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Higher Ground: ‘Bros On A Mountain’

A mountain, a running store and a ton of local talent have elevated the Bay Area to become the hottest underground scene in trail running.

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.

PHOTOS: The Marin County ‘Bros On A Mountain’

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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The Weekly Summit

It has been said “iron sharpens iron and one man sharpens another,” a proverb that also accurately describes what’s been happening on the trails around Marin County in recent years.

At the end of 2012, Burell was totaling his stats for the year and noticed he had run up Tam 29 times. Looking ahead to 2013 he set a goal of 50, a number Rivers saw and thought, “Well, if you you’re going to do 50 Tam summits this year, then I’m going to do 50 too.”

And so the weekly Tam summit run was born. Burrell, Rivers, Bowman, Laye and a few more of their “bros” began gathering in downtown Mill Valley on Tuesday mornings for “Tam Tuesday”—a 7–9 mile round trip up and down the mountain followed by coffee and banter in Lytton Square. The run—which has since moved to Wednesdays—is an unadvertised, underground extension of the weekly Saturday morning group run that takes place at Rivers’ San Francisco Running Company store in Mill Valley.

The Wednesday morning Tam summit carries a more intimate, higher-performance vibe than the larger, more easygoing Saturday runs. The Wednesday morning runs have generally been male-dominated, although anyone can show up and try to hang on all the way to the summit.

“It is a tough route and works on uphill running strength, and it is probably the best way to see the seasons change by doing a run at the same time every week,” Rivers says. “Wednesday morning can best be summed up as a hard run up to a killer sunrise, a Strava CR, summit count smack-talk and other post-run coffee banter.”

While most of the members of this motley crew meet on Wednesday mornings and throughout the week, only two of them—Bowman and Varner—share a coach. When this all-star cast of off-road runners, which also includes reigning U.S. 100K trail champion Jorge Maravilla, 37, the general manager of San Francisco Running Company, aren’t trying to one-up one another for Tam summits, working out together when schedules allow or competing head to head on race day, they’re following one another closely on the Strava website, trying to take down course records whenever the opportunity presents itself.

“We’ve had success as a direct result of being able to train together,” explains Bowman, 28, who moved to Mill Valley from Aspen, Colo., in 2013. “There’s certainly a competitive element there but it’s also very supportive and has allowed us all to reach a new level of fitness and performance.”

A Deep History

With both rolling trails and steep routes, smooth paths and rugged singletracks, Marin County has long been a go-to place for trail running. And while the growing list of accomplishments among the current crop of trail runners around here is fresh and exciting, the heritage and history of trail and ultrarunning in the Bay Area extends far beyond this current competitive renaissance.

Masters trail ace Topher Gaylord, who finished second at the inaugural Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in France in 2003, has been living and running in the Bay Area on-and-off since he was 9, including living in Marin County full-time for the past five years after many years of living in Italy. Forty-six-year-old Gary Gellin, the overall winner of this year’s Miwok 100K, has long been a top contender in ultra-distance races and lives in Mill Valley just a few hundred feet from the Dipsea Trail. There are also many strong female runners who traverse the trails of Marin County—most notably recent transplant Larissa Dannis, who placed second at the Western States 100 in June and won the U.S. 50-mile road championships in October. Devon Yanko, a three-time member of the U.S. 100K team, lives in nearby San Anselmo and often tags along with some of the faster guys in the area when she’s not holding down the fort at M.H. Bread & Butter, the bakery she owns with her husband, Nathan, also a competitive ultra runner.

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Ann Trason, a 14-time Western States champion and former course-record holder, trained just across the bay in the Berkeley Hills for most of her career and often trained around Mount Tam, while Ian Sharman, the 2013 winner of Colorado’s Leadville 100 and multiple-time top-10 finisher at the Western States 100 who occasionally comes to Marin to log miles with his local rivals, also lives in the East Bay.

“I love to see the blending of this new generation of runners bringing superb values, camaraderie, energy, humbleness, competitiveness and companionship to the running community,” says Gaylord, 45, who is the president of Mountain Hardwear, headquartered 17 miles across the Bay in Richmond. “Marin County is a combination of perfect running conditions 365 days a year, amazingly talented runners who love to share the trails together, push each other, openly share their running strategies, and inspire each other to be better.”

In addition to attracting a fast crowd, some of trail and ultrarunning’s most iconic events are native to Marin County, with local and international bragging rights on the line. Winning one of the hallowed 35 black shirts at the annual Dipsea Race, a 7.4-mile rollercoaster of a run from downtown Mill Valley to Stinson Beach and the oldest continual trail race in the U.S., is something a status symbol in the area. The Miwok 100K, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2015, is one of the most competitive and challenging long-distance races in the country.

And The North Face Endurance Challenge in December, with its massive prize purse, attracts some of the world’s best ultrarunners to the Marin Headlands every year for a 50-mile battle royale on the trails.

This year’s edition of the TNF50 will include a lot of local pride on the starting line: Bowman, Varner, Rivers, Burrell and Maravilla are all scheduled to compete. They’ve joked that if there were cross-country team scoring, they would be hard to beat.

“I think that such success comes in waves, and right now the momentum is really building in Marin,” says Burrell, a four-time winner of the Mount Tam Hill Climb, a 3-mile race with 2,400 feet of elevation gain. “SFRC and events like The North Face Endurance Challenge are certainly factors that have helped put the Bay Area on the map for ultrarunning, but ultimately it’s the collective force of all the individuals that thrive here. What’s exciting is that the wave hasn’t crested yet!”

Looking Ahead

With the success of the Marin-based “bros on a mountain,” as they refer to themselves, trail and ultrarunning’s best-kept secret is no a longer silent whisper: there’s definitely something special happening on the trails around Mount Tamalpais.

“If you are running consistently with people that perform at the highest level, you expect the same from yourself,” says Laye, who clocked a 2:23 marathon earlier this year in Boston. “I am inspired by Galen’s climbing ability, Brett’s smart racing and training, Dylan’s mental toughness, Varner’s success across so many distances, and Jorge’s downhill running ability and joy. Each one inspires me to think differently about what is possible and pushes me to consider what is possible for me.”

At the finish line of the Western States 100 in June, an injured Laye watched as Bowman, Varner and Rivers accounted for 30 percent of the top-10 finishers—a statistic both he and Maravilla, who had a tough day in 27th place—feel like they could have helped inflate.

“[The success of others in the area] definitely inspires me to push my limits,” Maravilla explains. “While spending time on the trails is what I enjoy most, being part of this community has inspired me to try other distances and add more diversity to my training as an athlete. Training [together] in these hills has generated an interest from a very diverse talent pool of runners seeking success here to push each other in the best of ways.”

Varner, a native of San Rafael who returned to Marin County after attending college on the East Coast, has made a major splash in the ultrarunning scene in less than two years of expanding his racing range. Even though Western States was his 100-mile debut, his impressive result doesn’t come as a surprise when you consider the collective successes of those he chases around the trails in his own backyard. He’s literally just trying to keep up with—and eventually pass—some of his friends.

“No one wants to be the slowest,” says Varner, a member of the Nike Trail Elite team. “It inspires me because I see what these guys do on a daily basis and it pushes me to go out there and try to get the best out of myself.”

For Bowman, a former lacrosse player who got inspired to start running ultras while living in Colorado after college, placing seventh, fifth and third in three tries at Western States, along with big wins, course records and numerous top-5 showings at some of the most competitive 50-milers in the country, has helped cement his status as one of ultrarunning’s rising stars. He says Mill Valley has felt like home to him since the day he arrived and the area’s history, along with its competitive but supportive culture, has helped take his running to the next level.

“I know how talented the guys are and it motivates me to improve myself,” says Bowman, who recently signed a sponsorship deal with The North Face. “Success builds on itself and I think that’s what’s happened in our group.”

Along with the current crop of superstars in the area, the older generation of local runners—including speedsters like 2013-2014 Dipsea winner Diana Fitzpatrick, 56, and frequent top-10 Dispsea finisher Mark McManus, 40—has continued to inspire by crushing it in the Masters division of races. Now the faster runners in their 20s and 30s are continuing the progression and inspiring the next generation of local teenage runners, some of whom have already earned black shirts in the Dipsea and begun to test their mettle in other races.

“Success breeds success and this is just the start of a new wave,” Rivers says. “There are a large number of younger kids who are barely double-digits in age running the Dipsea and experiencing the Mount Tam Hill Climb. It’s awesome and inspiring. They are the next generation.”