In #1 2019, Swimrun Life Magazine

By Nancy Heslin

If anyone knows Catalina, it’s Natalie Foote. The 29-year-old was born and raised on the 34-kilometre long island in southern California, and her family’s roots run deep. Along with her brother and sister, she is a fourth generation islander.

“I grew up on a small ranch with our parents in the middle of the island, immersed in nature,” Natalie recalls. “I was young when I realised that everything in nature is connected and that Mother Nature was also a great teacher. It was my chosen classroom and I would spend every minute of my free time out there getting lost on adventures and exploring the many ridge lines and hidden beaches.”

Natalie craved adventure and the physical and mental challenge it provided. “My island backyard was endless and so was my energy to run, hike, paddle, swim, bike, and explore every inch of it. As I got older, this passion grew and it was my love of being active outdoors that became the fire behind many of the other roads I’ve travelled down.”

One of those roads was to study holistic health and ancestral nutrition but she soon discovered that our health was deeply correlated to the health of our planet. “As I dug deeper into the health issues facing the modern world, I studied anthropology, ecology, and sustainability. I saw, once again, that everything in nature is connected and that our health is dependent on this. I thought getting people connected again with nature may just be the cure.”

Natalie currently works for the University of Southern California at the USC Wrigley Marine Science and Ecology Center where “I get the honour of teaching kids and people from all walks of life about the ocean and the unique island environment, as well as about the importance of sustainability and taking care of our planet.”

Catalina is a conservancy-protected, geologic and environmental phenomenon and the campus on the island is used as a testbed for innovative research projects and advancements in sustainability. In addition to her work with USC, she pursues her passion for health, wellness and nutrition on the side by “Exploring The Frontier Of Better Health and What It Truly Means To Be Human” with WHOLEistic Coaching inspired by Nature.

What racers can expect from Catalina

While the island is only 40 kilometres off the coast of Los Angeles, Natalie says “it feels like a whole other world, like taking a step back in time, to what the California coast might have looked a few hundred years ago.”

She admits it’s a simpler way of life. “It wasn’t until I was older that I understood just how different island life is compared to the societal norm. Here, the little things are still the most important. You’re close to nature and you’re also close to your neighbours and community. Everyone looks out for and cares about each other. Everyone loves the island and where they are from.”

The island is very seasonal. In Two Harbors, on the west side where Natalie lives, there are only 100 year-round residents although this doubles in the summer with seasonal workers. “I like to say Two Harbors is California’s best kept secret, like a giant playground. You can spend the morning out on the water with the dolphins, the afternoon hiking with the bison, and the evening gathering with friends to share dinner under a sky full of stars.”

In summer, the harbours and campgrounds are full, the eastern town of Avalon is bustling with tourists, and everyone is at the beach. In contrast, fall and winter roll around and the island becomes very quiet and serene.

“The trails are empty and the island is gorgeous!”

Actually, it was in the dead of winter about two years ago when Andy Hewitt and Sean Durkin from California Swimrun walked into the restaurant where Natalie was working at the time. “We got talking and they told me all about this crazy race called ÖTILLÖ that they were involved with and looking to bring to the island. I must have had the biggest smile on my face because I instantly loved everything about it and was eager to help.”

Natalie is known as the wild girl that grew up on the island and who runs everywhere. “Apparently when Andy and Sean told some of the other islanders in Avalon about the race, they all said that it was “crazy” and the only person on the island “crazy enough” to want to get involved was me. So they came and found me and the rest is history.”

Shortly after, ÖTILLÖ cofounders Michael Lemmel and Mats Skott made a trip to the island from Sweden and before she knew it, Natalie was out scouting potential trails. The following August, she went to the ÖTILLÖ World Championship to get a first hand experience of what it was all about.

“I’ve worked many race events in the past but was blown away by the integrity and ethos of the race that was upheld from start to finish,” Natalie says. “I also loved how committed Michael and Mats were to being as eco-friendly as possible and getting people out and into nature.

“And now that race is coming to my island home of Catalina and I am so full of gratitude for it all. It’s surreal and the whole island community is very excited about it.”

Weather and wildlife for race day

ÖTILLÖ’s first ever World Series swimrun outside Europe takes place across the February 29-March 1  weekend on Catalina. “This race is going to be a challenging adventure, as well as an opportunity to experience parts of the island that few will ever get to see,” Natalie shares. “The course crosses some of my favourite parts of the island including the ridge line that encompasses the west end and its coves.

“Catalina has some good elevation so racers should be prepared for lots of hills plus some steep down hills back to sea level, all dirt roads, and a cold ocean. At this time of year the weather can be quite fickle. Last week we saw blue skies, a calm ocean, and 24°C temps but this week we’ve had a high of only 15°C with raging winds blowing 35-45 knot winds and the ocean rolling with swells at 3-4 metres. Today the sunny blue skies are back.”

Racers will also be swimming through a few Marine Protected Areas, which are sanctuaries for the sea and its creatures. In fact, Catalina and the Channel Islands are often referred to as the Galapagos of North America, and Catalina has one of the healthiest marine eco-systems with several species of fish, maybe the occasional seal or sea lion, and stunning kelp forests with beds of sea grasses. “We do have several species of sharks here; including makos and Great Whites, but I highly doubt they will be spectating on race day. We did have some gorgeous whales swimming through a couple of weeks ago. This is their migration season.”

Natalie’s advice; “As you’re racing, remember to occasionally look up and take in all the beauty around you.”

There’s still time to sign up for ÖTILLÖ Catalina before registration closes on February 25.

Article first published February 2020.

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