How a mountain, a running store and an abundance of local talent have elevated the San Francisco Bay Area community to become the hottest underground scene in trail running.
The glow of headlamps illuminates the dark early morning sky of downtown Mill Valley, Calif., as a group of groggy, athletic-looking dudes gather on the sidewalk outside a local coffee shop. After a few moments of slapping hands and exchanging the usual pleasantries, the small talk reverts to more hushed tones as they begin running up Bernard Street and embark on their weekly Wednesday morning ritual: a 3.3-mile ascent of Mount Tamalpais, the highest peak in Marin County at 2,571 feet.
Less than a quarter mile in, a long flight of stairs greets the runners and eventually spills them onto Summit Ave., a mile-long stretch of road that leads to the Tamelpa trail, the most direct—and steepest—route to the mountain’s east peak. For those who weren’t quite feeling awake when they showed up at 6 a.m., tripling your heart rate in a matter of seconds is a surefire way to snap yourself out of a slumber.
Summiting the iconic mountain, known locally as just “Tam,” has become symbolic of the strength, unity and beauty that perpetually inspires the vibrant Marin County running community. And, in the past year or so, it’s become a training hotbed for some of America’s fastest trail fiends.
Among the group of locals ascending the mountain on this October morning are some of the most accomplished off-road ultrarunners in the United States. Mill Valley residents Dylan Bowman, Alex Varner and Brett Rivers, who finished third, seventh and ninth, respectively, at this year’s Western States 100, are running, as is Sausalito’s Matthew Laye, who won the U.S. 100-mile title in February at Rocky Raccoon 100 in Texas. Leading the charge, as he does most weeks, is 35-year-old Galen Burrell of Mill Valley, a runner who specializes in sub-ultra distances and is the most respected climber of the group, having won the famed Pikes Peak Marathon in 2004.
“Mount Tam was my introduction into the trail/ultrarunning community,” says the 33-year-old Laye. “But Mount Tam summits are more than social. The mountain is the vehicle that changed my perspective on what is possible, whether that is a weekly run to the top or the goal of completing 50 or 100 summits in a year. It’s the rock that inspires each of us in some way to be better, I think.”
Although the effort can escalate quickly if someone is feeling frisky, the weekly run up the mountain isn’t an unsanctioned race for these elite off-road animals. This Wednesday morning ritual, which attracts up to a dozen or so members of the local running community, is as much a social affair as it is an athletic endeavor. One of its highlights is the shared enjoyment of the spectacular sunrise over San Francisco and the surrounding area below.
A little more than 40 minutes after setting out from downtown Mill Valley, the first runners reach the fire lookout on the east peak of the mountain as the rest of the group tackles the steep scramble that makes up the final quarter mile of the climb to the top. One by one, the runners touch the door of the fire lookout, a gesture that marks an “official” summit—a running tally of ascents many of these individuals can recite as quickly as any of their personal bests.
“There’s something immensely rewarding about touching the door and then turning around and surveying the entire Bay Area laid out below you,” says Varner, 29, who won the U.S. 50K trail title in 2013 and is on track to summit Tam around 30 times this year. “Sharing it with others makes it even more special because it’s never easy to get to the top and there’s a shared suffering that all have endured to get to this point.”
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