Gaye LeBaron: When running in Sonoma County was for its own sake

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In recent years, when I see runners on the road, crossing the bow of my Honda Civic, it probably means I have taken a wrong turn.

The Ironman Santa Rosa triathletes took to the roads Saturday. And if you had any silly notions about taking a drive to the north or west, you probably get my drift.

The week of preparations, the warnings about road closures, the huge tent in Old Courthouse Square were sure signs that Sonoma County is not only “Wine Country;” it is also one big 1,550-square-mile runners’ paradise.

We will see it all again in August when the Santa Rosa Marathon goes out and comes back to the same town center.

Running, for all intents and purposes, seems to have become a local industry.


But there was a time (you knew this was coming, didn’t you?) when running was just for fun and fitness, that’s all. That was when your panting, perspiring friends — your doctors and teachers, your husbands and wives, were as common a sight on our back roads and trails as the ever-present farmer on his tractor, heading home to the barn.

Russ Dieter reminded me that I miss those days when he sent along his remembrance called “Fun to Run” about the glory days of the 1970s when grown men and women discovered the rewards — sometimes known as “endorphins” — for hitting the road in skimpy shorts.

Dieter, a retired radiologist, was paying tribute to a unique bunch of runners who called themselves the Werewolves — and still do.

Forty years ago they were part of a local rush to run for fun and health that had captured the national imagination.

Most of them were original Empire Runners when that group was formed in 1975, and theirs were familiar faces on the trails at Spring Lake and Annadel and Howarth.

Once, on a whim, they ran around Spring Lake on the full moon. They liked it so much they ran the next time the moon was full and had a potluck dinner after. Now these men and women are into their ninth decade and still celebrating full moons, but just by eating, no more circling the lake in the dark.


This happy memory, however, set me thinking about that time of the “running boom,” when middle-aged men took up the sport and were soon joined by wives who were determined not to be left waiting at the finish line.

There were races for every occasion: Every festival and fair added a race to the event’s schedule.

The Fishermen’s Festival, The Harvest Fair, Santa Rosa Super Mile, Caledonian Run (from the years when the Scottish Games were at our county fairgrounds on Labor Day weekend), Apple Juice Run, Annadel Cross Country, The Great Calistoga Footrace at the Napa County Fair, The Sonoma Valley Road Race, the Lake Ilsanjo 10-Miler, the Annadel Loop.

There are a couple survivors that still draw runners of all size and age: the Human Race, raising thousands for charities, and Kenwood’s Fourth of July footrace.

One that came and went quickly but left its mark was the Ass-to-Ass Run, a short-lived but notable 13-mile run on Petaluma Hill Road between two taverns bearing the name Brass Ass — one in Santa Rosa, the other in Cotati. The Ass-to-Ass drew hundreds of runners and walkers — the fast guys at the front, the mothers pulling kids in wagons bringing up the rear, all joining in the after-party at the Cotati Plaza.

The name created a problem for the purists and for KSRO, the leading radio station, where management declined to allow THAT word to be spoken on the air. Instead the sponsors arranged ads for “The Bleep-to-Bleep Run” and captured even more fancies.


By the mid-70s, many of the Werewolves and Empire Runners were ready to think about what was then the ultimate test — a true marathon, 26 miles, 385 yards.

Thus began the annual early May trek to southern Humboldt County to take part in the Avenue of the Giants marathon, on a course through some of the world’s most beautiful redwood groves.

The memories of those weekends are fond and funny. They were whole-family adventures. Always a weekend campout, even in pouring rain.

The chosen campground was at Burlington, adjacent to the Humboldt Redwoods Visitors Center. A bluegrass trio called Buckingham Mountain School, imported at great expense from John Barleycorn’s Santa Rosa saloon, entertained around the campfire while the runners did some serious carb-loading the night before. At race time the musicians stationed themselves at a turnout on the Avenue to play for the runners as they passed.

Most of the participants came to enjoy a run in the redwoods and did not let any attempts to set records get in the way of the fun. Most trotted over the finish line somewhere under four hours and were pleased.

Scott Chilcott, a retired physician, ran in the second Avenue and many that followed. He recalls those Avenue weekends “as religiously significant as Christmas” in his family. “My kids were there. Son Gavin ran with me one year.”

Scott didn’t worry much about his time. “I was never very competitive,” he remembers. But he loved to run, a joy that ended for him when “my hip went out, but I stayed with cycling for 30 more years.” Now, going on 87, he swims five days a week.

Architect Craig Roland and physician Ken Howe were the speed runners in the group. Running together in ’79 they came in at 2 hours and 43 minutes — good enough to qualify for the prestigious Boston Marathon.


Those of us who came prepared to stand and wait, did so with water bottles, orange slices, maybe a cold beer at the finish line, whatever the preorder had been for handoffs to passing spouses, fathers or significant others as they ran by.

We also had a chance to see how other runners did it.

We witnessed a group of runners sharing a bottle of aspirin before the race began, which seemed puzzling. Others actually ran carrying half-quart cans of Bud and Coors. One runner, whom I described in the parlance of the ’70s as “a laid-back dude” stopped at mile 14 to take several long tokes from a lighted joint friends had handed him, then he grinned and eased on down the road.

One of the marathon “sights to see” that you could count on was what we referred to as the Cult of Pain — people hobbling from their cars to restaurants in Willits and Ukiah, stretching out their charley horses on the gas pumps in Laytonville.

One memorable sight at the race itself was a poor devil who had a leg cramp at the finish and literally carried his left leg across the line.


No discussion of the history of running in Sonoma County can conclude without a nod to Darryl Beardall, who remembers when running was a very lonely sport.

Darryl and his brother Alan were among the very first to hit the roads around Santa Rosa. In the late ’50s motorists would pass the two boys running along the roads and shake our heads in puzzlement, even joking about who might be chasing them.

But Darryl has added a new dimension to the term “persistence.” He is still running, 64 years later. His gait is not the same, but his spirit is.

He is 81 now, father of five, grandfather of five, retired from 37 years with the Northwestern Pacific Railroad. He talked to me this week about running in an Empire Runners’ event last weekend — using a walker because he has a temporary, he assures me, leg injury.

Darryl, who ran at Brigham Young University on a scholarship in the ’60s, has tallied his training miles at somewhere above 300,000 hours, which he claims as an unofficial record.

Not much stops him. When he was recovering from a partial hip replacement, he mastered the art of running with a walker, which has served him well.


Ken Howe, who spent lots of years raising funds for the YMCA here, has given the running years some thought, and recalled that one of the premises of the Y’s mission was that there are distinct social trends to be recognized; that interest groups have a birth, life and death cycle.

He talked about that in terms of that “running boom” of 40 years ago. The fun, the sport, has changed a lot, and become big business in some ways, as our ramped-up need for competition seems to call for more and more challenges.

Montecito Heights Health Club’s general manager, Catherine DuBay, in her mid-50s and active, is on the board of Empire Runners.

The club, she tells me, sponsors a run each month and is particularly interested in events encouraging young runners. But in this New Age the young adult generation seeks excitement, says DuBay. They want things like zombie runs and mud races. And triathlons. Run up Mount Whitney, try a 100-miler.

All this intensity makes our trip back to the adventures of the Avenue, to the campground in the redwoods, to the moonlit run around Spring Lake seem — well, maybe sweet’s the word.

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