Du the Three Bears


l Sobrante is a quiet, semi-rural town nestled in the northeast foothills of the San Francisco Bay Area near Berkeley. The Spanish phrase “El Sobrante” translates to “leftover” or “extra” in English. I’m assuming that the area’s vast surplus of hills played a major role in its naming scheme...

I signed up for the "DU the Three Bears Duathlon" to get ready for a couple of triathlons I had planned for February and March. Since I hadn’t raced all winter, I thought this would be the perfect race to kick off the season.

At first glance, it seemed like a relatively laid-back race – a 2.4 mile run, a 19-mile bike ride, and a 2.2 mile run. I noticed that the website for the event had some interesting commentary on the various hills along the bike route. But heck, this duathlon was named after a fairy tale. How tough could the hills be, really?

I should have known better. The “three bears” were namesakes of three distinct hills: Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and Baby Bear. Actually, there were many, many other hills along the route. But apparently these three hills were the most bear-like of them all.

Undaunted by the bears, err… I mean hills, I got up early on the morning of February 11th, packed up my bike and running gear, and left Morgan Hill at about 6:15 AM. An hour-and-a-half later, I arrived at San Pablo Reservoir in El Sobrante.


The parking lot at the reservoir was nearly empty when I arrived. No bears in sight – yet. I unpacked my gear in the transition area, and jogged and stretched for a while. It had been raining most of the night. The air was clean and refreshing -- tinted with the sweet aroma of a nearby grove of eucalyptus trees. Although San Pablo Reservoir is only a few miles from Oakland and San Francisco, it is quiet, peaceful, and tranquil – nearly desolate. It felt like I was hundreds of miles from civilization.

The first leg of the duathlon is an out-and-back 2.4 mile run. The course initially loops around a parking lot, then heads down a steep hill and follows a road bordering the reservoir. The road turns into a dirt path for a while and then becomes asphalt again as it crosses over the reservoir dam to the turn-around spot.

I was cautious for the first part of the run, especially with the steep initial downhill. But on the way back, I was in no danger of going too fast – that last hill back up to the transition area was especially tough! The bears were no longer hibernating. They were up bright and early!

Next came the bike ride. It started off easy. The first two miles were mostly downhill. But what goes down, must come back up – isn’t that how it goes? Anyways, the entire race was infused with hills, hills, and more hills. There might have been a flat spot somewhere, but I didn’t notice. Here’s a sample…


I tried to focus on the stunning beauty of the area, and take the hills in stride. But it wasn’t easy. I kept wondering, “which bear am I riding up now??

As it turns out, I didn’t approach Mama Bear – the first of the official “three bears” hills – until about mile 10 of the bike route. Here’s a birds-eye view of the bike course (the route starts at the green marker, and goes in a clock-wise direction)…


And here are the elevation readings from my Garmin watch…


Mama Bear was not nice. She was steep, surly, and relentless. There was nothing “just right” about her, at all…


Next came Papa Bear. He was not very friendly either – at least going up. But he was a blast on the ride down. I hit 42.3 MPH on the downhill side of Papa Bear!

By the time I came to Baby Bear at about the 14-mile marker, I was ready for a nap. But unlike Goldilocks, I couldn’t find a bed anywhere. So I just kept riding and riding and riding. I eventually made it back to the parking lot / transition area. I had survived the bike ride.


But there was still another 2.2 mile run remaining. Once again, I had to run down the same steep hill to the reservoir, across the dam, and back again. Whew! By this point, I felt like I was carrying three or four bears on my back. The last uphill 100 yards to the finish line was vicious. But I finished -- alas, the bears were finally hibernating again…

As usual, the competition in my age group division was just as brutal as the course. I had what I consider a decent race – I finished in 1 hour 47 minutes. But I was 6th out of 7 in my age group, and 26th overall.

I was undaunted, however. I had come to El Sobrante in search of fun and adventure – and to face the three bears.

And when I got home, I had a good story to tell.

After a well-deserved nap, of course.


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