Mt. Tamalpais, Strava, and chasing virtual records.
LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 011, August 2019
Words and illustration by Liam Boylan-Pett
The cruelest part has to be that it begins with a set of steep, unforgiving stairs.
Starting at a small square in Mill Valley, California, a runner attempting to run up Mount Tamalpais kicks things off by heading two blocks north, up Bernard Street. The Bernard Street hill is no joke, but it is not anything worth complaining about—like running on a treadmill with the incline set at three. Then, after about 45 seconds, the runner arrives at the stairs. They are like the stairs from The Exorcist, but with weeds and greenery enveloping the route. And the stairs are steep. Running up them, the lactic acid burn starts to build, and the runner begins breathing heavily.
It is a cruel commencement to a run, especially considering the runner still has over two-and-a-half miles to go to the summit.
Back in 2009, one year after Runkeeper was introduced to the public, the fitness app Strava launched. Strava, in its simplest form, began as an online community where athletes could store and map out any physical activity they participated in—cycling took center stage, but users could also log their running and swimming. If you had a G.P.S. watch or used the app on your phone, you were able to track all of your activities in the palm of your hand. Plus, you could follow other athletes to see how far and fast your friends were running, biking, and swimming. Garmin and Nike have similar apps now, as does Under Armour with it’s MapMyRun service, but Strava took off in its early stages thanks to its community of users and the leaderboard.
The leaderboard was, and is, exactly what it sounds like: A list of the top times on routes throughout the world. In Strava’s case, these courses are called segments, and they are user-generated. Per Strava’s support page, segments are “portions of road or trail created by members where athletes can compare times.”
There are thousands of segments around the world; thousands of opportunities to top a leaderboard. One could attempt to become the fastest runner on Bowen Road in Hong Kong, where a man would need to run faster than 5 minute, 24 second-per-mile pace over 2.53 miles (13 minutes, 41 seconds) or a woman would have to break 16 minutes, 44 seconds to stake claim to the top of the leaderboard. Or, they could take a stab at the West Launch Trail segment in tiny Mitchell, South Dakota off Interstate 90 (the current records are 13:31 for men and 18:34 for women over the 1.7-mile course, and only 11 people have run it).
Segments are not only scattered across the globe, they can be short, long, flat, or steep—or, obviously, a combination of those characteristics. Because each segment is created by a user, anything goes—for example, there are multiple different starting points for a loop around the Central Park Reservoir that all have different course records. A segment can be as short as a one-tenth of a mile, or as long as any ultra marathon in the world. The only caveat is if a user wants to create a segment, he or she must have completed that course.
If you do happen to run (or bike or swim) the fastest time on a segment, your Strava profile is rewarded with a K.O.M. (King of the Mountain), Q.O.M. (Queen of the Mountain), or C.R. (Course Record) virtual trophy. And also bragging rights. It is like having a F.K.T. (Fastest Known Time) record in trail racing, but this record is available for all to see—as long as you have a link to the segment record board. Occasionally, a talented runner may go for a run in a new town and break a course record by accident, but becoming King or Queen of certain segments is no easy task—whether because thousands of people run them or because the courses are so difficult.
When it comes to well-traveled segments, one of the Central Park Reservoir loops has been run over 112,000 times by more than 17,600 people (as of late August). There are hilly courses, too. The steepest segment that is at least one mile long and has been run within the last thirteen months, according to the Strava data team, is a 1.13-mile course in Cholonge, France, in which a runner has to climb 3,198 feet (2832 feet per mile). Rémi Bonnet and Christel Dewalle hold the men’s and women’s records, running 30 minutes, 9 seconds and 34 minutes, 50 seconds, respectively. The segment with the most elevation gain worldwide that has been run in the past 13 months, according to Strava, is the “Colorado River up to South Kaibab TH,” a course that runs 6.62 miles and climbs 5,896 feet out of the valley of the Grand Canyon. Famed trail runners Jim Walmsley and Alicia Vargo are the K.O.M. and Q.O.M of that segment, respectively, with times of 1 hour, 5 minutes, 25 seconds and 1 hour, 25 minutes, 49 seconds.
But those superlative-described segments are only one piece of the Strava leaderboard puzzle. Some segments earn a cult following due to history, difficulty, and a community of runners who know a good thing when it’s right in front of them.
One of those segments isn’t far from Strava’s San Francisco headquarters. There has almost always been a strong running community north of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, and being near Silicon Valley, many Marin County runners flock to Strava to track and compare their runs with others.
A few months ago, I texted Levi Miller, a former Georgetown University N.C.A.A. cross-country All-American who moved to Marin in 2014, to ask him if there was a segment that was well-known near him—if there was a course that had a bit of lore to it.
“Yes,” he responded almost immediately before sending one more text: “Mt. Tam Hill Climb.”
The cruelest part has to be that the “easiest” stretch of the entire thing is still damn-near impossible.
After the runner escapes from the tunnel of stairs, they take a slight left onto Tamalpais Avenue. It is a blacktop-paved road that slowly climbs up and away from the town square of Mill Valley. After three-quarters of a mile, Tamalpais Ave turns into Summit Avenue and it keeps climbing. Like the first hundred yards before the stairs, the grade of ascent is not unfathomable, but the climb is noticeable. And unrelenting. Which makes the fact that this is the easiest stretch of the climb so hard to swallow.
Because once the runner makes it to the 1.5-mile mark of the Mt. Tam Hill Climb, they abruptly cut off of Summit Ave for the Tamelpa Trail—and that’s when things get difficult.
“With apologies to the Boston Marathon,” Barry Spitz says, “the Dipsea is the greatest race in the world. I do feel it is remarkable for a whole bunch of reasons.”
Spitz is the preeminent scholar of all things running and trail-related in Marin County. He moved to San Francisco in 1970 and north to San Anselmo in 1975, where he immersed himself in the community’s running culture. He especially took a liking to the Dipsea Race, a seven-mile jaunt from the train depot in Mill Valley to the Dipsea Inn on the Pacific Ocean at Stinson Beach, and became the finish-line announcer by 1982. Spitz, who has written for Runner’s World and Running Times (Rest In Power), among others, wrote the book on the Dipsea Race (his favorite) and has also written books about Marin County, Mill Valley, San Anselmo, and the Tamalpais Trails.
He knows Marin County and he knows running, and Spitz knows all about the Mt. Tam Hill Climb, which has the same starting line as the Dipsea Race.
The 3.3-mile course from Mill Valley to the peak of Mt. Tamalpais at 2,550 feet was famous before Strava Segments were a thing. In fact, back in June of 1916, Walter “Grizzly” Jones won the first “race” up Mt. Tam, according to Spitz. There may have been a race in 1917, too, but it wasn’t until Labor Day 1980 that the race started up again, starting in Mill Valley and ending once you touched the door on the lookout tower at Mt. Tam’s peak. Keith Hastings won that unsanctioned race, which was founded by the iconic-by-Marin-standards Roger Gordon, and every year since on Labor Day, about 150 runners have taken their chance at the climb. And while Spitz has run the race 25 times, his favorite remains the Dipsea Race. “The hill climb does not have anything like Dipsea’s reputation,” he says. “There’s no publicity. There’s no website. They don’t encourage you to run it.”
Spitz still sees the allure. “Mt. Tam is very iconic—it’s visible from almost every part of the Bay Area.” he says. We’re speaking on the phone, and he’s rifling through papers, a mad scientist going through his research to make sure he’s got it just right. “There was a railroad up there built in 1896, and it’s been the mecca for hiking in the Bay Area since the late 1800s.”
The hill climb, Spitz says, is for runners of a certain kind: Hill runners. In the early days of the race, Spitz and the other runners would start in Mill Valley, go up the roads, then find the quickest way they could to the top—there was no set course, and runners would scatter in different directions at points along the trail. (Eventually, a standard course emerged—the Strava route is very similar, minus a few switchbacks that have come into play over the past few years, slowing the course slightly.)
One year, a group of Marin County runners was worried about an out-of-towner from the East Bay. So, they made a plan to let the him take the lead into the trails with the thought that he would get lost in the maze of Mt. Tam. Spitz, who was a good runner, but had no business winning the Mt. Tam Hill Climb, had no idea this plan had been concocted. So, racing along Tamalpais Avenue as if he would normally, Spitz looked around and realized he was leading the whole dang field. “Lo and behold,” he laughs when he talks about it today, “about a mile up, I was in the lead.” Soon enough, the rest of the field decided enough was enough and passed Spitz. Spitz didn’t care. It was amazing, he says.
For Spitz, it took a special kind of runner to get into the hill climb. “There are others like me, who do better going up than flat or down,” he says, “so we love this race.”
What Spitz was unaware of was how many more were like him outside of race day. He knew about Strava, but he didn’t know that the course up the mountain was a sought after course record on the app.
As of August 27, 855 Strava users had attempted the Mt. Tam Hill Climb segment a total of 5,039 times. In 2012, running in the Mt. Tam Hill Climb race on Labor Day, Galen Burrell, who told me he fell in love with trail running in the Bay Area, pulled away from the field along Tamalpais and Summit Ave and never looked back. He won the race in 33 minutes, 5 seconds, a full two minutes ahead of the second-place finisher. On Strava, however, he ran the Mt. Tam Hill Climb segment in 30 minutes, 58 seconds. He became the King of the Mountain thanks to the way his GPS tracked the run, and would stay in that spot for years. Not that his mark would go unchallenged.
In fact, Burrell was one of many runners who started a weekly run up “Tam,” as it’s known to locals. The run, the same as the race course, became common place for the group, which was, and remains, a who’s who of ultra and trail running. Each morning, a group that in 2012 included runners like Burrell, Dylan Bowman, Alex Varner, and Brett Rivers (all top 10-finishers at the Western States 100 in past years, although not all live in the Bay Area still), meets up for a summit of Mt. Tam. Their headlamps light the course in winter hours, and during the rainy season, the group sidesteps puddles and avoids slipping on muddy trails. It is rare that a record-scare would come out of it, but Burrell ran up Mt. Tam twenty-nine times in 2012.
Mario Fraioli was working for Competitor Magazine in 2014 when he wrote about the group that summited Tam weekly. Today, Fraioli is a coach and the creator of The Morning Shakeout, which includes a newsletter and a podcast. He lives in the Bay Area, and speaks highly of the Mt. Tam Hill Climb. “Anyone who has lived or trained in this area has given it a shot,” he says. “It’s easy to know how you’ve stacked up against other people.”
Fraioli’s best time up Mt. Tam is 38 minutes, 57 seconds, according to his Strava profile. He ran the time at the Mt. Tam Hill Climb in 2016, a year when Levi Miller blazed away from the field early on and never looked back, running 31 minutes, 12 seconds on his G.P.S. watch, to give Burrell’s K.O.M. record a scare.
In the official results, Miller’s time, just like Burrell’s, was slower than his Strava recording—although it wasn’t quite as drastic of a difference. He was listed as running 31 minutes, 31 seconds in the results.
(That 2016 race was a fast year, YiOu Wang set the women’s segment record that year in 38 minutes, 30 seconds. The women’s segment does not have the same cache as the men’s, according to Fraioli. He can’t explain why, but he compares it to the men’s mile getting all the attention while the women’s race doesn’t have the allure. About 400 more men have run the segment on Strava than women, and this story is not helping that narrative.)
“There is an interesting cultural divide between race and Strava time,” Miller says. “The Strava segments for the Mt. Tam Hill Climb don’t always add up. Sometimes G.P.S.’s get a little bit wonky and you actually have to go in and look at the full running time from town to the top to see where the best times are.”
Some people I spoke with hinted that Miller’s time was viewed as the actual course record, but per Strava, Burrell remained in the top spot. Wonky or not, the G.P.S. tracker is often the trusted result. “Strava is so ubiquitous here,” Fraioli says. “There would be a lot of scrutiny if you ran it and didn’t have a file for it. For better or worse, Strava is kind of a central player now in the whole Mt. Tam Hill Climb.”
In 2017, there would be one more player in the Mt. Tam Hill Climb: An outsider.
The cruelest part has to be that, like the rest of the course, the single-track trail that hosts the second half of the Mt. Tam Hill Climb is an even-more dizzying mess of footing, switchbacks, and incline.
As if the first half of the run has not been hard enough, not only does the runner have to go off road, he or she also has to tackle a steeper climb while making turns that are more than 90 degrees. The trail’s footing is not necessarily bad, but at points, there is a rut so deep, that the runner must leap from side to side like a steeplechaser in order to avoid getting stuck.
Like the rest of the run, there is no reprief. The trail twists and turns up the mountain like a scribble on a seismograph. Somehow, from 1.5 to 3.2 miles the course climbs and climbs and climbs. Then, with less than 100 meters to go to the top and the finish, there is one more awful, cruel climb to go.
As of mid-afternoon on May 25, 2017, Galen Burell’s time of 30 minutes, 58 seconds from his 2012 Mt. Tam Hill Climb Race win sat atop the Strava segment leaderboard (with Miller’s 31 minutes, 12 seconds remaining second).
At 2:23 p.m. that day, Jim Walmsley, the runner who owns the K.O.M. title on the climb out of the Grand Canyon and who is one of the best ultrarunners in the sport’s history, ran up Mt. Tam. He was in Reno for some Western States training runs and drove four hours to Mill Valley to run this segment he had heard a lot about from his trail running friends in the Bay Area. “I’m not sure why I cared about it so much,” Walmsley says looking back on it. “But I have a pretty good relationship with those guys in the area, and I thought it would be a little bit of a laugh to go get it.”
Walmsley is a sort of expert when it comes to Strava segments. As of late August, he was the owner of over 700 K.O.M.s or C.R.s on the app. He spoke to me about climbs and segments all over the world and what V.A.M. meant (it stands for Vertical Ascent in Meters and measures your vertical ascent in meters per hour—it measures how quickly you are traveling upward). He said he gets emails almost daily about losing some random segment he did not even know he had. He knows the important ones, though, and Mt. Tam was one of them.
Walmsley was in the midst of a 140-mile week where he climbed a total of 27,603 feet, when he took off that May afternoon. He did so slowly, by his standards. He had run the course maybe once before, but on this run he paid close attention as he ran, watching the turns he could not miss and minding the switchbacks. In the original days of the Mt. Tam Hill Climb, it did not matter which course you ran, but when it came to Strava—which was the reason Walmsley was there—he had to stay on course. Walmlsey finished the segment in 47 minutes, 28 seconds. It was an unremarkable time, especially for someone as accomplished as Walmsley. But then he ran back down the mountain, retracing his steps and re-examining the route. When he finished his run and uploaded it to Strava, he wrote: “Lining it up in the crosshairs 😏.”
Walmsley was planning to go after the Mt. Tam segment record. About thirty minutes after finishing his ascent and descent of Mt. Tam, Walmsley was at it again—this time, in earnest.
At 4:40 p.m., Walmsley took off from Mill Valley once more. It was a perfect day to run. Clouds filled the sky and it was 66 degrees when he began his assault on the course. He bombed up the staircase and onto Tamalpais Ave. Then careened off Summit Ave onto the Tamelpa Trail. At that point, he was behind Miller’s pace. Racing virtually, Walmsley needed to pick up the pace. That’s when his trail racing skills took over.
Walmsley simply decimated the final half of the run. Over a nearly 1.3-mile stretch from 1.8 to 3.1 miles, Walmsley put 47 seconds between himself and Miller, and he gained 53 seconds on Burrell’s split. That was enough to do it.
“You go for a F.K.T. when you’re feeling good,” Walmsley says. “It’s not a race, it doesn’t pay the bills. You just kind of find yourself in an area where you’re in pretty good shape. And I know they hold a race every year, but it’s going to be pretty rare it fits my schedule.”
Walmsley maneuvered the final two-tenths of a mile and summitted Mt. Tam in 30 minutes, 38 seconds. A new K.O.M. was crowned. Then, he ran down the mountain, got in his car and drove four hours back to Reno.
Soon, word started to spread on Strava that there was a new segment record on Tam. It was a bittersweet day for the Mt. Tam regulars, who saw an unreal record on their phones. Sure, they appreciated what Walmsley had just done and were in awe of the run, but they couldn’t believe he just came in and swiped the record from them without warning. It was like Walmsley robbed a bank without anyone knowing he had been in the safe.
The cruelest part has to be the end. And this is not hyperbole. The rest of the Mt. Tam Hill Climb is a joke compared to the last one-hundred-or-so yards, for those yards are the El Capitan running—and you do have to free solo it. One is no longer running when they reach the end of the segment. The final climb is a scramble up what is essentially a rock face.
The runner is no longer running when they reach this stretch of the trail. He or she is on all fours, and they are climbing. It is steep. It is slippery. It forces the runner’s already too-high heart rate even higher. One wrong step and a fall could send the runner tumbling. The fact that it comes at the end, after all the other impossibles, only makes it that much more difficult.
But the runner climbs and climbs as the lactic acid spreads from the legs to the arms and everywhere else in the body, and then they finally reach the top.
The whole Mt. Tam Hill Climb is cruel, but the ending is torture.
There are still weekly runs up Mt. Tam, only the group often meets on Tuesdays now—Tam Tuesdays, as they call it. A group of runners meets at 6 a.m. at the Book Depot in the heart of Mill Valley to summit the highest peak in Marin County. On special occasions, someone decides to give the climb an earnest go.
On Sunday, August 11, Paddy O’Leary sent an email to a San Francisco Running Company email list letting everyone know: They were giving the Hill Climb a go on the 14th. “Maybe we can give Jim’s time a shot,” O’Leary wrote, “or maybe can all get a P.R., or just have fun with a crowd on the mountain. I haven’t P.R.’ed there since 2016, so hoping this is the day.” Patrick Parsel and Mike Sunseri, both well-regarded trail runners, were coming down from Tahoe to run Mt. Tam for the first time, and O’Leary was happy to lead a charge up the mountain.
And that was his plan, even if it meant he wasn’t going to win.
On the morning of August 14, about fifteen runners met at the base of the climb. O’Leary grew up in Ireland and currently lives in the Bay Area, working at the University of California, San Francisco in cancer biology research. He and his running buddies had this audacious goal of running under 30 minutes on the course—and they filmed a #Breaking30 spoof of the Nike Sub-2-Hour Marathon marketing campaign (the video is not finished yet). To reach that goal, they were going to need to get out quickly.
So, O’Leary pushed the pace from the start. Up the hills and through the roads, he led. To his surprise, he began gapping the field along Tamalpais and Summit Ave. “My plan was to go hard on the road,” he says, “and try to slingshot them to a fast, sub-30 time.”
Then when he entered the trail with a lead, he knew he had a good one going, but wanted company. “Come on, lads,” he yelled, “when are you getting up here?”
Eventually, Parsel bridged the gap. But in the switchbacks of the last half mile, O’Leary was able to hold him off. Both fervently climbed the final scramble, itching to gain a second or two in the last stretch. O’Leary got to the door first, finishing in 32 minutes, 26 seconds. Parsel finished second, about 15 seconds back.
It wasn’t until they synced their watches to Strava that they saw their times on the segment. O’Leary was clocked in at 31 minutes, 59 seconds. Not Sub-30, but the fourth fastest time in segment history. Parsel was 13 seconds back. In all, O’Leary, Parsel, Greg Krathwohl, and Mike Sunseri clocked top-10 segment times.
But Walmsley’s record survived another day—the segment was still topped by an out-of-towner.
O’Leary wants to bring it back to someone with roots in the area. “We wanted to do this fun Breaking 30 thing to use the power of the group,” he says. “It’s something we’ll continue to do until we get that record below 30 minutes.”
Levi Miller, who could not make August 14 attempt at the record told me he’d love to get in shape to give Walmsley’s time another shot, but, like O’Leary, he wanted to do it with a group. He hinted that he would love to do it on Labor Day at the Hill Climb one year soon. “You can bridge history,” Miller says of Strava segments, “but the negative is that it often doesn’t encourage racing.”
Miller wishes he would have had a chance to challenge Walmsley on the day he ran 30 minutes, 38 seconds. “Not to take anything away from Jim’s performance that day, but sometimes Strava segments can lead to people going out and shredding on their own instead of lining up man to man, woman to woman, to try to take down a time.”
He also issued a challenge: “The trail community of Marin would be delighted to have people come in from out of town, and line up for a head-to-head race from the depot to the door on top of Mt. Tam.”
Walmsley is currently training for the 2020 Olympic Trials Marathon. When I told him that some challenges had been issued, he wasn’t opposed to a race, he simply didn’t know when he would be able to do it. But as he spoke about his training for the marathon, and how he’s doing more focused work on power and speed compared to the miles and hours he puts in for ultra-racing, he warmed up to the idea of going back to Mt. Tam. “Dabbling back in structured workouts and probably some faster hill climbing stuff,” Walmsley says, “I could get out there, and trying to break 30 minutes could be good.”
Whether Mt. Tam hosts a race or not, the segment leaderboard will not remain unchanged for long.
The most wonderful part is when it is over. When the runner has reached the summit of Mt. Tam, the view is enchanting. To the north is more of Marin County and wine country off in the distance. The runner can see blues and greens every way they look on a clear day. When the fog has burned away, San Francisco is to the south, its skyline visible on certain days.
In a 1964 National Geographic article, the climber Barry Bishop wrote that, after summitting Mt. Everest in 1963, he wept like a baby. There was a joy, and a “relief that the long torture of the climb” had ended. While it is no Everest, climbing Mt. Tam is its own special endeavor. Reaching the top is a joy and a relief. Which is why it’s so revered in the Bay Area, and why, sometimes, an out-of-towner comes in to test his or her mettle.
“Suffering brings people together,” O’Leary says. “Being up on top of Mt. Tam on a Wednesday morning before sunrise, looking down on everyone asleep below you—possibly below the fog—it’s really cool to be up above all of San Francisco.”
At its core, the point of the Mt. Tam Hill Climb is to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible. And depending on who you ask, Jim Walmsley might not actually be the record holder Strava thinks he is.
When I speak with Barry Spitz, Mt. Tam’s historian, about the route up to the peak, he immediately brings up the F.K.T. “You have to mention the record,” he says, “because it is amazing.” I can hear him flipping through a pile of papers as he keeps speaking, pausing between words.
“The guy has died,” Spitz says. “Tom Borschel, B-O-R-S-C-H-E-L, and I have his record somewhere here.” He goes silent for a moment before starting again. “It’s never going to be broken,” he says, “because you can’t take the shortcuts that he was able to take. It’s possible maybe, but there’s no reason a world-class Kenyan would come here.”
I try to interrupt to tell him how fast Walmsley had run up the course, but then Spitz is telling me about the course, and how the Dipsea Race has the same starting line and that the steepest trail to the top of the mountain is the Tamelpa trail, and it was built in the 1850s or 60s.
And then the course record bounces back into his mind. It was 1988, he thinks. “Borschel ran 30 minutes,” Spitz says, “and the exact seconds…” he trails off. “Hmm…”
Then I tell him Walmsley—not a Kenyan, but a world-class athlete—ran 30 minutes, 38 seconds in 2017, according to Strava.
“Wow,” Spitz says and lets out a sigh. “What an incredible time.”
Then, the papers stop rustling and it’s clear he has found the entry in his records he is looking for.
“It was 1987,” he says, correcting his earlier guess. “Tom Borschel, 30 minutes, 32 seconds.”
Borschel, who Spitz says was one of the best hill runners he has ever seen, died in 2011 at the age of 54 after a battle with A.L.S. In his obituary, the 30 minutes, 32 seconds it took him to climb Mt. Tam in 1987 was listed as one of his favorite accomplishments. He also returned from his new home in Idaho in 2007 to run on the twentieth anniversary of his record run. At 49, he ran an astonishing 34 minutes flat and took second to Burrell, who won that year in a blazing in 31 minutes, 52 seconds.
It is the 30 minutes, 32 seconds that stand out, however. Sure, the course may have been shorter. Sure, there is no record of the time on Strava. Borschel is not the K.O.M. of Tam on the Internet.
But he is in Barry Spitz’s history of Mt. Tam.
It is likely that both Walmsley’s and Borschel’s records will be broken one day. Maybe it will be Miller, or maybe O’Leary will dip under 30 minutes. Maybe Walmsley will head back once more to lower his own mark, even in a race against Marin County’s finest.
And the new record will be on Strava for all to see. Nowadays, if it is not, as Fraioli jokes, it might as well not count. But Strava segments are about more than the leaderboard. Users make segments on courses they run often—on courses that mean something to them. Which is why one like the Mt. Tam Hill Climb matters to so many runners—many consider it their course. But there is always more to a course than a record time or a personal best.
Segments show a history, but they don’t capture the entire story.