Last Monday, I awoke to rain outside my window and a voice inside my head. Both beckoned me to do something stupid that day. They didn’t care what I did, as long as it left a mark.
Fatigue suggested otherwise, so I shuffled to the kitchen, enjoying the rain but ignoring the voice, the Call to Adventure. I worked on a New York Times Sunday crossword that I couldn’t complete. I drank two cups of coffee that I could complete. The Call got louder.
Around noon, I wandered out of the bedroom in my Charlie Brown running outfit: black shorts, a long-sleeve, gray technical shirt, black visor, blue camo gator, no-show socks (color may vary), and black Hoka One One Cliftons outfitted with neon-yellow stretchy “no tie” laces.
The Call to Adventure had won.
“Going for a run?” my wife Marilyne looked up from Along Came a Spider. Apparently, the Call didn’t have her number that day, so she was thoroughly enjoying coffee #3 while working through a worthy stack of James Patterson novels she’d stumbled across while walking dogs a few weeks back.
“Yeah,” I reached for the Subaru keys. “I thought I might drive up to the GT Trail and try that whole ‘trail running’ thing.” I’d run for about a year now, but with the exception of the Hermosa Valley Greenbelt, a woodchipped, Disney-level trail that used to be a railroad track, my workouts had been entirely cement-based
“Of course, you are,” she smiled. Marilyne understood my dysfunctional logic enough to know why a winter storm presented the perfect opportunity to try legitimate off-road running for the first time.
“I mean, I could just run to the trail instead.” I hesitated with the keys. It didn’t seem very bad-ass to drive to a trailhead three miles away. “It’s not far.”
“I think you should drive, baby,” said Marilyne. “Just focus on the fun part today.”
“The fun part, right.” (See? She gets me!) I grasped the keys. “If the GT Trail isn’t enough, I’d just run further from there.”
“And take your time. You’ve never run on a trail before. It’s not a race.”
“it’s not a race. Got it. See you later.” I headed out. It was lovely advice, but we both knew it was going to be a race. For me, that’s the most fun part of the fun part.
Art of Bad-Ass Running
The GT Trail is a hilly, two-mile stretch of woodchips, dirt, and sand that functions as a gateway to the myriad trails that spread across the Palos Verdes Peninsula. I pulled into a small parking strip at the base of the trail.
As I warmed up my legs, I looked around for 1×1 Dan, a middle-aged, upbeat bad-ass of an endurance athlete who regularly uses this strip as a starting point for his runs. We met during a big gravel grinder down in San Diego called the Belgian Waffle Ride, where we spent several hours bike battling across miles of rolling hills and rugged terrain until he got the best of me and broke away. But don’t think this makes us peers; I was riding a tricked-out, carbon, fully-geared Specialized Crux—the absolutely ideal vehicle for the situation—while Dan rode a singlespeed, zero-suspension, aluminum Trek Superfly—categorically a slower bike. In other words, he brought a knife to a gun fight—and still filled his competition full of lead.
Marilyne and I often find him at this parking strip when returning from our bike rides around PV. We’ll stop and talk and he’ll rhapsodize humbly about that day’s trail run, which usually sounds so epic that the only way to dial it up would be if he’d been chased by rabid squirrels. Many rabid squirrels. No matter how long and hard we rode that day, as I watch 1×1 Dan pull off his dilapidated, dirt-covered Altras and spin his yarns, his workouts sound longer and harder.
And maybe that’s partially why I wanted to try this whole trail running thing.
Two, Wet, Nylon Donuts
It hadn’t rained for about thirty minutes when I arrived at the trail and my phone didn’t expect another shower until… Hell, I don’t know! I never check stuff like that! It would only serve as a deterrent. I headed up the GT Trail.
This is supposed to be the part where I rhapsodize about the birds and trees and fresh air and a bunch of other Henry David Thoreau malarkey—but that would be lying. I couldn’t get lost in the transcendental beauty of nature because I was too damn focused on not getting maimed. The rain had littered the trail with deep ruts, rocks, puddles, and branches, all of which I needed to dodge. What’s more, I’d started my run on a sandy incline. These combined factors caused countless stabilizer muscles in my knees and ankles to fire up—for maybe the first time ever—so I could avoid snapping a tendon. Forward motion became very hard, very fast.
Also, you may know what I’m about to tell you, but I did not. Not all running equipment works in all environments. I went into great detail a few paragraphs ago to explain my socks, shoes, and laces because a lot of love and care went into those selections. My original intention at the start of 2020 was to do the Indian Wells Half Ironman in December. This obviously didn’t happen, but the pandemic still left me with plenty of time to train for it anyway, along with plenty of time to obsess and plenty of time to buy things on the Internet. Thanks to COVID-19, I have a closet packed with high-end, bargain-priced footwear and other running accoutrements—all purchased to optimize performance during triathlons.
But apparently, some triathlon gear doesn’t translate well on dirt. The stretchy laces allowed little stones and pieces of bark into the shoes—and all the lateral movement in my ankles wiggled the no-show socks down right past my heels, bunching them into a soggy, 54% olefin, 31% polyester, 9% elastane, and 6% nylon donut around my arches. About a mile into the run, I stopped to reassess.
Turning around seemed like a viable option. I could blame my failure on bad equipment choices. Unfortunately, Marilyne would be waiting, full of kindness and support. She’d hug me and offer her typically smart advice about learning through doing and she’d make me feel better about myself.
I hate when she does that.
I yanked the stretchy laces to their limit and pulled the socks up hard, ostensibly converting them from no-show socks to ankle socks, giving myself little toe wedgies that would guarantee blisters later. And I soldiered on.
I finished the GT Trail without my socks again retreating into my shoes. To celebrate, I pushed a bit further to Butcher Hill, a bluff overlooking Torrance and Harbor City. Normally, I would stop to appreciate the industrial splendor, but I had just spent the last 20 minutes running uphill. Now was time for the fun part. I was warmed up and ready for my reward: running home, downhill.
Regarding BMXing, Cannons, and Secret Teen Liaisons
I decided to get a little wacky and run home on a trail just south of Palos Verdes North that cyclists call “The Homes.” It’s a well-maintained trail with proper drainage, covered in wood chips that handled the rain, making a gradual decline free of ruts and puddles.
I flew down it. Leaps and bounds, wind in the hair, trees flying by, feeling much better about nature and Thoreau. Maybe I’d grab a copy of Walden off Amazon when I got home. By the time I hit the bottom, I had fully recovered. The desire to go home had vanished, so I ran across the street to Malaga Dunes, a sandy, undeveloped field west of the Palos Verdes Golf Club. The area features a spider web of mountain bike trails and secret BMX courses. Marilyne and I like to ride down on Saturday mornings to watch the lunatic youngsters perform No-Handers and Turndowns six feet in the air. I’d no rather shoot myself out of a cannon than attempt these stunts, so observing them rarely dents my ego.
Although, now that I think about it, I’d probably shoot myself out of a cannon added by a net and sufficient beer. But still, no BMX aerial tricks for these 50-year-old bones. At least, not on purpose. And certainly not sober.
Thanks to the intermittent showers, I had the area to myself, with the exception of an adolescent couple I discovered scrambling, disheveled and guilty, out of the woods. Pretty sure they weren’t reading nineteenth-century transcendentalist literature back there. Nice to know that Malaga Dunes still provides illicit entertainment for teens who have grown past riding BMX bikes.
I continued to a wooded area south of the golf course, up the Olmstead Creek Trail, or “Tricky Trail” as mountain bikers call it. When dry, the exposed roots, steep inclines, and fine, loose dirt make it challenging to ride for all but the most technical cyclists. When it rains, the dirt turns to thick, sticky clay, making it exponentially more difficult on a bike. As it turns out, the same math applies to runners. I scrambled up and down the first hill, no problem, but by the time I arrived at the base of the second hill, a one-inch layer of slippery clay had formed on my Hokas. By the third hill, the clay was three inches thick. It was like running on weighted otter pelts.
I gave up running and clomped my way to the end of the trail, where I stopped to scraped the layers of mud off my otters. To my left was Via Campesina, a windy, well-paved road leading downhill to the Subaru—and heat and more coffee. To my right was Del Sol Fire Road, a windier, poorly-paved road leading uphill. This would add a couple miles to the workout.
All things considered, the run had been a success. I’d done something new. It was cappuccino o’clock, so I headed down Via Campesina…
…for about 1,000 feet. Something didn’t feel right. Or maybe something felt too right. The Call to Adventure weighed in. “Those first couple of miles haven’t been a walk in the park,” it conceded, “but there wasn’t much pain going on, save a tiny, little hill and couple of toe wedgie blisters. How about we suffer a little more before wrapping it up?”
Unable to argue this logic, I turned around and headed for Del Sol Fire Road. Stupid Call to Adventure.
Maybe because I’d just removed ten pounds of mud from my soles, I felt light as a feather running up the fire road. The skies had darkened, but I didn’t notice. I was completely focused on avoiding fissures in the cement. And maybe that’s why I wasn’t in pain. I was having too much fun paying attention to my environment. Every minute was like my own interactive version of Super Mario Brothers. Somehow, all these little challenges made the big challenge feel less challenging.
I arrived at Via Del Monte feeling on top of the world. Should I keep going? Another half mile up the road and I could do Dave’s Trail, a fairly technical track built by mountain bikers in the side of a hill overlooking Bluff Cove.
As I took a few steps towards the next adventure, the sky opened up. Not a drizzle, but a full tilt downpour. Thanks to the narrow path and very long drop, the dry version of Dave’s Trail would already be a party; Add the rain cascading down the slope and it would be like running through an iced snot waterfall. It didn’t seem smart.
“Since when have you been smart?” the Call to Adventure chimed up.
The Call was right. Running Dave’s Trail might result in me falling off a cliff, but I’ve fallen off lots of times! However, my plunges usually involve an adventure partner who can help me back up (after taking a few photos to be used for humiliation purposes at a later date). I don’t mind injury, but I don’t love the mix of injury and solitude. I’d hit my bad-assery limit for the day. Ignoring the Call to Adventure, I changed course and headed down Via Del Monte.
The Voyage Home
The Call didn’t like being ignored, so he put in a word with Mother Nature who, like an over-lecturing parent, reinforced my earlier poor gear choices lesson by issuing a blast of howling wind. The rain took a diagonal course as the gust hit me face-first, practically blowing my backwards. Until this moment, my long sleeve technical shirt had always kept me warm on cooler runs. Now, the space-age fabric clung to my chest, driving the icy sting of the rain into my bones and freezing my skin like some sort of reverse napalm.
Despite the involuntary shivering, I kind of liked it. This was hard. I had finished my challenge, but the challenge hadn’t finished with me. I let out a primal scream and picked up the pace down the hill. A white BMW passed by. I could see the driver between swishes of his wipers, looking at me like an absolute fool. A black SUV rolled by from the other direction. It slowed as it passed. The driver raised a fist in solidarity. I couldn’t hear through her window, but it looked like she said,“Truck bah!” As she passed, I spotted an oval “70.3” sticker on her bumper, indicating that she’d completed a Half Ironman at some point.
By the time I got to Malaga Cove, I was numb. I turned left on Via Corta, past a series of white plastered office buildings. A couple of workers in masks stood out front, hiding under a red terra cotta awning as they watched the rain. Their eyes followed me. One of them gave me a thumbs up, but not a “Rad!” thumbs up. It was more of a “Um, you do you, bro” gesture.
At Palos Verdes Drive West, a righthand turn would find me on a quant, little cement path leading right back to the Subaru.
Instead, I went straight, behind the apartment complex where my bike mechanic lived, and down a muddy slope into the Malaga Creek ravine.
“Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!” rhapsodized the Call to Adventure. The muddy path was no Dave’s Trail. There were no slippery, exposed roots or 30-foot drops. Low chance of death; A worst-case scenario only involved getting on the wrong side of a prickly pear cactus, but it was still bad-ass, in a middle-aged man with a wife, three kids, a mortgage, and a full-time job sort of way.
The Hokas slid out from under me inches from the end of the trail, so that I finished my run with a Fred Flintstone run-in-place maneuver, barely fumbling over the curb to cement safety. And there was the Subaru. I looked around for 1×1 Dan’s car, half expecting him to be there, peeling off his filthy old shoes. He wasn’t there.My entire outfit was pre-spin-cycle wet. It wasn’t keeping me warm or comfortable, so I stripped down to the towel I kept in the back. Unlike my other running gear, a towel is always universally useful.
Once home, I posted my eight-and-a-half-mile adventure on Strava, spent 30 minutes regaling Marilyne with my semi-epic tale, and got on with life. The next day, I opened Strava to relive the moment, as middle-aged endurance junkies often do. There were two comments on my activity. One said, “Save my parking spot!” and the other said, “…nice job, BTW!”
Both came from 1×1 Dan. Maybe I’ll invite him to join me next time. That’ll eliminate any excuses for avoiding the iced snot waterfall.