Mulligan (noun): A second chance to perform an action, usually after the first chance went wrong through bad luck or a blunder. –Wikipedia
At 6:30 a.m. an alarm is ringing. I am laying in the back of a truck parked at Camp Moran on Orcas Island, long since awake, a single question looping through my mind: “What the fuck am I doing?”
The Orcas Island 100 Miler will begin in 90 minutes, and I’m supposed to toe the start line. I’m fairly certain that this is a terrible idea. There’s no way I can finish, and in this moment I’m not altogether convinced that I even want to try. Much to my chagrin, a spontaneous and last minute insurance policy kicks in–I gave my students the link to my Delorme map share so that they could follow my progress–and it forces me to silence the loop, emerge from the warm coziness of the sleeping bag, and begin my pre-race rituals.
This race had called to me during its inaugural year in 2016. I was drawn to its beauty, old school vibe, and challenging nature. The Project Talaria documentary of that first race, paired with Glenn Tachiyama’s gorgeous photos of runners in action out there, fueled my interest. Running the Orcas Island 50k in 2017 sealed the deal. When registration for the 2018 100 mile race opened, I entered immediately and am willing to bet that I was the very first person to do so. Glenn said, “Ellen, this course was made for you!” Yassine expressed a similar sentiment. I hadn’t even run my first 100-miler yet, but I knew that I would love running that distance, and this particular course was both a stunner and a beast. Yes, please! The race involves four 25.2 mile loops around Moran State Park on Orcas Island and has 26,000 feet of vertical elevation gain and loss. Some runners find loop races boring, but, for me, they put me into a meditative state and create a sort of rhythm. I like making landmarks along the way, too; sometimes by the end of loop races, I also start talking to them.
Things derailed in September when I fell during the Barkley Fall Classic, hitting my head on a rock and sustaining a concussion. The injury was worse than I imagined and kept me from running for the next three months. As a result, I lost my fitness and was essentially starting over once my TBI doctor gave the green light to resume life as usual. I knew that he was the doctor for me because he didn’t flinch when I asked about running a 100-miler in February: “Go for it,” he encouraged. I wasn’t sure, though, how possible it would be. In December, I showed up for the Deception Pass 50k with no real training miles on my legs and hotdogged my way through it. If it wasn’t for Seth dragging my butt around that course, I might not have made it. It was incredible to me to hurt that badly during a 50k. It was humbling and humiliating, frustrating beyond belief to be that out of shape. Still, I finished.
A couple of weeks of travel in December and January didn’t help matters, as there was no time for running. I went into the Capital Peak Mega Fat Ass 55k slightly more prepared, but still shuffled across the finish line at the back of the pack.
Capitol Peak Mega Fat Ass 55k. Photo by Seth Wolpin
Serious doubts had set in. Out on a run with my friend Jennifer, I confessed that I wasn’t sure if starting Orcas was a good idea. My first hundred miler had been such a complete disaster. Coming into the second one unprepared could result in failure, which would only further crush my confidence. I needed a do-over, not a do-worse. Giving up my bib started looking like the smart option. Of course, choosing the smart option isn’t in my nature. I knew that I could handle the mental component of running Orcas; that wasn’t a concern. It was the physical aspect that troubled me. I convinced myself, and Yassine, that I would be willing to call it mid-race if things got bad. It’s unclear whether either of us believed that, but a DNF was a real possibility given my circumstances. In the end, I decided it was worth the risk. A couple of solid runs in the week leading up to the race provided some much needed confidence, enough to trick me into feeling like I might just be able to hotdog my way through this race.
In our pre-race talk, Yassine sensed my doubts and told me to stop playing the “I’m so out of shape” loop through my head. It was time for a new mantra. His words, as per usual, snapped me out of it, but by race morning, the loop had devolved back into negativity. In that impulsive moment of giving my students the map share link, I hadn’t actually thought I would need the push. In the end, I might not have gotten out of that truck without it. Having Yassine there saved me, too. Each time that I voiced some form of doubt, he would redirect my thoughts without even acknowledging the negative worry I had expressed. “Hey, look, you’re lucky number 7!” “You’re gonna be great! You’ll have the biggest cheering section at Cascade Lake!” “It’s a beautiful course; you’re gonna love being out on those trails! I wish I could be out there!” He chipped away at my doubting outlook, but, sensing it might require something more, he stole off to put on his aid station attire: an orca costume. How can you not smile at a guy dancing and laughing at the start line while wearing an orca outfit? Yassine’s positive energy was infectious, and at last a new mindset took hold. I could do this. Seth held my hand as the RD, James Varner, counted down to the start; we enjoyed a sweet little kiss, then were off.
Getting ready to run. Trust me, I’m more excited, and awake, than this photo suggests. Photo by Seth Wolpin.
Lap 1: Getting Acquainted
Start Line to Mountain Lake (Mile 0 to Mile 4.7)
The course opens with a climb up the Mt. Constitution Road. It’s a paved series of lazy switchbacks, the occasional view of the San Juan Islands peeking out around a curve. We began running at an easy pace, slowly moving up through the field. I had left behind all the negativity and self doubt and found the sense of joy that usually guides me through races. The morning was crisp, there was no sign of rain, and the runners projected good energy into the air around us. As the climb became steeper, I felt myself slowing. Seth and I had agreed to run our own races, so after three attempts at kissing goodbye while running, we parted ways. I watched as he made his way up through the pack and tried to keep up as much as possible, moving back and forth between a power hike and slow run. As my hero, Van Phan, passed me, she said, “So he dropped you, huh?” I confidently replied, “Oh, I’ll catch him on the downhills. I’m not worried about that.” Joke was on me; I wouldn’t see Seth again for hours.
View from Mt. Constitution Road. Photo by Seth Wolpin.
Along the way, I chatted with other runners, everyone in good spirits. I liked that this was a small field, as it gave the race a more intimate feel. I had lost sight of Seth but was happy to know he was pushing himself. Finally, the Little Summit trailhead came into view, and we started down the first descent. It’s a fun downhill of winding single-track but can be a little gnarly in places, with rocks and roots and creek crossings. Caught in a cluster of runners, my anxiety spiked as I was on the heels of the runner ahead of me and felt at any moment my own heels would be clipped by the runner behind. We bombed down quite quickly, fortunately without incident. Before long, we reached the Mountain Lake Aid Station. I quickly checked in with my bib number and kept going.
Mountain Lake to Mt. Pickett (Mile 4.7 to Mile 10)
This section is quite runnable as it meanders along the edge of Mountain Lake before rolling over to the Twin Lakes. I passed quite a few runners who were power hiking, my plan being to cover as much ground as possible during the daylight. I wouldn’t push too hard, knowing there were many miles to go, but I did want to get as far as possible into Lap 2 before the sun set. I took note of a particularly boggy section crossed gingerly on slippery, questionable logs; “this will be interesting come lap 4,” I offered as neighboring runners laughed uncomfortably. Reaching the Twin Lakes, the trail diverges toward the second climb, Mt. Pickett. This is one of the most beautiful stretches of the course; the forest opens up, letting streams of sunlight filter in, and it’s carpeted in bright, spring green moss. It’s also the easiest climb. Nevertheless, I’m a slow climber, so runners passed me on the ups, as I leap frogged them on the occasional downhill parts. Some of the climbs felt runnable, so I slid between a slow run and power hike, picking up speed on the descents. After summiting Mt. Pickett, a double-track trail winds down to the aid station. This provided a welcome opportunity to pick up speed. As I sped past a runner who had leap frogged with me throughout this section, I assured her, “You’ll pass me on the next climb!” Reaching the Mt. Pickett aid station, I grabbed a pb & j and kept moving. The captain, Doug McKeever, told me he was a fellow Tacoman and sent me off with good wishes.
Mt. Pickett to Cascade Lake (Mile 10 – Mile 14.1)
This section is also quite fun and very runnable. It’s a little rolly with some gradual downhill sections and few climbs. I left the aid station with a small group, and we made good time, cruising past the south end of Mountain Lake and then following a stream that wound its way down to a waterfall. Glenn Tachiyama was waiting at the bottom, capturing a great shot of runners in action with the waterfall serving as a cascading backdrop. It was just such an image that led me to this race, and now here I was, the one in front of the lens.
Feeling strong on Lap 1. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.
I was surprised not to have caught Seth by this point, having assumed that I’d out pace him on the flats and downs. At the same time, I was excited that he was having a good race and felt a sort of pride in the fact that I hadn’t been able to catch him. Glenn provided photographic evidence that Seth looked pretty incredible as he passed by before me:
Look at the back kick on this guy! Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.
After some more rolling terrain accompanied by the rushing stream, Cascade Lake finally came into view. Yassine would be waiting there at the aid station, and this knowledge gave me a boost that picked up my pace on the stretch of road that hugged the edge of the lake. I rolled in feeling happy and strong, and Yassine, true to form, was yelling my name and cheering like crazy. There was something incredibly reassuring about having my coach there at this race; I would pass him four times over the course of the event, and on each loop I told myself, “Just get to Yassine.” He noted how strong I looked coming in, and I admitted to feeling great. A volunteer had made some delicious vegan energy balls, which I devoured as Yassine filled my water. Seeing another runner grabbing a beer, Yassine joked, “Hey, do you want to chug a Tecate like that guy?” I laughed and, raiding the fruit bowl, replied “I think I’ll just stick with this banana.” Yassine guessed that I was only 10 minutes behind Seth, so with my coach’s words of encouragement fresh in my ears, I left with a sense of urgency, knowing the climbs to come would widen that gap.
I wouldn’t want anyone else for a coach. Photo of Yassine Diboun in Orca costume by Seth Wolpin.
Cascade Lake to Mt. Constitution (Mile 14.1 to Mile 19.9)
Last year, during the Orcas 50k, I found the Power Line climb to be a fun challenge. It’s relentlessly steep, but I’ve climbed worse, so I initially looked forward to it. As I chugged up it this time, I tried not to linger on the fact that this was the first of four ascents I would make up it in the next 30+ hours. Hands on knees, one foot in front of the other, I made slow progress up the beast. A runner who I had met earlier, Jason, caught me, and we climbed and chatted, which made the time pass more quickly. The woman I had passed on the downhill caught up, too. I laughed that I had told both of these runners that they would catch me on the next climb and joked, “I need to stop saying that to people.” We all exchanged names, and she tried to commit ours to memory. I joked, “By Lap 4, we’ll probably just make up names for each other.” She forced a laugh, and I asked how she was doing. She sighed and said, “I’m just trying to take it a step at a time.” Jason and I both encouraged her (Jennifer) to take it aid station to aid station. She thanked us and moved out of sight. I didn’t see her again, but looking at the results, it looks like she finished ahead of me, so way to go Jennifer! Jason and I would be roughly in the same vicinity throughout the rest of the race.
As we finished Power Line, the course turns left onto a delightfully downhill single-track trail that contours through the forest along the side of a hill. It’s probably my favorite part of the course. After such a tough climb, you’re rewarded with a beautiful stretch and can let gravity do the heavy lifting for a while. I fell in behind a runner named Mike, and we both let out a few Yeehaws along this section, taking pleasure in the trail itself. Eventually he pulled aside and asked me to lead; he didn’t want to go too fast. I had intentionally not passed him for the very same reason, but went ahead and took the lead. “Yeehaw!”
All good things must inevitably come to an end, I suppose, and the contour trail soon deposited us at the foot of Mt. Constitution. Mike soon dropped me, and other runners overtook me as well. This is an endless source of frustration, but I refused to focus on my deficiencies as a climber and committed to pushing up the switchbacks as quickly as was possible. A runner fell in behind me, and we puffed up and back, up and back, until we heard cowbells and cheering in the distance. “That sounds promising,” I offered. “Yeah.” Sure enough, the Team Seven Hills aid station was just ahead. I grabbed a quick nibble of food and scanned the crowd for my friend Sudheer, who had said he’d be there. Disappointed not to see him, I checked out and headed toward the Tower.
After having just completed the two most difficult climbs on the course, runners have the option to climb a bit more. By making your way to the top of the Lookout Tower on each lap, you gain entry to The Tower Club. Of course I would attempt to join this elite company! In a room at the top, the race directors had placed a hole punch, which runners used to mark their bibs in a designated spot. Someone had also placed an “Easy” button. As I punch my bib, someone tapped the button, which led a mechanical voice to declare, “That was easy.” With a chuckle, we spiraled down the stairs back to the course and the final descent.
Mt. Constitution to Camp Moran (Mile 19.9 to Mile 25.2)
The Power Line and Constitution climbs had taken a lot out of me, but the next five miles were mostly downhill, so it was time to put my running legs on and cover some ground. Winding down the edge of Mt. Constitution can offer expansive views of the Cascades and San Juans, but there was a lot of cloud cover, and the winds were picking up. I passed Glenn for the third time and thanked him for braving the gusts just so that we runners could have the perfect photo backdrop.
Happy to have those climbs behind me–for now. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.
In my memory, this section was an interminable series of switchbacks. I recalled Van Phan mentioning in the documentary that she counted 36 switchbacks on the descent. While I love downhill running, I tend to get a little bored on switchbacks. To my surprise, there was more to this section, with some small climbs, flat and muddy parts, and some rocky technical sections. It was much slower going than I had anticipated, and it’s not until further down that the trail reaches a higher “butter factor” and becomes easier to run. On the descent, I thought to myself, “In 24 hours or so, hopefully I’ll be coming down this for the final time.” It would be longer than that, but it was a wild thought to consider: What a crazy endeavor we’d all set out to accomplish.
The trail finally morphs into a fir-needle cushioned path with few obstacles and longer stretches before turns. You hear water flowing and know this must mean you’re inching closer to a lower elevation. Near the bottom, there’s a hair-pin turn punctuated by an enormous old tree. It’s such a grand old soul, that I couldn’t help but stop to hug it and say “Hello, Old Tree.” It would become for me the beacon assuring me that the lap was coming to a close. Soon thereafter, Cascade Lake came into view. The trail jogs left there and leads to two last climbs, the second of which another runner appropriately dubbed “Power Line Jr.” It felt a little cruel to have these climbs stand between you and the end of the lap, but I guess none of us signed up for this because we thought it was an easy course. The last push behind me, I rolled down into Camp Moran, the first of four laps in the books in a time of 5 hours and 57 minutes.
Stepping into the lodge was an incredible experience. Volunteers flanked me within seconds of crossing the threshold. One took my pack to refill. Another noticed that my fingers were swollen and assessed that I needed electrolytes. In many ways, the volunteers treated me like a helpless child, and I say this in the most positive sense. Trail running can be mentally exhausting, and sometimes you need someone to take charge and do the thinking for you. As one volunteer brought me a glass full of pickle juice, another said, “Now, I want you to just chug that. Hold your nose and drink it all.” Yes, ma’am. It was both delicious and disgusting at the same time. Another volunteer snagged me a piece of vegan pizza while another swooped in to grab my drop bag. Bringing it over, he said, “This was laying on top of your bag.” It was the chocolate bar that I had given Seth. An enormous smile spread across my face. We weren’t running together, but we were thinking of each other. I took a square of chocolate and felt a warm glow inside.
The day had grown surprisingly warm on the first lap, so I opted to change out of my sweaty clothes, knowing they would bring on a chill as the day cooled. A volunteer helped with this as well, given my fat fingers were incapable of doing anything productive. I touched my socks, debating whether to swap them out. The volunteer said, “Just change them. Do it.” He pulled over a chair and started taking off my shoes and socks. My feet were dirty and sweaty, but this guy didn’t bat an eye. The moleskin had fallen off, so he grabbed some athletic tape and doctored my disgusting feet. It was incredible. I told the volunteer that he was a saint, and he asked if I could put that in writing for his wife. That tape stayed on my feet for the duration of the race and prevented any blisters from emerging. Thank you, Saint Volunteer!
It’s dangerously easy to get lulled into comfort here, and it soon occurred to me that I had stayed too long. Throughout Lap 1, I had either not stopped at aid stations, or had limited myself to 2 minutes. I had been at Camp Moran for nearly 15 minutes. While the food and self-care were all necessary, it was too long, and I needed to get moving before I stiffened up. It was a game of chasing daylight, now. I asked the volunteer to put the chocolate bar back on Seth’s bag. He handed me a Sharpie and instructed, “Leave a little note. It will pick him up when he needs it.” A few hearts was the best I could do before heading out the door.
Lap 2: Chasing Daylight
Camp Moran to Mountain Lake (Mile 25.2 to Mile 29.9)
Back up the Mt. Constitution Rd. I went, mostly hiking this time around, but doing so with a sense of urgency in my stride. I chatted intermittently with runners as they zoomed past, but I was finding myself alone for much of the time on this course. I like it this way, having occasional company interspersed with long stretches of welcome solitude. Often I get a snippet of song or a mantra that loops through my mind. For this race, the last line in the refrain of the Birds of Chicago song “Remember Wild Horses” was on repeat: “You’re just rememberin’ wild horses is all”–over, and over, and over, for nearly the entire race. It’s the closing song in the Orcas Island 100 documentary, which explains why my brain chose it. Why it lingered on one line for 30+ hours, I can’t explain.
As I neared the top of the climb, the Delorme started beeping like crazy. I pulled it out and saw that a number of people, mostly my students, had sent thoughtful words of encouragement. Some made me laugh out loud; some made me smile; all were most welcome. That positive energy gave me a lift, and when I reached the Little Summit trailhead for the second time that day, I moved down it with intention and an extra spring in my step. My legs were a bit stiff, so this downhill was slower going the second time around. Given my talent for rolling ankles, I went a bit more conservatively, knowing I was getting tired. I don’t recall even seeing another runner until I hit the Mountain Lake aid station, where I was greeted with avocado sushi rolls and mango and sticky rice balls. In that moment, they won the Best Aid Station Food award. I tried not to be greedy and resisted the temptation to just bury my face in the plate and eat every last bite. Thanking the volunteers, I pulled myself away from the goodies and headed down the trail.
Mountain Lake to Mt. Pickett (Mile 29.9 to Mile 35.2)
It took a little more mental prodding to run parts of this section that I had blown through on the first lap. Gentle inclines felt a bit steeper on round two, but I knew that run them I must. It was a slower pace, but I pushed myself, always conscious of the waning light. I heard two runners quickly closing in behind me, and they soon breezed past with ease. Exasperated by their fleetness, I forced a smile and hello. How demoralizing. “Hey there! We’re the Safety Sweepers. Just making sure everyone’s ok. How are you?” Laughing, I replied, “Happy to know you’re not looking that fresh at mile 30!” They laughed then floated away on those fresh legs.
I don’t remember much else from this section, other than another runner zooming past me on the descent into Mt. Pickett aid station. I was still at a point of trying to avoid getting my feet wet and remarked that I shouldn’t waste energy on that and instead should embrace the inevitable. He advised me, “No, it’s too early for that!” He was right, so I continued to pick my way down so as to avoid the sloppy mud fest sections. It was slower, but I would be happier running with dry feet. Turns out he was another Safety Sweeper, which took the sting out of the ease with which he dropped me.
Another quick stop to grab food at Mt. Pickett aid station, and I pressed on.
Mt. Pickett to Cascade Lake (Mile 35.2 to Mile 39.3)
My tentative goal had been to make it 55k before needing a headlamp, and I was glad to have achieved that. Twilight fell as I journeyed to Cascade Lake. I don’t remember much about this section, other than that I was losing light and pressing forward, clinging to the waning day. When I hit the road that leads to Cascade Lake aid station, I picked up the pace and once again came in to the sounds of Yassine’s cheers, smiling and still feeling happy and strong. “I knew that was you! I could tell!” he exclaimed.
After telling me how good I was looking, Yassine took a serious tone and said, “Seth’s still here, and he’s not feeling well.” “He’s here?” I was shocked. “Yeah, you need to get him moving.” Looking across the shelter, I saw Seth talking to some runners. It had taken me nearly 40 miles to catch him, and then it was only because he’d waited here for me. We congratulated each other on strong first laps and decided to head out together to face the coming climbs and the falling darkness.
Dusk at Cascade Lake. Photo by Seth Wolpin.
Cascade Lake to Mt. Constitution (Mile 39.3 to Mile 45.1)
I’d picked up my trekking poles at Cascade Lake, hoping they would help save my legs a bit during the two brutal climbs. I had always felt reluctant to use poles in a race, and this was, in fact, the first time that I had run with them. Perhaps more practice in advance would have been a good idea, as I don’t feel that I was using them effectively or efficiently. Seth and I chatted about our first laps as we made our way up the Power Line then over to the contour trail. Mike caught up to us here, and I commented on us getting to run this section together again. Seth pulled ahead as we wound up the side of Mt. Constitution and waited for me in the comfort of the Team 7 Hills tent at the summit. Sudheer was there this time, and he shared kind words of encouragement. Unable to linger, we made our way over to the Tower, which we both climbed for the second time. “That was easy.”
Mt. Constitution to Camp Moran (Mile 45.1 to Mile 50.4)
Darkness, coupled with ever more stiffening legs–and, admittedly, some fear of falling–led me to run a bit more conservatively on the descent. I also opted to use my poles, thinking it would add some insurance against a fall. The runner who had followed me up to Constitution on Lap 1 was now behind me on the downhill, and Seth was ahead. I kept insisting that the runner pass me, feeling that I was slowing him down. He, in response, insisted that I wasn’t slowing him down, so the three of us formed a team snaking down the mountain. At some point Jason joined us. There was intermittent conversation, but overall it was a quiet ride down. When we reached the grand old tree near the bottom, which Seth had also mentioned hugging on Lap 1, we all gave it a pat, and the runner behind me said in an appreciative tone, “That’s a big old guy.” As the trail jogged left at the road, I let out a wolf howl in the direction of the Wy’east Wolfpack aid station, taking comfort in the fact that my coach was right across the street. Onward and upwards, we took out the unwelcome last climbs and trotted in to Camp Moran, which I had left 8 hours earlier.
Half the race behind us, there was still a long, cold night to confront. On a whim, I had tossed an old puffy jacket into my drop bag, and it proved to be a wise decision. I donned a winter hat, heavy gloves, multiple layers, a hard shell jacket, and the puffy. Temps were falling below freezing, and the wind gusts were reportedly reaching 24 miles per hour. We would be moving slower and couldn’t rely on producing enough heat to keep warm. I’d been prepared for Lap 3 to be the worst but also determined to go into it with a good mindset, acknowledging it would be tough but not dwelling on it. At Camp Moran, Team Rainshadow’s Colton took care of me, grabbing food and my drop bag, filling my water, and attending to everything I needed. As with the first lap, I was in capable hands and was so grateful for that. Having felt the noticeable difference new socks made on Lap 2, I took an extra minute to put on a fresh pair. We made a quick turnaround and headed out for Lap 3 munching big slices of vegan pizza. Photographer Matt Cecil stopped us on the way out to take our halfway point portrait. I was clearly looking a little rough on the outside, but the smile was genuine. (You can view Matt’s stunning portraits here, and you’ll see one at the end of this report.)
Lap 3: Night Falls over Orcas
Camp Moran to Mountain Lake (Mile 50.4 to Mile 55.1)
I expected Lap 3 to be my slowest of the 4. It would be dark for its entirety, limiting vision to a tiny orb of light on the trail. Stepping out the door at Camp Moran, the noticeable drop in temperature took us both aback. As we climbed, the winds became a more significant force. I hadn’t expected to feel sleepy, but on this third climb up the Mt. Constitution Road, I felt my eyes grew heavy and a strong desire to lay down for a nap took hold. I was more anxious about a potential fall than I would admit. It took some mental strength to push all of this aside and focus instead on moving forward. Seth is a much faster climber, and I encouraged him to drop me. He refused. I insisted. He pushed back, saying he was worried about me on my own out there at night, since I was coming back from a traumatic brain injury. Runners were more spread out, and if I fell or rolled an ankle, it would be a long time until someone got to me. I began to tense up, stating that I could take care of myself and had, in fact, gotten myself out of worse situations. “I’m not leaving you at night.” “If I was a dude, you would leave me.” “Not if I was dating him.” While I understand now that it came from a good place with the best of intentions, in the moment, it struck me as my boyfriend not believing I was strong enough to do this on my own. In truth, we simply should not trust our words or interpretations at Mile 55.
After a moderately tense and quiet descent, we could smell the campfire at the Mountain Lake aid station. The volunteers offered a most welcome cup of miso soup with tofu. A few runners were huddled around the fire, but I was reluctant to get too cozy. It would make leaving all the more difficult. One runner appeared to be in rough shape, and we came to realize it was Joel Ballezza. It seemed as if his race was over, and we wished him well. The volunteers mentioned that several runners had come in mildly hypothermic. The thought troubled me, but the puffy was doing its job, and the upcoming flat section offered an opportunity to run and warm up. We left and walked for a few minutes as I drank some soup, then shifted into a shuffle. “Ten easy miles to Yassine,” I reassured myself.
Mountain Lake to Mt. Pickett (Mile 55.1 to Mile 60.4)
Throughout the flat section, we alternated between a power hike and a shuffle. I knew we should have been running most of it, but it was difficult to convince my legs to do anything other than this pathetic shuffle, my feet barely leaving the ground. I was starting to hurt, and your mind tells you that it will hurt less if you shuffle along. The truth is, running probably would have felt better, but good luck convincing your brain of that. We laughed while passing the Twin Lakes, recalling a mnemonic one of us created to remember this location on the course map (I’ll spare you the details, lest you get the false impression that one of us must be a fifteen year old boy.) I made a couple of feeble attempts at lightening the mood by singing the “Erie Canal” song and making up a song that ran something like, “Mt. Pickett, you are a friend of mine” (which, in hindsight, appeared to be a thinly-masked version of that Jose Cuervo song.) We greeted Mt. Pickett at its summit before launching down the double-track to the aid station below. This was a welcome opportunity to pick up my pace. I wanted to reach the aid station first so that I had a couple of minutes to sit down and eat some hot soup.
Fatigue had set in with full force, and the thought of sitting in a camp chair for five minutes called like a siren’s song. For the first time in a while, I was running instead of shuffling. I made an important discovery on this descent: once I pushed past the initial stiffness, it actually felt good to run. This was an important lesson to learn, and I would draw upon it throughout the remainder of the race. At the aid station, a few runners were huddled around the heaters, some of them appearing to be in rough shape. A volunteer handed me a cup of lentil soup. I tossed in some potato chips and felt warmed by the food. Seth arrived and had a nice chat with Doug McKeever. I wanted them to keep talking so that I could rest for a minute. Seth looked to me and said we should go, and I asked if I could have another cup of soup. I was stalling, but I also needed the calories. That’s one tricky thing about running at night; I just don’t consume enough calories, and I knew I was really behind in this department. My mind rationalized the extra minutes as paying dividends in the future, and perhaps there was some truth to that. A second cup of soup devoured, there were no more excuses, so back into the cold, dark night we went.
Mt. Pickett to Cascade Lake (Mile 60.4 to Mile 64.5)
I caught a second wind from that stop and took the lead, picking up the pace. Despite some minor irritations, I still felt happy and relatively strong. Of course it wouldn’t be a race if I didn’t make at least one bonehead move. Coming down along the end of Mountain Lake, chatting about something and watching only the ground for footing, I neglected to notice the fallen tree leaning across the trail and ran smack into it, hitting my head. For someone still recovering from a concussion, this isn’t ideal. Fortunately, my headlamp took the brunt of the impact, and I shook it off. I maintained the lead through much of this section, the rolling hills, descents, and flats being my stronger suit. At one point, we reached a climb, and we both simultaneously remarked, “I don’t remember this climb.” This was our third time around the course, and it’s funny that we both hadn’t noticed this hill until now. These things must stand out more prevalently when you’re tired.
Reaching the Cascade Lake aid station, I launched into a complaint about Seth refusing to drop me because he felt that I might get myself into trouble. Yassine immediately redirected that negative energy; “Hey, how about some soup?!” Seth went to the roaring fireside, but I feared it would only make the night feel colder. The hot broth warmed me from the inside. I grabbed some heavier gloves in anticipation of the colder temps on the exposed Power Line. I reached around to grab my poles, only to discover that they were gone. My heart broke. Not because I felt like I needed them for the climb, but because they had been a Christmas present from Seth. A nice volunteer at Camp Moran had put them into my pack for me. He’d had trouble breaking them down, so I managed it with my swollen fingers. I should have taken that as a sign that he wouldn’t know how to secure them in my pack, but I was lazy and didn’t want to take it off. As a result, they were somewhere out on the course. Just as we were leaving, a volunteer ran over exclaiming, “Are these your poles? A runner found them on the trail and brought them in.” They were mine! It was too bad not to have seen the runner so as to thank them. It felt like a good omen as we embarked on what I felt sure would be the most difficult part of the race.
Cascade Lake to Mt. Constitution (Mile 64.5 to Mile 70.3)
As we began the climb up Power Line, we ran into Maudie, who seemed a bit distressed. Earlier, she’s had an asthma attack, but she rallied and eventually passed us at Mt. Pickett. The ascent made it difficult for her to breathe, and she was in the middle of trying to make a difficult decision. We encouraged her to go back to Cascade Lake and get some rest; she could always recover and continue on, but it wasn’t worth attempting this climb at night, in the freezing cold and gusty wind, if she was having trouble breathing. I could fully appreciate how that was a tough decision to make; she’d come so far, and I completely empathized. As we continued on, Seth had trouble staying on course, so I took the lead so that he could just follow. I was happy to have something to contribute to this partnership. A few times I stopped and exclaimed, “Seth, look at the stars!” The general absence of light pollution allowed the stars to shine their brightest; immense clusters of them gathered all around us. That’s mostly what I remember from this third trip up Power Line: diamond stars and bitter cold. Oh, and Safety Sweeps bounding past like god damned gazelles.
As usual, it was a relief to hit the contour trail that led off the Power Line. Through the trees, I saw a city of lights and stammered, “There’s a city over there!” Seth seemed to think that I was hallucinating, but I clearly saw a long stretch of glittering lights through the trees. Its beauty in the dark night held my attention as we wound along the side of the hill, descending down and down, deep into the woods. It was wild when the side of Mt. Constitution came into view and we could see headlamps winding their way up it. At the top, I saw a huge light, which at first appeared to be an enormous spotlight. Upon closer examination, I realized it was the moon peeking through the trees. It was simply beautiful.
Seth wasn’t having too much fun at this point, yet, strangely, I was enjoying myself. He was incredibly tired and decided to slip off the trail for a ten-minute nap. Worried that he was potentially hypothermic, I offered to wait for him. He insisted he was fine and urged me to keep moving. He wrapped me in a firm embrace, whispered, “I’m so proud of you.” I replied, “Next time, we’ll do something that makes you happy.” He corrected me, “We’ll do something that makes us happy.” I was uncomfortable leaving but reassured myself that he does this sort of thing all the time and knows how to take care of himself. I took a mental note of what that spot looked like in case I needed to direct a search party to find him later. With each step, I questioned leaving him and debated whether or not to tell someone at the next aid station where he was. He didn’t give me much time to worry, as shortly thereafter Seth zoomed past. I dug deep to push as hard as I could up the climb, hoping to warm up with the effort.
During this time, some strong runners came past, all offering words of support. It struck me that they must be the front runners, finishing their final loop. How impressive. Cresting the summit, we trotted in to the ever effusive Team 7 Hills aid station, where a party raged on through the night. Sudheer and Michael took care of us as we paused a moment to enjoy the comfort of camp chairs. Unfortunately, they had no hot vegan soup, so we munched on pickles, potato chips, and pb & j, foods that I was ready never to eat again. Sudheer said that about 12 runners had come through on their final loop. It was incredible to see how strong they looked at mile 90+. A few runners still on lap 3 hunched in the corner and looked to be in rough shape, trying to pull things together and warm up near the heaters. Seth and I were somewhere in between, the full spectrum of running experiences represented. We moved outside to catch a little warmth from the crackling fire as dawn broke.
Mt. Constitution to Camp Moran (Mile 70.3 to Mile 75.6)
Walking toward the Tower, the rising sun cast a warm glow across the water, and the snowy Cascades unfolded before us in all their majesty. It was a sunrise unlike any other, the purples, oranges, and yellows swirling around the blues of the water and soft white of the mountains. It absolutely took our breath away. “This is why we do this.” He agreed. Our spirits rose with the sun, and we spiraled up the Tower stairs for our third hole punch.
Dawn over Orcas. Photo by Seth Wolpin.
Dawn breaks. Photo by Seth Wolpin.
With the new light, the descent would be easier, and faster. At one turn near the bottom, I happened to look into a clearing to my right and realized that it was the Power Line. This had escaped my notice on the previous laps. Runners were mounting the climb, and it occurred to me that they were probably on their fourth lap. The realization came with a soft punch in the gut; we were clearly toward the back of the pack. It took some prodding to remind myself that I was only here for a finish, but the competitive side of me sank with the sight of runners so physically close to me, yet so far ahead.
It was a pleasant surprise to see Yassine waiting for us at Camp Moran. He was tired but still exuding his characteristic good cheer. We walked into the lodge 10 and a half hours after we had left, making Lap 3 the slowest by far. We discussed the strategy for Lap 4. All along, I’d assumed that Lap 4 would be faster than Lap 3. We would smell the barn, it would be daylight, and we had gone easy through the night. Seth wasn’t as optimistic and felt like we needed to account for unforeseen problems. Yassine agreed with his assessment. I didn’t quite see it that way but agreed we should get moving a.s.a.p. I did the now routine sock change and ate real food (although I don’t remember exactly what I ate this time. I just remember eating a lot of food.) Yassine took my puffy with him back to Cascade Lake so that I could pick it up later, since it would likely be dark when I finished Lap 4. It was hard to wrap my mind around that. We left Camp Moran at precisely 9:00 a.m., two hours before the cutoff and eleven hours before the course closed. Seth was incredibly anxious about the timing; I was wildly optimistic. I should have known better.
Lap 4: The Hazards of Ultra Math
Camp Moran to Mountain Lake (Mile 75.6 to Mile 80.3)
If you’ve ever read one of my race reports, then you’re probably sitting in anticipation of the moment when things inevitably unravel. That moment has come.
Making our way up the Mt. Constitution Road for the fourth and final time, I suggested a plan for how to approach our last lap: “You’re faster on the climbs; I’m faster on the downhills and flats. We each have our strengths, so let’s take advantage of that and hope that it will balance out with us ending up together on the course at some point.” He understood what I meant and agreed to the strategy. I’m pretty sure that plan makes sense, as I reflect back on it. Seth jogged up the rest of the climb as I power hiked up. I kept him within my sights for a while, but eventually he loped out of sight. That’s when my stomach turned on me. Terrible nausea struck, and my pace slowed to what felt like slow motion. I felt lightheaded and a bit dizzy. Perhaps I had eaten too much at Camp Moran; perhaps I was also dehydrated. I’d consumed more caffeine in the past 24 hours than I had all of last year. Things compounded when that old familiar feeling in my gut made its grand entrance. 75 miles had passed without incident, but this was a long race, and it only stood to reason that my GI luck would run out.
The nature of the climb, with its looping switchbacks on a relatively well-used road and surprisingly few clusters of trees, ruled out popping off to the side to take care of urgent business. There was a restroom at the trailhead, but I was convinced a construction crew had added extra turns in the road. It dragged on, and on. The Delorme started beeping, so I took it out to distract myself with messages from friends, family, and students. Their words cheered me up and spurred me on, but they did not make that outhouse appear any faster. It was a pretty agonizing climb on several fronts, but at long last I reached Little Summit, took a great sigh of relief, concocted a threat-level midnight strength Pepto cocktail, and sauntered over to begin the descent.
With tired legs and a tired brain, it seemed wise not to rush the downhill too much. I’d come too far to twist an ankle or hit my head now. I ran what I could, shuffled here and there, and gingerly crossed creeks that seemed to have doubled in size since I last saw them. I thought back to the reckless abandon with which I first attacked this same descent, in disbelief that such speed was ever possible. The impact of hopping down over roots and rocks jostled and jolted me, which served only to slow my pace even more. After what felt like an eternity, the Mountain Lake aid station came into view. I hadn’t seen anyone else since Seth dropped me on the climb.
The volunteers greeted me and asked what I needed. I just wanted some food and was delighted that they had a tray of mango and sticky rice balls left. I grabbed a couple and kept moving. Heading out, I paused and asked, “What time is it?” “11. It’s exactly 11:00 a.m.”
It just took me 2 hours to travel 4.7 miles.
“Oh my god. Can I make the cutoff?”
“You have nine hours! You’ll definitely make it!”
My brain flat out rejected their confidence. My brain imploded.
Mountain Lake to Mt. Pickett (Mile 80.3 to 85.6)
This is my thought process at Mile 80.3: “I just blew my 2-hour cushion. I’m chasing the cutoffs now; I lost my 2-hour cushion on that climb. I WASTED my 2-hour cushion on that climb. Now I have no margin for error. If it took me 2 hours to go less than 5 miles, then it’s going to take me over 4 hours to get to Yassine. That leaves me less than 5 hours to do the hardest climbs on the course, and I’m tired and don’t feel good. I’ll never make it. I will not make it in time.”
The reality was less grim, but trying telling that to an ultra runner 3/4 of the way through a hundred miler. My logic was obviously flawed. In my head, it made sense that, since I had started lap 4 with a 2-hour buffer ahead of the cutoff, and since the first 5 miles had taken 2 hours, then that buffer was now lost. The cutoff at Mountain Lake was 12:40 p.m., so I was, in fact, an hour and 40 minutes ahead of it. I had lost 20 minutes of my buffer, which wasn’t negligible, but it also wasn’t the tragedy my mind perceived it to be.
So, I did the only thing that made sense to me in that moment: I ran.
There’s nothing like panic and the dread of a DNF to help you find your running legs. This section of the course was relatively flat along the lakes, with a semi-gentle climb up Mt. Pickett, and all of that glorious double-track downhill leading into the next aid station. I ran it at a pace not seen since Lap 1. Even during much of the climb up Mt. Pickett, I willed my legs to continue in a general running-like gait. Talking out loud to myself in the third person seemed a good idea.
“Come on Bayer, you got this. Get it together. You have nine hours to finish. Try to cover these next ten miles in three hours, and that gets you to Yassine. You’ll have six hours to do the big climbs and final descent. You can do that. What are you thinking, Bayer? It won’t take that long. You could even finish in under 34 hours at this rate. It will take less than three hours to get to Yassine, and it will take about 5 hours to do the rest. That’s 5 hours to go the last 11 miles, much of which is also downhill. Wait, what are you thinking, Bayer? You’ll barely make the cutoff. If it takes X amount of time to reach Yassine, then it will take Y amount of time to do the final climbs. You’re tired and feel terrible, so those climbs will more likely take Z hours to the power of 2, and that’s just not enough. You’re screwed. Oh, just shut up and run, Bayer!”
This is why everyone tells you not to do ultra math. It never adds up. One moment, I convinced myself that I could still finish in my rough goal of 32 hours. The next, the numbers only led to a down-to-the-wire finish. I’d oscillate between relief and terror, all the while talking out loud to myself and running as hard as I could. Passing another runner, he cheerfully greeted me, “Hi there! How’s it going?” “I’m just trying not to do ultra math!” “Oh yeah, don’t do that. You have plenty of time! Don’t worry!” I didn’t trust his confidence, either, and ran on. This time, I barreled through the mud pits coming down to the aid station. I didn’t care about wet feet anymore. All that mattered was the path of least resistance.
Flying into the Mt. Pickett aid station, I saw Jason and the runner who’d paced behind me a few times casually reclining in camp chairs. “Why aren’t they in a panic?!” I wondered to myself. A volunteer asked if I needed anything. Grabbing a GU packet, I replied, “I just need someone to tell me that I’m going to make the cutoffs.” Everyone in the tent seemed to respond in unison: “You’ll make it.” Jetting out the door, Doug McKeever said, “You’re looking great, Ellen. Seth is about 15 minutes ahead of you. Go catch him!” My heart was grateful for those words. I was closing the gap. In my head, the logic was that if I could catch Seth, then I would regain the buffer. I could make the cutoffs. With that, I bolted down the trail.
Mt. Pickett to Cascade Lake (Mile 85.6 to Mile 89.7)
Instead of a snippet of song or a helpful mantra, the ultra math now looped through my thoughts. I couldn’t turn it off, and the “not enough time” equation dominated. It never occurred to me to marvel at the fact that I was running this fast at mile 85; I just ran, futilely crunching numbers. There were lots of hikers and tourists along this stretch, and I must have been a sight, tearing past with panic in my eyes and a grimace on my face. Bombing down to the bridge with the cascading waterfall backdrop, I saw a few runners grouping up for a photo shoot with Glenn. One yelled, “Hey! A female! Come join us!” They were laughing and having a great time; I wondered what was wrong with them. Why was no one else worried about making the cutoff? Seeing a friendly and familiar face in this moment of doubt, it took all I had not to break down and cry, which is perhaps why my face is averted in the photo that Glenn snapped:
Looking tired, seconds before bursting into tears. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.
And then I broke down and cried.
Glenn greeted me; tears came rolling down. “Glenn, I’m so worried about the cutoff. I’m not gonna make it.” “The cutoff at Cascade Lake? That’s at 4:00. You have plenty of time!” “No, the cutoff at Mt. Constitution. I’m too slow on the climbs.” He seemed genuinely surprised by my concern. “You’re doing awesome, Ellen! You’ll make it!” “How long ago did Seth come through?” “I don’t know; not long. He’s not too far ahead.” “OK, thanks, Glenn.” “You’ll make it!” Glenn’s voice was sincere and reassuring, so I tried to will myself to believe him.
I passed the three men who had invited me to their photo shoot, and they asked me to run along with them. I politely declined, pressing forward with my absurd sense of urgency. It didn’t make sense to my tired brain why no one else was worried about the cutoffs. It began to register that I was also probably blowing myself up by running so hard; there’d be nothing left to give on the climbs. The remaining miles on this section were a mental montage of inexplicable math.
Hitting the road that shoulders Cascade Lake, I summoned every scrap of strength to speed up and get to Yassine. I felt so defeated and ashamed, and those emotions gripped me as I ran into the aid station. Yassine was cheering like crazy, and that triggered the tears. Shaking my head and making a “no, stop the party” motion with my arm, I arrived a smoldering wreck. “Everything fell apart, Yassine. My stomach turned, I was lightheaded, I had GI issues, and it took me 2 hours to go the first five miles. I screwed it all up. I blew my buffer. Then I blew myself up just to get here. I won’t make it. I’m too slow on the climbs.” With characteristic calm, Yassine informed me that it was only 1:30 p.m. “You’re doing great! You have plenty of time! You’ve got this! What do you need? Let’s get you taken care of and then get you back out there.”
“It’s only 1:30?”
“Yeah! Plenty of time left!”
I had just run 10 miles in 2.5 hours. That’s means that since the first aid station, I had run more than twice the distance in almost the same amount of time. I was 2.5 hours ahead of the cutoff at Cascade Lake. And, I had caught Seth. He had arrived only minutes before me. I drank some hot broth and attempted to compose myself, embarrassed to have come in such a mess. I was behind on calories, and Yassine went through my drop bag, pulling out snacks, trying to entice me to eat. Everything was on the extreme end of salty or sweet, and I was tired of it all. I’d been on a steady rotation of GU and Clif Bloks punctuated by potato chips, pb & j, pickles, and bananas. My rational self knew that I should eat, but my stomach said broth was the limit. I took a cup for the road and left to confront Power Line.
Cascade Lake to Mt. Constitution (Mile 89.7 to Mile 95.5)
Seth and I debriefed during the approach to Power Line. I urged him to drop me on the climbs, but he insisted on helping me get up this one. Then, we’d see. Still doing faulty math, I worried that waiting for me would, in turn, make him anxious about the cutoffs. Still, if he was anxious, it never showed. He had nothing but kind words and encouragement during that climb. When he would pause and turn back toward me, I cringed thinking he would express impatience. I should know him better by now. Instead, he was supportive, telling me I was doing a great job. His kindness carried me up that monster climb.
Despite the vertical movement; despite having made up time; despite being well positioned to finish comfortably ahead of the cutoffs; I reached my lowest point during this climb. Physically, it was tough. My legs were trashed from pushing hard the last ten miles, and my Achilles were screaming with each step. Power Line is so steep, that you essentially climb on your toes, which was the worst possible scenario for sore Achilles.
It was the mental component, though, that brought me down. I began to recognize what an idiot I had been. What a selfish egomaniac I was. I had put two people I cared about in a tough position by insisting on running this race when we all knew that I wasn’t physically ready for it. For Yassine, I hadn’t given him enough time to help me train and prepare for this distance. Last year, Bryce 100 was the end point on a long, carefully planned trajectory of training. I was as fit as I would ever be. Here, I’d had, all told, maybe a month of actual training. I was coming back from three months off and still having issues from the concussion. He knows how stubborn I am, though, and knew that I would have fought, kicking and screaming, had he suggested I sit this one out. Just the mention of dropping would have led me to dig in my heels and resist. As for Seth, here he was worried about making cutoffs, in part because he had waited for me at certain points throughout the race. He was stressed and not necessarily having a great time. I felt responsible for making things uncomfortable for them. Here I was, chasing cutoffs; I really didn’t have any business being out there on that course.
It became clear to me that I was here for the wrong reasons. It was more about my ego than about my own personal joy. I was too proud to drop out. I was too concerned with proving to others that I’m tough and can do whatever I set my mind to. Those aren’t the reasons that I started this running journey, and they weren’t healthy motivators. In the beginning, it had been about proving something to myself, competing only with myself, and doing this solely for myself. Something changed after I won my first race; that taste of a win shifted my priorities. To a certain extent, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. That said, it had taken me away from my true self. I wanted approval, validation, recognition. That wasn’t me. Instead of doing ultra math, I now dwelled on what an asshole I was, filled with shame. I grew sullen and repentant, composed apologies in my head. Looking back now, I can see that much of this overly dramatic thought process was fueled by exhaustion and the warped perception that comes with running stupidly long distances. But the general notion that I had started running for others instead of myself was true, and I wanted to change that.
Occasional conversation snapped me out of these dark reveries. Part way up the climb, Seth did his own calculations: “If we can get to the top of Power Line in 30 minutes, then do the contour trail in 45 minutes, and climb Constitution in another 45 minutes, that will give us more than 3 hours to finish the last 5 downhill miles.” His math sounded more reliable than my own. Near the top, a group of mountain bikers parted to the sides of the trail, creating a tunnel of sorts for us to walk through. “You guys are crazy! What you’re doing is insane!” They were all smiles and expressed sincere admiration, while Seth said that to us, riding down a steep mountain on a bike seemed nuts. I managed to half-jokingly retort, “What we’re doing is stupid!” Seth looked surprised, and later admitted he’d never heard me talk like that before. It was truly out of character. Twenty minutes later, we crested Power Line. “We did it 10 minutes faster than we planned!” he exclaimed. His optimism bolstered me. We were doing this. The toughest climb was behind us. We would make it.
Possibly fake smile. Photo by Seth Wolpin.
The contour trail was my strong suit, so I willed my revolting legs to engage in a running motion. It took a lot of will power, but once I pushed past the initial groan, it actually felt pretty good to be running. I ditched my poles, feeling that I could run faster without them. My plan was to get a lead on Seth here, knowing he’d catch me on the climb to Constitution. It was quite rewarding to look through the trees in daylight and see a city on the shores across the water. I hadn’t been hallucinating last night! Soon, Seth was out of sight, and I was cruising down the contour trail. Finally, an appreciation for still being able to run after 90+ miles sank in. How incredible! I chose to focus on these thoughts and to shelve the gloomy self loathing.
The climb to Constitution never failed to slow the momentum built during the gradual descent off Power Line, and this fourth round was no exception. Seth caught me on the third or fourth switchback up. He had a ping in his knee and was moving more slowly, but still faster than me going up. As with the fourth climb up the road, it seemed as if someone had maliciously added switchbacks to this climb; it felt endless. Landmarks that had given me something to work toward on earlier laps had seemingly disappeared. It was now a blur of back and forth, up and up, hands on knees, step by step. Finally, the cowbells of Team 7 Hills came within earshot. Seth and I both laughed at our shared sense of this climb seeming strangely longer than before. Nevertheless, we’d covered the contour trail and the Constitution climb faster than projected; it was around 4:00 p.m. We had arrived two hours and ten minutes before the cutoff at this aid station, and we had four hours to finish the last five miles of the race. We breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Mt. Constitution to Camp Moran (Mile 95.5 to Mile 100.8)
This aid station had a great party vibe, but we still felt compelled to make a quick turn around. The day was coming to a close, and we’d be finishing in the dark (and, presumably, in the cold.) Reaching the Tower for one last sprint up the stairs, the glory of the Pacific Northwest was on full display below. Mt. Baker and Mt. Rainier, along with the Canadian Rockies, stood sentinel. The snowy and wild North Cascades sparkled brightly, leaving me speechless. Dazzlingly bright peaks stood out in sharp relief against a Robin’s egg blue sky. Emerald islands bejewelled the deep blue waters below. The morning had given us a stunning sunrise from this same vantage point, but that didn’t compare to the spectacular sight now on view. We paused longer here than at the aid station, smitten with the scene of such astounding natural beauty. In the end, it’s not the dark moments that stick with you; it’s the jagged peaks wrapped in snow blankets, the largeness and grandeur of the wilderness, your own smallness in comparison, that sears itself into your very soul. That mental image will forever linger in my inner eye.
The ping in Seth’s knee caused him serious discomfort, and running made it worse. “You go ahead and run down. I’m gonna have to walk it in. It might take me three hours to get down.” Slyly smiling, I sarcastically echoed his words of the previous night: “I’m not leaving you. It will be getting dark soon, and you could fall and hit your head or roll an ankle.” He only rolled his eyes but there was a smile in there, too. I probably could have run down faster, but what was the point? This wasn’t going to be a podium finish. At this point, who cares if I came in at 33 or 35 hours, as long as I finished. He got me up the Power Line as well as through the previous night. We’d run nearly half of this race together; it was only right to finish it together.
Our moods had changed drastically, having the worst of it behind us. In part, we were a little loopy, but we could also smell the barn. We joked and laughed. I granted Seth dibbs on the first shower and gifted him a guilt-free long and hot one at that. No nature girl judgement shall pass tonight. We thought about clean sheets. I fantasized about sitting in a chair for more than five minutes. We were, you might say, having fun, merrily making our way down the mountain. At one point, Mike came barreling past us. He yelled, “It’s gonna hurt whether you run fast or slow, so may as well run fast!” It made sense, although it’s tougher to convince your feet of this. Seth occasionally attempted to run; it hurt, but he’d push through it. So we commenced a jog/hike. That was killing me, though, as the transition back and forth never allowed me to loosen up. As we neared the lower trail that had the high “butter factor,” I decided to run ahead. I’d need to get a jump on those last two sadistic little climbs. It felt good to open up and run, and the effort left me amazed at the things my body was capable of, with some nudging from my mind. Over 95 miles in, and I was still running. That was quite the psychological boost after walking 81.5 miles at Bryce.
A few “Yeehaws!” escaped as the trail got buttery and my pace quickened. Running past the grand old tree, I stopped to hug and thank it. Dusk was quickly turning to dark, and Seth was nowhere in sight. I pressed on and planned to wait at the top of Power Line Jr. Bottoming out by the road, I let out a wolf howl toward Cascade Lake, although the aid station was dark, the final cutoff having passed almost 2 hours ago. At the top of the first climb, I slowed and looked over my shoulder. No headlamp. I hesitated, not wanting to get too far ahead. After a few minutes, a light came into view. It was a female runner, someone I’d never seen on the course. I let her pass by, and she was reluctant. She said, “You’re probably faster than me; you should go in first.” I told her she looked great and that she needed to go finish this thing. For once, it didn’t wound me to be passed by a runner. I walked, glancing over my shoulder every few steps. Finally, I heard Seth’s wolf call, and I responded with a coyote yip. We had about a mile to go and only one last mini climb to dread.
We started planning our post race priorities. We had treated ourselves to a hotel room for the night, instead of climbing into the back of the truck. I didn’t mind leaving the post-race party early in favor of showers and clean sheets, but, I said, “I just want to sit in a chair. Maybe for 15 minutes.” He agreed. As for dinner, we both were so tired of race food. For the first time in my life, pizza didn’t sound appetizing. “I just want raw vegetables,” I insisted. “I just want to eat a bunch of broccoli.” He was on the same page.
Plans settled, it was time to run it in and finish the race. Seth asked if we should race in, or cross the finish line holding hands. He answered his own question with a smile, “Together, holding hands.” As we rounded the final corner coming in to Camp Moran, a crowd of cheers rose up. Someone yelled, “Sprint it in! Sprint it in!” He looked at me, and we both launched into a sprint. It was probably a 10-minute pace, but it felt like we were flying. We were laughing wildly, and just before crossing the line, he grabbed my hand and we took our last steps, high-fiving James as our race came to an official close. Yassine was dancing with excitement. There were hugs and deep breaths, laughs and sighs. We finished Lap 4 in 8 hours and 45 minutes. After 34 hours, 11 minutes, and 15 seconds, we had completed the Orcas Island 100 Miler and joined the Tower Club.
Happy for the experience, and happy to be finished with it. Photo by Yassine Diboun.
There was some banter at the finish line, much of which is hazy to me. James said something about us looking perfect, and Seth said, “I smell perfect!” Yassine led us toward the lodge and said with excitement, “You’re gonna love this…” He opened the door, and the entire room stopped to clap and whoop for us. It was surreal, and all I could manage was a grateful smile and a small wave. As per usual, volunteers swooped in to take care of us. This is something that set this race apart from most others; the volunteers were so attentive and competent, taking the best care of you throughout. To my great delight, one woman brought us over a plate of hummus and fresh veggie wraps. The presentation even showed care; she had arranged fresh veggies and avocado slices tastefully around the wraps. It was exactly what I needed. Yassine sat down with us to debrief. His positive nature and supportive words never end, even after he’s worked all weekend and had little sleep himself. He asked about our lowest moment on the course, and Seth said it surely must have been when I came into Cascade Lake in tears. “No, it was right after that. When I realized how awful I had been, and that I owed you both an apology.” I tried to explain my thinking and offered apologies, but neither of them saw things as I did. They were quite generous and thought I was being too hard on myself. Yassine saw this as a do-over for Bryce. It was a way to show myself that I could run a hundred miler. The fact that I wasn’t my most fit only served as further proof that I’m a strong runner. Seth thought it was an opportunity to inspire others to push themselves beyond their perceived limits.
My bib, with hole punches and hanging chads to prove I climbed the Tower four times.
It was wonderful sitting in a chair, talking with my coach, and feeling like I had accomplished something. The band played on, and runners filed in to applause. It was nice to be there to celebrate their achievement. To our surprise, Joel walked in, having rallied and finished. Someone remarked that he had “died seven times on the course,” but here he was, a finisher. It goes to show how far the mind can carry you when the body gives out.
We lingered for some time. Seth scouted out a veggie platter, and I ate the equivalent of a head of broccoli. It’s not my favorite vegetable by any means, but its fresh, crunchy greenness was so satisfying after 34 hours of carby, fatty junk food. Eventually, we hobbled out to the truck and made our way to the hotel. Extensive chaffing in sensitive areas made my shower a bit painful, and bending over to wash my feet seemed impossible, but I reveled in the hot water and the refreshing scent of soap. Under clean sheets, we laughed in delirium, shivering as our bodies tried to regulate our temperature. Craving water at the finish, I hadn’t had a celebratory beer and decided to drink one in bed. I woke up some time later, half-consumed beer teeterting precariously on my chest. Depositing it onto the night stand, I shut out the light, and slept the sleep of the content.
Orcas taught me a lot. It reminded me that I am capable of doing anything that I set my mind to. My mind is stronger than my body. I learned that, once you push through the initial stiffness and pain, it’s easier to run; it actually feels good. I learned what it feels like to run with 100 miles on your feet, experienced the awe of that fact. Yassine was right; it was a do-over for Bryce. As he said, “You had to get that monkey off your back.” I ran a 100-miler, and finished before the cutoffs. I may not have been at my peak fitness, but I finished, and that did unloosen a burden that I’d carried since Bryce.
The experience reminded me that I have wonderful people in my life here to support me, whether that’s sending long-distance messages; providing guidance and support on the course and off; or pulling me up a soul-sapping climb.
I learned some practical stuff about running this distance: athletic tape prevents blisters; next time, tape your Achilles, because that chaffing is not healing anytime soon–ouch!!!; changing socks is worth the time; always pack layers; definitely carry electrolyte tablets; use the stronger headlamp; hold off on drinking caffeine; liberally reapply glide, especially in sensitive regions; keep eating, especially at night; for the love of god, buy a replacement water bladder that fits your pack; practice with poles if you’re going to use them; no more than 5 minutes at an aid station–ever; make time to cook pancakes to put in your drop bags, as you would have been so happy to have them out there; just don’t do ultra math.
Orcas also gave me the opportunity to share an unforgettable experience with the guy I love to adventure with. I came to realize a while ago that I needed an ultra boyfriend who could keep up with me on the trail. Seth has proved to be all of that, and so much more. His patience, endless support, and encouragement helped to push me out there while also pulling me up. Plus, without him, there would be far fewer photos in this race report. I can’t wait to see what we do next.
Most importantly, the experience gave me a needed reality check. I’d lost sight of why I run ultras, drifted away from the personal journey. Moving forward, I will prioritize the personal endeavor and not get caught up in the public one. I will be my best self, training and racing hard for the pleasure it brings me in itself, not in relation to others.
Orcas also whet my appetite for more. It was, dare I say, a lot of fun. At Bryce, I learned that I could travel 101.5 miles by my own power. At Orcas, I learned that I could travel 100.8 miles, running much of the way, and despite not being at my peak fitness. During the race, while I was out there running along, the lottery for Cascade Crest 100 was held. When I finished, I learned the results. Come August, after months of dedicated training, I will have the opportunity to enjoy this distance again, and to see what it’s like to run 100 miles at the pinnacle of fitness. I cannot wait, but I will strive to remain present and delight in every training mile that leads me there.
It’s Ultrasignup official.
Happy finishers! I’m so grateful to have shared this experience with Seth Wolpin. Here’s to many more adventures together. Photo by Matt Cecil.
Obligatory buckle photo. View from the ferry deck, Orcas in background.