To say that my sister Dot Helling is not your typical 65-year-old would be a huge understatement. Her idea for celebrating her 65th birthday was to run the Catalina Island Marathon, which coincidentally happened to fall on the exact day of her birthday.
An accomplished ultrarunner with dozens of 50- and 100-mile races under her belt from years past, it did not surprise me that this would be her way of heralding this remarkable event.
The seed was planted last year when a friend was talking about how much he loves the race and has done it multiple times. Dot asked him the date of the 2015 race, and when he answered March 14, she committed to running it and asked me to join her.
Catalina Island, one of California’s Channel Islands, lies about 22 miles southwest of Los Angeles. The island spans 22-by-8 miles with 90 percent of the land belonging to the Catalina Island Conservancy, a nonprofit organization working to keep Catalina Wetlands wild.
Recently, the conservancy has been credited with managing the bison herd through the introduction of contraception, recovering the Catalina Island fox from near extinction, opening the 37.2-mile Trans-Catalina trail and increasing youth education programs.
The marathon course starts in the small town of Two Harbors and traverses the length of the island plus some to finish in Avalon, the island’s only incorporated city.
It is a breathtaking course with challenging climbs and descents offering panoramic views of the ocean and passing through a variety of ecosystems with more than 4,000 feet of elevation gain.
By typical marathon standards, it would not be considered a good PR (personal record) course or Boston qualifier, but for Dot and I it was all about the shared experience and the celebration of her milestone event.
“It’s my slowest marathon ever,” said Dot, “and it was probably the most difficult one that I have done in terms of all the hills and the heat, but it was also one of the most fun.
“My favorite parts of the marathon were being with my sister, the views and the wonderful people we talked to along the way.”
Voted “Best Trail Race” on the Competitor 2014 list, the race has been a yearly event since 1978. Hans Albrecht is credited with getting the race going when he and his friends came to the island to train for the Western States 100 race back in 1974.
In addition to the marathon, which also had 5K and 10K options, Catalina Island offers many other racing events throughout the year, including the Catalina Island Eco-Marathon, the Avalon 50 Mile Benefit Run and the Catalina Island Triathlon.
It was Dot’s first time to the island but surely will not be her last as it left a lasting impression.
“Catalina is just spectacular,” she said. “It’s a place I want to come back to, it’s really beautiful, like the western version of Bermuda, only even better. The weather is great, and everybody is happy here ... I can see why!”
Reach Marjorie Brinton at firstname.lastname@example.org.