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There is no mirror like a good (or bad) run. This is what I was thinking as I trotted along the overpass of the Santa Cruz River on West Congress Street the other day as I urged toward the end of my 9th day of running.

It has been…god damn it…almost a decade since I was regularly running. I turn 45 this November, and some recent encounters with the idea of mortality, or rather worse, impaired mortality, motivated me to get back on the pavement, asphalt, gravel and dirt pathways at a stride that imposes stress upon the lungs and heart (they say this is healthy). Also, I missed the high of a good run.

My daily running buddies.

I remember being addicted to my daily run. In the past, I ran marathons, though never at an impressive pace (I always favored a non-competitive stride). The last marathon I ran in 2007, I barely even trained for — it was the Anchorage marathon, Alaska. I drove all the way there from Tucson, forgot my running shoes (I borrowed a friend’s shoes that were a size and a half too small), hadn’t been training in weeks, got drunk the night before (is this carb-loading?), and still finished the marathon in a respectable time, albeit I lost both my large toenails because of the small shoes. I was ten years younger. And big surprise, all these years of drinking, late nights…they catch up to you. As I have started running again, I am noticing…it’s not as easy as it used to be.

Regardless, I’ve made the pledge with myself to run another marathon, and, in general, to be a runner again. And because I prefer the unpaved trails over asphalt and concrete, I began this pledge with my first run up the backside of Tumamoc Hill.


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I started up the road to A Mountain peak, scrutinizing the back of Tumamoc as I headed upward, in search of trails I have been told about. At the entrance gate to A Mountain, naturally, I found several trails heading west and set off following the dirt and rock pathways.

The old, crappy shoes.

The trail I followed is exceptionally rocky, dusty, and steep. It requires some attention on where you place your feet, especially at a heart- and lung-challenging pace. It also occurred to me that I should perhaps keep half an eye out for snakes. It has been so long that my running shoes were old and terrible. I got them cheap (always a mistake), years ago, and I noticed halfway through the run that the seam around one of my ankles was giving. But I recognize how the mind tries to work in good excuses to change behavior that puts undue stress on the body, so I ignored the minor inconvenience and compensated, making a note to stop at The Running Shop in the near future for new shoes.

Most of the terrain is saguaro, prickly pear, cholla, native acacias, various bursage, fairy duster, ratany, limberbush, greythorn, mesquite, palo verde, and more. Occasionally, and sadly, I also pass areas with large swaths of what almost comprises almost entirely of buffelgrass, a non-native grass that out-competes all native species except for what can grow above, and what can grow above will, sooner or later, succumb to fire, as buffelgrass brings fire to plant communities that aren’t adapted — most of the species in this area will die in a fire, not to return, leaving more disturbed soil for the buffelgrass to pioneer. In these areas, the grass even sounds pernicious, the dry seedheads rustling together. I run quickly through these monocommunities of grass, with fantasies of coming back and pulling up all this horrible weed. It would, of course, be difficult if not impossible. But I fantasize anyway.

Pernicious buffelgrass.

I zigzagged up the back end of Tumamoc Hill, aiming for the top. At one point, I spotted a more direct route that crosses over the fence (bent down to the ground to allow crossing) meant to keep non-researchers (hikers) out and led straight to my destination. Though tempted to take it, I respected the wishes of those doing important ecological studies and kept on the very indirect, zigzaggy pathway, away from the research area.

Just before getting to the top, I thought about my route ahead. I could run down the popular, paved hill, perhaps bump into some friends along the way (it sometimes seems everyone I know makes a regular habit of walking Tumamoc Hill) and enjoy the ease of flat ground, all downhill. But what fun would that be? I opted for an extremely rocky detour, heading back down and a tad more northeast than the location I made my start from. This pathway is also more downward. Though I noticed tire prints from mountain bikes and some footprints, I wondered, is this really a trail or just a path eroded by water? Yeah, it was pretty much a wash, and at many points difficult to scramble over, especially at a running pace. As I maneuvered down the pathway, I began to have a lot of mad respect for the mountain bikers who took this path. It is difficult on foot, often almost vertical. I even found a lost baggie of bike tools that was lost to some biker along the way.

I carried one 24 ounce metal bottle, full of water laced with electrolyte mix. It was enough to get through this run, but I thought about better hydration plans for longer runs in natural areas. And for a moment, in this relatively remote spot, I wondered: if I fell unconscious in this heat (I didn’t have my phone on me), would I be found in time? I laughed at myself for a moment, since I have been in so many other, far more remote, places far from help in my life. This is almost literally my backyard. But it IS hot. And yes, one could expire out here if one were not careful. This is the desert. Still, I laughed and plugged along.

Finally, I got to the base of Tumamoc hill behind a smaller hill that I still do not know the name of (and which a quick google search did not yield the name of). The hill is just northwest of A Mountain and east of Tumamoc Hill. I admonished myself for not knowing the name of this hill — the other side is a mere two blocks from where I live. The “trail” I followed dwindled away and led into a larger, sandy wash. I followed it on a southerly route before deciding to just make my own way up the back of the “unnamed” hill, passing a roadrunner who took notice of this weak human being who is beginning to struggle in the increasing heat, the morning making way to noon. And speaking of wildlife, I spotted very few animals. Just the one roadrunner and a turkey vulture hovering above. Only a human would impose such undue stress on itself so arrogantly in the heat.

I got to the peak of the unnamed hill, and connected with a paved road, South Panorama Circle. The rest of the way home was on paved road.

In all, the run took about an hour. Similar runs on pavement and asphalt never give me the pleasure that trail runs give me. Rather than focussing on my fatigue, I find distraction in making observations about the plants, geology, and other attributes of the natural area when trail running. Trail running gives my mind something, besides the discomfort of exercise, to work on. When I cooled off, I went to my running plans and worked in at least one weekly run along trails. The drawback to this decision is that I can’t track my running on my nice, neat little running app on my iPhone. But I think I’ll survive.


Jared "Kitty Katt" McKinley

Publisher, botanist, explorer, and proud desert dweller.