Getting in Over My Head

Why I almost needed a wheelchair to get through LAX

Its 11:30 in the morning on a Saturday and Im going to miss my flight back to Tahoe from LA. The distance from the check-in desk to the Terminal 8 gates, where the small regional jets fly from, is just too long. Sure, Ive summited Everest 6 times, stood on top of hundreds of 6,000-meter peak summits, summited three 8,000-meter peaks in under a month, and skied 8000-meter peaks that have never been skied. But right now, Gate 83 looks like K2 on top of Everest, with an El Cap or two mixed in. It is not going to happen.

The reason? Well really, its all Marmots fault. Marmot has been outfitting me in the best gear around for years, so when they asked me to give a slideshow about suffering and endurance to kick off some weird So Cal event called the Mark Fulton 8,000 Meter Challenge, I was happy to help out. I was coming off a week floating the Grand Canyon for a corporate event; had just survived a night without sleep in Vegas; and I rolled into the Mt. Baldy Lodge just in time for my show. Immediately upon my arrival, I was surprised. First, I never knew that just outside LA were beautiful 10-12,000 foot tall alpine peaks. Second, I had never heard of this event, where outdoor industry retailers (from Patagonia to REI to Sports Chalet to Zappos) send teams to compete in a challenge to hike or run LAs Three Saints - Baldy, Jacinto, and Gorgonio. At the pre-race spaghetti dinner and slideshow, almost 200 racers fueled up, shared stories of past years, and debated strategy and gear. The energy of the room, and of event organizer John Drollinger, convinced me that I had one option: if I was going to spend an hour spouting stories of suffering on big peaks, I had better step up and participate.

The Mark Fulton 8000 Meter Challenge Pre-Race Spaghetti Dinner where I gave a slideshow presentation on suffering and endurance.

The Mark Fulton 8000 Meter Challenge Pre-Race Spaghetti Dinner where I gave a slideshow presentation on suffering and endurance.

There was only one problem. While I am certainly an endurance athlete, and I even do a decent amount of running for training, I have never run more than 18 miles. The 8000 Meter Challenge is 40 miles in distance and 12,000 feet of elevation gain. And competitors around me had infrastructure - drivers, minivans stocked with ice and drinks and food (for the travel between peaks); strategy on how to avoid traffic on the drives between peaks; and carefully measured food and water. I had a rental car that had no gas, a bag of cookies, and a couple of water bottles.

However, I did have one more thing: I can be a bit competitive. When the countdown finished at 5 a.m. the next morning, I took off with the front crew, which was a mix of runners from Patagonia, Sports Chalet and Zappos. 4,500 feet of vertical later, we woke the checkpoint crew up from their bivy on the summit of Baldy as we watched an amazing sunrise bounce off the smog layer below us. The way down Baldy is where I lost my sense and set myself up for the pain to come. Two 20-something year olds bolted down the steep gullies off of Baldy and I tried to keep up. I lost sight of them a few times, but by the time I reached the parking lot; I was back with the front crew. And I knew what I had to do. If I didnt gain distance on the up, these guys would crush me on the down.

And so I tried. My Marmot athlete manager, at the race as a sponsor and volunteer, became my crew. As he drove, I cranked the AC, caffeinated, and tried to relax my already spasming quads. I opened up a good lead on the long 9 miles up on the second peak, Gorgonio, and a few hours later as I finished the last hill to the tram on Jacinto, I was still in front, and finished to a huge crew cheering that I had broken the course record.

I'm running...and running...and running

I'm running...and running...and running

Yes, it was 109 degrees.

Yes, it was 109 degrees.

What did I learn from this?

1. Dont run 40 miles off the couch. Muscles dont like it, and not being able to walk through an airport sucks.

2. Being willing and able to suffer does transfer - between climbing, running, skiing, life, and business. When you set yourself on a goal, however obscure, get down to the dirty hard work and dont stop.

3. This event, like so many cool experiences in life, actually had nothing to do with competition. I won nothing for my fastest time. The event was a team event and all about how many finishers you have, with bonuses for first-timers and speed. Team Zappos killed it and won in style.

4. What made this event were the people and their incredible energy and stoke for the outdoors. On every peak each person went up and down the same trail (no loops). This meant that the front-runners and the last hiker and everyone in between all saw each other at least 3 times. The energy shared was incredible and inspiring. Everyone supported each other, cheering, yelling, and pushing. It made my day, and helped me get through some suffering that not even I was sure I could.

We, as an industry, are lucky to have so much inspiration around us each and every day. Events like the Mark Fulton 8000 Meter Challenge help to foster this community that I love so much. How can you be involved next year? Get a job at your local gear shop and put together a team! Thanks Marmot, Three Saints Outdoor, John, and all the other sponsors for making this event, and my suffering, possible. Ill be back, and next time Ill have trained!

-Adrian Ballinger