making new friends on the trail

5 01 2012

It’s a new year, and my off-season following my last hundred miler is officially over!  This week marks the first training week since November, and I’m stoked to be back on the trails.  I have some racing plans for the coming spring and summer; I’m VERY excited to try out some new races in my new home of New England!  First up will likely be the Jack Bristol Lake Waramaug 100K in April.  After that will definitely be another hundred miler, although I’m not sure which one yet…I’m first on the waiting list for the Viaduct Trail Ultra in PA, and I’m really keeping my fingers crossed that I get in!  It has all of the hallmarks of a more “old school” type of race that I love…little aid, little support and little whining.

Today was one of those days when I was reminded of why I love running so much, especially on trails.  By traveling on foot instead of by car, one has the chance to observe everyday surroundings with much more detail.  A good past example of this occurred a couple of months ago when I decided to run 34 miles in celebration of my 34th birthday.  My birthday is in mid-October, when the fall leaves are at their color peak here in New England.  My birthday was an incredibly rainy day this year, so I was greeted the morning of my epic run with a near deluge on the country roads along with a sideways assault of windy water.  Nonetheless, I went on the run, leaving from my home at 5 am, and ran the seven miles from the house to Quabbin Reservoir.  At Quabbin, I ran twenty miles on dirt trail, and then ran the remaining seven home on the windy, hilly country roads common to this area.

This run was magical, because I felt like I got to see something that most people never get a chance to experience: a visible change from autumn to winter.  At the beginning of the twenty miles around Quabbin, the trees were filled with colorful leaves.  But, within about three and half hours, almost all of the leaves had fallen on the trail, and only bare branches remained.  I remember thinking, “How many of us actually get to experience this moment?”  It’s so easy in this hectic, ever-connected online society to forget to notice what is right in front of us.

fall leaves at Quabbin

Today was another equally interesting experience.  I woke up to a frigid “arctic blast” in terms of the weather.  By the time I went for a run at about 9 am, which was rather later than I typically prefer to run, the outside temperature had warmed UP to a positively balmy 12 degrees with a wind chill of 3.  Not bad!  I pulled on a few layers, along with a new balaclava I received as a Christmas gift and headed out down one of my typical mellow, easy week-day running routes, down the Norwottuck Rail Trail that runs right behind my house.  On a typical day on the rail trail, I generally see a handful of other runners, some fitness walkers, people walking their dogs…OK, maybe an occasional cow or chicken (or ten) as well.  But nothing really weird has ever happened to me on the rail trail.  That is, until today.

I stepped onto the rail trail at the entrance of state route 116, right behind Amherst College.  Heading west toward Northampton, I ran maybe a quarter of a mile and suddenly got the eerie feeling that I was being watched.  You know, that whole hairs on the back of the neck sticking up kind of thing?  Sure enough, I looked up the wooded ridge to the south and saw a very large canine.  I stopped, thinking it was probably just someone’s dog, but quickly realized that this was no house pet.  The canine bounded down the steep hill and crossed the trail maybe ten feet in front of me, running up toward the college athletic fields.  I had a chance to look at it closely – it was about waist-high with dappled grey and brown fur, muscular legs, a large shaggy wolf-like head (and snout), along with a big fluffy tail.  No pet.  Coyote, or probably really what’s called a “coywolf.”

Coywolves are also called “eastern coyotes” and are a hybrid breed between eastern wolves and western coyotes.  They are larger than the typical coyote that I’ve encountered out in California, and are known for being a bit more aggressive than coyotes.  They are also less fearful of humans, a trait I can certainly verify first-hand now!

an image of a coywolf...not the one I saw though!

Once I realized what I had seen, I turned to head back to the trailhead, figuring I’d just stick to the roads today…after all, it was only about a quarter of a mile back to the main state route, and I could easily run a four or five mile loop around town.  However, this coywolf wasn’t so eager to just let me go easily.  After I turned around, the coywolf began to circle around me on the trail…up one side and the hill, then back down the other…probably five or six times before I got back to the road.  Wow!

I’ve run that rail trail more times than I can possibly count, and I’ve driven on the state route by the area a million times over.  But, to see a coywolf up close for the first time…this was a priceless experience, and one that never could really be experienced sitting in the driver’s seat of a car.  I love being a trail runner!  Although, I have to say, it’s both comforting and unnerving to know that I’m never truly “alone” out there in the woods…

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