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Baldy Marathons

I signed up for Baldy Marathons 100 mile race. On April 30th 2017 at 8:45am, after almost 23 hours since I started, the Baldy Marathons was my first DNF (did not finish). That day was the perfect example of planning for absolutely everything but forgetting one important detail.

The Baldy Marathons is a crazy race put on by Aaron Sorensen on Mount Baldy and the surrounding peaks. It’s hard to describe. It’s a 20 mile loop course where each loop has 10k feet of climbing. It has no aid stations, no trail markers, and 95% of it is not even on trail maps. It has areas of sheer cliffs with descents and ascents of more than 1300’ in a mile. It’s not an ultramarathon but it’s not an orientating event. Its closest comparison is Barkley Marathons.  This being said; I knew exactly what I was signing up for.  I have done another 100 mile race before and it took me 24 hours and 51 minutes. For the same distance, on this course, I expected 54 hours.

Elevation chart

During the month before the race, I scouted the whole loop and had completed the first half of the loop and the second half of the loop separately. For the first half, I had Aaron Flynn with me and, reading the website’s directions, we managed to find most of the course. We ended up being the only people ever to scout the whole course and ever come back for the race. Completing the loop in sections gave me vital information about timing out my 100 miles.  With 3 one hour naps, I would complete 5 loops in 52 hours and 50 minutes. I would burn 32,000 calories. I planned when I would change socks, when I would reapply body glide, and I packed bags of food for every time I reached my car. Each bag had the perfect number of calories for the upcoming section.

Prepping food bags

To make sure that you reach all the checkpoints, you have a punch card. When you reach a checkpoint, you punch a hole with the unique puncher that is attached to the checkpoint. There are five checkpoints; B-A-L-D-Y. So in addition to staying on course, you have to locate a tiny puncher located under a rock or log. With all this knowledge and prep work, the day had come.

Freezing cold ski lift ride to start line

At 8:30am in the morning, I took the ski lift up to the lodge. In the lodge, I introduced myself and asked around as to how many loops people were planning on. I wanted to know who I should try to stick with for the next 54 hours. At 10am, I started with around 15 people. (Another 12 had started at 9am). Everyone started walking but “Beginner’s Hill” isn’t very steep. So I decided to jog up it. Most people continued walking. Going up the hill, I was talking with Adam Talen and his friend, who were only planning on 1 loop. I knew that as long as I keep my heart rate below zone 3, I could continue to jog. Then we got to the base of the second peak, GPS #2. You can take the many switchbacks around to get up or take the straight up ridgeline. I chose to take the ridge and when I looked below, I had a bunch of people following me. I wonder if they took it because they saw me do it or they weighed their options as well and decided that it was the best route. When I got to the top, I looked down and knew that now is where the shit starts.

Going up the first peak, taken by Aaron Flynn during our training run

Before I ever heard of this course, I never knew that there was another way down this peak. But Aaron, the race director, said there is and made a map of it, so that’s good enough for me. This section is called Eric’s Plunge. It’s a knife ridgeline with a steep dropoff on the left. There is very little footing and jagged rocks. 99% of the people in this world would never go down it. But this race isn’t for them. It’s for people like myself that like to test their own courage and will power to do things that are uncomfortable. So I take the plunge off of a groomed trail and into an area of Baldy that isn’t on the map. I wouldn’t be on a mapped trail until another 3 hours.

Satan’s Ridge, taken by Aaron Flynn during our training run

During this off trail period, you are constantly in battle with your mind whether you are in the right section. To me, this is the hardest part of the course.  There are a ton of places to get lost and many of these places will lead to cliffs or areas that you cannot get out of without extreme effort. And that’s what happened to me. At one point, you are supposed to take a 45 degree left hand turn down a hill that has no distinct path or ridgeline.  I knew where this point was and I was there. And so was a 4’ long rattle snake that wouldn’t move off. He warned me to stay back and I did. I dropped down from the horizontal ridge line 10’ before the point that the rattlesnake was protecting. And I took a 90 degree left turn. After 20 minutes of going down 800’ and 0.5 miles, I began to see giant cliffs with no way around them. I realized I was in the on the complete wrong side of a ridge. So I climbed a half hour back up this very steep and dangerous hill. There was a strong thought in my mind during this period that this course is absurd and I should quit. I was in fear that this was going to happen to me over and over. But then I came up with the reasoning that these thoughts are going to continue if I don’t find someone to stick with.  As soon as I got all the way back up to the top, I saw 2 runners trying to find the place to drop down. I told them to follow me as I knew what I had done incorrectly.  Getting from this ridge to Hades is THE hardest part of the course to navigate as there are a ton of places to get lost and you can’t see in the distance the correct way to go.  These two men came from out of town to do the race. Ian, is from Taiwan and the other guy is from New York City. They had a pretty slow pace and for every section that I jogged, I would wait for them. As soon as I brought them to Hades, I ran ahead in search for another person to tag along with.

Hades is a distinct V shaped valley that is filled with boulders and rocks; you can barely see any dirt. You are going downhill for 1.8 miles jumping from rock to rock. I love this section because there is no way to get lost and no navigating needed. I met up with two runners from Chicago; Rachel and Matt. Both had plans to compete 100 miles. They were prepared to be out there for 60 hours, they had a great pace and a great attitude.  They were a little slower than my pace in some sections but I decided it was better to stick with them than go ahead alone. Good thing I decided that because when we came to the letter B, I couldn’t find it for the life of me and Matt did. So already, I was realizing the advantages of being in a group.

Hades, taken by Aaron Flynn during our training run

After we got out of Hades, we came to my second least favorite section. It’s called Upper Plateau and Impending Doom. It would be a super easy flat run to a 600’ foot climb but the whole thing is completely packed with plants that want to stab you all over your body. And they do. The trick to this part is to try to connect little sections together to minimize the blood loss. Wearing pants for this section was night and day. When I scouted the course a week prior, I wore shorts and lost a lost of blood. This time, I worn pants and lost little blood. Matt took the lead and found a great path through the shit. And by “great” I mean still really awful but much better than I did before. Aaron says that he can make it through this section without a scratch but I think that’s bull shit. Getting to Baldy road at the top of Impending Doom is the most satisfying summit in the whole course, despite it only being a 600’ climb.

Emilio’s

A short 0.5 mile run down a fire road brings you to Emilios Climb. It’s a no nonsense straight up climb up a ridge line. I had already done it twice in training and came up with the rule that you don’t follow any paths. Just stay on the ridge and go up; anything sideways makes you go lower and makes the climb even longer. In the middle of this climb, we reached the letter A and punched that into our card. When you reach the top, Candyland, you have gone up 2200’ over the course of 1.8 miles. We did that climb in 1:15. Then it was a short run down to Aaron’s Pad to check in and refill water. First half of loop 1: Done in 5:50. I had planned on 6:15, so things were looking great!

Now it’s 1.3 miles downhill under the ski lifts to my car where I load up food for 10 hours. According to my plan, I won’t be back at my car for another 9 hours and 50 minutes. My bag weighs at least 20 pounds at this point. During my training runs, I have learned that it is near impossible to eat too much on a run. When I have eaten too little, I really feel my energy dip. A big goal of this race was to stuff my face, which I was doing great with. When I started the race, my bag was packed with food for 6.5 hours and I ate it all. I punched the letter L behind the painted rock and was ready for the next part of this crazy course.

Group selfie heading up the Big Climb

Baldy Peak

After gathering a group of 7 racers, we headed up Ginnys Crawl then into the Big Climb. 7 of us searched for the letter D but couldn’t find it anywhere. We took a group selfie to prove that we were all there.  The big climb is another steep and cheap trail; 2700’ feet of gain over 1.4 miles. I did it in 1:30. At this point it was 50 degrees with 35MPH winds with some gusts that got above 50MPH.  The only way to stay warm was to keep moving in a fast pace. From there, we went up another 1000’ to the summit of Baldy. Then we dropped down the backside trying to find this new ridge coming off the left that I have never heard of or seen. We searched everywhere in the first quarter mile of the drop. I saw a tree lined ridge in the distance but it was so far away and looked dangerous. I was just about to give up on finding the letter Y until we saw Ginny who pointed us to the ridge. I would have never guessed that we were supposed to go down there. I found Y, the last letter! I climbed 1300’ back up to the top of Baldy just as the last light of the Sun vanished.  I went pretty fast up to the peak because I was freezing cold and left my pack with my flashlight on the summit. So when I reached the top, I was way ahead of everyone but I wasn’t sure whether they knew exactly the way back. I laid down in a rock pile cove to shield myself from the wind. I sat there for at least 5 minutes and no one came up and I couldn’t stop shivering. I decided to leave and go back to Aaron’s pad by myself. It’s a single 2.8 mile marked trail from the summit to Aaron’s pad.

The last of the sun for day 1

When I arrived, I finally finished loop 1! I got there at 9pm, making it a total time of 11 hours for loop one. I had scheduled 9:45 but my 45 minutes of getting lost in the beginning and the difficulty of getting Y had not been factored in. Despite being slower than anticipated, I felt great and was ready for 4 more loops. Aaron asked me if I was going to do loop 2 and I said “Of course!”  But I had made the decision that I wasn’t going to go out in the dark by myself, especially in the Eric’s plunge/ Satans ridge area.

20 minutes later, Matt came in. Then another 20 minutes later, 2 other guys came in. One was Gus Safar and I couldn’t remember the other guy’s named. Neither had passed Rachel on their way back from the summit. “That’s not good.”, I thought. There were a couple things that could have happened. First, she fell and was hurt somewhere. Second, she went down ski hut (Baldy Bowl) trail. I have accidently gone down that trail myself once. So it seemed pretty likely that’s what happened. We waited for her to realize this, retrace her steps, then arrive back at Aaron’s pad.

At this point, I had realized that there was no one left that was going to start a second loop besides Matt and Rachel. 4 people were at least 2 hours ahead of me on their second loop and anyone behind was very unlikely to start loop 2. My 2 options seemed to be: go by myself or wait for Rachel and Matt. After another hour of waiting; we decided we needed a gameplan to figure out what had happened to Rachel. We thought that there was a good chance that she took Ski Hut trail and went all the way to the bottom and was waiting at the car. So we ran down 1.5 miles there and she wasn’t there. I then drove us to Baldy village restaurant to get on wifi. We got messages saying that she was now at Aaron’s pad and that she wanted to continue. So we drove back up to Baldy. When we got to the parking lot, Michael Dominguez was there sleeping in his car. He said that he was waiting for me and wanted to run with me. This was news to me! So the 3 of us hiked up the 1.5 miles to Aaron’s pad. Right before we got there, Rachel was on her way down and said she was in fact done. I was not. Michael and I went to Aaron and told him I was continuing onto loop 2! By this point it was 1:45am and almost 5 hours have passed since I had finished lap 1. We set out in the middle of the night on lap 2 with my new goal of finishing 100k.

Michael

I was really nervous about doing a night loop with someone that didn’t know the course at all. Especially the first half, which is really hard to navigate and really dangerous.  Coming down Eric’s Plunge at night looks completely different than going down it during the day. I was constantly checking my phone to see if I was in the right area. Many times, I was several hundred feet off from where I should be and we constantly had to adjust so that we would drop down into the correct canyon and avoid the cliffs. Reaching Hades was a giant relief but it took us way longer to get there then it should have. We found the letter B after wasting 20 minutes trying to find it because every tree and boulder looked the same when you can only see what’s within the circle of light from your headlamp. When we exited Hades, the sun had finally risen. It was beautiful seeing the sunrise from such a remote area. The path we took through Upper Plateau to Impending Doom was horrible. It also took way longer than it should have. Getting to the Baldy Rd was a giant relief. We took off our night clothes and got ready for Emilio’s. During the whole time going up Emilio’s, I was doing math in my head to figure out time cut offs. I knew I was very close to not making the cut off for loop 2 or loop 3. We finally made it to the top then headed down to Aaron’s pad. It was 8:45am. The first half of the first loop took me 5:50, the first half of the second loop took me 7 hours! Despite taking longer than I wanted, I still felt great and was ready to continue after a 1 hour nap.

First light in the sky as we exit Hades, photo by Michael

Sun rising over Upper Plateau, photo by Michael

 

Emilios, photo by Michael

The cutoff for finishing loop 2 was 12:40pm, so I only had 4 hours to finish the second half. During the first loop, it took me 5:10 to do that section and I really needed a 1 hour nap. That would bring me in at 2:45pm. So that wasn’t going to happen without a miracle. My other option was to go for the 100k, which I needed to finish by 2am. I estimated that another loop and a half would take me 17 hours plus I needed at least a 1 hour nap. So that would have had me done by 2:30am on Monday morning. I wouldn’t have made the 100 mile cutoff either. After coming to the realization that if I continued, it was very unlikely to make the time cutoffs, I decided to call it quits. Now that I type this and do better math, I realize that there was a chance I could have made the 100k cutoff but at that moment at 8:45am after almost 24 hours my math skills were horrible and I didn’t take the chance.

After more than 50 races, Baldy Marathons is my first DNF. I always thought that my first DNF would involve me vomiting blood, a broken leg, heat stroke, insufferable blisters, or anything horrible like that. I really wanted my first DNF to be one of those. It’s a way better story than running out of time.

So what was the detail that I overlooked? I just assumed that having a running partner would all work out. As in most races, there are usually a bunch of people ahead of you and behind you that you can run with. But this day, only 5 people remained that were going to start a second loop and 4 of them were at least 2 hours ahead and the 5th one was me.  I never planned out the night running. I hate running at night by myself on my own local trails, never mind super dangerous trails. I should have asked runner friends to pace me for each night. Had I done that, Michael would have met me at Aaron’s lodge and I could have started loop 2 at 9pm. Instead, I started at 1:45am.

What else did I learn from this experience?  The wind is brutal. I should have used chapstick and eyedrops or a ski masks. My eyes were in so much pain the remainder of Sunday. I learned that stuffing your face with a variety of food and making that a priority works well. I learned that it’s better to stop and empty out rocks from your shoes instead of developing blisters. And maybe I should get a pair of gaiters. What I was hoping to learn from this race was my true breaking point. Since I started running in 2010, I keep trying to find new races that are increasing in difficulty. I like to test myself. This race was supposed to either be me doing the impossible or me finding that point where I couldn’t take another step. I haven’t done either. But I did learn another valuable lesson in completing long races; either be ok with running all night and day by yourself or plan out pacers for times where you will need someone.

In the end, I did 31 miles with 16,000’ of climbing. Two people this year finished 100k. And only 4 people have ever finished the first half of loop 2. I am one of those 4. Will I do this race again? Too early to tell. I have Angeles Crest 100 coming up in August. My goal there is to avenge 24 hours. After that race is over, I’ll decide whether I’m willing to take Mt Baldy up on it’s “impossible” challenge again.

2013 Red Rock 50 Miler

2012 Red Rock 50 Mile Endurance Run

Santa Barbara, CA
1st Overall 9:56:04
Nov 25, 2012
52 Miles, 13,200 ft of ascent

Strava file

Race Website

 

Red Rock 50

 

A month prior to the Red Rock 50 mile endurance run, I completed my first 50 miler at the Dick Collins 50. My goal time was 8 hours and I ended up getting a disappointing 8hr 3 mins. The course was fairly flat and most of my training had been in the Angeles Forest on steep technical trails. The night I finished that race, I knew I needed to put my climbing legs to use. So laying in bed, sore from running I searched for the hardest 50 miler I could find. This was Luis Escobar’s masochistic Red Rock 50. Here are some excerpts from the race description on ultrasignup: “This run is extremely difficult and is best suited for the expert trail runner or experienced ultra marathon runner”….” This is not a fancy event, it is a genuine, old fashion ultra run. It is a low key, hard ass, 50 mile endurance run.” It is said to have 15,875 ft of climbing and the same of descending. I was very intimidated; I know I am not an expert trail runner. But I knew that I wanted something that was brutally hard to prepare myself for Angeles Crest 100 in 2013. So I signed up for my second 50 miler, 4 hours after finishing my first.

 

During Dick Collins 50, I really screwed up my knees from bombing the descents as hard as I could. I was trying to make up time because I wasn’t going very fast in the flat sections. So the month between races, I knew that my priority was to get my knees better. If my fitness suffered, I knew that it would be ok because I had a good base that wouldn’t wean too quickly. I got a few sessions of ART, Active Release Technique, on my knees and did a little mileage here and there. It seemed to be working. So two weeks prior to Red Rock, I did a test run of 28 miles in the Santa Monica Mountains to see if my knees could handle it. If they were screaming in pain, I wouldn’t do that race, but there was very little pain. I decided to do the race, and in the following two weeks, I did some short tune up runs.

 

Race day came and I was feeling great. Considering, at Dick Collins, I did around 8 hours for 50 miles with 8000ft, I projected another 2 hours for another 8000ft. This meant, I was going for 10 hours. When I told my goal time to a couple people before the race, I could tell the doubt in their tone. Then I began doubting that 10 hours was realistic. I had no idea what to expect with the climbs or how technical the trail was. I had never run in these mountains. So my goal time floated away and I wasn’t too sure what to expect. I put a headlamp in my pack in case I didn’t finish before dark.

 

I live by my Garmin 310xt and heart rate monitor. I determine my pace by using my heart rate zones. My zone 2 is 154-166 bpm and that is what I wanted to run most of the race in. I knew if I did that in the beginning, then the last 15 miles, I could push into zone 3 or more.

 

My caloric intake is very strategized. I train with certain foods and drinks exactly how I will race. I am very picky and carry mostly everything I eat and drink. I use a camelback pack with Nuun tablets in the water. I make sure to drink 24-32 oz per hour depending on the heat. I eat 300kcal per hour including Clif Shot Blocks, Vega Gel, Vega Endurance bars, and Honeystinger waffles. During my first couple years of racing, I didn’t eat and drink enough and I would feel lethargic later into the race. I dropped half of my food in a drop bag so that I didn’t need to carry it the first 25 miles. At aid stations, I just put more water in and added a nuun tablet. Also, above 80 degrees, I start to take salt stick tablets to balance my electrolytes.

 

When the gun went off, everyone seemed to be going so slow, I quickly moved into second. After a few minutes, my HR was way higher than I wanted it to be. At mile 2, I was in the front pack of 4, but I dropped off the pack and decided to stick to my plan of starting easy. I was picturing the elevation profile in my head and knew that we had a huge climb at mile 27. I figured the race would start after that climb with the few remaining people that had any legs left. After a few miles, I was in 11th place but I was still at a decent pace and my HR was in zone 2.

 

I was jumping between 7th and 11th place for several miles because it was a large pack that was exchanging places. This was a rolling section that had some really tight single track mixed with a little road through a campground. As soon as the first big climb hit, at mile 17, I was able to pass people, keeping a steady uphill, hiking pace. I was barely running because it would be a waste of energy. When I started descending, I passed 4th place and was in third. I was in the 7 minute mile range for the downhill, making sure that I wasn’t pounding my legs like I did at Dick Collins. It was very rocky and I was jumping boulder to boulder, feeling like I was slalom skiing. But I came to a section that I couldn’t find the trail. Thinking I lost it, I turned around and started back uphill for a turn that I possibly missed. Two runners came downhill and I followed them to where the trail continued. It turned out that I wasn’t lost, I just couldn’t find the continuing trail behind a bush. We were now a pack of three. After a few minutes of running together, we ended up doing a loop back to where I met them. Soon we realized that we look a left instead of right and continued on. Aaron Flynn and I had a steady downhill pace to the turnaround. At the turnaround, I had about a minute on him going into the aid station. Leaving the aid, he had a minute on me. Filling a camelback takes much longer than a bottle.

 

It was now mile 26 and time to head up hill. This is what I had saved my energy for and this is what I was waiting for. First and second had about 15 minutes on me. Aaron was in third and I could see him. I set a goal to catch Aaron half way up the climb, then to stick with him during the climb. My HR went way up into the 170s as I tried to close the gap. After several minutes I was alongside Aaron. We chatted for a while uphill pushing each other to close the gap to second place. It was pretty hard to get up that hill but training on Mt Wilson trail was very similar. Aaron and I have done Mt Wilson a bunch of times and are used to 600ft+ per mile. Mile 30 had 833ft of ascent and it took us around 20 minutes! Some of the boulders were so big that it was a full body action to get on top of it. Despite the agony of propelling my body uphill, I was having a blast. This giant climb was the reason I signed up for this race. After a few miles of climbing, I decided to get ahead of Aaron. When I reached the summit aid station, the second place guy was sitting in the chair. It was at this aid station, that I discovered that when you’ve been eating sugar products all day, a potato with salt tastes amazing. The aid station volunteer told me I looked much better than the first and second place guy. He also said he thought it was 10 minutes to first place. I had 18 miles to close a 10 minute gap!

 

At this point of the race (mile 32), it was mostly downhill. The hard climbs were done with. I was wishing for more uphill because I knew I had better odds closing the gap with an uphill than flat or downhill. My strategy changed to force myself harder than zone 2 so that I could at least see the first place guy. Then I would stay behind for a while, and towards the end, if I had anything left, try to take the lead. Coming into the last aid station, I saw him leave. I filled up my pack as fast as I could while telling the volunteers that I would come back and kiss them if I got first. I took off “sprinting” downhill at a 6:30 pace, sprinted past the first place guy, and kept going until he was out of sight. As soon as I passed him, I started talking to myself that I couldn’t believe I was in first.

 

At this point, around mile 42, I slowed down and tried to keep a decent pace but not exerting myself too much so that I didn’t blow up. The remaining 9 miles was the worst part of the race. It’s fairly flat, which is really hard for me to pace myself. The uphills and downhill’s usually help to determine the pace that I can go. When I run flats, I always start out too fast then dwindle down. Plus, hills change up the cadence, which makes it more comfortable because you are constantly changing how your foot strikes. Running on flat ground is so repetitive and difficult for me to keep running. It would be so easy to just walk but I knew that I couldn’t if I wanted to keep first. Coming out of the woods to see the finish was amazing. I knew that I had my first win and had a huge smile from ear to ear.

 

The blissful feeling plummeted when I realized that I might need to take a shot of whiskey. Luis said that the clock doesn’t stop until you drink a shot of whiskey. I wasn’t sure if he was kidding or not. But when I got to the finish and sat down, I found out he was serious. My time was still running until I took a shot. I haven’t done a shot in years and wasn’t sure if it would be instantly projected out of my body. I downed the shot and sat for a couple minutes talking to people about how amazing the race was. After 5 minutes of downing the whiskey, it decided to come back up. Luckily, I made it outside before the pinkish liquid made it out of my mouth. There is nothing like basking in the glory of your first win while you are vomiting on all fours. But that’s normal, right?