Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Blue-Collar Guide to Running in the East Bay

Part I: The Most Scenic Trails

California features some of the greatest running destinations in the world. Fitness tourists flock to the striking clash of land and ocean in the Marin Headlands above San Francisco. Trail runners in the Sierras can climb transcendent single track above Yosemite Valley and Lake Tahoe. Olympic hopefuls spend time at Mammoth Lake. And the tony elite of the Peninsula coalesce around the Sawyer Camp Trail for tempo runs and workouts.

But what about regular folks, those of us just trying to make rent and get in a few runs? Well, that's why there's the East Bay. That's right, the overlooked areas around Oakland, Berkeley, and beyond are rife with a unique set of park trails, paved paths, and urban running routes. And while these areas don't get the attention of more famous venues, they are worth a visit. So, where to run in the East Bay?

This four-part guide features the best trails, paths, and running destinations in the nebulous metropolitan area that runs roughly from the city of Richmond, to Oakland, down to Fremont. Organized by theme, the Blue-Collar Guide is intended for both locals and visitors… the greatest hits, if you will, of East Bay running. These lists are not exhaustive, but they've been extensively vetted by local running authorities. Each run also features a nearby (affordable) eatery for refueling. These spots won't break the bank... or leave you squatting in the bushes the next day.

Starting us off in the series are the best scenic trails in the East Bay. These are the gorgeous forests, the epic views, and the buttery footpaths of the area. If you live here, consider this the “you’ve got to run these at least once” part of the Guide. And if you're visiting the Oakland/Berkeley area, these are the must-do scenic routes.

1) French Trail

 Redwood Park, Oakland, CA

French Trail. Photo: Redwood Hikes

French Trail is, arguably, the most beautiful trail in the East Bay. Carved along the southwest wall of a canyon in Redwood Regional Park, the trail meanders through a lengthy grove of Redwood Trees. The path, mostly singletrack, is hilly (especially on its western half). And there are some particularly steep sections of rooted, technical trail. But it is well worth the effort as green-leaf ferns carpet the trailside and redwoods tower overhead. Running down French for the first time (with my now fiancée) was the moment I began to enjoy living in the crowded zaniness of the East Bay. The trail is an Oakland treasure.

Interestingly, the redwood trees are sustained by a belt of oceanic moisture that flows through the Golden Gate, churns across the San Francisco Bay, and washes up against the Oakland hills. This being the case, the trail can be damp, even in summer, and temperatures are generally cooler than elsewhere in the park.

Many trails connect to French in Redwood Park. Perhaps the most accessible is West Ridge Trail, which runs from the Skyline Gate Staging Area. Parking here is crowded on weekends and weekday afternoons during pleasant weather. However other trails intersect with French, and it’s easy to make a loop—like this gorgeous route incorporating French and Stream Trails.  French is a challenging trail, but the slopes tend to scare off the bigger crowds of day hikers.

Stream Trail is also pretty nice. Photo: Redwood Hikes
Bathrooms: There are pit latrines at the Skyline Gate Staging area. Once on French, you'll need to drop down into the canyon on a side trail if you need to use a toilet. There are several portajons along Stream Trail.
Strava Route.
How to Get There.
Redwood Regional Park Website. (includes trail maps)

Post-run Brunch: Montclair Eggshop. Located just below Redwood Park in the nearby shopping area, Montclair Village, this is the neighborhood's main brunch spot. With hobby-shop decor, the  restaurant gestures at the Village’s suburban origins as a train-line stop. On the menu, I’m a big fan of the "Ed’s Welsh Scramble," which features potatoes, spinach, and other veggies scrambled into eggs. It’s one of the more filling options. There is bottomless coffee but, like anywhere in the Bay, brunch is very crowded on the weekends. $11

2) Inspiration Point 

Tilden Park, Orinda, CA

Photo: Simon W.

Tilden Park is located just east of Berkeley, and features an eclectic mix of hiking, golfing, and even a 106-year-old carousel. But if you're interested in scenic views, head for eastern side of the park to Inspiration Point. There are multiple route options, but perhaps the most intuitive is to head north on the paved Nimitz Way toward Richmond. On a clear day, you can get 3-bridge views of the San Francisco Bay: the Golden Gate, Bay, and Richmond bridges. But the surrounding hills, reservoirs and mountains to the east also make for striking vistas. While Nimitz Way is paved, the path eventually gives way to fire road and there are numerous side trails that descend west down into Wildcat Canyon. This being the case, it is easy to make a loop from Nimitz Way.

During the rainy season, when moisture turns many Tilden trails to sticky muck, the pavement of Nimitz is a nice out-and-back alternative to the hurly-burly on city streets. But keep in mind that Nimitz Way is very exposed, and is thus warm on clear days. Water is very limited on this side of the park. Off-street parking is available.

Photo: Tiffany H.
Bathrooms: There are pit latrines located at Inspiration Point. 
Strava Route.
How to Get There.
Tilden Regional Park Website.

Post-run Sandwich: Stuffed Inn. This neat little sandwichery features delicious rolls, hearty meats, and perhaps the best split-pea soup in the East Bay. Cheerful and family-owned, Stuffed Inn features cozy booth seating and large photos from the Sierra Nevadas. Step inside and its like the 2000s never happened. My recommendation: the Farrah sandwich (turkey-avocado) on a soft sour french roll, with a bowl of soup and a half pickle. Located on Euclid Avenue just north of UC Berkeley, this spot gets crowded during the weekday lunch hour. ~$6-8

3) Brandon Trail to Columbine Trail

Anthony Chabot Park, Oakland/San Leandro, CA

Columbine Trail. Photo: Redwood Hikes

Southeast of Oakland’s city center is Lake Chabot, a reservoir and recreational space. The nicest trails north of the lake are Brandon and Columbine Trail. On Brandon trail's northern sections, one is surrounded by groves of eucalyptus trees. Heading further south, toward the lake, one reaches a scenic intersection of trails, the western fork of which leads to Columbine Trail. Columbine features winding single-track through laurel woods. There are a few rolling hills, but approaching from the north you’ll be treated to nice views of the lake and the surrounding canyons. Definitely worth a visit. Watch for extensive poison oak.

In terms of routes, I recommend a favorite of Richie Boulet, a former professional runner in Oakland. Starting at the Anthony Chabot Equestrian Center off Skyline Boulevard, descend down Goldenrod to Brandon trail, hanging a right on Brandon. A mile later, at the intersection over the creek, take the middle trail to Columbine Trail. You can continue for an out-and-back along the lakeside or turn left up Honker Bay Trail to create a loop through the park campground.

View from Columbine.  Photo: Redwood Hikes
Bathrooms: There are restrooms and a water fountain at the equestrian center.
Strava Route.
How to Get There.
Lake Chabot Regional Park Website.

Post-run Dinner: Old Weang Ping. Oh man, Old Weang Ping. Featuring authentic Thai with unpretentious prices, this menu is a really good deal. Foodies get scared off by the location near neighborhoods of endemic violence. But this place is a hidden gem. Walk in and you will forget all your worries in the floral atmosphere. Order off the chalk board. It doesn’t matter what, just pair it with an order of sticky rice and a Singha.  ~$15-20

4) Huckleberry and Sibley Preserves

Oakland/Moraga, CA

Huckleberry Trail. Photo: BAHiker

Whenever I reach a clearing on the paths of Huckleberry, I usually think, “Ah. OK. This is why I live in this crowded, expensive place.” Huckleberry Botanical Regional Preserve features a singletrack loop that winds up and down the hills rolling away from Oakland. The top trails feature manzanita shrubs, huckleberry bushes, a variety of ferns, and stunning easterly views of open-space canyons and Mount Diablo. The trail is a botanical preserve, and the single track is narrow and visibility down the trail is limited. So be mindful of other trail users.

I recommend running through Huckleberry early in the morning at sunrise, as it provides a few wide open views of Mt. Diablo to the east. If you start on the top trail and head south, the rising sun reflects off the land, turning the hills into a glowing tapestry of purples, reds, and golds. On certain days, you can see rivers of fog, that have rolled over the ridge, flowing through the canyons. It's unlike anything I've seen elsewhere in the world.

Just nearby is Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, an old rock quarry now converted into parkland. This park is an entirely different animal, featuring striking man-made excavations of the hillside. All this extractive industry, however, exposed the ancient volcanic activity that shaped this section of the East Bay hills. So there’s a bit of geology to explore in the park. Additionally, there are a number of stone labyrinths that have been arranged amid the larger quarry formations.

For the best scenery, I recommend a route starting from Huckleberry's staging area. Head down the upper path a mile before turning left to the downward half of the loop. Follow the switchbacks until you reach the Bay Area Trail, which heads toward Sibley. You'll do some steep climbing before you reach the Round Top Loop trail. Bear right and you'll eventually be spilled on an old fire roadway with quarry excavations on your right. You can explore around here for the various labyrinths. Eventually you will reach a paved road which will wind down to the base of the park. Then hang a left back on the Bay Area Ridge trail to slog back up to the Sibley parking entrance. Run downhill from the entrance on Skyline Boulevard. If you want to take in a view of the Bay, veer left off the road to a clearing that's just a few yards north of the Huckleberry staging area. You can follow this path back to parking lot.

A labyrinth in Sibley. Photo: Kevin Hikes

Bathrooms: There are toilet facilities (and parking) at the main entrances of both parks.
Strava Route.
How to Get There.
Huckleyberry Botanical Regional Preserve website.
Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve website.

Post-run BurritosCactus Taqueria - Oakland has dozens of taqueria and trucks that foodies drool over. But I’ll be frank: most "authentic" taquerias give me mudbutt. (Blame it on my Anglo-Saxon constitution and high mileage.) So if you've got a workout in the morning, I highly recommend the burritos from Cactus. Spring for the “mejor” large-size burrito as it’s a better value. They make a delicious cilantro rice which you can swap into the burrito. Try the pineapple salsa. Cactus is just down the hill from Sibley Park, and off Highway 24 in Rockridge. ~$8

5) Sequoia-Bayview Trail

Joaquin Miller Park, Oakland, CA

Sequoia-Bayview Trail.  Photo: Redwood Hikes

If you are a fan of redwood trees, you should head up to the Sequoia-Bayview trail in Joaquin Miller Park. This trail is mostly flat, rare for the East Bay, as it winds along a contour line below Skyline Boulevard. There are verdant switchbacks and you'll catch glimpses of downtown Oakland to the west. Unbelievably, the gorgeous open space below the trail is actually a municipal park, managed by the city of Oakland. But you can descend from the trail to reach the Woodminister Amphitheater, which is very much the result of federal economic intervention. The art deco amphitheater was a WPA Project, and is now an architectural vestige of America’s peak cultural and political greatness.

In terms of routes, many folks run out-and-backs from the trailhead on Skyline Boulevard, often connecting into Redwood Park. But I highly recommend the climb up Palos Colorados trail, further below off Mountain Boulevard near Montclair Village. Although a stout climb, the trail winds up a beautiful canyon along Palo Seco Creek, before spilling out at a meadow beneath Sequoia-Bayview. The park has multiple trails so it’s easy to get turned around, but keep heading up the hill, following Palos Colorados or Sunset Trail, and you will eventually reach Sequoia-Bayview, which runs the length of the park. See the Strava route below.

Woodminster Amphitheater. Photo: Ingrid Taylor
Bathrooms: There are no bathrooms at the Skyline Blvd access point. However there are portajons (and a water fountain) on the opposite end of the trail about 1.5 miles away. There are several plumbing restrooms in the lower sections of the park.
Strava Route, short out-and-back starting on Bayview-Sequoia.
Strava Route, loop starting at Palos Colorados.

Post-run Grub: Park Burger. Just down the road on Park Boulevard, you can refuel at this burger shop. While it gets loud on the weekends (family crowds), the burgers are solid. I once met a friend there for lunch, and he asked about my academic research. The burger ruined my response because I kept interrupting my explanations of arcane seventeenth-century theology by moaning after each bite. The menu features the now standard hipster-variety of baroque burger options, but you really can’t go wrong.  ~$10-13

Honorable Mentions:

The Ohlone Wilderness Trail. When’s the last time you were in a “wilderness” within a few miles of a major city? The Ohlone wilderness stretches eastward from the foothills southeast of Fremont into the rugged, but beautifully sparse landscape south of Interstate 680. Bring water and you’ll need a trail permit. The parking situation near Mission Peak is a disaster.

Wildcat Canyon, Richmond, CA. Wildcat Canyon Regional Park lays on the north side of Tilden Regional Park. The park is generally more exposed, though there are some tree groves at the base of the canyon. The park’s main trail follows a rolling path alongside Wildcat Creek. It makes for a nice out-and-back. Interestingly, the remnants of a early twentieth-century sanitarium are still visible in the park. You’ll notice some out-of-place palms and other exotic trees near the Belgum Trail (named after the sanitarium’s founder). There was a large house on the estate, the foundation of which is still evident.

Forgot to pack Running Socks? 

For shoes, gear, and info on local events and races, check out Transports, the local running store with locations in both Berkeley and Oakland. The store also hosts weekly events around the area, so it is worth signing up for their social media and emails.

Special Thanks

A special thank you to Dave Baselt at Redwood Hikes, for allowing use of his photography. Check out his extensive and detailed list of trails and hikes across California.

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In our next installment... "Convenient Running Routes for Real People"

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Video Games and the Myth of Process

This past December, Nintendo released their first video game for Apple’s iPhone. Curiously, it is about running. Mario Run, a zany side-scrolling game in the Super Mario universe, features the eponymous Mario, the famous overall-wearing plumber, on yet another quest to save his girlfriend, Princess Peach, from the evil turtle-king Bowser.

In Mario Run, the heroic Mario runs... and runs... and runs. You, the player, guide Mario as he dashes through numerous levels filled with pipes, chasms, and creatures that block your way. Unlike other versions of the game franchise, in Mario Run you cannot stop Mario’s forward movement. You can only adjust how he sprints, jumps, and flips his way through each level. Mario always tries to run forward. If he gets stuck at an obstacle that requires a jump, he waves his hands in discombobulated confusion. If he slams into an enemy, he wails in despair as he falls off screen.

Mario’s run after Princess Peach is like something from a Samuel Beckett play.  He simply never stops running. Mario cannot pause, even for a moment. While he might momentarily vault backwards off a wall, the plumber immediately turns his head back to the quest, compelled inexorably forward. “Onwards! Onwards!” he seems to say to himself. It’s like watching the agonies at the end cross country race, when every runner’s face is set in a sneer of self-flagellation toward the finish line.

Mario’s movement is constant, a red blur of unstoppable forward momentum. His is an un-arrested flight, like the Internet videos of crazed parkour athletes in post-Soviet nations. Except rather than sliding through the ruins of failed totalitarian economies, Mario flips, vaults, and sprints through a Technicolor dreamscape of mushroom forests, yellow deserts, and spooky caverns. He careens through dungeons and zooms over clouds. He bounces incessantly over Goombas. Indeed, it is Mario that is the aggressor here, hurdling over his opponents and smashing in the heads of creatures that seem to be otherwise minding their own business. No matter.  Mario is, quite simply, unable to stop running.

When I played Mario Run, the experience felt strangely personal. It wasn’t just that I had grown up playing Super Mario Brothers on Nintendo. Indeed, Mario Run is utterly different from its predecessor video games. In the earlier games, the player also guided Mario forward on a quest to save the Princess. But you needed to explore each world, to ponder Mario’s route through a level. Success required ferreting out secrets and discovering secret passages. Sure, there was a count-down timer that forced you to the finish of each level, but the point wasn’t just to win. You were also supposed to have an adventure. It was far removed from the headlong rush of Mario Run.

I realized that the evolution of Mario from red-overalled adventurer, to over-caffeinated super-marathoner, paralleled my own changing relationship with distance running.
When I started running, it was to see what was out there. I ran along neighborhood roads, cutting through the woods of new-growth forests that divided the sprawling suburbs. I was curious what was hiding under and along the trees. I ran out on country lanes. I was not really trying to get anywhere in particular. I ran simply to see were the road went.

Things changed in high school. I became consumed with that deep and laudable goal to become the best possible runner I could possibly be, no matter the cost. It was, like Mario’s run for the elusive princess, my own personal quest.

When you devote yourself to competitive distance running, “process” is important. Indeed, commentary emphasizing “process” over “Big Goals” is everywhere in running coaching and journalism these days. Pay attention to yourself, be mindful of your habits, be aware of your approach to life and your surroundings. Adjust the little things for optimal results. Even good efforts like a PR or strong race, are merely the means to the end of further self-improvement. Only process is important because there is no stopping, not really. There are many finish lines, but a distance runner can always go faster and train better. She can get a bit more sleep and do a bit more core-work. She can push a little bit farther, a little bit harder. Process is the end in itself.

“I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit,” the famous sushi chef, Jiro Ono, once said in describing his life’s vocation to prepare the best possible food. “I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach for the top… but no one knows where the top is.” All of us, like Mario and Jiro, are constantly striving forward to a destination that is everywhere and nowhere. Process is everything. But only because we are on an endless treadmill of self-overcoming.

“How very bleak,” I thought as I powered down my phone after a bout of running Mario through a veritable genocide of Goombas. Had I become a fleshly facsimile of Mario? Was I so relentless focused on my own improvement that I had stopped enjoying the sport?

These thoughts followed me out the door as I went out for a run. Maybe I need to reclaim a bit of the innocent juvenilia of my youth. A light winter snow flurry picked up as contemplated my interest in the sport. Perhaps I might schedule certain runs as moments of exploration, discovery, and play? Hmm. Scheduling adventure seemed the very antithesis of thing itself.

I had jogged myself into a paradox, a dungeon of my own making. I winced away some snow from my eyes, put my head down, and, like Mario, ran onwards.