Upon re-entry to the land of Southern California, a distinct funk took over my mind and heart. Strong emotions leaving my home in Lake Tahoe, knowing I will not be there again for over six months. After nine days of living it up in the mountains and enjoying the comforts and familiarity of my own space, saying goodbye felt abrupt, yet I knew it was coming, and so it’s done. I will get to spend two days there on my re-supply in mid June, but I will have to walk 1100 miles to get there. Well, let that be a source of motivation, ha! So, about the funk that came upon me, I just came from feeling way too good to let this get to me. The answer: Run Like Hell. After a long morning of organizing and strategizing, unpacking, re-packing, and trying to wrap my head around why the feeling of funk, I headed over to Aliso Woods for a long trail run.
I never know exactly how far I will be able to go, or I should correctly say want to go, at the beginning, but I have a general rule that if it’s over six miles, I bring water, if it’s over 10 miles, water and a snack plus a headlamp and a jacket. I started on the trail at the International Pot Smoking Time, 4:20, wherever that came from, I have no idea, but I knew I would not forget what time I left the parking lot. I left with full gear, so apparently I intended to run more than ten miles. Honestly, I was in such a funk I was not sure how it would even feel to get out there and wasn’t sure what my body was ready for. From the moment I turned the first corner onto the road the leads to the trails, where I could see rolling green hills and nothing else, I felt an immediate sense of relief and freedom. That funk had nothing on this scene. I started out nice and steady, giving my body time to adjust, but found very quickly that I had loads of energy and my body wanted to speed up. Speed up I did, and found myself in a nice zone where my body felt very balanced and upright, my movements were effortless, my breathing deep and steady, and a cleansing sweat pouring out from my various body parts, including my upper lip.
At a point about three miles into the run, I had pretty much figured on going the full 14 course, but I had a lot of climbing to do. The first four miles of this course are pretty flat and so they make for a great warm up. The next section I start to climb, and it is then three miles of climbing over about 1,000 feet or so of elevation gain. It’s steady and there are some steep climbs and some flatter areas which allows you to change your breathing, your posture, how you land on your feet, your stride, your arms and how they swing either naturally or by force. Always after the first climb, up the Lynx trail, I think I’m done, I am sucking wind, my legs burn, and I can’t seem to get quite enough O2 into my system. But that always ends quickly enough, it’s usually about 9 minutes of that, followed by a nice grade downhill where I can recover. After about four minutes of recovery, the next hill starts, and I feel good and strong, actually surprised how good I feel. At that point, I decided to go the full 14 and I knew automatically I would be running the latter half of the distance in the dark. Not my favorite, but at least I had thought to bring along my headlamp, so I really had no excuse not to go the longer distance. I have yet to break 14 miles on my runs thus far, but after today, I believe I am ready. Another door just opened.
I reached Top of The World just in time to watch the sun set on the ocean. There were so many interesting and diverse people up there, Chinese, Indian, Caucasian, African, Mexican, young and old, men and women, all there for the purpose of watching the sacred sun retire for the evening. I was drinking some water and tying up my shoes for the downhill, when I heard a gentleman next to me call attention to his young child and say “look, be sure to say good night to the sun before it goes down”. To my left, there was a young Chinese couple, taking photos of the orange ball and all it’s ephemeral splendor. After scoffing down a Coconut Chia bar, I was about to set off back on the trail, but instead decided to take a few moments to honor the light. The sun being the masculine force of pure energy for us, and in all my being out-of-doors, I can say without any hesitation that the sun can and does save your life on a regular basis. What would we do without the sun? So there I was, catching the last glimpse if it’s rays dipping into the limitless sea, and starting immediately to feel a chill over my sweaty body. Donning my light wind shirt, I set off toward the East, back on the trail. The sun had just set, but I still had seven miles to go. I wanted to at least make it down the hills before I had to put on my headlamp.
Running in the dark is tricky, so is hiking. I’ve done my fair share, and I have to admit, it’s not my favorite. I passed people on my way down who I passed on my way up. Where are they headed? I saw one lady, large in girth, sort of waddling along at a decent clip. She had a small backpack and dangling from it was a full size red flash light. I suppose, her group, too, intended on hiking after dark. There were small children amongst that group too and I caught myself slightly concerned about how they were going to make it back. If I was running at say six miles per hour, and I had passed them, and I was worried about myself running in the dark, what about them? After a few more strides and a few more thoughts, it dawned on me, there was another way out of the park I had forgotten about, and it was no more than a 20 minute walk for them. Off the hook of worry for them, I set down the Lynx Trail this time in reverse. It always seems to take longer going down, and more tedious, for I have to really watch my foot placement on the steep sandstone drops so much more then when climbing up, a task that is intensified after dusk. By the time I reached the bottom of that trail 8 minutes later, it was time for the headlamp. From that juncture, I knew it was only four miles back to my car, so I would have to run that section in the dark.
Of course I started out thinking this is cool, the night is beautiful. So, what happens between that thought and the point at which I feel the definite need to talk out loud to myself in order to melt away fear? Fear of what, you may ask? Honestly, it’s mountain lions. Whether this fear is based on an actual threat or a perceived threat, I am not sure. That is the way I look at fear though. I try to determine if my fear is justified. Fear of the dark. Is this common amongst humans? Is it innate or learned? I know I’ve learned to fear the actual threat of a mountain lion because of my Mom. Living out in the boonies like she does, where everyone carries loaded guns, and shoots at things, she is never hesitant to warn me of bears, mountain lions, rattle snakes. It’s the classic Lions, Tigers and Bears, Oh My scenario of Wizzard of Oz. Fortunately, my Mom is caring and cool enough to jump on her ATV and ride along my side when I need to go for a run at her place. And it does make me feel safer. What could possibly harm me when my Mom is following me along on an ATV with a gun strapped around her belt? The facts of mountain lion behavior are this: being nocturnal creatures, they are most active at dusk and at night, they are stimulated by a chase, and they do tend to prey on smaller child-like people, say around 100 pounds or so. Does this put me into the category of risk? I would have to say yes. Shit. I don’t want to be afraid. But I am. I am afraid of the dark.
Oddly enough, I am less afraid hiking in the dark in bear country. That may sound absurd, but bears are actually less of a threat, and I’ve done it so many times now, my fear has melted quite a bit. Running through the woods at night, however, I have less experience with, and so I wrestled tonight with that fear. In the zone of my footing, my posture and my breath, I thought about my upcoming hike on the PCT and what it will be like to hike at night. First of all, I used tonight’s run to test out my headlamp. I don’t like it. For so many reasons that I will not bore you with right now. But I have to now add to my list of gear still needed to purchase, another head lamp. So, finding myself in the zone, breathing steadily and still feeling remarkably strong, am I running on fear based adrenaline? I think to myself. Not good, if so, because animals can sense the pheromones of fear, and if I am running on pure adrenaline, then I will surely crash once I make it to my car. So, I try to check in and make sure I am not emanating fear pheromones. A few minutes of silence, and deep breathing, and check, I am not, I actually just feel good.
I tune into the sound of a great chorus of frogs down in the creek bed and work on embracing the dark forest of Oak trees surrounding me, and the sky that darkens and fills in with stars more and more with each passing minute. What a tremendous feeling to be running out in the open wild with just a big open sky filled with stars above my head! Despite my quietness, the frogs at a point silence themselves. I am an intruder in their world and I know this is their defense mechanism. When an intruder approaches, they go silent. It’s like when you are a little kid and you cover your eyes so that no one can see you. So the frogs go, if we make no sound, we are not here. So the intruder was either myself, or another large being. I choose to believe the intruder in the frog world is me, because that would make me the only large being out there. On occasion, I stopped to do a three-sixty (to check the efficacy of my head lamp)… and make sure there are no eyes pointed in my direction.
Funny thing, after dark, not a single person was out in those woods. Where did they all go? Getting back to the trail, I was reminded of a short overnight trip I did along the San Juan Trail last year. I was, once again, hiking at night, with my headlamp, and I kept seeing the reflection of a set of eyes which turned out to be a small bird that comes out after dark, and sits right on the trail, and then suddenly takes off flying as I get about two feet away, flitting away like a fire-fly or maybe a fairy. On the ground they have a resemblance to a toad (remember it’s dark out), but they definitely are not toads, as they have wings. Unless they are flying toads, perhaps. So, on tonight, when I saw them again, I started to talk to them out loud, letting them know how cool I think they are and how I would be happy if there were lots more of them on my trail run, because they keep me company. I also talk to myself about how much further it is to go, where I am, how many more creek crossings until the road junction and so forth. I am just making noise so the mountain lion doesn’t think I am bait. It occurred to me that if I had a companion with me, I would not be stressing about running in the dark, I would feel so much safer.
How will I feel out on the PCT? How much night hiking will I have to do? In the dark, sounds take on a new meaning, as everything is louder, even the sound of your shirt swooshing is louder. It’s like all sounds are magnified, and I wonder if this is because the sense of sight has basically been removed? In the orb of my head lamp, I am restricted to how far I can see, and my usual habit of looking up while I run to gain a peripheral perspective is squashed again and again until I learn that all I am going to get to see is 15 feet in front of me, and the rest is blackness. After 20 minutes of this, I resign myself to just stay in the moment, enjoy the last 20 minutes of my run and to get back into the zone, for there is nothing but the present moment that exists anyway. I am aware of my surrounds, I know these trails and know where I am going. I am feeling strong still, not in pain, not fatigued, so all I need to do is just run and breathe. Run and Breathe. Run Like Hell.