This is not an easy half marathon, nobody’s setting any personal records out here today.
– Brazen race announcer, Wildcat start line
The morning of Saturday, May 19 found Katie and me pulling into the parking lot of the East Bay Waldorf School in El Sobrante. Were we seeking a more humanistic approach to pedagogy based on the anthroposophical teachings of Rudolf Steiner, you might ask? To which I might suggest you’re reading the wrong blog. Nope, on this morning the Waldorf School was generously doubling as the staging area for the 3rd annual Brazen Racing Wildcat Half Marathon.
The name derives from the race being run in Wildcat Canyon Regional Park, a wide-open 2,340-acre expanse of runnable trails (and other nature stuff) that overlaps Tilden Park in Berkeley to the south and extends into Alvarado Park in Richmond to the north. Because I live just down the hill in Berkeley, I run in Tilden Park frequently, but only occasionally do I venture north into Wildcat Canyon. So Brazen’s Wildcat race offered the perfect opportunity to see and “experience” the park, meaning more specifically several kick-ass hills I might otherwise have missed. Because in this production, the hills are the undisputed stars of the show. In other words, my kind of race!
This would be our second Wildcat race, both of us having run the same distances (me the half, Katie the 5K) in 2011. I don’t remember what compelled me to run the race last year, probably some combination of proximity to home, the promise of serious hills, and the weakly nostalgic connection of my high-school mascot having been a wildcat. Plus, I’m admittedly an easy sell when it comes to new trail races. In any case, Katie and I both enjoyed our 2011 outing, which was also our first race under the Brazen banner. And since I’d completely recovered from and forgiven Brazen for forcing me to run 50K out on sun-baked Mount Diablo last month (at least that’s how I remember it…), we were both looking forward to this year’s Wildcat.
At the start line I was motivated by three thoughts: 1) the possibility of improving on last year’s time (a 13th-place finish in 2:06:30), 2) the chance to defend my age group title, and 3) the opportunity to really trial-by-fire my Merrell Road Gloves on some of the more precarious downhills in the Bay Area. My familiarity with the course, having experienced its (literal) high and low points the year before, boosted my pre-race confidence. Unfortunately, the bluegrass music playing in the staging area was no substitute for the (unintentionally?) amusing wildcat growls that had been piped in over the PA system at the 2011 start. But the weather was cooperative (sunny, high 50s, gusty), the ambience was energizing, and the post-race IT’S-ITs were chilling at the finish line… it was go time.
The race announcer (I assume it was Sam? I couldn’t see from where I stood) shared some last-second details and reminded us that “This is not an easy half marathon, nobody’s setting any personal records out here today”… although one glance at the lead runners leaning intently across the start line, tightly coiled and ready to spring, suggested that wouldn’t be for lack of trying. With a final reminder to be wary of potholes as we left the start line, the announcer’s countdown gave way to one mighty blast from the airhorn, and…
Show time! I started near the front of the pack, crossing the start line 3 seconds after the horn. After a crowded 50-foot jog through the grassy start line area, the course veered down then sharply to the right, and the crowd thinned out quickly as we reached the first ascent up Clark Boas Trail. Normally I’m not a huge fan of races that hit me with immediate uphills before I’m able to catch my second (or even my first) wind. But my familiarity with this course and my memory of last year’s race gave me the confidence to hit the first hill more aggressively this time, and I was able to pass several runners without being passed myself, reaching the top and heading back downhill just before the first mile marker. A strong start.
The next 3 miles led us out along the gently rolling out-and-back dirt trails of Belgum Trail, Wildcat Canyon “Parkway” and Wildcat Creek Trail. I passed the lead runners heading in the other direction – mostly men along with 2 women – and realized that I was starting to recognize some of these faces from, well, from being beaten by them at other Brazen races. As I approached the turnaround point just after mile 4 (marked by a volunteer standing behind a waist-high cardboard Gu box doubling as a trash can), I noticed a long branch hanging over the right side of the trail as the volunteer warned me to “watch out for the poison oak there”. I gave the branch a wide berth, circled around the Gu box and headed back in the other direction as the volunteer cheerfully yelled after me, “You’re having fun in those shoes!” I was cruising along, feeling good and looking forward to tackling the second extended uphill in less than a mile.
As I turned off the main trail and began to ascend the immediately steep grade up Conlon Trail just before mile 5, I felt another runner close behind me. Conlon Trail was steeper and lengthier than Clark Boas Trail had been, so to keep myself focused I resolved to stay ahead of my pursuer until at least the top of the hill, knowing that all bets were off once we started downhill. Fortunately I was able to maintain a reasonable pace as well as my lead as I summited the hill (the highest point of the course at ~1,176 ft). The next ~1.5 miles led us along a slightly downhill, nicely paved stretch of Nimitz Way. Unfortunately the 5K and 10K runners didn’t get to experience Nimitz Way… I glanced in all directions at the sprawling panoramic views of Oakland and the San Francisco Bay to my left, along with the San Pablo Reservoir and the East Bay to my right. During the middle stretch of Nimitz Way (mile 8), I even managed to step up my pace by about a minute per mile, clocking a 7:31 mile before a sharp left turn led me back on to the dirt and down Havey Canyon Trail.
The course zigged off Havey Canyon Trail and zagged briefly through a shaded tree-lined stretch of woods. I one-stepped the lone (meager) creek crossing on the course via a large rock, and exited the woods back on to Wildcat Creek Trail. At that point my pursuer, a gray-haired fellow wearing a cap on his head and a bandana around his neck, pulled ahead of me and continued to distance himself as we approached the final sustained ascent at mile 10. I still felt strong as I prepared myself psychologically for the final uphill push, but sensed I’d regret if I tried to keep pace with my surging companion.
The course turned off Wildcat Creek Trail one last time and immediately started another steep ascent, this time up Mezue Trail. And I reminded myself yet again that hill running is essentially a good ol’ fashioned knock-down, drag-out, beer-bottle-over-the-head barroom brawl between the psyche and the body. Unless you’re a mountain goat (and I’m not), success on the hills requires that your brain not buy what your body is selling. And being able to look forward to rather than dread the next ascent is a huge psychological advantage. I’m not fast, and I know that in a typical road race I have no chance of competing with the best runners. But I also know I log more miles up and down hills than the vast majority of runners, and more than anywhere else on a race course, hills are where I trust my training. Only in cases of debilitating heat or altitude, e.g. Diablo last month or Pikes Peak in 2010, has my training abjectly failed me, and in both cases the ascent itself was a secondary issue. Descents are a different animal – I’m still a work in progress on downhills, and I’m constantly amazed at how fast some runners can fly down a hill – but I hate being passed on uphills. My attitude is always that if I can keep the runners just ahead of me in view, then they stand a good chance of being caught and passed on the next uphill.
Although I did run Wildcat last year and used the lessons learned to my advantage in this year’s race, some key details of the course still escaped me. Like the three short-but-steep uphill jags remaining after the final extended climb up Mezue Trail. As the cap-and-bandana combo ascended ahead of me with what appeared to be surprisingly little effort (maybe I’d found my mountain goat), I put my head down and hammered after him with a balls-to-the-wall “This is it!” attitude that could’ve cost me on a hotter day. Fortunately I reached the top at around mile 11 with just enough left in the tank to sustain a crisp pace down and back up the three remaining short uphills. Passing the mile 12 marker, I felt that familiar one-mile-to-go neuron fire excitedly in my brain, and I glanced around to take in one last appreciative view of the East Bay sprawled out below, Whoville-style. I then turned my attention and momentum to the mile+ home stretch to the finish. And that’s when my mind began its own anxiety-fueled race, faced with its most vivid memory of Wildcat 2011: the final descent.
In case you snoozed briefly there (not that I blame you), downhills are not my forte. Whereas many runners see the “down” as a golden opportunity to make up for time lost on the “up”, I’m usually hesitant if not downright uncomfortable on trail descents. The possibility of holes and cracks in the trail, precariously loose dirt and gravel, or anything else (say a hidden root) that might snag my foot and send me head over heels… together these potential gremlins lend both a physical and mental tension to every trail descent. Not to mention (except that I am) a rich history of left ankle sprains that I’m never in a hurry to repeat. Fortunately, thanks to my Merrells I’ve recently gained confidence and made significant improvements to my footwork and downhill technique. But the final mile of Wildcat contains two (really three) brief descents, on grass and loose dirt and in short succession, that are among the steepest and most precarious I’ve encountered in the Bay Area. The first downhill, which actually is the steeper of the two based on the elevation profile, primes your quads and feet for the real challenge of the second downhill, an unnervingly steep grade that demands full concentration while requiring that your quads and feet fire rapidly in staccato bursts. As my legs machine-gunned away, my mind raced frantically with the adrenalizing, edge-of-panic realization that one misstep would upset my already-unstable balance and send me careening head-over-heels down the hill. I’ve never had to chase my own body in such a frenzied manner before, making this unique stretch my strongest Wildcat memory. And what I saw in my peripheral vision as I focused on the trail directly underfoot only added to my anxiety… below me, a few 10K participants were slowly and painstakingly hiking their way down this final descent as I neared my own version of terminal velocity. A momentary image of my unchecked momentum bowling over chubby, exhausted 10Kers like tenpins flashed through my mind, complete with bowling-ball strike sound. No no no no no… fortunately several potential tenpins looked up in time to see me more or less falling down the hill toward them, and I was able to change direction just enough to slide by without incident. Altogether, these two harried descents lasted a grand total of… less than a minute each.
As this virtual freefall leveled off, my frazzled quads began to provide immediate feedback. Whiners. But I was now close enough to feel the finish line ahead. And as the eventual third-place women’s finisher went gliding past me looking relaxed and effortless (@&*# downhills!), I tackled the final (relatively) gradual descent with renewed motivation. A sharp left turn at the bottom of the hill led me back up on to the grass, past the trailhead and across the finish line in… 1:59:19!
Katie finished her 5K in 41:58 and bested her 2011 outing by 32 seconds. On the frustrating side, she placed out of the age group awards by finishing seven and six seconds behind the second- and third-place finishers in her age group.
As we wandered the finish line area cooling down and watching other runners finish, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see my gray-haired companion with the cap and bandana. His race bib read “Fernando,” and that’s how he introduced himself. Very nice fellow, I’m glad he found me… Fernando moved to the East Bay from Spain, and apparently he trains frequently on the Wildcat course. He complimented me on my posture and running form, and I congratulated him on his strong showing and thanked him for motivating me to push myself harder than I might have otherwise. It’s not unreasonable to think I owe my sub-2:00:00 finish to his shadowing me in the middle stages of the race. Apparently Fernando’s hamstring tightened up pretty severely near the end of the race, so hopefully that’s now fully recovered and I’ll have a chance to race alongside (and in front of) him again soon.
So I guess I achieved my primary goal for Wildcat, finishing in under two hours and besting my 2011 time by over seven minutes. However, I did a lousy job of defending my age group title. Fortunately for Brazen but unfortunately for the rest of us, their races have now grown to the point that they attract some pretty bad-ass ultra runners, including sponsored types who nonchalantly reference their “next” 100-miler and advertise Udo’s Oil on their own blog (never heard of it? exactly…). On this day both the first- and second-place runners set the Wildcat course record. The second-place finisher was a fellow from San Francisco named Tim Long, who also set the Diablo 50K course record last month and who documents his own running exploits in an excellent blog, Footfeathers. Based on his recent domination of the Brazen M(40-44) age group, I may send Tim a birthday/thank-you card myself when he turns 45.
Right now though, I can’t complain… the three fellows who finished ahead of me in my age group are clearly stronger runners. And the only race variable I can consistently control is my own performance. Since I don’t race professionally, the only person I need to outperform by the time I reach the finish line is myself. For now I’ll use a fourth-place finish in my age group as motivation to keep getting stronger. After all, Trailquake is only three weeks away…
- As challenging and demanding as Wildcat’s hills are, they’re definitely less punishing than the k(hill)ers in either last month’s Diablo 50K or Brazen’s half marathon championship at Rocky Ridge.
- More evidence that trail running is quickly gaining in popularity: almost twice as many half marathoners (169 vs. 87) crossed the finish line this year compared to 2011, and 503 total runners competed in this year’s Wildcat lineup (half, 10K and 5K) vs. 296 last year, an impressive 70% increase.
- I made a smart choice not to carry my bottle of Cytomax, as I did last year… no use carrying something I really don’t need, I prefer to leave both hands free in case I need to catch my balance or break a fall.
- Overheard by Katie on the 5K course, from a man walking with his young (~8-year-old) daughter: “Do you think you’re going to run at all this morning?”
SHOES: My lightweight Merrell Road Gloves (as well as Fernando) contributed to my faster finish time this year. Better ground feel than with my Asics GT-2150 trail shoes gave me much more confidence on descents, and as a result my downhill game is improving. Hopefully a sign of positive things to come.
PRODUCTION: Again, the Brazen crew and their volunteers were epic, including their race photographers who always provide some great action shots, free of charge and without the word “PROOF” stamped across your face. As usual, the course was flawlessly marked. Mile markers were dead-on with my Garmin (±0.02 miles), and volunteers were stationed at key junctions to avoid any potential confusion and ensure that nobody took a wrong turn. In fact, the course was so well marked that apparently its flour arrows on the trail wreaked havoc on the next day’s Tilden Tough Ten… so much so that TTT organizers issued a post-race apology to their racers:
We were unaware that there was a race held at Tilden on Saturday (this has never happened in previous years and therefore wasn’t on our radar of possible planning issues) and as a result the course markings were confusing even for our volunteers on the course. Markings [were] left over from the other race which led some runners the wrong way. This also resulted in our bike patrol taking some wrong turns and missing the turn around for the race and hence no one being there.
Overall I’d highly recommend Wildcat, it’s the best of the Brazen half marathons I’ve run so far. It has a lot of what makes trail running great: several challenging hills, together with more relaxed sections in the middle and stunning views from Nimitz Way and the San Pablo Ridge Trail. And as I referenced earlier, the all-powerful post-race IT’S-IT – to the best of my knowledge a Brazen exclusive.
May 19, 2012
13.3 miles in Wildcat Canyon Regional Park
Finish time & pace: 1:59:19 (7:11 faster than 2011), 8:58/mile
Finish place: 17/169 overall, 4/20 in M(40-44) age group
Race weather: sunny, high-50s to mid-60s with gusty winds
Elevation change (Garmin Training Center software): 3248ft ascent, 3234ft descent