Saturday Morning History
Originally published in the Tamalpa Gazette in January, 1996.
There’s a bit of Marin running history (and thereby Tamalpa history) that is ripe to be told, and I guess it’s up to me to tell it. It’s about the venerable Saturday Morning Run at Mountain Home (we’ll call it the SMR to save space) — a tradition that stretches back to those days of prehistory, before written records were kept and before Tamalpa Runners was founded.
The SMR is a group run that takes place every Saturday morning at 9:00 a.m., year round. The meeting place is the parking lot across the street from the Mountain Home Inn on Panoramic Highway in Mill Valley. It’s not a Tamalpa event and never has been one. Since it predates the club yet is still going strong, somehow it came to have a life and style of its own. Part of its style is that there is no organization, no real leader, and no plan. Runners simply gather and chat, and somewhere around 9:05, someone says, “Let’s get going!” and the pack moves out. Sometimes with a plan or destination in mind, sometimes not. If there’s no plan the pack may stay together or splinter, who knows? Most of the runners there know their way around the Mountain and know about how far they want to go, and can pick out a route to suit. Those who don’t know can ask. In fact, they must ask if they want to know where everyone’s going or when they should turn back, because most often there’s no leader to make announcements, coordinate the route, or look out for stragglers (unless someone happens to appoint him or herself leader for the day).
Obviously this style doesn’t work well for everyone. For the timid, for the novice, for those who aren’t used to hills, it’s not the best place to start. Those runners should try the (official) Tamalpa Group Fun Runs instead, which do have leaders who make sure no one gets lost.
But for those hardier folks who are comfortable “going with the flow”, the SMR is tops. Some reasons: It’s always there, week after week, year after year — there’s remarkable continuity. The number and variety of routes possible starting from Mountain Home is huge. It’s a great way to learn the trails. It’s popular — the turnout varies from a minimum of about 12 to as many as 50. It’s anarchic — everyone is responsible for him or herself and can do what they please without explanation.
I’m a veteran of 15 years of SMR’s. That qualifies me as one of the older oldtimers (though not the oldest by any means). I’ve seen it through some ups and downs. Lately, the SMR has seemed to be on a strong rebound. As I write this in mid-January, 1996, the past Saturday saw over 40 runners. There was a nice mix of familiar faces and as-yet unfamiliar ones.
I’ve found the SMR to be a great place for meeting people. This happens in a way that just suits me to a T (I’m a bit reserved about meeting new people and I like to ease into it.) Actually, I think I’ve made more friends this way than any other way. Here’s how it works for me: As new people appear, the first month or two I don’t really know them but their faces are beginning to look familiar. Eventually I pick up on their first name (names take a while to sink in through my thick skull). In another month I’ve chatted with them several times and maybe we mention our last names. By this time we have seen each other enough that we have some idea if we like each other. If we do, we’ll talk some more and maybe by the time 4 to 6 months have gone by, we might get around to discussing what we do for a living and all those other status-positioning things that in any other context would come up on the very first meeting. But unlike the cocktail party acquaintances, you have already got a bond of common interest and common experience with the people you meet at the SMR. You know whether you DO like them before you find out whether you’re SUPPOSED to like them! And that’s the way it oughta be.
The SMR originated way back in the late ’60’s. Or was it 1970? No one remembers for sure. The founding fathers were Don Pickett and Byron Lowry, a pair who had finished in first place and with the fastest time, respectively, in the 1968 Dipsea. It was born of a desire to better train for future Dipseas by running more on “The Mountain,” then pretty much the exclusive domain of the Sierra Club and other hiking groups. Within a year or two, the nascent SMR had grown to include George Conlan, Hans Roenau, and Armand Castro as regulars. Of those pioneers, Pickett and Roenau are still active in Tamalpa and still make occasional SMR appearances. Other runners who became active as the ‘70’s wore on were Arnold Knepfer, Karl Marshall, Bruce Carradine, Tom Vaughan, Bob Biancalana, and the late Jim Farren, for whom a portion of the Dipsea Trail is named. But co-founder Lowry was always the leader, leading the group in exploring a new trail each week.
If the SMR pioneers had a club affiliation, it was the Marin Athletic Club. Tamalpa Runners wasn’t started until 1976 (see the masthead on page 1 where it says “Volume XX”? This is your 20th anniversary, pal!) In the early days the run was fast. It was an all-men’s club, and it often turned into a head-banging race in the latter miles. However, there always were periodic stops to wait for the slowest runner. This sometimes became a source of bemusement when a visiting celebrity runner would drop by. For example, Pickett recalls Olympian marathoner and Sports Illustrated writer Kenny Moore being surprised at a sudden stop on a ten mile loop. When Pickett and Lowry explained why, Moore shrugged and said, “I’m just not used to it.” Other running royalty who joined in the SMR while on Bay Area visits included Jack Foster, the Kiwi who then held the world masters marathon record, and George Sheehan, the “running philosopher.”
The SMR group grew along with the “running boom.” First Bruce Degen, Bob McLennan, and Russ Kiernan began participating, with Degen often setting a blazing pace. Then Roger Gordon, Ron Rahmer, Mike MacKenzie, George Frazier, and Keith Hastings started to come every week. It was hard to get lost with the latter two in the group. You would just pick up your ears and listen for the sound of raconteurs Frazier and Hastings swapping stories and tall tales. The SMR was developing a social side.
In the late ’70’s women became part of the SMR. Pickett recalled that the very first one was an early ultrarunner named Natalie Cullimore, who, despite having completed a 100 mile race, lasted only one week with the guys. Barbara Call (then known as Barbara Magid), recruited by Hans Roenau from a 1977 San Francisco group run, became the first regular. In the late 70’s Barbara was usually the first woman in the Dipsea. By the end of the decade, there were a dozen or so women running regularly: First the “Five Redheads”: Barbara, Jenny Maxwell (née Biddulph, Barbara’s teenage daughter), Susan Trott, Ann Neeley, and Claudia Shenefield. Then came four of the Bay Area’s top women racers: Dana Hooper, Margaret Livingston, Andrea Eschen, and Florianne Harp, who at the time were entering every race around and burning up the roads.
I came along in late 1980, after meeting Kees Tuinzing, joining Tamalpa, and hearing the scuttlebutt about running on The Mountain. It was the time when the Trailside Killer was on the loose and new victims were being found monthly. Everyone was afraid. Fear forced a special organization on the group. The runs were like convoys, with everyone keeping together and male sweep runners checking for stragglers. I learned my way around the trails under those conditions. I still get a chill when I go by the spot on Matt Davis Trail where I once saw the orange spray-painted outline of a body.
Finally the killer was apprehended and locked up. For a time, the SMR reverted to its old ways, with a lead pack of hotshot guys hammering 10 to 15 miles every week. But now there were more slower runners and women. Brian Lowry left to take a job back east, and there was a new leader, Peter Eisenberg. Eisenberg was in charge by default, because he liked to hear himself talk and make decisions for the group, and no one else cared. Eisenberg, an oncologist, ushered in the era of the “running docs”. I remember Bill Dickerson, Vince Oronzi, Marty Albion, Wally Strauss, Knepfer, and Eisenberg, physicians all, trying to out-do each other in telling dirty jokes as they ran.
Eisenberg remained “leader” for several years, then dropped out when he got into local politics. Hans Roenau filled the void for awhile. Though his voice wasn’t as loud, Roenau could whistle very loudly. Various others have taken a turn, eventually it became clear the group can do just as well without a leader. On a recent Saturday I witnessed Ron Rahmer trying to lead, with mixed success. Half the people who followed him got lost, as usual. The other half had enough sense not to follow him.
A vital issue in SMR history was the question of who “owned” it. Was it the “property” of the founders, of the current crop of Saturday Morning runners, or of Marin’s only real running club, Tamalpa, to which the vast majority of the participants belonged? And depending on the answer was the corollary issue of who could know about it and be part of it. Was it a private party or a public service? I was President of Tamalpa from 1981 to 1986, and each year I would reiterate my feeling that regardless of how the SMR got to be what it was, the club should step in and adopt it by publicizing it in the Gazette. I felt it was too good a thing to be kept “secret” and known only through word of mouth. The secrecy made it very hard for newcomers and less active members to know where the real running action in Marin was. But each year, I would bring it up for a vote and each year the Board voted to keep it out of the Gazette. Talk about legislative gridlock. I’d hear arguments like: there are enough people already, there isn’t enough parking, and “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” In fact, the SMR didn’t make it into the Gazette until Jerry Leith became President much later. By that time, there was a different (less elitist) crew on the Tamalpa Board, and no one seemed to care so passionately any more. But even now, the little calendar item on the SMR contains disclaimers emphasizing its anarchic nature and unofficial status.
The SMR is not only a place to meet other runners, but a place to return to when you have been absent for a while. When a former SMR runner who has moved away from Marin happens to be in town for a visit, Mountain Home at 9:00 is the logical place to go to find old friends. F’rinstance, Bob Groff, a long-time Tamalpan who now lives in Iowa, showed up just a couple of weeks ago. Bert Botta, now of St. Louis, comes every couple of years. This past summer, 1979 Dipsea winner Don Chaffee, currently a Michigan resident, showed up on a Bay Area visit, and I had a wonderful run with him and Russ Kiernan, as the two old-timers recounted the ’79 Dipsea. It was one of the closest Dipseas ever, with Chaffee finishing first and Kiernan second, the two running head-to-head the whole way from the same starting group. The question came up as to whether Kiernan ever held the lead, and if so, where. Those two guys still don’t agree on what happened, after all these years! They should read Barry Spitz’s book.
One of my favorite SMR reunions came a few years ago. Bud Krogh, the convicted head of the notorious Plumbers of the Nixon re-election campaign, and, after rehabilitation, active Tamalpan in the late ’70’s, showed up on a visit from his current home in Seattle. Bud regaled the SMR crowd with untold tales of the White House, including the story of the day when Elvis Presley showed up, without an appointment, and demanded to see the President. (Nixon did see him, but first had to be briefed on who the so-called “King” was.)
For me, the SMR would never be complete without breakfast afterward. And throughout its history, THE place for the classic runners’ breakfast was the Mill Valley Coffee Shop. This unassuming cafe on the corner of Locust and Miller was the perfect spot because: It was convenient, located just at the bottom of the hill; it was less crowded, being outside downtown and less given to yuppified touches like parsley garnishes; and there were cute waitresses who were willing to put up with a wide range of noisy shenanigans and endless table rearrangements to accommodate crowds of sweaty runners that sometimes reached 20.
For a long time there was even a blown-up photo of about a dozen runners crammed around a table for four gracing the walls of the “Shop”. It’s not there any more, but I well remember the grinning countenances of Florianne Harp, Therese Jennings, Vince Oronzi, John Fischer, Barbara Magid and Peter Laskier, and of course, Mr. Personality, Peter Eisenberg at the center, beaming down from that wall.
And you know what? All this fun is still going on, every Saturday morning, 9 o’clock, at Mountain Home.