Friday, December 26, 2008

I Ran Around San Francisco Bay

I later connected this route to the Western States Trail in the Sierras, and eventually I got all the way to the Nevada line. Check it out here - I really am as awesome as I seem!

Yes, I ran around the whole San Francisco Bay. I really am that awesome. The following account thereof is profoundly fascinating, and if you don't read it all the way through, that only shows that you're a bad person who's tired of life. The way I did the loop it came out to about 250 miles traveled on foot, about 3 miles of rowing, and 100 yards of swimming. Actually 115, thanks to the U.S. Coast Guard. This means I probably ran something like 400-450 miles, because even though it's a loop, you have to run to the start of the next leg, and then turn around and go back, unless you plan on sleeping at the park entrance until next weekend - or pay for a cab, or have a kind spouse with free time. No, I didn't exactly follow the Bay Area Ridge Trail (although I did for maybe half of my route), nor did I do it in order (although I mostly did), and I sure as hell didn't do it all at once or on contiguous days like Don Lundell and Gillian Robinson or Dean Karnazes. But along the route I did end up doing a lot of things I didn't anticipate, like retracing a route used by anti-Franco smugglers. So that should count for something.

To runners thinking of doing the same thing: Don Lundell's description is a better resource because he bothered to do things like remember which trails he took and write down the mileage. If I tried to reconstruct my route by referring to trail names I can't guarantee it would be right, and it wouldn't be helpful if you kept reading entries like "turn left I think on that single track that goes up that ridiculous hill right past the eucalyptus grove; there you will find a bearded man who will give you the Dragoncharm." In fact, if your choices of information sources for planning such an endeavor are either this post, or a stone monument covered with eroded, half-deciphered glyphs of the Maya, go with the Maya.

Am I doing a good job of setting expectations for this blog entry?

The Statistics

I think the route was about 250 miles:

From Around the Bay

Note that "250" is an ex post facto Google Maps ballpark figure; those GPS watches are the devil's work. ("Kids today don't know how to read satellite maps..." etc.) It took me ih, two and a half years of heading out on weekends when I felt like it to finish it up.

Why Did I Do It?

My first inspiration for this endeavor was to run the exact Bay Area Ridge Trail all the way around, but as hard as the Ridge Trail Council has worked (and continues to work) on it, it's not complete yet. Consequently following it exactly would be difficult - and would also involve getting multiple permissions to run across private land, as Don and Gillian did. Second, I wanted to use this run around the Bay to keep me motivated. I'd been in the Bay Area long enough that I wasn't as excited to get out and hit the trails as I used to be. Third, it's cool. And I'd be lying if I didn't say that noted Marin ultrarunner (and devoted viewer of Jim Schollard motivated me by saying he had done part of it too. Having that guy pass me would have sucked.

What Were The Rules?

1. Safety first - I wasn't about to risk my skin for this silly little adventure. As much time as I spend belly-aching about mountain lions, I fully realize that the biggest risk when you run is getting hit by a car. This is why, if you look at the map, there's a section I didn't run (the black part). It extends from the northern gate of Purisima Creek Redwoods on Rt. 35/Skyline Drive, 4 miles north to 92, down 92 west to US 1, and up 1 past Pacific to McNee Ranch. Most of this route is high-speed highway with little or no shoulder, and if I have to pick between not getting hit by a car, or impressing you people reading my blog, guess what? I did make up for the mileage though - I made sure to run an at least equivalent mileage and at least equivalent elevation change to replace the section I didn't do around the Bay.

2. The order and route of the legs - I didn't always go exactly in order, geographically, although I mostly did. I always made sure that at a connection between legs, I either touched the same tree/rock/fence post etc. or at least crossed my path. I also didn't strictly follow the Bay Ridge Trail - sometimes to shortcut, other times because there was a prettier section. I run trails for the psychological benefit. The physical fitness aspect is secondary. Everyone has different reasons for trailrunning, but if you're not appreciating the world around you I wonder what the point is.

3. Only prior-dedicated legs counted - To keep myself from being too tempted to cheat, my rule was that I had to commit my run to the Round-the-Bay effort before I started. I couldn't say, "Ah, I remember running that trail three years ago with a group of people, so I'll count that one as done"; neither could I get halfway through a non-committed run and say "Hey, here's a marker saying I'm crossing the Bay Ridge Trail, what do you know! I might as well turn onto it and count it" (which did happen several times on "extracurricular" runs).

4. Enjoy myself.


The Start

I decided to run clockwise around the Bay in case doing it the other way made time go backwards like in Superman, and at the end of the trail conquistadors arrested me. But I probably didn't have to worry about it since Superman's mile time is better than mine. What this means is that I started in Berkeley, and I headed south. Keep in mind that in the interest of narrative coherence I'm presenting the legs in geographic order, which is a little different from how I actually did them.

Thanks are in order to the men and women a) who maintain the parks, trails, and open space of the Bay Area for everyone to enjoy, b) who have set and continue to set aside these parks in the first place over the last century as open space for everyone to enjoy, and c) the people of California and the Bay Area who know what's good for us and keep voting to support them. WE RULE! Seriously though, get out there and give the Trail Dogs your support. These guys are a volunteer trail maintenance organization and they're pretty cool.

Tilden Park

I took my first steps in this enterprise at Lone Oak Campground in Northern Tilden around February of 2006. If you make it all the way through this writeup, you'll see that I'm quite obsessive about tracking dates and mileage. By "obsessive" I mean "quite sloppy, because who cares, it was fun". My first legs through Tilden were all through familiar territory. I lived in Berkeley until recently so Tilden, Sibey, Redwood and the EBMUD lands between are all like home to me. Still, setting out directly from my house led me on some long runs. And when you're on gorgeous trails like these, who cares?

EBMUD Land, Sibley and Huckleberry Parks

I hit the Steam Trains at Tilden and continued south through EBMUD land, crossed Fish Ranch, and entered Sibley. The volcanoes seem to be staying dead, which is always nice. Entered Huckleberry, crossed whatever that road is that goes down into Moraga, and entered Redwood near Skyline Gate.

Redwood Park

All I remember is that I took French Trail, because I always take French Trail. Going to Redwood and not taking French Trail is like getting a salad at McDonald's. And then I crossed Redwood Road and entered Lake Chabot. I think I ran into Berkeley ultrarunning legend Mike Palmer somewhere in the East Bay on one of these runs, but in any event he gave me a lot of good information and resources for how to accomplish this project.

Lake Chabot

I should add that I now felt like I was out of my home territory, and I started wondering whether this was still a good idea. From Big Bear Gate (I think it's called that and I'm too lazy to look it up) I started into Lake Chabot as far as Grass Valley staging area. From there, another day I ran to the Lake Chabot Marina and back. By the way, until now this has essentially been the route of the Golden Hills Marathon.

Cull Canyon, Five Canyons Regional Open Space

South of Lake Chabot there are some sections weaving through the backside of San Leandro and Castro Valley where the trail marking was impossible to follow, and I found my way only by following a creek and then asking kids playing at a ranch house where in hell I was. That same day I had woken up two coyotes and was getting spooked about snakes in the high grass, and found out later from a friend that he'd almost stepped on a rattler in that very spot. I ran through a section of Hayward mostly because it contained parks I'd never been in; I started off dehydrated and got worse. When I stopped to ask directions a nice old lady insisted on giving me 2 bottled waters. I came back the next day with a whole case to repay her.

Garin Dry Creek

Next was Garin Dry Creek on a warm fall day (see, I started in February and it's already fall. As you can tell I was really busting my ass.) I had an odd scare when I came around a turn in a shaded creek valley and in the brush saw a bunch of brown forms running through the grass. Again, not mountain lions. Wild turkeys. A lot of them.

The Netherworld: South Hayward

South of Garin the hills are all private property, so at the southernmost trailhead of Garin I came out to Mission Boulevard in unincorporated south Hayward - "civilization" - and no offense to unincorporated Hayward, but the quote marks are definitely needed. Okay, offense to unincorporated Hayward. Anyway, that was about a 15 mile run and I did it at night; a little too ghetto fabulous for me. [Edit: a helpful Redditor pointed out that in fact this whole areas actually is within incorporated Hayward. So, all offense is due to Hayward proper.]

Mission Peak and Ed Levin Park

Mission Peak is one of the highest points in the Bay Area, but not one of the prettiest - if you're familiar with the East Bay, think of that triangular brown heap you can see miles and miles down 880, looming above Fremont, and that's it. It was bright and in the 90s that day and windless, and there is zero shade on that mountain; it's classic California sun-bleached grass and steep hills, and that's all there is to it.

The next leg began at the top of Mission Peak (see what I mean about always having to do everything twice?) so I ran back up to the peak and down the back side, a section so steep it looked like I was coming out of the Rockies. It was a nice feeling when I emerged from the trail into the parking area to see the little post that said "End Bay Area Ridge Trail" but I knew this was an artifact of where I'd started; I wasn't even half-way.

Silicon Valley

The next two runs were horrible - that is to say, through San Jose and its suburbs, if indeed San Jose isn't itself a suburb, as it seems to be, in some horrible residential analogy to distributed processing. After the Mediterranean scrub oaks and redwood forests I'd been through, 13 miles of Sunnyvale office parks made me think I was in a new ring of Hell that Dante had left out for being just too awful, even compared to burning ash and stinging flies. But it was a shortcut, and hey: if there's anything this great country stands for, it's cutting corners.

Rancho San Antonio and Monte Bello

After a seeming eternity condemned to Sunnyvale, I had made it to the entrance to Rancho San Antonio, and the next visit after that I climbed up the high ridge east of the park in Monte Bello Open Space. I remember that run being a tough one - hot, steep, and I was badly hydrated to start with. I should add that here began a series of parks that in 10 years of trailrunning in the Bay Area, I'd never once visited. And they're fantastic.

Skyline Park

On the back side of Rancho San Antonio and Monte Bello is Skyline Park, where again the forest animals lay in wait just to scare me when I wasn't paying attention. A pair of coyotes jumped out onto the trail in front of me before nonchalantly heading up a hill into the woods, looking back over their shoulders at me. Oddly, in Skyline Park I picked up the Bay Area Ridge Trail again. I didn't want my run through the center of hell to be in vain so I wasn't about to retrace the points on the Ridge Trail south of where I found it.

Fantastic Peninsula Parks

From there I came up through a number of San Mateo County Open Space parks: Russian Ridge, Windy Hill, El Corte De Madera, Purisima Creek - alternating from rugged exposed grass-covered hills, to Mediterranean scrub oaks, to riparian woodlands and redwood cloud forests. You might even make some new friendy-friends in these parks! Soda Springs Trail in Purisima has to have the highest beauty:notoriety ratio of any trail in the Bay Area. I'm almost hesitating to put it on my blog here for fear of despoiling it when my millions of readers flock there. Just the drive to get to the trailheads is itself relaxing.


It was here that some will say I cheated. There is a busy 4 mile stretch of Skyline between the northernmost trailhead in Purisima, and then you have three options:

A) Run through San Mateo reservoir land by making an appointment with the water district people well ahead of time, and basically walking with them.

B) Run down 92 west into Half Moon Bay and get run over by a car, then turn right and get run over by cars running 10 miles north into Pacifica on Route 1 along Devil's Slide.

C) Run down 92 east toward the reservoirs and get run over by cars, then run along Rt. 35 into Millbrae (some variant of which is what Don and Gillian did).

D) None of the above.

All the roads are accident-prone as it is, and dangerous for pedestrians. In the end I opted for D and ran equal mileage and elevation elsewhere, and not risk my life for the sake of my little projecty. As an aside: don't you think it's sobering that there are places you can't get to on foot, not because of natural impediment, but human design?

The equal mileage I ran was in two places: 1) Tilden in my back yard, and 2) Andorra. Yes, the one in the Pyrenees. Because of Andorra's "charming" square mileage (as real estate agents would call it) I was able to literally run "cross-country". To Spain. The mountain pass I used turned out to be a Spanish Civil War and WWII smuggling route. I think that counts for something. Cooler than just running down dumb 92 anyway. I also could've counted the Camino Santiago for mileage - this is the famous medieval pilgrimage route to Compostela in Spain.

From Europe Oct 07 - Paris, Basque Country, Andorra

The Camino Santiago was also traversed by Charlemagne's forces (indeed this is where Roland was killed in 778, memorialized in Le Chanson de Roland about the defeat at Roncevaux, or Roncesvalles, depending which language you prefer) but I forgot to dedicate the run ahead of time. See how scrupulous I am?

From Europe Oct 07 - Paris, Basque Country, Andorra


I picked up again in North America in Pacifica at McNee Ranch, where 4 years ago I was stalked by a mountain lion at dusk in the fog (in case you were wondering: it's not a good feeling.) Up and over the wicked coast range, down into San Pedro Preserve, and from there through a Pacifica neighborhood and up to Sweeney Ridge, where Portola and his men stood one day in 1769, as the fog rolled back to reveal San Francisco Bay, making them the first Europeans ever to see it.


More Civilization

From Pacifica it was various twists and turns through San Bruno and Daly City and Colma neighborhoods, and up the side of San Bruno Mountain. Starting at Guadalupe Canyon Park on San Bruno Mountain, I came to the northern edge of the park and there, spreading out before me, was the city of San Francisco. Just as I'd discovered new parks during my loop around the Bay so far, I discovered new neighborhoods of San Francisco that day; not all of them nice ones. I've lived in the Bay Area 10 years and was in San Francisco all the time, and still had never seen these parts of the city. And San Francisco isn't a big city. It made me realize what sheltered circles we must travel in.

The Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands

I finished the city leg at my place in Pacific Heights. I ran the next one to the the Golden Gate Bridge, the next one after that was from the Bridge across into Marin and to Rodeo Beach, and the next one after that was to Miwok Trail, winding up through coastal scrub. The hilltop vegetation in Marin is noticeably different from that even in the southern hills I was in like Skyline; greener, more windblown, because the Pacific currents that control the weather change even in that short stretch of latitude. Once on Miwok Trail I ran to and through Muir Woods, reinforcing my impression that the rangers at Muir Woods really are dicks. (If there was another accurate word, I would use it.) From there it was on to Mt. Tamalpais, which I ran up via Natalie Coffin-Green park on New Years Eve.

Northern Marin and Novato

From there, it was past the lake, up and over to Deer Park (not a very enlightening place at all - tee hee, get it, that's my little Buddhist joke - no, it hasn't made anyone laugh so far). Then through Fairfax and San Anselmo and Sleepy Hollow Preserve. I understand that one of these areas (I can't remember which one) is actually private property and although the owner has historically let people use it, he's now (controversially) closed it due to vandalism, perhaps by the metal militia. If it really gets closed, that would be the thing that should not be; I might even hold my breath as I wish for death. In any case I exited light, and entered night. (Yes, those are inside jokes.)

Then it was across Lucas Valley Road and up over the ridge east of Skywalker Ranch (which really sucked - the ridge, not the ranch), and then down the north side of the ridge to Indian Valley College and the edge of Novato. Of course, this all sounds very simple, but for me it was really an education in local geography. Bay Area geography, while it tends to be dramatic, also tends to be simple - it's hard to get lost because no matter where you are there's the Bay, there are the hills (and faults) parallel to the Bay, and if you still don't know where you are you're a dummy. But once you're running north and east of Mt. Tam, you notice that Marin County is broken into a series of ridges and valleys perpendicular to the San Andreas Fault. When I say "you notice" I mean "you're suffering horribly on the hills to the extent that you're constantly cursing your parents for creating you, every animal unfortunate enough to be in earshot, and plate tectonics in general". But let's not forget that it was fun! Right?

After that, I ran through Indian Valley College and Novato to the top of Mt. Burdell, on which trail I encountered the remains of a turkey that was eaten rather vigorously judging by the feathers everywhere, who knows by what. From the top of Burdell, it was down the other side to Olompali State Park, a Northern California Indian village site that was continuously inhabited for thousands of years right up until the present - they traded with the Russians based up at Fort Ross, as well as Mariano Vallejo when he was governor of Alta California. Pretty nifty.

Petaluma, Sonoma, Napa: Back Roads and Ranchlands

Roads were definitely my greatest hazard in this stretch. Don Lundell was kind enough to direct me to his own route and give advice but I worked it out with a different private property owner so I could run across their land (the only time I did it for this project). Private land is often the least developed and the most remote. At one point when I sat on a fallen tree to tie my shoe, something scrambled from underneath and shot off like a rocket back into the woods I'd just come from - something big enough I was glad it decided to run away. I convinced myself (mostly to keep calm) that it was probably just a sleeping coyote I'd woken up; in fact this wouldn't even have been the first time this happened during this project. It ran so fast and kicked up so much dust in the bone-dry Bay Area summer that I couldn't be sure. In any event, I don't want to say exactly how I got from Olompali to Petaluma because these landowners were nice enough to me but they probably don't want every other weirdo coming to them asking "I want to run exactly along the 38th parallel during a solar eclipse but I have to go through your land". One weirdo running through it is enough. Having said that, Ireland has an arrangement where all farmlands are open to the public for hiking and running, as long as you close gates behind you to avoid the livestock escaping. Isn't that cool? It's not even that different from the arrangement we have right now in a lot of the East Bay Parks.

Once I got to Petaluma I was running entirely on roads, which was by far the greatest hazard of my route, particularly on Stage Gulch Road/Route 116. (Here's the route:)

View Larger Map

I should mention that you could smell the grapes on the vine once I got east of Petaluma and south of Sonoma. This part of the route was a novel experience for a Bay Area runner - miles and miles of flat terrain! It was nice to be able to concentrate on my form for a change. What's more is that I actually became envious of the great country life these folks have in the delta area north of San Pablo Bay - one memory that I hope continues to stick in my mind is of passing two young brothers and their dog playing with a hose in their front yard, having just about as much fun as it's possible to have. Then a few miles later there were the yipping terriers who charged me from an open garage, until their owner, an older gentleman, appeared and shouted at them until they came back into the house. "They're just a coupla assholes," he explained.

Solano County

Notice how the route on the map ends at the old train bridge? It would be suicide to try to run the 29/12 bridge across the Napa River; why not swim? So I did. I can't say the water is particularly clear, but I did meet a huge barn owl in the decommissioned train trestle that day. For the next run, I met my buddy Anup one weekday morning at the opposite bank (thanks for the lift); he drove me to downtown Vallejo and I ran back to the river.

Vallejo is an interesting case. Immediately to the south of Napa, you emerge out of wine-and-ranch country into this place, which looks like an inner-city cut out of the country's rust belt and dropped at the edge of the Bay. After I got to the intersection at Sonoma and Tennessee, from there I ran to the shopping center on Columbus Parkway right between Vallejo and Benicia. I felt a little uncomfortable running through Vallejo and probably wouldn't do it at night. Then one weekday evening I ran from that shopping center to downtown Benicia and back. Benicia has a pretty cool little downtown and if you're up that way you should stop and check it out.

The Carquinez Strait

If you're looking at the map you might ask why I ran to Benicia. The Carquinez Bridge is a freeway; you can't just go running across it. So I could either swim the strait, or kayak it (under my own power; no motors). I was pretty enthusiastic about swimming it - thanks to Erin and my mom for offering to help such an attempt in various ways - but thanks to Erin who is primarily responsible for talking me out of it. As a funny aside - I went to Benicia Point to survey the strait. Of course I understand rationally that hypothermia, currents, and freighters are the biggest risks. But human psychology is a strange thing, and because hypothermia, currents, and freighters do not rush at you from the depths with row upon row of jagged teeth, all I could think about was whether great whites came that far into the Bay. So I asked a fisherman who happened to be sitting at the point that day for his thoughts. He said no, there were no great whites there, because there are no seals for them to eat. Literally less than one minute later, as we were still talking, a seal appeared in the water 30 feet offshore and watched us with passing interest, then swam away. "Damn if that's the first time I ever seen one here," the fisherman said.

Fortunately Erin hooked me up with Mark from Westwind Adventures for the kayak trip. Mark took good care of me and we paddled over from the Martinez Marina and got into the Benicia Jazz Fest for free, because we came by boat. This was my 3 mile paddle and my 15 extra yards of swimming when, ironically, I was capsized by a Coast Guard vessel in the middle of the strait, hence why I'm wet here:

From Around the Bay

Note: I did not buy a martini in Martinez (where they were invented) that time. But you should if you're over that way (yes I got Belgian waffles in Belgium and French fries in France, but I couldn't get Thai iced tea in Thailand). There's also the John Muir House, which is extremely cool. Also they have wild beavers living downtown, which is kind of neat. No, I'm not being dirty. There are really flat-tailed aquatic rodents that build dams.

Back in tha 510

From Martinez I ran through the unintentional park between Martinez and Crockett - unintentional because the road has been closed for years due to a mudslide. From there to Eckley Pier, from there to John Swett High School in Crockett (these are short legs but I didn't quite know what I was doing route-wise at this point owing to the strait-crossing).

From Crockett I ran to the northern gate of Wildcat Canyon in El Sobrante (thanks to Thurston for the 5am pick-up). This was a long one and again, I've lived in the East Bay 10 years and have never seen some of these communities (many of which are regular middle class places). From Wildcat Canyon I ran to - Lone Oak Campground. I was home.


Chronologically speaking, the very last segment I completed to close the loop was to run from Olompali State Park to the top of Mt. Burdell. It was August of 2008. As I got to the top of Mt. Burdell and stepped onto the trail that I'd run from the other direction, I imagined I could feel some kind of current coursing through the now-closed circuit around the Bay. It was done.

When I started this project I thought I pretty much knew every park in the Bay Area. Not hardly. Being forced by this project and geography to pass through certain areas, I not only discovered some fantastic new open spaces but also communities that I never knew were there (the pub in the tiny town of Port Costa has a stuffed polar bear, and the table on which the Treaty of Versailles was signed). I reflected on what it means that we can't travel on foot from Point A to Point B, even though we want to. And now that I'm finished I also have to find another reason to stay interested in running (usually it's challenging friends to races).

When you execute a loop you end up in the same place, and the only real benefit you can expect is experience. Of course, that's just fine with me. Along the way, people frequently asked me if I was doing this for charity and, to be honest, that never occurred to me until they started asking. Without any such motivations, a project like this is the very definition of "for the hell of it", a tradition which was reborn in Europe with Petrarch's ascent of Mt. Ventoux in 1336. And really, what more reason could you need?

Now get out there and do your own project, and tell us all about it! In the meantime, cheers!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Mountain Lion Kill in Point Reyes

I wish I had a picture of this for you, but you'll just have to settle for print. Today, about a half mile from the trailhead at Pierce Point Ranch in Point Reyes, I came upon an obvious mountain lion kill. Large portion of the rump gone, as well as most of the flesh around the head and neck (which appeared broken). The meat was still bright red. I reported this to the park service through their website since I didn't want to assume someone else already had. Oddly, I had to snail-mail in a form, which I grudgingly did. Maybe that's just a hoop the Park Service sets to keep people from sending in bogus reports.

In closing: given the consumption pattern on the deer, it seems the lions really do, as I often say, eat your face.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Volcano Vids from Pacaya, Guatemala

My friend Larry got his bad self married in Guatemala this past summer and honored me by requesting I be the best man, despite that by most reasonable estimations I am very nearly the worst one. Nonetheless I hauled my bad self down there and did my bit. My hosts (his in-laws and their friends and family) were of course incredibly gracious and generous. One day I got antsy and wanted to get out of Guatemala City so I got directions to Pacaya, an active volcano maybe an hour drive outside town.

I got six videos of it you can check out on my Youtube page. I was trying to capture the actual sounds of it erupting for Larry but there's nothing that's obviously volcano vs. wind. Still, here's probably the most interesting one.