Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Adventures on the Backbone Trail


Three years ago I wrote up a big ol' training plan to run the Backbone Trail ( -- good info and maps but the race is unfortunately now defunct) in Southern California while I was down there for Christmas.  I got off to a good start with the plan but eventually the training fizzled, I got back into my usual routine, and I ran a series of winter races culminating with a 5k dressed as Santa Claus on the flat streets of Palm Springs (versus 68 miles in the Santa Monica Mtns.)

I'd put the Backbone on the back burner since then.  Life's changed a lot in the past 3 years and it seemed that eeking out a respectable 50k finish was about as much as my further limited training schedule was going to allow me to accomplish.

But sometime last fall I just got on this adventure running streak and it led me to believe that maybe I could get in more long runs over the winter months and go for something bigger.  With that, the Backbone Trail plan was resurrected.

I wanted more time to adequately prepare but March 5th was as late as I'd be able to push it off before getting too far into nursery harvest season at work.  The months of March, April and May are perennially a very tough time for me to make much headway when it comes to training as it's exhaustingly busy, long days and I am typically wiped out and short on time.

With a course and a set date things were coming together.  My wife Kattie was not fond of the crewing idea once she learned that crewing would consist primarily of sitting in a car on the side of a canyon road all day long (not too far from beaches with restaurants and such).  She also was not keen on the idea of me going all alone.  So I mentioned to David Roche that perhaps another SWAP "teammate" would be interested in coming along.  It wasn't a half hour after mentioning it and Michael McGraw, an accomplish ultra (like 100 miler level) dude living in Augusta, GA was onboard.  I was pumped.

We sent dozens of emails back and forth and even had a 50 mile training weekend together as we prepared for the adventure ahead.  We were both aware of the FKT set years ago by M. Hartell and thought that on a good day and with a good effort we may be able to get within earshot of accomplishing a slightly lower time.  While that was good motivation to train a bit harder it was never a priority over finishing, having a good time, and just getting out and exploring a beautiful new area.

Planning was pretty straightforward: we'd fly into LA from our respective locations (PDX and Pasco, WA--MM had relocated to Joseph, OR in the interim), rent a car, stash water and limited supplies along course at major road crossings, sleep in an airbnb, run the trail, get a ride back to rental car, sleep, fly home.  Accomplishing all this between Friday morning and Sunday morning put us on a tight timeline but with work winding up for me and a new job for MM it was the best we could do.  We were determined to make it happen.


And for the most part, we did make it happen.

We flew in, stashed water (and got to see some of the incredible beauty along the route), slept in our airbnb, got up and ran.  But it was there that the adventure took a different turn.

By different turn, I mean the wrong turn.  The Backbone Trail is a remarkable trail that makes a pretty logical line across the canyons and ridgelines of the Santa Monica Mtns.  I'd be remiss if I didn't admit that the trail is even in really good shape and offers a lot of diverse running terrain ranging from smooth buffed out trail, rocky technical trail, shaded woodlands and exposed vistas.  But it is also a menagerie of trails, roads and fireroads that together form a series of tricky, unmarked or poorly marked intersections.  While we had prepared somewhat for this our lack of expertise in the area cost us quite a few wrong turns and several minutes of standing around.  We'd get some momentum going and then realize we'd missed yet another turn or have to stop for a minute or more and see which way was the right way and all the  momentum would have to be built back up again.  We kept our spirits high (and were even doing well on time despite our costly mistakes) but it kind of felt like just starting a 4 am workout over and over and over again.  A bit creaky and not a lot of flow (which is important to running a good run, to me).

We eventually made it to Kanan Rd. (mile 36.9) and by then had long recognized that we were going to be finishing long after our planned time.  This would have been fine but there were additional problems/challenges associated with a 7 o'clock finish.  Our ride back to the car was far from secured at this point as various options had fallen through somewhat last minute (one while we were on the trail).  Finishing in the dark with no extra clothing and not a lot of extra calories without a secure ride out of a pretty remote area with questionable phone service did not seem like a worthy pursuit--in fact it seemed foolish.  So when we got to Kanan we decided to keep going... but fully recognized that we'd likely not be taking on a whole lot more than the next section or so.

We arrived at Encinal Canyon TH which is mile 43.4 with ~48 miles on the GPS (though it was pinging at a low, low rate and was therefore probably around a couple miles shy of the actual distance we covered given all the switchbacks and poor service areas we'd gone through) and decided there that it was likely the last easy place to thumb a ride down to Hwy 1 and get back to the comforts of the rental car, burgers and beers.

I wanted to finish what we had set out to accomplish but I was fully okay with the decision made.  I had to admit to MM back at mile 25 that this wasn't my day, that I hadn't been feeling really good.  I'd been feeling pretty sicky all week long and during the past 2 months I have been quite sick with a series of colds and infections (cough, sinus/head, cough, sinus/head, repeat).  I made the best of it and did the best I could to train through it all with this goal on my mind but I could feel its effects and while I felt strong I had low energy levels and my breathing was especially laborious.  MM was a bit of tough one to read as we discussed pushing on a little more or heading down the canyon with our thumbs out.  I mean, I know he's a mentally tough dude who doesn't give a shit about a little discomfort or even a little risk but I think he was satisfied with the effort we'd put in and knew that getting to La Jolla Canyon/PCH at 7 or later with nothing but a soaking wet t-shirt and cars going by at 70mph was not a good place to be at any expense.

I learned a lot from the adventure and I hope to share it soon in another post.

Cheers!  And thanks for all the support!!  Dream a big dream and go for it because if you don't you won't!!!

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