My fastest mile ever happened on the right shoulder blade of Mission Peak. See, Mission Peak sits facing Fremont, the Bay, the Peninsula. Watching over it all in its regal pose. For those lucky enough to know what it is like to stand up there, we get to share in that grand view; in that fortunate place.
Mission Peak was my training ground. It motivated me in ways that no other place has, with my personal connection to it as well as its endless views, and the ultimate challenge it offers. Mission Peak is steep by most local trail standards, and it is often over 100 degrees in the summertime, its stiff, dry, blonde straw trapping heat like an animal's fur. It teaches a special lesson in the summertime. The winter and spring is majestic, where two weeks after the first big rain, the dead straw gives way to lush, short, green grass and occasional pop-up creeks and springs. It has dutifully served as a benchmark for me as I progressed as a runner, as well as being my own spiritual center of the outdoors.
When I first started to get serious about running, I was only concerned with my ascent time. That was the power direction – where endurance and output achieve their optimal balance. It is the proof of cardiovascular fitness. A solid, intentional hike with no stops can get to the top in an hour. With lots of hiking, I got this to about 53 minutes, and found a plateau of pace. I then started running up some gentler hills, building up that capability. My times were decreasing more and more, eventually getting to under 39 minutes.
If the ascent was my focus, the descent was a humdrum necessary slog back to the car. I was not comfortable running downhill. I mostly felt that my legs just couldn't keep up, and so it was an exercise in using my legs as brakes, burning them out by the end of the hill. At some point, I realized that it could be better. I'm pretty sure this was an encounter with another runner on the Black Mountain trail. He was absolutely flying downhill, with good control, and didn't look like he was using the brakes. I thought I'd like to get to that level, but didn't know how.
So I reached out to the Mission Peak Facebook group (this was 2013ish), asking for tips on improving my downhill pace and comfort. I wasn't sure what I would get in reply, but what I got was better than anything I imagined. A nice guy named Jerry replied that he could help me improve my pace. We worked out a time to meet at the Stanford Ave entrance, and we had a nice chat as we jogged up the Peak, keeping a pace that made me feel like I'd have a good amount of energy left at the top. On the way up, Jerry went over the important parts of his downhill running technique (he called it "Chi Running").
- Put your perception in your navel. It is your center of mass, so it is most important to feel what it feels.
- Chin at a comfortable height to minimize throat constriction.
- Footfalls under you, not in front of you.
- Lean forward and back for your gas pedal. Lean forward for faster, back for slower.
- Elbows 90 degrees.
- Arms can be like two cat's tails to balance when things get technical.
We got to the summit, and Jerry squeezed the buttons on his GPS watch to start recording, and said, "ok try to keep up with me!" One thing that you should know is that Jerry was 68 years old at the time. On the way up, I was thinking to myself, "Ok this should be ok. He's an old guy. How fast could he be?" As soon as Jerry started running, I knew I was so so wrong.
He took off like a gazelle, looking completely comfortable as he sped away from me with ease. I tried to remember the points and try to emulate him at the same time. Eventually he slowed a bit and I was able to catch up to him. I was at 100% of my own possible speed. I asked him, "Jerry, what pace are we running at?" He looked down at his watch and said with a little disappointment "six-twenty."
Ummm seriously? This guy who is almost as old as my dad runs more than a minute per mile faster than my max pace, but so comfortably? This is awesome. This is incredible. A new plateau awaits! Jerry and I had a nice chat at the bottom of the trail, and we went our ways. I ran into Jerry a few times after that. The crazy trail running community was/is pretty small.
This gave me a new focus. Whereas I was previously only tracking my uphill times, I now started focusing on downhills. Mission Peak, Monument Peak, and Kennedy Trail were my new downhill benchmark runs.
Running downhill with intention, being able to add speed in places where previously I'd be engaging the brakes in my quads, is a fantastic feeling. It is still a cardiovascular workout, but in a very different way from uphill. The more I practiced, the faster I got. I could run down Kennedy Trail (4 miles, 2000 feet drop) keeping a low-6 minute pace throughout. This was really fun! I managed to run the 3 mile, 2100 foot drop down Mission Peak to the Stanford Entrance in 21 minutes. Absolute joy.
On the way from the summit down to Ohlone College, there is a section that became my mile time trial section. It starts just above the bathroom on Mission Peak's north shoulder, and runs and snakes from the neck down the back of the shoulder blade, ending in a small meadow where sometimes you will see caballeros herding cattle into their trucks.
Fast forward to 6:30am on a Sunday in 2016. My awesome group of running friends had planned to meet at Ohlone college (400ft), run up and over Mission Peak's summit (2500ft), then down to Sunol Regional Park (400ft), then back over the summit and back to the car. Altogether this was about 17 miles, with a total of 4000 feet of ascent. At the time, this was a bread-and-butter kind of weekend run – no biggie. Times were different then, lol!
Great times running and talking with this inspiring group, and the time passed quickly. Soon enough we were in Sunol refilling our waters, and a quick turn back up the hill to the Peak. After a quick photo stop, we were descending the steep rocky section on the north side of the peak. I really love this section, and plan to write another post just on that.
We were kind of stringing out, and if I remember correctly, Jeremy was in front of me. Jeremy is an athlete model of a man, having played football in college, he has kept a very high level of fitness and could trounce me any day on any trail, up or down. With the bathroom in sight, I could tell he saw an opportunity to practice some speed work of his own. He took off like a bolt of lightning, reminding me of that first time with Jerry. This was a great inspiration for me, since I did my best to try to keep up, which was totally futile! I wasn't sure if he knew this was a great 1-mile section to test, but I did. I planned to keep the gas on even if he decided to slow down. He didn't. :)
Accelerating toward the bathroom, I settled into a comfortably uncomfortable cadence and stride, trying to stretch out and really feel my legs and my feet and let them do their thing. The trail flattens out slightly by the bathroom for a short time. I knew I needed to feed in more power to keep my prior downhill pace, to keep the momentum for the next downhill section. The trail starts downhill after 100 yards or so, and this is without a doubt my favorite section. It is just the perfect downhill grade where I could be feeding in speed and power and not need to do any braking. Flying. I was aware of the clouds of granite dust I was kicking up as I was doing my best to go as fast as I could.
The trail then gets steep, and so I had to engage my quads and sit down a bit more to maintain the pace and control. At this point, I looked around and could see three different trail segments that I would be on in a matter of seconds. It's a time to survey the trail, to make any plans for my slalom course around other people, kids, dogs, cows. I recall there was a couple in the middle of the trail two corners ahead. Nothing to slow me down.
Passing other people when I'm running this fast downhill makes me feel simultaneously like a hero and a weirdo. I often wonder what it's like from their perspective. Some people are startled (sorry!) and some people don't notice. I've gotten catcalls before from women which is pretty funny for a middle aged guy.
The trail makes a hard left, and car racing lines always enter my mind in this corner. I was thankful for the training and experience I have racing cars to know the optimal line in turns.
There's another short steep section, then another turn, then the trail hugs the side of a steep hill and goes straight to the end. This is roughly halfway to the bottom, and my body was seriously questioning the validity of what we were doing. I just bore down on the pain and continued.
About 1/3 of the way down, there is a tree, where invariably there are people who are on their way up, who are using it for shade and to catch their breath. The little bit of shade has a high value on a hot, sunny summer day. On this early Sunday morning, though, there was nobody at the tree, and so I greeted the tree alone and set my focus on the wooden post that marks the end of the mile segment as it came into view.
With the post in sight, the pain starts to fade. It's easier to feed in more speed and power because the end is now visible. Jeremy was already at the post, and didn't look winded at all. I would certainly need a moment to collect myself before we continued.
Jeremy and I chatted until the others caught up, and we went our merry way back down the rest of the hill to the Ohlone parking garage.
So that's the story of when I ran my fastest mile ever. Nope, it's not on flat ground, but this one is more special to me. A special place, with special people. These are memories I treasure.