The Chumash 100K
by Bruce Hoff
On May 4th 2002 I ran one hundred kilometers along the Backbone Trail, which spans Southern California’s Santa Monica Mountains. (Historically the home of the Chumash Indians, I whimsically named this adventure in the manner of a certain hundred kilometer race that occurred in northern California on the same weekend.) The Backbone Trail has its eastern terminus at Will Rogers State Park in the Pacific Palisades, and its western terminus at Pt. Mugu, in Ventura County. There are three wonderful parks in the Santa Monica’s. The most popular is Topanga State Park, the easternmost, and closest to Los Angeles. On any given weekend you can find myriad hikers, mountain bikers, and trail runners on these fire roads and trails. So popular is it that when Devy Reinstein stepped up to put on the wintertime “Culo Gordo 50K” in an otherwise race-free park, the run’s attendance mushroomed to make it one of the biggest “Fat Ass” style events. The park’s western boundary is Topanga Canyon. Continuing westward, the next park is Malibu Creek State Park, roughly bordered on the east by Malibu Canyon and on the west by Kanan-Dume Road. Home to the Bulldog 50K (and, in decades gone by, the Malibu 50 Mile) it sports some good rock climbing, in addition to scenic hiking/biking/running trails. If you’ve ever watched the TV series MASH, then you’ve seen the ridge of the Santa Monica Mountains as the backdrop to the hovering helicopters in the opening shot. Finally, across the border in Ventura County lies Sycamore Canyon, which boasts the highest peaks in the range, topping out just over 3000 ft. Beyond this point the mountain range descends beneath the Pacific Ocean, surfacing occasionally to produce the Channel Islands off the coast of Ventura and Santa Barbara.
I moved to Malibu in 1993 to work at Hughes Research Labs, and immediately made Malibu Creek my own stomping grounds. My apartment was on Latigo Canyon road, four miles from where it crossed the Backbone Trail. At the time, the trail existed in three segments, one through each of the principal parks. I became familiar with the central and eastern sections. My coworker, Elena Sherman, shared a map showing a route she and some friends used to knit together a two-day hike from Will Rogers to Pt. Mugu. Of course I had the natural reaction of an avid trail runner: “Why not run the thing in a day?” The next Spring I got my chance to traverse the eastern and central sections together: The Mountain Goats running club was heading out for a morning run from Will Rogers one Saturday, and one runner was another HRL worker from Malibu. I charmed her into agreeing to drop off my car chez moi, so I could run the backbone to Latigo Canyon, about 35 miles. It was straightforward to run ten miles across Topanga State Park to Trippet Ranch. From there I would follow Elena’s creative route across Topanga Canyon and up the Calabasas Motorway to reach the top of Saddle Peak, which splits Topanga and Malibu canyons. I would then be back on the Backbone trail all the way to Latigo. I was excited to knit together these two sections via an unfamiliar route, but the joke was on me. The connector passed through the “epicenter” of the1993 Calabasas/Malibu brush fire. I passed through a lunar landscape of charred brush, while Santa Ana winds blasted me with loose sand from eroding hillsides.
Three pieces of the Backbone puzzle came into place over the next several years, producing a nearly continuous trail (with only a single eight mile gap remaining). First, the five mile Hondo Canyon trail was completed in 1994, providing a true single-track trail from Topanga Canyon to Saddle Peak. Second, a three mile section extended the western boundary of the central section from Kanan-Dume road to Encinal Canyon, tantalizingly close to Sycamore Canyon, and providing 41 miles of continuous trail. Third was an “exploratory” run from Circle X ranch, on the eastern rim of Sycamore Canyon, down into the canyon bottom. The route was so overgrown with brush that the white t-shirts worn by my friend Mike Howard and me were permanently discolored during the run. Nevertheless, I understood how to do the final 13 miles, and the full route had become clear.
I’m not sure why May 4 became the day to do the run, but I’d been increasing my mileage in recent months, and had enjoyed the unseasonably cool spring weather at the Leona Divide 50 Mile. Larry Mann had just organized a 100K fun run across the Los Angeles basin, so “nuttiness was in the air.” My wife Jenine suggested going to Sunday brunch, causing me to ponder how to get a triple digit week without running Sunday. I just decided to go for it, adopting the ultrarunner’s philosophy to “think less, run more”!
This was one of my more half-baked schemes: Friday night I was still scrambling to fill my fanny pack with food and water, to estimate the run’s distance, to map out the eight mile connector route (from Encinal to Sycamore Canyon), and to establish the meeting points for Jenine. I was not going to treat the event as a race: no tapering or carboloading. My goal was simply to run in daylight. I wanted to run fast enough to finish before dark, slow enough not to get schmettered, as by a race. Some quick math told me that if I maintained 4 ½ miles/hour, I’d finish in about fourteen hours. If I started at5:30AM, I’d have ‘till 7:30PM – sundown – to finish. Not fast, but there’d be no screwing around during this long day.
I started my watch at 5:45AM Saturday morning, beneath the cool marine layer. As dawn broke, I could see clear skies peeking through the clouds, and new the weather would be fine. I headed up the hill from the polo grounds of Will Rogers State Park, along the familiar trail. I certainly did not feel strong or fast, but moved conservatively, knowing the folly of going out too fast on a fun run such as this. Mile six presented the first bit of ambiguity. Two fire roads of equal length, one called “Eagle Rock”, the other called “Eagle Spring” led to Trippet Ranch, and neither was particularly indicated as the Backbone trail. I chose Eagle Rock, the high road, adopting the heuristic that, all else being equal, whatever route was highest was most “Back-boney.” I was planning on finishing the leg to Trippet Ranch via a quick fire road route, but at the end of the Eagle Rock section, a sign labeled “Backbone” clearly indicated the Musch Trail, a route twice as long. Ah well, the first ten miles have already put me behind schedule.
After getting water at Trippet, I dropped for a mile on Dead Horse trail down to Topanga Canyon Road, a principal route from the ocean to the San Fernando Valley. There I met up with friends Larry Mann and Mike “the Serb” Dimkich, who planned to hop in for a point-to-point section. To continue required following an odd, orphaned section of the trail, between Topanga Canyon and Old Topanga Canyon roads. It was only a mile, but we readily got turned around, ending up back on Topanga. Larry had experienced the confusing section previously, and we found the trail behind a newly constructed water tank, and got back on track. Across Old Topanga, we hopped on the Hondo Canyon trail, and began climbing.
Traversing the Backbone trail requires crossing two canyon bottoms – Topanga and Malibu. In between is a prominent high point called Saddle Peak. That means this section was rugged. As we climbed, I had my first nice surprise. I had remembered Hondo Canyon as being brushy, poison-oaky, over-grown, but we found it well maintained, with the foliage cut back. Approaching 9AM we enjoyed the cool spring air, the verdant foliage and wild flowers. As Baz Hawley would say, it was “a magic day.” Soon we found ourselves at the top of the climb, heading west along the ridge of the Santa Monica’s, with Pacific vistas to the south. We reached the small plateau on the summit of Saddle Peak, and checked out the scenery before taking on the rocky descent to Tapia. Surprise again: I remembered this section of the Backbone trail as overgrown, but it’d been recently maintained and was quite runnable.
On the way down, we began seeing flour arrows guiding us along the trail. We theorized that they might have been created by Stan Swartz for one of his “Trail Runners Club” runs. Reaching Tapia, we discovered a group of runners finishing up their morning run. They were attending a training run of the “Ultra Ladies”, led by Nancy Shura. Initially organized by her to round up some training partners, Nancy puts together weekend trail runs, including trail markings and refreshments, to help runners train for the Bulldog 50K, the Avalon 50 Mile, the Ridgecrest 50K, and other area ultramarathons. Way to go, Nancy! I got some water from Lisa Johannessen, Mike’s girlfriend, stopped by the Tapia restroom, and hopped on Mesa Peak Motorway, a.k.a. “the elevator.”
Having taken it easy so far, I’d covered about a 25 miles in 5:23, and had been feeling OK. But now, ascending 1500 ft. in just a few miles, the second big climb was taking its toll: I’d begun feeling tired. I had brought Jenine’s cell phone, to update her on my arrival time at Kanan-Dume Rd., 38 miles through the run, and the first point I would need crew assistance. Friday night I told her to meet me there at 2PM, or about 8:15 into the run. I was able to get through to her, and suggested she expect me to take a bit longer than planned. Sticking with the game plan, I kept the pace moderate, and focused on eating and drinking. I was in my old stomping grounds now, along the mountain ridge I sometimes ran to commute to work. Every rise, fall, and turn was utterly familiar. Near Corral Canyon, the Backbone trail leaves the dirt motorway and threads its way over and between some sandstone rock formations. Beyond Corral Canyon it continues as a single track and drops into a valley called Castro Crest, descending to a shady creek bed. This is a popular area for mountain bikers, thus I had some company through here. Although the trail has its up’s and down’s, cresting Mar Vista Motorway and Latigo Canyon Rd., it’s unencumbered by the really big climbs that came earlier. I was feeling better, and leap-frogged with a mountain biker the last few miles to Kanan-Dume. The only pause was to examine a king snake, its bright red, black, and white coloring contrasting the brown chaparral. Kicking it up a notch, I reached Kanan-Dume Rd. at 8:07 running time, just ahead of my predicted 2PM arrival.
Jenine was a sight for sore eyes, as was her Subaru filled with food and bottled water. I was ‘staying honest’ by letting my Timex run, so I quickly grabbed my replenishment, and headed out. 2 ½ miles later I was at Encinal Canyon, where the contiguous trail ended. I found Jenine waiting for me, and a park ranger ticketing an illegally parked car. I asked him what the preferred route was to pick up the Backbone trail where it resumed. He didn’t have a suggestion, but cautioned against tromping across private property, as other Backbone “through hikers” have done, saying that such activity undermined efforts to secure the needed right-of-way for more trail sections.
I turned left and headed down Encinal Canyon Rd., planning for an all-road route to Triunfo Pass, where I’d again pick up the trail. Jenine trailed behind in the Subaru, with her hazard lights flashing and the music cranked, to entertain me. After two miles, I recognized a potential shortcut in Clark Ranch Rd., a gated dirt motorway, and told Jenine to drive around to Mulholland Highway, so to meet me on the other side. It was a quick half mile. I turned right again on Mulholland, and started running uphill. Confusion was setting in. Was this the right way to Yerba Buena road? I ran a bit, then turned around and ran back down the hill. Soon I saw Jenine driving up, and got straightened out. Two wrongs did, in this case, make a right. The map showed an up-coming off-road alternative to running on the shoulder, the Etz Meloy Motorway. It turned out to be a great choice, climbing up to a ridgeline overlooking the Pacific Ocean on the left, and the Westlake Village / Hidden Valley area on the right. Lacking a defined trail, this was about as “Back-boney” a choice as one could make. The sight of lone coyote on the road ahead testified to the solitude high in the Santa Monica’s on a Saturday afternoon.
Jenine had found the motorway terminus with minimal instruction. I restocked my fanny pack and headed out on Yerba Buena Rd. with Jenine tailgating, music playing. There was plenty of uphill, and I was tired (having 47 miles behind me, and 15 to go). It was hard for me to look good for an audience! It was close to 4:30 when we reached Triunfo Pass, the resumption of the Backbone trail and, by my reckoning 49 miles into the run. There were a number of backpackers stuffing gear into their cars, now in the waning daylight hours. It’s a familiar story: The normal people, the weekend warriors, done with a full energetic day, are packing it in. The ultrarunner, on the go for eleven hours, is heading out into the wilderness for another half marathon. Resupplying for the final miles, I took no extra clothing, but opted for a small, LED headlamp, just in case the wheels fell off close to sundown. I described the pickup point to Jenine: An unnoticeable trailhead across from the Navy’s Sea-Bee target range in Point Mugu.
From the trailhead, the first landmark was Sandstone Peak, the highest point in the Santa Monica Mountains. Getting there required a 900 ft. climb in 1 ½ miles. I must admit, I was as slow as molasses. The half century distance and steep climb conspired to reduce me to a pace unpublishable in a running magazine. Finally cresting the peak, it was time to drop into Sycamore Canyon, along a 6 ½ mile trail. I gritted my teeth, ready for the nasty overgrowth that Mike and I experienced a few years earlier. Another great surprise: The trail was clear! It was evident that the trail work had been somewhat recent, as the stumps of small, woody bushes looked unweathered. Reaching the bottom, I turned left on the flat dirt road, popular with mountain bikers and runners. The elapsed time reached thirteen hours with five miles remaining. I wanted to break fourteen hours, but still had a steep grunt up the far side of Sycamore Canyon to make my exit. It wasn’t obvious that I’d make it in time. I made the right turn up Wood Canyon to start the climb. I knew that this was the route to the trailhead at the Sea-Bee range, the westernmost trailhead in the Santa Monica’s, but it struck me that there the ubiquitous “Backbone trail” signs were absent. I wondered whether the official finish was the easy jaunt out the mouth of Sycamore Canyon, rather than the hard grunt up and over the rim. The point was moot, since there was no way to change the meeting point with Jenine. Up the steep climb to La Jolla valley, I pressed the pace through the grassy field, thinking about breaking fourteen hours. 7PM was approaching and the temperature was dropping. I was hoping that cresting the final ridge above the ocean would bring me, briefly, back into the warm sunlight, but by the time I reached the far side, the sun was low on the horizon, deep in the ocean’s haze. I could see the Subaru below, and dropped quickly to the coast. In the stiff evening breeze I was pleased to stop the clock at 13:54, and to make a quick retreat into the warm car. It was shortly after 7:30PM, and I didn’t have to break out the headlamp.
In conclusion, I’m very happy to have completed the run, but certainly it could be done much faster. I’d like to hear about others running the same or similar routes, and I’m sure I’m not the only one looking forward to the completion of the trail, allowing a continuous, one hundred kilometer, trans-Santa Monica trail run.