Rika Botzet: My Foray into Mountain Running, Culminating in Orcas Island 50K

Ferry Ride

I did it!!! This rookie finished her first ultra-marathon trail race, the Orcas Island 50K, in February despite being convinced that I would not finish and that trying to run more than 32 miles in my current state was simply impossible—and even stupid. But it wasn’t impossible or even silly. In fact, it was so fun that I have signed up for a 50 miler and have hopes of going even longer.

This all started for me in 2010 when I joined Run Wild Missoula’s marathon training class to prepare for the half marathon. I loved the class and became addicted to running, but soon tired of toll the pavement took on my legs and psyche. I have always loved hiking, backpacking, skiing, and mountain biking, so trail running seemed like a natural and logical alternative to sharing my running route with cars and trucks. But I didn’t know any other trail runners, so I was running on the trails alone and logging fewer than 15 trail miles a week. In 2012 I convinced my friend, Jamie Swartz, to start trail running with me, and she too was soon hooked. We started doing long runs together on the weekends, and as our mileage increased so did our addiction to the quiet and beauty of the trails.

I was loving the trails but soon learned that this was a totally different type of running especially for someone with a propensity to look at the scenery instead of my footing. I took some great diggers on the trail, earning a reputation of being unable to stay upright for an entire run. My best (or worst) fall was a full Superman dive while barreling down from Stuart Peak this summer when the trail grabbed me and slapped me down. My knee was tore open to the cartilage and there was a nauseating amount of blood running down my leg. Luckily Jamie convinced a passing mountain biker to lend me his bike so I could get to my car for a trip to the Emergency Room. Including this tumble, my trail running has resulted in the bike rescue, two ER visits, a total of 43 stiches, a drain tube, lots of medical bills, 5 weeks of zero running and a lot of wine. Ugh. Thank goodness for my physical therapist, John Fiore who helped me heal between injuries.

When I was not laid up by injury, Jamie and I started meeting other trail runners in the community and started logging longer trail miles on weekly runs. And last fall we led a trail running class for Run Wild Missoula, which was a great experience. In September I received something that excited and scared me simultaneously: an email inviting me to sign up for the Orcas Island 50k taking place in February to celebrate my good friend Kevin Twidwell’s 50th birthday. “Hell yeah,” I thought, “I can do an island 50k.” It sounded reasonable and doable given that I had five months to train even though I didn’t know where Orcas Island was or what the terrain was going to be. I assumed it would be sunny and flat (at the time, that’s the image “island” conjured up in my mind) so I didn’t bother to look at the course description until after I had paid my $65 registration fee. That’s when I read that at approximately 32.75 miles, the race was just a little longer than a 50k, the elevation gain was 8,500 ft. (what?), and with some changes to the course, it was slated to be the hardest version of the race to date. To cap it all off, it had an 8 hour cut-off. “WAIT! Where do you un-sign-up—I think I will just go for the birthday party.” But I didn’t un-sign-up. I hit the trail to get ready for my first ultra distance adventure.

Just when my training was hitting its stride, I started having severe pain in my ankle, and finally after many failed attempts to run I made an appointment with a sports medicine doctor. At the examination Dr. Rob Amrine told me I had tendonitis and likely a small stress fracture. His professional advice was that I stop running until the pain completely subsided, which would likely be a couple of months; if it didn’t improve I would need an MRI. I told him that couldn’t be right. Didn’t he notice the magical unicorn socks I was wearing?!

Oh boy, this was going to really interfere with my Orcas 50k training, not to mention my physical and mental state. I didn’t want to stop running! But, Dr. Amrine knows his business so I adhered to his advice and stayed off the trails. The only thing I could really do (other than wear my unicorn socks) to stay fit and keep my cardio going was the elliptical machines, which I did. In mid-December I was feeling better and decided to venture out on my first trail run—5 miles in the Rattlesnake, and it felt great. A few days later, I ran 5 miles on the North Hills and it felt even better. A few days later I upped the ante and ran the Napali Coast trail in Kauai, a 23 mile out and back. It was a brutally challenging trail but it gave me a glimmer of hope that I could actually run the Orcas Island 50k. Unfortunately, I only had six weeks until the race, and I had run exactly 33 miles in two months. That is when I decided that it made no sense to try to “catch up” on the miles I had missed over the past weeks, Instead, I focused on doing a hike each week to the Beacon, concentrated on getting in consistent shorter runs during the week, and doing a 10-14 mile run on the weekends. I also got back into my circuit training class at Momentum, which strengthened my core and gave me confidence. I did this for five weeks and ran a total of 6 miles the week of the race. I was also telling myself, and anybody who would listen, that there wasn’t a chance in hell that I could finish the race, but that I wanted to experience as much of the course as I could so I would be at the starting line.

At zero-dark-thirty on Friday morning, February 1st, Kevin, Steve Brown, Ken Ellis, John Hart, John Fiore, Rick Wishcamper, Dean McGovern, Randy Colbert, Holly Foster, Allison Onstad and I all piled into two vehicles and headed out to Orcas Island for a weekend of running and celebrating. Jamie would be meeting us there. It was official: I was on my way to attempting my first 50k. Nine hours later, the sun was shining and spirits were high as we boarded the 3:00 pm ferry to Orcas Island. With great views of Mt. Baker and the beauty surrounding us, it was hard not to get excited as we crossed the Sound. We arrived at the vacation rental, our amazing home away from home until Monday morning, and after picking rooms and sleeping partners (just kidding) we cooked a dinner of pasta with red sauce, grilled salmon and a green salad. After dinner we played Cards against Humanity, laughed a lot and went to bed around 10. Rick, Randy and I planned to make the early start at 7:30 am so I set my alarm for 6 am and I laid out my running clothes along with the small hydration vest I borrowed from Allison (I know, rookie move to wear something new on race day) and threw some gels, bars, and sport beans into it. I really didn’t think I would sleep at all, but before I knew it the alarm was going off. Yay, it’s race day or DNFing my first ultra- race day!

Even though I was going to the starting line, I still didn’t know if I could run the entire course. Kevin was injured and would not be able to run his birthday 50k, so he and a few others from our group who weren’t able to get into the race, were going volunteer at the aid station at 14.2 miles. I was planning to stop there and join their aid station if I was not feeling like I could finish. I thought that if I was feeling really good at that point, I would try to make it to the aid station at mile 20.6, but that was really, in my mind, a pipe dream. Not only did I feel I couldn’t physically run the 32.75 miles, but I didn’t think I would be able to make the aid station cut-off at the top of Mt. Constitution (mile 25.8) of 6.5 hours. But I was sure going to try.

On race morning, I got up, dressed and made myself an organic raw food smoothie with coconut water. I knew one of my biggest challenges during the race would be maintaining my nutrition and hydration. I would have to force myself to eat regularly and probably deal with an upset stomach. I love to eat—just ask anyone who has seen me down fries, or Randy, who once tried to get between me and a pizza- he is still traumatized. But I hate to eat while running, and I usually have to force myself to eat or drink something after running for recovery. Nutrition on the trail was something I planned to dial in during training runs, but since I didn’t do a lot of training or long runs, it didn’t happen. So, I was going to learn on the fly. The morning air was brisk, but it wasn’t raining - this looked to be a great day to run. I didn’t have any expectations for time goals because I assumed I would be dropping. Still, I was super nervous at the starting line and made a quick run down a hill to dry pee moments before race director James Varner started the race. Boom, we early starters were off—Randy like he was shot out of a cannon and Rick and I a bit slower. I knew that the other runners (who started an hour later) in our group would all be passing me at some point, unless I dropped sooner than I expected to, and I was looking forward to seeing them on the trail.

The first mile or two was a frustrating conga line on a single track with a runnable uphill grade, but we weren’t running because of the crowded trail. Once the pack broke up a bit, we settled into an easy pace until we hit the paved portion of Mt Constitution road—two miles of uphill with intermittent spectacular views of the Puget Sound. At the top we turned onto a trail and had 1.5 miles of nice downhill toward Mountain Lake and aid station # 1. I have to admit, I don’t remember anything about aid station #1. I am assuming we stopped but I can’t say that for sure. Rick was still running with me and setting a great pace for us, he also set his watch and made sure we had a gel or a bar every 45 minutes and that I was drinking water regularly.

I was feeling great as we approached the Mt. Pickett aid station where Kevin, Jamie, Allison and Holly were volunteering. When I got to the aid tables, I knew I wasn’t dropping out—not there anyway. It was awesome rolling in and seeing my friends and hearing their encouraging words. I think they were all surprised at how well I was doing (after all my talk of dropping). I don’t know what overcame me but I shoved everything on that table into my mouth—PB & J squares, Ruffles, M&M’s, Coke, soup, Gatorade and a gel. After Kevin took a photo of me stuffing my face we hit the trail.

A mile or so later, my stomach started feeling squirrely, and it stayed that way for the remainder of the race but it was manageable. Somewhere around mile 17, John passed us hauling ass and looking strong. A couple of miles later, as we were hiking up a hill, we were passed by John Hart, Ken, and Steve, all looking really strong as well. I was happy to see them and to exchange hugs and more words of encouragement. Around mile 18.5 was Cascade Falls, and although it was really beautiful we didn’t stop. At mile 20 we ran over a cool little foot bridge that crossed a section of Cascade Lake, and once on the other side, we ran along the lake shore for .6 miles until we arrived at aid station #3. There, I had a little soup, PB & J squares, Gatorade and a gel. I was still feeling strong and decided to keep going—for the first time I started thinking I might actually finish this race.

The miles had clicked by as Rick and I chatted or silently enjoyed the beauty of the waterfalls, lakes, ponds, meadows, and gorgeous views. Dean McGovern caught up to us at the aid station and the three of us started up the infamous power line grind, a 2 mile death march with an elevation gain of 2,000 ft. that goes straight up, no switchbacks. Dean soon took off and faded into the seemingly never-ending line of people hiking up. This was a steep climb but the worst pars were the false summits – each one more heartbreaking than the last. “Yee haw James!”

The 2+ miles of trail between the top of power lines and the 1.5 mile climb to the top of Mt. Constitution were probably my favorite section of trail. It was a really fun run on a narrow, super soft single track that rolled through old growth cedars with screaming ravens flying overhead. The hills along the trail were covered with bright green moss peeking out from under stark white snow blankets, boulders, lush vegetation, and cascading creeks—it was truly a magical place. The 1.5 mile climb up to Mt. Constitution was dreamy compared to power lines. We were on a soft, switch- backed single track trail. At the top of Mt. Constitution (mile 25.8) along with an aid station, there were stunning views of Puget Sound and the Cascade Mountain Range. We took a moment and soaked in the views, climbed the 6 flights of stairs up the historical stone tower for even better views and eventually asked a volunteer where we were in terms of the cut-off. I couldn’t believe my ears when he said we were 1.5 hours ahead of the cutoff. Sweeeeet! Soup, PB & J squares, oranges, and M & Ms were consumed and we were off.

View from Mt Constitution

The first part of the trail leaving Mt Constitution was rolling and a little hilly—I knew there had to be a steep descent at some point, but it took a mile or so before we finally got to it. We rocked the decent, flew down a wide, soft trail with steep switchbacks and enjoyed every step of this super fun section. I felt great, but I realized a few miles later that I probably went a little too fast on overworked, under-trained, legs. At the bottom of the descent, about mile 30, the trail rolls around Cascade Lake, and this is where I started to bonk. I pushed on but at about mile 32, with only .75 mile left there was a small HILL and when I saw this small HILL, in my bonking state, my wheels completely fell off. Wheels. Off. I stopped, determined I could not, would not, go up that hill. Rick, who was ahead of me, turned around and dug a gel out of his pocket and handed it to me. I looked at him like he had handed me a dead rat to eat. “Are you kidding me?” I had basically felt great the entire race until this point and I was not taking a gel with only .75 miles left in the race. “Thanks but no thanks.”

Silence was followed by an attitude adjustment, and I took the gel and with Rick’s persistence I started moving again and felt better almost immediately. Not too far down the trail we got to a little section, maybe 1/10th of a mile, up a paved road, and then it was down a grassy hill across the finish line. YIPPEEEEE! I can’t explain how overwhelmed with emotion I was—not only did I finish the race in 7:35 (well under the cut off), but eleven of the best people I know were running toward Rick and me with hugs and high fives. It was time to celebrate, people!!

Rick was obviously a huge factor in the success of my race. He could have finished his own race in under 7 hours, but he stuck by me and it was awesome. I also couldn’t have done it without the encouragement of every single one of those bad ass, big hearted runners from Missoula who were patiently waiting for me at the finish line. I am lucky to call them all my friends.

Now, if I can stay upright and avoid additional trips to the ER, I am off to run the Big Horn 50 miler in June. Everyone tells me it is easy. Right!!!


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