Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Afterglow of Avalon: 50 Miles for 50 Years.

January 14, 2012..4 days before my 51st Birthday, I choose to participate in a 50 mile footrace. As a birthday present to myself, I bought a boat ride, a 2 night hotel stay and 50 miles worth of running on the golden-brown hills of one of California’s most famous (and infamous) locations, Catalina Island.

Catalina, in addition to being quaint and picturesque, has quite an interesting history, something I learned about both before and after my 50 mile race. Nature conservatory, baseball training camp, imported buffalo, playground for both the common man, and the Hollywood elite. Errol Flynn, John Wayne, and Humphrey Bogart had their fair share of fun on the island. It was once home to a newlywed Norma Jean before she became “Marylin” and Natalie Wood literally took her last breaths there before her mysterious drowning. This is the setting in which I chose to celebrate having lived on this earth for a half century.

My adventure started early in the morning on Friday the 13th, as I sat down in my friend Summer’s red jeep and buckled my seat belt. We headed South on the 605 freeway toward Long Beach to board the “Catalina Express.” Once we arrived at the port, Summer and I grabbed coffees, chatted and watched as the lobby began to fill with fellow participants who were registered for the Catalina 50 Mile Benefit Run. I saw many familiar faces. A running group known as The Foothill Flyers had designed team shirts with “COUCH POTATO” emblazoned across their chests. Across the room I recognized 3 of the fastest runners I know: Jannifer and Chris, members of INVICTUS RUNNING, along with their coach and founder of the team, Simon. We exchanged hugs and well wishes for the race.

The Catalina Express sailed effortlessly over the greenish-blue water. A school of dolphin swam along with us for a while, providing me a brief distraction from my nerves. A fellow runner sat next to us. He and Summer, being the experienced “Ultras”, exchanged stories about race courses they had both run. I listened intently to their conversation. While I had run a few 50Ks, they had run distances well beyond that, including 100 milers. Though I enjoyed their stories, inside my head a reoccurring thought kept creeping in; “50 miles, can I really make it through 50 miles and will I make the 12-hour cutoff”? I walked outside and stood on the deck of the bow letting the wind and sea fill my senses as I watched Catalina getting closer and closer.

As we disembarked we were greeted by what I call “island magic”..a warm sun tempered by a cool sea breeze. We promptly found our hotel, The Pavilion, and checked in. We had the rest of the day on the island and the only place we had to be was at the “Pre-race check in” at 5PM. Being on the island during “off” season, it felt as if we runners owned the place. Summer and I went on a short pre-race hike and then we spent some time apart, each exploring the island in our own way. I decided to visit the Botanical Gardens, the Wrigley Memorial and the Catalina Conservatory. At 4pm we met back up for dinner at a restaurant that was the designated location for the pre-race check-in and race bib pickup.

After dinner, race participants gathered in the courtyard outside of the restaurant for a pre-race briefing. The nippy January air reminded us that our 5AM start was going to be a bit chilly. Maps of the course were used to clarify the route and explain where the aid stations would be. Now it was time to go back to our hotel, finish our race gear prep and try to get some sleep. Check, double check..headlamp, bib number in place, gloves, Camelback, fuel sources, and oh yeah…my music! For the first time in my life I was going to run with music. My kind friend Susan loaned me her “Shuffle”. I normally don’t run with music because I am often running technical trails, or on streets where I feel the need to have my senses about me. The truth is that I am very sensitive to music and it can be too distracting for me in that it affects my pace. However, this time I made an exception…50 miles!? Heck ya, I was going to need some music to keep my mind off of my discomfort and I knew my pace was going to be at a power hike for a good portion of the course . After calling the front desk for a 3:45AM wake up call, I finally settled down in bed and actually did fall asleep.

Sure enough, the ringing phone woke us up as scheduled. I rose with little effort, as my mind was now in “race mode” and I was not one bit sleepy. I brewed a pot of coffee, took a hot shower, stretched , got dressed. We made a final gear check and headed out to the starting line.

Runners gathered under the light of a few streetlamps, exchanging greetings and hugs, taking photos. We gathered, more and more of us, arms crossed over ourselves trying to keep warm. A voice called us to attention. This was our last call to check in for the start of the race and now it was time to run. “On your mark, get set, GO!” Off we went into the pre-dawn darkness. Now my adventure had truly begun..I was going to attempt to finish a 50 mile race in less than 12 hours.

I settled into a comfortable jog and decided not to turn on my music during the dark portion of the run. The crunch of runners feet on the gravely road and their intermittent chatter was motivation enough for me. Four or five miles had passed when a fellow runner, struck up a conversation with me. His name was Dave; he was 56 years old and had recently gotten back into ultra running. He had trained for only about 3 months for this race. Dave had some very helpful advice for me a about the course, which I took to heart. He stressed the importance of me “running my own race” and running a conservative first half because there would be an opportunity on the other side of this race to pick up the pace and be able to finish strong. As it turned out, Dave and I would be playing leap-frog for the entire race.

Dawn began to break just after the first aid station at about mile 7. The air was still cool, but not cold enough for me to keep my running jacket on, so I dumped it at the aid station, as they had a box to drop off gear that they would be returning to the start line for us. Up and around a bend and I had my first of many spectacular views along this course. Dawn broke through the dark sky to show us a glistening bay below the hills we were running on. Several of us stopped to take in the moment.

As I continued along the open fire road, the morning sun climbed up above us and struggled to shine through a light cloud cover that stubbornly refused to yield, (which we runners found much to our liking). The course at this point was starting to climb but was still runnable for the most part. Upon Dave’s sound advice, I decided to power walk some of the inclines early on to reserve my running strength for the back half of this thing. Stronger runners, the top runners, I am sure ran most of this part, but for the rest of us, wisdom dictated that we take a more conservative approach. When I did run, I did so in intervals of run/walk. I do what I call my “Chihuahua run”..very short steps, slightly leaning into the hill and not pushing off hard. Since my walking stride is so short, I tend to lose too much ground if I only walk for too long. I have learned that only the elite runners truly run most of these long distance events, what many ultra runners do is to walk very efficiently. “Relentless forward motion” they call it. Walk, run, jog..whatever it takes to keep moving. Run the flats and downs, walk the steep stuff…it works.

At the half marathon point (13 miles) I decided to plug in my music. There were a half dozen or so runners in front of me that were running at about my pace; I kept them in sight and fell into an easy rhythmic run with Bruce Springsteen, Prince and Aerosmith. I noticed some black birds flying over head. I could tell by their size and the fact that they seemed paired up, that they were ravens. I turned down the music and heard them calling back and forth. One landed on trail sign up ahead of me. I had to stop and take it’s photo. I stopped for my first Facebook post: “I love the Ravens at mile 15ish”. I figured with 35 miles to go, I could stop for moment and have a little fun…this was going to be a long day! (After the race was over, I noticed one of my friends, Laura, had commented on my post…”stay ahead of the ravens” she said…too funny!).

8:32AM – I had been running for 3 hours and here I was at mile 18; the aid station called LITTLE HARBOR 1.(LITTLE HARBOR 1 would later be LITTLE HARBOR 2 at mile 33 because we would be looping back to that location). I was greeted by Suzy, an amazing athlete; both a runner and triathlete. Suzy was sitting this race out to allow recovery from a minor running injury. She is one of those people who exudes cheerfulness and is a natural at providing encouragement as well as practical help to fellow athletes. “You’re looking great!”, she said as I ran into the aid station, “what do you need?”. In fact I was feeling good..excited and ready to keep moving. I fueled up, stretched for a few minutes and headed out.

The course was fun, because there is an “out and back” portion where we could see those runners who were ahead of us returning on that loop. It was thrilling to see the front man, “Fabian” running toward us ..and I mean running. We cheered him and the other leaders as they ran by. My fast friends from Invictus (several who won medals that day) “high-fived” me as we passed one another.

As often happens in races, groups of runners who run at a similar pace tend to “pack” and run together for as long as it suits them. This is a great way to find motivation, especially on long distance races. Packs can switch up, depending on if one holds the pace, exceeds it or falls back. You don’t have to speak to anyone, you just move with the pack simultaneously feeding off of the energy of the other runners and adding your energy and motivation to the pack. As I left Little Harbor 1..I found my pack, put my music back into my ears, settled into a comfortable pace as I pushed toward the marathon distance.

10:36AM – Over five and half hours of running and walking and I arrived at the “Isthmus” aid station which I think was just about 26 miles, the marathon distance. I was now over the halfway point of my journey and I was still feeling strong, though my lower back was getting tight. I took care of that as much as possible by making sure that I stopped to stretch when the inclines were such that I needed to walk anyway. As I left “Isthmus” the next aid station would be LITTLE HARBOR 2 at mile 33, I thought to myself, “when I get there, I will have run further than I have ever run in my life.” My longest distance until this race had been 50K (31 miles). The course at this point had leveled out and was fairly flat. I turned up my music, picked up my pace and pulled ahead of my pack. I felt good and I needed to take advantage of this part of the course. As I ran, I passed a woman who looked to be in her 60’s. She was moving along smoothly, looking very at ease. We smiled at one another. “You are an inspiration”, I said to her, meaning every word of it. She smiled and said “thank you, and you are doing great!”

11:53AM: I spotted Suzy’s famous pink HAMMER jacket (she is a big promoter of HAMMER nutrition products for racing) – here I was at LITTLE HARBOR 2, mile 33, now past the 50K distance. I had been on the road just under 7 hours and I had 17 miles to go. The next aid station was 7 miles away. Onward…upward, downward, run, walk, listen to music. “WALK THIS WAY” – Aerosmith.. yes!! Just what I needed to keep my legs moving..RELENTLESS FORWARD MOTION…the ultra runners mantra beating in my head with the music. Surreal, I was DOING this!

1PM - Arrived at EAGLE’S NEST aid station. I managed to catch up to a few runner’s who had been ahead of me. We stopped to drink, eat, and top off our personal water supplies. I notice one of the Foothill Flyers, a woman I know, sitting on bench with her shoes off. She was one of the members of the group that started this event at 12 midnight to ensure that they would complete the race by the 5PM cutoff time. “Hey Jaymee”..what’s up?” I asked. “I’ve got a huge blister and it really hurts”, she answered, “but I want to finish and I’m not sure what to do.” I asked a man standing next to us, one of the aid station helpers, if he had any Duct tape. He answered, “no” but I have Electrical tape and Band-Aids. I could Band-aid the blister and cover it with Electrical tape”. “Sounds good to me,” I said. Jaymee agreed. (and as it turns out she was able to finish her 50 miles)! I left that station with the runners I had caught and a new pack was formed.

…Now it was getting rough. Over 40 miles done and we started climbing..nice. Lucky for us, the high cloud cover kept the day on the cool side and part of this climb had some shade. It wasn’t crazy steep like the climbs I’ve done in the San Gabriel mountains, but it was steep enough to force all of us into a walk/jog-(emphasis on WALK). As I walked, drank, and listened to my music, I focused on the runners around me; we were all pretty much on the same page. No one spoke, words were not needed, we all knew what this was about; it was a head game now. No negative thoughts, stay hydrated, manage it..and finish. The next aid station was PUMP HOUSE, only about 4 miles away.

2:10 PM –9 hours, 10 mins on the road. I reached PUMP HOUSE aid station and sent out a FaceBook message: “a 10K to go.” As I reached for a cup of Gatorade, a voice called out “’re looking good.”It was Dave, the man who had given me such helpful advice way back when we started our pre-dawn run. As I mentioned earlier, we did leap frog quite a bit during this race..and here he was again. “Well so are you!,” I replied. “This is it, I said, a 10K and we’ll be done.” We left the aid station together. Not far into our run, we began to climb again. I was able to keep up my “Chihuahua run" intervals. I pulled ahead of Dave, but I knew I was likely to see him again as the course flattened out.

Along I ran were golden hills met with blue sky. The cloud cover had lifted, it was warm but by no means hot. My lower back was tight. I knew we had one more aid station where I could stop to stretch; I just didn’t want to stop now and break my pace…I was excited! Thoughts would pop into my head: “I am going to finish this race..I have to be careful, anything can go wrong..even at the last mile…take it easy.” Up ahead I noticed a couple of runners that I had been following for the last 20 miles or so. A young woman and a tall young man. I was gaining on them and I kept them in my sight. I was not in a pack now. The view was such that I could see miles of trail interspersed with runners both ahead of me and behind me.

HAYPRESS aid station MILE 46 – LAST STOP- 4 miles to go. I grabbed a quick cup of COKE; I liked the bubbles and the sugar. I stretched my hamstrings on a conveniently located wooden fence. Dave was just approaching the aid station as I was leaving it. I was ready to finish this thing. The dirt road started it’s descent back into Avalon and became a roughly paved blacktop road. I don’t like downhill running much, but this was paved road so no technical skill was needed. However after running 46 miles downhill running can be hard and I didn’t want to lose control of my tired legs, so I slowed my pace. I heard some feet behind was Dave. “How are you doing?”, he asked. “Ok,” I answered, “ but I don’t like this downhill stuff very much.” He replied, “yeah, it can be hard.” I told him, “well I need to find some music for this last bit and not think about it so much.” With that I searched out my “quick feet” song. It was “Pretty Woman” performed by an acapella group that was amazing! The beat sunk right into my legs and I picked up my pace. I ran like I have never run downhill before. I passed quite a few other runners on the way down…I was running by myself now. One of my favorite songs started playing; a Bruce Springsteen song. The line that I kept in my head for a good part of this journey came from that song: “No retreat baby, no surrender”…perfect.

Down the road I ran, legs turning over, not stopping. I was in the village now..left turn down a steep little street, then hung a right turn onto the straight away and headed toward the finish line. As I approached the finish, Robert, one of the “COUCH POTATO” team members from the Foothill Flyer group, was jogging his way in. I grabbed his hand and said, “come on Robert…we’re going in together”. The fact is, Robert had walked me up a nasty little hill to an aid station during last August’s MT. Disappointment Race, when I was sick from heat stress. Robert kept my spirits up when I didn’t think I was going to finish that race. He is part of the crew who helped me recover so that not only did I finish the race, but was first in my division. Other than my coach, I could not think of any other person who I would rather have cross this finish line with me. Over the line we went….we were DONE..50 MILES DONE!

Once we were through the finish line, Robert and I hugged, and finishers medals were hung around our necks. I turned to look back and there were my teammates from the Arrogant Bastards team..Summer along with two friends, Monya and Forrest who had come to cheer us in and celebrate with Summer and I. Within moments of finishing..I realized how exhausted I was. I sat down on a bench, took a photo of my medal and posted it on Facebook: “No Retreat, Baby, No Surrender, 50 miles for 50 years”. I finished in 10:20. I beat the 12 hour cut-off.

Avalon had been kind to me and it’s afterglow stayed with me for an entire week. Sometimes when I feel dragged down by the mundane tasks of everyday life, I relive little pieces of this magical weekend…the “afterglow of Avalon”…this is how I like life to be, both exhausting and fulfilling in the satisfaction of a goal reached.

-Mountain Goat.

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