Saturday, 17 March 2012

View from the back of the field

The next three paragraphs may seem unrelated at first, but stick with it and all will be clear...

I am no marathon hero; my 2:44 PB is okay but it's not as if I am some sub 2:20 stud (much that I wish I was).  On better days I still harbour dreams of cracking 2:30, but I know it will probably remain just that - a dream.  But the fact remains that my 2:44 got me 2nd place in a field of hundreds - that is just the standard of many marathons these days.  The vast majority are running well over 3hr; often several hours more.

Of late I have had an injury. My own stupid fault.  I can run mega-miles injury free, but I have to take real care at increasing the speed or else injury beckons.  I knew half way through the run that I was pushing it but declined to slow down.  The next day I paid for it and yet still could have eased off a bit and recovered within a few days, but again stupidity reared its ugly head.  Now I have a long term problem that I can barely describe let alone diagnose - have barely run for over a month.

Two Harbours, Catalina Island
View from the hills down to Avalon below
Catalina Island is beautiful; just stunning!  It is an island just of the coast of California and was once owned by the Wrigley family - they of chewing gum fame. It has barely any paved roads and is very hilly too.  I went there and ran the marathon as a training run last year while in the States for a conference and it just beat me up - there must have been no more than 800m of flat terrain in the whole race!  Getting one hour of sleep and very sea sick on the overnight ferry was deeply unpleasant, but the beauty of the place surpassed that all. Truly the most beautiful place I have ever run.

Typical Catalina views
These three tangled webs of thoughts came together last weekend when I was again in LA for the same conference and once again entered the Catalina Marathon.  Except I was injured and out of shape.  A week earlier I had accepted I'd not be able to run it, but then I went out to do a token 1 or 2 mile tester jog and found that my injury got no worse as long as I went no faster.  Having not done more than a couple of miles for weeks I covered a very slow 18M bumping into a great guy called Yong Park and chatting most of the way.  The next day I thought I'd really test it out - after all a marathon is a long way and Catalina is very hilly whereas the roads where I was staying were very flat. So I ran my first 30 miler (as you do). Even slower!  The previous day I had only managed just under 11min/mile pace; this day was nearer 12s.  It was easy - ridiculously, breathtakingly, "why am I even doing this" easy - but any faster and I was limping.  And, with my capacity to eat, I'd rather be moving.  My legs survived the 30 miles okay, but after 6+hr (inc. walking breaks and food/fluid stops) my skin hadn't - ouch! I bought a cap before Catalina...

2am: Leaving Long Beach past the Queen Mary

But I knew I could survive the race (probably) and it was just so beautiful out there last year that I thought I'd give it a go.  The plan was pretty simple - aim to double my PB (2:44 becomes 5:30ish), practise walking and eating on the run (in preparation for my first ultra later this year) and just enjoy myself.

Sunrise just before our 6am arrival
So I travelled down to Long Beach after the conference and stayed at my friend Kevin's house - he has raced Catalina 13 or 14 times and this year was no exception.  We awoke at 1:15am after a couple of hours sleep and after persuading Kevin to just ignore his dodgy stomach and man up we got onto the ferry at 2am, chugged out past the Queen Mary and into the Pacific.

Race start
Kevin got more sleep on the ferry; I felt surprisingly awake but lay down and rested some more.  3hr later we arrived at Avalon, the island's main town and the race's finish, where we picked up the racers who had taken the sensible option of staying on the island the night before.  Then it was another 1hr until, just after sunrise, we got to the other end of the island - Two Harbours - where the race was to begin.

At 7am the race got underway; after a few hundred metres we started climbing and we continued to climb, often very steeply, until past 2.5 miles before a brief dip gave way to further climbing.  I started out with Kevin towards the back and was soon passing tons of people who had gone out too fast.  You'd think people would know to take it easy at the start of a marathon, but we met one guy from Huntington Beach who had never run more than 11 miles before! He had no idea what he had let himself in for, poor guy, but he finished.

Clear skies and high temps
Race day was forecast to be mid 60s F, but it definitely got well into the seventies in the middle section.  The heat proved to be pretty tough, not only for those of us coming from British winters, but also for locals like Kevin who was more burnt than me (in my new cap) by the end though he comfortably pulled away early on while the sun was still rising.

Beautiful views were a constant from start to finish
Early on I realised I'd be seeing lots of people rather than running with one group. My injury would bother me if I ran fast, uphill or downhill mattered not to me.  So, somewhat inevitably, it was the downhills where pace naturally picks up that were the problem and many folks would come past as I carefully eased my way down, but then I would pass them all back and more as I ran almost exactly the same pace up the hills barely breathing (to the probable frustration of those I passed).  The hills and injury were starting to make my legs work in ways they weren't used to and it soon became clear that though my heart rate would barely touch "dead easy" all day, my muscles were going to take a battering. I had promised myself last year I would do some squats and leg strength work before ever returning here - I was starting to regret not sticking to that resolution.

Me (in the red) getting passed on the downhill by Ed "the jester" and Andrea "the cookie monster"
When racing a marathon you think about pace, fluids, fuelling, competition and such things; this was different - I was really having fun.  Meeting a whole bunch of friendly people, chatting, eating and enjoying the day.  It was a totally different feel further back the field - less intense and more relaxed.  Initial brief words of greeting and encouragement became sentences and conversations and by the end friends were made; the further we progressed the more we relaxed and the more fun we had.

Ed was promoting Sketchers new running shoes by dressing as a jester and carrying a board with him all the way - at the start he displayed it saying "26.2 miles to go", during the race it said "almost there" (which was mostly a lie) and at the end he came back to the 26 mile marker, crossing out the "26" and declaring ".2 miles to go"!  Andrea was competitive; her running speed wasn't the issue - eating the cookies before I got there was!  Which leads me nicely on to the feed stations...

The biggest...
... And the best!

Wow! Water and Gatorade I am used to and I have also done races in the past with a few jelly babies or similar.  But these feed stations were spectacular - far more similar to what I am told ultra race feed stations are like.  There were cookies with the fluids at almost every station and there were loads of them - no chance of getting dehydrated even on a hot day like the one we were having. The biggest feed station ( at the top of the biggest climb at mile 19) had fruit, pretzels, nuts, cookies and much, much more.  But the station before (at the bottom of the climb) was better still - homemade cookies and brownies.  I honestly think I consumed  more calories than I burned!


Back to the people.  Caleb had come from Boulder, Colorado, and knew the big name ultra guys from out that way - we chatted about ultras and such things to pass the time.  Nadia was more local but was in a similar situation to me - as a 3:20 marathoner she was taking it easy as she accompanied her Dad, Jorge, around his 32nd marathon.  She was on a mission to have fun and, fortunately, unlike me she had brought her camera.  It is she who took most of these snaps (Thanks, Nadia!).

Father and daughter, Jorge and Nadia

Jorge's entry into the world of marathon running was a fascinating story. Nadia had come to him at 14 years old and told him that she had entered the LA marathon.  He knew his daughter was too young to do that (not to mention undertrained), but she was determined so he simply ran it with her to look after her.  13 years later they must have run about 100 marathons between then since!  Classic! And I though my son was crazy...  And Ellen, who kindly chatted me to sufficient distraction to keep moving when my legs were completely shot in the final miles, had simply seen the words "Catalina Marathon" and entered knowing only that the race was 26.2 miles long and nothing of the hills or even the fact that it was an off-road race! (That kept me chuckling for a few miles)!

Buffalo on the hill
The other companion was one of the famous buffaloes - they were brought to the Island for a movie as I understand it and have been allowed to breed and roam around.  Last year one of my fellow runners, Christie, saw the buffalo - I was a bit further ahead and I missed it.  This year Nadia got a photo of it and, despite being only a matter of minutes away, I somehow missed seeing it again!  Maybe next time...

Jester Ed

 The last 3 miles were downhill (and very steep at that) - it would have been very fast if you actually had legs that worked still at this point.  Nobody near me qualified for that status!  At the bottom we came into Avalon where a last half mile of tarmac and the rare sight of civilisation came back into view along with Jester Ed's board and the finish line.  I was amazed how easy the run was and yet how hard it had been on my legs.  I will definitely do leg strength work before I do something this hilly again  - promise!

I finished a chunk under the 5:30 target, my injured leg had survived (just), I had walked, eaten while running, been on my legs for hours and reckon it had all been good ultra training.  But most of all I had great fun!

Catalina Island is the most beautiful place.  For running it can be unforgiving terrain, but its sights make it thoroughly worthwhile.  If you ever find yourself nearby in March, do yourself a favour and come and see this most beautiful of races!  Or maybe, like me, you find yourself tempted by the prospect of the Avalon 50 miler in January... :)