“Mr. Cann, we expect you to stay off of that trail. You need to give the woods a chance to rehabilitate.” Eighteen months ago, a pair of park service cops arrived at my door. They gave me crap about the wooded-trail starting behind my house.
Decades ago, I was a hardcore runner. A serious ten-miler, a sub-seven pace. Ten miles was a popular distance—this was before the half-marathon caught on. Before knee-bursitis hobbled me. My mileage became medically limited—a maximum of four-miles per week. Frustrated, I quit running altogether.
Six or seven years ago, I started up again. I rebooted my running form. I stretched religiously. I ran only trails. I progressed slowly. By summer’s end, I was good for a pair of five-mile runs per week. But always with a whisper of knee-pain. Always on the edge of a full-scale bursitis flare-up.
Behind my house is a national park. A wooded portion that no one uses. Swamps, poison ivy and brambles. Interesting to explore in the winter, all but impassable in the summer. Just beyond these woods is the trail-head. Parking for a ten-mile hiking loop. Popular with the equestrians, mandatory for the local trail-runners. One hundred yards from my back door.
But I couldn’t get there. To run to the trail-head required an out-of-the-way paved route that ate up a mile and a half of my limited running mileage. And then I had to get back. My five-mile trail-run included three miles of pavement. Because the park roads were one-way, driving to the parking lot was a five-mile round trip. I needed to find a way through the woods.
It started innocently enough—clearing out some of the brambles behind my house so my kids could play in the woods. Animal paths and old hiking trails were evident beneath the brush. I followed the paths, scraping away the poison ivy, digging up the brambles, bridging the wet areas with the fields stones I found stacked in the woods. In two or three weekends, I broke through to the parking lot. Ten miles of running trails starting at my back door.
And so, I started my current incarnation as a distance runner. A trail runner. A quick warm up in my back yard, start up my watch and gallop off into the woods. More trail than I could handle. My go-to run was a seven mile out-and-back. Leaving six and a half miles of the trail network completely unexplored.
And then the cops came. I haven’t used my trail since.
Ultimately, they did me a favor. I still craved my seven trail-miles, but now I was forced to add on the three paved miles. I began stretching out my distances. By last October, I took my longest run—a 50K to celebrate my birthday. Thirty-one miles, mostly on park trails, but with ten paved miles to round out the distance.
And then I stopped running.
Burned out? Maybe, but also injured. My increased mileage activated a persistent case of plantar fasciitis. I took the winter off.
Now I’m a newbie. My four-month break has completely dismantled my cardio-vascular capacity. It tricked my legs into atrophy. My first run of the season, a two-mile jaunt, left me shocked and humbled. Two miles on a flat, hard packed trail. It might have been uphill… in sand… with a headwind. I was immediately anaerobic and out of energy after a quarter mile. My calves hurt for a week.
I’ve now completed five runs. One of them felt pretty good. The rest were a repeat of the first—sucking wind and pushing through pain. Not the familiar pain of fasciitis or bursitis, but the long-forgotten pain of unused muscles, untested lungs.
The remnants of my backyard path are still visible. The brambles haven’t returned to that area I cleared out for my kids so many years ago. A quick jaunt through the woods would give me simple access and allow me to easily knock out these short reacquaintance runs completely on trails. But the lingering threat of arrest keeps me off that trail. Now I’m driving into the park, twenty-five minutes in the car to take a twenty-minute run. I hope I can rebuild my mileage quickly.