going back into the canyon – twenty years later

This week I had the opportunity to run in the place I first began to love running.  For me, this happened in my early twenties, when I was getting my undergraduate degree at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California. 

One quarter I decided to take a running class, figuring I could use the exercise.  We started out by running a mile or two around the track.  I clocked in as just about the slowest runner in the class.  It felt a bit discouraging – after all I was going as fast as I could muster.  And I was still being left in the dust. 

Several weeks into the class, we started running out along a dirt road that led to Poly Canyon, northeast of the campus.  It was about a mile to the end of the road, and began using how I felt on this out and back route to gauge how I was doing.

I’m pretty sure that I was  still the slowest at the end of the quarter, but I felt more confident.  I began employing some mind tricks to keep myself focused on whatever my goal pace or distance was.  I didn’t let myself think about what I’d do when I finished – figuring that was just getting ahead of myself.  I told myself that if I could complete a fast mile, I could use the same focusing techniques to earn an A in one of the tougher classes.  By then, I’d noticed that there was something about doing this running thing that I kind of liked. 

Later that year, I ran my first 5k, also out along Poly Canyon Road.  I remember feeling good about running the whole way, and even passed some folks who had gone out too fast.  The race took us into Poly Canyon itself, along a single track trail, before turning us around and heading back to the finish in front of the gym.

I will never forget how it felt the first time I came across a finish line.  I pushed myself harder approaching the finish and hearing the small crowd gathered there.  Running in and feeling the energy was amazing to me.

I started running farther out along the trail, making it 3.5, then 5 miles.  There’s a nice stretch where you climb around 500 feet, coming to a ridge.  The first time I made it up the hill without stopping, I was struck at how great it was to turn around and see such a clear sense of progress.  Looking down the hill I’d just climbed I could see the trail winding through the switchbacks,. 

One day I completed the entire 8.2 mile loop through the canyon, running up hills, past cattle and horses, and catching the views of the seven sisters – the string of volcanic peaks that extend from San Luis Obispo’s Bishop’s Peak all the way up to Morro rock.  I was soooo tired, but truly amazed at how I’d earned the views along the way.

That’s about the time I started thinking that anything was possible if I put my mind to it. 

So when I was back at the University on business this week, I managed to fit in a run into the canyon for old time’s sake.  More of the land along the road and along the return to the campus has been developed, but Poly Canyon is still amazing.

I’m writing this as I travel to Houston, to run a marathon this coming weekend.  I’ll definitely carry the spirit I rediscovered with me there.

As an aside, I did learn a good lesson running in the canyon this week.  After twenty years, you might forget a bit of the course.  I took a wrong turn crossing a creek about 4 miles out, and might still have been out there had I not encountered a helpful mountain biker who directed me back to the campus.  So my easy five miler turned into a more difficult eleven miler.  But there’s a reason I’d call them “bonus miles”.

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