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Jess Zaiss on her Backbone Trail Adventure

Two weeks ago, two of our Team SFQ'ers--along with two of their powerhouse training partners--together took on the traverse of LA's famous 68-mile Backbone Trail. For 3 of these 4 women, it was their lifetime longest run. Team SFQ'er Jess Zaiss was kind enough to share the story of this adventure from its inception with us in today's Smashfest Diary. 

The story of the Backbone Trail is more than just the story of four women running for 21 hours. It is a story of achieving a lifelong dream, of getting out of your own way, of gaining the courage to keep pursuing big, scary goals, and of catching a glimmer of hope. 

 

If you are not familiar, the Backbone Trail (BBT) is an approximately 68 mile trail that winds through the Santa Monica Mountains from Will Rogers State Park in west Los Angeles towards Point Mugu and ends at the Ray Miller Trailhead in La Jolla Canyon. The total gain along the BBT is somewhere around 13,000 ft of gain (13,570 by my watch). Some of the 12 trailheads are popular spots for day hikes and others are more remote and lack parking lots or cell service. Over the 68 miles, the scenery changes from view of downtown LA, breath taking ocean vistas, heavily forested canyons, and rocky peaks (an Earth scientist’s dream). 

 

Running the BBT from start to finish had been on LA native, Lynne Fiedler’s to-do list for several years. With COVID cancelling all races her races for the 2020 season, this seemed like the perfect year to do so. I first spoke with Lynne about her big, scary goal during a trail run as part of the LA Tri Club’s 50 Segment challenge. She had invited me to do some trail runs with her and, as I had never run trails, I figured it would be good to go with someone who knew what they were doing. After our first run together (together is a loose term here, Lynne is much faster than me), she asks if I would be interested in pacing her for a section or two of the BBT. Stoked to be a part of something so huge I agreed without any hesitation. The next time we met up to run, she asks if I would ever consider doing the full thing. I replied that maybe someday but probably not right now (I was really enjoying my shorter workouts for once). The third time we meet up for a trail run, my third one ever, Lynne told me that I needed to run the BBT with her and that she would email her coach, Hillary Biscay, who is also my coach’s coach. Later that week I received an email from my coach, Mary Knott. “You probably already know this but you’re doing the Backbone Trail. We are going to start ramping up. I am pretty sure you can finish but it is going to hurt”. Thanks Lynne. 

 

A few weeks into training, fellow Biscay Coaching athlete Patricia (Pat) Lorenzi finds out one of her trail races is cancelled so she joins our BBT challenge. Pat is a strong trail runner and has a couple 50 milers under her belt. Lynne also recruited the help of ultra-runner extraordinaire Amy Chavez who has completed many 100 milers and other long-distance runs including having run the BBT once before in the opposite direction. Originally, Amy was just going to help us train (i.e. keep us from getting lost) but as we got closer to our planned date of Nov. 14th, she realized her schedule would fall into place such that she would be able to join us for the whole thing. So, the plan was set in motion and we would all run the BBT together. No one surges ahead and no one gets left behind. We were in this together. 

 Mid-training run. Our one and only time we practiced running in the dark. From left to right, Pat, Lynne, and yours truly.

 

The morning of the run we met at Will Roger’s State Park at 3:45 AM and started our day at 3:59 AM. The first two hours were all in the dark and thankfully uneventful. Running in the dark was one of my biggest fears going into this journey. Not because I am clumsy (the only one to fall during training and the day of), not because I was afraid of getting lost (Amy is a superhero), but because I know the Santa Monica Mountains are home to numerous mountain lions. Thankfully, we saw none and all those rustling in the bushes were definitely just rabbits and birds. We stopped for a moment to take in the first light rising behind the towering buildings of downtown LA and then continued our way to our first SAG (support and gear) stop. We enjoyed watching the world wake up and even got to run through a small family of deer who were just as confused as we were as to why we were out there so early. 

Picture 1. 4 AM starting line smiles

 

Our first stop was at the Old Topanga trailhead which was 13 miles in. We arrived right on schedule and were greeted by Pat’s husband, Rudy, and Team SFQ/HPB friend and (stellar) athlete, Taryn Spates. Rudy had laid out all our gear for us to do a quick drop of the warm clothes and headlamps, refuel on some chips and pretzels, grab more nutrition as needed, and be on our way. T offered encouragement and took some video and pics that she later put together for a wonderful recap of the day which you can find here. Our fuel for the day varied between us but Lynne and I primarily used Spring Energy, Speednut gels every 45 minutes and supplemented with egg salad sandwiches (Lynne) or turkey sandwiches (me). Amy fueled with gels and snacks at the SAG stops. Pat used CarboPro, pretzels, and chips. My go-to hydration is always Nuun Endurance and Lynne enjoyed Scratch hydration. Amy and Pat stuck to water with Gatorade at our stops and salt from pretzels or chips at SAG stops. 

 

Our second stop was 11.4 miles away at the Tapia trailhead where we picked up friend/coach/also stellar athlete, Mary Knott, who paced us for 6 miles. This was one of my favorite sections of the day. The weather was amazing and good air quality allowed us to fully take in the ocean views to our left and the valley to our right as we ran along a wide ridge trail. Our spirits were high and we were feeling good. Mostly. Amy has a hip condition in which the cartilage is gone, and painful bone-on-bone rubbing has kept her from running more than 38 miles at once. As she yearns to get back to doing 100 milers, she was cautiously optimistic that her hip was holding up during our training. On this day, though, we were all a bit nervous as early on, her hip started to ache. 

 

The section of trail between our second and third SAG stops are some of my favorite miles. It was a dynamic section that takes you from sweeping ocean views to forested single track. The trail is lined with stark black trees; a reminder of the Woolsey Fire that ravaged the area two years prior and engulfed nearly 97,000 acres and destroyed 1,643 structures. But, contrasted against the fire scars were vibrant green leaves which demonstrated the resilience to keep moving forward, no matter what tries to hold you back. A theme very much on point for the day. 

 

Just passed the halfway point near Latigo Canyon! Photo Cred: Taryn Spates

 

As we arrived at our third SAG stop, we were now 36 miles into the day. Mary had all our gear laid out for a quick-ish transition and we were off again. This time we only had about 5 miles until our next stop. At this point we had Hillary running with us and Jenn Aronson had joined us as well. These two pacers did an excellent job with conversation to keep our minds off the fact that we were 10.5 hours into the day. About 40 miles into the run, we came across a sign that just reads “Agony”, which, coincidently, describes, nearly perfectly, exactly how we were starting to feel, or at least how my feet were starting to feel. It turns out there is a trail there named Agony but the sign provided some comic relief and a fun photo op.

Who says the perfect sign does not exist? A fun photo op  ~40 miles in.

 

As we jogged it in to the Encincal trailhead, our fourth of five total SAG stops, we were greeted by Rudy, Angel, and Shimshon who were Pat’s, Amy’s, and Lynne’s husbands, respectively, as well as the ever prepared crew chief, Mary, and the always smiling Taryn. At this point we had a marathon to go and everyone was tired but ready. I was not feeling so hot and had a quick cry which is normal for the calorie deficient version of myself, as Mary can attest to. She saw many tears from me earlier this year when she crewed for me at Ultraman Florida. Thankfully, that also meant she knew exactly what I needed and promptly brought me some of the Taco Bell soft tacos I had stashed as “just in case” nutrition. Turns out, Taco Bell is a Biscay Coaching trail running super secret. Just ask the FKT queen, Alyssa Godesky, herself. 

 

The joy of seeing their significant others and a witty line from Hillary that made us all crack up was the energy boost we needed to keep putting one foot in front of the other for the next 10 miles until our last SAG stop. While we were traversing the 4 mile climb out of Encinal, we were treated to one of the most spectacular Southern California sunsets I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing. The evening sky faded from soft pastels to a vibrant red as the sun set over the ocean beyond the horizon. It was truly one of those moments that you appreciate that you get to be in that moment. As darkness fell, Taryn and Mary met our group at the Yerba Buena crossing, about halfway to our next stop, and we said good-bye to them and Hillary. These three women were a paramount in our success on the day with their energy, smiles, and willingness to help us in any way. The next five miles were physically dark as it was a remote section and mentally dark with never-ending switchbacks. Throughout this whole endeavor, I always had it in my mind that if I could just get to Mishe Mokwa, the 5th and final SAG stop, I knew I could make it to the end. We had planned for Jenn to be there with some extra nutrition for us such as rice balls and soup. But what we had not planned for was the party we were about to roll into.

 

Beautiful pastel sunset as we left Encincal trailhead with just a marathon to go. Photo cred: Hillary Biscay

 

As we approached the Mishe Mokwa tailhead, we could see lights hanging off the back of someone’s hatch back and could hear people chatting. Suddenly those people erupted into cheers, whistles, and claps and we see bouncing headlamps coming towards us. In addition to the crew of roving husbands and Jenn, Deb Carabet and Paul Semnacher had come for the party. Their support was overwhelming (or maybe I just needed more calories again…) and I felt the tears well up in my eyes again. Through my blurry vision I spotted someone else off to the side and immediately recognized it as one of my very best friends and training partners, Natalie Guerboian. After tear filled exclamations of being surprised, we headed towards the buffet they had set out with the aforementioned soup and rice balls but also snacks on snacks on snacks. Natalie even brought me some Chef Boyardee (a treat that saved me during my two Ironman races in two days journey) which I promptly scarfed down. We spent much longer here than originally planned but it was so worth it to see this group of amazing people who took time out of their day to come enthusiastically support us and surprise us. At this point we were 15.5 hours into the day. Well behind our intended schedule. Amy’s hip was reminding her this was the farthest she had run in a while but continued to let her move forward. Each step from here on out was Pat’s longest run ever (same for Lynne and me, as well). Lynne was a steady metronome of pushing forward and I mentally felt the best I had in a while but physically was starting to faulter. My feet we were hurting like they never had before, something I was prepared for based on our training runs and tips from Smashfest Queen teammate and friend, Jan Lohman, who had just completed her first 100k. I just tried to keep reminding myself that with 16 miles to go on the day and over 50 put in so far, if my feet hurting was the only thing to complain about then overall I was doing just fine. 

Group picture as we get ready to leave our fifth and final SAG stop. Nothing between us and the finish line except 16 very technical miles

 

We all agree that the party at Mishe Mokwa was one of the best parts of the day. Truly a highlight and just the boost we needed to tackle the last 16 miles which were some of the most technical and mentally grueling miles yet. It began with a steep two-mile climb, followed by a six-mile descent that was so technical we could only run the last one or two miles. One of the life lessons Lynne, Pat, and I learned was that, after 40 miles, you no longer look forward to downhills. The added impact on already sore ankles and feet left us wincing with every step. I tried to keep as high of a cadence as possible because I found that shorter strides meant less impact. About eight miles in was a stop at Danielson Ranch which is only accessible by foot or bike. I quickly refilled flask of Spring Energy drink mix to accompany my other flask which was full of orange Fanta. Solid food no longer sounded good but these two calorie sources did the trick. We ran on towards our final climb. This part of the trail was mentally more, uh, “fun”. It was not overly technical so our brains could relax a little bit but I kept seeing things that just were not quite right. I was confused as to why there was mailbox next to the trail only to get next to it and realize it was a log. After about the third shadow on the road that I swore was animal or object, I hear Lynne ask behind me “Do you guys keep seeing things?”. I was so relieved to know I was not the only one! I will never know Amy and Pat’s answers as they were pulling away from me and Lynne. Those two women are endurance machines. Or maybe it is just hard to keep up with someone when you are taking as small as steps as possible, but I have a feeling it is the former. As we finished our last climb, the trail turns into a flat, wide fire road for a few miles and for the first time in hours we felt brave enough to momentarily take our eyes off the trail and we were greeted with a spectacular night sky. Constellations were easily identifiable in the moonless, cloudless night. We had just one turn left. The last turn would begin a two- or three-mile descent that would take us to the finish. As we approached the turn, we could hear the roar of the ocean waves and smell the salty, sweet air. The never-ending switchbacks of the descent were punctuated at their turns by frigid air spilling over the canyon wall and our headlamps were slowly getting dimer. Our sore feet became just a background feeling that was easily ignored with such short distance to go. We could see the taillights of our support crew marking the end of the journey and headlamps were once again bouncing towards us as we rounded the final, freezing turn. We were three hours later than we thought we would be which put our finish time at 1 AM. Despite the late finish, we were greeted with cheers from the entire Mishe Mokwa crew plus my other dear friend and training partner, Jaime Martinez, and lastly but certainly not least, my loving and supportive partner Rob (and our two pups, Max and Dwight!). The four of us took a picture under the Ray Miller Trailhead sign and sauntered to our waiting (and warm) cars. A combination of “can’t believe we did it” and equal parts wanting to get off our feet and sleep kept finish line celebrations relatively brief. 

Finish line smiles. Photo Cred: Natalie Guerboian

 

 

I think for all of us we needed the sleep, food, and time to process what we had just done. Amy was able to complete the distance which gives her the confidence she has found the right hip management to allow her to complete another 100 miler. You could easily tell how happy she was about this because the last few miles she kept repeating that if we could do this, we could definitely do a 100 miler with less elevation gain (we will see, Amy, we will see….).Pat ran her longest and hardest run ever which provides her the courage to keep chasing after her goal of doing a 100 miler in 2021 (let us know if you need crew!). Lynne checked off her bucket list item and completed her longest day ever. I learned that I should not let Lynne sign me up for “fun” things. All jokes aside, after completing the back-to-back Ironman races and going straight into Ultraman Florida, I was hit hard with some post-race blues plus burnout and thought (feared?) I would never want to go long, ever again. What I really found out though is that not having something to work towards leaves me anxious and lacking contentment; a spiral of not wanting to work towards a hard goal and being anxious because I am not working towards anything. Lynne’s invitation is exactly what I needed to save me from myself and introduce me to a new outlet for doing hard things, trail running. Leading up to our “race” day, Amy had mentioned a couple times the bond that the four of us would have by the time we reached the finish line and I can say that I drastically underestimated just how strong that bond would have been. There is nothing like suffering together for nearly an entire day to bring you close!

Jess Zaiss is a Team SFQ member, endurance machine and PhD student in Earth Science at the University of Southern California. You can follow her adventures on instagram @see.zaiss.race 





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