Encinitas runner oldest to win Catalina Marathon
The last mile took him more than 20 minutes. And he collapsed multiple times before reaching the finish line.
But when all was said and done, Encinitas resident Jeff Creighton on March 14 won the Catalina Island Marathon. At age 51, he’s the oldest person to do so.
“It was an awesome and humbling experience, all wrapped up into one,” Creighton said last week. He added that the last five miles were “the most brutal experience of my life.”
A test of mind and body, Catalina is known as one of the toughest U.S. marathons. For one, it’s hilly — runners ascend 3,500 feet from start to finish. To make matters more challenging, that day temperatures hovered around 90 degrees and the air was very dry.
“The conditions made it a thinking man’s race,” Creighton said. “It was about knowing where the other runners were and which parts of the course to push yourself.”
Creighton began running in his mid-30s to reduce stress when his company closed its doors (today, he’s the CEO of Knoitall, a company that helps people compare secondary education offerings).
“Running definitely takes your mind off struggles going on in your life,” he said. “When you’re running, everything else is secondary.”
He didn’t start competing in marathons until age 38. While many runners decline with age, he actually improved his marathon times as his 40s marched on. He even managed second-place finishes in the Catalina Marathon in 2012 and 2014.
This year, though, he was determined to cross the finish line first — a desire he chalked up to a competitive streak he’s always had. It was now or never: At age 51, he realized his window was closing.
The morning of the marathon, hundreds lined up at the beginning of the course. Awaiting them were 26.2 miles of winding trails, plus sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and wildlife roaming throughout the course.
The race began with a steep four-mile climb, and by the end of it, Creighton and another runner had separated themselves from the pack.
“I tucked in behind him,” Creighton said. “I didn’t want to pull forward and peak early. It was hot — people said hotter than it’s ever been for that race. And very, very dry.”
At mile 16, the other runner stopped for water at an aid station. Creighton made his move and passed him. The next three miles were the steepest part of the course, with little cover from the sun.
Creighton conquered that stretch and had a significant lead, boding well for a first- place finish.
“From mile 21 to the finish, you can hide behind hills,” he said. “If you get up and around that first hill and the other guy hasn’t spotted you, he may lose hope and slow down.”
He glided along at a steady pace and felt good about his chances. Until mile 21.
“Right as I said to myself that I might pull this off, I felt a very strong level of exhaustion that swept over my entire body. I was cooked.”
He was dizzy. Each step became heavier and heavier. His vision became blurry. But somehow, he persevered.
“I was in a zone that I never experienced and I wasn’t sure it was real safe to be there,” Creighton said. “I told my wife later, if I hadn’t been 51 years old and if I hadn’t been in the lead, I wouldn’t have finished.”
With about a mile to go, he fell for the first time.
“My legs literally stopped working,” he said. “I had hit the wall before. This was beyond that.”
Splayed on the ground, he grabbed hold of a eucalyptus tree, pulled himself back up and began jogging again.
The runner in second place collapsed at mile 22 and dropped out. The person who was then in second place withdrew at mile 24, affording Creighton extra time.
Further on, he rounded a bend and the finish came into view.
“I had tunnel vision and all I could see was the end. It’s a beautiful finish.”
Friend Chris Sigel, who witnessed parts of the race, said Creighton “is a tough runner and that’s why he was able to finish that day.”
“It was a challenging day, to say the least,” he added, noting that Creighton’s finish inspired the crowd and other runners.
During countless days training for the race in the San Elijo Hills, Creighton imagined himself bolting through the finishing tape. The reality was quite different.
He said he fell down again with about a quarter-mile left, and a paramedic crew offered help. Knowing aid would disqualify him from the race, Creighton waved them off and began jogging. Fifty yards from the finish line, he collapsed again, but got up.
“They strung out the tape, I came to it and just fell right over the top of it with a crowd watching,” Creighton said with a laugh. “That’s what a 51-year-old winning a marathon looks like.”
Last week, he said his legs and body were still recovering, but the thrill of coming in first overshadowed any pain.
“This was one of the greatest moments of my life,” Creighton said. “It was emotional and humbling.”