On thing we all have in common, no matter how far or how fast we now run, ride or race, is that once upon a time we each completed our very first trail run. These days a run on the trail is, for many of us, an everyday - or nearly so - occurrence, something we probably take for granted. But it wasn't always that way. It all started somewhere.
That first off-road run is carved deeply into my memory banks, memorable for so many reasons. At the time, I was a fresh-faced college grad, with a 6-month scraggly “beard”, living in a small town in Central Ghana, in West Africa, teaching science (Chemistry, Physics and Biology) at the town's secondary school as a Peace Corps volunteer. Thousands of miles from home and sharing a house with two Brits, who had been there for a year, I discovered the beauty and power of running on trails.
Rich, one of the two VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) teachers, the English equivalent of Peace Corps, and I formed a fast friendship, something that started and continued - to this day even - thanks to running. The forests around Bekwai - known as "the bush" by everyone around - were green and dense, rife with miles of trails (footpaths really) leading to and from dozens of small villages, and plied by men, women and children taking produce or traveling to the bigger markets in Bekwai and Kumasi, and returning with other produce, household items, and even charcoal.
Wicked hot and crazy humid year round - save December when the drier winds prevailed, bringing cooler (well, relatively anyway) temps - Rich and I took off every Sunday for a long jaunt into the forest. Of course, we often had no clue where we were headed, just that the path headed the right direction - away from the school. Apparently Rich, a small, wiry and hirsute guy, bore a striking resemblance to the English boxer who lost his championship belt to the first-ever Ghanaian champion boxer, DK Poison (real name - David Kotei). We learned that the hard way; as we approached and ran through every village in the area we were accompanied by a throng of young barefoot Ghanaians shouting "DK, DK, DK" at Rich, just to remind him that he'd had his ass kicked and lost his crown to the local favorite. A huge victory for the one-time colony over its former masters. Every village, no mater how remote, gave us the same insufferable greeting, every time. The screaming continued through the entire village - loud and mocking. Oh, how we longed for the forest, away from the screaming, to get a little peace. On the plus side, we inevitably ran a whole lot harder - fartleks, before I even knew what one was - as we entered and ran through each and every village. It never changed - two years in we got the same shouts and screams every weekend, every village, every time.
We had no handhelds or vests and there was no way we were drinking from the coffee-colored streams. No way. We toughed it out, 3-4 hours without hydration or fuel and sweating like pigs in the tropical heat. And there were no showers either - just a tiny bucket of sort of fresh water and a little homemade soap to “freshen up”. Still, just about the best feeling ever, sitting in front of the house, cleaner (never clean, really), dog-tired for all the right reasons, content and waiting for the kettle to boil so we could enjoy a little post-run tea. What a life.
Do you remember your first one? That first race? It's what got us started - something magical, special. Whatever it was - it stuck.