Like the song goes, “twenty-six miles across the sea, Santa Catalina is waiting for me.”
On a clear day, I can see Catalina as I leave home when I reach the mouth of the canyon at the coast. This is my daily commute. At every siting of the island, running the Catalina Marathon frequently comes to mind. It is March, the month for the marathon and Catalina definitely comes to mind. Given the world of social networking, I am corresponding with fellow Catalina Marathon finishers from so long ago, including Eileen Connolly (formerly Waters) and Donna Gookin. I am so surprised, and just a little envious, that some of them are still toeing the line at the start of this month’s race. It turns out that Bill McDermott has run every single one of the 35 Catalina Marathons, including 13 first-place finishes. It’s written that “he is ‘the human shock absorber’ for his ability to triumph over this challenging course terrain,” and he owns the course record. His nickname is “Buffalo Bill.”
The Catalina Marathon perhaps started in 1977, but my first recollection is the year 1978 when Nike sponsored it, since my late husband, Tom, worked for Nike and we were on a race committee to provide a 10K race which was run in the town of Avalon. The 10K was accessible to a larger number of runners who were not up to the challenge of the marathon but could enjoy the trip to Catalina. The 10K was run entirely within the confines of the streets in town, and took place on Saturday. It was smart planning, as it provided a large audience for the finish of the marathon the next day, Sunday morning. There was a connection with the Topanga 10K, in my hometown, because the winners of the Topanga 10K received a free trip to Catalina to run. I did not run the race that year, but worked the 10K race and got my workout in both days by covering all of Avalon, plus the beachfront and some of Wrigley Gardens. It was a fun weekend with the races, a barbeque afterward, and dinner with dancing at the casino.
When I returned to Catalina the following year, it was to work the 10K again, but to also run the marathon with Michael Reinhart (who was then married to my best friend Leal-Ann Reinhart). We arrived in Avalon by boat on late Friday night, delayed in Long Beach due to engine trouble. The 10K was the next morning and I stayed in Avalon overnight, getting up at 4:30 a.m. to take a boat over to Cherry Cove for the start of the marathon. Michael and I ran the whole way together, including hurdling over a rattlesnake at mile 23 while we were running downhill in rapid descent toward the finish line in Avalon. The entire course was made up of fire roads and dirt trails with beautiful scenery the entire route. There were buffalo and wild pigs, not to forget one rattlesnake. At one point in the course one could see the ocean on both sides of the island. It was a spectacular course, and not unlike the trails I ran at home over the Santa Monica mountains. I felt right at home and at ease, as we coasted along at about an 8-minute-mile pace for a finish time of 3:26 (a women’s course record). The finish was highly emotional, coming into town to a cheering section made up of spectators and 10K runners. It was so much fun.
Pregnant in 1980, I did not compete in Catalina the following year, but returned in 1981 for the marathon again. I left the baby with my mother, while I went over to the island. My track club teammate Dave Babaracki won the 10K. This time, I watched the 10K race and left right after breakfast to take the boat over to Cherry Cove and hiked in the two-and-a-half miles to the campgrounds for the overnight stay with the runners for the next morning’s start of the marathon. Funny, in my journal, I actually referred to this as having “a good meal and good night’s sleep at last.” I suppose that was because any new mother will tell you about sleepless nights at home.
In fact, here is what I wrote: “Since this was to be my first comeback race, I’d have to say it was a big success personally. I wanted to run it more than anything, to finish and to possibly better my PR. I won, broke my own course record and enjoyed it as well. Oh, it was hard and took all the effort I could afford, but it was plenty worthwhile. What a satisfying experience. Charlie Vigil won overall in 2:47. The first five were under the course record. Jack (Foster) did great, running 4th in 2:44, enjoying it as much as I did. Missed Michael a lot.” Coincidentally, our son, Michael, was born on Jack’s birthday.
Jack and Belle Foster became good friends during those years. Jack and I had won the Honolulu Marathon together in 1975. A two-time New Zealand Olympian, he placed 8th in the 1972 Olympics in Munich, silver medalist at the 1974 Commonwealth Games and 17th in the 1976 Montreal Games. At 41 years of age, he set a Masters World Record in the Marathon in 2:11.19. He stayed at our home several times, and loved running the trails of Topanga. We stayed at his home in Rotorua, New Zealand. Jack taught me to hose down my legs with cold water after our workouts, telling me if it was good enough for race horses, it was good enough for us. Jack had been a life-long bicyclist before he turned to running. Thus, the late start to his running career, and perhaps a good reason his legs were “young.” How sad, and somewhat ironic, that his death came in a bicycling workout with a car accident. He and Belle traveled to Catalina with us for this marathon. Nike filmed the whole race in a beautiful scenic production; and if I can get the VHS tape transferred to a format I can use, I’ll post it. It shows the beauty of the course that we enjoyed, most of which one can only view by running or hiking through the otherwise closed-to-the-public grounds of the Conservancy.
It amazes me that I was still able to run just fine the next morning with friends, going over more hills in fact. In part I have always maintained that running on dirt surfaces was gentler on the legs, and contributed to quicker recoveries, than races on the roads. Also, I have often looked back on that performance wondering if there is some truth to the theory that post-pregnant athletes do perform better with an added advantage of increased blood plasma levels as some East German scientists purported, but that’s another story.
After the 1981 race, Belle and Jack returned to LA with us and we enjoyed running in Topanga, Santa Monica and Venice. Something I’d quite forgotten, but found in a journal, there was a surprise going away party, not for the Fosters, but for Tom and I as we prepared to move to Portland, OR where Tom went to work for Nike.
Therefore, when I returned to Catalina the next year, the trip wasn’t just 26-miles across the sea. I flew into LA from Portland, where Michael stayed with Grandma again. I had not remembered this without checking my journal, but this year I drove out the night before in a truck over some of the marathon course. We scattered a couple of herds of buffalo on this trip! I was pleased enough that I was able to finish the marathon in the same time as my first attempt, 3:26, feeling in control the entire way. I suppose I wasn’t in the best of shape, or I’d have been running track instead of doing a marathon, so I wasn’t disappointed that I didn’t break my PR time that day.
I’m not entirely sure why I never returned after three wins in a row at Catalina, but I suspect as I approached Masters age, (and for women that meant being 35 years of age), I returned to track season come March. Plus, I retired from marathon running after 1984. Eventually I did run a World Championships for Masters where I won gold in both the 1500m and 5,000m. At heart, I really was a middle distance runner as much as I was a marathoner. Of all my marathons, Catalina was best in category of most beautiful, most rugged, most adventurous. Those were special memories.