September 6, 2013

Santa Barbara Nine Trails Run Report

Whatever you do, never follow this man on the trails.
A great guy. An awesome photographer. A good friend. A really funny man. Luis Escobar is all of this and more, but above all, he is one badass trail runner. So, getting an invitation to go running with him was a no brainer. He wasn’t overly precise about what exactly we were going to run, but I just thought being out there on the Santa Barbara trails on a beautiful day, by the sea with running friends, was enough of a reason to go.

When he finally explained what the Nine Trails Run really was, it was way too late to make a quick exit and go hide under something. I was already on-site, attending Luis’ presentation on the Raramuri, bathing in the comfort of the last minutes of my oblivious innocence until Patsy Dorsey showed up and got Luis all excited about our run the next day. That is the precise moment when he explained this race had been designed to be the harshest, meanest, toughest run you could get yourself into. Patsy actually prides herself in stories from previous years, when a runner told her Western States was merely training for Nine Trails, or that other time when a runner finished the course, cursing, and asked to meet the sadistic bitch who’d designed the course.

I started trembling in my Luna Sandals.

Maria and I exchanged looks of fear and confusion as the scary stories kept piling up and as runners five times as mean and experienced as us would nod their heads and say they’d never run that thing again. They then went on to explain we would not be running up the mountains and along the ridges, but up and down every single steep cliff and canyon until the turnaround point, and simply do it all the way back again. 10,000 feet of misery over 39 miles. Did I mention Santa Barbara was in the middle of a heat wave, with temperatures soaring in the high 90’s?

So, what do you do to prepare for something like this? Somehow, Luis, Wild Bill Kee, John and our other friends decided the best preparation was a late night pizza, some beer and then a past-midnight camp-out at the trail head.

Morning came way to soon and I was up before first light, brewing coffee on the back of El Capitan and trying to get prepared, or rather to not think about what was ahead. Runners started coming in and I was happy to see some familiar faces from the night before. One of them was Chris Clemens, all smiles, who offered some measure of relief before we hit the trails. “Just hang back until the first peak, then keep taking it easy. It’s going to be a hard day, but you’ve got this.” He was being way more optimistic than I was, but I could take the encouragement.

The minutes leading to the start went by really fast. We took Caballo Blanco’s oath, made sure we had all our gear and food in place and just took off.

The morning was fresh and the first climb felt better than I thought. I was hanging in the middle pack and not finding it too hard to follow, so I got in better spirits. I had some nice conversation and was in great company, so I decided to just enjoy the day and have fun. Three minutes later, we started the real climbing.

Steep, dry switchbacks only made way for more steep, dry switchbacks. I quickly realized the initial pace was too fast for me, but it had been decided we would run this as a group since none of the trail was marked and that we would only get one stop at half way to refill water and fuels. I actually pulled it off quite well for the first couple hours, thinking I could at least reach the turnaround and then take it easier for the way back, since I would now know where to go.

One top of the first climb of a long, long series

Shortly after the half-way stop, we started a descent into what I think is called Snake Canyon. The downhills felt good, but the morning cool had long vanished and a hard, brutal sun started pounding on our heads. Not long after that, the faster pace started taking its toll. I needed to slow down, but really couldn’t. I clenched my teeth and decided to grind for a little longer.

By the time we reached the junction of the trail and the fire road, close to the summit, I was dizzy, tired and didn’t want to go any further, at least not at that pace. Luis told me “Nah, man, stick around for a bit longer, we’re about to start this section called The Wall and I don’t want you lagging behind and getting lost.”

Wait. The what?

Between the Copper Canyons and Colorado trails, I’ve seen a decent amount of steep stuff in my little running life. But I wasn’t prepared for what was next. They call it a road, but I don’t know how any vehicle could make it through such a steep, gnarly climb, let alone my sorry ass. I only took one look at the thing, then quickly put my head down and concentrated on putting every foot just a little farther than the other.

The weather was now in the high 90’s and my walking slowed to a crawl under the blaring sun. There was no following the group anymore, and I lagged farther and farther behind. I felt bad, because the group had to wait for me at crossings; so the next time I caught up, I told them to just go on, and leave an arrow pointing to the right direction for me to follow. It was the best I could do. My brain was frying and I couldn’t run any more. The runners agreed to leave me behind, with some of them so nice that they actually offered to stick with me for the last section.

The following hour and a half felt like an eternity. There is no explaining how hard that course is, unless you are on it. It took me half my food and water to get back to some measure of alertness, then it became a matter of keeping moving forward, hiking up and down an unending series of crazy pitches and hills filled with rolling scree.

When I finally reached the turnaround, I had long decided that I was done. Running 19 miles had taken 6.5 hours over 5,000 feet of gain. There was no talking me back into those trails and Nancy Kaplan’s offer of a cold beer and a swimming pool was way too sweet to pass. I bid the 8 runners who kept going farewell, then headed back into town for a long splash and a nap before we made it back to the trailhead, to cheer on and take care of the runners who completed the course.

I got my cooking stuff out and started whipping some pretty decent pasta and sauce, just in time for the runners’ arrival. We welcomed them like the true heroes they are, with hugs, beer and food. We stayed there for a long time, basking in the day’s last sunrays by the beautiful, but fierce Santa Barbara trails, sharing stories of our high points and struggles.

It was just then, sitting among these beautiful people, exhausted but full of life, that I was reminded what genuine trail running really means.

The Santa Barbara Nine Trails Run is an unofficial, unmarked, unsupported ultra event held every year by people with great hearts who share a true love for our sport.

Photo credits : Jon Zaid

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