[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
Last Saturday, I ran the Avalon 50 miler on Catalina Island, which has been around for 42 (!) years. It's managed by the Avalon Lions Club to generate funds that support island charities and Avalon schools. The city of Avalon was incorporated in 1913, and has a population of ~3,377. Avalon is the southernmost city in Los Angeles county, and thrives on tourism. Catalina is infamous for its heard of bison, which are believed to be descendants of a small herd that was brought to the island by a movie company in 1924. It's charming, beautiful, and only a quick ferry ride off the coast of Southern California.
I ran this race last year as well, so I had a better sense of what the course would be like. This year, due to recent rainstorms, the course was modified to avoid the out and back to Two Harbors. Due to the modified course, the course repeated itself a few times, a factor I initially dreaded but ended up enjoying because I was able to see a bunch of my friends multiple times.
The race starts early (5 a.m.) with an optional 4 a.m. start time for people who don't want to sleep at all. I like the 5 a.m. start, because the first 90 minutes flies by in the dark, and because an early start means an early finish (if all goes well).
Mike and I stayed at Seaport Village Inn, roughly a quarter of a mile from the start line. Anywhere you stay in Avalon will be about a quarter of a mile from the start/finish line, located right downtown. I was up at 4, dressed by 4:30, and jogging to the start line by 4:40. I ate a Power Crunch Bar and had a few sips of iced coffee before the race. My pack held one liter of water, chap stick, salt tabs, and about ten Spring Energy gels.
The start line had a laid back, relaxed atmosphere, the exact opposite of the start line of the mid-sized marathon I ran last month. The first three miles or so are flat and on pavement, and then the course climbs up a hill and rolls into gravel. I thought the recent rain would impact the course, but was happy to find that the mud was minimal. There are no single track trails over the entire course, and if you wanted to wear road shoes, you absolutely could.
I felt really good, maybe too good, for the first 15 miles or so. I was running fast (arguably too fast) and enjoying the scenery, chatting with people around me, and slowly passing the folks who had started early at 4. By the time I hit the marathon mark, my feet were hurting, and I was experiencing a nagging tightness in my right hamstring, that would eventually transfer to my left hip flexor. Overcompensation is everything.
I had some mentally low miles in the early 30's, but snapped out of my mental fatigue as I re-focused on nutrition and hydration. When I start feeling bad in a race, I can usually turn things around by eating. By mile 40, I was smiling and enjoying myself, despite my tired legs. Physically, I knew I could run fifty miles because I've done it before. Mentally, the last ten miles were just as easy as the first ten.
I didn't think about Avalon very much before I toed the start line. My work, writing, and life keep me busy enough that I have limited mental bandwidth to devote to running, period. I make time for my training and love it, but I don't spend days thinking about my race strategy or mulling over whether or not I feel prepared to race. I devote the mental energy to roughly plan my training, making sure I incorporate speed, strength, and endurance. Being busy with work and projects outside of running has helped keep my mental game strong. Ultras are just as much mental as they are physical, after all.
Ultras are also sacred in that I'm unreachable; not checking emails, not answering texts, and not listening to anyone or anything. At one point in the last half of the run, I ran up beside a man and said, "great job!" before realizing that he probably didn't hear me, as he had headphones in both ears and music so loud I was able to hear it pulsing.
As the final miles wore on, a woman and I kept passing each other. She would run fast, then walk, then run fast again, while I maintained a slower, steady pace. I kept catching her on uphill's and she would pass me going down. The final few miles of the course run down a steep paved road, directly into Avalon's downtown. As we started running down, she passed me again and ended up beating me by about four minutes. I didn't know it at the time, but we were racing for third place and she was a solid twenty years my senior. My strength on the climbs did not translate to strength on the descents, especially after so many miles.
After I finished, I hung around to watch a handful of my friends cross the finish line as well. Racing is always fun, but seeing so many people I know race well was the highlight of my entire weekend. Avalon is a great race for beginners and seasoned runners alike. It's extremely well organized and the views cannot be beaten.
What I ate: 8 Spring Energy gels (7 Awesomesauce, 1 Speednut with Caffeine), some potatoes dipped in salt, a handful of gummy bears, and three cups of coke
What I wore: Janji 7" Groundwork Pace Shorts, Salomon ADV Skin 5 running vest, Altra Olympus 4 (I like them better than the 5's), and an Anetik Breeze Tech Long Sleeve (amazing gear for sun protection).