A Labor Day Rite of Suffering
Mt. Baldy is at the eastern edge of Southern California’s San Gabriel Range. Every Labor Day, hundreds of people summit this 10,064 foot peak during the space of a few hours. It is called the “Baldy Run to the Top.” At 8 a.m. sharp, hundreds of runners are unleashed on an 8-mile course to the top with 4,000 feet of elevation gain. Given such a tough race, it’s amazing that 300 to 400 people show up year to year to get some serious suffering in.
The race begins at the ski resort parking lot and the first ¼ mile is downhill onto the fire road that starts at Manker Flat. For me, the suffering begins about 30 seconds after starting the ascent on the fire road. Within 10 minutes after the starting horn has sounded, the runners are stretched out like a long train over the first mile of winding fire road huffing and puffing like little locomotives. The first water/aid station is at two miles and I am always glad to get to that first milestone. I stop completely and drink a full cup of water rather than drinking on the run. The next waypoint, the 4- mile mark, is always exciting because that is the only place along the route where spectators can congregate to cheer the runners on. This halfway point is a saddle called “The Notch” and accommodates a ski lift and a restaurant. As I approach the cheering spectators, I rally my weary body to use good running form as I pass just so I can look good at least for a few seconds. After that, I revert back to my survival shuffle. Even though you’re halfway “home” at the Notch, the hardest part of the route is ahead of you.
The Second Half: Devil's Backbone and the Final Mile Above Timberline
Shortly after leaving the Notch, I usually take my first walking break. Of course, your walking can’t be at a restful pace; rather, it has to be a power walk. And it never ceases to amuse and amaze me that you can power walk as fast as, and in some cases faster than, people who are still “running.”
After about 5 miles of fire road, you come upon the most exciting section of the route, a narrow catwalk called the Devil’s Backbone. The drop-offs on either side are breath- taking so you’d best stay centered on the spine. After the exciting Backbone, the grueling climb continues 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. It is principally unmitigated torture. 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 it doesn’t ease the pain. At some point during the last half mile, the banner reading “Finish” atop the summit comes into view. Yet it still looks too far away to provide you with any motivation. Monitors posted on the rocks along the slope try to rally you by calling out “you’re almost there.” But you know it isn’t so. Even with just a quarter mile to go, I have 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. With 100 yards to go, I always have it in me to finish with a sprint of sorts. But if the actual distance left is 200 or 300 yards, I’ve started my sprint too soon and I will likely detonate before getting to the finish line.
The Finish Line at 10,000 Feet
I feel blessed relief when the electronic timing clock pops up in front of me. The pain is over! Now you can relax and have a few orange and banana slices and chat it up a little with fellow summiters. However, it’s not unusual to see a few people losing the contents of their stomachs from the exertion and from now standing at 10,064 feet above sea level. Once you’ve had enough of the great views and the cluster of bodies on the summit, you’ve still got to descend 4 miles back to the Notch. From there, you can hop onto the ski lift which will take you back down to the start area.
How fast does this route get done? The male record for the 8 miles and 4,000 feet of elevation gain is 1 hour, 49 seconds and was set nearly 20 years ago. The female record is 1 hour, 15 minutes, 32 seconds and was set by an 11-year old (no, that’s not a typo) 18 years ago. Imagine hiking with her! Yours truly is in the 1 hour, 35 to 40 minute range and you’d be surprised how stiff the competition is in the 50-59 age bracket.
If I've been at all convincing, I'll see you all at the starting line next Labor Day because I know that all you mountaineers love a good sufferfest.