Ode to Autumn

Republished with permission from Los Angeles Sports & Fitness Magazine

By Chris Wright

Dawn was just beginning to insinuate itself through the mist, and the familiar rhythm of my footfall on the trail was light and reassuring. My hands were cold for the first time in six months, and I smiled to myself: the best time of the year was coming.

I grew up calling it autumn, but perhaps you’re more comfortable with fall. Whatever the term, it’s always been my favorite season—even if I grew up spelling that favourite—and I’ve always felt a duty in this season of mists and mellow fruitfulness to get out there and do interesting things. Can’t help it: southern hemisphere or northern, just something in the air, apparently.

Many readers have doubtless run the wonderful Chesebro Half Marathon, and doubtless know that this magazine sponsors that event every spring. What they may not know is that the unique course was once, long before the race existed, my go-to long training run. It’s a tough yet gorgeous run, mostly trail but with segments at both the beginning and the end on the road, taking runners from the start in suburban Agoura Hills into the stunning trail system, and from one of that trail system’s exits back to the finish in Chumash Park. If you’ve never done it, take it from someone who covered that ground many times before it became the official half marathon that is now the centerpiece of the Great Race festivities; do yourself a favor and put it on the calendar for next March now.

All of that said, I had often wondered what the run would be like if it was all off-road, given how challenging and beautiful the Palo Comado and Chesebro canyon trails indisputably are. And when my coach recently instructed me to do two and a half hours of solid trail running on a Saturday morning as part of my buildup to the Berlin Marathon, I had a little epiphany. Why not run that trail section, in both directions?

Why not, indeed?

And so it came to pass that I found myself heading north up the long, insistent grade of the Chesebro Canyon trail on the first cool morning of the season, drinking in the almost absurd beauty and tranquility of a path that, much of time, is barely used. It’s about a half an hour’s easy lope up to the rock at Sulphur Springs, and the climbing is enough to break a good sweat even when the air is in the forties. Then, the scenery changes dramatically, and you traverse first a broad meadow and then a series of steep, rocky climbs before emerging onto the plateau that is Shepherd’s Flat. For the three quarters of an hour of unhurried running it took me to get there, I saw not another soul. It was just me, my breathing, and that path less traveled, which has indeed for me made all the difference. My only company as I moved methodically over ground bearing the occasional twisting trails of rattlers was the mist, and the shy rabbits, and the brown towhees scooting into the underbrush, and the hairy woodpeckers tap-tap-tapping at the majestic live oaks they call home, all black and white and a flash of red head, busy remodeling. Sublime.

The course then turns left and snakes west, heading toward the adjacent Palo Comado Canyon. The price of getting there is steep, in the most literal sense: the climbing is such that one’s horizon shrinks to the few feet ahead of you and all the oxygen on the planet, which seems to be necessary just to keep the legs turning over and the running, continuous. Ah, but the reward. You spill over the summit and the perspective is like no other in the many trails I’ve run. On the right morning, a little past sunrise with the diaphanous mist disappearing, you are suddenly in rural Montana or Wyoming or Colorado, surrounded by physical majesty that lifts the spirit even as it takes the breath away. Of course, you are really looking south down Palo Comado Canyon to the Santa Monica Mountains and the cloud-shrouded ocean beyond…but that is a secret between you and the trail, one that the vast bulk of those still asleep in the suburbs, nearby but invisible from this outrageous overlook, will never know. It keeps you grinning for the whole steep descent to the bottom of the canyon, certain in the knowledge that it just doesn’t get any better.

Until it does.

Moving quickly, you round a corner, and there, startled into immobility, is an antlered young buck, not fifteen feet away and so close that you can see the wetness on his nose. Eyes and hearts connect. I mean you no harm, we both say, wordlessly. The moment passes, and we move on. Soon, I reach the trailhead at Sunnycrest, an hour and a quarter on my watch. I turn back, to do it all in reverse order. I’ve seldom been happier for two and a half hours.

While I can’t speak for that handsome young buck, I can tell you that mystery and wonder are freely available, right on your doorstep.

Copyright 2015 Los Angeles Sports & Fitness Magazine