San Francisco XC

Photo credit: Sarah Pemberton. Artwork credit: Grace Sim (

Sun and no mud....surely this isn’t cross-country? Sarah finds that at least there is beer afterwards.

In November I was visiting Katie Williams, a former Serpie, in San Francisco who suggested I join her in a cross-country race. In true Serpie style, I jumped at the chance to race on holiday. The John Lawson Tamalpa Challenge is part of the Pacific Association’s XC Grand Prix series that Katie’s club competes in (similar to the Met League) but is also open to anyone, so I was able to enter as Serpentine.

As a regular cross-country competitor/nerd I was interested in the differences between cross-country in the UK and California. I should start off by saying that I’ve not run cross-country races elsewhere in the US, so I won’t assume that XC California-style is the same as the rest of the US.

The race took place in China Camp State Park, a short drive from San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge – a slightly more exciting journey than the Central line to Perivale. I was surprised to learn that the cross-country season is considerably earlier in the US, running from around late August to early December, rather than the October-March season in the UK. Why anyone would want to miss racing in a vest and shorts around a field in January and February is beyond me!

At November’s race, men and women ran the same 4.25 mile route. The women’s race started at 9am, the men’s masters race started at 10am and the men’s open race was at 11am. The fields were smaller than the Met League with 146 women and 183 men finishing in their respective races.

As we lined up the rest of the field huddled in their clubs, while I had the unusual experience of being the only red-and-yellow runner on the start line. The race started and the women tore up the stony track – it was a fast race. After an initial section on a wider track, the course quickly narrowed down and stayed that way for the rest of the race, which made it difficult to pass people (I obviously would have passed plenty if only the course had been wider).

At this stage I should mention the biggest difference between cross-country in California and the UK: where is the mud? There was no need for an in depth discussion before the start of the race about what length spikes to use. I would describe conditions underfoot as a pleasant summer trail race. While the course lacked mud it was very scenic, winding its way through trees and out onto an exposed rocky path with views of the bay. But obviously it hasn’t got anything on Wormwood Scrubs!

The race had an entry fee, but in return each competitor received a beer mug. There were also bagels and plenty of beer to go in the mug. The relatively early race start meant people headed on to the rest of their day rather than the pub, but sitting on the grass in the sunshine, eating my bagel and drinking my beer (at 10.30am), I didn’t really care.

Sarah Pemberton has been a member of Serpentine since 2012. She is currently one of the coaches at the club’s Tuesday night track sessions at Paddington.

Grace Sim did the illustration for this article. Go and have a look round her website (link below).