Posts Tagged ‘longreads’

Roads?  Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.
– Emmett “Doc” Brown, “Back To The Future”

Spyhopping humpback in Fournier Bay, Antarctica (photo credit: Mike Sohaskey)

(PREFACE: This is not a blog post in the usual sense.  Rather, it’s my attempt to chronicle an amazing adventure in two acts, and to – “demystify” is the wrong word – inspire an appreciation for a remarkable ecosystem that’s much more than an alien land of ice and snow.  For anyone seeking an even more detailed account of the Antarctica Marathon and its history, I’d recommend John Hanc’s book, The Coolest Race on Earth.  And for time-challenged readers who simply want the gist of our journey, I’d recommend skipping all the cumbersome words and sticking to the pictures.  Whatever your preference, thanks for reading!)

More so than any month in recent memory, March was a month of firsts.  Or maybe more accurately, it was a month of lasts.

Cut to the morning of February 26, and the last place I expected to find myself a month later was exactly where I found myself a month later: joining upwards of 100 highly motivated runners – including one celebrated back-of-the-packer with the all-too-appropriate nickname of “The Penguin” – aboard a Russian research vessel headed toward the South Pole to race The Last Marathon on the Last Great Continent.  All under the watchful eye of a leader named Gilligan.

As absurd as a “spontaneous” trip to Antarctica sounds, that’s exactly what this would be.  Sometimes, truth really is stranger than fiction… and even less likely.

Damn the icebergs, full speed ahead!
Rewind to the morning of February 26, a morning that began like any other: my spring racing plans were gradually taking shape as I contemplated a return to either the L.A. Marathon – one of my 2012 racing highlights – or the Oakland Marathon, site of my half marathon PR (1:34:02) last year.  Also in my sights were one or more upcoming trail races with my favorite local racing outfit, Brazen Racing.

Yep, spring 2013 was falling into place… until the following e-mail message hit my Inbox, and my best-laid plans went out the porthole:

dear Mike,

The ship that we had chartered for the 2013 Antarctica Marathon to depart in a couple of days has been damaged by an iceberg.

We have rescheduled the trip using the sister ship, the Akademik Vavilov which we have chartered many times in the past.

You are currently waitlisted or confirmed in the future for the Antarctica Marathon. Are you interested in confirming space for these new dates in 2013?

[details omitted]

It always is an adventure. Please advise as soon as possible since most of the confirmed passengers have rescheduled for the later dates. We will have a few spots available.

Please contact us immediately if you are interested.

Thom Gilligan
Marathon Tours & Travel

My immediate reaction was probably similar to yours… 101 years after the Titanic kissed the bottom of the ocean, actual operating ships are still colliding with icebergs?  My secondary response, though, was one of adrenalized bewilderment – Antarctica?  On such short notice?  Was this a legitimate option for us?

In short – yes, it was.  Due to the large number of runners vying for a limited number of slots (roughly 100 per year), the Antarctica Marathon typically requires years of advance planning and a lengthy sojourn on the Marathon Tours waitlist.  As referenced in their e-mail, we’d entered the waitlist in mid-2012 and in doing so had confirmed our spot – for 2016.  So we figured to have three more years to plan for this trip.

Take me to your freezer!

Thing is, I hate procrastination, and putting off until tomorrow what I can do today.  Paradoxically, I have a lot of patience – research science and delayed gratification go hand-in-hand.  But Antarctica promised to be the opportunity of a lifetime.  Cliché as it may sound, life really is too short, as we were starkly reminded by this past week’s tragic events in Boston.  Who knows where we’ll be and what we’ll be doing three years from now?

And although I wouldn’t classify myself as a “bucket list” runner, I do have a short list of three marathons that I consider must-do events: Boston, New York City and Antarctica.  What did it matter that neither Katie nor I owned a legitimate cold-weather jacket, or that I’d only run in tights once in my entire life?  At least we wouldn’t need any vaccinations or immunizations for this trip… I’m pretty sure penguin fever is both unpreventable and incurable.

As the nail in the coffin of March normalcy, we found ourselves in a relatively obligation-free time of personal and professional transition (another post for another time).  Thus the awesome realization dawned on us that yeah, March was actually the perfect time for a frigid flight of fancy.  And within two days, we’d committed to join 98 other adventure-seekers on an unanticipated journey to the Last Great Continent.  Thankfully, our voyage was scheduled to last a bit longer than a 3-hour tour.

And so it was that on March 21, after a highly successful raid on the winter clearance racks at our local REI, The North Face and assorted outlets, Katie and I found ourselves on a flight bound for Buenos Aires, Argentina, where our 17-day adventure would begin.  With little time for pre-trip research and little idea of what to expect (other than the obligatory requests to “Bring back a penguin!”), our ignorance was bliss.

So, just sit right back and you’ll read a tale, a tale of a fateful trip….

ARGENTINA (Fri – Tues, March 22 – 26)
Since this is ostensibly a running blog, I’ll limit my thoughts on the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires to the high (and low) points of our 5-day visit – though use of the word “concise” here would be disingenuous:

Overall, we had a lively visit to Argentina’s capital city – which wasn’t a foregone conclusion, given that I have virtually no interest in soccer, tango dancing or huge slabs of beef.  But with its European-inspired architecture, socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods, thriving theatre industry and plentiful green spaces, Buenos Aires is a culturally vibrant city and a terrific place to explore on foot.  Fortunately, my sub-fluent yet functional Spanish proved good enough to point us in the right direction and keep us out of trouble.

El Obelisco in Plaza de la República, Buenos Aires (photo credit: Mike Sohaskey)

Good morning, good afternoon and good night in the Plaza de la República:
El Obelisco stands on the site where the Argentine flag was first hoisted in Buenos Aires in 1812

Architecturally, the city is a dynamic and captivating mix of old and new.  Highlights of our bus and walking tour included the ornate mausoleums of La Recoleta Cemetary (where many notable Argentinians including Eva Perón are interred), the politically charged Plaza de Mayo (site of La Casa Rosada, mansion and office of the President of Argentina), and the recently renovated Teatro Colón (famed opera house which Pavarotti once praised for its “perfect” acoustics).  And not surprisingly, images of favorite son Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires Jorge Bergoglio, a.k.a. Pope Francis, now adorn the city.

For a city of Buenos Aires’ reputation and importance, however, I was disappointed by the state of abject disrepair in which many of its sidewalks find themselves.  In many places it looked as though The Avengers had been filmed in the city and nobody had bothered to clean up the rubble.  With a marathon on the horizon and after several near tweaks, I felt fortunate to get out of Argentina with both ankles intact.

Photo collage of Buenos Aires highlights (photo credit: Mike Sohaskey)

Buenos Aires illustrated (clockwise from upper left): La Casa Rosada, executive mansion and office of the President of Argentina; plaque marking Eva Perón’s tomb in La Recoleta Cemetery; tango demonstration in the Recoleta district; one of the city’s many neglected sidewalks; colorful Caminito street in the neighborhood of La Boca; steel sculpture of Evita on the north facade of the Social Development and Health Ministry; the steel-and-aluminum Floralis Genérica sculpture in Plaza de las Naciones Unidas

As a runner, I was impressed by the number of Porteños (locals) out on the weekend walking, running or cycling through the city’s many bustling parks.  The typical Porteño I saw certainly was not built like someone whose daily diet consists of at least two large servings of beef – I’d guess the average Houstonian weighs roughly the same as 1.5 Porteños.

Speaking of food, the only part of each day I didn’t look forward to were the meals, for instance the vegetarian pizza we ordered for dinner one evening that arrived smothered in ham (I assumed the pig had been an herbivore).  In addition, the extra – and not insignificant – fee that several restaurants charged for “table service,” coupled with their insistence on serving and charging for bottled water despite the potability of the local tap water, amounted to epic scams.

I don’t usually fault cities for their names, but “Buenos Aires” is a conspicuous misnomer.  Granted the city was originally recognized for its “good airs” (or more likely, its “fair winds”) way back in the 16th century, but these days it would be like changing Omaha’s name to Ocean View, Nebraska.  Collectively, the carbon monoxide-induced asphyxiation from urban traffic (particularly the large number of freight trucks headed to and from the port), the secondhand asphyxiation from the local smoking population, and the impenetrable char-grilled asphyxiation from the parrillas (barbecue grills) bordering the Reserva Ecológica where I ran on two occasions, combined to ensure that my lungs never got too comfortable in their pleura.

This was the top Google search result for parrilla, the catch-all name for the city’s popular BBQ grills.

By keeping close tabs on our cameras and backpacks, we were able to depart Buenos Aires with our wallets and all other personal belongings intact.  Unfortunately, not all our fellow runners were so lucky… we heard of at least two cameras being stolen from dinner tables, and one trusting fellow (a fellow Bay Area native, in fact) lost his wallet to an elaborate pickpocket ruse involving fake bird droppings on his head, two helpful bystanders with a towel and an immediately accessible getaway car.

We meet at last (Sunday, March 24)
Our third evening in Buenos Aires featured the Antarctica Welcome Banquet Dinner.  Here we met Thom Gilligan, the founder and leader of Boston-based Marathon Tours, as well as the four members of his race crew who would be joining us in Antarctica: Scott and Anita, respectively the General Manager and Environmental Officer of Marathon Tours, as well as the husband-and-wife team of John “The Penguin” Bingham and Jenny Hadfield, both well-known to the running community for their books and popular columns in Runner’s World and elsewhere.

John opened with some remarks about The Last Marathon, the first organized sporting event in the history of Antarctica.  Thom then said a few words about “Antarcticer” (his Boston-based pronunciation) and introduced our upcoming adventure with the brutally honest classified ad ostensibly posted in the London Times by explorer Ernest Shackleton, in preparation for his 1907 Antarctic expedition:

Ernest Shackleton

Musical accompaniment for the subsequent slideshow included Dido’s “White Flag,” with its (so we all hoped) tongue-in-cheek chorus of “I will go down with this ship.”  After the slideshow, Thom asked for a show of hands as to who had run a sub-3 hour marathon in the past two years.  Three hands went up.  He then asked for a show of hands from runners in the 3:00 to 3:30 range – three or four more hands went up, including mine.  Although I knew this wouldn’t be a typical marathon, in that the 50-59 and 60-69 age groups would be the most competitive, I knew there would still be plenty of representation by the younger demographics, and I was shocked to find myself immediately seeded so highly.

But for me the most striking realization of the evening, which I hadn’t fully appreciated to that point, was the dedication and commitment of every person in that room.  True we were all headed for Antarctica, and that in itself set this room apart.  But whereas running for most people is a hobby, a way to alleviate stress and stay fit, for this group it was a lifestyle, an obsession in the healthiest sense of the word.  And while not everyone in that banquet hall may have possessed the stereotypical “runner’s body” (that’s why it’s a stereotype), I’d be reminded in the coming week that mind really does matter.


Thom Gilligan introduces an excited group of marathoners to what lies ahead

That evening I met seemingly normal, well-adjusted individuals who had run over 100, over 200, over 300 marathons.  I met several individuals who had raced in all 50 states, on all 7 continents, and yet had never run a trail race.  I met Winter, a 14-year-old Junior Olympian from Oregon who’d formed Team Winter and resolutely set a goal to run a marathon on all seven continents in support of prostate cancer awareness, after her father was diagnosed with the disease in 2008 and passed away less than a year later.  I met Wes, a 78-year-old lifelong Purdue Boilermaker who’d run 200 marathons (including 100 in the past decade) and in 23 European countries, and for whom Antarctica would be his 7th continent and final marathon.  I met Rory, a charismatic and “Jo-burg proud” South African who had completed the notoriously grueling Comrades Ultramarathon 12 times.  I met Brendan, a running coach and 50 states/6 continents finisher from Chicago who’d failed in his first bid to complete the Antarctica Marathon three years earlier, and was back to exact his racing revenge.  I met the Canadian duo of 70-year-old Georgine and her son James, and was amused to discovered that she was the runner in the family who had persuaded her hockey-playing son to join her in running the Antarctica half marathon.  And I met many others whose stories I’d hear and whose lives I’d share over the next two weeks.

As nonchalantly as most people would discuss their kids’ soccer game, conversations centered around questions like “How many continents is this for you?” and “Have you run Kilimanjaro yet?”  The Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, the Arctic Circle, even Antarctica already in a few cases – my travel companions had left their footprints, literally, on nearly every conceivable destination on the planet.

I had to admit… these were my kind of people.

Destination: Antarctica (Tues – Thurs, March 26 – 28)
Fast-forward 36 hours, and after one more day spent appreciating the many faces of Buenos Aires, we found ourselves on a flight to Ushuaia (pronounced Oos-why-uh by the locals), the southernmost city in the world and the capital of Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America.  As the plane touched down in Ushuaia, the cheers from the locals onboard and the sight of the woman seated next to me crossing herself suggested our adventure had begun earlier than planned.

Katie and Mike Sohaskey in Ushuaia, Argentina

It’s the end of the world as we know it… and Katie and I feel fine

After a brief layover and stroll around this sleepy port town we boarded the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, the Russian ship (and one-time research vessel) that would – barring an unforeseen iceberg encounter – carry 105 passengers, 41 crew members and 13 expedition staff to our destination across 600 nautical miles and a particularly gnarly stretch of open ocean that we’d soon come to know all too well.

With rainbows and mist-shrouded peaks dominating the landscape, we “threw ropes” (set sail) at around 6:00pm local time on Tuesday and slowly made our way out of the Beagle Channel.  From that point forward, responsibility for our well-being fell squarely into the hands of the 13-member staff of One Ocean Expeditions.

Akademik Sergey Vavilov in Ushuaia port (photo credit: Mike Sohaskey)

In the Ushuaia port, the Akademik Sergey Vavilov awaits its human cargo

As it turns out, we couldn’t have entrusted our safety and well-being to a more competent, experienced and entertaining group.  As the Managing Director of Canadian-based One Ocean Expeditions, Andrew Prossin would be our solidly-in-charge Expedition Leader whose soothing voice and Canadian sensibilities would greet us first thing every morning with his wake-up announcements over the ship’s PA.  In addition, at each meal he would set our expectations as to weather (always unpredictable), changes to the itinerary and opportunities for wildlife sightings.  His understated cry of “hooray” which punctuated the end of his announcements became a rallying cry for the entire ship.

His One Ocean staff would be an appropriately eclectic collection of three fellow Canadians (Derek, Zoe and Nate); one Australian (Ewan, the kayaking king); a Dane (Louise, our hotel manager); a Welshman-cum-South African-cum-Australian (Mark, passionate whale conservationist and Andrew’s Assistant Expedition Leader); one far-North American (yoga guru Liz, whose “Alaska girls kick ass!” sticker immediately attracted my attention); one Portuguese (all-important mixologist Joao); and chefs Jeremy, John and Mike who, together with pastry chef Elizabeth, embraced and conquered the unenviable task of creatively providing three meals a day, every day, while hundreds of miles from the nearest grocery store or farmer’s market.  Before this trip I’d never eaten, much less looked forward to, daily lunch dessert.

One Ocean Expeditions staff

The One Ocean Expeditions staff included Expedition Leader Andrew (with microphone), Liz, Mark, Ewan, Nate, Zoe and Derek

Katie and I spent the first hour onboard familiarizing ourselves with the ship’s layout and idiosyncracies, including the less-than-romantic bunk beds in our third-deck cabin that prevented me from sitting up straight in either bed.

The next two days belonged to the Drake Passage, the necessary evil of open water between the Beagle Channel and Antarctica that would test every passenger’s sea legs, not to mention their seasickness meds.  We both chose to use the Transderm Scopolamine patch, a nickel-sized prescription patch applied behind the ear that prevents motion sickness for up to three days.  Which it did admirably well, the main drawback being the side effect of dilated pupils that messed up our vision something fierce.  As a result, neither of us felt quite like ourselves during those two days crossing the Drake, as our literal inability to focus prevented productive behaviors such as reading or writing.

This is your brain on scopolamine (left); normal undilated pupil shown on right for comparison 

Unfortunately, all postcards had to be submitted before race day if we wanted them to be postmarked from Antarctica.  And so I found myself seated in the lounge of a wickedly swaying boat with one eye closed, squinting through my open eye Popeye-style as I tried to stabilize both hand and vision long enough to write legible quips about what an awesome time we were having at a destination we hadn’t yet reached.  Lucky family members will no doubt wonder (assuming the cards ever arrive) how many shots of tequila preceded my postcard-ing sessions.

Luckily the One Ocean and Marathon Tours staff had planned other, less cerebrally taxing distractions to pass the time.  Among these, Thom talked about the history of his brainchild, the Antarctica Marathon; John held court and lightened the mood with his entertaining perspective on life as a back-of-the-pack runner; Derek laid down mad knowledge on “Birds of the Southern Ocean”; Liz provided historical context in detailing the ill-fated Scott/Amundsen “Race to the Pole”; and Nate capped the evening with “Marine Superstitions,” after which nobody was caught whistling aboard ship.

Check out this footage of life in the Drake Passage (a.k.a. the “carbo-unloading zone”), filmed through the porthole in our cabin:

By Thursday evening we’d more or less cleared the Drake Passage, crossing the Antarctic Convergence and the 60th parallel south to enter the Southern Ocean. Soon after that we approached the South Shetland Islands and specifically King George Island, site of Saturday’s upcoming race.  At that point even our first whale (fin whale, to be exact) sighting of the trip couldn’t disguise the fact that the natives were getting restless.

As race day approached and hours spent aboard ship accumulated, the restlessness and nervous energy among the passengers continued to build.  The most tangible reflection of this mindset may have been the bar/lounge on the upper deck of the ship, which experienced two sparsely populated evenings as normally relaxed, sociable runners morphed into their water-swilling, teetotalling pre-race alter egos.  Our bartender Joao was perplexed by but resigned to this transformation, which he’d clearly experienced before.  And his voice of experience predicted a significantly more laid-back ambiance once the race was over.  I raised my water bottle in agreement, and in a toast to more carefree days ahead.

Keeping expectations at (Maxwell) bay (Friday, March 29)
With the planet’s southernmost continent within sight at last, the harsh reality of where we were and what we were about to do finally hit home.  Stepping out on the sixth floor deck to gaze upon King George Island – so close and yet so far – I was greeted by the stinging sensation of a million frozen, finely honed razors slicing right through me.  My skin and two lightweight layers were defenseless against the Antarctic wind.  And to think that tomorrow at this time, I’d be running 26.2 miles in this.  Let the mind games begin…

Despite the initial cold shock, the consensus adjective of the day to describe our first encounter with Antarctica was simply “indescribable.”  A picture may be worth a thousand words, but in this case one would have to suffice.

The plan for the day called for Thom and his crew to make their way across Maxwell Bay to King George Island early that morning to set up the race course.  Meanwhile, the rest of us would finally make an excursion off the boat and potentially even stretch our legs on land at some point.  Ah, perchance to dream….  Instead, the Antarctic winds did what the Antarctic winds do, churning up the water and making conditions unsafe to launch the zodiacs (the rigid inflatable boats used to transport people from ship to shore).  It wasn’t until 1:00pm that the wind died down enough to launch the boats and send Thom’s crew (plus ATVs) on their way to King George Island.  Many of us watched as the zodiacs made their not-so-long yet slow voyage across the bay and toward the Russian base at Bellingshausen Station.

Thom and his crew

The zodiacs approach the Russian base on King George Island, on their way to set up the marathon course

This in itself was uplifting news, because again this was Antarctica, where even the seemingly straightforward process of getting off the boat couldn’t be taken for granted.  Still fresh on everyone’s mind was Thom’s unsettling tale of his 2001 Antarctica Marathon expedition, when uncooperative weather had seized the day(s), only to have the passengers seize it right back.  After several days of thwarted attempts to launch the zodiacs in rough waters, a consensus decision had finally been reached that the show must go on, and that the marathon would be run ON. THE. DECK. OF. THE. SHIP.  Apparently one of the passengers that year had been a qualified race distance certifier, and he mapped out a 26.2-mile course that comprised 422 laps around the upper deck.  The race was run over a 24-hour time period, and don’t ask me how each runner kept track of his/her number of laps completed.  Most strategically, the ship had been moored such that the anchor just touched the continent of Antarctica, thereby validating the venue.  Thus went the story of how the 2001 Antarctica Marathon was staged under the most challenging conditions to date, a testament to human fortitude and resolve that exactly nobody on our ship had any interest in repeating.

Speaking of human fortitude… with our plans for an afternoon expedition foiled, everyone gathered in the bar/lounge to watch “Crossing The Ice,” an intimidating/inspiring documentary about two Aussies and one Norwegian who found themselves competing against each other to become the first persons to complete the trek to the South Pole and back unassisted.  I then retreated to the basement gym to, if nothing else, get the blood pumping and stretch my legs before I’d have to use and abuse them the next day.

Antarctica Marathon 2013 pre-race briefing (photo credit: Mike Sohaskey)

A weary Thom addresses a roomful of restless runners during his pre-race briefing

After dinner – the last supper before the race, which happened to coincide with this being Good Friday – Thom stepped to the microphone for his pre-race briefing looking ruddy and dog-tired from his afternoon excursion.  He informed us that the hilly course would consist of two different out-and-backs that marathoners would run three times, with the start/finish line separating the two.  The first out-and-back would take us past the Russian base, then out to the first turn-around point at the Uruguaryan Artigas Base and back, while the second out-and-back would lead past the Chilean Eduardo Frei Base and out to the turn-around at the Chinese Great Wall Station before retracing its steps.  There would be icy (if not muddy) patches to negotiate that Thom estimated at around 5% of the total course distance.  And based on today’s course conditions, he and his crew would be strictly enforcing the 6-1/2-hour time limit – anything longer and we risked hypothermia.

Google Earth rendering of the Antarctica Marathon 2013 course (credit: Mike Sohaskey)

Google Earth rendering of The Last Marathon course – thanks to Dan, from whom I stole the idea;
my personal detour can be seen leading toward the airstrip near the yellow church
(Click on the map for a larger image)

As we’d suspected, the day had been a rough one for Thom and his crew – John predicted that if we’d had to run the race that day in those conditions, nobody would have finished.  But he concluded the briefing by injecting a shot of humor, warning the room that “Bandits (runners who race without paying an entry fee) will be pulled off the course.”

Back in my cabin I systematically organized my apparel, bottles of Cytomax/GU, Garmin (don’t be silly, of course GPS works in Antarctica!) and thoughts for the day ahead.  And I realized that realistically, I had no idea what to expect.  Cold to be sure, but beyond that I had zero expectations: could I run a sub-4:00 marathon in these conditions?  Probably not, though “probably not” wouldn’t stop me from trying.  Runners are notorious for downplaying expectations – case in point, those ultra-competitive types who qualify for the Boston Marathon and then vow to treat it as a “victory lap”.

But this time, I realized as sleep engulfed my upper bunk – this time I really was out in the cold.

Continued and concluded in Act 2… with an actual race report!

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)

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

This wasn’t part of the plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey and Laura running in Modjeska Canyon

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey running Harding Truck Trail

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

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

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

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

Not as impressive as Chuck's

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

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

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

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

snow on modjeska

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey and Laura post-run

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

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

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

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

Snow on the peaks

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

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

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

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

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

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