Lessons Learned While Lost in the Woods
June 22, 2017
"Everyone's an athlete. The only difference is that some of us are in training, and some are not." - Dr. George Sheehan
This quote from Dr. George Sheehan was published in one of the Runner's World daily emails this week and I found myself stuck reading it over and over again. The piece of this quote that really stuck with me is Dr. Sheehan's acknowledgment of the inner athlete that resides within all of us. The human body truly is an amazing machine, and I've only grown to appreciate it more through running. There are so many things that we are capable of if we only take the time to "train" ourselves.
This past weekend, I took to the woods with my friend Eric. We decided to head to upstate New York for a weekend of camping and hiking which in itself is a kind of training. Maybe it's my history with the Boy Scouts but there seems to be some innate desire for people to escape into nature. It's typically not the easiest transition but there's something comforting about surviving a few days without many of the things we've come to rely on in our day to day lives (looking at you cell phones).
The initial idea for this weekend was for us to do just that. To get away for the weekend and to disconnect. For the most part, we did pretty well although I did agree to text my wife once in the morning and once at night to let her know I hadn't been mauled by a bear. Most of our time at camp was spent sipping cold beer, catching up on each other's lives, and staring hypnotized at the fire.
The whole trip was very peaceful until Saturday afternoon when we decided to go out on a hike. After not being as detailed as we ought to have been preparing for the hike, we set out on a 10-mile trail that we had thought was a loop around the park we were camping in. Unfortunately for us, when the trail spit us out on the other side four hours later, we were on a dirt road with no cell signal and not enough daylight left to hike back the way we came.
Although the GPS told us we were only four miles from where we started, that was as the crow flies straight over the mountains that now sat between us and our home for the weekend. It was 5 pm so we had a few hours until dark. With no option of turning back, we decided to push forward down the mysterious dirt road hoping to find some way to get a hold of someone. We had packed extra food and water so the situation wasn't as dire as it could have been, but neither of us was too keen on sleeping out in the open overnight to attempt the hike back in the morning.
About a mile down the road we were able to flag down a passing pickup. The driver was happy to tell us we weren't anywhere near any kind of town or cell reception. There were a few houses in the direction we were headed but many of them were unoccupied. He suggested we turn around and head back onto the trail but we'd already determined that wasn't an option.
By some stroke of luck, as we were passing one of the aforementioned unoccupied homes, I pulled out my phone to check for any kind of signal. I was once again greeted with an ominous "X" where my bars should have been. But the another symbol appeared, there was a WiFi signal coming from inside the house. We ran up onto the porch and were relieved to find that the network was unprotected! Something unimaginable back on Long Island.
Both of us jumped on our phones trying desperately to figure out how to make a call over WiFi. Finally, we had some shred of hope that we'd be back in our tent before nightfall. We quickly learned that you cannot make emergency calls over WiFi but that didn't stop us. Since we couldn't call 911 ourselves, Eric began calling contacts from home to have them call, we had GPS so we were able to send our location. While he started calling, I was busy trying to find an open door to the house where we'd set up camp. Although probably not the smartest decision, I thought maybe if we could set off some kind of alarm, that would trigger a response from someone.
There was a brief debate over whether or not that constituted "Breaking and Entering" but with sunset rapidly approaching we felt justified in the decision. Sure enough, a door on the side of the house triggered an alarm so I walked back to the front porch to wait, at least we knew someone was coming, right? Soon after we set off the alarm, Eric's friend confirmed that they were sending State Trooper's to find us. We were also able to call the park where we were staying who dispatched State Park Rangers and Camp Rangers. Yes this may have been overkill but we figured the more eyes there were looking for us, the faster they'd find us.
All in all, we were "lost" until around 9 pm when a State Park Ranger found us. In the meantime, a security service did respond to the alarm and thankfully were just happy to hear that someone was coming to find us. Another car also stopped on their way past, and although their car was packed full, they did offer food and water. The drive even gave us his number and told us to call if we hadn't been picked up by 10. He'd have cell service once he got back home and would come back to get us if we needed it.
Once we were found, and after we'd answered some basic questions for the park ranger's report, we were happy to be back in a car and headed back towards camp. We were an hour drive from the park because of the way the roads winded through the mountains but by 10 we were back in front of the fire with one of the best-tasting beers I've ever had.
Now how does any of this connect to running? Maybe it doesn't and I'm just justifying a way to tell the story but I like to say I learned a few things wandering around out there.
The first lesson I learned, and probably the most practical, was to not take experience for granted and to stay humble. I've been on plenty of hikes, through all kinds of terrain, including a few extended backpacking trips. I went into this weekend expecting an easy walk around the park we were camping in, and for that reason, I didn't prepare as much as I should have. I've done this before in my running as well, especially during race training. I expect my past successes to carry me through races without putting in the proper training.
The second thing I learned, or rather was reminded of, is how much I enjoy the isolation of running. Hiking through the woods with a friend, and especially getting lost in the woods with a friend, you become very aware of how isolated you are from the rest of the world. Although I often run down streets surrounded by people, I feel a similar type of isolation knowing that out of all of those people, I'm the only one out running. Occasionally I'll pass another runner, but we are certainly the minority, especially running in the morning. That isolation is somewhat empowering, knowing that you made the decision to run or to venture out into the woods.
And finally, this trip reaffirmed why I run. I run because we are all athletes and I'm determined to keep training. I don't run because it's easy but to push my limits. This weekend was tough but we never complained, we only focused on what our next steps were. This won't stop us from getting out there again, in fact, we're already working on planning the next hike (starting with purchasing updated trail maps). Stepping outside our boundaries is the only way we grow and so I run. I run to see what I can accomplish.
"It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable." - Socrates
What kind of crazy situations have you persevered through? What are you training for? Let me know in the comments below.