The Great Cranberry Island Ultramarathon (50k) is the greatest race ever. At least, that’s what Runner’s World says, and that’s what the race says all over its shirts. There is a lot of hype, and I’ll admit it – it worked. A few months ago, I signed up for the waiting list for the race, and as luck would have it, I got in based on my wit alone. No, seriously. You have to write essays to get in and they pick the good ones. I had totally forgotten that I had even signed up for the waiting list, but when I got picked, I knew I had to go and see if this race lived up to the hype, so this past weekend, I did just that.
The race is held on Great Cranberry Island, off the coast of Maine. It’s near Bar Harbor, essentially. You have to take a ferry to get to the island, and there is one paved road on the island that is 2 miles long. That’s where the race is.
“But Danielle,” you say, “isn’t it an ultramarathon? How can it be run just on one 2 mile road?” Well, you run back and forth on the road until you’ve got 31 miles. That’s it. And I know what you’re thinking – that doesn’t sound like the best race ever AT ALL. Hold on, we’ll get there.
So I flew up to Boston on Friday morning, where I was greeted by two of my favorite New Yorkers – JC and Julia, and Julia’s friend Alexis, who had to drive through Boston to get to Maine anyway. They picked me up and whisked me away, where I learned about the intensive preparation that JC had been doing to ensure that I survived the weekend.
Why? Well, for one, part of the GCI (as it shall henceforth be referred to) experience is camping on the island on Saturday night after the race. And it might shock you because I’m all rough and tumble (in my mind) and sarcastic, but I have never been camping before. I prefer to sleep indoors. Part of this is because mosquitos love me and part of this is because I really value hot showers, but either way, it’s just not my thing. With all of the changes taking place in my life lately, the thought of camping was irrationally stressing me out. JC assured me that he would bring everything I needed to survive, and he was not exaggerating. He brought me a million samples of everything from sunscreen to moisturizer to eye makeup remover to INDUSTRIAL STRENGTH MOSQUITO REPELLENT. Oh, plus the whole tent, sleeping bag, tarp, and all of that. Just one of many reasons why he is one of my all-time favorite people.
We arrived at our very Bates Motel-esque hotel room and the guys immediately passed out while Julia started trying to fix my back and leg. She’s a licensed massage therapist and I was in rough shape heading into this race. By the way, did I mention this would be my first ever attempt at an ultramarathon (any distance over 26.2 miles)? Yeah. Perfect timing. She worked on me for like an hour, which was simultaneously excellent and painful, and then we headed into Bar Harbor/Bah Hahbah for dinner.
The following morning required us to wake up suspiciously early so that we could get on the ferry and head over to the island for the race. Because of the ferry situation and the fact that there isn’t really anywhere to stay on the island besides camping (which you’re only allowed to do on Saturday night, mercifully), the race doesn’t actually start until 11:30 am for the normal start and 10:30 am for the early start. We got to the island with plenty of time and were quickly greeted with some pretty beautiful views.
The island was buzzing with excitement when we all arrived. Only about 35 people live there year-round, and it peaks(!) at about 200 in the summer.
We immediately set out to the campsite so we could get everything set up before the race started. It didn’t seem like it would be such a good idea to attempt to run 31 miles and then set up a tent. Of course, I wasn’t helping to set up a tent regardless due to the lack of camping experience, so I made myself useful by going to grab me and JC’s packets and begging for them to let us do the early start since I couldn’t walk without limping. The nice volunteer lady (Mary) agreed since she saw I was in poor shape. “What’s your revised estimated finish time?” she asked. “Umm….finish?” I responded. That was optimistic.
Before the race, I was able to meet quite a few readers, including Lecia and Erin. Lecia mentioned that she was hoping to qualify for Boston during the race, which basically seemed crazy to me, but I’m really glad she told me because I found it really entertaining to cheer her on the entire race. At one point during the race, she told me to pray for her because she was struggling, so I did because you never know what persuasive powers I might hold, and the next time I saw her, I told her that God said she was going to BQ. Guess who BQed? You’re welcome, Lecia, but you owe me one.
Eventually, I went off by myself to get ready for the race. I was really nervous, and I don’t like to be around people when I’m nervous. My leg hurt really bad and I was seriously questioning my sanity for even thinking that this was a good idea. And camping on top of that? Kill me. I decided that I would just take it one lap at a time – after all, the road is only 2 miles long, so it’s not like I could get stuck out there for that long. I came up with a mantra – “I’m just waiting for my leg to warm up.” That’s what I decided I would tell anyone who asked me how my leg was feeling. Look at all that positivity!
JC promised to stay with me the entire race, so at least I knew I wouldn’t die alone out there. We started with the early group, which was maybe about 20 people, and I hobbled along. The silver lining was that it hurt exactly as much to walk as it did to run unless I was on a hill, so I figured I would just run all the parts that weren’t uphill and see how far that got us. The course was absolutely beautiful and the weather was great at the start, so we took advantage of that to log some speedy early miles – 10:30 pace, baby! Ha!
The early start was fun because a) it wasn’t that early and b) everyone was cheering for us as we came back through the start/finish area! I felt a little sheepish gimping along, but it was hard not to smile. Besides, the course was dotted with lots of cute little houses and people on their porches cheering, plus the views of the ocean and of course all of the people that were running the race. You basically got to say hi to everyone about 14 or 15 times, which was awesome. It was not so awesome when they were lapping you, though. That happened a lot.
Truth be told, everything was going pretty well for awhile with the exception of these vicious trained attack geese that kept waddling across the road in front of us at this one particular spot on the course. I would make JC run ahead and scare them away because geese are my second-most hated bird after seagulls. We ran the majority of the way for the first 16 miles unless we were going uphill since walking hurt just as much anyway. At one point, it actually looked like we were poised to finish in a pretty decent time, maybe around 6 hours. Crazy, since I thought I couldn’t finish it at all! All of a sudden, JC started to not look so good, and he said he was feeling sick. At first, it seemed like he was just hot, so he took his hat off and I helpfully dumped some water on his head without his permission and we just walked for awhile. This wonderful, glorious, magical lady had put out salted boiled potatoes at her house, and it was hands down the most delicious food I have ever consumed in my life. I don’t know why I’m not eating salted boiled potatoes on a daily basis.
Around mile 20, JC had gotten very quiet and I was growing more worried. We had been walking for about 4 miles now and he wasn’t cooling down. I asked him if he was ok, and he said he was just feeling sick and emotional. I’m not so good with people’s emotions, and I didn’t really know what to do, so I just hugged him in the middle of the road for awhile. Then I said something snarky and he laughed and we kept walking, resolving to just walk the whole rest of the way if that’s what it took. It’s funny how a race can change like that. One minute, JC was supporting me and making sure I was able to finish, and the next minute, the situation was reversed. That’s what friends are for, right?
JC felt bad that we were walking the whole time, but that obviously didn’t matter to me. I was just in it to finish my first ultra! Everyone was very supportive as I gimped along. Somewhere around maybe mile 24 or 25, a woman caught up to us and told us that she thought we were incredibly inspirational – me for doing the race when I was clearly injured (just waiting for my leg to warm up) and JC for sticking with me through it. I’m glad she said “inspirational” instead of “stupid,” since T-Rex Mom would probably have opted for stupid and would have been correct.
Speaking of my hair, many people came up to me during and after the race and told me that they couldn’t believe how good my hair looked after an ultramarathon, especially since I didn’t wash it. BELIEVE IT, people. I grow it myself.
Another amusing thing that kept happening was people would keep asking us what lap we were on, as if we had any idea. The course starts with a 3.1 mile loop that is slightly different from the rest of the laps, but with the start/finish right in the middle of the island, you basically have no idea what lap you are on at any given time. We would just answer with what mile we were on, but this did not deter us from asking other people what lap they were on as if it would mean anything to us. We just figured we’d keep going until my watch said 31 miles.
That being said, walking 14 or so miles takes a loonnnnnng time. The race had started in the middle of the day basically, so it was getting close to dinner time as we were headed in towards the finish! We were now on a mission to collect the signs that had our names on them (the local athletic club had made them for everyone) and we each wanted to grab one of the inspiring quotes that had been printed up as well. Pretty much every telephone pole had one on it, so we spent the last lap or two trying to find our favorite quotes and grab them before someone else did. We also collected name signs and quotes for people who had already finished, so we (and by we, I mean mostly JC) were carrying quite the load as we headed towards the finish.
Although an official T-Rex was not happening (nor was it necessary, since it wasn’t a marathon) we did our best to run the last 2 or so miles as much as possible, mostly just to get it over with. Although most of the other people had long since finished, we came in to thunderous applause from our fellow Maniacs and I officially became an ultramarathoner!
I pretty much couldn’t believe I had finished the 50k – my leg never warmed up, after all – but we really did have an awesome time. It’s hard to believe that running 31 miles back and forth on a two mile long island would be very much fun, but it was! Oh, and it was actually pretty hilly. So much for JC telling me it was completely flat! The hills that looked like ant hills on the first lap were mountains by the seventh. Although the race itself was great, the best part of the night was yet to come. The race hosts a lobster bake and party after the race in the camping area! Everyone waited in line to take cold showers (outside) but I wasn’t particularly interested in that, so I just wiped myself off with baby wipes and took my hair out of my ponytail. A 2 minute shower in cold water wasn’t going to leave me smelling good either way, so I figured I might as well not be cold!
Kino, Cade, Jen, and Karen had brought sixty PBRs for the party, and they weren’t even planning on staying the whole night! I obviously told them I would be happy to assist in the matter. It was during this time that I found out that I did not mention Cade as one of the “fast people” in my PR race report despite the fact that a) I talked to him more than anyone else and b) he’s actually faster than the people I did mention, so world, please know that Cade is very fast. Way faster than me and definitely fast enough for the fast bus. That is all.
There was a huge bonfire going and they strangely started playing techno music. I wasn’t really prepared for that, but of course JC was – he had brought glow sticks so that
I could rave we could find our way around in the dark. I quickly impressed Jen and Karen with my amazing dance moves, complete with glow stick.
I was pretty tired around 11, so JC and I headed to the tent, where Julia was already fast asleep. It was good that I had now been drinking and was exhausted from running, because this mostly took my mind off the fact that I was sleeping in a tent. I put my earplugs in because the party was still raging but managed to fall asleep quite peacefully until the incident.
Around 2 am (ok, I really have no idea), I was woken up by a pretty loud voice outside our tent yelling “Baby JC! Danielle! WAKE UP! Come out!” This person was actually our friend Kino, who had perhaps had about 10 PBRs too many and had lost the concept of time and space. If the shouting wasn’t enough to wake me up, I was definitely awake when he fell onto our tent, landing directly on top of me in the process. For some reason, possibly because he’s one of the nicest and most unassuming people I’ve ever met in my life, this was basically the most hilarious thing that ever happened. I let JC handle drunk Kino and went back to sleep after laughing about it for a good 20 minutes.
The next morning when we woke up, it looked like a tornado had hit the camping field. There were beer cans, lobster shells, corn cobs, and just general mayhem everywhere. There was even an inflatable T-Rex that I DIDN’T BRING. How did that happen?
We had to pack up all our stuff and walk down to the ferry, which left pretty early. At that point, we were all just ready to get back and start the drive. No one had really showered by this point, so we were facing a long drive in a small car with some smelly friends, but hey – that’s what (ultra!)marathoning is all about.
And with that, we left the Best Race FORever and headed home. It’s definitely a very unique experience, and it is sad that this was the last year for it. I’m so glad I was able to go this year and finish the race, by some act of God. Oh, and proof that JC took superior care of me the entire time? I did not get a single bug bite thanks to his industrial strength repellent. JC, I will camp with you anytime!
Ok, I didn’t mean that. But theoretically.