An old, familiar trail in the forest says “It’s time to run!” photo by Charlie Kanzig
An old, familiar trail in the forest says “It’s time to run!” photo by Charlie Kanzig
After a summer focused on biking, my fall season has largely been a time of walking and hiking with a plan to mix more running in over the wintertime.

My inner runner felt a definite stirring last week when I paid a visit to the area in which I grew up and took a morning hike down a very familiar trail. Every competitive runner has certain places, sounds, smells and circumstances that elicit a physiological response that says to the brain, “It’s time to run!”

Wilderness Trail in Stayton is one of my places. 

I grew up in Sublimity, an area aptly named for its peaceful, pastoral setting on rolling farmland on the eastern edge of the Willamette Valley. For runners, it provided miles of country roads, mostly paved, with a few in gravel, but very little opportunity to run on a natural surface. Seeking softer surfaces, I would often run on the gravel shoulder, but sometimes sought out dirt road short-cuts through farmers’ fields or the occasional trail. 

One local trail in nearby Stayton, where I attended high school, provided a sense of escape into nature. Situated at the edge of Pioneer Park, the trail, less than a mile long, dubbed “Wilderness,” started just over a pedestrian bridge on the park’s east side. A canopy of oaks, firs, and maples overhead, coupled with the brambles of blackberry vines and other undergrowth to each side, gave the trail the feeling of being in a green tunnel in spring and summer, a colorful kaleidoscope in autumn, and monochrome maze in winter.

During cross country season our team would warm-up across town to the trail and do up-tempo repeats on it in order to simulate racing on a cross country course, so most of my memories included running fast on this particular path. 

In the mid-1980s, when I was in my mid-20s, Wilderness Trail comprised the latter portion of a running course featured in a local triathlon in which I pulled off what I consider to be my finest-ever athletic performance. 

So it is no wonder that as I walked across that bridge to the head of the trail, the years fell away and I not only itched to dart down the trail, my mind traveled back into the mists of time to when I not only crossed the line as the first individual in the Rivertown Triathlon, but beat all the three-person teams as well. 

You may not find this impressive when I tell you that the three legs of the race included a two-mile run, a half-mile jaunt down the Stayton Mill Race in an inner tube, and a five-mile criterium-style bike race around the blocks of downtown, but for me it was an achievement I savor. 

Having placed third overall behind two teams the previous year, I had something to prove against the field composed mostly of friends belonging to the illustrious and much-feared Stayton Roadrunners Club. Adding to the drama, in Prefontaineesque style, I told everyone my intention to win it all. 

Nothing like putting a little pressure on myself. 

Without giving a complete play-by-play of each stage of the race, suffice it to say that I can vividly recall finishing the “green tunnel” with a wide lead that I miraculously maintained through the inner-tube section of the race. My exhilaration, along with my lead, disappeared when I got to the bike transition to discover that my bike had been moved. While I frantically searched for my trusty steed, four or five other teams wheeled away out of site.

Not much of a cusser, I am pretty sure I burned the ears of any onlookers as I finally found my Bianchi and took off with my work cut out for me. 

The criterium included 10 laps around a half-mile rectangle of city blocks. After five laps I began to catch those ahead of me one by one. With one lap to go, I inched up alongside Steve Strawn, who unlike myself, was an actual cyclist with racing experience. The race was on. We remained locked together for the entire final loop, but with a final push, I crossed the line less than half a wheel length ahead.

I still smile when I think of that summer day and remember that one of my cross-country runners, normally a very laid back kid, rushed up to me and shouted, “That was the most exciting thing I have ever seen!” 

Obviously the kid must have lived a sheltered life, but I still appreciated the message, nonetheless.

And I smiled both inwardly and outwardly as I walked back across the bridge from Wilderness Trail and to my car, buoyed by those memories from Wilderness Trail, my inner runner alive and well.