Where Buffalo Roam and Runners Run

Written by Mike Teger for ATRA’s Summer 2017 Trail Times Newsletter. Mike lives and runs on the trails near his home in Colorado Springs. An ATRA member, Mike was the – in his words, “lucky recipient” – of a race entry provided by Spectrum Sports Management to ATRA for its monthly e-newsletter giveaway.

I have encountered all kinds of wildlife on runs – wild dogs, dive-bombing owls, snakes, alligators, and bears among them. The Catalina Marathon, which I ran this year on March 11, would add a new animal to the list – free-roaming bison. This is part of the beauty and mystique of this island marathon located on Santa Catalina Island (referred to as Catalina Island, or simply Catalina), located off the coast of California some 30 miles from Long Beach.

The rocky Catalina Island is comprised of about 76 square miles, 85 percent of which is an open space conservancy. This provides wonderful outdoor exploration and remarkably beautiful running opportunities such as the annual marathon.

There are unique aspects to this point-to-point island marathon, chief among them is getting to the race start. Smart participants spent the night beforehand on the island. I am clearly not smart.

I was one of the dozen participants to catch a special race ferry leaving Long Beach at 2:15…in the morning. We stopped along the way at our eventual finish line located in the city of Avalon to pick up a majority of the participants. We then arrived at the race start in Two Harbors. The ferry ride gave us a taste of the magnificent day to come, treating us to a beautiful sunrise, gorgeous green hills, and jagged sea cliffs.

Wispy fog met us at the start keeping temperatures cool. There were some notable names in the field including 2:11 marathoner Nick Arciniaga, who was making his trail marathon debut. The first few miles gave us a good sample of what was in store, as we quickly broke into the sun with a two and half mile climb followed by a short descent, and then another climb to just under 1,000 feet. California had received a tremendous amount of rain during the winter season and a majority of the island was a lush green color. I later heard that wildflowers that had not been seen in 10 years were flourishing due to all the moisture. Throughout the entire race, I often had to refocus my efforts on the trail or dirt road underfoot, instead of just taking in the scenery. The views were a far cry from my home state of Colorado and I was trying to absorb every moment.

While most of this race is on dirt roads, a trail section near the start was deeply rutted from the recent storms. I enjoyed this technical terrain as I bounded from side to side and up and over trenches and rocks. The course soon returned to dirt roads and the views from about mile six to nine had to be my favorite part. Featured below was the turquoise to deep blue water of the Pacific on the western coastline.

With the temperatures heating up, the water looked very inviting. Later, I saw on the map that we were running above Shark Harbor, so it was probably a good thing that I just kept running.

The course then turned back inland and gave us a reality check with a couple 300- to 400-foot climbs followed by a long, sustained climb to mile 18. I ran some of this portion with Josh Malpass, a race veteran who had completed the race multiple times. We encouraged each other up the long climb and he warned me that the ups and downs on the final ridge seemed like they would keep going forever. True to form they did, and I really started to feel fatigue in my legs. The course finally turned downhill a little past mile 22 for a quad-busting 1,500-foot descent into the seaside town of Avalon and the finish line. The beautiful handmade pottery finisher’s medal I received was as unique as the rest of the day.

Finish line refreshments included a large table of pizza and drinks, but it was the ocean some 50 feet away that was really calling. I answered that call. It felt so good to soak my legs in the chilly Pacific. And, while taking my post-race ice bath, I struck up a conversation with another runner cooling off his legs. After a short chat, I found out that he – John Gardner – was from the same town as me, and deeply involved in the local running club. It is funny how you can travel 1,000 miles and make connections such as this. There is no doubt that we had been together at countless races before. Gardner, like so many other runners I spoke to, was a multi-time finisher at Catalina. After running the race, I can see why.