I produced the following in the fall of 1998, shortly before I started actually getting paid for stuff I’d come up with concerning running. In those days I was a de facto columnist for Cool Running, which long ago scrapped all of my and others’ material in its purposeful transition from a homey New England-first site to a far-reaching virtual shitstain that sold out to the assholes at Active.com. I particularly like this one; you can explore the whole lot of them here thanks to the intrepid generosity of the Wayback Machine.
Don’t Go There
We runners are explorers. Except for the treadmill crowd, the very nature of what we do makes us wanderers and seekers, postmodern pioneers. All but the most regimented yearn for the variety offered by new routes; fresh landscapes and changes of scenery help spike our motivation, forestalling the drudgery that inevitably creeps into our training programs.
Vacations serve as opportunities to travel through virgin territory, guided by our whims rather than travel brochures. Instead of viewing the passing scenery through the porthole of a tour bus or rental car, we live it, feel it, in fact become a part of it. To the resigned dismay of family and friends, we prefer to run, for example, around the perimeter of Disneyworld rather than immerse ourselves in the mouse-eared attractions therein. Accusations that we make bad traveling companions are difficult to deflect.
But we spend most of our time at home, where excursions into the unknown require resourcefulness and effort. To the city-bound, novelty is often offset by banality: “fresh” scenery might include a new strip mall or, almost as offensive, loosely-organized bands of brooding crackheads. (After spending one high-mileage summer in Atlanta, I came to know many of these types by name.)
Those of us in the ‘burbs and beyond are more fortunate. No matter how intimately we know our environment, there is always somewhere new to run. An old logging trail, shooting off into the netherworld from a familiar road, catches our eye after years of inexplicable concealment; we are inspired to explore the sloping lanes of an apple orchard after a decade of regarding it as just another tract of land.
Inherent in the discovery of off-road routes is the certainty of becoming an unwanted guest. Admit it: you’ve seen the signs, the ones that read “PRIVATE PROPERTY” in plain English, and you’ve ignored them, unable to resist what lay beyond in spite of (or, perhaps, because of) their admonitions. “Hell, I’m just a runner,” you tell yourself. These signs explicitly discourage hunters, fishermen, snowmobilers, dirt bikers, unicyclists, out-of-control Canadian truckers and Kenneth Starr, but never runners, who pose no threat to flora and fauna. Therefore, “NO TRESPASSING – THIS MEANS YOU” must apply to someone else.
Running into the relative unknown infuses me with a certain arrogance, a sense of self-reliance; I may be on unfamiliar ground, but, buoyed by past experience, I know I can find my way home. Through my willingness to tolerate swamps, thorns, and righteously barking dogs, I gain perspectives on my world that the couch-bound cannot: a glimpse of scampering deer, or, beneath a sky gloriously streaked and bronzed by a sunset, a view of the sparkling waters of the Merrimack River from an isolated, long-forgotten hilltop.
Serene as it sounds, I’ve gotten myself into trouble this way.
During my Dartmouth days I frequently took to the woods around the town reservoir. One day I became convinced I could find a shortcut back to campus by striking out overland. After negotiating some brutal thickets and crossing a sizable creek, I came upon a field and could hear the telltale hum of traffic on nearby Route 120, the road I had hoped to find. Too smug to be cautious, I breezed by a sign nailed to a tree, noting only the first word: “ATTENTION.” A few minutes later a series of rifle reports did indeed capture my attention, and I did a prompt about-face toward the reservoir. This time I read the sign’s fine print: “ATTENTION: Dartmouth biathlon training range. Firearms in use.” In a typical display of wisdom, I returned a few months later. “Must be a seasonal thing,” I reasoned, immediately before another spate of gunfire sent me thrashing into the sanctity of the woods once again.
Sometimes my disregard is even more callous. About once a year, I run to the top of Oak Hill, my hometown’s highest point. A tough one-mile climb of some 500 vertical feet up a decaying road once maintained by the Forest Service leads to an ancient, sixty-foot-tall observation tower formerly used to spot fires. The public is invited to “CLIMB AT YOUR OWN RISK,” which is considerable, since the structure is older than Stonehenge. But its rickety wooden steps lead to a rewarding vista, so I can’t resist the ascent.
When I last climbed Oak Hill, I noticed a new man-made encroachment: a cell-phone tower over twice as tall as the observatory. It was serviced by a ladder and looked climbable. Figuring it would offer twice the view of its older companion, I clambered gingerly over the concertina wire girding this edifice (“surely they don’t mind runners inside”) and made it about fifty feet up before I realized the bitter winds up there were quickly turning my gloved fingers to stone. Frozen in place momentarily, I was suddenly more curious about the proposed link between electromagnetic fields and various cancers; I swore I could hear the conversations of pimps, drug dealers, and their lawyers being transmitted through my fillings and directly into my brain. Wondering what Sir Edmund Hillary would have made of such folly, I slithered back down to earth. It bears mentioning that while I was flailing around on the tower, a vicious house fire attracting firefighters from fourteen towns was raging away no more than four miles from my dubious perch. The fact that I didn’t see the blaze from a point expressly chosen for detecting such disasters categorically eliminated at least one career option. I did put in nineteen miles that day, though.
I do a lot of running near the hospital where I work. Behind the medical center, a network of trails – soon to be replaced, I understand, by acres of pavement and a nursing-home complex – is surrounded on all sides by private lands and homes, offering ample opportunity to explore and trespass. Having lost track of time and my bearings one morning, I was searching for a shortcut back to the hospital, hoping to avoid tardiness, when I saw a pair of hunters, one wielding a bow and the other an ancient-looking musket. I think the average paintballer could have taken out this pair; still I was aghast – this was hospital property, and signs forbidding hunting abound. “Can’t these idiots read? Have they no respect?” I asked myself in disgust, picking my way over a chain-link fence into someone’s back yard. I just made it to work on time.
I had my most remarkable experience along these lines last month, when I decided to do a hill workout on an open slope I discovered after considerable effort. To find it, I had to cross an interstate highway on foot and run about three miles along a set of railroad tracks. To this day, I cannot pinpoint this hill’s location on a map within a mile, but when I saw it I knew it was there just so I could punish myself in style. The slope was grassy, but not slick; it was evenly pitched, with a grade of perhaps fifteen percent, and two hundred meters long. Best of all, I was far enough away from everything and everyone so that no one would hear me puke toward the end of the workout. I don’t mind doing speedwork in public, but hill workouts are private things, the dirty laundry of anyone’s training regimen. There is no grace or dignity in them, even on the finest of days.
Reflecting afterwards, I could not recall any signs indicating that this land was off-limits. Then again, its owner could not have expected anyone without antlers or wings to violate it from the railroad-track angle. Parachuting in would have been easier. Still, the fact that I had to breach a barbed-wire fence in order to access my perfect hill should have been a clue that I had again overstepped my bounds.
Anyway, after my third or fourth trek up the incline, with the effort taxing but not yet brutal, I glimpsed a figure standing as still as a statue, fifty yards beyond the summit and right in my path, toward lands unknown. He stood within a copse of trees, where branch-scattered sunbeams woven among shadows played havoc with my vision and made me wonder if I was imagining things. Disturbed but not truly afraid, I jogged back toward the base of the hill for my next dose.
But after the next repeat he was still there, and he had moved closer. Now I could see that he was wearing grease-stained overalls and holding a pitchfork. But this was no Rockwellian figure; he looked downright foreboding, his lack of an expression heralding something more sinister than simple indifference. My gasping breath caught in my throat, and I again made tracks for the bottom of the hill. But I’d be coming back up again. If this guy wanted to watch, fine. But unless he specifically ordered me away, I was determined to finish the workout.
Repeat number six came in went, fire rushing up and down my throat. At the top, I resolved not to look up this time, but was unable to keep this pledge, and I saw that the man had taken up a position on a nearby berm. He had swapped the pitchfork for a banjo, which he strummed – poorly – for a few seconds before smashing it to smithereens against a birch tree, Pete Townshend-like. I shook my head and lurched down the hill. For the first time, I dwelled on the possibility that oxygen starvation might be responsible for my “spectator.”
After the seventh ascent, a grunting, arm-flailing, knock-kneed affair that bore all the elegance of an epileptic donkey, my presumed landowner was wearing a pilgrim’s hat and a sundress, and was smoking a suspicious-smelling substance out of a gigantic hookah. He also held a sign: “CLIMB AT YOUR OWN RISK.” But I couldn’t – just couldn’t – stop at seven hills. Not with eight on the agenda. Just one more.
My final dash up the hill was a horrific struggle that seemed to leave even my fingernails hungering for air. I ignored the Drano sloshing about my leg veins for what seemed an eternity. At the top, beaten but exalted, I collapsed onto my hands and knees on a carpet of pine needles. Rolling over a moment later, I saw the man looming over me. He had shed his ensemble and wore the greasy overalls again. And a scowl. Unable to do more than suck in great gasps of air, I waited for his tirade to begin.
“Son,” he said, waggling a gouty index finger and fixing me with a baleful stare, “you lengthen the recovery interval between repeats like you’ve been doing, you’ll lose the anaerobic benefit. Keep it steady.” With that, he spat out a tooth, turned and ambled away.
That’s when I knew my visitor was a phantasm.
Still, making my way back to civilization, I was shaken enough to make an inner promise: no more misguided runs into areas I didn’t belong. There’s something to be said for familiarity, the old saw about it breeding contempt notwithstanding. Enough was enough.
I couldn’t help but notice an odd looking sign along the railroad tracks, though, one of those funky black-and-yellow jobbies with the little triangles. Passing by it, I read a single word: “BIOHAZARD.”
Surely what lay beyond was not a place where a runner would be welcome.
But as I sit here safely in front of my keyboard, contemplating my next run, another old saw occurs to me: it never hurts to be sure.