42nd Annual RunningEvery Labor Day, hundreds of people summit Mt. Baldy, a 10,064 foot peak which anchors the eastern end of Southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains. The event is called the “Mt. Baldy Run-to-the-Top” and it is a Labor Day tradition for me. On September 3, 2007, nearly 500 runners took off at 8 a.m. to run, walk or crawl up the 8-mile course with 4,000 feet of elevation gain to the summit. This was the 42nd annual running.
Miles 1-4: The First 2,000 Feet of Gain or SoThe race begins at the Mt. Baldy Ski Resort parking lot (elevation approximately 6,000’). The first ¼ mile is downhill onto the fire road that starts at Manker Flat. I have observed over the years that some people begin walking within 3 minutes of the race’s start. Within 10 minutes, the runners have stretched out like a long train over the first mile of winding fire road huffing and puffing like locomotives. I myself often feel like walking during the first mile, but I always set a self-imposed time before I will consider walking. This year, my target was to run for at least 45 minutes before talking a walking break.
The first water/aid station is at the two-mile mark. Because of the recent heat wave in southern California, I had decided not to rely on just the 3 water stops that are on the route. I put 1 and 1/2 liters of an orange juice-water mix in my Camelbak even though that would be extra weight. But I’m glad that I did. It was a confidence-booster to be able to keep hydrating between water stations.
I was surprised how quickly the theoretical half-way point came up. I say “theoretical” because although it is the half-way point in terms of absolute mileage, it is certainly not in terms of relative difficulty, as compared with the last 4 miles. The 4-mile mark is a saddle called “the Notch" (elev. approximately 8,000‘) and has a ski lift and a lodge/restaurant. This is where spectators, having taken the ski lift up from the parking lot, congregate to cheer the runners on.
I arrived at the Notch 43 minutes from the start. I felt pretty good about my pace, especially since I had stopped for a full 5 minutes taking photos up to this point. I had a one-person cheering section at the Notch, my wife, who had accompanied me to the race for the first time.
To The Devil's BackboneTrue to my set target, I lasted 45 minutes before I took my first walking break. From the Notch, the road climbs very steeply and this was a perfect place to walk. Of course, my walking wasn’t at a leisurely pace. I used a “power walk” so I could both continue to gain ground yet recover my breathing at the same time.
Since I had only had a small energy bar for breakfast, I decided to stop and down a gel pack a few minutes past the Notch. I carefully put my camera in my Camelbak before eating my gel and promptly forgot that I had done so. After consuming my gel, I looked around for my camera and it was nowhere to be seen. I spent a good 5 minutes looking in the bushes thinking that it might have been tossed away from my Camelbak’s waist belt where I had it strapped during the race. It then hit me that I had placed it inside my Camelbak. What wasted time! Oh well. I knew I would be stopping numerous more times to snap photos before the finish, so I wouldn’t be getting the finish time I would otherwise get anyway.
The third and last aid station came up just before that exciting stretch known as The Devil’s Backbone. This narrow cat-walk, with breath-taking drops on both sides, is the most memorable part of the entire route. The Backbone, starting at about mile 7, is where the utility road ends and you start single-tracking the rest of the way. This section of the route is particularly steep and I took long walking breaks here.
Fortunately, the end of the 7th mile is a traverse where you can pick up the pace as you contour about 300 feet under the 9,552 foot summit of Mt. Harwood.
The last mile is above timberline and it is the steepest part of the route. You are heading directly up Baldy’s slope. On this section, the technique of locomotion where you bend over and place your hands on your knees to make your legs keep moving is widely practiced. Suffering permeates the thin air. At this point, people who have finished are coming down the mountain and they’ve always got words of encouragement for you. That’s all well and good, but I find it doesn’t ever ease the pain.
Finish Line at 10,064 FeetAt some point during the last quarter mile, the “Finish” banner atop the summit comes into view. Yet, it still looks too far away to provide you with any real motivation. Even with just a quarter mile to go, I had to come to a dead stop once or twice to catch my breath. When finally an onlooker tells you “only 100 yards to go” you should look at him carefully to see if he can be trusted to estimate distances accurately because you don’t want to start your final surge too soon. With 100 yards to go, I always have it in me to finish with a sprint of sorts.
Finally it’s over. The summit is teeming with finishers, most snacking and socializing, but it’s also not unusual to see a few people losing the contents of their stomachs from the exertion and from standing at 10,064 feet above sea level. Once you’ve done your celebrating on the summit, you’ve got to descend the 4 miles back to the Notch. From there, your race bib gets you a free ride down to the parking lot on the ski lift.
To the Top in Under an Hour?The male record for the 8 miles and 4,000 feet of elevation gain is 1 hour, 49 seconds. It was set 19 years ago. It’s surprising that, with advances in training and nutrition for athletes of all sorts, the record hasn’t been broken in nearly two decades. The dream goal for the elite is of course to break one hour. The female record is 1 hour, 15 minutes, 32 seconds. It was set by an 11-year old exactly 20 years ago. Imagine hiking with her!
SP'ers to the TopThis year’s winning time was 1 hour, 10 minutes. I was “only” 50 minutes behind the winner! Although I didn’t see them, SP’ers Crescentstrife (Ryan), SkydiverKen and Perry (Scanlon) also ran the race. Perry came in 7th over-all in a time of 1 hour, 17 minutes, 11 seconds. Great job!
See you all out there next year.