Zig-Zags: band on the run
Drummer Jeff Murray remarked at practice a day after the Mt. Baldy Run to The Top race that “No other band in the history of music has probably done what we just did.” I agreed, then apologized for forgetting a riff to a new song we were working on. “Sorry I’m a little out of it.”
We all were at that point.
The band, Zig Zags has been around for a little over 10 years now and like any other mildly successful band we have had our share of issues. Nothing too major, mostly just members quitting at inconvenient times. I’m the only original member left and at times I haven’t been able to tell if it was because the guys that quit were assholes or if it was me. I’ve since come to the conclusion that it’s a little of both. It always is, really.
Sean Hoffman joined the band on bass a few years back and although he and I had been friends even before the band started, I was never aware that he ran track in high school or that he continued to run hills in and around LA. It was around the time Sean joined that band, that I decided to do something about my health. I was about 30lbs overweight, having spent the last 20 years smoking and drinking and really not thinking at all about diet or exercise. I had already given up cigarettes after being deathly ill on a month-long tour of Europe with no days off. I still don’t know what it was but I was able to see Lemmy from Motörhead‘s Dr. in LA and he described it as some sort of bacterial lung infection. Pro tip: Always bring your own microphone.
I didn’t know where to start in regards to health. I had played baseball and football in school and was pretty good at it but gave that up for guitar and never looked back. So I started walking and then lifting weights and then doing HIIT cardio and intermittent fasting. Those things all work and I still use some of them today, but when Sean asked me if I wanted to go “run hills” with him, I finally began to understand why you exercise and not just how to do it.
There’s a huge mental difference when running in nature vs. following a home workout video or even going to the gym. I don’t want to burn our running spots and tell you exactly where we run but we’re based in LA and if you look to the north where the mountains are, you can probably figure it out. Sean and I began to run on tour too, trying to call it an early night after the show so we could rest up and run the streets of London or Paris or wherever we were playing. It’s a great way to combat some of the boredom of the road but also it helps you sleep. I get real antsy on tour at night and if I don’t wear myself out or get drunk enough to pass out I’ll stay up thinking about all the logistics for the next day. I’m like a dog where I have to physically wear myself out by going to the gym (which can be hard to find or too far away sometimes) or getting up early and running. It’s also a great way to see a city that you’ve never been to and won’t be coming back to anytime soon.
Running became an obsession after that, to the point where I may have been going too often. Sometimes twice a day and alternating between the road and trail to the point I ended up at the doctor’s office with some knee pain. I was able to scale it back and find a nice balance between work and exercise and music and family and then the pandemic hit.
No more shows for the band and also gone were all the acting gigs and odd jobs I’m able to pick up living in a city that runs on entertainment. I got a job working for a small local farm, using the band's tour van to pick up and deliver produce and goods all over LA. The first few weeks of lockdown were pretty spectacular. Driving the van 70mph past Mann’s Chinese Theater on an empty Hollywood Blvd. I felt like a young Charleston Heston in Omega Man. After a while I fell into a routine like any other and as the pandemic dragged on, my daily life became pretty routine as well:
Wake up around 5:30 am to run the hills near my house, lift weights for about an hour, eat and then go to work. Dinner and then early to bed to start it all over again. With everything shut down there wasn’t that issue of FOMO to go out or see people. Sean and his wife were pregnant with twins and so to be safe I just continued to work on the music with Dane Arnold who had played drums in the band for 6 years and who I had done all the major touring and two albums with. One day at work I told my boss about a 10k I was planning to run. It would be my first race. He told me that he ran as well and was also into hills and trails and that he and a friend had participated in the Mt. Baldy Run to The Top years prior. He said that they were on pace to finish until the race was called due to thunder and lightning.
I started looking into the race when I got home that night. The origins are a bit murky but I found out the race was started in 1966 by Herbert Leffler, a volunteer firefighter who worked on the ski lifts. Initially the race was considered a bit of novelty to promote skiing. It soon turned into one of the most respected and feared races in all of Southern California. The first year, the race had 45 participants. Now it has a limit of 650.
I figured, fuck it, Sean and I have been running these hills for awhile now, we can handle it. I didn’t realize that the runs we were doing were about 2.5 miles running at sea-level to about 2500 feet. The Mt. Baldy race starts at around 6k feet and ends at over 10k feet and you end up running over 7 miles to get there. I told Sean I wanted to sign up and he was in. He had actually hiked it before when there was snow at the top and he wore crampons doing it.
I tried to get a few other folks that we had run with before to do it with us but got a hard pass from everyone I asked. Sean and I kept running, not really thinking too much about the race as it was about 5 months away. We started jamming again as a full band as the world started to feel somewhat normal. Then Dane quit.
For a lot of people, Covid made them take a step back and think about what they wanted to do with their time and energy. Sitting around for five hours in a bar waiting to go on for not much money can wear you down after years of doing it. I can definitely see how having a break from all that would make it hard to go back. I wasn’t sure what we would do or if we would keep playing but Sean and I talked and decided we should continue. I thought of Jeff almost immediately and sent him a text and asked if he wanted to come down and play drums. We had known each other from the get go of the band, as he had played in The Shrine, who we had done a bunch of shows with over the years and even recorded a split record together. They were on hiatus themselves, so he was into joining Zig Zags. If he hadn’t said yes, I probably wouldn't be writing this article. I knew Jeff would work out as a drummer and we had always gotten along but when we started talking about running, Jeff mentioned that he runs all the time and has done a couple half marathons. I told him about Baldy and he signed up that night.
Immediately the band started running together. Sean and Jeff both have two kids and we’re all married so we schedule our runs right before practice so that everyone can make it. We usually like to run around the hottest times of the day, about noon, so we don’t run into too many people on the trail. In August and September LA, that means a lot of times we’re running 3 miles uphill in 90 degree heat and then going to band practice for 3 hours right after. We figured that combining the extra elements (like heat and thrash metal) would help us prepare for the thin air on Baldy.
The night before the race, Jeff and I drove out to Claremont, watched the Dodgers lose at a Middle Eastern restaurant, and then met Sean at a Motel 6. We flipped to see who would have to share a room as is customary for bands on tour and I ended up getting my own. After 3 episodes of Diners Drive-ins and Dives (another tour custom), I passed out. We all woke up around 6 and started the 40 minute drive up to the mountain for an 8am race start.
There were about 300 people signed up for the race this year. I think some folks dropped out due to the schedule change. The race usually takes place Labor Day Weekend but because of the threat of forest fires, California had closed all the state parks until the weather cooled down. So here we were, a month and half later at 6k feet, and it was cold. I didn’t really plan for the weather and was just running in my custom Satisfy Zig Zags singlet and shorts like the other two dudes in the band.
Also in case anyone is wondering, I run in Altra shoes. No reason other than they fit my feet the best. I was debating on wearing trail runners cause the first mile of the race is on a paved fire road, then 3 miles of uphill grade on a dirt service road that travels through a forested canyon to the Mt. Baldy Ski Lifts. The next 3 miles begin at the Devil’s Backbone, a narrow catwalk through jagged rock, before opening up as trees and other vegetation begin to thin out. The last mile above the treeline is the steepest part of the race.
We had talked about trying to stick together and pace ourselves but as the crowd of runners began to chant and cheer and wave the California and American flags, I could feel some of that adrenaline starting to push those plans aside. Some guy that I couldn’t see started a 10 count and suddenly we were off. Well, Sean was off. I started jogging only to look up in time to see him running like a racehorse hopped up on fermented crab apples. The first ⅛ mile of the race is actually downhill from the parking lot. I hate running downhill especially on pavement and I was afraid if I started out too fast I could fuck myself up and be out before we really even got going.
But now Sean was well ahead of me and I wanted to catch up with him just to be sure I was running at the right pace. As we turned the corner and started uphill, I could tell right away that a lot of the people running today weren’t prepared for what was in store. There’s a huge difference between running hills and running on flat ground. I have taken strong runners used to running flats with us and they give up less than a mile in.
As runners started to fall by the wayside, I settled in with Sean and a pack of folks that seemed to be cruising at the same pace as us. You’re not allowed to wear earbuds during the race, so my normal soundtrack of thrash metal was replaced with the heavy rhythmic breath of ten or so runners in the cold morning air. I noticed around this time that although my lungs were freezing with every inhale, I felt strong and well rested. I started to push my pace and passed a few more runners. This was the last time I would see Sean until the race was over.
I made my way up to a second group. They seemed a bit younger. A few men and women were running at a pace that seemed challenging but not anything I couldn't handle. I looked up ahead to see a small group even further ahead of us by at least a couple switchbacks. These were the runners who had started at the front of the pack and were trying to beat the best time of 1 hour and 49 seconds set by Matt Ebiner in 1987. Some, on the other hand, like myself, were just trying to finish.
As we ascended further up the mountain, my mind started to drift. I began listing off the names of my family members, then my friends, then just people I know. I also began to notice a girl next to me that I had been running besides for some time. She would walk for a bit and then sprint up past me. I would eventually catch her and she would repeat this again. I am an inexperienced runner with self-taught mechanics, so to me it seemed like bowling with two hands. I couldn’t seem to get past her though and cursed her in my mind for breaking my focus.
Eventually we made it up to the ski lifts. This would be around the 3 mile mark. There was an aid station there and people were handing out water. Some folks cheered us on and yelled out times. I was too cold and annoyed by the “run/walker” to pay much attention. This was about as far as I had ever run uphill and I wanted to make sure I finished. Grabbing some water, I remembered Jeff had given me an energy packet called “Chocolate Rage”. I figured I’d save it until I really needed it.
Next was a really quick run through the rest of the forest. This was similar to the fire road but more of an unkempt dirt trail. The sun was starting to come out and I was settling into a nice pace. As I made it out of the treeline I finally saw where we were headed. The top of Mt. Baldy. It looked a lot further away than I thought. A lot higher and a lot rounder too. I thought of the Moon. “That’s no moon it’s a space station!” A version of Obi-Wan uttered loudly in my brain. I spoke back to him audibly. A long drawn out, “Fuck me.” I continued on. In the time it took me to become worried that I might not make it to the top, I reached the Devil’s Backbone, 3 miles of narrow “catwalk” with jagged rocks and cliffs on either side. I had previously not paid attention or planned for the race because I wanted to experience it as it came.
Now I wished that I had at least looked at a map or tried to hike it before. One of my goals of the race was to run the whole time and not start walking. That’s partly why I was pissed at that girl. Because she was walking and I still couldn't catch her. The backbone made me quickly forget my goals as it would have been too dangerous to try to run it, not to mention I had about seven other runners in front of me and no room on either side to pass.
Instead it became a sort of power walk/climb/scrambling over rocks sharpened by time. And also trying to keep my footing in the loose shale. There were moments I slipped and felt like I could have gone over the side of the cliff if I had tried to run it. I felt a sense of dread that the runners behind me would all catch up now. But the backbone, like throwing furniture in front of a killer trying to catch you, kept all the other runners at my back. No one passed me. When I looked back down the rock face, there was no one there.
The major problem with being forced to walk through the backbone was that now my brain had tasted the gloriousness of walking. When openings would arise where I could start to run again, my legs were now heavy and cold. The wind blowing me against the earth made it feel as if I was dragging a parachute behind me. I remembered the “Chocolate Rage” and squirted about half of it into my mouth just as I came upon a water station. Imagine running and squeezing cake frosting into your mouth at 8k feet and that’s pretty much the vibe. But goddamnit it worked and I began to run again. A helicopter raced overhead and I wondered if someone had been hurt and needed help.
Now I was at the last mile. The steepest of the race. I could see the seven or so people ahead of me. Some walking, some jogging, some doing a combo of the two. At this point, it no longer felt like a race. My brain looped the same sentence over and over again, “I am climbing a mountain….I am climbing a mountain.” Although I could see the finish it did not matter, as the steepness of the mountain was such that even when I used all the energy I had, I still moved at a crawl, trying not to slip on the loose rock. As much as I wanted to push harder and pass people, I could only go at the pace the mountain allowed. No one was passing anyone. We were all tethered to an imaginary mountaineering rope dragging beaten bodies over the line.
Eventually I crossed the finish line to little fanfare.
There were large boxes of bananas, and huge jugs of water, all brought up there by the helicopter. All the volunteers were wearing clothing you would imagine for mountaineering. I was wearing my tank top and shorts. The wind was howling. Eventually a woman came and asked if I was alright and told me it wasn’t safe for me to be up there without any clothes. She handed me her pink fleece and I wrapped it around myself and huddled behind the timekeepers tent.
I waited for about 15 minutes until I saw Jeff coming up the trail. This was the first time I had seen him since the starting line about two hours ago. My first thought was, “Uh oh, this ain’t right.” Sean was the track runner. Jeff had done a couple half marathons before but tended to take his time. I had assumed I’d be trailing Sean the whole race and that Jeff would be a few minutes behind us. I gave him a minute to catch his breath and asked where Sean was. He said he passed him about a mile back lying down and stretching. Jeff had assumed that Sean had already finished and was making his way back down. Instead he had pulled the quad muscles in both legs and was in a lot of pain. A bit of panic set in because I wasn’t really sure what we should do. Head back and make sure he was ok? Or wait and see if we could all finish together? It was a 3.5 mile hike down to the top of ski lifts where our jackets and warm clothes were and where they would be having the awards ceremony. We decided to wait.
Another 15 minutes which felt longer due to the wind and temperature and I finally saw Sean. He was hobbled as if Kathy Bates had taken a sledgehammer to both ankles. His face was white. I assumed it was sunscreen but I think it was the blood rushing to the affected areas of the body to try to heal the damage done by the mountain. We decided that Jeff and I would start back down and Sean would meet us at the ski lift. I never want to leave a fallen soldier behind but at some point you have to hand them half a banana and save yourself. Plus the lady wanted her fleece back.
Remember how I mentioned hating running downhill? Well I hate walking downhill too. Especially on loose rock, along a cliff face, with the icy wind pummeling me. Eventually, Jeff and I made it down, cursing the rock and the wind and run/walkers the whole time. We hung out for a bit and watched them give trophies out to the top three men and women racers. I think the fastest time was around an hour and 9 minutes. I did it in an hour and 42. I was 60th place overall and 13th in the 40-50 age group. The run/walker who had been next to me through most of the race was a 13-year-old girl. She beat me by 10 seconds.
Sean showed up pretty quickly. He must have left right after us. We got on the ski lift which, if you’re afraid of heights like me, is terrifying, especially without snow on the ground. Sean talked about how bad his legs hurt and how he had to go home to his wife and their newborn twins and how he thought for a moment he was gonna have to be airlifted off the mountain. All I could do was close my eyes, not look down and laugh hysterically, thinking about how different being in this band was now, from 10 years ago, when I’d started it.
Words by Jed Maheu