Posts Tagged ‘hill training’

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

View of SF Bay from Berkeley Fire Trail

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

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

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

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

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

Golden Gate Bridge from Marin Headlands

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

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

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

City of Oakland logo

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

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

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

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

Hills pay the bills!
– Unidentified runner, Brazen Bad Bass Half Marathon, 30 July 2011

Runners lucky enough to live and train here in the Bay Area have it easy.  Most conspicuously, the climate here is notoriously mild year-round: for example, on Stanford’s campus the average high temperature in July is 80°F, the average low in December is 39°F, and the average rainfall in February (the rainiest month of the year) is 3.31″.  Across the bay at UC Berkeley, these numbers are 74°F, 43°F and 5.38″.  And snow?  I once heard a local radio personality remark that snow isn’t treated as weather here as much as it is a toy we take out of the toy box during the winter months (i.e. Lake Tahoe), play with for a while and then put back once we’re done.  Granted it can get a bit gusty at times, particularly close to the coast.  And our iconic coastal fog does tend to roll in at inopportune times (hope you weren’t banking on that prize-winning Golden Gate Bridge photo happening today).  But if you own a windbreaker and some sunscreen, the Bay Area is a comfortable place to train 365 days a year.

Golden Gate Bridge in fog

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

Likewise, you won’t need Denver-caliber hemoglobin to run in these parts.  Since we are by definition at sea level, any runner can step off an airplane at SFO one day and be comfortably racing the next, no acclimation required.  And really, we don’t have any landforms that I’d technically call “mountains”… all the candidates are more like impressive hills.  The highest peak in the Bay Area, Copernicus Peak on Mount Hamilton in Santa Clara County, stretches all the way up to 4,367ft, and even that peak elevation is legally accessible only with special permission.  Similarly, Mount Diablo’s bite is worse than its bark: Diablo tops out at only 3,864ft, but during bouts of hot weather the “mountain” (as Wikipedia labels it) stands tall and lives up to its name, reducing many a confident runner to an overheated, profanity-spewing sweat-and-dust goblin.

So yeah, the San Francisco Bay Area is an easy place to be(come) a runner.  But just as importantly, it’s also an easy place to become a better runner… particularly if you like to train on hills.  Because what the Bay Area lacks in absolute elevation gain, it more than makes up for with its seemingly limitless potential for net elevation gain.  San Francisco may be the most renowned among Bay Area cities for the sometimes dizzying tilt of its streets (see Lombard and Filbert), and in fact Stride Nation recently (and somewhat melodramatically) referred to the 2012 San Francisco Marathon as “Death By A Thousand Hills.”  But the East Bay also features an impressive number of bad-ass urban inclines.  Not so surprising, considering that Berkeley does have the Berkeley Hills, and Oakland, the Oakland Hills.

And I really like hills.

Lombard Street at night

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

So after running and training in the Bay Area for over ten years now, I’d say I have – accidentally or purposefully – experienced most of the killer ascents this region has to offer.  And I’ve found that a few notables keep drawing me back… in some cases because they represent the best route to get from point A (where I am) to point B (where I’m going), and in other cases because I think I suffer from a sort of runner’s Stockholm Syndrome when it comes to hills.  Conveniently, there are even a few hills that fall neatly into both categories, e.g. the “Separator” hill on the fire trail above UC Berkeley.

So with that long and winding intro, I (almost) give you my list of the top ten runnable hills in what I’m calling the “East Bay and beyond.”  Since I try to divide my mileage fairly evenly between asphalt and trails, I’ve broken the list down into two lists of five: first roads, then trails.  For me, ascents on asphalt tend to be less taxing than those on dirt, owing to more stable and level footing.  On dirt, particularly loose dirt and uneven terrain, progress typically feels like one step forward and half a step back.

Finally, a few disclaimers: 1) These are not ranked lists; 2) These are not meant to be definitive lists… I haven’t run every hill in the Bay Area (yet), so I’d expect there are plenty of worthwhile lung-busters out there still to be ascended; and 3) I’ve tried to make these functional lists for everyday training purposes, not a “who’s who” of the ass-kickingest hills in the Bay Area.  Accordingly, I’ve emphasized the “runnable” aspect, meaning I’ve reached the point where I can maintain a jogging pace (however slow) on each of these hills without having to walk.  For me that’s the challenge and the real purpose of hill training, to balance that fine physical and psychological line between “Should I keep running?” and “Should I start walking?”  With that in mind, I’ve omitted inclines composed primarily of stairs (sorry Dipsea, though I do appreciate your quirkiness), as well as ridiculously steep ascents on which only a mountain goat or the running 1% could maintain a jogging pace.

I’ll limit this blog post to the roads, and reserve my next post for the trails:

ROADS (in no particular order):

1.  Marin Avenue in Berkeley, from the Marin Circle Fountain to Creston Road
(total ascent 700ft over 0.8 miles)

For me, Marin is the queen mother of urban asphalt.  It’s a gut-check series of 11 neighborhood blocks of varying steepness, the most wicked of which approaches a 30% grade.  The first block – one of the lengthiest – offers a fairly gradual ascent that affords you the time to either catch that elusive second wind or reach the realization that you’re just not going to.  After three shorter blocks that threaten to lull you into a false sense of “This ain’t so bad,” the 5th block wrenches upward to Spruce Street.  And that’s where the real fun begins… after Spruce, with your legs and lungs now starting to ache in protest, it’s six more blocks to the top, five if you’re content to stop at Grizzly Peak.  Particularly severe are blocks eight through ten, starting at Euclid Avenue and ending at Grizzly Peak… this is the most severely masochistic, eyes-on-your-shoetops-and-just-keep-those-legs-churning stretch of the journey.  Mentally I like to break the longest block, between the appropriately named Keeler Avenue and Grizzly Peak, into thirds so I can gauge my progress and know when to make my final, graceful-as-a-drugged-water-buffalo charge up to Grizzly Peak.  The final jaunt upward to Creston is pretty much icing on the cake, and if I’m feeling particularly pulmonary I’ll even continue past Creston to the parking lot of the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, where Marin officially goes to die.

View of SF Bay from Creston and Marin Ave in Berkeley

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

Marin may be a wolf in wolf’s clothing, but don’t abandon all hope ye who enter here:  its saving grace is the short-lived leveling-off stretches between blocks where you can rest momentarily by turning down a side street and jogging a short loop, without feeling like you’re cheating or giving up by stopping to catch your breath.  I used to value these side-street turnouts when I first discovered the joy of Marin, but now I’ve made it such a regular in my running routine that I can reach the top in one continuous effort, without detours.

Marin Avenue in Berkeley

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

Slant of Marin Avenue in Berkeley

… because the truth hurts.

Also unique to Marin, I find that nothing fuels an all-out anaerobic effort like the acrid stench of automotive clutches burning.  I’ll occasionally glance up to scan the expressions of drivers carefully negotiating their way up and down Marin, their faces registering an amusing mix of empathy, antipathy and confusion on seeing… hey, is that idiot jogging?  I’ve also seen a few walkers on Marin, but the only other runner I’ve ever seen was heading downhill.  In some ways though, getting to the bottom is even more challenging than getting to the top… just ask your knees and quads.

For a more quantitative block-by-block grading of Marin, I’d recommend this cyclist’s perspective on the Berkeley Hills Death Ride.  As much fun as I have running Marin, I can’t imagine trying it on a bike… much respect to those who do.

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

2.  Spruce Street in Berkeley, from Cedar Street to Grizzly Peak to South Park Drive
(total ascent 1400ft, net ascent 1366ft over 6 miles)

Whereas Marin feels like self-immolation, Spruce is more of a slow burn.  Spruce offers a more meandering and scenic route up to the Summit Reservoir at Grizzly Peak, though the key word here is “up”… you’ll still have to earn it.  But it’s well worth it, because Grizzly Peak is hands-down the best stretch of running in Berkeley… minimal traffic, no traffic lights, and life-affirming vistas of Oakland, San Francisco and beyond stretching out below you as far as the eye can see (which, with the coastal fog, usually isn’t far).

Even though this may feel like the top o’ the world, the stunning views along Grizzly Peak probably won’t distract from the fact that you’re still ascending… an additional 830ft over the next 4 miles.  Certainly it’s not Pikes Peak, but the accumulated elevation gain does start to wear on you by the time you reach South Park Drive in Tilden Regional Park.  At that point though, you really are king of your world, because from there it’s downhill in every direction.

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

3.  UC Berkeley West Circle/Stadium Rim Way/Centennial Drive up to the fire trail
(total ascent 400ft over 1.3 miles)

Like life at any university, one of the best things about the UC Berkeley experience is its ups and downs… though on this campus, I mean that literally.  The main campus features an elevation gain of ~200ft from its southwestern corner (Oxford Road and Bancroft Way) to its northeastern corner (Gayley Road and Hearst Avenue).  If you’re an urban runner looking to combine hill training and sightseeing, or if you’re on the Berkeley campus searching for the shortest route off the concrete and on to the dirt, this one’s a best bet.  En route from the West Circle to the fire trailhead off Centennial, you’ll pass Sather Tower (the campanile); two “NL”-designated parking spaces reserved for Nobel Laureates; the Greek Theatre; newly (though not yet completely) renovated Memorial (football) Stadium; the Witter Rugby Field; Levine-Fricke Softball Field and the Strawberry Canyon swimming pool… all in less than a mile and a half.  No wonder this campus attracts such a fanati-Cal group of runners.

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

4.  Snake Road in Oakland, from Mountain Blvd to Skyline Blvd
(total ascent 870ft, net ascent 680ft over 1.9 miles)

Named for not-so-enigmatic reasons, Snake Road lies in the affluent Oakland neighborhood of Montclair, where residents can afford to live out of earshot of Occupiers and gunfire.  Beginning its ascent off Mountain Blvd, Snake slithers up into the Oakland Hills and past some of the more architecturally quirky and interesting homes you’ll find in Oakland.  Off to your left along the way, you’ll catch scenic glimpses of Downtown Oakland, Alameda, San Francisco and the Bay.  Don’t stop there, though… more sprawling views (west to the Pacific, east to both Huckleberry Botanic and Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserves) await you up on Skyline.

The downside to running Snake is that there’s no sidewalk and almost no shoulder, so you’ll want to stay alert for intermittent two-way traffic as you round its many blind curves.

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

5.  Moeser Lane in El Cerrito, from San Pablo Avenue/Lincoln Highway to Arlington Blvd
(total ascent 715ft over 1.3 miles)

El Cerrito may have been on Gertrude Stein‘s mind when she penned her oft-misconstrued quote “There is no there there.”  What some would consider its lone cultural ray of light, the 99 Ranch Market, is actually located in Richmond.  And one website of “Things to Do in El Cerrito, CA” lists nine options… none of them in El Cerrito.  Fortunately, what El Cerrito lacks in culture and general interest, it makes up for with Moeser Lane.

Moeser ranks second only to Marin on this list for sheer force of effort required to reach the top.  Unlike Marin though, Moeser at least allows you a few short blocks (just under half a mile) to steel your resolve… in fact, until you reach Cerrito Vista Park the ascent is comfortably gradual.  But from there, both the grade and your heart rate ramp up in a hurry, and the thought that most often kicks around in my mind as I plod upward is that I’m glad I’m not running this on dirt.  Fortunately, the road levels off briefly at a couple of intersections near the top, providing an opportunity for a few quick gulps of air in preparation for one final leaden surge. (Musical note, speaking of surges: I find that the title track from Slayer’s “Seasons In The Abyss” plays well on Moeser, both rhythmically and psychologically).  As you crest the hill at Arlington (where Moeser ends), be sure to turn back around and admire your handiwork, as well as the sweet view down to and across the Bay that rewards you on a clear day.  And go ahead, pump that fist a couple of times… you’ve earned it.  I think the drivers looking you up and down would agree.

Of course, the downside to running up Moeser is that first you have to get to Moeser.  On foot this requires either running all the way down Moeser from Arlington (my preferred route) or slogging along San Pablo Avenue, with its knee-numbing concrete and mind-numbing rows of strip malls.  Even the dirty, understated Guitar Center on San Pablo, which always served this guitarist as a faithful pick-me-up landmark en route to Moeser, recently closed up shop and moved to Emeryville.

Stay tuned… in my next post (which won’t take another two months), I’ll go off-road to explore my favorite trails for hill training in the East Bay and beyond.

Map of road hills for running training in East Bay

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