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Voices of L.A. Nature: An Interview with Telma Altoon

Welcome to our new series, Voices of L.A. Nature, where we'll hear stories from a diverse range of Angelenos about their relationships with nature in L.A.

Telma at Sycamore Canyon
Telma Altoon running through Sycamore Canyon, in Point Mugu State Park.

Welcome to our new series, Voices of L.A. Nature, where we'll hear stories from a diverse range of Angelenos about their relationships with nature in L.A. This month we'll focus on Armenian Americans living in Los Angeles to help us celebrate Armenian History Month. Stay tuned throughout the year, for more Voices of L.A. Nature!

Telma Altoon works in finance here in L.A., but her true passion and skill lies in ultra running. Ultra running is by definition any race longer than a marathon (26.2 miles), and often extends to distances in excess of 50, or even 100 miles! Telma races internationally, and is the only Armenian ultra runner in the world. She feels as if it is her job to represent Armenia in the sport, and is particularly proud of being a female runner. She rates herself a 10 on the "I love nature scale" and runs trails in the Santa Monica Mountains every single day. 

Can you share a memory/story of where and how you played as a kid?
I grew up in the Middle East, Iran, and Germany and moved to the United States in 1987. I was in the 7th grade. I have immensely wonderful memories of each location. In Germany, I particularly remember each day after school running to the horse stables and playing with them, grooming them and running with them on the green lush fields and taking them for walks on trails. I would do this daily until sunset and then go home for supper.

What nature places did you explore/experience as a kid in L.A.?
When I arrived to Los Angeles, I quickly became part of the Glendale High School Cross Country team and experienced nature in the local mountains and hills immediately. We practiced along various mountain trails in the Glendale, Burbank, and Pasadena areas. We also ran trails in the hills and parks that were close to those cities daily. 

What were your perceptions of Los Angeles nature before moving here?
I had assumed Los Angeles was flat and dry and hot all year round.

What about after you got here?
I have learned that Los Angeles is surrounded by mountains and some of the tallest ones in all of California. We have a vast natural environment with massively diverse ecology and one can experience so much life, all in the same place!

Telma Altoon in Mount Wilson
Summiting in the snow at Mount Wilson with ultra runner friend, Ashely Andersen.
Ashely Andersen

What is your favorite nature space to visit in L.A.? What do you do there, and why do you go?
I have many favorites. I visit the mountains a lot, mostly in the Angeles Crest (Mount Wilson is a favorite) and the Santa Monica Mountains. I also love going to Mount San Jacinto and San Gorgonio out in the San Jacinto and San Gabriel mountains. These mountains are all in Los Angeles County or pretty close by and they provide such an escape. I train in these mountains on a regular basis. I run up to 30 mile distances preparing for my long endurance races. I always go with other ultrarunning friends and we thoroughly enjoy the beauty of the mountains, the climbing, the rugged trails. Summiting the peaks is always fun and a great training session for racing.

If I were to pick one, it would be Mount Wilson. Located behind Pasadena/Altadena, Mount Wilson has a peak around 6,000 feet. Various trails lead up to the peak. One from Eaton Canyon which uses the fire road (11 miles up) to the peak. There's also the Wilson Trail which is a single track route, seven miles, directly up to the peak. Various trees and plants including poison oak (watch out!) can be found on these trails especially closer to the top. At the peak, there is a cafe open part of the year. It’s a fantastic place to take a break and have a warm drink especially when summiting in the snow and ice in the winters. I also have done multiple double summits in one day. Starting at Eaton Canyon and going up to summit once, then coming back down to Chantry Flats and going back up via the Sturtevant Trail. This run is about 32 miles and it has about 10,000 feet of gain! I have encountered bears, rattlesnakes, coyotes, bobcats, and deer on these trails almost every time I go. I have also spent some miles running in higher altitude at the top behind the cafe. The trails on the peak are very quiet and hardly anyone uses them. This location and other peaks really allow me to rest and relax and feel in the midst of nature and myself. The sport of running has taken me to many peaks and natural surroundings in various places and I am thoroughly grateful for it.

What is your favorite plant/animal/fungus/slime mold/other organism in Los Angeles?
I love the bears I encounter locally, especially at Mount Wilson. They have never seemed aggressive and mind their own business, but of course they have to be fully respected and left alone. I have also encountered mountains lions at Aliso Canyon in Porter Ranch (Santa Susana Mountains). As for plant life, I do love and respect poison oak. I have been affected by it so many times that I have almost become immune and my breakouts are mild and tolerable. I do fear poodle dog bush though. They can give people severe rashes, and I am very wary of them when I run in the Angeles Crest region.

Do you have a funny story about a nature experience you had in L.A.?
It would have to be the time I accidentally stepped on a rattlesnake while running. It moved toward me very fast and hissed. I must have jumped about three feet high in the air, on a single track trail with a cliffside to my left. My friends watched behind me not knowing why I was screaming and jumping up. They thought I was being goofy as usual, until they arrived on the scene. This took place en route to Strawberry Peak in the Angeles Crest. It was a hot summer morning and the snake was massively camouflaged. I did not get bitten, and the snake was also not hurt.

Telma running in Santa Monica
Telma trains daily in the Santa Monica Mountains.
Chris Kostman

The recent Atlantic article, "Five Ways to Make the Outdoors More Inclusive," laid out some concrete steps that National Parks and public lands can employ to become more inclusive. How do you think we can make access to nature in L.A. more accessible for everyone? What are some of the biggest barriers?
I believe access to nature in L.A. is extremely obvious and present. It is a choice and if any barriers exist at all, those are subjective and not access related but culturally, or politically, or individually based. I am a very common and “regular” person, and I see the nature surrounding me in Los Angeles and I immerse myself in it, because I want to and because I can. Any person can enjoy nature the same as I do, while walking, hiking, running, biking. Having enjoyed trails and parks in other countries, I value and appreciate the rules of law established to keep nature intact and to keep our parks clean and safe. I respect these rules and abide by them daily. I honestly do not comprehend the racial part of this article when it comes to enjoying the local nature in this day and age. I do believe some cultures are less apt to be outdoors for fears of safety or lack of desire to be in outdoor sports or recreation. I do admit even within my own culture, Armenians, especially Armenian women, are less apt to be “roughing” it out there on dirt trails and in the mountains daily. Our culture requires so much more of us on the bigger scale. Being perfect mothers, being there for our kids rather than tending to our health and having the time to enjoy nature. Our culture requires us to be educated and work hard and be good mothers. Sometimes this is at the cost of enjoying the great outdoors. Our culture also requires us to stick to activities that are more “proper” for women. Sometimes I feel as if running around the mountains is not perceived as proper for women. I believe that this is part of the reason I am currently the only female Armenian ultrarunner out there. It saddens me also, but it gives me more reason to do what I love and to show everyone that WE can too. WE are ultra runners! 

Telma running during superbloom
Running in the Santa Monica Mountains during a wild mustard superbloom! (These are introduced mustard plants, and none were harmed for this picture)
Howie Stern Photography


Follow Telma on social media:
Facebook: Telma Altoon
Instagram: @armenianultrarunner