Sometimes all it takes is one frightening running experience to make you change your running patterns and judgment. A run in the Marin Headlands last summer turned into a bushwhacking expedition that yielded repercussions for weeks afterward.
After agreeing to house-sit a friend's Sausalito home while she was traveling in Europe for three weeks, I was eager to enjoy the fantastic bay views from her spacious living room and and the close proximity to running trails in and out of town.
I decided to go for a run bright and early my first morning at the Sausalito home because it would be too hot later and I had to be at work in a few hours. I rolled out for a run as I normally would on a summer morning: shorts, tank top, visor, iPod, headphones, watch and no phone. I didn't tell anybody where I was going, much less that I would be house sitting in Sausalito for three weeks.
A trail head leading to the Marin Headlands was a mere mile from my friend's house and immediately turned into a two-mile uphill grind before leveling out, revealing breathtaking views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin County. Because I was unfamiliar with the terrain, I initially intended to do a seven or eight mile out-and-back, even though I much prefer a loop run when given the choice.
Around mile four along the main trail, I spied a side trail that headed back in the direction of the trail head, which would theoretically achieve the desired loop run that I so much preferred. Making a quick decision, I veered off on that side trail, embarking on a running adventure like I've never had before.
Although smaller than the main trail, the side trail was still fairly established, but muddy due to heavy rain a few days earlier. While the main trail stayed along open terrain, this new side trail jetted into vegetation that became thicker the further I ran. The trail's incline also became progressively steeper, heading down through trees, bushes and brambles.
Eventually, the trail disappeared all together and the idea of backtracking to the main trail wasn't feasible due to the mud and steep slope. Attempting to find another trail that would bring me to the main trail or the trail head brought me deeper into dense flora. Soon, it was difficult to move and the vegetation towered over me, clearly not maintained on any level.
It's not that I was lost in the Marin Headlands; Highway 101 was directly east and below me. The problem was that I was stuck and nobody knew where I was. Panicking and realizing the magnitude of my situation, I began screaming and yelling as loud as I possibly could, hoping a fellow trail enthusiast would hear me and help guide me to an established trail. The roar of vehicles moving at high speeds along Highway 101 abolished the chance that anybody would hear me, even if anybody was out on the trails at 6:30 a.m.
The only option out of my precarious situation was to bushwhack through the dense vegetation to the highway. Using my limbs to break through thick bush, brambles and thorns, the journey to the highway was tedious and unpleasant, at best. Although I was only about half a mile from the highway, it took more than hour to bushwhack through the vegetation.
Upon reaching the highway, I hopped the metal divider, separating the modern highway from the Marin Headlands wilderness and immediately stuck out my thumb to hitch a ride back to the trail head, which was only half a mile from where I came out. I was picked up approximately 90 seconds later by a nice man who pulled over and asked, “What the hell happened to you?”
I was crying from the gravity of the incident, muddy and bloody from the rough terrain and sweaty from running and pushing my way through bush and brambles. Every exposed area of my body was covered with scratches and scrapes. The pink running shorts I was wearing that day haven't been pink since. The man kindly dropped me off at the trail head and I walked back to the Sausalito home, grateful to walk in an open space without restricted movements and tangled bushes.
In addition to the scrapes, scratches and bruises that followed, the side trail incident also resulted in a serious case of poison oak that appeared two weeks later. I was training for a half marathon at the time and the steroid medication that was prescribed to me for the poison oak affected my training leading up to the race. I weened off the heavy steroid dosage the week before the race and truly believe it was a contributing factor to the undesirable time I finished the race in. Needless to say, I haven't ventured off the main trail since then.
A few lessons to take away from my terrifying experience include:
Tell somebody where you're going-always! Shoot a quick text or verbally tell your roommate, parents, spouse, children, etc. when and where you're going on a run. Give them a time frame of how far you're running and when you plan on returning. You never know when a side trail can put you in a sticky situation.
Wear appropriate attire.If you're going to be out on a trail, it's not a bad idea to dress in layers, especially since heavily shaded areas are common and often cooler on forest trails. Also, those extra layers could protect you from poison oak and sun exposure.
Carry your phone (if it's not too cumbersome). If you have a pocket where you can easily fit your phone and it doesn't slow you down, it's not a bad idea to carry your phone with you on unfamiliar routes. You may not get reception out on a trail, but at least you could eventually be tracked if you ever got truly lost.
Be trail smart. Don't take an unfamiliar side trail into what appears to be fairly thick vegetation. Stick to the main trail and find a running buddy! Besides, as long as your goal is have a good, solid run, it shouldn't matter if it's an out-and-back or loop run.