A Different Kind of Monster: The Mt. Baldy Run-to-the-Top

The following trail race profile was written by race director Tracy Sulkin. Photos by Peter Maksimow who is a 2-time winner of the race. The 2019 Mt. Baldy Run-to-the-Top takes place on September 2.

The 54th annual Mt. Baldy Run-to-the-Top is a destination trail race in Southern California with a monster climb to the 10,064-foot summit. Runners must be ready to enjoy a challenge because this is a 7 mile trail race boasting 4,000 feet of elevation gain with an imposed a cut-off time of three hours. Mt. Baldy, officially known as Mt. San Antonio, is the tallest mountain in Los Angeles County and on clear days, is visible throughout the southland. Interested? Join the hundreds of hearty trail runners who accept the challenge every Labor Day weekend.

This epic ascent race starts at the top of Mt. Baldy Road — elevation 6,300 feet. After a half mile downhill, the course heads to San Antonio Falls, then meanders through the densely forested area below the ski resort, and continues past ski runs. On the Devil’s Backbone, there is a short “catwalk,” where the trail is only a few feet wide, with thousand foot drops on either side. The final mile, the steepest, is above timberline. The finish is on the summit of Mt. Baldy, with Catalina Island to the west, San Gorgonio and San Jacinto Mountains to the east, Mt. Baden Powell and the high desert to the north, and the mountains of Orange County to the south.

Rumor has it that the Run-to-the-Top, established in 1966, was the creation of a Mt. Baldy firefighter, who also was the manager of the Mt. Baldy Ski Lifts at the time. A 1968 newspaper article said: The race was “…considered a novelty race and mainly designed to promote the ski lift facilities.” The Run-to-the-Top would go on to become one of the most enduring and respected races in Southern California. Many run the race year after year resulting in an almost cult-like following.

Only 45 runners participated in the race in 1966 – all of them men. Women first entered the race in 1971. That year, future Olympian Mary Decker (Slaney) was 12 years old when she became the first official female finisher, just one of three young women in the race that year. Participant numbers started creeping up year by year, and now the race is limited to 650 runners.

Other notable athletes to race Mt. Baldy included 1964 Olympic hopeful Gerry Lindgren, and Chuck Smead, eventual five-time champion, who finished second in the marathon at the 1975 Pan American Games.

The race has been using a helicopter to transport water and other aid station supplies to the summit for about 40 years. Once, when a helicopter wasn’t available, two volunteers each carried two 50 pound water containers from the start of Devil’s Backbone to the summit, about 3 miles, and the exertion nearly did them in.

Sixty-five volunteers help to put on the race, plus 15 from West Valley Search and Rescue and 10 from Mt. Baldy Fire Department. About half of the volunteers are Mt. Baldy regulars and many have been with the race for decades. The aid station captain for mile 2 has been working that station since she was four-years-old, when her dad was captain. The four-mile aid station captain has been volunteering for about 40 years, and the summit captain has been in the role for 23 consecutive years.

In the early years, timing was done manually with a stopwatch, clicking the button each time a runner crossed the finish line. A second person pulled tabs from bibs and stuck them onto a spindle. After about 50 tabs, a “runner” would carry the spindle down about 3.5 miles to the Ski Lifts Notch, where the tabs were manually sorted by gender, age and division. Over the years, different methods of communication from the summit to the Notch were attempted for transmitting results. Ham radios and early cell phones were unsuccessful. When computers came into use, flash drives were run down to the ski resort. Then came satellite phones to transmit data in real time. Currently the organizers use Wi-Fi to transmit results.

The Men’s record was set in 1987 by 26-year-old Matt Ebiner, who was timed in 1:00:49. Ebiner still runs every year and has been the awards ceremony emcee since 2015. The Women’s record was set in 1988 by Carrie Garritson, age 11 who raced to the finish line in 1:15:32. The youngest runner to ever compete was about 7 years old, and the oldest was 81. Runners come from across California with about half of the states across the U.S. represented. Non-U.S. entrants have included Switzerland, Japan, Mexico, and New Zealand.

The Mt. Baldy Fire Department organized the Run-to-the-Top until 1976 after which it was turned over to San Antonio Canyon (Mt. Baldy) Town Hall to be used as a fundraiser. The funds allow Town Hall, a non-profit, to contribute to projects that benefit the entire Mt. Baldy community, including the Mt. Baldy School, and to maintain an emergency fund for disaster relief. Annually, twenty percent of the race proceeds are added to a perpetual grant for the Mt. Baldy Fire Department to aid with capital expenditures. Also, donations are made annually to West Valley Search and Rescue, which also benefits the thousands of weekly visitors who hike, bike, and recreate in the local wilderness.

Men’s record holder Matt Ebiner said, “Running to the top gives a great sense of accomplishment, and we’re reminded of that for years to come whenever we look up at the mountain as we go about our other business.”

Said another runner affectionately, “The Run-to-the-Top is a different kind of monster.”

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