I was never a runner. In fact, I hated running. One of the draws of playing volleyball growing up was how little running it involved. Running was always a punishment. Which is why in 2014, I was in way over my head entering an insane event known as World’s Toughest Mudder (WTM). I didn’t have aspirations of doing well or continuing on into this sport, but rather thought of it as an item to check off of the bucket list. During those 24 hours of hell, I danced with hypothermia, flirted with rhabdomyolysis, and was depleted of all of my energy. Yet, I walked, or rather limped away with 50 miles and a profound sense of accomplishment. I loved rolling through the mud and pushing myself beyond what I thought was possible. It was so different from what I was accustomed to in my comfortable and clean modern-day life.
That sense of accomplished lingered long after the pain in my legs wore off and I wanted to explore this whole obstacle course racing (OCR) thing. It was an escape from the career driven hustle of Los Angeles, from dental school, and from my life’s troubles. I was drowning in a career-driven culture and needed something to remedy the stress. Obstacle course racing was that thing. To be clear, I still hated running, but knew it was a necessary evil if I wanted to get better at OCR. Running circles around the block and down the street quickly became old, and to be honest, probably added some stress to my life. I needed something else. While the races provided an occasional relief, they were few and far between.
It was during that time that I heard about some running and hiking trails that were close by. While I doubted that Los Angeles could offer anything scenic beyond a traffic jam on the 405 freeway, I turned to the Santa Monica mountains for my respite. I started with a few trails that quickly humbled me with challenging climbs. All of my running had been flat and these mountains offered an entirely new challenge for me. As difficult as the running was, the escape from the concrete jungle was just the medicine I needed. I was back in my element, back in nature and back onto the trails. From Will Rogers State Park near Santa Monica, through Malibu and Point Mugu, the Santa Monica mountains provided an endless array of running and I was loving every heart pounding minute of it. Every new trail offered a new sense of joy and a new challenge.
A few years ago, I heard about one trail to connect them all, the Backbone Trail. At the time, it never crossed my mind to even attempt this insane feat, knowing that it was over 50 miles and that a 7-mile run was plenty for me. But throughout the past few years, those trails built me up, adding miles and minutes on my previous efforts and peace and comfort from a busy life. These hills not only shaped me into a different type of runner, but a different type of person. It is a connection that has helped me rediscover my love for the Los Angeles area, even with its many imperfections. The Santa Monica Mountains kept building me up and continued to call. I still thought the Backbone Trail was a crazy idea and didn’t know if it would ever happen.
I had decided that 2018 would be my year of adventure, a year to tackle new challenges and push myself to enter the unknown. It is also my last year of residency at UCLA and my least year in Los Angeles, meaning there were a few things on my must do list: Cactus to Clouds to Cactus (C2C2C) Trail in Palm Springs (check), run an ultramarathon (officially), and run the Santa Monica Backbone Trail (SMBBT). Of those, I knew the SMBBT would provide unique challenges of its own.
With 70 miles of trail and 14,000 feet of elevation gain, I would definitely need some planning and a support crew to along the way. I was thinking of tackling this route three months down the road, so I could properly plan and figure out what I needed to do to make this dream a reality. So in the final week of February, I began looking into the route knowing I had a few months to run all of the sections that were still unfamiliar to me before taking it all on at once.
Then, one day before Toughest Mudder West (and the same week I started to look at the SMBBT info), they announced the event was cancelled. I was irritated because I was ready to go. Even though I didn’t have to travel for the race, I tapered my training for the race and was walking on eager legs. Furthermore, my parents were planning on coming down to crew for me as well. After my initial shock of the cancellation I had an idea, why couldn’t I just tackle the SMBBT tomorrow?
With only a few hours to prepare for my journey across the Santa Monica Backbone Trail (SMBBT), I narrowed down my preparation to the essentials. First, I needed to figure out the basic route, with an approximate distance between trailheads and possible access to them. I divided the trail into four sections.
Will Rogers to Tapia Trailhead: 25 miles
Tapia Trailhead to Kanan Trailhead: 13 miles
Kanan Trailhead to Mishe Mokwa Trailhead: 15 miles
Mishe Mokwa Trailhead to Ray Miller Trailhead: 16 miles
Second, I needed a support crew to meet me at designated checkpoints for food, water, and support. When facing challenges like this, the support crew is often overlooked. But for every epic adventure, the crew is the glue who make everything come together.
Danny Mendoza aka Papa Doza
Katie Mendoza aka Mama Doza
Sue Harvey Brown aka Merrell-Mudder Mama
Next, I needed to gather my gear. Looking at the weather the next day, it was going to rain with a high temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 Celsius) for most of the day. I didn’t want to carry too much, knowing full well that the mudslides and flooding could potentially cause some complications. Knowing that the terrain could be very muddy and technical, I decided to run in the Merrell All Out Crush 2’s with the BOA Lacing System. I chose the AOC2s due to their balance of grip and protection with a more minimal feel that I prefer. I knew I needed some protection from the elements, even though it wouldn’t be too cold throughout the day. With a forecast of rain and wind, I wanted something that was extremely lightweight and easy to carry. I decided on the Merrell Torrent Windbreaker. It was the perfect balance between protection from the wind and rain, while being lightweight and breathable.
Part I: “Whatever Happens out There, I’ve already claimed my victory”
As I walked up to the Will Rogers State Park sign just before 6am, the sky began to slowly light up, revealing the trail ahead of me. My nerves escalated, and my stomach began to turn. Even though I ran further at WTM 2016, it was over 24 hours, and I had obstacles to break up the running. This was a straight shot of 70 miles and 14,000ft of elevation gain. I was outside of my comfort zone but knew this meant I was in the right place. I thought back to a quote I heard recently, “Whatever happens out there, I’ve already claimed my victory.” This thought eased my mind. No matter what happened out on the trail, my sense of accomplishment comes from within. The ability to run and train on these trails throughout the past few years was the true victory, this was just icing on the cake. After some hugs, good lucks, and a mini dance party, I was off.
Backbone trail starts with a straight climb out of Will Rogers Park. Being the most familiar part of the trail to me, it was a good start the day. I made sure to hold back from my usual pace up this section, since it was only the beginning. After a couple thousand feet of climbing I arrived at The Hub and began a small descent down Musch Trail. It was the first time I ever ran this section of the trail and enjoyed a mostly downhill section of switchbacks. As fun as it was, the rain made certain sections extremely muddy. With mud caked on the bottom of my feet, it was hard to move, let alone run. I was just trying not to fall on the switchbacks. Even though I wasn’t competing in a traditional “mud run”, it surely felt like it. The rain and mud would definitely play a factor in my effort and my spirits throughout the day. I made it down to Trippet Ranch about 11 miles in to stop for a quick bathroom break and a refill my water.
Within a few minutes, I was off, following Deadhorse trail to Topanga Canyon Road. Next up was the transition across Topanga Canyon Road. This section was my first moment of frustration. As the rain poured down, I was trying to find the trail, only to get lost in the maze of roads that surround Topanga Canyon.
I ran up and down the road, frantically searching for some semblance of a trail. After about 15 minutes, I found my way across a few roads, up and down a connecting trail, through a school, and onto the Honda Canyon Trail. What was a moment of relief was quickly overshadowed by the deep mud and steep sections that punished any effort I gave on my ascent. Having run this section before, it was frustrating how slow I was moving. I couldn’t believe how much work I was putting in during the first 15 miles of a 70-mile run and needed to focus on this moment. Just one foot in front of the other.
As the mud eased up, I began to speed up and I thought I was in the clear. Somehow, I cut my eye on a branch on the side of the trail. “Well there goes my vision,” I thought. My eye watered up and hurt a ton, but I told myself I needed to keep moving. I thought, “If Courtney Dauwalter can finish (and win) a race practically blind, I can’t let this stop me. Don’t be soft Kris.” I laughed at the thought and continued on. The pain subsided after 15 minutes and I climbed the rest of the way to Saddle Peak, knowing that it was all downhill to my first checkpoint. I descended the 7 miles down and was greeted by Sue with 2 miles left until Tapia Trailhead. We bombed down some single track and made it to the Tapia Trailhead. 25 miles down!
My parents were waiting with some water, new water bottles, and some food to keep me going. Having crewed for me at WTM, they are seasoned professionals when it comes to supporting me on my insane endeavors. I made a quick stop here knowing all too well the climb that was to come. I was off, I powering up 6 miles of ascent to Corral Canyon road. The monotony of the fire road was relieved by the single track towards Latigo Trailhead. This particular trail brought up polarizing thoughts in my head. I was reminded of a run through this section that I bonked hard a few months back due to dehydration. Now I was getting revenge on it as I floated through these sections as I focused on being smooth through the single track.
The final stretch to Kanan Trailhead was all uncharted territory. It was fun to power through some new trails and with about a mile to go, Sue met up with me again to help guide me into the second checkpoint. Those 13 miles were the easiest for me, as I felt great the entire time. I was over half way through and wondered when I would start entering the pain cave. Well… that came all too quickly. Having almost no knowledge of the rest of the trail, it was all uncharted territory from then on.
Part II: “The Only Cure For the Pain is to Finish Faster”
It came on in a flash. Miles 25 to 38 were almost too easy. Sure, I put in effort during some big climbs, but it was smooth. Maybe it was because most of the trails were familiar to me. Maybe it’s because I knew where the hardest climbs were and braced my mind for the pain, but somehow, that section was good. I started off from Kanan in good spirits, excited to experience trails I have yet to see. The rain picked up and the climbing got longer and longer. I felt the miles add up on my feet. Every step brought another jolt of pain (I should have taken some medicine the previous stop). My spirits continued to fall. What I thought was a 10 mile section, turned into a 15 mile section, further resigning my mind to defeat. A few crossings in the trail meant another section where I got lost, adding to some of my frustration. I reminded myself that the only cure for the pain was to finish faster since quitting at this point would have caused more psychological pain in the long run (pun intended). I called my crew a few miles out to let them know what I needed and to let them know that it hurt everywhere and I really needed some changes on this next stop. My mom asked me if I was going to call it quits at the next checkpoint. I immediately responded with a “HECK NO!!” I stopped feeling sorry for myself and focused on what I could control, putting one foot in front of the other.
“The Only Cure For the Pain is to Finish Faster”
I tried to look around me for inspiration, but couldn’t appreciate the true beauty of the trail as I continued to hobble along. Thankfully, Sue picked me up about 1.5 miles out from the car and we ran in. As I turned a corner towards the car I saw two people standing in the trail ahead of me. I wondered why they were all the way out here on a rainy day and why they were staring right at me. It took me a second and then I realized… it’s Carlo(s) and Anne!! Two of my friends who were in town to run the Tough Mudder came all the way up the mountain to cheer me on! We hugged and jogged the rest of the way into my final stop before the finish (yes… Carlo beat me, Anne was on the struggle bus in leather pants or something fancy like that). I changed my shoes, took some medicine, and changed out my food and water.
After some much needed banter and coaching from Carlo and some much needed support from Anne, I was off for the final 16 miles. All I knew about the final 16 miles is that I would reach the tallest point on the trail (Sandstone Peak) and the lowest point on the entire trail (Ray Miller Trailhead/the finish line). Like I mentioned before, not much preparation went into this due to time constraints, but I knew if I would keep one foot in front of the other, I would eventually finish.
So that’s what I did. My feet continued to hurt, but I knew that the end was near. It was a short climb to Sandstone Peak, followed by miles of switchbacks downhill.
Even though my legs were aching and I was ready to be done, it was hard not to admire the beauty of the Santa Monica mountains as the sun began to set. I knew it would all be over soon. I reached Danielson Ranch and was only 8 miles away from the finish. Unbeknownst to me, I still had the final climb of the day in the last few miles (should have done more research…oh well). With sore feet, I knew I just needed to keep moving. In the words of Dory from Finding Nemo, “Just Keep Swimming, Just Keep Swimming, Just Keep Swimming Swimming Swimming.” I reached the peak and looked down the final descent to the Ray Miller trailhead. I turned my headlamp on and went to work.
I felt like I was flying even though I was probably moving like a turtle down those final switchbacks. I was solely focused on the finish, knowing that the pain would only go away once I finished. It was dark but I could still make out the ocean ahead of me and knew that I was close. I turned the corner and saw the parking lot. There it was, the final 100 meters! My headlamp wasn’t very bright and my crew didn’t see me coming down. I was overcome with emotion when I saw the Ray Miller Trailhead sign. I hobbled past the sign and fell to the ground, kissing the dirt out of joy! I looked up at the sky and admired the stars, unadulterated from any light pollution that plagues Los Angeles. I lost myself in a trance, looking up at the sky and the trail I just came from.
Just like that, the Santa Monica Backbone Trail was finished. I was filled with a deep sense of joy. Instead of an arbitrary goal put out by other people, this one had a deep and personal meaning, making it more fulfilling to accomplish. Having run the entire trail, I can say that they are some of the best trails I have ever run on. They will always have a special place in my heart as I continue my running journey. These are the mountains that taught me to persevere, to push myself beyond what I thought was possible, and dig deeper. This was my tribute to the trails that gave me so much, that helped me love running and love life again. Thank you!