Running My Age on the Wildwood Trail

“Portland hit two records for the date: With 1.8 inches of rain, the day easily surpassed the .16 of an inch Jan. 17 typically sees and just squeaked by the 1.76 inches that fell on the date in 1976.” The Oregonian

 Photo © Tim LaBarge 2014 (Tim LaBarge 2014)

All my past birthday runs have been packed up and rolled into one big trot down the trail. Yesterday, however, will stick with me for a long time. In fact, I’m still cold.

The inspiration to spend most of the daylight hours running thirty miles, shifting the day from ordinary to extraordinary, came from many places.

There are the runners who go this distance, and farther, on a regular basis. And there’s the constant marathon chatter: it seems someone is always training for New York or Boston or Portland. There’s the simple desire to exercise and stay alive so I can go backpacking with my boys when they’re older.

And then there’s that one mysterious man, an unnamed superhero to me now.

Years ago, I rambled downhill from a side trail and merged with the Leif Erikson Trail in Forest Park and nearly collided with a man and his dog. We wound up running together for a mile or two while he told me about his annual birthday run where he runs his age. He was fit, but not quite the elite athlete you see out there on the trail. He told me that when he was in his twenties, he vowed to run his age each year on his birthday. In his fifties when we met, he was suddenly one of my idols. As I peeled off on another side trail and scrambled up a hill, he yelled to me, “You can do it! It’s easy!”

Ten years have passed since that encounter and the equation hasn’t gotten any easier. But with “metric centuries” from the cycling world in mind, I decided, I’m doing a metric 45th birthday run. I punched 45 km into a converter and saw 28 miles appear. If I tack on two more miles, I thought, that would be the length of the Wildwood Trail. I could hit two long-time daydreams with one big day.

Milepost 0 of the Wildwood is near the zoo and as I set off, I could hear an elephant sound the trumpet through the morning mist. It felt like the start of a quiet celebration. Just beginning this was a victory of some sort. Those first ten miles flew by.

The rain dove straight down from the sky through the trees and popped against the trail and the ferns and Oregon grape all around me. At times, mist fell softly and peacefully. Is it stopping, I wondered, or is it just saving up for a deluge? Soon tiny rivers were flowing down the middle of the trail. This rain was not going to stop.

Near the 16 mile-marker, through a drizzle and light fog, I heard the family whistle. We use it for the dog mostly, but also each other when we’re in the woods or in a crowd. It’s a high, piercing pitch that drops to a minor note and then heads downward another octave in one continuous, sweeping motion. Depending on the terrain and the weather, you might only hear a part of it. But I heard it for sure and like a thrush, I shot back a slightly labored reply. When I came around a curve in the trail I found Leo, 9, running towards me. He and Sara and Jack, 7, had hiked in more than a mile to bring me a donut.

Photo © Tim LaBarge 2014 (Tim LaBarge 2014)

Up to that point, I’d seen several runners and only a few hikers. It was a very quiet day on the trail for a Saturday. After seeing the family, I crossed paths with even fewer people as there are fewer access points to the trail. Portland had decided collectively, it was a good day to stay home, drink coffee and do puzzles.

I was on a different mission. Mostly I concentrated on the trail, my foot placement, my form and my body temperature. But occasionally I found my mind wandering. I thought of survival stories I’d read. I thought of stories of people perishing in the wilds. I thought about Lewis and Clark during their Oregon winter in early 1806 when they simply could not get dry.

And then my mind would shift back to eating. I dropped my little pack and dug out a few slices of pizza left over from the night before. A few miles later, suddenly feeling cold, I stopped and shed my rain jacked and peeled off my shirt. Should I collapse at this moment, I thought, I’ll go into the books as one of those guys suffering from hypothermia who stripped at the end. I dove into a long sleeve woolen base layer I’d tucked into a ziplock and put my jacket back on. Within seconds, I was warm and splashing down the trail again.

As I hit the 20 mile-marker, I punched through the rain and raised my fist to the sky. Just a ten-mile run remaining, almost single digits. And then I felt my peripheral vision collapse and I wondered aloud to no one, if I was about to pass out? It turned out I was overcome by a cloud. It had crept in from the side and I hadn’t noticed.

A cramping calf muscle and the persistent rain made the last miles creep by in slow motion. Really, I wanted to be done, hugging my family, in a warm car, in dry clothes, with a beer and more pizza. Water continued to fall and flow everywhere I looked. I ran through deep, khaki puddles and slurped at the constant trickle of water that rolled off my scalp and down my cheek to my lips.

As I leaned into the final hill, I heard the applause of a woodpecker coming from a decaying snag, just an arm’s length from the trail. I stopped and stared. Hairy or downy? The light was fading and I couldn’t tell. I knew we were both wet and looking for food and I didn’t belong there anymore. I thanked him for the ovation and pushed on to find Sara and the boys waiting in the car at the top of the hill. The pounding beats of the woodpecker drifted up through the woods as I toweled off under the hatchback, watching the rain bounce off the pavement.

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all content © Tim LaBarge 2015

One Response to “Running My Age on the Wildwood Trail”

  1. K says:

    The Boys in the Boat….if you haven’t read it you must…by Daniel James Brown…