Spirit Animal

It’s not uncommon that I see a coyote during a run, but it’s still infrequent enough that I get excited when I see one. I usually see them trotting in the other direction, nonchalant, having already seen or heard my heavy footsteps, not sprinting off scared, more of a saunter, an “I’m faster than you, and I don’t want to be too close, but I don’t need to run very fast either” retreat. I’ll watch as they disappear into the bushes. And even though it takes seconds for me to run to where the coyote left the trail, and the brush isn't very thick, I usually can’t see them, as if they were never there.

I have seen coyotes rip apart a house cat in seconds, then drag it away when they sensed me watching them.

The coyote I found in the middle of the trail was young, and small, about half the size of my dog, who I’m nearly certain has some coyote in her. She walks with the same tall, stiff rear legs, and her face and bushy tail shares something wild with the coyote.

I wasn't sure if it was dead, so I cleared my throat loudly as I approached, and it just lay there, motionless, but no apparent injury that I could see, no blood, except for a worn part of its leg where the ants were starting the decomposition process.

Its eyes were open, and there were no bites, no scratches, no sign of a struggle, just a young dead coyote in the middle of a trail. I made the sign of the cross over it. I’m not religious, and I wasn’t sure I got the order right, so I tried to remember the rhyme about spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch, or was it watch and wallet?

In my head, I thanked the coyote for running the trails, for creating new ones for me to follow, and I apologized to the dead coyote for paving over its trails, and for building houses in its hunting ground.

I ran on, pushing hard up a hill called the Whiptail Loop, and towards the top I saw another coyote, just the head and ears off to the side of the trail about 30 feet away, and I sped up to try to follow it, but by the time I ran to where I had seen it, the coyote was gone.

Life is Going to Kill You

Whenever a new study comes out that links running to heart disease, bone loss, death, or whatever else may generate headlines and web traffic, people email them to me, or tell me with a concerned tilt of the head and a hushed tone, “you know, running a lot is bad for you.” I’m sure these people mean well, and I appreciate the concern, but I’m not planning on changing anything.

The first time I read one of these studies, I was worried. Like most who initially lace up running shoes, I hoped that running would lead to a longer, healthier life. One where my wife and I would lie in separate bathtubs at the edge of a lake, watch the sun go down and wait for the drugs to kick in (what’s so bad about a 4 hour erection, anyway?). Of course, as soon as a negative study is published, articles appear that challenge and discredit the research. I can’t remember if the counter-argument claimed too small a sample size, or if there was a bias against running, or if the data was misinterpreted. I just remember finding some research to back up my beliefs, and everything was fine again. Time to get some big miles in.

After a few more of these studies appeared that linked heavy training to heart problems later in life, I’m not sure I can just ignore the results any longer, but to be honest, I don’t plan on cutting out any trail time.

Being healthy is way down on the list of reasons why I run, maybe 8th or 9th. Here are a few of the things that come ahead of staying healthy:

  1. So I don’t break things or yell at people.
  2. To try to arrange a regular morning run and end up with endless text messages questioning sexuality, toughness, masturbation, hotness of various spouses, etc.
  3. To be able to wear runderwear in public places.
  4. To be able to run on the most beautiful trails in the world, and to go to the bathroom on them.
  5. To learn Hebrew swear words.
  6. To do a bunch of hill repeats, then walk around with the good kind of soreness for a couple of days.
  7. To spend time with friends.
  8. To create a plan, follow it, and see the transformation and the payoff from the hard work.

Last Saturday night I was ready to break something. It’s not a feeling that comes very often, and I’m not sure what triggers it, but when I feel it, I know that I just need to be alone. I need to be away from my family, away from noise, and be able to lay down and shut everything out in a quiet place. It’s a scary feeling, a combination of a lack of control and feeling the edge getting closer.

I told my wife I was going to bed, and she looked at the clock, and rolled her eyes. 7:30? Seriously? I don’t think I said anything, and after asking if I was all right, and if she did anything, she just left me alone. I didn't sleep very well. I was planning a long run, 4 hours or so, the next day. There was a group running Noble Canyon, in the mountains east of San Diego, and I really didn't want to make the drive, and had planned on staying local and putting in my four hours on less exciting, but closer trails. I woke up at 4 AM, and couldn't go back to sleep. I just sat there in bed, and finally said screw it, I’m going to the mountains.

The run was beautiful, as it usually is in the mountains, but there was something special about that day, something that made everything right. I felt light on the hills, and spent some time talking and running with Scotty Mills, who always has some wise words, and you can’t run with him without picking up some great advice, or catching some of his contagious love of the trails.

After the run, I had to rush home and arrived just in time to coach my son’s soccer game, and I couldn't have been happier. Not every run is like this. Some are absolutely awful, some are just painful, and some are boring. The average runs are far more common, but those few days where everything just flows more than make up for all the others.

Recently, my wife spent some time volunteering for hospice and she would come home and tell me stories about these people who were close to death. Most of them had saved for a long retirement, and had grand plans to travel the world. They had sacrificed their whole lives to spend their golden years doing what they loved to do. Then they got cancer. Some had never touched a drop of alcohol, smoked a cigarette, and most did what they could to ensure a healthy, long life, and now they had weeks or days to live, and their biggest regret was planning for a future while neglecting the present.

(Photo: Jason Smith)
I went on a run last week, just a regular weekday morning run in a long line of 6:30 AM runs with a few running partners that have become some of my best friends. We picked a hilly route, one we hadn't done in a while, and set off, conversation coming easy, shit-talking coming easier. We talked about the things we always do while we run…work, family, world conflicts, and which of us has the most supple ass. This run was different, though. A few of the guys are moving, so we know that our group will change, and I had this feeling of gratitude for these people, some of whom I've know for just a couple of years.

I don’t know of another activity that brings people together as close as running does (well, maybe one other activity). The time spent on the trails, hours and hours of conversations, bonding through the physical struggles, and the pain all serve to strengthen those friendships. Those meaningful relationships are what makes life worth living, and aside from family, a lot of my most meaningful relationships have been formed on the trails.

I don’t know if running will lead to an early death, and I don’t know if the hours I’m spending on the trails are doing more harm than good, but I do know that I’m not getting out alive. Death wins. I also know what makes me happy, what calms me, and gives me peace, and it’s such a simple thing; just putting one foot in front of the other, preferably with others on a trail under the trees. It connects me to the land and others who share this passion, and it’s the only way I can live my life.

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