Avalon 50 miler

The race started at 5am. I had grumbled about that — I didn’t really want to run in the dark for an hour and a half — but given the heat of the day I later changed my mind.

The race started at 5. I couldn’t sleep well (or at all) and at 3 I gave up, got out of bed, stretched, had breakfast, got ready, and waited. At 4:40 I went down to the race start, checked in, and milled around. I noticed one woman had her headlight strapped around her midriff. It seemed much better than putting it on the head. Eventually we lined up. Someone said “Go”, but no one moved. Then there was some argument, and eventually a whole group of voices cried “Go”, and we went.

I was lined up in the second row at the start and there were about a dozen people in front of me, including one woman. That seemed about right. But soon another 10 people passed me, including another woman. Humpf.

Avalon crowds around the ocean at the mouth of a canyon, and we ran up this canyon. On city streets for the first mile or so, and then into the Wriggly Botanical reserve and onto dirt. It was pitch black and nothing was visible except the lights in front of me. Someone had placed glow sticks in the road to mark each turn (there weren’t many turns).

The road steepened and started to switchback. And now it was possible to look behind. There was a river of lights from runners behind down in the valley below. We climbed further. I passed the second woman. After a bit we got a view of Los Angeles. Lights across the water stretching from one horizon to the other. And down below, the tiny lights of Avalon.

It had already warmed up. It was chilly at the start, so I put on an extra layer. Now I take it off, and stuff it into my camelback.

We climbed out onto a ridge running parallel to the ocean, with LA across the water, ahead, the road turns inland and up and I can see a few lights sprinkled far ahead of me. Many lights behind.

A little after 3 miles I took my first gel pack. This is complicated by the fact that I have a flashlight in one hand and gloves on both. Luckily the flashlight has a wrist strap, so I just let it dangle for a bit. The process actually went fairly smoothly.

The road now turns downhill and I hear footsteps behind me, and Ray joins me. We run together for the next 2~3 miles, chatting (which is how I learned his name). Ray has done the race before.

Ray turns out to run faster downhill than I (at least in the dark he does) while I go slightly faster uphill, so we join and separate and rejoin depending on the terrain.

The road is actually in great shape, but I still am a little leery of plunging downhill in the dark (and some of the downhills are steep).

Around mile 5 we pass another guy (never got his name) and we all three run together now. There is a road sign up saying that the road will narrow, and we should slow down. We joke about that. The road is called “Fox Canyon Rd.” (or something like that) and we begin to see signs warning us of “fox-crossings” with cute little fox pictures on them. (The picture at right was taken much later in the day, of course, and at a different place, but the sign is the same).

The channel island fox is a species in its own right, smaller than the mainland variety, and only found on Catalina and the Channel Islands off SB.

I don’t see any.

The guy whose name I don’t know wonders where the first aid station is. Ray says it’s about mile 4 or 5. We are now at 5.75.

A car comes driving down the road at us. We were running three abreast, taking up the entire road, but we squinch down. Kind of intimidating meeting a car in the dark. They are so much bigger than we…

And there’s the aid station. I don’t need to stop, so I run through. Ray and the other guy do stop. Running by myself for a while. I click my watch at the station. It’s probably time for a gel, I look at the watch and realize I turned it off, rather than recording a lap. Twit. Turn it back on. Press the real lap button. And, yes, it is time for a gel.

The first time I ran on Catalina it was very foggy and I couldn’t see anything. Now it is dark, and I can’t see anything.

I pass a couple of women walking. Where did they come from? They don’t look as though they could have gotten here before me? I guess there was an early start for walkers.

A little beyond them is a clump of three runners I gain on them and then pass. One of them asks if I “took a late start?” To me it seems perfectly normal that I might run faster on the flat while they run faster uphill (or that they went out too fast and have slowed) but it seems to surprise them.

I experiment with turning off my flashlight. Yeah… I can see, but I still feel more comfortable with it on. If the road were perfectly smooth it would be a different matter. This road is smooth for a dirt fire track, but it has the occasional gully. The flashlight goes back on.

I glance behind me. The sun is starting to come up. It’s still very dark, and the camera’s exposure is so slow that the image is blurred (I don’t stop running, of course). Ten minutes later there is a bit more light, and the camera does a better job.

I round a bend and climb a slope, there, at the top, is the race photographer. I realize he is positioned perfectly to get a shot of us running against the sunrise. He takes one of me, and as I go past I yell “I want a copy of that.” “All right.”

I have a copy of it (by Roger Meadows of Avalon):

I take my camera out again at another open stretch for a sunrise view, but a truck is pulling up from behind. I don’t want to take a picture with the truck beside me (lest I stumble). But the truck doesn’t pass me, it stays beside me. I glance over at it. There’s a video camera and operator on the back of the truck and they are filming me. Finally they pull away, but the sunrise view has gone.

I see my first bird. A crow I think, but then realize it is probably a raven. Too big for a crow.

I start to see the countryside and am surprised by how dry everything looks. There are large stands of Opuntia. I was expecting countryside like that around SB, but this is much starker. No chaparral. Just dry grass and cactus. And then I pass a little rain pond where the cactus is right at the water’s edge. I don’t often think of cactus in a littoral situation. (It’s still dim, so the picture is very blurred).

The road has turned inland now, away from the coast, and the sun is rising behind the mountains instead of over the ocean. And then the sun actually rises. I glance at my watch and see it is a little before seven. This is a little perplexing as the sun isn’t supposed to rise until ~7:05. But I guess I’m at elevation so it will rise earlier…

I can see the terminal building for the airport. It’s a cute little thing. But round the corner is the next aid station. I fill up with water. The video crew are here and they film me filling up.

I’m running up toward the airport, and there are some walkers ahead. The video truck drives past again, but this time they don’t film me, they catch up with the walkers and film them, and then as I catch up they film me pass them.

The airport is on top of a hill, and from here there is a nice view of the route ahead, or would be if it were not still dark.

Every now and then I pass some walkers. I say “Good morning” as I go by. It’s odd to think that I’ve been running 2~2:30 hours now and it is barely after sunrise…

Now I’m running downhill, heading westish across the island. I’m going at a pretty good clip, sub-8 minute miles. There’s a ranch or something here, with a sign on the road: “Speed limit: 5 Mph.” I decide to break the law. It’s not often I can break a speed limit running, but I’m going about 7.5~8Mph.

I come upon a meadow holding two buffaloes. First buffaloes I’ve seen on Catalina. I try to take their picture, but the camera does not cooperate all I is a blurred image of a fence with some brown lumps behind it.

I’ve run pretty much NE-SW across the island, which is only about 6 miles here and now I’m looking west by south. It’s not so dry over here. A little bit later I start to see wildflowers. Coast sunflowers, manroot, locoweed of some nature, some little white flowers (probably Ceanothus), and a flowering plum which doesn’t make it up to SB.

I guess it makes sense. The storms come from the west off the Pacific, so the east side of the Island will be dry, while the west is wetter.

Then I turn north along the coast and head down into Little Harbor. This isn’t a village, just a harbor for boats and a place to picnic. Just to show how wet it is here, we have our first of two stream crossings. As far as most trail runs are concerned, this is nothing.

On the far side of Little Harbor is the next aid station. Again I fill up on water.

Generally it is a pretty hopeless idea to try to take a picture of a wildflower on a run, but coast sunflowers are pretty big, and the light is starting to be good, and I like them…

It isn’t hot yet. When I checked at 3 this morning, the forecast was for 77° in Avalon, and these exposed western canyons will probably be considerably hotter. Best to get as far as I can in the cool of the morning.

We’re in sun now as we climb out of Little Harbor and I can see people ahead of me. Some are walkers, and they don’t count, but some are runners (who occasionally walk, to make things confusing). I’m still running as I go uphill. I can keep my HR to about 80% by running slowly, so I’m doing that. But the runner ahead has started walking. I pass him. There’s another guy beyond him, with a hat with cloth round it. I’m slowly catching up to him on the uphill, but we head down again and he goes faster down than I.

I see that he is stopped in the road in front of me. At first I don’t see why. And then I round the bend.

Brian & the Buffalo

There’s a buffalo blocking the road. I stop and take his picture, before approaching to try and deal with the problem. It’s my road too. Do we get to deduct time spent waiting for buffaloes?

We try going off the road and circling behind him, but he turns and makes nasty noises at us. Then we try to go off road on the other side (on the left). He still watches us, and doesn’t seem completely happy about it, but we get past him. We look back. He’s watching us. Buffaloes can run faster than we can so we continue walking for a while. I suppose herbivores are unlikely to pursue running prey… but it seems more prudent not to test that. In Yellowstone they said “Stay back 50 yards.” We didn’t. But we did get lucky and survive.

Now we run together. He turns out to be named “Brian”. He runs faster than I downhill, but not so much faster that I can’t keep up. He’s a little disappointed in his performance, he was hoping to go faster. I don’t think he really understood what the hills were like. I’m actually pretty happy with my performance. I’m going about the right pace for an 8 hour time (which was sort of a goal), but it is early yet.

Down below is/are Two Harbors, so called because the island becomes very narrow here, less that a quarter mile across and there is a harbor on each side. We are on the east side of the island and approaching from the south. Two Harbors has a few dwellings, it’s a bit more of a settlement than Little Harbor.

Our route continues into Two Harbors and the beyond. If you click on the picture you’ll see the road on the far side of the bay as it follows the headlands. The turnaround is at the end of the second promontory.

I’ve been wondering when I’d see returning runners. If I’m running at an 8 hour pace and the winners will probably be somewhere under 7 (possible under 6 if they are really fast, but probably close to 7) that means they should be half an hour or so ahead… We see a guy heading back but he looks like a walker (I’m perplexed by this, because I think of there being a single separate start for walkers, but I learn later that was not the case, people started when they wanted. One man started at 11pm the day before).

After him comes a runner, who is first (just to make sure, we ask him). I make a rough note of where we are, and it takes me ~35 minutes to go from there to the turnaround and back. So that’s roughly where I thought the lead would be. A second guy follows him.

Brian and I wonder what place we are. Brian thinks probably the top 20. That sounds about right, judging by how many seemed ahead at the start and how many I’ve passed since (of course the walkers confuse things, I can’t always distinguish).

Brian tells me that we need to check off our bibs when we get to the turn-around. Apparently they announced that at the race overview last night (a gathering of which I was unaware).

We get down to Two Harbors. There’s an aid station here, which I don’t feel the need to stop at (but Brian does, so we separate for a bit). This is very close to 25 miles, about half-way.

Two Harbors actually has some streets, and the route is marked on them in flour. As I approach one flour arrow I notice a raven appears to be eating it. At the next arrow I have my camera out, and it really does look as though the ravens are eating the mark. I sometimes worry about arrows being scuffed out by runners, I’ve never thought they might be eaten up!

I’m now climbing out of Two Harbors, keeping track of the returning runners. There are two more coming down, and then the next one is a woman. Whee, she’s doing well (She finished even better, second place overall, and setting the woman’s record).

I round the first promontory, and beyond is another bay sprinkled with boats and buoys. I notice that my heart rate has gotten up to 83%, but I’m kind of excited by the turnaround so I don’t actually slow down as I should…

Back into this cove, and then up the other side. And then I see the guy ahead turn around. There does not appear to be anywhere to cross off our bib numbers. Good. Less to worry about. (It turns out there was a pen somewhere that we were to use to make a cross on our bib, but I didn’t notice it, and it didn’t matter.) The guy ahead looks tired, I bet I’ll pass him soon. Then I’m at the turnaround. I think I’m number 13. Brian isn’t far behind me.

I don’t care about the other people who are behind me.

I got to the turnaround (which was about 26.6) in under 4 hours, so I’m a bit ahead of the game for an 8 hour race, but doing a rather slow marathon.

Now it’s back to Two Harbors. I do pass the guy ahead. 12th. The Brian catches me and we run together again. We both stop at the aid station, but I get out of it faster than he.

And then I climb back out of the harbors, back the way I came. I’m getting tired now, so I start doing some walking on the uphills. The buffalo has gone (thank goodness). Someone passes me. Drat.

Lots of people are going the other way now. I try to guestimate their finishing times based on how far we are from the turnaround (of course this assumes none of us will slow, a ludicrous idea). I pass Michelle and we greet. I’m guessing she’ll finish in a bit more than 10 hours. Up, and up. The number of runners/walkers going the other way fades to a trickle, and then vaguely around the point where I start estimating 12 hour finishing times (the cutoff) it comes to a stop. (pretty much).

I’m going downhill now, and fairly fast again. Then someone comes zooming past me. This is obviously someone who has held back for the first part of the race and is now going for it. I don’t think I could do that (not the holding back part, but speeding up after running for 5 hours). Anyway, I’m 14th again. But ahead of me I can watch the guy who just passed me overtaking someone else, and I expect I’ll catch him too…

I happen to glance at my watch, mile 31.4 in 4:48. That’s a 50K PR!

A little further and I reach 33.4, in 5 hours. That’s 2/3rds. And is 20 minutes faster than 2/3rds of 8 hours. Hmm. Of course, I know I’ll slow, but I do have some cushion…

Then back down to Little Harbor and its aid station. I zip in to fill up with water, and I grab a slice of orange and a bit of banana too. I think the guy I’m expecting to pass is still in the station as I go out the other side. So 13th.

I climb out of Little Harbor again, across the stream again, but the course takes a different route when I get to the top of the hill. I follow the coast a little longer, and then plunge into the interior.

And now it is getting hot. And unpleasant. The canyon walls have closed in and reflect the heat back at me. And, of course, I’m getting tired.

I go deeper into the backcountry. There’s no one else around. No one to chat with, no one to pass, no one to pass me.

A little before the next aid station I come to the 3/4 mark. And I’m at 5:45. So I’m still on the good side of making 8 hours… but I’m now only 15 minutes ahead. I’m going more slowly than an 8 hour pace now.

And then the next aid station. Just water.

I see someone ahead of me. Walking. Running. Walking. He’s got his hand on his back as if his hip pained him. I ask if he’s OK. Says he’s got stomach issues because of the heat. (not what I would have guessed). “Yeah”, I agree, “the heat is nasty.” Actually I’m having stomach issues too. Each gel pack gets harder to swallow and I feel closer to nausea. But I can still run. So I push on.

Another stream crossing. At this one I have to get one foot wet.

I walk across the stream, and it’s hard to start running again on the far side. My quads are shot. I guess I’m not used to running this fast downhill. Oh I ran down Romero, and that was similar terrain, but there has been a lot more downhill than once down Romero.

It’s hot. I’m coughing too. I’ve had a bad cough for most of the last two weeks. Yesterday it was clearing up, but today I’ve been subjected to occasional coughing fits. Now one doubles me up.

As Shakespeare says “Take comfort, and endure.”

I’m walking again. It’s not really steep, but I’m walking. The guy with stomach issues (I learned later his name was Jimmy-Dean) passes me. He seems in great shape now. I wish I were doing as well. I look at my watch. Then I start watching my watch, I’m close to, now I’m at 43.75. That’s 7/8ths of the course and the time is… 6:59:40. That means I’m still ahead of the 8 hour average pace. By a whole 20 seconds. Or more usefully, it took me 1:14:00 to do the last 1/8th, and I’m not going to speed up on the next 1/8. There’s a really tough hill yet to come. Time to accept that I’m not going to break 8.

Oh well.

The guy ahead stops, turns and asks me: “How far have we gone?”. He could not have asked at a better time. I tell him 43.7, in just under 7 hours and that if he keeps to that pace he’ll break 8. Just. At least he looks like he has a chance, I don’t. He thanks me, and is gone.

I’m doing very little running.

The next aid station is coming up. It’s at the bottom of a really steep hill. I remember this hill from the marathon. I had thought it would be earlier on the route, but that’s because the marathon takes a longer course into town from the top (It finishes the way we started). I really pushed to get up this hill before, and that proved a mistake. I can’t push now.

More water. I linger a little in the aid station, in hopes of miracles, but none comes. So up the hill, at a walk.

At least no one is behind me.

It just keeps going.

Eventually it looks as though I am reaching the top. But I remember this from before. This is a snare and a delusion designed to make me hopeful and then dash those hopes. It goes up again just round the bend. But right here we have some good views. Unfortunately they are too hazy to see in the thumbnail, but if you click on the image the snow covered mountains above LA are visible on the horizon. Roger Meadows got a better image than I.

At least there is a breeze up here, it has cooled down a bit because of that.

A little bit of downhill before it goes up again. I trot down and walk up. Again and again.

It’s time for my last gel pack. I take it out and look at it. My gorge rises. I put it back. I’m going so slowly now, I may not need it. I hope I don’t, because I’m not eating it.

Now real downhill. And here’s the last aid station. My watch says mile 46, so four more to go. I take some gatorade here, there’s no point in filling my camelback now. It’s still got water in it and I don’t need more weight. The first person to talk to me tells me I’ve only got 4 miles to go. Which is what I thought. The next person tells me I’ve got 2~3, and the last person says 5~6. Um hum. It would be nice if they had their story straight. (it turned out to be ~4 as I expected). They tell me it’s all downhill from here. (It ain’t) As I leave someone yells to me that I’m in 12th place. Well that’s nice. I thought I was in 13th. I might have miscounted at the turnaround, or I might have missed someone in an aid station. Kind of neat.

I shamble off.

The road goes up again. Damn, damn, damn. I walk. Footsteps behind. He’s running. He passes me. I trot behind for a little, but can’t keep going. He asks me if I believe what the volunteers said about it being 6 miles to the finish? I tell him they told me every number between 2 and 6. He laughs. I think it’s 4 miles.

And he’s gone. So 13th again.

Round the bend and I can see Avalon. And now it really is all downhill. But oh, I’m going slowly. My watch says 47 miles and 7:48. Nope. Even at my best I can’t run 3 miles in 12 minutes. Even downhill miles. I hope I can manage 10 minute miles.

My legs hurt. I’m not really running, more sort of… I don’t know what.

There is traffic on this road. By normal standards there is very little traffic. But I’m not in a normal frame of mind. There’s too much. 4 cars every 10 minutes is unconscionable. I keep looking at my watch. Neither time nor distance is passing very rapidly.

After about 10 minutes I hit 48 miles. The road would be quite nice, tree-lined with views of the ocean and occasionally Avalon (and the two little odd bits of suburbia that seem to have grown up in the coves adjacent to Avalon). It would be nice if I were in a better frame of mind.

At least I’m sticking to my 10 minute miles. I feel that I’m hobbling along. I might go faster on the flat? Will anyone else pass me?

I round a bend — and I’m in Avalon. It’s 49.3 miles so I’ve got a ways to go yet, but here is the village. I’m not lost.

I hear a bell ringing and cheers, and I know that someone has just finished.

I come down the road, and come to an unmarked intersection (no race markings I mean). Well I’ll go downhill rather than up. And then that road hits the waterfront. Again, no race markings. So I turn toward where I know the finish line is.

Flat. I’m now running through tourists, who don’t care about the race. I manage to go a little faster as I avoid the tourists.

I thought…

I thought the finish line was at the start. But it’s not. Have I gotten lost somehow? Where should I be? I keep running.

And then I hear a shout “Runner coming!” and the bell rings and there they are! Only a block beyond the start. They stretch a tape across for me to run through (a nice touch, I don’t think I’ve ever run through a tape before). And I’m done!

My watch says 4:17:48, but I know it’s short because I turned it off for a little bit by mistake. So probably 4:18:??

I wonder if I’m in 14th place or not. I’m pretty sure I’ll win my age group because last year the winner finished in 8:49, so I’m about half an hour ahead of that.

Jimmy-Dean comes up to congratulate me and to thank me. I gave him just the encouragement he needed, and he finished under 8. :-)!

It’s odd to think that it’s not yet 1:30. Most of the afternoon is still to come, but it feels as though it should be the end of the day to me.

They seem to post results roughly every hour. At the moment only the people who finished under 8 hours are up. I’ll come back in a bit. When I do come back I find my time was 4:18:34. I was in 15th place (so nothing from the volunteers at the last aid station was correct). And I’m second in my age group. The winner was an hour ahead of me. (Wow. Good for him!)

So. 8 hours was a goal to shoot for. I didn’t really expect to break it, but I got my hopes up as the race progressed. I’m glad I tried. And I came close enough that I’m pleased!

(Hmm. I didn’t break 8 hours, but I did break 500 minutes. That’s an even nicer number).

Age-group placers get terra-cota tiles

6 Responses to “Avalon 50 miler”

  1. H P W Says:

    Congratulation, Proud Parents

  2. Jake Says:

    Just read your post, really great stuff. I’ve run the marathon 4 times, but I’ve never seen a buffalo on the road– probably because the 700 marathoners are a bit of a stampede.

    • georgeruns Says:

      🙂 The one time I ran the marathon the fog was so dense a buffalo would have to be in the road for me to have seen it. This time, I would have been quite happy to have seen a little less of the the buffalo…

  3. Will Says:

    George, just came across your post, nice write up. You ran a great race…thanks for linking to my site.

  4. Bipul Talukdar Says:

    Hello George,
    Thanks for the awesome write-up. I am running avalon50 tomorrow for the first time; I got lot of helpful information from your blog. Congratulations on a great run. THANK YOU!

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