A few years ago I had traveled to eastern Idaho on a visit over the July Fourth Holiday. In jeopardy was my plan for a 90 minute trail run at a steady pace. The subdivision sprawl with its miles of concrete made my legs ache just thinking about running on this surface! There had to be an alternative. Searching through a hiking book I found on a bookshelf, I located a US National Forest within 30 miles. Bingo! I hastily made plans to rise before others, quietly maneuver through the house and make my escape to run an unknown forest service trail. It was a long shot plan built on hope.
Early the next morning I drove through the irrigated alfalfa fields, crossed the Snake River and began to meander through the sagebrush lined hills. Gaining in elevation the vegetation went from sage to buck brush, cedars to pine, and finally, aspen mixed with fir. Maybe this could work out. I slowed my vehicle down and began to watch for some resemblance of an inviting trailhead lending itself to running. I might even change my workout depending on what I found. Rounding a bend in the road, I spied two motocross riders preparing for a ride. My inquiries regarding a trailhead were met with a shrug of shoulders and finger pointing- in a general direction away from their travel route. I continued on and located a dirt trail at the bottom of the next hill. The four wheeler ruts made the USDA Targhee National Forest trail barely recognizable. Oh well, still better than pavement I had left in suburbia I told myself. I pulled my car over and parked next to a campground.
The crowded campground was abuzz with early morning activity. Tents, trailers, RVs, lawn chairs, bonfires, and all that I was hoping to avoid. I laced up my shoes and headed down the trail focused on using all the time available. Fortunately, the trail appeared to be headed away from the campground and human noise.
I had no idea where this trail led – so I took my bearings, looked at my watch and began my run. Four hundred meters later, I came across a blue arrow spray painted in the middle of the trail. Since I had never before encountered such directional guides while running an unexplored trail and I had to register this as pretty odd.
Running on I found another blue arrow, another and another. At this point, curiosity took over and I felt compelled to follow. For the next two miles blue arrows appeared every 100 meters. 100 meters right turn, 100 meters left turn, 100 meters straight- the trail of blue against the dark earth was extraordinary. Through old growth forest, aspens, open grassy meadows, along clear mountain streams, all a single dirt track – this was fun! I realized my morning’s training mission was being accomplished.
Looking up trail, past a blue arrow, I saw the sign. This white piece of paper fixed to the top of a small wooden stake read -“pick up your small stone and turn around here”. The white sign had an arrow (blue, of course!) pointing down to a clear plastic bag full of smooth stones at the base of the wooden stake. This is really weird. It was the end of the trail for my blue arrows as the next one before me gave a complete directional change of 180 degrees. Rats. My watch indicated I needed more trail time. I continued on with my run – this was fun. It was a beautiful trail – good footing, single track dirt, rolling terrain, a perfect fit for my training schedule-and all in solitude.
Until, that is, I glanced ahead at the junction in the trail and saw movement. Up the trail ran a young boy. I saw him stop; bend over appearing to pick something up from the ground. At this time, I announced my arrival, and noticed I had run a complete circle, finding myself back at the wooden stake with the sign. I just had to ask him – “Is this a race?” His startled look gave way to an excited exclamation of “yes!” Stone in hand, he hurriedly turned around, and began a down-hill assault any Olympian would be proud of. Once again, my curiosity led me to retrace earlier steps. Not a minute later, appeared another young runner. Muffled voices now carried through the air. Here came a young couple running together, a dad hiking with an infant on his back, a mom with two young daughters, followed by a grandmother with grandkids. I suddenly realized the shouts of encouragement from the other runners were directed to me. “You can do this!” “Way to go, you can win this!” I just smiled, waved and continued on. The next shouts woke me up. “You are doing great – you are going to win a big prize”. Prizes? I slowed my run to a crawl and asked “there are prizes?” “Oh yes,” exclaimed a mom, “great electronic gear, hiking stuff and …”
That was enough for me. The competitive gear kicked in. This is cool I thought – no entry fee, jumping in the middle of a race, winning really neat stuff. Mental flashes of infamous race imposters crossing the finish line appeared in my mind. This might be my first time for being a race bandit. “How could I stoop so low,” I asked myself?
I continued on following the arrows in a reverse order from my ascent. Over the next few miles I met other runners, joggers, hikers all headed up the trail. Smiles, waves and continued encouragement filled the mountain air. As I approached my original point of trail access, I noticed another blue arrow directing runners into the campground. Now I get it – a family reunion with a trail race! This must have been a big family. What a family reunion!
Maybe I could have blended in with a connection of a second cousin, twice removed, on Aunt Mildred’s’ side, claimed my prize and then made a quick exit. My results could read; “cousin Joey.” Pull up a lawn chair and please pass the lemonade! Hmm…Maybe next year!
Until next time – enjoy the run!