The Art of Losing

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

– Elizabeth Bishop

Yesterday I headed out for what I thought would be a short run at Lebanon Hills Park, a place I’ve run a dozen times before. I got started a bit late in the day, but I’d decided to do a short run since my hips have been bothering me and I would only be out there for an hour, so I knew I’d have daylight left. I didn’t take anything besides my car key since I was only going for a short run and I didn’t have any zippered pockets big enough for my phone. The parking lot was a bit full, so I decided I’d run the cross-country ski/horse trails that are normally off-limits to hikers due to either groomed trails or equine traffic, depending on the season. (I realize people still hike those trails despite the rules but I’m a stickler for following trail rules. And I hate horses.) Because I was unfamiliar with the trails, when I turned to add what I thought was just an extra half mile or so, I ended up heading in the wrong direction (you can see on the map below where I turned around and retraced my steps in the center-east section of the park), adding time and mileage to my run.

I realized at this point that I was going to have to get my butt in gear, because the sun was starting to go down, and I started checking the maps at each intersection to make sure I was on the right track. Things were going well until I missed a turn and continued to go south when I wanted to go west. I ended up at a road that dead-ended with private driveways, and I was having a hard time reading the trail maps due to the rapidly disappearing twilight, so I finally decided I’d just take that road and eventually get back to a major street that I could take back to the parking lot.

Except that when I turned onto that road, I thought that I was heading south instead of west. And the road was much longer and lonelier than I thought – there were only a few houses along the way and what I should have done was stopped at one of those houses and asked for help. There was a good opportunity as a group was outside having a fire, but I was feeling stupid and embarrassed and decided to continue with my plan. I thought that I’d come out at what shows up as McAndrews Rd on the map, I’d take a right turn, and then another right turn to end up on Pilot Knob Rd. It would be a long walk, but I’d make it.

When I finally got to the end of the road (I wasn’t really certain it actually went through – I just guessed based on the fact that it ended in a dead end in the opposite direction), I was so shaken up and confused and full of self doubt that I decided to abandon my plan, and ask for help. I heard some kids playing basketball at a house nearby and headed in that direction. I walked through a field of long grasses/prickly-stemmed plants/burrs to get to the house, asked the kids if their parents were home, and the world’s nicest people asked me in (even though I didn’t have a mask!) and drove me back to my car at the trailhead. I was so incredibly grateful and relieved, although I had one final moment of horror as I reached into the zippered pocket in my pants and pulled out only the carabiner that my key is attached to, not the key itself — but the key was in my pocket too, it had just separated itself while I was running.

This morning I woke up and couldn’t stop obsessing over all the things that went wrong and that could have gone even worse. I could have ended up wandering around in the woods. I could have gotten chilled and become hypothermic – I was sweaty but also not dressed in warm clothes. I could have not been at a spot close to a road. I could have been pig-headed and refused to swallow my pride and ask for help, and wandered around and around in an area I wasn’t familiar with. I could have been unable to find a house that had people home to help. (Unlikely, since people are home most of the time.)

There are so many decisions I made that led to my predicament. Putting on my quality engineering hat, I can pinpoint all the mistakes that I made along the way:

  • I started running later in the day than planned. I wanted to start around 3:15 but ended up starting at 3:50, which meant I had less daylight.
  • I got too warm in my car, which meant I was a little bit sweaty to start.
  • I wore clothing that didn’t have a secure pocket large enough for my phone, so I chose not to carry it.
  • I decided not to put on my headlamp (which was in my bag!) because I didn’t think I’d need it, although I did consider bringing it.
  • I ran unfamiliar trails.
  • I got “greedy” and thought I could add another half mile or so to my run because I didn’t think I’d get “enough” mileage.
  • I didn’t start reading trail maps soon enough, once I realized that I needed to start heading back.
  • I assumed more than once that I was heading in a correct direction without verifying that was true.
  • I misread the trail maps a couple times.

Even with all of those mistakes and all the things that went wrong, all of the worry and fear and danger could have been avoided if I’d just carried my phone or my headlamp so I could have read the trail maps. Even if I still made all the wrong turns, I wouldn’t have had to walk all the way down 120th St W if I’d had some source of light and/or method of navigation and/or way to call for help. You can bet that I won’t be going on a run for awhile without my phone on me, even if it’s just a short one.

I’m naturally a more cautious person when it comes to physical risks, so this incident has really thrown me. I try to remind myself that I did end up making some good choices, and that once I got out of the woods I wasn’t in any real danger (I passed some other houses where I could have asked for help, I could have flagged down a motorist, etc.), but the what ifs keep rolling around in my mind. This situation has also caused me to question if I have any business trying to run an ultra that goes into the night. Of course that’s a ridiculous question, because while things can go wrong during a night ultra, I’ll also be going in there more prepared because I will know I’m running at night.

Hopefully writing all this out helps purge this incident from my head, or at least the immediacy that it induces in my brain. I hope it also serves as a reminder to help people in need – I think about all the anecdotes I read about people who don’t answer their doors, don’t answer strange numbers on their phones, don’t talk to strangers, who wall themselves off from anyone they don’t know. I am extremely lucky that the first house I approached was owned by kind, generous, big-hearted people; I will remember that and look for ways in my life to seize opportunities to show the same generosity they did toward me.

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