Ohlone Wilderness 50K | California | May 21, 2006
Ohlone Wilderness 50K Trail Run
By Gary Dudney
The Ohlone Wilderness 50K Trail Run is an ultrarunning classic. Almost constant elevation change, steep grades, miles of single track, beautiful countryside, wild animals, tricky footing, and usually lots of California sunshine. Talk among the runners gravitates towards the upcoming Western States or, for at least two runners, last weekend’s Massanutten 100 held on the other side of the continent. What were they thinking? Aid stations at Ohlone have a way of popping up out of nowhere, just when they’re needed, manned by dedicated volunteers that had to hike into the remoter locations.
The course is point to point passing through three major parks (Mission Peak Regional Preserve, Sunol Regional Wilderness, and Del Valle Regional Park) just south and east of the San Francisco Bay in Alameda County. It includes the whole of the 28 mile Ohlone Wilderness Regional Trail and visits the highest point in the area, Rose Peak (3817’).
The race immediately grabs you by the muzzle and gives you a good shake, rising 2100 feet from the start on the edge of Fremont to the top of Mission Peak in just 3 miles over mostly steep jeep roads. One hour into the run you can still look down and see the staging area parking lot which becomes the size of a playing card and then a postage stamp before you finally shake it. Then like a cat giving a mouse a brief reprieve the course lets up until the Sunol Aid Station at mile 9. After that, forget it.
The climb out of Sunol is steep. Then you top one grassy ridge after another, each one higher than the one before. There are rock formations scattered here and there, and huge spreading oaks sulking off by themselves, their branches twisting toward the sky. Hawks wheel by and vultures. Ground squirrels hop just a few feet off the trail. This year a threatening cloud cover kept us cool but poured rain on us as we reached the top of Rose Peak.
From Rose Peak a surprising amount of California is visible. There is the San Francisco Bay to the west, the Santa Cruz Mountains to the south, the massive San Joaquin Valley spread out below, and on a clear day the snow-topped Sierra Nevada off in the distance to the east. The geology of the state, the buckling of the tectonic plate resulting in alternating sharp ridges and great valleys, is laid out as clearly as a diagram in a textbook.
From there you drop to Maggie’s Half Acre aid station and find you’re only 19.86 miles into the run. How you could have done all that work and still not run twenty miles is mind boggling. I wouldn’t have minded a little white lie of a sign that said “20 Miles! Good job!” Having climbed so much you, expect a marked downhill cast to the rest of the course but you’re surprised with more roller coaster over more grassy slopes, down through wooded canyons filled with oak and pine, and back up into the grasslands.
When you finally lose the altitude, it happens quickly over the last three miles of the race. The aid station at Stromer Springs includes a large horse trough. A couple of years ago, on a hotter day, I desperately plunged my head and shoulders into the trough and elicited a single comment from the aid station volunteer there, “That’ll work.” To the finish from Stromer Springs down a steep fire road is a sore quad’s worst nightmare.
The race is well managed by its two directors, Rob Byrne and Larry England. The pre-race bus transportation from the finish to the start went off without a hitch. On the trail, the ribbon flags and chalk arrows were always well placed and many wrong turns were helpfully chalked across. Aid stations were well stocked and there were plenty of helping hands. The BBQ at the finish was really first rate. Just about anything tastes good at the end of a tough ultra but this was a real feast: hamburgers, veggie burgers, sausage, salad, cake, watermelon, cantaloupe…fantastic.
I couldn’t help but notice that though I’d taken twenty minutes off my finish time from two years before, I was farther down the field. Ultrarunning is definitely growing, attracting faster and younger people, more women, more bored marathoners, more adventurers. And this race certainly didn’t disappoint any of them.