Catalina Marathon - Race Report

Five weeks ago, after a leisurely (and flat) run along the Carlsbad coast, a couple of running friends were talking about the Catalina Marathon and how excited they were to run it.  Jeff looked over at me and said "you should sign up, you would love it, it's full of hills."  Knowing that five weeks wasn't quite enough time to prepare for a marathon, I responded, "no thanks, but have fun."  Jeff sent me an email that night with a link to pictures of the course.  I'm not sure how Jeff knew about my infant-like response to pretty pictures; I hit the "Register" button before I had a chance to view the course profile or plan for babysitters or reserve a hotel or a boat trip over to the island.  But, once I hit "Register," I was committed and the logistical details fell into place soon afterward.

My training was inadequate, and I knew that going in, but I tried to get some good, hilly trail runs in and build up the weekly mileage.  I wasn't able to build up the distance for a weekly long run (the most important part of marathon training), but I did get a couple of 15-17 milers in and I was feeling faster than I have in awhile with a couple of good race performances at a 5K and a "hilly" half marathon (I now realize that hilly, like fast, young and hot, is a relative term).  One of the challenges with the marathon distance is that it is much more difficult than two half marathons stuck together.  My marathon half-way point hits at about mile 19.  So, going into this race, I decided to treat it like an ultra, walk a lot of the steeper hills, take in the scenery, run the downhills, flats and not-so-steep sections.  Too bad there weren't any not-so-steep sections, and as for treating it like an ultra, I didn't have a choice, the race treated me like an ultra.

The race had that ultra feel.  On the ferry ride from Avalon to the start at Two Harbors, I noticed a lot of grizzled veterans in their day-glo dolphin shorts, 1,000 mile stare and a long and impressive string of finisher's bars hanging off their hats or shirts (they give these bars out at the finish line and the more you collect, the more bad-ass and respected you are in the town of Avalon for one weekend a year, and don't even consider wearing your bars unless you have at least 7, anything less just seems inadequate somehow).  The war stories were flowing as we sat stuck in the boat, rolling, swaying and waiting for the other boat, the boat that barely beat us to the harbor and was in such a hurry to beat us that they got their line stuck in the propeller and had to get a diver to cut the line, so we sat, stomachs getting less and less settled.  "One year it rained so hard that the trails were all muddy and a guy got his shoe stuck in a mud pit at mile 14 and his foot came right out of it; finished the race with only one shoe."  "I heard Dean Karnazes ran from San Diego, kayaked to Catalina, then ran the race." This last one turned out to be true, but it was the Eco-Marathon, a slightly less cool, easier race that doesn't give out cool finisher's bars that you can wear with your matching Captain Stubing hat.  I sat across the aisle from Heather Fuhr (hoping to eavesdrop and catch some last-minute miracle training tips, but she was calm and quiet and went on to finish 2nd overall and to smash the women's course record).

By the time we got out of the boat, I was so grateful for stable ground that the hills and the mountain we had to run over to get back to Avalon seemed inviting and non-rocking from side to side.  I was ready to go, and that first 1/4 mile was so sweet and flat, then we hit the first hill.

The hills were pretty much non-stop, and I had to keep telling myself not to look up, because every time I did I would see some little miniature person at the top of the mountain and I would think no that can't be a runner all the way up there, must be a bison or a Catalina fox or a wild boar (none of which I saw on the course this year), but no, they tend not to wear bright orange shirts.  The great part about the hills was being at the top and the views were simply amazing and indescribable, made even more so by the effort it took to get to the summit of some of those hills.  The weather was clear and beautiful and the island was green from all the recent rains; it was paradise, or that is what I would have thought it was if I was on one of those island jeep tours.

I think there were some mistakes on this elevation profile, so I corrected them below

I'm going to have to count the boat ride


There was also a slight stomach problem and by slight, I mean at mile 21 it must have looked like someone turned a faucet at the back of my head to full blast and it wouldn't stop.  I'm pretty sure it was the Gatorade (it just hasn't been the same since they dropped the Tiger formula), the extra time on the boat, the steak dinner the night before, the ginger pills I took to avoid getting seasick, the cookie I ate at mile 14, and the lack of sleep (I forgot to mention that we stayed at the 2nd oldest hotel in California and it was described as cute and quaint which are code words for small and old and the walls were paper-thin, I think they actually used paper instead of drywall back when they built this thing, but they did have coffee and bananas laid out for the runners at 4 AM which made up for a lot).  I tried to keep everything down and I kept telling myself to hold it in, but positive self-talk only goes so far, sometimes you've just got to puke.  A lot of people passed me as I was doing my best to fertilize the side of the trail, and most ignored me which was nice, some gave me some words of encouragement, which was also nice, but one guy said something rude like come on, or nice, but it wasn't what he said, it was the way he said it that really pissed me off, which was a good thing because I made it my goal to catch the guy and pass him, which I am happy to say that I did.

The last few miles were great.  They saved all the downhill, all of that "banked" elevation gain for the last three miles, so I just relaxed, and let gravity do its job, it was a beautiful finish.  My wife was there (she ran the 10K and placed second in her age group), Jeff was there (he was the 5th male finisher and ran it in an amazing time of 3:22), and the cold ocean was just waiting to wash the dust off my feet and numb the muscles in my legs.  It was a beautiful day for a run and as I finished I swore to myself that I would never be back, but now it's two days later and I'm already wondering how many of those finisher's bars would I have to get before I actually wore the thing year-round.

This is what finish lines look like in heaven

Leaving Avalon


  1. Awesome report...we kept you in our prayers and I'm so glad you are okay. I was worried after mom told me about the puking : ) All I could think of was looking back at you after we went on that ride at the Del Mar Fair and seeing cotton candy pink chunky liquid spew from your mouth. Lexi and I didn't know whether to laugh or cry...

    I saw a special on the Catalina Marathon a few years ago and have never forgotten it, I thought anybody that could do that is seriously amazing. That is just what I think of you!! Love you!!

  2. are a beast! I am loving your blog. Ready to get out on the track and start working on our summer pain.

  3. Great race report! It looks like a beautiful course, but wow...the elevation is crazy!

  4. Your homemade elevation profile totally cracked me up.

    Looks beautiful there!

  5. Thanks for your report. Love the elevation chart with the water. Hearing about those hills makes me want to run it more!

  6. Nice report! I've heard lots of good things about this marathon, but it just like it's such a pain to get to Avalon. Of corse, that being said, I'm running L.A. this weekend, where I need to be up at 2:30 and out of the house by 3:00 so I can catch a damn bus from Santa Monica to Dodger Stadium at 5:00. Yikes!

  7. Glenn, good luck at L.A. Marathon. It should be a beautiful day to run. Getting to Avalon wasn't as much of a hassle as I thought it would be. The ferry from Dana Point was about 90 minutes. I would definitely recommend getting over there the day before and staying the day after the race. It's a beautiful little town.

    Have a great race,


  8. I spent a LOT of time on Catalina growing up and hope to run the marathon there one day! Great report!

  9. A huge Atta Boy to you for completing the course. What a grueling, hilly course. I think I may have to try the half marathon next year. I totally agree on the "stay the day before and the day after" thing...that's been my motto for all traveling marathons I've done ( a whopping 2 of them!!).

  10. Dax - you rock. That report was hilarious and spot on. It was an amazing weekend; looking forward to running with you again soon!

  11. I was recently in Catalina and went for a hilly run. When I realized there was a marathon there I said I would NEVER do it. My partner said she couldn't wait to do it...
    After reading your report I think I might have changed my mind. You are bad ass. Great job!

  12. Kate - it's a great run, just make sure you train on some hills. The scenery helps make up for some of the pain, but there is still a lot of pain.


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