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More Than the Sum of its Parts

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The San Francisco Bay Area’s thriving trail-running community

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Larissa Polischuk and Brett Rivers on the SCA Trail, Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Photo by David Clifford.

This article appeared in our July 2012 issue.

The sky, cloudless and the color of a blue jay—the antithesis of this region’s typical climate of cool temperatures and fog—umbrellas the Tennessee Valley Trailhead in California’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It’s December, 70 degrees Fahrenheit and just past midday here in San Francisco’s North Bay. The trailhead parking area is gill-filled. A throng of a hundred plus comes and goes from hikes and runs in the hills rising around us. I circle the lot with my rental car and, like a mall mom, await my opportunity to pounce on an open parking slot.

I wonder, in this mass of humanity, if I’ll find my running companions, two strangers who promised to show me some of their favorite trails. I must look like a lost puppy—or a clueless out-of-towner—because a tall man with a teeth-filled grin walks up to me and says, “You must be Meghan.”

This trail runner is 46-year-old architect Christopher Craig, who is accompanied by Mary Fagan, a 36-year-old Sausalito teacher. Within minutes, we plow up the Miwok Trail, which is wide, buffed-out and composed of rust-colored dirt. Fagan leads our trio along the gentle grade.

I am from Utah and have been fascinated from afar by the San Francisco Bay Area’s trail-running scene. While you find trail runners in every corner of the world, the Bay Area’s culture is highly evolved. The region contains sick trail systems, an unfathomable number of trail runners, and a trail race on pretty much every weekend. Even more, American trail racing basically began in the Bay Area with the 107-year-old Dipsea Race. I’m here to learn: what makes this community tick?

“I run every day, almost,” says Fagan, waving both of her hands at the hills. Adds Craig, on behalf of both of them, I think, “Tell me you wouldn’t want to call this your home turf.”

As kids, Mary and her twin sister pinned a photo from Runner’s World magazine to their bedroom wall of a trail runner on Mount Tamalpais, which rises to the north of where we’re running. Today, the New England native says that their childhood Mount “Tam” fascination is responsible for them both living, working and running in the Bay Area.

The landscape is stark, striking: browned grass adorns rolling hillsides and brief views of a midnight-blue Pacific Ocean spill through breaks in the topography. We glimpse a coyote running along the trail ahead of us. Craig laughs and says, “We’re on Coyote Ridge right now.” I decide that Fagan, Craig and the wild canine are all onto something with Bay Area running.

A Land of Green Plenty

The San Francisco Bay Area is the land surrounding the San Pablo and San Francisco bays, two immense estuaries of the Pacific Ocean. Most locals divide the Bay Area into four major geographic areas: the city of San Francisco; North Bay, which stretches north from the Golden Gate Bridge; East Bay, encompassing the cities of Richmond, Oakland, Hayward and everything in between; and the land extending south from San Francisco to about San Jose is the South Bay.

The region’s dirty secret is chunks of undeveloped, green space almost equal in size to its developed areas. “I call them geographic pockets of green,” explains Sarah Lavender Smith, a 42-year-old communications and freelance-writing professional who lives and trail runs in the East Bay’s Piedmont. “Every part of the Bay Area has one or more of them and they all have trails. In some places, the pockets are continuous, forming belts of green.”

Scott Dunlap is the Woodside-based (South Bay) Vice President of Emerging Opportunities at PayPal and publisher of the popular A Trail Runner’s Blog. Everything a trail runner could want is here, says Dunlap, “redwoods, mossy rocks, long descents into canyons, ridgeline traverses, oaks, ferns, grassy hilltops with expansive views of the ocean, gnarly climbs, singletrack through first-growth redwoods as well as pungent brush full of quail, bobcat and rabbits.”

On one day of my Bay Area visit, a sunset run with Lavender Smith in the East Bay’s Tilden Regional Park turns fortuitously into a geography lesson. From a ridgeline, I see one of three things in every direction: water reflecting the low-angled sun, stretches of citified land starting to glow with nighttime lights and green-space giants rising as ridges and mountains out of everything else.

Pointing east, Lavender Smith says, “There’s Mount Diablo. The trails there will kill you.” She continues, “Er, in a good way.” She flips west and points to a ridgeline that looks like a green-backed dragon, “That’s some of the North Bay’s open space with Mount Tamalpais as the high point.” She turns south and says, “That over there is the South Bay. It’s harder to see the parks from our vantage point. But trust me, they’re there.” As the sun sinks below shiny ocean water, I am certain that the Bay Area’s trail-running community runs in the land of green plenty.

Great Minds Think and Run Alike

“You can’t be a Bay Area trail runner without putting in pavement miles,” says Larissa Polischuk, as she and I streak through darkness along Marina Boulevard in the heart of San Francisco. In the black night, I can hear the sea breaking against the land to our right. On the left, the Earth rises sharply to the city’s steep heights. Streets ribbon up on a grid that goes on for miles and among the homes and businesses of the 800,000 people who call San Francisco proper their home. In front of us a couple miles away is our destination, the brightly lit Golden Gate Bridge.

“Some days we run pavement, other days trails. It’s part of the city-life beast.”

Thirty-four-year-old, San Francisco-based Polischuk is a personal trainer and running coach who left a lucrative career in the hedge-fund industry to follow her passion of helping others achieve their fitness goals. We’re weaving in an out of, literally, dozens of other runners when she motions in the direction of a random pair headed our way, “I’ll bet you 20 bucks those guys run trails, too.”

On this night, Polischuk has invited me to join an Endurables group run. The Endurables are a Bay Area trail-running training group. For a nominal fee, you can train with Polischuk or a couple of other local trail-running coaches from the area. Through these multi-week training programs, runners gain the endurance and skills necessary to complete a goal trail race of their choosing.

It’s a Wednesday night and The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship races will occur on Saturday and Sunday. Most of Polischuk’s runners are racing this weekend and in taper mode, so it’s just she and I running into a moist, warm wind blowing hard off the water. Polischuk’s boyfriend, Brett Rivers, is also a trail runner. Says Polischuk, “Before I was an Endurables coach, I was a road runner who explored trails via Endurables’ group runs. Brett showed up, too, and I thought he was cute. I went trail running to spend time with him.”

Now engaged, Polischuk and Rivers, a 30-year-old Zynga revenue manager, have made a passel of friends through trail running. “A couple of our closest trail-running friends are Devon Crosby-Helms and Nathan Yanko.” Polischuk continues, laughing, “Nathan’s a sensitive guy. He likes The Sound of Music. You know, the musical. And Devon’s a chef who creates fantastic food.”

A few days later, I’m sitting with the couple, 29-year-old Crosby-Helms and 30-year-old Yanko, in the front room of their apartment a few blocks off San Francisco’s Haight Street. Both are self-proclaimed running freaks who log miles on roads and trails. For instance, Crosby-Helms holds a 2:38 marathon PR and finished second at Virginia’s inaugural 2011 UROC 100K. In March, Yanko finished fourth overall at the 2012 Napa Valley Marathon.

I ask Yanko first about the foursome’s familiarity (and The Sound of Music comment from the other night). Yanko’s retort makes me giggle and I understand that theirs is a fortified friendship, “I met Brett the day I did my first 50K. He wore a fanny pack. I chased him and that fanny pack around for the entire race.”

The Haight neighborhood looks like a pavement jungle, so I ask Crosby-Helms where she finds her trails. “In the heart of San Francisco, there’s singletrack everywhere,” she says. “It’s only a few blocks to Golden Gate Park. Once there, I can run trails west all the way to the ocean. And north of here is the Presidio and its miles of singletrack.” The Presidio is a National Park Service-administered swath of land in the city that preserves the area’s history as a military installation. Among the property’s open space curve about 20 miles of maintained trails and probably just as many miles of unmaintained, social trails.

Crosby-Helms and Yanko are lanky, lean creatures and they sit shoulder-to-shoulder with each other on their couch in a pile of knees and elbows. Crosby-Helms is decked in sweats and says she’s just back from a run while Yanko’s sporting a button-down shirt and is shortly headed to work as a baker at Tartine Bakery and Café. A boatload of goofy affection floats between them as they speak, finishing each other’s sentences.

Says Yanko, “We do most of our long trail runs in the North Bay. I can make a 50-mile training run happen there, easy.”

“The best part about going to the North Bay,” says Crosby-Helms, “is that we meet up with or run into other runners.”

Yanko, who discovered road running as a 20-something, says Dunlap’s blog inspired him to get into trail running. “I didn’t know any trail runners, but I somehow discovered Scott’s blog and became fascinated with the culture,” he says. “After reading it for a few months, I mustered the courage to register for a trail race. At the starting line, Scott was parked right in front of me! I figured it was fate and have been trail running ever since.”

Dunlap himself emphasizes that Bay Area trail running is community focused. “The trail-running community’s courage and humility are addictive,” he says. “We don’t shave our legs, tattoo corporate logos on our bodies or finish angry because we didn’t negative split a race. We just want to have fun with our fellow outdoor adventurers.” Some of Lavender Smith’s longest-lasting friendships are those that were born through the sport, “I started trail running in the mid-’90s and I still call the folks I ran with back then my friends.”

Unbreakable: The Western States 100 (see Making Tracks, April 2012, Issue 79) film premiers at a San Francisco sporting-goods store during my stay. When I arrive, a line of ticket holders, all chatting and greeting each other with hugs, snakes through the store. As the movie plays, the attentive crowd laughs, applauds and cheers just like they would at a trail race’s finish line. Afterward, the room erupts in a standing O for filmmaker JB Benna (see Faces, page 80) and the film’s stars. I watch the moment unfold and recall something Fagan had said as we ran, “Around here, great minds think and run alike.”

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Mike Wolfe savors his victory after the 2011 The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile. Photo by David Clifford.

Come One, Come All

“Historically, the Bay Area trail-running community was based off the same half-dozen events like the Dipsea, Firetrails and Miwok. We would finish one race and say, ‘See you at Miwok,’ knowing all the same people would be there,” says Dunlap. “Look at Dipsea,” says Sarah Lavender Smith. “It’s been around since the dawn of man.” She’s referring to America’s oldest trail race, The Dipsea Race, which takes place in the North Bay on the shoulder of Mount Tamalpais.

Since those Bay Area trail-racing glory days to which Dunlap and Lavender Smith refer, the racing scene has exploded. Dunlap believes this radical growth is a result of the Dean Karnazes (another Bay Area resident; see “The Man Behind Ultramarathon Man,” January 2012, Issue 77) craze and the ultrarunning book, Born to Run. “Attendance at trail races has increased dramatically,” he says, “as has the sheer number of local races.” Says Polischuk, “Today, I can trail race somewhere in the Bay Area on almost any weekend. Both Saturday and Sunday, too, if I really want to get after it.”

The 2007 institution of The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship (TNFEC) races and the prize monies offered to top finishers of the 50-miler further evolved the Bay Area trail-racing scene. Trail-racing’s big guns, both Bay Area runners as well as elites from around the world, now flock to the event. “The race becomes more competitive each year,” says Rick Gaston, a 40-year-old graphic designer, ultrarunner and triathlete. “The prize money brings in a lot of great runners who, in turn, attract more talent.” While only a few fast folks take home the cash, the event inspires enthusiasm for trail running that trickles down to everyone who races.

But Dunlap says that an increase in the sheer number of races and race competitiveness hasn’t changed their feel, “Races are more organized than they used to be, but they still maintain the same low-key nature.”

Gaston believes that the racing scene itself grows and diversifies the trail-running community. “My triathlon club, the Golden Gate Triathlon Club, embraces the TNFEC races. For the last three years, we’ve organized trail-running workshops for members who want to give the races a shot,” says Gaston. “Thanks to the TNFEC races, I now have trail-running friends on the ultra and triathlon sides of the endurance community.”

Crosby-Helms is one of the Bay Area’s standout ultrarunners, both on trails and roads. “No matter what happens with my running, I love and I’ll always be a part of the local trail-racing scene,” she says. Gaston adds, “You don’t keep a good thing like this to yourself. I’m all for the way our racing scene is growing.”

More Than a Sum of its Parts

A couple weeks after I have returned to Utah, I am still reeling from my immersion in the Bay Area’s trail-running culture. I admit that an encounter with poison oak on my run with Craig and Fagan and its incipient rash are parts of why San Francisco weighs heavily on my mind. Something else has crawled under my skin and taken up residence in my mind, though: its people.

Sarah Spelt of Pacific Coast Trail Runs sees remarkable camaraderie in the races she directs. She says, “I encounter people who sacrifice their own race to be sure a fallen runner is OK, elites who chat easily and people who cheer as loudly for the last finisher as the first.”

Working together to become bigger and better, that’s what a community is and that’s what I learned San Francisco does best. “I’ve seen trail runners get married, have families and help each other through tough personal times,” says Dunlap. “Trail runners are all over the globe, for sure, but the Bay Area community is special.”

Meghan M. Hicks, a writer from Park City, Utah, is certain that trail runners make the world a better place.

Must-Do Bay Area Races

The Dipsea Race > Experience history at America’s oldest trail race. The 7.4-mile course and its hundreds of stairs travel next to Mount Tamalpais in the North Bay. (dipsea.org)

Dick Collins Firetrails 50 > This 50-mile classic, held mostly on fire roads and with 7800 feet of climbing in the East Bay, will occur for the 30th time in 2012. (firetrails50.com)

Diablo Marathon and 60K > Two race distances will be hosted at one Pacific Coast Trail Runs event in June 2012. See some of the East Bay’s most technical trails! (pctrailruns.com/event.aspx?dtid=9939)

The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship races > Pick your distance poison at this two-day event in the North Bay, with race distances ranging from five kilometers to 50 miles. Also, don’t miss the 50-mile race’s finish line, where the top three men and women win big cash prizes. (thenorthface.com/endurancechallenge/races/2011/ca)

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Top Bay Area Trails // Members of the Bay Area trail-running community weigh in on the region’s best trails.

Mount Diablo State Park > “You have a 360-degree view of northern California from the top,” says Sarah Lavender Smith about the East Bay park, “but the trails’ vert will make you work for that view.” Sarah Spelt concurs, “Tough climbs, technical terrain and hot summer temperatures make Mount Diablo a favorite. To me, the mountain feels like home.” (parks.ca.gov/?page_id=517)

Mount Tamalpais State Park > “We’re bombarded by sounds and sights in the heart of San Francisco,” says Nathan Yanko, “But when I’m on the trails around the Pantoll Ranger Station on Mount Tam, all of that melts into solitude.” (parks.ca.gov/?page_id=471)

Point Reyes National Seashore > About this North Bay green space, Christopher Craig says, “Sometimes, you’ll see no one on Point Reyes’ trails. The feeling of freedom there is unreal.” (nps.gov/pore)

Golden Gate National Recreation Area > Brett Rivers says, “You won’t forget a sunrise run on the SCA Trail with a full-on view of the Golden Gate Bridge, the San Francisco skyline and the Pacific Ocean’s wilderness.” (nps.gov/goga)

Big Basin Redwoods State Park > The 65-mile drive south of San Francisco to see Scott Dunlap’s favorite trails is worth it: “The redwoods are massive, and the trails take you past waterfalls and creeks all the way to the beach. This park inspires deep appreciation of Mother Nature.” (parks.ca.gov/?page_id=540)