The sun was rising behind the hills over Crystal Springs reservoir this morning at 6:20am, but you couldn’t see it yet. There was just enough light to brighten the overcast sky and to make the threaded wisps of mist rising off the slate-dark water stand out clearly. But the day hadn’t properly begun, and all was quiet, unmoving, cool. I looked to my right and thought I saw a hawk soaring low out of the trees, just above head level and about 20 feet off the path. It was brown and black and had barred wings. But as I looked, I realized that it had a blunt, flat face and a downward-curving beak: An owl!
It glided silently on behind me and out of sight.
I’d been running for fifty minutes, and was about five miles away from my house.
Training for a marathon, it turns out, is an exercise in mind control and reality creation. For most people it is really, really hard to run a long distance, and it is still hard for me to believe that I’ll be able to do it for 26.2 miles. To get to the point where I am able to run that far in a single morning, I’ve got to log hundreds of miles. It hurts. It can be a little scary (that pain: is it an incipient, crippling knee injury?). It’s boring. Sometimes it’s just hard to keep my legs moving.
To make it work, you have to play all kinds of games to keep yourself engaged and to make yourself believe that you can keep running. Like telling yourself that you are a strong runner, that you love running, that you really like those hills. Tagging “but it doesn’t really matter” onto the end of any negative sentences that pop into your head, like “My legs really hurt,” or “It’s really cold out there.” Smiling — even grinning — while you’re running to remind yourself how good it actually feels. Counting the number of smiles you see on other people.
Running on a gorgeous waterside trail, through old oak trees, fragrant sage, and musky bay laurel groves with abundant wildlife — that helps too.
For several weeks, since running a half-marathon in San Francisco, I felt slow, awkward, weak, and had a hard time increasing my distance beyond 13 miles. Two weeks ago, I was scheduled to run 14 miles, and barely made it past 13.5. I was starting the think that maybe I’d reached the limits of my endurance, and I looked at this weekend’s scheduled 16 miles with dread.
And then I realized that I was psyching myself out. Instead of thinking of myself as a strong runner, I’d started to think of reasons why I couldn’t go any further. Pains became amplified as I worried about their implications, it got harder to get out of bed (staying up late watching the Olympics didn’t help on that score), and I was having second thoughts about running a marathon at all, let alone this year.
So I decided for one strong push, to see if I could just break through my 14-mile limit. It was just a matter of keeping going for 20 or 30 minutes longer than I had before, after all. So I got up at 5:15 a.m. on Sunday morning, did some stretching, and headed out the door at 5:30 for a planned 16-mile run. I was a couple of miles into my run before I was even fully awake, so I didn’t have time to reconsider or worry much.
The first few miles I ran in complete darkness, from the working-class San Mateo flatlands up through a curving, tree-lined street in Hillsborough, an enclave of large, ostentatious houses on the flanks of the Santa Cruz mountains. The curving street had few streetlights and as a result was very black. I realized after a mile or two that I was actually getting scared: Afraid of twisting my foot in some invisible pothole or tripping over a root, or (more irrationally) afraid of a mountain lion dropping out of a tree onto my back. I was spooking myself, there in the dark, turning my head to check out every sound even if I knew, logically, that it was nothing more than a raccoon or a cat in the bushes.
I rounded one curve to see a doe in the middle of the road, walking slowly across the street and looking at me. As I neared her, she picked up her pace slightly, disappearing between two lamplit pillars, up someone’s driveway.
I strode up the hill along Crystal Springs road, coming out into more open air just as the sky started lightening, to my great relief. At 6:15 I was at the head of the Sawyer Camp Trail, six miles of paved trail paralleling the Northern Crystal Springs Reservoir. That reservoir lies directly atop the San Andreas Fault and was formed in 1890 by the construction of what was then the largest concrete dam in the world. It’s where all of San Francisco’s and most of the Peninsula’s water stops, en route from the Sierras to the city. And because the area is controlled by the water district, it has remained off-limits to fishing, hunting, and even hiking, making the area a rare refuge for wildlife.
I ran down the path, mostly sticking to the dirt track alongside the asphalt in hopes that it would be easier on my feet. Young rabbits, no more than six inches long, appeared by the side of the path, their noses twitching, before disappearing into the brush at the last possible second as I passed by. The air was lightly perfumed with sage, bay, and the smell of old leaves.
At three and a half miles down the path, I came to the Jepson Laurel, a massive, 600-year-old tree that is the oldest known bay laurel in the state. I’d planned to turn around here, but I still felt strong. I knew I was only at the half-way point, but still — I could add another mile to my trip, couldn’t I? Hell yes! I kept running.
And then, at the four mile marker, I turned around and started running back. I’d gone 8.5 miles, and now there was no choice but to run — or walk — all the way home.
I stopped for a drink of water as I passed the Jepson Laurel on my return trip. A mile or so after that, I slowed to a walk, my legs starting to feel tired and my face feeling the flush of overheating. As I walked through a low bend in the path, I heard coyotes start a chorus of yips and howl on the hill to my left. There must have been a dozen or more of them, all out of sight, but some of them sounding quite close. Their song was still going a minute later as I picked up my pace and started jogging again.
Now there were more bikers and joggers coming towards me, just beginning their own runs. As I reached the trailhead, the sun was just coming out over the hill. I stopped and stretched my legs a little, then walked out through the gate. The road outside the trailhead was lined with cars.
Just four and a half miles to go. Using the hill to help me get started, I broke into a jog again under the cathedral-like span of the I-280 overpass.
The rest of the run is more indistinct in my memory. Pounding down the hill, slogging along the Crystal Springs Road as it turned back into a neighborhood street and then a city avenue. Past the Catholic church, over the stone bridge (built in 1901, according to the metal plate embedded in its low wall), onto El Camino. At this point my legs were aching constantly, my quads in particular infused with a burning, overheated feeling.
I stopped running two blocks before I reached my house, partly to give myself a cooldown and partly because I was reaching the end of my rope. As soon as I started walking it was clear I wasn’t going to start running again that morning. I was done!
The result: 17 miles, one mile further than I’d planned, in a very slow 2 hours 50 minutes, but running almost the entire way.
I have broken through my 14-mile “barrier,” if that even existed, and I not only broke through, I smashed it into little bits. What’s more, it was a rewarding experience, bringing me wildlife, sublime landscape views, and a sense of having accomplished something difficult and worthwhile. I walked into my house sweaty but grinning. My next long run will be 18 miles, and I’m looking forward to it already.