I LIVE! I DIE! I LIVE AGAIN! (Backbone Race Report)
March 15, 2017
I don’t usually do race reports. But I don’t usually run 68 miles in one shot either. This was uncharted territory for me. Previously I had done a 50 miler and one that my gps said was 50.91 miles. That 50.91 was my longest race as far as distance and time. Red Rock 50 in the Santa Barbara back country. A beautiful and tough race put on by Luis Escobar. Great RD, great photographer and if you have read Born to Run, his iconic picture graces the cover of that book.
A bit of history
A while back my good friend Leo and I had thought about doing the backbone trail in its entirety. We knew it would be tough and we figured we would need friends to meet us at certain spots so we could resupply with food and water. We also thought it would be good if we had someone with us that knew the entire trail. Friends to crew us seemed very doable. Someone to be our guide felt a little tougher. Sure we knew some people that had done the entire thing, but making schedules work for something like that wouldn’t be easy. Another obstacle to the Backbone trail is that some of it would go through private property and for a while the owners of some of the property had closed it down. There were many obstacles to overcome.
Then last year it was announced that the trail would be connected! The state was able to get the land to connect it. In part by buying it and in part thanks to donations of land by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Betty Weider. The Coyote Cohorts had put on a race on the Backbone trail in 2013 and 2014. But now that it was connected they had to have the race once again! This set up the 2017 Backbone race. The trail itself is 67 miles long but the race begins at Will Rogers State Park, 1 mile away from the Backbone Trail start.
I was out at Will Rogers on a training run on June 4th, 2016. It was National Trails day and they were having a celebration there because of the Backbone trail. That is when I first met Howard Cohen and Mike Epler. I ran into them at the start of the trail. They were going to hike the whole thing but one of them was going to get a head start. They also told me that the backbone trail race was on for 2017 but that the official sign up wouldn’t be open for a few months. That was enough for me. I knew that I wanted in, and if McManus is in, then Fenster has to come along. It took Leo (Fenster…or McManus we haven’t decided yet) a bit longer to sign up after I did. But he eventually signed up. So that is a bit of background for what was to come.
I go to bed at 10pm because 3:30am comes fast! Race start was at 6am but there are a lot of things to do before a race! Have breakfast, make last minute check on your camelbak and drop bags and um we’re all adults here, you have to build that log cabin. Usually before a race I might have to do that twice before I leave the house and once more when I get to the race. Nervous stomach I guess. I woke up at 2am and my brain said “Well that’s enough sleep for today. You will sleep no more!” I lay in bed for an hour but couldn’t sleep. So I get up and build that log cabin. Then I make my kale/spinach shake and drink it. I check all my bags and double-check them. I look at my watch and it’s 4am. I’m ready to go! Then my stomach says I should use the bathroom again. Fine with me.
At 4:30am my good friend Tina is outside ready to take Leo and I to the start line! What a friend! Getting up so early!! Leo parks his car and off we go to the race. When we get to the road leading to the park, it really sunk in, “I am going to run 68 miles with 14,000 feet of gain today. OH MY GOD!” I said to Tina “I changed my mind. I don’t want to do this.” She knew I was kidding.
We walk into the parking lot and there are a lot of runners there. Most of them signed up for the 68 mile race but also a good amount of them are really crazy and are doing the 100 mile option. That means you run all of the backbone and go do 3 different loops on some other trails. NUTS. We check in and get our race bibs and my stomach says “Hate to bother you but this turtle is poking it’s head out.” So I go to the bathroom for the third time.
(Photo credit to Coyote Cohorts FB Page)
So the race starts at 6:30am. It’s a bit chilly but I knew that it was best to leave my jacket, and gloves in my drop bag. I would get warm soon enough. Yep by mile 1 I was happy that I was wearing my tank top. By mile 2 I already told Leo a joke. He had already heard it and he thinks that I told it to him a few years ago. He was kind enough to let me finish the joke anyways. The first 11 miles were nice. We knew what to expect. This was all parts of the trail that we had both done a number of times. That is when we get to the first aid station and we eat. PB and J, potatoes, pretzels, refill our camelbaks with water, and drink some coke too. I also broke out some of the terrible dad jokes for the aid station workers. Everyone is in great spirits and we are almost ten percent done with the race!
Leo and I started heading out and we get maybe 1/10th of a mile away from the aid station and I look at Leo and asked him where his hiking poles were. Oops! He forgot them at the aid station. He backtracked while I waited for him. He just bought them a couple days before and they are carbon fiber. You don’t want to lose something that nice! They were also helping him a lot on the downhill running.
With really long races you have to just think of it as smaller sections. Aid station to aid station. We had done a preview run up Hondo Canyon trail about a month before and knew what to expect. We also thought it would be easier than the time we did it before. When we did it, the trail had been hit hard with rain and had sections that were really really muddy. We had also done a race the week before that had a ton of mud. I had a hard time during our training run and fell a few times. Since then it hasn’t rained much and the sun has been out quite a bit. So the trail had dried out for the most part. As we climbed and climbed and climbed I told Leo “Hey this feels a lot easier than the last time.” He said, “I was just thinking that I felt much better the last time we did it.” Leo was having a tough time. We stopped a few times so he could catch his breath.
When we got to where we thought the aid station was going to be, we realized it was at least another mile to the aid station. That is when I decided to play some music on my phone for Leo. Get him pumped! Not sure if it worked for him but it worked for me. I started running up some of the trail thanks to Metallica. But when Leo was falling farther back I waited for him and slowed down. Rage Against the Machine came on and again I was getting pumped!
We get to the aid station and it was pretty awesome. Tam was the aid station captain and had asked me before the race if there was anything special she could get for me. During the past few months I had only drank alcohol 3 times. I cut way back because this race frightened me. So my request for her was a beer and avocado. Her follow up question was “What kind of beer?” So she had an Arrogant Bastard Ale for me and it was delicious. To paraphrase Andy Dufrense, “A working man feels more like a man when he can enjoy a nice bottle of suds.” I ate my 2 pieces of avocado wrap, had my beer, refilled my camelbak, and probably ate some more potatoes. Mile 18-ish and I was feeling good.
We climbed up a bit more before the long descent to the Piuma aid station at mile 25. This is where the heat was starting to really hit. Normally Leo and I love technical single track downhill with sharp turns. But the sun was hitting us pretty hard. I told Leo that Adrian would love this trail. Why? Because it’s Rocky. Yep…the dad jokes were still going on. Since I was in front I would yell out sharp right or sharp left when we had to turn quickly. So on one I yelled “Right right right!” Leo said we should yell out McConnaughey for sharp rights because “alright alright alright” and for left turns Beyonce, because “to the left to the left.” We had a third person that stayed with us at that point and he even got into it. He started saying Beyonce or McConnaughey. This is probably going to be a thing from now on when we run together.
As we kept going down this never ending downhill Leo ran out of water. Mistakes were made. He forgot to get his camebak refilled. But the good thing is that I felt like mine had too much water. I only wanted about a liter put in mine but I think they put 1.5 liters. Instead of emptying some out I figured it was better to have a bit too much water than not enough. That bit too much came in handy! We made it to the aid station and I still had some water in my pack.
At mile 25 we get our first of 2 drop bags. My drop bag had my running light, some extra gels, a charger, sunscreen, a change of shirt, a change of socks, batteries, a blue tooth speaker, a cable to charge my phone, a cable to charge my watch, and a hairbrush. Just kidding. I didn’t put the hairbrush in there. Leo had his turkey bacon beef jerky and a number of other things as well. Even though there was still plenty of daylight, we knew we wouldn’t get to mile 52 until it got dark and we should have our lights at mile 25. Eat, refill camelbaks, apply sunscreen, charge devices, repack, and keep moving. We were familiar with the next 6 miles of the race and how brutal they could be, both because of the climbing and the heat.
We slowly made our way up to the next aid station. We saw a baby rattlesnake pretty early on during this climb and it looked like he had just eaten. We sidestepped it a bit but then I remembered there was a woman behind us. I kept looking back to see if she was coming but I didn’t see her. Once I saw that the snake was off the trail I figured she would be ok. It would be easy to not see this snake and step on it if it was in still in the middle of the trail.
It was at this point where Leo’s stomach betrayed him. We think that he took in way too much salt at the aid station at mile 25. He ate the jerky, and also had potato that he dipped in salt. I had some salt as well as I dipped orange slices into the salt. But the combo of the jerky and the salty potatoes might have been too much. It became a bit of a death march for Leo. I played music for him and just made sure he was ok.
When we were about three miles from the aid station we walked by a guy that was having a worse time than Leo. He said his muscles were cramping up, he had taken salt pills but they weren’t helping. Leo told him that if he went back to the aid station it was about the same distance as going to the next one. No man’s land! A Sophie’s choice of the trails if you will. Go backwards and down a really tough descent that will hurt a lot or go forward and climb a few more hills in the heat. He slowly inched his way forward as Leo and I kept going.
Then Leo said to me that he felt bad for the guy but there wasn’t much for us to do. That’s when it hit me, why didn’t I get the guy’s race number? I told Leo to keep moving forward and I would go talk to the guy. So I ran back a bit and asked him if he was going to drop out of the race. He said “Yeah. I want someone to come get me.” I told him that I wasn’t sure if a car could get to this point but to keep moving forward and I would tell the aid station. I asked him if I could take a picture of him and his race bib in case I forget what number he had. When you’ve been on your feet that long and it’s hot out it’s easy to forget stuff. I took his picture and told him I would give the aid station a heads up. I also told him that if he really had to stop and wait to make sure he did it in the shade.
When we got to the aid station I told the volunteers about the guy and showed them the picture. I’m glad I took the picture because I probably had forgotten his bib number or what he was wearing by then. They sent a park ranger out to get him. After we had been there for a while a couple more runners (Paulo and Alicja) came in and said there was a guy laying down on the trail in the sun. Same guy. Once he was back in the station and got some liquids into him he seemed better but his race day was over.
Leo told me he wanted to lie down for a bit at the aid station. I said sure but if you do make sure you elevate your feet when you are on the ground, it will help. While he took a break I think I ate 6 flour tortillas at the aid station. Then I remembered I had packed a tortilla with hummus and bell pepper in my camelbak. I was so happy that I had done that. It was delicious! I washed it down with a Heinken. I asked for a second beer and the dude cooking asked if he could split it with me because he was running low on beer. Hell yeah I would split it. I’m a gentleman and shit. I’m not going to take a guy’s last beer!
This aid station was an extended stay. We were there for about an hour. Leo needed the rest. George (the guy cooking and with the beer) said that Leo looked better and really thought Leo would drop when he saw him lying on the ground. Side note: the volunteers at the race were fantastic. A volunteer and I filled up Leo’s pack with water but we couldn’t get it closed. He came over to show us how it worked. This is when a little bit of drama happened. As we get ready to go another runner says, “Hey! Those are my hiking sticks!” Leo says, “No, these are mine.” This other guy is arguing that they are his and he set them down while Leo says they are new. I got Leo’s back and say they are brand new…these are his. There was another pair nearby and they were a bit beat up. The guy says nope those are mine I just got them in December. I said he just bought these 2 days ago. That is when Leo says “Hold on. TIME OUT! I was lying here with the poles. Then I got up to help them close up my pack and leaned my poles next to me. These are mine. Someone else must have taken yours.” And we left. For the rest of the race whenever Leo asked me to hold on to the sticks I would inspect them and would say “Hey are you sure these are yours? I don’t think these are yours.” It made me laugh every time. I don’t think it amused him nearly as much as it amused me.
So we made our way to the next aid station at mile 37. We were told there wasn’t much at that aid station, other than water and maybe a tiny bit of food. As we headed towards it we ran into our buddy Mauricio. He came out to cheer and run few miles on his own. He hiked with us towards the next aid station. It was nice having a third person in our group. We kept moving forward. Then we hear a runner behind us and move a bit to let him through. It was the guy that argued about his hiking sticks. He brought it up to Leo again and said something to the effect that “people lie.” He kept going though. We had to tell Mauricio the whole story about the argument at the aid station.
When we got to mile 37 another one of our friends had left a treat for us. We walk in and the volunteer saw me and says…oh your friend Jennifer left something for you guys. She left us each a donut and some beer. One vegan donut for me, one regular donut for Leo. My mouth is watering just thinking back to that donut. We sat down for a bit and enjoyed our food. The next aid station was about 5 miles away and it was pretty dark now. Once again we told jokes to the aid station workers and had some laughs. One of the women there said they had beads so I lifted up my shirt to flash her. Bead achievement unlocked.
The next 5 miles were very dark but with the full moon out it was nice. We could hear a ton of frogs. Leo wondered what you call a group of frogs. Neither of us knew the answer. I know I made a bad frog in the throat joke somewhere around here but I can’t remember what it was. FYI a big group of frogs is called an army. The more you know. These 5 miles felt long. I think a big part of why they felt so long was because we didn’t know a lot of this part of the trail. We had only done the first 2 miles of this trail. Sometimes when it’s a new trail to you and it’s dark out, it feels much longer and tougher. At one point I had to relieve myself. I told Leo to keep walking and I would catch up. I ran to catch up to him and was pleasantly surprised that my legs felt good while running.
At the mile 42 station they had a lot of dinosaur jokes on poster boards near them. This was place was a lot of fun. Leo sat down to recover and eat. I used the porta-potty then got back to the station. We started telling them jokes and they told us some jokes. Then I saw the fireball sitting on the table. They offered me some and I said sure. They were a bit surprised that I said yes. I guess not many runners took them up on the offer. They were even more surprised when I poured myself a second shot. We told more jokes and one of the aid station workers played some Black Sabbath. WOO HOO!!!! I poured myself a third shot. A couple of runners I knew were here but they had both dropped out of the race. I felt bad for them. I had another shot. At this point the aid station volunteers couldn’t believe it. I also convinced a couple of them to have one with me, after all they couldn’t let me drink alone right? When you have been moving on the trail for about 15 hours you don’t feel the alcohol. I had no buzz. I was joking with them that I was going to do a fifth shot so that no other runner would break my record. One said “No, no you easily have the record and if someone even has a third shot we won’t let them drink it so that you keep the record.” We also ate burritos here! We each took a burrito to go.
When we finally got to the aid station at mile 52 we were happy to have a seat and get our second drop bag. I could change socks again! I use Injinji socks. Those socks have toe compartments and that means they are left and right foot specific. I had a change of socks at mile 25 and I had put 2 left foot socks. When I got to mile 52 I had 2 left foot socks. Mistakes were made. But it is easy to turn one sock inside out and just use it that way. In ultras sometimes the smallest comforts can pay big dividends. I was really happy to be able to change my socks twice during the race.
Joy was one of the aid station volunteers here. Before the race she also asked me if I wanted anything special at the aid station. I asked if she could have hummus, beer, and avocado. She delivered! I didn’t drink the beer though. Not because I didn’t want it but because I was getting cold and I knew we had to climb up near Sandstone Peak. That is the highest point in the SM Mountains. If I got too cold and started to shiver I would be wasting a lot of energy. So I sadly left the beer there. I did take advantage of having a second charger in my drop bag. Somewhere between aid stations my running light battery started to run really low. I started using my phone to light the trail. Leo had extra batteries for me in his drop bag.
We were told it was a 1 mile climb followed by 7 miles of downhill. Well that sounds just great on paper. We climbed a mile but yet we kept going up and up and up. I yell back at Leo “1 MILE CLIMB MY ASS!” It ended up being more of a 2 mile climb with a 6 mile drop. Normally downhill is great, but this part of the trail got so washed out by recent rains that it was like walking on shards of glass. There was a good 3 mile stretch where we dropped 1600 feet. That means a very steep drop on a very narrow trail with jagged rocks all over all at about 3am. Oh and did I mention the batteries in my running light died again? Cell phone light, you the real MVP. Somewhere on this trail Leo said to me “Hey there was a bat flying between us. He was stuck.” I didn’t see it so I can’t confirm or deny said bat. Leo could have been hallucinating or there could have really been bat there. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and say there was a bat there.
As we finished most of the dropping down the trail Leo says “Hey there is a runner coming! Watch out!” I turn around and a headlamp is moving up on us really fast. I couldn’t believe how fast this light was moving. I see this woman go by and I says “GOOD JOB!” Not sure how she is running so fast this far into the race. She replied “I’m not racing, I’m just a volunteer.” Leo then asked her how far the aid station was and she thought about 2-3 miles. In my head I was planning on it being about a mile away or maybe less. I told her that and she said “Well it could be but I’m not sure.” She kept running and maybe 30 seconds later she is yelling at us “IT’S 8/10THS OF A MILE AWAY!” When we got to the point she yelled at us from I saw the sign that read: Danielson Ranch .80 miles.
As we got near the aid station we started to get pretty cold. It was about 6:45am. The cut off here was at 6:30am but we thought it was 7:30am because of the time change. The volunteer told us we could keep going. We just had to get to the finish line by 10:30am. That would mean covering the next 8 miles in three and a half hours. If he told us we were cut from the race we would have to sit around there until about 11am. They weren’t leaving there until about that time. We had some warm soup and headed out. They told us just keep going straight and you will see the trail that goes up and catches Ray Miller.
Leo and I made our way down the trail. There were only 2 spots where you could turn off of the trail and one was marked with a ribbon for the 100 mile racers. So we kept making our way down when all of the sudden 2 guys coming towards us and headed back to the aid station area tell us that it’s the wrong trail One of them is Russell and we had been seeing him on the trail throughout the race. The other guy I didn’t know his name but he was pretty adamant that we were going the wrong way. He had run the race and the course before and kept repeating, “This doesn’t look right. This is the wrong trail. We’re going the wrong way.” Leo and I told Russell that we saw one pink ribbon behind us and that this has to be the right way. Russell came with us and the other guy wasn’t sure what to do. He followed us from about a distance of 100 yards back but he was like Rain Man, “This doesn’t look right. This is the wrong trail. This doesn’t look right.” We thought we saw a ribbon up ahead but wasn’t one but kept moving forward. Then we saw the pink ribbon that marked the beginning of the last long climb.
When Russell saw it he ran up it pretty fast. The older guy looked at the ribbons and said, “Wait what does that say?” Like he was trying to read a sign. I didn’t think that I saw a sign there. But I saw the course marking and just kept moving forward. The older guy just would not be convinced that this was the way. He was sure it looked wrong. I was frustrated hearing him repeat over and over that it was the wrong way. So I pushed the pace up the climb. It was probably faster than Leo wanted to go but I didn’t want to hear this other guy anymore. I also thought, “If this is the wrong way why do you keep following us!?!?” So we left him pretty far behind and we get above him on the trails and I tell Leo, “We should yell back…hey this is the wrong trai!” Leo says, “Naw man that would be mean.” I was kidding about doing it. Then not 30 seconds go by and we hear from far away, “HEY YOU GUYS ARE GOING THE WRONG WAY! THIS IS THE WRONG TRAIL! YOU GUYS!!!!” Then Leo mutters “Unbelievable.”
About halfway through this climb Marshall was running down the trail. He was one of the 100 mile runners. I’ve seen him a few times while out training. He trains on a lot of the same trails as I do. He gives me a high five and says, “You got this man! It’s less than 7 miles. It’s like running one Westridge.” That was a good way to look at it. As we see him run own the older guy stopped him to ask if this was the right trail. That made me laugh.
When we got to the top of the climb I knew exactly where we were and that it was about 4.5 miles to the finish! I also knew there was a long mild ascent that sucked. We kept moving and the sun started to get warm again. This was the second sunrise of our long trek. My mouth had been feeling dry for the past 3 hours but I could feel in my stomach that I might be over-hydrating. So I was doing a lot of rinsing with water and spitting it out. When we hit the section that is the Ray Miller Trail and the Overlook Trail I knew we had about 2.5 mile left with a short climb. After the short climb it was just over 2 miles of descent into the finish line. We looked at our watches and we had plenty of time left. I started dumping water out of my camelbak so I would have the least weight on as possible.
As we made our way down the trail the older guy is running down behind us and someone else is running with him. This time he didn’t tell us we are going the wrong way. Now he says we only have 20 minutes to finish or we get disqualified. We say “No we have an hour and 20 minutes left.” Then he says that they were wrong at the last aid station. I wouldn’t have believed him except he then says the guy running behind him is the sweeper. The guy confirms he is the sweeper. Leo says, “We can make it…we can make it!” So we both start to run. I’m sure in part it was the adrenalin rush of possibly being disqualified, but I was a bit surprise at the energy my legs had. I ran pretty hard down this hill and for having been on the trails for over 25 and half hours I really didn’t think I could run this fast. The Ray Miller trail has a lot of turns and isn’t very rocky. This makes it very runnable. I kept looking back for Leo but sometimes I wouldn’t see him because of the turns. But as I got near the finish line I realized if the cut off was soon we still had 10 minutes to spare. So I waited for Leo and we crossed the finish line together. I told Leo I wouldn’t leave him and I didn’t. Like Tony Montana says, “I have two things in this world, my word and my balls, and I don’t break them for nobody.”
I still think that we made the cut off time with an hour and 10 minutes to spare. I went back to look at the race instructions and it says you have 27 hours to finish. It also says that the race ends at 10am for the people doing the 68 mile race. Since the race started 30 minutes late all cut offs shifted 30 minutes. Leo and I finished in 25 hours and 52 minutes.
Post race festivities
They were cooking up eggs, bacon, and pancakes at the finish line. Being vegan I couldn’t eat any of that. They did have fireball. Luis Escobar then said something about orange juice. I said try it with fireball and he said “You do look like a guy that would try anything.” Just like that, Spicy Juice was born. It’s not bad. Instead of changing clothes or getting some sleep, I hung out with the people that were still there and enjoyed the finish line festivities. When the awards were done and they started packing up I went to the tent and passed out. It felt like I closed my eyes for a minute but at least 2 hours later Leo was waking me up.
Besides the crazy distance and gain that this race covers, I was also worried about the sleep depravation. I did not expect that we would be out there as long as we were but I did expect to be out there between 18-22 hours. There was only one point where the trail looked a bit wonky to me. I felt like I was tripping out. This was with about 3-4 miles left in the race. I just closed my eyes, shook my head, and that was enough. I guess the many years of going to raves paid off.
There were 98 official finishers of the 68 mile race and 42 people that dropped out and 18 that didn’t make the start line. Of the 98 finishers, 13 were people that dropped from the 100 mile race to the 68. I came in 97th place. I kind of wish I had let that “wrong trail” guy pass me so I could have been in 98th place. This race must have been incredibly hard to put on and it needed so many volunteers. The RD’s did an amazing job! Yes this was a really long race report, but it was a really long race and a lot happened. If you read this far I’m both shocked and grateful.