Tripping over the devil’s gnarly backbone under the not so pale moonlight

Traveling from Will Rogers State Park to the Ray Miller trailhead via the Backbone trail system is something that everyone should experience. It is a most breathtaking and raw exposure to the beauty that exists in the midst of the chronic chaos that is Los Angeles. It exhibits all that helps me to come to terms with my usual daily experience working and living here. I would wager that most who do not live in Southern California, and even many who do live here, have no idea how much beauty can be unveiled on the many trails that are right here in our backyard. I decided to get a crash course on the Backbone trail this past Saturday with the Coyote Cohorts sponsored Coyote Backbone Trail ultra endurance 100 miler .

I have run on portions of this course before, having done the Sean O’Brien 100K and the Ray Miller 50 miler, so I had a sense of what I was getting into. That being said, there are always elements that are out of your control and force you to change your game plan come race day. The weather leading up to race week had been wet and cold. Race day, not so much. A hot 100 miler is no fun without a bit of time to acclimate. Another factor that made this race quite a challenge for me was the rocky terrain. I was still nursing some extensor tendonitis on the top of my right ankle and all of the loose rock and dried up mud ruts really did not help.

The first 30 miles of the course went fairly well and at a decent clip. The 68 milers and the hundred milers all started together so I kept a moderate distance back from the lead pack with Jeff Browning leading the pack of about 5-6 . I fell back to a comfortable spot in the top 10-15 runners. I got to run for a bit with my friend Johnathon Craig and had the distinct honor of being in the proximity of ultrarunning rockstar Darcy Piceau for a very brief period of time. I felt great coming through Trippett Ranch at mile 11.5 and not too bad upon arriving at Stunt Road around mile 18. It wasn’t too hot at this point but there was a good amount of humidity as my dripping shirt and hat affirmed. It was on the rocky descent down to Piuma that the trail began to have its way with my ankle. I could not maintain much in the way of consistency, trying to tip toe around the loose boulders strewn about everywhere. My energy was good when I reached the Piuma trailhead and started the climb up to Corral Canyon and then the heat started to set in as I ground my way up the exposed fire road to Corral Canyon.

This climb is not too bad when it is in the beginning of a race, as it is with Sean O’Brien, but after about 25 miles of running I just power hiked up most of it. I was not too far off of my expected arrival time as I scrambled over the hard sandstone formations into the aid station and felt decent in terms of energy. That was about to change.

After pulling out of the Corral Canyon AS I felt flat. I took in mostly fruit and fluids as I new that I was getting dehydrated from all of the sweating. Due to the heat; however, the contents in my stomach were just sloshing around as my body’s main focus was on cooling my jets, not on digestion. So every time I tried to pick up the pace, the sloshy gut made it too uncomfortable and I was reduced to a fast hike. I finally gave into the situation and decided to let my body stablilize itself. This took some time as it was mostly a fast hike pace through Kanan Dume Road and into the Encinal Canyon Aid Station at mile 43.4. I still arrived here right around 45 minutes past my desired arrival time of 2:45, so things were not a total disaster. I was also starting to break out of my slump and began to feel energized again.

I left Encinal Canyon AS feeling better and more positive as I was soon to pass into the halfway point of my little adventure. Getting over the midway hump of a 100 mile distance is a huge mental plus for me. I was able to hit the 50 mile mark somewhere around 11 hours which was not too bad considering the slow pace I had been moving for a good amount of the last twelve miles. I crossed Yerba Buena Road, where they had been kind enough to stash some more water due to the temperatures and length of this leg. I refilled my handhelds and began climbing up to Sandstone Peak and the Mishe Mokwa AS.

It was just about 5:30 as I pulled into here and I have to say I was looking forward to the sun’s absence at this point and the subsequent cooler nighttime temperatures. Unfortunately, the first leg in the darkness was a gnarly ankle wrenching downhill for about six miles into Danielson Ranch. It was a very popular section with a lot of hikers still out playing in the massive rock formations. Maybe they were all just out to see the monolithic butt crack rock in all of its splendor under the full moon. I am sure that they wondered who the crazy lunatic was as I passed cursing and kicking rocks and tripping my way down the descent.

After a long and painful two hours or so I finally made it into Danielson Ranch which was to be the hub of activity for the next three out and back loops making up around 33 miles of nightime entertainment. I spent some time getting my foot tended to as it was developing some serious hot spots from all of the foot grinding against the rocks and I wanted to nip it in the bud before they became full on blisters. It was worth the wait.

Expert foot care at Danielson Ranch, photo by AS Captain extraordinaire Mauricio Puerto

There were 3 loops out of Danielson Ranch AS, with the first loop being a relatively short 7.2 mile loop. Though it was short it was not easy. Much of it was extremely overgrown and difficult to navigate. When I inquired about the whereabouts of my friend Johnathon who had been running strong all day long, I was dismayed to find out that he had gotten pretty turned around on loop 1 and was still not back yet. He ended up having to redo it and unfortunately lost so much time that he decided to settle for the 68 mile finish, though actually had put in about 80 miles that day.

The first loop was aptly made up of trails called 2 Foxes trail and Coyote trail. The Coyote trail looked as if coyotes were they only thing that had made their way through the tall waist high grasses in this area. Luckily, another runner and eventual second place finisher, Andrew Glaze, had warned me as he was departing for loop 2 that this section was really overgrown so I had some expectation of what I would find. This gave me the confidence boost that I needed each time I wondered if I was on the right path. I was also able to discern that it had recently been tamped down by human feet and not just coyote paws.

After a long two hour tour through the tall grasses and over rutty trails I arrived back to the Danielson Ranch station to regroup and begin my next adventure loop. This one was a bit longer at roughly 11 miles. Up to this point I was in third place but not by more than 15 minutes or so. I went into the second loop earnestly trying to maintain my placement while trying to ignore the pain of my blistered foot and sudden exhaustion. This loop was not overly difficult and other than everything aching and being tired I was able to consistently push forward. There was a moderate climb up the Serrano Canyon trail and then down to the Big Sycamore Canyon trail and fire road that brought me down to sea level and within earshot of the pounding waves on the beach near the Big Sycamore Campground. This was the turn around point where I threw back some food and made a quick exit as I saw Derrick Carr and his pacer, the legendary Scotty Mills, were right on my heels.

As I was trotting back down the fire road away from the aid station three of the volunteers told me that I was to take a left off of the fire road about 300 yards ahead where they had put stone markers. I just said “Okay, thanks” as I passed, too tired to really process this directive. Then, when I got there, I looked at my turn by turn directions closely and saw that these said I was supposed to take the Big Sycamore Canyon fire road all the way back to Danielson Ranch. Why did these guys tell me to take a left and up Overlook? I thought it plausible that there had been a course change radioed in given some of the confusion with these loops already. So, after standing there thinking for a couple minutes I took the left up the switchbacks up the Fireline trail towards the Overlook trail. After about a mile up I stopped and questioned my choice. I did not see how this was going to get me back to Danielson Ranch. Looking back down towards the Sycamore Canyon fire road I did not see any headlamps coming up behind me. As I stood there looking down I saw what was most likely Derrick and Scotty stopped momentarily at the junction where I had come up, and then watched as they continued down the fireroad. It was at this point that my heart sank as I knew then that I should have gone with my gut and followed my turn by turn directions and ignored the directions of the volunteers. I had just cost myself an additional 2 miles and lost my third place spot.

With a bit of a sour mental state at this point all I could do was get back down to the fireroad as quickly as possible and try to shuffle at a sustainable pace back to Danielson and hopefully close the gap a bit. After 75 miles this is not so easy to do as my legs felt tired even on a flat fire road.

When I got back to Danielson Ranch AS I realized that during my extra 2 mile up and down I had been passed by two other racers and now was in fifth and Derrick and Scotty were about 20 minutes ahead of me. What a bummer. I was too tired to think about running them down so I just swallowed my bitter pill and took some time fueling up, changing headlamps, and preparing myself for the aptly named “Mother of all Loops”. Loop 3 was the longest at around 15 miles with some climbs, one that would jackknife back up from the beach and leave me completely sapped.

As I pulled out of Danielson for the 3rd loop I remembered that I had also lost an hour with the daylight savings time switch so I was soon to get a nice sunrise which is always energizing after a long night. I did want to push a bit though so as to try and finish this loop before it got too toasty.

Well, as was to be expected, there was nothing quick about this loop. In the first 3 miles I was faced with trudging up Hell Hill, soon after followed by a nice little climb up Magu Peak. Once there we were to hike up to the flag where we were to find a hole punch and punch our bib to prove that we had made the climb. When I arrived I realized that I had closed the gap and was now caught up to Derrick and Scotty, who informed me that they had searched high and low for a hole punch but could not find it. So, we agreed to vouch for one another at the next aid station. I continued up to the flag pole and just soaked it in in all of its beauty as it stoically withstood the winds and flapped under the full moonlight. It was definitely worth the climb.

After a couple minutes of enjoying the rewards of my climb I headed back down and took a hard right turn towards the Chumash trail to the next aid station which was at sea level. This descent down the Chumash trail off of Magu Peak trail to the beach is only about a half of a mile; however, with about 800 feet elevation change and quite rutty. Every time that I have been on this section it seems it is a popular destination for people looking for a nice early morning sunrise challenge, and that it is. It hurt like hell climbing down and hurt like hell going back up. Boy was I glad when I resurfaced on top. On the way up I saw that someone had lost the contents of there stomach in the effort. Quite understandable.

I met up with Derrick and Scotty at the top and took a moment to take a couple pictures of the two of them capturing their efforts on this epic journey as the sun was about to make its entrance. Scotty was kind enough to take a couple pictures of me as well. I think that the expression on my face makes my exhaustion very apparent.

The three of us set out back down the La Jolla Valley loop trail crossing the La Jolla Valley Nature Preserve towards the next aid station which was in about 4 miles. It felt at this point as if the worst was behind us. Legs were spent but the terrain was moderate and mostly minor ups and downs. We made a fairly quick pass through the aid station at the Cross Roads Junction and headed down the switchbacks back to Danielson Ranch for one last time. Another faux sense of relieve heading down as is soon revealed it self as a rutty rocky downhill that did not allow me to make up any time. I fell back a bit from Derrick and Scotty and tried to have patience with my ankles inability to handle much more technical ankle torquing.

The three of us pulled into Danielson Ranch for one last time right around 8 am. We regrouped, refueled, and promptly made our way back out and down the fire road for the finish. We would retrace our steps back up the switchbacks of the Wood trail up to the Overlook Trail to the Backbone trail junction and on down the Ray Miller trail looking down on the ocean. As we ran down we were enveloped in the thick ocean mist and it was a refreshing relief from the heat of the previous day. I was not able to fly down the descent but made my way as quickly as possible, feeling recharged by the beauty and the sense that I was very near to being at my journey’s end. A journey that had taken me to some hefty lows and also exposed me to much raw beauty that I will take with me forever.
I made my final charge down the switchbacks into the finish which was now in clear sight. Round the turn and under the clock I am done and elated in a way that only comes with these long races.

Seeing Robin there it is very difficult to keep the emotions from bubbling over as I embrace her and am reminded of the many reasons that I have the strength to finish races like these.

I finished 5th overall which was also last as all other 100 mile entrants had either dropped down to the 68 miler or did not finish. I can say that am very proud of this last place finish.


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