Monday, April 2, 2012

Oakland Running Festival

Oakland gets a bad rap. Their streets are scarier, their Occupiers fiercer and their history meaner than just about any other city in the Bay Area (barring Concord and Richmond in recent years). So what better way to show people that you’re more than a gang-ridden, petty theft driven, tough loving city than to host a marathon? And no, I’m not being facetious.

In what was one of the most interesting and friendly courses I’ve yet to have run, the Oakland RunningFestival (ORF) has proven for the third time that the mean streets of Oak Town are just a road closure away from being some of the most beautiful in the nation. I don’t know whether it was due to the rain washing away all the dirt and grime, the spirit and excitement of the residents or a combination of both, but after pounding 13.1 miles of Oakland asphalt this halfer can honestly say she can’t wait until next year to do it again.

Following a serpentine course from Snow Park on the banks of Lake Merritt, out along Broadway with a hairpin turn at Telegraph, the half marathoners started on their way a full 90mins after the full marathon start (their course headed out along Broadway towards Rockridge and up into Montclair, running one of the more brutally inclined marathon routes) allowing for a clear and stride-able course for both distances. Chalk up a success for the race directors knowing their audience. Bonus points- the marathon route met up with the half marathon at Mile 17 (Half Mile 4), ensuring that the full runners were properly and continually lauded for their efforts in their last 9miles (not to mention that by the time they merged in with the half marathon crowd enough time had elapsed for the pace groups to settle and congestion to ease).

I'll admit I refuse to pay $30 for a photo.
Holo Solo and I decided to take the day easy and enjoy the course instead of racing it. Holding a steady 9:30min/mi pace we wound our way through Downtown Oakland,  Chinatown, Jack London Square and out towards West Oakland where the runners were greeted by a fiery archway and drum circle, put on by The Crucible, a local metal shop/burner family. Grinning, we leapt through the fiery arch and continued on our way, turning right onto Mandela Parkway were the rest of The Crucible family met us astride a 10ft tall fire-breathing horse wagon…one of those moments where a camera would have served me well. Right about here we ran into the final Marathon Relay exchange and Brown Sugar Kitchen where clients and employees alike were offering brownies, donuts and other delicious sugary treats to the runners. Gazing longingly on the delicious sweet treats we continued onwards to Emeryville before the route directed us back to Oakland in our final four miles. Runners were greeted by a few of the Oakland Raider’s favorite fans, including the Oakland Pirate and Afro Man!

Winding our way through oak-lined neighborhoods we eventually emerged once again on the banks of Lake Merritt, along which the final 3miles would lead us. As spectators cheered us on from picnic blankets, hi-rise apartments and their cars the party atmosphere was contagious and, thanks in part to Holo Solo’s excitement at almost being done, we sped up our pace dipping below 8:30min/mi (more than making up for the lost time between miles 8 and 9 when we stopped to walk off some knee pain) and crossed the finish line together at 2:12:08- officially my fastest recorded half marathon time (if only my races went as well as my training runs!).

The finish is so close we can taste it!
Collecting our medals, space blankets and bananas, we wandered to the finish line festival- and this is what ORF has perfected: instead of a small, walled off beer garden with lengthy lines for tapped brew, ORF had set up a couple folding tables and stacked them nose high with 30 pack after 30 pack of canned Miller Light, chilled and efficient. Instead of a few tables of over-priced, cardboard infused food options, ORF reached out to local food trucks to allow for a cost effective variety of post-race lunchables. The entertainment was placed away from the beer garden at the base of a small hill which allowed for the runners to lie out on their space blankets and enjoy the surprisingly lovely weather after a phenomenal run.

All in all, it was a four star day in a city that is often passed over for San Francisco a mere bridge away. The people could not have been more welcoming, the course lovelier or the competitors more excited to be running streets that once upon a time were off limits to the casual road race. I’m expecting big things from ORF down the road, and even bigger things for Oakland as its reputation continues to grow and repair itself.

Check out what San Francisco Chronicle had to say about the Oakland Running Festival!

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