Santa Barbara 9 Trails

Santa Barbara 9 Trails 35 Miles Endurance Run, With A Paragliding Pack (Copy)

 Mitch Riley

March 23rd, 2017 was a pretty normal day, in the middle of a normal week of training hard for the Red Bull X-Alps, flying and working.  I had two tandems from Skyport, a Santa Barbara mountain takeoff then Neal Michealis and I drove up to retrieve the van, conditions looked great, so we got our XC gliders out and hucked off.  It was late in the day, and the thermals were weak, with a low base.  Challenging, low flying kept it fun and interesting.  I went down range a couple of crossings, before side hill landing at the Tea Cups.  I packed up, then walked a private trail to Cold Springs trail, and up to Gibraltar road.  As I crossed the Rattlesnake trail a ultra runner type (form fitting hydration pack, short shorts, and GOO wrappers falling out of his pockets) was putting in race trail markers.  I asked him "which race is tomorrow".  "The 9 Trails" was his response.  "Do you know if there are any spots left" I asked.  He chuckled, I must have amused him, hiking up a road fast, with a loaded pack, and asking about entering an Ultra marathon that started in 11 hours.  He told me to check the website.

 The Santa Barbara 9 Trails Endurance Run, has become a classic California Ultra.  The course is steep, 11,000ft of Climb, and 11,000ft of decent in its 35 miles, on rocky technical single track trail.  Poison Oak, rattle snakes, spectacular views, wildflowers, and STEEP trails make this course legendary.  I heard one runner I passed say "Western States 100 was a good training run for 9 Trails", hilarious.

I decided that If I did the race I would do it with my Paragliding Pack, at X-Alps weight, just under 10kg.  While finishing my hike I considered the advantages and challenges of doing the race.  

Advantages, If I finish the race

The phycological benefit of knowing that I complete 35 miles of rough terrain, and 11k feet of accent and decent with a pack on, after 5 days of hard training will be huge.  It would confirm my training, nutrition, pacing, and mechanical tactics, helping affirm that the work Ive been putting in is paying off.  It takes long days for our bodies to figure out the adaptations that are needed to sustain constant movement, fueling, and mental toughness that are required for a race like the X-Alps.  These adaptations just don't happen on 5 hour days, they take long hard days to come into play.  I often have pains come up on 2-5 hour training sessions.  It takes a much longer training session to learn the adaptations that are necessary to protect myself against that pain.  The ultra running community is filled with a great bunch of people and being part of an organized event brings you into an extraordinary shared group experience.  These trails are right out my back door, and I train on them all the time, what makes entering a race unique is the 130 other participants doing it with you, while you cheer each other on. 


I was right in the middle of a hard training week, and my legs would most likely be soar in the morning from a lot of hiking, running and strength training day after day.  I have not trained for 11,000 feet of downhill in a day, I usually do some downhill in a training week, but a lot of my hikes include a fly, and no downhill.  If I was deluding myself with over confidence I could Injure myself, and having to take time off my training schedule would make me weaker for the X-Alps.  Not finishing the race would have negative phycological effects, making it hard to regain my confidence if I were to fail.

  As I drove the van down I called Rob Sporrer, best employer a flying/exercise addict could ask for, and secured the day off from teaching for Eagle Paragliding.  I met Neal, and a bunch of other friends at a happy hour around 7:30 pm, got out my phone and signed up for the race that started at 6 am.  After Giving Neal a ride back up the mountain to retrieve his truck, eating dinner, and convincing my badass photographer friend Jason Lumbard to come to the start with me, I was in bed at 10:30pm with a 4:45 alarm set.

I woke up at 4:30am, energetic and ready to crush.  I devised my strategy for finishing the race;  No running allowed!  The downhills had the potential to crush me if I didn't treat them with a lot of respect.  I promised myself that I would be as smooth as possible on the downhills, letting a bunch of people pass me, then crush the uphills, because thats what I do.  I got out of bed and started thinking of how unprepared I was, while stretching out my fatigued legs, and brewing some coffee.  I had the work van in front of my place, and my truck was across town behind a locked gate.  Inside my truck was my good headlamp, good shoes, running shorts, and best water bottle.  I settled for my worn out trail shoes, drove to the 24hr 7/11 to get batteries for an old headlamp, and decided on some cotton leggings (to protect against the poison oak), covered by baggy shorts with cavernous pockets.  Lumbard, he's my neighbor, came over and gave me four Huppy Bars (delicious "real food" energy bars), I slung my pack over my shoulders and we walked 400 meters to the start of the race.  In the pack I had, a UP Trango X-Race(rad glider), Skywalk Range X-Alps Harness(light pod),  an Oldie 4 flight instrument, a jacket, my helmet, phone, and water bottle, everything I take to complete long(100 miles +) flights through remote mountains.  

The registration official was not as optimistic as me.  Photo: Jason Lumbard

At the registration tent I picked up my # and 9Trails trucker hat, perfect hat for the race.  Volunteers asked me about the pack, and chuckled at the idea that I was going to carry it for the event.  The race organizer Luis Escobar said "If you finish, talk to me about a t-shirt", 'IF I finish my ass' I thought, the challenge was on.  Despite the darkness I still noticed I was getting a lot of weird looks as we listened to the pre race briefing, everyone else was in techy ultra running gear and I was wearing baggy shorts, cotton tights, a truckers hat and a huge backpack.  I visualized moving down the hills smoothly, and not falling into the trap of being competitive with the non-pack wearing runners.  As we all walked 500 meters down the road for a group start I was drinking out of my water bottle and as I tried to put it back into the side of my backpack I dropped it, first of many times, a guy next to me picked it up.  It was dark, but this guy looked familiar, "John, is that you?", "Yeah, is that Mitch?".  It was my good friend and paragliding buddy John Pitt, from Elsinore California.  We chatted as we found our place in the mass start.  John is a professional trainer, and an endurance badass.  He spent last summer running up and down 50 of the highest peaks in the state, and writing a book about the experience.  We chatted about that, and about misadventures with women (another of his expertise) while finding a place at the back of the start pack.  Everyone was told to raise their right hand and repeat "If I get hurt, disabled, or dead its my own damn fault".  

And it begins.  John Pitt, the legend, next to me starting with a quick pace.  Photo: Jason Lumbard.

Boom, we started up the asphalt road, where John quickly ran through the thronging pack, to funnel into the single track Jesusita trail.  The Jesusita trail starts with rolling hills and multiple stream crossings.  It was beautiful to watch the long train of headlamps ascend the bends of the trail.  Soon we were climbing steep and I began passing competitors.  I got a lot of comments about my large pack, and anyone who was going my pace, a rarity(thanks for the conversation Baylee), got to hear all about the X-Alps and my prep for it.  We reached Inspiration point just in time for the spectacular sunrise where we went into the first down hill to 7 falls.  The twenty people I had just passed, quickly passed me.  I concentrated on my being smooth, and non competitive.  Next was the tunnel uphill.  Tunnel trail is the most technical trail in our front country and a points requires scrambling to ascend.  I was full of energy and bounding up the trail, passing people left and right, and feeling fresh, strong, and energized.  On the next downhill, you guessed it, a bunch of people passed me, while we got a light rain, keeping the morning cool.  The pattern would continue as I began to get to know the people who where at about my pace, making some good conversation and friends.    

Nine miles into the race we passed the Gibraltar Road full aid station.  I made quick work of refilling my bottle, pouring some Hammer Perpetuem into it, grabbing a couple of bars, a couple of gels, shoving some warm quesadilla, and bacon in my mouth, and continuing on.  Relentless forward progress!!  RELENTLESS FORWARD PROGRESS!  The competitive side of me saw the 5 competitors that I passed by breezing through the aid station.  At the Cold Springs, Warm Springs divide, at hour 3:40 the leader, Kris Brown, was coming back, looking fast as he bounded up a hill.  Kris would go on to break the current course record by nearly 20 minutes.  

I frequent these trails, running, mountain biking, and hiking, despite that I got into a zone where I was just following the trail markers (excellently marked) and in a type of daze as to where I was.  Each uphill felt short and easy, I was charging the ups at my top hiking pace and feeling great at the top.  The downs were a different story, I was being careful, and reminding myself no to try and pace the slow runners passing me, it was hard self-control but it would pay off in the long run.  

Its an out and back course.  The turnaround point being the Romero trail-head.  On my last long downhill I met John coming up.  We stoped for a few seconds to catch up.  I told him I was feeling great and strong, he told me that he was trying to work through a bonk (over exertion while under fueling caused fatigue).  I had been eating a half Huppy Bar at the start of every down hill, and taking in a half an energy goo at the bottom of every up, and I was well energized, never got hungry, or experienced any digestive problems.  He took my picture and we went our ways.  As I made my way to the aid station Baylee was comming up the trail and said, "Mitch your running".  I had told her that my plan was to never run.  I looked down at myself and I was running/shuffling the down hill, and it was feeling great.  I found it, I found my smooth downhill run with a pack on.  Pretty soon I was shoving quesadilla and orange pieces into my mouth at the aid station and turning around to do all those trails the other way.       

Photo: Jason Lumbard

The race continued on.  I noticed that fewer people were passing me on the downhills, I guess everyones quads were getting tired, and I was still passing on the uphills.  By the time I was back at Gibraltar Road I was pretty damn sure that I was going to make it to the finish, feeling good.  I saw my paragliding buddy Tom Truax with blood on his face inspecting his glider.  He said something about crashing it, and promised he was fine.  Tom didn't seem to even notice that I was running an Ultra Marathon with my pack on, so I asked him if he was sure he was fine.  He promised and said he was going to relaunch.  The sky looked perfect and I knew he would have a great flight.  I was walking up the road with Luis Escobar, the organizer, who asked if I could launch and fly to the finish.  "Yeah I could fly well past the finish."  He joked about having a special prize for that.  Luis Escobar has become known for organizing classic "no-frills" trail running events.  The Nine trails was excellently organized, with no B.S., on a phenomenal course, Thanks Luis.

As I descended the steep, technical tunnel trail I called Jason and some other close friends and told them I'd be at the finish in an hour and a half, just a quick jaunt on the days standards.  Jumping down rocks, and navigating tight steep switchbacks I asked Jason, via speaker phone, to bring me a big order of spaghetti from the local Italian place.  My legs where fatigued but working just fine, In fact on this steepest and most technical downhill I was gaining on other runners, and able to hop and dance down the rocks.

Last aid station; they were impressed that I had made it this far, and asked about the 'parachute' in the bag.  I grabbed a packet of recovery powder that I would mix with my water on the last downhill.  My mind was starting to think about the best way to recover strong, get enough rest, yet get back to my normal training schedule.    

On the last downhill, one of the longest ones of the course, I was tempted to start running as I was so close to the finish and runner after runner was passing me.  It took all my self control to look at the long game and remind myself that this was a training day, and the only one I had to compete with was myself, I was the only one wearing a 25 pound pack.  If I had to take training days off for a little injury to get me a couple of places further ahead, I would regret it during the X-Alps.  I smiled, let them pass, with encouragement, and continued my shuffle.  This trail is my training ground, I knew every turn I needed to pass and every creek I needed to cross.  I was filled with joy for having set myself a lofty goal and completed it well, by sticking to my plan.  My confidence in my training method, mental toughness, and ability to carry a pack for miles and miles and miles was swelling.  My body was feeling tired, but good, I could have gone on for hours and hours.  My fueling and hydration had been spot on, and I never felt a bonk, or gastro trouble.  As I neared the finish, I heard "Yeah Mitch".  Some of my best friends were at the finish cheering me on, and celebrating my success.  I high fives my friends, crossed the finish line, I huged a stranger who was hugging everyone at the finish, it was a fantastic hug, and went to hang our with my bros.  Great Day!

Photo: Jason Lumbard