As the news out of Southern California continues to get worse and worse I find myself deeply saddened. Indeed, wildfires are a fact of life in the American West and the Angeles Crest National Forest has been miraculously spared for the past 40 years, until the last few days. Now, it appears, the luck of the Karma Squirrels has run out.
It is brutal. Painful. Devastating. News of firefighters evacuated from Chilao, flames engulfing Cloudburst, inferno-like heat approaching Shortcut, and the threat to those wonderful, quirky, Deliverance-like cabins on the run-in to Chantry just break my heart. Never mind the cancellation of this year's AC race, this fire is likely to profoundly effect the future of one of the most unique and expansive urban/forest interfaces in the world. And, in the process, potentially end a generation of ultrarunning history in a few days.
For me, I must admit, this whole thing is intensely, deeply personal. And, therefore, much more painful.
AC was my first 100 miler in 2000. I have run it four times. It was the first race where I felt the thrill of being in the hunt. Both being the hunter and being the hunted. It's where I first left my guts on the trail and where I first learned what it took to get it done. In fact, it's the race that taught me about Acute Renal Failure!
From the beautiful expanses of the high ridge running down from Baden-Powell (and the deliciously sweet water from the Little Jimmy Spring:) to the slightly pungeant taste of the air when you transition over to the "city" after Newcomb Saddle, this course has it all. As one of the pure, point-to-point courses in ultrarunning it is a true standard that has stood the test of time. Now, that all hangs in the balance. Maybe, O'Brien's record will stand forever.
For me, above all else, the AC course is where I learned to run. It's where I went to school. It's where I got my first taste of what has today become an inextricable part of who I am. That, ultimately, is why this fire feels, to me, like it might feel to have your childhood home destroyed.
In the late-'90's when I was finding my way into this sport I discovered the AC course and the group of guys who called it home. From my mentor Tommy Nielsen and his band of Bad Rats (Ben Hian, Tracy Moore, Jeff Hines, Al Valverde, Scott Mills, et al...) to the warm hearted souls of Guillermo Medina and Jorge Pacheco, to the laugh-a-minute world of Larry Gassan and Andy Roth, the AC course and its training runs made me who I am as a runner. Add to that the hard work and devotion of long-time AC race directors Hal Winton and Ken Hamada and you have a mix of people you won't find anywhere else. And now, that brotherhood of the trail is threatened and may well be already dead.
As the flames climbed their way up Mt Wilson this past weekend I thought rather viscerally about the miles I had logged on the AC course over the years. What they have taught me and who they have given to me. In the end, that is enough, I hope. However, it doesn't make the tragedy any easier to swallow and as a result of that, tonight, I must say, I am very, very sad.
Here's hoping everyone stays safe and somehow there's a happy ending in all this.