From the Archives: Turn Back, O Man!

[December 2014 has been unseasonably warm and wet, with what has felt like several weeks of uninterrupted drizzle. In short, it has been pretty good running weather, all things considered. One benefit of having temperatures above freezing for most of the month has been that — after that one snowstorm in November left it covered in snow — Battle Road and Great Meadows have remained viable, extending our trail-running season all the way to the end of the year and maybe beyond. In honor of these fortunate and few opportunities to run off-road in Winter, I’m re-posting my account of Andy Donaldson’s legendary circumnavigation of Great Meadows when it was under water. Originally posted December 15, 2008.]  

Runners can be stubborn, but for sheer ornery persistence, orienteers are off the charts.

Orienteering is the art and sport of traversing rugged terrain in search of marked checkpoints using a map and compass. The best orienteers are generally good runners, but the converse is not true; the best runners are frequently awful orienteers, probably because their brains never learned to work as quickly as their legs.

Runners like things to be predictable; they like to know how far they’ve gone, and how far there is left to go. Runners don’t like wrong turns. Runners wear Garmins, and log their weekly mileage to the tenth of a mile.

Orienteers like to go off the grid; they amuse themselves by getting lost and then trying to figure out where they are. They know that it doesn’t matter how fast you run if you don’t know where you’re going. They are untroubled by things that give runners pause, such as thick vegetation, rocky terrain, deep mire, sharp ascents and descents, and all manner of other obstacles they might encounter in the wild.

Runners and orienteers sometimes train together — long runs on trails or in forests are a happy common interest. But every once in a while, the difference between the two breeds bubbles to the surface.

So it was on a cold Sunday morning when our usual group met for a run on the Battle Road Trail in Lincoln. Our typical long run involves following the trail for about four miles, cutting through a cemetery and some other roads to get to the Great Meadows Wildlife refuge. We do a two-mile loop around the marshes, and then go back the way we came.

Following that plan, that Sunday we arrived at Great Meadows after 5+ miles of running only to discover that the trail around the wildlife refuge was underwater. The recent rains had swollen the river and the marsh, and we saw that for at least 75 yards, the water was at least ankle deep, maybe more. But after that, we spied a patch of dry trail and then saw the path curve off into the distance towards the river. After a brief discussion, the five non-orienteers in the group wanted to turn around, reckoning that a significant portion of the trail would be submerged. The one orienteer, Andy, thought that the trail would be passable and would dry out after this little bit of overflow. More discussion ensued, and finally, the five runners decided that one way or the other, they were not interested in running another 6-7 miles back in soaking wet shoes and socks, so they decided to turn back. Andy, on the other hand, decided to chance it, plunging ahead… literally… splashing off through the frigid water towards that one spot of dry trail, yelling that he would meet us around the other side.

So we ran back and down to where the trail comes out the other side of the marshes. The trail on that side was also under water… not a good sign. We waited for a while, but there was no sign of Andy. Getting a little worried, we climbed the observation tower at the edge of the Meadows and scanned the horizon for signs of our orienteering friend. After a few minutes we saw his navy blue windbreaker making very slow progress through what appears to be knee-deep water.

Remember now, the air temperature was barely above freezing.

Finally, Andy emerged from his circuit of the marshes, his tights wet to his waist. He still had a big smile on his face as he said simply, “You were right!

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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1 Response to From the Archives: Turn Back, O Man!

  1. Kevin says:

    Hard to believe that was 6 years ago already. I also won’t forget the older couple in the parking lot who were begging him to get in their car because they thought he was going to die from hypothermia.

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