Scorched Earth

We moved to San Elijo Hills in 2005. At the time, I was training for triathlons and just starting to get into trail running. One of the things that drew me to the area was the extensive trail network. I started with the wide, manicured paths that led to the schools and grocery store, then as the distances grew, I became more adventurous, covering more trail miles and discovering an amazing network of beautiful trails surrounding our dense suburban neighborhood. The wilderness was outside my door, and it became my playground.

Early fires on Double Peak
It has been a particularly dry year in Southern California, so when the fires started, the trails really didn’t stand a chance. When I saw the flames on top of Double Peak, my heart broke. One of the nice things about keeping a blog like this is that it preserves so many good memories. I did a quick search on Double Peak in these pages, and so many good things popped out, Mother’s Day hikes, early morning runs with friends, a run in remembrance of a departed dog, countless sunrises and sunsets, Fourth of July hikes with my oldest daughter for the best vantage point in the county, the start and finish line of our underground trail marathon, and hill repeats that made me throw up. I have an intimate relationship with that hill, and to see it on fire floored me.

At the start of the Inaugural San Elijo Trail Marathon

I didn't want to run up there today. I wanted to ignore it, to wait and experience it with the friends that I have shared so many miles with, but as I sat in my office in the shadow of the Peak, I felt like my heart was being squeezed with cables, and I knew that I had to go see it.

It was what I imagined it to be, skeletons of trees and black earth everywhere, tracks from fire trucks and bulldozers, small patches still smoldering and the smell of burnt wood, but the trail was still there.

I have run in some amazing places, but these trails are home to me. They have made me a better runner, and I have left hundreds of thousands of footprints in their brown dirt, discovering new routes, linking together old ones, and being absolutely crushed by the sun and the steepness, and while the trails may seem insignificant, and rightly so when compared to peoples’ lives and houses, they have a special meaning to me as they fuel my passion and have made me the runner that I am today.

I went solo today, because those have always been my hardest runs, the runs that build fitness, the runs that turn into walks, and eventually incoherent stumbles with not enough water and not enough strength. I have been burned out there to the ground, but those are the runs that make the good ones possible.

During the last race I ran, the Leona Divide 50K, I thought about one of those runs. It was a 28 miler where I started with a couple friends who pulled off one by one, leaving me alone at the end to climb up the back side of Double Peak. I thought of that run whenever I was feeling down in the race, and I remembered how awful that run was, and how it took me to a place that hurt, and I remembered the top of the climb, sitting on a park bench near the telescope on Double Peak, avoiding eye contact with the few other people up there as I sat with my head between my legs, spitting, drooling, and trying to hold it together. I knew that if I could get through a run like that, I could finish the race. Those are the runs that build strength, the runs that burn you to the ground, to your base, and allow you to grow into something better.

The base trails are still out there, and as I made the steep climb, I saw a ribbon tied on a branch. It was probably placed there by a firefighter, an all clear sign, or a line of defense, but to me and to anyone who has ever run a trail race, it’s a trail marker, a sign that everything is going to be okay, and that you are on the right track.

There is something stark and beautiful about the trails now, a fertile ground ready for rebirth. I’ll be out there looking for the change, and the new growth in the hills, and I look forward to being cut down to the base, covering the trails with footprints and sweat, and growing with the trails that are my home.

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