Thursday, March 8, 2018

Avalon 50 Mile Benefit Run

Avalon 50 Mile Benefit Run
Catalina Island
January 20, 2018

I heard about the Catalina ultramarathon back in 2014 when my friend, Linda, ran it and seemed to really enjoy her experience.  I also remember her running a very fast time (8:26) and placing in her age group.  At that point, I was just getting into ultrarunning and had only raced a few ultras.  Those that I did race had a lot of vertical and Catalina seemed to be more runnable.  I knew someday I would check it off the bucket list. 

Late 2017 I was looking for an early season ultra and my buddies, Darrell and Ken, were thinking of Catalina.  I was all in from the beginning and excited to get back to the island.  As a side note, last time I was there was 25 years ago the after Meggin and I got engaged (October 1993).  I always told myself that we would get back but life and kids and life and kids and life…you get the picture.  I was hopeful Meg would join me but again, life and kids.  More on that later.

So, I told my coach of the plan and wanted to be ready by January 20th to give it all I had.  I had a good training cycle and was ready to race again after Angeles Crest 100 in August (Darrell and I ran the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim in October under race conditions, but it was not a race).  To prepare, Chris had me on the standard ultra-plan of 6 days on with 1 day off.  Slowly building mileage to a peak of 75+ per week.  The training consisted of work-out type runs to long back to back weekend runs.  I finished my last long run in early January by running to my nephew’s soccer game from my house in Pasadena to Ontario (I stopped a few miles short due to time but still ran 26.2 at a decent pace). 

Unfortunately, Darrell had to withdraw from the race due to injury, so it was just Ken and I racing.  Darrell brought his family over for the weekend to support which was nice. 

On Friday, January 19th, the three of us took the boat from Long Beach to Avalon – a smooth 45-minute ride.  My plan was to stay the night then take the Saturday boat back to Long Beach.  Ken decided to do the same thing since his wife was not joining us either.  Ken booked a hotel in Avalon but after arriving, we found out it was the furthest possible hotel in town.  It was up the hill from the boardwalk and probably over a mile away.  Obviously, not far but it seemed to take forever to walk there.  We all joked that the walk back after the race was not going to be fun at all.  Turned out, it was not.

After the pre-race dinner at a local Mexican restaurant, we decided to get to bed early since our alarms were set for 4 am.  Before I knew it, the alarm was going off and it was race day!  I’m always a nervous wreck before a race but I was pretty calm.  Maybe it was the distance (mentally I knew I could run that far) or the lack of vertical (there was still 7,000+ feet) or maybe I was in shape?  Regardless, it felt nice for a change.  The three of us left the hotel and walked down the hill to the pier.

Sunrise taken by Darrell
It's early!
Promptly at 5 am the race was on.  I had told Darrell and Ken that I was going to start conservative then pick up the pace throughout the race.  Of course, I didn’t do that and started way too fast.  The first 4 ½ miles were on the streets in Avalon.  We ran a few miles one way then turned around and came back the same way.  The first mile or so Ken was right with me and then I turned and saw Ken no more.  I felt good and strong and continued the quick pace (7:35, 7:19; 7:23; 8:32) till the course turned away from town towards the mountains.  It was pitch black outside with light-up type markers sporadically placed.  Turned out, the hotel about a mile away was super helpful.  If it wasn’t for the walks to and from, I would’ve missed a turn and gone the wrong way.  The course moved from the city up to Wrigley Gardens and then onto a fire road (it was asphalt for the first 5 miles).  I did make a wrong turn on the way up but quickly realized I was in the wrong place.  Already, after 5-6 miles, I did not see anyone in front or behind me till a mile or so up the hill.  After the turn around at mile 2 I knew I was in the top 5 which was a blessing and a curse.  I knew keeping a pace that quick was not going to last but I really enjoyed knowing I was doing so well.  My pace slowed up the fire road, but I never stopped running.

Apparently, there is an option to start the race at 4 am to ensure finishing before the cutoff at 5 pm.  Well, there were quite a few that took that option as I started passing people on the way up to the ridge.  It was not steep but definitely uphill.  I made it to the ridge, still in the dark, and was feeling very good.  The road was a combination of dirt and pitted asphalt.  It was easy running and the weather was good.  Cool and crisp with some wind.  I took only 1 handheld bottle which was enough given the weather and course.  I finally hit the first aid station (maybe 12-13 miles I believe; there could’ve been an earlier one but I’m not remembering now) all smiles.  I quickly filled up the bottle and kept moving.  A few miles prior to the station, I was passed by a young guy.  He was wearing a t-shirt (cotton type shirt) with a school backpack on.  Neither of those are a bad thing but wearing them in a 50-mile race is a bit peculiar.  I chatted with him for a bit and found out this was his first ultra (no surprise) and he was from the east coast somewhere.  I told him to soak it all in, take each mile one at a time, and enjoy the experience.  I let him pass me knowing that I would probably see him again at some point (he was going way too fast and was already sweating profusely; not a good sign so early on and still in the dark).  After that first aid station, daybreak!  I am not a fan of running in the dark, so I always love the sunrises.  I was especially looking forward to the views of Catalina. 

Sunrise and trail taken by Darrell

After that first station, the miles seemed to just peel off.  I basically ran alone and was really enjoying the experience.  I was still moving at a brisk pace and probably in 5th- 6th place.  Before I knew it, I was at mile 21-22 going downhill to the 50k turn around.  After a slight bend in the road, there they were – the Byson!  I was hoping to see a herd and was amazed at their size and beauty.  I also saw another runner running right passed them.  They crossed the road a few hundred yards in front of him and as he passed them, one of the bison started charging.  He lifted his hands and started yelling.  The bison seemed good with that and turned around and went back to his grazing ways.  Knowing that charging was something they do, I was now NOT very happy to see them.  I ran passed them trying to not gain eye contact, but I did, and they started charging.  I turned my head and they stopped.  Smart animals those bison.  After I was a 100 yards or so ahead of them, I stopped and gave them one last look knowing that I may never see a herd again.  It was pretty epic and worth the price of admission for sure.  The bison boosted my energy and I started moving quicker.  I passed the runner that almost got gored and made it to mile 23 in 4th place.  My drop bag was there with some additional supplies and clothing.  After a short 2 minute stop I was off. 

This next section is an out and back from the 23-mile aid station to Two Harbors and then back again.  It’s interesting because you get to see how far the leaders are ahead of you and then how far ahead you are of those behind you.  The first few miles are a slight uphill with the last mile more than slight.  At the top of the hill (mile 26) I saw the race leaders and knew they were already 6 miles ahead of me.  I was moving quick, but they were on another level entirely.  After a mile downhill, I saw the 3rd place runner and then it was me.  I moved quick to Two Harbors, enjoyed a few snacks/water fill up, at the aid station then turned around for the climb back up.  At this point, I knew the 5th, 6th, and 7th place runners were not that far behind me.  In fact, they were only ¼ mile behind.  I kept moving knowing that I would be passed if I didn’t pick up the pace.  After a few miles, I saw Ken which was awesome and then low and behold, I saw that young kid who passed me early on in the race.  I don’t recall passing him in the morning but at the point I passed him this time I was 7 miles ahead of him.  He looked worn out and was just over the half way mark.  Anyways, once I hit the top of the hill at mile 32, with no one insight behind me, I picked up the pace and ran sub 8-minute miles to the aid station at mile 35.  I changed shirts (it was warm out) and started the climb up the hill to the 50k turn around.  As I was heading up the hill, I saw a group of 3 runners coming into the aid station.  They seemed to come out of nowhere and were gaining ground.  I knew that I was going to get passed and was resigned to it.  I never give up and am super competitive, but I knew it was a losing battle.  After a few miles they passed me.  I tried to keep up with them, but it was not happening.  After 38 miles or so, I went from 4th place to 7th place in an instant.

Over the next 7 miles the race continued on fire road and was all runnable.  It was super cool to see the interior of the island and was a lot vaster than I imagined.  I was getting tired but kept moving and before I knew it I was at the final aid station – mile 45.   I was happy to be close to finishing and very pleased with how the race unfolded.  I knew from the climb up in the morning that once I hit the top of the ridge at mile 47, it was all downhill to Avalon.  I kept telling myself just one lap around the Rose Bowl then a few more downhill miles.  I hit the top of the ridge and saw the ocean and the Casino in the distance.  I also saw a 50-mile runner appear.  Prior to the top of the ridge, I took a pit stop in the bushes and he must have passed me then.  It was hard to tell as the course was full of 50k runners.  When I crested the top and the guy asked which race I was in he seemed shocked just as I was that we were both 50 milers.  My competitiveness kicked in and I sprinted down the hill running at a 6:45 pace till the finish.  It was by far the fastest finish of any ultra I’ve done but it was also a 1,000’ drop.  As I entered the town, I saw Darrell, Jorden, Bradlee, and Ty cheering the runners on.  It was great to see some familiar faces and even greater that the race was over.

Catalina lived up to what I imagined.  A very runnable and fast 50 miler.  I finished in 7th place overall (out of 163 runners) clocking in at 7:48:18 and actually won my age group (40 – 49-year-olds)!
First Time as 1st Place!

As a side note, one thing I noticed on the way to the finish was a really cool zip line course just above Descanso Beach.  Since Meg and I had not been back to Catalina in 25 years I thought it would be a great idea to bring her back for her birthday in February.  We did just that and took the helicopter over, went zip lining, and reminisced about the life we created together.  

Thursday, April 20, 2017

ITALY – Running Through History

Running on new terrain is always great but running on new terrain in ITALY?  The best!

Meggin and I had the opportunity to see our oldest girls, Carlin and Bella, perform with their school choir in Italy a few weeks ago.  The plan was to follow them from city to city to hear them sing in famous churches and venues.  The tour started in Venice, then headed southwest to Tuscany and Florence, with the finale in Rome.  A total of 8 days in country and a total of 9 concerts.

Of course, my plan was to follow my girls from city to city and to explore the area by foot.  Since I was with Meggin (and I already run way too much at home anyways), I decided early on that I would run when able and wouldn’t force the subject.  If there was some downtime, I would quickly put on my shoes and head out.  The plan actually worked great.  I was able to run in every city we stayed and loved every mile.

Venice.  What a magical place.  We arrived at dusk via water taxi and even in our jetlag, were amazed at the beauty of the city.  Tiny narrow streets surrounded by canals and ancient buildings.  Even in the off season, the place was crowded.  I cannot imagine the summer months.  Still, the place was special.  Knowing how crowded it was at night, I knew that waking up early to run was a must.  However, my body had different plans.  We slept in and then Meggin and I walked the city together and even ran into Bella and a bunch of other LCHS students.  Such a wonderful day with perfect weather.  By midday, though, we were back at the hotel and I was itching to get out there.  I was only able to run 4 miles and followed the Grand Canal till it ended.  It was like running in Balboa but without cars and with way more people.  On the way back, I actually ran into Carlin on one of the streets by St. Marks Basilica.  Super random given the amount of people everywhere.  So fun to run in one of the most beautiful places around.

Grand Canal

St. Mark's Square and Basilica
Tuscany.  Not as much magical as it is beautiful.  Rolling hills, grape vines, and large estates seemingly mark every corner.  After a concert in Figline, we drove about an hour into the hills to a village called Greve in Chianti which is about 3 kilometers away from Panzano (another village known for the Butcher of Panzano).  Our Airbnb was charming and beautiful and the perfect place to unwind after a busy few days in Venice. 

After a wonderful breakfast the next morning and at the urging of our caretaker, we opted to visit Siena and the Piazza del Campo instead of heading to Florence.  Siena is a great city and the Piazza is amazing.  During the 13th century, the Piazza was a marketplace and the center of town.  Now it’s surrounded by shops and restaurants and a meeting place for residents and visitors alike.  We spent the better part of the afternoon in Siena.  Upon our arrival back in Chianti, I had about an hour to run.  I headed out for a 6 miler and it was glorious.  Running through Panzano and through other tiny villages was pretty special.  That night, we had dinner at the Butcher of Panzano’s place.  Google it.  What a great experience.

Tuscany from our window
Concert in Figline, Tuscany

Piazza del Campo, Siena
Butcher of Panzano
Rome.  At first, Meggin and I were disappointed.  We drove from Venice to Tuscany and a few spots in between and were amazed at the landscape and charm and lack of crowds.  Upon arrival at the main train station, the drop off spot for our trusty Fiat 500, we were shocked with the massive crowds and the massive amounts of graffiti.  It. Was. Everywhere.  After several failed attempts at finding the parking structure, we finally found it and made our way to the train station.  At this point, we definitely looked and felt like tourists.  Thankfully, we found someone who spoke English and were able to make our way to the proper train.  We had 4 stops to get to our Airbnb.  After 20 minutes or so, we exited the train, walked about 200 meters and were in awe of what we saw.  The Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica. 

From our balcony, the dome at St. Peter’s was in full view.  If you haven’t been to Rome and haven’t seen St. Peter’s, you are missing out on one of the world’s best places.  That is no exaggeration.  St. Peter’s is by far the most amazing structures I have ever seen. 

After dinner across from the Vatican that night, the next morning/day we were going to explore Rome.  Not knowing where to go, we decided that I would wake up early and run the city.  Of course, I obliged and with Google Maps in hand, I headed out promptly at 7 am.  I ran down to the Vatican, over the canal to the cobble stone streets.  From there I headed south to the Monument of Victor Emmanuel and the Coliseum.  Where am I?  I circled the Coliseum, pinched myself a few times, then headed up to Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon before heading back over the canal and St. Peter’s Square.  It was one of my most memorable runs of all time.  I only ran 7 miles but covered a lot of ground and was able to see some of Earth’s most coveted sites.  I was also basically alone at each spot which I would later find out, was a unique experience. 

I was back to our flat by 8:30 am and excited to tell and show Meggin all that I had seen.  We left the flat about 10 am and basically retraced my footsteps but added the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel to our tour.  We walked for 7+ hours.  The quietness of the morning was a distance memory as the crowds in each spot were overwhelming.  We made it back by 5 pm.  Tired but amazed by what we saw.  By days end, I had walked over 45,000 steps.

Rome is an amazing place.  It’s a blend of new and extremely old.  Someday, I would like to go back and do more exploring.  For now, I’ll just remember the smile on my face from that morning.

Roman ruins


Monument of Victor Emmanuel


St. Peter's Square and Basilica

Trevi Fountain
Orvieto.  After nearly a week in country and several concerts, the girls were wrapping up their trip.  Meggin and I decided to stay through the weekend and left Rome for Orvieto.  My sister, Allison, first told us about Orvieto and encouraged us to go there.  Orvieto was built during the Etruscan times around 250 BC.  The entire town is built on top of a hill and is something to behold.  By the end of the trip, Orvieto would prove to be our favorite spot.  It was beautiful and interesting and just amazing.  After a tour of the city on Friday, I had the chance to run for the last time in Italy.  I chose to run opposite Orvieto and found a trail at the top of the hill to the west.  It was almost surreal running on a hillside in Italy with views of Orvieto in the distance.  Only a 6 mile run but with a fair amount of climbing, it was the perfect distance. 

Orvieto in the distance
Trail in Orvieto

Cave just off the trail

Italy was a trip of a lifetime.  Meggin and I were able to reconnect and enjoyed every minute of our time together.  We ate great food, drank our fair share of Chianti, saw amazing things, and loved watching our girls perform.  What a trip!