Saturday, January 10, 2015

Avalon 50 Mile -- 8:17:28

Bison, rain, mud, potatoes, crows eating the course markings -- these are some of the highlights of the Avalon 50 mile race! I had a good run overall, finishing in 8 hours 17 minutes 28 seconds. I felt tired, sore, and slow from about miles 37 to 45. ("Why am I doing this?! This sucks!") But then I felt better and had a really nice fast downhill finish for the last few miles. I came in 22nd place, out of 263 starters. (Based on prior years, and bad memory, apparently, I was expecting more like 380 starters.) Most of the race occurred in a light to moderate rain, so the dirt roads became quite slick and muddy in places, which slowed everyone down. I'm happy with how I did and I'm uninjured.

I got the idea of entering this race from my friend Kristin, in the Coastside Running Club. It had been her first 50 miler the previous year and the course was supposed to be pretty and I thought it would be fun to visit Catalina Island. It had been over two years since I've run this far, since Dick Collins Firetrails 50, in October 2012.

The ferry ride was fun and the weather was gorgeous on Friday, the day before the race. In the distance, we saw dolphins jumping and gray whales spouting. There were plenty of runners and even some volunteers on the ferry. For a volunteer, that's quite a commitment to spend $74.50 round-trip on the ferry plus the hotel. Thank you, volunteers!

I chatted with a runner, Colleen, who along with her two friends had signed up for Avalon 50, American River 50, and Javelina Jundred -- I'm signed up for American River 50 and I'm seriously considering Javelina Jundred, too. Cool! Small world!

We checked into our minuscule hotel room, the cheapest room they had at the Catalina Island Inn ($112 / night including tax). The location was great -- just around the corner from the race start.
We went for a nice hike around town... I tried not to hurt myself!

About 3/4 of the vehicles were golf carts! Nice!

That round building is a former casino converted into a movie theater.

I picked up my bib at a nearby hotel and learned that I needed to drop off my drop-bag there. Oops! OK, time to pack my drop bag!

Packing the drop bag led to the biggest equipment decision -- which shoes to wear! I had my Brooks Glycerin training shoes, designed primarily for the road, and my Brooks Pure Grit trail racing shoes. I had run 5+ hour runs in both, and in wet conditions both times, too. But I had gotten blisters with Pure Grit in Quad Dipsea while the Glycerin shoes were more comfortable. So, I decided to take the safest choice and to wear the road running shoes and so I packed the trail racing shoes into the drop bag for miles 19 and 33. As I was slipping and sliding in the mud the next day, I wish I had started with the trail racing shoes!
Brooks Glycerin (left) or Pure Grit -- what to run in?!
I slept well that Friday night, perhaps because I was tired from the long day of travel and the hike. I woke up at 2:15am, well before my 3am alarm, to eat breakfast (two slices of whole wheat bread, a peanut butter Clif Bar, banana). I checked emails and the weather (10% chance of rain, probably in the afternoon). I went back to sleep for 90 minutes and again woke up before my alarm.

Time to get going! I quickly got dressed, applied sunscreen, and put moleskin on my nipples (I finally found a reliable solution to my chafing problems!) and Body Glide on my toes and elsewhere. Jennifer took this picture of me, where I look tired, but I felt good!

I arrived at the starting area at 4:45am and heard that we needed to sign in. They were simply recording our bib #s, which was quick. There was friendly happy chatter in the darkness lit by streetlights. I tried to figure out how to wear my running cap with the headlamp and opted to stick my cap in the back pocket of my running vest.

5am rolled around. I wondered if we were going to start on time. Then I saw people running in front of me. OK, it looks like we started! Let's go!

I settled into an easy pace as we made our way from the Green Pleasure Pier (the central pier in Avalon) straight back on Catalina Ave. We came to a three-way intersection and the runners made a right turn but I didn't see any course markings. Someone pointed out the green glow stick on the road. Aha! Very good. Then a quick left, and we headed slightly uphill towards the back of Avalon.

I was looking forward to the big initial climb, where we get up to about 1,500'. Here's the elevation profile from my Garmin data:
We got to the end of Avalon Canyon Rd and went through Wrigley Botanical Gardens and then hit the steep uphill dirt road. I could see the headlamps of the front runners far ahead already. I kept monitoring my heart rate and I walked two especially steep sections, to keep my heart rate below 150 beats per minute. Otherwise, I slowly ran up the mountain! I felt good! "Take it easy," I kept on telling myself. A light sprinkle started. "Hmm... at least it's nice and cool!" We hit the top at around the 4 mile point and I think my average pace was about 11 minutes a mile at that point.

The first-place woman passed me on the climb. I'll call her Cat Ears, since she was wearing a cap with little ears on top. It looked like she was running with a twin-sister at the beginning -- they had similar builds and matching skirts. I passed her in the first mile and then she passed me a mile later, on the steep initial climb.

I was enjoying the nighttime run, cruising along in the dark, in the very light rain. Where's the first aid station? I had the official aid station mileage chart taped to one of my water bottles, with the distances between stations that I added in red:
Well, mile 5.4 comes and goes, and there's no aid station in sight. It's actually at about mile 6.4. I was very impressed that a volunteer was staffing the aid station so early in the morning. Thank you! There were no energy gels. I thought this might be the case. I grabbed some boiled potato chunks and put them in a plastic ziplock bag I carried. I asked when the next aid station was. "2 miles."  Hmm...  that's weird. This mistake gave me doubts about the mileage for the rest of the race.

At 6:33am I no longer needed a headlight to see where I was going. I felt good and was moving slowly and easily. My average pace had increased to a bit faster than 10 minutes a mile.

At the second aid station (mile 11.6, I estimate), Cat Ears stopped and asked for a plastic bag for her mobile phone. Yep, rain and phones don't go together! I was surprised that the first-place woman was even carrying a phone. I dropped off my headlamp and passed her.

The scenery was very pretty along these wide dirt roads. There was occasional vehicle traffic, but it wasn't too bad. I enjoyed seeing the cactus, too, which is an unusual sight for me.
Jennifer took this picture on a hike during my race
Some of the downhills were fast and easy to run. I tried not to get too crazy, but I sometimes got into the low 7 minutes a mile. "Take it easy!" I repeatedly told myself.

I came across a group of crows on the ground, eating something. They were eating the flour course marking! Too funny!

13 miles done. My feet felt a bit sore. Hmm... there's still a long ways to go! I saw a used energy gel wrapper on the ground and I picked it up. I saw a couple more in the remainder of the race, but I didn't feel like I had the energy to pick them up. Be careful with your wrappers, front runners!

At around mile 18.5 (by my Garmin) or 18.9 (by the official chart) I arrived at Little Harbor where I could get my drop bag. I grabbed 4 energy gels from my bag. If I had known what was ahead of me, I would have swapped shoes. Also, if I had known that the race didn't provide energy gels, I would have packed some more.

A while later, I saw my first bison in the race! Cool! Some rangers had driven past me and then when I turned a corner and was coming down a hill, I saw the bison trotting towards a field, away from the rangers. I guess the big guy had been somewhere he wasn't supposed to be.

Around mile 24, I saw the first place runner returning on this long out-and-back section. At first, I thought it was a woman, but it was the first place guy with a jacket tied around his waist. "Great job," I cheered to him. He congratulated me, too. Looking at the map afterwards, I think he was 4 miles ahead of me! He ended up winning. Congratulations, Fabrice Hardel!

I got to the turn-around aid station, stocked up on more boiled potatoes, and asked what mile I was at. "22" one of the guys said. "Oh oh, I thought I was around mile 26!" He said there was a three mile loop to do and then I would return there. "Thank you!" I still don't know what mile that was, but it was probably closer to 26 than 22. I guessed it took me 3 hours 53 minutes to run a marathon, so I was on track for a sub-8 hour finish. I was happy about that, but there was a long ways to go.

I saw what I thought was a bison statue, but as I got closer, it was a bison straddling a fire hydrant! Funny! I saw lots of other runners on this out-and-back section to the turn-around point. It's not a loop, but just an extension of the out-and-back route. I thought of my friend Kristin who got lost around this point and added three miles to her race. I didn't have any doubts about this part of the course. I got to the turn-around cone, ran around it, and headed back to the aid station.

I had been tracking a guy I dubbed Osob (orange-shirt one-bottle). He was slightly ahead of me and I was surprised that he could do this race carrying just one 20oz water bottle.

On the long climb up out of the Isthmus turn-around aid station, I saw Cat Ears walking. :-(  It was a steep climb, to be sure, but if I could run it I figure she was having problems. She stopped and held her hamstring. She was injured. :-(  As I caught up to her, I said "I'm sorry you're hurting." and "Do you need any salt?" She said she had too much salt. The next time I saw her was at Eagle's Nest (where they had bison burgers!); she must have dropped and gotten a ride there. Then I saw her at the finish line, where she had already showered and dressed. Bummer.

The light rain had turned to a moderate rain and this uphill section had turned to mud and had gotten slick and sticky. Big clumps of mud sometimes stuck to my shoes, instantly adding what seemed like a couple of pounds. I passed Osob. He was struggling even more here. I pretty much ran the entire way up, encouraging all the runners headed towards me and receiving encouragement from them. "Colleen! Great job!" I think she was about four miles behind me but was moving well and seemed in good spirits.

I got to my drop bag at mile 33 and I had decided to swap shoes. It was still raining lightly and I was spending a lot of energy sliding around. It took several minutes and four runners passed me, including the new first-place woman and Osob.

My feet and legs were getting progressively more sore. I was feeling sluggish and losing motivation. I hated not understanding the course or knowing what to expect. The uphill was relentless. My pace and my heart rate were slowing down and I couldn't seem to help it. I was getting sick of boiled potatoes. Negative thoughts were popping up constantly. "This sucks. Why am I here? I don't want to run long races again. Why did I sign up for American River 50 mile already?" I wanted my body to shut up. "OK, body, I got the message. Things hurt. Just keep moving please! I promise we'll deal with the problems when we finish." Someone had recently shared this song on Facebook, so I started playing David Bowie's The Man Who Sold The World on a tight loop in my head, to help me shut out everything and just keep moving.
Who knows, step stepNot me, step stepNot him, step stepThe man who sold the world step step
Around this point, Vic (as I learned his name later) passed me. He had the most amazingly carefree and positive attitude. He had such unrealistically low expectations of himself, that he was on his way to an incredibly surprising finish! He wanted to run the race in "11 or 12 hours" and he wasn't wearing a watch and he didn't know what distance he was at. (Well, neither did I, within a mile or so, but at least I had a GPS watch!) He wanted to finish in the top 65% of the runners. I told him that he was on track for finishing in 8 hours 20 minutes! I congratulated him on pacing himself well and having a strong race. He slowly pulled away from me as I struggled. My average pace kept falling and I was looking at a 8:30 or 8:40 finish.

We climbed into a cloud and the rain was very light. I knew there was a nice long downhill to the finish, but I didn't know when! I kept playing the song in my head. Finally finally, I crested a hill, got on a paved road, and it was a delightful fast downhill. My feet and hips and quads were all sore, but I was able to move pretty well, about 8 minutes per mile here. I had seen on a map earlier that this section of the highway had an 8% grade which wasn't too steep at all. I didn't need to brake constantly.

I saw Vic up quite a ways ahead, taking a pee break, and I tried to speed up. Some guy was coming up on my heels and he steadily passed me. I didn't know how much longer the race was. 2 miles? 3 miles? 4 miles? I couldn't really be sure.

We rounded a corner and there was the most beautiful sight to behold... Avalon! And the green pier of the start/finish! It looked a lot like the photo at the top of this blog post, but from the other side of the bay. (Measuring this afterwards, this was 0.7 miles from the finish.) Woo hoo!!! I poured on the speed. My legs felt good. I caught up to the guy who recently passed me. "I hope you're not in my age group!" he said. "43" I replied. "53" he said. "Nice! Way to go!" My heart rate monitor, strapped around my chest, slid down towards my waist because of my increased pace. I slid it back, up. (Annoying!)

I don't recall seeing course markers here, but it seemed obvious how to get down to the main street. I poured it on. I thought of my friends Mor and Carol and our Tuesday morning speed workouts with my running club. I blew through a stop sign and waved at a pick-up truck to wait for me. There were cheers. Jennifer!! I sprinted to the finish line. Whew!

I was very happy to be done and I felt good about myself, having gotten through what was for me a long tough distance. 8 hours 17 minutes 28 seconds.

I chatted with Vic for a bit. Great job, Vic Marlow!

After showering and eating, I saw Colleen and then her friends finish. Good job, Colleen Slick!
Colleen (far right) and her two friends, finishing their first of many big races this year

Race HQ!
Later that night, I chatted with an older guy at a fish and chips grill. He said he had run this race 24 times (but not this year) and that he didn't think the current race director was very good because he didn't respond to emails quickly and he never fixed the mileage charts. "The miles are all wrong on the aid station chart. The only correct one is the turn-around." While chatting, another finisher came hiking in. It's dark now and there are scattered cheers. The guy said that one older racer started the previous night at 9pm. Wow! Talk about an early start!

I was able to walk normally that night. The next day, Jennifer and I went on a hike to the botanical gardens and I felt sore, but not too bad. I was able to walk down stairs normally, for example. I've felt much more sore after some marathons! Perhaps all those slow miles saved my legs?

I highly recommend this race. Thank you, volunteers and race officials!

Travel Tips
  • I was told to get my hotel early. I had no problems reserving a room on October 18 (three months before the race). I can recommend the Catalina Island Inn. Their cheapest rooms cost $112 a night including tax.
  • The ferry can fill up. I bought tickets nine days in advance for the Friday 12:15pm ferry from Downtown Long Beach. The tickets are $74.50 round trip.
  • We took a taxi from LAX to Long Beach for $67 including tip.
  • Going back to LAX, we took Uber for $33.50 (no tips required). There was a line of taxis at the pier but an Uber driver was minutes away, so we went with Uber. We learned that Uber can't legally pick up from LAX and so if you want to save money, you have to leave the airport and then use a cheaper driving service (like Uber or Lyft). That was my first experience with Uber and it was very positive. The driver said he loved his job.
Avalon Race Tips
Here are some tips to clarify, correct, or add to the website:
  • The aid station mileage chart has some problems. For example, the first aid station is more like 6.3 miles instead of the listed 5.4. I might try to construct a more accurate aid station mileage chart, using Google Maps.
  • The elevation profile chart implies that there are 2 miles of flat ground at the end, but that's not the case. It's just 0.4 flat miles from the end of the steep downhill section to the finish line.
  • You leave your drop bag for the Little Harbor aid station (miles 19 and 33) at the hotel when you pick up your bib the night before the race.
  • The course is well marked with green glow sticks early in the morning and with signs and white flour on the fire roads. It seems difficult to get lost, although be sure to go straight unless told otherwise and understand that you need to get back to the pier when you finish.
  • If there's a chance of rain, I would recommend wearing trail racing shoes. The mud can get sticky and slippery.
  • No energy gels or energy blocks are provided.
What went well
  • The race organizers and aid station volunteers put on a really good event. Thank you!
  • I finished a 50 mile race!
  • No cramps! Presumably I didn't run too fast early on, and taking a salt pill every hour helped.
  • I trained reasonably well, getting in a 31 mile training run about 2.5 weeks before the race. I can probably count the Quad Dipsea at the end of November, about 5 weeks before the race. I did as many speed workouts and weekly long runs as I could, while recovering from Quad Dipsea and then tapering for Avalon.
  • I'm really glad I had my trail racing shoes in my drop bag. If I had known it was going to rain so much, I would have worn my trail racing shoes from the beginning.
  • Moleskin for nipple protection worked great! I wish I had started using moleskin for previous long races.
  • I didn't get any blisters, although I did get chafing on my neck, from my running vest.
  • No trips or falls.
  • I think I was well-hydrated. I urinated four times during the race. I didn't need to poop. (I avoided eating fiber the day before.)
  • Carrying a small ziplock bag for aid station food was a win. I was able to restock my supply of boiled potatoes each time. Although I was getting sick of potatoes, I'm glad I could carry them because I don't think I could have eaten enough otherwise, or I would have had to spend much longer at the aid stations, to cram down a few hundred calories as fast as I could.
Things to improve
  • The course mileage chart has some problems. Although I had searched and read a few other race reports, I didn't find anyone else's GPS data. It would have been useful to have had better knowledge of what to expect.
  • I may not have been getting enough calories. I could have carried more energy gels perhaps.
  • I don't know how, but I would like to not get chafing from my running vest. Body Glide wasn't enough.
Random data
  • I weighed 167.0 lbs two days before the race and 165.4 lbs on the day before the race.
  • Garmin data
  • Results
  • Took two ibuprofen, once around mile 28 and then again 90 minutes later. The first one helped with soreness but I couldn't tell any difference from the second one.