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Out There: Finding Our Favorite Routes

The best question to ask a runner is where to find the best route in town.

I squinted at the pile of rocks at my feet. Was this the turn I was looking for? I couldn’t be sure.

I dug into my sports bra to retrieve the sweat-soaked receipt from the coffee shop. On the back was a hand-drawn map to an inconspicuous trailhead – a “must do,” the ultrarunner called it, “with the best view of the city.”

I had only intended to make small talk with the guy in Hokas while waiting for my coffee order. Thirty minutes later, I walked away with a doodled map and a cold latte. Two hours after my chance encounter, I was lost in the mountains above Salt Lake City, trying to find my location on the back of a Starbucks receipt.

According to my map, I was supposed to be at a sketch of neatly piled stones labeled “Cairn (BIG!!! NOT THE SMALL ONE!)” I still wasn’t sure if this was my turn, or if I should go further down the trail in search of a bigger marker. As I perused the scrap of paper in hopes of getting oriented, I chuckled at the tiny print scrawled on the other side of the trail line: “Creek = you’ve gone too far!!!”

I smiled as I followed the spiderweb of lines and landmarks on the receipt, recalling the local-ese that peppered the drawer’s speech as he described his scribbles: “Turn left where the campground used to be.” “The sign washed out in a storm last year, so Joe Young staked a red flag in the ground this spring.” “Pick up your feet, ‘cause the EMTs can’t get to you all that easy if you break your leg.” “Oh, man, I wish I could get out there today.”

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I’m not sure what was more enticing—the prospect of exploring a new trail, or the enthusiasm my new acquaintance showed in sharing it with another runner. Because he loved this trail so much, I couldn’t help but love it before I even set foot on the dirt.

Over the years, I’ve learned the best question to ask a fellow runner is not What are you training for? or What’s your PR? If you want to get a sense of who someone is, ask him or her where to go for the best run in town. Giving directions is a form of storytelling, and every tale gives a glimpse into the person sharing it.

Some pick routes based on the challenge, some for the notoriety, and some for the scenery. The same trail might be described as “gentle” by one runner, “an ass-kicker” by another, and “I almost died here” by a third. Measurements aren’t exact (“go a couple 2-3 miles,” I was once directed) and hills are like fishes—they get bigger every time a runner describes them. If you’re told to take a longer route, it’s insider information that the journey is worth it. Shortcuts, too, are a runner’s way of letting you in on a little secret.

This precious information is more valuable than any guidebook out there, full of routes unknown to a GPS watch and homespun details printed sources miss: Look for the yard with a big black dog. Turn right at John McConnell’s farm. If you come to a creek, you’ve gone too far. Learning a route through the viewpoint of another runner reminds us that although the landscape is more or less fixed, our perceptions of it vary wildly.

When we accept these directions, we’re placing trust in another person—in some cases, a stranger—who could very well lead us astray. But the details—the personal landmarks, the hand-drawn maps, the sheer excitement while telling the story—reaffirm the unspoken code between runners that we’ll only send each other places worth going.

I eventually found the right cairn on my Starbucks map, along with Joe Young’s red flag. The last point on the map, marked by a star, was accompanied by the word “LOOK!!!”

He was right. It was the best view of the city.

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About The Author:

Susan Lacke does 5Ks, Ironman Triathlons, and everything in between to justify her love for cupcakes (yes, she eats that many). Susan lives and trains in Salt Lake City, Utah with three animals: A labrador, a cattle dog, and a freakishly tall triathlete husband. She claims to be of sound mind, though this has yet to be substantiated by a medical expert. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanLacke