Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Catalina Island Marathon: conquering the hills

Why the Catalina trail marathon?... instead of Boston? or LA? or some other big race? Well... why not. Runners World ranked Catalina as a Top Ten scenic marathon. It’s a gorgeous point-to-point course up and down the dirt roads that cross the island... a tough, challenging race across endless coastal wilderness. With ~4000' of climbing, the race is small... but well established and well organized. Runners get addicted to this race... it’s become a “cult marathon”... and a handful have run all 35 editions since its meager beginnings in 1978... and I now understand why.

Training. Besides normal marathon training, I ran lots of hills... with plenty of variation... short, fast hill sprints... long, steep hill climbs... trails with hills (which tend to be steep)... lots and lots of hills. Training seemed to go well. Long runs were solid... tempos were good... and I had run up every steep hill in my area too many times to count. It was now time to put it on the line and race.

Logistics. The race starts on the remote west end of the island in the tiny “town” of Two Harbors... a metropolis consisting of 1 hotel, 1 restaurant, 1 general store, 1 campground, and a few houses. The race finishes in Avalon, the shopping/resort hub on the other end of the island.

Instead of catching the 2:15am boat out of Long Beach or the 4:45am boat out of Avalon, I chose to camp in Two Harbors on Friday night. Great choice... perfect camping weather... low 50s, clear skies... so perfect, I ditched the tent and slept under the stars. Really cool to fall asleep staring at the Big Dipper and see it slowly rotate around the North Star through the night. In the distance were the lights of Long Beach and Palos Verdes. The night’s serenade was the waves on the shore and the random barks of a lone sea lion. I slept well, except twice waking to the sound of deer walking through my campsite. But that was ok. They’re welcome guests. They were easy to spot since all the surroundings were now lit up by a bright full moon.

Race morning. Everything went smoothly. Mary Ann’s homemade banana bread was breakfast... mmmm.... good carbs. Temps were chilly but not cold. The rangers hauled our gear for us to the race start. I wore my warmer clothes til just 10 minutes before the start when I tossed my bag on the truck.

The sun was just beginning to rise as 400 of us gathered over the hill towards Catalina Harbor (the “other” harbor) on the north side of the isthmus. The air was chilly but with no clouds in the sky we knew it would warm up fast.

Race Start. At 7:00am sharp, we were off. About 20 runners got out ahead of me on the opening mile. As seen on the elevation profile, this trail race has some long, crazy steep climbs, and some of the steepest are in the opening four miles. I geared back and didn’t mind if people got ahead of me early on. I figured I could pass many of them later when it really counted if I played my cards right.

Already in mile 3, I was doing some power-hiking on steep climbs to avoid spiking my HR too high too soon. I got passed by plenty of people who were trying to “run” the entire course. But for me, the goal was not necessarily to run every step, but to get to the finish line as fast as possible... regardless if that involved sucking-up my ego and doing some power-hiking to save myself for the end of the race.

The scenery was amazing. Only 4 miles into the race and we were already looking down big hills to the Pacific 1000’ below... but then only 4 miles later we were back at sea level at Little Harbor facing more climbs into the heart of the island’s mountains.

I was running this race purely by effort, not by a set pace or a goal time. Splits were erratic with the terrain. Mile 4 was 9:56 (!!) but mile 7 was 6:25 (!!). My goal was to keep my HR just under 160 in the first half of the race. Somewhere around mile 4 or 5, I passed the women’s leader and had overheard she was a 3:00 marathoner... so I knew I was about in the right place so far. I kept leapfrogging one guy... he’d pass me on the uphills and I’d pass him back on the downhills. Nice guy and we chatted some... and he looked relaxed and fast as he got ahead of me some.

Around mile 7, we came around a bend and a big ol’ buffalo was standing next to the road... kinda made me nervous... and a tad faster. Of course, if the bull charged, I didn’t have to outrun him... just those near me... :-)

The island has hundreds of bison... and they’re not indigenous... just scattered herds left over from the days when the island was used for filming westerns. I had hoped to see one... but not quite this close. When I picked up my registration on Friday night, I started to inquire about the danger of bison...

Me: “Do you ever see...”

Race Director: “...dead bodies on the trail?... No, not that often...”

...and then he laughed. :-) He must love that joke... and pulling it on newcomers like me. Actually, the race has never had a bison incident in 30+ years... but I didn’t want to be the first.

Around mile 10, we were racing downhill past Little Harbor and I had a good view of the next mile or so. I counted 12 people ahead... at least, I thought... wasn’t sure... that seemed too few, maybe others were further ahead and out of sight... and maybe a few of those were walkers who had started a half hour earlier. I didn’t know. But I figured I was in decent position for a good overall finish.

One of my dreams for this race was a Top Ten finish, but that had seemed a little far-fetched. I also knew some of those ahead were old-timers who knew this course well. I wasn’t sure how many of them I’d be able to reel back in... or if I’d get reeled in by others behind me. And so far, it seemed like I was making no progress towards any of them ahead and the gaps appeared to be widening. But the race was still young and not half done.

Miles 12 to 19 had no downhills or flats... just non-stop climbs. Fortunately, the middle five were a gradual incline through Middle Ranch which made it feel rather flat. I ended up averaging a pleasant 8:18 pace on that section. I would have liked to have been faster, but the sun was getting high and the interior of the island was heating up. Unfortunately, Catalina has few trees and little shade so the sun bore down on us heavily. I had hydrated well before the race and at every aid station along the way... but even with the help of sodium and sunscreen, it would be a war of attrition to the finish.

Around mile 12, I finally started reeling people in. First, a couple of guys on an S curve heading up towards Middle Ranch. Leapfrog guy stayed about 50 yards ahead of me, but after a few more miles he started to fade. Then gradually I caught a guy I had met on the boat the day before. He was a 14-year veteran of this race. His advice had been that the real race begins at mile 18 on Pumphouse Hill... which was now... ominously... only a mile ahead as I caught him. We chatted briefly. As I tentatively pulled away I knew he was back there... lurking... ready to pounce if I overdid it and popped.

Well, we reached the Pumphouse and then I saw the hill for the first time. Wow. It was steep and looked like it went on forever. It averages a 9% grade for well over a mile, with some parts as steep as 13%... and this is 18 miles into the race... an absolutely cruel place to face such a beast. I allowed my HR to get a little higher on this hill, but wow, 6 times I had to power-hike to keep things in check. Mile 18 was by far my slowest of the day... 10:57 (!!). But I made it to the top and guzzled some water at the aid station. And fortunately the guys behind me made little progress towards me, even though I don’t think any of them power-hiked. But I had to save my legs (and my race) because there were still 8 miles and plenty of hills to go.

At the top of that hill, I was now out of the hot canyon and up on Airport Road with amazing views of ridges and ocean in all directions. But the climbing wasn’t done. The next 5 miles were a roller-coaster across five significant hills on the ridgeline. The sun was now high in the sky with no clouds for cover... but I was determined not to let that evil, life-sucking orb get the best of me. Ever so gradually I managed to reel in two more runners ahead and separate from them. And then I came across another and managed to pass him even as I power-hiked the remaining steep inclines. Around mile 23, I looked to the east and spotted Avalon for the first time and thought, “Holy freakin’ cow... we’re still 1500’ in the sky and the finish line is way down there only 3 miles away... my body is gonna hate me for this.”

And then the dirt road just seemed to drop off the face of the earth. It zigged and zagged down cliffs at a 10% grade. The hills were all behind me so I ran with “controlled abandon” (if there can be such a thing). I glanced at my watch every now and then and it was reading 6:30s and 6:40s... so far so good... but wow, I had to keep my eyes on the road because the footing was steep, loose, and treacherous.

I began to feel the effects of dehydration which I had tried to prevent... but there was nothing I could do now. I just had to hang on and it would all be over in about 15 minutes. About a mile and a half from the finish, I managed to catch and pass another runner as we came through the Wrigley Gardens... and I had another runner in my sights only 30 seconds ahead of him.

But then my body started to revolt. Dehydration was taking its toll. I was cramping all over... side stitches on both sides... my gait became awkward as my calves and quads were seizing up... and my pace slowed to 7:40s. If it wasn’t for the downhill, I’m not sure if I could’ve kept running. I wanted so bad to stop... but then again I didn’t either. This was what I had saved my legs for. This was why I had run all the hills in training. THIS WAS IT. Hang on. Suck it up and git ‘er dun.

It seemed like eternity for the finish line to come into sight on the straights of this road. It was like time had gone into slow motion... Why was my Garmin ticking off the distance so slowly?... Was it malfunctioning?... Had I miscalculated and it was really further than I anticipated?... Please... make it all stop!... Where is the daggum finish line?!?

Finally, there it was in the distance. Now to this point, I had no idea about my overall place, pace or time. My A goal was to run 3:30 (8:00/mile pace), but I had thought 3:40 was more realistic with all the hills. And even though my Garmin could tell me my total time and my average pace, I had never looked at either the entire race. And it really didn’t matter either. It was a race and I had left it all on the course.

As I approached the finish I was stunned to be announced as 7th overall. wow. Wow. WOW! All the work had paid off. The time rolled over to 3:35:03 (even though my Garmin read 3:34:55... but I won’t quibble). But wow, I thought it would take 3:20-something to place that high... but I guess the sun had wreaked some serious havoc out there. It certainly did for me in the last mile. After I crossed the line, I wobbled over to the nearest bench and just collapsed... not unconscious... no medic needed... just absolutely spent.

I laid there on my back for several minutes... so glad the sufferfest was over. Seventh overall, wow... so happy for that... and no one had passed me after the opening miles of the race... and only 6 had finished ahead of me. As all the runners I had passed trickled across the line for the next half hour, I realized it had all paid off... the training... the pacing... I don’t think I could’ve eked anything more out of that race that day. I had got ‘er dun.

Reflection. It’s now been three days for me to reflect on that experience. I blog, not because I’m a great runner or anything close to that... I didn’t win the race or even my age-group... I set no records on Saturday, not even personal ones. I blog because of the experience.

The marathon is such a long arduous event that the internal struggles feel epic at the time. They end up etched indelibly on our mind’s eye. That’s why runners can remember incidental facts and details about their races long past... sparked only by a random thought or sight from an event years ago. But over time, the vivid memories of the personal battles fade and this blog post attempts to capture some of that before that happens. Thanks for reading.


Here's the official results.

Here's the local article describing Saturday's race.

Here's a course description by "Buffalo" Bill McDermont... the "Human Shock Absorber" who owns the course record and has run every edition of the race.

Other Incidentals... Two "near disasters" I avoided...

Trying to get gear packed for both racing and camping in a remote wilderness place can be stressful. You don't want to forget something important... like your running shoes... or your sleeping bag. I managed not to forget anything (yet keeping my baggage to a minimum)... except I arrived in my isolated campsite as it was getting dark... and suddenly realized I had a travel lock (with a number combination) on my duffelbag... and my headlamp was locked inside! I had to guess which way the numbers turned and hoped that none of them had moved... and with a huge relief, it did open.

On Friday (the day before the race), I was getting camping gear together in my garage and slightly strained my lower back. My friends know this can be very serious for me because I ended up with a severe back strain that incapacitated me for weeks after I finished a marathon in Dec 2010. All day Friday, whether I sat, stood or walked, I could feel the strain and just hoped it wouldn't seize up in this race with so many steep hills. I tried to take it easy and not to dwell on it. And I'm very thankful, my back cooperated.

Disclaimer: I don't want to imply that these photos are mine because most aren't. I wish I could cite the sources, but I didn't note them when I searched for images. My apologies.