SoCal’s toughest trail run: ‘It keeps going up and up and up...’
For my money, Bulldog Road, known simply as “Bulldog” in trail running circles, is the gnarliest, lung-searingest, Achilles tendon-strainingest, soul-suckingest mountain trail run in Southern California.
And I’ve run a lot of trails.
So has Mark “Jake” Jacobson, a veteran marathoner who has been running the trails in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, primarily in the Santa Monica Mountains, for decades.
What does he think of when he thinks of Bulldog?
“Hell,” Jacobson says. “That’s the only word that comes to mind. It’s the road that goes up 3 1/2 miles and never bleepin’ ends. Every time you turn a corner, you think it’s going to end, and it keeps going up and up and up, until finally you want to sell your soul to get to some flat or some downhill.”
Bulldog, a fire road located entirely inside Malibu Creek State Park, climbs seemingly straight uphill, nearly 1,800 feet over approximately 3 1/2 torturous miles. The entrance to Bulldog is off the main trail in the park, Crags Road, just past the “MASH” site, the spot where exteriors for the legendary TV show were shot.
I have left my heart and soul on Bulldog many a time.
Ultramarathoner Louise Cooper
The sign at the bottom of Bulldog says it’s 3.4 miles to the top of the road, at the intersection of Castro Peak Motorway, but the exact length of Bulldog is debated. That’s because even the best GPS devices are flummoxed by Bulldog. The GPS signal tends to be lost amid the canyon’s curves and then reconnects in a straight line from the point it was lost.
So your GPS watch may record, say, a 2.8-mile climb when your legs, lungs and muddled mind swear that you ran 3.5 miles.
Bulldog is mean and sneaky like that.
Louise Cooper, a veteran trail runner and ultramarathoner, rolls her eyes when she is asked to describe ascending Bulldog.
“I have left my heart and soul on Bulldog many a time,” she said.
Cooper is one of those runners who will just keep on going and going. She’s run the Badwater Ultramarathon, the infamous 135-mile foot race from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney.
She’s also a veteran of the Bulldog 50K and 25K Trail Run, perhaps the most difficult trail race in Southern California. The race’s signature feature is the climb up Bulldog.
The 26th edition of the event is Saturday and, typically, the weather should be hot and sunny — in other words, brutal Bulldog weather.
An ascent up Bulldog Road starts about three miles into the 25-kilometer (15.5 miles) race. The 50-kilometer event is the same course — run twice.
The overall climb for the 25K is estimated at 4,000 feet, and 8,000 feet for the 50K.
The race is run in late August, when the temperatures can get up to 100 degrees. Just how does one keep going up and up in those sauna-like conditions?
“It’s all mental,” Cooper said.
Jacobson agrees. “You have to have the mind-set that this is a goal that we can achieve and we’re just going to do it. We’re just not going to stop.”
There are at least a couple of places where people tend to stop. One is about a mile up Bulldog, where a spur trail heads off to the right and ends up going downhill into the neighborhood around Malibou Lake.
Another gut check comes about two-thirds up Bulldog. This is at a point where everything is tested. Muscles. Mental toughness. Sanity.
This is also a point where you might think you’re nearly to the top of the road. But you’re not.
“The last third is by far the hardest,” says Craig Kahn, a veteran Bulldogger. “It gets even steeper and more turny.”
For some reason, Bulldog seems to attract high achievers.
John Duddy, a former top Boeing executive, used to run up Bulldog with Stanislav Ionov, a now deceased scientist who emigrated from Russia and for years worked at the Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu.
“Stas,” as his running buddies called him, looked and ran a little like a bulldog. He attacked the hill, and his mind was running too.
“We got into a discussion about his work back in Russia,” Duddy recalls, “and then the climb started to get to me, and I’m asking myself, ‘How the hell can he even be thinking at this point?’”
One can get to know Bulldog after a few trips up, but even then, there is always pain.
“I know what’s coming and I adjust my mind to the length of the climb, but it still wears you down pretty bad,” says Ron Paquette, a UCLA Medical Center hematologist who has won his age group in the Bulldog 25K many times.
Occasionally, Bulldog bites.
I know. I heard a pop about two-thirds of the way up about seven years ago and nursed some Achilles tendinitis the next two years.
But I keep coming back to Bulldog.
Once a year, I race it. Sometimes I run it just for training. Most of the time, I’m with friends and we take the spur trail down to Malibou Lake. Once in a while, mostly by myself, I’ll run it all the way to the top.
I guess I do it just because it’s there.
Taking Jake’s advice, I tell myself I’m not going to stop.
The truth is, sometimes I do.
But sometimes I don’t.
Moore, 61, is a three-time age-group runner-up in the Bulldog 25K Trail Run.