Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A Quick Jog Up a Hill

My wife and kids have been calling me certifiably insane for a couple of weeks now - ever since signing up for The Run to the Top. This race is advertised as a Labor Day Classic - eight miles, 4000 foot elevation gain up to the summit of Mt. San Antonio (known to most of us Los Angelenos as Mt. Baldy) and now on it's 43rd year. Well, it's only a little over 7 miles and closer to 3800 feet of elevation gain. Like it really matters....

I was up bright and early to make the drive up the hill. I live a little more than an hour away, so I was out of the house at 5:15. I brought along a cup of coffee, but I had that done about half way there. I wandered around the streets of Upland looking for an open Starbucks, but to no avail (Note to self: If I'm crazy enough to do this next year, remember that Starbucks is on holiday schedule on Labor Day). Not being successful at my hunt for some more wakeup juice, I made it up the hill to the ski area parking lot at 6:45AM. The lot was already a hubbub of activity with with a lot of cars and people making an early showing. I parked the car, got in line and got my race packet (How's that for a stereotype - lines were non-existent except at - you guessed it - the porta potties). I checked out the packet - bib #100! I guess I'll need to keep this one!

By now it was 7:00. The race didn't start until 8:00. For the first time I noticed how cold it was outside. I got back in the car to warm up and checked the thermometer. Hmm - 51 degrees. But, the rest of the day was shaping up to be phenomenal. Not a cloud in the sky. No humidity to speak of. It turned out to be a great day to be up in the mountains.

About 7:45, we started milling around the start line at the entrance to the parking lot. I looked for a couple of people from the Runner's World forums that I knew would be at the race, but I didn't recognize anyone. Promptly at 8AM, the horn sounded and we were off. The first piece of the race was down the road to Manker Flats, which is where the main Baldy Trail begins. This is one of two pieces of downhill on the course ("course" is loosely termed here as I'll describe later). And downhill it is - a 15% grade for a quarter of a mile. We then turned right onto the trail and the uphill started. It wasn't maybe more than 200 yards up the trail that I started wishing that I had spent a lot more time doing those hill repeats! Needless to say, the power walk started a little sooner than I was anticipating.

I alternated between fast walking and jogging for the next couple of miles to Baldy Notch. This portion of the course was on a dirt road, so the footing was good. The scenery is *outstanding* - running through tall pines and fresh cool air. About 2 miles in from the start was a water stop manned my the Mt. Baldy Volunteer Fire Department. Baldy Notch is about halfway in, and I hit it at an hour. My goal was to try to run this thing in 2 hours, so I was on schedule at this point. At the notch, another water stop greeted us, and we turned to the north to "run" along another fire road up to the Devil Backbone. I was pretty much in full fledged walk mode by now. The funny thing is that I used to ski Mt. Baldy a lot when I was in college. The slope that now had me cursing under my breath was the same one I used to avoid because I thought that it wasn't steep enough. Hah! That'll teach me. I plodded the next mile and a quarter to the start of the Devil's Backbone and the 5 mile mark. My pace had dropped to 22 minutes per mile for mile 5, so I started thinking that the 2 hour target may be in jeopardy. But, I was at 1:28 at this point, so it was still a possibility. I stopped and had some fruit and water at the water stop and moved on to the next challenge.

The next portion of trail is spectacular! We were on a single track trail known as the Devil's Backbone - so named because it runs along a ridgetop. There are dropoffs on either side amounting to thousands of feet. A missed step along the next mile or so could be problematic (a couple of people die along this portion of trail each year). San Bernardino County Search and Rescue manned several points along the trail to make sure that everyone and everything was okay. I was still in good spirits here, albeit moving forward slowly. The altitude was starting to have an effect on me. My legs were fine, but it seemed the harder I breathed, the less oxygen I could get. My heart rate when I was just standing was 130. Walking got me to 145. As I clambered up the trail I hit 155 to 160 pretty quickly. My pace slowed to 32 minutes for the next mile. The trail gained a 1,000 feet between miles 5 and 6, putting us at about 9,300 feet and just above the timberline (Note to self #2: The reason that trees don't grow up here is because there's no oxygen!).

I hit mile 6 at 2:01 - so my goal of 2 hours was pretty much shot at this point. But, I still felt physically good. Mile 6 had a little downhill (remember I mentioned that there were two downhills?), so I put together a short burst of speed to the bottom of the final pitch to the top.

Here is where things really got ridiculous. I reached the saddle between Mt. Harwood and Mt. Baldy at 2:10 and change. The final 1200 meters requires a 700 foot elevation gain up the shoulder of Baldy. Count 'em folks - 30 minutes for the last summit pitch! It's been a while since I've been up at this altitude and I had forgotten some of its effects. A little lightheadedness, constant gasping for air, all in a fun day's workout! My final pitch was 10 steps up, stop and gasp for a minute or two, repeat. I crested the hill and put on a show for the camera - actually running across the finish line. Final watch time - 2:42. But I was up on top of Baldy - taking in the scenery and revelling in my accomplishment! I stuck around for about 30 minutes or so before beginning the walk down the hill back to the Notch and a ride on the ski lift back to the car.

The bottom line on this "race" - if you are looking for something different and challenging - this may be the race for you. If you are not a trail runner with some altitude experience, then treat this one like your first marathon. Concentrate on finishing. Enjoy the sights. Enjoy the views. And remember - once you are on top, there's still a 3 mile walk back down to the halfway point where you can ride down to your car! Will I do this one again? Probably. It sure beat sitting around the house on a Holiday weekend. The weather was spectacular, the views were spectacular, the challenges are formidable. Whether you were the race leader, a seasoned trail runner, or just an average Joe looking for something different, anyone who finishes this race can be proud!

A full set of pictures is available on my Flickr site at http://www.flickr.com/photos/glennsphotos2007/sets/72157607063901838/

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