"A blank spot on the map is an invitation to encounter the natural world, where one's character will be shaped by the landscape. To enter wilderness is to court risk, and risk favors the senses, enabling one to live well.

...The time had come to protest with the heart, that to deny one's genealogy with the earth was to commit treason against one's soul."

-Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Framing the Heart of the Bay

"'Cause I've already suffered much, I want you to know,"

                            -Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, Up from Below

    This is how it started, how Animal Athletics came to be.   

    I lived on 54th St. in Oakland the summer of 2005, fresh off a painful break up, drowning my post-college confusions and lonely melancholy in prolific art making.  The house on 54th St. hummed with creative energy, filled to capacity with the love of and need for creative expression.  Sweet music was birthed from the front room nearly round the clock, the air thick with soul and ripe with skill.  The room often overflowed with friends and neighbors, free-styles abounding, or funk or jazz or reggae resounding.  I roasted raw, green coffee beans in a frying pan on the range top in the morning, bought from the Ethiopian/Eritrean corner store down the block, then sat and drank coffee hour after hour, learning to play the drum set.  I relished the streets, the people, skateboarding the black top, broken glass shining like ice in the California sun.

(Joe Chambers, Luana Coonen, Anthony Bianco, Drew Bennett, and the founder of 54th St., Arlen Ginsburg, are some of the artists and musicians who inspired me greatly that summer and continue to do so today.  Check them out!)

    Needless to say, I was unemployed that summer.

North Oakland
Our old liquor store, 54th and MLK

    That summer was greatly cathartic and renewed my love of artistic endeavors, inspiring me to go further and make more, but something was missing.  It has been clear for a long time that I need a physical outlet, an activity to challenge and test both mind and body.  I have climbed since I was young and have explored that magnificent thrill over the past 18 years, but I had an accident that changed my relationship with the activity.  Priorities were shifted, risk reassessed, and my perspectives changed.  I still loved climbing but needed to be able to push hard and go as big as I could possibly go in an arena that was a touch less lethal than the vertical world.  So I began running. 

    I finally found a job in late August as my money was running out.  I moved to the Mission in San Francisco, as my room on 54th St. was only a sublet, and ironically had to start commuting back to the east bay for my new job with the after school program at the Kensington School.  The school's location was stunning, situated directly on the ridge top of the east bay hills, with the school yard facing west, looking over Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco, and the other towns and cities receding into the distance.  The ocean shone and water gleamed all around, with the Bay Bridge, the Richmond Bridge and the Golden Gate, and the smooth silhouetted curves of the Marin Headlands on to Mt. Tamalpias, framing the heart of the Bay.  The back, east side of the school's property, directly abutted Wildcat Canyon and Tilden Regional Parks.  The park land is local trail running heaven, and reassuringly wild; I was told that a mountain lion once approached the back fence of the school licking its chops and eyeing the small prey, as the kindergarteners played innocently by the sand box and four square.  Recess ended immediately.
     Every afternoon we would take the kids to the yard and play games and run around into the early evening, seeing sun set as Red tailed hawks rode the winds above us, hunted and made short, piercing calls, effortlessly navigating gusts among the tall and blowing pines.  The air made music through the needles as I tried, evening after evening, to get the kids to look and appreciate the jaw-dropping vista that lay before them every day. 

The view from the ridge top

    Then, one day, Tony returned.  I didn't know who he was and I was suspicious, seeing him waltz in like he owned the place.  I was still settling in, trying to win the kids over and get on their good sides, trying to seem cool, when in walks this tan muscle-man, long blond hair flowing beneath a crisp SF Giants hat cocked deliberately to the side, and they all go crazy.

    "Tony! Tony!" the kids screamed, circling around him.  They were just so thrilled, adults and teachers too.  This guy looks lame, I thought, what'd he do to get so popular?  I forced a smile and tried to act cordial while holding my territory by the snack trays and juice cups; I'm in charge of snack time now, buddy, so just back off, you've had your day.  He had worked there before, I soon learned, and was visiting after returning from a trip to South America.  He was back to his hometown of Berkeley and figuring out what to do next.  Eventually he came to work at the school again and we soon became close friends.  We shared a love of being active, being outside, pushing ourselves, and going hard, and we are both crazy; so, of course, it snowballed from there.
    Our first adventures together were all day, exhausting affairs beginning at my apartment in San Francisco.  We would get up early and bike the dark and empty streets from 24th and Capp, cruising sleepily over the remains of the night, past bars recently packed, dance floors recently bumping.  Out of the Mission and the murals, we'd roll on through SOMA to the Embarcadero by the Bay Bridge, and along the water, past the Marina and Crissy Field, finally gazing up at the beautiful Golden Gate still set in winter morning darkness.  Once we crossed the bridge (~15 miles from my apartment,) we'd lock the bikes and start running.  We'd reach the top of Mt. Tamalpais after ~16 miles of trail, boulder around on the rocks on the summit, soaking in the sun and the views of a city now dwarfed by nature, made miniscule by distance.  Then, of course, we had to go all the way back to the Mission, now a tiny buoy in the vast ocean of land and water, impossibly far away from our throne-like perch on top.  These death marches were our first real endurance running events, although we weren't focused on the running aspect yet and inexperienced at it anyway.  We were just thrilled with the idea of going long and pushing ourselves hard, seeing what we could take.  Covering land, moving over terrain, being an animal, suffering; the good stuff.

The Golden Gate with Mt. Tamalpais beyond

San Francisco dwarfed by Nature, made miniscule by distance

    We finally made it to the Mission, exhausted and happy.  Back at school, in the evenings as the sun set gracefully in the western sky, we could now point dramatically at the clear route laid out before the kids and say "We biked and ran from there to all the way over there, and back!"  They seemed fairly impressed, for about a minute. 

    The snowball rolled on and Tony and I went on more and bigger adventures together.  I taught him how to climb and, of course, threw him right in the deep end as I tend to do sometimes with less-experienced but highly motivated and bull-headed friends.  Luckily Tony handled it, every time.  We climbed glaciers and peaks and suffered heartily in the North Cascades, bushwhacking through the Luna Creek Cirque in the Northern Picket Range after climbing Mt. Challenger.  We snowshoed in and climbed Mt. Lassen in winter, sleeping huddled beside one another in the snow cave we'd dug.  I dragged Tony up the hair-raising North Arete of Mt. Banner (5.7), belaying the wide-eyed Berkeley kid on dead vertical, loose climbing on a nearly 13,000 ft. peak, hundreds of feet above snowy chutes, steep couloirs jetting downward.  We chose our own route up Fin Dome in Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park, one of Tony's first technical climbs, climbing a stout 4-pitch 5.8 to the fang-like summit, buzzing with the altitude and sublimity.  I watched with sick satisfaction, belaying from above, as the novice climber grunted and struggled up the awkward wide crack at almost 12,000 ft.  We did a 50 mile out and back in the Yosemite back country, relative rookies, testing the distance, not able to run it for real but loving it regardless.  We did a 60+ mile day there too (after we aborted an ~80 mile loop in the dark of night and backtracked and rerouted down to Yosemite Valley), rookies still.  We ended up in fetal position for warmth, trying wretchedly to get some sleep trail side in the early hours before dawn.  A friend of mine dropped us at Point Reyes once, at Bear Valley in the middle of the night, and we ran back to San Francisco from there on trail, 50+ miles worth, the Golden Gate a grand finish to a stunning day.  Two days later we got a small group together (an informal Animal Athletics event, complete with the best homemade organic energy food around) and ran the 18 miles from San Francisco, through glorious hills on wonderful trails, to Stinson Beach.  There the ocean, friends, food, beer, and a ride were waiting patiently.  We started running races, road marathons, then ultras, laughing and making animal calls while other runners gave strange looks.  Fine days those were; many more to come.

Fin Dome
Mt. Banner, the North Arete follows the right skyline
Mt. Challenger (left most summit) and the Challenger Glacier

    Along the way we've slowly defined what Animal Athletics is and what drives us to do what we do.  Honoring nature and humbling ourselves to it is a integral part of our philosophy (see Under a Giant Sky).  Wanting to be an animal, to be animal-like in the outdoors, also lies at the heart of it.  And so, one day, wanting to find a fitting title for our 2 person freak show, the name Animal Athletics was thought up and its ring resonated with our primitive desires, like feet striking trail without thought. We can be a bit unorthodox, seemingly reckless in the scale of our undertakings, peculiar in training style and so on, but these things matter not.  It is the love that is paramount and, let there be no mistake, Animal Athletics has the love.  The joy.  The child-like wonder.  The giddy and disturbing need to do something like run 50 or 100 miles, dropping Biggie Smalls lyrics between hawk calls, dancing down single track in the mountains.

    Life has been taking Tony and I in different directions lately but Animal Athletics remains, like the wind, gusting through our lives.  It is a devotion to passionate action, a drive for truth and beauty, and re-unity with the ties we've broken; it is a commitment to love. 
    So please, join us.  All are welcome.

Please enjoy this week's music video:


  1. this has been most wonderful and enlightening to read.

  2. What a great story, Willie! I would like to see a photo of you and Tony on one of your adventures. Keep it up (safely). We are proud of you. (Bill on Julia's acct.)

  3. every word left a smile on my face, and the intro made my heart warm. now it's time to join in.