Archive for the ‘TRAINING’ Category

Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.
– Albert Einstein

Wrong way to use a TheraBand

Using the Thera-Band correctly is the key to effective PF relief

Hi.  My name is Mike, and I’m recovering from plantar fasciitis.

Check that – I’ve recovered from plantar fasciitis.

Na na NA na, hey hey hey, good-bye…

Plantar fasciitis accounts for roughly 10% of all running injuries. And yet judging by the sheer number of stories I’ve heard from runner friends in recent months – maybe because PF creates such lasting memories – 10% feels awfully conservative.  I’ve heard stories from all directions – on email, on Facebook, from our CPA’s husband, while shopping for running shoes at REI, and while standing in line to use the pre-race porta-potty at the Big Sur International Marathon (and the lines weren’t even that long).

Collectively these stories would read like one of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books I loved as a kid – some stories ended happily, with the PF dragon vanquished through either specific or vague treatments; other stories ended less auspiciously for those still struggling with chronic heel pain.  And in at least one case the dragon won the day, flaming breath scorching its discouraged prey to the extent that he hung up his running shoes for good.

CYOA_BC&H

I knew I’d read this story… I’m guessing that’s Shalane Flanagan pictured at right

But after three consecutive 60+ mile running weeks, I’m ready to call my own Operation: Heal Heel a resounding success.  And if you’re struggling with plantar fasciitis, then hopefully the next 2,000 words (and three short videos) will be of value in helping relief roll down like waters, and recovery like a mighty stream.

Knowing PF now as I do, I’d like nothing more than for my experience to help someone else recover quickly and completely.  As a runner and a biologist, I think about injuries and developmental biology in the same way – I can’t truly appreciate how something works, until I understand what happens when it doesn’t.  I now have a better understanding of why – in my case, at least – PF happens.

So I want to share the treatment plan that relieved my plantar fasciitis and enabled my return to running in less than a month – not with some heel pain, not with less heel pain, but with no heel pain.

We’re constantly urged to strengthen our core, or stretch our hamstrings, or mobilize our glutes, or engage our hip flexors.  But aside from “foam roll your calves,” much less attention is paid to what goes on between the knees and ankles.  Thing is, the knee bone really is connected to the ankle bone, so ignore the inner workings of the lower leg at your own risk.  For me, plantar fasciitis exposed the widening (yet reparable) gap between the “calves” and the “calve-nots”.

Even if you don’t have PF but feel like your stride is just inexplicably off, this may be a good place to start – before you focus too much time and effort on trying to figure out what it means to “mobilize” one’s glutes.

What didn’t work
First, an important cataloging of the pre-Big Sur approaches that had little to no effect on the progression or severity of my PF.  I pursued each of these at various times, while reducing my weekly mileage dramatically in an effort to have my cake (healing) and eat it too (training):

1) Rest – During a two-week stretch in March, when I should have been ramping up for Big Sur, I ran only one day.  As a runner, nothing is more frustrating than resting an injury without a well-defined plan of attack – watching helplessly as the days and weeks creep by, relying on faith and positivity to heal you while assuming that recovery is just a matter of time.  Turns out faith and positivity are no match for plantar fasciitis… two weeks on the shelf (in combination with options 2-7 below) did nothing to improve my injured heel.  And so, not wanting to embarrass myself (or worse, DNS) at Big Sur, I returned to training while promising myself I’d take time off to fully recover – after the race.
2) Frequent icingThis publication and this video might explain why ice did nothing more than numb the pain in my heel.
3) Ibuprofen – Granted I wasn’t popping them like breath mints as some runners do, but my brief foray into “Vitamin I” offered no discernible relief.
4) Vigorous massage – Much like other forms of massage, Active Release Techniques on both calf and heel offered exquisite though short-lived relief from the pain.
5) Hokas – I tried both the Stinson Tarmac and Conquest models for a couple of weeks each.  Thanks to their odd geometry and narrow toe box, I was able to relive the thrill of ultrarunning at non-ultra distances, since both models quickly chafed and blistered my feet in places I’ve never had blisters before (the underside of my big toe? really?).  More importantly, they did nothing to relieve my PF.
6) Orthotics – I have custom orthotics from several years ago that I no longer wear, so in the interest of improved arch support, I dusted them off and slid them into my running shoes.  I was rewarded with curious new aches and pains that competed with the heel pain rather than replacing it.  Like flipping a switch, no more orthotics meant no more new aches.  Unfortunately, my heel pain persisted.
7) Taping – Wrapping my foot in either standard athletic tape or kinesiology tape (‘cuz I liked the name, “KT Tape”) helped to some degree, but who wants to walk around with a taped foot 24 hours a day?  Besides, the positive effect quickly subsided when I realized my podiatrist charged – or at least tried to charge – $48 just to tape my foot.  Presumably the tape he uses is interlaced with gold fibers excavated from the ceremonial robes of dead baby pharaohs.

Hoka casualty

Yes, that’s a blood stain on the insole of my Hokas… and yes, I was wearing socks at the time.

Enter PT (i.e. What did work)
In the midst of my PF-addled and Internet-accentuated confusion, my best decision turned out to be my choice of podiatrist.  Not because the fellow I chose relieved my heel pain himself – he didn’t – but because he referred me to Doris.

Doris showed up at our front door on a Friday afternoon in early May, with her padded torture table tucked under her arm.  But no, we weren’t filming Pulp Fiction 2 – Doris is a physical therapist who works extensively with NBA players, including the L.A. Clippers.  Her intimate familiarity with sports injuries became immediately apparent, as within minutes she’d identified (without any prompting from me) two hypersensitive trigger points in my lower leg – muscle sorenesses I’d largely been ignoring for some time, filing them as so many runners do under “running niggles that will eventually work themselves out”.

peroneal-trigger-points

As she worked diligently to remove the bullet I swear was lodged in my lower leg, it suddenly hit me, in a moment of pain-evoked clarity, that my heel was the least of my problems.

Because through all of her manipulations, Doris ignored my heel – didn’t poke it, didn’t prod it, didn’t invoke Reiki Crystal Healing to re-align its shakra (we are in L.A., after all).  Hadn’t she heard me say “plantar fasciitis”?  Sure I’d love to have stronger calves, but maybe later, after this PF demon was exorcised…

Instead, she explained (without any overt reference to the heel) that I’d developed imbalances in my lower leg and that I needed to strengthen the offending muscle groups, among them the peroneus brevis, peroneus longus, tibialis anterior and extensor digitorum longus.  And she prescribed three simple exercises that would ultimately become my holy trinity of PF relief.  I’ve included brief video demonstrations below… for the first two you’ll need a Thera-Band (the color of the band determines its resistance; I’ve been using high-resistance black).

My PF affected the main (aponeurosis) and lateral (outer) plantar fascia… if your pain extends to the medial (inner) plantar fascia, you’ll want to consider similar exercises that target the medial calf muscles as well.

Perform each exercise twice daily.  It’s that easy.  No really, it is.

1) While sitting in a chair, strap the Thera-Band around your injured foot as shown.  Using your knee as a fulcrum, evert (i.e. rotate your foot outward) the injured foot away from the healthy foot.  Be sure to rotate only your foot – don’t twist your leg.  Return to original position and repeat until the muscles in your lower leg start to burn, then hold in the fully everted position for 20-30 seconds, and finish with 20-30 more:

2) Tie the Thera-Band around something stable (e.g. a bannister rail, table leg or fat sleeping kitty) and, while sitting on the floor, strap it over your forefoot as shown.  Straighten your leg until the band is taut.  Keeping your heel in place, flex your toes and forefoot toward your body against the band’s resistance.  Return to original position and repeat until the muscles in your lower leg start to burn (in the video you can see my anterior tibialis – the targeted muscle in this exercise – flex with each movement).  Then hold your foot in the flexed-forward position for 20-30 seconds, and finish with 20-30 more:

3) Eccentric calf stretches: I know the name of this one, since it’s a common treatment for Achilles tendinopathy.  Stand with both feet on a raised step (a staircase or curb will work) and balance yourself with one hand on a wall or tree.  Raise yourself up on the toes of both feet, then lower yourself back down slowly and support yourself on only your affected foot, so that your heel dips slightly below parallel with the step.  Hold this pose for 2-3 seconds, then return to original position and repeat 15-20 times:

Doris offered that I could cautiously return to running after a week, but by that point I was once bitten, twice shy.  Wary of another false start, I waited patiently until I could dig my thumb into my heel without significant pain, gave myself a bonus week of rest for good measure, and then mixed in three days of rugged hiking out in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks.

During this time I also slept with a PF night splint on my foot every night, not always the most comfortable proposition but definitely one of the few nuggets of conventional PF wisdom that helped.  The fellow I met in the porta-potty line at Big Sur still struggled with his PF – he’d worn the night splint for a while but admitted to stopping because, in his words, “It kind of kills the mood, you know?”  Considering that both Katie and I are in a far better mood when I’m able to run – no, I don’t know.  And the splint pops on and off in seconds.

Exit PF
Exactly four weeks after my session with Doris, I was running two pain-free miles on the West L.A. College track.  The next day it was three, and then four, and then – on my fourth visit to the track in five days – I managed a very gentle five miles, as every tendon and ligament in my legs revolted.  And yet despite my reflexive hesitation, the foot felt springy and strong, like a brand-new body part I’d just pulled out of an Amazon box, with its odometer set to zero and “new heel smell” still intact.

I’d never been so happy – so absurdly, unapologetically happy – to run on the track before.  Pharrell Williams had nothin’ on me. And to be able to hop out of bed each morning now without pain, or bound off a curb and land on my formerly stricken foot, just feels – WOW.  Hopefully I’ll never take either sensation for granted again… but then again, I hope I do.

I’ve ramped up my mileage fairly quickly, running five days and cross-training two days per week, and still do my Thera-Band exercises two or three times a week (more often for the eccentric calf stretches).  I feel occasional soreness on the lateral side of that foot, though not in the heel, and it almost always dissipates by the next morning.  And I’ve taken to wearing my orthotics in my slippers, to provide more support on our hardwood floors.

But I don’t ice my foot, I don’t take ibuprofen, I run the vast majority of my miles on concrete (since trails here are less easily accessible than in Berkeley), and my foot feels comfortable in maximally cushioned Altras, moderately cushioned Sauconys or minimally cushioned Merrells.  The cherry on top of this recovery sundae is that my stride feels more fluid and balanced than it has since I-can’t-recall-when.

And we’ve finalized our plans for Berlin in September.

I’m not entirely sure what caused my plantar fasciitis in the first place, and so I’m hyper-aware that it could return.  At the same time I’m ever-vigilant of the need to keep my calf muscles strong and limber.  I can’t necessarily say weakness in my calf muscles caused my PF, but I can say with certainty that strengthening them relieved it.  Hopefully my experience can help runners and non-runners alike reach a similarly happy ending, without the frustration of first drifting among various pseudo-treatments that target the symptom while ignoring the cause.

So if you’re currently sidelined with PF, or have a PFrustrated PFriend, it can’t hurt to give these exercises a shot or pass them along.  Certainly not as much as your heel hurts now.  Besides, there’s always room for another voice in the Chorus of The Cured… one, more, TIME!

Na na NA na, hey hey hey, good-bye…

In the meantime, anyone in the market for a (gently used) night splint should drop me a line… though I’d hate to be responsible for killing your mood.

If you’re battling plantar fasciitis or other running injuries and live in the Los Angeles area, feel free to contact Doris Martel at: dorismartel AT gmail DOT com.  My one-hour appointment was ultimately worth a whole lot more than what I paid.

UPDATE (4 Aug): Julie (who recently entertained her own PF goblins) astutely brings it to my attention that this post’s title may be a bit misleading given that, well, I’m also a doctor.  But since PhDs are real doctors and you should consult one whenever possible, and since it’s my blog, I’m willing (as always) to make an exception for myself.

Advertisements

I walked around for a while angry, in a bad mood… ‘Woe is me.’ I’ve gotten over that. It doesn’t do any good.
– Peyton Manning, on his attitude following neck surgery

28 Days Later_PF_BCH

“I used to be a runner.”

Joking or not, I’m sure Katie’s more than a little tired of hearing me utter that line.  Eight weeks since the Big Sur International Marathon and seven weeks into Operation: Heal Heel, I’m slowly working my way back into running shape. Sure, last week’s easy five-miler felt like someone had shortened every tendon and ligament in my legs by an inch, but despite feeling like a puppet with its strings pulled too tight, I’m happy to report that the foot held its own.  Now I just hope that light at the end of the tunnel isn’t another train.

No doubt about it – having plantar fasciitis (PF) sucks.  Not running sucks.  Watching others run when you can’t, sucks.  Reading about others running when you can’t, sucks.  Looking forward to National Donut Day more than National Running Day sucks.  Having a Thera-Band as a constant companion sucks.

As my labmate used to say in moments like these, “Deep breaths – in with Jesus, out with Satan…”

But the truth is, although PF could easily stand for “Plenty Frustrating”, a lot of good has come out of the past two months, apart from building a better foot.  So I thought I’d share 9 PFun PFacts I‘ve learned (or in some cases, re-learned) during my stint with plantar fasciitis:

1) R-E-S-T-E-D, find out what it means to be…
Yes, I frequently (and unapologetically) trumpet the glory of California with its extended beach paths, picturesque trails overlooking the Pacific Ocean and perennially perfect running weather.  But the flip side to being able to train year-round… is that I train year-round.  No winter breaks, no changing of the seasons to remind the body of its natural biorhythms, and no downtime to heal fully from the previous year’s training and racing schedule.  Running in California means running as far as I want, as often as I want.  Which often means running when I should probably be resting.

So these past six weeks have forced me to do what I’d never have done on my own – stash my Sauconys and rest.  I can’t say it’s my preferred approach, but admittedly my legs feel stronger than they have in at least two years (which they actually are, see point #6 below).  That was the last time I gave my body this much of a break, and I followed up with my current marathon PR in Chicago.  So for me at least, the evidence suggests that downtime now improves uptime later.  We’ll see.

I’d love to say, I’ve learned my lesson! I’ll change! and mean it.  But the reality is, that when I’m feeling perfectly healthy next January 15 and it’s 70°F outside, counting down intervals on a stationary bike or swimming laps in a crowded pool is unlikely to happen.  I’m good at recognizing when I need to shut it down because I’m injured… but asking myself to shut it down because I’m healthy?  Don’t hold my breath.

2) Working out at the gym isn’t the terriblest thing
First in the Bay Area and now in SoCal, I’ve found the YMCA to be a better, more focused workout experience than any of the countless for-profit fitness clubs, which primarily serve (especially in L.A.) as expensive venues for pretty people to see and be seen.  Until last month, though, I rarely ventured into the Y more than twice a week… and even then, I’d usually use my visit as an extended cooldown at the end of a run.

Part of my problem with the whole gym experience is that it reminds me a) I’m injured and b) I’d rather be outdoors. But with patience, I think I’ve begun to find my niche (five hours a week in a room with mirrored walls will provide some level of clarity).  I still have no intention of stepping on a treadmill any time soon, but I have discovered several new arrows for my training quiver – for example, I’ve grown surprisingly fond of the Stairmaster, where I can crank up the intensity while I struggle to avoid George Jetson-ing myself under its increasingly relentless pace.

With muted MSNBC always showing on one corner TV and muted Fox News on the other, I generally prefer people-watching to help pass the time at the Y… especially since the best thing about the Y may be its diverse clientele. Perched atop my stationary bike, my gaze recently settled on one particular “Customer of size” (to borrow Southwest Airlines’ euphemism) sporting a brightly colored tank-top with the normally arrogant message “Your workout is my warmup” stretched across it.

The whole scene screamed You go, girl!  She may have an uphill battle ahead of her, but the sign posted next to the treadmills says it all – “No matter how slow you go, you are still lapping everybody on the couch.”

3) WARNING: Google-ing your injury may be hazardous to your health
Two summers ago, when acute foot pain after the Wildcat Half Marathon convinced me to put my training on hold, the interwebz quickly pointed me to a diagnosis of either a) posterior tibial tendinosis, b) compartment syndrome, a painful and potentially life-threatening condition caused by increased pressure and a lack of blood flow to the limbs, or c) a brain tumor.

Luckily, I decided to take matters out of my own hands and consult a physical therapist who specialized in running-related injuries. Thanks to a diligent program of stretching and (more importantly) strengthening, my posterior tibial tendon soon returned to good-as-new status and has been nothing but supportive ever since.

The upshot: experts are experts for a reason.  Google is not an expert, and using Google won’t make you one.

On the one hand, the internet is a fantastic and unrivaled source of information.  On the other, it’s a world of worst-case scenarios and paralysis by analysis.  To spare other PF-stricken runners the frustration of online self-diagnosis, here’s a summary of what I learned by Googling “plantar fasciitis treatment”:

Ice.  Don’t ice.  Take ibuprofen (to prevent inflammation).  Don’t take ibuprofen (what inflammation?).  Lose weight. Stay off concrete.  Stay off uneven surfaces.  Stay off sand.  Stay off your feet and stop running.  It’s ok to run, as long as you reduce your mileage.  Wear orthotics to support your heel and expedite healing.  Don’t wear orthotics, you’ll only weaken your foot so it will never heal.  Go minimal.  Go maximal.  Run in super-cushioned Hoka shoes for added support.  Running in super-cushioned Hoka shoes will make your PF worse.  Use a frozen golf ball to massage the plantar fascia and break down scar tissue.  Massage is at best a temporary fix, not a cure.  Get a corticosteroid injection.  Corticosteroid injections may help – or they may cause your plantar fascia to rupture.  Change your running gait.  Don’t change your running gait, it will only lead to other problems down the line.  If all else fails – extracorporeal shockwave therapy!  Iontophoresis!  Platelet-rich plasma!  And wear a night splint – but don’t tighten the velcro straps too much, or you’ll cut off circulation to your foot.

PF splint

The PF night splint has helped a lot… and kept my plantar fascia stretched on the drive to Big Sur

To make matters worse, runners who do successfully recover from plantar fasciitis rarely understand what they did right – they typically attribute their recovery to a combination of two or three things that eventually worked, one of which is invariably some unappealing superstition such as alternating between the same two pairs of socks twice a day for a month.

In the course of my Google-fueled “research”, I happened upon the website for “Plantar Fasciitis Secrets Revealed”. This site promises the holy grail every injured runner seeks: an easy, sure-fire non-invasive treatment that will “eliminate plantar fasciitis and foot pain in as little as 72 hours and cure it completely within 30 days GUARANTEED.”  Every rational bone in my body screamed shyster!, and the $37.97 price tag did nothing to allay my suspicions.

So continuing down this poorly lit alley, I decided to investigate “Plantar Fasciitis Secrets Revealed” and found – among other gems – this awesome “review” that reads like it was written by either Chuck Palahniuk or a tweaking Yoda:

Home Treatment System is an easy to follow Plantar Fasciitis as well as Feet Soreness Remedy treatment guide as well as step-by-step instructional videos.  Laser hair removal can function completely with out really breaking the perspiration neither commit unique break of your frantic day time that…. Due to this the dog owner present a person 100% income back again assure.

After some consideration, I opted to spend my $37.97 on tickets to see the 3D showing of “X-Men: Days of Future Past”.  And I stayed off my foot for the entire two hours.

4) The injured runner never suffers alone…
Reading about others running may suck when you’re injured, but reading about others not running sucks more.

At first I thought it was my own injury that had tainted my perception.  Soon, though, I realized that a too-high percentage of the bloggers I follow have recently been injured, among them Jen with her traveling hip pain, Jeff with his overworked Achilles, and Scott with his own amazing (and amusing) head-to-toe panoply of injuries, PF included. Luckily this running thing is good for us, or we’d all be in a world of hurt.

As an injured runner, and especially when you’re not sure what caused your injury in the first place, it’s easy to feel like you’ll never run healthy again.  For non-runners, I equate it to the beaten-down, woe-is-me feeling that comes with having the flu, when just struggling out of bed saps all your energy and you can’t imagine ever being healthy again.

But you will.

I’m not here to cheerlead for Team Positivity, but scientifically speaking the body is an amazingly adaptable machine. Like any machine it requires maintenance and will occasionally falter, especially when pushed to its limits or fed a steady diet of the “-itos” food group (Fritos, Cheetos, Doritos…).  But unlike other machines it will rebuild itself, fix its broken bits (especially if you help out by strengthening them), and return to work with a renewed sense of appreciation and purpose.

‘Cuz your body is your biggest fan – even if it may sometimes feel like a bandwagon fan.

5) … except in the case of plantar fasciitis
If Hester Prynne were a runner, her scarlet letters would have been “PF”. Utter the words “plantar fasciitis” to any experienced runner, and it’s likely he or she will:
a) recoil as if they just rested their hand on a hot stove;
b) respond plaintively with “Oh man, that suuuucks,” as if you’d told them your cat just died;
c) immediately (and silently) celebrate the fact they’re not you.
Three months ago, any or all of these responses would have been me.  I felt great, coming off back-to-back marathons, runnin’ while the rest of the country was still (literally) chillin’, and steeling myself for the hills of Big Sur.

But PF is to runners what the Rage virus was to the general populace in the movie “28 Days Later”, rapidly transforming happy and healthy runners into limping, grimacing shadows of their former selves.  Luckily PF isn’t contagious, so it has that going for it – but no other running injury elicits the same unsettling mix of sympathy and horror from other runners as does PF.

Dan best summed up the healthy runner’s perspective in likening the words plantar fasciitis to the familiar dissonant and staccato strings from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic “Psycho”. And for good reason – whereas other common running injuries such as Achilles tendonitis and stress fractures will likewise bring your training plans to a screeching halt, at least there are definitive treatment plans and timelines to guide the recovery process.

PF, on the other hand, is more like Churchill’s “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”.  The lifespan of PF in most runners isn’t measured in days or weeks, but in months or even years, exacerbated by the fact that no legitimate doctor seems to know how long the plantar fascia tissue takes to heal.  And the most frustrating aspect is that there’s no sure-fire road to recovery.

So, to draw from the same fountain of wisdom that advises us to choose our parents wisely, the simplest and most definitive treatment plan for plantar fasciitis is to avoid getting it in the first place.  And with that, I just saved you $37.97.

Thera-band

Even my high-resistance Thera-Band shredded under the twice-daily demands of PF rehab

6) If exposed, seek immediate physical therapy
Too often, doctors and coaches seem content to regurgitate misinformation or hearsay that at best is unhelpful, and at worst harmful.  Massage therapists are excellent go-to’s for general soreness, but much less helpful for injury because the temporary relief they offer does nothing to resolve the underlying problem.  Physical therapists, on the other hand, prefer a more hands-on, get-under-the-hood-and-see-where-that-oil-leak-is-coming-from approach.

I recently had the good fortune to be referred to Doris, a PT who works with the L.A. Clippers.  She listened as I described my symptoms and their progression, then had me lie on my side on her padded workbench.  Within moments she’d zoned in on two trigger points on my lower left leg directly above the offending plantar fascia (I assume these are called “trigger points” because her poking and prodding felt like she’d shot me in the leg).

She recommended several simple yet targeted stretching and strengthening exercises, and within two weeks, soreness and discomfort I’d had for months had faded, replaced by real live muscles that now seem to support the muscles in my feet.  Tibialis anterior, extensor digitorium longus, peroneals – all present and accounted for!

Whether this rest-and-strengthen strategy will be my silver bullet remains to be seen… but it’s a promising start.  And as an added bonus, my running gait now feels more fluid and balanced than it did pre-Doris.

And all it took was one appointment.

So if you’re unfortunate enough to have PF, I’d recommend you forego the internet-inspired home remedies and find yourself a reputable physical therapist… unless you really enjoy popping Advil and storing golf balls in your freezer.

7) Not running frees up a lot of time
As in, a lot. Start with the hour-plus of actual running – or several hours, for the once-a-week long run – throw in the warmup and cooldown sessions, sprinkle liberally with stretching and recovery time, and my May featured large blocks of unscheduled time like never before.  I managed to transfer some of that angst free time to the gym, but the past month has left me wondering what non-runners do with all their free time. And I’ve begun to understand why Americans – especially those without kids – watch on average five hours of TV per day.

(I recently read that chimpanzees spend ten times longer than humans – 48% vs. 4.7% of their days – chewing and eating their food… no wonder you seldom see a family of chimps huddled together in front of their TV!)

Katie and I aren’t TV-ophiles, so instead I’ve been channeling my energy into several long-overdue projects.  And I’m happy to report that after ten years spent hanging from a doorknob in Berkeley or living in a cardboard moving box, my race medals finally have a home on our office wall, courtesy of Katie’s motivation and two 5/8-inch curtain rods from Home Depot:

Medals on doorknob

BEFORE: Ours may have been the most well-decorated doorknob in the East Bay (2013)…

Medals on display_MS

AFTER: Thanks to Katie’s initiative, I can now admire medals I haven’t seen in years

Two buddies and I also filled several days exploring beautiful Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, where we happened upon this lovely fellow digging for critters in a tree stump he’d just yanked apart without breaking a sweat:

8) Not running is a very affordable hobby
I haven’t purchased, or really even ogled, any new running gear since before Big Sur.  And I’m not much for retail therapy, so I hope the folks at Running Warehouse understand that honestly, fellas… it’s not you, it’s me.

My newfound frugality also extends to food, my appetite having diminished markedly without the need for all the extra calories.  On a good day I’m able to work straight through, from the time I get up until the time I eat dinner, on little more than trail mix and a banana.

Naturally, all this talk of parsimony ignores the fact that I’ve registered for two RunDi$ney races while I’ve been sidelined.  Dammit Mickey, I wish I could quit you.

9) Running is a fickle mistress
Few relationships have rewarded me the way running has. She’s many things to many people – a competitive sport, a lifelong hobby, a release valve for stress, a friend in tough times, a cheap and ready source of dopamine, a personal identifier, an all-purpose anodyne, a conduit to experience the world around us, an excuse to jack out of the matrix, a reprieve from routine, a time to turn the day’s lemons into lemonade and make sense of the nonsensical.  Like a trusted credit card she’s everywhere I want to be, and she’s priceless.

Pay her the proper attention, eschew shortcuts and she’ll make it worth your while.  Like any meaningful relationship, you’ll get out of your time together only as much as you put into it.  Start to take her for granted, let arrogance intervene, and you could suddenly find yourself rehabbing an injury and wondering where it all went wrong.  And some days… some days she’ll knock you down a peg or two, just because she can.

No doubt about it – running is a fickle mistress.  I’m just hoping she takes me back soon… I’m tired of sleeping on the couch with a splint on my foot.

So that’s my 9, but since 10 is a nice round number – injured or otherwise, what’s one important lesson you’ve learned during your time away from training?

Winning isn’t about finishing in first place. It isn’t about beating the others. It is about overcoming yourself. Overcoming your body, your limitations, and your fears. Winning means surpassing yourself and turning your dreams into reality.
– Kílian Jornet, Run or Die

Welcome to the West L.A. College track

This is where the magic happens… welcome to the West L.A. College track

Bullshit!

It was an impulsive yet reasonable reaction.  Decelerating from top speed, I glared suspiciously at the face staring impassively up at me.  No Helen of Troy that face, but nonetheless one that had launched a thousand runs.  That face cared nothing for my thoughts or feelings, or shortness of breath, or heaviness of legs… how could it?  Nor did it give a damn whether I believed what it was telling me… why should it?  It was simply playing the role of messenger, just as it had for the past five years – without passion or prejudice, and with near-flawless precision.  And at that moment, like it or not, its message was unequivocal: 6:02.

Given its proven consistency, the burden of proof fell squarely on my shoulders legs to prove that face wrong.  And so I tried again.  And again.  And again.  And each time, as my fatigue mounted, the numbers awaiting me at the end hardly wavered: 6:02, 6:04, 6:02.

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I don’t recall ever using my Garmin Forerunner 305 to clock mile repeats on the track before.  I understand that for many type-A runners this is a cardinal sin – grounds for immediate excommunica-tion from the church of fartlek-ology.

Sure, I’ll strap on the Forerunner for speed workouts and tempo runs along the beach, where counting laps around the track isn’t an option.  And I always rely on my Garmin for longer runs of 15 miles or more, since pacing at these distances matters when you’re training for a marathon or ultramarathon.  But normally I’ll either leave the Forerunner at home and just run (after mapping out a prescribed route), or on track days I’ll strap on my old-school Timex Ironman watch and time my workouts according to the maxim that four laps = one mile.

Except it doesn’t – at least not always.  Riddle me this: when is a mile not a mile?

Four laps around a regulation, International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF)-certified track equals one mile (1600m) – if you’re running in lane one, the inner-most lane.  As you move outward on the track the distance per lap gradually increases, until a runner completing four laps in lane eight (typically the outer-most lane) will run almost 215 meters farther than they would in lane one.  For those who haven’t stepped on a track since high school, 215 meters is over a tenth of a mile and roughly halfway around the oval.  But it feels like much more when your stride is breaking down and you’re running on fumes at the end of a fast mile.

I’m not a short-distance runner, and though I’ve always been acutely aware of this discrepancy in lane distances, I’ve never given it much thought.  I’m not fast – so I’ve always told myself.  Once my mile time fell below seven minutes, I never cared to see how low it could go.  Besides, I’d rather run hilly trails than flat paved roads.  I’ve never run an organized 5K of any kind, nor a 10K with speed in mind (both my 10Ks were effectively turkey trots, the most recent in Golden Gate Park in 2004).

In August of 2010, in preparation for the Pikes Peak Ascent later that month, I did run the shorter Squaw Valley Mountain Run, a fun but decidedly unspeedy race that covers the first 3.6 miles of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run course, and which gains 2,000 feet in elevation (from 6,200 feet to 8,200 feet) along the way.  That result, at 11:56/mile, qualifies as my 6K PR.  Impressive stuff.

So my mindset for speed workouts has always been that four complete laps around the track (usually in lane three or four) = more or less a mile, and as long as I can keep my “mile” times between 6:30 and 6:50, it’s all good.  Very scientific, I admit… but then again, running most of my speed workouts on loose dirt surfaces hardly qualifies as scientific either.  As long as I a) complete the workout and b) feel this close to losing control of important bodily functions on my last repeat, I consider the workout a success.  No matter what the watch face says.

And so on this day, when my Garmin’s mile alarm chimed 100 meters short of my customary finish line, I was caught off-guard.  And after three more miles – all run in lane four to avoid legitimate athletes in lanes 1-3, and the hurdles set up in lanes 6-8 – my Garmin was telling me what had to be a blatant lie, a tall tale too good to be true.  Four sub-6:05 miles?  With a stiff headwind on one side of the track and me swerving periodically to avoid oblivious others wandering into my lane?  I was calling my Garmin’s bluff – clearly the incredible g-forces generated by running it in circles were taking their toll.

At the same time, though skeptical and bewildered, I had to consider the alternative – that maybe I’d just run the four fastest timed miles of my life.  Maybe thanks were owed to my lightweight Saucony Virratas, which weigh next to nothing and which I’d recommend to anyone looking for a zero drop shoe with moderate cushioning (Saucony reps, you can reach me through the Comments section below).  Maybe I’d been inspired by Jen, who’d just run a speedy timed mile of her own the week before.  Or maybe I’d captured the mojo of my surroundings there on the all-weather West L.A. College track, where notable runners such as three-time Olympic medalist and “world’s fastest woman” Carmelita Jeter train (though I’ve yet to see her).  Or maybe, just maybe, the thousands of miles of training and racing were actually {dramatic pause} paying off.

The next afternoon, like the good scientist I am, I ran my Garmin two miles along the beach to verify its accuracy.  Sure enough, its mile alarm twice chimed within steps of the mile markers painted on the bike path.  Apparently I really had run the four fastest timed miles of my life the day before, and I emailed my brother to let him know.  Chuck is a big fan of speed work or self-inflicted pain or both, and so his own email response was fraternally predictable: “Obviously there is a sub 20 minute 5K in your near future.”

View along the San Gabriel River bike trail

View south toward the turnaround point along the San Gabriel River Bike Trail

Pain and pleasure in the near future
Not surprisingly, Chuck wasn’t speaking in hypotheticals – by “near future” he was referencing the Boeing-sponsored 5K I’d heard so much about, held the second Monday lunch hour of every month at the Seal Beach Boeing Facility.  Living in adjacent Long Beach, Chuck had been a regular at the race for many years, and had been urging me to run it even before we’d moved to SoCal.  Having never given much thought to running a 5K (even a free one), I’d so far turned up my nose at his dangling of that “sub-20” carrot.  At an average pace of 6:27/mile for 3.1 miles, I figured I could do it on a good day – but for whatever reason (maybe because I knew it would hurt), I’d never cared enough to find out.

Now, though, I was curious.  If I could run four sub-6:05 miles with a recovery lap between, then surely I could run three 6:27 miles without stopping?  Especially with other runners to chase?  And if not now, when?

So it was that the week before the March edition of the Boeing lunch hour 5K, I began to lay out my race-day strategy: arrive half an hour early to allow myself ample time to stretch thoroughly, warm up the muscles and get the blood flowing.  That way I wouldn’t waste the first mile trying to loosen up and chase my second wind.  A solid, well-conceived plan… in theory.

Unfortunately, reality wanted no part of it.  Instead, Monday morning found Katie and me hopping in the car later than planned and gunning it down Interstate 405 toward Seal Beach, where after getting lost (and found) in the vast Boeing complex, we pulled up to the staging area three minutes before the scheduled start.  Which left me just enough time to slip in the back door of the gym adjacent to the start line to access the men’s room.

Two minutes later I was jogging feverishly in place like an overcaffeinated ROTC cadet, trying desperately to condense 30 minutes of warmup into 30 seconds as nearly four dozen runners gathered around the start line. Apparently each runner was supposed to check in and predict his/her own finish time before the race, though I didn’t realize this, and in any case it would have required another 30 seconds I didn’t have.

As the crowd edged its way up to the imaginary start line not painted on the sidewalk, Chuck offered me his last-second expertise on what to expect from a course I knew nothing about.  “It’s an out and back along the river, you may see blue cups at the turnaround, sometimes there are painted rocks along the trail” – without pausing for breath, he pointed at the tallest runner of the bunch, a tanned and athletic-looking fellow wearing a red-and-white cap and singlet – “that’s Tim.”

“Who’s Tim?” I asked, the relevance of this introduction escaping me as the lead runners (Tim included) poised in their “Ready, Set” positions at the start line.

“You’ll be running near him,” Chuck replied, leaving me to wonder how the buddy system figured into this.  My wondering was cut short when the starter’s cry of “GO!” ended our exchange (which in its seamless cadence would have made Aaron Sorkin proud), signaling the frazzled start to my first-ever semi-official 5K race.

Tim quickly bore down and sprinted (or so it seemed) ahead of the pack as we exited the Boeing parking lot and veered left on to the shoulder of Westminster Blvd.  He wasted no time in building an early lead, as I worked to extricate myself from the tightly packed mass of runners in his wake.  I’m supposed to run with him?  I was seriously doubting Chuck’s prognostic powers.  Tim’s lead mounted as we (or at least he) sped along Westminster, the sun now directly overhead on what was fast becoming a very warm day.  A modest but steady headwind wasn’t helping matters, and I could feel another runner on my right shoulder, drafting off me as I waited for my second wind to kick in… any second now…

At last, nearing the left turn that would lead us along the river, my body snapped out of its initial shock.  Cardiovascular, musculoskeletal and neuromuscular systems – working both independently and in collaboration – recognized and adapted to the sudden physiological stress as they had so many times before.  Fight-or-flight hormones spiked.  Heart rate accelerated.  Muscle contractions quickened.  Neurons fired electrical impulses between mind and body at a feverish pace.  At that moment I was little more than an instinctual fast-moving puppet, and with so many biological masters pulling the strings, my stride relaxed and slowly I edged forward ahead of the pack, until only 50 yards of atmosphere separated me and Tim.

Leaving the main road, a quick descent spilled us on to the San Gabriel River Bike Trail.  Gradually the gap between leader and pursuer continued to shrink, until Tim reached the turnaround point (marked, as Chuck had presaged, by a blue Dixie up on either side of the path) no more than five seconds ahead of me.  The game was on!

Post-race recovery

Post-race posing with Steve and Chuck… one of these days Chuck will learn to recognize a camera
(photo credit Laura)

The finishing touch
With 1½ miles down and the remainder of the course now known to me, I could focus entirely on getting back to home base before the next guy.  But I was admittedly in uncharted waters here, running as hard as I could for as long as I could, with no racing strategy other than to just run, and with no idea how long I could continue at this pace (whatever this pace was) before I bonked.

As I cruised along the river several strides behind Tim, familiar faces passed in my peripheral vision: Chuck, with long gray hair held in check by his customary bandana, was looking strong at a sub-8:00/mile pace, much faster than I’d expected for someone still rehabbing a hamstring injury; Laura, having already completed a marathon earlier that morning on her way to seven marathons in seven days, followed more leisurely behind him chatting with local celebrity-of-sorts Barefoot Ken Bob; while Emmett, fresh off his 65th ultramarathon at that weekend’s Way Too Cool 50K, power-walked near the back of the pack with one of the more purposefully propulsive strides I’ve ever seen.

During this stretch I pulled alongside and ahead of Tim, my Garmin chortling its support.  Two miles down, 1.1 to go. With our roles reversed and the predator now the prey, the question became how long I’d be able to hold the lead.

Charging up the concrete embankment and back on to Westminster Blvd, I found myself a stranger in a very strange land – running alone in the lead, a tailwind at my back and just over half a mile of very straight, rolling asphalt between me and… and what exactly?  As I struggled to maintain or even increase my pace, an acute case of “race brain” left me devoid of deep thoughts.

With just over ¼ mile to go and the Boeing entrance taunting me from afar, I glanced up to see the traffic light at the intersection just ahead of me – the only potential obstacle on the entire course – turn red, and a car begin to creep slowly forward into the cross walk.  My cross walk.  The cross walk I was about to enter.  Never mind bouncing off the hood of a car, that was the least of my worries – I was much more horrified at the thought of losing all momentum to this solitary driver on an otherwise empty street.  If that happened and I was forced to obey the red light, I may very hitchhike my way back to Boeing.

Thankfully, as I entered the intersection at full speed the car inched forward just enough that I was able to swerve behind it without any significant loss of momentum.  Reaching the far side of the intersection, with my brain now screaming “home stretch!” and my stride deteriorating with every step, I locked in on the traffic light dead ahead of me, the one that doubled as the mile 3 marker.  My stomach too had begun its predictable protest – as a runner it’s my canary in the coal mine, my (usually) silent partner that warns me when I’m approaching the end of my physiological rope.  And I could feel that rope starting to fray.

I tried not to slow as I banked right into the Boeing parking lot, fearful that Tim or another runner would go Roadrunner to my Wile E. Coyote and streak past me as an anvil landed on my head.  More importantly, letting up on the gas might cost me a sub-20 finish… and if that happened, let’s be honest, the past 20+ minutes would have been for naught.  Curiosity may have ignited this fire, but fear of failure now kept it ablaze.

Careening toward the finish line feeling like a rickety old jalopy, I was momentarily unnerved to see not a soul in sight – until timekeeper Jill and clipboard keeper Berckly hopped up from their seat on the curb to announce and record my winning finish time of 19:53.  Tim crossed nine seconds later, letting loose a low exclamation of disgust upon realizing he’d overshot the 20-minute barrier by three seconds.  As the top five took shape and the finish area began to hum with activity, I shook hands with and congratulated Tim, whose fast start was accounted for when he admitted to being an 800m runner.

Chuck joined me soon after, and I sarcastically thanked him for warning me in advance about the early headwind.  He shrugged: “I figured you’d find that out for yourself.”

During the post-race cooldown I also had the opportunity to meet Steve, an avid runner and retired VA colleague of Chuck’s who, after reading my previous post, benignly waved off my comparison of the NorCal/SoCal race scene and suggested several road and trail races in the area.  Clearly I have plenty of research ahead of me before I revisit that comparison.  Appreciate the recommendations, Steve.

According to long-time race organizer Nelson, “the 45 runners today tied the most runners for a March race since 2005 when 53 participated.”  Even more amazing to me was Chuck’s post-race admission that, despite being a significantly faster runner than me (my words, not his), he’s never won the Boeing 5K.  So apparently I timed my debut well, since a winning time of 19:53 – the only sub-20 finish of the day – hardly screams “Olympic Trials”.

Bottom line, I enjoyed my first-ever 5K (for obvious reasons) and my time among the Boeing lunch-time running crew. And I’ll look forward to running this race again – in part because it’s a fun one, but also because I’m confident that under the right conditions (cooler temps, >30 sec warmup) I can still run faster.

I celebrated my second-ever race victory – the 14.8-mile Limantour Odyssey Half Marathon back in 2009 was the first – later that afternoon with an 8-mile recovery run from Manhattan Beach to Marina del Rey under a stunning blue sky.  Setting a leisurely pace past fearless seagulls and glistening whitecaps while trying to guess which beachside townhouse might be Phil Jackson’s, it occurred to me that this was my most relaxing run in recent memory.

So again, as with Chicago in 2012, Chuck had been spot-on in predicting a personal best finish time for me.  Admittedly, his prediction was in large part self-fulfilling, and I was happy to prove him right.  But then I shouldn’t have been surprised by the text I received from him later in the week – one I’ve yet to follow up on, since I’m afraid he may not be joking:

“You know the Boeing 10K is the third Monday of the month.”

FINAL STATS:
March 10, 2014
3.12 miles in Seal Beach, CA
Finish time & pace (official): 19:53 (first time running the Boeing Seal Beach 5K), 6:22/mile average pace
Finish place: 1/45 overall
Race weather: sunny and warm (starting temp 72°F)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 73ft ascent, 73ft descent

Boeing 5K splits

BC&H will be on international hiatus from March 21-April 6, but I’ll look forward to catching up with everyone’s running exploits when I return.  In the meantime I wanted to re-blog the following… thanks to Jim Benton for creating and Bora Zivkovic at Scientific American for sharing it.  If there exists a legitimate use for the letters “LOL,” it’s here:
10yvf8m
And with that, the blog must go on… don’t forget to leave interesting and thought-provoking comments below!

*******

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.
– Robert Frost

Strategically, this 30-mile route traverses much of the greenery and scenery in the East Bay

If you read this blog with any regularity, then my preference for trails over asphalt is no dirty little secret (dirty yes, secret no).  I’ve even taken to running much of my speedwork on our local dirt track.  But even in the Bay Area, with its (appropriately) liberal trail system, roads are an unavoidable fact of life for most runners.  And although we prefer to shape it into eye-catching forms such as “international orange” bridges and the nicest baseball park in the country, concrete still dominates our urban landscape.

So it’s inevitable that most of my training mileage is logged on concrete.  This is particularly true during the winter (i.e. rainy) months, when trails become saturated and I’ll do anything to avoid running indoors on It-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named.  And sometimes embracing my inner asphalt junkie becomes equal parts necessary evil and training strategery, as when I’m prepping for a road marathon.  Nothing simulates the physical monotony of concrete quite like the physical monotony of concrete.

Fortunately in the Bay Area, running on concrete doesn’t have to mean flat and boring.  This is most important for the long slow distance (LSD) run that forms the backbone of the conventional marathon training regimen.  Through hours of repetitive foot-striking on unyielding paved surfaces, the LSD training run builds physical and mental endurance by strengthening tendons, ligaments and the will to persevere despite frequent stretches of soul-squelching boredom.

For me the downside of the LSD isn’t the physical toll exacted by running 20+ miles at a time; instead, it’s the monotony of stringing together sidewalk mile after sidewalk mile through residential neighborhoods and strip malls, pausing occasionally to stiffen up at traffic lights while looking forward to the next curb as a much-needed source of elevation change.

With scenery like this, maybe they should rename it the Wrought Iron Horse Trail

Granted, flat and boring do make welcome bedfellows at times, as when I want to regulate my pace for longer distances, say 15-16 miles.  In that case I retreat into an audiobook and hit the Iron Horse Regional Trail, a paved pedestrian and bike trail named (I presume) for how your joints feel after treading its 25 miles of concrete through nondescript East Bay suburbs – Now, Concord! now, Pleasant Hill! now, Walnut Creek and Alamo! On, Danville! on, San Ramon! on, Dublin and Pleasanton!  But even the Iron Horse Trail has its own smattering of stoplights and trafficky intersections to hinder a runner’s progress.

Alternatively, if you’re looking to slowly liquify your hip flexors without the dangerous risk of encountering new scenery, you can always resort to hammering out endless laps around one of the local 400m tracks.  And given the choice of the track or the treadmill, I figure a hip replacement or two later in life would be well worth the time spent outdoors now.

But on one recent weekend, feeling demotivated by the usual LSD suspects, I set out to take advantage of my surroundings and chart a LSD run that would be as un-flat and non-boring as possible.  And by non-boring I mean scenic, not frogger-on-the-highway-dodging-cars exciting.  My goal, which seemed improbable at the time, was to map out a scenic point-to-point course of 26 consecutive miles, entirely on paved surfaces, without a single stoplight.  I ended up with nearly 30.

As I did in mapping a 32-mile course on trails across the East Bay, I’ve included a blow-by-blow description of my 30-mile route below.  And in fact this route closely parallels that earlier 32-miler, the most notable difference being the terrain (asphalt instead of dirt).  Despite its length, this route isn’t brain surgery; on the contrary, most 19th-century lobotomy patients – and even someone with my non-sense of direction – could find their way to the end without much difficulty.  At the same time, rather than the typical flat and boring urban scenery, this course borders – and at times passes through – several of the East Bay’s excellent regional parks and preserves.

Views like this one accompany you along Grizzly Peak

Sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands predominate up on Grizzly Peak

It’s hard to get anywhere in Berkeley without an uphill component, so it makes sense that a 30-mile run would be no exception.  For some runners, the most daunting feature of the route won’t be its length, but rather its first six miles.  Starting at the intersection of Spruce St and Cedar St in North Berkeley, the course immediately chugs up Spruce two miles and then along Grizzly Peak four miles for a net uphill gain of 1,300ft.  Fortunately this first 20% of your day amounts to more “initial gut check” than “premonition of things to come,” as the course features a net elevation loss of 1,500ft over the next 24 miles.  So overall this is a downhill course – and if that doesn’t scream “Boston qualifier” (in an Edvard Munch sort of way), then you’re not listening.

As uphills go, Spruce-to-Grizzly Peak amounts to moderate effort for maximal gain – the views across the bay are awesome.  And as you continue your gradual but steady ascent along Grizzly Peak, adjacent to Tilden Regional Park, the panoramic vistas of San Francisco that greet you on a clear day also double as psychological (and unscented!) Bengay for your already-fatigued quads.

The course peaks at mile 6, at the southeastern edge of Tilden Regional near the entrance to the Steam Trains.  At this point Grizzly Peak reverses trajectory, heading downhill with the occasional modest uphill jag over the next four miles. On the edge of the Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, Grizzly Peak loses its bite and dead-ends into Skyline Blvd.  Bank a left turn, and Skyline winds its way along a more-or-less level course for the next two miles.  This is the ideal time to relax and settle into a rhythm as you navigate the Oakland Hills and soak in the views across the Bay.  Fortunately the views up here are pretty much all you’ll be soaking in, because while the sun on most days will join you, its heat rarely poses a problem at any time of the year.

As Skyline Blvd enters Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve, it begins a definite downward trajectory and morphs into Pinehurst Rd, which will host the next leg of your journey into Redwood Regional Park.  Six miles later, at the 18-mile mark, you’ll transition on to Redwood Rd as it exits Redwood Regional and enters Anthony Chabot Regional Park.  For the next five miles you’ll border Chabot on your right and the branching Upper San Leandro Reservoir on your left, before the former seamlessly transitions into its sister park, Lake Chabot Regional.

I usually share this route through the Oakland Hills with a steady stream of cyclists, yet surprisingly few runners.  Admittedly it does have its downsides for those accustomed to more urban running, but they’re relatively innocuous: 1) because sidewalks are scarce, I run primarily on the shoulder or side of the road; and 2) on occasion the winding course motivates me to zig and zag from one side of the road to the other, so I can stick to the outside lane and avoid startling an oncoming driver accelerating around a blind curve.

You may feel a bit uncomfortable initially if you’re new to these roads.  But being able to lose yourself in your surroundings more than makes up for the occasional hassle of having to pay attention to them.  Fortunately, the route is straightforward to negotiate and remains at two lanes for 26 miles, before widening and straightening out near its endpoint.

With that endpoint in sight, and as if to say “don’t let the door hit you on your way out,” Redwood Rd veers uphill one last time before putting Lake Chabot – and the relative solitude of the past 26 miles – in your rearview mirror and dropping you down into Castro Valley.  Welcome to the suburban world of fenced-in schools, sprawling single-story strip malls, fast food joints and closely juxtaposed homes with HOA-approved lawns, all laid out block after block in characteristic grid fashion.  Here at last you’ll encounter your first stoplight of the day, at Seven Hills Rd just past mile 27.  So maybe it wasn’t quite 30 miles to your first stoplight, but then again after nearly 100,000 steps, 4,100ft of elevation gain, 4,300ft of elevation loss and 3,800 calories burned at an average pace of 9:46 per mile… after all that, really who’s counting?

One more mile down Redwood Rd, one wide anticlimactic loop around the Castro Valley BART station, and all good things must come to an end (unless you opt to turn around and ride that endorphin high all the way back to Berkeley).  Nice job, foot soldier!  If 30 miles of feet pounding concrete and concrete pounding feet doesn’t prepare you both mentally and physically for your next road marathon, well then that was a dumb way to spend five hours you’ll never get back, wasn’t it?

Mike Sohaskey after running 30 miles

Happy as I’ll ever be to find myself in Castro Valley

If you had the foresight to bring a few dollars or a loaded BART card on your run, you can now happily collapse on the next available BART train to downtown Berkeley and disembark roughly ¾-mile from where your day began.  Sit at your own risk though, lest your train arrive at and depart the downtown Berkeley station while you’re still valiantly struggling to pull yourself upright like a member of the zombie apocalypse.

In reality, despite their tranquil vibe and off-the-beaten-path allure, I’m guessing very few people cover these 30 miles all at once.  After all, Highway 580 or even BART provides much more convenient and direct access to Castro Valley from most of the East Bay.  And I’m guessing most folks who do travel this route do so as transiently as possible, from the relative comfort and disconnect of a fast-moving vehicle – all while focused on not bouncing a turkey, deer or cyclist off their hood.

But I prefer the (literally) more grounded approach… because it’s gratifying to think that even here and even now, there still are roads less traveled.  Roads that, away from the watchful eyes of seven million Bay Area residents, don’t aspire to be ogled on TV, or friended on Facebook, or followed on Twitter.  Roads that breathe at their own pace.  Roads where silence is, if not golden, then at least not treated as fool’s gold.  Roads on which you can either lose or find yourself, depending on which direction you’re headed.  Roads that, in another time and another place, just might have been trails.  I’ve invested countless man-hours seeking out and following these roads where they lead.  On foot.  As a runner.

And that’s made all the difference.

FINAL STATS:
Total distance: 30 miles (with no unplanned detours)
Total time: 4:53:18
Average pace: 9:46/mile
Elevation change (Garmin Connect Software): 4,076ft ascent, 4,278ft descent

Blow-by-blow directions for my 30-mile route from Berkeley to Castro Valley

Blow-by-blow directions for my 30-mile route from Berkeley to Castro Valley

You never stay the same. You either get better or you get worse.
– Jon Gruden, football coach-turned-ESPN analyst

View to the Bay

One thing that does stay the same: the view from our street to the Bay, and Angel Island beyond

“One day won’t matter.”

Like most runners (plot spoiler!) I love to run.  And that in itself is almost always enough to motivate me off my combination La-Z-Boy recliner/hyperbaric chamber and out the door.  Almost.  But as anyone who’s ever laced ’em up in the name of self-improvement can tell you, some days the will is just… not… there. Some days, for whatever reason – be it physical or psychological lethargy, uncooperative weather, or body parts feeling just a bit “off” – working up the motivation to run can feel like more trouble than its worth.  Some days we’re reminded that an object at rest stays at rest, unless acted upon by an imbalanced force.

And on those days when I don’t feel tough and I don’t feel like going, the sentiment at the top of this post flashes to mind.  Having grown up in a semi-redneck southern culture that revolved around Friday nights and venerated its high-school football heroes, I learned to shrug off coach-speak from an early age.  Case in point: my high-school basketball coach’s favorite expression was “Excuses are like a**holes, everyone has one and they all stink.”  He was pretty proud of that one, as confirmed by the smirk that invariably followed.  So I don’t expect coaches to enlighten me on the far-reaching implications of the Higgs boson or the defining principles of Jeffersonian Democracy.

But Jon Gruden has a point… one day does matter, because for better or worse you won’t come out of it the same way you went in.  Just ask Marty McFly.  So then it’s my choice what happens between the two turnstiles.  Realistically, one isolated day is just that – in the grand scheme of the fitness cosmos, how much difference can one day really make?  Instead, I worry that one day of deferment matters for its potential to plant a psychological seed that will grow aggressively, feed on laziness and eventually blossom into a full-grown weed that overgrows my meticulously cultivated training garden.  What I fear is the downward spiral… though not the 1994 Nine Inch Nails album, that was a keeper.

Cut to last week – Wednesday, specifically – and I found myself confronted with one of those days.  The weather had been as wintry as it gets here in the Bay Area: drab, brushed-aluminum skies,  temperatures in the high 40s and a persistent “will it or won’t it?” threat of rain that I was convinced would only play its hand once I stepped outside in t-shirt and shorts.  My East Bay neighbors, looking like penguin hunters, were bundled up to their eyeballs in North Face down jackets, scarves and woolen caps.

And the day was playing havoc with my motivation.  In general life seems to move more slowly in January, as people gradually shake off their post-holiday doldrums and strive to get their groove back.  For me, the same goes for running… January’s always been a blank month on my racing calendar, the one month of the year in which I immerse myself in my training and focus on ramping up my intensity for the upcoming racing season.  So with that kind of diligence, what would one day matter?

(© 1995 Roz Chast, published in The New Yorker)

(© 1995 Roz Chast, published in The New Yorker)

True, I had no legitimate reason to blow off my workout, as so much of the country has this time of year… no snow, no ice, no real excuse to let inertia carry the day.  The spark just wasn’t there.  Mix one part general malaise with one part other-things-to-do, sprinkle in a dash of (contrived) under-the-weatherness, and there you have the recipe for my mid-week lethargy.  I even tried to convince myself that a) I’d have a less-than-productive workout if I did run; and b) the rest/recovery would do me good and enable a stronger run the next day.

And my body wanted to believe the voices in my head, it really did, if for no other reason than this: Wednesday = track work.  After all is said and done, speedwork on the track is my favorite workout of the week, and aside from tempo runs the only workout I clock consistently.  No other feeling within the training cycle rivals the adrenalizing combination of fatigue, soreness and accomplishment that drapes itself around me as I step off that 400m oval.  But that’s after all is said and done.  And both brain and body know full well that by the time it’s over, we’ll all be done.  Because running fast hurts.  And honestly, my body isn’t very good at it… out on the track I don’t feel like a highly evolved machine, and I sure don’t feel born to run.

But when I come out of that final turn and down the home stretch on my final lap, with my brain firing off well-intentioned orders to the gummy worms below my waist where my legs used to be, with my stride deteriorating rapidly, with my eyes now narrow slits to conserve the energy required to keep them open, with my physiological train in danger of coming off the tracks, and with that imaginary finisher’s tape oh so close… when I stumble across the finish line and I’m immediately awash in a whole-body response I’d characterize as more “drained” than “pained”… when that finally happens, now THAT will be awesome.  It always is.

So rather than listen to the voices in my head last Wednesday, I followed my usual path of most resistance.  And 30 minutes later I found myself chasing the endorphin dragon around the dirt track behind Martin Luther King Jr. middle school in North Berkeley.  Genetics might also have compelled me here: after all, my brother had once fought off his own litany of excuses for 4,012 consecutive days, running at least two miles per day during that time.  That’s less than a week short of 11 years.  Ironically, his streak (plus a rib or two) was only broken when the van in which he was driving was t-boned at an intersection during a 100-mile relay race.

Point is, maybe a valuable thread of masochism/self-discipline runs (pun unavoidable) in our family.  Barring aggravated soreness or an injury that threatens to derail my training, I can’t in good conscience skip a workout.  I run my speedwork alone, so nobody else would know or care.  But then, nobody else matters.

A great place for speedwork:

No better place for speedwork: 4 running tracks within 2 miles of our house
(MLK Jr. is circled in green, UC Berkeley in teal)

I’d decided my temperament this day was more suited to the low-key, off-road ambience of the MLK Jr. dirt track, rather than the all-weather synthetic surface at UC-Berkeley.  The pristine UC track is generally preferable for speed workouts, though not so much during the winter, when runners and boot-campers hurry to squeeze in their workouts between the time the track and field team finishes practicing and the time the track closes at dusk.

Wednesday’s plan called for a 2-mile warmup jog, followed by the speed portion of the program: a fast 4×1 mile (one mile, or four laps, repeated four times) with 400m (one lap) recovery between each mile.  I’d finish up with eight striders to work on my running form, and finally a 2-mile cooldown jog.  At first blush four miles doesn’t sound like much, especially with a slow lap to recover between each mile.  But if you truly run each mile (rather than mosey, jog or trot at the oft-recommended 10K pace), you won’t feel cheated by the time you’re done.  And each recovery lap will feel like you’ve earned yourself a bonus life, the running equivalent of the 10,000-point mark in Pac-Man.

After an uneventful 2-mile jog to the track and one warmup lap, I accelerated across the start line (marked by a small puddle in lane 1) as the {beep} of my watch timer signaled the toughest part of this workout – mile 1.  For me the first mile of these sessions is always the slowest and most laborious, as the body adapts to the sudden shock of being forced out of its comfort zone and into an immediately stressful situation.  The body at once becomes needy: the heart needs to pump more blood faster, the lungs need to take in more air and exchange more carbon dioxide for oxygen, the muscles need to ramp up their number of contractions, the neurons carrying signals throughout the body need to to fire more frequently, the bones need to manage the increased biomechanical stress.  These are a few of the dramatic challenges that must be overcome quickly for the body as an integrated whole to have any hope of completing one mile, let alone four or more.

But having experienced “starter shock” as a regular feature of my training, I quickly realized that something was different about today’s opening mile.  Something altogether unexpected, though not unwelcome.  I felt fast (for me).  Really fast (for me).  In fact, faster than I could recall feeling for an entire mile on any track, much less a bumpy dirt one.  And as I crossed that puddle for the fourth time, the timer on my watch stoically reported the good news – 6:27.  Whoa!  My momentary swell of accomplishment was tempered by the understanding that I should probably dial back a bit, lest I blow out my tires after only two miles.

But after my first recovery lap, as I fell into a smooth rhythm on mile 2 and glided (ok, that may be overstating things) around each turn, I knew I had a legitimate shot to improve on my first mile.  Zagging around two slow-moving conversationalists in the inside lanes, I rounded the final turn, surged past my favorite puddle and glanced at my watch – 6:22!  I’ve never timed myself to know just how fast I can run a single mile, but 6:22 was no doubt the fastest mile I’d ever timed in the course of training.  And when I followed that up with a 6:23 on mile 3 and another all-out 6:22 on mile 4, my brain registered that hey, maybe all this speed training does do more than just hurt!

Just to confirm that MLK Jr. is a regulation track, I mapped it on favoriterun.com

Just to confirm that MLK Jr. is a regulation track, I mapped it on favoriterun.com

Everything had just clicked, and on this of all days.  Maybe chaos theorists are on to something.  As all systems returned to equilibrium, I finished up with 8 striders and then left the track on my 2-mile cooldown jog, thankful as hell I hadn’t heeded the voices and blown off the day.  As it turns out, those 25 minutes and 34 seconds spent redlining on the track set a strong tone for the rest of the week, as Friday yielded its own fast tempo run and Sunday a well-paced 19-miler over a hilly yet scenic course.

Who knows, maybe I never top my mile times from Wednesday’s track workout.  But it won’t be for lack of trying.  I can easily imagine 1,000 different scenarios that might have played out had I opted to stay inside that afternoon – some heroic, others less than fulfilling.  All I know with certainty is that I wouldn’t have run my best timed mile ever, if I hadn’t bothered to run at all.  Or as hockey hall-of-famer Wayne Gretzky so memorably put it, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

So I’ll keep firing shots on goal, every chance I get.  Sure, there’ll be those that sail wide or ricochet off the crossbar, but there will also be plenty that find the back of the net.  Because every shot matters, and I want to need to get better.  And contrary to how this post may read, I’m not writing some sort of misguided advice column here, to offer training advice to people who in many cases are better runners than I am.  I’m pretty sure a PhD in Cancer Biology and one sub-3:30 marathon qualifies me to stay in my blogging lane, not play running coach.  Nor would I want to.  In fact, I’d encourage every runner to do their part to increase my likelihood of improving on last year’s racing percentile in 2013: kick back! blog more! run less.

Just don’t listen to me.  I don’t even listen to myself.

Mother Nature doesn’t care if you’re having fun.
– Larry Niven

This wasn’t part of the plan.

Actually, the steady uphill jog on nice wide dirt trail was the plan, the reason I was here.  But freezing temperatures? Near-blizzard conditions?  And a disturbingly cold headwind that was – almost scornfully – treating my rain-soaked body like high-school football players treat one of those paper banners that cheerleaders hold up at the beginning of games? Using the ten fingersicles on the ends of my arms as blunt-force instruments, I brutishly hammered out a text to let Katie and Chuck know I was halving my intended 8-mile ascent and turning around.  This was turning out to be a typical winter run in our Midwestern United States.

Except this wasn’t the Midwest… this was Southern California.  Orange County, to be exact.  Average yearly snowfall of zero inches.  And that’s rounding up.

Maybe this would be my comeuppance for shrugging off both the Mayans and Weather.com


Maybe this day would be my comeuppance for shrugging off both the Mayans and Weather.com

So I could hardly be blamed for finding myself in a driving snowstorm, wearing my usual comfortable winter running gear of t-shirt and shorts.  And the finishing touch – the coup de grâce in this absurd comedy of errors – was the bottle of cold coconut water that now threatened to drain all remaining feeling from the fingers wrapped tightly around it.

It was only natural to ask how this had happened.  Much as I wanted to, I couldn’t really blame my brother for this one.  True, it was Chuck who had – after careful consideration – recommended I run the Harding Truck Trail to Modjeska Peak during our New Year’s visit to SoCal.  And the elevation profile from his Garmin had sealed the deal, showing a daunting route that began at ~1,400ft and summited 12 miles later at ~5,400ft, making Modjeska second only to its next-door neighbor Santiago as the highest peak in Orange County.  How could I refuse an offer like that, with an ascent unavailable in the Bay Area?  And so, begrudgingly, I let Chuck off the hook.

Certainly The Weather Channel had steered me wrong.  Moments before we’d hit the road for Modjeska, I’d checked Weather.com and found a forecast of low 50s and a 10% chance of precipitation for the area around Modjeska Canyon.  And even if I were to get wet out on the trail, no worries… I’d just managed eight miles in a steady SoCal downpour 24 hours earlier, and in the process gained a front-row seat to a magnificent full (and near-double) rainbow stretching from Laguna Niguel to Dana Point.  I could almost hear the leprechauns on each end frolicking in their piles of gold coins.  Plus, I’d maintained a respectable pace on slick sidewalks.  So more rain wasn’t a concern, despite the mud it would generate.

But driving snow?  No, this definitely wasn’t part of the plan.

The splice is twice as nice: even my low-res cell phone camera couldn't spoil this iridescent display

The splice is twice as nice: even my low-res cell phone camera couldn’t spoil this iridescent display

I’m not the superstitious type, but maybe simple karma was to blame here.  After Amy recently wrote about her winter training in Albuquerque, I’d joked that as a Californian I enjoyed “hearing other people’s stories of training in cold weather, without being able to relate in any way.”  So maybe I’d brought this on myself – a (literally) cold (literally) hard lesson in winter-weather empathy.

But let me rewind a bit: last Sunday seemed like any other characteristically mild winter day in SoCal, as Katie and I made the 20-mile drive out to Modjeska Canyon.  Approaching our destination, I realized I’d forgotten my water bottle, so we made a brief pitstop to buy cold coconut water.  A surprisingly sharp chill greeted us as we stepped out of the car, intensified by a monochromatic gray sky that overpowered the usual Orange County sunshine.  Meanwhile, our car’s “outdoor temp” display read a balmy 55°.  Ideal winter running weather.

We met Chuck and Laura at the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary, at the foot of Modjeska Peak.  Conveniently (for him), Chuck was nursing an injured hamstring, so Laura and I would be running this one by ourselves.  In the men’s room hung a sign announcing the park’s recent loss of state funding, and imploring the reader to bring extra toilet paper, paper towels and hand soap with them to share on their next visit.  Ah, California… the golden beholden state.

Mike Sohaskey and Laura running in Modjeska Canyon

Off to a good start – if only the sky in front of us had stayed this gloriously drab
(photo by Chuck, without whom I’d be pulling random images off Google)

The warning chill in the air prompted me to pull on my arm sleeves – my usual ample protection against the California winter.  As Laura and I trotted toward the dirt to start our immediate ascent on the Harding Truck Trail, a gray-bearded fellow in a faded baseball cap leaned out the window of his pickup truck, smiled and declared “You’re just in time for the rain!”  Though the skies remained bleak the air remained dry, and I smiled back absentmindedly as we trotted on without a second thought.  Dirt or not, it wasn’t like me and my trusty Mix Masters couldn’t handle a bit of rain.

With no level-ground opportunity to warm up my legs and lungs, I acclimated to the ascent by jogging alongside Laura for the first few minutes.  Chuck awaited us at the ¼-mile mark with camera in hand.  Laura and I chatted and set expectations: since she hoped to run a low-key New Year’s Eve marathon the next day, her goal on this day was ten miles (five up, five down).  Despite our late start, I was aiming to cover 16 miles (eight up, eight down) and experience as much of the trail as possible on my first outing.  So Laura would most likely be done and gone by the time I found my way back to where Katie awaited at the wildlife sanctuary.

At the ¾-mile mark I picked up my pace and pulled ahead of Laura – I’m more of an uphiller, she’s more of a down-hiller, as I’d be reminded later.  I was eager to tackle the trail and find out how it stacked up against my favorite Bay Area hills.  Ironic that my main concern at the start of this run – the persistent ascent – would quickly become my least.

Mike Sohaskey running Harding Truck Trail

Trail Running for Dummies: Don’t keep going when the sky ahead of you looks like this
(photo by Chuck, who no doubt made a beeline for his car right after this was taken)

At the one-mile mark the course’s uphill trajectory gives way to a brief ¼-mile downhill jag.  Here I further increased my pace and fell into a comfortable rhythm.  Bounding along I had the trail more or less to myself, and I planned to savor my light-footed feeling before the coming uphill grind took its toll.  The previous day’s showers had softened the dirt just enough to provide optimal footing – not too dusty, not too muddy, with just the right combination of firmness and tack.

Glancing up and ahead of me, I noticed for the first time that the light-gray clouds had yielded to a dark, ominous haze that now engulfed Saddleback Mountain – comprising Modjeska and Santiago Peaks – and which threatened to swallow all remaining light.  Suddenly my surroundings looked like a Photoshop creation, as though someone had applied a “Middle-earth” filter to the scene: had I left Orange County and entered the Misty Mountains?

My first sense that a light mist had begun to fall was the tiny droplets that splashed against my sunglasses and merged into a watery film (yes, sunglasses, I was naïvely confident that the sun would eventually break through the clouds… hey, this was Orange County!).  As the trail wound its way upward, I periodically rounded a corner and found myself running into a brisk headwind.  Wind is hands- (and heads-) down my least favorite part of running, but fortunately this was relatively mild and only minimally impeded my progress.

Not as impressive as Chuck's

Not as impressive as Chuck’s 24-mile elevation profile, but I’ll be back to finish the job

As my Garmin chimed to signal the end of mile two, the mist gradually transitioned into legitimate rain, and now each turn seemed to greet me with a colder and more powerful gust than the one before.  The wind began to change direction erratically, blowing the rain diagonally as though searching for the most efficient way to ensure my discomfort.  Wind and rain continued to build in intensity as my Garmin signaled the end of mile three.  And moments later, things got (d)icy…

Maybe it was my focus on pushing forward up the trail.  More likely it was the incongruity of snow in Southern California (and below 3,000ft at that).  In any case I failed to register the first few snowflakes drifting around me, until at last my eyes synced with my brain, jarring me back to reality.  Sure I’d realized the temperature had been dropping steadily as I’d ascended out of Modjeska Canyon… but shortly before mile three I would’ve pegged it at mid- to high 40s, maybe low 40s with wind chill.  Now, watching the first airborne snow I’d ever seen in Southern California, it was clear Mother Nature had upped the ante.

Always the optimistic/stubborn runner, I persuaded my brain that: 1) snow was preferable to rain for its consistency; 2) having run only three miles, I couldn’t turn back now; and 3) this was my golden opportunity for a winter wonderland run in the snow, having been denied in Dallas six days earlier when a vigorous Christmas snowfall had followed a freezing rainstorm that coated sidewalks and streets with a thin layer of ice.  As I embraced my questionable decision-making and pressed onward toward Modjeska Peak, I did make one allowance for the weather and my soggy state, electing to truncate my run to 12 miles (six up, six down) rather than the intended 16.  That way I’d likely catch Laura on my way down as well.

snow on modjeska

Not bad, actually, for a photo of falling snow taken with frozen fingers on my tiny cell phone camera

But my expectations for this day took a final nosedive as I reached the 3.5-mile mark and the snowfall intensified to – I cannot tell a lie – blizzard proportions.  Like a swarm of fluffy white bees attacking my face and body, the swirling snow rode the wind currents downward from the dual peaks of Saddleback Mountain.  My primary concern quickly became the ever-increasing stiffness in my finger joints, as numbness threatened to replace all feeling at the ends of both arms.  I cursed the #@*&ing bottle of coconut water that was my faithful companion – the only thing worse than holding on it, I considered, would be dropping it.  That wasn’t going to happen, and I didn’t want to simply dump out the bottle on the trail.  So unfortunately the two of us were in this together to the bitter end.  And I was already bitter.

Somehow, despite my discomfort and the absurdity of running through a driving snowstorm in a soaked t-shirt and shorts but no gloves, I had one stupid decision left in me, and I resolved to reach mile 4 before turning around.  Blame it on mental numbness, but somehow the four-mile mark became the hard and fast limit of what I was willing to concede.  So with head down I plowed forward up the trail, swallowing snowflakes and with hands wrapped inside my t-shirt as protection against the biting wind.

I was starting to think I’d also lost feeling in my Garmin, when at last it rang out the end of both mile 4 and my uphill trek at a mere 3,113ft.  Fumbling with my phone, I awkwardly pounded out a “snowing! turning back now” text to Chuck and Katie with minimal cooperation from the semi-responsive stubs formerly known as fingers.  Then I swung a U-turn and launched myself back down the trail, gaining an immediate reprieve from the snow and wind which were now largely at my back.

Mike Sohaskey and Laura post-run

Laura and I thaw out at the Tucker Wildlife and Soggy Runner Sanctuary
(photo by a warm, dry Chuck)

Cruising downhill now, I alternated between shielding both hands in my t-shirt and beating each hand against the opposite forearm to regain feeling and keep the blood flowing, while the chilling effects of my water bottle continued to counteract my efforts.  Fortunately the descent proved smooth enough, and soon I caught up with Laura, still struggling up the trail below the snowline around mile 3.  “There you are!” she sounded relieved as she saw me squishing toward her.  Apparently she’d tried to call me after she’d run through a flurry of hail I’d somehow avoided.  Laura regularly competes in (and completes) 50-mile races, but even before reaching the snowline she was ready to turn around.  Together we covered ground quickly as I hustled to keep pace behind her dogged downhill stride.  I was surprised during our descent to have to sidestep and hurdle so many newly formed puddles and rivers; this was a much different trail than the one I’d felt so sure-footed on just an hour earlier.

Finally we reached the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary, where we found Katie and Chuck waiting out the rain in the car.  Owing to the limited cell coverage in the canyon, neither had received my text, and both were more than a little surprised to hear we’d encountered hail and snow on trail.  Though I may have been pushing my luck when I claimed to have also seen a Bumble.

Still in my wet t-shirt and shorts (though at least I’d brought long pants to pull on over my shorts), and with my belly now full of coconut water, the four of us reconvened for a post-run snack 15 minutes later.  From the strip mall parking lot in Mission Viejo we could clearly see Modjeska and Santiago Peaks, each of which was now capped with a very fine but undeniable blanket of newborn white.  Though pleased to have my story confirmed so graphically, I was shocked to see how quickly the snow had accumulated.  The scene warmed the cockles of my – ah who am I kidding, no it didn’t… I was still shivering from the damp t-shirt and shorts that clung to me like frightened children.

Snow on the peaks

Those look like late afternoon shadows, but that’s snow on Modjeska (center) and Santiago (right)
(photo by Chuck, who then got the Snow Miser song stuck in his head)

As Saddleback Mountain receded in our rearview mirror, my phone beeped with a message from Chuck, who’d finally received my earlier text: “Snow? What idiot told you to run up a mountain?”  Unfortunately I’d been denied the long uphill run I’d planned for that day.  But I’d gladly trade a few extra miles for one of the more bizarre training runs I’ll likely ever experience, complete with rain, snow, hail, earth, wind & fire (and what a funky day it was).  All within an hour of The Happiest Place on Earth.

Based on what I saw of it, I’ve no doubt the Harding Truck Trail is tremendous running terrain on just about any other day of the year, and in fact the Harding Hustle in July has now joined my short list of potential summer races.  At which time the “fire” part of that forecast may very well come true.

In the end, the day added yet another verse to the anthem that runners (and especially trail runners) know all too well, and which author Larry Niven summarized so elegantly: Mother Nature doesn’t care if you’re having fun.  She doesn’t care if you’re too hot, or too cold, or hungry, or thirsty, or sunburned, or wind-chapped, or rain-soaked, or well nourished, or craving carbs, or fully hydrated, or chafed, or blistered, or breathless, or numb, or dressed appropriately, or chasing a PR, or lost, or trying out your brand-new trail shoes, or allergic to poison ivy, or scared of snakes, or tired of climbing hills, or roughed up after tripping headlong over a tree root, or unable to see ten feet in front of you, or physically spent, or psychologically exhausted, or a first-timer, or a seasoned veteran, or a prince, or a pauper, or out of water, or in the wrong place at the wrong time when something bigger and stronger than you gets hungry, or trapped with your arm crushed under a boulder and only a dull pocket knife between you and The End, or comfortable in any way.  She’s an equal opportunity offender, and she just doesn’t care.

Ours may be an abusive relationship, but she’s my kind of lady.

Runners have great stories, so I’m curious: what has been your most bizarre/unanticipated running experience?

Do you know about the trail that links the East Bay Regional Parks?  Have you run it?  If so, what is/are the best section(s)?
– Fellow East Bay runner (and now marathoner) Jen

Continuing on with my two-day goal of mapping a 32-mile course from Wildcat Canyon to Chabot Regional

DAY TWO (TILDEN TO CHABOT):

Arrows signify the boundary where each Regional Park/Preserve begins

Arrows signify the boundary where each Regional Park/Preserve begins

Day Two of my East Bay trail hazing adventure would begin at the 12-mile mark of last week’s run, in the parking lot of the Tilden Park Steam Trains.  Katie dropped me off amid the teeming masses of frazzled parents and unruly kids, and with full energy reserves I crossed Lomas Contadas and picked up the Bay Area Ridge Trail headed toward Sibley.  The next 11 miles passed uneventfully, and roughly two hours later I found myself back in Redwood Regional on the West Ridge Trail, looking for the turnoff to the Golden Spike Trail.

There are two distinct ways to access the Golden Spike Trail.  The first is the route I took the previous weekend to finish my run: follow the West Ridge Trail downhill to its end, cut a hard right on to the Golden Spike Trail, then follow it back uphill (sound fun yet?) and continue on your way.  I prefer the alternative route, though it can be a bit tricky because there’s no sign indicating the turnoff for the Golden Spike Trail.  Here it is: just before the West Ridge Trail takes a sharp left turn and begins its final steep descent, look for a “no bicycles” sign (i.e. a bicycle with a red diagonal line through it; see below) on the right side of the trail.  This sign acts as gatekeeper to a short-lived (~20yds long), easy-to-miss rocky connector path leading to the Golden Spike Trail.

bikes bikes bikes

Like Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross Station, this sign conceals the connector path to the Golden Spike Trail

After less than ¾-mile on the Golden Spike Trail, look for the sign indicating the turnoff to Redwood Road.  If you reach the intersection with the Toyon Trail, you’ve gone too far.  Follow this sign out to and across Redwood Road to the Big Bear Staging Area parking lot, and voilà!  You’ve just entered Anthony Chabot Regional Park.  Based on my own experience, Katie will be waiting here with a smile and a bottle of ice-cold coconut water.  Not easy to run away from, and yet I did…

Straight into the arms of the MacDonald Trail (doubling as the Bay Area Ridge Trail) and another steep ascent.  Another feature currently missing from Google Maps is the MacDonald trailhead, which begins on the left side of the Big Bear Staging Area parking lot and runs parallel to Redwood Road a short distance before passing the MacDonald Staging Area.  From there, the ~500ft of vertical gain over the next mile dragged a lot out of me, including some choice profanity, and I was relieved when the next 3+ miles into Chabot Regional were largely downhill.

Grass Valley Trail sign

Choose your own adventure (I chose left) at the junction of the MacDonald Trail and Grass Valley Trail

After ~2.75 miles the MacDonald Trail hooks up via a short connector trail with the Grass Valley Trail.  Here a two-arrowed sign (see above) gives you the option to either forge straight ahead, or swing a switchback turn to your left and continue along the unlabeled Bay Area Ridge Trail.  Take the left turn, and you’ll descend through a gate and past the Bort Meadow Staging Area, where the trail widens on its way into Chabot Regional.

The Grass Valley Trail is relatively flat and mostly exposed, though to a lesser extent than Nimitz Way.  My late-afternoon run benefitted from extensive shading, courtesy of the densely packed trees lining the western (right) side of the trail.

Grass Valley Trail

Now that thar’s a trail! The comfortably wide Grass Valley Trail, to be exact

Within 2 miles the Grass Valley Trail morphs into the Brandon Trail, another heavily used footpath that leads through Chabot Regional and to this day’s finish line ~5 miles away.  After ascending 300ft in half a mile, the Brandon Trail undulates gently for ~2 miles before starting, like moth toward bug zapper, its inexorable downward trajectory toward Redwood Road.  You’ll see your final destination sprawling below (far below, it seemed to me), before the bottom drops out and the trail descends 600 vertical feet in 1.5 miles, taking back in short order all the elevation (and then some) you’ve gained to that point.

Somewhere along this descent – I didn’t notice where – the trail splits into two separate forks of the Bay Area Ridge Trail, one of which deviates eastward along the Willow View Trail toward the Chabot Staging Area and the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD).  Unless you want to take a detour toward the enticingly named EBMUD, continue down the Brandon Trail which bottoms (and flattens) out at the Willow Park Public Golf Course.  Stay on the trail bordering the golf course, hopping or sidestepping the occasional log neatly placed across the trail, and that’ll be Redwood Road to your left.  Continuing along the Brandon Trail parallel to Redwood Road, I reached the Proctor Staging Area where this branch of the Bay Area Ridge Trail ends.  Not with a bang, but a whimper.

After 45 miles of blood, sweat and tears eyeball sweat on some of the Bay Area’s toughest trails, I could relate.

WANT MORE? To continue on from the Proctor Staging Area to the Lake Chabot Marina, follow the signs for the Lake Chabot Bicycle Loop and Ten Hills Trail south to the McGregor-George Trail; from this junction it’s less than a mile to the marina.

GEAR: For Day One of my East Bay trail tour I wore my Brooks PureCadence shoes (with 5mm heel-to-toe drop), which despite their road tread didn’t disappoint on the dirt.  For Day Two I relied on my zero-drop Merrell Road Gloves, with predictably solid results: the well-worn Road Gloves continue to ride comfortably up and down hills and on all terrain.  I appreciated their lightweight build and consistent traction, without ever lamenting their lack of a protective rock plate.

FINAL STATS:
Total distance: 21.8 miles (including planned and unplanned detours)
Total time: 4:00:43
Average pace: 11:03/mile (miles 15 and 21 @ sub-10:00/mile)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect Software): 3,277ft ascent, 4,665ft descent

Bay Area Ridge Trail - 32 miles East Bay trail running

Complete directions for my two-day East Bay trail adventure

Do you know about the trail that links the East Bay Regional Parks?  Have you run it?  If so, what is/are the best section(s)?
– Fellow East Bay runner (and now marathoner) Jen

They were mighty fine questions, this troika staring up at me from Jen’s email.  Seemingly simple and straightforward each of them, but for one not-so-small snag:

I had no answers.

As a trail runner living in the East Bay, I should have had answers.  I should have been able to rattle off the logistics of the trail system that links the East Bay, a trail system comprising the (sometimes) separate but (sometimes) equal East Bay Skyline National Trail and Bay Area Ridge Trail.  But I couldn’t.

Bay Area Ridge Trail map

Click here for more information and a larger version of this map 

So like any ignorant person not resigned to their ignorant fate, I set out to learn more about each trail.  Of course my first resource was the interwebs, where I quickly learned the Bay Area Ridge Trail is a still-under-construction, multi-use trail that after completion will span 550+ miles and encircle the Bay “offering easy access to the San Francisco Bay Area’s renowned beauty.”  It currently covers (discontinuously) over 335 scenic miles while crossing diverse landscapes.  A significant chunk of that mileage passes through my neck of the woods in the East Bay, including stretches such as Nimitz Way that I run with regularity.

Similarly to the Bay Area Ridge Trail, colorful identifiers – in this case a patriotic red white and blue “USA” logo – guide the way along the East Bay Skyline National (Skyline) Trail.  But despite frequent references to its 31-mile length on personal blogs and Regional Parks websites, the Skyline Trail remains somewhat more mystical in that it lacks (to my knowledge) an official website.  So if I wanted to dissect and better understand all 31 miles of the Skyline Trail, I’d have to do it by piecing together the available online maps.  But although having a cohesive East Bay trail map would answer a lot of questions, it wouldn’t answer them all… for that I’d have to push back from the laptop and hit the trails on foot.  A dirty job to be sure, but some lucky soul one had to do it.

Bay Area Ridge Trail and East Bay Skyline Trail badges

Keep an eye out for these familiar faces along the course

I should mention that use of the singular term “trail” in this case is grossly misleading.  Each of these trail systems consists of a series of shorter spliced-together, in some cases blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em subtrails.  Certainly the whole of each Trail is greater than the sum of its dusty parts.  But as it turns out, stringing together the Skyline Trail and the Bay Area Ridge Trail in their entirety can be a mental and (even more so) physical challenge.

Katie and I pored over the online catalog of Regional Parks maps.  We charted the tortuous path taken by each of the two major Trail systems.  And ultimately we concluded that along its 31-mile length, the Skyline Trail almost entirely overlaps the Bay Area Ridge Trail, with slight divergences in Wildcat Canyon Regional Park (where the Skyline Trail begins) and Redwood Regional Park.  Pretty straightforward, actually.  So in effect I’d be running both Trails simultaneously.  Not that this mattered, because my objective wasn’t to rigorously follow either Trail, but rather to map – subtrail by subtrail – one continuous and direct route from Wildcat Canyon to Lake Chabot, regardless of Trail affiliation.  As it happens, the Skyline/Bay Area Ridge Trail offers the shortest distance (on trails, of course) between these two points.

So my route starts at the East Bay Waldorf School in El Sobrante, just north of Wildcat Canyon Regional, before intersecting both the Skyline Trail and Bay Area Ridge Trail at different points along Nimitz Way.  It then follows the Bay Area Ridge Trail (and largely the Skyline Trail) the rest of the way, finishing at the Proctor Staging Area in Anthony Chabot Regional Park, just north of the Lake Chabot Marina.  This route should be a useful resource for Bay Area trail runners: a hilly 32-mile course on challenging yet fully runnable trails, over variably technical terrain and with plenty of narrow singletrack.

Trails, here I come!(photo from 123stitch.com)

East Bay trails, here I come!
(photo credit: 123stitch.com)

Most of this course does belong to the Bay Area Ridge Trail; however, not all subtrails along the actual course are well labeled.  And from running on multi-tentacled East Bay trails without a map or a clue, I’ve learned the hard way there’s more than one way to skin (or at least exhaust) a runner.  So I’ve documented my route below, trail by trail.  I’d recommend as handy online references the Bay Area Ridge Trail website, as well as the individual East Bay Regional Parks websites.  Google Maps too can be useful, but as I note at several points in my narrative, I wouldn’t bet my last six ounces of water on it.

Something else to be aware of: dogs are allowed off-leash in the East Bay Regional Parks.  And though this doesn’t necessarily pose a threat to runners (I’ve yet to see fangs), it’s pretty irritating when a curious dog runs straight at your feet with tongue a-flappin’, forcing you to break stride or risk stepping on someone’s Precious Princess Poochie.

Based on the length of the course and the fact that I expected to stop intermittently to check my directions, I opted to cover the 32 miles in two overlapping segments (i.e. on two consecutive 20+ mile weekend runs): the first from Wildcat Canyon to Redwood Regional Park, and the second from Tilden Regional Park to Anthony Chabot Regional Park.  If not already, I would be East Bay trail savvy by the end of that second weekend.

This first of two posts details my 23-mile journey from Wildcat Canyon to Redwood Regional.  My second post will cover the remaining miles from Redwood Regional to Chabot.

Forgive the fuzzy images, which I captured along the route with the camera on my antiquated (but conveniently portable) flip phone.

DAY ONE (WILDCAT CANYON TO REDWOOD):

Wildcat Canyon to Redwood Regional trail course elevation map

Arrows signify the boundary where each Regional Park/Preserve begins

Standing in the parking lot of the East Bay Waldorf School in El Sobrante, I cycled through my warmup routine to prepare for what I thought of as exploratory trail surgery.  The East Bay Waldorf School doubles each spring as the staging area for Brazen Racing’s Wildcat Trail Races, so I decided to start here based on my familiarity with the trails and their immediate access to Wildcat Canyon.  Today’s exploratory run would begin at the gates on the left side of the parking lot – the trailhead for the Clark Boas Trail.

And it would begin on a decidedly uphill note, just like the Wildcat Half Marathon.  Together the Clark Boas Trail and the intersecting San Pablo Ridge Trail rise ~550ft in just under a mile before cresting briefly, branching onto the Belgum Trail, and heading back downhill roller coaster-style, with sprawling panoramic views of the San Francisco Bay and San Pablo Bay laid out below.

Berries growing along the Belgum Trail in Wildcat Canyon Regional Park

I’d berry-ly started running when I saw these growing along the Belgum Trail in Wildcat Canyon

After less than a mile the Belgum Trail hits a T-shaped dead end at Wildcat Canyon Parkway.  Here, due to lack of appropriate signage, I took a brief wrong (i.e. right) turn before quickly realizing my mistake and retracing my steps back down Wildcat Canyon Parkway.  Soon Wildcat Canyon Parkway morphs into the indistinguishable Wildcat Canyon Trail and, after running nearly two miles and passing two intersecting branches of the Mezue Trail, I swung a left onto Havey Canyon Trail.

Whereas the course up to this point consisted of well-maintained, widetrack hiking trails, Havey Canyon Trail is a wide singletrack trail that (thankfully) is closed to horseback riders.  It also has the distinction, if memory serves, of featuring the only creek crossing – albeit shallow and narrow – along the entire course.  After winding uphill through shaded forest for about a mile, Havey Canyon Trail breaks through the trees and briefly persists under open sky before giving way to Nimitz Way.

Depending on the weather, the ~3.5-mile paved stretch along Nimitz Way can represent the most or least enjoyable section of your 32-mile journey.  That’s because it’s the most exposed… you’re just as likely to be running into a full-on headwind as you are with the temperate East Bay sun warming your face.  But the sweeping vistas on both sides make up for its exposure and slight uphill bent.  Nimitz Way ends (or begins, depending on which direction you’re headed) at Inspiration Point in Tilden and is a popular weekend route for hikers and bikers.  Out of curiosity, I took a quick detour up Conlon Trail from Nimitz Way and encountered a gang of ~10 wild turkeys, the largest gathering I’ve seen in one place and at one time in the East Bay.  I gobbled up the scene and turned back to rejoin Nimitz Way.

turkeys

Turkeys!  Taken just before I got one step too close and they all fled

Juuuuust before Nimitz Way ends at Wildcat Canyon Road, I veered right onto Meadows Canyon Trail (look for and follow the “Curran Trail” sign off Nimitz Way).  After a very short stint on Meadows Canyon, the trail hooks up with the Seaview Trail and abruptly jags upward before crossing Wildcat Canyon Road.

As it turns out, that immediate upward jag is the Seaview Trail’s way of warning the uninitiated.  Because while the trail’s name promises scenic views, it doesn’t promise easy access to them.  The Seaview Trail is the most intense uphill stretch on this course, particularly if you’re not expecting it immediately after crossing Wildcat Canyon.  After climbing ~650ft in just over a mile, the trail takes a brief (< ½-mile) downhill turn before resuming its uphill journey with another ~350ft elevation gain over the next ¾-mile.  As I shuffled up the dusty hill, I reflected on the wisdom of the hikers passing me in the opposite direction.  But true to its name (and dammit, because I EARNED it) the view on my way up the Seaview Trail was stunning, highlighted by the expansive Bay and the tiny toy skyscrapers of San Francisco in the distance, together with the vivid, almost unnatural green of the Tilden Park Golf Course spread out at my feet.  Why is that ant wearing plaid pants and a golfing beret?

After ~3 miles of alternating shaded and unshaded stretches, the Seaview Trail switchbacks downhill to its paved ending at Lomas Contadas and the parking lot of the Tilden Park Steam Trains.  Here, at mile 12 of my journey, I took a breather to hit the water fountains, top off my bottle and suck down a PowerBar Gel (which in my unsponsored-but-always-for-sale opinion, is preferable to GU Energy Gel for its thinner consistency).  This seemed appropriate, given that one of the wooden benches I’d passed along the Seaview Trail is dedicated to the memory of Brian Maxwell, the founder of Berkeley-based PowerBar.

Bench dedicated to PowerBar founder Brian Maxwell, located along the Seaview Trail

Bench dedicated to PowerBar founder Brian Maxwell, located along the Seaview Trail
(photo credit: Troy and Corina Rahmig)

The course then continues along the overlapping Skyline/Bay Area Ridge Trail, indicated by the Bay Area Ridge Trail’s familiar logo on a sign directly across Lomas Contadas.  This changeover can be confusing if you try to map it on the current version of Google Maps, which shows the Bay Area Ridge Trail resuming not directly off Lomas Contadas where the Seaview Trail ends, but rather slightly south and just off Grizzly Peak Blvd, where it seemingly appears out of nowhere (à la Arnold Schwarzenegger in “The Terminator”) and emerges from a dense thicket of trees.

You, on the other hand, should simply follow the Seaview Trail to Lomas Contadas and look for the Bay Area Ridge Trail logo: you’ll see the now-singletrack trail resume its relentless course off into the grasslands and chaparral bordering Grizzly Peak Blvd.  You’re back on track!  This is where I first began to notice regular use of the Bay Area Ridge Trail logo along the course.

Running roughly parallel to Grizzly Peak for the next 1.5 miles, the trail meanders downhill before passing through a gate and crossing an unlabeled paved road… this is Fish Ranch Road.  About 50yds up Fish Ranch Road, the trail clearly resumes at a gate announcing the “Skyline Trail South” and labeled with the Bay Area Ridge Trail Logo.  The next two miles through the shaded woods of the Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve alternate equally between uphill and downhill, gaining 500ft of elevation in the first mile before giving it all back in the second and feeding into the Sibley Staging Area.

Skyline Trail to Sibley Staging Area sign

Trailhead sign at Fish Ranch Road… apparently the East Bay RPD measures distance as the crow flies

The trail then makes a pitstop at the Sibley Staging Area, and so did I.  Here I took a couple of minutes to get my bearings and refill my bottle at a water fountain.  I noticed that the Bay Area Ridge Trail – which begins a few feet from where you just left off – was temporarily closed and featured a large “KNOW YOUR SNAKES” sign clarifying the difference between a gopher snake (pretender; ok to use as a speed bump) and a western rattlesnake (contender; may cause severe tire damage).  And I reminded myself that having never yet encountered a rattlesnake on any of my umpteen trail runs, I’m pretty much due at this point.

A “Detour” sign currently directs runners up a side trail immediately to the left of the main trail.  Within ¼-mile this side trail rejoins the Skyline/Bay Area Ridge Trail, which a short time later seems to dead-end at a T-shaped intersection with the Round Top Loop Trail.  Again, you’ll want to avoid Google Maps for this next step:  although the Round Top Loop Trail offers widetrack running options to both your left (Volcanic Trail) and right (return to Sibley Visitor Center), you’ll want to make a quick jag slightly uphill and to your left on Water Tank Road, where you should almost immediately see the Bay Area Ridge Trail logo directing you back into the woods.  The Skyline/Bay Area Ridge Trail then promptly crosses the Round Top Loop Trail once again, but don’t be fooled by the wider, hiker-friendly Round Top Loop Trail – your singletrack trail continues through the woods to the right.  If you’re still on the Skyline/Bay Area Ridge Trail at this point, then nice job… you’re money and you don’t even know it.

The next two miles through the Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve feature plenty of shade, a trail runner’s best friend.  Occasional numbered signs (which I quickly realized weren’t distance markers) indicate points of interest along the self-guided tour of the preserve.  Within the first mile the trail makes an abrupt uphill switchback to the right; although a “Bay Area Ridge Trail” sign warns of this maneuver, I might have blown right by the turn if I hadn’t been in full tortoise mode.  One more mile through Huckleberry and the course opens out into…

Asphalt, in all directions.  Fortunately it’s fleeting… at the juncture of three main roads (Skyline Blvd, Pinehurst Road and Shepherd Canyon Road), the trail crosses Pinehurst and immediately jags up the wooded Phillips Loop.  After another ~¼-mile Phillips Loop breaks out of the trees, and a sharp right on to the flat, widetrack East Ridge Trail signals your unofficial entrance into Redwood Regional Park.

Redwood Regional Park Skyline Gate sign

Welcome to Redwood Regional!  Now keep running
(photo © Mitch Tobias,
reprinted from Oakland Magazine)

The East Ridge Trail – heavily populated by hikers on warm weekends – circles counterclockwise past the Skyline Gate Staging Area parking lot, and forks into its counterpart West Ridge Trail (continuation of the Bay Area Ridge Trail) to your right and the Stream Trail to your left.  Veer right and continue on the West Ridge Trail through Redwood Regional for another 4+ miles (notice but ignore the upcoming turnoff for the French Trail, where the Skyline Trail again deviates from the Bay Area Ridge Trail like the unfaithful partner it is).  After some gentle uphill work in its first 1.5 miles, the trail passes the Chabot Space and Science Center/Redwood Bowl Staging Area, then flattens out for ~½-mile before beginning its gradual descent toward Chabot Regional, with several offshoot trails en route.

But that meeting for me would have to wait another week… my day was over.  Down I followed the West Ridge Trail on one final steep yet short-lived descent to its endpoint intersection with the Bridle Trail (to your left) and Golden Spike Trail (to your right).  A sharp right on the Golden Spike Trail then a short jog, and I exited into the Fishway area near the Redwood Gate entrance to Redwood Regional.  With day one in the books it was back to life in the “real” world… at least until next weekend.

To be continued…

Be warned: Cell phone service is spotty at best in this section of Redwood Regional… I found this out the hard way once my run was over and I tried to call Katie for a ride home.  Oops.

FINAL STATS:
Total distance: 23 miles (including planned and unplanned detours)
Total time: 4:18:02
Average pace: 11:12/mile (miles 2, 3, 4, 8, 9 @ sub-10:00/mile)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect Software): 4,126ft ascent, 3,792ft descent

Trail-by-trail directions for 22 mile run from Wildcat through Redwood Regional Parks

Blow-by-blow directions for day one of my East Bay trail adventure

I know it’s important… I do, I honestly do.  But we talkin’ about practice, man.  What are we talkin’ about?  Practice?
Allen Iverson, breathing new life into the typically banal press conference of the professional athlete

Picking up where I left off… it’s all uphill from here!  As I run down five of my favorite trails for hill training (i.e. practice) in the East Bay and beyond.  Again, these are listed in no particular order:

TRAILS:

1. Marincello Trail in the Marin Headlands/Golden Gate National Recreation Area, from Tennessee Valley
(total ascent 860ft, net ascent 680ft over 1.44 miles)
Bordered by the Pacific Ocean and contiguous with both Muir Woods and Mt. Tamalpais State Park, the GGNRA boasts the finest network of running trails and stunning views in the Bay Area.  As such I could easily have pulled any five of them for this list, but instead decided to focus on my favorite, the Marincello Trail.  Beginning by the Miwok Livery Stables at Tennessee Valley, the well-maintained Marincello is right in the heart of the action here, as it stands at the nexus of several other popular running trails.  Professionally organized races in the GGNRA often include the Marincello for its uphill challenge and for the simple fact that its strategic positioning makes it difficult to avoid. Among them is one of my favorite Bay Area racing events, The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship.

Thanks to the coastal fog, sometimes there’s nothing to see on the GGNRA trails but your next step.

The Marincello demands a steady and dogged persistence, which doesn’t seem to deter the other runners, cyclists and even deer that I often meet on the way up.  During long training runs or races in the GGNRA, the Marincello’s challenge is amplified by the physical and mental energy expended in switching back to an uphill mindset after coasting downhill for several minutes.  However, being on the Marincello always seems to put me in a good mood.  And the panoramic aerial vistas of Marin City and Richardson Bay that greet me at the top don’t hurt that mood one bit.

2. The “Separator” hill on the fire trail above UC Berkeley
(total ascent 150ft over 0.1 miles)
Presumably named because it separates the upper and lower fire trails, the Separator’s name might just as easily derive from the fact that it separates the men from the boys, the women from the girls, and the champs from the chumps. Okay so maybe that’s some false machismo, but anyone who’s run it will tell you the Separator deserves its rightful spot on this list, despite being only a tenth of a mile long.  Footing on this usually dusty hill always seems difficult, and two “speed bumps” along the way add to its swagger and help you gauge your progress without having to look up from your shoetops.

Occasionally I’ll run repeats on the Separator as a training workout, and though this might seem counterintuitive, I find that the initial ascent is always more strenuous than the next few repeats.  I now use this understanding that “the first is the worst” to make Separator repeats more palatable, though of course this philosophy breaks down after about 5 repeats.  Ten is my current PR for continuous repeats without stopping… after hitting double-digits I decided not to further provoke the low-level, Separator-induced ache that threatened to spread through my groin and abdomen.

View of SF Bay from Berkeley Fire Trail

The “Separator” also separates sedentary types from this dramatic vista of the Berkeley campus & marina.

3. Live Oak/Towhee Trail in Lake Chabot Regional ParkCastro Valley
(total ascent ~670ft over 1.2 miles)
The Live Oak/Towhee Trail flexes its muscle as the wickedest section of the trail system that circumnavigates Lake Chabot.  It was also responsible for the quote – whooped out cheerily by a fellow runner during last year’s Brazen Bad Bass half marathon – that introduces my previous blog post.  For some reason I always seem to forgot how hilly the Lake Chabot course can be (denial?), and the Live Oak/Towhee Trail is always there to offer a graphic reminder.  On the plus side the trail is shaded… but it is steep and it is dusty, and if you subscribe to schadenfreude I’d suggest running it as part of a race.  Then at least you’ll be able to take some solace in the fact that your misery has plenty of company.

Don’t believe me? Feel free to get a second opinion… I’d recommend Jen’s recent experience at the Lake Chabot Trail Challenge.

4. Mount Diablo State Park, spanning Clayton, Danville and Walnut Creek
What more can I say that I haven’t already expounded on here?  Mount Diablo is the all-terrain, sun-scorched, rattlesnake-strewn crown jewel of the East Bay running scene.  Pick a trail, any trail in the park – Miwok, Highland Ridge, Oyster Point, Stage Road – and some section of it will likely require that you dig in your heels and grind up a steep ascent.  Between punishing hills and seemingly year-round heat, Diablo is the local trail running equivalent of Bane, Batman’s nemesis in “The Dark Knight Rises”: you may eventually come out on top, but along the way it may just break your back.

5. Coastal Trail in the Marin Headlands/Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Okay, so I couldn’t help myself… I had to include one more trail in the Marin Headlands, especially one with a name that promises (and delivers) so much.  Many detailed descriptions of the Coastal Trail can be found online, accompanied by eye-popping photographs.  In fact, if you’re unable to take a picturesque photo from the Coastal Trail in less than two tries, you probably shouldn’t be using a camera.

Golden Gate Bridge from Marin Headlands

Actually, I didn’t write this post just so I could use this photo, taken during a run in the Marin Headlands.

According to signs posted along the trail, the Coastal Trail extends from the Marin Headlands all the way to the Oregon border; unfortunately, I can only speak to (and recommend) the approximately 8-mile stretch running from Rodeo Beach to Tennessee Valley to Muir Beach.  Here the route consists of a well-maintained dirt trail featuring at least two steep and sustained (longer than half a mile) uphill climbs, coupled with those same eye-popping views of the West-est Coast in the continental U.S.  On a clear day I like to convince myself I can see the Farallon Islands 27 miles to the west, a favorite sanctuary for great white sharks who during the autumn months come to dine at their favorite all-you-can-eat sea lion and elephant seal buffet.

One final note: I’ve also run the “Woodmonster” in Joaquin Miller Park in Oakland, and I’ve gotta admit I was unimpressed.  True, I’d prefer not to cross paths with this hill during a race, as it could definitely throw a wrench in your pacing plans.  But with several directional changes (it spans three or four short-lived trails) and some larger rocks to clamber over, the Woodmonster is more suited to deliberate hiking than fleet-footed trail running.  Overall, though, Joaquin Miller itself is lush and woodsy – the redwoods that line the trails, though not as majestic as those in Muir Woods, are nonetheless grand, and the park scores extra points for being an oasis of solitude in the middle of the urban East Bay.  It’s an amazing dichotomy, the sense of feeling like you’re this far out in the sticks without ever leaving Oakland.  Together with its adjacent sister park Redwood Regional, Joaquin Miller offers miles of highly recommended running trails and plenty of open space in which to lose yourself.  Did I mention the Bay Area is a pretty decent place to live and train?

City of Oakland logo


Maybe this isn’t such an absurd logo for the city of Oakland after all.

Of course, I’m always on the hunt for new hills to run – both road and trail – in the East Bay and beyond.  I have my eye on a few candidates, but your questions, comments, suggestions and feedback are always appreciated.

Map of trail hills to run from East Bay to Marin Headlands

All over the map: from the East Bay to the Marin Headlands (click on the map for a magnified view)

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.

Golden Gate Bridge in fog

Shiver me timbers! ‘Tis in truth the Golden Gate Bridge, and not a ghost pirate ship, peeking through the fog. (photograph © 2006 Eric Machleder)

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.

Lombard Street at night

You’ll never witness finer curves than Lombard Street at night (photograph © 2012 David Yu photography)

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.

View of SF Bay from Creston and Marin Ave in Berkeley

Vista from Creston down Marin, across Grizzly Peak and over the Bay… note the back end of the car about to disappear out of view down Marin.

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.

Marin Avenue in Berkeley

Wishful thinking for dummies: If only Marin were built like this…

Slant of Marin Avenue in Berkeley

… because the truth hurts.

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.

Marin, I wish I knew how to quit you: Garmin tracing of a workout I did in training for the
Mount Diablo Trails Challenge 50K.

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.

There are plenty of scenic views to fawn over on your way up Spruce to Grizzly Peak.

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.

A missive from the hills themselves? Actually, one more random act of culture from the UC Berkeley campus.

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.

Gotta appreciate this Skyline resident’s quirky sense of humor
(Sutro Tower can be seen among the clouds in the background, if you squint just so).

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.

Map of road hills for running training in East Bay

Click on the map for a (slightly) magnified view.