One day in June at 11 am, Daisy Martinez had been awake—and moving—for nine hours. She was hungry and bleeding, the latter from a laceration she suffered while descending the next peak over, so the ultrarunner decided to take a break on the forested summit of Timber Mountain to refuel and bandage her wound, which ultimately left a scar.
She knew that she still had five more summits to tag, but Martinez left her perch in good spirits. As the hours ticked by, however, her body grew sluggish and her mental status began to deteriorate. It was an unusual experience for Martinez, because she’d started trail running a few years back as to help manage depression; she was used to feeling better out there, not worse. But still she pushed on, each peak another link in a physical and emotional rollercoaster: Cucamonga (“I started questioning everything.”), Etiwanda (“Okay, I think I got this.”), Bighorn (“This is a really dumb idea.”), Ontario (“I can’t do this anymore.”), and finally, Sugarloaf, where Martinez settled into overwhelming gratitude.
“They’re like What?! I didn’t even know you guys had mountains in L.A. And I’m thinking, dude, we have some of the toughest mountains.”
There were tears—twice—plenty of sweat, and of course, you know about the blood, but despite it all, Martinez finished the route. She’d spent seventeen and a half hours tracking a marathon’s distance across an intimidating alpine landscape, tagging eleven peaks and trudging up a calf-quaking 12,000’ of gain. Martinez was in pain, but it was the exact right kind. “It reminded me of how blessed and grateful I am to be able to do this,” she says of the experience. “To be able to just push myself in these uncomfortable situations and really to understand that the only limitations are the ones we set ourselves.”
Martinez had just completed the Fool’s Traverse, an unofficial endurance event that spans some of the most challenging terrain in the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, located just northeast of Los Angeles. Created by seismic upheaval (the range is bordered by fault lines, including the famed San Andreas to its north) and comprised primarily of shattered granitic rock, the San Gabriels are notoriously rugged and unstable, the kind of terrain that seems to swallow hikers whole—just Google any combo of “hikers,” “missing,” and “San Gabriel Mountains” and you’ll see.
Unless you’re an outdoorsy local, it’s not exactly what you might picture when envisioning the landscape surrounding the entertainment capital of the world, but where some see only heavy smog and traffic jams, others, like ultrarunner Ricardo Soria, see the possibility of good ol’ fashioned Type 2 Fun. Soria laughs when he recalls an exchange with some new friends he met at the Euchre Bar Massacre race in Northern California, after they saw a photo of him climbing in the San Gabriels. “They’re like What?! I didn’t even know you guys had mountains in L.A.,” he says. “And I’m thinking, dude, we have some of the toughest mountains. If you read anything about John Muir, he didn’t really like the San Gabriels because they’re so steep, there’s a bunch of chapparal, and tons of terrible, rough terrain.”
Soria, who runs TRVRS Apparel, a clothing company that draws equally from urban and alpine inspirations, had been thinking about launching his own “fat ass run,” as these kinds of unsanctioned sufferfests are known in ultra circles. He’d already completed the eventual Fool’s Traverse route, well-known among local endurance athletes, on his own, and decided to concoct a public version after brainstorming with his buddy Vince Juarez during a run one day. He spent six months preparing for the event, a “logistical nightmare” that at one point saw an anxious Soria dissolve into tears. Much to his surprise (and relief), seventy-five people signed up to have their asses handed to them in May 2017.
It’s since been good promotion for TRVRS, but Soria also views Fool’s Traverse as good for the community. He designates a non-profit beneficiary each year (the first two events were dedicated to Trash Free Earth, a stewardship non-profit Martinez helmed, which is how she learned of the event), watches as people support one another on course, and sees the event as an opportunity for people to develop their backcountry skills. “This is definitely not your average endurance run where you’re just shuffling from concession stand to concession stand,” he says. “It’s not a race, it’s a personal challenge.”
Fool’s Traverse is a difficult endeavor, to be sure, but the most hardcore SoCal mountain goats flock to the Baldy Marathons, another unofficial endurance challenge held in the same area of the San Gabriels, so named for its most iconic peak—Mount San Antonio, or “Baldy” in local shorthand. Inspired by the notorious Barkley Marathons (where organizer Aaron Sorensen completed two laps before encountering foot issues), the Baldy race offers multiple distances (the whole enchilada being 100 miles) comprised of 20-mile loops, mostly cross-country, with each lap covering 10,000’ of gain; participants need to locate five punch-card checkpoints along the way to prove they completed each lap.
Sorensen spent two and a half years scouting and designing the race, with a goal to make it “at least as steep as Barkley.” Unless they’ve surveyed the course ahead of time (he provides GPS coordinates to registrants before the race), first-timers often don’t realize just what it is they’ve signed up for. Each segment of the loop receives a name—“Hades” and “Impending Doom” are but two of the more intimidating ones—and each seems to live up to its moniker. In his post-race report, one participant described “Eric’s Plunge,” a knee-busting class 2 downhill scramble that appears early into the run, as such:
A knife ridgeline with a steep dropoff on the left. There is very little footing and jagged rocks. 99% of the people in this world would never go down it. But this race isn’t for them. It’s for people like myself that like to test their own courage and will power to do things that are uncomfortable.
As for Sorenson, he calls it the hardest part of the race. “At mile three, you’re thrown into the gauntlet,” he says. “People sit on top there for 45 minutes, contemplating life.”
I asked Sorensen (an ultrarunner and fastpacker with over twenty years experience as a navigator in the Coast Guard) if he’s a masochist—which he swears he’s not—but maybe I should have asked if he’s a sadist, instead. He’s good-natured, but gently balks at the suggestion that there’s any malice involved; like Soria, he just wants to offer people the opportunity to enjoy testing themselves in what most folks might consider rather extreme scenarios.
“The people who like to do it—people call them masochists,” he says. “If you go off-trail anywhere in Southern California and have fun, then it’s really not that bad. But compared to what 90 percent of people do in their trail runs, it’s brutal.” Add to that the possibility of inclement weather—as happened during the most recent iteration of the Marathons this May, which featured blizzard conditions, sleet, and hail—and the suffer factor ramps up by a hundred. “It was a nightmare,” Sorensen says of this year’s race. “But fun.”
There’s only ever been one hundred-mile finisher, Toshimoshi Hosaka, who closed out his final loop last September 58 hours and 57 minutes after starting his run—only three minutes shy of the cutoff. While Sorensen hopes there will be other finishers for the Baldy Marathons, he’s also busy scheming a new race that will debut in the fall, the Highlander 100, which, true to its name, will cease to exist after a single completion of the full course (“There can only be one!”). The catch? The 50k version will boast 20,800’ of gain; the hundred-mile iteration, 63,500’. “It’s the hardest race the world, hands down, as far as a hundred miler goes,” says Sorensen. “This blows away anything—it’ll be harder to finish than Barkley.”
As for Martinez, she’s planning a second attempt at the Baldy Marathons this fall; she stopped shy of a full loop as a result of this nasty conditions this spring. And she calls the Barkley Marathons her “North Star goal,” something she can use to not only further stretch her physical and emotional limits, but also inspire other women to expand their own. She’s exactly the kind of person that Sorensen and Soria had in mind when they designed their challenges.
“You decide to see how much you want to push yourself. The space is there; the only one who’s going to stop you is you,” says Martinez. “[These races] allow us to really understand that we’re capable of so much more and give us motivation to keep seeking a better self. I think that in part of life, ultimately, all we want is to find purpose and to find meaning, and I think we can find meaning outside of our comfort zone because if you’re doing something you never even imaged of doing, it creates that curiosity of wondering—What else can I do?”
Top photo courtesy Fool’s Traverse