In media res: the roar of the watershed from the melting snow and the flicker of aspen leaves are about all I hear as I scale the switchbacks up to Church Pond. It’s June 1 and I can’t tell you why I wanted to do this run because it’s a lot of climbing (and descending) and I haven’t done a lot of either of those things in a lot of years. In fact, I was so sore getting out of bed in the morning, I almost fell over. But after coffee and reading a few essays, this route popped into my head and I just couldn’t shake the challenge.
So, in my usual style, I just decided to do it.
SIDE NOTE! After I completed the run that is described in this blog, I went and grabbed my Maremma puppy, Freya ,and took her to a milder trail in the same area where we did a 2-mile hike together. Images in this blog are from the hike with Freya, not from the run since I made it a point not to stop when I was running. PS: Freya is an amazing creature who only pees in mountain streams.
Galena is like the mini-Sierra Nevada, a place where you can hike, mountain bike and run that starts off a lot lower than Mt. Rose or the Tahoe Rim Trail, but that climbs quickly. There’s a million ways to go, but the route I had in mind would take me to a destination called “Church Pond.” If all of that means nothing, just think about it this way: this run means you’re basically signing up to run uphill nonstop for over three miles. And not just uphill in a mild way, but with steep sections with rocks and tree roots. Fun, fun!
I heard about this trail back when I was in graduate school (the first time): I was training for my first marathon and one of my colleagues mentioned that ultra runners—when they can’t get in the miles due to time constraints like their jobs— would squeeze in an “easy” run by doing two laps around the 9.2 mile loop that includes a part of the climb to Church Pond. Always up for a challenge, I strapped my mini-runner’s camelbak on my back and did the single loop, even though the final mile had me feeling like my joints were held together by duct tape.
I got better at the loop, though, as my strength and fitness developed and my times in races continually improved. And then, as basically everyone knows, I got really injured and I was off my feet for years. Granted, this is what enabled me to swim, to get better at cycling, so I’m not complaining. But the simplicity—the elemental beauty—of this kind of running was something I had to abandon.
No more listening to my breath in cadence with my steps and the sounds of the forest around me. (I can’t even express how depressing that was.)
I remember running this loop once in late fall when I’m still in my late 20s, as the last vestiges of foliage littered the forest floor with low and pensive clouds dangling mere feet above my head and I felt so incredibly lucky to see something so beautiful—to run through it, I mean—it was the closest I have come to truly dancing with the universe because I am so happy to be alive.
Fast-forward to last year (filled with physical and personal turmoil) and I drove to this very trailhead to run the same route. It was a day like today: a Saturday with nothing else to do. I stepped out of the car and began to run, but everything about me felt weighed down. Heavy footsteps, heavy expectations. The first real climb— it’s long and gets fairly steep— and my ego tells me I should be able to fly up this. I should be strong. I should be stronger than anyone.
The physical reality of myself catches me at mile one near a trail marker on the side of the mountain where I slumped against the wooden map declaring “you are HERE.”
Where was “here”? Where was “there”? It struck me, as I wheezed, that some fundamental connection with myself had been lost along the way, but how and why was beyond me. I gave up that day, walking back to my car, then driving from trailhead to trailhead around town, hoping to find some ground upon which to gain my self-confidence.
I didn’t run at all that day.
So, today, June 1. I had no expectations for myself as I locked my car at the trailhead again. I expected more of the same (like last year. To be a complete failure, in other words.) So, I made a deal with myself: I could run slow. I could even power-walk. The only thing I was not allowed to do was stop.
I’m not going to lie: it really sucked at first. Gut-wrenching suck. So dizzy you’re going to eat shit as you cross the fallen log over the creek. In the first section of rocky steeps, I walk. But, as soon as I’m up, I start running again. After a while, it feels like any other run: I’m in my own headspace, my own rhythm. I don’t feel fast or slow; I’m meditating in motion.
The other hikers on the trail cheer me on, they tell me I’m awesome. I haven’t heard those words from strangers in such a long time, I can’t help but feel a little proud of myself, even though it honestly takes me nearly 45 minutes to run three miles. Near the top, there’s a 50-something guy who’s run-walking and I pass him on a climb and never see him again. I encounter a huge snowbank at mile 2.97, and cross it carefully and once I do, I keep running. I feel unstoppable. It’s incredible. I’m alive, again.
There’s trail that stretches beyond the next pile of snow for a while, and I’m tempted to go longer, higher. (I’m glad I don’t because 3 miles of steep downhill is rough! I’m going to be sore for days.)
As I’m running this—climbing this mountain— I remember something I told myself again and again in my 20s when I was a fast runner: “Mountains will teach you how to run them. Running mountains will teach you how to overcome mountains in other parts of your life.” It’s cheesy, I know— but that’s what I told myself back then and that’s what I remembered today.
And that’s it. There’s no “….and I won [blah-blah].” Or “…and I just wrote a best-selling novel. Ta-da!!” Just the simple fact that I climbed a mountain today, and it taught me that I can still do difficult things if I’m willing to work for them.
And that, IMO, is worth everything.