To Lure Not Chase
By John Prohira
Brand new day! Brand New Year! 2004 arrived as all new year’s arrive . . . . . full of potential and promises. I wanted to acknowledge the endless possibilities of that brand new day in symbolic fashion and to remind myself that good things come to those practicing perseverance, determination and acceptance. I chose to contemplate those thoughts while engaged in physical meditation, while participating in an ultramarathon staged on a small island in the San Francisco Bay.
The Angel Island New Year’s Day Trail Run was billed as an event taking place rain or shine. Although the race’s directors had good intentions and meant to keep that promise, the ferrymen who would transport the 100+ runners from the small town of Tiburon on the mainland to the island approximately one mile offshore thought differently. These ferrymen viewed the New Year’s Day torrential downpour and accompanying windswept waves with concern and canceled that day’s service.
The event was rescheduled for Saturday, January 3rd, which proved to be a much better day for six hours on the trail. At 7:50 that morning we filled the boat for the short trip across the bay. Forty minutes later our race(s) began where they would end, near Ayala Cove the point on the island where the ferry docks.
Options were offered on race day. One could run 7K, 17K, 34K or 50K. I signed on with like-minded souls for the longest distance. Angel Island is not big. Setting a 31+-mile course there required imagination and the use of multiple loops. 10K of the course was achieved by running the perimeter of the island. So if my high school math still works that makes the island no more than 1 ½ miles in diameter. The eclectic feel and look of the terrain and the beautiful sights of the bay filled with boats helped keep boredom away. As did the views of the hills of San Francisco. The race began with runners moving away from the start/finish and running a couple of hundred yards of asphalt road to the bottom of a hill where 142 stairs cut into the earth were presented to us. Before the end of day I would climb these steps six times. Atop this ascent we turned left onto a road that eventually became dirt then trail before bringing us back to the start/finish 6 miles later. Then out again and up the stairs, did I mention that there were 142 of them? This time a right was taken as we crossed the road and entered the single-track trail that circled the island at higher elevations for 7K. That loop was completed when crossing the same start/finish line. Both loops repeated three times makes 50K (must be that ultra math here for I always thought that 3 X 17 = 51 . . . . no worry, we were not charged extra for that other kilometer).
I have learned that this island was first visited by the Europeans in the late 16th century. The MiWok, the area’s indigenous people were then described as being of a free and loving nature, without guile or treachery. I think that a nice but often fatal thing to be. During the Civil War the first in a series of forts and military installations were built on the island. Campaigns against the Apache, Sioux and Modoc embarked from these forts. At the turn of the 20th century a detention camp was constructed there to house troops returning from the Philippines who had been stricken or exposed to contagious disease. The little island off the San Francisco shoreline was indeed a busy place. It was called the Ellis Island of the West after the construction of the Immigration Station there in 1905. Those working in the Immigration Services had another name for it – The Guardian of the West – build to stem the flow of the Yellow Menace after the passage of the extreme Chinese Exclusion Acts. Both World Wars used Angel Island as a recruiting station and then a departure point for troops going to Asia and the South Pacific. The remnants of these government buildings surrounded us. A couple of houses appeared to still be used, perhaps by park rangers and caretakers. It was through and over the remains of long gone structures that the 10K loop took us. I found it interesting yet eerie to run across cement floors that were all that remained of offices and military barracks. It felt isolated and a bit sad to pass by and in between other buildings still standing but abandoned. Empty for how long? Nature was slowly beginning to reclaim the land these complexes stood on. Grasses appeared in cracked foundation cement, moss was growing on fractured rooftops, birds nested on windowsills and in doorways. It was an ultramarathoning first for me to climb stairs to buildings no longer there. I wondered about the people who had been housed there. How many soldiers and sailors departing from this lump of land in the bay returned? Where were the descendants of those moving through the early 20th century immigration machine? Did they view that delay at Angel Island as the beginning of a brand new day? The runners were closest to the water on this 10K loop and the sound of wind in the rigging of sailboats could be heard as were the trickle of small waterfalls fed by the previous days deluge. One novel sound that brought a smile to my face was the barking of sea lions. The Golden Gate and Bay bridges came into view on each loop of the island. As did the panorama of the San Francisco skyline and Alcatraz sitting lonely but seeming so close to shore. It was the perfect day to run, complete with gentle breezes, mild temperature, blue sky and bright sunshine.
It was on the higher 7K loop where I felt more at home. There was familiar trail running complete with narrow paths and bushes encroaching onto the trail, brushing against my legs as I moved forward. This was all very run able, the ups and down were gradual and gentle; made more friendly by switchbacks. Although I did not see where they had been, I knew that Angel Island once was home to a Nike Missile Base. I’d read that those missiles placed there as Cold War protection lay on top near Mount Livermore. The same views of the ocean and bay I enjoyed on the lower loop were visible atop the island and along the trail down to the start/finish line. This downward sloping trail went on for a mile or more giving me the opportunity to once again feel like a real runner.
Only two dozen runners chose the 50K. I never felt hurried or harried during the run. I ran as fast as I could comfortably and enjoyed all that was presented me along the way. I found it easy to remain in the moment but when my thoughts began to wander I was thinking about those Native Americans who used this island as a hunting, fishing and gathering base. The MiWok ascribed to an animistic philosophy. Their villages of no more than 100 people consisted of houses made of branches covered with mats of tule. They unlike those coming after them the MiWok wanted no walls. They tread lightly on the land leaving no footsteps. I experimented with that last concept by stepping gently on the trail along the water. It is said that the MiWok had no word for a concept like war. They made no pottery, no fabric and planted no seeds, kept no domestic animals – they were gatherers, basket weavers, fishermen and hunters. They built sweat huts so hunters could prudently and ceremonially rid themselves of the human smell. I’ve often felt that the hours of sweating accompanying the physical exertion of a long run help purge that which is the worst in me. These gentle natives wore deer heads and rubbed their bodies with angelica and mugwort wanting to disguise their appearance and scents during the hunt. The philosophy of their hunt was to lure not chase. The rewards of the hunt came to them or were caught in baskets and nets.
After the first stair climb of the morning the crowd thinned out nicely and I ran most of the day alone, pulled backed from my moving daydream occasionally by the appearance of hikers and children out on a field trip. I viewed the day spent circling Angel Island as a memorable one. My first 10-kilometer loop took 65 minutes and the first 7K another 45 minutes. I completed the second 17K three hours and 55 minutes after the start. And the final loops 2 hours and 18 minutes after that. During the six hours and 13 minutes I ran on Saturday, my waist pack and two water bottles provided ample fluid in between aid found at the end of each loop. There I consumed oranges, coke and M & M’s. I had packed salt and GU that I metered into my tummy throughout the run. Sarah and Wendell Domain and their young son Aaron, who stage this and many other area trail runs were gracious and helpful race directors acting at times more like hosts.
I enter my 7th year of ultrarunning and while running 51K on Angel Island I was once again reassured that my passion for distance hadn’t waned. But I felt less a sense of urgency to move fast, less of the desire to chase and more of a wish to instead lure the rewards that come with running to me. Is this a function of age? Or just rationalization of the slower pace? No matter . . . . I will continue to run long. Whether I am lapped by the sun or not in the coming year my intentions are to lure, invite and entice the treasures of the trail to me. My New Year’s Day Run on the third day of January 2004 did indeed represent a brand new day.
Happy New Year and Happy Trails,