From the moment I read about the Great Cranberry Island Ultra, I was fascinated and knew I wanted to experience this race. The race’s reputation was outstanding, having been voted the “best race ever” by Runner’s World, and the field was small, so I entered the lottery. Filling out the playful and humorous lottery application confirmed that I would enjoy a trip to Maine, and I crossed my fingers. I was elated when the confirmation email arriving informing me that I had gotten into this 50K race, which also served as the RRCA 2013 National Ultra Championship, which was an added bonus. The beautiful epicurean and I had scored two free flight vouchers after volunteering to be bumped from a holiday flight, so it made perfect sense to book a flight to Maine, run a great race on a beautiful Island, and then spend some time visiting some amazing friends. This trip had perfect summer vacation written all over it!
Alas, we waited a bit too long to book our flights, so we ended up flying into Boston and renting a car to drive up to Maine. Ultimately, this worked out really well in terms of flexibility, but it still added to our driving time. Luckily, the scenery couldn’t be beat, so we didn’t mind. As the race name indicates, this event is indeed hosted on Great Cranberry Island, off the coast of Maine. This tiny island is home to 38 year-round residents, and accessible only by ferry. We drove up the coast and stayed at a lovely little inn in Southwest Harbor the night before the race, and then walked down to the dock to board the ferry around 8AM. The ferry arrived at 9AM, and the 40 minute ride to GCI was absolutely stunning. After spending so much time surrounded by flat land and corn fields, the natural beauty of New England is something I will never stop loving. We brought along our tent and camping gear so that we could camp on the island the night of the race, and when we arrived, local residents were on hand to help haul our bags and camping gear the half mile up to the clearing that would serve as our camp site, as well as the start/finish area. We set up camp, and then went to packet pick-up to snag by race materials and the epicurean’s volunteer materials. Capping the race at 200 or so participants meant packet pick-up was a breeze, and it was clear as soon as we arrived that this would be an intimate race of sorts. For many runners, it was a reunion and opportunity to see old friends, and for me, a chance to make new friends.
At this point, you might be wondering how one runs a 50K race on a tiny island. Good question! There is one main 2-mile long road on the island, and the route took us back and forth on that same road. Although this had the potential to be exceedingly monotonous, the proved to be a wonderful route. When you are going back and forth over and over, and there are only 200 runners to begin with, you get to see everyone frequently, and the opportunity for runner and crowd support was fantastic. More on that later though. The race began at 11:30AM to give folks a chance to get over to the island and get settled. This was definitely the latest race I had run in a while, and it presented an interesting challenge as far as nutrition was concerned. I had a small breakfast when I woke up, and ended up eating again before the race, but not tempting fate with anything more dramatic than a cliff bar and a banana.
Before the 3-2-1-GO signal was given, Gary Allen, the race organizer, welcomed everyone to GCI and explained why this would be the last running of the GCI Ultra after only 7 years. The race has been an amazing success since its creation, and the organizers wanted to go out on top and ensure their spot as the #bestraceforever. With that, and words of encouragement (along with Gary surprisingly deciding to line up for the race himself), we were off! The first out-and-back was a quick 5K that took us a bit further down the island, and then we settled into our first of seven 4-mile repeats along the 2-mile stretch of road.
It’s honestly hard to describe just how beautiful this race truly was at every point. No matter where I was along the course, I could look to my left or right and see an incredible ocean view, coupled with perfectly quaint New England homes, and the mountains of Acadia National Forrest in the distance. Volunteers lined the course, along with most of the town’s residents, who came out to cheer, offer water, fruit, and salted potato wedges. Since the epicurean was volunteering, I was able to pass by her pretty regularly, and it was great to see her smiling face amidst all of the others so frequently. As with any race, paces and goals varied but this race was different somehow. It had much more of a family feel, as though I was just heading out for a lovely Saturday afternoon run with a large group of friends. The Marathon Maniacs were out in full force as well, and it was great to meet some of the folks I had only interacted with on Facebook thus far.
The weather for the race couldn’t have been more perfect, with temperatures starting in the 60’s and overcast skies that gave way to afternoon sun. The course/road wasn’t terribly hilly, but had a nice rolling feel to it that provided for nice downhill relief to compensate for the brief uphill climbs. In all honesty, I didn’t actually notice the elevation changes that much because I was so busy soaking in the views and chatting with people along the route. Ultimately, my actual race was more a story of two races.
After my 51-mile RAGBRAI “training run” the previous Tuesday, I wasn’t entirely sure how my legs would be feeling by Saturday. I made sure to rest my legs and foam roll them often prior to GCI, but I was in a bit of uncharted territory. I had only ever run one other 50-mile race, and had taken considerably more time to rest after that race. However, by the time we got to GCI, my legs were feeling strong and relaxed, and I felt confident. I didn’t have any goals for this 50K, mainly because I was simply so excited to be there in the first place. So, before the race began, I decided that I would just go out hard and see how long my legs could handle the increased pace. This ended up being a great decision and an excellent test of my endurance.
I began at an 8:30 pace, which felt comfortable, as it normally does for shorter runs. I knew this pace was far faster than the 8:54 I had averaged in Little Rock for my most recent marathon PR, but I figured I’d see how long I could maintain it. As it turns out, the next 20 miles simply flew by, and my legs just kept moving. The small hills did get a bit bigger, but my quads handled the push beautifully, and I maintained that same 8:30 pace for the first 20 miles. This left me feeling really pleased, and that’s when the PR thoughts started to creep into my head. I try my best to curb those thoughts, especially when I still have a considerable distance to go, but I couldn’t help it.
However, the mileage earlier in the week did finally catch up with me and I felt my pace slowing a bit. Still, I was perfectly happy with where I was at, and feeling strong. I kept pushing myself, and to my surprise, I crossed the marathon checkpoint in 3:51, which was a new PR for me! I was elated, took a moment to do a happy dance in my head, and then got back to the business of the next 5+ miles. I gave myself permission to walk the hills during the last 5 miles of the course, and was perfectly happy with that. From a strategy standpoint, I probably should have been doing that even sooner, but the adrenaline just kept pumping. As I headed into the final leg, though, I was still feeling strong and excited about my time and the race as a whole. I crossed the finish line in 4:45, which meant I had shaved 21 minutes off my previous 50K PR in Kansas City! I could not have been happier, and must have had the biggest grin on my face as a volunteer placed the amazing medal/ belt buckle around my neck. #bestraceforever indeed!
I quickly (ok, so I wasn’t really walking “quickly” but you get the idea) showered and changed, and then walked the 1.5 miles or so down to the aid station where the epicurean was volunteering. I hung out, helped hand out water, and cheered on the other runners, and it was just as motivating to see others out there going strong as it was when I crossed the finish myself. On top of everything, the view from the aid station was a beautiful ocean scene, with Cadillac Mountain in the background. Once things wrapped up, we walked back for dinner. A local fisherman had been catching fresh lobster for everyone during the day, so we returned to a traditional lobster boil with fresh corn on the cob! Have I mentioned that this was an amazing race?! This was my first time cracking a whole lobster, and the epicurean, herself a native New Englander, was happy to teach me all the tricks. It was a delicious treat and a perfect way to refuel after a long day. Following dinner, there was a giant bonfire, as well as a DJ spinning into the night. Everyone spent the evening chatting, dancing, and reliving the experience of the race.
We woke up the next morning, took down our campsite, and headed to breakfast. Oh yes, there was breakfast for us as well! Local residents prepared a home-cooked meal that served to perfectly bookend our race weekend. The ferry ride back to the mainland was a bit longer than on the way out, but the views of the ocean and surrounding area, combined with the recent experience meant our minds were blissfully floating. This was hands down the best race experience I’ve ever had, and the Great Cranberry Island Ultra 2013 can definitely lay claim to the title of #bestraceforever!