I spent only a month living on a ship in the Arctic this summer, but there were occasional moments when the desire to run - really run - on terra firma was strong enough to distract me from gorgeous ice floes and charismatic megafauna. When we landed at Grise Fjord, the northernmost settlement in Canada, I stared longingly at the dirt tract along the shore and wondered how far and fast I could run in gum boots, waders and a float coat. Back on the ship, a decent treadmill awaited in a cave-like room on a lower deck.
Back among rocks and roots in the lower 48, my legs and lungs are relearning how it feels to move. And right now, in southern California, they're remembering what it feels like to run in heat. This ain't the Arctic, anymore!
I am harboring ideas of running an ultramarathon next year, and also of heading to big mountains somewhere for a long backpacking trip before 2018 closes down. With that in mind, I drove east from San Diego past Alpine up into the Laguna Mountains to get in some miles on real trails. A guidebook suggested that singletrack and great scenery abounds on the Big Laguna Trail, and that's where I headed.
A lazy morning and an hourlong drive put me at the Penny Pines trailhead a little too late in the day, the temperature already in the mid-80s. But the parking area suggested plenty of other people were shrugging off the heat, and as I got my hydration vest together my spirits soared watching a few runners come through the trailhead.
This region forms a dramatic seam between two landscapes. To the west, the pine forests and grassy meadows are a paradise of trails for hikers and mountain bikers, not to mention the clusters of cattle shading themselves in the trees. To the east, unrelenting desert. Barren, blistering, bleached mountains dive unforgivingly into boulder-strewn valleys.
The first half of my run swung west and then south through pines and meadows and lovely occasional shade, along barbed wire fencelines with gates courteously installed for walkers. I've never run in the area and I was dazzled by the options. The valleys and hillsides here are shot through with winding singletrack, dipping and turning and casting up new views. The first half-mile was a strain against the heat, the dry air and even the altitude, though it was only just above 5,000 feet. But then the gorgeous terrain stole my attention away from the effort of running and I just enjoyed cruising along the edge of Laguna Lake. (Less lake, more marsh.)
Walkers, occasional runners and many mountain bikers formed a cheerful tribe on the trails - not so many people that it felt crowded, but enough that when I got confused by the spiderweb of trail options (which was often) I could usually find someone to ask for directions.
Around halfway, my navigational help came from two runners who were heading my way. I ran-hiked uphill with them through a stand of pines back to Sunrise Highway, about five miles south from the Penny Pines trailhead where I started. From there I crossed the highway and after a stretch linked up with the Pacific Crest Trail and headed north. Here, the trail makes tight, threaded turns at the rim edge of the mountains overlooking the Anza-Borrego desert. The heat was getting to me, possibly because it was really hot and possibly because staring down into the massive bowl of the desert really screws with your mind.
By the time I coasted back to Penny Pines, the thermometer read 94 degrees, but my hydration vest still had water to spare and I'd ripped through merely one sleeve of Clif Bloks. It was only 12 miles, I sheepishly told the runners who were out there for big miles.
But it felt like the start of something good.
[Big Laguna Loop, September 8, 2018]