A Different Kind of Monster—Mt. Baldy Run-to-the-Top Trail Race
Meet the monster: Mt. Baldy Run-to-the-Top, a destination trail race in Southern California. Folks must enjoy a good scare because this is the 54th year. It’s only a little more than 7 miles but with 4,000 ft. of elevation gain and a cut-off time of three hours. Every Labor Day, hundreds of runners accept the challenge, and most are successful.
Mt. Baldy (officially Mt. San Antonio) at 10,064 ft., the tallest mountain in LA County, is visible throughout the southland. It’s adjacent to the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument in the Angeles National Forest, which is also home to the Mt. Baldy Ski Lifts resort.
The race starts at the top of Mt. Baldy Rd., at the entrance to the Ski Lifts, at 6,300 ft. After 1⁄2 mile downhill, the course takes you to San Antonio Falls. Then it meanders through the densely forested area below the ski resort, and continues past ski runs. On the Devil’s Backbone is a short “catwalk,” where the trail is only a few feet wide, with drops of a thousand feet on either side. The final mile, the steepest, is above timberline. The finish is on the summit of Mt. Baldy, where Catalina Island to the west, Mts. San
Gorgonio and San Jacinto to the east, Mt. Baden Powell and the high desert to the north, and mountains of Orange County to the south are all visible on a clear day.
Story has it that the Run-to-the-Top, established in 1966, was the creation of a Mt. Baldy firefighter, who also was the manager of the Mt. Baldy Ski Lifts at the time. A 1968 newspaper article said: The race was “…considered a novelty race and mainly designed to promote the ski lift facilities.” (The Run-to-the-Top would go on to become one of the most respected races in Southern California, and with a cult following—many have been running it for years.)
Only 45 men ran the first year. The numbers started creeping up and now the maximum is 650 runners. Women, actually three young girls, first entered the race in 1971. That year, future Olympian Mary Decker (Slaney) was 12 years old when she became the first “1st Overall Female.” Fast-forward to the 1984 Olympics. During the 3,000-meter track event, Mary got tangled up with Zola Budd and fell, claiming then that Budd had tripped her. She retracted that, years later.
Other famous runners include Olympic hopeful Gerry Lindgren, who won the Olympic trials in 1964, but was kept out of the finals by a sprained ankle; and 5-time Run-to-the-Top overall winner Chuck Smead, who came in 2nd in marathon at the Pan American games in Mexico in 1975. Smead was credited with spreading the sport of ultra-marathoning into Europe. (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/chuck_Smead)
The race has been using a helicopter to transport water and other aid station supplies to the summit for about 40 years. Once, when a helicopter wasn’t available, two volunteers each carried two 50-lb. water containers from the start of the Devil’s Backbone to the summit, about 3 miles, and the exertion nearly did them in.
Sixty-five volunteers help to put on the race, plus 15 from West Valley Search and Rescue and 10 from Mt. Baldy Fire Department. About half of the volunteers are Mt. Baldy regulars and many have been with the race since before almost half of the runners were born. The aid station captain for mile 2 has been working that station since she was 4 years old, when her dad was captain. The 4th mile’s aid station captain has been volunteering for about 40 years. Lastly, the summit captain has spent race day on the summit for 23 years in a row.
In the early years, timing was done manually by clicking when someone ran across the finish line. Another person pulled tabs from bibs and stuck them onto a spindle. After about 50 tabs, the spindle would be run down about 3.5 miles to the Ski Lifts Notch, where the tabs were manually sorted by gender, age and division. Over the years, different methods of communication from the summit to the Notch were attempted for transmitting results. Ham radios and early cell phones were unsuccessful.
When computers came into use, flashdrives were run down to the Ski resort. Then came satellite phones to transmit data in real time. Currently, Wi-Fi is in use.
The Men’s record was set in 1987 by Matt Ebiner, age 26 (1:00:49). Matt still runs every year and has been the awards ceremony MC since 2015. The Women’s record was set in 1988 by Carrie Garritson, age 11 (1:15:32). The youngest runner was about 7 years old, and the oldest was 81. Runners come from all over California and about half of the states across the U.S., and from other countries as well, including Switzerland, Japan, Mexico, and New Zealand.
The Mt. Baldy Fire Department continued to organize the Run-to-the-Top every year until it was given to San Antonio Canyon (Mt. Baldy) Town Hall in 1976 to be used as a fundraiser. The funds allow Town Hall, a non-profit, to contribute to projects that benefit the entire Mt. Baldy community, including the Mt. Baldy School, and to maintain an emergency fund for disaster relief. Annually, 20% of the race proceeds are added to a perpetual grant for the Mt. Baldy Fire Department to aid with capital expenditures. Also, donations are made annually to West Valley Search and Rescue, which also benefits the thousands of
weekly visitors who hike, bike, and play in the local wilderness.
Men’s record holder Matt Ebiner said, “Mt. Baldy can be seen from throughout Southern California. Running to the top gives a great sense of accomplishment, and we’re reminded of that for years to come whenever we look up at the mountain as we go about our other business.”
Said another runner affectionately, “The Run-to-the-Top is a different kind of monster.”