Waking up to the alien-like blast of your digital alarm. Pouring hot coffee into a travel cup and making sure the lid is screwed on tight. Resisting the urge to check email at a stop light. Staring at the backside of a pickup truck with a bumper sticker that clearly offends you. Wondering how in the hell you’re going to fit in that long run you desperately need in your weekly training plan.
While you may suffer the typical annoyances of a morning commute, hours earlier, in a small Tennessee Valley parking lot 15 miles north of San Francisco, a small group of like-minded runners has been gathering at 5:15am twice a week, every week, for ten years. Why might you ask? To do what they’ve always done: forgo the stressful mechanized commute and take advantage of their feet to travel the distance from their home to the office.
Run commuting isn’t necessarily a new concept. But there is something unique about running 15+ miles with your closest friends. A run that climbs through the Marin Headlands trail network, across the Golden Gate Bridge, along the San Francisco Waterfront, completing a multi-hour adventure before most of us have had our coffee.
In 2005, Charles Ehm and Jon De St Paer both lived in Marin, both ran ultramarathons, both worked at the same company and even shared offices a few doors down from one another. But they had no idea each other existed. I got the chance to chat with them (as well as Ted Knudsen, whom they met in 2006) to find out more about how the crew formed and has evolved over the years.
Charlie – “A coworker told me someone on the other side of the floor had just run a 50 miler. FireTrails 2005? Jon, is this our 10 year anniversary?”
Jon – “Yes. Dick Collins FireTrails was my first 50 miler – back in 2005. This must be our 10 year anniversary. (Longer than I’ve been with my wife! That’s a little scary.) A coworker introduced me to Charlie, after she heard I’d done the run – probably because Charlie was the only other ultra runner she’d ever met. Oddly – we’d never met, even though his office was 4 or 5 doors down from mine.”
Charlie – “I had been running home once or twice a week. Jon started joining, but one of us would get stuck on a project at work so we decided to switch to morning.”
Jon – “I got into Western States (WS) in ’06, and remember starting some evening commute runs early that year with Charlie – before we realized mornings are far more predictable. I then met Ted at WS training camp the spring of ’06. Charlie and I got pretty consistent with the morning runs – and bumped into Ted in the Marina bike commuting one day. After we described the trail route in the Marin Headlands – he started joining shortly after.”
Ten years of planning to meet at the same scheduled time and place every Tuesday and Thursday takes serious commitment, not only to yourself but to the others in the commute. I was curious what it was like to have that sort of internal drive.
Charlie – “Knowing one’s friend is going to be standing out in the cold, dark morning, made me get out of bed consistently. I feel really lucky to have found others who are about the same speed and fun to talk with.”
Jon – “I agree with Charlie – there is nothing quite so motivating than knowing your friends are waiting for you on a street corner. It’s pretty amazing that we’ve got this core group that runs at close enough pacing that we’ve been able to run together for so long.”
Ted – “All of us have kids (or had kids during this period of time) and similar running goals. Middle of the pack type runners who don’t take it too seriously but like to be somewhat competitive. And we all love a schedule. Give me a time and I’ll be there.”
When I imagine this sort of undertaking, my list-making mind immediately goes to logistics – How do you all know when to meet or wait at the meeting spot? How do you deal with being sweaty at work? What if you have an early meeting you can’t miss? I got the guys to give me more specifics.
Jon – “Tuesday/Thursday. 5:07 at Manzanita park n ride, and 5:15 at the Tennessee Valley Community Center. The group rarely waits for more than a couple minutes before moving on.”
Ted – “At 5:16 if you are not there we are heading up the road to the Marincello climb. The run is one way from Marin into SF. Tue/Thurs are the normal days because of the coordination required to get an extra set of clothes into work. Friday never made much sense because of weekend races. Sometimes schedules dictate different days but that is the exception and not the rule.”
Jon – “The standard route is 15 miles, and once in awhile we’ll take a shorter 14 mile route. Even more rarely, we’ll take an extended route that is ~17 miles with more hills. You’ve got to see this “commute” though. We run into Tennessee Valley, up a long, gradual climb on Marincello, and then along ridge trails that give spectacular views of the ocean to the right, the SF bay on the left, and the GG bridge and city in front of us. We then drop down to the Golden Gate, run across the bridge, and then run along the waterfront (Crissy Field, Marina Green, Fort Mason, Embarcadero). There are people for whom seeing these views is a once in a lifetime experience – and we get to take advantage of it a couple times a week. And we always comment on how lucky we are.”
Charlie – “The clothes gets stashed in the office the day before, and other than a quick parade through the office at 7:30am, it’s not a big deal. By 8am I am showered, coffee in hand, and ready to go, high on endorphins, for anything that the day can throw at me.”
Jon – “The access to showers is key. Early on we were both in a different building without showers. I had a membership to a local gym – solely to use their shower in the morning. The setup takes some planning – but it’s not too bad. Monday mornings I’ll drive to work with a garment bag filled with two suits, shirts, shoes, towels, etc. The only awkward part is walking through the lobby into the elevator in sweaty running clothes – especially on the rare days it’s cold enough to require tights – before going down to the showers in the garage. Coworkers seem to have gotten used to it a long time ago, though. I rarely get odd looks or comments any more.”
Ted – “As a software engineer, my dress code is pretty relaxed. I keep a pair of work shoes at the office. The first 3 years I didn’t have a shower and would just wipe off the sweat in the bathroom with a towel; dirtbag runner with a corporate job. Since I would be one of the first ones into the office no one ever knew.”
I was also curious how each of the guys has changed over the 10 year friendship and perhaps how each has helped one another through personal growth. I wondered if the group ever changed, got bigger or allowed others to join. I was also interested to hear if any particular mornings stood out in their memories.
Charlie – “During this time, I got married and started a family. Then Jon got married and started a family. Ted was already married with family and was our voice of reason or insight on many a morning. Guy tidbits through pregnancy. Dad tips on little ones. Always good to have a friend go first. (Even better when they go first on the single track trail and clean out all the spider webs from the night before, or knock all the dew off the overhanging grasses and plants so the others stay bone dry. “oh no, after you, I insist. No really you should go first, I have gas”. Even when I don’t.) We’ve had several friends come join us over the years. But it would last a few runs before getting up to meet at 5:15am was too early, or they were too slow/fast for our normal pace. It kept just being the core.”
Jon – “Over the years, we’ve probably had a couple dozen people join for some commutes – but the novelty seems to quickly wear off, and people rarely come back for a 2nd or 3rd run. The two exceptions are Larissa Rivers and Josh Alexander. The key is just finding people that run close enough to the same pace that no one is suffering too badly, and no one is held back too much. I’m grateful our little group has worked so well for so long.”
Charlie – “We know if we are ahead of schedule based on when we see Claire, the ‘Red Jacket Lady’ riding her bike to work each morning. Or ‘Boot Camp Coach’ who is out on Crissy Field year round with the folks she is training regardless of the weather. Or the ‘Pink Hardhat Hiker’ guy heading up the trail from the bridge each morning. We never did figure that one out to write a reasonable story.”
Ted – “One morning I was alone, it was just getting light and I see a long tail disappear into the bushes ahead of me –Mt Lion. That got my attention.”
It’s easy to see that this group has found more than a simple routine. It’s no longer about getting to the office as much as it is about the opportunity to get outside and experience some miles with great friends – sharing the adventure. For these guys, there’s even a bit more than that.
Ted – “I enjoy seeing the Bay Area wake up and explore the Headlands when few others are out there. Plus having two hour conversations with close friends on a weekly basis is something special.”
Jon – “We all run some ultra races each year – and the commute run is a great way to get good base mileage without eating into the day too much. I’d add that over the years running with the same core group of friends has become a blend of workout, social time, and therapy time. Don’t let it inflate their egos – but I’ve gotten some great advice from Charlie and Ted over the years. Like the old Vegas ads – what we talk about on the trail stays on the trail. These guys were some of the first people I told when we found out my wife was pregnant.“
Charlie – “The San Francisco bay and surrounding hills make our commute breath taking. The lighting changes with the time of year. Where the light slowly starts to come up and the sun pops on the horizon is always changing. Not a morning goes by that we don’t comment on how amazing a view or sight is. Whether it’s the lights of the city in the darkness, a cruise ship sliding under the Golden Gate just as we are running over, or the fog creating different scenes and visual sight lines. Makes one appreciate where we live and get to play.”
So remember, while some of us might fight bumper to bumper traffic on pothole pocked streets desperately chugging coffee in hopes it will blow through our morning haze, there is a group of great friends sharing in ritual miles and gazing at epic views of fog layers rolling into the bay. I’m quickly fighting the urge to grab my running shoes, hop in my car and drive the 6 hours from Los Angeles just to share in Tuesday morning’s commute with this crew. Charlie, Jon and Ted mention the group is open to all – so long as you arrive by 5:15am, you won’t get left at the bottom of Marincello. Getting 30 miles done on some of the most gorgeous trails and view-laden streets before the weekend even begins is a foot-note to what sounds like a lasting bond amongst like-minded friends. Here’s to the next 10 years of Marin to San Francisco run commuting!
Photos by Kyle RM Johnson.