Posts Tagged ‘Bay Area running’

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
– Robert Frost

What does a popular trail race in Northern California have in common with the New York City Marathon—besides a start and finish line?

Looking around the small grass-and-dirt staging area adjacent to El Dorado County Fire District Station 72, you’d have been hard pressed to come up with the answer. The Way Too Cool (WTC) 50K is annually—and it’s not close—the biggest and most exciting show in town for the residents of Cool, CA, a sleepy community of ~4,100 in the Sierra foothills. In contrast, while the New York City Marathon is a big deal to runners, it’s hardly a blip on the radar to its sleepless host city of 8.5 million.

Not only that, but the hundreds of Camelbak-carrying runners waiting to descend on the Auburn State Recreation Area looked much more relaxed than the tens of thousands of type-A road marathoners who fill the streets of New York every November. Not surprising, given the amount of time and effort required to reach each start line: WTC’s easy car ride and (at most) five-minute walk was a far cry from NYC’s epic “by foot/by subway/by ferry/by bus/by foot” route I’d followed just to reach the start line in Staten Island—a journey that had taken nearly as long as running the next 26.2 miles to Central Park.

With no Brazen Racing event scheduled the same weekend, their regulars convened in Cool

And unlike the raucous crowds that line the streets of the five boroughs, the spectators on hand here in Cool would be largely limited to any locals that may be watching from the trees and foliage, most of them too preoccupied with the start of their mating season to worry about a bunch of heavy-footed humans running away from—what, exactly?

But like New York City is to so many road runners, Way Too Cool is to many trail runners a “must run” race. And just as New York is the largest marathon in North America, so too is WTC its biggest ultramarathon.

That may be where the similarity ends, though, because unlike NYC’s historic 51,000+ finishers, Way Too Cool saw a whopping—brace yourself—818 runners cross triumphantly under its green finish arch in 2016. And that was 9% more than the next largest ultra, the JFK 50 Mile.

Start – mile 8: A speedy start
Only one number mattered, though, as the start line announcer’s countdown and “GO!!!” directive sent the first wave of runners charging down the narrow paved road: 31.1 miles. The distance between us and the finish line.

Cool temperatures and mostly cloudly skies meant perfect running weather, with the rain that had threatened all week long now looking increasingly like tomorrow’s concern. Northern California had already seen more than its share of winter rain, and though the week leading up to the race had stayed dry, the trails still promised to be a sloppy, soggy adventure. Luckily for us, messy footing is a happy alternative to running in the rain.

The first mile+ of the course is a gentle downhill on asphalt to help the legs loosen up and lull you into thinking “Hey, maybe I can run a sub-5:00 50K today”. Before too much false hope could set in, though, a left turn onto the dirt took us down a damp and rocky slope where my progress slowed immediately. Rocky downhills are my least favorite terrain, and I felt like a water buffalo cautiously working my way downhill as my fellow runners flew by me with smooth, confident strides. Better safe than sorry this early in the race—I really didn’t want to land awkwardly, pitch forward face first and end my day before it had even begun.

The eight-mile “warmup” loop at WTC teasingly takes you back to the start and under the green finish arch before sending you on your way for the next 23 miles. This was a fast loop with only minor elevation changes, and unlike most of the trail races I’ve run, everyone here seemed to be running to stay ahead of the person pushing them from behind. With the pack bunched up in the early miles and moving like a fast-flowing stream, I felt pressure to keep up and not be the bottleneck. This made for a faster start than I would have run on my own, but rather than pull back on the throttle I decided to go with the flow, knowing the herd would thin out and my pace would slow after this first loop. Besides, running fast is fun, and I was having fun.

We reached the first stream crossing early in this loop, soaking our feet and getting that initial dunking out of the way quickly. There’d be—I’m guesstimating here—10-15 actual stream crossings along the course, places where I’d have no choice but to wade through shin-high (or deeper) water. Not to mention countless other instances where the path of least resistance required me to hurdle small streams or slog through soft mud. In many places, the trail had been obliterated and replaced by a muddy swamp of sunken footprints.

Returning to the staging area at mile 8, I saw Katie for the first and only time and briefly checked into the aid station for a quick sip of water and a bite of banana. One of the best things about ultras is the food at the aid stations, and WTC was no exception: offerings included bananas, pretzels, peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, boiled potatoes, M&Ms and Rice Krispie treats as well as “energy” (i.e. sugary) options like Clif Bloks and various GU flavors. Not to be outdone, the drink menu featured water, Coke, Sprite, GU Roctane and even warm chicken broth.

As I learned at the Ice Age Trail 50 last May, one of the keys to ultra success is getting in and out of each aid station—inviting though they may be—as quickly as possible, because time spent noshing and stretching at aid stations adds up in a hurry.
> Average pace (miles 1–8): 9:46/mile

Looping back thru the staging area in mile 8

Miles 9 – 14: A river runs through it
WTC may be the nation’s largest ultramarathon, but it’s a far cry from the world’s largest. That distinction belongs to South Africa’s finest, the 90-km (56-mile) Comrades Marathon which each year accepts 20,000 entries from around the world. In fact, I’d signed up for WTC in part as a well-timed training run for Comrades, which I’ll be running this June.

Headed north away from the staging area, the herd thinned and I decided to let any determined faster runners behind me forge ahead. While the first loop had been a nice way to knock out a few miles and get the blood flowing, my idea of an enjoyable 50K wasn’t going to be acting as someone else’s hare for the day.

Mile 10

For the next two miles the dirt, grass and mud trail followed a gradual downhill trajectory into the WTC “bowl”, crossing Hwy 49 before meeting up with the gravel Western States Trail for a smooth six miles along the American River. This for me was the scenic highlight of the course—being able to focus my attention on the tranquil river rather than the technical singletrack was a nice change of pace, one that allowed me to relax and bask in the beauty of my surroundings. And my legs responded, clocking an 8:35 mile 12 before the trail headed uphill away from the river and I wisely dialed down the pace again.

Owing to the cool temperatures I’d opted to wear my hydration pack minus the hydration, simply as a means of carrying my own nutrition including the baby food pouches that had served me so well at Ice Age. Every so often I’d pop a Clif Blok in my mouth while running, just to keep my blood sugar levels up. And despite still feeling fully charged at the mile 14 aid station, I took the time to down another bite of banana and a packet of GU before charging on. Blood glucose, check!
> Average pace (miles 9–14): 9:37/mile

Middle Fork of the American River

Miles 15 – 21: Up and out of the Bowl
Road marathoners quickly learn that while mile 13.1 may be the actual midway point of the race, mile 16 or even 18 represents its practical (i.e. psychological) midpoint. Not so with ultras, at least not for me—as soon as I hit the midway point at WTC (mile 15.5), I quietly celebrated my “halfway to home” status and started counting down to the finish.

In mile 16 we traversed yet another type of terrain: a river bar, a gray and brown field of water-polished rocks of all sizes, reminiscent of the moraines in Alaska and Montana left behind by the slow movement of glaciers over time. More than any other race I’ve run, WTC scores an A+ for the diversity of its terrain. Over the course of 30+ miles we encountered asphalt, dirt, red dirt, mud, short grass, tall grass, gravel, dead leaves, roots, pine needles, toppled trees, foot bridges, water crossings—you name it, we probably ran on (or through) it. A kick-ass choice for my first trail run of 2017.

Starting at around mile 17, the course took a severe upward turn and the pace slowed significantly as we climbed out of the Bowl. Miles 17–20 were an uphill struggle, penance for the easy descent that had led us down into the Bowl.

I shadowed one seemingly tireless woman in these middle miles, both of us clearly determined to run as much of the uphill as possible. Passing a fellow runner catching his breath on the side of the trail with his hands on his waist, she glanced over at him and said, with what sounded like a smile in her voice (I could be wrong), “Tired?” With that one word, and without pausing, she blew by him with me in close pursuit.

River bar, mile 16

Reaching one particularly high creek crossing, I momentarily lost sight of the orange visor and dark ponytail before spying a flash of movement just downstream. I turned to see my rabbit crossing a wooden plank spanning the creek with the help of a rubber garden hose tied between two trees on either side of the water. I followed, grateful for not having to wade through cold, waist-deep water.

The pattern continued unabated: slop through mud, wade through water, slop through mud, wade through water. I could only imagine the sheer joy of navigating this course during the steady downpour of 2016.

On the bright side, the swampy conditions meant the locals were out in force, and their croaking resonated at several points along the course. We were, after all, intruding on their mating season—hence the frog theme of the race. Their throaty calls evoked childhood memories of warm spring nights in Texas, and distracted from my mounting fatigue.

By the time I reached the mile 21 aid station, I’d lost my rabbit—or rather, she’d lost me. I drowned my sorrows in a packet of baby food and another bite of banana, threw back a few sips of caffeinated energy drink and set my sights on Goat Hill.
> Average pace (miles 15–21): 11:34/mile

Miles 22 – 26: Gunning for Goat Hill
Miles 22–26 of any 50K are sort of the dead zone.

Despite the psychological boost of knowing you have single-digit miles to go, you still have an appreciable distance to cover, plus you’ve yet to reach the marathon milestone at mile 26. And depending on the terrain, your quads and knees are probably starting to stiffen up, making it increasingly tough to speed up and negotiate technical footing. Especially when you’re constantly wading through shin-high water or trying not to sacrifice your shoes to the mud gods.

And speaking of technical footing: as the miles wear on, the mental focus and vigilance needed to constantly be scanning three steps ahead for rocks, roots etc. start to take their toll. As the body tires, the mind wanders and the odds of a misstep grow with every footfall.

Mile 23

So yeah, 21–26 may be my least favorite miles of any 50K—they’re challenging mentally and they’re challenging physically. And in the case of WTC, I’d been warned that at the end of this relaxed, gently rolling stretch awaited Goat Hill.

Welcome to the Way Too Cool 10K, I thought as my Garmin beeped to signal mile 25.

Way Too Cool wasn’t a target race for me—rather, it was a timely opportunity to run some beautiful trails with some excellent friends, at a time when I had no other races on the docket. So there’d been no taper for this, no gradual decrease in training mileage to ensure my legs were at their well-rested bestest. Nope, WTC in effect would be a slightly longer version of my usual weekend long run. Plus, we’d returned from a work conference in Florida earlier in the week, just in time to hop a plane to the Bay Area. So sleep hadn’t been a priority, either. And now, as I chugged through the woods on cruise control, the bill came due for my pre-race nonchalance as a wave of fatigue washed over me.

The good news: the mile 26 aid station now lay less than ¾ of a mile ahead. The less good news: in that intervening ¾ of a mile stood Goat Hill. Someone would later tell me the course’s most intimidating hill had been extended this year, making it longer than usual. In any case, Goat Hill was a tragedy in three acts—where I’d been expecting one brief but nasty ascent, instead I got triple my money’s worth. Brief stretches of level ground—just long enough to make you think you’d reached the top—twice transitioned into another short but steep incline. On the bright side, there was no sense in even trying to run this, so I opted for the tried-and-true hands-on-quads strategy to power-hike my way uphill.

“Passing… on… the… right,” I laughed as I slowly trudged past another runner who’d stopped to catch his breath.

But like all good things, all bad hills must end, and finally I emerged at the top to find the mile 26 aid station awaiting. This, I thought, would be an awesome place for the finish line of the Way Too Cool Marathon.
> Average pace (miles 22–26): 12:34/mile; 18:45 for mile 26

Goat Hill, part one

Mile 27 – finish: Are we there yet?
One more baby food pouch, one more bite of banana and one more sip of energy drink later, I did a few knee raises to loosen my quads and hip flexors, took a deep breath and pointed myself down the trail toward home.

I soon realized there’d be no relief in these last five miles. A series of wet, rocky downhills followed as the trail seemed to get even more technical. Not wanting to do anything stupid (well, stupider than running 31 miles), and with my quads and knees feeling increasingly like stone pillars, I switched gears to “slow and steady” mode. 26+ miles into a long and enjoyable training run, this was no time to go hero on the course and do something stupid.

My only real time goal for the day was simple, and hardly a stretch: anything better than my current 50K PR of 6:33:45, set four years earlier at the Harding Hustle where temperatures reached 100°F. That effort in turn had eclipsed my first 50K finish time of 7:39:51 at the 2012 Brazen Diablo Trails Challenge (my first-ever blog post)—there too temperatures had peaked in the 90s, and I’d nearly left a kidney on the course owing to overheating and dehydration. Talk about rookie mistakes and learning the hard way…

One of the course’s many DIY shoe washing stations

I figured with today’s cool temperatures I’d have a legit shot of breaking six hours, thus giving me one seven-hour 50K, one six-hour 50K and one five-hour 50K on my résumé. Hard to argue with that rate of improvement.

Right now, though, as I trudged along feeling more tortoise than hare, I sure didn’t feel like a man in pursuit of a sub-six finish. Gently flowing rivulets that I would have vaulted in stride earlier in the day became three-step exercises in pause-plant-leap.

Ever helpful, my Garmin chirped to indicate the end of mile 28. Easy peazy, I told myself. Welcome to the Way Too Cool 5K. Suddenly, three miles felt like an absurdly long way.

Crossing Hwy 49 once again, I flashed a weak smile at the folks directing traffic just ahead of the final aid station, which I passed without stopping. Not now, no more time to waste, not with the finish line so close.

“Half a mile to go!” a couple shouted as I passed. “You’re everyone’s best friend!” I responded. Several spectators in the last mile commented on the fact that I was still smiling. I’d heard that in Louisiana too… and why wouldn’t I be smiling? With everything that’s going on in the world right now, how lucky am I to be able to run 31 miles just for fun? It’s something I’ll never, ever, never never take for granted.

At the same time I was confused. Half a mile to go? My Garmin hadn’t even reached 30 miles, so this was probably another case of spectator overzealousness, something I’ve seen more times than I can count—like the fellow at mile 20 of a marathon who shouts “ALMOST THERE!!!”. And yet now that the seed was planted, I felt one last burst of energy kick in, propelling me onward.

Luckily in this case, the spectator was right. As the inflatable green finish arch came into view once again, I glanced down at my wrist and was amazed to see a time of just over 5h30m. As much as I’d slowed after my speedy pace in the early miles, I thought for sure I’d be pushing six hours. Even if the course had been a full 31.1 miles, I still would have had plenty of buffer to break six hours.

With a final turn and a wave at Katie, I hopped one last patch of mud and crossed under the arch with a shiny new 50K personal best of 5:35:39. Yes the course had been roughly a mile short (according to my GPS and many others on Strava), but I figured that was a fair tradeoff for all the stream crossings and mud I’d lugged on the soles of my shoes for the past 5½ hours.

Two friends I’d met through Brazen Racing, Patricia and Yoly, were the first smiling faces I saw on crossing the finish—Patricia hung the finisher medal around my neck while Yoly greeted me with her usual huge smile. Way Too Cool mission accomplished!
> Average pace (miles 27–30.1): 13:29/mile

I briefly chatted with Yoly and some fellow finishers before reuniting with Katie, who once again had somehow found enjoyment in hanging out in the middle of nowhere while I ran in circles for nearly six hours. We diffused over to the vendor tents where a nice post-race spread awaited, including warm soup to warm my innards. As I stood sipping at the soup I missed another Brazen buddy, Mike B., finish strong with his own PR of 6:05:xx. Dammit, I’d had no idea he was that close behind me.

Mike and I shared congrats and then made our way toward the Sufferfest Brewing beer tent. There we met more friends before Katie and I eventually found our way to the most important tent of all, where volunteers stood handing out the race’s signature frog cupcakes. I still remember my brother and sister-in-law, after running WTC back in 2012, showing up at our place in Berkeley with a gift of frog cupcakes, the dashboard of their car smeared green where one rogue cupcake had tried unsuccessfully to make its escape.

And with that, our work here in Cool was done. Saying our farewells, we made the long three-minute walk back to the car before putting the Sierra Foothills in our rearview mirror. For now. Hopefully I still have many memorable road and trail races ahead of me—throughout the state, across the country and around the world. But will I ever find a more welcoming yet challenging race on a more diverse and beautiful course than Way Too Cool?

Frog-et about it.

Way Too Happy finishers (photo Yoly P.)

BOTTOM LINE: Way Too Cool earns its name, from the awesome scenery to the race day temperatures to the chilly water that awaits at every stream crossing. As the largest trail race in the country, it’s a bucket list event for serious dirtbags. And you may never find a more scenic and diverse course than the network of trails you’ll follow on your 30+ mile journey along the Middle Fork of the American River Canyon and through the Auburn State Recreation Area.

The North Face Endurance Challenge, my benchmark for trail races in California, is a much different course than WTC—its jaw-dropping vistas of the Pacific Ocean and Golden Gate Bridge notwithstanding, the trails and scenery at TNFEC are less varied than at WTC.

The reasonably challenging course (4,000 ft of elevation gain/loss) is predominantly single-track with no two-way traffic, so slower runners need never worry about the possibility of colliding with speedier oncoming elite and sub-elite runners. There’s even significant overlap (roughly 12 miles) with the iconic Western States 100 Trail. Along the way you’ll have the occasional croaking of the locals (it’s frog mating season in Cool) to relax your mind and remind you that you’re far away from the chaotic hustle and bustle of urbania. Plus, in early March you can be confident of cooler race day temps—the real variable when it comes to the weather is how wet you’ll get.

The icing on the cake at WTC is… well, the icing on the cake. Cupcake that is, since you’ll have the opportunity to enjoy the race’s signature frog cupcakes at the finish line festival. What better way to quickly normalize blood sugar levels?

Yeah, I know you’re green with envy right now

PRODUCTION: Smooth sailing with no real complaints. Pre-race packet pickup gave us an opportunity to support the local Auburn Running Company, which feels like a shrine of sorts to the iconic Western States 100 Endurance Run.

Race day itself flowed seamlessly: the course was well marked with ribbons, leaving no chance for a wrong turn even after my mind switched over to auto-pilot mode in the later miles. And the finish-line festival offered one of the more interesting assortment of vendor tents, with the presenting sponsor Clif Bar joined by GU, Camelbak, Dickey’s BBQ, Red Bull, Sufferfest Brewing, Salomon, Rock Tape, KaiaFit, Squirrel’s Nut Butter (great to prevent chafing!) and Monsters of Massage.

Aside from the number of stream crossings, the only real issue for most runners will be the sparsity of aid stations, which were few and far between at miles 8, 14, 19, 26 and (I think) 29. Thanks to the cooler temps I didn’t need to carry my own hydration, but I did bring my own baby food pouches just in case I felt my blood sugar dropping.

A note about parking: At our pre-race dinner the night before (at La Fornaretta, a comfy Italian restaurant in nearby Newcastle), there was anxious discussion about how early folks—including several WTC veterans—were planning to arrive the next morning to secure a good parking spot. Many folks planned to show up over two hours early and nap in their cars, just so they’d be assured of a parking spot as close to the start line as possible. Not willing to forego that much sleep but wanting to play it safe, Katie and I decided to show up just over an hour before the start (way early for us)—and we ended up parking easily in the empty “overflow” lot of the local Holiday Market, no more than a five-minute walk from the start line. Other cars continued to park near us for the next hour or so as we sat waiting. In other words, parking is easy no matter what time you get there. Cool is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town so there’s no traffic, even on race day. Many runners park directly adjacent to the fire station (start line) on St. Florian Ct, which the race organizers close to traffic an hour or so before the race, But there’s no need to park that close unless maybe you’re expecting heavy rain and want immediate access to your car after the race. And you’ll benefit much more from the two+ hours of extra sleep than from the primo parking spot.

SWAG: Not much to recommend here. Honestly, the shirt was awful—a thin, poorly fitting Greenlayer tee that went immediately into the donation pile. Luckily the finisher medal was better, small and simply designed with the race name and frog logo (apparently the medal is the same every year, the only difference being ribbon color). The swag was the only aspect of the race that wasn’t way too cool, though trail races get the benefit of the doubt since trail runners tend not to be swagophiles like the typical road runner. If only cupcakes counted as swag…

RaceRaves rating:

FINAL STATS:
March 4, 2017 (start time 8:00am)
30.14 miles in Cool, CA
Finish time & pace: 5:35:39 (first time running Way Too Cool, 3rd 50K overall), 11:08/mile
Finish place: 201 overall, 52/159 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 700 (419 men, 281 women)
Race weather: cool & cloudy (start temp 46°F)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 4,029 ft ascent, 4,023 ft descent

When you see someone putting on his Big Boots, you can be pretty sure that an Adventure is going to happen.
– Winnie the Pooh

Purple & gold celebration

“How far do you want to run?” I asked.

“A really long way,” was the reply, “Because I don’t get tired. How long would it take us to run 100 miles?”

I thought about the question. I could give my indefatigable companion an honest yet unproductive answer. Instead, I opted for a more open-ended response: “Let’s start running and see how we feel,” I said. “I’m not sure we’ll have time for 100 miles today.”

Today had already been a full & productive day by most standards. With summer still two weeks away, the mercury in the East Bay had already topped out at 100°F. And yet technically speaking, this would be our second run of the day. Our morning had begun with a spontaneous “interval” session around the neighborhood—brief sprints of 50 or so yards punctuated by frequent stops, the Nephew taking advantage of these stops to bend down and pocket a handful of seemingly nondescript pebbles, while I caught my breath and watched in amusement.

We’d returned home from that impromptu sprint workout sweaty and triumphant, his shorts hanging two inches lower and clacking away like a walking bag of marbles thanks to all the rocks he’d pocketed.

After lunch, Katie joined us for an early-afternoon outing of batting practice and ‘90s arcade games at the nearby batting cages. We hesitated outside the slowest of the facility’s batting cages, the sharp THUMP! of fastball hitting backstop greeting our ears as an older boy waved helplessly at a passing pitch.

Throwing

Katie and I looked at each other, concerned that even the slowest cage may be too fast for a newly minted second-grader. The Nephew seemed unimpressed. In he went, and after lowering the height of the pitches to accommodate his smaller frame, there we stood outside the fence watching with fascination as pitch after pitch leaped off his bat, its owner eagerly scooting forward in the batter’s box (despite my protests) to greet the ball sooner.

In the parlance of his hometown, the Nephew is hella athletic for his age, with precocious eye-hand coordination that makes him the clear choice for leadoff hitter on his little-league baseball team. And it’s amazing how fast his basketball skills developed from “cute” to “formidable” in the span of one year, despite his lack of a significant growth spurt during that time. Watching him bury running bank shots, his forward momentum helping him get the ball over the rim, on a standard ten-foot basket in the first grade gave me goosebumps.

But next-gen Steph Curry or not, I assumed that when the time came for me to squeeze in my own training run later that day in the heat, the Nephew would be perfectly happy to crash in front of the TV. After all, what 7-year-old wants to go running when there’s no ball involved, much less twice in one day? I figured he’d be about as likely to welcome more running as he would be to sit still during dinner. So I was surprised when he insisted on joining me, still crackling with energy and intent on racking up 100 miles by dinnertime.

Tweaking my own expectations a bit, I laced up my running shoes, strapped my Garmin (GPS unit) to my wrist to measure our mileage, and the two of us set out toward the neighborhood sports park. The plan, formulated by Katie and me, would be to run around the sports park until the Nephew inevitably got bored/hungry/tired, then drop him back off at his house before continuing on to finish my scheduled 10-mile run. The perfect plan! {cue mad scientist laugh} Or so it seemed, at least to the naïve adults who crafted it.

Prisma-rrific

(With thanks to the Prisma app)

Before his front door was out of sight, the Nephew had already stopped twice — once to pick up a discarded bolt and again to tear open a plastic-bagged advertisement for lawn care services, laying claim to the tiny rocks used to weigh down the bag and prevent its blowing away. He jammed the ad down in one pocket and dropped the pebbles in the other, intent on adding them to the two dozen or so he’d collected that morning.

Somehow, without further distraction we reached our destination. Like most cookie-cutter sports parks in suburban America, this one was organized into multiple baseball & soccer fields, concession stands to serve the summer crowds and rows of colorful flowers to keep even the littlest spectators entertained. We set off in a clockwise loop around the complex, with the Nephew leaving the paved path and darting across the grass, because what fun is running on concrete when there’s so much grass available?

Happily we ran through the sparsely populated park, cutting through the empty parking lot which this late in the day lacked the usual hustle-and-bustle of little league activity and childhood in progress. My companion paused at regular intervals to rest, assuring me that “After I rest, I can run fast again.” But I agreed with him that this was just a run and not a race, since it wouldn’t be good to stop during a race.

Taiwan

Keeping cool in the Taipei heat (left); a first-rate photobomb, courtesy of the Niece & Nephew (right)

With the calendar approaching the longest day of the year, the sun remained high in the East Bay sky. The sweltering day had cooled off and surrendered to what was now a perfect evening for running. But more than that, it was a perfect evening for stopping. And we took full advantage:

  • We stopped to watch two teenagers hit baseballs.
  • We stopped to check out the scoreboard mounted beyond the outfield wall, its lit facade displaying a score of 0-0 to no one in particular.
  • We stopped to watch two boys and (presumably) their mother coast by slowly on bikes, the mom scolding one boy for ignoring her orders. “He’s in trouble,” the Nephew—speaking from experience—noted matter-of-factly.
  • We stopped so he could kick a semi-deflated ball over the low chain-link fence several times, and so the adult in me could dissuade him from carrying it home with us.
  • We stopped so he could pick up a discarded potato chip bag and recycle it.
  • We stopped to drink from the water fountain… after all it was still a warm evening, and running makes you thirsty!

“Are you tired?” he’d ask every so often. “Nope,” I’d answer honestly, “But I do this a lot more than you.”

Victoria Harbour

Surveying Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong

  • We stopped probably a dozen times to look at the posted sign showing a map of the park (a perfect excuse to rest, I realized), decide on a route and then quickly deviate from that route ten steps later.
  • We stopped at one end of the two football fields to touch the crooked goalposts, then race back across the semi-overgrown field to touch the opposite goalposts.
  • We stopped just because.
  • We stopped so he could pick up a discarded water bottle and, before I could protest, toss it over a tall fence with a “BEWARE OF THE DOG” sign nailed to the wooden pickets. Beware of the boy, I thought wryly.
  • We stopped to watch two pitches of an adult softball league game. Nothing interesting of note there, so we moved on.

I kept a close eye on my charge, urging him to let me know when he felt hungry or tired. Yet onward he ran with me trailing behind. “I’m not tired, but my legs are tired,” he reported as we stopped to study and re-study the map of the park.

Watching

His mom said it best: “Objectively, he’s a very good athlete.”

“I have to push myself,” he offered another time, before promptly pausing for another walk break. It reminded me of the time several years earlier when I’d first explained to him at dinner that Katie and I were vegetarians. “Me too,” he’d agreed earnestly, emphasizing his point with a wave of the oversized duck leg he was gnawing.

  • We stopped so he could walk the curb like a tightrope walker, trying to avoid brushing up against the bright pink flowers and then, when he couldn’t, creating the rule that as long as he touched them for less than five seconds they couldn’t hurt him. As he pushed his way past the branches overhanging the curb, pink petals fluttered to the ground in his wake. And his first encounter with a thorn quickly ended that game.
  • We stopped to watch a dad pitch to his son and bark at him in clipped Japanese after every swing, whether the boy made contact or not.
  • We stopped so he could try to sneak up on some seemingly unsuspecting squirrels who were, in fact, very much onto his game. Scurrying up the closest tree, the two playful park residents easily scampered out of his reach as he moved to surprise them.
  • We stopped so he could ask me which of the two side-by-side playgrounds I preferred, and we agreed that the one with the adult swings (i.e. no harnesses) was far and away the better of the two.

By stops and starts, across grass and concrete the miles faithfully ticked by. When we reached mile 3 my smaller half asked, “Is this one of your longest practice runs?”

Star Wars boy

Wookie experts agree he’s a huggable kid, as long as you don’t get on his Dark Side

  • We stopped so that, at his pleading, I could transfer the Garmin to his tiny wrist. I explained that the red button started the timer while he was running and stopped it while he was walking (a strategy I’d been following to that point). Gesturing at the screen he asked, “How many of these does it take to make a mile?” And it struck me — decimals are a foreign concept to 7-year-olds. So I taught him that once those last two numbers passed 99, the mile would end and a new one would begin. So our last mile quickly became an exercise in staccato-style sprints, each one culminating in his looking at the GPS and announcing, “It went up by 2! It went up by 2 again! It went up by 2 AGAIN!”
  • And just as we were exiting the park on our way home, we stopped one last time so he could turn and run back to the water fountain — not to drink, but to douse his head with water so the others waiting at home would think he was totally sweaty.

Watching his wrist intently the Nephew led us toward home, the Garmin chiming for the fourth and final time just as we reached his front yard. Beaming proudly, he announced to the adults waiting at the door that he’d just run 4 miles. I congratulated him on his longest run ever. “I think I’ve gotten my exercise for the day,” he agreed with a weary smile.

(And about those adults waiting at the door—apparently we’d been gone for 1½ hours, during which time Katie had set out to look for us. Not being a parent, I’d become so engrossed in our carefree uncle-nephew bonding time that I’d been oblivious to common-sense parental considerations like dinner time, shower time, bed time, the fact it was a school night, etc. The fact that we’d encountered not one other kid his age during our run probably should have clued me in but hey, hindsight is 20/20!)

June7route_GE_BCH

Garmin tracing of our 4-mile route—landmarks have been omitted to protect the guilty

In the end, our meandering route resembled a Sunday “Family Circus” cartoon—across the lawn, over the fence, through the neighbor’s flowers… it was spontaneous, it was unpredictable, it was frustrating yet freeing in its lack of structure. It was nothing like my usual training run. And it was fun.

Conventional running wisdom tells us here’s the start line, there’s the finish, get from here to there by the shortest route possible, don’t stray, don’t meander, don’t roam. Every training run should serve a purpose, or else file it under “junk” miles and don’t waste your time. Coloring outside the lines—particularly if you’re a road runner—is actively discouraged. And more often than not, we oblige.

And yet signs of pushback have surfaced within the running community. The sport’s rigid adherence to protocol and “one size fits all” mindset have helped fuel the rise of more whimsical options like runDisney, as well as the recent explosion in popularity of mud runs and obstacle course races. At the same time, increasing numbers of conventional runners are eschewing concrete for dirt—truth is, there’s no better playground than Mother Nature’s backyard.

Orange you glad he's running?

In my head I run like this, but the race photos tell a different story

As we mature, so do our hobbies—running evolves from play into sport into highly regimented activity. Strict training schedules tell us what we should run, frenetic daily schedules dictate when we should run, and wearable technology provides constant feedback on how well we’re running.

And the why? That one’s in the eye of the beholder. Like everything else the why evolves with age—from getting in shape, to completing our first half marathon, to chasing personal bests, to (re-)qualifying for Boston, to staying in shape. Grown-up goals framed on the backdrop of ever-increasing grown-up demands.

But once upon a time—before tempo runs, before specialized shoes and before personalized GPS data—there was a much simpler & more lighthearted why. Watching my Nephew run, his unchoreographed strides offered a moving reminder of that original why.

Because nothing instills joy like recess without rules. Because running always gets us where we want to go. Because there’s no such thing as “junk” miles. Because we really are born to run. And because running, at its core, is child’s play.

A day like ours deserved a happy ending, and I’m happy to report it got one, with our exhausted hero falling into a deep slumber almost before his head touched the pillow. And with that my work—scratch that, my play here was done.

Whether my Garmin said so or not.

Santa Monica Pier

Well done is better than well said.
– Benjamin Franklin

Sunset on the Bay Bridge, with San Francisco aglow in the background (original photo here)

18 February 2013

Dear Bay Area Toll Authority,

It’s not often I write an open – or for that matter a closed – letter to a government entity.  It feels too much like yelling at the TV.  But just this once I thought I’d make an exception… because as a current East Bay and former South Bay resident, I have a long-overdue plan to help ensure the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge – with its new eastern span to be completed later this year – is the architectural marvel and civic masterpiece it deserves to be.  Besides, isn’t speaking up and making my voice heard the mark of a good Bay Area resident?

Don’t worry, I’m not writing to take you to task – as many Bay Area residents already have – for the project’s staggering and ever-escalating price tag (currently estimated at over $12 billion, making it the most expensive public works project in California history), nor for the fact that design and construction of the bridge’s Self-Anchored Suspension Tower has been outsourced to at least seven countries, chief among them China.  Though admittedly, these would provide solid starting points for a discussion of California’s enduringly inept bureaucracy.

Nope, I’m writing to you today as a runner, one who’s spent countless hours exploring the Bay Area’s myriad roads and trails on foot.  Fact is, the Bay Area’s calling card is its geographic, cultural, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity, and running provides ready access to that diversity as no other mode of transport can.  So my ongoing issue with the Bay Bridge is one not of unchecked excess but of glaring omission.  It’s a first-world problem, but here in the pedestrian-friendly Bay Area it’s also a conspicuous oversight.  It’s the lack of a Bay Bridge pedestrian/bike path extending from Oakland to San Francisco.

GG Bridge from Bay Bridge

It makes me blue to think that this view – shot from the Bay Bridge at 50 mph – is inaccessible by foot

Do you know what the East Bay, North Bay, South Bay, and City by the Bay all have in common?  It’s not a trick question.  The San Francisco Bay separates east from west, Oakland from San Francisco, A’s fan from Giants fan, Raiders fan from 49ers fan, future Warriors fan from former Warriors fan, and foggy from, well, foggier.  Several months ago, while the 49ers were flexing their muscles and the Raiders were regularly getting sand kicked in their face, the cheeky response to the question of “What separates the NFL’s best and worst teams?”  would have been “the San Francisco Bay.”  But as divisive as five miles of water can be (particularly during football season), it’s the Bay Bridge that physically connects and otherwise unifies the two sides of the bay.  Unless, of course, you’re on foot.

Granted, both Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and an inconvenient ferry system operate between Oakland and SF.  But as Bay Area residents we pride ourselves on our progressive joie de vivre, particularly as regards our spectrum of eco-friendly transportation options.  I see more hybrid vehicles at a typical stoplight here than I see during an entire week in most other states.  Bike lanes are a staple of our commuting diet, and out-of-town guests are constantly amazed by the pedestrian-savvy temperament of the drivers here.  From my home base in the East Bay, I feel like I can get pretty much anywhere I want to get in the San Francisco Bay Area on foot.

Except San Francisco.

The fact that I can’t run directly from Oakland to San Francisco is absurd.  Currently all my runs along the Berkeley Marina end by necessity on the border of Emeryville, at the eastern end of the Bay Bridge.  From there it’s either head back up the Marina the way I came, head east into Emeryville (which without Pixar would pretty much qualify as Oakland’s appendix), or gaze longingly across the bay at a vast running landscape that in those moments of frustration might as well be the Emerald City.  Except that – OOPS! – we forgot to build a yellow brick road.

Artist’s rendering of a Bay Bridge pedestrian/bike path… look how much fun those faux people are having!
(photo © 2011 Rmleczko, courtesy MTA)

Why has a Bay Bridge pedestrian and bike path not yet happened?  It’s unclear why its original architect – unlike the architects of its more popular and flamboyant neighbor, the Golden Gate Bridge (GGB) – failed to prioritize pedestrian access in his part-suspension, part-cantilever design.  This oversight is even more puzzling given that initial construction on both bridges began six months apart in the same year, 1933.  It’s hard to imagine that two groups of architects, each working on its own similarly massive engineering project, could operate in such close physical proximity without swapping stories or sharing ideas.  In any case, since opening in May 1937 the GGB has boasted pedestrian walkways on its eastern and western sides.  On pleasant days these walkways are crowded with sightseeing tourists and smitten locals, around whom I’ll dance and weave as I hoof my way from the Marin Headlands to all parts of San Francisco.

True, the new Bay Bridge eastern span leading from Oakland to Yerba Buena and Treasure Islands will contain a pedestrian/bike lane, a fact that former SF mayor Willie Brown is quick to take credit for.  Inexplicably, however, there are no plans to extend pedestrian access all the way to SF.  This feels like popping a handful of M&Ms in your mouth, only to discover after your first chew that they’re actually Skittles – great expectations give way to visceral annoyance gives way to resigned disappointment.  It’s a bewildering lapse in both planning and judgment that’s earned the new walkway the derisive nickname of “bike path to nowhere.”  Try not to take it too hard, Treasure Island.

From a busine$$ perspective, I’m envisioning the commercial applications for a Bay Bridge pedestrian/bike path.  This past week, Matier and Ross reported in the SF Chronicle that a 12.5-mile run from Oakland City Hall to SF City Hall is in the works as part of the opening weekend festivities for the new bridge.  It’s a terrific idea, but why stop there?  Add another half mile to the course, and what Bay Area runner wouldn’t sign up and line up to run the annual “Hall to Hall” Half Marathon to benefit Oakland and SF charities, with the incentive of an additional donation (plus bragging rights) going to the city with the fastest runners?  The walkways on the Golden Gate Bridge figure prominently in three current SF races – the U.S. Half, the newly rebranded Rock ‘n’ Roll San Francisco Half, and the 200-mile Golden Gate Relay.  Plus the city’s signature event, the Wipro San Francisco Marathon, runs on the GGB roadbed.  There’s no reason the Bay Bridge couldn’t (and shouldn’t) follow suit.

I’m happy to design a Bay Area-savvy medal for the “Hall-to-Hall” Half Marathon

I expect your higher-ups at the Bay Area Toll Authority will be quick to cite financial constraints and design considerations, and to suggest that I get in line behind everyone else’s pet projects.  But that’s why I’ve addressed this letter to your agency – because you have the authority (the word’s in your name, after all) to “fund the long-term capital improvement and rehabilitation of the bridges.”  And given that the Bay Bridge east span replacement is already grossly over budget – a budget that has been alarmingly immune to public scrutiny – what’s another half a billion dollars among friends?  You’ll likely spend a solid chunk of that on Labor Day opening ceremonies anyway.

I’m encouraged to read that finally we’ve reached the stage where a Bay Bridge pedestrian/bike path is now an official project eligible for funding.  But you and I both know that’s government-speak for “we’ll get to it when we get to it,” and unless the project shows up on someone’s priority list soon, it will remain without funding ad infinitum.  In the meantime, while the relevant “project initiation document” sits gathering the sloughed-off dead skin of feckless government officials dust in a file cabinet in Sacramento, think about the vital opportunity the Bay Area is losing to improve traffic flow and further reduce carbon emissions by increasing the number of commuters biking (or even running!) to work.  And running or biking is more affordable than riding BART or taking the ferry.

Since we the taxpayers are obligated to foot the bill for Bay Bridge reconstruction, then we should also be able to foot the Bay Bridge.  A two-way pedestrian and bike path should have happened years – nay, decades – ago.  Yet somehow, here in the nation’s crown jewel of progressive foresight and ingenuity, I can still swim from Oakland to San Francisco faster than I can run.  So come on BATA, let’s get this done!  Do the right thing and don’t drop the ball on this one.  We both know the Raiders don’t need the competition.

Best regards,
Mike Sohaskey
Founder and Chief Running Officer, CRO-BAR (Concerned Runners Of the Bay Area)