11:54am ME: “Hi! What are you up to today, want to grab a coffee? Weather’s terrible but I’ve got to get out of the house! Cabin fever, man…”
11:56am JP: “I’m running on Donner Summit in 15, wanna join? It might be brutal rain & wind”
11:57am ME: “I haven’t run in months, got sick, then lazy…but okay, I’m in!”
11:58am ME [Oh S%*!, what am I getting myself into? I hang up the phone, I am kind of nervous, maybe even a little scared. And here is why.]
Jenelle is one of my longest Tahoe friends. And for years I’ve been vicariously experiencing her running prowess, her gargantuan race efforts, her dogged dedication to early morning training runs through the comfort of the stories and outstanding nature-trail photography that filter mostly via the media fed on my computer screen. Contrasting with my casual, half-hearted stabs at the sport, my motivations have all too often been break-up/rebound related which it turns out just doesn’t seem to be a great foundation for a long-term habit. Despite threatening to join her more times than I’d care to count, I have never once followed through. Being the strong, dedicated runner she is with a busy life, she tends to get most of her running done before I am even awake. This was Sunday afternoon. I could handle that but I couldn’t handle saying “no” even one more time. Plus it seemed fun, even whimsical. Oh, what I didn’t know then, but what a hell of a day I chose to finally see what her main game was all about.
The drive from Truckee to Donner Summit was a steady mix of nasty conditions: rain, sleet, and snow, all being blown around with a healthy amount of our garden-variety, mountain storm wind gusts, which is to say, multi-directional, unpredictable, and strong. On the way up, near our destination, we dropped her kids at their friend’s house and when the car door opened I winced at the blast of cold air piercing our warm cocoon of safety. Up the road a little further, we parked. The car’s thermometer said it was 35 degrees; the windshield, that it was raining heavily. We finished gearing up in the car and once we were fully battle-readied, we stepped out into the brutally accurate wind forecasts.
Immediately, we took a directl hit to the face with a 40 mph blast of any chairlift rider’s dreaded nemesis, Pins & Needles. What was I thinking not bringing any eye protection, especially goggles? On the ski hill in conditions like this I would have never even considered skiing without them. Oh that’s right I wasn’t thinking, I was merely following, fresh off my couch. “We are not going to actually go any further”, was my dominant, repeating thought as we marched towards the trail head of the Pacific Crest Trail going north between old Highway 40 and Interstate 80. When I glanced over to my running partner looking for some sympathy or even mercy she just laughed, signifying that, yeah, this is pretty ridiculous but showed no sign of retreat, not just yet anyway. Her furry, four-legged companion, Beverly, a 1 year-old black lab with boundless energy tugged her forward but also sideways and frequently got in the way, exactly what you don’t need on slippery rocks in sketchy conditions. I entered that rocky and sometimes exposed section of trail happy to be in the rear, in the clear, and so glad I didn’t have her additional tug-of-war battle to contend with.
The wind subsided as we suspected among all the beautiful trees and rock formations. We initially set out to do the Judah Loop trail on Mt Judah at Sugarbowl. “It’ll be more epic up there”, she said, with a slightly devious, and subtly wry grin conveying a level of hardcore grit that given present storm conditions no picture or story I had ever previously seen or heard of her could have prepared me for. Fortunately for us, we overruled that plan last minute, the logic being that in the more protected terrain the near gale force winds would be knocked down to a more tolerable strong breeze. With a pleasantly mellow pace set, I began to warm up nicely underneath my waterproof rain jacket, the scenery became overwhelming pleasing and all my previous trepidation subsided, any thoughts of quitting quickly melted away. In fact, for late fall, it was absolutely gorgeous. To me aesthetics are everything. Fine ambiance, great scenery, and fun company is from where most of my motivations derive; in this case the primary factor in my consideration to run. I was pumped! So far, this jaunt in the woods was far exceeding my expectations.
It didn’t take long before I became quite pleased that years ago I had purchased waterproof trail running shoes (they had been off-season and on sale) as sections of trail became no trail at all but more of a mountain stream bed where water was rushing down, usually ending in big, sloppy ponds when the terrain flattened out again. Jenelle’s feet, inside her super-breathable summer shoes were immediately totally soaked and she accepted that she would be suffering with cold, wet feet for the rest of the run. Periodically checking to see if I might be joining her in solidarity, after a big section of “river running” she would ask me for an update on the status of my feet. “Bone dry”, I happily responded each time, and I truly was which was great because less than a mile in my gloves were totally soaked and my fingers were beginning to lose their ability to feel anything at all. I was like a toddler in a mud puddle, splash, splash, laugh, my feet are so happy, warm and dry! After a while Jenelle admitted it was all she could do to not think about her feet, which I assumed wasn’t too hard as most of her focus seemed to be on correcting the irregular darting patterns of her way too enthusiastic (read: spastic) companion, Beverly. Admittedly, each time we had to wade through a raging river crossing the trail or a big standing puddle, I felt a special sympathy for my running partner’s pain.
As we pounded ahead and started to climb the rain turned to snow. It was really piling up fast but our path was still easy to navigate, in part because where the trail wasn’t level those “rivers” were great at preventing any snow from accumulating. On the other sections we were guided by the absence of sticks, stones and trees sprouting up from the ground. We simply kept looking ahead for the clear, two foot wide path that was fairly obvious at this point. By now however, most of the flat sections that had been obvious puddles were now big slushy sections where standing water was deceptively covered by new snow. Those sections looked nice and dry but our feet would quickly identify them by the big splash at the end. Fortunately for me being in the rear meant I could either follow in her footsteps as she bravely cleared the way or I could just avoid them altogether by scrambling into the forest once I heard her exclamation, “OH!” each time she got into one over ankle deep.
Despite the obstacles, one pair of frozen feet, ten frozen sausages, and one mildly insolent third “partner”, we were doing pretty well, plodding on, chatting at times and even laughing. It was in that last point when I think I discovered where Jenelle’s true strength lies. Everything that a mere mortal would have complained about, Jenelle just laughed at. Another super deep frozen puddle, slipping then falling on the rocks hidden by snow, yet another waterfall to negotiate crossing our path? All were met with a grin, a laugh, a quick and loud expression of how ridiculous is this but always with an extremely positive attitude. Whereas I might have been cursing and ruminating on one of my way too familiar phrases, “if stupidity got me into this, why isn’t it getting me out”, or something like that.
This was some real over-the-river-and-through-the-woods kinda shit! Yeah! There we went, snow only getting deeper, striding softly, smoothly, and silently along, foot-skiing down the occasional steep part. Finally the two feet propelling Jenelle became more liability than asset. Completely void of feeling they were no longer doing their job of keeping her safe and upright. She suggested we turn around, and I said that sounds great, no hesitation. My shoe’s water barrier had finally been breached and I was really sloshing around good on each step. What a truly great call it turned out to be. The trail was still fun to run on, when we could run on it. I actually felt kind of powerful and imagined myself as a cars in one of those winter car commercials where they use silly, over-the-top, gratuitous shots of cars racing through deep snow in the most spectacular locations.
Too often we were going off trail, lured into the woods by sections that looked like the familiar two foot wide path but turned out to be just snow deep enough to cover everything so that our prior method of trailing finding was no longer reliable. We stumbled back sort of using feet like fingers reading Braille (trail Braille, HA!, you like that?).