Why You Need a Wingman | December 29, 2011
It’s Friday morning and I’m anticipating our usual end of the week workout. I email my running buddy, “Wingman, totally stocked [okay, I misspelled ‘stoked’] about running Jacks Peak…go at noon?”
He replies, “I’m totally ‘stocked,’ too, but I’m home in bed sick. You’re on your own.”
I email back, “You are the world’s crappiest wingman.”
This is an ongoing joke between us. He’s missed a few long runs lately so I call him a lousy wingman. In fact, at the last hundred, I was flagging near the end and he practically dragged me across the finish. You couldn’t ask for a better wingman (or wingperson, sorry, not meaning to exclude anybody here).
The Jacks Peak run is a nine mile circuit through a county park above Monterey, California. It’s mostly rugged trail, oak and pine forest, somewhat isolated. But doing it alone is no big deal. In twenty years of running there, nothing bad has ever happened.
I park the car and ascend Olmstead Road then turn up the trail. Half way up, I go through a fence and I’m in the park proper. I turn onto a fire road just down from a picnic area and then come to a stop. There is a big dog all alone standing stiff-legged in the road, a Doberman. It lowers its head and charges.
I have no time. I put my hand out, start saying “Good dog,” and I pray it’s just playing.
The thing sweeps down on me and bumps my hands as he flies by. His momentum carries him down the road and then he’s back, ears up, tail waging. I see he’s not a pure bred Doberman but a cross between a Doberman and some thicker dog like a Labrador. He’s huge. He prances by me and finally I hear a woman’s voice calling to him from a trail above the road. “He’s like a horse,” I say.
“He’s a hundred and twenty pounds,” she says and keeps calling him but to no effect.
The dog ignores her.
I turn away from them toward a picnic area and the dog wants to come with me. I don’t extract myself until I’m so far away that the dog has to decide between us. But the problem is that the usual workout we do up here is a big sweeping loop that ends up coming down the very trail where the woman is headed with the dog right now. I consider cutting the course short to avoid meeting up with them later in the forest where the dog might have a different take on what I am and decide to bite me in half. But pride goest before the fall. I must stick to the full workout to show my wingman I am not a wimp when I am alone.
Well into the loop, I’m thinking it’s about time to meet up with the dog, when I catch a glimpse of a big bobcat turning behind a bush further up the trail. It’s the first bobcat I’ve ever seen up here. I carefully approach the spot where the bobcat disappeared, make the turn in the trail, and see nothing. So there’s this animal out here and it can’t be far away but I have no idea where it is. I trot across an open area and it occurs to me, “Hmm, how sure am I that that was a bobcat and not maybe a mountain lion?”
We do have mountain lions in our area. It’s been in the newspaper. I’ve even seen one myself in a similar spot not far away. The trail leaves the open area where I could see everything and dives down through a tight section of close shrubs where I can see nothing. Now I’m tiptoeing around each turn, searching the bushes for some sign of a vicious predator or maybe a huge dog that is going to get spooked and take me out.
Just then there is an explosion in the branches at eye-level about fifteen feet in front of me that raises the hair on my arms. It turns out to be a dove that I flushed out of the bushes, but I swear if the thing had burst out of the shrubs at my elbow, I would have soiled my running shorts and found religion, a good thing, since I would have also immediately died of a heart attack. But it was just a bird.
The rest of the way down through the forest I am totally creeped out and missing my wingman. Everything looks like it’s about to attack. Pine cones on the trail are actively trying to roll my ankle. Sharp stumps are waiting to impale me when I trip. Branches are targeting the soft of my eyeballs. I see a squirrel and imagine it lunging at my throat like the rabbit in Monty Python. When I finally get back to my car, I feel like I’ve been given my life back.
Would things have been different with my wingman along? Probably. With two of us in the road, I’m not sure the dog would have been as eager to feign its attack. Talking and making more noise up in the woods, we probably would have alerted that bobcat a lot sooner and the thing would have been long gone before we even knew it was there. Ditto if it had been a mountain lion instead of a bobcat.
The fact is a lot of ultrarunning training is done in areas that are safe enough for a pair of runners but risky for a lone runner. I run in another county park across the highway from where I live. One seven mile loop in that park is full of hikers and the occasional mountain biker. If you tripped and hurt yourself, someone would be along that day to help. But there is a remote trail that leads up to the top of the highest peak in that park. It is terrific ultra training, a series of steep climbs and descents. But no one is ever out there. It’s just you and the mountain lions. Going there alone is a needless risk.
So evaluate your workout locals. Give some serious consideration to what would happen in a worst case scenario. Do you really want to be all alone five miles from your car in an area that gets no foot traffic with a rattlesnake attached to your butt because you had to sit on a log to get a rock out of your shoe? Or would you rather have your wingman along?