Sunday, January 31, 2010

Workin' and runnin' with the boys

Friendly deer on Orcas Island
So, I'll try to make this entry as non-running-obsessed as possible...

...but I'm probably going to fail miserably! Bear with me... So I went up to Orcas today to do some trail restoration work with other volunteers from the upcoming race next weekend. My alarm went off at 4:25 a.m., and an hour later, I was hopping in a car with two strangers with whom I'd coordinated a carpool up from Seattle - Don and Glenn. Both proved to be wonderful company for the ride up there. Don's done adventure racing and a handful of marathons, but this will just be his second ultra. Glenn gave up running races himself (with nearly 200 marathons under his belt...) to shoot them instead. He'll be photographing the race next weekend. While he and Don had crossed paths several times over the years (the ultrarunning community in the Northwest is incestuously small), they really hadn't caught up in over a decade, so it was fun to be a part of their "reunion."

We got there in plenty of time to grab a cup of coffee at the ferry landing in Anacortes and make quick friends with the passengers in the other cars bearing the requisite "26.2" and "140.6" bumper stickers. In total, there were about twenty of us who turned out to volunteer. Already on the ferry ride over to the island, I felt at home with these folks - chatting it up about all my favorite subjects: running, good food, and the Northwest in general.

The work itself involved a lot of getting dirty - slogging through ridiculously sloppy mud, wielding shovels, gathering rocks, aesthetically rearranging gargantuan logs, and essentially remaking an entire stretch of trail that wasn't draining properly. With the guidance of a geologist, we dug trenches where necessary, narrowed out and semi-rerouted the trail, rebuilt up the soil, bolstered the whole thing with rocks, and built up a bit of a gravel path where we could to assist in draining. It was awesome to examine the whole thing with the eye of an engineer - If it rains for three days straight, where is the water going to flow? How can we prevent the trail from flooding in a worst case scenario? I'll never look at trails the same way again.

In progress.
My favorite thing about ultra runners is their love for food. When our lunch break rolled around, people didn't just pull out a sandwich. They pulled out one of those huge Ziploc bags with three, four, five sandwiches inside. Or a round of focaccia bread the size of a large frisbee. Bags of peanut butter vegan cookies. Yes, yes, I thought, these are definitely my kind of people.

My other favorite thing about them is that most of them are in their thirties, forties, fifties...there's a 72-year-old registered for the 50K! There was a couple, both 60, that came out for the work party today, who'd met at a triathlon years ago and have done all kinds of crazy 100-milers (etc.) together in the time since. Several of the forty-somethings commented on what an inspiration it was that they still had at least twenty years left in this fabulous sport. Doing the math on that for myself made me feel all the more psyched than I already am. Which is indescribably awesome. I feel like a child who's just stumbled into a magical world long before I was supposed to find out about it. What a paradise trail running is!

After we finished up trail work, we drove up to the top of Mount Constitution and climbed the tower there (the run next weekend crests the mountain, but it being a race, there won't be time for much tower-climbing or all too much sightseeing, of course.) The view was quite foggy, but still stunning to look out over all the water, the surrounding islands, and even Vancouver BC way off in the distance.

From there, we drove back to our base camp, where we figured out we'd missed the last ferry off the island for the next four hours - so we did the next most logical thing, which was all change into running gear and go for a little trail run around the island. There were seven of us, and I was the only female, the only one who'd never run 30+ miles before, and the only one worried out of my mind that I'd fail miserably to keep up...but we kept the pace slow and gentle, even on the uphills, and I wound up having a blast running with them - through gorgeous old-growth forest, around crystal clear lakes, by stunning waterfalls. Seriously. The Northwest knows how to do islands.

When we got back from that, we stood around talking and laughing and gorging on bananas and sour cream and onion chips for awhile before deciding to go back to the ferry landing, where I had a giant bowl of clam chowder and a big, refreshing glass of Fat Tire Ale. Over dinner, we were regaled with the (often hilarious) tales of various crazy ultras that people had done - ranging from the grueling 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon through Death Valley in July to a 100-miler that James, the race director for Orcas, had run in which he and the other two guys vying for second place all bonked at about mile 80 and were in various stages of miserable comatose-ness at the aid station. Good times.

These guys give me craziness to aspire to.
Anyway, the sunset was pretty awesome, too:

I'd say that island + running + beer + sunset = unbeatable.
And talk about being inspired by others! Yet another awesome thing about the ultra community in general is that it's small enough that the elites are standing right next to the slower folks and newbies on the starting line. In a regular road race, if there's even a well-known name or two in the race at all, there could still well be 30,000 people standing between you and that athlete. But in a trail run, you're right there in the same place. I felt that way even today, on my little run on the trails with guys who've run for 25 hours straight before, who routinely race sub-3-hour marathons, and have done some of the most grueling, hallowed ultramarathons in the world. What an honor to go for an afternoon jog with them (on a beautiful island, to boot!)

Granted, ultrarunning doesn't get nearly the press coverage that road racing does...and road racing already gets only a fraction of the media coverage that other sports do. (Ann Trason, Scott Jurek < Paula Radcliffe, Alberto Salazar < LeBron James, David Beckham.) But the lack of recognition from the general populace doesn't stop these guys from garnering the respect, awe and admiration of those in the ultra community itself.


  1. Welcome to the Ultra running Family! Thanks for the trail work.

  2. ...reading this almost makes me feel like a was there. Hey, wait a minute... Great spending time with you yesterday, Yitka. Don