Saturday, September 11, 2010

Soul Searching Part II: The Backbone Story

The Backbone Trail is something I've had on my radar for a long time now. I've spent a lot of time out there this summer on different sections and knew that before the end of the summer it was just something I had to do. And I wanted to do it alone. So after three days off to recover from the Colorado adventure, I tested the old climbing legs up Los Liones. I felt perfectly awesome, so I decided that two days later I would finally tackle this adventure.
What exactly is the adventure, you say? Well, allow me to enlighten you... the Backbone is a collection of various trails that runs from Santa Monica to Oxnard, covering about 69 miles. Let's add a few other noteworthy points:
  • The signage is not so hot, sometimes not marked at all in sections. Basically, you've got to talk to your forefathers to officially understand the trail and all the sections where you "run next to the fence by the water tank at the school" or "pick up the unmarked trail to the right where the main trail banks left". You know, highly descriptive shit like that. Personally, this is a huge draw to me, as I like feeling as if I'm doing something covert and possibly illegal.
  • The creators of what is deemed the official Backbone Trail only picked the hardest ways to get anywhere - up and over the highest peaks in the Santa Monica range. Basically, you are either going up or down the entire time for a total of over 19,000 feet of climbing and a similar decent feature. This hurts.
You can see why I was psyched to do this. Here's the story...

I headed out friday night to hide stuff in bushes, as the only place to refill water was at mile 13.5 and I planned to do the whole trail in a self-supported fashion. I was like the Easter Bunny of Topanga, but with less Cadbury Eggs and more Lemon Sublime GU. That may seem awesome, but in reality I was completely annoyed that I had to drive all the way to Malibu, and that it took almost three hours to drive around to the trailheads; which I realize is completely ridiculous considering the fact that I was perfectly okay with running past Malibu for 16-20 hours. Actually I was freaking amped to do that.

After a few hours of sleep, the tax man (Krogmann) graciously picked me up around 3:40 am and dropped me off at Will Rogers State Park, where I'd run about a mile in to reach the official start of the Backbone Trail. Official start time: 4:24 am.


So, the moon was all but a sliver which meant unfortunately I had to use my headlamp for the hour and a half of darkness. I had lost my beginning scary dark-time* pacer as of 3:15 this morning, so I put on my big girl pants (the saucony elite split shorts, for inquiring minds) and began the initial seven mile climb at a nice, relaxed pace. All alone, just like I always envisioned it.
*also referred to as "night"

I reached the hub, a place I have been many a times, at first light and took a brief moment to take it all in. What I would be doing today... why I was doing it... what I hoped it would bring me. The answers to those questions, respectively were:
a) running from Santa Monica to Oxnard;
b) because the boys did it and I want to do it too; and
c) clarity

Hey Santa Monica Mountains... you're preeeetty.

My thinking rock.

On the way to Dead Horse, I saw the first person of the day and he was utterly confused by me, the fact I had a light on my head and that I actually already knew the tricky section around the school. He was not confused by the fact that I was running to Point Mugu however, because he flat out didn't believe me. Like actually said the words, "I'll check the news in the morning to see if they've found you yet." That was comforting.

I refilled my water at the end of Musch and rolled into Dead Horse, mile 13.3, at 7:15a. I'd already done a LOT of climbing, and I was about to embark upon one of the hardest, longest ascents of the day. I felt remarkably fresh though, and went in vowing to run as many sections as I could without my heart going super out of control. I also love this section, because it's one of the places that's very twisty, turny and better know where you're going-y. It made me feel like I was in on some secret path due north and one of the few who loved these mountains so much that I took the time to learn how they worked. Like I really knew these mountains. It was all pretty spectacular.

The climb up Hondo went a lot better than expected. See, what I expected was 2,000 feet of pain and torture. What I got was a quick little jaunt up a mountain smiling 1.21 jigawatts and singing some Good Old War at the top of my lungs. As a result of this official high, I made it up to Stunt/Scheuren 25 minutes faster than expected and geared myself up for the loooong decent to Tapia with my first solid food of the day. I left in the best of moods and picked my way through the large boulders that always spawn a 20 minute conversation between me and myself concerning how they got there. They just don't make any sense! Another hour clipped away without any knowledge of the passing of time. I was floating.

Said weird rocks, obviously placed here by a T-Rex back in the day and then used as a claw sharpener.

Tortilla chips are number one.

The one and only Peter Williams was waiting for me at Tapia, ready and psyched to hit the last of the truly terrible climbs of the day. Bulldog loomed ahead and we got right to it. Now I'll tell you what, that Peter Williams has a way of making time pass - even when said time should be totally shitty. This climb is relentless, but I was having the grandest of times hiking, talking, laughing, not stepping on a snake and altogether loving life. I can't imagine a friend I'd have rather been out there with at that point. Like myself, for Peter THIS is the shit that it's all about. Not winning races, not a big production, not a finish line to cross to the cheers of fans and friends and family. Nope. Just me and the mountains. Getting out there and trying just because I want to see if I can. Truly being there for each of the moments the day was made of, not for the single victorious step at the end. Peter "P-Dubs" Williams was a great reminder to live every single stride of my journey and not to take a single second for granted. He also tells me butt jokes. The dichotomy is off the charts.

The true "spine" of the Backbone.

I hit Corral a little after noon, and after a brief hip stretching attempt on a log, I was ready to get out of the blaring sun and into the shade of Solstice Canyon. After such a great climb up Bulldog, the last thing I expected was for a little incline out of the canyon to provide any trouble. But alas, trouble it was. I think the cumulative effect of these mountains was starting to take its toll, and to whether or not I was consuming enough calories and up on my salt is debatable. Probably not.

Either way, I tried to run what I could and altogether, just be. Sometimes this is an extremely hard task for me, and lately, it's been altogether impossible. It's like someone took all the components of my life, put them in a giant Yahtzee cup, shook it for about two months give or take and then dumped out the results. Now I'm supposed to figure out which dice to save and which to re-roll. And I hate both decisions and math.

Now you understand why I am seeking clarity out here. You see, I really, really like the idea of learning to live my life without expectations. Living, running and loving - giving my all and expecting absolutely nothing in return. Focusing solely on the moments and the process. But it's hard. It's natural to expect outcomes, reciprocation and to get what you deserve. If you live a good, moral life and work hard - you should have a good job, people should treat you with respect and bad things shouldn't happen. If you train hard, recover properly and race with your heart - you should run well. If you love someone with every fiber of your being and believe in them utterly - that should be enough. I'm learning more and more each day that should is a nasty, nasty word. Could is better. Is is best. Actually is is all there is.

Maybe that's why I hit this low point and it didn't phase me. I know that in most every long run or race I have, at some point it will become mentally draining and I will hate life for a bit. The stage was set physically, but mentally it didn't bother me. In fact, nothing had been mentally phasing me on my runs as of late. Perhaps that is my draw to running - perhaps I was figuring this "no expectations" thing out on a small scale. I've always believed that part of my draw to the 100 mile distance is the experience of a lifetime of emotions in one day. And in life, I'm able to stay zen for a few days at a time before everything goes to shit again. So maybe that was it: I'd figured out how to just be in the running context. In fact, compared to everything else going on, I was relieved to just be in the running context.

And so I was.

Just living the dream...

Peter and I cruised into Kanan just as Caitlin and Dolly pulled up in the ninja car.* I decided to take a real break, cool down a bit and get some legitimate calories down. I was really thankful for a few sips of cold gatorade (rather than my nasty, hot, from the bushes variety) and also that Mrs. Williams is awesome and drove all the way out there to pick up her husband so that he could run with me for awhile on my long journey. I've got some pretty amazing people in my life, no doubt. I hated to say goodbye, but it would be good for me to have a section to myself to reconnect with the trail and what I was doing. So after a few more bites of Mojo bar and a refill of the pack, I was off to Encinal.

*i.e. Prius. Seriously, I've almost been hit by one of these silent motherfuckers like at least ten times.

P-Dubs and I at Kanan: mile 39ish.

I don't remember a lot from this section, other than I was starting to get my legs back, perhaps even what one could describe as "a pep in my step", and that a hiker was remarkably disturbed that I ran on these "dangerous" trails all by myself.

But you're a woman!

You're goddamn right I am.

I'm a woman who is interested in finding her limits. I am a woman capable of independence. I am a woman who constantly seeks what is right and true, not what will fill her childish girl's ego. I am a woman who confronts lack of confidence head on, rather than seeking validity from others and by putting others down. When uncomfortable, I force further discomfort until a point is reached where I finally understand. I am a woman who never fails to ask questions for fear of an undesirable answer... both from others or from myself. I am compassionate. I am loyal. I am forgiving. I am fierce. I am strong. I am incredible. No, I am not a girl. I am a fucking woman. And that's why I'm here.

About a mile out of Mulholland, I encountered a nearly naked man in neon green sunglasses cawing like a bird. Dominic. I was excited for some company once again and even more excited to learn that there were ice cold beverages waiting for me at the trailhead. Thank heaven almighty. Here's the thing about the Easter Bunny water: it gets hot. Like so hot that no matter how much I drink, I never really feel satiated. Welcome to the last four hours of my life. WELL, little did I know that ice cold beverage actually meant it was ic-y, like with ice literally blended into it. Ladies and gentleman, I give you the McDonald's Real Fruit Smoothie - i.e. half-melted deliciousness in a plastic cup. There were also french fries, and let me tell you, there are few things more precious than salt and fat after a day in the heat filled with nothing but sugary gels and chews. I've got to hand it to him, though I normally despise McDonald's and feel somewhat dirty when I have to buy his McChickens at mile 80, Dom really came through on this one. Fry boy ran with me up to the fire road and we laughed and joked and talked about the relative safety of Osprey helicopters. My legs were definitely feeling better after the legit sustenance and I was surprised at my newfound ability to climb again.

Atop the fireroad in the late afternoon sun, I found myself alone again and just altogether happy. That was a feeling I hadn't felt in a long time and I let it sink in as I cruised the next few miles on one of the most beautiful stretches the Backbone has to offer. Can I name this section Big Sky? Because I am. The only bad part about Big Sky was that I did not remember how long it was. I had only run this section once before, and I'm pretty sure I was zoned out and not paying attention. Big shocker. This definitely resulted in a little bit of a freak out as the long stretch of trail jutted in and out of a seemingly endless mountainside. To make matters worse, Dom was going to meet me at the road crossing and I was absolutely positive I wasn't running fast enough to have missed him.* Numbers began melting together and I began imagining turns that were never there - actually they would have been impossible unless they were either: a) through a cave, or b) off a cliff. As I began descending on the opposite side of the range, I swore I heard the familiar "ca-caw" down below. I tried to respond as Katie-bird, but alas, my throat was dry and caked with dust and I was unable to get any volume on it. I sounded more like a dying ant.

*Apparently, I was.

Anyway, I got to a sharp left fork that I didn't remember and got scared. I ran up to the road and tried to call Dom, but his phone wasn't getting service. Now completely confused, I sat on a rock for 10 minutes and tried to gather my thoughts. Luckily, a ranger came by and assured me that Mishe Mokwa was down the road and encouraged me to take the pavement. I wasn't having any of that. No way was I giving up on the trail here, at mile 50, after the heat of the day and all those long climbs. So I resolved to take the unfamiliar turn and just hope that it would lead me to the trailhead. I mean, it had to right? It was the only way to go.

Well, I had indeed heard a caw and after one more freak out that admittedly brought a stinging to my eyes (no tears fell, I swear!), I surfaced at Mishe Mokwa more excited to see that black Volvo than I have been maybe ever. After only a few minutes of standing around collecting my brain, I began to get a little cold, as the sun was already going down. I had only about 15-16 miles to go, but Dom informed me that this was the last time he would be seeing me until the top of old Ray Miller. Nutso. The one section I don't know well, and I would be left to navigate in the dark by myself. NOTE: THIS IS WHAT THEY CALL FORESHADOWING. So I ate some pretzels, refilled my drop and Dom highlighted a map for me of all the turns I'd be facing "just in case." MORE FORESHADOWING. I probably spent a good 15 minutes or so prepping for the night and talking myself into running alone for the next few hours in the dark and not missing any turns. Dom figured I'd be done between 9 and 10 - in time for a celebratory Arrogant Bastard at the bottom and then off for some food. I said it could be 10:30 at the latest, since I'd probably be over cautious about not missing a turn on the section I'd never run. After a big old hug and reassembling my headlamp, I took off for the climb up Sandstone Peak - the highest point in the Santa Monicas.

Sunset at Mishe Mokwa - mile 52

It's about to get weird.

I reached the top just as the sun was going down, and let me tell you, it was magical. The sky was a fiery red with the black outlines of all the mountains I had come up and over resting quietly in the foreground. My heart, once empty yet heavy, was now full and weightless. Interesting how that works. I began the descent knowing that I was right when I decided that this was something I had to do.

OK, remember that last paragraph where I got all meta on you and maybe even made you cry? Yes well, that all went to shit in the matter of about ten minutes. First, it became immediately apparent to me that running for a few more hours on a desolate trail that I don't really know... alone.. in the dark was not really the best idea in the world... especially considering that my cell had died and was now in the car. Hmmmm. Next, my stomach completely shut down and refused to do anything other than feel like I was going to puke, without actually just letting me puke. I knew this was probably due to the downhill this late in the game, and fortunately, I had about seven miles and 2,000+ feet of descent in which to contend with. I resorted to running with my arms clenched tightly around my waist to prevent some of the jostling. Now, this was particularly interesting if you consider that the mountain I was running down is called Boney and I'm sure that has something to do with the sharp bone-like items* jutting this way and that way and every which way that is not underground. Needless to say, losing the use of your arms is a little difficult while running an extremely technical downhill after 55 miles of relentless up and down. Also, I was having to stop every five minutes or so for a little dry heaving and trying to get what was most assuredly the bubonic plague out of me by whatever means possible. Here are the additional problems: not eating and slowing down was making me cold. (We all know what happens when I get cold.) My achilles were killing me from wearing heavier shoes all day, and I was having trouble focusing on my form. Things were certainly getting interesting.

*You might call these "rocks".

Well, that was nothing compared to the little surprise I had waiting for me at the bottom of the canyon. I got to the turn that would send me into unchartered territory, consulted my trusty map for a double check and dove in. I was twisting and turning in an overgrown mess, paying attention to every inch, stomach still wretching. After about 20 minutes or so, I began to notice the air getting remarkably heavy. I was chilly and not sweating much, yet I was soaking wet. Weird. Oh it was about to get weirder.... moments later, the thickest fog I have ever encountered thus far in life rolled in. I am not exaggerating - I have two witnesses. Dom and the ranger out looking for me when he alerted the dispatch for a possible search and rescue. You see where I am going with this.

By the time I got to Danielson Ranch, my last stop before home, I couldn't see anything at all. There were muted lights throughout the area but I couldn't tell what anything was until I was right on it. It was some horror movie shit for sure.* I quickly became very disoriented and I was unable to pick up the trail out of the ranch. Flat out couldn't find it. I spent about a half hour wandering around and briefly considered banging on an RV door for help, but decided to keep looking. By this time, it was already past 9 and I was supposed to be done. Uh, not so much.

*RV or alien abduction? At this point, does it really even matter?

Aha, finally! Sycamore Canyon Trail. But wait, which way do I go? Where the hell am I? God? Despite the racing contradictory thoughts, I remained remarkably calm and just figured I'd start running the direction that felt right, and if I was wrong, I'd just have to turn around. Simple as that. There was really no other option. Unfortunately, I wasn't going to be able to see any of the landmarks that let me know I was going the right way. Mainly because I couldn't see anything at all. Opposite of unfortunately,* I eventually reached the intersection with Old Boney, which let me know I had chosen right... I mean left, which was right. Are you confused yet? Good, now you understand. Next challenge: find the connector up to Outlook and I'd be golden. I began running on the right side of the trail, scanning with my headlight in order to reflect off the trail markers. It was in this way that I saw my first set of eyes in the fog... and then the eyes disappeared before I could ascertain if they belonged to a deer, coyote, bird or serial killer. Yet again, I was bizarrely calm. In my head, it kind of all came down to this: people had been out in the wilderness in the dark with possible predators by themselves (can we add another preposition here? can we?!) since the beginning of time. (nailed it!) What I was doing was not dangerous; it was natural. It would only become dangerous if I lost my cool, my sense of intuition and started making stupid mistakes. So, I just kept moving and figured I'd cross the "attacked by an animal" bridge when I got there. That is, if I could see it.


Before long, I passed the first joining trail - Wood Canyon. Awesome. That meant just a few more minutes and I'd hit the Backbone connector, aptly named "Backbone Trail," according to the map and website. Next trail: not aptly named Backbone. Surprise, surprise. Actually, there were three separate markers with various names: Wood Canyon, To Outlook and CAUTION. It was here that I was faced with some choices.

1. Run back and make sure I really did pass Wood Canyon already. Done, and I did.

2. Okaaaaaay... run up ahead for five minutes and make sure there isn't another connector. Ran for seven, there was not.

3. Fine, this shit says Outlook, that's where I want to go. Even if it's not the BBT, it will get you out of this godforsaken canyon and you'd rather be alive than dead, having stayed on the technically correct trail.

Well, I was out of options, so I took door #3. At first, I was trying to justify every twist and turn with how the squiggly line was drawn on the map. That was, until I noticed the very large "MAP NOT GUARANTEED FOR ACCURACY" printed across the top. OK, why the fuck would you give me a map if it's not accurate? Doesn't the very act of one buying a map preclude that they will, at some point, need a guide to point them in the correct direction? Accurately? No sir. Personally, I would prefer a map that will not necessarily get me to where I'd like to go. Just guesstimates, please.

At any rate, I climbed and climbed, as did my level of worrying from "probably fine" to "officially concerned." Not about myself and my ability to get back. Moreso about the fact that I knew by this point, Dominic would be worried sick about me, a full hour past due at Ray Miller and I still wasn't there. It was too cold for him to wait up at the top for too long, and I just prayed that he wasn't off the trail looking in the wrong direction - or worse, that I wasn't off the trail and we'd miss each other. He'd stay out here all night trying to find me, and then we'd both be in trouble. Putting myself in imminent danger? Fine. Putting someone else in said danger? Not cool.

Knowing that there was nothing I could do at this point other than continue to move forward, I reassessed the situation. The good news is that I was running again, but the bad news is that I was out of calories and didn't want to risk more stomach failure by trying to get some back in. I wouldn't be out there that much longer... I just had to keep going. The next fantastic thing that happened was that I reached the top! Woohoo the Outlook Fire Road to take me home! Oh wait. This is not the fire road. This is a random split in the trail. This is not on the map. This is a problem.

Technically, I should be heading left, but for some reason that didn't feel right. So I veered right, again knowing that worst case scenario: I would simply turn around and head back the other way and would just be out there a little longer. The one awesome thing was that I checked the marker on the trail I just came off of and it said Backbone! So technically it WAS marked Backbone, just not at the end I was coming from. Thanks, map. After a few more minutes of blind running I dumped out on a large expanse... Bam. Fireroad. Three cheers for Katie's directional instincts.

This next part of the run was hands-down my favorite experience of the entire day. I had reached a section of trail I knew so well that even though I could not see a few inches in front of my face, I knew exactly where I was at all times. I felt every turn, every slightest incline, every minimal change in terrain and could perfectly picture my surroundings. It was kind of amazing. At this point, I was running like a woman possessed; exhausted, beat up, depleted and wholly focused on getting myself to the end of this trail. I was amazed at how calm and unemotional I had remained throughout the day and especially the night, and I realized a strength that I always suspected was in me, but doubted given the way my previous 100's had crumbled towards the end. Maybe since it was September 11, I thought about my brother serving in Afghanistan many times, especially now. I had lived on edge, focused and hyper aware for the last few hours. He and his battalion had been living like that for over six months in a type of danger that was far worse than what I had found myself in tonight. I felt such pride for his strength and courage and knew that while it was on an entirely different level, I had that blood in me too.

This section was also awesome, because I imagine it largely to resemble what an acid trip would be like. I was completely disoriented, lost in a cloud, running like a mad woman and eyes were flashing in and out of the fog as coyotes howled all around me, unable to perceive time, space or relativity. I kept thinking that the eyes were Dominic's headlamp and I would shout out only to never discover what animal was staring me down. Basically, it was some really weird shit.

At this point, I had entered the fog vortex, and I legitimately could not even see my feet. I knew I was getting close to the Ray Miller turn off and I was beginning to fear I might miss it, so I resorted to running on the far right side of the trail with my shoulder literally in the scrapy bushes. My thought process was that when they stopped tearing the shit out of my arm I would know I had reached the turn.

This.... actually worked.

Descending Mugu, I began dipping in and out of the fog getting crazy views of the lights out to sea. I was cawing and calling out for Dom the whole way down, thinking maybe he was searching the area, but as it was I was perfectly alone. There was an eerie view of the lights out to sea and I reveled in the moments where the fog gave me a bit of reprieve and allowed me a glimpse of how beautiful the night was up here, far, far away from the city. The city I had run from. My body was aching and my FKT had gone to shit long ago down in Danielson, but let's be honest: that wasn't the reason I was here. I had spent the wee-est hours of the morning to the blackest part of the night on a journey that served no purpose but for the journey itself. I had been truly happy in every single moment. I had persevered and kept my head through a really bad and dangerous situation and got myself home in one, not too wrecked piece. The confidence I had gained in the last few hours was something I knew would make all the difference in my upcoming races and adventures (I realize that I only say this now that I know I'm safe...) and well, life. I had been doubting my strength for months now and needed this kind of physical reminder - one that I had begun in Colorado, but was not quite yet certain of. Now I was certain. So yeah... I'd say mission accomplished.

With a million thoughts swirling through my head, I opened my stride and ran assuredly to the end of the Backbone Trail in Point Mugu State Park. As suspected, there was no one there, as the park was closed and a gate assured vehicles could not enter. It was perfectly uneventful. Just as I had always imagined it.

After a few moments of happiness and gratitude, my mind immediately snapped back into survival mode. I was out there alone, depleted in the cold, damp night. This wasn't over yet. I ran to the end of the park, praying to every god I'd ever heard of that Dominic would be parked on PCH and not off looking for me somewhere. I was three hours past due. As I exited the gate, I saw nothing and the fog engulfed me once again. I fumbled to turn my headlamp on flash and ran out into the middle of the highway screaming for him, still absolved not to panic (though I realize the description I've painted of myself over the last few paragraphs could easily double as a police blotter). I knew where a campsite was. I was only a few hour's run from civilization. I would not die out here tonight.

Luckily, a set of headlights flashed on and my journey ended here. I ran over to the side of the road and was immediately enveloped in a hug of mutual relief and gratitude. Apparently, 'ole Indiana Grossman had been atop Ray Miller, crawling in the dirt trying to track my footprints on the fire road for a long time. Eventually he decided to head back down and alert the dispatch, as he hoped that I was just slowed down by the fog, but couldn't dismiss the alternatives. I feel terrible that I made him worry so much, as I know what that's like to worry about him - trusting that he's most likely okay, but never being able to completely shut out the what-ifs. It's a terrible, terrible feeling and is why I often like to do things alone and under the radar and try to keep my loved ones out of it. I don't ever want people to worry about me like that over something I chose to do.

Speaking of what I chose to do... I did it! And all said and done, I wouldn't have changed a single thing. Though weeks later (as I finally finish writing this), I feel more lost than I've ever been, for one entire day I felt whole and completely happy again. And just like when I was lost in the dark of the La Jolla fog, I know that I will find my way again if I remain calm, confident and just simply believe. In short, I needed this. I needed this so fucking bad and while a run can't fix me, it can sure do one hell of a job in reminding me how to fix myself.

So, thank you Backbone. Thank you for attempting to kill me, but being so damn beautiful that I could never be mad at you. You rule.

OFFICIAL START TIME: 4:24 am, 9/11/10 - Will Rogers State Park

OFFICIAL END TIME: 12:14 am, 9/12/10 - Point Mugu State Park

19 hours, 50 minutes. Yikes.

Thank-you Peter, Caitlin, Dominic and Mountains.

"You're a mountain that I'd like to climb. Not to conquer, but to share in the view." ~Incubus


  1. I'm pretty sure I want you to be my best friend. Loved every word, like it was a conversation between you and the trail.

    This IS what gets my hyped. This IS why I'm running with you tomorrow.


  2. Really enjoyed your Backbone Journey. Full of highs of lows accepting of all as they came and went.. Congrats on your perseverance. One of my favorite point to point runs of all times. I was poking around on the Backbone Trail while it was under construction for years, bushwacking following blue flags in the chaparral and getting ticks on a weekly basis. Finally when it was completed it was well worth the wait.. I'll have to repeat it again in the coming year now that you got me fired up on it again..

  3. Thanks, Howard. It was a truly magical experience and one I aim to repeat (sans getting lost in the fog - now that I know where i am going:) If you need any help along your BBT journey this year, let me know! I love pulling trail fairy.