Hills pay the bills!
– Unidentified runner, Brazen Bad Bass Half Marathon, 30 July 2011
Runners lucky enough to live and train here in the Bay Area have it easy. Most conspicuously, the climate here is notoriously mild year-round: for example, on Stanford’s campus the average high temperature in July is 80°F, the average low in December is 39°F, and the average rainfall in February (the rainiest month of the year) is 3.31″. Across the bay at UC Berkeley, these numbers are 74°F, 43°F and 5.38″. And snow? I once heard a local radio personality remark that snow isn’t treated as weather here as much as it is a toy we take out of the toy box during the winter months (i.e. Lake Tahoe), play with for a while and then put back once we’re done. Granted it can get a bit gusty at times, particularly close to the coast. And our iconic coastal fog does tend to roll in at inopportune times (hope you weren’t banking on that prize-winning Golden Gate Bridge photo happening today). But if you own a windbreaker and some sunscreen, the Bay Area is a comfortable place to train 365 days a year.
Likewise, you won’t need Denver-caliber hemoglobin to run in these parts. Since we are by definition at sea level, any runner can step off an airplane at SFO one day and be comfortably racing the next, no acclimation required. And really, we don’t have any landforms that I’d technically call “mountains”… all the candidates are more like impressive hills. The highest peak in the Bay Area, Copernicus Peak on Mount Hamilton in Santa Clara County, stretches all the way up to 4,367ft, and even that peak elevation is legally accessible only with special permission. Similarly, Mount Diablo’s bite is worse than its bark: Diablo tops out at only 3,864ft, but during bouts of hot weather the “mountain” (as Wikipedia labels it) stands tall and lives up to its name, reducing many a confident runner to an overheated, profanity-spewing sweat-and-dust goblin.
So yeah, the San Francisco Bay Area is an easy place to be(come) a runner. But just as importantly, it’s also an easy place to become a better runner… particularly if you like to train on hills. Because what the Bay Area lacks in absolute elevation gain, it more than makes up for with its seemingly limitless potential for net elevation gain. San Francisco may be the most renowned among Bay Area cities for the sometimes dizzying tilt of its streets (see Lombard and Filbert), and in fact Stride Nation recently (and somewhat melodramatically) referred to the 2012 San Francisco Marathon as “Death By A Thousand Hills.” But the East Bay also features an impressive number of bad-ass urban inclines. Not so surprising, considering that Berkeley does have the Berkeley Hills, and Oakland, the Oakland Hills.
And I really like hills.
So after running and training in the Bay Area for over ten years now, I’d say I have – accidentally or purposefully – experienced most of the killer ascents this region has to offer. And I’ve found that a few notables keep drawing me back… in some cases because they represent the best route to get from point A (where I am) to point B (where I’m going), and in other cases because I think I suffer from a sort of runner’s Stockholm Syndrome when it comes to hills. Conveniently, there are even a few hills that fall neatly into both categories, e.g. the “Separator” hill on the fire trail above UC Berkeley.
So with that long and winding intro, I (almost) give you my list of the top ten runnable hills in what I’m calling the “East Bay and beyond.” Since I try to divide my mileage fairly evenly between asphalt and trails, I’ve broken the list down into two lists of five: first roads, then trails. For me, ascents on asphalt tend to be less taxing than those on dirt, owing to more stable and level footing. On dirt, particularly loose dirt and uneven terrain, progress typically feels like one step forward and half a step back.
Finally, a few disclaimers: 1) These are not ranked lists; 2) These are not meant to be definitive lists… I haven’t run every hill in the Bay Area (yet), so I’d expect there are plenty of worthwhile lung-busters out there still to be ascended; and 3) I’ve tried to make these functional lists for everyday training purposes, not a “who’s who” of the ass-kickingest hills in the Bay Area. Accordingly, I’ve emphasized the “runnable” aspect, meaning I’ve reached the point where I can maintain a jogging pace (however slow) on each of these hills without having to walk. For me that’s the challenge and the real purpose of hill training, to balance that fine physical and psychological line between “Should I keep running?” and “Should I start walking?” With that in mind, I’ve omitted inclines composed primarily of stairs (sorry Dipsea, though I do appreciate your quirkiness), as well as ridiculously steep ascents on which only a mountain goat or the running 1% could maintain a jogging pace.
I’ll limit this blog post to the roads, and reserve my next post for the trails:
ROADS (in no particular order):
1. Marin Avenue in Berkeley, from the Marin Circle Fountain to Creston Road
(total ascent 700ft over 0.8 miles)
For me, Marin is the queen mother of urban asphalt. It’s a gut-check series of 11 neighborhood blocks of varying steepness, the most wicked of which approaches a 30% grade. The first block – one of the lengthiest – offers a fairly gradual ascent that affords you the time to either catch that elusive second wind or reach the realization that you’re just not going to. After three shorter blocks that threaten to lull you into a false sense of “This ain’t so bad,” the 5th block wrenches upward to Spruce Street. And that’s where the real fun begins… after Spruce, with your legs and lungs now starting to ache in protest, it’s six more blocks to the top, five if you’re content to stop at Grizzly Peak. Particularly severe are blocks eight through ten, starting at Euclid Avenue and ending at Grizzly Peak… this is the most severely masochistic, eyes-on-your-shoetops-and-just-keep-those-legs-churning stretch of the journey. Mentally I like to break the longest block, between the appropriately named Keeler Avenue and Grizzly Peak, into thirds so I can gauge my progress and know when to make my final, graceful-as-a-drugged-water-buffalo charge up to Grizzly Peak. The final jaunt upward to Creston is pretty much icing on the cake, and if I’m feeling particularly pulmonary I’ll even continue past Creston to the parking lot of the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, where Marin officially goes to die.
Marin may be a wolf in wolf’s clothing, but don’t abandon all hope ye who enter here: its saving grace is the short-lived leveling-off stretches between blocks where you can rest momentarily by turning down a side street and jogging a short loop, without feeling like you’re cheating or giving up by stopping to catch your breath. I used to value these side-street turnouts when I first discovered the joy of Marin, but now I’ve made it such a regular in my running routine that I can reach the top in one continuous effort, without detours.
Also unique to Marin, I find that nothing fuels an all-out anaerobic effort like the acrid stench of automotive clutches burning. I’ll occasionally glance up to scan the expressions of drivers carefully negotiating their way up and down Marin, their faces registering an amusing mix of empathy, antipathy and confusion on seeing… hey, is that idiot jogging? I’ve also seen a few walkers on Marin, but the only other runner I’ve ever seen was heading downhill. In some ways though, getting to the bottom is even more challenging than getting to the top… just ask your knees and quads.
For a more quantitative block-by-block grading of Marin, I’d recommend this cyclist’s perspective on the Berkeley Hills Death Ride. As much fun as I have running Marin, I can’t imagine trying it on a bike… much respect to those who do.
2. Spruce Street in Berkeley, from Cedar Street to Grizzly Peak to South Park Drive
(total ascent 1400ft, net ascent 1366ft over 6 miles)
Whereas Marin feels like self-immolation, Spruce is more of a slow burn. Spruce offers a more meandering and scenic route up to the Summit Reservoir at Grizzly Peak, though the key word here is “up”… you’ll still have to earn it. But it’s well worth it, because Grizzly Peak is hands-down the best stretch of running in Berkeley… minimal traffic, no traffic lights, and life-affirming vistas of Oakland, San Francisco and beyond stretching out below you as far as the eye can see (which, with the coastal fog, usually isn’t far).
Even though this may feel like the top o’ the world, the stunning views along Grizzly Peak probably won’t distract from the fact that you’re still ascending… an additional 830ft over the next 4 miles. Certainly it’s not Pikes Peak, but the accumulated elevation gain does start to wear on you by the time you reach South Park Drive in Tilden Regional Park. At that point though, you really are king of your world, because from there it’s downhill in every direction.
3. UC Berkeley West Circle/Stadium Rim Way/Centennial Drive up to the fire trail
(total ascent 400ft over 1.3 miles)
Like life at any university, one of the best things about the UC Berkeley experience is its ups and downs… though on this campus, I mean that literally. The main campus features an elevation gain of ~200ft from its southwestern corner (Oxford Road and Bancroft Way) to its northeastern corner (Gayley Road and Hearst Avenue). If you’re an urban runner looking to combine hill training and sightseeing, or if you’re on the Berkeley campus searching for the shortest route off the concrete and on to the dirt, this one’s a best bet. En route from the West Circle to the fire trailhead off Centennial, you’ll pass Sather Tower (the campanile); two “NL”-designated parking spaces reserved for Nobel Laureates; the Greek Theatre; newly (though not yet completely) renovated Memorial (football) Stadium; the Witter Rugby Field; Levine-Fricke Softball Field and the Strawberry Canyon swimming pool… all in less than a mile and a half. No wonder this campus attracts such a fanati-Cal group of runners.
4. Snake Road in Oakland, from Mountain Blvd to Skyline Blvd
(total ascent 870ft, net ascent 680ft over 1.9 miles)
Named for not-so-enigmatic reasons, Snake Road lies in the affluent Oakland neighborhood of Montclair, where residents can afford to live out of earshot of Occupiers and gunfire. Beginning its ascent off Mountain Blvd, Snake slithers up into the Oakland Hills and past some of the more architecturally quirky and interesting homes you’ll find in Oakland. Off to your left along the way, you’ll catch scenic glimpses of Downtown Oakland, Alameda, San Francisco and the Bay. Don’t stop there, though… more sprawling views (west to the Pacific, east to both Huckleberry Botanic and Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserves) await you up on Skyline.
The downside to running Snake is that there’s no sidewalk and almost no shoulder, so you’ll want to stay alert for intermittent two-way traffic as you round its many blind curves.
5. Moeser Lane in El Cerrito, from San Pablo Avenue/Lincoln Highway to Arlington Blvd
(total ascent 715ft over 1.3 miles)
El Cerrito may have been on Gertrude Stein‘s mind when she penned her oft-misconstrued quote “There is no there there.” What some would consider its lone cultural ray of light, the 99 Ranch Market, is actually located in Richmond. And one website of “Things to Do in El Cerrito, CA” lists nine options… none of them in El Cerrito. Fortunately, what El Cerrito lacks in culture and general interest, it makes up for with Moeser Lane.
Moeser ranks second only to Marin on this list for sheer force of effort required to reach the top. Unlike Marin though, Moeser at least allows you a few short blocks (just under half a mile) to steel your resolve… in fact, until you reach Cerrito Vista Park the ascent is comfortably gradual. But from there, both the grade and your heart rate ramp up in a hurry, and the thought that most often kicks around in my mind as I plod upward is that I’m glad I’m not running this on dirt. Fortunately, the road levels off briefly at a couple of intersections near the top, providing an opportunity for a few quick gulps of air in preparation for one final leaden surge. (Musical note, speaking of surges: I find that the title track from Slayer’s “Seasons In The Abyss” plays well on Moeser, both rhythmically and psychologically). As you crest the hill at Arlington (where Moeser ends), be sure to turn back around and admire your handiwork, as well as the sweet view down to and across the Bay that rewards you on a clear day. And go ahead, pump that fist a couple of times… you’ve earned it. I think the drivers looking you up and down would agree.
Of course, the downside to running up Moeser is that first you have to get to Moeser. On foot this requires either running all the way down Moeser from Arlington (my preferred route) or slogging along San Pablo Avenue, with its knee-numbing concrete and mind-numbing rows of strip malls. Even the dirty, understated Guitar Center on San Pablo, which always served this guitarist as a faithful pick-me-up landmark en route to Moeser, recently closed up shop and moved to Emeryville.
Stay tuned… in my next post (which won’t take another two months), I’ll go off-road to explore my favorite trails for hill training in the East Bay and beyond.