Since the end of the school year, I’ve had two priorities: run every day… and I can’t remember the second one.
I wanted to run every day because months of running sporadically, and only when I had time for it, had become a grim and depressing experience. I felt that I needed the psychological benefits of running, but how much benefit was there really in dwelling on how uncomfortable it felt to be out of shape? By the end of the spring, I wanted very much to regain some of that confidence that comes when the machine is capable and in good working order.
I know that routine is important in training, and so once school was over, I tried to establish a routine of running about the same modest distance every day, often on the same route. Little by little, my confidence increased, so that towards the end of last week, I started varying my runs a little bit more, introducing variety to my route choice.
Then on Sunday, I went rogue.
I had been thinking about the fall cross-country season, and I had decided that our team was bored with the usual runs we do, and so was I. On the one hand, we were lucky to have the trails of Concord — Walden, Great Meadow, Battle Road — nearby, but on the other hand, the logistics of having fifty or so teenagers running around at all different paces had over time spooked me into choosing the safest and more predictable routes. It was a shame, I felt, that we had fallen into this conservative mindset, and that we didn’t make more of an effort to explore other options. After all, Concord is surrounded by conservation land, and I knew there were many, many more trails than the ones we ran regularly.
I had been thinking about my returning runners, and about what I had heard from them before we all scattered for the summer. Most of them just wanted to run more, during the summer and especially during the fall. They pointed out that their mileage often dropped substantially once they got back to school. And I had to admit that one reason was my reluctance to send them and their teammates off on longer runs, especially runs where there was a real possibility of getting lost. Thinking back to the previous season, I knew that there had been a point where we simply settled on a few simple runs that were easy for me and the other coaches to manage.
So on Sunday, only halfway into June and with a whole summer ahead, I decided I would begin laying the groundwork for a new approach in the fall. I figured that if I could explore and map out a handful of new routes, I’d be in a far better position to introduce them to the team. It would depend on knowing the routes well, knowing the mileage fairly exactly (so that I didn’t miscalculate how long it would take them), identifying options for those who might not be ready to tackle the full distance, and most important, providing and making sure enough kids knew the routes that I could be confident that those kids could lead groups that wouldn’t get lost. Step one was to get out there and put myself in their running shoes, so to speak.
I had prepared for my first great excursion by printing out a trail map of Estabrook Woods, an extensive conservation area that lies between Concord and neighboring Carlisle, about two miles from our campus. I had sealed the map in plastic, so I could fold and unfold it, stuff it in my back pocket, and drag it through a sweaty run without worrying that the paper would disintegrate. I thought to myself that the first definition of an adventure run is any run where you have to carry a map.
And it was a good thing I did have the map, because it is very easy to get lost in Estabrook. There are broad, well-marked trails, but they don’t form an obvious route that would be useful to us. Instead, to form any kind of reasonable loop, I would have to take smaller trails, and there were many such intersecting routes, winding around swamps and other obstacles. Take a wrong turn, and the next thing you know you’d be headed for the New Hampshire border.
A second characteristic of an adventure run is that the pace is radically uneven. At first, I found this a little annoying. I was wearing a GPS watch and mostly letting it run, and even though it didn’t matter, I knew that it would record some very slow segments. there were sections of the trail that were so rugged or slippery that I had to slow and pick my way around rocks and across streams, and it bothered me a little that the stupid watch would tell me I had just run an 8:00 kilometer. There were also numerous times when I had to come to a complete stop to check my location and my bearings. Had I really just reached a main intersection, or was the trail coming in from the left one that didn’t appear on the map?
The virtue of slowing down or stopping is, of course, that it reduces the chances of making “mistakes,” but even though I was careful, there were a few places where I chose one path and had to backtrack when I realized that it wasn’t taking me where I wanted to go. Which is to say, exploring that “wrong” turn would have to wait for another day and another run.
The best thing about an adventure run is that if you’re lucky, you have at least one “aha!” moment, where you suddenly comprehend how what felt like disconnected routes or regions connect to each other. I had a couple of moments like that on Sunday, and each one felt like a major revelation. I suddenly felt like I had discovered a new land, and I couldn’t wait to introduce it as one of the cross-country team’s new, canonical runs in the fall. I even started pondering the names we might give the new routes that would take us to these up-until-now unexplored regions — “Punkatasset crossing,” “Chamberlain Woods,” “Blue Bridge,” …
Maybe if our only goal was to run a certain number of miles at a certain pace, these runs would not offer the best training option. And maybe some day this fall, in spite of precautions, someone takes a wrong turn or turns an ankle, and I will have to explain why we were so far off the beaten path. As a responsible adult, I’ll have to consider those issues and take reasonable precautions, but for now at least, I’m excited to keep exploring. Map in hand, I hope to keep from becoming lost myself, and as long as I can keep my wits and my ankles healthy, running this summer won’t be boring.