I was recently in Grants Pass, Ore.
I know. Where? Long story — more on that later — but there I was with a morning free and a looming half marathon trail race with rigorous elevation gains fast approaching on the calendar. I’m a bit worried, though my brother, who is the expert on marathons, triathlons and even an Iron Man says I’m going to be more than ready.
I’m not sure I believe him though. The distance of 13.1 miles is significant, but familiar. I’ve done that twice on my own. But for the past year I’ve reduced my miles and rarely top six. I stretched out to eight easy enough recently, so I figure the last five will be OK. That’s still plenty of times for the back to balk or the lingering foot pain to resurface, but I’m only about 20 percent worried about that. What really worries me is this:
“At the start line will be the only time you spend at sea level during this challenging trail run. From the word ‘Go’ you’ll be heading, up, up and away into the thick wooded trails … where you’ll climb a wooden ladder, march up natural rock and wooden staircases and scramble under tree trunks.”
OK… all THAT ‘up, up and away’ AND a half marathon is where my anxieties lie. Living in mountain town I know too well the burn that goes with all those hills. This isn’t a flat race and it won’t be anything like it. So I’m not exactly taking my brother’s word for it, which is why my free morning in Grants Pass I decided to go to a little trail spot with a mix of hiking trails.
I was pleasantly surprised to see the area extremely well marked. A map greeting me in the parking area with a full map of the different trails with an interesting legend of “easiest” in green, “More difficult” in blue and “Most difficult” in black. What they considered difficult I wasn’t sure and it didn’t tell me, but the color codes gave me some idea. I decided anything named “loop” would be helpful so I didn’t have to worry about getting back. One way or another a “loop” by definition had to return to me my car. So I chose a green loop, thinking easiest for a hiker will be about right for me a runner.
I set off.
It started up, up and away pretty quickly and I was hearing my breath in my ears and the cool dots of sweat on my head far quicker than I did just two days earlier running eight miles on a track. My fears about 13 miles of this (well half of it anyway, since you do have to come back down the hill at some point) grew.
The trails were really beautifully marked. Every intersection had this helpful sign, again warning me away from those black “most difficult” paths.
As my trail forced me into a bit of a U-Turn, it dawned on me that a tiny, yet incredibly important detail was missing from the signs. It could have been added with three characters that would have made all the difference.
Nothing told me how long this trail was. I needed something like “3.2 m” or some such thing. Even if it was only on this one trail, then the length of it could be sort of a legend for the other trails. I had set off hoping to get in four miles or so and less than six minutes in I feared I may be headed right on back to where I started. Sure I enough I looked at my phone, which was tracking all sorts of data about my run and saw as the parking lot approached I had gone only .8 of a mile.
Now that was an important detail.
I didn’t want to slow down to reassess the large map and use my newfound information about distances to check for a trail that by appearance could get me the rest of the three miles I needed. I simply spotted another trail, “The Outback Loop” that had loop in the title, though this one was marked blue for more difficult, and headed back out into the forest.
Up, up and away again I went. Now things started heating up in a hurry. I spotted a clearing in the forest and saw a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains and way too dry forests as I continued out. Again my mind — AND again, a bit too late too be useful — began to consider the title of this trail. “Outback.” Unless I missed my guess, this title probably was picked because unlike my first little loop, this trail went “out” a ways. How far? I had no earthly idea. I knew this, my shirt was soaked, my legs ached and my eyes burned from my own sweat and I hadn’t encountered anything like a U-Turn yet. I looked down at my phone and saw I had put in about two miles, which meant I should turn around. I wasn’t looking to do a lot of distance two days after eight miles and still recovering from assorted injuries.
I never been one to turn around. I kept at it, the whole time wondering who the hell would build such a nice network of trails, complete with numerous trail markers and fancy color coding for degree of trail difficulty and forget the only truly meaningful information of how bloody far the trail loop actually was? I groused endlessly in my mind, ignoring the patter of birds in the distance and the stillness of the forest around me.
Finally the trail turned me what seemed like “back.” I felt encouraged. The home stretch. Worst case, I figured I’d do five miles instead of four and it really hadn’t been “more difficult” at all. A nice steady lift and a good test for my run, I thought. I was feeling pleased until I circled a bend and saw this:
Ah, I thought. The “more difficult” just arrived as advertised. And on the way back, I thought. That was devilish. I pounded my way up the hill, heart racing, legs aching, brain cursing the developer of these trails.
Another crest and views of the other side of the little ridge I was running on emerged. In the distance the small town of Grants Pass could be seen tucked among the trees.
It was pretty. My body actually felt better as I hit my fourth mile. My mood lightened because I knew I has indeed headed back on the loop and would soon be finished. I was passing another training test.
I hit the parking lot and looked down. My phone said in large numbers 4.07 miles.
As if I planned it.
Life is like that for me, far too often. I think I have everything all dialed in, but then forget the slightest little detail — like in this case the distance — and everything that follows feels strained and nervous and more difficult. I have often wondered what it is about me that so often misses that important detail. But lately, I’ve thought, that’s not so much me, but life.
If we had ALL the details, what would be the fun of that?
The challenge, I realize, is to enjoy the trail knowing you don’t know how it ends. And really when you think about it, that’s pretty good. Because otherwise, what would be the fun in that?