The Trail Animals

I usually try to conserve my energy before a group run. I’ll sit on the ground, tie and re-tie my shoes, and pretend to stretch. But this run was different, this was the first meeting of the Dirty Running Trail Animals, and this group would not abide the conservation of energy.

I started the group for my kids, because I can talk all day about how they need to put down the iPhones, turn off the TV and video games, and get out in nature, but I feel that it is somewhat my responsibility to provide the means. I invited some friends with kids the same age and let them know that we were going to get out, run a couple trail miles, climb a few hills, and catch the sunset at the top of the mountain. Double Peak isn’t really a mountain, but for the kids at the bottom of the hill, looking up to the top, it must have looked like one.

I wasn’t stretching on the side of the road when most of the kids started showing up, I was climbing up a random trail because my son wanted to see where it went. It wasn’t really even a trail, although I’m sure coyotes used it as one. We quickly climbed above the cars, and when I told him that it was time to turn, he did so begrudgingly.

The kids started rolling in, and by 4:00, there were over 20 of them itching to start. I gathered the kids together as the parents stood off to the side and told them the two rules: help each other out, and have fun. I gave them a short course overview…run up the hill, take a left on the Secret Trail, then a right on the Super Secret Trail, then up an even steeper trail where they would have to scale some rocks, then to the top where they could play on the playground and watch the sunset. After the sunset, we would run down the dirt path back to the cars.

Life balance sounds good on paper, all clean and seperate with equal percentages for work, play, family, and hobbies. I’ve never been one for balance, so I’m throwing in the towel on that. There is no life balance, just life, and I’m going to share it with family and friends whether they like it or not, and they don’t always like it. As we were leaving, I had to practically drag my teenage daughter out the door, threatening to confiscate her phone for the week if she didn’t join. It would have been much easier to let her stay at home and just take my younger kids who were dying to run, but as she stood at the top, arm around her younger sister’s waist as the setting sun painted the feathered clouds in red and orange…at that moment, I knew that we were all exactly where we needed to be.

As we ran down the wide and steep dirt path next to the road, I watched the kids, leaning forward into the downhill, still running on their toes without fear of falling, and the adults, yelling after them to slow, to be careful, leaning back on our heels because we know what happens when we trip or turn an ankle on the smallest bump in the trail. I could have kept yelling, but they weren’t going to stop or slow down. They had gravity on their side, wind rushing by their ears, and fearless hearts, running like animals to the night.

Thanks for reading.

The Difficult Route

My youngest recently asked my wife where dreams come from and my wife told her that dreams are all the thoughts and feelings that we push down in our minds and when we dream, we get rid of these thoughts, kind of like taking out the trash. This conversation replayed in my head as I raced against the New Year’s Eve sunset in the uncharacteristic biting cold, struggling with sharp, short breaths in the frosty air, and wiping the tears that had suddenly welled up in my eyes. I forced myself to stop at a quiet point at the top of a climb and take in the ocean view, attempting to process the sadness of the last few months.

Writing usually helps, but I haven’t been doing much of that. The specifics are too personal to share, at least for now, but if I don’t get something out, If I don’t process these emotions, I’m worried that they will slowly build up, that they will somehow win.

I prefer the trail to the road, I prefer hills to flats, and I prefer dirty to clean. My favorite routes are winding, hilly, difficult, covered in rocks and branches that scrape and tear at my legs. These routes are challenging, but these are the ones I choose, over and over again, and I prefer them to the straight paths, the flat and boring routes.

One of my favorites is this offshoot trail near my house. It drops about a mile from the main trail on a steep downhill — a narrow, seldom used path covered with ankle-breaking rocks, roots and branches. It’s another mile uphill. It’s steep, but not steep enough to walk. And after all of this effort, all of these twists and turns, you rejoin the main trail about 30 yards from where you left it in the first place. You wind up in nearly the same spot, but dirtier, more tired, and sometimes a little bloodier than where you left in the first place.

One of the best books I've read in the last couple of years is Wild. I just went to the movie with my wife, and the part that struck me when watching the movie was a piece of advice from Cheryl Strayed’s mother about putting yourself in the way of beauty.

My New Year’s Eve run included what so many of my runs do, a stop at the top of Double Peak. It was actually the second time I’d been up there that day. The first was to see the rare snow flurries in North County. The last time I saw snow here was in 1990, and I wanted my kids to see it, even if it wasn’t sticking on the ground, so we headed to the highest point in the area. I found myself there again on that busy New Year’s Eve, surrounded by people with the same idea, people who wanted to put themselves in the way of beauty, to experience the last sunset of the year. The sweat and cold were working against me, but I tried to wait, and I was mad at myself for not bringing my phone, because it was the last sunset of the year, and all I wanted to do was watch it with my family. I set off for home while the sun hovered above the Pacific Ocean.

The sun was 10 minutes from the horizon and I was 12 minutes from my house, so I pushed, tempoing the mile and a half home, navigating the darkening trails, and sprinting the last quarter mile, but by the time I opened the door and felt the comfort of the heated house, dinner on the stove and kids under blankets watching TV, the sun had fallen and the dark blue was turning black.

Every year for the last seven, I have organized a New Year’s Day hike slash run, and the run has grown in popularity over the years, so popular that I received a call from the ranger telling me that I would not be able to hold the run anymore. This was kind of a relief, because I really don’t like organizing these runs. They add stress to my life, and the anxiety always builds a few days out from the run and doesn’t let up until I have ordered a post-run beer at stone. I love seeing everyone, and I love sharing the trails with friends and family, but the ranger was right, the run had become too big for the trail. I canceled the run, but let people know that I would still be there at 10 am on New Year’s Day and nothing was stopping them from joining.

It was a magical day for me. I hiked with my family and some close friends to the top, then ran with my two youngest kids who insisted on running down the steep hill as I trailed them, trying hard to push the thoughts of twisted ankles, face plants, and scraped knees out of my head. They ran with joy, jumping off rocks, smiling, breathing hard, and laughing. This is what I wanted on New Year’s Eve, this is what made me sprint home, racing the sun in the hopes of sharing this moment with my family.

I told my kids about the scene from the movie, about putting yourself in the way of beauty, and that this year we are going to try to get out more, to camp, to see more sunsets, to surf, hike, play in the dirt, and to take the trail that doesn’t lead anywhere.

This is what I want running to be for me this year — no race goals, distance goals, or time goals. I want, no, I need to take those trails, the pointless, winding trails that will take me up and down steep hills, force me to resort to hands-on-knees hiking over rocks, through bushes, and bounding down hills with tears in my eyes, and child’s laughter in my heart because I know the trail is long, the way will be difficult, but it always leads me home.

Thanks for reading, and Happy New Year.

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