Trail Running the Army Way | September 11, 2014
For my first long trail run, I was ill-prepared and out of my depth but it didn’t matter. The sheer adventure of it was all that mattered. The day went something like this.
The three of us, that is, Mike the Army captain, Mike the Navy aviator, and I, were in a pickle. Army Mike sat on a rock with a topo map spread out over his knees. Navy Mike leaned over his shoulder, holding a compass down by the map. We were on a trail in the middle of the Ventana Wilderness just inland from the Big Sur coast of California. And we were lost, although it is worth noting that having both my running buddies named “Mike” was cutting down on my struggle to remember first names.
While the Mikes noodled over the map, I stood by helpfully shivering because I wasn’t dressed warmly enough. I hadn’t bargained on standing around in the cold. Army Mike scratched his head. Navy Mike looked up at a ridge line off in the distance then gestured to the map, “I think that’s that right there, right?” he said. The trail we were following split into three trails just ahead. The left and right trails both looked promising to me. The trail straight ahead was blocked by a fallen tree and seemed to peter out under some Manzanitas.
Navy Mike had invited me along on this run when he heard I was thinking about signing up for a fifty mile race. “We’re running from China Camp to Big Sur Station,” he had said. “It’ll be good training for you.” He had not mentioned that we were going to be feeling our way across a monumentally confusing jumble of deep, sharp-ridged canyons through dense chaparral that had a reputation for swallowing up lost hikers.
Army Mike looked up from the map with a pained expression on his face. “Is that thing over there this deal here next to that stuff,” he said pointing back at the map. Navy Mike frowned.
I was reminded of my golf outing with Army Mike and two guys from his unit. From the minute we teed off on the first hole the weather had gotten worse and worse. I was waiting for someone to state the obvious, that we should get the hell out of there, but you would have thought we were strolling along on a perfect spring day from their attitude. Eventually we were trying to reach the green on a notoriously long, uphill par four. A furious wind was howling down on us like hell had broken loose. Rain was pouring out of the sky in buckets. Our little inadequate windbreakers were pasted to our bodies by the gale except for the loose parts which snapped like flags in a hurricane.
Every other golfer on earth had disappeared long ago. The clubs were slipping out of our hands and the balls were blowing back in our faces. Finally, one of the guys laughed and said, “Hey, this is golf the Army way.”
The “Army way,” I came to find out, involved blindly wading into some kind of hopelessly messed up situation and then muscling your way through it to the bitter end all the while acting like nothing out of the ordinary was going on.
When Army Mike and I had first hooked up to run together, I found that daylight running was of no interest to him. His deal was, and he actually said this to me, “We need to challenge the night.” So I found myself out running around with him on rugged jeep roads and single track trails in the dark.
“Shouldn’t we have flashlights,” I asked the first time we tried this.
“Nah, it’d just ruin your night vision,” he said.
Of course this was assuming you had night vision, which I apparently lacked. On moonlit nights, this was all pretty tenable. On moonless nights, I couldn’t see a thing. I adopted a weird, stilted style of running as if every next step was going to be over the precipice of a cliff.
Anyway, I was concerned about doing this trail run the “Army way” when Navy Mike announced decisively, “It’s that way.” He pointed along the center trail, past the downed tree, into the maze of Manzanita trees. We climbed over the fallen tree, and sure enough, the overgrown Manzanita did open up slightly this way and that revealing a zigzagging track that eventually turned into a lengthy jumble of rocks that in this part of the Ventana Wilderness qualified as a trail.
Morning had turned into afternoon. The tight canyons and the thick scrub of the chaparral had given way to broad canyons filled with Ponderosa pine, oak, maple, and laurel. We splashed across rivers and streams. From time to time, immense redwoods filled the sky above us. We went by hikers and backpackers on their way to the campgrounds and hotsprings that we had passed. The backpackers trudged along in clunky hiking boots, their massive backpacks looking heavy and cumbersome on their hunched shoulders. In contrast, we seemed to fly by them, light as feathers, swift as deer.
“Where did you guys come from?” they asked, not understanding how we could be so deep inland with no supplies.
“China Camp,” I yelled back over my shoulder.
I could hear a surprised, “What!?” as we disappeared down the trail.
By early afternoon we had been running for about five hours. We were still miles from our goal at Big Sur Station. Not surprisingly, I was encountering some problems. My quads were gone, my calves ached. There was a lot of zombie in my stride. I would fall forward and hope my legs would keep up. I was tripping all over the place. One blister after another had formed and popped on my feet.
But strangely I was having the time of my life. I was beat up but I didn’t mind. The wilderness around me was spectacular, a stunning new vista around every bend. The trail was endlessly changing and shifting. At one moment we’d be looking down on treetops into a deep canyon in bright sunlight, the next we’d be tucked away in a side canyon jumping a chattering stream in the cool shade of the forest with ferns brushing our ankles.
We finally pulled into Big Sur Station about six hours after leaving China Camp. I was exhausted and elated. It was the longest I had ever run in my life. I sat down on the curb next to the parking lot and carefully pulled off my blood-splotched socks. “Look,” I said proudly, waving my bloody trophy for Army Mike to see. He wasn’t impressed.
So in the end we had done the trail run the “Army way.” In their nonchalant military way, the Mikes summed up the day by saying, “Nothing happened.” For me, everything happened, including becoming hooked on trail running.