By Michael Lanza
“You have to embrace the hills.”
That subtly foreshadowing line from an e-mail my running partner today, Janet Bowman, sent me a few days ago leaps to mind, as we struggle to run up a trail pitched at the angle of an Olympic ski jump. Perspiration streams off my head like a hard rain as, rapid-fire, I gasp for air and release loud bursts of breath—this even though we’re only moving at a pace that might be described as a determined shuffle. Just minutes into a 9.5-mile trail run across the rugged hills of Northern California’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA)—one that will carry us up and down 2,300 vertical feet—I’m wondering how many anaerobic-threshold moments lie ahead.
And I’ve only gone less than a mile.
I’m here for an adventurous four-day, 42-mile run across Marin County, a place with a reputation for fearsome hills—and arguably the country’s best trail running. More than 700 miles of footpaths spider web a network of 40 federal, state, and county parks covering some 170,000 acres—an area about 200 times the size of Central Park in New York City. The parks contain forests of towering redwoods and Douglas firs, a rocky coastline where elephant seals bellow on secluded beaches, streams that boil with spawning coho salmon, and rounded hills harboring Tule elk and nearly half of all the bird species in North America.
My route from Sausalito to Inverness follows an itinerary at the extremes of rigor and decadence. With the exception of a short cab ride from one inn to a trailhead on my third morning, I’ll step out of a lodge every day in my running shoes and shorts, carrying just water, a couple bars, and a light wind shell, and run to the next night’s accommodations while a taxi transports my luggage. I’ll crank out nine to 12 miles a day, almost entirely on trail, with a calf-knotting couple thousand feet of cumulative vertical. Every evening, I’ll plow through a five-star dinner and kick back in luxurious digs. Launching fearlessly into that agenda upon my arrival last night in Sausalito, I carbo-bloated on black gnocchi with wine-braised calamari and a Napa Valley cabernet franc at Poggio Italian Trattoria, then enjoyed a soak in my room’s oversized tub at the Casa Madrona; and afterward, relaxed on the balcony overlooking the Sausalito Harbor, one of the priciest places to dock a boat in the country.
The plan appealed to me on many levels—the expectation of amazing running and scenery, a big physical challenge, and living large after every run. Yet a little voice in my head—my wife’s actually—keeps replaying the question she asked before I left home, “Aren’t you gonna get your butt kicked?” You see I’m basically a middle-of-the-pack runner cramming more hard miles into four days than I’ve ever attempted. So I’m hoping to get through this adventure without ending up like one of those unfortunate marathoners who stagger across the finish line with a hundred-mile stare and conspicuously drooping shorts.
After the lung-busting hundred-foot climb up from Sausalito, Janet and I lengthen our strides on rolling terrain. No longer feeling like I’m sucking oxygen through a kinked straw, I fall into a familiar, pleasant rhythm—and start admiring my surroundings. Open hills covered in grass and bushes undulate through endless swells, creased by ravines and valleys. A former president of the local Tamalpa Runners, Janet offered to be my area envoy after I posted a message at the club’s website seeking partners. She points out the San Francisco skyline glinting in the warm October sunshine, the Golden Gate Bridge’s towers poking above one hilltop, the Berkeley Hills, and Mt. Tamalpais (“Mt. Tam” to locals) rising to over 2,500 feet just three miles from the ocean. From San Francisco Bay to the Pacific, half of our panorama is an unbounded blue plain scored with ripples. Seven million people inhabit the Bay Area’s urban-suburban footprint, much of it within our sight, from San Francisco to Oakland and Berkeley. Yet except for the chatter of birds and a whisper of breeze, there isn’t a sound.
Over an hour into our run, we stop at a trail junction. Tall and runner-lean at 61, a veteran of many races from 5k’s to ultras over three decades of running, Janet moves like someone who’s thought about how to get her pace just right for all those years. She extends that same ethic of efficiency even to her speech, using few words, as if she’s allotted only so many per day and doesn’t want to waste any. “I was running alone in fog here one day and saw a bobcat staring at me,” she says, the awe from that fleeting glimpse still sharp in her voice.
I feel a similar awe over the landscape as the Coastal Trail slithers across crumbling bluffs that plunge 400 feet to the ocean. Ahead lies Muir Beach, where we’ll down a post-run draft in the tiny English pub at my next stop, the Pelican Inn. A Tudor-style manse rebuilt from a dismantled British inn, including original bar woodwork with the year 1675 scratched into it, the Pelican exudes Old World charm with its small, low-ceilinged rooms, dark wood beams, and a menu featuring bangers and mash and Yorkshire pudding.
Far below us, the surf sloshes loudly against the rocky shore of Pirates Cove, where stone pinnacles rise out of the sea, isolated by centuries of wave erosion. It’s the kind of scenery that makes talking sound like loud radio static, so we fall silent.
The moment stretches into minutes. I figure Janet is politely letting me enjoy the view, because she’s run these hills for over 25 years and has undoubtedly stood here many times. As if reading my mind, she confesses, “I never get sick of seeing this place.”
I begin to glean the full meaning of embracing the hills: Running these trails is a package deal. To get up here, to experience all this, you gotta start way down there. Like any ultimately rewarding relationship, a love affair with Marin’s trails involves a little pain.
As soon as Russ Kiernan walks up to me outside the Pelican Inn on my second morning, I realize that I’ll get no easy day running with this 70-year-old. Standing maybe six feet tall, with a wooly cap of battleship-gray hair and sinewy limbs, he looks as taut and strong as a rope.
Russ agreed to join me for today’s nine-mile trot, from Muir Beach to the Mountain Home Inn on the flanks of Mt. Tam, with 2,100 feet of uphill and 1,100 feet of descent. I contacted him because Russ is a Dipsea legend. America’s oldest trail race, dating to 1905, the Dipsea follows a gorgeous and grueling 7.4-mile course from Mill Valley—beginning with a section of outdoor stairs 50 stories tall—over Marin’s hills to Stinson Beach. He’s run it 37 times, won three times, and holds several Dipsea records (partly because of the race’s unique handicapping system based on age and gender). A San Francisco native, he taught elementary school there for 38 years before retiring in 1998—commuting some 20 miles round-trip to work from Mill Valley on his bike for his last 15 years of teaching.
As we’re stretching, Russ mentions that he got in a warm-up earlier this morning, running a four-by-1600-meter relay on a team that broke the world record for men age 70 to 79. Russ flashed the anchor mile in 6:22.
Then this guy who’s my father’s age sets the pace on a long, hot climb up the wide-open Coast View Trail, high above the twisted ribbon of Highway 1 and the vast Pacific. Chatting away, Russ chugs uphill like The Little Septuagenarian That Could. On the downs, he cuts loose, hopping nimbly over rocks, occasionally calling over his shoulder to me in a booming baritone, “Doing okay?”
People like Russ Kiernan and Janet Bowman illustrate how running trails in Marin gets into your skin like fine grit and never washes out. The abundance of paths, mild climate (the notorious fog keeps mornings cool in summer), and incredible scenery explain why Marin has a running culture like Green Bay has a football culture: irrepressibly zealous. Most of Tamalpa’s 700 members prefer pounding their shoes on dirt and using asphalt for what it was intended—their cars. The club is known for its ultrarunners, people who bang out 20 miles for a workout, including some joining me this week. (My post at Tamalpa’s website mentioned that I’d be writing about this trip for Runner’s World Magazine, perhaps fueling a misperception that I’m an elite athlete—a presumption kind of like my belief as a kid that anyone who got elected president must be really honest and smart.) Tamalpa sponsors brutal races like the Marin Headlands 50k and the bizarrely popular Mt. Tam Hill Climb, in which competitors choose their route to the top—and the most-direct ways are so steep that people clamber over boulders. Marin is also home to the Miwok Trail 100k, known for its beautiful course and 10,000 feet of cumulative vertical. A measure of the passion of runners here, its 350 slots for next spring’s race filled within a month after registration opened in December.
I understand the appeal, having converted to the religion of dirt without a moment’s penitence when I moved in 1998 to Boise, Idaho, from New Hampshire. The miles of foothills trails starting minutes from my door offered a stark contrast to the monotony I’d always felt on asphalt. I went from struggling through 30-minute street runs to losing myself in a mind-clearing euphoria on one- and two-hour jaunts along creeks and over hills carpeted in sagebrush and wildflowers.
I’ve been an avid hiker for years, yet trail running has provided some of my most memorable backcountry experiences. Outside a small town on New Zealand’s South Island, a buddy and I ran a trail across open hills of grass and down a canyon maybe 20 feet wide, laughing as we leapt back and forth across a little stream every five strides. Another zigzagging path took me through a red-rock moonscape to an aerie high above Utah’s Zion Canyon. I started running trails more often than hiking partly because, with two young kids, my wife and I naturally had less time for leisurely, all-day hikes. But I discovered that I loved the whole aesthetic of it: covering the same distance much faster and more rigorously; marrying the adrenaline buzz of running to the more contemplative pleasures of natural scenery; swapping much of the superfluous gear for a minimalist ethic; and, when possible, doing it during the quiet times of early morning or evening when slanting sunlight gives the landscape a big-screen depth. I’d finish 10-mile runs—even 20+-milers where I’d alternately run and walk—amazed at how fresh and exhilarated I felt. It was so many light years removed from the chore that street running had been for me that it felt like a different sport, on a different planet, with a different body.
When I stumbled upon the website of an outfitter offering inn-to-inn hiking trips across Marin, I thought, why not run instead of hike? This trail-running Mecca is one of few places in the country with the lodging and transportation infrastructure to pull off a European-style inn-to-inn trip. While I’d never tried something so ambitious, it seemed a perfect next step on my personal trail-running odyssey. If I could make it.
An hour into our run, Russ and I cruise down into the cool shade and cathedral dimensions of Muir Woods National Monument. In one of the last refuges of coastal redwoods on the planet, we glide beneath trees over 200 feet tall that germinated around the time of William the Conqueror. Ferns and dinner-plate-size mushrooms crowd the ground and sprout from fallen, rotting trunks wide enough to conceal a bison. Tourists scuff along in slo-mo, some craning necks upward, some shooting looks at Russ as if they’re wondering what was in their mocha frappuccino.
After another hot, switchbacking climb of several hundred feet—Russ still looking fresh, me trying to focus through sunglasses streaked with drips of sweat—we jog up to the Mountain Home Inn. Perched on a ridge, the inn’s outdoor dining patio overlooks the wooded slopes of Mt. Tam, Mill Valley, and the bay. It’s a captivating view in daylight, but even more spectacular at night, I’ll find out this evening while digging into a generous portion of sage and almond pesto with shitake mushrooms, butternut squash, pecans, and blue cheese, under a sky liberally salted with stars.
Sipping a draft at the bar, where daylight pours in through big windows under a vaulted ceiling, Russ casually mentions his plans for this afternoon: meeting a high school cross-country team that he helps train to—what else?—run with them. My plans? To have a long stretch that I hope will work some of the tightness out of my quads and calves, an even longer hot shower, read on the sofa in my two-room suite while listening to birds singing just beyond my balcony—and pray for some good mojo to feel physically recovered by morning.
After the brutal hills of the past two days, my third morning features a long, gentle descent. The Bolinas Ridge Fire Road makes an 11-mile straight shot along a rounded ridge bisecting rural north Marin. And my partners deliver a welcome jolt of energy. Kelly Dunleavy, a petite 23-year-old blogger and runner who competes in regional Olympic-distance triathlons and 10k trail races, will go seven miles out, and then double back to her car. Matching her stride is sports nutritionist Sunny Blende, 58, who ran several ultramarathons last year, including 45 miles out and back across the Grand Canyon. She plans to run 10 miles with me before turning around. They both say they’re looking for an easy pace today, which I assure them fits into my travel plans.
Kelly and Sunny keep up a lively conversation—talking running, races, nutrition, training, ultras—that distracts me from the rumbling volcano of fatigue in my quads. We pass through a few miles of cool, quiet woods, then emerge onto grassy meadows above the bucolic Olema Valley where a forested ridge obstructs our view of the Pacific. The valley looks peaceful enough, but looks deceive: It straddles the San Andreas Rift, where the Earth’s North American and Pacific plates grind against one another, gradually sawing off the ice axe-shaped horn of land called Point Reyes. So someday this trail we’re on will have an ocean view.
About 90 minutes into our run, after Kelly has turned back, the horizon ahead retreats to reveal Tomales Bay, a blue finger of sea giving California a 20-mile-long prostate exam. Rearing up above the bay is tomorrow’s objective, the green wall of Inverness Ridge—big, steep hills that, I’m thinking, quite likely swallow overconfident and over-fatigued runners whole, never to be seen alive and well in civilization again. It looks daunting, and after three days of hard running. I’m so overwhelmed by daunt it has compromised by ability to conjugate properly.
Surrounded by cows in a field, Sunny and I shake hands. Then I slowly jog the last mile down to Olema, a handful of lodges and restaurants at a sleepy T intersection where 19th-century loggers supported a bustling economy based on saloons and a certain age-old profession. Seeking a more restorative R&R, I sink deep into the hot tub in my spacious room at the Point Reyes Seashore Lodge, nearly falling asleep. In the evening, I hobble across the street to the Olema Inn to meet my wife’s 28-year-old niece and her boyfriend, who drove over from Oakland, for a couple beers and a dinner of locally caught mussels, scallops, ahi, and oysters prepared eight ways (with champagne, horseradish and cracked pepper, spicy tomato water and seeds, and five other ways that escape memory). It helps me forget—for a little while—the sloshing reservoirs of lactic acid in my quads.
Later, with the cool night air slipping through my room’s open French doors, the cumulative effect of the run, hot tub, and feast hits me like a six-pack of Nyquil. But just before nose-diving into a rejuvenating coma of running dreams, my thoughts wander toward the precipice of anxiety over tomorrow’s itinerary: running 12 miles across Point Reyes National Seashore, over two mountains, with 2,100 feet of up and down. And right now every synapse in my brain is calling out, “Control tower to Mike: You’re cleared for a rest day.”
Sheesh, what was I thinking? Tomorrow, the hardest day of the hardest adventure of my running career may bring on my hardest-ever bonk.
Just going up the lodge’s half-dozen front-porch steps in the morning, my legs feel like dead tree stumps. It doesn’t bode well for today, a harsh reality that crystallizes as my partners set the week’s strongest pace—which shouldn’t surprise me. Tamalpa President Ken Grebenstein, 55, a talkative and gregarious sort whose zeal alone makes him an ideal club president, figures he’s run 80 to 100 marathons and ultras, including the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run when he was 50. Dave Ripp, 57, another Tamalpa with a quieter demeanor and a salt-and-pepper beard, has been running Marin’s trails for more than 40 years, finishes high in the Dipsea, and ran a sub-three-hour marathon at age 54. Twenty minutes into it, on the steep climb up Mt. Wittenburg, they’re already dragging me like a broken tailpipe on an old pickup.
As I’m struggling for breaths, Ken churns out stories about running Marin—of its embracing community, of a trail system so elaborate you can explore for years and still not know all of it, and of 50-mile training workouts.
“Many of my running buddies, like me, moved here for the trails and the friends that you make,” he says. “Trail running in Marin is like few places in the world. In the space of a few miles you can go from redwood forests to sweeping vistas. People fall in love with this place. Their lives get wrapped around it.” Yea, clearly.
Today’s trails are breathtaking enough to recharge me, despite how knackered I feel. Digging deep for some newfound reserve of stamina, I chase Ken and Dave over the roller-coaster contours of Inverness Ridge beneath pine and fir trees and a coastal fog blowing in on a cool wind. I can’t quite keep up my end of the conversation, but I’m chugging hard on their heels, locating once again that good place where the bonk keeps a merciful distance and I fall into a rhythm of movement and awareness of my body and surroundings that feels indefinitely sustainable… for a while, anyway.
The relentless climb up Mt. Vision just about sucks the last volts from my battery. I struggle to stay with these guys—indeed, just to keep lifting my feet off the ground. But at the top, the fog abruptly dissolves, casting us into warm, resuscitating sunshine. Pausing to soak up the views, we look down 1,200 feet to Tomales Bay shimmering in the sunshine, and across it to a beautifully chaotic scrum of brown hills with few buildings and roads, a vision of a past, unspoiled California.
I can see something else in this view, something that has me feeling good about where I’m standing, literally and figuratively: It’s all down from here. It won’t matter when my quads begin to harden like poured cement on the steep, outsole-slapping, thousand-foot drop into Inverness. I’ll be able to ignore the cacophony of complaints rising from my hip flexors, lumbar, Achilles, calves, and soles, because I’ve answered the open-ended question hanging over this adventure from its outset: Yes, I’m going to make it. I can push myself to new levels as a runner and find something redeeming in every aspect of it, refining my sense of my own endurance while celebrating the pleasures of great scenery, people, food, and, of course, hot tubs. I’ve discovered a new way to feed my running jones and see a big chunk of new backcountry at the same time—run across it for days.
Most of all, I’ve taken Janet Bowman’s advice: I’ve embraced the hills. One could run for a lifetime in Marin and never get tired of it.
Only, very, very tired.
This story first appeared in the June 2009 issue of Runner’s World.
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR avid runners capable of going nine to 12 miles a day with 2,000 feet or more of vertical—or walking sections of it—and any reasonably fit hikers capable of walking such distances. Wine Country Trekking (see below) will make all arrangements for you and provide detailed maps and trail directions; they’re very thorough and professional. But anyone capable of reading a map could follow the route, which sticks to good, well-marked trails.
Make It Happen
Season The best month for mild, frequently sunny days and no fog are May (when the hills green up and flowers bloom) and October (though the hills are brown). Summer mornings offer good running temps, but fog usually obscures views. November to April is often rainy.
The Itinerary The 42-mile, four-day run went from Sausalito to Inverness, mostly on good, well-maintained trails, with short stretches on pavement.
Day one: From downtown Sausalito, use a local map to find your way west through residential streets to the trailhead parking lot at the Spencer Avenue exit off US 101. From there, follow the Morning Sun, Alta, Bobcat, Miwok, Wolf Ridge, and Coastal trails, then the Coastal Fire Road down to Muir Beach. Walk east a quarter-mile on Pacific Way to the Pelican Inn.
Day two: From the Pelican Inn, backtrack toward Muir Beach, but before the beach, turn right onto residential streets and walkways that lead 10 minutes uphill to Muir Beach Overlook. Walk north on CA 1 for 0.4 mile to the Coast View Trail; follow it to the Dipsea, TCC, Bootjack (which becomes the Main Trail), Fern Creek, Lost, Ocean View, and Panoramic trails. At Panoramic Highway, turn left and walk 0.1 mile to Mountain Home Inn.
Day three: From Mountain Home Inn, get an eight-mile taxi ride to the junction of the Bolinas-Fairfax Road and Ridgecrest Boulevard, the trailhead for the Bolinas Ridge Fire Road. Follow it for nearly 10 miles; a quarter-mile past the Jewell Trail junction, turn left off the Bolinas Ridge Fire Road onto an unmarked but good footpath that leads a mile down into Olema. Or run to the end of the Bolinas Ridge Fire Road, turn left on Sir Francis Drake Highway and follow it into Olema, adding about a mile to the day’s distance.
Day four: Cross the lawn behind the Point Reyes Seashore Lodge and follow signs and trails 0.6 mile to the Bear Valley Visitor Center. From there, follow the Bear Valley, Mt. Wittenburg, Z Ranch, Horse, Sky, Bayview, and Inverness Ridge trails. From Mt. Vision, an unmarked trail descends east to roads leading downhill into Inverness; you’ll need a local street map.
Getting There You can use cabs to travel from San Francisco Airport to Sausalito and from Inverness to the airport, as well as to transport luggage between inns; when I did this trip in October 2008, that cost ran to about $400. You can trim that expense by using public transportation, though it’s somewhat less convenient. Marin Airporter (marinairporter.com) provides bus service from San Francisco Airport to the Spencer Avenue exit off US 101 in Sausalito, from where it’s about a 15-minute walk downtown. Bus service to Inverness is irregular, but you could get a cab ride from Inverness to a Marin Airporter terminal, and then take its bus to the airport.
Maps My route and other trails are covered on the Southern Marin, Mt. Tam, Pine Mountain, and Point Reyes National Seashore trail maps, $8.95 to $9.95 each, from Tom Harrison Maps, (800) 265-9090, tomharrisonmaps.com. The GGNRA and Point Reyes Seashore websites have on-line trail maps.
Outfitter Wine Country Trekking organizes self-guided inn-to-inn hiking trips from the Bay Area to Napa Valley, with detailed route descriptions and maps; (888) 287-8735, winecountrytrekking.com.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area, (415) 561-4700, nps.gov/goga.
Mt. Tamalpais State Park, (415) 388-2070, parks.ca.gov/?page_id=471.
Muir Woods National Monument, (415) 388-2596, nps.gov/muwo.
Point Reyes National Seashore, (415) 464-5100, ext. 2, nps.gov/pore.