/yelling.  More time ticked away.  Finally, with 11 minutes to spare (I gained 2 minutes! Woohoo!), I pulled into the final aid station.  I grabbed more food and moved on.  Shortly after leaving the aid station, the clouds lifted briefly and for about 2 minutes I had an amazing view of the San Juan Islands.

I don’t think a lot of people were having fun back where I was.  I passed a couple that had a fairly grim look – relationship friction perhaps from a supposed-to-be-fun day in the woods.  I passed more people who probably started early and had been out for an hour longer than me.  For some reason – the rain had stopped and the mud had congealed, bull-headedness, skills learned during the day, anger, who knows – I had an easier time getting through those last downhill miles.  Getting close to the finish, I passed someone, and then we passed a sign saying the finish was a mile away.  Behind me I heard the person mutter “I thought we were closer than that…” I kept going, ran up the cruel hill at the end, managed to stay upright through the slippery finish chute and finished – 8:29 something, a PW by about 2 hours for that distance.  Janet, who had been a medical volunteer all day, congratulated me on not gashing my leg (medical issue number 1 from the day) or breaking my wrist (medical issue number 2).

As usual at a Rainshadow event, the post-race party was really fun.  Hanging out in a warm room with most of the other runners, music playing, warm pizza.  Lee managed to come in before the 9 hour cutoff, having beat the 4th cutoff by only two minutes.  Our friend Yvonne, in the same ill-advised shoes I wore, did great and ran ~6:35.  Adam Hewey ran slightly faster than last year, just over the 5 hour mark.  I wonder what it was like to run on a trail that hadn’t been pulverized yet?  It would be nice to be fast.  The highlight for the day for me was that the next day my hamstring was still in one piece.

Things I learned about running in mud:

– aim for the middle of the muddy puddle.  It’s probably not that deep, and it might be flat there.  It’s better then hitting the slanted side and slipping sideways into the puddle.

– there’s better traction in the middle of the stream running down the trail – the water washes away most of the slippery stuff and you might land on something with traction.

– when the mud gets more than a couple inches deep, aim for the deepest footprints.  Your shoes are going to get covered anyway and if you’re lucky, the mud will already be pushed out of the deep footprint and you’ll hit actual ground.

– there may be no really good shoes in mud, but Altra Olympus are not good shoes in the mud.

– slippery wet rocks and wood are sometimes less slippery than mud.

– in slippery conditions, all those stabilizer muscles in the hips and core get a workout trying to keep your legs under you.  My adductors were screaming before the halfway point.  I felt more tired then than I’ve felt at the end of 50ks before.

– those poles that were so great in the mud at UTMB would have been great in Saturday’s mud, if I had thought to bring them.

– in overcast/rainy dim lighting and on muddy trails, it’s helpful to be young with good reflexes and good eyesight.  That way you can see if the thing sticking up is a rock/root, or just some pointy mud, and react when there’s a surprise.

Thank you to Rainshadow Running and all the volunteers.  I’d like to say I had a great day – I really would.  It was well organized, and I got to spend the day in a beautiful place doing something I love.  I can definitely say that the experience was ultra, which is what I signed up for, and the party was great.


  1. mark,

    wow, that sounds like a crazy race, but if nothing else, perhaps you’ll consider permanently adding the mustache and soul patch?! maybe someday you will be able to look back on this and say you had a great day slogging through the mud. in the meantime, the rest of us congratulate you on not gashing your leg or breaking your wrist!

    well done, max!

    • Unfortunately, it’s easier to apply mud to my face than grow several coherent strands of hair. Maybe mustache/soul patch tattoos?

  2. That sounds…truly dreadful. I hate mud! But go you for not doing what I would have, which is DNS. I hope your hamstring continues to remain in one piece!

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