Masochism on the Mountain
My first time running the Baldy Blitz, I experienced the full gamut of human emotion: ecstasy as I ran down off the summit, my yee-haws drowned out by the roar of arctic-style winds, to spirit-crushing despair on the ice-cold, bushwhacking descent, rivaled only by the Bataan Death March.
My ascent started with painstakingly trying to find the correct pace—I’d accelerate to pass on the near-vertical trail, only to find the effort left me winded and embarrassed as I stepped off the trail to let multiple chuckling runners race by me. By the time I reached the ridge, I had finally found my stride. I looked around to see others pressing on or even picking up their pace. I let out a heavy sigh as I managed a weak jog toward Baldy.
I made my way up higher to reach the first deep drifts of snow—these were mere snowballs compared to what lay ahead. Then the trail took a downhill pitch so welcome that I opened up into full strides for the first time. This was overshadowed by the fact that every step meant a drop in altitude and another foot further from the summit where I was certain that others were already standing. This saddle also provided foreshadowing for the rest of the race. A long meadow—where I was hoping to speed up and make up some time—was filled with snow. Not the couple of inches from the blizzard that had been raging since 7am, but what felt like a million-year-old glacier 100 meters thick. I desperately plunged up to my groin in wet, sugary snow.
At this point I reached the crux of the ascent—a short snow slide over a vertical rock drop into deep snow. Choosing the “huck yourself” method, I threw my Nalgene bottle over the edge and slid after it. Quickly gaining speed, I landed in the snow below—but didn’t stop there. Sliding down the wet slope, I flipped over and dug my elbows and fingers into the snow to stop myself. This is also where I started to think my cotton sweatshirt maybe wasn’t the best choice of attire for this day. I could only describe my outer layer as “absorbent”—a positive adjective when discussing paper towels or diapers, but not a good characteristic of trail-running attire.
After this came the exposed, treeless ascent to the top of Mount Baldy. The whiteout conditions made it impossible for me to see the leaders, who, I reassured myself, were surely right in front of me and definitely not enjoying hot chocolate at the finish by this point. I followed the disappearing tracks in the snow as downhill runners sprinted effortlessly by, offering encouraging words as they flew past. I had no idea how far I’d gone or how far left I had to climb; but then, as if uttered by an angel, I heard “only about a hundred more feet.” I looked up in disbelief. I stared straight ahead at the pipe sticking out of the rocks signifying the summit. Only yards from the top, I felt if I could just make this last stretch, getting back down would be a breeze. I was standing in 20-degree weather, with 30-mph gusts, soaking wet, with no gloves—and a big smile on my face. I stood there for about a minute enjoying it.
I then took off down the mountain running—even letting out a yee-haw as I flew past the people on their way up. The snow was deepest, the trail was steepest, and my legs now seemed incapable of balance or control—so I started what I can only describe as a “controlled tumble” down the mountain.
After leaving the deep snow behind, I was faced with fresh, wet, slippery snow to traverse using a clumsy mix of sliding, falling, and jumping. Every fall and subsequent self-arrest left my gloveless fingers cold and sore. My shoes where soaked and the insoles of my shoes had twisted themselves into wrung-out washcloths. I was covered in mud. Things were getting desperate. Every downed tree was a daunting obstacle for my tired legs that would surely result in a trip, fall, and probable impalement.
Finally, I heard someone yell from up ahead. “Trail!” I wasn’t sure what to expect, mainly because I thought we had been following the “trail”. But I came over a rise and saw an honest-to-goodness well-worn trail. Empowered by the knowledge I was actually going the right way, I retied my shoes, gathered my ambition, and started running.
I made it about 100 feet before realizing I was completely exhausted. I slowed my pace to a walk until I was on level ground, and then I started running again. From here to the finish, I never truly regained control of my legs, as the mud had all the traction of an oil slick. Sliding with every step, I ran hard trying to cover as much distance as possible so I could collapse just across the finish line.
As soon as the finish was in sight, I sped up and blasted out the last 100 yards like it was the Kentucky Derby. Any feelings of despair left me when I got to that beautiful parking lot. I had survived. All discouragement was erased from my memory as I chatted with the people standing under the tent, cheering on other runners as they came into the finish. I drove home, took a shower, made some tea, and took a well-deserved nap. I’ve never slept as well as I did that afternoon.
For more information on the Baldy Blitz, visit winddrinkers.org.