Fifteen minutes into the boat ride to Catalina Island on January 11th, I began to feel I might get sick. Moments later it was all I could to lurch across the swaying transport to the Head. The boat ride from the California coast near LA to Santa Catalina Island is a mere 26 miles and takes only 65 minutes to complete, but this evening of January 11th we had to contend with the huge swells left by a major storm.
Following an hour wait at the San Pedro pier we had been summarily transported to the Long Beach pier. Something about consolidating all passengers onto one boat, "for safety reasons".
Not long after I had made my way back to our table, my girlfriend Laila had also surrendered to nausea and the dreaded seasickness. The rest of our boat ride was utter misery. As if running a bad marathon I kept checking my watch for time elapsed to monitor when we would again get our land legs.
Avalon in summer is a cheesy tourist trap with every spare hotel room booked months in advance. The only way to fit an extra 200 runners into the town is to hold the race in January. The town seemed to have a sense of community this time of year... apparently we "tourists" were few enough in number that we fit into the fabric of life in town. Still I did feel more than one lingering stare. The temperature was a reasonable 50 degrees or so...another plus for a road race at this time of the year.
What sort of animal voluntarily submits their self to a 50-mile run? This was not your crowd of typical runners. Not even typical marathoners. These people had graduated to the ultimate "sick" level of running--ultramarathoning. Before race start at 0500 on Saturday there was no one nervously jogging in front of the start line. No one even vigorously stretching. Just a lot of happy people talking, joking around and waiting for the signal for a looonnngg run.
We reached the first official split time at the aid station located at the 12.6-mile mark in a comfortable 1:22. No one else was in sight. Indeed, though we didn't know it at the time we three had opened a seventeen-minute gap on our nearest rival at this early stage. This would narrow as we eased off the pace over the next stretch.
When racing a marathon you approach an aid station in a hurry--grabbing cups from the outstretched hands of the volunteers, trying not to break stride. The stations, spaced one to two miles apart, allow you to miss a drink since you can always get another a mile or so down the road. In an ultramarathon with aid stations rarely closer than five miles apart and sometimes space by as much as seven or eight miles you home in as you would to a smorgasbord. The volunteers neatly arrange cups of defizzed cola, Exceed electrolyte replacement, and water. Bananas cut into thirds, orange slices, Gumi-bears, cookies, potato chips, pieces of baked potato with salt on the side, and M & M's round out the selection. You pull up to a stop, guzzle fluids, eat for a minute or more, then off you go again. Let's face it. When racing for 50 miles seconds just don't matter...
Over the next seven mostly downhill miles we took turns making "pit stops" in answer to early hydration efforts, each time followed by a little fartlek burst to rejoin the "pack". As the sun began rising in the sky, thoughts of my drop bag at Little Harbor with a spare sun visor rose to the fore.
The infamous "Wacko Café" at Little Harbor located at about the 20-mile point was the next aid stop. We reached it in 2:19. Several older "wacky" women greeted us rather raucously, "How's your day going?" "Let us take your picture", "Don't be so serious! You're never going to finish like that!" To get away from the "noise" I quickly downed only one cup of Exceed and dashed off again, instantly opening a 50-yard lead on Peter and Mike.
Having descended to sea level we now had to go up to 1500' elevation once again on our way to the turn around point at the "Isthmus", where the idyllic settlement of Two Harbors (pop. 140) awaited our arrival. "Slow and strong" I intoned internally as I steadily plodded up the dirt road. In the words of Matt Carpenter, "Sell your soul to the cadence." Glancing occasionally over my shoulder I saw that Peter was closing the gap, while Mike dropped back. Soon I heard Peter's footsteps and he pulled alongside. "That's hard work closing the gap isn't it?" I offered, remembering the two occasions I had closed the gap on Mike and him after early pit stops. Peter, a fitness trainer who owns his own gym, had just started back up running again after a 12-week hiatus due to a pelvic stress fracture. The rest must have done him good.
Two Harbors lies literally between two harbors in a narrow isthmus on the island. The island extends a few miles even further north from there, but that segment is left to the 100K race in February. We would be turning around here, 26.1 miles into the race. The non-commercial fishing village was a beautiful site lying below us as we wound down the road from on high. We reached it in 3:09. Not bad for the first of back-to-back marathons. Actually 3:09 was the time I clicked on my watch as we broke away after gorging ourselves at the "smorgasbord".
We climbed steadily, now passing our competitors. At first they were few and far between, but as we climbed higher they became more dense. Peter offered that he didn't remember this section from his run two years prior. When we reached the apex he said to me, "nice job". I remarked in turn, "I won't forget that effort." We glided down with gravity on our side, destination: the Wacko Cafe for the second time..this time at the 32 mile point. I hadn't seen Laila yet though. Fortunately just before we pulled into the "Wacko", Laila and her friend Mike Rogan came cruising by. Laila later reached the "isthmus" in 5:00...Since she wound up running the 50-mile distance in 9:08 this turned out to be a huge "negative split", meaning that she really should have started off faster. We reached "Wacko" part deux around the 4 hour point. I snatched my sun visor, grabbed a power bar from my bag and started on up just ahead of Peter. He closed the gap readily and as we set into the hill, he started to move ahead. I just could not push off, now more than four hours into the race. Striving to maintain contact I tried to keep pace.
Very discouraged, I plodded onward, increasingly desperate for the next aid station. When I reached it I lingered long...devouring the delectables. The following stretch was interminable...flat and unending. It passed by a ranch...no one was in sight...I must be the last man on earth. Long time later the final aid station at the foot of the infamous "Pumphouse Hill" came into sight. I stopped, ate and drank my fill, then plopped into a chair and took a break for about five minutes. My race was over--what the heck!! I had no idea what place I was in, I was the last man on earth, lost in the barrens! Might as well get it over with...I started up Pumphouse hill--walking the first 15-20 steps before easing into a run. As I neared the crest of this 5/8 mile hill I glanced back and saw someone! Now I would have to maintain concentration--I wasn't going to give up another place!
After the hill the course regains the paved road from the airport. Mostly flat for a couple of miles, it then begins a sharp three-mile descent into Avalon. The ghost behind kept me honest. Maintain form, keep fluid, I intoned...It was pretty easy to just flow downhill, to let gravity do the work. Still, it was a lot of elevation to lose. Moving into the town, now to sea level, running the three flat blocks, then crossing the finish line of this 50-mile race--a very welcome finish line indeed!!
Even though I spotted the field four miles and half an hour I still finished seventh overall and third masters...Without my egregious error I would most certainly have finished second and I may have won and set the course record!! I will return next year. This will be my goal--a course record. I am euphoric after running a 50!! mile race!! Unbelievable. I think I am an ultramarathoner!