Lost in the Woods [September 18, 2019]

Journal entry for September 18th, 2019

Dear Pookie,

I’ve been meaning to tell you about what happened to me this past Sunday. But with my new schedule, it looks like Mondays and Tuesdays won’t be writing days. At least not planned ones. Mondays are now what are called “Cheesecake Days”, which is a reference of course to my infamous day at the gym back in February that I wrote about here. I’m not eating a cheesecake, but it’s a day that I spend entirely at the gym – weight training and getting on the various cardio machines. I basically pull a full work shift. I just kinda love the simplicity of it – nothing else exists except for that. I’m out of pocket, I barely listen to music or podcasts (unless I’m going to be on the bike or elliptical for a long period of time). Previously, Mondays were reserved for “House Mom Days” where I do all the chores and errands for the week that need to be done. But now that has gotten pushed to Tuesdays which work a little better. But then again, that means no time for writing on these days. And I would’ve told you what happened on Sunday on Sunday, but…well, you’ll see.

Anyway, I was scheduled to run 15 miles. On most weekends, I’ve been going to The Palisades on Saturdays to get my significantly longer runs in, usually do some out-and-backs along the Long Path. On Sundays, I go to Harriman State Park. The runs aren’t as long as the Saturday ones, but here I get a feel for more rugged terrain on usually tired legs. I don’t worry about my pace on either day and hold a nice easy pace – even dropping down to hike for stretches (part of what I learned from the North Face Endurance 50K in June – in an ultramarathon, you better also be a good hiker). So I had to do 15 miles in Harriman.

I had chosen a route one of my friends had recommended awhile back that I haven’t had a chance to check out. It is a 14.2 mile loop that starts at the Appalachian Trail , goes through the Lemon Squeezer, connects to the Long Path on an unmarked trail, heads back through the Long Path, gets you through Times Square, over the hills of the Ramapo-Dunderberg Trail, and back to where you started. I had done stretches of it months ago with Gf – mostly on the AT and Long Path – and it seemed simple enough to follow. After studying it the day before and memorizing all the different turns and intersections, I was fairly confident heading in.

I parked in the hikers’ lot at approximately 8:30 AM and started off after that. The morning fog and tranquility really set the tone, and I was excited for what was to come. I would’ve gotten there even earlier, but it takes me an hour to get to Harriman from Jersey City as it is and I always have a cup of tea and pack all of my equipment beforehand, which takes time. But 8:30 is early enough to beat the rush of hikers later on and have some solid hours to yourself.

The first part was easy enough as I had done it many times before. When I got to the Lemon Squeezer, I was tempted to take the easy way since it had rained the night before. But just in general – like in life – I never like to take the easy way. So I tossed my trekking poles up and pulled myself up the slippery rock. A nice little upper body workout thrown in there thanks to one of the AT’s many peculiarities.

I pass the intersection of the AT and Long Path and see on the directional sign that from there, the Bear Mountain is 15 miles away. Good to know for the future if I wanted to do a point to point run and have Gf meet me at the end. I keeping heading up the AT – a section I had only done a handful of times. But regardless, the terrain wasn’t difficult at all and I was even able to run at a good pace for stretches. However, the unmarked trail turnoff lingered that had me a little worried (in addition to maybe coming across my reptilian friends that I had made on my last trip to Harriman). But whenever I would feel the nervousness and anxiety start to bubble, I would remember to gently come back into my body and the senses, to focus on my breath, and just be in the present. The fear of getting lost or rattlesnakes didn’t stand a chance. I was now impervious.

Finding the unmarked trail was a breeze, as my friend’s directions were crystal clear. He has thru-hiked the AT and just finished up the PCT so he is my guide to all my questions and concerns regarding the trails considering I’m pretty new at this. So I start heading back through the Long Path – which is REALLY runnable at parts and I start to get into a really good rhythm. Making sure not to go too fast obviously to enjoy it.

I started hitting trouble when I turned onto the Ramapo-Dunderberg. That section of the trail wasn’t particularly difficult – in fact, it’s very similar in terrain to the Raccoon Brooks Hill trail in Harriman that I’ve done countless times. A lot of ups and down and these rocky outcroppings that overlook the park. These outcroppings (and forgive me if I’m using the wrong terminology here, I was raised a bougey kid in the suburbs and have been roughing it in Hudson County for the last nine years) are a navigational nightmare for me. I can find my way when I’m in the wooded trails no problem by just following the trail blazes. But when you’re standing on a rocky hill with no tree in sight, it’s tricky to find where to pick up the trail.

This section became pretty tolling mentally, which of course translated to my body. I started feeling tired and cranky and was ready to go home. Mile 9 was probably the worst of it. My navigational skills were declining the longer I stayed out there, especially on a trail like this. Up and down, up and down – and you never know when it’s going to end. But then I did what I normally do when I’m feeling cranky on the trail and don’t know why – I ate a Honey Stinger waffle – and magically, my crankiness disappeared. I’m seriously like one of those Snickers commercials. Just get some food in me, and I’ll shut up.

But that wasn’t making it any easier to follow the trail. Missing the intersection for the Dunning trail (which I wasn’t supposed to take, just pass through) should have tipped me off that something was amiss. I was supposed to turn on the Nurian trail. But when I get to a road – with actual cars and stuff – I knew I had really fucked up.

I definitely went too far.

I pull out my cell phone and try to figure out where I am. I cross-reference an image of the map on my phone with Google Maps. I texted Gf for good measure too. But then I realized that my phone was running out of juice. And from the looks of it, I was over nine miles away from the car. I was at mile 13. I was out of my water/Tailwind mix. Traversing 22 miles a day after doing 20 wasn’t going to be ideal.

But that’s if I wanted to take roads. Yeah, I could have Ubered or something to my car. But that’s the equivalent of taking the easy way at the Lemon Squeezer. Not happening – unless we were faced with a worst case scenario. But I was also reluctant to head back into the woods. What if I got lost again? I didn’t want to get back on that damned Ramapo-Dunderberg for I dunno how long to MAYBE find the Nurian.

I looked at my options. With my cell phone dying, I wouldn’t be able to navigate for too long. So I thought: what would my patron saint David Goggins do? “Who’s gonna carry the boats?” he’d ask, and then he’d run the nine miles.

So that’s precisely what I started to do. I wasn’t particularly enthused about it, but figured this was good training for the JFK 50. And surprisingly, in this fight or flight situation, my legs felt completely fresh. Now on pavement, I was comfortable doing eight and nine minute miles.

But running on a winding road with cars doing well over forty miles per hour is not ideal. So when I noticed a trailhead for White Bar – one of the trails that connect to the Nurian – about two miles into my run, I knew I then had another option.

It was risky, but it might beat running nine miles on this winding road. And looking at the map, it seemed fairly straightforward from where I was. I was going to do extra miles, no doubt about it, but this would take me through the park instead of the long way around Lake Stahahe. If I wanted to make it back before the Raiders game, this was going to be my only chance. I’ll risk it.

The Nurian forks off to the left of White Bar. And immediately, I am faced with another decision. There is a trail that forks off to the left. But it’s unmarked. I am fairly confident it’s Island Pond Road, but I’m not too sure. If that is the case, it would be a little more direct than the Nurian. And probably more runnable. I take the gamble and head down the unmarked trail.

I try asking random people I see just for some assurance, but it seemed like nobody in Harriman that day knew where the where or what the hell they were doing. I abandoned asking about specific trail names/colors, because they didn’t know them. I’d ask simple questions like, “If I keep going down here, what will I see?” They would look at me bewildered and I wanted to burst out “Hey you clowns! You just freaking came from there! How do you not know?” So I keep running, because I figure the faster I get to the point that confirms if I’m going the right way or if I’m lost, the better. But of course, not too fast to deplete myself of energy.

On my dying cell phone, like seeing a location pop up on your map while traversing the wasteland in Fallout, I see that I’m headed towards the Boston Mine. I’m going the right way. And I’m getting closer.

I get on the Arden-Surebridge trail to then get back to Island Pond Road which becomes a pain to navigate. The markings are spotty, but there seemed to be a trail race around here at some point – maybe leftovers from the North Face Endurance Race (not the one I did in Massachusetts, the New York version) so there were different colored ribbons and markers that completely distracted me and would send me in loops. The Arden-Surebridge is really the only other trail in that immediate area, so you’d figure any race markings would keep you on that. Wrong. Fucking wrong.

Fortunately, by the frace of God, I find another unmarked trail, which I’m pretty sure looks like Island Pond Road (considering there’s a big fucking body of water to my right, I’m fairly confident). Which heads right back to the AT – only about a mile from where the car was. Time to book it.

I see the familiar white blazes of the AT, and my eyes well up. My body feels fresh. I’m gonna just run this last stretch. My running watch – which is also dying – reads 17 miles. I hadn’t covered this kind of mileage in back to back days since the Chowdah Challenge. And I did this on trails. And I got lost. And I was out of water. When backed into a corner, my body and mind responded. I’m invincible – if I set my mind to it. And maybe – just maybe – I can do these 50 miles.

I call Gf and let her know that I’m OK. I hadn’t realized I let her hanging mid conversation (oops), but after explaining everything, I was in the clear. I didn’t have time to hang around the car and stretch and foam roll and do some post-run planks. I guzzled some water that I had in my cooler and hit the road. It was time to see the Raiders play the Chiefs.

The game starts as I’m almost home, so I bring up a live stream and listen to it in my car. The Raiders are driving the ball. Both teams are 1-0 and this is a pivotal divisional game before the Raiders hit a brutal stretch where they don’t play in Oakland again until November.

The drive culminates in a field goal, and the Chiefs get the ball – which is what I’m more worried about. But the defense comes up with a big stop. And the offense gets the ball back.

As I start to come into the apartment carrying all my stuff that I brought with me, I’m holding my cell phone and watching the Raiders march down the field once again. As Derek Carr throws to the back of the end zone and Tyrell Williams grabs it for a touchdown, I yell and pump my fist. 10-0 Raiders. These mad men are actually going to do it. On a day that I busted my ass on the trails. Of course they would. I knew they would.

Of course, they didn’t. Because I mean, Patrick freaking Mahomes. The Chiefs have a legendary second quarter that puts the game effectively out of reach. The Raiders were just outclassed for the rest of the game.

But I see that 10-0 score at the beginning and – sure, we got our butts kicked. But I see hope. For just a little bit, we were able to hang. If the ball bounced differently, maybe we could’ve taken that game. It was an alright start. We just have to learn how to finish. We are not ready to be in the same conversation as the Kansas City Chiefs.

But Pookie, you remember how back when I was a little kid I would try to take significance from the outcome of Raiders games and try to apply meaning in my own life? And remember how I did that even as a young adult when I was looking for some meaning and something to cling to. Well, even though I don’t live or die with the Raiders or really care about outcomes anymore, I still secretly do this. I guess old habits do die hard.

So what I take from it is this. Things didn’t go my way on Sunday. Running 18 miles when I was only supposed to do 15 isn’t ideal. Especially a day after doing 20. And I still have a lot to learn. I can’t be considered in the same league as the real serious trailrunners that I look up to/envy.

But I discovered something on Sunday. An untapped potential. In a tough situation, I responded. For just a little bit, I was able to hang. And it gave me confidence heading into New York City, but especially for the JFK 50.

I dunno. Maybe I’m not ready for all of these big races that I have planned and the fierce competition I’ll see. There are some world class athletes participating in these. But maybe – even though the scoreboard doesn’t say so – we are on the right path.

I’ll be heading west to Cleveland for the weekend, but also scouting out the section of the Appalachian Trail that I’ll have to run in the JFK 50. What I learned from Massachusetts was that knowledge of the course in a trail race helps immensely. So before I spend the weekend doing bachelor party things in the city that birthed Drew Carey, it’s time to do some reconnaissance. Updates might be spotty, but I’ll see what I can do. Worst case, I’ll update you when I get back.

– Coach




1 Comment Leave a comment

  1. Having trouble clicking on the “like” button!!! Technology is not my forte. But I’m glad your story had a positive spin!!!! Enjoy your reconnaissance/bachelor party weekend. Safe travels!


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