The Catalina Eco Marathon on November 9th was my last race for the year. Not my last marathon, my last RACE. No impulsive 5ks, no Turkey Trots, nothing, I am done for 2013. Stay tuned, because I suspect 2014 will be very stocked. Although it is 95% self-applied pressure, I still need a break from the pressure, and the structure of training. You know, things like having a panic attack if I can’t “use the bathroom” at exactly the right moment each day, and zoning out at work, or during a conversation with a friend because I’m trying to re-arrange appointments, meals, and social engagements in order to get key workouts done within the appropriate time-frames.To be honest, I was ready for a break before this training taper began. I guess what I’m trying to articulate is when I finished this race, which meant also finishing two very long training cycles this year, I felt hugely relieved.
I registered for this event at some point between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve 2012. I was at my folks place in San Antonio along with my brother and his family. My then 5 year old Nephew very innocently asked me, “Aunt Annabelle, when are you going to run a race in California?” I did a marathon guide search for fall marathons in southern California (spring was out as I wanted to PR at Boston). I presented Beck with a few options and he said Catalina was the way to go. Actually, I’m sure he said something much cuter, and probably more clever, I just can’t remember what it was.
I waited too long to write this recap, so I won’t be able to give a proper mile-by-mile, that’s boring anyway, so we’ll play the fun game of trying to provide some of the more interesting, useful or entertaining details. I’m sure there will be lots of words, I am rarely hard up for things to say, but forgive me if I don’t reveal any life-altering beatitudes.
Marathon-Eve (also, my birthday): Meredith said she’d go to Catalina and do the 10k I think way back in January, so the poor woman got to spend a weekend trapped on an island with a solid contingent of the Winters clan, and all my race-finale anxiety, a true test of friendship/run-bud-ship. We got up Friday morning and went with my sister-in-law to drop Beck as school followed by a shakeout run in the Aliso-Woods Canyon.
After the shakeout we gathered necessary supplies before heading to Dana Point and the Catalina Express.
We took the ferry over to Catalina in the early afternoon, (FYI passage is FREE on your birthday!) between my nephew’s food restrictions and my own, we opted to bring all our own food for the weekend, with 6 people to feed we definitely hit the luggage quota, and accidentally donated a lemon, or squash (I’m still confused about its identity) to the Pacific.
We trekked up a massive hill to our hotel, then back down it for bib pick-up and a course talk. During the talk as people asked the same anxiety ridden questions about toilets and water that people freak out over at every race, upon which my nervousness reached a nearly unbearable level. In the end, even though the course talk referred to many landmarks I’d never heard of before, I was really glad I went because somehow the landmarks made sense once I was out on the course, and I was able to anticipate some of the terrain changes.
From wake-up until the big reveal after the course talk, Beck was working hard not to tell me what the birthday surprise was they had planned.
But, and I quote “wasn’t it crazy?! That the surprise was brownies and not a cake!” I hadn’t had brownies in over a year. So yes, it was totally crazy, and totally awesome to eat some gluten free (homemade) brownies before bed on my final marathon eve of the year.
The question everyone is dying to ask: Any close encounters with buffalo? Sadly, or happily, no. However, I learned from talking with some people on the ferry back to Dana Point on Sunday afternoon, that a small group of guys just ahead of me had a near miss as a couple of buffalo ran across the trail. My assumption is that they were not charging the runners, but rather, just trying to get the hell away from the humans. By the descriptions from other runners, it’s fairly likely that I didn’t see any of the gigantic wildlife only because I was so focused on the ground beneath and immediately ahead of my feet.
Which paid off because guess what? I didn’t fall. Not even once.
Overall and some key points for those who run this marathon:
Speaking of toilets (sorry, I that was a while ago, but segues are kind of killing me lately), there aren’t many readily available at the start. I was prepared for that to some degree from the course talk, but did expect to find a few on the way to the start. There are two public bathrooms at a children’s park/playground less than a quarter mile from the (nondescript) start line, I think there was a SNAFU with the town and the race because only one was open, and there was very little toilet paper. Fortunately, I travel just about everywhere with wet-wipes so I shared. My family informed me post-race that, evidently, I’d gained a reputation from handing out TP…ah well, we can’t choose our fame.
This course was just about as hard as I expected, but not as difficult and treacherous as some of what you find on the internet will have you believe. Of course, as I came to learn very quickly, much of the potential treachery is in the event of operator error (read: running downhill on trails in flippin’ HARD).
My overall impression is that doing well in this race is less about doing a ton of training on hills, and more about general running fitness, and a stubborn temperament. Of course, I did basically ZILCH hill training, so this may be me reaching for justification…
It’s also important to point out that we had absolutely perfect weather conditions. There are some spectacular views while running the ridgeline (well, there are great views as you ascend and descend as well but you’re less likely/able to take them in), with the clear weather we were able to see endlessly out to the Pacific west, as well as the California coastline and San Clemente Island. That said, the rest of the scenery is your typical SoCal fare, which, let’s be honest, can leave a little to be desired, I’ll take the Maine woods over the desert/chaparral hybrid any day.
As I’ve mentioned before one of the things about running being so popular that can be problematic is that at most big races now you might have unpleasant encounters with other people’s ego’s and anxieties. This includes but is not limited to: throwing elbows and shoving at aid stations, swearing loudly, wearing headphones, making sexist remarks…those are just my “favorites”. Well, at this event those things were blissfully absent. Everyone was friendly, supportive and generally there was no jackassery to be found.
Only one dude had headphones, and I can tell you most of what he was listening to because it was audible from a few hundred feet away and we leap-frogged a bit. I’m not shy about my serious disdain for wearing headphones during races, but I can’t even fathom how you justify needing them (or wanting them, for that matter) when you are running an event like this that is 1) very challenging, 2) chock full of friendly people, 3) beautiful, and 4) DANGEROUS YOU IDIOT!
The aid stations were awesome. I can’t think of a better way to articulate it. They were just perfect. They always seemed to appear right when I needed them, the volunteers (assumption) were super proactive, taking my water bottle and filling it, offering to answer questions, and complementing my super-hero outfit. This race has (another assumption as I’ve not done one) the feel of a “traditional” ultra event, small field, basically zero spectators (unless you count the Rangers out there keeping a head count), and wicked stocked aid stations. There was candy, salt, pretzels, WATERMELON (I gave myself side stitches from eating too much of it. TOTALLY WORTH IT), coke (again, indulged, want it at every race now), some kind of energy chew, water, Powerade (or Gatorade, I can’t remember, I never touch the stuff), and I’m sure lots of other stuff.
My personal performance experience:
I like to call my father before the start of each marathon. We don’t usually say much, but it helps me get my head on straight. I’d already checked to make sure he’d be available 20 minutes before the start for a quick chat (he’d planned to come to Catalina, but caught a wicked virus and had to stay home), but I was so incredibly worked up and nervous that I couldn’t make the call. I was afraid I’d cry, and crying does not pair well with physical exertion, or anxiety, or trying to save face.
Anyway, Meredith, my sister-in-law, and my mother all stayed with me until the gun went off, then went to get Meredith ready for the 10k race which started 30mins later. My brother and Beck went snorkeling while I ran, don’t worry they were at the finish.
Miraculously, all that nervous energy went right into running tunnel-vision once it was time to start moving.
I started this race the way I started the Mount Washington Road Race (recap here) in June: with no pacing strategy, and highly flexible expectations. Six months ago I thought I would go for a podium female finish, but after terminating all my hill and strength training when my right knee went kablooey after falling many times on it, I hesitantly adjusted my goals down to a top 10 overall finish. Then I really came to my senses in the week before the race, adjusted again and decided to go for a top 25 overall, top 10 females finish.
Making goals and setting expectations for this race was actually a pretty murky process which translated to me spending several hours looking up various stats and races online. Because of the exposed terrain of this course, there have been several years where the course is re-routed because of weather, also individual performances are highly impacted (like at any marathon, but more so) by the temperature, humidity (or lack thereof), and wind. And not just the weather on race day, but the weather over the summer/early fall season.
Also like the MWRR I started with the plan to run until I had to walk. That is, I did not plan ahead when I would walk. As it happens, I took my first walk break in mile 16, when a fellow runner (hi ROB!) said “don’t be afraid to walk”, he was either presenting an olive branch because he saw me wavering, or it was a natural reaction to the approximately 17 questions I had just asked him. He’d been chatting off and on with a group of 3 men that I leap-frogged with 3 or 4 times. By mile 19 this “gang” of 5 was spread out enough that I didn’t see any of them until the finish area.
Speaking of mile 19, I walked the “Catalina Crush” hill. The damn thing has stone steps build into it. I took one look and decided to walk in lieu of taking a break at the top.
My new friend Rob, told me that he never worries about the last five miles of this race (I don’t know how many times he’s done it, but he seemed really familiar with both it, and also the Conservancy marathon that is held in the spring). I’m sure he provided some justification, but I can’t remember what else he said. I knew the course started to double back on the trails we came in on somewhere near mile 22, and I was really looking forward to it.
At mile 22 I knew I was in 12 or 13th position overall, and I’d been the lead female from the start. I also knew that I was getting increasingly clumsy going downhill, and increasingly shuffely on the uphills, so I told myself I’d do my best to pull into the top 10 overall, and if that meant 1, 2, or hell 5, female, that’d be OK.
I’d been smart the whole race, running by feel, maintaining an even breathing effort (challenged, but even), drinking a lot of water (90+ ounces by the end), taking salt, and taking gels. And, most importantly, I remembered to look around me and enjoy the views, oh, and to take deep breaths and smell the dirt (I LOVE the smell of dirt).
My reward to myself at mile 22 was to not get anxious, to embrace that any finish was an amazing finish, and to smile at my family when I got there.
Yah, that all sounds great, doesn’t it?
Now do you want to know what really happened?
Well, I did all that hippy-shit for a while, but then I got to about mile 23.5, where things are decidedly downhill for the rest of the race, I become utterly convinced there was a women right on my heels. And I went totally crazy. I ran as hard as I could, which was really stupid, and I really don’t understand how I didn’t wipe-out, unless of course I did, and I am now operating in some really perverse parallel existence. The last nearly 2 miles (I think?) of trails is a pretty steep downhill grade, lots of long switchbacks, and lots unsure footing. But I let go and felt like I was sprinting because I was CONVINCED she was right there, I swear I could HEAR her.
I’d been in the first female position for 23.5 miles and there is no way I’d be all honkey-dory-I-did-my-best-oh-well if I was passed now. The trail sort of hurls you out into some weird campground and then onto the road (still very much downhill) with less than a mile to go. I thought the finish was at the same spot as the start was so I absolutely ran as hard as I could.
Then I ran right through where the start line had been, and there was no finish line in sight. It occurred to me after a few seconds of panic that it made a lot of sense if the finish for the marathon and 10k were in the same place, and that was about another half mile, or a bit more, down the road, at the bottom of the hill (I then remembered being told this at the course talk. Face-palm).
My all-out pace began to slow and the finish line was apparently never going to appear, I kept looking behind my, nearly falling every time, still absolutely sure there was a women RIGHT THERE, it never registered that I couldn’t see a single runner behind me, not one. Just one invisible women.
Finally, I heard the voices of Meredith and my family, and little Beck ran out from the sidewalk, I tried to get him to finish with me, but A) I was having a hard time steering my ship (FYI the ship = my body) and B) as he later told me “he didn’t want to get in the way of other runners” … I guess we shared the same hallucination.
Shortly after finishing I went into the water. Meredith had read online that this was a tradition, and she must be right because we weren’t the only ones. It felt awesome!
I swam around for a while, (after taking off my medal and sunglasses), then we trekked, once again, up the giant hill to our hotel to have some beer, food, and a shower before the awards.
In the end, I had 7 minutes between myself and the next woman. I finished my first trail marathon in 4hrs 7minutes, 1st female, and 10th overall. I met a blog reader (HELLO AL!!!) at the awards, and a blogger on the ferry on Friday (HELLO BRANDEI!), for both of them this was their first marathon. I am so impressed that I’ve spent all this time writing also trying to come up with something clever and meaningful to shout out to them, but all I have it “WOW, so freaking cool!” And finally, my brother, sister-in-law, mother, nephew, and friend were at the finish, and that really made it unforgettable.
I think I could go on more and more, but here’s a few more photos to finish things off.