October 9, 2012

Sonja's Run

The car ride to the mountain was just talk and laughs, between TMI stories and coffee-induced jitters.

It was Sonja’s first trail run this fall, and we were both very happy to hit the forest together for some fresh air, good times and beautiful colors.

We parked the car and walked slowly to the trail head. We chose to run the trail counter-traffic, so we would not startle the many walkers and hikers who came to the park, often with their little kids.

We started slowly, because I can’t run fast right away. That’s just how it is, and I’ve learned that the more I listen to my body, the more it gives back.

Sonja trots along, teasing me that she didn’t come here to be passed by strolling grandmas…

The air is fresh, but not cold. Under the vast patches of shade, scents of fallen leaves and soft moss fill the air. When the forest clears, some glorious sun rays shine through from the blue skies, lighting the trees on fire with colors of yellow and red. Little busy squirrels rush about, their cheeks full with pine nuts and other goodies to hide away for the cold months to come.

The first hills, soon enough, get us both warmed up, and the crispy sounds of our feet on the trail start to pick up the rhythm. We’ve got plenty of food and drink, so we can go at it to our hearts’ content. At the first fork, I turn right for the rolling hills leading up to the mountain bike tracks. The trail alternates from a leaf-covered mud path to some pretty coarse riverbed rocks, making both runners dance and dodge as they weave around smiling walkers, panting dogs and excited little kids, who cheer them along. “Look, mama! These ones run!”

Past the wooden bridges over the creek, the trail splits. Right into the woods, left straight up in a brutal ascent to the first summit. Sonja, not skipping a beat, veers left and looks at me over her shoulder, smiling. “Slow down, girl, I can’t keep up!”. As she hopped up the hill like a mountain goat, all I heard back was “catch me on the downhill!”.

I slow down to a grind, trying my best not to break into a walk. I’ve been practicing the “grannygear” method Scott Jurek explains in his book, slowing my cadence to almost a standstill stomp, but still swinging my arms forward like when running. It feels awkward at first, but I found it works pretty well. I’m not sure if it actually makes me any faster than walking, but it doesn’t break my rhythm and helps recuperate from the climb way faster.

At the top, I can’t even see Sonja anymore. I hear a couple crunches from the sound of her feet on the rocky path, so I know she’s not too far ahead. I also know that “my section” is coming… It’s subtle at first, but the other side of the first summit is a downward slope that rolls to the bottom of a high valley before the climb to the second summit starts. From this point, I have a good 2.5, maybe 3K of progressive downhill running, which means I’ll come down flying. I’m all warmed up now, and I can almost hear the muffled giggle of Sonja pressing on, putting as much distance as she can before the hill gets serious.

I catch my breath from the climb rapidly, then simply let my legs follow the inclination of the path. Dodging sharp rocks and roots, I fall into a nice, rapid pace that gets my adrenaline going. The air is still crisp and makes my eyes teary, so I wipe them frantically, trying to get as clear a vision as possible.

After a couple turns, I see her in the distance. She’s running hard, dancing around mud patches and other hazards, her elbows widespread to maximize balance. I smirk, thinking how we must look like crazy chickens being chased by some invisible predator.

Now that she’s in my sights, I close in gradually, making sure not to freak out the Sunday morning strollers. Some smile, others offer some encouraging words. “Wow! Go, runners!”.

Getting ever closer, I start to hear her breath, heavier with effort and the thrill of fast running. She knows I’m right behind and she’s giving all she’s got to not make it easy for me to pass her. At this point, we’re storming past the walkers, breathing hard and smiling wide, kicking dust and leaving rolling rocks in our wake.

“Meep, meep!”

I jump to her left, then right in front of her, nearly out of control, making the last part of the way down closer to a frantic tumble than a controlled descent. “Damn you! Wait for me at the bottom!”

It takes only a couple more minutes before the rampage is over, and Sonja comes in about 30 seconds later, panting, laughing and half-dizzy, still in disbelief that we both survived unscathed. “Want to do the second summit? We could grab something to eat there, then run down the other side.”

We take a right turn in the high valley and start the second climb, the one called The Calvary. It was created by monks a long time ago, who built miniature chapels along the wooded path with frescoes of the crucifixion and religious sculptures. They make a strange sight, these little white houses surrounded by the dense forest, but we don’t mind them. They’re just part of the landscape.

The second climb is more forgiving than the first, so we stay together, running stride-for-stride, struggling against the little rolling rocks and catching our breath on the plateaus. That section is filled with large cedar trees with wild mushrooms at their feet, changing the ambient red and yellow foliage to a deep summer green and rich earthy browns on the forest floor. The air is dryer, and the proximity of the open summit is palpable with a cool wind rising.

Sonja, who took her hat off, is all smiles. “Wind in your hair?” She only nods, her expression making a much better explanation than any word she could say at that point. It makes me happy to see her like that.

The naked rocks atop the Calvary offer an ideal, sun-baked spot for a gel and a couple sips of lime-flavored water before the easy home stretch, a forgiving, gentle slope that switchbacks down to the parking lot, passing through an old maple sugar shack converted into an interpretation center.

As we jog down the last kilometer or so, I turn to my friend. “So, how was it?”. “Let’s do this again, sometime”, she just answered, winking. It had been a fantastic run, one of the best this year, and they both knew it.

A run that would be easy to remember, for a long time, with a simple closing of the eyes, a deep breath, and a smile.


  1. Hey Flint, you've got a really good blog here. I work for Tribesports and we are always interested in adding passionate sports and outdoor bloggers like yourself to our blog roll and our network. Drop me an email: blog @tribesports.com if you are interested.

    Many thanks,

  2. Bonjour,
    I am looking for a trainer in Florida (Clearwater)to teach me the proper barefoot running technique.
    (English toward the end.)
    Je vais aller passer un mois en Floride près de Clearwater (Indian Shores, un peu au sud) et je voudrais commencer à faire de la course à pied. Je sais, ça semble facile pour tous, mais pas pour moi. J'ai un "blocage" face à la course à pied. Je fais plusieurs autres sports (ski, nage, vélo...) mais pas de course. Cependant, j'aimerais m'y mettre. J'ai toujours détester courrir en espadrilles, mais j'ai découvert en faisant du surf à Tofino (avant la mode du barefoot) que de courrir sur la plage avec des "booties" (bottes en néoprène)sur le bout des pieds était confortable pour moi.

    So I recently purchased barefoot shoes and my goal is to get over my "fear" of running and start barefoot running while I am in Florida this November (likely really going barefoot if I am on the beach!). Going through your blog (I discovered you on radio-canada a while ago one morning) I see that it can be very technical. Since I have never ran before, I do not have bad habits to breack. But I would like to learn the proper technique and run right from the start.

    Never having been involved in any running community, I have looked on the www to figure out how/where to find a qualified trainer. And I am a bit overwhelmed at where to start. My number 1 priority is to find someone that understands biomechanics and will be able to instruct me on a proper technique. Then it would also motivate me to meet with someone in order to get me started. I tend to procrastinate on doing things that intimidate me and running intimidates me. And I am proned to injuries (joint laxity) so a coach correcting my technique is important.

    So could you (or someone from the community reading this) point me into the right direction in order to find someone qualified/knowledgeable? I'll be in Indian Shores (below Clearwater, Tampa area)from mid-november 2012 to mid-december 2012. They say it takes 28 days to integrate a new habit. This is what I'd like to do during this month off.

    Thank you in advance for any help you can provide me with!


  3. I sent you an e-mail Julie, we'll try to get you started and happy :)