The Margin of Error

We reached the top of the long hill in the empty office park, and Meghna said, “This isn’t right.” She had actually said, a half mile back, “Was that our turn?” That would have been a good time not to be stuck in my own head, running up a long hill at mile 15. We stopped and worried over the map, my mental faculties as useful then as they had been 5 minutes before when we blew past our turn.

This was our long run of the week, plotted carefully on laptop and transferred to phone for on-the-run navigation. That worked reasonably well, except that GPS isn’t that sensitive to subtle turns in wooded areas AND the off-course warnings weren’t as dramatic as we needed them to be.

By the time we reached the hill, a few things had happened. First of all, we’d already run an extra mile of false turns and double-backs, little incremental corrections to forward progress. No big deal, but escalating in consequence the farther we ran. Second, the navigation crashed somewhere around mile 12. Perhaps it was out hypoxic minds that were unable to overcome this setback, somehow caught in app reinstallation loops and Apple log-in jams stood by the side of the trail, but ultimately that set us up for the long slog up that hill.

It bears saying that, on a trail run, the detours can be a real feature of the experience. One of our wrong turns took us twisting around some small ponds, the ground littered with pine needles, soft beneath our feet. You can be charmed by beauty and also increasingly off course. Out past the 10 mile mark, you take any bit of flow or distraction you can get, and so the recipe is set for a tragi-comic outcome.

We ran back down the hill trying to find the humor in it. I think Meghna found it less funny than I did, but that might be because it was my mistake. Our legs were going at that point. We were trying hard to run the mile we were in, not to think too much of finishing, but when fatigue and soreness set in, it’s hard not to think of that improbable moment when you arrive back at the car and can actually stop.

The turn we missed was actually our final turn, the one that set us on the straight drag back to the parking lot, where we’d discover that our 16 mile run had stretched to 19. Our pace picked up a bit, probably too much, but that’s what that subconscious anticipation of the end does to you. We floated there in that limbo state, just running and running, legs churning, arms pumping, minds working to process it all, and then three small deer came trotting out of the woods ahead of us, crossed the path and then bound up into the trees silently.

They knew where they were going.