Breaking the Toilet Paper Finish Line

The best part of a 5:30 AM start is the sunrise. We gathered around and I started the pre-race briefing. I felt the same nervous energy I feel at every starting line. As the assembled group of friends looked to me for directions for the next 3–6 hours of their lives, I was grateful for them, but also scared.

San Diego has hills. People see the Chamber of Commerce’s pictures of palm trees and the ocean, but also we have rocky, single-track trails, rattlesnakes, and some climbs that, can rival a tough mountain race.

My goal was to create a tough mountain race in my backyard. My goal was to rival the elevation gain of Pike’s Peak at over 7,500 feet. I fell short of that, but I did manage to put together a course with about 5,000 feet more gain than the “hilly” Boston Marathon.

I don’t live in a rural area, so I had to get creative with a 26-mile loop that stayed almost exclusively on trails. I live in North County San Diego, part of the sprawl that starts near the border of Mexico and crawls up the coast where it pauses at Camp Pendleton before it continues to Los Angeles. The beautiful thing about where I live is that some of the open space was preserved by the city or county planners. They opted for dense, rather than wide growth, so while our houses seem stacked on top of each other, we have miles of trails right outside our front doors. The trail linking project was something that took a lot of work and creativity, but I loved doing it.

I would dream about sections of the course, and I’d wake up with new ideas for the race. Go right at the water tower, and run down the steep dirt path before taking a sharp left at the second power line access trail and cut through some desert scrub and manzanita to the horse trail that takes you up to Paint Mountain. At the top of Paint Mountain, you’ll see a notebook containing hand-written quotes. Tear out a page from the notebook to prove you made it to the top of the section (hat tip to Laz and the Barkley Marathons).

After finalizing the course, I thought of a handful of people that this particular type of suffering would appeal to, so I sent out an email to about eight people. Word got out, and by the time we hiked to the top of Double Peak for the 5:30 AM start, there were 30 of us taking in that sunrise.

I gave a disclaimer about the difficulty of the course, and I promised a very difficult day on the trails. I told them they would need to be self-sufficient, but also take care of each other. I warned them about the lack of aid stations and the absence of a capable and responsible race director to complain to.

I started the day with 26 miles in my legs from the previous day. I marked the course with flour arrows, so people would know where to go. The only way to mark a course this remote was to run it, so I marked the first 13 miles in the morning and the last 13 miles in the evening the day before the event.

I emailed the route to everyone who was planning on running the race, but this was before it was easy to load routes on a GPS, or maybe route-finding was part of the appeal for this group. My course overview was not very clear, and went something like this:

Once you hit the dam, go up the El Cielo trail along the side of the dam to the Equine Incline Loop and then run down the Way Up Trail, cross the street, run up the steep concrete access road and you’ll see a narrow single-track trail on your left. Take that and head towards Mount Whitney. Not that Mount Whitney, our 1500 foot version of Mount Whitney.

When you descend, run by the old wooden shack where the guy should be out waving to you. I gave him a six-pack of Coors Light yesterday and told him a bunch of runners would be passing by his house in the early morning, and please don’t shoot us, and if it’s not too much trouble, could he chain up the Pit Bull?

He was out there on his wooden porch, cheering and toasting us with his AM Coors Light.

I told the runners not to expect aid during the run, but my wife was out there anyway, driving from spot to spot with water, cut up oranges and watermelons, and homemade “You’ve Got This” signs. The aid stations were a great addition, especially as the sun burnt through the morning haze.

The last climb was back to where we started the race over four hours before. It’s a hill called Double Peak, and I know every turn, every wind in the trail, every rut, and I didn’t think I could make it the quarter-mile to the top. I sat on a concrete curb and told April and Paul that I just needed a break. I told them to go on and finish, and I’d see them at the top. We’d spent the last few hours running together in this organic trio. We shared race stories, we laughed and we struggled together.

They wouldn’t go on.

April sat next to me and told me to take my time. Paul told me we were going to finish together. I got up and slow-hiked to the finish where a few of the early finishers, some friends, and some family were waiting.

My daughter hung a string of beads held together by a leather strap over my neck. She bought beads and made 30 unique finisher medals. She had been working on them for a week. Travis had brought some homebrew. My friend’s wife and my son stretched toilet paper across the finish so everyone could break the tape at the top.

From where I sat, I could see the ocean and feel the cool air against sunburned shoulders and tired legs covered to the knee in red dirt. We sat as people finished, sometimes solo, sometimes in small groups. I hugged everyone that crossed the line that day after Sophie hung the strand of beads over their necks. Some cursed at me as they finished, but they did it with a smile.

A lot of the people who ran the race with me that day have since moved. I still talk with most of them and still run with a few. We run on the same trails, but that loop is now inaccessible for running. Different entities control various parts of the land. Fences, gates, and No Trespassing signs have gone up as more houses have been built. Rangers turn me away, trying to explain the confusing and ever-changing rules. They can’t be bribed with a 6-pack of cheap beer.

That medal still hangs on the doorknob in my office. Every time I look up at Paint Mountain, I think of a Kathleen Harris quote on the sweat-stained piece of notebook paper, “Don’t fear moving forward, fear standing still.”

Everything about that day was about our small running community and family — from the handwritten notes, to the marking of the course, the aid stations, the finish line tape, and the beaded finisher’s medal that holds a special place in my heart.

Major races are getting canceled along with other large group events. I hope that they will return once things get back to normal, but these small races will come back first. Runners will be forced to get back to the roots of racing. The gatherings of a few friends, some flour arrows to mark the path, some stashed orange wedges and water, and if you’re really lucky, a toilet paper finish line and a strand of beads around your neck.

It’s going to be a while before any of us stand shoulder to shoulder with thousands of other runners waiting with a mix of excitement, nerves, and dread, in the starting corral. It is more realistic to think that one of these home-grown events will be in your future.

Here’s how to plan your own:


Get comfortable with a GPS mapping program like CalTopo, Gaia, or Gmap Pedometer. I used Gmap Pedometer for my planning and I like it because it is simple to use, it keeps a running distance total as you plan the route. Most importantly, it’s free. Send the route to the participants and they will be able to load it on their own devices. That way, nobody can blame you for getting lost. You’ll want to be familiar with the area you are running. Make sure to buy the guy with a scary dog a 6-pack of Coors Light when you ask him to keep the dog on a leash the next morning.


Don’t let it get out of hand. Only invite people you trust will be able to finish the race and people who have some experience running trails without aid stations. People need to be self-sufficient with these types of races. This will also help you limit the number of people to a number you feel comfortable with. It helps to know everyone as well, just in case something goes wrong (you also may want to have participants sign a waiver, just in case).


People want to help. As most trail runners know, it’s at least as fun volunteering for a race as running one. Some people will actually be relieved that you asked them to help rather than asked them to run. Get the family involved as well. My family still has some of our best memories while volunteering for races, and the kids actually love contributing. My friend Joe’s whole family set up an aid station at the midway point of our trail marathon. The amount of good karma and love they received that day will tide them over for years.


We had custom shirts made. They are a collector’s item in our area. Use a web service that will let you place small orders, and design them yourself. They won’t be as flashy as the big-name marathon tech tees, but they will mean more to you. Trust me. The same holds true for the race medal. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it will take a special place on your doorknob, in your medal drawer, or wherever you keep your stash. One last thing, don’t let the day end at the finish line. Get everyone together for pizza and beers to relive the stories. The friendships, the bonding, and the tales of suffering and overcoming are why we do this. That’s not going to change whether you finish on Boylston Street or at the top of a hill called Double Peak as you break through a makeshift toilet paper finish line.

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