Once again it’s another Monday, which means that once again I logged another long trail run over the weekend. Compared to the 22-miler from two weekends ago, this past weekend’s 12-mile trail run was comparatively short. But distance wasn’t the point of this particular run.
My trail runs usually involve known mileage. I plan a route—often up a peak and back, or around a predetermined trail loop—so I roughly know where I’m going and what I’m getting myself into. This past Saturday, however, I took a different approach.
My plan was to run at West Hills County Park on Long Island, New York. We were on the island for Kicking 4 Celiac’s inaugural Long Island Making Tracks for Celiacs 5k on Sunday (more on that in a blog post later this week), and I’d never run at West Hills before. I knew that it had hills (no surprise, given its name), including Jayne’s Hill—at a whopping 401 feet above sea level, it’s the highest point on Long Island—and an extensive trail network. That all sounded appealing. There was just one problem: I couldn’t find any maps of the place. I was, in a sense, going to be running blind.
And so I approached my Saturday morning trail run with two goals: a) run for a good while, and b) don’t get totally lost.
This was a very different way for me to run, but one that stayed true to another aspect of what I love about long-distance trail running. Last week I wrote about the appeal of rhythm and time; specifically, how ultra running involves the passage of long stretches of time, during which you can think or not think to your heart’s content, free of interruption. But another appeal of long-distance trail running for me is movement through space. There’s something about setting foot in the wilds, and then covering ground in that environment, that fundamentally feels good to me. Ultra-running is not about pure distance for me. If all I cared about was pure distance, I could go to the local high school track and run six trillion laps until I reached my desired distance. But that has zero appeal to me. It’s about the environment through which I move while covering that distance. And when you run without knowledge of where you’re going or how far you’re going—as I did at West Hills on Saturday—you become that much more aware of your passage through a landscape, I found.
I parked our car near Walt Whitman’s birthplace off the northeast corner of the park, then hit the trails. I started running south, clockwise along the eastern edge of the park, trying to hug the perimeter, figuring that’d be a good way to get the lay of the land and maximize the mileage of my first loop in and around the area.
Each time I came to a fork in the trail, I’d take the left fork. That strategy worked well enough until one of those trails led me out of the park. I back-tracked to the last junction and took the other fork. This sequence of events repeated several times. Eventually—somewhere around mile 6—I popped out of the forest into a green, grassy meadow, and there was the park headquarters. I didn’t even know the park HAD a headquarters!
I stopped in briefly to chat with the rangers, get my bearings, and get their advice on which way to run. To my surprise, not even they had a map of the entire park. However, one of the older rangers clearly knew that land well, and he verbally told me roughly how to do the kind of run I wanted to run and eventually make it back to my car. I had to chuckle at his final words to me: “Some of those trails aren’t marked. It can be a little hairy the first time through there.”
By then I’d discovered what he was talking about. It seemed that only about 1 in 3 trails was actually marked with blazes. The rest were just unmarked trails through the forest. Some were sandy bridle paths; others disused forest roads; and still others beautiful, twisting singletrack (my favorite).
Several times I found myself suddenly running a trail I’d clearly been on previously. Somehow I’d run myself in circles, but I’d take it in stride (pardon the pun), pick another trail, and just keep going.
Finally, the path I was running started to go up; its pitch steepened; I sensed I was approaching a height of land. And then, there I was … atop Jayne’s Hill, where a boulder bore a plaque with “Paumanok,” a poem by Walt Whitman that pays eloquent homage to Long Island and the waters that surround it (photo below). Soon enough, I was back to my car, with just over 12 miles of trail running and 1,400 feet of cumulative vertical gain behind me. (Just for kicks, enlarge the photo above … you can see the GPS track of my circuitous route in all its glory. =))
In hindsight, it occurs to me that this sort of trail running into a virtual unknown has many parallels to gluten-free baking, especially when you’re first getting your feet wet with gluten-free baking in the kitchen. Those parallels offer some valuable take-home lessons:
1. Enjoy the journey
Sometimes the journey IS the destination. If that’s the case, take the time to enjoy every step of that journey.
2. You can’t truly make mistakes or take wrong turns
Cut yourself some slack. Channel your inner “tranquilo” (a term we picked up in Bolivia on a high-altitude mountaineering trip five years ago). Relax. If there’s nowhere in particular you have to be, then you can’t make a mistake or take a wrong turn in getting there. You’re already where you need to be … on the journey.
Don’t always go full speed ahead. At major junctions, slow down, take stock, evaluate your options, and then choose the best way to proceed. (Hint: it isn’t always the left-hand fork…)
4. Trust your sense of direction
Listen to your inner compass. Give yourself some kitchen credit. You know more than you think.
5. Don’t be afraid to stop and ask for directions
There’s nothing wrong with asking the advice of someone who’s been there before; who knows the lay of the land and which way to go. (This applies to everyone, fellas…)
6. There are no setbacks, only learning experiences
If you find yourself right back where you started, or at least back to a place you’ve already been, don’t see it as a setback. View it as a learning experience … you’ve exhausted one option, and now have the opportunity to choose another path next.