That time I got lost in Boston and ended up running 21 miles instead of 9.

Written at 2:26 am on Saturday, December 14th, 2013.

It was Friday the 13th. Something was bound to go awry.

I woke up later than usual, with plans to make the morning’s workout a quickie 9-10 mile jog along the Charles River. I would be out and back in my apartment, blending up green smoothies, within 90 minutes.

Such was the plan. But Friday the 13th had other plans for me.

Okay, okay, I freely admit that this morning’s snafu had less to do with the Friday the 13th status and more to do with my still relative noob status here in Boston. In either case, I found myself in a bit of a conundrum this morning.

I took off along my usual starting point, down Broad Canal Way in Cambridge and west along the Cambridge Parkway. It was a cold 30 degrees or so, but warmer than other days this week. I celebrated this fact until about a quarter of a mile into my run, at which point the path I was running on rounded a bend and became flush with the river. Almost immediately, a powerful, icy wind began to buffet me from head-on.

I was stunned. Normally, inclement weather doesn’t really bother me–I like to see myself as being rather “weatherproof.” However, something about that wind caught me seriously off guard. Ironically, the freezing gusts of air quite literally took the wind out of me–and I found myself with an uncharacteristic running demeanor for me: head down, driving forward, gasping for breath less than a half a mile in.

I was humbled. At least temporarily.

As if by default, I started to quicken my pace and charge forward–perhaps in an attempt to overcome my adversary. I felt like I was running through molasses. I felt like someone was slapping me in the face with a slightly damp, freezing cold bed sheet. I felt like mother nature was mad at me–so I got mad back.

I hurdled forward (“hurdled” only in the best sense of my mind’s eye; to onlookers I probably looked more a floppy, flailing mess of arms and legs akimbo) stubbornly, determined to power through until I had the chance to re-orient to a new cardinal direction. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen until somewhere between 3 and 4 miles into my run, at which point the Charles makes an abrupt turn north near Harvard’s campus. At that point, I had already exhausted a good portion of my gas tank, and I still had quite a few miles left to go. Battered and weary, I plodded along to the turnaround point, an inconspicuous bridge not far from Harvard’s boathouse.

My plan was to cross the bridge and stick to the river on the Boston side, following it back in the opposite direction from whence I came. I’ve run this route at least three or four times before, so I was pretty sure I knew what I was doing. What I didn’t realize is that the Charles River branches out into all sorts of neat and fun little tributaries and trajectories, which meander throughout the entire MetroWest area if one isn’t careful to stay to the main river. I’m sure you can see where this is going. I crossed my inconspicuous bridge, oriented myself toward the water, and followed a paved bike path along the embankment. I figured that as long as I was following a path, and that the river was to my left, I’d be fine. Right?

It wasn’t long before I recognized that I didn’t in fact recognize a thing about my surroundings. Yes, there was some sort of river to my left, but it definitely wasn’t the Charles. Praying that this small detour would eventually feed back into the Charles, I stuck to my path. The miles ticked away…5 miles, 6 miles, 8 miles…until I reached a nondescript shopping plaza and all signs of paved running and bike paths vanished. That’s when I realized I was probably screwed.

As if an angel from the heavens, a sprightly blonde teenage female runner began to approach from the opposite direction. I waved her down and asked for directions toward the Esplanade, a popular riverside park not too far from my apartment. She laughed and looked at me like I was insane. “That’s, like, REALLY far away. Like, CRAZY far! You probably won’t want to run all the way there.” I told her I really had no choice–which was the truth: I’d left my metro card at home, and all I had with me was a key to my apartment and my phone.

As perky blonde girl flitted happily away on her 5K, I made peace with the fact that today was going to be a long, long day. I pulled out my phone and searched for the most direct route back to my apartment. I was shocked to find that I had somehow ended up on the outskirts of Roxbury; the Charles River had bifurcated and formed a small, southbound channel which I had picked up some four or five miles earlier, and which ultimately plunged me into the heart of southwest Boston neighborhoods. Unfortunately, the most direct route back involved passing through some fairly sketchy, non-pedestrian-friendly portions of concrete jungle, so I opted to backtrack a bit until I could get back onto a solid riverside path. However, first I had to call my boss.

Thankfully, my boss is an incredibly cool guy. Put simply, he himself is very active, so he “gets it.” When I outlined my predicament, his first response was to offer to come pick me up. I refused, under the condition that it was okay that I show up an hour, or two, or two-and-a-half, late today. Needless to say, this was not a problem–and I heard him chuckle to himself as the line clicked and he hung up.

Endurance junkie problems.

keep-running

Time to dig deep. I knew I had at least 8 or 9 miles left to get back, and that was a conservative estimate. It was at this point that I wondered: would it have been more difficult if I had known I had this longer distance to run all along, or is it more psychologically traumatic to be slammed with a 20 miler suddenly after doing 10? I’m not sure, but regardless, changing my Pandora station from Elliott Smith to Ratatat helped a lot (sorry Elliott, I still love you more).

I meandered through Chestnut Hill and Brighton, eventually finding myself back on track with the main river. I put my head down, shortened my stride, slowed down a little, and focused entirely on being as efficient as possible in propelling my body forward. The predictable downbeat of electronic music lulled me into an automatic, mechanical rhythm. Right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot. Run to that tree. Run to that bush. Run to that crosswalk. I lapsed into the triathlon shuffle. I soldiered on. I ticked away miles.

The miles passed–slowly at first, and then seemingly faster. When confronted with the fact that I’d have to turn my 9 mile run into a 20 mile run, I panicked. I stopped, checked a map, and freaked out a little. When I embraced the reality, it sucked. But once I found a rhythm, it started to become easy again. Before I knew it, I had burst into the Esplanade, a mere 2.5 miles from home. I was ecstatic.

At this point my legs felt like lead pistons, yet somehow I also paradoxically felt like I was running on air. Looking back, it was probably owing to the fact that my legs were outright numb from the exertion and the extreme cold. But at the time, the endorphins convinced me that I was soaring a la Prefontaine. Delusions of grandeur have been known to strike runners during inevitable “running highs”; thankfully, they are almost invariably promptly knocked off their pedestal with a subsequent low. Running: it’s an abusive relationship.

I coasted across the Harvard Bridge and turned right onto Memorial Drive, this time re-encountering the same stretch from the beginning of my run–the stretch where the wind and I met for the first time. Only this time, the wind was at my back. And it was a very sweet wind, indeed.

I landed in a heap at my apartment door some three hours after I had left. I checked my GPS: 20.66 miles. I laughed. All I could do was laugh.

Completely, utterly exhausted, I was in a daze. Did that really just happen? I made my way up to my apartment and collapsed on the trundle bed. I contemplated my morning: it was not yet 10 am and I had already lived what felt like an entire day.

Endurance junkie problems.

My fatigue soon passed and was quickly replaced with the elation that comes with the combination of endorphins and an extreme sense of accomplishment. Friday the 13th, you may have tried to trip me up, but that curveball actually ended up making my day. Even if it meant walking like a duck up and down the metro stairs when I was hanging out with my friends tonight.

I got into work at an embarrassingly tardy 11am to the applause of my lab mates. My lab is full of runners; I am lucky in that regard. “I heard you took a little tour of Boston this morning!” one of my coworkers chided; to which my boss replied, “I believe she took a tour of her spirit.”

Well played, boss, well played. And yes, I most certainly did.

 

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