Ever since the halfway point on my first out and back Backbone attempt in 2019, I knew I wanted to tackle the trail again. My first effort, while successful for setting the female record, fell much short of my sub 40 hour goal and ended with walking the last 50 miles. Intense heat, fires on the trail, and a lack of knowledge of events lasting longer than 50 miles or 13 hours contribute to a performance I wasn’t thrilled with giving.
In fact, it's fairly typical of me after I finish races where I’ve struggled or gotten into a low, and don’t feel I have any more reserves to pull from, once at the finish line to question: “Could I have gone faster? Did I really need to hike that much? What if I had pushed just a little more?” I try to view these moments as learning experiences and not beat myself up for not beating myself up….still, sometimes questions linger.
And linger they did on the Backbone. After my 2019 FKT I completed Moab 240, did a sub 24 hour hundred at Rim to River, and set a course record for the Leona Divide 100k. I added strength work to my usual running workouts and learned so much about how to fuel and manage longer events. I was ready to go back to where it all began.
Knowing from both Moab and Crazy Mountain 100 that heat is a major factor for me, I wanted to go for an LA winter time attempt. Late February seemed perfect. Cool, but not too cold overnight, with time for the trail to dry up after the intense rain in January. I reached out to my crew leader Tiffany and adventure buddy/pacer Sarah. We picked a weekend that worked for all and started making plans. In another big change from my first go, I kept my crew very small. Tiffany, Sarah, my friend Lola, and at one stop, my old boss/running coach and his wife. This kept the team very flexible and me less worried if my crew was eating and resting.
I decided to start Saturday the 18th in the mid afternoon, a rolling start time to allow me to keep the morning super relaxed. This would allow me to maximize overnight running, something I love, and also helps beat the heat on exposed parts of the trail. With drop bags packed and snacks sorted, I left Will Rogers State Park at 2:07pm.
The first .7 mile out of Will Rogers is a wide and often hiked trail called Inspiration Loop. I let myself take it at a light run to burn off some energy and nerves. I didn’t want to burn out too quickly, another major lesson from first Backbone and other races, but there was no reason to not run at all. Once I hit the single track and began climbing out of the park, I started a steady hike, enjoying the ocean views, cool breeze, and happy hikers I passed.
Much of the trail easily divides into roughly 12 mile sections and I had given myself 3 hours for most of these. But…it can’t hurt to build a small lead if you’re feeling good! I hit Greenleaf Canyon a little ahead of schedule, had my pack refilled and grabbed a bagel before beginning the climb up to Saddle Peak into the sunset.
At Lois Ewen overlook, I pulled my headlamp out, marveling at the mixture of running on technical single track while gazing down at the sparkling lights of Los Angeles below. Plus, a car was absolutely blasting EDM and put a good pep in my step to get over the final climb before dropping down towards Malibu Creek State Park.
Somewhere along the descent off Saddle Peak I came upon a massive sinkhole. I had tried to scout as much of the trail as I could before the attempt to see current conditions, especially given the landslides from heavy rains. I hadn’t made it this far down though and had to rapidly backpedal to not fall about 3 feet into a huge hole. I looked around for alts but there was nothing for it—I had to carefully lower myself off one steep side, traverse the hole, and then mantle my way back out like leaving a swimming pool. I knew that section was going to be absolutely terrible on the way back. But nothing to do about it except move forward. I did, gingerly. Something was up with my right knee. I’m not sure when or what happened, but it felt locked, like it needed to pop. Great. I had mentally prepared to feel very sore, tired, and in a lot of pain, but did it have to happen so soon?
I focused on running where I could and “hiking with purpose” where I could not. Sarah was pacing the next section with me and I was looking forward to her company and our long and deep trail talks.
Arriving at Malibu Creek I said I had changed my mind, no need for my jacket, I was staying quite warm. My right knee was off, but nothing to do about it. More snacks, some hugs, and Sarah and I started the steep fire road climb up to Corral Canyon. Sarah is a beast of a climber and I knew her pace and enthusiasm would be just the lift I needed on night one. Even as I got frustrated in the flatter (but rockier) section heading towards Latigo Canyon, she calmly offered me some ibuprofen, while suggesting I see if some butt kicks or rapid straightening of my leg would pop whatever was locked. No luck.
We kept on, even though I felt I was now 30 minutes behind, she said I was right on track. I left her at Kanan Road, where I took my headphones, still no jacket, and began the longer section all the way to Mishe Mokwa. In previous attempts I had my crew meet me at Encinal Canyon road. This time, I deleted the stop (and a stop atop Saddle Peak) but asked Tiffany to leave a cookie on a picnic table for me. I nabbed it while listening to We Can Do Hard Things and learning about what makes good friendships work.
The winding four miles from Yerba Buena road to Mishe Mokwa seemed endless, but eventually I made it, ate some chickpea rice, and prepared for more steep climbs and descents. Tiffany let me know I was doing well on time, I didn’t need to push…but no need to relax either. I took her meaning, I was pretty sure I was still 30 minutes behind. I wanted to hit the turnaround by 8am…it was 1:30. Could I do it? It’s about 17 miles. A little more ibuprofen and I was on my way.
I made sure to hike with purpose and run all the flats I could. Then, my waist light died. I pulled out my headlamp, noting it was now about 4am so it needed to last me two more hours. Too bad this section is some of the rockiest on the trail! I restarted my watch which had paused for about about 2 minutes, and kept on trucking.
Thankfully, the sun coming up warmed my knee and spirits and I was able to run more and got to Ray Miller a little before 8am. Nice! Back on track. Just to keep up that pace for the remaining 68 miles where I started from…
Ray Miller was the spot I realized last time why not many people go for out and back on this trail. A few sections at a time it’s nice and challenging, but all at once, it is brutal. Steep climbs, rocky descents, tight switchbacks, exposed fire road; by the time you get used to one section you’re thrown a completely different set of challenges. And now I had to do it all in reverse. Despite the lovely gentleman who told me on my way down, “You’re so close! Less than a mile!” Oh, little did he know…
I had given myself 6 hours to get from Ray Miller back to Mishe Mokwa. Could I do it in 5? A gift from the recent rains was abundant water crossings where I was able to dip my buff and cool off. I got to the top about 1:15.
Now that I felt my knee doing better in the heat of the day and was back ahead of schedule I took a longer break at Mishe Mokwa number two and taped blisters, ate cold pumpkin and applesauce mix, and brought my headphones back out.
The heat and exposure sapped some of my heart and I was slowing down as the sun started to dip in the sky. The two final sections are the longest on the whole trail. I was doing my best to keep momentum when I could.
After crossing Encinal Canyon though, I froze. Up ahead, just down the hill from me, was a large wild cat. I was tired, but this was not a hallucination. Was it a mountain lion? I banged my poles together and it looked up at me, got scared, and ran. With that and the stripes on its tail I decided, large bobcat and after a beat of debating if I was insane, continued down the trail. I sang to keep the noise up, though the only song my tired brain could conjure was “Elbow Room” from America Rock. Thank goodness no one else was hiking this small section to see a tired, dusty, trail runner wheezing out a very whitewashed song of how America “won the west.” I have since confirmed it was 100% a Mountain Lion.
The "bobcat" never reappeared and I made it to Kanan road about ten minutes ahead of schedule. I took a slice of vegan lemon poppyseed cake and went on my way. I try my best to spend five minutes or less at any stop. Sitting around for too long gets me locked up and it's a fight to get my energy up and my legs moving again.
I passed a couple sunset hikers and bikers and did my best to run where I could, my knee starting to lock again as cool temps set in. Still, I was making decent time and heading down the fire road past Corral Canyon when I saw eyes on top of the rocks, watching me. Mountain lion? Nothing for it, just keep moving. With just my headlamp to keep weight down I came around the corner to 2 more sets of eyes watching me. Because of the undulations in the road, the dimness of my light, and probably overall fatigue, I could not figure out how tall these animals were. Were the eyes shoulder height of a cat? Higher? Low to the ground spiders? (And yes, large spider eyes glow on this trail on the ground sometime!). I banged my poles, no reaction. Ok, something that wasn’t scared of me. That’s not good. I yelled. One set of eyes seemed to jump up and scamper off into the grass. The other just blinked. Dang. Was that a mom mountain lion who left her cub who was too young to know to run? Was she circling to ambush me? Were the eyes on the rock a half mile back part of this group? How big are mountain lion eyes in the dark anyway?
I turned my phone off airplane mode in the vain hope I might have service to reach my crew for ideas. No luck. There had been a car at Corral Canyon. Did I backtrack a mile or more to sit with them? Was I going to forfeit this whole endeavor because of wild animals? The bobcat surely had me on high alert. I backed up around the corner twice, giving the animal time to leave without feeling like it was being stalked. No luck, it just sat there, occasionally blinking.
Ok, I turned up music on my phone and started slowly walking. Maybe that was stupid, but I want’t sure what else to do. If it was a mountain lion I was probably screwed at this point anyway. If it wasn’t, I couldn’t stand here all night. And…it was a freaking bird!!! I had forgotten about the small birds with extremely reflective eyes that like to sit on the trail at dusk and dawn and really make you panic. I had even told Sarah about them the night before! Ugh. I had lost at least ten minutes to an overactive imagination and a stare down with a bird. Oh well. Ever upwards.
Or, downwards. The steep incline back into Malibu Creek was not pleasant on my knee, but I made it. Back to being 30 minutes behind, but Sarah was going all the way to the finish with me from here. She could tell me things weren’t mountain lions and to keep moving. I debated finally putting a jacket on, but didn’t, assuming I’d warm up again once we started moving and climbing.
New lesson from this FKT—put the dang jacket on! As we climbed the four miles up to Saddle Peak with tight switchbacks and rock steps, I felt my body going into major redline territory. I was wheezing due to all the dust I had inhaled, my knee was tight, my heart rate high, and I was hungry for something more substantial than gels and bars. Plus, now my body had to work even harder to keep me warm in shorts and a t shirt in 40 some degree weather. As much as I didn’t want to stop, I spotted some stone steps up ahead and told Sarah I needed to sit and eat some of my lemon poppy seed bread while not moving. I had to get something in the tank and eating while walking doesn’t always refuel the way you want. I sat down and felt a little better when my body could just focus on eating. Sarah gave me a light jacket which helped too. I had potato chips with me, which normally are a great combo of carbs, fat and salt. But for some reason eating them made me feel extremely light headed and like I might pass out. Sarah seemed concerned as I got up to continue climbing. She told me to get my poles under me because I was swaying like a drunk person.
I did, but also kept up moving forward. I had to make good time on this section if I wanted a 37 hour finish. Sadly, I had somehow burned too deep. I tried to run the descents off Saddle Peak but instead got mad at every rock (and there are LOTS) that seemed to be in the way of my right knee or smooth progress. My watch was charging in my pack and I had no idea what time it was, but I knew we were probably well behind where I wanted to be. As we got to the bottom I saw the sky was light at the edges. Oh my god, had that just taken 6 hours and the sun was coming up? Or was it the light pollution out of Santa Monica? I didn’t dare ask. I was much too close to the end to give up just because I wasn’t going to hit my goal time.
Instead, I started doing math and what time I had to beat to get sub 40 hours or even 41 hours flat, which would still be the overall FKT. When we got into Greenleaf I was overly surprised and relived to see it was only 10 minutes after 1am. While on a normal day 12.5 miles in a little over two hours is doable, I knew it would not be in the cards at the final miles of this effort. Still…5.5 hours would get me sub 40.
As Sarah and I made our way towards Musch Camp I told her that was my goal. Buoyed by the cough drop I had also put off getting for the past 30 hours, and my warmer jacket, I felt energized and started moving much better than the last section. Sarah calmly reminded me not to “burn all my matches” by running uphill.
We reached the turnoff for the final 7 miles with 2.5 hours to go to get sub 40. No reason to slow down though. We hiked the ups, ran the flats, and did a mix of running and curse laden slow stepping over the rocky sections. Sarah kept up a steady stream of fun facts, TV recommendations, and silly stories, to which I mostly replied, “hmm.” Or “Oh.” Gratitude to all the pacers who know not to take this personally!
After what seemed like both forever and no time at all, we hit the Inspiration Loop and were less than a mile from the finish. Because of the slight down hill grade, the fact that I knew I would get sub 40, and my rapidly deteriorating knee, I told Sarah we would start running again once we hit the white fence. We did, I ran to the finish, jumped up to slap the sign and stopped my watch at 39:33:59. Sub 40, 4 years later. Not 37 hours, but this time I had nothing I would do differently to improve the margins to lose 2.5 hours over 39, that’s really grasping at straws. And, unlike a few of my races, I knew I had pushed with everything I had at any time I could. Sure, I walked a half mile of the last .7, but given that I couldn’t bend my knees a few hours later, this was probably the right call.
Recovery has been tough. My feet are still swollen, my legs sore, my mind tired. But the Backbone and I have finished our journey. This trail is not one to be underestimated, but certainly one to be explored and tackled with love.