The Gift of Sadness

I started a newsletter because I like to read newsletters. This is my first bit of writing for it. If you want to read about things I love — running, climbing, being a dad, and making a fool of myself, but rarely in that order, you can subscribe here.

My wife and I took a short trip to Maine to see my daughter perform at the Monteux Music Festival. It’s an amazing program founded by French conductor, Pierre Monteux, in 1942. It’s a conducting school where some of the best young conductors come to train through the summer. Other musicians from around the world audition for spots in the orchestra. They practice hard, live in cabins, form bonds that you can only form when you train hours and hours every day with someone, then party until the early morning and do it all over again. They play a concert every weekend for the locals and vacationers in a beautiful area of Maine near Bar Harbor.

Acadia NP
Funerary photo of Tchaikovsky
In her element (photo by Sandy Marcotte)

The More Things Change

My favorite running route used to be a narrow, rutted, and rocky dirt path that led past a hidden pond on the way to winding singletrack that led up to a summit overlooking the Pacific Ocean to the west, the San Bernardino mountains to the north, and the Cuyamacas and Tijuana Plateau to the south. At the top of the peak is an American flag. It used to be weathered and wind-torn but has since been replaced with a new flag complete with a solar-powered light that illuminates the flag at night.

The first No Trespassing signs starting popping up years ago as our little piece of the North County San Diego suburbs started to grow. Narrow trails I had run in high school became access roads, and later 2- and 3-lane roads leading into and out of our expanding neighborhood.

We searched for new trails back then, combining animal-made singletrack with adventurous hiking and mountain biking trails, and firelines. Many of my exploratory runs ended in dead-ends and bloody, sliced-up shins and thighs, but we managed to put some fun routes together. The crowning glory was a 26-mile all-trail loop marathon, which was quite a creative task given the roads, and the private property that we did our best to avoid.

As the neighborhood was built out, more people started to use the trails. I wrote an article for our monthly neighborhood newspaper about the local trails and gave turn-by-turn directions to some of the easier ones. I was doing one of my regular runs on a horse trail when I passed a girl who had stopped and was looking, puzzled, at a newspaper clipping. She looked pissed, so I didn’t stop. The hills in our area were a surprise for people who were used to running along the flat coastline, but I ate them up.

As the town grew, the access shrunk. Park rangers informed us that we couldn’t access the reserve near our neighborhood from the west side, and property owners who noticed new trails put up signs and fencing on the lands we didn’t know were private. There were still miles and miles of trails to run, but as the town grew, and the barriers multiplied, we became less exploratory and more quotidian with our routes.

It’s still a beautiful area to run and live in, but a lot of the beauty has been shut down. I’m not going to get into the morals and ethics of trespassing and land rights. I respect the landowners here and do my best to obey the law, but it does make me extremely envious of the right to roam laws in other countries.

My favorite trail leading up to the flag is still there, it’s still a beautiful run, but the access trail leading up to it is now a black, paved road. It’s the kind of soft asphalt paving that is going to leave footprints in the hot summer. There is also a ten-foot-tall grey iron gate with NO TRESPASSING welded into the industrial design along the newly paved road. The gate has not closed yet, but it will.

There’s a scene from The Simpsons that shows a newspaper clipping of the Grandpa yelling at a cloud in the sky, and the headline reads, “Old Man Yells at Cloud.” I laugh every time I think about the headline. Things always change, and it’s mostly useless to get mad about the changes, but sometimes it feels good to yell at the clouds.

My favorite run of the week starts and ends at a local brewery in our town square. On any given Thursday night, between 10 and 20 (mostly) guys will gather at 5:30. Some are already sweaty and warmed up from a pre-run, and some look nervously at the ground, and at the group of runners because it’s their first time, and they don’t know what to expect of the group’s pace. Looking at some of the regulars, the new runners have a right to be concerned. There are a few marathon winners in the group. There are also many ultra-marathon podiums shared among the faster members. The new, maybe inexperienced members have nothing to worry about.

It’s a short loop, 4–5 miles depending on the finishing options. We re-group at about every mile so nobody gets left behind or lost, and it’s a social group. We talk about families, work, and mostly just running. We talk past races, future races, weekly mileage, and injuries. We also talk local trails.

For some of these new runners, this is the first time on these trails that have been flattened and widened by hundreds of thousands of footfalls and knobby tires. A lot of the runners are younger and newer to the area. They are starting to connect the local trails to make new loops, connections that I hadn’t even considered.

The chatter becomes less and less as we approach the end of the loop. Some of the faster guys break away for the last quarter of a mile or so. It is a Strava segment after all, and you don’t age out of competitiveness.

The conversation starts up again at the brewery as we rehydrate. They talk about weekly mileage and plans for a long weekend run, and I talk about my injuries, and why I can’t run longer than five or six miles. They talk about new routes, and I talk about the new gates and no trespassing signs. I find myself slipping into the old-timey, curmudgeonly, Andy Rooney role, but hold back because nothing can dampen these new runner’s excitement for races, weekly mileage goals, and miles and miles of undiscovered trails.

Breaking the Toilet Paper Finish Line

The best part of a 5:30 AM start is the sunrise. We gathered around and I started the pre-race briefing. I felt the same nervous energy I feel at every starting line. As the assembled group of friends looked to me for directions for the next 3–6 hours of their lives, I was grateful for them, but also scared.

San Diego has hills. People see the Chamber of Commerce’s pictures of palm trees and the ocean, but also we have rocky, single-track trails, rattlesnakes, and some climbs that, can rival a tough mountain race.

My goal was to create a tough mountain race in my backyard. My goal was to rival the elevation gain of Pike’s Peak at over 7,500 feet. I fell short of that, but I did manage to put together a course with about 5,000 feet more gain than the “hilly” Boston Marathon.

I don’t live in a rural area, so I had to get creative with a 26-mile loop that stayed almost exclusively on trails. I live in North County San Diego, part of the sprawl that starts near the border of Mexico and crawls up the coast where it pauses at Camp Pendleton before it continues to Los Angeles. The beautiful thing about where I live is that some of the open space was preserved by the city or county planners. They opted for dense, rather than wide growth, so while our houses seem stacked on top of each other, we have miles of trails right outside our front doors. The trail linking project was something that took a lot of work and creativity, but I loved doing it.

I would dream about sections of the course, and I’d wake up with new ideas for the race. Go right at the water tower, and run down the steep dirt path before taking a sharp left at the second power line access trail and cut through some desert scrub and manzanita to the horse trail that takes you up to Paint Mountain. At the top of Paint Mountain, you’ll see a notebook containing hand-written quotes. Tear out a page from the notebook to prove you made it to the top of the section (hat tip to Laz and the Barkley Marathons).

After finalizing the course, I thought of a handful of people that this particular type of suffering would appeal to, so I sent out an email to about eight people. Word got out, and by the time we hiked to the top of Double Peak for the 5:30 AM start, there were 30 of us taking in that sunrise.

I gave a disclaimer about the difficulty of the course, and I promised a very difficult day on the trails. I told them they would need to be self-sufficient, but also take care of each other. I warned them about the lack of aid stations and the absence of a capable and responsible race director to complain to.

I started the day with 26 miles in my legs from the previous day. I marked the course with flour arrows, so people would know where to go. The only way to mark a course this remote was to run it, so I marked the first 13 miles in the morning and the last 13 miles in the evening the day before the event.

I emailed the route to everyone who was planning on running the race, but this was before it was easy to load routes on a GPS, or maybe route-finding was part of the appeal for this group. My course overview was not very clear, and went something like this:

Once you hit the dam, go up the El Cielo trail along the side of the dam to the Equine Incline Loop and then run down the Way Up Trail, cross the street, run up the steep concrete access road and you’ll see a narrow single-track trail on your left. Take that and head towards Mount Whitney. Not that Mount Whitney, our 1500 foot version of Mount Whitney.

When you descend, run by the old wooden shack where the guy should be out waving to you. I gave him a six-pack of Coors Light yesterday and told him a bunch of runners would be passing by his house in the early morning, and please don’t shoot us, and if it’s not too much trouble, could he chain up the Pit Bull?

He was out there on his wooden porch, cheering and toasting us with his AM Coors Light.

I told the runners not to expect aid during the run, but my wife was out there anyway, driving from spot to spot with water, cut up oranges and watermelons, and homemade “You’ve Got This” signs. The aid stations were a great addition, especially as the sun burnt through the morning haze.

The last climb was back to where we started the race over four hours before. It’s a hill called Double Peak, and I know every turn, every wind in the trail, every rut, and I didn’t think I could make it the quarter-mile to the top. I sat on a concrete curb and told April and Paul that I just needed a break. I told them to go on and finish, and I’d see them at the top. We’d spent the last few hours running together in this organic trio. We shared race stories, we laughed and we struggled together.

They wouldn’t go on.

April sat next to me and told me to take my time. Paul told me we were going to finish together. I got up and slow-hiked to the finish where a few of the early finishers, some friends, and some family were waiting.

My daughter hung a string of beads held together by a leather strap over my neck. She bought beads and made 30 unique finisher medals. She had been working on them for a week. Travis had brought some homebrew. My friend’s wife and my son stretched toilet paper across the finish so everyone could break the tape at the top.

From where I sat, I could see the ocean and feel the cool air against sunburned shoulders and tired legs covered to the knee in red dirt. We sat as people finished, sometimes solo, sometimes in small groups. I hugged everyone that crossed the line that day after Sophie hung the strand of beads over their necks. Some cursed at me as they finished, but they did it with a smile.

A lot of the people who ran the race with me that day have since moved. I still talk with most of them and still run with a few. We run on the same trails, but that loop is now inaccessible for running. Different entities control various parts of the land. Fences, gates, and No Trespassing signs have gone up as more houses have been built. Rangers turn me away, trying to explain the confusing and ever-changing rules. They can’t be bribed with a 6-pack of cheap beer.

That medal still hangs on the doorknob in my office. Every time I look up at Paint Mountain, I think of a Kathleen Harris quote on the sweat-stained piece of notebook paper, “Don’t fear moving forward, fear standing still.”

Everything about that day was about our small running community and family — from the handwritten notes, to the marking of the course, the aid stations, the finish line tape, and the beaded finisher’s medal that holds a special place in my heart.

Major races are getting canceled along with other large group events. I hope that they will return once things get back to normal, but these small races will come back first. Runners will be forced to get back to the roots of racing. The gatherings of a few friends, some flour arrows to mark the path, some stashed orange wedges and water, and if you’re really lucky, a toilet paper finish line and a strand of beads around your neck.

It’s going to be a while before any of us stand shoulder to shoulder with thousands of other runners waiting with a mix of excitement, nerves, and dread, in the starting corral. It is more realistic to think that one of these home-grown events will be in your future.

Here’s how to plan your own:


Get comfortable with a GPS mapping program like CalTopo, Gaia, or Gmap Pedometer. I used Gmap Pedometer for my planning and I like it because it is simple to use, it keeps a running distance total as you plan the route. Most importantly, it’s free. Send the route to the participants and they will be able to load it on their own devices. That way, nobody can blame you for getting lost. You’ll want to be familiar with the area you are running. Make sure to buy the guy with a scary dog a 6-pack of Coors Light when you ask him to keep the dog on a leash the next morning.


Don’t let it get out of hand. Only invite people you trust will be able to finish the race and people who have some experience running trails without aid stations. People need to be self-sufficient with these types of races. This will also help you limit the number of people to a number you feel comfortable with. It helps to know everyone as well, just in case something goes wrong (you also may want to have participants sign a waiver, just in case).


People want to help. As most trail runners know, it’s at least as fun volunteering for a race as running one. Some people will actually be relieved that you asked them to help rather than asked them to run. Get the family involved as well. My family still has some of our best memories while volunteering for races, and the kids actually love contributing. My friend Joe’s whole family set up an aid station at the midway point of our trail marathon. The amount of good karma and love they received that day will tide them over for years.


We had custom shirts made. They are a collector’s item in our area. Use a web service that will let you place small orders, and design them yourself. They won’t be as flashy as the big-name marathon tech tees, but they will mean more to you. Trust me. The same holds true for the race medal. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it will take a special place on your doorknob, in your medal drawer, or wherever you keep your stash. One last thing, don’t let the day end at the finish line. Get everyone together for pizza and beers to relive the stories. The friendships, the bonding, and the tales of suffering and overcoming are why we do this. That’s not going to change whether you finish on Boylston Street or at the top of a hill called Double Peak as you break through a makeshift toilet paper finish line.

Adventure in the Time of Covid

Yes, this is a hard, unprecedented, difficult, uncertain, scary, pick your darkly ambiguous adjective time. We’re stuck at home. The news is constant now. The constantly updated death toll. The constant reminder of how we failed to prepare. The constant decline of the stock market. The kids constantly on their screens. I looked at my youngest daughter’s search history and she was searching for how viruses spread and Covid death rates. Okay, not going to lie, there were some makeup and TikTok dance tutorials scattered in there, too.

Through all of this uncertainty, there has been a pause, and I am thankful for it. Because we live near open, nearly empty trails, my wife and I continue to work, our kids have access to their teachers, music lessons and soccer coaches (all online now). My son has a skateboard and a mountain bike. One eats curbs, the other eats trails, and they both eat hours. My oldest is continuing her college clarinet studies and filling our house with beautiful music and the muffled, frustrated crying that artists will recognize as growth.

We are privileged, and I am grateful. And my heart aches for people who aren’t as lucky, people who have lost their jobs, and people who are dealing with the death of loved ones. It is a scary time, and I’m not trying to minimize it.

This will affect everyone in some way. I wake up at 2 AM, worried about how this will affect my kids, and I can’t go back to sleep.

I worry about my wife, who spends 12 hours a day in the ER and won’t tell us the worst of it because she knows we can’t handle the details. Sometimes she will just say it was a hard day and go upstairs to shower, and I can see how hard it was in her eyes, and she won’t let me hug her in that moment and that’s really all I want to do.

My kids sleep until 9 or 10 AM, and I let them. The school sent a bell schedule and I see others posting their amazing homeschooling routines. I hope to get there, but to be honest, as long as we all come out of this still loving each other, I’ll consider it a win.

I was initially excited in the early stages of our self-quarantine (we started earlier than most due to my wife’s patient interactions in the ER). I just assumed we would get outside for most of the day. I was already making a mental checklist. We would hit the trails for a run, surf, go to the climbing gym, daily yoga session, and a camping/climbing trip to Joshua Tree.

This was before the mountain towns, the gyms, and the beaches closed. This was before we knew the ramifications of most of these activities. This was before the term social distancing became less of a vague notion and more a concrete law. In my neighborhood, people have been posting pictures online in an attempt to publically shame neighbors who might walk a little too close to each other.

Self-quarantine became about self-isolation as we learned about flattening the curve. It felt like a dark hazy cloud was settling over my head. I would wake up, turn on the news, and break the day up by snacking, planning what to buy from the grocery store, planning what to eat, and eating.

I’ve alternated between two pairs of sweatpants for the past 3 weeks.

I’d still get out and run or bike occasionally, but by myself, and I’d still try to get some online work done, but it’s a battle and laziness is winning.

Spring in San Diego is a beautiful time, and day 14 of quarantine was especially beautiful. It was a Sunday. The sun was out, the clouds were feathery and the breeze was cool enough to make walking in the sun with t-shirt and shorts comfortable.

My wife was at work and my kids were reading the latest notifications from their friends and I was watching the news say the same thing over and over.

“Let’s go,” I said. They all were quiet, and they knew that there was no getting out of it, so with the solemn resolve of a prisoner walking to the van after the guilty verdict has been read, they changed out of baggy sweatshirts and cat-fur covered flannel pajamas into shorts, t-shirts, and running shoes.

We’re lucky enough to be able to cross the street and immediately be on muddy, rocky paths with yellow wildflowers and trees that have grown from saplings to 20–30-foot beauties in the 15+ years we have lived here.

As a long-time trail runner, I dreamed of having a running family. A legacy of cross country runners that a running magazine would feature someday. All bouncing along together in perfect stride, my daughters with their long brown hair, catching the golden rays of the sun, and my son with his “Like Father, Like Son” tattoo à la Matt Centrowitz covering his gaunt, slightly shrunken runner’s chest.

Didn’t quite work out that way. They all lasted through middle school cross country before deciding that isn’t the type of suffering they wanted to subject themselves to. I shouldn’t be surprised. My running journey was full of starts and stops, and I didn’t really learn to love the suffering until I was an adult with three young children. Running became an escape from a different kind of suffering.

So now, when I say “Let’s go,” I don’t say “Let’s go for a run.” But I’m not fooling anyone.

We headed to the meadow. We call it the meadow in our family because it doesn’t have an official name, or maybe it does, but if you head down a muddy and rocky singletrack trail, cross two streams, go through a natural tunnel where the branches of the trees have joined overhead to create a canopy, past a small waterfall that was rushing harder than usual thanks to the recent rains, avoid the poison oak, and cross the wide and deep mud pit using a rope hanging from the oak overhead and a couple of two by fours that some kind person hauled there (and that my dog fully ignores), you will reach our meadow.

This pause has come with a quietness. Less people outside, and fewer cars. But it is so much louder in other ways. The laughs were louder. You could hear the rushing stream from further away, and there were more birds singing, or maybe I could just hear them now.

Our family hike inevitably turned into a run as we headed down the steep and rocky singletrack in order to get some momentum for the jump across the stream where we all got at least one shoe wet.

Last weekend was Easter Sunday and I watched as Andrea Bocelli sang to the empty streets of Italy. His music was cut with drone shots of empty city centers. There is something peaceful about emptiness. It’s not really empty, or lonely, it’s just quiet. And the music filled the space. The pull of nature is the same.

We seek that quiet emptiness. It fills us.

After our hike, we all returned to our screens. Me to my computer and the kids to their phones, but we were all a little happier than we were before we went out.

I’m still scared for my kids, and what they will remember about this time. Hell, I’m scared for myself, but what I hope to remember is that short family outing from our front door. My 13-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son sharing a seat on a rope swing, laughing, and not even trying to elbow each other off. I’ll remember sitting in the driveway watching my son master a trick on his skateboard or listening to my daughter practice her clarinet or the walks with the dog in the early mornings on empty sidewalks. I’ll remember the fear and the uncertainty as well, but things are rarely all bad. I hope that years from now when we talk about the coronavirus, my family will remember these small things and the way we filled the emptiness with something beautiful.

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