So now we get to the Tortoise and Hare, or as I call it the T&H (not to be confused with TH, a common abbreviation for tennis-hockey -- well, as common as abbreviations for tennis-hockey go, and an abbreviation that’s at least potentially relevant to this book): I slammed through its 6.7 miles in 47:46. The T&H is almost all on single-track trails, a loop around a local park with a climb up a couple hundred feet. It was longer than anything I’d raced before, and I absolutely nailed it -- with a pretty mediocre performance that got me 5th.
I was 4 minutes behind the leader, but that seemed OK for my first try out. This was also my first trail race, and realistically the first time I’d run significantly on a trail instead of the roads. So that was nice. (I’m trying my hardest to dull this as much as possible, because the next section is full of exclamation marks and happy thoughts.)
Trail running was unbelievable!
As you know, this isn’t a serious book with serious insights about the seriosity of running. So I won’t wax eloquently about how running a trail is like learning to walk when all you knew was how to sit up and play with the toys around you. Or how trail running opens new and beautiful worlds that road runners can never dream of. Or how trail running makes other forms of freedom seem empty. No such comparisons will be made. Except in the following paragraph.
Calling it "indescribable" would be, of course, absurd for a person scribing a book. It was like I'd been listening to Nintendo music my whole life and now found myself in a concert hall with the London Symphony Orchestra. Yeah, the 8-bit shit can get the job done, but there's no richness, depth, complexity, or wonder. And sure, you could live in a world where 8-bit noise is the only form of entertainment, but once you know the LSO exists you find this dystopian vision appalling.
Eight years after starting my running career, seven years after becoming addicted, trail running blew me away. I mean, I’d always enjoyed getting off the pavement onto dirt roads, but I never imagined running completely on paths, in forests, above waterfalls, across creeks, over rocks, under logs, around -- well, let’s be honest, around other runners. Yeah, I’d raced before, but this wasn’t just something I enjoyed, it was something I was damn good at!
To recap, I enjoyed the experience.
It was at this race that I met Jenna and Lawren, who would become my guides on this journey, my own Ziggy and Al for this quantum leap in running. But most of my leaps ended with me at home, and there was no waiting room or anything creepy like that. And I was the only one who really knew my overarching plan, unlike Dr. Sam Beckett, who didn’t have a clue what his plan was, because he just carelessly stepped into that Quantum Leap Accelerator to prove it would work. And Lawren didn't break down for the first part of every episode, and Jenna couldn't show me laser beams where I had to make that magic pool shot. So it kind of wasn’t like Ziggy and Al at all. But that was still a fun show when I was a kid (though it might be less so if I re-watched it) (and I can) (but I won't because what if it sucks?) (how not to destroy a good childhood memory: don't dredge up its details).
It was Jenna who hooked me into the local running community. I spent several days meeting up with her at events, then going for runs of various lengths. I never counted these as my runs unless they happened on weekends, which she often used to catch up on her goal of running the entire Finger Lakes Trail system.
Upstate New York is a curious creature. The residents are almost all conservative if they live outside the collegiate enclaves. Near academic centers, though, the pendulum swings far in the opposite direction. The brand of liberalism is rampant environmentalist, while the brand of conservatism glorifies the unmarred beauty of the state’s land -- and personal property.
As a result, a trail system over 550 miles long was established that wound its way through forests, into valleys and up hills, over pastures, and straight across marshlands. The trail system serves as an anchor for multiple spur trails and systems, and it gives race coordinators an ideal access point for trail races.
I had never seen that extent of continuous trails outside a national park. The FLT’s closest approach was just south of town, and I ran with Jenna along stretches from Watkins Glen to east of Ithaca. She had this crazy idea that she could run the entire trail system while she lived in the area, and I was more than happy to help. It eventually became a playground for me: I would ride to the trailhead and put in 8-10 miles at once, sometimes going long just because I lost track of time.
I don’t know if Jenna ever achieved her goal on the FLT. Unfortunately, she was killed in a car accident several years after leaving Ithaca. But shortly after I met her, she became irreplaceable as a running companion and trail guide.
Lawren, meanwhile, emailed or called in the middle of the day to ask if I wanted to run. His pace was generally slower than my normal pace, so the runs were a relaxing way to spend an hour or two before lunch. We explored the campus trails, which included “The Bouncy Bridge”, the golf course, the equestrian center, and some far-afield stretches that wound along uneven terrain next to one of the rivers. We also made our way south and ran to the reservoir, or ran along the Rec Way, or ran through the cemetery and down to the lake.
My memory now simmers with trail excursions during that time, but most of them are snippets. Crossing the bouncy bridge after a heavy rain. Stumbling down the steep creek trail, then pulling off our shoes for a creek crossing. Collecting an errant golf ball hundreds of yards downslope of the course -- clearly someone with a wicked slice. Running along the railroad ties south and west of town. Clambering up the steep hill next to Buttermilk Falls State Park. Running through spider webs high above the valley in Watkins Glen. Emerging from the forest up-range of a guy doing bow-and-arrow target practice for upcoming deer season. Locking eyes with a hunter dressing a deer just off-trail at Connecticut Hill.
We might pass through some of those on the way to the end of this story, or they may just be wisps of memory that live on only in that brief paragraph, echoes of dark matter that live in the shadows but ultimately govern most of our lives.
For now, though, let’s just move along from this whole Tortoise and Hare thing. I did awesome.
Next up: Triathleticization
Mash out. Spin on.
Some runner person. Also perhaps a cyclist & brewing type. But for your purposes, a runner person.