I think, therefore I am.
– René Descartes
Since the inception of BC&H 14 months ago, one question bounces around my head a lot: did I start to blog because I notice things, or do I now notice things because I started to blog? If Descartes had aired his thoughts on WordPressicus back in the day, would he have positioned the above tenet as “I think, therefore I blog” or maybe “I blog, therefore I think”?
I tend to think it works both ways – hopefully I have something to say in the first place, or I wouldn’t bother writing. And with every run, I diligently observe and catalog details big and small… not because I see it as my responsibility to the blog, but because that’s just my brain doing what my brain do. I blame heredity – the most convenient target –plus twenty years of scientist training that’s messed with all the neurons bumping around inside my head.
In any case, over the past year I’ve committed to memory – both neural and digital – a number of notable moments from my time spent exploring the East Bay on foot. And since Katie and I recently decided to pick up stakes and move down to the Los Angeles area, I figure now is as good a time as any to unload share my personal experiences and more-or-less random musings on the good, the bad and even the ugly of a year spent running in the East Bay and beyond:
∞ Track day = payday: One summer afternoon, while knocking out mile repeats on the Cal (UC Berkeley) track, I glanced down as I finished a set to see a $5 bill lying in the middle of lane three, silently minding its own business but clearly planning its escape. Still breathing hard from my mile effort, I reached down to pick up the orphaned bill, only to discover I’d missed a zero and that I was in fact holding a $50 bill.
Glancing around incredulously – left, right, left again, more carefully than if I’d been crossing Highway 101 on foot – I realized that none of the parents or kids loitering around the track were frantically digging through their pockets, or counting the contents of their wallet, or walking around scanning the ground like they’d just lost a contact lens. Two teenagers sat on a low wall 12 feet away, laughing loudly and completely unaware that I’d just run the most profitable mile of my life.
After pocketing (or rather, Amphipod-ing) the bill, I turned my momentarily lapsed attention back to my recovery lap, already in progress. I like to think my windfall was an apology from the running gods for all the unattended children and selfishly oblivious parents I’d weaved to avoid during my countless workouts on that track.
∞ And while I’m talking track workouts: Gotta shout out to the intrepid squirrel who one day elected to stand right in the middle of the local dirt track, gnawing away on an acorn while I and other runners sped by him on each side. Peace, love and happiness for all nature’s creatures… Berkeley in a nutshell, I thought.
∞ A question for the Berkeley Psychic Institute, after I spied this sign on a run through downtown: Not to sound cynical, but why the doorbell? If you’ve earned the title of psychic, wouldn’t you simply sense that I’m standing outside your front door? Or does that logic only work when a spirit comes a-callin’?
∞ Sorry Bay Area, this doesn’t involve you: Hey Hammer Nutrition, I get the cutesy marketing opportunity, but practically speaking why are your gel packets shaped like awkward bloated hammers? Isn’t it bad enough that your Heed drink tastes like cough syrup? I’d imagine that as prospective packet designs go, that hammer design scored above only the velcro gel packet, inside-out gel packet and gel packet with pump dispenser among focus group participants. Nothing says “endurance runner trying to minimize clutter” like an extra inch and a half of utterly useless packaging:
If your poorly conceived packet design reflects your desire to distinguish Hammer from the more user-friendly offerings of PowerBar, Clif Bar and GU Energy, then your efforts are paying off and I thank you – your packaging allows me to quickily distinguish and avoid all Hammer Gel products at my local REI.
∞ As a trail running and minimalism aficionado, I’ve decided to title my not-soon-to-be-released autobiography Zero Drop Dirty. Or if I happen to suffer a debilitating running injury between now and then, Zero Drop Hurty. Don’t even try, fellow trail runners… I’ve already trademarked both.
∞ Speaking of minimalist running, I saw this advice posted to an online running forum on training in minimalist shoes: “Do start out slow and you will avoid sore angry mussels.” I resisted the urge to post my own “Clam up with your shellfish comments” response.
∞ When you gotta go: One typically cool Bay Area afternoon, while running down very steep Moeser Road in El Cerrito, I suddenly felt nature’s call – loud, unmistakable and clearly not willing to wait until I got home. Noticing two outdoor facilities in the park to my left, I veered off in that direction only to find both bathrooms inaccessible behind a locked fence (if I may digress for a moment on my own blog: this obnoxious practice by communities and businesses of making toilets inaccessible to the general public is regularly repeated across the East Bay and nowhere else I’ve lived. It seems to stem from a conditioned fear that someone who doesn’t belong there may actually happen by and want to USE the facilities. On longer runs around Berkeley and Oakland, I frequently found myself on the lookout for homes being remodeled, so I could use the generally unlocked porta-potty in their front yard.)
Anyway… between the time I’d sighted the bathrooms and the time I’d realized they were locked, my brain had upped the ante and begun writing checks my bladder couldn’t cash. So then I had no choice but to sneak off into some nearby bushes in that same park, just below an embankment. Fortunately the coast was clear – the park was empty as I hurried to take care of my business quietly and discreetly. But then, as I stood awkwardly amidst the sparse foliage and passed the physiological point of no return, I heard the squeals and laughter of children – many children – running and playing above the embankment no more than 50 feet away. It hadn’t occurred to me that the park might be connected to a playground which, due to the steep grade of the road, was situated above the park.
My brain instantly filled with the sorts of horrific images that might fill any normal brain upon finding its charges partially exposed and within throwing distance of an active playground – images of me exiting the bushes to find ten stern-faced police officers with guns raised, ordering me to pull my shorts up where they could see them; images of reporters asking my brother, “So urine no way surprised by his arrest?” and Chuck responding with “Not at all, I knew the truth would trickle out eventually”; and images of letters received in prison in my poor mother’s handwriting, chastising me for not wearing clean underwear when I was arrested (in my defense Mom, running shorts are made to be worn without underwear…).
Luckily though, I exited my shadowy cover of bushes into a still-empty park, and so was very – I guess the word would be relieved – to continue on my way without any pee-nal consequences.
∞ Citizens of the People’s Republic of Berkeley tend to treat their cars chiefly as mobile billboards for their left-leaning/wordy/esoteric viewpoints, and the city’s bumper stickers provide more entertaining reading material than many a town’s library. So I rarely pass up an opportunity while running to break out the handy flip phone camera:
∞ And what says “East Bay” more than spotting a “I Hella ♥ Homos” bumper sticker on a pickup truck, the same week a fellow named Sonny Dykes was hired to be the new Cal football coach?
∞ Though not a bumper sticker, the “Drive Like Your Kids Live Here” sign is another variation on the obnoxious “Baby On Board” theme… so I’d like to tip my cap (while at the same time not condoning vandalism) to the unidentified wielder of a can of red spray paint up in the Berkeley Hills, who with a few strokes changed this sign’s intent by 180°:
∞ Now for the ugly: While running the Iron Horse Trail in 86°F heat, I passed a small cluster of concerned onlookers gathered around two paramedics who were attending to a man lying on his back in the middle of the concrete path. A quick glance told me the man’s short-sleeve shirt was unbuttoned and spread open… but it was the wide smear of crimson across the trail that momentarily unnerved me, and I resisted the morbid impulse to glance at his face. Fortunately the paramedics seemed to have the situation under control. And so I ran on, as runners always do.
∞ Potential ugliness turned memorable meeting: Just over a mile into a 22-mile February training run along that same Iron Horse Trail, I found myself following a dirt alleyway behind a row of homes, with close-set backyards and driveways to my left and an eight-foot-high chain-link fence to my right. Suddenly I felt an electric charge ripple through me as I was greeted by two pit bulls bounding toward me out of the nearest driveway, one of them midnight black and the other sporting a brownish-black coat (for which I soon learned the appropriate term – “brindle”). I quickly steered toward the fence and for about three. long. seconds. debated whether to start climbing. Then I realized the animals were acting curious rather than threatening – no barking, no bared fangs, no guttural threatening growls. Which was reassuring, given that both muscle-bound canines were now standing on their hindlegs, pawing gently but firmly at my legs and hips as my heart continued to skip beats.
Still I was too – I’ll go with “timid” here – to present a friendly façade much less a set of fingers, until with relief I glanced up to see a wiry 20-something Latino fellow wearing a black hoodie pulled over his head, leisurely following the dogs down the driveway while calling them to his side. The dogs’ caretaker was also the owner of extensive tattoo work that radiated up his neck to his face, as well as to the knuckles on his hands. In another time and place, this might have struck me as a menacing scenario.
But any fleeting unease was swiftly quelled as I watched the two animals rush over and zealously lick their master’s face. He in turn patted and stroked their backs with an intensity that could only be described as – true love, I thought. Clearly they were his pride and joy. He smiled up at me from his kneeling position, he and I shook hands, and he proceeded to tell me at length about his two boys as I warmed up to the playful pooches, stroking and patting each one’s solid, muscular back.
Now that the warning sirens in my brain had stopped wailing, I was able to relax and appreciate the two pit bulls for what they were – beautiful, august creatures built like furry brick walls. It seemed inappropriate at that moment to think of them as dogs, the same catch-all term used to describe dachshunds, chihuahuas and labradoodles. Their owner told me how he’d brought the animals with him to California from Harlingen, a town at the southern tip of Texas, close to the Mexico border. He spoke softly, but the pride in his voice was loud and clear as he talked of his companions – how he’d raised them from puppies, how one of them had been featured in a photo shoot for Life magazine, and how he had a sweet-tempered female lounging around inside the house as well.
After several more minutes spent admiring and amusing his sturdy canines, we exchanged our goodbyes and I continued on my way, though I already knew the rest of that day’s run would be a dog by comparison.
∞ On urban animal encounters: Running through a neighborhood just north of Berkeley, I swung a left turn from a residential stretch onto a bustling, four-lane avenue. Lost in thought, I absentmindedly glanced over at a busy gas station on the corner, then looked up again just in time to avoid a head-on collision with a 4-foot-tall and prodigiously round turkey. I hesitate to say which of us would have gotten the worst of a collision, but the turkey seemed to take it all in stride. He jerked his head up at me, looked back down, looked back up, then strolled past as though I’d just stopped him to ask for directions and he had somewhere to be.
Sheepishly I glanced around to gauge whether any bystanders had witnessed this exchange… only later did I learn that a whole rafter of wild turkeys lived across that bustling street, in a fenced-off area dedicated to sustainable urban agriculture and appropriately known as “Turkeytown.” Turkey sightings in Berkeley aren’t uncommon – I’ve seen several around town and in the hills. But after 42 years of life experience including four in college and several more in graduate school, this was the first time I’d ever had to tell myself to back away from the Wild Turkey.
∞ Orange you glad that bridge is there: I could list it first, or last, or anywhere in between… but the Golden Gate Bridge will always be the gravitational field around which my Bay Area running routes orbit. My favorite road course in the East Bay, up along Grizzly Peak and Skyline Blvd, owes much of its allure to its panoramic views of the San Francisco skyline and the city’s defining international orange landmark. Even Oakland Airport officials publicly acknowledge on which side of the bay their bread is buttered:
And with that, for now at least, I bid farewell to the Bay Area as my primary residence. I’m eager to probe the untapped running potential of Southern California, with its beaches and coastline as far as the eye can see, and weather that hasn’t required long pants since our arrival two months ago. Eager to see new places, meet new running buddies, explore new opportunities and generally feel a new vibe that’s still very much California.
I think, therefore I am going to like it down here. Let me know if you’re ever in the L.A. area… I’d be happy to offer a guided tour of my favorite SoCal running routes!