January 11, 2014
About 3 months ago, I was blogging about running the Avalon 50M in January 2012. Even though I had already completed the event again in 2013, I included something in my posting about how I would be willing to go back and run the event again in the future if I had the opportunity.
One of the comments I received on my post was from a Hash acquaintance who casually mentioned that if I needed a place to stay (if I ran the 2014 race), she could probably help me out. At Thanksgiving time, however, I had tentatively arranged a floor to sleep on with some other Hash friends, Dave Binder and Jasper Mueller. A few weeks out, however, Dave told me that they actually did not have floor space for me, and so I went ahead and contacted the other acquaintance, Sharon Lange.
She said that her boyfriend was managing a construction project on the island and had rented a cottage on the island. They had either a couch or bed for me to sleep on. Also, the cottage was located about 3 blocks from the start. Excellent!
On Friday, I made arrangements to meet Sharon at Catalina Landing to take the same ferry over. I saw a bunch of people I knew there (this ALWAYS happens), including Xy Weiss and a number of other folks in the local ultrarunning community. Unlike the past two times, I made my return ticket for Sunday, since I had a free place to stay.
I had a really nice visit with Sharon on the boat; we had not seen each other (other than FB) since my Hashtravaganza event in 2009. I kept a wide berth from her friendly dog, Graham, however (allergic to dander). We talked briefly with a nice family who was going out for the mother’s birthday (but really only staying 3 hours – hardly seems worth it).
Once we got to the island, Sharon’s boyfriend, Phil, met us with his truck (well, mini-truck, since everybody has those electric golf cart cars) at the pier and we rode back the short distance to his place. We had an interesting conversation about how you have to live on the island for at least 6 months before you can get a permit to park your vehicle in front of your own abode overnight. Phil has to move his car to another location every night and then drive it back in the morning. There’s enough space for the cars, but rules are rules.
I opted for the couch, because it’s a little longer than the bed, and I won’t have to make as much noise when I leave in the morning.
Around 5pm, I wandered down to the packet pick-up location to get my stuff and find out what my options are vis-a-vis starting early. Last year, I started at 3am, with 2 other people, and the race took me 1 hour, 40 minutes longer than the official time limit (so the 2 extra hours were just about right). 3am would be ideal, but I had heard that they would have very limited early starting hours. I was told that I could start on any even-numbered hour (12, 2, or 4). Given that I needed almost 2 extra hours last year, 4am would probably not be enough time, but 2am would be too much, but what could I do? 2am (yuck) it is.
I chatted briefly with Kim Gimenez and Beth Epstein in line before heading back to Sharon and Phil’s so we could have an early dinner and I could figure out how to get to bed at a reasonable hour and still start at 2am. We had a nice dinner of salad, chicken and pasta prepared at the cottage, and I got to sleep around 8:30pm… though I didn’t really sleep.
I set my watch alarm to go off at 1:15, to have enough time to use the bathroom and walk down to the start, but I woke before that (ugh).
It was a very short walk to the start, and I chatted briefly with the 2 dozen folks there that were starting early (though probably another dozen had left at midnight… or before). At 2am, Tom O’Hara (another Hash friend) started us off into the dark.
Pretty immediately, I was behind the majority of the folks I started with, as I was walking any kind of uphill, to save my energy. There was a little confusion for those of us at the back where the turns were since not all spots were marked yet, but I had a better idea on the turn-offs having started in the dark last year as well. One runner I was with was concerned about another (slower) friend of mine, Hwa Ja Andrade. She worried that Hwa Ja would get lost. Even though Hwa Ja has done as many ultras as I have, she is 74 and sometimes concentrates so much that she blocks out everything else. I kept trying to swing my headlamp behind me to show her where we were going.
At the entrance to the Wrigley Gardens, there was a little confusion with the gate (closed), and how to get in (less straightforward than in the past), but we did edge our way in around the fencing and onto the path that would take us up the hill.
On this section, I began passing some of the runners who were previously ahead of me… not by running, but by walking with authority. I caught up with Xy Weiss, who stands out with her leopard-print skirt and gaiters. I started to introduce myself to her, but she already knew me (by name!).
We stayed together until around the electric towers at the top of the hill (where I mistakenly turned around last year, thinking I was lost) and then headed downhill towards the first aid station. It was rather cold out, but in running, I was never really cold (though I did have a Tyvek jacket on).
About a half-mile out from the aid station, we encountered a closed gate, which had a “edge-through” hole in it. I think this is to allow people on the trail to go through, while disallowing vehicles. The hole is in the middle of the fence and is pretty easy for ‘normal’ people to go through, whereas I have to put a leg through, telescope my body, and shimmy through quite awkwardly.
When I got to the aid station, unlike last year, there is no one here and no pre-set-up. However, it doesn’t really matter, because I am not needing to consume as much liquid in the dark and do not need a refill yet. My initial split is 1:39 for 5.4 miles, or about 18:20/mile. Slow, but it is dark.
The next section was extremely dark. While I do have a decent headlamp, I can only see a few feet in front of me, so cannot plan for any awkwardness in the dark. There are all sorts of mysterious noises that I cannot account for. Maybe it’s birds or some kind of vibrating poles. My light isn’t strong enough to make that sort of thing out.
There’s quite a bit of more (not really steep, though) uphill in this section, and I know I am getting close when I see the Airport in the Sky. Apparently, this is another aid station not yet set up. This next 6.5 miles takes me 1:34 and I get my pace under 15:00/mile.
Out of the airport area, the trail goes downhill through a large number of switchback turns. It is not difficult to maneuver as I am on a wide fire road, but because it is so dark, it is difficult to tell where I am going. I am starting to get to the point where I am looking forward to the sun coming up and I am tired of running in the dark. When I started 2 hours early, people had started to catch me by now. Three hours early is very lonely.
The end of the switchbacks is demarcated by the vineyards and yards of a few houses that we are running by, followed by another steep uphill and then a downhill descent into Little Harbor. There is a confusing turn here, but at the moment I arrive at it, there is a bag truck heading to the upcoming aid station and they mark the turn.
The good news is that by the time I get to Little Harbor, there will be a semblance of an aid station here. This 7-mile section takes me around the same time as the previous two sections – 1:39, another sub-15:00 section.
This next section is one of the toughest early sections, starting first with a long, slow climb out of Little Harbor (about 3 miles), followed by a steeper downhill section into Two Harbors. The evil trick here is that you pass by the aid station, making you think you have speedily reached the 26.7 mark, but in reality, you have to do a 1.5 mile out-and-back section, which is another annoying slow uphill winding section to the course turn-around (where I mark my bib with a smiley face to prove I reached this point).
By this point, about a dozen normal start folks have passed me, and on my way back to the aid station, I see more people I know, including Dave Binder, and William Lawrence (hmm… he should be ahead of me). I get to the marathon point (well, 26.7 miles) in 7:14 (around 16:15/mile aggregate).
As I begin to head out of Two Harbors, the fog starts rolling in. I could have really used shady weather throughout the race, but now the fog is filling in behind me. I take the uphill easily. At least, it is much cooler on this section than last year… maybe because I am an hour earlier than last year.
This section is the exact reverse (except that I have already done the out-and-back section) of the previous section. Except for the 3 fewer miles to traverse, this section sucks, because I am a few hours more tired than before, it’s hotter, and the uphill goes on and on. The nice part (at least during my last two jaunts) is that I am not at the back, and I am still seeing runners coming down the hill.
I still haven’t seen Hwa Ja (who started at the same time as I did). I can’t imagine how she is so far behind me, as I am not going all that fast. I see her about the time that I got to the top of the hill, and she tells me how she went off course a couple of times, but now that the sun is up, she is OK (though, in my estimation, she will struggle to finish the course under the time limit).
Now I have the gentle descent back into Little Harbor, only at this point, I am not running all of the downhills as I had previously in the race. I run until I feel off, and then I walk a bit. It is at this point that I am passed by Tushar (boyfriend of a hasher friend) on his bicycle and then eventually by Taffy. She caught me an hour sooner last year (and guess what? I started an hour earlier today!).
When I do finally get into Little Harbor, the aid station is in full swing (remember that they were only just setting up when I arrived before) and runners are actually participating in “Western” games, like horseshoe tossing, etc. I am hard-pressed to maintain my pace and be able to finish in a reasonable time and so don’t play any games. This 6.5 miles has taken me about 100 minutes (a 16 minute pace).
There is just a bit more double-up on the trail (an ascent out of Little Harbor), before the trail heads down by the coast (downhill!) for a bit, followed by a climb into Middle Ranch, what most people consider the hardest part of the course (and I agree).
Once you get into this section, it’s a mild uphill section, but with few landmarks to focus on and figure out what comes next. I am just struggling along (boldly walking, but not able to do much else). Still, I catch up with a few people, who are in the same boat as myself but whose legs aren’t nearly as long.
After too many turns where I think I am almost there, I begin hearing music and voices. Now I KNOW I am almost there, and soon after I see the Eagle’s Roost Aid Station. (5.5 miles in 90 minutes.)
It is an overly festive atmosphere here and strangely enough, it’s what I needed to get going. I had been looking forward to drinking a can of Peach Nectar (a different taste from what you tend to experience in these races) and having a chunk of buffalo burger. I also got a swig of beer and a chunk of lobster meat.
If I wanted to, there is a cold shower and metal bathtub to immerse myself in, but I want to keep going and get to the end of this beautiful event.
This next section is more of the same with occasional breaks beside a few homes and the Eagle Sanctuary. It is super lonely out here, even though people do infrequently pass by me. Soon, I see a few cars parked on the road and know I am almost to the penultimate aid station by the Power Station. (Another 5.2 miles in 90 minutes.)
Now there is just a short (but pretty much all uphill) section back to the original aid station at Haypress. Because it is uphill, I am super-focused on keeping my footing and am not looking up much… until some folks around me are oohing and aahing over some wildlife. I do look up and above the trail (but only about 10 feet away) is a buffalo. It is holding sway over the path, and it is a nice reminder of the beautiful nature all around me.
At the top of the hill is a paved road and I am able to run or jog/walk a bit to carry myself a little faster through the rest of this section. When I get down to Haypress, the nice Australian volunteers refill my water bottles and send me on my way. Hopefully, I will manage faster than the 20-minute / mile pace to get here… but this is all downhill. Hopefully, I can fall all the way down the hill!
I don’t necessarily like running down this hill, because it is all paved, but I like that it is not a struggle. I keep setting my sights on folks in front of me and then trying to (easily) catch up to them.
My favorite part on this section is when I get off the worst part of the road, go through a lift-gate and you can see much of the city of Avalon. There are people hiking around (not in the race) and some of them cheer you on. Finally, I pop out onto a steep downhill road that takes me to the water front… and the finish.
I cross the finish line in 13:34:28… about 20 minutes faster than last year, but almost 90 minutes earlier due to the 3 hour early start.
I hang out at the finish line for about 20 minutes before I head back over to Sharon and Phil’s. We hang out and talk for a bit and then have a delicious salad and steak dinner. We talk, watch a little TV (football playoffs), and I am asleep a lot earlier than usual.
I have an easy morning before walking over and taking the boat ride back.
I am happy with how my race went, but wish I was fast enough to finish once again under the official time limit. I don’t know if this is because I am older and taking it easier or I just don’t have the capacity for the speed any more. In either case, I will keep doing ultras as long as I can, but I will never do the sheer volume of runs as I did from 2010 to 2012.
I will be back.