Catch a Fire(trail)Founded by a Bay Area trail-running legend, the Dick Collins Firetrails 50-miler continues a tradition of being rookie friendly and blue-collar casual.
As the sun rises on the hills behind Oakland, Victor Ballesteros (1) and Hal Koerner climb the MacDonald Grade in Anthony Chabot Regional Park, around mile 9 in the Dick Collins Firetrail 50. Photo by Rod McLean.
This article appeared in our 2009 Race Issue.
On the second Saturday of last October, a breeze blew east from San Francisco to the darkened shores of Lake Chabot and fanned the anticipation of 159 jittery runners at the start of the Dick Collins Firetrails 50. The wind, carrying the scent of eucalyptus from the dense groves in these hills near Oakland, made runners rub bare arms and blow into cold hands. Even back-of-the-packers geared up and greeted each other with a tighter tempo.
Wedged between the East Bay Area’s cities and suburbs, the race pays tribute to the trailblazer who created it 26 years ago. For many, it’s their first 50-miler. For others, it’s their last chance of the year to qualify for the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. For the legendary husband-and-wife race directors Carl Andersen and Ann Trason, it’s an opportunity to channel all the intensity they brought to their competitive running into directing a race they love. “We carry on this tradition so we can put something back into the sport,” said Andersen, otherwise known to some Bay Area runners as the “Quad Dipsea King” for his all-time record and two separate age-group records on that famed course.
As runners mentally prepared to climb 7800 feet on the glorious greenbelt stretching from Hayward to Berkeley and back, some locals glanced with curiosity at an unexpected out-of-towner. 2007 Western States winner Hal Koerner, coming off a win at Angeles Crest 100 just four weeks earlier (where he recorded the second-fastest time ever), signed up at the last minute and drove down with six buddies from Ashland, Oregon. “The race has always been on my radar, mainly because Ann and Carl are the RDs,” he said before the start. “They are two great people and inspirational runners you want to be around. And the hills above Oakland are so picturesque and inviting that I couldn’t help but try to grab on to the waning moments of summer running.”
Racers knew that anything could happen on this race day. After all, it’s the time of year when the Bay Area marks the anniversaries of major earthquakes, firestorms, floods and stock-market crashes. This particular year, the event provided a blessed escape from the prior week’s financial meltdown that sunk the Dow and sent D.C. into a tailspin. “Seize the day,” one might say—or as this crowd would translate carpe diem, “Hit the trail and run like hell!”
Koerner, 32, took a spot at the start near Victor Ballesteros, 38, of San Rafael, California, who won the previous year as a 50-mile rookie with the third-fastest time in the event’s history. In the women’s field, many past winners and local favorites were absent, but 33-year-old Darcie Gorman, a top trail runner and marathon winner in her hometown of Salt Lake City, had traveled here to escape Utah’s early snow and make her 50-mile debut.
This year, the cool temps and mud-free footing made for ideal conditions. Would Trason’s and Andersen’s seemingly untouchable course records finally fall?
Andersen, preoccupied with checking in runners and moving pallets of water, brightened when asked about the prospect of seeing his record of 6:26, set at age 34 in 1994, blown away. “It would be great! Ann and I have always felt weird that we put on this race and are the record holders,” he said before adding, with the admiring tone he uses when speaking about his more-famous wife, “I think my record might be easier to break. Ann did this race [in 1987, at age 28] on a lark after riding her bike for eight weeks without running at all, so she feels her record [of 7:31] is soft, but obviously any record that Ann sets is way out there.”
With minutes to go before the 6:30 a.m. start, Andersen hastily directed runners to the edge of a darkened path and addressed the headlamps flickering like lighters held by concert fans. “Ann and I have been putting on this race for nine years, and Dick Collins before us,” he said. “We’re really glad to have all of you out here and hope you have a wonderful day.” And then Koerner, Ballesteros and all the others went out fast, no doubt eager to get past the paved stretch curving around the lake.
The real trail starts after a single-file wooden bridge in mile two. Heading up the first switchbacks, the orange glow of sunrise and the crimson sheen of poison oak came into view, while a glance over the shoulder revealed the twinkling lights of the East Bay cityscape reflecting off the water’s glassy expanse. It won’t be long before runners reach a ridgeline boasting the Bay Area’s best vistas.
The seasonal winds, which put people in the tinder-dry hills on edge, do have one benefit: They blow away pollution and polish the views to hyper-clarity so that midway on the course, at 1800 feet, runners gaze on the Golden Gate Bridge framed by the sparkling skirt of San Francisco and the majestic rise of Mount Tamalpais. To the east, they see forested canyons and softly sculpted hills that buck the ’burbs and rise to the double-humped Mount Diablo. On this clear day you can even make out the Sierra Nevada.
“If people knew this view existed, they would travel from all over the world to see it,” said Kevin Swisher, a competitive trail runner in the East Bay and Dick Collins Firetrails 50 veteran. “This race embodies everything that’s great about living and running here.”
Along with wide-angle shots of the bay and the mountains, the course captures close-ups of redwoods flanked by ferns and meadows baked to golden brown. The terrain is as varied as the views: wide, flat fire roads entice runners to lengthen their stride, and steep, narrow climbs threaten to trip them with roots and rocks. Some stretches seem sliced from the Sierra foothills, or maybe from a remote corner of Mendocino, but, no—when you’re on the Firetrails 50, you’re never far from urban centers stereotyped by crime and counterculture, or by rabid Raiders and Bears. Oakland and Berkeley manage to capture all that the greater region has to offer trail runners, right in its extended backyard.