The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: a year of East Bay running

Posted: June 27, 2013 in CATCH-ALL
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I think, therefore I am.
– René Descartes

What could be good-er than a sunset view of the Golden Gate Bridge from the Berkeley Marina?

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’?

Berkeley Psychic Institute

  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:

Hammer Gel

Fortunately they didn’t name the company “Jigsaw Nutrition”

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:

bumper stickers

  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?

Sadly, I wasn’t quick enough to snap this picture myself before it sped off (

  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°:

Drive Like Your Kids

  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:

OAK ad

(photo credit

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!

Looking back: Mt. Tamalpais in Marin overlooks the East Bay and Mt. Diablo (standing tall in the distance)

  1. Kristina says:

    I was just telling Katie that I didn’t have anything to read, and then you posted this blog. Perfect timing, since I love reading your writing. Such funny stories, esp. the one of you hiding in the bushes. Excited to hear about your new adventures, and hope you will come back up here soon to run some of your old faves!

    • Mike says:

      And here Katie was just bemoaning the fact that you two don’t have similar reading tastes… turns out maybe you do!

      Thanks for your support, Kristina. We’re doing our best to learn our way around (all these sandy beaches look the same!) – can’t wait to introduce you and the kids to our new stomping grounds. And it’s nice to know the Bay Area is never far away, as long as nobody lets the El Cerrito authorities know when I’m in town…

  2. Dan says:

    I don’t know if this has been a hallmark of your blog posts or if this one really went for it, but your predilection for puns is pointed in this particular post. Careful you don’t RUN out.

    I like how an ode to the Bay Area running culture allowed for you to zig in and out of vignettes, rants and random observations of the world around you. It really gives you the impression that running is not an insular activity but something that opens you up to all the peripatetic chaos all around us.

    Hopefully you’ll find yourself making similar observations (perhaps you already have) in your new environment. I’m sure one of these days we’ll get a “First Impressions” post on the SoCal running

    Great post, as always.

    • Mike says:

      Me, run out of puns? That’d be like Captain America running out of patriotism! Nike running out of swooshes! Paula Deen running out of Crisc – um, Nike running out of swooshes!

      Never mind the puns, I’m flattered that you don’t limit your stellar vocabulary to your own posts – and I’m grateful for your dead-on use of the term “peripatetic” to help elevate this post above the level of its literal potty humor. I’m still trying to find “apostasy” in the dictionary, by the way.

      Surely you’d neither shirk nor shun your civic duty as a shoo-in to showcase and share Chicago’s own shortcomings and shadowy charlatans? Hopefully one day we have a chance to read some running tales from your own urban bohemia.

      Thanks again for reading, Dan… I realize this is quite a contrast to your own excellent post last week, but what is running if not as you said an activity that opens us up to the grand theater all around us? While ensuring that captive audience members like us never run out of things to say.

  3. Julie says:

    Dear Mike,
    Today was a dark day in our nearly 20-year history as friends…and it all started with this line in your blog: “for which I soon learned the appropriate term – “brindle””.
    I’m almost certain that encounter happened after my PhD defense in September of 2005, during which I explained how I had mapped the locus for the brindle gene in dogs. So I guess you were either sleeping during my defense or you were distracted by all the pretty pictures of fat yellow mice. Now, if you could so kindly cite my seminal publications on brindle in dogs in your blog, I would appreciate it because my research gate impact score could really use the boost.
    I’ll have to refrain from being the first to hit the ‘like’ button on this one until the proper references are in place.

  4. Julie says:

    Correction to above comment… September of 2003.

    • Mike says:

      You don’t remember the year of your own thesis defense, yet I’m being held accountable for not recalling its content? How could I possibly forget your oft-imitated-but-never-repeated, I mean oft-repeated, I mean totally reproducible 2007 Genetics paper (Jul;176(3):1679-8)? You were dressed so nicely during your defense, and speaking so mellifluously, that the science part of the proceedings must have slipped my mind.

      Besides, this friendship needs a dark day now and then to stabilize your ego after my Orcas post, don’t you think?

  5. Jen says:

    Punny as always, Mike. Can’t wait to hear what you have to say about SoCal!

    • Mike says:

      Thanks Jen… but oh, the pressure! No doubt it’ll take a while to build a similar rapport with my SoCal environs, but I’m off to a good start. Fortunately it IS still California, meaning plenty of, um, unconventional people, places and things to chronicle. I may even start to develop a tan down here if I’m not careful!

  6. Chuck says:

    I agree completely about Hammer Gels. They do not fit in that little running pocket in my shorts. After 26.2 miles of that hammer shaped top rubbing my hip non-stop I learned to never go near another one.
    I have never seen turkeys on trail, but I did run a mile or so with a herd of escaped goats. I had a dog bite a hole in my shirt once and had a scary run in with a bee swarm.
    And soon I will show you some of the numerous running sights of the Los Angeles area.

    • Mike says:

      Did you bite the dog back to teach him a lesson? One of my labmates was actually bitten by a dog up on the Berkeley fire trail. And now that we’ve joined you here in SoCal, I’m sure at some point I’ll come across a swarm of angry bees or an agitated rattlesnake or a disgraced Kardashian hiding out in the hills.

      Now get back to stretching… this is a huge area to have to run by myself!

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