How sweet to stumble on the roots of life and bring the gift of laughter to others.
My current husband has long diagnosed me with ‘Penny Macphail Syndrome’. This is where bizarre things happen to me - always sparked by a twist of fate but fanned to inferno by some agent of my own incompetence. His favorite episode is the time a light fitting bust in a poolside sauna just as I entered it. I was pleased with how dark and steamy it was, lay along a bench enjoying the anonymity of the dark and gave no greeting when the door opened a few minutes later. And then a large man in wet bathing trunks sat on my face. The events of today have made his list.
This is the third time I have done the Berkeley Golden Hills Marathon. It is a distinctively exciting race – challenging, buoyantly social, beautiful. The marathon is a side dish to the meaty ole Firetrails 50 miler which celebrates local ultra running legend Dick Collins . Marathoners start at 9am in Tilden park forest. They bounce over hills and plunge through fairy tale forests for 26.2 miles to finish at Lake Chabot Marina. Hotdog 50 milers start at that marathon finish at 6.30 am, run to our start, shriek a little at the spiders and cobwebs they have dangling over the aid station there, turn around and marathon it after us. Both races are a blast, all sorts of people come to play ….slow, fast, fat, thin, sane, unbalanced ..it has the professional set up that gets elite juices flowing but the accessibility to secure the everlasting devotion of many who have made it their first marathon or ultra. AND these organisers know how to throw an after race party and splurge on the goodies, there are prizes galore ( I really hate it when prizes are stacked around the fastest runners who already have a cloak of glory to swoosh around in) Here you are knee deep in groovy stuff for everyone, oodles of age groups things, random spot prizes and little gifts to show their appreciation if you make a spectacle of yourself at the finish. Everyone gets a wine glass. Those things really should come with instructions…what do you do with it?
Nose and nos
My sinuses and chest were petitioning to be excused from PE this week. They messed around with quite THE most irritating dry cold which produced nothing sick note generating in the way of symptoms but successfully left me feeling ..meh, shut down the little air supply that ever reaches my weird nose and deposited what felt like a lining of warm cookie dough on my lungs.I counteracted by slathering myself nose to ribs with Vicks Menthol Rub.
My back was acting up too - I had congratulated myself on completing several marathons with minor flare ups then strained it good and proper hoisting a complete stranger’s portly runaway Labrador into my car - so it marinated it in Icy Heat. Then on went the coating of coconut sun lotion. Now quite the olfactory sensation, I strode to race registration, leaving in my wake a trail of runners, sniffing the air and narrowing their eyes suspiciously at each other. Here it emerged I had committed the unpardonable sin of not actually signing up for the race : and you cannot register on the day. Macphail? McPhail? Muckfail? “No.” Giddy from my fumes or just keen to get this highly flammable greased creature away from their desk they gave me a race bib and their blessing. Thank you Julie.
Many happy returns
You are supposed to park at the marathon finish and take a shuttle bus to the start. ‘Were you too smart for this?’ you ask. YaHA. Get up at 5.30am , drive virtually passed the start to catch a 7.15 am bus? To those cursed with genius there was a second option. Sip morning tea around 7.15 am, drive to the start for 8 am and lord it over the restrooms for some time before the herds stampede off the shuttle. Run. Get a taxi back. I tossed my keys, some cash and a taxi number into a drop bag (the organizers bring this to the finish for you). Eagle eyed, I noticed several other people had reused their San Francisco Marathon drop bag for the occasion. I thought it sweet. (We may revisit this.)
Well it is a glorious course - high scenic hills, deep dark forest, broad fire roads, technical single track, roller coaster undulating stretches, stiff hill climbs, grand sweeping downs. A bit of everything. The beginning of this race is truly memorable as runners emerge from the chill forest and the tension of a race start to find themselves winding up exposed fire roads, positively ablaze with golden light – I guess that’s where the name ‘Golden Hills’ comes from ( I didn’t see anyone digging lol).
A group of fast men streamed ahead and I ran in the second little clump of people which included red hat man and red top lady. There was no chit chat beyond a friendly hello - I for one had to just focus on air.
We chipped up the hill overtaking each other now and then, I did my usual of overtaking on any downs. Once we crested the first main hill I stayed ahead of the lady and ran with the guy for some time until he was a very good boy and retraced his steps up a hill to retrieve a dropped gel packet. And then the fun started -we started meeting the front runners in the 50 miler. They had done around 23 miles and we about 3 I guess. From this point I felt less like I was racing and more that I was in the front row spectating the 50 mile race. I exchanged greetings of some kind with virtually all 252 of them them, shrieked at familiar faces, detained a few for hugging (Chris and Janeth) and only stopped high fiving more after a high powered mishit with Tracy left me cursing and sucking my fingers…I might as well have punched her in the face, how unhelpful…sorry about that, I hope your fingers didn’t hurt as much as mind did. (I would have enjoyed that had I been running behind me getting irritated by all the greetings.)
I altered normal race etiquette (men often give way to women, slow uphill to fast downhill etc) and showed a certain respect by getting out of their way. For the most part this just means I engaged in polite and at times perilous activity running off the trail to let them pass far more than I would normally do but twice I gave the greatest gift imaginable and stopped dead to hold a gate for an approaching 50 miler. Yes I do rock! I even looked behind me once and considered embracing humanity further…should I hold a little longer for the man in the red hat. Naw.
I ran alone for mile upon mile. Where I could glance back I saw no-one or the man in the red hat. All was good, just a relaxing run. No pressure. The first time I ran this race I fizzled so badly at the end I woozily ran into a hedge around mile 23 and spent the last mile staggery walking while people I had long passed streamed by me, most with kind words which I appreciated deeply at the time – one with a ‘ have you done this before ?’…which made me determined to run the same race again …better…preferably beating them. Since then the organizers have had to change the course. The last few miles still trace the side of lake Chabot but now reach it a little further down the lake and do so by looping over a few hills which I think made it harder. So I wanted to keep something in the tank.
I reached the final aid station. They refilled my water bottle and set me off with the most encouraging words imaginable…
.‘oh look..there’s ANOTHER woman coming’ .
The psychological stain of being swarmed on that last stretch before galvanized me into action. I chugged up a little hill and streamed fast down the other side heading for the lake. Many runners celebrate at the sight of this water. I allowed myself a modest internal cheer but knew think ‘ rejoice for we are done’ now honey and those last miles will seem intolerable. I pulled my headphones off ..couldn’t cope with music…and ran as hard as I could – I’m not a sprint finisher so steady force it had to be. I have to say I am very cross with this lakeside path - it’s sounds like a flat, relaxing, stroll with your toddler kind of thing but some giant has bunched it up into really mean little hills. Moreover, you can see a great big elegant swathe of lake stretching out endlessly along the water ..on and on. A landscape gardener’s delight but marathoner’s dismay. If I was doing the 50 miler I’d be up for blocking it in with concrete for a direct route at that point.
Finally the finish. They even put out a tape for me to run through - I don’t think I’ve ever had that before …what a treat.
And at the finish line – treat of all treats – there was the high wattage smile of Ms Christy Bentivoglio (who had done the Horseshoe half marathon then come to see friends finish at this event) and the welcoming grin of Lucas Wojciechowski. Two of the nicest people and coincidentally silliest names of my recent acquaintance. Lucas’ skinny 20 yr old butt had glided over the marathon finish line in 3.26.06 - nearly half an hour before me and in second place, just 5 mins after the first man Noah Brautigam.
Out of the Frying Pan Into the Fire
At this point I foolishly approached the massage tent, ignored their name ‘Monsters of Massage’ and lingered not over their logo of a laughing devil. My back was sore and I thought they might help me. It was excruciating. I thought I was being deboned. (read their web site - it’s a gas) It turns out I was sampling Ve Loyce aka ‘Monster”s own method of ‘Attack Orientated Target Massage’. Ve Loyce savaged me while his henchman Tom tortured people on a table beside me. Tom’s first victim (Mr Orange - see pic) shamelessly ran away pretending he needed the rest room. When his replacement started whimpering as piteously as I was, we stretched out out arms to see if we could hold hands. I told Ve Loyce that I preferred my ex husband to him and was just considering playing dead when he released his grip for a second and I bolted …must say I was moving fast and felt pretty darn good..but I may have been in shock.
Home time. I saw the first 50 miler in ..didn’t speak to him, just asked if I could poke him. He was real. 6.46.26 ..WOW!
I trotted off to call a taxi. The number I had didn’t work so I got the number for On Time Yellow Cabs from the guy at the Marina entry kiosk.
This is how I met Resham.
The running was the easy bit of the day.Resham has little to teach about speaking English, deciphering those inflicted with a Irish accent, or grasping the geography of the Castro Valley and surrounding regions. At first, these being the primary offerings I was rating him upon, I thought he had little to teach. I was wrong.
It took 15 minutes to communicate where I was, and another 20 for him to find me…anxiously glancing at my watch. I was late. I had to get home for our family outing to the kids’ Octoberfest. Then my heart sank when he had never heard of Tilden Park or of the main freeway leading to it the I -80. He was keen on the similar sounding 880 but was talked out of it when I helped him plumb the marathon start location into his GPS gadget. We set off, him encouraging me to join in with the directions as the lack of a house number on his GPS was worrying him. This is because the race starts in the middle of a forest not in someone’s house. It was when I fully realised that the concept of a running race - my entire little world at the time- was not something we were ever going to clarify – that I started seeing the situation from his point of view and being rather touched by him. He was never going to be impressed I had run let alone won a marathon, always going to wonder why I left a car in Tilden and how I got to Lake Chabot (I mimicked running and pointed at my number but he thought I was dancing). What on earth did he make of what I was wearing?
We live some way from here, and my grasp of the area is kinda limited to trails none of which I hoped we would be driving on this afternoon, so I fired up location services on my iPhone in order to concur or compete with his GPS . As has happened before, this somehow killed my battery dead. His GPS took us on a strange route, c. 50 minutes later we closed in on the park. He was clearly hesitant as we entered forest but believed in me enough to keep going and layers of anxiety seemed to peel from his face when I pointed to my car – which endeared me to him. We parted in a friendly manner - me hesitantly saying his name to pronounce it right …and ..a smart move….giving him a healthy tip on top of the $60 fare. I was so late – but I could still make the last hour or so of Octoberfest.
I rummaged in my drop bag (we said we’d revisit this) and discovered my key was missing. I recalled when I’d picked the bag it had been opened, a shoe, a make up bag - still containing $100 cash - and some clothing was lying on the ground nearby. At the time my dearest concern was that the Castro Valley should not be exposed to the sight of my underwear so I scooped everything up quickly and grabbed the bag. It never occurred to me to check for the keys. Doh!!
Now …..forest glade, no cell phone, no key, miles from home. I sprinted after Resham’s car screaming his name like a banshee. He skidded to a stop.
I couldn’t call anyone at the finish to ask them to check the ground near the drop bags as my cell phone was dead. After some tough communication Resham understood and was up for me recharging my phone in his car – then he had no cable. He was fine with me calling using his phone but he had no internet connection and I had no numbers. So I called my husband on his phone and we decided the only thing to do was for me to taxi it back to the start. I spent a long time on that phone call. During it Resham sat quiet and patient, not interrupting or motioning for me to get on with it ..and not running his meter. I was stressed but I did notice it. I also went back to the spot where the drop bags had been held at the start of the race - now a completely unmarked piece of scrub land and checked the grass and noticeboards around there for keys. He sat patiently. He didn’t understand. He didn’t run his meter. He watched me pointing at the trail and ‘dancing’ and smiled, calm and patient. We established I had had fun in this area earlier. All in all he had sat in Tilden Park with his meter off for at least 25 minutes before we left. Off we went.
Resham was more confident with return directions as he knew the ultimate destination but something strange happened on the I-580. One minute we were on it. Suddenly he discover himself on the 980 then eventually calmed at the 880. This will make you rip your hair out if you live there and know the roads. It took well over an hour to drive back and cooked up c. $75. Back at the entry kiosk Resham had trouble trying to explain our mission (and why we shouldn’t pay as we were not parking to stay at the marina) so I leaned forward, spoke to the man who had given me this taxi firms’ number nearly three hours ago and explained the key problem. He threw his head back and guffawed openly…… no pretense of concern, no social nicety just sheer exuberant joy ..’oh that’s priceless’ and waved us through dabbing at his eyes. We made his day.
Back at the finish. I asked Resham to wait in the taxi while I ran down to the finish and started the process of looking for the key. I had hoped it would be right there on the ground where my bag had been - no. I started to feel panicky. Several people helped me search, we lifted every bag up and checked beneath it, we checked the bushes nearby and under the tables where a key might have been kicked. I returned to the Monsters of Massage to see if I had clawed it out of the bag whilst in the grip of agony. They liked the idea but the key wasn’t under their tables. The race organizer enlisted people to check the cars the drop bags had been transported in and some kind souls were starting to scour the ground of the route from car to drop bag deposit.
Just then a voice said -’ yes someone found a key’.
While I had been searching two wonderful people had just set off around the finish area asking absolutely everyone if they had found a key or heard of someone finding a key - people manning stands, runners and supporters. Unbelievably someone had JUST found a strange set of keys in their drop bag and asked a lady manning a stand what to do with it. Now she was running around trying to spot them again. I waited ..a quivering mess ..most grateful for the calming aura of Mr John Brooks who proffered his cell phone so I could let my husband Hamish know what was going on the second we saw those keys and if they were mine. They were. I hugged everyone who didn’t bat me off and fought back tears of relief. OK I blubbed. My guess is that my key somehow fell out of my bag, either someone handling a pile of bags dropped mine upside down or someone who also used a San Francisco drop bag opened mine to see if it was theirs, pulled out some stuff then …possibly in shock having encountered my underwear- moved on to the next bag. After that, either this person tried to make amends or a separate person spotted the key - and chucked it ‘back’ into the wrong bag. Today I learned that drop bags should have zips and padlocks.
Had I checked my bag, noticed the key missing and searched for it at the finish when I came in I would never have got that key back. I wouldn’t have been there looking four hours later when the owner of the golden drop bag plunged a hand in and thought ..now what is that? Suddenly the hours spent driving around with Resham seemed rather poignant. I am also so incredibly lucky that a person actually noticed alien keys in their bag.
So now I had to get back to my car. Many people tried to hook me up with a lift but it is a long and awkward journey whatever route you take and no-one was leaving immediately. I also had the nasty problem that I had run up $75 on Resham’s clock ..and that was before getting out of the car to search for the key about 20 minutes ago. Mr Brooks galloped up to the taxi with me on a fine white charger, threw me a bag of gold ($40 cash he had in his car) and even thanked Resham for his patience. How amazingly patient Resham was. Not because he was making easy money either. He had stopped his meter when I got out. I gave him $80 ( $40 I had and $40 from Sir John). I told him it was all the cash I had and asked him to take me back to my car. He took time to fold the money carefully and drove off with an encouraging smile. Did he understand I had no more cash?
It was another good 40 minutes before we got back to my car. By this time the clock said $150. I offered to write him a check for the amount I owed him – but he gave an enchanting smile and said ‘I am happy.’ I shook his hand warmly and gave him a Cliff bar I had picked up at the race finish as I got out of the car. As I left he had parked up, opened his Cliff bar with great care, divided it into neat sections and was eating it while gazing at a meadow in Tilden Park. He used to have a rice farm in Bangladesh and misses his fields.
Thank you Berkeley Golden Hills Marathon, Sir John Brooks – who turns out to be the new owner pumping race experience, customer focus and infectious enthusiasm into the recently demised running event company Pacific Coastal Trails ( and has since declined repayment …so if you see him at a race, sell him a sob story and see how much you can get lol ) and of course Resham.