Cat Bird Seat
By David Yon
This, my friends, buds, running pals et al, is what it is about. You know that old question – why do people run when no one is chasing them? As I peered through the open garage door early Sunday morning, the headlights from Gordon Cher’s truck disrupted the early morning darkness, confirming that yes, I had committed to drive 45 minutes to the coast “just to run.” Was I nuts? This day, like most others, has only 24 hours in it, even though, in typical American style, I have 48 hours worth of “stuff” to do. I was still pondering the big question.
Deep Creek Trail (for more detail see running trails section of web page) runs for 12 plus miles through the heart of the St. Marks Wildlife refuge. The trail leaves the main road along a well maintained dirt road and eventually gives way to a narrower path that runs over the top of the dikes. Within minutes you leave most of the signs of humanity behind you, unless of course you forgot to lock your truck. In that event, you leave the developed world behind after returning to lock the doors, and starting for the second time.
Usually the first 10 minutes or so of a run just isn’t that much fun. You need them to loosen the muscles and get the blood flowing fast enough to feed them and your lungs the sustenance they need to move you along. This day was different though. It took only a few minutes to know that the drive was going to be worth it. The first four to five miles is through heavily forested terrain. The sun welcomed our first steps by splattering rays of sunshine through the trees and onto the refuge floor. It was a cool light, though and not summer heat. The only sounds were our own chatter and an occasional rustle in the woods. Clusters of wild flowers stood guard along the edge of the trail, as if to tell us where we should run. I have seen my share of deer along this part of the trail, but for some reason they were absent today. Maybe they new something we did not.
Back to the original question. I have been whining about a wimpy hamstring lately and my miles have become fewer and slower. I have been racing at one to two minutes slower than my normal pace. So, it is a good time to test out the theory that I run because of the competition, so I can finish near the front of the pack in local races. This morning we are moving along at a pretty slow pace, and there is certainly no racing. But there is still something special in the air. And while I have certainly missed hard training and racing, this run, in this environment, confirms it is about something more important that running fast.
All of a sudden, somewhere around the three mile mark, Gordon and I look at each other. “What was that?” Just ahead on the trail, three critters had ambled across the road. “Well, they could have been feral hogs,” Gordon said. “Seems to me whatever they were, they had long dark hair,” I said. Know any hogs that look like that? How about bears? Maybe coyotes?” The adrenaline was pumping now. I picked up the pace and headed to the spot of the crossing. “What are you doing?” Gordon asked. “Making sure I can still run faster than you,” I said, hoping any bears would fill up on just one runner. Yes, certainly running builds friendships. We scanned the woods, looking for some sighting of whatever had crossed the road. Nothing, but our senses were on red alert and we paid attention to every sound. The course takes a right turn around 4.5 miles. “They are probably cutting the tangent and will be waiting for us at mile 6, after we have worn ourselves out.” Gordon later confirmed with a Game and Fish representative that, yes indeed, bears could in fact be roaming here. The game guy even seemed a bit excited about a possible bear sighting.
Our heart beats fell back to the more normal rhythm of running as we ran on without seeing any further signs of predators. Somewhere around the 5.5 mile mark, limbs cracked on our left and a big beautiful buck, with a majestic head of antlers, bolted away through the woods. I froze in my tracks, admiring his agility. A little further my ankles started stinging. I looked down to discover that an army of hitchhikers (spurs) had grabbed a ride without so much as even asking for permission, let alone waiting for an ok. The longer I ignored them, the deeper they dug. I soon decided it was better to stop and give the bears a chance to catch up, than to continue giving these guys a ride.
As I think back now, I wonder if those little hitchhikers were loaded with something, because the rest of the run matched any I have done anywhere. Now mind you, that includes some pretty spectacular places – Alaska, the Salmon river, Monaco, Antarctica, and more. Somewhere around the 6th mile, the forest gave way to marsh. On this morning, the sun was spectacular as we left the woods striding atop a dike. On both sides of the dike a hypnotic breeze seemed to guide the sunshine down into the water, creating deep blue pools. Then it stirred the water, forming ripples that let the same sunshine escape, returning to the sky. As it broke back to the surface, the sun left each crest glistening. It was truly magnificent. The wild flowers along the edge of the dike must have spent the entire night getting ready for this show. I wish I could tell you their names – but I can only tell you that for a while they simply made the best case for “why I run” ever presented. They waved at us in the breeze with a smile and a warmness that said “Welcome to the St. Marks Cathedral of Running – a place where you can touch your soul.” Thousands of butterflies, including monarchs, danced up and down as if they were the creators of this masterpiece. Around a corner we found herons, egrets and other waterfowl everywhere. Awkward first steps and uncoordinated wing flaps turned into graceful exhibits of flight as these birds rose from their resting places. A five foot alligator sunned himself on the water’s edge and took it all in. Remember, I told myself, even though they can run very fast in a straight line, they can not change direction very well. Yeah, well remember also you are on top of a narrow dike, surrounded by water, and your only choice is to run straight or swim. The good news though was that this gator, and his big brother we spotted later, were just as drunk with the splendor of the day as we were and had no interest in doing anything but sunning themselves.
Reality has a way of showing of up and our run through paradise began to give way to the strain of running too many miles. We soon turned off the dike and back into the woods for the final stretch. Things started looking less “beautiful” and more like “a long way home.” But days like this have a certain magic to them. They touch the very core of a runner’s soul and somehow let you know everything will be ok. You don’t have to be fast or first to be a part of that feeling. You just have to stay ahead the bears and be willing to go. I can’t say I will ever really be able to explain why I run, but on days like these I don’t feel the need to do so.
May your trails take you to your own explanations.