Angel Island 50K | California | July 5, 2008
By Gary Dudney
The Pacific Coast Trail Runs series visited one of its most spectacular venues on July 5th, Angel Island, which sits just off the Tiburon Peninsula in the San Francisco Bay. The island, christened Isla de Los Angeles by Spanish ship captain Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775 after the practice of naming discoveries for Catholic feast days that occurred near the time of the discovery, has a surprisingly rich history. Add to this the island’s setting with views toward Alcatraz Island, the San Francisco skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge to the southwest, Treasure Island and the Oakland Bay Bridge to the south and all of Sausalito, Tiburon, and the cities to the east of Richmond, Berkeley, and Oakland, and you have a spot for an ultra that’s exotic and captivating.
The adventure begins with a short ferry boat ride across Raccoon Strait, named after a British sloop-of-war that sheltered at the island in 1814 to make repairs, from Tiburon to the start/finish at Ayala Cove. The island and consequently the race course brings to mind a wedding cake. Runners climb up from the cove to the first layer of the cake and make a full loop of the island, then return to the start. Then it is climb up to the second layer of the cake, another loop and another descent. And at last a third climb to a loop around the top of the island and back down. The three loops cover 25 kilometers and get repeated for the 50K.
Each loop has a unique character. Along the rolling asphalt road of the lower loop, the island’s military history unfolds as stately old buildings kept in a state of arrested decay materialize out of the morning fog. The island was fortified during the Civil War and then served as a military installation through both world wars and was even the site of a Nike missile installation during the Cold War. As World War II unfolded, 300,000 soldiers disembarked from Angel Island for the Pacific theater, and strangely the first prisoner taken captive by American forces, the commander of a midget submarine off Pearl Harbor, was held for a time on the island.
By the time runners are making their second trip around the lower loop, the island is covered with tourists, some comically creeping around on rented Segways. Little open air tour buses glide by and hikers and bikers are everywhere. One key attraction is an immigration station that operated on the island from 1910 to 1940 which had more the character of a detention center and served in part to control Chinese immigration.
The middle loop, higher up on the slopes of the island, follows a fire road that overlooks many of the military sites, but it also passes through stands of oak and pine and presents a bit of the natural history of the island. The morning fog obscures the sites across the bay, but at one point I looked out and saw a ghostly skyline appear in the distance, just the very tops of the highest building in San Francisco seeming to float in the air. By afternoon, the views out to points around the San Francisco Bay are crystal clear, and I could follow my progress around the island from the landmarks in the distance.
The upper loop is all winding singletrack and includes an out and back to the very top of the island. The 360 degree view from here is incomparable, at least, in terms of this weird urban, nautical setting. The final, now familiar, downhill glide to the start/finish goes by quickly. There is so much to divert your attention on this course, so many hikers to acknowledge along the way, and so much to see and take in, the finish line almost seems to come prematurely. That’s it? Well, no, there’s still the ferry ride back to Tiburon.
As Borat would say, “Niiiice!”