John Ball Runs the Catalina Marathon!

The Catalina Marathon has been an icon in my catalog of marathons for as long as I can remember. Most references to it are given in such awe-filled terms it leaves one totally intimidated. For years I have wondered if I would ever have the confidence and strength to attempt such an endeavor – 26.2 miles of continual climb and descent on rough trails over an undisturbed primitive landscape. Even with eight or nine LA marathons to my credit, I was too cautious to give it a try when my Team Parkinson training partners, Doug MacGlashan and Mark Saxonberg, took it on in 2003. After all, it was just two weeks after the LA Marathon and I was bushed from giving my all at LA. My wife, Edna, and I are the National Co-Chairs of Team Parkinson, and we spend a great deal of energy getting ready for the expo, the carbo-load dinner, and the race day activities. I am usually exhausted by both the getting ready and by running the marathon itself. Although I wasn’t prepared to run another marathon that weekend, I did go to Catalina Island to cheer my teammates, and worked my way up the mountain to help Mark finish the last five miles.

That was an incredible experience because the weather conditions were extreme. The wind was howling at 30-35 knots along the top of the mountain ridge and the freezing rain was falling sideways and hammering the runners in the face. When I first saw Mark, he was leaning about 30 degrees from horizontal trying to penetrate the wind. He had his hat on backward to keep it from blowing away, and his running gear was covered in mud. With 21 miles already behind him, he looked tired, but exhilarated by the challenge of the conditions. I joined him and we proceeded along the whoop-de-dos (short, steep climbs and drops) along the ridge line for a mile or two before dropping over the edge, and spiraling down the switchbacks into the town of Avalon. I felt good, having only gone five miles up the mountain, and Mark was in a mood to follow my lead. We plunged down that hillside together, passing more cautious or fearful runners, some of whom were already showing scraped knees and elbows from previous falls. We felt alive and joyful and invulnerable. The trail turned to roadway as it transitioned from the steep hillside through the flatter terrain of the Wrigley Gardens but we kept up our pace past the garden gate, past the golf course pro shop, and into the streets of town, headed straight toward the water of Avalon Harbor. Just a block from the finish, I backed off and let Mark finish in the joyful embrace of a crowd of cheering spectators and fellow racers. I was glad to be a part of it, and pleased that I could help Mark erase a past memory of failing to finish his first attempt at Catalina. I loved the experience, but it still took me four more years before I finally had the courage to enter the race myself.

Unfortunately, the last year has brought some challenges to our training group. Mark has been tending to a knee injury from last spring that required surgery and has been slow to heal. Doug and I were also injured this past summer, as was Mimi, Doug’s wife and our training companion. Mimi’s injury, two herniated discs in her lower back, has been the most serious and she isn’t running at present. Mark made it through LA okay, but his knee prevented another go at Catalina. Doug and I, on the other hand, were both healthy and I could tell that Doug had his heart set on returning to Catalina, and he wanted to share it with me. I knew that he wanted this for me as much as for himself. So, after a comfortable Sunday run a week after the LA event, Doug and I signed up for the boat ride to the island, reserved a camping spot in Two Harbors, and committed ourselves to the race. I didn’t run for the next few days because I was anxious and I needed to get all the rest I could.

Early Friday morning, March 14th, we met at Doug’s place, and headed down to the LA Harbor to the Catalina Ferry landing. As we waited for the boat departure time, the waiting area filled with rough-hewn characters with the lean and hungry look of seasoned long-distance runners. Many of them wore ball caps with long chains of annual participation awards, or “ladders” as they call them, indicating the many years of participation in the island marathon. They are linked in a chain that some wear looped around the cap and others let dangle, sometimes past their chins, and even down to their shoulders. I looked closely at Doug’s cap and saw that he had started his own “mini-ladder” with just four bars to it. I couldn’t contain my curiosity about the:”ladders” and spoke to one of these fit-looking men. Initially I judged him to be perhaps ten years younger than I, but when I asked what age group he was in, he said he was 63. He was my exact contemporary-- same high school graduating class, same years of military service, same height, same weight---we even shared the same first name of John. In some ways he was like a mirror image of me, with one major exception! Even though we would be running in the same age group, I was a rookie, and he was a perennial front runner with 20 races behind him. I stood there in total awe of him, and yet he expressed such a welcome camaraderie that I felt a part of something special, even though I hadn’t yet done anything. It was to be like that the entire weekend.

Doug and I got on the boat with our fellow racers and proceeded across the 26 miles of high winds and rough water. The boat has a catamaran hull and took the big swells pretty well in-hand. I think we were hitting the face of the waves at a good angle. Both crew and passengers seemed relatively comfortable with the occasional hard landing on the backside of a wave. It seemed like a very experienced bunch of sailors on this particular boat, unlike other trips to the island. That was probably because we were all headed to Two Harbors, and the only reasons to go there are because you live or work on the remote end of the Island, or to compete in the marathon. In either case, it takes something a little different from the ordinary tourist or day-tripper. On arrival, we grabbed our gear, registered to camp, and chose a campsite. Setting up camp was easy because we were only staying one night and didn’t intend to cook or backpack off to another site. I even figured out how to set up the two extra poles for the flysheet on my tent. I had used this tent for three or four years already and never got it right until that morning. It just goes to show that we can still learn, even at an advanced age!

We took the afternoon slowly, with a leisurely lunch and conversations with our fellow runners. They were all very generous with their time and shared their experiences with a sense of joy. It seemed that everyone had stories about everyone else and there was a kind of piling on like a rugby scrum, each adding layers of details to the stories of their companions. I have never met such a welcoming group of competitive runners. Normally, before a race there are the barely nodded acknowledgments and intense scrutiny to see what kind of shape your competitors are in. Very little is said, but a lot is implied. This was totally different; it was more like a reunion of best friends from high school, with a sense of something special shared long ago. But this event is part of a continuum – like an on-going party - with each year counting just as much as the last, or the first. Those ladders hanging from so many ball caps represented years of shared joys and heartaches, good weather and bad, and races both faster and slower. It was not about winning in Catalina. People show up yearly whether or not they are in shape for a good race.

After the carbo-load dinner in the small restaurant, Doug and I headed back to camp for the night, and got a surprisingly comfortable night of sleep. No pressure, no worries, and no noisy fellow campers. It was as quiet as being alone in the High Sierras. Up at 5:00 AM, we packed up and loaded our gear on the truck that would take it to Avalon while we ran the race. The early boat from Avalon arrived with the other group of runners who didn’t choose to camp, and we all gathered in the starting area. What a contrast between the LA marathon and Catalina! Instead of the 25,000 runners who jammed the narrow streets of Universal City all trying to jam forward to get closer to the start line, there were just 800 runners standing around in a broad, open field, joking and renewing friendships. I found my old friend Mike Carbuto who got me started on this marathon journey, and my new friend Dave Campbell who has been running for Team Parkinson the last couple of years. We were all glad to be together and part of this special event.

The start of the race was about as casual as I’ve ever experienced, more like a training run really, and we had the luxury of about 500 yards on flat, level ground before we started up the first hill, or more realistically, the first in an unending series of climbs. Each time I thought we had crested the ridge, I found myself facing another, higher, steeper path ahead. It was more than a little demoralizing. But I found that I could keep running most of the time. That is, until I looked around and saw that virtually everyone in my neighborhood had slowed to a walk. Hey, I thought, as long as everyone else is walking, it’s okay for me, too. Doug kept pulling ahead and then waiting for me, until finally he couldn’t hold back at my pace any longer, and I lost sight of him. I couldn’t go any faster and expect to finish, so I did what my body allowed me to do. After a few miles we had sorted ourselves out by our pace, and we began the endless cycle of passing, and being passed by the same people over and over again. The course was too steep to run continuously, and we each chose which parts to run or walk, so it was like chasing a slinky that would pull away from you - then draw you forward, time after time.

Meanwhile, whenever I found enough energy to look up, I was surrounded by an incredible landscape rendered in primary colors. The dark rocks at the Island’s edge were turned white by the foam of the crashing blue waves, and the red clay of the roadway was bordered by the white grasses and leafy greens of the meadows. In the rainy years, they say that the red clay becomes sticky and clings to the waffle-bottomed souls of the runner’s shoes. They are forced to run with the weight of these adobe bricks clinging to them or flinging off unevenly, leaving them out of balance. But this Saturday was clear and bright with a strong, cool breeze. The beautiful creek beds were filled with the intense blue of the wild lupin blossoms, and the dark mountainsides were waist-high with yellow-on-green mustard plants. The ocean views were spectacular, with deep canyons ending in white beaches that faced the endless western Pacific. It was glorious! Fortunately, that cool, following breeze kept us all from overheating and made it easier to stay hydrated. It pushed us through the miles of Middle Ranch, which Doug had warned me has been hot and dry in other years.

The course support along the marathon route was superb, with water and Gatorade stations every two miles or sooner, and the variety of choices expanded to include M&Ms and pretzels and gummy bears as the race wore on. People at the stations were friendly and encouraging. Toward the end of the race, they even offered fresh fruit and homemade cookies. But there were no cheering crowds, no streets lined with adoring fans to marvel at your endurance or speed…No, this was just between you and me and the signpost, pal. Unless they’ve been there and done it, nobody else has a clue about what it takes to run the Catalina Marathon. And you know what? That’s just fine. Let’s keep it that way. I thought I knew, and it kept me away for years, but I didn’t really understand either the difficulty or the joy of being there.

Along about mile 18, after miles of gradual climbing, you reach Pump-house hill. I thought I was tired before, but this climb added a new dimension to tired. I slogged it out, step after step, trying to shuffle forward and upward. With my Parkinson’s, I often run with my head down, staring at the ground in front of my feet, but this climb, painful as it was, kept my head on a swivel, gawking at the scenery. The deep black of fire-blackened scrub oak and manzanita punctuated the intense green of the winter grasses, and above us hung an immense canopy of blue sky.

Runners were spread thin by that part of the race, and there was little chance for conversation. I probably lacked the reserve of energy it would have required anyway, so I kept my thoughts to myself and kept my eyes on the prize. My immediate goal was to reach the final uphill, the last whoop-de-do, to pass over the summit and turn the final corner that begins the run into town. I knew that I had been there before, but that was five years ago in a pouring rain. I felt as if I were stuck on an endless tilting treadmill surrounded by lush green and brilliant blue.

And then I saw Doug, and I knew that he had been waiting for me for a long time. He was there to take me home like I had taken Mark. He had sacrificed his own race to make sure I finished strong. There were no words I could say that could match the joy in my heart at that moment. Doug smiled back, and I knew none were needed. I followed his lead and we flowed down the mountainside with almost reckless abandon. We swept up a young runner named Jamie in our wake and I could feel her pleasure as she flew alongside us, banking the turns with us, and pouring it on down the straight passages. It was pure joy, mixed with hopeless exhaustion. In the Wrigley Gardens where the gradient shallows out, I had to slow down a bit because I felt like I was running low on my Parkinson’s medications. Jamie flew on ahead to the finish. I got slower and slower as I struggled over the last mile and a half, but I made it into town and Doug and I crossed the line together in 5 hours, 18 minutes.

I almost wish I weren’t telling you this story. I wish I could keep it to myself and my 800 new friends. But I have to share it with you because I want to tie it to something more important to all of us in the Parkinson’s community.

I realize that I’m among the luckiest guys in the world because I got Parkinson’s so long ago that I don’t know what it is to live without it. I can’t go back to a time before PD was in my life, so I live my life the way I want to, doing what I would have done with or without PD. I have no choice. As a result, I do everything I can to keep life rich and meaningful for me and for my family. I must take care of myself so I can continue to take care of them. And if I seem to get over the top at times, running marathons and hiking in the mountains, things that seem far beyond the reach of others with Parkinson’s disease, I don’t mean it to diminish their accomplishments. I know how lucky I am, and I know how much more difficult their lives may be. But the important thing to remember is that we all have the power to make our lives better.

There is so much we can do for ourselves to get control over this disease. We each have to find out what turns our lights on and follow that gleam. You’re not a different person because you have PD. You are still you with just some added baggage. You know deep inside that the goals you had as a child are still there within you. Find a way to keep them alive. Find a way to turn them into reality. Find a way to get over that last whoop-de-do and onto the road that takes you home. You won’t have to go it alone; there are teammates willing to help.

John Ball - March 19, 2008

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