Wrightwood to Altadena
This piece originally appeared in the October 2015 print edition of Ultrarunning Magazine.
Races have a beginning and an end. And when it comes to this year’s running of the 2015 Angeles Crest 100, I can surely describe both and everything in between in great detail. But when your relationship to the race and place has become a torrid love affair, that’s never really the full story, is it?
I moved from the heartland to Lalaland ten years ago (not to act), and the dizzying effect of being one amongst ten million left me wholly alone. Getting into trail running helped, but it was more of a way to cope with the city rather than to be a part of it. And it wasn’t just the people – I longed for the feeling of true connection to the ground beneath my feet.
“A quarter mile to the top!” I said to the fellow in tow as we passed the downed tree someone had unsuccessfully tried to saw. It was worse in the winter; now you could pass without having to go up the side of the mountain on the little use trail I had worn in. We were nearing the end of the first climb out of Wrightwood, California in just under an hour, perfect by my account, maybe even a minute too fast. The sun would soon rise, just in time to grace the limber pines on my second favorite spot in the San Gabriel Mountains. Before that, we’d hit my old weekend home, a campground, and the site of many a vision quest. We’d already passed my new weekend home – a small cabin at the base of the trail we were now on. The last house before you hit the trail out of town.
The first time I ventured into the San Gabes was with a young, extraordinarily bearded man who was training for AC. That was over six years ago, and I’ve been back up there almost every single weekend since. I fell in love with the people I met there, the incredibly diverse terrain, the race, the bearded man and this one particular tree. These mountains made me fall in love with a city I could now call home. While I spend most of my life with Google Maps at my fingertips, the peaks and canyons became the only places where I truly knew exactly where I was.
After 70 minutes and 42 switchbacks, I topped out on the high point of the course, Mt. Baden-Powell, to a ridge and a view that never gets old. I have at least 100 of the same photo up there, because I’m impossibly compelled every time. Today, there was a poster board sign strung up on the turnoff, braving the wind like it’s more fortunate brethren – the weather-sculpted limber pine which has stood here for more than 1,500 years. Written next to the name of one of our true local heroes was my own. My eyes welled with tears as I began to feel myself root deeper to this place, just like the ancient tree.
My story with AC is a short one compared to many others. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to share the trails with men and women who have been at
this thing for decades, their t-shirts and hydration systems baked with the sweat and the legends of a bygone era. Although they’d never call it a hydration system. They were there at the race’s inception. They were there in 1989, when Jim O’Brien set the still existing course record. They were there when they offered five free cotton t-shirts if you registered before December, and you could wait until you got a birthday check to send in your race entry. This year, the race sold out in three minutes.
The Legends taught me that you have to take it easy through the high country, and so this year, I did. Then you have to get through the stagnant, choking heat of Cooper Canyon and not puke, so this year, I didn’t. You slow down, you let the excited folks pass and you don’t worry about a gosh durn thing other than keeping yourself wet, fed and steady. This is how you run under 24 hours on the course, if you’re fit to do such a thing. They believed that I was.
As I moved onto the middle section of the course – an area burned by the 2009 Station Fire, which wiped out a full third of the Angeles National Forest, I couldn’t help but take it symbolically. Just as the forest would never be the same in my lifetime, neither would the race. I knew it might be a long time before I was able to be here again, running up Mt. Hilyer to the halfway point and working towards my dream. It had to happen today.
Each year only one, maybe two, women finish in less than a day. Even in recent years, there have been winners who have not broken the 24-hour mark. To do so always takes a lot of work, but it also takes either intimate knowledge and practice on the course or being a really good runner. Since I’m not one of the latter, I made myself the former. I’ve walked it in, dropped at mile 85, peed blood, ...twice, but mostly I’ve finished. Never what I wanted, but always what I earned.
“This part’s going to feel long,” I told my pacer. “You’ll think we’re there but we’re not. And then you’ll really think we’re there, and we’re still not. But that’s when you know we’re almost there.” Anyone who has made it past mile 60 knows exactly what I’m talking about here. The climb up to Newcomb’s. Mile 68 or 69 of the course, depending on whether you think the PCT addition of recent years added a mile back in Cooper Canyon or not. I’d never been here with light in the sky.
Still, an hour earlier would have had me cruising down to mile 75 without a headlamp. A significantly easier task on the rocky, rutted mess that is the Gabrielino Trail. Made rockier and ruttier and messier by the recent string of storms that had caused mass flash flooding in the weeks preceding. On a cooler day, I thought. On a cooler day, I might already be down there.
I rolled into Chantry Flats at 10:30pm, 30 minutes too slow by conventional wisdom. Were it most any other race, 6:30 to complete the final 25 miles would be more than sufficient. I myself had covered that kind of ground in other hundreds. But this was Angeles Crest, and this was no ordinary 25 miles.
Staggering up the Upper Winter Creek Trail in my first AC, I’d been crying, falling, puking and literally crawling my way up Mt. Wilson. I couldn’t believe a route I’d run so many times was now taking me twice as long to cover. And no matter how many times I’ve returned, in how much better shape, on race day it always goes about the same way. I always said that I’d never truly believe silver was going to happen until I topped out on that climb.
At Chantry, I had a choice. I could either keep running consistently, as I had been, and reach Altadena somewhere between 24 and 25 hours. Or I could hammer this godforsaken climb harder than ever before, bomb the downhill and risk even finishing at all. Of course, we all know there really was no choice at all. I’ve never wanted anything so bad in my life.
Well, that was, until I discovered the state of the toll road. Halfway down, I’d never wanted anything as bad as I wanted hovercraft shoes. I’d still do the running, I just needed it to not be on this storm-damaged mess of a trail. I’d run this section countless times, and I’d never seen it this bad.
I looked at the bearded one, and I knew. He knew. I was simply not moving fast enough to get to the bottom of Idlehour Canyon, to the top of the sub-climb to Sam Merrill nor the top of the final climb. To the end of the hellish decent off Echo mountain, past each of the three micro-sections on the Sunset Trail to Millard, past the place I always run out of water on training runs, yet never carry more water the next time. Through the pleasantly undulating Arroyo, to the sandy section I call the beach, across the bridge that let me know I was going to make it and the three streets of Altadena ...in time. I tried to run harder – grunting, gasping, tripping over everything, wanting so much more. But alas, I had gone for broke and I broke.
Looking over the city lights in the last few miles, I openly wept. Not for my legs, not for my feet, and not for the fact I was projectile vomiting into a patch of poison oak. Nothing could ever hurt worse than the harsh realization that my very best isn’t enough. But the sun rose on another day, time moved on as time does, and I made a mental note that eventually I was going to understand that it was all still possible. Just not today. I’ve struggled with how to wrap up my experience at this year’s AC. Is it that there is beauty in the pursuit? Sure. Is it that these mountains I love are a worthy adversary? Absolutely. And even if I’d met my goal, would it have been about a dream six years in the making, finally achieved? Yeah, that certainly would have been a good story.
But how do you neatly wrap up a story that hasn’t ended?