We were supposed to close out February with our first 50K.
Then February brought an unusual amount of snow and cold weather to the Puget Sound area. Even in the heart of Seattle, the roads and sidewalks were coated in snow, slush, and ice for days. The area trails at quite modest elevations (~1500 feet) are still covered.
So a few days before the race, the organizers made the call to cancel Saturday’s event and reschedule for later in the year. It was the right call. Someone posted that they ran the course on race day and encountered ice on the lower trails and snow, up to 2 feet deep in places, on the upper trails. Even if safety weren’t a concern, that would’ve been a slog and cutoffs would’ve been a challenge. (G was decidedly unhappy about a long training run we did on mostly packed snow a few weeks ago.)
With the 50K cancelled, we looked around and realized there was a trail marathon Saturday. Someone reported that the trails looked great, not only devoid of snow but nice and dry. So we decided to go for it.
Fort Ebey State Park is on Whidbey Island, which is accessible via ferry or road. It’s about a 2-hour drive in good traffic. Even though the race started relatively late (9 am for us), we opted to drive up Friday night and stay in a B&B a short distance from the park. No reason to be exhausted from driving before a race. As a bonus, we met a couple of half marathon runners over breakfast.
Consistent with prior Northwest Trail Runs experiences, the event was small but impeccably organized. We parked a short walk from the starting area and picked up our bibs. While we would’ve liked to socialize a bit more before the race, check-in was situated in a open field by the bluffs, and the weather was cold with a stiff breeze.
At check-in and the start of the event, we soon found a few other runners who had been planning to do the Fragrance Lake 50K and, after its cancellation, frantically searched for another event and found the Fort Ebey marathon.
The course was half marathon distance, with the full marathon running two loops and getting the early start. NW Trail Runs race director, Kati Leigh, and course maker and marker, Eric Bone, gave the 61 marathon runners a quick briefing on what markings meant and a general overview of the course, noting street crossing, more technical sections, and what to do when we rounded for the second lap. Then he led us down a short slope to the field pictured above and soon we were off. The first loop started with a short lap of open space, giving runners the chance to sort a bit while there was some space to maneuver easily.
The wind was bracing, but once we were on the main part of the course, we were sheltered by the trees and dense bushes as we ran along the bluff trails. At this point, we were in little groups, pace governed by whoever was at the front of it. Gene wanted to little faster up the smaller inclines, so we squeezed by and pushed ahead.
After about a mile or so along the bluffs, we turned and ran along the edge of a small lake and then were rolling through forests for most of the course. The first wave of the half marathon started 40 minutes after we did, and so the fast half marathoner caught us back-of-the-pack marathoners in the woods. Runners communicated well and there was always a spot to safely step off the trail and make way for others when the trail was single track.
With a couple of miles remaining in the half marathon, we returned to the bluffs, this time on the opposite side of the field. On the first loop, we caught some glimpses of the Olympic Mountains across the sound.
We then had to double back—with a short, steep climb up from the field up to the top of the bluff.
After a little more winding through the woods, we were back to the start/finish. There were a lot of turns and intersecting trails, but the course was clearly and frequently marked.
We pushed on the first loop, knowing that we had a 3-1/2 hour cutoff to beat for the first half. And we crushed it, completing it in less than 3 hours, which is our best trail half marathon time ever.
We grabbed a snack, sat for a minute to adjust shoes and wardrobe, and then set out for round 2. The second half was at a slower pace with more walking up inclines. We were pretty gassed from the first half, but we had built a nice cushion for the second half. Somewhere around mile 19 or so I started offering entertainment—first some Monty Python and the Holy Grail snippets, later music from The Little Mermaid 😅
The volunteers at the aid stations were fantastic. At the mile 4.9/17.8 station, we found a familiar face, a woman we’d originally met at a running store in the Seattle area. On the second pass through, her son was offering hugs and delighted when Gene accepted. At the mile 10/22.9 station, there was music and encouragement.
We were exhausted and aching when we reached the end, but even so, we could still muster smiles as we passed the photographer on the final mile.
There was around 5000 ft of elevation gain for the marathon. We had been training for more intense, differently distributed vert. The Fragrance Lake 50K course has some long hard climbs and descents. Fort Ebey serves up a few short, somewhat steep hills but for the most part consisted of shallow climbs and rolling ups and downs. The trails were dry, well-maintained, and never exceedingly technical. So this meant that much of the course was quite runnable. Which was fun but challenging in a very different way than we’d trained for. We finished in 6 hours 22 minutes, placing 49th and 50th out of 59 finishers—a back-of-the-pack finish but a solid effort that we were proud of.
Note: Race photos by Takao Suzuki, posted here under personal use license. First photo and selfie by post author.