by David B
“Reverse.” (adj.) Going in or turned toward the direction opposite to that previously traveled.
The idea seemed simple enough. Run from the top of Mt. Santiago to the Pacific Ocean. Reversing the direction would obviously be easier, right? “Less climbing,” they said. “We’ll just drive to the peak and start from there,” they said. “The gate will be open,” they said. If there is one thing I’ve learned of vital importance after joining this merry band of heroes, heathens and hobos it is merely this… Be prepared for anything and everything. On this, my 4th invitation to the big dance I was indeed prepared. I had a tent in case we elected to camp at the top, allowed with a permit. I brought a fake ID in case we elected to camp at the top, pending arrest after being denied the permit. I made sure my cover story and alibi were both rock solid. I had clothing for any weather and any temperature. Lastly, I was prepared for ANY distance.
The night before our pilgrimage was graciously hosted by Will and Jen at Chalet de C. in Corona Del Mar. They opened their abode and its floors for us to save an early morning drive and to ease the next morning’s overall ruckus. (Note: We graciously repaid them for their hospitality by plugging every toilet in the place the next morning, then leaving.) Ice cold beer, runners and crew arriving, Jen’s delicious melted cheese and brussel (fiber-rich) sprout dip (which will come up again later), 80’s tunes on Pandora and the news that the gate was closed due to impending wet weather. Wait, what the f*** did he just say? After the gasps quieted, it was decided that we would drive into Holy Jim Canyon, hike the 8 miles and 4,000 feet up Upper Holy Jim to Santiago Peak. There we would begin our quest, and our descent.
The 2016 class was in place. Will C., Jeff P., Rob Mc., Cracker C., Mike F., Larry R., Lindsay J., Mona G. and the author, David B. It was already decided that Jeff and Mona were going to do an abbreviated SW5K due to the following week’s California International Marathon and their quest for Boston qualifying finishes. (Note: Both succeeded. Jeff – 4:05:15, Mona – 4:02:12.) Kudos you two! Larry, prefaced his attempt with “I’ll hang for as long as I can hang.” Under normal circumstances, insert ridicule and belittling remarks here. However, Larry was only days from going under the knife and replacing one of his knees. Not normal circumstances, not a normal guy. “Look son, a hero.” As the evening wore on, the news came that Fidel Castro had passed. Before anyone could say “Bay Of Pigs Invasion of 1961,” Will walks into the living room with a humidor and begins passing out cigars to honor the fallen communist dictator. “Cuban Cohibas for everyone!” As the alcohol began to rear its ugly head and the dense, smokey fog hung heavy, some called it a night. Others, were just getting started. My Dad always said, “Nothing good happens after midnight.” He was right, as the night would claim a casualty before the morning alarm even sounded. My ‘15 AC100 pacer extraordinaire Lindsay J tapped out before lacing up her shoes. There were other notable absences, namely Bino M. who was still nursing a hemorrhoid & hamstring injury.
Morning came, dark and brisk. Coffee perked, breakfast served, bags packed, trucks loaded, toilets flooded. Rob discovered nearly all of his Gatorade had vanished from the refrigerator overnight. 4 bottles! I have it on good authority that Larry’s son, Leamon quite possibly was the culprit. Long after Larry had visions of sugarplums dancing in his head, ‘ol spider-monkey Leamon was burning the late night oil squirreling around the house like 007, clearly “high” from Rob’s Gatorade. The house still reeked like downtown Havana. We piled into the vehicles and were off to Holy Jim. Had to make an unscheduled pit stop at Cook’s Corner. A few of us scattered to relieve ourselves and shake out the nerves of the impending day’s events. We arrived at Holy Jim Canyon Trailhead just after dawn and began our ascent. We started the day with 7; Will, Rob, Cracker, Mike, Larry, Mona & myself. Jeff would join us later for the middle section of our little jaunt through Orange County. The year we were supposed to reverse and start by going down, it sure seemed like we were starting by doing a lot of up. You have to be a bit masochistic to begin a full day of running by climbing over 4,000’ in roughly 8 miles to get to the official start of a fun run with friends. Yep. But this is no ordinary run, nor are these ordinary friends.
Larry led the way for most of the early going up Holy Jim, keeping his pace steady and pain to a minimum. This was a great opportunity to catch up with everyone and rehash mutual races from this past year. Everyone seemingly had done some sort of epic shit but the egos were held at bay. The morning’s microclimates proved confusing as clothes were shed only to be put back on soon thereafter. Upper Holy Jim unfortunately felt the wrath of the previous night’s fiber-ridden Brussels sprouts, molten queso chip-dip. I was unaware that one of the key ingredients was Quikrete. Twice I was reduced to a walk, looking for a hiding place to evacuate the colon-mortar. Really, no tissues? F***! Thank God for big leaves and soft bark. I eyed some lovely smooth acorns but chose against it fearing a suppository incident.
Main Divide was a welcome sight and we all made good effort to reach Santiago Peak in around 2:45. It was cold and blustery at the summit. Only time for a few photos, fueling up and a kiss of the geological survey marker. Jeff’s absent voice flashed through my consciousness, “Yes Jeff, I know people urinate on the damn thing! Thanks for reminding me! Now piss off!” We headed down into the wind and clouds and made the turn onto Joplin Trail. Was worried I would hate it as much going down as I do going up. Yep. Not sure exactly how we all managed to get off Joplin accident free, but we did. My quads were already pretty used up. By the time we made it into Old Camp, admittedly Larry’s knee was giving him a moderate amount of dysfunction and pain. The guy had Rx “trail candy” at the ready, but never took a thing and never complained once. Again, Larry is a legend. Larry’s quote of the day had to be when asked by a gal on a mountain bike how does someone get into our group. He replied, “you have to be Republican!” Really, huh? It was decided that Larry would meet up with crew members, John John and John (3 Johns, 2 guys) at Cadillac and descend to end his misery and suffering. We spent a few minutes at the top of Cadillac and were treated to bottled water, schlepped up by the boys and Baby Ruth candy bars. Our group was down to 6. Onward.
We settled into a nice groove along the trail. Lots of mountain bikers along the trail. Most courteous, some ignorant. Cracker enjoyed striking up conversations with female hikers. “Good morning, cupcake!” was my favorite. One can always count on Cracker for his delightfully distasteful, off-color humor and the perfectly timed comment to make you laugh, or wonder why he doesn’t get slapped more often. It was also entertaining hearing him discuss attractive black women, mostly musicians and actresses. When he forgot a particular name (i.e., Halle Berry), he quipped, “I’m usually pretty good with the “sistas!”” Ironic, coming from a guy nicknamed Cracker. Things got spirited along this section and the pace quickened. Will took the lead as we kept pace, or at least tried to and we all made quick work getting off the mountain. Will speculated that we could reach the coast by nightfall, others had some doubts. Didn’t really matter, we were all in this together. Jeff joined us at Modjeska after doing an out-and-back half-marathon along Santiago prior to our arrival. Cracker kept asking hikers if they had seen a big, tall Mexican on the trail. One said they had and that he was a “nice, good-looking guy.” Rob Mc. was very quick to respond, “That’s not our Mexican!”
My quads took their second hammering of the day descending the steep trails. Mike F. was striding out his legs and took a flyer off the front through the next section. We all arrived at our next scheduled stop together, except Mike. Apparently, Mike didn’t get the memo (that Will never wrote) that our normal stop was not on the itinerary. But, like the smart guy Mike is, he cruised into our pit stop minutes later realizing we had passed him and left him behind. Kudos to the entire crew which by now was out in force and was almost double the size of the running group. Jen brought some amazing breakfast burritos and was serving up some strong and spicy bloody Marys. The perfect combination to re-invigorate the group. Mona and Jeff decided the bloody Marys were just too good, elected to save their legs for CIM, and chose not to soldier on. Jen also brought news that rain was eminent and should hit us by 3pm. Remember that, 3pm. We were now down to the core; Will, Rob, Cracker, Mike & David.
Now, filled with burritos and waiting for the slight buzz to kick in, we ventured onward toward the goal. Minutes later, I felt searing pain coming from my left calf. Ruptured Achilles? Torn gastrocnemius muscle? Nope, fruit! It was a different kind of pain as the limes were in season, ripe and flying as the usual melee ensued along the citrus groves. Let me say this. Rob Mc. does not have the overhead throwing mechanics of a MLB pitcher. More like someone having a seizure. However, the guy is a skilled marksman with freakish precision. If he wants to hit you, he’ll hit you. And he did… many times. Nursing our wounds, we headed for the pavement section of the sanctioned course.
I hate this section, always have. Seemingly endless pavement, never-ending freeway overpasses and the pace always increases. Going in reverse was no different, maybe worse. At least we had our last aid station before the final stretch at its terminus. Everyone could sense it was coming, both the end and the weather. Five runners heading into a storm and a strong, cold headwind made their way to the crew vehicles and our foul-weather gear to battle the impending tempest. Ok, perhaps not a tempest but you get the idea. Rain was coming, ok? Will and I without acknowledging each other threw down some good tempo through here. Catch a signal light, regroup. Throw down, regroup. Before it became “throw-up, regroup” for me, I realized that in my attempt to show the big dogs around me that I still had some fight left, we were all soaking wet. Jen was off by less than an hour, it was 2:15pm, and the sky had opened up. By the time we made it to our crew, aid and clothes we had just taken a shower fully dressed. The crew did a phenomenal job here. Everyone was out of their vehicles catering to our needs, making sure we had everything we needed for the final push up & over to the coast. Changed shoes again, needed more grip. Rain shell on, headlamp in pocket. I honestly thought making it by nightfall was a stretch. Will was still naively hopeful. Onward.
Crossed many a road and arrived at the spiritual “McNair’s Step”. But Rob’s step was a muddy slope. No time for a photo this year. We began to see the ill-effects of the moisture on the trail. It was puddling, getting slippery and clay began to cake onto the soles of our shoes. There was also the traditional throwing of a rock into Barbara’s Lake. Yes, it’s actually called Barbara’s Lake. Don’t just run, know a little history. Barbara’s Lake is not a man-made reservoir. It is the only, natural lake in Orange County. She looked a little sad though. Her level was quite low and the walk out to her water’s edge was soft yet dry and cracked like a dry lake bed should look. Any bystander could tell these guys didn’t play baseball as we all walked back holding our arms and shoulders groaning from the soreness of a single throw. Entering Laguna Coast Wilderness Park I fell behind the group a few hundred feet and got stopped by a ranger. Uh-oh, here we go. “My name?” “Bino. B-I-N-O.” Cool guy actually, just asking where we had come from and if we had seen anything or anyone in the last few miles. A couple of hikers were apparently missing. “Wait, you came from where?” “Mt. Santiago,” I replied. He didn’t have a follow-up. I still don’t think he believed me.
Have I mentioned that while attempting to delicately hurdle a barbed wire trail hazard, Cracker managed to snare his trademark 80’s multicolor running pants, thus exposing his right ass cheek to us and the world for the remainder of our expedition. If you’ve never seen these things, think MC Hammer pants that were raped by a clown.
At last, El Moro Canyon. The rain had let up a little bit. Hoods were off but the jackets stayed on. Rapidly growing colder, we slogged, stuck and slid our way through the glacially smooth muddy trail along El Moro Canyon Trail. Mike F was dragging, but 2 days prior saw him blazing a 19:41 5K at the Dana Point Turkey Trot. Those are 6:20’s, ladies and gentlemen, at 53. Despite the slow going, Mike never wavered, never faltered, and never once complained, worthy, it turns out, to earn him most inspirational runner for the day. Me, I was complaining like a little bitch. I was attempting to ascend one trail with a 5lb. dirt clod adhered to the bottom of each of my shoes. Most of the time we all spent a few yards off the trail using the vegetation and shrubs as grip steps as not to fall or as a scrub brush to pull the muck chunk out of the shoe lugs. This, all after Rob and I spent the last couple miles doing our best men’s pairs figure skating routine (envision “Blades of Glory”) attempting to stay upright. Everyone planted at least some body part in the sludge.
Nope, Will, we weren’t going to make it out by nightfall. Headlamps were on, flashlights were out and I still managed to nearly deep-six a shoe in a giant muddy pool of rain water that somehow I completely missed directly in front of us. One last regrouping and 5 guys made their way out of Moro Canyon. Despite raining hard, I could hear cars on Coast Hwy. and see the lights of the parking lot at Crystal Cove State Park. We still tried to stay stealthy and avoid any last run-ins with park rangers and headed for the ocean. Nothing could possibly take away from this moment, except a lunatic shouting in the darkness, “HEY GUYS!, HEY GUYS!” It was never a matter of if, but when. Brother Bino. He was there to greet us with Trina, as was Jen and daughter Devon, Laura L, friends and of course the entire amazing crew. Speaking of the tireless Saltwater crew, many thanks to Al, Marshall, Tom, John , John (3 Johns, 2 guys) and Jen for everything they did to help us reach the beach. Special thanks to Laura for driving my wet carcass back to Will’s place.
Will’s original plan was to dive into the water upon reaching our destination. That plan was scrapped as we were all completely soaked already, freezing cold and dying for a shot of something strong. Will’s friends Wolfgang and Susan provided some on the spot “beach shots” of cinnamon liquor. Don’t mind if I do. Yes, I will have another! Charged with carrying the sacred sponge (usually carrying ocean water to the top of Santiago), I removed it from my pack where it had been coated with water and dirt from Santiago Peak and placed it ceremonially in the ocean. The trek was complete. The core, Will, Cracker, Rob, Mike and I touched the Pacific.
* Until next year.
* Pending invitation, of course.