In my first experience with the ominous, towering mountain that I could see to the northeast of my college dorm, our coach at Whittier College casually told our cross country team, “We are going to do this race as a training run before the season starts.” Coach Phillips tended to underestimate things…or, perhaps, he secretly knew the mountain would demoralize us and wanted to let us find out for ourselves.
The Mt. Baldy Run-to-the-Top is a 7+ mile footrace in the Angeles National Forest, California with almost 4,000 feet of elevation gain, starting at approximately 6,300 feet, with a quad-trashing 3/10 mile downhill before kicking up to relentless grades of up to 30 percent the remainder of the race, including some hands-on rock scrambling, reaching a finale at the Mt. Baldy summit (officially named Mt. San Antonio) of 10,064 feet. We were cocky upperclassmen who thought we were indestructible because of a summer of high mileage and enough testosterone to overwhelm any house party. We had no idea what was in store for us. It was one of those life events where it was so difficult you finally finish and tell yourself, ‘I’m never, EVER, going to do that again!’.
This past Sunday, September 17, the Run-to-the-Top was held after a postponement from Labor Day due to ravaging fires in California that led to a shutdown of all National Forests in the state. It was cancelled in 2020 due to –you guessed it –the COVID-19 pandemic, so race director, Tracy Sulkin and the race committee, were determined not to have another year without the iconic event, which has seen the likes of Olympians Mary Decker (Slaney)–who was the first official women’s finisher at the age of 12 years old–and Gerry Lindgren, the high school distance phenom, along with the legendary Chuck Smead, silver medalist in the marathon at the 1975 Pan American Games and 2-time champion of both the Pikes Peak Marathon and Pikes Peak Ascent.
“Maintaining the race’s momentum is important,” said Sulkin, who revealed, “it was no small feat to finally have the race.” This long-standing fundraiser for the local Mt. Baldy community relies on its loyal runner base to support the all-volunteer Mt. Baldy Fire Department, all-volunteer West Valley Search & Rescue, Mt. Baldy School, among various other non-profits. “We have an average of 44% return runners and I was very happy to be able to give them their race,” Sulkin revealed.
The race has taken place on Labor Day since 1966, making it perhaps the top-5 oldest trail/mountain races in the US, preceded by The Dipsea in Central California, first run in 1905, Alaska’s Mount Marathon in 1915, New Hampshire’s Mount Washington in 1936 and Colorado’s Pikes Peak Marathon in 1956. The origin of the race is rumored to trace back to a local Mt. Baldy firefighter who came up with the idea of an uphill trek. He was also the manager of the ski lifts and the event was a ploy to promote the Mt. Baldy ski lifts. It definitely stuck. And continues to stick for 56 years and counting.
With the postponement, followed by a vote for a new race date, the 2021 race numbers were expected to suffer. That turned out not to be the case and Sulkin was relieved, saying, “We did better than I expected, even with a large number requesting a roll-over to next year.” The brisk morning warmed up quickly as the sun crested the surrounding peaks.
A few runners started at 7:00 a.m. wanting additional time to reach the summit, while the mass start of over 300 runners went off at 8:00 a.m. The race strung out quickly after the fast downhill start and it was Tom Sullivan of Reno, NV, who gapped the field. By the Devil’s Backbone Trail, a trail only a few feet wide with a few thousand feet of drop on either side, approximately five miles into the race, Sullivan had a slight lead over the rest of the field. This is a section where it is absolutely critical that runners mind their step. They also don’t want be wearing baggy clothing during high winds, otherwise they could mimic a kite. Just without the string.
Sullivan was being pursued by second through sixth, who were all in a conga line as they negotiated the Devil’s Backbone. One of those runners, in a close battle for second, was there on that fateful day when Coach Phillips told us we were doing a mere “training run” on Mt. Baldy. I convinced my Whittier College teammate, Luis Ibarra (aka Lu-Dogg) into coming back to take on the hallowed trails of Mt. Baldy, more than 20 years after we first suffered through it together. Ibarra must have been feeling good at 8,500 feet because he looked very comfortable loping along in third position.
With one mile to go, places second through fifth in the men’s field took a slight right instead of a slight left and went on a detour to a more challenging trail, before returning to the designated route. Ibarra said of the mishap, “We had a tight group of runners and at the moment, in my competitive drive, I lost sight of the course. I realized I was off the course about 100m after a wrong turn, but by that time at least 3 guys were following me and one of them said, ‘the guy leading knows the course’, but I think that the guy leading actually stayed on the course.”
Sullivan held on to his lead and was first to the summit in a time of 1:09:35, Michael Eastburn of Porter Ranch, CA moved up to finish second in 1:14:29, and Edar Pina of Montebello, CA held on for third, 1:14:46. Ibarra, a dual citizen of Mexico (Zacatecas) and the United States (Montebello, CA), unfortunately fell back to 12th after the off-course mishap. “Oh well, it happens, it made me lose a little focus but I still enjoyed the race.” Wise words from the Mexican National Steeplechase Champion and past Whittier College Steeplechase School Record holder. Always enjoy the race, no matter what mishaps occur.
In the women’s race, it was clear who had the the 7+ mile ascent locked-in from the beginning, as Shannon Payne of El Dorado Hills, CA (aka “Payne Train”) used her experience on the mountain to power to her second victory on Mt. Baldy. In her first attempt at the Mt. Baldy Run-to-the-Top in 2017, she missed making history by a razor-thin margin–13 seconds to be exact–after missing the 29-year-old record set by the 11-year-old phenom, Carrie Garritson in 1988. Although her time was some six minutes slower than four years ago, 1:21:29, this one must have been more precious. “Personally, this was the last race I ran in 2017 before an unforeseen very long layoff and I wasn’t all that sure I’d run competitively anymore,” Payne stated.
After a serious knee injury limited her running, she had surgery in November of 2020 in an attempt to get back to what she loved. “It was just kind of a coincidence that it [Mt. Baldy] ended up being my first race back, but I just wanted to run as fast uphill as I could and see if I still had ‘it.’” The “it” she was referring to just so happened to still be there, even after four years and one month, and it just so happened to include another “W”. “You don’t really get to know whether your best miles are far behind you or still ahead,” stated Payne.
Maria Carilli of Socorro, NM followed Payne for second position in a time of 1:27:40. In her first attempt at Mt. Baldy, the 22-year-old climbed the Devil’s Backbone and passed me with a smile, after I told her she was the second woman. Carilli In third place, with a hot pink shirt on so that she was not to be missed, was local Mt. Baldy resident Lindsey Keough. She, too, wore a smile and greeted me as she went on to complete the podium in a time of 1:28:29.
The theme of the day seemed to be: Enjoy what you are doing. What better way to spend a beautiful day overlooking the Pacific Ocean with 300 other people suffering–but smiling–up a mountain. Mt. Baldy Race director, Tracy Sulkin, informed me, “Being involved in this great race is one of the highlights of my life.”
And the Mt. Baldy experience is not complete without spotting some of the race legends. Multiple-time champion and course record holder of the race, Matt Ebiner in a time of 1:00:49 from 1987, is still out racing and placing high. Then there is Pavel, a larger than life volunteer with a commanding Eastern European accent, who is very popular because of his beer-muling to the summit for tired, thirsty races. He also has a deck at the local Mt. Baldy Lodge named in his honor, “Pavel’s Corner”, because it is rumored that he has consumed the most beer at the historic restaurant.
And as for me saying I’d ‘never, EVER, do that again!’ Well, I did it 5 more times and managed to etch two “Ws” into the history books, along with two runner-up positions. Although I was not out there in a competitive capacity this year, perhaps I will be in the future. To freshly quote the two-time champion, “You don’t really get to know whether your best miles are far behind you or still ahead.”
Thanks Coach Phillips!
Mt. Baldy Race Results
- Shannon Payne, El Dorado Hills, CA – 1:21:29
- Maria Carilli, Socorro, NM – 1:27:40
- Lindsey Keough, Mt. Baldy, CA – 1:28:29
- Tom Sullivan, Reno, NV – 1:09:35
- Michael Eastburn, Porter Ranch, CA – 1:14:29
- Edar Pina, Motebello, CA – 1:14:46
Full Results: https://run2top.wpengine.com/race-results/
See even more race photos by Peter Maksimow on Google Photos.
[Editor’s Note: are you interested in learning for about this race? Read Tracy Sulkin’s article A different kind of monster: the Mt. Baldy Run-to-the-Top.]