When Kristin Armstrong e-mailed me to say she would be coming out to Woodside, CA, to do an article on trail running for Runner’s World, it felt oddly “official”. Don’t get me wrong – I was privileged to have one of my favorite writers from the world’s biggest running rag come join me for her first foray into the woods. But I’ve known Kik for over a decade as one of my wife’s dearest friends, long before the world found her writing talents, or the trails found me. I was worried that the official nature of “contributing editor meets trail running champion” might compromise her first trail running experience.
Not that anything could ever rain on Kik’s parade. She has braved more in the last six years than all of Oprah’s guests put together – loved ones with cancer, a whirlwind rise to fame, in vitro, being pregnant in a foreign country, twins, divorce, and more. On so many occasions she has risked everything for love, and won. Not to mention she’s a hottie – anytime I enter a room with Kik, Christi (my wife), and the rest of their strong-and-sexy friends, every eye in the place is wondering who the hell I am (which in a sick pimp vibe sort of way, I enjoy tremendously). On top of it all, Kik knows more lowbrow jokes than anyone. How a woman with that mix like that can stay single is beyond me.
If you ever get the pleasure of meeting her three children, you’ll know everything you need to know about Kik. Bella, one of her twin 3-year-old girls, leads the troop into everything with no fear whatsoever. Grace, the other twin, is the “girly” one, inquisitively present, and never, ever forgetting her purse. Luke, her 5-year-old son, is curious, sensitive, and as good a friend as anyone could ask, but not afraid to defend his ladies with a karate kick or T-rex roar should you step out of bounds. Together, they welcome their closest friends as family, and given the amount of shelf space those kids get in our living room, the feeling is mutual. Just add some potty humor (which I am CERTAIN is coming), and you pretty much have Kik in a nutshell.
So why am I nervous about our first trail run? She’s been running for years, and I know a few hills aren’t going to scare her off. She may be a “chick” and wear lip gloss and mascara, but she’s donned her colors and braved the boroughs of the New York Marathon. Do I really think a Texas mother of three is going to be humbled by a run through the redwoods?
Then I realize it’s not her that I’m worried about, it’s me. Trail running is my sanctuary, my church, that which feeds my soul. It is the daily ritual that helps me find my place in this world, and has become such a part of me that it's hard to say where I end and the trail begins. I NEED her to be humbled by the trails. The thought of Kik summarizing the experience as “ho hum” could be devastating, and being a typical guy, emotional vulnerability doesn’t sit well. But I respect the trail running experience enough to know this – it cannot be taught or explained, but only experienced. I can only hope that she and Mother Nature have so much in common that the bond will be instant.
Upon Kik’s arrival, Mother Nature wasn’t playing along as much as I had hoped. It hadn’t stopped raining for days, and the mercury held steady at 48 degrees. Perfect for an Oregonian like me, but not so sure for the Texas flower. We had decided on doing two runs - one short intro course in Huddart Park on Saturday, followed the next day by one grueling, hilly 10-miler in Purisima Creek that would take us through all the cliffs, creeks, and redwoods that make Northern California such a mecca for trail running.
Come Saturday morning, she didn’t shy away from the conditions, and showed up for breakfast in her rain gear (and lip gloss and mascara, natch). As we walked out towards the trails, I was unsure how to begin. Should I wax poetic about how the philosophy of life can be found in a trail? Or maybe just offer a few tips so that she doesn’t face plant? Perhaps I should just shut up and let her experience the whole thing fresh, like most of us do. I recalled my first trail digger (ugly, complete with enough poison oak to be banished from the bed for many moons) and figured it would be best to start with a few tips. At a minimum, I should do the road-to-trail conversion.
“A couple of things to note right away that will be different from road running,” I explained, “mile splits, pacing, your watch, all that self-enforced training means nothing now. The trail is always new and unexpected, and one mile can be much more difficult than the next. You must understand what your body is capable of, and run from the heart.”
Damn. So much for not waxing poetic.
Kik didn’t need much help, and it only took a few steps before her senses were in overdrive. I could hear her drawing the oxygen-rich air deep into her lungs, smelling the saturated earth, and stomping through the puddles amidst the deafening curtain of rain. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, but she was really having a good time. That is, until we hit the first climb – apparently 12 degree hills aren't as common in Austin, TX, so this 500’ climb was met with some trepidation. She tackled it like a trooper, but not without letting me know she wasn’t a fan of hills. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that tomorrow’s run ended with a 1.5 mile, 1800’ beast….probably best to leave that until tomorrow.
As we huffed up the small river known as “my driveway” to finish off run #1, I smiled at the specks of mud that covered Kik from head to toe. The Texas flower was probably as muddy as she had ever been, but wasn’t bothered by it one bit. All she said was “so you get to do this EVERY day?”. A quick shower later, and she was snuggled up on the couch with Christi and Rocky (the pug) sharing stories of her adventure, letting the warm fire dry out her pruned fingers. I was glad she had fun, but had secretly hoped to witness more of a connection on a spiritual level. Perhaps then, I would know nature had humbled her like it did me.
Well, run #2 was going to humble her one way or another. Out of respect for my fellow trail runners, I put together a 10-mile, 2500’ vertical foot tour of the upper end of Purisima Open Space Preserve that had it all – views of the Pacific, gnarly single track, creek crossings, redwoods, and a hill that has brought me to my knees on many occasions. I had debated whether this was too cruel for a newbie trail runner, but hey, isn’t being humbled by the terrain half the fun? As the rain poured down (AGAIN), we slipped on our slightly damp shoes and set out again.
Kik’s stride was more aggressive this time, already comfortable with the muddy terrain. I could sense the “Bella” in her trying to get out, and stepped aside to let her lead. Her natural tempo slowly took shape as she stopped watching my footing and discovered her own. We ran quietly, stopping for a few views before tearing down the hillside into the dense wild of the valley. As we entered the redwood canopy, I saw her let herself go for just a moment. Her hand reached out, subconsciously, to grace the dew on the mountain ferns as she looked up at the first growth redwood giants, pulling in a breath so deep I think she surprised herself. Yet she didn’t stop running.
From that point on, she was all smiles. When the beast-of-a-hill came, she didn’t even hesitate and charged right to the top. At the top, she wasn’t completely satisfied, and led me on a 3-mile extension complete with sprinting across a bog yelling “YEE HAH!” at the top of her lungs. With every step her soul grew younger, and her mascara never smudged. Bella, Grace, and Luke would have been proud.
As our run ended, we stretched and spoke of friends, love, and the wonders of daily life, but didn’t need to talk about trail running. Mother Nature had dished out exactly what Kik needed (as mothers are known to do). Kik was one of us now - a trail runner - and I was certain her article would capture the spirit and joy of the experience. As I ran the next morning in my normal solitude, the trail felt brand new, for it was only yesterday I had seen it for the first time through another’s eyes. It seemed silly that I was so hesitant to share the experience. Leave it to Kik to show me that one must gamble everything for love to win.