The day I knew I was a trail runner

I still remember the day I knew, deep in my bones, I was a trail runner.

It was a winter morning, four years ago, shortly after I moved to Indianapolis. The day was chilly, with a light carpet of snow on the ground.

I was looking for a group to run with, and had run across a web site for the Indy Runners, one of the largest running clubs in town. The group was having its regular Sunday morning run. According to the web site, newcomers were welcome.

So I arrived full of energy and high hopes at the Lee Road YMCA parking lot, just a couple blocks away from Fort Harrison, the biggest state park in Central Indiana.

I assumed that the group would run into the park, and hit a few of the trails that I had seen there during an earlier visit.

I introduced myself to a few other runners. Then at the dot of 8:00 a.m., we got going. But not toward the park.

First we ran in a wide circle around the YMCA parking lot. Whoa, I thought, that’s not a good sign.

Then we swung over to the sidewalk, and followed it alongside a busy street, for about a mile. Hmm, another bad sign.

After that, we cut over onto a sidestreet, and then into a subdivision. We clumped along the pavement, leaving the the park and its trails farther behind us, with each step.

About this time, little doubts were beginning to creep into my mind. Would we ever leave this cursed road?

We ran along, then zig-zagged back toward the park. We ran around a village green and a few sidestreets. On pavement.

A few minutes later, we stopped for water. I looked around, and there we were, right at the front gate of the park. A minute later, we got going again  — into the park! Finally.

We ran down the long entrance road, passing the guard gate, with woods on both sides of the road. We ran on and on.

I saw a sign for a trail, and got ready to turn onto it. But to my surprise, we ran right past the trailhead.

About five minutes later, we ran past another one.

We kept to the pavement, running and chattering.

Finally I asked the  guy running next to me: “Aren’t we going to run on any of these trails? We just passed two of them.”

He shook his head.

“We never do. They get muddy and snowy. Your shoes would get wet. And there are too many rocks on them.”

We covered about 14 miles that day. But we ran not a single step on a trail.

I don’t mind running roads occasionally. I’ve run scores of road races and thousands of training miles on roads. But that was usually when trails were not an option, or to mix things up. I can’t remember ever passing up a trail to clomp down a flat stretch of pavement if I had a choice.

So right then and there, I knew.

“I didn’t drive all the way out here to run on friggin’ sidewalks,” I thought furiously to myself.

And I wondered: “Why do these people have such a love affair with pavement?”

I ran with the group a few more times, hoping they would at least pick more scenic roads to run. But they ran the same exact course every time. On sidewalks and pavement.

I tried to talk up trails with a few of the runners, but never got a flicker of interest from anyone.

You could say this group was set in its ways.

And its ways were not my ways.

I didn’t see much point in sticking with this group, so I found other places to run, and occasionally, other people.

I hadn’t thought much about that day, until this morning.

I was at Fort Harrison again. It was a beautiful morning, even though the mercury was only up to 9 degrees. The sun was shining, the woods were peaceful and I was enjoying every minute on the trails.  I marveled at the snow-filled ravines. I watched my breath in the air. Occasionally, I tried to figure out which animal had made certain tracks in the snow.

After a while, I hit the end of the trail and stepped onto the road, near my car, for a water break.

And who did I see, as I stood there, at the end of the trail? None other than a small group of runners, coming down the road.

They ran toward me. I stepped aside so they could enter the trail.

But they turned at the bend in the road, and stayed on the pavement.

I recognized two of them from the Indy Runners. I remembered their faces from that morning four years ago.

I waved to them. They looked happy.

They waved back. I hope I looked happy.

We were each in our own habitat.

I finished my water, turned around and ran for another 20 minutes on my glorious trails, for a total of an hour and six minutes. I don’t know how many miles I ran, and this morning, I didn’t care.

I was where I was happy. It was a great place to be.

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