Living it up at the Catalina Island Marathon

There were three situations that initially introduced me to Catalina Island: a high school running camp, Mike Shafai and the Eagles song “Hotel California.” I was first introduced to the island when I attended a Runner’s Workshop cross country camp the summer before my senior year of high school. The diverse beauty and challenging terrain of Catalina Island captured my attention and it became much more than just a silhouette of hilly land I grew up looking at far off in the distance of the Pacific Ocean.

The second was many years later, when I was highly encouraged by my Colorado Springs-based friend, Mike Shafai, to get out to Catalina Island and run the Catalina Island Marathon. He raved about the location and the race and himself was a 17-time finisher. He would talk about the island like some sort of magical, tropical destination and encouraged everyone he spoke with about must-do races to put it on their mental bucket list. It was as if he never wanted to leave once he was there for the race. Unfortunately, I never made the trip out to the race with him, as he very unexpectedly passed away well before his time at the age of 47. I vowed one day to get there in his honor.

Catalina Island Marathon

Photo: Peter Maksimow

On March 12, 2022, I finally had the opportunity to attend the Catalina Island Marathon presented by Nathan Sports to experience the magic which Mike Shafai always enthusiastically spoke about. Thanks in large part to the chewing gum magnate, William Wrigley, Jr., Santa Catalina Island has become what it is today. Wrigley, who is the namesake of the famed Wrigley Field in Chicago, purchased the entire island in 1919 and he went on to invest heavily into infrastructure, promotion and tourism. He even used his passion for baseball and brought his Chicago Cubs to spring training on the island for almost 30 years. This helped attract national notoriety to the island.

After the 2020 cancellation of the race–due to the global pandemic–a virtual option was implemented. The 2021 race was postponed from March to October, again due to the ongoing pandemic concerns. The event was finally back to the regularly scheduled programming this year with approximately 500 participants across the Marathon, 10K, 5K, and Kid’s Run.

This year’s race participants were greeted with sun and ideal California weather: 60s at the start, mid-70s as a high. The marathon, a point-to-point race, started in Two Harbors and wound its way through some of the island’s 200-miles of mostly unpaved roads, treating runner’s to views of the Pacific Ocean, sheer cliffs, secluded coves, and scenic overlooks. The 10K, 5K, and Kid’s Run all started and finished in downtown Avalon after exploring the local trails and dirt roads. Avalon is the capital city which is home to the majority of the island’s 4,000 inhabitants.

Catalina Island Marathon

Photo: Peter Maksimow.

The dusty and dry course did get test runner’s heat tolerance during the height of the day, but that didn’t prevent the men’s back-to-back winner, Patrick Fernandez of La Verne, CA, to run 2:48:05, about eight minutes off the course record held by the race legend, “Buffalo” Bill McDermott (2:39:58), which has stood since 1991. McDemott had run every Catalina Island Marathon since its inception in the mid-1970’s, however, this year had to abandon his long streak due to health issues. Andrea Ramierez of Diamond Bar, CA took the women’s marathon title with a time of 4:02:06. The women’s course record is more recent than the men’s, but still over a decade old, being set in 2010 by Heather Fuhr with a time of 3:07:00.

The historic Catalina Island Marathon celebrated its 45th Anniversary in 2022 and there definitely was the excited feeling and anticipated relief to be back to racing in a normal capacity. Since the race takes place on an island 26 miles off the coast of Long Beach, Race Director, Mike Bone, highly recommends runners, “Come over to Catalina and make a weekend out of it, rent a house or get a hotel room,” because the 2:15 a.m. ferry from Long Beach to Avalon then to the race start at Two Harbors on race morning comes awful early. Just ask 2017 race participant Mike Teger who wrote about his experience.

Bone is the President and CEO of Spectrum Sports Management, which is a long-time American Trail Running Association member and operates the Catalina Island Marathon, along with the Catalina Island Half Marathon & 10K, Catalina Triathlon, Duathlon & 5K, and the Avalon 50K/50M Benefit Run. While the Catalina Island Marathon is the oldest trail marathon in the state of California–and third oldest in the country–the Avalon 50K & 50M is one year its senior at 46-years-old, also making it one of the oldest 50 mile ultra races in the country. “Running on Catalina Island should be a bucket list for any runner–serious or novice–it is just one of the most unique experiences you will ever have as a runner,” states Bone.

Even though the marathon starts at sea level, it is considered an extremely challenging course. “You run up and down to sea level several times,” says Bone. The marathon has a elevation gain of 4,310-feet, but he tells me the allure is that the participants have the opportunity to, “run through multiple ecosystems, see wildlife, native flowers, and it is so unique to get up on a ridge-line and look behind you to Long Beach or San Pedro–where you just traveled from–and look ahead of you at San Clemente Island and the vast Pacific Ocean.”

Runners quickly identify the diversity of Catalina Island’s flora and fauna, as they ascend, descend and ascend again in the first half of the marathon. They may get glimpses of bald eagles or a herd of the famous island Bison, estimated to have a healthy population of 100. Although they may appear gentle and docile, Bison have been known to charge race participants who get too close in an attempt to get an instagram-quality selfie with the majestic animals. Even more elusive is the small-statured endemic Island Fox, which came dangerously close to extinction, dipping to a population of 100 in 1999 due to an outbreak of canine distemper virus, before being nurtured back to a robust number of 1,800, currently. Their return to a healthy existence is one of the greatest success stories of any federally endangered species.

Catalina Island Marathon

Photo: Peter Maksimow.

This resurrection of said endangered species is attributed to the Catalina Island Conservancy, which was founded in 1972 and is one of the oldest and largest land trusts in California. The organization is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2022. Gina Dartt, the Senior Manager of the Conservancy, educated me on their mission: to be a responsible steward of our lands through a balance of conservation, education and recreation. “A key goal of the conservancy is to allow accessibility. We think the Marathon has great green thinking, it shows off our beautiful Island and gives us support to allow for our important program work,” says Dartt.

The partnership between the Catalina Island Marathon and Catalina Island Conservancy has become a collaborative one over the past few years, as the race has taken steps to become more sustainable. In an effort to drastically reduce plastic waste, the marathon has incorporated a cup-less format hydration plan. This action alone is estimated to reduce approximately 20,000 disposable cups a year across all Spectrum Sports events held on the island. The race organization has also applied to become certified through the Council for Responsible Sport. Dartt believes this, “shows off the balance of conservation work with recreational activities,” so that, “runners see the Island’s beauty and hopefully become future supporters of the Conservancy.”

Some of the Conservancy’s accomplishments and programs include: protecting 88 percent (42,000+ acres) of Catalina Island, including more than 62 miles of secluded beaches and coves; maintaining and cultivating the 60+ endemic plant, animal and insect species found nowhere else in the world; maintaining the 165 miles of recreational trails and roads for public use, including the 38.5-mile Trans-Catalina Trail; maintaining the Wrigley Memorial, Botanic Gardens and numerous campgrounds. This is accomplished through key programs, such as youth education, adult and family outreach, and informing and educating all visitors to the island through the newly built, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified Trailhead Visitor Center and Conservancy headquarters.

The heavy emphasis on conservation and sustainability coupled with the quaintness of the small oceanfront shops and restaurants, the vibrant and colorful Catalina hand glazed decorative tile, the abundant wildlife, the large, circular Art Deco masterpiece known as the Catalina Casino–which serves as the landmark centerpiece of Avalon Bay–all make for a very memorable race experience. Runners only need to venture 20 meters from the finish line to soak their tired legs in the refreshing Pacific Ocean. And sometimes you just may strike up a conversation with people you don’t know–but who live in the same city as you–as you cool your legs off, as was the case with Mike Teger and John Gardner, both of Colorado Springs, CO.

The number of returning and streak runners are made obvious by the display of the coveted “dangle” of interconnected year bars that runners sport on their person. Gardner tells me, “The race is 45 years old and many old-timers arrive wearing their baseball caps displaying the years they’ve run by a commemorative pin [year bar] received after the race, hence the ‘dangle.’” When a runner has accumulated enough marathon finishes, the hanging string of year bars dangles down from their hat or shirt like military bars of a heavily awarded hero, so that everyone is aware that they are a veteran of the race.

Catalina Island Marathon

John Gardner (Colorado Springs, CO). Photo: Peter Maksimow

Gardner, himself, has reached that distinguished participant level. He gives me the history of his Catalina experience: “I fell in love with the island and the race for the beautiful scenery along with the challenge of the course and have since returned many times–that was number 13.” And, yes, he was coaxed by his good friend and business colleague. “Mike Shafai got me and a few others from our running group to run the Catalina Marathon in 2007,” Gardner told me. It has also become a family tradition, “with my two brothers making the journey for several years now…Rich and Dave have done it 5 and 7 times, respectively.”

I had the honor of being invited to a dinner at the Gardner family’s AirBnB the day before the race, then invited back for three more meals over the next few days. I was treated like I was the fourth Gardner brother! Other family members have come to support, enjoy and participate in the shorter distances on race day. Even the matriarch of the Gardner family has come on a number of Catalina Marathon trips. “She loves it!” Gardner tells me.

This all brings me to the third and final situation which introduced me to Catalina Island. As I explored the streets of Avalon after the long race day had concluded and after having dinner with my adopted family, a local band playing a familiar tune drew me in to listen. As I enjoyed the waning lines of Hotel California, I thought, maybe Mike Shafai was right about the captivating magic of this island and the closing line of the song was accurate: “you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave!”

In fond memory of Mike Shafai.

2022 Catalina Island Marathon, 10K, 5K Results

Catalina Island Marathon

Photo: Peter Maksimow

Here are a few more articles about the Catalina Island Marathon:

California’s Run Catalina Island Events Are Back

Where the buffalo roan and the runners run

Stephanie Wurtz Runner’s World article

[Editor’s Note: the Catalina Island Marathon is organized by American Trail Running Association member Spectrum Sports Management.]