Posts Tagged ‘Wildcat Canyon’

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

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

DAY TWO (TILDEN TO CHABOT):

Arrows signify the boundary where each Regional Park/Preserve begins

Arrows signify the boundary where each Regional Park/Preserve begins

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

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

bikes bikes bikes

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

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

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

Grass Valley Trail sign

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

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

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

Grass Valley Trail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bay Area Ridge Trail - 32 miles East Bay trail running

Complete directions for my two-day East Bay trail adventure

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

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

I had no answers.

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

Bay Area Ridge Trail map

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

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

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

Bay Area Ridge Trail and East Bay Skyline Trail badges

Keep an eye out for these familiar faces along the course

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DAY ONE (WILDCAT CANYON TO REDWOOD):

Wildcat Canyon to Redwood Regional trail course elevation map

Arrows signify the boundary where each Regional Park/Preserve begins

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

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

Berries growing along the Belgum Trail in Wildcat Canyon Regional Park

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

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

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

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

turkeys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skyline Trail to Sibley Staging Area sign

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

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

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

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

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

Redwood Regional Park Skyline Gate sign

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

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

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

To be continued…

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

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

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

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

This is not an easy half marathon, nobody’s setting any personal records out here today.
– Brazen race announcer, Wildcat start line

The morning of Saturday, May 19 found Katie and me pulling into the parking lot of the East Bay Waldorf School in El Sobrante.  Were we seeking a more humanistic approach to pedagogy based on the anthroposophical teachings of Rudolf Steiner, you might ask?  To which I might suggest you’re reading the wrong blog.  Nope, on this morning the Waldorf School was generously doubling as the staging area for the 3rd annual Brazen Racing Wildcat Half Marathon.

The name derives from the race being run in Wildcat Canyon Regional Park, a wide-open 2,340-acre expanse of runnable trails (and other nature stuff) that overlaps Tilden Park in Berkeley to the south and extends into Alvarado Park in Richmond to the north.  Because I live just down the hill in Berkeley, I run in Tilden Park frequently, but only occasionally do I venture north into Wildcat Canyon.  So Brazen’s Wildcat race offered the perfect opportunity to see and “experience” the park, meaning more specifically several kick-ass hills I might otherwise have missed.  Because in this production, the hills are the undisputed stars of the show.  In other words, my kind of race!


This would be our second Wildcat race, both of us having run the same distances (me the half, Katie the 5K) in 2011.  I don’t remember what compelled me to run the race last year, probably some combination of proximity to home, the promise of serious hills, and the weakly nostalgic connection of my high-school mascot having been a wildcat.  Plus, I’m admittedly an easy sell when it comes to new trail races.  In any case, Katie and I both enjoyed our 2011 outing, which was also our first race under the Brazen banner.  And since I’d completely recovered from and forgiven Brazen for forcing me to run 50K out on sun-baked Mount Diablo last month (at least that’s how I remember it…), we were both looking forward to this year’s Wildcat.

At the start line I was motivated by three thoughts: 1) the possibility of improving on last year’s time (a 13th-place finish in 2:06:30), 2) the chance to defend my age group title, and 3) the opportunity to really trial-by-fire my Merrell Road Gloves on some of the more precarious downhills in the Bay Area.  My familiarity with the course, having experienced its (literal) high and low points the year before, boosted my pre-race confidence.  Unfortunately, the bluegrass music playing in the staging area was no substitute for the (unintentionally?) amusing wildcat growls that had been piped in over the PA system at the 2011 start.  But the weather was cooperative (sunny, high 50s, gusty), the ambience was energizing, and the post-race IT’S-ITs were chilling at the finish line… it was go time.

The race announcer (I assume it was Sam?  I couldn’t see from where I stood) shared some last-second details and reminded us that “This is not an easy half marathon, nobody’s setting any personal records out here today”… although one glance at the lead runners leaning intently across the start line, tightly coiled and ready to spring, suggested that wouldn’t be for lack of trying.  With a final reminder to be wary of potholes as we left the start line, the announcer’s countdown gave way to one mighty blast from the airhorn, and…

Brazen Racing Wildcat Half Marathon start

Runners, take your marks! This is the closest I’d get to the leaders and eventual winners
(photo courtesy of Brazen Racing)

Show time!  I started near the front of the pack, crossing the start line 3 seconds after the horn.  After a crowded 50-foot jog through the grassy start line area, the course veered down then sharply to the right, and the crowd thinned out quickly as we reached the first ascent up Clark Boas Trail.  Normally I’m not a huge fan of races that hit me with immediate uphills before I’m able to catch my second (or even my first) wind.  But my familiarity with this course and my memory of last year’s race gave me the confidence to hit the first hill more aggressively this time, and I was able to pass several runners without being passed myself, reaching the top and heading back downhill just before the first mile marker.  A strong start.

The next 3 miles led us out along the gently rolling out-and-back dirt trails of Belgum Trail, Wildcat Canyon “Parkway” and Wildcat Creek Trail.  I passed the lead runners heading in the other direction – mostly men along with 2 women – and realized that I was starting to recognize some of these faces from, well, from being beaten by them at other Brazen races.  As I approached the turnaround point just after mile 4 (marked by a volunteer standing behind a waist-high cardboard Gu box doubling as a trash can), I noticed a long branch hanging over the right side of the trail as the volunteer warned me to “watch out for the poison oak there”.  I gave the branch a wide berth, circled around the Gu box and headed back in the other direction as the volunteer cheerfully yelled after me, “You’re having fun in those shoes!”  I was cruising along, feeling good and looking forward to tackling the second extended uphill in less than a mile.

Running Wildcat Half Marathon & 5k

Our version of couples therapy!
(photo courtesy of Brazen Racing)

As I turned off the main trail and began to ascend the immediately steep grade up Conlon Trail just before mile 5, I felt another runner close behind me.  Conlon Trail was steeper and lengthier than Clark Boas Trail had been, so to keep myself focused I resolved to stay ahead of my pursuer until at least the top of the hill, knowing that all bets were off once we started downhill.  Fortunately I was able to maintain a reasonable pace as well as my lead as I summited the hill (the highest point of the course at ~1,176 ft).  The next ~1.5 miles led us along a slightly downhill, nicely paved stretch of Nimitz Way.  Unfortunately the 5K and 10K runners didn’t get to experience Nimitz Way… I glanced in all directions at the sprawling panoramic views of Oakland and the San Francisco Bay to my left, along with the San Pablo Reservoir and the East Bay to my right.  During the middle stretch of Nimitz Way (mile 8), I even managed to step up my pace by about a minute per mile, clocking a 7:31 mile before a sharp left turn led me back on to the dirt and down Havey Canyon Trail.

Mike Sohaskey running Wildcat Half Marathon

Rolling down Conlon Trail, with Fernando in hot pursuit
(photo courtesy of Brazen Racing)

The course zigged off Havey Canyon Trail and zagged briefly through a shaded tree-lined stretch of woods.  I one-stepped the lone (meager) creek crossing on the course via a large rock, and exited the woods back on to Wildcat Creek Trail.  At that point my pursuer, a gray-haired fellow wearing a cap on his head and a bandana around his neck, pulled ahead of me and continued to distance himself as we approached the final sustained ascent at mile 10.  I still felt strong as I prepared myself psychologically for the final uphill push, but sensed I’d regret if I tried to keep pace with my surging companion.

The course turned off Wildcat Creek Trail one last time and immediately started another steep ascent, this time up Mezue Trail.  And I reminded myself yet again that hill running is essentially a good ol’ fashioned knock-down, drag-out, beer-bottle-over-the-head barroom brawl between the psyche and the body.  Unless you’re a mountain goat (and I’m not), success on the hills requires that your brain not buy what your body is selling.  And being able to look forward to rather than dread the next ascent is a huge psychological advantage.  I’m not fast, and I know that in a typical road race I have no chance of competing with the best runners.  But I also know I log more miles up and down hills than the vast majority of runners, and more than anywhere else on a race course, hills are where I trust my training.  Only in cases of debilitating heat or altitude, e.g. Diablo last month or Pikes Peak in 2010, has my training abjectly failed me, and in both cases the ascent itself was a secondary issue.  Descents are a different animal – I’m still a work in progress on downhills, and I’m constantly amazed at how fast some runners can fly down a hill – but I hate being passed on uphills.  My attitude is always that if I can keep the runners just ahead of me in view, then they stand a good chance of being caught and passed on the next uphill.

Although I did run Wildcat last year and used the lessons learned to my advantage in this year’s race, some key details of the course still escaped me.  Like the three short-but-steep uphill jags remaining after the final extended climb up Mezue Trail.  As the cap-and-bandana combo ascended ahead of me with what appeared to be surprisingly little effort (maybe I’d found my mountain goat), I put my head down and hammered after him with a balls-to-the-wall “This is it!” attitude that could’ve cost me on a hotter day.  Fortunately I reached the top at around mile 11 with just enough left in the tank to sustain a crisp pace down and back up the three remaining short uphills.  Passing the mile 12 marker, I felt that familiar one-mile-to-go neuron fire excitedly in my brain, and I glanced around to take in one last appreciative view of the East Bay sprawled out below, Whoville-style.  I then turned my attention and momentum to the mile+ home stretch to the finish.  And that’s when my mind began its own anxiety-fueled race, faced with its most vivid memory of Wildcat 2011: the final descent.

In case you snoozed briefly there (not that I blame you), downhills are not my forte.  Whereas many runners see the “down” as a golden opportunity to make up for time lost on the “up”, I’m usually hesitant if not downright uncomfortable on trail descents.  The possibility of holes and cracks in the trail, precariously loose dirt and gravel, or anything else (say a hidden root) that might snag my foot and send me head over heels… together these potential gremlins lend both a physical and mental tension to every trail descent.  Not to mention (except that I am) a rich history of left ankle sprains that I’m never in a hurry to repeat.  Fortunately, thanks to my Merrells I’ve recently gained confidence and made significant improvements to my footwork and downhill technique.  But the final mile of Wildcat contains two (really three) brief descents, on grass and loose dirt and in short succession, that are among the steepest and most precarious I’ve encountered in the Bay Area.  The first downhill, which actually is the steeper of the two based on the elevation profile, primes your quads and feet for the real challenge of the second downhill, an unnervingly steep grade that demands full concentration while requiring that your quads and feet fire rapidly in staccato bursts.  As my legs machine-gunned away, my mind raced frantically with the adrenalizing, edge-of-panic realization that one misstep would upset my already-unstable balance and send me careening head-over-heels down the hill.  I’ve never had to chase my own body in such a frenzied manner before, making this unique stretch my strongest Wildcat memory.  And what I saw in my peripheral vision as I focused on the trail directly underfoot only added to my anxiety… below me, a few 10K participants were slowly and painstakingly hiking their way down this final descent as I neared my own version of terminal velocity.  A momentary image of my unchecked momentum bowling over chubby, exhausted 10Kers like tenpins flashed through my mind, complete with bowling-ball strike sound.  No no no no no… fortunately several potential tenpins looked up in time to see me more or less falling down the hill toward them, and I was able to change direction just enough to slide by without incident.  Altogether, these two harried descents lasted a grand total of… less than a minute each.

As this virtual freefall leveled off, my frazzled quads began to provide immediate feedback.  Whiners.  But I was now close enough to feel the finish line ahead.  And as the eventual third-place women’s finisher went gliding past me looking relaxed and effortless (@&*# downhills!), I tackled the final (relatively) gradual descent with renewed motivation.  A sharp left turn at the bottom of the hill led me back up on to the grass, past the trailhead and across the finish line in… 1:59:19!

Mike Sohaskey finishing Brazen Racing Wildcat Half Marathon

A round of self-applause at the finish line… I must have just glanced at my Garmin
(photo courtesy of Brazen Racing)

My mile splits… wish I could remember where the 3 major uphills were

Katie finished her 5K in 41:58 and bested her 2011 outing by 32 seconds.  On the frustrating side, she placed out of the age group awards by finishing seven and six seconds behind the second- and third-place finishers in her age group.

As we wandered the finish line area cooling down and watching other runners finish, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see my gray-haired companion with the cap and bandana.  His race bib read “Fernando,” and that’s how he introduced himself.  Very nice fellow, I’m glad he found me… Fernando moved to the East Bay from Spain, and apparently he trains frequently on the Wildcat course.  He complimented me on my posture and running form, and I congratulated him on his strong showing and thanked him for motivating me to push myself harder than I might have otherwise.  It’s not unreasonable to think I owe my sub-2:00:00 finish to his shadowing me in the middle stages of the race.  Apparently Fernando’s hamstring tightened up pretty severely near the end of the race, so hopefully that’s now fully recovered and I’ll have a chance to race alongside (and in front of) him again soon.

So I guess I achieved my primary goal for Wildcat, finishing in under two hours and besting my 2011 time by over seven minutes.  However, I did a lousy job of defending my age group title.  Fortunately for Brazen but unfortunately for the rest of us, their races have now grown to the point that they attract some pretty bad-ass ultra runners, including sponsored types who nonchalantly reference their “next” 100-miler and advertise Udo’s Oil on their own blog (never heard of it? exactly…).  On this day both the first- and second-place runners set the Wildcat course record.  The second-place finisher was a fellow from San Francisco named Tim Long, who also set the Diablo 50K course record last month and who documents his own running exploits in an excellent blog, Footfeathers.  Based on his recent domination of the Brazen M(40-44) age group, I may send Tim a birthday/thank-you card myself when he turns 45.

Right now though, I can’t complain… the three fellows who finished ahead of me in my age group are clearly stronger runners.  And the only race variable I can consistently control is my own performance.  Since I don’t race professionally, the only person I need to outperform by the time I reach the finish line is myself.  For now I’ll use a fourth-place finish in my age group as motivation to keep getting stronger.  After all, Trailquake is only three weeks away…

Smiles all around, even before the celebratory IT’S-ITs (NOTE: all runners are drawn to scale)

MISCELLANEOUS THOUGHTS:

  • As challenging and demanding as Wildcat’s hills are, they’re definitely less punishing than the k(hill)ers in either last month’s Diablo 50K or Brazen’s half marathon championship at Rocky Ridge.
  • More evidence that trail running is quickly gaining in popularity: almost twice as many half marathoners (169 vs. 87) crossed the finish line this year compared to 2011, and 503 total runners competed in this year’s Wildcat lineup (half, 10K and 5K) vs. 296 last year, an impressive 70% increase.
  • I made a smart choice not to carry my bottle of Cytomax, as I did last year… no use carrying something I really don’t need, I prefer to leave both hands free in case I need to catch my balance or break a fall.
  • Overheard by Katie on the 5K course, from a man walking with his young (~8-year-old) daughter: “Do you think you’re going to run at all this morning?”

SHOES:  My lightweight Merrell Road Gloves (as well as Fernando) contributed to my faster finish time this year.  Better ground feel than with my Asics GT-2150 trail shoes gave me much more confidence on descents, and as a result my downhill game is improving.  Hopefully a sign of positive things to come. 

PRODUCTION:  Again, the Brazen crew and their volunteers were epic, including their race photographers who always provide some great action shots, free of charge and without the word “PROOF” stamped across your face.  As usual, the course was flawlessly marked.  Mile markers were dead-on with my Garmin (±0.02 miles), and volunteers were stationed at key junctions to avoid any potential confusion and ensure that nobody took a wrong turn.  In fact, the course was so well marked that apparently its flour arrows on the trail wreaked havoc on the next day’s Tilden Tough Ten… so much so that TTT organizers issued a post-race apology to their racers:

We were unaware that there was a race held at Tilden on Saturday (this has never happened in previous years and therefore wasn’t on our radar of possible planning issues) and as a result the course markings were confusing even for our volunteers on the course.  Markings [were] left over from the other race which led some runners the wrong way.  This also resulted in our bike patrol taking some wrong turns and missing the turn around for the race and hence no one being there.

Overall I’d highly recommend Wildcat, it’s the best of the Brazen half marathons I’ve run so far.  It has a lot of what makes trail running great:  several challenging hills, together with more relaxed sections in the middle and stunning views from Nimitz Way and the San Pablo Ridge Trail.  And as I referenced earlier, the all-powerful post-race IT’S-IT – to the best of my knowledge a Brazen exclusive.

Brazen Racing Wildcat Half Marathon medal

This year’s profile medal – a cool alternative to last year’s head-on version

FINAL STATS:
May 19, 2012
13.3 miles in Wildcat Canyon Regional Park
Finish time & pace: 1:59:19 (7:11 faster than 2011), 8:58/mile
Finish place: 17/169 overall, 4/20 in M(40-44) age group
Race weather: sunny, high-50s to mid-60s with gusty winds
Elevation change (Garmin Training Center software): 3248ft ascent, 3234ft descent