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“Chasing The Phantom Buffalo” –The Catalina Eco-Marathon: A Racing Story

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It’s been called, “The hardest race you’ll ever love,” by some. Runner’s World dubbed it, “Best Island Run” in 2011. It’s one that’s increasingly being put on those infamous lists that hardcore marathoners keep, of which destination races they want to join in the near future. Catalina Island’s Eco-Marathon, while still quite small, is gaining curiosity from CA locals and West Coasters alike.

After reading about the island’s scenic run, among buffalo herds and breathtaking vistas, I was eager to sign up. What a great way to spend a first marathon experience, I thought. I plunked my money down and started voraciously reading reviews. Then, I promptly freaked out.

Experienced marathoners were calling this, “The most difficult marathon I’ve ever run.” I read horror stories about runners breaking down into tears at mile 15, not wanting to press on. Most of the reviews called it, “challenging” or “more like an ultra.” What had I gotten myself into?

I was training on steep hills with TNT during the time that I’d signed up for the race, but my hill training was soon ending with the season’s close. I was going to be on my own soon, and I really, really needed those hills, plus some training on uneven surfaces. I began a regimen of adding weekly trail runs to my schedule, building up from a four-miler to an eight-miler on the uneven ground, throwing in some ultra steep switchbacks as practice for bigger hills.

Of course, the week before the race, everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong: The top of my left foot started hurting out of nowhere, my left hip started spasming again, and I caught a chest cold. I spent the week resting up, getting in a couple of swims to keep things loose, and generally taking care of myself until race day. The day before the race, I was still slightly congested, and my hip was still stiff, but my left foot pain had completely disappeared.
I guessed that one less out of three wasn’t too bad.

The ferry ride over to the island was no picnic. The wind was throwing 5-8-foot swells at us, and the boat rollicked about like a bucking bronco on the water. They handed out throw-up bags to pale-looking passengers, and encouraged folks to go out and get some fresh air if they felt like they needed to be sick. Luckily, I’m not easily motion sick, but all of the retching going on around me was starting to make me ever so slightly queasy. By that time, we were almost at port, however, and I was eager to go grab my race packet.

Drifting into the glittering island city of Avalon!

The packets were available in a small shopping center, called, “The Landing”, in a very makeshift office area. I signed in, grabbed my race number and a tech tee, and was on my way to find the hotel in no time.

Everything in Catalina is small and charming, and so was the Hermosa Hotel. The manager on duty jovially signed me in and pointed me to the cottage area, where I found a cute, clean, cozy little room, with double beds (my friends who were coming to cheer me on were still on their way). I could have sworn that they chose the shower curtain for its buffalo motif, but maybe I was just seeing things:

Do you see buffalo heads? Look at the small flowers and picture them as eyes.

My friends, Kristie and Matthew, arrived on the last “Puke-a-lina” Express boat of the evening, and we hurried off to dinner. I scarfed down some sweet potato fries and half of a veggie burger, plus a wedge of flourless chocolate cake. Ahh, pre-race carbies!

The race didn’t start until 8:00 p.m., so I had plenty of time to get ready and piddle around before the race start. My friends came with me and saw me off. Kristie insisted on taking photos of me as I took off on my journey.

Me: Geekus Runnerus

Kristie and yours truly

Hi! I’m about to die!

The turnout was surprisingly small, smaller still than the San Luis Obispo half. It seemed like there were less than 500 racers in total. Fortunately, with less kittens to herd, the race started on time. Before I knew it, we were off and running, headed toward our long, uphill battle.

The first three miles were a steep ascent, 1500 feet. As soon as I started running, my lungs felt tight and my hip panged. “Well, body,” I thought. “Ready or not, we’re doing this.” I ran for all of mile one, but then, as most people started walking to conserve energy near mile two, when things got really steep, I joined them. I had never walked so much during a race, but, knowing that I’d have 23 more miles to go after this, I was surely not wanting to burn myself out.

In spite of the nasty hills, the view was breathtaking, and got more amazing with each higher ridge. The ocean, with bright white schooners bobbing on its surface, glittered expansively outward, and the dusty green hills folded neatly under us, elegantly framing the water.

Picturesque ocean views.

Once the climb began to ease up a bit, I forced my heavy hill-climbing legs to churn into an easy run cadence. The chilly wind began to whip across the trail, seeming to have the strength to push struggling runners off of the side with one heavy puff. My race number fluttered wildly against the pins on my shirt. My hat threatened to lift off of my head and join the gigantic black crows that were gliding sideways off of the cliff. We were really facing the elements up here.

View from the trail.

By mile five, we hit a narrow horse path that wove through pastures and almost tilted sideways in parts and made me glad for my almost-hybrid road-trail shoes. We climbed up, over and down some steep-ish and somewhat technical parts in the area, and then found our way back onto a big, open trail. By mile seven, my watch read 1:30, which, with walking up the really steep parts, was not awful. I’d expected to go at least 2 minutes/mile slower than my usual race pace while running.

Runners heading over the ridge to the aid station.

The trail continued to climb, with a few momentary downhills to break up the strain of the long uphills. With the chilled wind up there, my lungs were beginning to feel as if they were shrink-wrapped. I wondered if I might have bronchitis. I had read how a chest cold could cause strain on the heart when there’s too much exertion. I listened to my body and went easy, ensuring a steady, albeit slow, non-heart-rate-spiking pace, walking up the steepest slopes. I was going to finish this thing in one piece, pace and finish time be damned.

Around mile 10, I hit a little wooded area. Somehow I’d lost sight of other runners ahead and behind, so I was running alone, inside of my own private wooded wonderland. The ground was miraculously slightly downhill or flat, and I finally bumped my pace back up to my regular easy run 10:00 pace for a bit, and that felt really good.  At this point, I felt like I was flying, ducking under branches, jumping over logs, running through small fields. It was by far my favorite part of the race!

At the mile 11 aid station, they asked us if we’d seen any buffalo.

“None,” I said. “But lots of buffalo dung!” It was true. The stuff was unavoidable, piles everywhere. But not one big hairy beast to be found. Where were the herds hiding?

Pretty Lake! No buffalo to be seen.

By mile 15, I’d hit the 3 hour 15 min mark. Fourteen minute miles average, and I was actually quite happy with that calculation. I had figured that, with walking up hills and “going easy” I would make it well within the eight-hour posted cut-off time, which was all that I was concerned about. Things seemed to be going quite well at that point. I was getting a little tired, but the effort was well within my level of training. I still had 11 miles to go, but I could handle it.

Around mile 17, I began to come a little bit unglued, as my legs began to throb, and my mind began to falter at the prospect of going nine more miles on these bloody trails. Fortunately, I ran into some jovial characters (one of them really cute) at the mile 17.5 aid station, who made me laugh and restored my sanity for another mile and a half before I entered what is known as “The Crush”.

The Crush

Mile 19 is a bugger of a hill. With my legs already strained beyond belief, they barely pulled me up that steep, steep thing. A couple of hikers picking their way down it egged me on as I labored up. My quads screamed for mercy, so much so that I almost stopped midway up, but forced myself on instead. At the top, a small group of women high-fived me and “whoo’d.”

“I don’t have to do that again, do I?” I asked, jokingly.

“Haha, no, it’s all downhill from here!” One of them replied.

A steep downhill led into a large aid station feast, and a first aid stop, where I asked for a tissue, because my wind chilled nose had not stopped running right along with me. They looked bewildered that I would ask for such a thing. When nonesuch item could be found, a paper towel was offered–and accepted, of course. Runners can’t be “pickers,”, I guess.

And, of course, it was not “all downhill from here.” Not even close. On, I climbed up, up, up, and my body and mind began to quarrel again. As the roads got steeper, I began to think about how close I was to finishing. After mile 20, I thought about what it would feel like to cross that finish line, and found myself with a lump in my throat, almost choking back a sob. Now I understood why some people burst into tears after finishing a marathon. And that was just for a normal marathon, nothing like this.

At mile 21, the friendly aid station people offered refreshments and told us that there were, “Only two more steep uphills, a gradual decline, and then a final drop.” I felt relieved. I headed up and over a ridge, and, as I cast my eyes down toward the bottom of the hill, noticed an elderly female runner, lying on the side of the path.

“Are you okay?” I asked as I approached. She didn’t answer, but clearly she was a little shaken from the fall. Her water bottle had been flung several feet away. I grabbed it and handed it to her.
Two other female runners came from behind and gathered around.

The woman was bleeding profusely from her chin, but, otherwise, she looked okay. One of the runners ran back to the aid station to get help. The elderly woman finally decided to stand up.

“I’ll just walk the rest of the way,” She said. “It’s only five more miles.”

“Don’t you want to wait for them to get you a bandage?” I asked the woman.

“It’s just five miles,” she said, “My legs are fine.”

I pleaded with her to, at least, keep her long sleeved shirt that she’d been using to mop up her blood, tight against her chin, so as to keep pressure on the wound. She didn’t really listen to that advice either, feebly dabbing at the wound with the shirt.

Finally, after the woman indicated that she clearly didn’t want our help and was going to be stubborn, I knew that, with park rangers and firemen constantly driving up and down the roads to check on runners, she wouldn’t be able to get far, bleeding like that, without someone stopping her. I decided to press on, giving her one more concerned glance as I jogged onward.

As for my own condition, the hills really were starting to get to me.

“It’s never-ending,” I began to whine to myself. “I’m never going to stop climbing.”

I began to whimper internally. The mean wind pushed me back, bumped me sideways, and whipped the snot right out of my nose. I was reduced to an age four child at this point.

I’d read that the last three miles of the run were all down hill. When I saw the marker for mile 23, I thought, “Hallelujah! Now I just have to wait for the downhill dip!”

Nothing of the sort existed. Nope, more uphill climbs. I began to get furious.

“You have GOT to be kidding me,” I raged inside of my head. Real anger, something that is not typical of me at all, raged to the surface like Mt. Vesuvius.

“Hell,” I thought. “This is Hell on Earth.”

But then, of course, I took a breath and looked around. Okay, it wasn’t Hell, it was gorgeous. I reminded myself that, heck, *I* had signed myself up for this. I was going to finish. I dug in and kept wearily trekking on, my runs disintegrating into weak shuffles.

At the mile 24 aid station, I said, “Please tell me there are no more uphills.”

“There’s only one more hill and it’s right there,” the aid station guy said, pointing at a teeny tiny bump that led to the downhill “drop” toward the finish line.

Finally!!!!

While I was eager to get down to the bottom, jogging my way down the steep, rocky and narrow slopes, I realized that it was not going to be as easy as I’d imagined. In some spots, it was so rocky and uneven that I forced myself to slow to a walk, and the sheer grade of it, plus the incredible fatigue in my quads, forced me to stay very easy in my pace. One wrong move now could spell disaster.

The mile markers were off by about 4/10 of a mile by the time that I got down to mile 25. I hit 26.2 well before I even saw the 26 mile marker near the finish line. By the time I crossed the finish line, the race was much closer to 27 miles than it was to 26.2, but, at that point, what’s another .8 miles, right?

Running into town was great though. People driving by in golf carts cheered me on, as well as local townspeople.

“You’re doing great!”

“You can do it! You’re almost done!”

“Congrats!’

It’s like magic to hear those cheers, especially near the finish. They push you all the more. Once I’d hit regular, flat pavement, my legs began to fly. I bumped up to regular distance race pace, 9:45, and kept plowing on toward the finish. While they called my name, the big finish was kind of anti-climactic, as the crowds for the elite runners had fallen away, and only us regular people remained. I found out later that, out of the 400+ people who had signed up, only 264 of us finished. So, yeah, just to finish, was quite an accomplishment.

Mission Accomplished!

In conclusion, I did it, I chased my buffalo, and caught it, and now it’s home with me and the most prized part of my growing medal collection.

My Very Own Buffalo!

Would I do this race again? Most definitely! Am I crazy? Most definitely!

P.S. They also have a 50-miler. It’s tempting, but let me get through an Ironman first 😉

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Author: Solange Deschatres

Innovative multi-marketing strategist and writer with a futuristic eyeball (and one normal one for writing, reading, design and such). Strong background in mobile, interactive and social marketing. Runner, writer, and art, music, tech and equine enthusiast. Owner of the most amazing Beagle you'll ever meet.

5 thoughts on ““Chasing The Phantom Buffalo” –The Catalina Eco-Marathon: A Racing Story

  1. Great race report! I really enjoyed ready it; felt like I was struggling on those hills too! Definitely going to add to my bucket list of races b/c well, we’re crazy right?! Congrats!

    • Best race, EVER! You should definitely do it. Plus, I should have noted that the people of Catalina are extremely welcoming and friendly. One aid station had beer and burgers for the runners, and everyone seemed to be enjoying supporting us suffering runners! Catalina is a charming place to vacation, also. I would recommend exploring the town of Avalon the day before the marathon, considering that you will be pretty broken afterward ;). It’s a sweet little getaway, especially during the non-tourist season.

  2. Congratulations. Sounds like fun.

  3. Thanks for your blog update, Solange. Good job, keep going…and we’ll have to do an event on Catalina. : )

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