January 20, 2018
Headed off to Catalina Island for the sixth time to (hopefully) complete the Avalon Island Benefit 50 miler. Last year, I had a discussion with my Avalon buddy, Kathryn Buchan Varden, that if I do this race every year (if my knees hold up), I will be 55 years old when I get my 15 finishes jacket. Let’s just worry about number six.
As usual, I see many of my good friends on the boat and end up walking around with many of them until the check-in opens up (and until I can meet up with Tiffany and Walter, who are letting me sleep on their floor). My friend Chris is staying at a really nice boardwalk hotel and I sit inside with him while they eat complimentary wine and cheese (probably for the best that I am not staying here!).
Check-in goes fine, though it’s sad not to see Avalon 50 Ironman Hal Winton who passed away last year (though this year, he may have had to start at noon on Friday).
I guess the one bit of good news is that the Italian waterfront restaurant has reopened and I join a big table with Chris, Nancy, and a number of my hash friends (most of which are volunteering tomorrow). I am able to connect with Walter and Tiffany and we make the mile-long hike up to the Holiday Inn (next door to some animated high schoolers on a fishing trip who are unaware that I have to get up in a few hours).
Slept okay and then snuck out around 3:30am to head down to the pier for the 4:00am early start. Tom O’Hara is down there with his clipboard checking everyone in, including myself and Rob Cimorelli who I met a couple of weeks ago at an AREC trail run that Laura and Chuck put on up to Inspiration Point via Echo Mountain. He is doing his first 50 miler and running with his good friend Chris. They are distinguishable because Rob has a short red beard and Chris has a big beard. Kathryn is also in this group.
It is windy and pretty cold out so I have a jacket on and I am also running with a small string backpack which has Vaseline and my reading book (I do pack light.).
Something different about this year, course-wise, is that they are removing the awful out-and-back section along the isthmus, so to make up for it, they are adding that same distance onto the beginning. I am told that this is the “original” course. (Also heard that the original course had an extra out-and-back at the end, too.)
So, instead of immediately heading up the hill towards the Wrigley Gardens and Haypress, we are first taking a 3.5 mile run along the coast, in fact, heading towards the ferry terminal (and more).
At first, I hang back, because I am not a great runner in the dark, but the surface is fairly stable and not too many potholes. As we get to the far end, I am probably in 3rd or 4th place among the early starters. My pacing here is similar to my strategy at the now-defunct Palos Verdes Marathon… if you can bank some time, do it. (Though to be honest, it was more like 10 minute miles rather than 6 minute miles.)
Once we re-pass the start, then it’s the usual course, heading up the hill past the golf course to the Wrigley Gardens (and I am relegated from first to mid-pack when I walk up the hill to conserve energy). Kathryn surges to the lead at this point. The gates are still as yet unlocked, but we do the usual slip-around-the-turnstile tango.
This year, I REALLY know the course and so know definitively that the trail goes to the right at the junction and through the gate (probably only the second time that I didn’t make the wrong turn).
The uphill is pretty relentless as usual and it is still windy and cold, so I am glad that I kept my jacket on (most people pulled theirs off on the flat). I plan to leave it, my headlamp and “book bag” behind once I get to Little Harbor (and pick it up on the way back).
When I arrive at Haypress, the aid station is pretty well set up (because we ran a good 45 minutes more before arriving). I am immediately passed by the front-runner from the regular start, running close to twice as fast as I am (about 15 minutes per mile because of the hill at this point).
In the next few miles, I am able to do a very creative ballet of removing my windbreaker and headlamp, and to stuff them in my string backpack, and hold onto my water bottles, without breaking my rapid walking pace. (In all honesty, I don’t think I save any time by stopping.)
Assorted and sundry folks are surging by me on the hill up to the airport even though I am getting into a better rhythm. It is nice to be already a half marathon done (1/4) when in the past, I would be only 9 miles in at this point. Because the hill is less steep, I am able to subtract about a minute per mile off my pace.
Once I get past the airport, the fire-road begins its long downhill stretch. In a sense, this is good, but in another sense, it is a bit hard on my knees, so I gallop or skip to help with that. I am basically by myself (with the occasional passes, as I said) and so I sing to myself or come up with some kind of mantra.
Sometimes I make up jokes or talk things through, but for some reason I came up with a tongue-twister, which is “Blue Pole, Loophole.” I don’t know what got that in my head (maybe I saw a loophole?).
When the downhill ends, then you run by a vineyard (uphill), and sort of rolling hills until the 50K/50M split off. 50K turns to go finish (like another 13 miles) and 50M heads down a series of slopes to get to the Little Harbor Aid Station. No big puddles this year, but I am always excited to see Sue at the aid station, and to drop off my stuff for a few miles. It is also here that my friend Selina Nordberg passes me.
Even though I have maintained my net 14:00/mile pace, I try to waste little time and get a move on, since there is a lot of uphill coming up. It begins with some gentle rolling hills to warm you up and then it just seems relentless, so by the time you get to the top, the downhill into Two Harbors sucks just as much. (And of course, not only are people passing me from behind, but lots of the front-runners in the race are returning from Two Harbors.)
The second female runner I see is former AREC member Diane Burgin running her first 50 miler (really good runner) and the fourth is my very good hash buddy, Kim Gimenez (who is probably just taking it easy). Beth isn’t doing the 50 miler this year, which is a bummer. Always love seeing her.
I also see Kathryn pretty much as I am on the downhill (meaning she is a good hour ahead of me now). I skip, run, and gallop down the hill, as I am now over halfway (halfway always used to be on the isthmus AFTER the aid station). On the fun uphill section, I lost that minute per mile, and now I get to turn right around and head right back up the hill.
This is an interesting position from which to see how folks are doing. If they started early with me, I somewhat recognize them and they are not too far back (and I can see how far back they are based upon my time since leaving the aid station). You can really tell those that started with the regular start that are struggling because they are REALLY far behind (some people are 90 minutes behind me (45 minutes down and 45 minutes up)) and you know they will struggle to make the cutoffs… and that is why I start early, to try and not stress about that.
The reason why I am focusing so much on the people coming downhill is because there are not a lot of people I am passing (or passing me) on the walk up. I catch a couple of people (walking past walkers) and surprisingly, at the very top of the hill, I pass Deo Jaravata (a better runner than me) who is really struggling. I know he will get out of his funk at some point, but just exciting to be “ahead” of him (even though I started early).
As usual, the downhill into Little Harbor feels awful and goes on forever. I had, however, done a rough timing of the course outbound to give myself an idea of the timing inbound… that really helps to know if you are close or not.
The real good news is that the time differential between GOING to Two Harbors and RETURNING to Little Harbor is only 3 minutes (1:41 versus 1:44) so I can be pretty satisfied with that.
Since my timing seems to be okay (meaning that I am still 20-30 minutes ahead of the actual cutoff and more if you include being able to run on the paved portion of the course outside of the cutoff), I decide I will have time again to participate in a competition and have a mimosa (heavy on the O.J.). Like last year, I go for the horseshoe throwing (though I wonder if there are fewer participants in the roping contest – better chance to win). Like last year, I don’t do very well. I think I got 1.5 points for 3 horseshoes being within a length of hitting the pole.
I regain my string backpack and head off up the hill back to the 50K/50M split point and then head down the hill towards the Middle Gulch section. I get repassed by some of the uphill walkers when I head down the hill (of course) and have a few talks with some people that are moving approximately the same pace as I am when I can. The uphill is tough but I know that I am on the homestretch.
This section through Middle Gulch is always hard to deal with because there are no real landmarks and every turn seems to turn you into the same looking landscape. (I need to look and see on a satellite image how many little bridge crossings there are to give me some incentive.
I do have a nice walk and talk with a young guy named John who is doing his second 50 miler (second Avalon) but I know he gets bored with my pedantic pace. It is also here that Rob and his bearded friend pass me.
Pretty soon, though, I can hear the twang of the Eagle’s Nest aid station, with its showers, buffalo burgers, (occasionally lobster), and PBR. I don’t really need a shower, but partake of everything else. John, Rob, and the Beard are still there, when I do some grab-and-go.
John catches back up to me somewhat amazed at the speed of my aid station stops. I mean, you wanna stop long enough to refuel but not long enough to rethink being out there or slow up your pace too much. We mostly stay together or near one another by the ranches, the bald eagle preserve, and up to the Pumphouse Hill Aid Station at Mile 44. (I am basically walking at this point but maintaining 15 minute miles is excellent.)
Since I still have 6 miles to go, I am doubtful that I can run them in 45 minutes and break 12 hours, but certain that I can do them in under 1:45 and break 13, and the 5:00pm time limit.
We now have 3/4 mile up to the road, which eventually becomes paved, and then another 1-1/4 miles back to Haypress Aid Station (which is pretty much abandoned when we get there). A tough climb slows my pace to 17:21 per mile, but keeps me right around the 15:20 range overall.
This last section is where I can make up some time if I feel okay. My feet hurt a bit but I am going back and forth between John, as well as with an early starter guy, Les Martisko. (Feel that I have to beat him being 73 years old.) My knees are getting twingy and I don’t really feel like running downhill, so I let both of the guys go and just maintain a fast walk.
However, once I get to the guard gate exit and onto the real roads, I feel a second wind and start to pick it up, and by the time I get to the final big downhill onto the main drag, I am bounding really well and finish in 12:42:10, which is close to my average.
I finish about 30 seconds ahead of John (aka 59:30 BEHIND John) and a minute or so ahead of Les. Rob and the Beard are another 10 minutes back, and I do hang at the finish line for some time watching the last stragglers come in.
I decide to try and catch the earlier boat ride back and pay the $5 change fee and it turns out that because of inclement weather, there is no fee to change the ticket. Bonanza! The ride is a little bit rough, but as in years past, they broadcast the NFL playoff game on the TV screens.
Even better, I have a short wait for the bus ride back and few people on the bus for a nice quiet jaunt back to my condo.
Afterword 1: About a week prior to the race, I had packed my duffel for a two week trip to Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, because I didn’t know how tired I would be post-race to deal with that. I ended up getting an extra day because my flight was delayed 20 hours. Despite being a bit tired, my sister and I estimated we walked 100 miles during the two week trip.
Afterword 2: In late June, I was doing a hash run with Kim and Beth in Monrovia and Beth said she had something for me. Turns out, I took third place in the Horseshoe contest.