Catalina

18 Mar 2007

“Why would you want to run the Catalina marathon? You could get a great time on a normal course.” Asked one of my friends in Rusty’s training group.

“Why would you want to run the Catalina marathon? The 50 miler was just a month or so before.” Asked one of my trail running friends.

(“Why would you want to run?” asked my mother, incessantly.)

Catalina Harbor

I chose to run it because I thought it would be beautiful. I hoped it would be like the Big Sur race I did two years ago. I chose to run it because when I registered I was still concerned about my knee and thought running fast was bad for it, so I chose a race I expected to go slowly on.

A week before the event one kind friend told me the weather should be perfect — temperatures in the 90s and sunny. I looked at her in horror, practically the worst thing she could have said. I hoped for temperatures in the 50s and overcast.

I thought I’d take the train down to LA, and then the Metro down to Long Beach, and then the boat over to Avalon. When I last lived in LA there was no Metro. This was an experiment — does public transport work?

It did for me.

It’s slower though. It took me 7 1⁄2 hours while it took Amy and Art Tracewell 5 1⁄2.

This is the off-season for the island. Most of the hotels are closed for the winter — but they make an exception and reopen for this one weekend.

Marathon course I stayed in Avalon, but the race started in Two Harbors, a spot near the west end of the island where it narrows to a tiny isthmus before widening out again on either side (thus making a bay on both sides of the island, the eponymous two harbors with a short walk from one to the other. At 5am a boat took us from Avalon thither.

A large boat. There were about 800 marathoners, several hundred walkers and some spectators. The boat was a tourist boat with three decks, the top was unroofed and open to the wind, the second was enclosed in the front but open at the back. The bottom deck was entirely enclosed. Doubtless great for tourists in the summer, but very chilly if you have to be on top in the wind at 5am. I hadn’t realized this was an issue, I had just assumed we’d be in a warm boat. I’d have gotten there a little earlier if I’d known. As it was I was early enough to get a portion of the exposed second deck. Chilly, but at least out of the wind. Once the boat started most of the people from the top deck came down.

Pitch black as we pulled into Two Harbors a little before 6. People who had done the run before complained about the new Daylight Savings Time — in the past 6 was close to dawn (and the view of the harbor was good), but this year it was an hour before. Well, at least the run would be cooler.

We all immediately lined up for the restrooms. The lines moved very slowly. It was 6:30 before I reached the head.

Rusty wanted me to do a warm up mile. I had no idea which track would go that far. I trotted a bit in one direction but quickly ran out of road. I turned back then and gave up on that idea.

Time to decide what to wear. A fuel belt full of gel. Sunglasses or not? It was overcast, but I suspected it would burn off before too long. Sunglasses. It was cool, so I took a plastic bag to protect me from the wind until running warmed me. The rest of my stuff went into a bag that got transported to the finish.

A stream of people were heading across the isthmus, and I learned the starting line was at the other harbor. Someone told me that a buffalo had been sighted in the meadow over there earlier in the morning.

No buffalo was visible now.

(A few buffalo where imported to Catalina in the ‘20s as stage dressing for a film, and then just left to roam. Rather surprisingly they thrived and a decade ago there were 400 of them. The Catalina Island Conservancy did a study which showed that they were damaging the native plants and started culling the herd, moving the excess to other parks. There are now about 200 on the island, and seeing one would be kind of neat.)

The start line was nice and wide. I was too late to get on the first row, I was in the second. But more and more people came and they put themselves in front of me, so then I was in the third. Grump.

It was chilly.

We waited.

I heard someone whisper “Go” (the quietest start to a race I’ve ever experienced, I heard no “Ready, Set”, no warning of any kind. I wasn’t even sure that this was the start, but everyone else went, so I did too.

Splits
7:56/8:33/7:39/7:01
7:13/7:21/7:05/6:28
8:11/7:05/8:28/7:20
8:03/7:49/7:08/7:21
7:35/8:30/9:05/8:36
7:20/8:33/7:35/6:54
7:20/6:53
0:52

We went back over the isthmus to where we’d started, and then turned so we were climbing up above the bay. It was just around sunrise but under overcast, and the light was fairly dim. In my sunglasses I couldn’t read my watch. Oh well, I still clicked the splits for each mile anyway.

Catalina is a very bouncy marathon with a total elevation gain of ~4300ft (slightly more that Pier to Peak), but since it starts and stops at sea level it has an elevation drop of ~4300 as well. It’s sort of like running a few miles up Gibraltar and then back down, and then repeating. Impossible to run a consistent pace, splits weren’t going to be very meaningful on this race.

Instead, at mile 1 I started counting the number of people ahead of me, complicated, as always, by the fact that walkers started earlier and could be randomly mixed among us. I saw 18 ahead. I suspected there would be a few already out of sight beyond the bend of the road, let’s say 20 then.

By mile 2 I’d passed 8 people (the trail climbs about 800 feet in the first two miles, and I’m good at climbing).

I was surprised at how good the trail (fire-road actually) was. Not rutted like the SB fire-roads, and with very little camber to it. Few loose rocks trying to trip me. Almost perfect really.

The overcast hung at about 300~500ft above sea level. We were now in dense fog. I couldn’t read my watch at all. I could barely see the runner 50ft in front of me. I worried I might miss the trail.

But it’s kind of neat to be in dense fog

I got down to about 10th by mile 4 or so but then the trail started to go down again and a few people passed me.

On the next uphill I caught up with some of them and ran with them for a long time. Robert and Beto. We chatted. We were all fairly fresh at this point, and no one wanted to push hard this early.

Robert asked me how old I was, first time anyone has asked me this in a race, I’m 47 and he’s 52 so we’re different age groups and he didn’t have to worry about me. Beto was 29. Rob said he thought there were about 20 people ahead of us. I had guessed 6. I learned later that there were 8.

Beto wanted to break 3:30, as did I. Rob, who had done this race numerous times before chided us. He had no time goals, he was just going to run what felt right, do the first half easy, and then speed up on the second. He warned me to slow down (But not Beto, disquieting that). In one area, at least, Rob was right. I hadn’t looked at my watch, I had no idea what my splits were, and I had no idea how to plan for any time. I, too, was just running what felt right.

I pulled away from them after a bit. We were now heading down again, all the way down to sea level at Little Harbor, about mile 8. And we popped out of the fog. Little Harbor (just a harbor, no land structures) was quite beautiful, and was almost the only vista I got on the run, with stark rocks rising from the sea.

Beto caught up with me again and we ran together until mile 16 or so.

We climbed up into the fog again and couldn’t see much of anything.

Around mile 11 a bicyclist came by and shouted “8,9” at us. That was encouraging.

Around mile 12 we caught up with number 7 who had pulled a muscle and was looking for the sag wagon. Then Jason caught up with is. We crossed the halfway point in a clump 7,8,9. I’ve never been 7th, 8th or 9th in a half-marathon before.

At mile 14 Rob zoomed past us. He had really meant it when he said he was going to pick it up on the second half. And then someone else passed us. So now we were 9,10,11. Beto and Jason picked up the pace. I didn’t match them, but kept them in sight, and then slowly, slowly began to catch up again. I passed Jason. I caught Beto around 15 or 16 and ran with him for a bit, but that burst of speed seemed to have tired him and I pulled ahead. I was alone at 17, and in 9th place.

I know it sounds as though I am terribly competitive, hoping to get ahead of everyone, but from my perspective it was just something to think about. When running in dense fog there isn’t much to see. In truth I was just running my pace. Oh if I heard someone behind me I might pick it up a little, or if I saw someone ahead I thought I might catch, but there were another 9 miles to go. Running fast now might prove a mistake later.

There was a rest station near mile 16 where they offered me Cliff blocks. There were hundreds of blocks all jumbled in a box and they had stuck together. It was impossible to extract any without stopping. Annoying. The next station had little paper cups each containing 2 blocks. A much better approach.

The steepest, longest climb begins at ~17.7, where we gain 800ft in 1.1 miles, then a slight dip and then another 200ft up. And now, finally I was climbing out of the fog. Just when I most wanted to be cooled I had the sun beating on me. I slowed, but kept on. When I reached the ridge, I was half in fog again as it blew up the side of the mountain. Nothing to see but cloud in either direction.

Running along the ridge I was alternately in the fog and out of it. Occasionally I would look out over the top of the clouds and see a few mountain peaks poking through, islands in a sea of mist. Quite lovely actually.

I was tired. I managed the 800ft climb ok, but when I reached the top of it I had no strength left in my legs and could not take advantage of the downhill. Someone passed me (10th now).

We had a series of small hills then; one was very steep. I was reduced to walking up it. Someone else passed me. But I there was another exhausted person ahead, whom I passed, and I stayed ahead once I started running. So I was still 10th.

As I turned a bend I saw it was downhill, and encouraged him to run again by saying so. “Downhill from now on?” he asked hopefully. Sadly no, only downhill until the next bend. Still another mile or two before the real descent.

Someone else passed me.

A little before mile 22 we reached the highest point on the course at 1570ft. One small bounce more, and then we plummet and lose all 1500ft in around 4 miles.

I was afraid of this. Downhills are not my strong point, and I was tired. I felt I was barely moving along now. Hmm. If I ever do run a 50 miler I’m going to have to learn how to pace myself for it.

The fog rolled in again. Someone passed me.

I got a stitch in my side (I never get stitches) and had to slow down more.

Someone else passed me.

I was 13th now. But for how long?

The stitch eased.

At mile 25 I started catching the guy who was 12th. At mile 26 he was close… but he crossed the finish line five seconds before me.

I hadn’t seen the clock when I crossed the line. As always I forgot to stop my watch. I estimated 3:22~3:23. Not bad for this course. And 13th is also pretty good.

I ate, drank. I had intended to go ice my legs in the ocean, but the day was still foggy (and cool) and the ocean was so cold — I could not stand it for long. My hotel was 20ft from the finish line so I showered and returned to wait for Amy and Art. They crossed the line together at 4:04.

If I had a partner would I be willing to run at her pace (or she at mine, in the unlikely event she were faster?) Training for a marathon is so much work… would I be willing to do less than my utmost? But then these two have done many more marathons than I… and I suppose it is possible they find more important things than just being fast.

When the results were finally posted I found I finished at 3:21:05, and first in my age group. Amy was 2nd in hers. (The 52year old Rob put me to shame and ran 3:11, Beto was just over 3:30).

Avalon is tiny. There seem at least as many marathoners as locals. As I walk the streets are crowded with finisher’s tee-shirts. People see mine and congratulate me. People come up to me and ask what was it like to run those trails? Would I do it again? How many marathons have I run? How long is this marathon? — the perennial question. All very small and friendly.

Actually… looking at my last split (0:52) between mile 26 and the finish line, well if that were really 365 yards I’d have been running at a 4:20min/mile pace. At the ~7min/mile pace I was probably running that works out to about 220 yards. So how long was the marathon?

I saw one young father calling after his toddler: “Come back! Daddy can’t run after you today.”

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