8,000 Meter Challenge in Honor of Ben Horne

The Gods envy us. They envy us because we’re mortal, because any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again. – Achilles

When we planned the 8,000 meter challenge, a 42 mile ascent of the three highest mountains in Southern California (Baldy, San Gorgonio, and San Jacinto) in a single day, we didn't know that our friend, Ben Horne, would be missing in Peru, and we didn't know that we would receive the news that his body had been found as we headed towards Mt. San Jacinto, the last climb of the day, and one of the many mountains that Ben made his playground.

What had initially been planned as Jess' last big training run before Leadville 100, and a second chance for me to finish this challenging route became an opportunity for us to honor, then remember our departed friend.

When I heard the news that Ben was missing, I sent out an email to the three others who were attempting the 8000 meter challenge -- Jess, Paul, and Carlyn, all friends of Ben. I knew Ben from running with him and I am a big fan of his writing. The others were closer to him, and I didn't know if they would still want to attempt the challenge, given the circumstances. In the email I wrote that at first I wondered if it would be appropriate to continue with this challenge while Ben was still missing, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there would be nothing more appropriate than getting out to the trails and to the mountains that Ben loved, to think about him and to send positive energy his way, because there wasn't much else I could think to do.

I had been reading Ben's writings the previous evening and I went back to one of my favorites, Naked Wrist Racing. I think about this post a lot because I've never been able to cut all ties to quantifiable running data, but I have consciously made an effort to scale back on relying on GPS and heart rate monitors, and to try to take cues from my own body on effort and pace. I still find myself looking at my watch way too often, but for the 8,000 meter challenge, I decided not to wear one, and my hope was that every time I would look at where my watch was supposed to be, I would think of Ben and say a silent prayer. I invited the three of them to join me, and this turned out to be one of the best decisions of the day.

Describing his Naked Wrist philosophy, Ben wrote
But speed is not the only point. Racing is about pushing yourself -- and to do so psychologically, having a watch may even be a distraction. Going fast is nice. But a time is not the goal, rather the best experience is what we strive for.
I kept that thought in my head every time I looked at where my watch was supposed to be and reminded myself that time wasn't the goal. The enjoyment of the experience, and all that goes with that...the pain of the climbs, the triumph of the summit and the freedom of the descent is what is most important.

Mt. Baldy

We got started a little late, but luckily we ran into Paul at the trailhead, ready to get started. Perfect timing seeing as we neglected to nail down a start time. It was one of the many things that was just meant to be on this day.

We took the Ski Hut trail via Manker Flats, climbing the steep 4+ mile trail to the summit. I felt good, knowing that Baldy was just warm-up to a long day helped keep the pace and effort easy. The wind was blowing hard at the summit and we sat behind a rock shelter. It was quiet and everyone's mood was good. Paul brought a piece of appropriate Ben-themed fashion-killing, and he stuck it under a rock at the summit. I mentioned that when Ben returns, we're all going to have to do this climb together so Ben could retrieve the item.

Running down the Baldy trail was fun, steep, sandy, and crowded towards the bottom. In the future I would start even earlier than our 6:00 start time to avoid the traffic coming up the mountain as we ran down.

A few different groups of hikers asked us what our round trip time was or how long did it take us to reach the summit. They seemed shocked when I said I had no idea. It felt fast, but it also didn't feel like we were pushing too hard.

Baldy Ascent

Summit of Mt. Baldy

Paul and Carlyn make the stash

Paul taking in the sunrise as reflected off of Mt. Baldy

San Gorgonio

The drive to San Gorgonio went by quick as I tried to take in calories in the form of pureed baby food and beef jerky. I also drank a big carton of coconut water. At this point my stomach felt good. I was drinking to thirst and eating regularly. I stuck mainly to Clif Shot Blocks on the trail and jerky and baby food in the car.

The 17 mile round-trip hike up San Gorgonio is becoming more familiar to me. I did the hike with my wife a couple weeks ago, so I was prepared for the steep switchbacks at the start of the climb and the long, exposed slog to the summit. The altitude started to really get to me about a mile from the summit and I was glad to drop back and hike to the top with Carlyn. The summit was more crowded than Baldy and we didn't spend as much time up there. As we started the descent, we ran for a few steps before I realized I needed to hike to a lower altitude before my legs and lungs would allow me to run. When we did get lower, the running felt good. The trail, especially the middle five or so miles of long switchbacks and meadow single-track is beautiful and extremely runnable. It is probably my favorite trail in California.

The final push to the summit

Carlyn, resting at the summit
When we got back to the cars, I compared how I was feeling this year to how I felt the previous year and realized I felt much better. I decided that no matter what, I was going to make it up to the top of San Jacinto. It was an early conscious decision, where last year was a "let's see how it goes" non-decision.

As we pulled out of the parking lot, Jess, who was driving the car in front of us, pulled over. Carlyn had some stomach issues at the end of the San Gorgonio descent and I fully expected her to jump out of the passenger side and throw up.

Instead Jess got out and walked over to our car. He had just been on his phone.

They had found Ben's body.

Paul and I sat there without saying anything for awhile. I didn't know what to say. I went through all the common things people say that help us deal with death...he died doing what he loved...it was quick...he touched so many lives. These were all true of Ben and just because these have been said a million different times about a million different people, it doesn't make them any less true.

Mt. San Jacinto

We arrived in Idyllwild, at the Humber Park trailhead at a similar time that we had arrived there last year. Last time, I hiked up a mile or two, then tired, alone in the dark, and freaking out about every little sound, I decided to turn back and wait for Jess in the safety of the car. This year, as we prepared our headlamps for the 15 mile round-trip up San Jacinto as the sun set, turning Tahquitz Peak, a peak that Ben climbed many times (61 pitches in one day), a brilliant shade of orange, I knew that I wouldn't turn back.

I struggled on the climb, and about halfway up I hit a low point. If it had been any other night, I would have called it a day. A good, long day, and with many miles ran and many feet of elevation climbed, there would be no shame in turning around. After all, this wasn't a race, just a challenge. But that day, with Ben in my heart, I knew I couldn't turn around. I would push to the summit, knowing that if I did turn, it would be sacrificing the gift of Ben's inspiration. I knew the low point couldn't last, and remembering Scott Mills' words "it can't always get worse," I decided to talk my way out of the low.

I broke the struggling silence with "What was your best memory of Ben?"

I listened as Jess and Paul talked about various runs, captivating and rolling conversations, and reading Ben's accounts of his varied adventures. I talked about our run at Joshua Tree and how Ben, even though he had the physical and mental capacity to crush every runner in our group, stayed with us, focused on the enjoyment of the run, and being with a group of friends, running, talking and laughing across a trail through one of his favorite places. Ben didn't always go easy. He enjoyed pushing his body beyond previous limits, and accepting the pain that comes when you test those limits.

We reached the summit in the middle of the night with the lights of Palm Springs below, a bright moon and stars above, and we shared a silent moment at the top of San Jacinto.

The hike/run down the mountain was long, feeling much longer than the 7.5 miles from the summit to the car. I focused on the oval of light a few feet in front of me, jumping over rocks and roots, forcing my legs to turn over, knowing that this was the last stretch and just wanting to be off the mountain.

As we finished in the dark, I sat in silence, and accepted the anticlimactic feeling that comes after such a long day, a day filled with much suffering and joy. Again I thought of Ben. He will continue to be an inspiration. He inspired me to dig a little deeper, to suffer, to go beyond the pain level that I wanted to accept, to pull harder, and he will continue to inspire me to strive for the best experience.

Thanks for reading.

Here are some of my favorites from Ben:

Naked Wrist Racing
Western States 100: I’m not sweating– my body is crying
Dear Media: Mountains are not Stadiums, even for Honnold, Brosse and Jornet
Till I Collapse: PCT 50 in Memorial of Tim Ray
…but I get up again: The Leadville 100 Trail Run
Tim Rays of Light: Grand Canyon R2R2R

And here is how I remember him, running, smiling, killing fashion, and probably in the middle of some crazy story...


We just returned from a short camping trip on Palomar Mountain. The whole weekend was a break, no cell phones, no Disney Channel for the kids, no checking Instagram or Facebook every couple minutes to see what was going on with everyone I know and many I don't. Maybe there was someone posting something silly about Obama or Romney and I missed it, but it really wasn't that painful. My 10 year old daughter probably wouldn't agree, but I'm sure she'll remember sitting with her mom by the fire late into the night, just talking, and bonding, and sitting in silence staring at the stars.

I meant to run in the mountains over the weekend. I had every intention of waking up early, blowing the fire-smoked black contents out of my nose, grabbing some water and hitting the trail, at least for a short run. The intentions slipped with every glass of wine, and when I went to bed, neglecting to set the alarm, I was resigned to the fact that a break would do me well.

So, instead of running in the morning, I ate bacon and eggs cooked over a fire and hot, hot coffee. Instead of checking email throughout the day, I read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, my own version of checking out. The book details a young woman's quest to heal herself by solo hiking the PCT. Reading this book surrounded by the luxuries of car camping felt a little like cheating, but it also spoke to the powers of being outdoors, connected only to family and friends.

We didn't talk about the shooting in Colorado or what has become bumper-sticker, 140 character, political debate. We did talk about fishing, and my son learned why sometimes it's better to throw fish back.

It was a simple weekend spent outside under the trees, and while it doesn't take much to get outside, many simply don't have that opportunity, and I can't help but think that if the Colorado shooter spent more time outside, unconnected, things would be different, or maybe he was too far gone.

I received an email before I went camping, and it's something I want to promote. I first heard of Outdoor Outreach when Toby was raising money for them. Then, I heard about them again when Paul Jesse, organizer of the Lake Hodges Trail races, choose them as the beneficiary of the trail races. I'll be doing the 5K, running with Sharlie, and I am so excited for this race. Outdoor Outreach "utilizes outdoor physical experiences to provide youth with the support, relationships, resources and opportunities they need to become successful adults." I don't ask for much on this blog, there is no "support my running habit" link (yet), but if you do have the means, this would be a good way to share your passion for the outdoors with those who wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity to experience the transformative power of nature. If you donate before July 31st, North Face will match your donation, 100%. I see so much complaining about corporate greed (and I'm sure I do my share of complaining), that I feel it necessary to recognize companies like The North Face and Patagonia, among others, when they do good.

I remember fishing with my Grandpa in Montana, catching rainbow trout in a lake in Big Sky. My grandparents had a cabin and I have many memories of my Grandma, the games she would play with us to make the drive through Montana go by faster, the box of toys in her house, her caring for me while I was sick for a week, giving me money to skateboard down the cracked Great Falls sidewalk to buy some ice cream, and taking me to the three forks of the Missouri River and telling me stories about Lewis and Clark. I don't have many childhood memories of my Grandpa. He was, and is, a quiet man, a doctor who I don't remember seeing too much when I stayed in Great Falls, but I do remember catching my first fish as he stood by my side, helping me reel it in, but not taking over, just guiding my hand as the line jumped and pulled. Memory is a strange thing, I forget important things, monumental events fade slowly away, but something that seems insignificant at the time, a scene on a lake, can linger forever.

Thanks for reading. I'm off to post this on Facebook.

Trailrunning Heaven in Utah

My family recently spent some time in the mountains of Utah, hitting two family reunions and some great trails. I hadn't planned on running too much on this trip, but I did pack my shoes and a few running things including my new Ultra Aspire pack (which I love...review coming later).

The trip started on a small ranch in Eastern Utah. I didn't have much motivation to go far those first couple of days. There were fires in the area and running in smoke and ash isn't a very good idea, but I was able to get out for a short stretch every morning. It took some time to adjust from sea level to the mountains.

I did get in a very memorable hike with my sister, Sharlie, who is recovering from her double lung and heart transplant surgery. It is hard to believe that four months ago she couldn't walk up a flight of stairs without stopping for a rest break, and now she is hiking up the sides of mountains at close to 10,000 feet.

The next stop on the family reunion whirlwind tour was Alta, Utah where my brother-in-law's family was generous enough to let us use their lodge (I have a new favorite sister).

Alta is a resort just above snowbird and the lodge is surrounded by ski runs, pine trees, hiking trails, streams, and singletrack bliss.

Singletrack trails are the veins carved by animals, adventure seekers, and anyone who wants to get a little higher than the roads, pavement, smog and cities. Running in Alta, a small mountain resort above Salt Lake City in the Wasatch Mountains can only be described as a runner's paradise.

I woke up every morning excited to explore new trails. I was usually joined by family members and I enjoyed running and talking with both my brothers-in-law, my sister, my sister-in-law, and a few great runs with my wife. Alta sits at about 8,500 feet and all of the runs went up, some to nearly 11,000 feet. I felt like I was getting my mountain lungs by the time we had to leave.

I didn’t do any huge mileage in the mountains, mainly because I was resting for the upcoming San Elijo Hills Trail Marathon and wanted to hold back al little bit, but also because I was really enjoying the company and chance to run with my family. Most of the runs were in the hour to hour and a half range and most involved a lot of hiking up steep hills (the ratio of time spent ascending vs. descending was about 3:1) which meant running down the hills was a lot of fun. I can't wait to go back.

Thanks for reading. Here are some pictures.

San Elijo Hills Trail Marathon -- Race Report

I could only see about 3 feet in front of my car, the white sheet of fog bouncing the light back in my eyes, and covering everything on the short 5 minute drive from my house to Double Peak Park. Turns out the park doesn't open until sunrise. We parked at the bottom of the hill and hiked the steep, rocky trail to the top, to the start of the Inaugural San Elijo Hills Trail Marathon.

There is a solid group of consistent runners that meet every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning between 5:30 and 6 (an email circulates the night before to determine the time and distance). There are about six people who show up regularly to run give or take 6 trail miles while the neighborhood sleeps.

It was on one of these early morning trail runs that I mentioned, between gasps for air, that we could probably string together a bunch of these trails into a marathon. Luckily there were only three of us on this particular run. The voices of reason chose to sleep in that morning, and about three hours, and some fervent typing on Gmap-Pedometer, I had a course mapped out and a Facebook group. I invited some friends, and the group grew, then shrunk when people saw the course and the elevation profile, then grew again.

On the morning of July 7th, 18 of us hiked above the layer of thick fog, I said a few words about the course, clapped my hands and said go. We descended down the steep, rocky hill for a loop that would take all 18 of us on 18 unique courses. At various points on the course, every one of us would get lost, be reduced to a walk, and at some point, curse me. Everyone would marvel at the amazing aid stations, stocked with juicy watermelon, fresh oranges, ice cold water and Gatorade, cookies, rice balls, pretzels, potatos dipped in salt, and vitamin B shots (seriously...syringes) set up by friends, girlfriends, parents, wives, and kids. It was about a 1:1 ratio of supporters to racers, and we all felt very spoiled. The aid stations were so good that it was hard to leave.

Assembling at the top of Double Peak for a beautiful sunrise start

Hiking to the start

How can this not motivate?

Ultraman, Mark Ford, telling us which way where we're going next

The group did a good job of sticking together and looking out for each other. There were a few people that lost the way, but I warned everyone that they would prbably get lost. It was an impossible course to mark, or maybe possible for someone who wasn't so lazy. And, as Carlyn points out, the one specific navigational instruction I did give turned out to be wrong.

These are the boring course details, for future reference, or for anyone who is foolish enough to try to recreate the course. We started at Double Peak Park, ran down the steep, rocky section to the Ridgeline trail, quickly veering off on a singletrack trail (Tent Trail, named for the guy who used to live in a tent here), then another singletrack trail that took us to the microwave tower. From there we descended down the short, steep switchbacks to the Shrek Trail (this is called something else, but my kids always call it the Shrek trail because it reminds them of Shrek's swamp). We crossed the road at Promontory Ridge, then hit the singletrack trail that took us to San Elijo Rd. which we crossed and climbed to La Costa Preserve, then descended the Horned Lizard switchbacks, went through a beautiful connector trail then behind the old dump and climbed to the water tower. We circled the water tower, then descended into Elfin Forest. We ran through Elfin Forest to the back side of the Elfin Forest Preserve connecting to the Equine Incline Loop, then down the Way Up Trail, crossed the street to the jeep trails to the East of San Elijo Hills. We ran down Atterbury Rd., crossed over to the Twin Oaks trailhead, then ran the Lakeview Trail to Double Peak Rd., ran halfway up Double Peak Rd., then ran the Secret Trail to the back side of Double Peak, finishing with a hands on the knees ascent to Double Peak Park. We ended up running between 25 and 27 miles with about 5,000 feet of elevation gain.

Unmarked, unsanctioned

Yes, that is a skull hanging on a tree

This event encompassed everything that I enjoy about running right now. Close friends sharing a trail, some struggle, some pain, a challenging course on a variety of terrain, a makeshift paper-towel finish line, and a celebration with friends and family at the end.

This is how legs should look after a good trail run

My new favorite race shirt
I couldn't have asked for a better day, or a better group to share this run with. I also realized that I have no business being a race director, but I can't wait to do this "race" again next year, hopefully with many of the same people, discovering new ways to get lost on the trails of San Elijo Hills.

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