The Avalon Benefit 50 Mile on Catalina Island, one of the nation’s oldest 50 milers, bills itself as “one of the country’s most challenging and scenic 50-milers. No cars, no smog, just great terrain, incredible views, fascinating historical sites, a well-organized race, nice people, great food . . . and even an occasional buffalo sighting.”
After spending most of this winter churning out Yasso 800s, mile repeats, and tempo runs to improve my marathon time at the California International Marathon (2hrs, 50 mins), the Avalon 50 sounded like the perfect antidote to my trail withdrawal. My legs ached for softer surfaces, and life just didn’t seem quite as complete without that Thursday morning 4am buzzer, signaling another weekly Marin Headlands run with a fun, and ever-expanding group of trail-running champs (yes – the other regulars had all notched wins last season (Stinson Beach, JFK, Headlands 100, Muir Beach 50K, Rodeo Beach 50k + many more.) Although I only had a month to train, I squeezed in a few trail-heavy 100+ mile weeks and felt fresh heading into race weekend. Plus, even if I was to bonk miles in, the weekend was going to be fun since my dad had offered to join me and experience this ultra-running community I keep going on about.
Blessed by warm temperature and clear skies, the 5am start on the Catalina coast was quite comfortable. The RD counted us down, and we were off. Evan Kimber, looking to improve upon his victorious time of 6:56 the previous year shot out at the start. Hot on his tail was previous runner-up, Fabrice Hardel, who I had heard felt confident in his preparation and was looking to challenge him for the win this year. Early-on, I kept my distance and just tried to soak in everything around me. Running along the ridges of Catalina Island with nothing but the sounds of the waves crashing against the shore and the lights of Los Angeles in the distance was so relaxing. I stayed in a rhythm but was not interested in pushing the pace from the start and I don’t think I even glanced at my watch until after mile 10.
Early in the race I was most focused on congratulating and rooting on all the early-bird starters that had started before the official 5am start in order to finish by the 5pm cut-off. Hal Winton, co-RD of the Angeles Crest 100, and personal inspiration was running his gazzilionth Avalon 50 at 78 years old, starting at 11pm (the night before!) in order to finish by the cut-off. And he was only one of so many inspiring people that I came across that morning! From first-timers to those running their 25th or more race, I soon realized that this run was about far more than a race, but rather about our running community.
I still find it hard to describe – maybe it was the months away from the Ultra community? Maybe it was getting to spend the weekend with my dad on a father-son road trip? (who was a great runner and will be once again once he fully recovers from a spinal fusion surgery that sidelined him last fall.) Whatever it was, I completely forgot about the race, and just soaked in the beauty of the island as well as all of the cool people that I was fortunate enough to meet along the way – that is, until I found myself 100 yards back from the leader at mile 18 After an incredible sunrise over Los Angeles, I finally checked out my pace on the Garmin: 7:07/mi – ooh, this could be bad later on.
After the initial brutal climb over the first 4 miles, the race rolls along a ridge until mile 20 at which there is a 1000 foot climb and descent to Two Harbors on the opposite side of Catalina. Catching up with the current leader, I was still feeling pretty good and decided to see if I could create a little space before we began our journey back (although it takes a different course back – similar to a figure eight.) The descent into Two Harbors is simply breathtaking and makes the quad-pounding descent much more bearable. Upon reaching the bottom, I recalled a veteran’s (and previous winner of the race) advice from the night before. With an aid station at Two Harbors and a mile out-and-back to the along the isthmus before the return home, you can drop your water bottle and pick up some time while it’s refueled. That I did, and with two sub 6 minute miles out-and-back, I was able to increase my lead to nearly ¾ of a mile.
With the climb out of Two Harbors, the heat and my lack of long runs in my training was starting to catch up with me. Although I clocked the first 25 in a few minutes more than 3 hours, and the marathon in 3:12, I soon slowed as the return route back to Avalon was a mixture of steady climbs and short descents through the canyons of the interior of Catalina Island. Having never led an ultra for any significant length of time, I had the impending feeling of being snatched at any minute by Evan or Fabrice, as they had looked quite strong when I had passed them. Either way, I finally found myself at the mile 43 aid station – one final climb up to the ridge, and one quad-killing skydive back down to the Ocean away from my first win.
Getting through these last miles consisted mainly of two thoughts, “Ocean” and “Running on Love” – (one of my favorite running quotes, by Brett Rivers when asked why he felt so great at 8,000 feet, 80 degree heat, and 80 something miles in to his great 100 mile debut and 3rd place finish at Tahoe Rim 100 last summer). Well, needless to say – it worked; I crossed the finish line “running on love” in 6:30:25 and I believe my official time of hitting the ocean water was 6:30:29. In case you have ever wondered, Petzl Headlamps DO work after a dive in the Pacific, although you may need to blow-dry for extended periods of time. The verdict is still out on the heart rate monitor. Either way, it was worth it.
Evan Kimber followed for 2nd place in 6:54.01 and Ruperto Romero rounded out the top 3 in 7:09.36. Maria Petzold won for the women in 7:52.55.
As a Catalina-newbie, and big fan of the Avalon Benefit 50 Mile I encourage everyone to venture out for the race. It is living history of the sport of ultrarunning, and the town of Avalon truly opens up for the runners. From the first finisher before noon until the last around 7pm, you can hear applause and cheers erupting from the many restaurants, stores, and people lining the streets of downtown Avalon. The true spirit of the ultra-running community is as strong as ever, and I’m confident that you’ll leave feeling the same way as I did – a big smile, and sore quads.