January 14, 2012
Laura and I decided we would do Avalon 50 miler. I had heard lots of good stuff about this race for the past few years, but had never attempted it. More than anything else, it was the additional expense of getting to the island and staying there (most other ultras I have stayed with friends or family and driven myself there).
Laura had already made arrangements (a bit on the pricey side), and had said that I could camp out on her hotel room floor. The hotel was very nice, but the arrangements did not work out all that well, because the inflatable mattress I was given had a hole in it and completely deflated by the time I woke up. And so, I started out the race with a stiff neck.
The other “down”-side to the hotel was that it was located on the last stretch of the finish line. In other situations this would be good, but here it was a problem, because the last stretch of the course is steep downhill. We were at the top of the hill!
The night before the event, we opted to eat out at a local Italian restaurant. I saw a lot of my hash and ultra friends there. Nothing special, except for Laura getting confused and ordering two main courses by accident!
At the start line (5AM!), we met up with a few of our friends, including Ben Gaetos, Rafael Covarrubias and Martin Santos.
It was a little on the cold side (and dark)… but pretty much ideal weather for running a 50 miler. Hopefully, it would stay cool.
The first stretch of the course is mostly flat and runs through Avalon backstreets, wending its way to the Wrigley Botanical Gardens (basically where the city ends). We go through a gate and then the road turns to dirt and we work our way into the trails.
Once we cleared the Gardens, it was an unrelenting uphill for about 2 miles. I walked and watched Laura and the others recede into the distance. Once we reached the top of the trail (where the radio towers were, the sun was on its way up and we were heading down, back to the paved road and through the first aid station. The first 5.4 miles took me 1 hour and 31 minutes (17:00/mile pace).
Out of the aid station, the course continued on a paved road for a bit, narrowing slightly and eventually turning back into a dirt trail. We continued uphill for a longer section, passing by vineyards and in between various properties until we went past the Catalina Airport – one of the weirdest airports I have ever seen, with a short runway at an angle (basically on top of a mountain).
Just past the airport, the course makes a right-hand turn and a bit later, I reach the second aid station on the course at 11.9 miles. I have accelerated a little bit, mostly because the course flattened out and I could run a bit more. I averaged 11 minutes a mile on this section.
Now the course heads down towards Little Harbor. For the most part, we are in the interior of the island and on a large fire-road. When I am about 2-1/2 miles from the aid station, I start to see people returning from the turnaround (not passing by me en route, but I am descending into the aid station, and I can see people below me).
As I arrive in the aid station area (a welcome sight of grass after miles of barren terrain), I spot a familiar face – Chris Spenker (aka Undercover), from the hash. He has recently completed his first marathon a few months ago (at age 70), and is trying a 50-miler. I know, from a previous conversation, that he was planning on starting at midnight (5 hours early) to try and give himself every chance to finish. But now, he is sitting around at Mile 19 or so, with bloodied legs from a fall in the dark, deciding whether to continue or quit.
I also see Summer Wesson (who DNFed with me at Mt. Disappointment 50M in 2007) who is having a bad day as well. I hope SHE continues (she is NOT 70, closer to half that), but sometimes the day gets the better of you.
This particular section has a lot of ups along with the downs (in the trail and not just mentally), so I am able to maintain my course average of 13:00/mile.
From Little Harbor, the course is now heading towards its destiny with the turnaround at Two Harbors. Out of the aid station, it winds around a mostly flat section, but then begins to ascend once more, eventually flattening out through a desolate landscape (the most exciting part was some backhoes – the construction variety).
When I finally crested the top of the hill, I began encountering more and more runners coming back from the turn-around, struggling up a long uphill (Shoot! I am going to have to climb that hill, too!).
I run (not too fast, though) down the hill and into Two Harbors. When I get to the aid station, I think that, WOW, I have really run about 6 miles at about 10 minute/mile pace, not realizing that I have to run past the aid station, to the turn-around and then come back. (Though I am welcome to stop and enjoy some beverages before setting off for the turnaround. I have a cup of coke in a melted “corn”-cup (a plastic cup made out of corn products, and therefore bio-degradable).
I like part of this section. It’s flat and through a small town area (dirt road) passing by a kids’ play area and heading up behind some houses onto a dirt road. The trail hairpins around a cove (and some yacht club) before heading upwards to the turnaround. A couple of volunteers direct me to draw an “X” on a bib as proof I made it out here. My halfway split is 5:42:22, slightly ahead of the 6 hour split needed for a 12 hour finish.
Now I head back down the hill, around the hairpin curve by the yacht club, around the kids’ play area to the aid station at Mile 26.7. When I arrive, they are completely out of cups (even the melted ones), but someone has gone to replenish them from a local store (limited options, here). I basically refill my water bottles, because I can’t really waste any time, being up against the time limit and all.
Now it’s my turn to head up the hill. It’s much harder heading up then going down, for some reason. At the top of the hill, I get a special treat – a buffalo in the wild! It isn’t ON the trail, but rather off to the side. It’s not really large and a cool treat (especially having heard of people’s encounters with the beasts in the middle of the race course).
The course is now a reversal of the outbound trail, past the backhoes, fire-road and eventually downhill back to Little Harbor. The 7-mile stretch takes me 90 minutes, so I again cannot waste a lot of time here (though I do get an offer to toss a horseshoe for a prize). According to my pace sheet, I am only a few minutes ahead of where I need to be in order to finish under 12 hours.
There is more annoying ascent out of Little Harbor (for the most part, I have to climb back out to where I saw runners heading back from the turnaround), though I do not climb to the same point on the outbound trail. There is a turn where I head off in a different direction – I will not pass the airport again. Once again, I have rolling hills – up and down, up and down – but finally make my way to a wooded area, with a few stream crossings (either bridges or very little water). The scenery doesn’t change much, though my favorite part was going by a “Zoo,” where there is a Bald Eagle in a cage… and also where I passed Hal Winton (a guy who has run every race… but now needs to start at 10pm on Friday in order to do so (he is over 80 years old, though)).
Eventually, I hear some music and chattering, and that means I have covered another 5 miles and am at The Eagle’s Nest. There are more offerings here than at other aid stations. I could have a beer, but I feel a bit off, so I have a can of peach nectar and a bite of buffalo burger. I have not eaten much all day, but that really hit the spot. I am continuing to maintain a pace close to what I need to finish, though I am now only about 6 minutes ahead of the pace I need to be at… and there are still several significant hills to climb.
The trail begins to ascend quite a bit (not super steeply, but enough to affect my average pace). I am mostly on my own; I haven’t encountered a lot of other runners (or walkers). This next section is about the same length as the prior section, but I am feeling antsy, both because of how sore my feet and legs are and also because of how close I have been cutting it to the overall time limit.
I keep expecting I will reach the Pumphouse Hill aid station in any minute, and then when I have finally given up hope, well, there it is. I am still going at the same pace (about 14:20/mile) and am still 6 minutes ahead of pace… so I have to keep on going.
The trail steepens a bit towards the top and it is a paved road, now. (That doesn’t necessarily help me go any faster.) I have a brief conversation with a barefoot guy who is REALLY struggling. He tells me that this is his first race, ever! (You did a 50-miler barefoot for your first race? REALLY????) I want to encourage him more, but I need to save my own strength if I want to finish under 12 hours.
Near the top of the hill is a Sheriff’s vehicle. I assume this is to cart people who are pulled from the course. (Crossing my fingers that that isn’t going to be me.) I think I look like I am moving with some authority and look OK, so maybe they will give me the benefit of the doubt, if I am close.
From Pumphouse Aid to Haypress (which was also the first aid station) is only about 2 miles. It takes me around 30 minutes and my net time is now 11:03. I am 3 minutes SLOWER than I need to be to finish under 12 hours. Now I am really concerned (though several people have said that as long as you are out of the park (which I am), they will let you finish. I have also heard that as long as you are ahead of Hal Winton, they let you finish (I passed him a few hours ago.)… but still, I don’t want to leave that to rumor. I don’t even bother to refill my water bottles, hoping that the time saved will allow me to finish under 12 hours.
Leaving the aid station, the trail is still on a paved road, and still a bit of uphill, still. Yuck. This is not helping me accelerate when I need to. After about 15 minutes, I turn a corner and spot the road heading down the hill into Avalon. It is basically lots of switchbacks and a cruddy paved road (lots of potholes, lots of repair “bumps”)… but it IS downhill, significant downhill… and I feel OK… meaning, I CAN run.
I do a combination of running and galloping to get myself down the hill. I find myself passing several people in this stretch. The downhill seems to go forever, though the faster I am able to go, the slower the overall time seems to go.
Near the bottom of the hill, I pass through a gate and I am starting to see how close the ocean is (and thus, the end, which is at the sea level). A few more turns, and then I pop out of a side road and onto the same road as our hotel… now I KNOW I am close. One glance down at my watch and I KNOW that I will finish under 12 hours.
At the bottom of the hill, I turn onto the main oceanfront drag and high-tail it for the finish line. The finish is under a hanging sign, which I clip with the top of my head (it is too low for me to really duck). Unfortunately, unbeknownst to me, the edges of the sign are hiding reinforced PVC pipe and I almost go down just short of the finish line. OW!!!
With my skill on the downhill, I manage to finish in 11:43:24… surviving the stated cutoff by 17 minutes (and averaging 10 minutes/mile… my fastest pace on the entire course). Also, my splits were decently close – 5:42 for the first half and 6:01 for the second half. Good consistency.
Laura, despite finishing 15 minutes ahead of me, did not feel so great, and opted to catch an earlier ferry back. I ended up riding back with Rafael and Martin, and getting a ride home from Martin – those guys finished 2 HOURS ahead of me. (The last official finish came in about 2 hours after me, so I guess I didn’t have anything to worry about.)
This was a really fun event… if a 50-miler can be fun! I would totally do it again next year!