Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Angeles Crest

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.


Matt Silva said...


I just checked the AC100 website and the race has indeed been cancelled for 2009. I was not registered for the race but was/am planning to do it next year if/when I fail to get into WS.

I know exactly how you feel. Two years ago my childhood home in Escondido, CA where my parents still live was threatened by a fire. They were evacuated and stayed in an emergency shelter for 3 days. Although I was concerned about losing the home, I was just as concerned about what was happening to the landscape and the trails in and around Lake Hodges, where I learned to run. The spiritual (not sure this is the right word, but don't know what else to use) connection to the land was stronger than my attachment to the home. I felt like a part of me was being wiped out. Thankfully, my home and much of the trails were spared.

Sadly, this does not seem to be the case in the Angeles National Forest. Just be glad you were able to run the race before this happened.


Hank Dart said...

Great post, Andy. Thoughtful as always. Let's hope for recovery.

Justin Angle said...

Great post, AJW. Very sad and sobering news. Let's hope this classic race can recover!


BTW, great great run at Leadville!

Unknown said...


Thanks so much for your thoughtful and emotional post.

AC would have been my first 100 this year and each section of the course described in your post was spot on.

This is where I have "gone to school" for the last 6 months, and the thought of all this beauty destroyed is unbelievable.

These various places: Wrightwood, the Acorn Trail, Inspiration Point, Vincent Gap, Mt. Baden Powell, Little Jimmy Campground, Islip Saddle, Cloudburst, Three Points, Mt. Hillyer, Chilao and the Silver Mocassin Trail, Shortcut, Newcolm Saddle, Chantry Flats, Mt. Wilson and its toll road, that darn very hard climb up Sam Merrill, the Mt. Lowe Railway (and the resident rattlesnakes), Millard Canyon, and the parking lot on Windsor Avenue in Altedena, all became as familiar and beloved to many of us as are the very halls and rooms in our own homes.

I think there is still a sense of shock that this has happened just like that, and that the race is cancelled, amongst several of the runners I know that were registered to run this year like me.

Every single weekend since early April, that we were not running in another race, we ran and were privileged to get to know the beauty, and worthy challenges, of this course, in 25 to 59 mile training runs.

Just one week ago today, at this hour, there were no fires, and all was still a go. It speaks to the truly transitory nature of some things, and the importance of appreciating every chance we get on these historic courses, to spend time there running, or whatever else.

If the race goes on in 2010, the landscape the runners encounter will certainly be much different than the one that previous runners have seen in the past.

It IS sad. Many "Los Angelinos" who live right near this Angeles Crest Highway haven't a clue about the beauty throughout this area.

This year, I was one who was lucky enough to see it, before much of it has gone up in smoke.

There will be other 100s, yes. But many of us around here have come to feel for this course much like others feel for Western States. It's hard to see much of it all burn away.

We were just running through all of it, all of these weeks that have just passed.

This fire has also taken out much of the "Hal Winton" Mt. Disappointment Classic 50 mile run that several of us just participated in last August 8th.

With the great weather we experienced on that day, that race should have been relabeled "Mt. Encouragement" this year.

Little did we know that the real "Mount Disappointment" this year would be this fire, just a few weeks later, the cancellation of the 2009 AC100, all the beauty destroyed, and the countless homes and homeowners in the area and surrounding ares damaged and forced to flee.

Surreal and sad.

Take care, and thanks again for your wonderful post.

rustyboy said...

It's truly sad to watch, and your words really capture the emotion. Having lived in Los Angeles for 11 years up until a year ago, I marveled nearly every day on my way to work the majestic expanse of mountain jutting up to the east.

It will come back, stronger, a phoenix from the ashes. It will take time, but it will return.

Joe Kulak said...

It has been sad to watch. In 2003 AC 100 was the end of a journey for me. The forest will recover again though in our lifetime.

Joe Kulak

Rogue Valley Runners said...

A cleansing post my man, it has been hard to imgine just how horrific the land will be scarred.

The trail will remain, it has to endure, and ultimately you will create new memories out there just like the rest of us.

Bummed for all that the fire has consumed,


AJW said...

Thanks for all the comments. Hearing from Joe and Hal, especially, makes it all hit home. We grew up on this course and will, with any luck, grow old on this course as well.


Matt said...

Moving post. I sure hope there is a future of trail running/hiking in the area. I like RVR's optimism.

Your memories are priceless.
Make more!