Redwood Park 50K | California | September 6, 2008
All Hat and No Cattle
By Gary Dudney
Four hundred runners gathered in venerable Redwood Regional Park just over the ridge from Oakland, California, ready to try their luck at one of four distances: 10K, 20K, 30K or 50K. Their luck, though, had already run out. Setting up for the crowd earlier, Race Director Wendell Doman had registered temperatures in the dark at 5:30 am already climbing past 70 degrees. By the time runners had made the opening climb up a dusty jeep road out of Canyon Meadow three hours later, the heat on the ridge was oppressive. So the usual East Bay Area cool morning start lasted about five minutes and the long careful balancing act between pushing the pace and keeping the core temp in check had already begun.
The first 20K loop seemed all wide jeep road, exposed ridges, clouds of dust hanging in the air, short, sharp climbs, and glaring sunshine. There were also several mysterious signs that read “Broom Removal Site.” Huh? Was this a polite way of telling witches they weren’t welcome? Had there been some industrial broom accident in the area? But a further sign that read “French Broom removal” set me straight. French Broom is a nasty invasive shrub that can fill up pastures, choke out tree seedlings, catch fire, and produce toxins. It was brought to the San Francisco Bay Area way back in the mid-1880s and was as big a mistake as the stupid eucalyptus trees that are all over California, but I digress.
The second loop of the course was a 10K that, after the first tough loop, seemed all hat and no cattle. It featured a long stretch of glorious Stream Trail, familiar from the well-known Firetrails 50 Mile and Skyline 50K, a cool and dreamy path that follows a forest stream through a perpetually shaded redwood filled canyon. The place is magic, even for those who have seen a lot of redwood forest, always locked in a dead still hush, with the awesome trees towering overhead as if keeping watch. The stream, Redwood Creek, even has a little place in history. It’s a tributary of San Leandro Creek the very spot where rainbow trout were first identified as a distinct species. A good portion of the rest of the 10K loop follows French Trail, a roller coaster ride up above Stream Trail on the side of the canyon but still well sheltered by the redwoods. Thick ferns line the route and the temperature here probably never gets out of the seventies even on the hottest summer days.
But after returning once more to the start/finish and getting intimate with a lot of ice, there was still that matter of repeating the hot 20K loop in the afternoon hours to fill out the 50K distance. Luckily, I bumbled onto Craig Slagel, a ubiquitous ultrarunner and veteran of Hardrock, and the two of us did what suffering ultrarunners often do, we took refuge in each other’s all too predictable stories of past races, injuries and mutual friends. Thus the time went by, the heat was kept at bay, and the last aid station eventually appeared.
Over the final 6 miles, we dropped down off the hot ridge into the hotter canyon. We took turns succumbing to the heat and passing each other up until finally I had had enough and walked the lion’s share of the final mile. But when no one passed me up, I figured the rest of the field was taking the same thrashing as me, and indeed, many 50Kers had thrown in the towel at 30K.
Logged almost to the ground in the mid-1880s to feed the voracious building boom in the post Gold Rush San Francisco area, the Sequoia sempervirens forest in Redwood Park has recovered to the point that it is hard to imagine it lying in ruins a hundred years ago. Today it makes for a spectacular venue for this trail run and really the heat was a bonus. It saved me from having to go home and tell my friends, “It was easy.” No one wants to finish an ultra and have nothing but that to say.