Conquering "The Beast"
not a Task for the Faint of Heart
February, 2008 - Issue #40
It's best to take on The Beast with a little moral support in tow.
My car rolls to a stop just beyond Highway 14 at about 6:20 on an impossibly cold Newhall morning. San Fernando Road dead ends here, but my journey is just beginning.

I - along with a couple of friends and a small herd of what must be the most hardcore high school runners the SCV has to offer - are going to climb "The Beast."

Craig Leener, an old sportswriting colleague of mine, waits in the adjacent vehicle with fellow sportswriter Cary Osborne.

We have come to pit our bodies against nature. But in this case, nature is going to strike at our minds and maybe even our souls.

Craig catches my eye with a look that's familiar. The last time I saw it, it belonged to my best friend in third grade, moments before I accepted his dare to do a flip off the monkey bars.

I got a bloody nose for my efforts back then. Would The Beast be as unforgiving? I was soon to find out.
"This trail is torture," I heard from Michael Kent, whose son, Stephen, runs cross country for College of the Canyons. "I've done it more than 50 times, and every time, I ask myself, 'Why am I doing this?'"

Overtly, at least, the point of our December 22 adventure was charity. The First Annual Beast Run/Walk for Charity, the brainchild of Leener and SCV running enthusiast Don McLean, allowed participants to obtain sponsors for a dollar a mile, with proceeds going to the Santa Clarita Valley Food Pantry and/or the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Clarita Valley.

More than 60 runners showed up for the climb, and contributions exceeded $400 with more checks trickling in up to the end of the year.

"This is a big turnout," McLean told me along the trail. "It's hard to get (high school cross country) teams to do this together because they don't always want others to know their times. Coaches are secretive."

Not me. I knew early on that if I was going to climb this thing, I wanted some credit. I wanted trumpets. Heck, I wanted a marching band.

What I got was Craig and Cary. It was still dark when we each ceremoniously slapped a gloved hand against the municipal Whitney Canyon Park sign on our way through the fence and began winding our way up the rocky trail ahead. According to the plan, the first crop of runners wouldn't catch up to us for another 90 minutes.

I suppose The Beast refers to the actual trail, almost five miles of a steep, dirt and gravel fire road that snakes through the foothills toward Los Pinetos Peak and its twin radio communication towers.

For us, though, The Beast became the towers themselves. We spotted them almost immediately, looming far off in the distance. We lost sight of them as we zigged-zagged skyward, but they reappeared periodically, I think, to taunt us.

"Is it just me, or are they actually farther away?" was, for me, a recurring thought - along with the nagging fear that if the climb didn't claim me, the cold surely would. I brought a mini temperature gun, which registered between 30 and 38 degrees that morning, depending upon where I pointed it. And when the wind blew (and it gusted), the thing hit single digits.

But the cold didn't get us. Neither did the climb, nor the mountain lions Cary and I were sure had left tracks in the mud the night before.

We weren't even halfway to the top when we were overtaken - not by the elements - but by the first pair of high school kids.

"Those guys are from Saugus High," Craig said. "We were supposed to beat them to the top. They must have left early."

Or maybe we were just that slow.
Another group soon followed, then another. At that point, we were paying as much attention to what was coming from behind us as we were to what towered ahead. It was as if someone had spilled a sack of marbles and they were rolling uphill.

These kids were moving.

It was a profoundly humiliating experience. We had reached the two-mile mark and I had caught my second wind. My hamstrings were burning and my right hip throbbed, but I had stopped panting; I knew I was going to make it.

This was that moment I had hoped for - the moment I felt manly and tough - the moment I was to become a conqueror of mountains!

Then along comes this man and his young son, shooting past me like I'm standing still.

"How old are you?" Craig asked the boy.

"I'm 12," he replied.

Craig told the boy he was brave while I scanned the trail for the last shard of my dignity.

And then came the girls.

Former Saugus state champion and UCLA freshman Shannon Murakami was the first - no shame in that. Then came Katie Dunn and the rest of the Centurions' current state championship team.

Again, no shame there.

Then came the non-starters, then the
JV runners.

"This is embarrassing," I said.

"They must have left early," Craig
announced again.

In truth, Saugus' team did leave early - about an hour ahead of group two. But we were not out of their reach, either.
Group two's leader, Jimmy Kelley of Hart, caught us at the intersection just ahead of the final quarter mile - a supremely steep climb to the summit.
Our little trio touched the fence around the towers at about 9 a.m., two hours, five minutes and 53 seconds after starting. The Beast record, set in 2006 by Stephen Kent, is 35:38.

At the top I found a diverse group huddled against the cold. There were runners representing all six Foothill League cross country programs. There were coaches and parents. There were even a few mountain bikers enjoying the view of downtown L.A.

I asked a group of Valencia moms why they did it.

"Our kids run this all the time, and I wanted to do it once," one said.

They agreed the trip was worth it; they might even do it again.

"But when it's warmer," they said.

I posed for a few pictures, then edged away from the group to reflect on the climb.

Standing at 3,800 feet, about 2,800 feet above where I began, I found it easy to shrug off my humiliation. The Beast will mete out myriad forms of punishment on the way up. At its peak, though, rests a benevolent soul.

It offers its rewards.

There's a catharsis to be found in picking a painful task and then seeing it through - something strangely therapeutic that each gust of wind and every excruciating incline only amplifies.

At the summit and all the way back down, the unique medicine of the mountain settled into my bones. It still wraps itself around my thoughts.
I'd tell you what it is, but that would be pointless. It must be unique to everyone who climbs.
Slapping again the green sign on my way through the gate, I thought its written message seemed incomplete.
It ought to come with a footnote: The journey is the reward.

From that point of view, The Beast becomes your best friend.
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