It all started with an email from local East Bay Quadbanger Zak, with the lede “save the date for Another Bad Idea for a Day of Running.” Zak had been envisioning a “Big Backyard-style loop challenge” encompassing one of his favorite training loops in Tilden park.
The Route (3.2 miles, ~900′ of gain, technical ascents and descents for Tilden, start/finish at Gillespie Youth Camp)Similar “rules” to the Big Backyard Ultra- 1 lap per hour, starting on the hour. An easy lap takes me 35-45 minutes if I’m doing 3-4 of them. Should be pretty easy for a while. . . .
There are no real rules as long as you embrace the spirit of a loop course challenge. For instance, it would be interesting if people decided to do this as a 2 person relay and switched off. I’d like to run from midnight to 4 PM: 16 hours, 48 miles, 15,000′ gain. If people want to run for 24 hours, or for 33 hours to get 100 miles, that’s great, I can’t promise there will be spectators and a campfire, but I bet somebody would stick around. . . .
One of my 2019 goals was to get more involved in the community aspect of this amazing sport, and being that this crazy proposed event fell on what would be a convenient peak training weekend for my buildup to the Marin Ultra Challenge 50k, I felt like I couldn’t say no!!!
Excitement began to build as the event grew nearer, and the initial email chain made it up to over 40 replies as people sorted out who would bring what gear, when everyone could escape from their sleeping little ones at home, and who would bring the donuts. And then as the fateful day got even closer, the Bay Area weather gods decided to make things interesting as the worst “rain and wind storm we had seen in decades” was poised off-shore, ready to blow in just in time for the midnight start. While the storm never quite materialized in all of its predicted fury, it was certainly enough to scare away the weaker folks like myself from a middle of the night start. I tucked myself into my warm and cozy bed on Friday night and tried to get some sleep before starting the Lupe-fest the next morning.
I woke up before my alarm at 5:20 AM – just enough time to go grab a dozen donuts, make a few pots of coffee, and catch an Uber up to the top of the hill (don’t worry man, just keep driving up and drop me off at that closed road over there). I settled into the Gillespie youth shelter with about 20 minutes before the 07:00 lap start, observing evidence of multiple runners already out on the course in the dark and pouring rain. Sure enough, three rain-soldiers came trotting into the shelter at the 45 minute mark – Zak who had made good on his promised start time of 00:00, and two guys named Dan that both started at 03:00. Apparently Dan is a good name for a middle-of-the-night runner.
They were looking reasonably fresh and happy, although seemed a bit reluctant to say good morning to the sun in all honestly. I hopped in for the lap and started around the loop for my first time. I have yet to own a pair of actual running tights so I had some Smartwool camping tights on under my shorts, and was gear testing a new-to-me Ebay-acquired Arc’teryx Beta LT rain jacket for the first time. The first half of the loop went smoothly and I chatted with the Dans a bit as we slogged up the Lupine climb to the top of Vollmer Peak. A clockwise loop around the fenced radio tower was mandatory and then we headed back down the descent and to the shelter for a 44 minute lap.
I had never done a loop-style event before and really had no idea what to expect. It turns out there’s quite a bit of strategy involved – 44 minutes was a bit too fast to pull off in the rain, as it left 16 minutes to sit in the shelter before your body started moving again. I tried to stretch my future laps out a bit, aiming for the 48-50 minute sweet spot (unless I had to do something responsible, like eat a Cup o Noodles or go to the bathroom). But it was hard to stretch them much longer than that, and even despite pausing to take photos or text my wife from the top my laps were incredibly consistent with each other.
A large crew rolled in for the 08:00 lap start and we all headed back out on the course, fresh legs eager to drive the pace and new folks to chat and talk to. To me this was one of the coolest aspects of the “rolling start” format of the run – new runners hopped in and out all day long, which brought new energy and life to the group even as Zak and the Dans were surely getting more tired each revolution. At times it was a lot of energy to manage but you could always drift off the back a bit and take your time hiking up Lupine. There really was never a fear of missing the cut-off, and with all of the laps starting on the hour there was absolutely no pressure to push the pace if you didn’t want to. It honestly didn’t matter if you finished first or last, everyone was equal when that big hand got to the 12 again.
As someone who would list long point-to-point mountain runs as their favorite type of event, I loved this day much more than I thought I would. The repetition of the laps became meditative in a sense – time began to dissolve as it does in much longer races, and if I squint my memory-eyes I really just have a sense that I was hiking peacefully up Lupine Trail in the rain all day long. The weather fluctuated lap to lap but we got rain at some point every single time. There were moments of clarity in the skies, and moments where we were running through fairly dense fog. The mud and clay on the ground shifted a bit each lap – some loops there was more running water and some loops there were more shoe-sucking pits of grey Tilden goo. The park began to fill up with hikers as the afternoon went on, and we felt like a semi-permanent part of the scenery by then, slowly going around and around with mud covering our legs and smiles covering our faces.
I called it quits at 14:00 after finishing my 7th lap – more because my wife had scored tickets to the Warriors / Lakers game that night than me wanting it to end. Zak pushed on for 15 total laps, hitting 50 miles by the time he hiked his stuff out and more than 13,000 feet of vertical gain. The Dans hit 10 total laps, including four in the dark, and we were all joined by at least a dozen other runners at some point that threw down loops of their own. Donuts, coffee, cups-of-noodles, candy, croissants, and a variety of other goodies were consumed for 17% of every hour and the Gillespie Shelter turned into a dream of an aid station staffed by loving family members, kids, and friends. And then as Zak and one other runner set off for their final laps at the 14:00 start the dream dissolved into the Tilden fog and mist, just as ethereally as it had begun.
In the end I enjoyed the Lupe-fest much more than many “races” I have been a part of, partly due to the camaraderie, the familiarity of my beloved Tilden trails, and the calm and peacefulness of never feeling pushed. It was great practice in dialing in a pace and a “gear” for a long sustained effort on your feet, which I am thinking more and more about with the Gran Trail Courmeyer 105k a mere five months away. As Zak demonstrated, it’s amazing how much ground a human can cover if they just keep moving at about 3 miles per hour. I am incredibly thankful for the East Bay running community and for our gem of a park system, without which I would likely not still be happily living here. And as always I am thankful for a body that moves and works and feels and breathes, and that allows me to do loops in the mud all day long until I’m ready to go home.
If you’re looking for something to do on Groundhog’s Day 2020, you’ll know where to find me. Bring some donuts!