A Whale* of a Good Time on Orcas Island

An account the the 2010 Orcas Island races and the accompanying festivities.

By on February 12, 2010 | Comments

The Orcas Island races are unlike any other trail races I’ve ever taken part in. Yeah, there were some great runners on Orcas this past weekend, but I’m not going to share a third person account of the result or the course. Nor will I indulge in my normal divergence of providing a personal race report. No, instead, I’ll share a few glimpses into a weekend that I won’t soon forget. Here’s my story of the Orcas Island races.

[Don’t care for words? Take a look at my Orcas Island race photos!]

The Journey
Like most good stories in antiquity and American lore, The Journey was a key aspect of my Orcas Island experience. Unlike most folks, I had the pleasure of traveling over 1,000 miles en route to the race. I broke up the long stretch of alone time with a pleasant stopover and run in Red Bluff, CA with Bev and Alan Abbs. After another day’s worth of driving I arrived in Sisters, OR where good friend Sean Meissner jumped in the car. He kindly drove the iRunFar Prius through the snowy darkness as we traveled to Seattle where we met up with our mutual friend Matt Hart. After a night at Matt’s Seattle condo and a tasty breakfast, we three began a much more typical trip to Orcas Island.

Mount Shasta

Mount Shasta greeted me on my way to meet Meissner.

From Seattle it’s less than a two hour drive up to the ferry dock in Anacortes. (During the trip I learned that the Chuckanut and Bellingham ultras are much further north of Seattle that I had assumed.) While waiting in line for the ferry we spotted a few bald eagles, the sighting of which would become routine by the end of the weekend. Once aboard we took a transitive journey that traversed more than time or distance. We went from the busy, complex world of modern life to a spot where everything was reduced to people and place.

Sean Meissner Matt Hart ferry ride

Sean and Matt enjoying the ferry ride over to Orcas Island.

The Arrival
The facilities at Camp Moran State Park aren’t fancy. They don’t need to be. Chances are you’re not there looking for a cozy, sun-filled window bench in which to read a classic. Instead, when you’re in camp, you’re looking to be part of an awesome trail running community. A warm, dry place is all that you need to maximize the pleasantness of that experience.

I can’t recall being at a running event in quite a while where I knew fewer folks than when I arrived at Camp Moran’s main hall to register on Friday night. With everyone scrambling to catch up with Sean and Matt, I often felt like a wallflower. That didn’t last long. Within half an hour, I felt like I was among my people. Sure, I might not have known those folks well, but the conversations were comfortable. Learning about so many new people added an element of excitement.

Three elements of that first evening added grease to the mixing bowl of runners. First, there was the excellent pot luck. While I’d neglected to bring any food to share, those who did (and the copious amounts of great food) invited me to share in the feast. Food really does bring folks together. Second, was RD James Varner’s awesome race schwag idea. He collected loads of cool thrift shop clothing and had the Orcas Island races logo applied to each item. When folks arrived for check in, they got to choose their favorite logoed apparel item. The “interesting” choices led to great interactions.

Matt Hart Dan Sears Orcas Island

Matt Hart and Dan Sears proudly displaying their "interesting" clothing choices.

This brings me to my third point – the throw down challenge between two great friends – Sean Meissner and Matt Hart. While the two had raced together (2008 GORE-TEX TransRockies Run), they’d never raced against each other. As these friends had two common races on their schedules in the coming months, they came up with the two race challenge involving the Orcas Island 50k and Pocatello 50 mile. Over the course of Friday night, it was determined that the loser of the Orcas showdown would need to wear a very small pink vest for at least part of the Pocatello rematch. For context, nauseating mooshyness, and some smack talk, take a look at Matt and Sean‘s pre-race blog posts.

The Race… err, Run
I had no aspirations of racing on Orcas Island. After two and a half months of running in the shadow of plantar fasciitis, I’d not run up or down a real hill in ages and had not run as far as 25k since Thanksgiving Day.

With that in mind, I would not “race,” as I didn’t want to climb too quickly, which might mess up my plantar fascia. What I could do was put in a decent effort so long as I walked up anything steeper than a shallow incline. Early in the day I settled into a good effort and good crowd, including Krissy Moehl.

Krissy Moehl Mount Constitution

Krissy Moehl and Canadian Steve (?) near the peak of Mount Constitution.

We all took in the splendid views!

View from Mount Constitution Orcas Island

One of the splendid views of the San Juan Islands from Mount Constitution on Orcas Island.

Once we peaked out on Mount Constitution six miles into the run I turned into a diabetic kid at the candy shop. I just couldn’t control myself. (Yes, Meissner, I expect a fat joke here.) I saw a meticulously maintained, nearly endless, sweetly switchbacking descent… and ate it up. I bombed down the mountain, hooting and hollering the whole way. Man, had I missed gravity’s sweet push in the back!

Further along the gorgeous course, I stopped for a minute or two at a T-intersection where flagging had been torn down. Finally, five of us chose “right” by committee and down we went again. During the pause, Krissy and I reconvened. We’d run most of the slightly-less-than-25k course together.

With five days to reflect, I can say Orcas is one hell of a course. Sure, I bombed the downhills and hadn’t trained on them for a while, but I could. not. run. until Wednesday and am still a bit sore Thursdsay. Meissner, who’d actually been training, noted that he was still sore on Wednesday from the 50k.

The Afterparty
It could also be that Meissner was sore from losing 23 minutes to Matt! Actually both Matt and Sean took the race well. Matt celebrated a great comeback after not racing for a year and a half. [Read Matt’s post Orcas’ report.]

Matt Hart Oreo cookie

Matt Hart savored a well-deserved Oreo or two.

On the other had, Sean was a good sport in donning the pink vest. [Read Sean’s post Orcas’ report.]

James Varner Sean Meissner Orcas Island 50k

Sean Meissner donned the pink loser's vest after Matt Hart bested him by 23 minutes in the Orcas Island 50k.

[Want more of the Meissner/Hart showdown? Watch the two talk smack in this 5 minute video compilation from the weekend.]

After showering up, I took in some great veggie soup, some not so great beer (that I brought), and a growing circle of friends. Over the course of the afternoon a bluegrass band set up to add to the festive atmosphere.

As the sun snuck behind the towering pines that encircled the camp, the band and everyone else migrated inside. We enjoyed more music, more food, and better beer than I’d brought. Friends new and old coalesced into one of the funnest groups I’ve been a part of. The Friendship Cup and nuun-tinis… well, they were fun, too.

Linda Barton Sean Meissner Tonya Olson Orcas Island 50k

Sean Meissner getting condolence hugs for his loss and/or attire.

A bonfire appeared long after dark… but exactly how long after dark we’ll never know. Surely, no one was looking at his or her watch. Who cares what time it is when you’re in such good company. Although the band had packed up long ago, someone busted out an acoustic guitar and a signing voice. Some danced. Some sang along. Some shared secrets. Everyone had a night to remember.

Orcas Island races

Folks warm up around the Orcas Island bonfire well after the last racers came in.

A huge thanks to James Varner for putting on a splendid event (and a pair of races, too). I’ve also got to thank Dave Allen, who’s volunteering on my behalf allowed me to enter the event long after the races had filled. A big, honorary belly laugh for my roadtrip brothers, Sean and Matt. Finally, the biggest thanks goes out to all the welcoming Pacific Northwest trail runners who I didn’t know going into the weekend, but who openly welcomed me into their trail running circles.

Orcas Island races

Good friends old and new come together at the Orcas Island races.

[* Yes, I know that Orcas aren’t whales; they’re dolphins. Now let me have me fun Ms./Mr. Smartypants.]

Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.