What can you do to provide yourself with a little pre-race Catalina luck? Why get your picture taken with 13-time winner, Buffalo Bill McDermott, of course! Huddle smiles and prays it will work.
Quadburger Anyone? Let's Head Over to the 2002 Catalina MarathonFor the past 25-years, while countless runners have prepared for and flocked to such revered marathon destinations as Boston, New York and Chicago, the Catalina Marathon has quietly established itself as, not only the premier off road marathon in the U.S., but as a complete running experience that is as unique as the characters who run it.
Ever since I've lived and raced in Southern California, I've heard stories about a trail marathon run on the Island of Catalina. The tales of epic battles between a "human shock absorber" named Buffalo Bill McDermott and anyone who cared to take him on along with dramatic personal narratives that each participant came home with would be regaled each year in the wake of this event. Understand one thing. The Catalina Marathon is not your run of the mill, big city, potential world record setting course having, 10,0000 volunteer sporting, flat, fast, event. No, this course is run through a nature conservancy that boasts the unique opportunity to experience the incomparable vistas of Southern California land and coast line as it must have once been. That and a herd of buffalo, some hills, rocks, more hills, camping, a few more hills, a potentially stomach emptying boat ride, another hill or two, 700 of the most demented runners you can find, a final hill, and at least two dedicated volunteers per aid station (there might even be cups) are what make this marathon what it is - unique. Did I mention the hills?
Your journey to Catalina starts with a boat ride from Dana Point, San Pedro, or Newport Beach on the Catalina Express. If you're lucky, God decides to create a high pressure system over this part of the globe on the day you intend to travel and you're greeted by calm, glassy seas for your hour ride over to the picturesque town of Avalon. Evidently, on this particular weekend He heard the prayers of surfers over those of sea-sick prone marathoners and gave us 20 to 30 mile an hour winds and a nice five to seven foot swell that had at least half of our boat out on the deck braving the 45-50-degree blast of wind as they stared, white as sheets, at the horizon in hopes of fending off the urge feed their breakfast to the fish. Competitor Magazine Publisher and 13-time Catalina finisher, Bob Babbitt relates the story of his first and last boat ride to Catalina. "I remember getting on the boat and within a couple of minutes, I was gripping the rails and assuming a wide stance. I asked one of the stewards, if this was as bad as it would get and he said, 'We haven't left the dock yet.' One hour into a very bad trip, I took a breath between heaves, grabbed another steward firmly by the collar and shouted 'How much money will it take to turn the boat around?!" Needless to say, Bob now spends the $90 each way for the 15-minute helicopter ride.
Once on Catalina, your only job is to get to registration, pick up your race number and bag and listen to grizzled veterans tell spin yet another yarn about the time they had to stay a couple of extra days because their quads were so sore that they couldn't manage walking down the gangway to get back on the boat to go home - even with crutches. That's encouraging - thank you very little.
It's 4am on race morning and you had better be at the dock by 4:45am because the boat leaves at five and waits for no one. My Tuesday/Thursday morning running club mates, Kenny Souza, Russ Clark and I wake up from a solid two hour nap (picture 3-grown men and Kenny's son, Dalton sprawled across a 12 foot by 12 foot motel room floor with a tiny bathroom that you can't get to without kicking at least two out of the four people you're sharing with) and dutifully report to the dock on time. Due to howling wind and rough seas, the boat shows up at 5:30am and we are left huddled with the rest of the field trying to vie for prime line position (the first 200 or so people on the boat will have a warm place to sit down) while trying to stay out of the wind. The boat finally arrives and we all pile on. The last remaining seat is long since taken by the time Babbit, Souza, Russ and I board and we find a comfortable spot on the aisle floor for the 45-minute trip from Avalon to the start at Twin Harbors. As we're traveling in the lee of the island, it's expected to be a smooth trip and even Babbitt is comfortably chatting as we pull out of Avalon's harbor.
5-minutes into the ride we experience our first big roller-coaster of a swell and Bob immediately breaks out in a visible sweat. As he and Kenny head for the frigid but fresh air of the deck, the crowd around them heckles, "Hey Bob, Souza - want a bite of my Egg McMuffin?! The two, now pasty white and looking distinctly worried, join a throng of others out back to breathe, think of their "happy place", and try to avoid seeing, hearing or smelling another victim hurl over the side of the boat. Seasickness, you see, is contagious. Just like in third grade, when one person gets sick, each witness's chance of joining in increases 100-fold. Souza repeats his mantra, "go to your happy place, go to your happy place, . . ." as the potential for a sea born Barf-o-Rama threaten.
The sun is rising as the boat pulls into Twin Harbors and there's a palpable feeling of urgency to get back on firm land - even if it means the beginning of our torture is about to begin. As the crew does a fantastic job of docking and safely unloading 5 to 600 wobbly runners in less than favorable conditions, the reason for the urgency becomes apparent. I won't say that there's a lack of bathroom facilities in our new location, only that prior experience gives an obvious advantage to those wishing to relieve themselves. We look at the long lines that have formed at the two or three potential pit stops and, without a word, Russ and I join an already disembarked Souza in a quick walk that progresses into a jog for the surrounding hills. The search is on for a quiet spot where we can do our business. Mission accomplished, we head back to the start area where we pack our warm clothes into Babbitt's over-sized suitcase. While others toss in their plastic bags that used to hold the typical assortment of goody-bag schwag, the reasons for Babbitt's choice in luggage become apparent. "The bigger the bag," he says, "the less chance of it falling off the truck to the finish line without being noticed."
With 10-minutes to start time, Greg Klein who helps out race director, Jack Caress, gets on the P.A. system and gives the final count down. "10-minutes people! 10-minutest 'til the start of the race." The field manages to assemble itself on the narrow jeep trail and the normal rise in energy at the start of any race is felt. The horn sounds and, almost in a sort of anti-climax, we're off. The reason for the relative lull becomes immediately apparent as we start - straight up a 2 to 3-mile climb. The number of would be sub-2:10 marathoners who go out in a 5-minute mile are greatly reduced as each individual quickly settles into their smallest gears and baby step their way up the grade. A mile and a half up, the front runners are disappearing while behind and below the procession of runners in their wake gives this hillside a brief ribbon of colorful movement.
The first 10 to 12 miles seem to provide an endless supply of long and relentlessly steep ups and downs (mostly ups at this point). At 12-miles, Kenny and I happen upon the leader of the women's race. Upon initiating conversation, we're blown away by the bubbly chatter of Rebecca Grissom who we learn is running her second ever running race and first ever marathon - she won her first running event, a half-marathon, in 1:24! Coming from a division one soccer background must have had some positive long term running benefits as the ease with which this woman is navigating this course is evident.
Middle Ranch comes between 13 and 18-miles and is said to be the crux of the race. A long almost imperceptible up hill grade leaves runners who have gone out too hard on a relatively featureless, hot, winding, washboard dirt road with nothing but their own psyches and legs to contend with. On this day, a roaring tail wind that has provided much needed assistance up many of the climbs is now an even more welcome friend. By the time we start the climb up Pump House Hill, the wind is picking up and drops us at the top of the hill to join the pavement for a series of ups and downs that lead to the final 3-mile descent to the finish line. Now a howling cross wind, we traverse the ridge which looks down on Avalon which appears enticingly close - but is still over 5-miles away.
They say that being able to run down hill well is a pre-requisite to success at the Catalina Island Marathon. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the final 3-miles. I don't know of too many runners who would complain about going down a hill late in any race but, at Catalina, I can find no one who didn't wish for even just a small break in the descent over those final miles. I also don't know of too many races where they should hand out helmets at aid stations. If they were available, I'd have picked one up at 23-miles. At the speeds that he goes down hill, Buffalo Bill McDermott should be required by law to wear a lid. At age of 50, Buffalo is competing in his 25th Catalina but - and this is the good part - he's WON 13 OF THEM. That's better than batting .500 folks. I can't think of too many athletes who hold a similar string of victories at the same venue. Anne Trason's 12-Western States 100 titles? Mark Allen's 10-victories at Nice? Martina's 9-Wimbledons? Paula's 8-Hawaiian wins? We're talking 13! A baker's dozen!
So why, after 24-finishes and 13-victories would anyone in their right mind come back for more? First, who said the man is in his "right mind"? Second, if you, at the age of 50, were in the same phenomenal shape as Buffalo, what else are you going to do? Play a round of golf? I don't think so. You're going to head back across the channel and run an astounding 3:04 to finish THIRD PLACE OVERALL, thank you very much. Who beat him? Some guy named Jeff Atkinson. The same Jeff Atkinson who was on the cover of Runner's World, took 8th at the '88 Olympics in the 1500, held the American record in the 1500 at 3:38:12, was on 8-US National teams, etc. He owns personal bests of 3:52 in the mile (ouch!), and 3:35 for the 1500 - don't bother me about tenths of a second, that's FAST - ok, 3:52:80 and 3:35:15 - are you happy?! The Stanford alumnus has a 3-minute lead as he started his descent to Avalon and the finish line. What do you do when you've been an Olympian and run a mile faster than just about anyone who's ever run a step and, at the age of 39, you now find yourself winning this cult trail marathon on the island of Catalina by 3-minutes in the last 3-miles? With one-mile to go, Atkinson's plan become plain for all to see. With one-mile to go, there's this little bar and grill at the golf course called the Sand Trap. At the speed he was running, there was probably about 5-minutes left to the finish and certain victory in 2:53 or so. What did "The Rat", as he's known to his friends as, do? Why, he took the right turn into the Sand Trap, high-fived all his buddies, drank a beer, and then headed back out on the road to win his first and last Catalina Marathon in 2:56 and change - but 30-seconds. Nice.