We spotted the ocean at the head of the trail
Where are we going, so far away
And somebody told me that this is the place
Where everything’s better, everything’s safe
In high school there were two girls who were best friends, I never saw one without the other, both used mini rolley backpacks covered in Toad the Wet Sprocket patches and stickers for their school bags. They were DEVASTATED when the band broke up the summer before my senior year. Every time I hear that song, including during a marathon, I think of them. But that’s beside the point.
The Catalina Island Conservancy Marathon was last weekend. 26.2 miles. 4,310 feet in elevation. 350 runners. Old friends. Bison. Garibaldi. Buffalo milk.
Friday afternoon my sister, myself, and our old friend met up at the Long Beach terminal to catch the Catalina Island Express out to Avalon.
The three of us worked together for a few summers at a camp for kids on the West End of the island. We hadn’t seen each other, or even really spoken much prior to the marathon, in almost 12 years. TWELVE. YEARS.
But as it goes with relationships that are built through sharing a singular experience, there is a strange kind of bond that doesn’t seem to fade, regardless of how long it’s been.
We took the ride across the channel, one we had collectively done dozens of times, arriving both sun and windburned. And as we pulled into the harbor, excitement set in over the nerves.
We checked in to our hotel and spent the rest of the afternoon making trips to the sole grocery store, picking up essentials for the next morning. It felt good to be back.
We stayed in Avalon on the East End, next to the finish line. The starting line was at the Isthmus, a narrow strip of land that connects the island’s east and west ends.
Kind of hard to see on the map, but the course is marked by a yellow line. It basically runs from Two Harbors / Cat Harbor on the Isthmus, cuts through to the west coast, back through the middle and ends in Avalon, on the East End. (The red crosses indicate aid stations, they’re a little easier to see on the map.)
Up at 3:45am on Saturday morning for another boat ride over to the starting line!
Apparently during previous years the ride over had been a little rough (two years ago Molly did the race and said 90% of the people on the boat were puking the entire ride, which is about an hour long.) We had nothing but smooth sailing. Thank God.
The first two and a half miles of the race are uphill. Straight uphill. Like, enough uphill to deprive your brain of sufficient oxygen to figure out how to take a picture on your phone.
…followed by about a mile and a half of minor ups and downs, and then some serious downhill.
Parts of the trail were narrow, muddy, and had a lot of loose rocks. We saw a few people bail hard…including Molly immediately after taking this picture while she was fiddling with her phone.
The island was super green, which was a nice change from the brown, dry hills we were used to in the summer and fall. It was pretty spectacular.
our view of shark harbor and little harbor, right around mile 9. those little dots on the road are runners that were behind us.
A few things about this race were really, particularly awesome:
The aid stations were perfectly placed and had all sorts of options for hydration and fuel, as well as sunscreen and first aid kits.
There were Catalina Conservancy crew going up and down the course the entire time, making you feel that even though you were running on a trail in the middle of nowhere, you were never far from help.
The sun didn’t come out until about 3 hours in, which was super great on a course that is so exposed.
The vibe. Everybody was supportive and nice and helpful and just psyched to be there.
Things that were not awesome:
This hill at mile 18, where we gained almost 600 ft in elevation in about a mile and a half…
…and the fact that my Catalina Marathon Running Mix didn’t download onto my phone. Because of that, my personal soundtrack for this race ended up being a High School Flashback alternative rock mix that I had probably accidentally downloaded a few years ago, because I apparently hadn’t completed it. It only had 8 songs. I had no idea it was on my phone.
While Space Hog and Savage Garden and Blind Melon and Nada Surf are great, they have their place. And I’m going to go ahead and say on repeat during a marathon is not that place. You can only listen to Truly Madly Deeply so many times before you want to tear your eyes out.
After mile 19 the course was pretty pleasant and flat-ish, though still uphill. The last three miles back into Avalon are a steep downhill, which can be rough on the legs after so much climbing.
But…(and not to beat a dead horse here)…it was just so gorgeous.
We all survived, made it back to Avalon, and recovered the only way we knew how.
That night we visited a few old hangouts, sitting in corner tables, drinking our celebratory buffalo milks, watching everyone else rock out, remembering when we used to do the same, before we were older and busted and had just finished making our way across the entire island on foot.
Catalina is a special place.
I went into this race feeling undertrained and overtired and overwhelmed and terrified that the hills would be undoable and my body wouldn’t make it.
I came out feeling revitalized. I loved every single second of it.
the morning after
So anyone who feels like doing this particularly challenging course in the future, let me know. I’m in.
Now we’re back at the homestead
Where the air makes you choke
And people don’t know you
And trust is a joke
We don’t even have pictures
Just memories to hold
That grow sweeter each season
As we slowly grow old…