From the early morning, when they might loom faintly in the clouds, to the end of the day, when they are illuminated by the setting sun, the Santa Ynez Mountains contribute mightily to the postcard beauty of Santa Barbara. Rising almost 4,000 feet above the cityscape, they invite exploration. There are hiking trails that wind through shady canyons and ascend the rugged sandstone slopes, covered by fire-scorched chaparral. There is Gibraltar Road, a steep and twisting ribbon of pavement that connects the city to Camino Cielo at the crest of the range.
Those features are the setting for two diabolical running events, both of them occurring this month — the Nine Trails 35-Mile Endurance Run, which took place on August 16, and the Pier to Peak Half Marathon, which is coming Sunday, August 31.
Patsy Dorsey, an active volunteer at Santa Barbara road races, originated the Nine Trails in 1990 as a way of showing off her hometown scenery and giving runners a huge test of their mettle. The run is a grinding roller coaster that goes from the Jesusita Trailhead to the Romero Canyon Trailhead and back. Between start and finish, the course goes up (and down) 10,500 feet, making the 35 miles seem more like 50. Dorsey took it as a compliment when runner Mike “Mad Dog” Rehorn put his hands on his knees at the finish and muttered, “Where is that sadistic bitch?” Dorsey exulted, “Yes, success!”
The Nine Trails enraptured Luis Escobar, a Santa Maria photographer. “I was there at the beginning — December 1, 1990 — the first long-distance race I’ve ever done,” he said. “It’s visually stunning.” Escobar has run thousands of miles since then, including the Badwater (Death Valley to Mount Whitney) and a 50-miler in Mexico’s Copper Canyon with the legendary Tarahumara runners. “It all started on the Jesusita Trail in 1990,” he said. “It’s been part of my life ever since.”
Escobar became the Nine Trails organizer when Dorsey had to fight for her life against cancer. “We’ve run it every year, sometimes unofficially because of the Tea Fire and Jesusita Fire,” he said. This year he brought it back to official status, but he had second thoughts about scheduling it in mid-August. “The Forest Service gave me that date, and I took it, but it was fricking hot,” Escobar said. “About a third of the field didn’t complete the distance. I’d like to move it to February or March in the future.”
Tyler Hansen led 43 finishers in this year’s Nine Trails. The 33-year-old property manager, who coaches cross-country at San Marcos High, negotiated the course in 6 hours, 40 minutes, and 8 seconds, almost an hour ahead of second-place Van McCarty (7:32:16) of San Luis Obispo.
“Everything was aligned,” Hansen said. “I had really good hydration. I kept focused on my stride, on where my feet were landing. I walked the steep sections and ran hard on the gradual downhills. I was four minutes behind McCarty at the halfway point. I caught him at the top of Hot Springs. He was done. He was hurting.”
Hansen does not have sole claim to the title “King of the Trails.” Several runners who were far behind him would vote for the California king snake that they encountered on the Buena Vista Trail. It was coiled around a rattlesnake and had begun to devour the venomous serpent headfirst. Dorsey, who has regained her health and spent hours hugging runners at the finish line, was thrilled by the pictures they took. “I thought the Nine Trails would bring them close to nature,” she said, “but I didn’t plant that king snake.”
Hansen, a San Marcos graduate, gave up running in 2000 after he injured his ankle playing basketball. He started up again in 2008, running a half marathon with his future wife, Vanessa Carter. He prefers running trails to urban streets. “It’s very calming to leave the busyness of life behind,” he said. “The Jesusita Trail is in my backyard. On the early-morning runs, you see the sunrise over the fog layer. Everybody in Santa Barbara needs to get up there and see that view.”
Matt Dubberley anticipates taking in the view Sunday at the 3,995-foot summit of La Cumbre Peak, the highest point of the front range. It is the pine-scented terminus of the Pier to Peak race, which will start at 6:30 a.m. at the foot of Stearns Wharf. The annual run, billed as the world’s toughest half marathon (13.1 miles), has been going on since 1993.
On Gibraltar Road, the race course proceeds relentlessly and exhaustingly uphill, and it ends in a torturous final mile up Camino Cielo to the peak. The terrain is made for Dubberley, 33, a former professional cyclist. “I love hills,” he said. “I know how to suffer.” A native of Santa Cruz, Dubberley graduated from UCSB with a degree in mechanical engineering and earned his masters at UC Berkeley at the same time he was racing the likes of Lance Armstrong on a bike.
Dubberley’s love of mountains led him to rock climbing. He and another climber made an exceptionally fast ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite — 15 hours up the imposing granite face. He is the technical expert behind the LighterBro, a multi-tool pocketknife developed and marketed in Santa Barbara. Between work and an active family life with his wife and 1-year-old son, he keeps himself in shape in the most expeditious way possible. “I run hard uphill two or three times a week,” he said.
Dubberley and Hansen have been friends the past several years. “Matt is a naturally talented athlete,” Hansen said. Dubberley is impressed by the way Hansen glides over the ground. “Tyler looks different from other runners,” he said. They finished 1-2 in the Chuck’s Beach Run this summer — Hansen first — and Dubberley noticed how his friend’s footprints in the sand were distinct and nicely sheared. “You could tell he’s really efficient,” Dubberley said.
They have competed in solo runs up the Jesusita Trail from the Cater Plant to Inspiration Point. Using a GPS-controlled mobile-phone app that records their times, Hansen, Dubberley, and fellow runner Curly Guillen alternately posted the FKT (Fastest Known Time) on the steep four-mile trail. Dubberley claims to have the current record of 27:32.
Dubberley figures he’ll be a minute or two behind the leaders of the Pier to Peak (P2P) when they pass the Old Mission, two and a half miles into the race. “They’ll be running 5:30 miles, and I won’t be that fast,” he said. “But when they slow down going up the mountain, I should gain on them.”
McCarty, a rugged 43-year-old endurance athlete, was the first to the peak last year in 1:39:53. Aaron Gillen set the record of 1:33:04 in 2008, the same year Sara Dillman was the fastest woman and finished sixth overall in 1:47:20. A third of them women, 300-400 runners take up the challenge every year.
The severity of the P2P course can humble the proudest runners. Hansen, recovering from the Nine Trails, is staying out of it. “The last time I tried it, in 2010, I was injured and couldn’t finish,” Dubberley said. “If my body’s good, it will be good. If not, there’s next year.”