As training runs go, or training rides for that matter, it can be fun to put yourself into a position where you face a real test.
Those kinds of runs and rides test your personal character. Push you through fear into new realms of performance. And ruin your psyche if your luck runs out.
It came to pass (a few years ago) that our college cross country team set up camp at Jenny Lake at the base of the Grand Tetons near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. With no real itinerary for training routes or even length of runs, a few team members got together with a topographical map and decided we should run from Jenny Lake up to Lake Solitude and back.
The run was 9 miles one way, 18 miles round trip. The group of 17 runners gathered after an early morning breakfast of oatmeal or somesuch, stretched our calves a little and took off running single file up the rocky, dusty trail leading to Lake Solitude. Off to adventure.
It is beautiful country, of course. Tall pines and alternate patches of shade and sun. Bright gray mountains peeking through the trees, and daunting snow stuck to them like sugar.
The trails were mostly stable and footworthy, worn smooth by hundreds of horses that make the same loop each year. In fact our group had to negotiate around the big beasty horses many times up the 9 miles to Lake Solitude.
We had but one rule on the run up and back: Don’t drink water from the stream or lake. There were clear and present warnings about giardia, the microscopic bug that can turn your stomach into a maelstrom. None of us wanted that.
But none of us carried any water either. It just wasn’t done at the time. So we ran on, higher and higher into the altitude, until we reached Lake Solitude in separate pods of runners arriving at different paces. I was the 8th one there, as I recall. And feeling competitive about that.
A few stuck their legs and feet in the stone cold lake while waiting for the rest to arrive. The water was clear and beautiful, of course. Small trout swam beneath or feet. The mountain air was bright and clean. Only the smell of a few horse apples invaded the atmosphere. Then one horse took a dump near the lake and we decided it was best not to drink after all.
But before we left, the temptation to drink became too great for some. The water was just so, damn, clear. And inviting. Sparkling too. Like Perrier without the bubbles.
Finally the entire team made it to the top, though some were clearly dragging. Complaining too. Never a good sign. We’d just run 9 miles up 3000 feet in elevation. On a normal day, that would be called a good workout. We still had to go back down.
Little did we know, having little collective experience of running in the mountains, that going downhill on mountain trails can be just as bad, or worse, than running up. The pounding on the thighs and calves was terrible. Plus the cumulative effect of having no water and running at altitude in an already dry climate was working its slow, insidious reverse-magic on many of us.
The top runners fairly soared down the hill just the same. As the marginal 7th man at that time, it was difficult to find a zone of running comfort, and keep going, even though it was the second or third longest run I’d ever done to that point in my career. The longest was an inane (insane) 30-mile walkathon that a group of high school sophomore tracksters had decided to run one raw spring day, also with no water, no directions and no rescue team. But that is a story for a different day.
We all get into these situations sooner or later. The bike ride in a howling windstorm when horizontal rain starts up and your group decides it’s “every man for himself,” or every woman. But women tend to be smarter than that, and stick together.
On the way down the mountain it fell to my mind to just let the body do it’s work. Painful or not, it had to be done. There was no other way home. Not even walking was a superior alternative to the steady downhill footfalls carrying me, and us, back to the campsite. Running became trancelike, then enjoyable even. I was beyond. Caring.
We straggled in exhausted and triumphant. Then waited, and counted, until all our teammates returned as well.
Except a few were missing.
One was an ebullient, positive fellow named Tony. We knew he had not done much training that summer as he was on some sort of political circuit learning how to be a senator or such. When he rolled into camp, cussing and swearing, we knew the tirade would go on for a while. The inherently cheery are insanely vocal when pushed beyond their limit.
That meant one runner remained out on the trail, a frail freshman named Matt, about whom we learned much on the long drive from Iowa to Colorado. He had Tourette’s syndrome, for one thing. Prone to outbursts and sudden twitches, he kept everyone awake during the long driving hours on the road. Before we understood his condition, the guy next to him let loose with an angry retort: “Jesus Matt, you hot tamale. Can’t you sit still?”
But now we were worried about Matt. We had lost a freshman on the trail, and knew it was our fault. Should we run back up and find him? Some set out to do just that, and found their legs too shot to try. The 18 miles, plus resting an hour, drinking Mountain Dews and other stupid beverages had turned us all to hyper mush.
Well after the sun went down and twilight settled over camp, Matt came limping along the last hundred yards of trail. Pine needles covered the surface of the ground, so we could not hear his approach. We all just watched his ghostlike silhouette make its way into our presence. Matt got hugs and quick refreshment. The Prodigal Son (rather in reverse) had returned. We were all safely home.
One of the more coarse characters among us dared to ask, “Matt, what took you so fucking long?”
Matt stared at him vacuously for a moment, then said: “Well, there was a moose. On the trail, there was a moose.”
All of us had seen a moose on the way up and back from Lake Solitude. It had been resting in a thick grove of trees, ears twitching away the flies, back lit by the dappling summer sun. It was a huge beast. Bigger than anyone imagined a moose could be. Even running 20 foot above the moose on the trail gave you the heebie-jeebies.
“Where was it?” someone asked. “How far back?”
“Probably 4, 5 miles,” Matt said. “It was lying across the trail. All the way across. There was no way to get around it.”
“Oh my God,” several of us asked in unison. “What did you do?”
Tony chimed in at that point. “I climbed up the rocks and down the other side,” he said.
“You saw it too?” we asked.
“Shit, yes!” he admitted. “I forgot to tell you about that.”
They had been running together at that point, Matt explained. But Tony climbed faster around the trail moose, then told Matt he’d run down fast as he could in case Matt could not make it around the moose. But looking back along the trail, Tony saw that Matt had made it down and would come along fine.
But Matt had run out of juice. His freshman legs had done little training that summer. Probably he averaged 18 miles of running a week, if that. Now he had covered 18 miles in a single day, with 6000 total feet of incline and decline to cover. At altitude. In many ways, he was the best runner of all, among us.
Matt never amounted to much on the competitive side of the team. Not even sure he stuck around for another season of cross country. But to this day, I think he was one of the bravest, strongest hot tamales we’d ever seen. Here’s to ya, Matt. Wherever you are.