In one word it was again, HOT. Maybe not as hot as the record temperatures of 2000, but still hot enough to send seasoned ultrarunners in search of shade. We estimated the heat at 99 degrees but the runners knew the heat on the open trails was over 100—they were being were baked like the browned grasses they ran through.
This year’s 14th annual Ohlone Wilderness 50K Trail Run drew a mix of experienced and newbies to the hot trails of the San Francisco’s Easy Bay hills for one of the toughest 50Ks in Northern California. The course was changed in the final weeks to eliminate several trail intersections that confused a few of the overheated runners last year—sending them to a shortened finish. So, not inclined to offer an easier course, local Kirk Boisseree scouted a new route and offered the runners a challenge. First we made them climb over a gate at the park’s boundary and then sent them up an unnamed hill. This steep climb was the talk of the day and proved to be a winner. Ohlone veteran Mike Conway remarked, “A sarcastic thanks to whomever it was that designed the new section of the course… yikes, what a gut-wrencher it was! If the heat didn’t get you, this section was definitely worth a nail or two in the coffin.” Steve Reagan, a multi-time Ohlone finisher asked, “Does anyone have the stats on that #%$*&^#@! Hill? That was some combination of steepness, length and heat/exposure!” It climbed 1000 feet in 1.2 miles! Several names were suggested, but Jim Winne suggested the favorite, Kap’n Kirk’s Klimb. Kirk is quick to point out that he avoided the really tough hill just to the east.
Mike Topper and Emma Davies turned in top performances of the day, running ahead and away from the stretched out pack of overheated runners. Mike ran an impressive 5:13:58, nine minutes faster than last year. Emma had a fantastic day, closing in to finish only one minute and 14 seconds behind Mike. Last year she was third and this year second overall—knocking over 21 minutes of her previous best time! The ageless Mike Tselentis, at 74, bettered his last year’s time by 49 minutes.
Of noteworthy significance were the fine performances of two runners who challenged themselves in ways most of us would never consider. Catra Corbet and Michael Soltesz each ran the Massanutten 100-Miler the week before, the Silver States 50-Miler the day before, and then ran Ohlone. Michael also had run the Miwok 100K the week before Massanutten! Dreams are made to be big and these two received special 4x4 redwood posts 18-inches tall that recognized their running an Ohlone Wilderness 102-Mile Trail run in late April. This was an out and back on the old course followed with a double out and back to Sunol over Mission Peak. Why you ask? They would respond, “Why not?” Amazing!
This is not an easy 50K. Period. Several runners with altimeter watches estimated the elevation gain at 8500 feet and therefore the elevation loss is about the same. This course is famous for it toughness. From the start you climb up and over Mission Peak, gaining 2100 feet and then giving it all back as you wind your way down to the first aid station. That is the story of the day as you climb and then give back and climb and give back and climb and give back, hill after hill after hill. Much of the course is open to the elements and the typical day is hot yet the past two years have been hotter than normal for May.
Mike Conway wrote a good race summary and a few of his comments are in order.
“We leave Sunol and after a short flat section, we begin to climb, and climb, and climb some more. Some people are beginning to have some difficulty here. At this point, there is still some welcome shade but that would soon be replaced by nothing but wide open spaces and a very bright sky.” Yes, Ohlone is known as a course where you are never on a flat for more than a few steps. And whatever you gain in a climb, you give back in order to do it all over again—many times over.”
“At the Welch Creek aid station, there were about 5 or 6 people sitting in chairs that were not volunteers, obviously competitors having serious difficulty with the heat. Having felt that way in the past I recognized the looks on their faces. Heading off towards the finish, replete with another bottle of my trusty Coca-Cola, it was in this section that my body really began to overheat. There was a particular section that went into a canyon; drenched with sun and with no wind at all... you could feel the heat emanating from the trail and the drying vegetation... it felt like running through an oven. A little bit of breeze kicked up here, but it was no help at all.” Ohlone has the distinction of being one of the first really hot events of the year—providing good heat training for the longer Western States 100.
The funniest sight of the day was Richard Pon’s “flip-flops”. His trusty old shoes decided to fall apart on a day when he least expected it to happen. Every aid station and many runners participated in his efforts to find something, string, every type of tape we had, shoelaces, drawstrings from shorts—anything—to hold the shoes together. The soles separated from the uppers on not one but both shoes. Every step was a challenge as his feet and the uppers went one way and the soles went the other way. I took a few pictures of the shoes; they will make a fine cover shot for UltraRunning. Richard wrote afterwards, “The shoes are quite a sight…. loose pieces of tread and mid sole held together with string, tape, and gaiters. When I finally sit down and take a closer look at them, I wonder how I finished. They donut look like they would even hold together long enough for me to get to the car in the parking lot next to the finish area.”
As is typical of ultras, the volunteers made the day and we had a great turnout of experienced ultra people helping. Kirk Boisseree, Jim Winne and Will Uher helped mark the course on Saturday. Aid station volunteers were Kathie Vonhof, Eric Larkin, Jim Winne, Tomossa Nakamura, Scott Vonhof, Mary Ann Murphy, Juli and Amanda Chouinard, John Whitfield, Ruth Anderson, Sherrie Gilliam, Mark Overhoff, Ted Levine, Michael Gilson, Ed Lee, and Mary Florio. Dave Scott and Scott Rafferty helped recheck portions of the trail markings on Sunday morning.
This great run is in jeopardy due to several reasons. As the race director since its beginning, I will be moving to the Central California Valley in early 2001. The bigger problem has been the lack of support from the East Bay Regional Park District to manage the trail and aid station access. Their poor communications between park personnel has led to hair-pulling episodes of trying to pull this event together in spite of the obstacles. Time will tell if a new RD steps forward and if EBRPD sees the event as a publicity puller for one of the jewels in their park system.
Over the 14 years as the RD of this event, I have seen the popularity of this trail grow immensely. On any given weekend there are runners strewn from end to end. Most prefer the old point-to-point course that ends in del Valle but any trail in Sunol will provide a good hill workout. If you are in the SF Bay Area and have a day to run trails, the Ohlone Wilderness Trail is a challenge second to none.