Where I run, the trails are high, wild and lonesome. In three years of trail running here, I have only seen a handful of other runners. The reasons vary: the trails are rocky and steep, a plunge meaning certain injury. Others have told me they are afraid of wolves and mountain lions. I am used to being the only runner around.
I've only run in a few cities, usually because I was there for work. Portland, on the waterfront and in Forest Park. London, decades ago as a student. Boise, on the greenbelt. DC, on the Mall. I always feel somewhat out of place with all the speedy, flashily dressed runners. There I am in my years' old tank top and shorts, my hair in a ponytail that has not been trimmed in almost a year. An imposter from Podunk.
There are good things about urban running, though. Some of these cities have done it right. The greenbelts and parks are outstanding ribbons of smooth running heaven. No watching your feet here, or looking over your shoulder for bears. I can run at a speed I have not seen in years. And there is something about seeing other runners that is both a kinship and validation. They get it, why we are all out here. I used to speak their language, and it all comes back to me in a flash.
I ran in Denver a couple of weeks ago, on the Bear Creek greenbelt. If you are like me, you approach the front desk as soon as you check in to ask where the good running is. The front desk people rarely know, but if you are lucky they will produce a map that shows a river trail system. They will say things like, "It's a looong way to the trail." A long way turns out to be half a mile.
There's another thing though. I have never been lost in the mountains, but a city completely puzzles me. Without reference to mountains, I get confused. If I can't see the sunrise, how do I know what direction to go? The first few days I ran without incident, but on the last morning I decided to range further afield. Happily I found a horse trail, a delicious slice of singletrack off the pavement. I ran obliviously along until I decided it was time to turn around. I ran and ran.
Hmm, what a nice woodchip trail. I don't really remember this. Oh well. Keep going. Look, I'm going under a tunnel. Did I come under a tunnel? Oh well. Keep going. What? A pond? Now I know I didn't come by a pond. Uh-oh.
A small sliver of worry cut through my running daze. I was lost in Denver! Visions of running for hours and missing my conference went through my head. How could a former wilderness ranger get lost in the middle of a city?
Obviously I had to turn around to my last known point, even though I was 100% sure that I was going the right way. Back under the tunnel. Back on the woodchip trail. I accosted a walker. "You have to go back that way," she said, pointing to a direction that I was sure was wrong. But what choice did I have? I ran faster now, the benefit of being lost. Eventually I came back to the sign I remembered and the completely obvious way I should have gone.
What I learned from this was that zoning out on mountain trails is my typical MO. It helps me overcome the difficulty of the steep climbs and the lack of oxygen. I daydream about all sorts of things out there. I rarely worry about pace or distance; I just turn around when I feel like it. In cities, I have to be more vigilant. What seems straightforward seldom is.
Given the choice I will stick to my mountain trails. They don't make me a faster runner. Sometimes my pace is just a bit faster than a power hike. I sometimes wish more of us were out there too, people to share information with about what the snow is doing and how many trees we have to scramble over. I don't really feel like a runner here the way I do on urban trails. It's easy to forget there is a world out there where people do interval training and tempo runs and actually pay to run races. This is worlds removed from my reality.
It's all right, though. Somehow my running has come full circle. I started out without a watch, stopping to run in sprinklers at fourteen years old. I progressed to an obsessive, time-keeping schedule with races and running logs. From there I went long distance, even at one time dreaming about Boston. That all changed with knee surgery.
I am back to the beginning, a teenager just running the trails. It suits me.