Archive for the ‘Roads’ Category

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

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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.

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.