- This was printed in August of 2014 in The Madera Tribune, a newspaper in Madera, California. This was the 64th installment of my weekly column, Mind Over Miles.
My Madera running buddy, Audrey Crow, and I went for a run on the
San Joaquin River Trail on Saturday.
It was a bad idea.
The hazy sky and campfire smell that wafted through the Madera air last
week should’ve kept us away from the trail. Recent Facebook posts
about bears, snakes and coyotes on the trail should’ve given us pause.
But we had both been craving a trail run for months — Audrey hadn’t
run at all due to a dime-sized stress fracture in her shin, and I stuck to
the roads with our training group. A jaunt in the forest was long overdue.
There is nothing, absolutely nothing, like a good trail run. Running out in
the wilderness, zig-zagging over rocks, pine needles, and occasionally
cow pies, far away from traffic and surrounded by the sounds of nature,
gives a runner an intense feeling of freedom.
But to juxtapose that freedom, the terrain keeps one’s eyes captive —
take your eyes off of the space just a few feet ahead of your shoes and
you run the risk of tripping, skidding or rolling an ankle. (Just ask Audrey
to show you her scrapes and bruises from Saturday’s excursion.)
We decided to meet at the Finegold Day Use area of Millerton Lake.
“It’s closer to the (El Portal and French) fires than Madera is, but we’ll
see how bad the air is and then decide how far we’ll run,” I told Audrey
the day before.
We paid no heed to the air quality warnings and started our drive to
Millerton Lake around 5 a.m. I was coming from Fresno with two running
buddies, Rogelio Montes and Adrian Hernandez, and Audrey was
driving from Madera with her husband, Kenny.
“Is that fog?” Rogelio asked me as we made our way up Sky Harbour
“Nope, that’s smoke,” I replied.
With spotty cell phone reception, I couldn’t call Audrey to tell her to turn
around and scrap the run. We pressed on, opening the windows to see
how bad the air was. Pungent campfire smell streamed into the car and
we abruptly rolled the windows back up.
When all of our group had arrived, around 5:30, we looked around at
each other with the same question on our minds, “We’re really going to
run in this smoke?”
We did. We had driven all the way out there and we were going to get
our miles in.
Imagine lighting a small campfire and then running on a treadmill about
six feet away from it. Although we weren’t coughing or choking on the
fumes, it still hurt a little to breathe and the smell was inescapable.
We ran, stopping to take photos on top of Pincushion Peak, the haze of
French Fire smoke visible behind us. After two miles, the smokey smell
wasn’t as bad and the trail started to dip downhill — a welcome change
from the 1,000-foot elevation gain over the first mile.
As the elevation declined, elation set in. As I bobbed and weaved over
the trail, watching my footing closely and landing on the small dirt
spaces in between jutting rocks and brush, a smile spread across my
face. Now THIS is running. This is living.
My legs turned over faster and faster, my feet slapping the ground as
the decline became steeper. My arms were outstretched, anticipating a
fall at any moment. Adrian, a speedy 18-year-old, voiced exactly what I
was thinking as he barreled down the hill just ahead of me: “Where’re
I laughed, “There are no brakes!” The only way to stop yourself when
you’re moving that fast downhill is to fall or crash into something. So we
moved on at a sub-7-minute-per-mile pace, picking up our feet as much
as possible, grunting at the impact and giggling at the sensation of
being out of control.
Eventually Adrian found his brakes — he tripped on a rock and dove
forward, slip-and-slide style. He bounded to his feet immediately and
assessed the damage. He was dirty, a little scraped up and had
probably sprained his shoulder. But he was able to run. So we kept
running, turning around once we hit four miles.
On the way back I was ahead of everyone, running as fast as my legs
could take me and leaping over the dips in the terrain. As I rounded a
corner I spotted a large black animal in my peripheral vision and felt my
blood go cold. I immediately thought of the photo the Madera County
Sheriff’s Office released last week of a bear running through the forest,
away from the French Fire. Then there were those Facebook posts from
fellow trail runners, warning about bear sightings in the area.
Lucky for me, the black hairy thing I had seen was a cow.
As my heartbeat returned to normal, I had to laugh at myself. What an
adventure this trail run turned out to be!
Lesson learned: Don’t run a trail when the nearby forest is on fire.