My Run With The Dirtbags: The Trail Runners of Percy Warner Park
“I just planned my trip out to Washington state to run the ultra 100 next summer,” said my new acquantinence Brad. We were sitting at The Corner Pub in Bellevue, eating potato skins covered in sour cream, devouring burgers bigger than the diameter of my face, and slugging down a mug of delightfully cold beer. I almost choked. “One hundred miles?” I asked. “When do you sleep??”
It was my first time at this Corner Pub, and it was my first time hanging out with this group of people: The Dirtbags. Turns out Brad isn’t the only one who loves the woods, and loves to run, and loves the thrill and torture of competing in these events. Also at our table sat Austin, who only three weeks ago had surgery on his meniscus but still somehow elected to come out and run the trails that evening, along with his wife Alex. A few seats down from me was Jack. Jack serves as the leader of The Dirtbags, has been running with the group for about 5 years, and seemingly always does so clad in a pair of thick, cotton cargo shorts. Becca was there too, who ran the trails that evening in a pair of sandals that looked like Chacos and who also ran Bigfoot 200 out in Washington and Oregon last August. (FYI Bigfoot 200 means 200 miles. I repeat: 200 miles. 200 miles!!!). There was also Jim, Keith, Forrest, and Timothy — and probably some others that I can’t recall at this point. (Sorry y’all - it’s not you, it’s me).
Truth be told, it was my mom who introduced me to this crew — my 66 year-old mom, to be exact. (Mom, don’t kill me for saying that - you don’t look a day over 50 and you know it). They’re her Thursday night posse and she’s been running with them for just shy of two years now. Rain or shine (unless it’s thundering and lightning), light or dark (but when it’s dark they do wear headlamps), and blazing hot or bitterly cold (and I can’t decide which is worse), she and her group of Dirtbags meet, and they run.
Simply put, The Dirtbags are a group of people who run the trails. They meet out at Percy Warner Park every Thursday night at 6pm to run the Red Trail (4.5 miles), and more often than not, they reward themselves with a beer and a burger at the Bellevue Corner Pub once they’ve finished the loop. Four and a half miles? Doesn’t seem so bad. But that’s not typically where these people stop. Many of The Dirtbags get out there early and run the loop one or two times before everyone else gets there. Lots of The Dirtbags do this more than just one night a week. And some of The Dirtbags do this kind of thing in far bigger and far longer arenas. Remember Becca? The Bigfoot 200? And Brad? With the Washington 100? Yeah. Like that.
Now, I’m a pretty fit woman. I work out. I practice yoga. I lift weights. I hike and I even run from time to time. You know, I cover my bases. So I figured, why not go for a run with The Dirtbags? I could probably do it. Why not give it a whirl? Thinking about it from the comfort of my East Nashville home on the opposite side of town, I felt confident. I felt ready.
I sat at my desk on the morning of Thursday, June 28th — on the 19th floor of a skyrise downtown — and I noticed the sky go dark. It was the day I was supposed to take my inaugural run with The Dirtbags, but for some reason, I had fallen nervous. Clouds came rolling in, lightning struck and thunder roared, and where I could normally see as far as Brentwood way out in the distance, I could now barely see the street 19 floors below me. The skies looked menacing and frankly I was glad: maybe I wouldn’t have to run.
Around 1:15, I texted my mom, “The skies are looking daunting!” She just responded, “It looks like it will stop by 4:00.”
K. Guess we’re doing this, then.
The Dirtbags meet at the first pavilion on the right near the Deep Well Trailhead. Everybody sort of mills around and catches up for 10-15 minutes while waiting for the rest of the group to arrive. As you might assume, talk mainly hovers around the subject of running and trails: triathlons recently completed, injuries being nursed from last week, races on which sights are set for the future, and so on. Everyone is friendly and everyone welcomes me warmly — although some do give me a certain amount of flack for being Kren’s daughter. (For the record, I don’t totally know why they give me flack - Kren is a really fantastic woman, let me tell you, and they all seem to love her, so you would think they would be nice to me because of their love and respect for her.)
“You know the rules,” yelled Jack, when he gathered everyone into a cluster at 6:00. “Run in groups, no larger than four, stay on the trail, and we’re going to the right this evening. Let’s go.”
As we took off from the pavilion, running down the road towards the trailhead I asked my mom, “So, are you going to like, hang with me and run with me or are you going to cruise off ahead and leave me in the dust?”
“I’m the slowest one out here!” she said.
I was surprised by how good I felt when I started running. Not only did being in a group of people seem to help give me a boost of energy, but I have to admit I was lucky to have chosen to do this on a night after which the rain had fallen. Although the air was humid, the heat was surprisingly not oppressive and the temperature was mild. The people I ran with were nice, too. They chatted with me and asked me questions and I did the same for them, and even though talking like that did make it harder to pull air into my lungs, it took my mind off my legs and feet.
We had finally made it to the end of the road and the beginning of the trail, and I knew there was a big hill we’d have to climb right off the bat. But before I knew it, everyone slowed down and started walking. My mom turned to me, “We walk the hills” she said.
This I could handle.
I later found out that this whole walk-the-hills thing is a commonality among trail runners — especially ultra trail runners. Oh didn’t I mention? Lots of the Dirtbags are ultra trail runners. Which means they run distances that are ultra long. Which means anything longer than marathons (which, if you didn’t know, is 26.2 miles). We already discussed Brad’s impending 100-mile adventure, and we marveled over Becca’s 200-mile adventure from last year, but we haven’t yet discussed the fun fact that my mom ran a 50k (31 miles) up in Indiana a few months ago (in under 8 hours). So now that we have discussed it, we can confirm that she is officially an ultra trail runner, and I am officially an ultra loser.
I trained for a half marathon one time about 5 years ago and somewhere along the rigorous path of my training journey I managed to pull or tear or do something incredibly painful to my right IT band. After that, I never thought about the whole distance running thing again.
So finding out that we could walk the hills— and that we were actually encouraged to do so — was a welcome surprise. Because, although our run was just a meagre 4.5 miles (really, 5.29 miles when you factor in the stretch of road that we ran from the pavilion to the trailhead and back), some of these guys and gals are training for the ultras. And when you’re staring down 31, or 100 or, bless ‘em for it, 200 miles, you have got to pace yourself.
I hiked up that first hill, nipping at the heels of the woman in front of me (she was one of those showoffs who already ran the loop once), but once we reached the top we took off and began to run. We leapt over branches and bobbed and weaved around rocks, trying to avoid twisting an ankle or face-planting into the mud. We could still see the leaders of the pack up ahead (Jack, Jim, Kara, and Emily) but the space between bodies began to deepen and eventually I felt like I could open up my stride a bit. I soon passed the over-achieving woman (whose the overachiever now, honey?), skipped ahead of a very muscly fellow whose name I didn’t catch but did overhear say something about being in the navy I think, and eventually found myself jogging with Jim.
I had gathered that Jim was one of the runners who was typically at the front of the group and who found this whole running thing to be a whole lot of fun. So I was particularly impressed with myself to be running by his side. We chatted for a bit as the terrain was fairly level, darting around trees and chatting about our pasts, but when we hit our next hill — which was much steeper than the last — I slowed down and got my walk on. You know me, just following the rules.
Jim walked up the hill too, albeit at a faster clip than I, and before I knew it I was more or less left alone. I knew this was going to happen! Shortly thereafter I came to a break in the trail, and decided to check my watch: big mistake. So far I had run 2.17 miles. I had completed less than half of the trail. Half!? I thought I would be almost done by this point!
That was when my pride kicked in. I knew there were people closing in on me from behind — lots of people — and I knew I had people to catch ahead of me, so I was perfectly caught in the middle of a competitive little sweet spot. I was able to run by myself, accompanied only by the sound of my breath, while fully aware that at any second someone could come cruising up behind me and pass me like that. But I wasn’t going to let that happen. So I picked up the pace and pushed myself to go when I didn’t want to and I made absolutely certain that I would come out of this thing ahead of my mom.
The next couple of miles went a little something like this:
Okay, you’ve got this. Just stay with the breath: in the nose, out through the mouth. The sounds of my breath start to mimic the sounds of my footsteps: In, in, out, out. Step, step, step, step. In, in, out, out. Step, step, step, step.
As I get to a level portion of the trail, my heart rate, too, begins to level out and I feel like I’m moving without even thinking about it. I realize it’s the steep downhills that make me most nervous. Since we walk the uphills and I don’t mind running on a slight incline or decline, I only give pause when it comes to barreling down the rocky and pebbly slopes — especially since the trails are slick with the afternoon’s rain. Maybe it’s my irrational fear of tripping, tumbling, and somewhere along the way bashing my teeth into my skull, or maybe I’m just a whimp or a sissy, but regardless, that’s when I take it super slow. However, once I get to the bottom, *bang!* I’m off.
Okay, okay….I feel good. Yeah, I’m doing alright. Whoa! Is that Jack?
In a flash, I see Jack’s white ponytail whipping back and forth as I look through a break in the trees about 200 yards ahead of me. I can see Jack? Jack the leader? I must be doing okay.
In, in, out, out. Step, step, step, step. In, in, out, out. Step, step, step, step.
Since I’m all by myself I elect to remove my tank top. It’s hot and I’m sweating and the sweat is dripping down into my eyes, and I didn’t take off my mascara before I went running, and therefore I need something with which I can wipe my face. Thus, the tank top. I normally wouldn’t go running in just a sports bra and running tights, but since I’m all alone and there’s nobody around to judge me or look at me or (most importantly) for me to feel the need to suck in or flex around, I just run willy nilly and make sure to switch my tank top from my right hand to my left hand every now and then. The OCD is real, and I don’t want one arm to be stronger than the other.
I come to almost a complete stop when I make it to the top of what will surely be a steep and slippery downhill. I didn't know it was my last one. The rocks are almost like sheets of slate. Their shiny appearance, coupled with the muck stuck to the bottom of my shoes, has me convinced I will slip and crack my head open and bleed out here in the middle of Percy Warner Park if I don’t slowwwww it dowwwwwn.
So I walk. I basically tiptoe. All the way down to the bottom and then BANG like a flash I’m off again.
Next thing I know, I’ve made it to the sign that signals the start (or end, in my case) of the Red Trail, and from there I know I’m on the home stretch. I run up one final hill (*rebel!*) and cruise down the other side a little bit faster than I would normally allow myself. Once I hit the pavement, I’m home free. My lungs are heaving, my clothes are drenched, my feet hurt, and I feel like I have a giant blister under the ball-mound of my right foot, but none of that matters since the end is quite literally in sight and I sure’s hell ain’t gonna stop now.
When I’m about 100 yards from the Pavilion, I hear the Dirtbags cheering for me, congratulating me on making it through my first time — and doing so ahead of my mom. “So you weren’t going to let your mother show you up?” one of them asked me.
“I just figured if I was going to be out here doing this thing, I might as well give it my all!” I said. I had finished the 5.29 miles in 1 hour and four minutes. And the weirdest part was, I felt like I could do it again. I'd enjoyed it.
Maybe it’s the multiple distractions of the trail — trees and rocks and critters; the inclines and declines; and the camaraderie and fun of being with other people juxtaposed by the mental stillness that comes with being alone — or maybe I’m a better runner than I thought, but I have to admit I had a lot more fun than I anticipated I would. I got to meet new people, get a little sweaty, enjoy the outdoors, and generate some endorphins and then top it all off with some fried potatoes and a cold IPA, and frankly I don’t see anything bad about any of that.
After completing one run with the group, I certainly wouldn’t call myself an official Dirtbag, but I also wouldn't swear it off as an option for the future. As far as competing in one of those ultra runs goes? That’s going to take a lot of beers and a lot of convincing. But hey, maybe when I’m sixty-six.