My eyes narrowed and my lip recoiled. A swarm of mountain bikers rode in a circle between us and our cars. Dressed in black, they popped their tattooed biceps and forearms. Even their black trucks looked sinister. We scrawny runners had to wait for them to move. Never had other sports groups caused this much chaos.
An hour ago, Brenda and I ran side by side. Our feet landed on the trail and slight raspy sounds emanated under our shoes. We ran with identical strides near the golden grass, while rabbits nibbled at the edge of the trail. Sage permeated the air and bird song spread throughout the sky. This environment was my coffee shop, my gym, and my church.
Within seconds, a distant churn pierced the peaceful morning. My shorts ruffled and my tank top billowed, as a whoosh of air licked my arms and clothing. Rabbits scurried for cover under thick bushes. Squirrels pounced on trees seeking safety. Birds disappeared.
A mountain biker sped by leaving in his wake swirls of trail dust stretched toward the heavens. My peaceful church was transformed into a biker bar. Cold fear snaked down my back and traveled back up my spine. A split second later, a flush of hot menacing anger traveled from my brain and right out my mouth.
“Jerk! Watch where you’re going!” I yelled.
The biker stopped. He lifted just one finger.
“Out of my way!” He yelled.
My face grew warm, and my stomach tightened. I balled my hands into fists and imagined I pushed him off his bike. Instead, he rode away. I exhaled and unclenched my fists. My stomach relaxed but every few minutes a rustle sent me jumping. Since Fullerton trail possessed blind turns and lawless mountain bikers, we decided to switch trails.
The following Saturday, I leaned against the fence at El Cajón Trail while I peered across the dirt and paved trail that could easily accommodate two lanes of cars.
A few minutes later, we ran while the rising sunlight cast a gentle warmth on our faces. Conversation ensued. Soon, suburbia turned into micro farms and stables. A horse pushed his head over the fence and let out a loud neigh.
After a few miles, we turned our crunchy-crunch rhythm into a shoe-slapping pace. My breathing became shallow, as we quickened our pace. Sweat slid down my back as the workload increased. Still for a pair of former collegiate runners, intervals were some of our favorite runs.
At seven-and-a-half miles, we came to a halt. A mere half-mile from our cars. My eyebrows shot up and my eyes grew wide. People filled the width of the trail. Four abreast on the paved trail and packs of people shuffled on the dirt. Families took to the trails pushing strollers, walking dogs, and riding bikes. Sparks of fear traveled through my chest and mind. As I watched the people parade toward us, my mind leaped frogged to the virus. COVID-19 was literally walking towards us.
Brenda followed me through an opening in the fence to escape what seemed like the zombie apocalypse. Once safe in the quiet neighborhood, our foot falls hit the asphalt and echoed off the quiet homes.
“Did you see all those people?” Brenda asked.
“Yeah. It was worse than the mall!” I answered.
The pandemic and amusement park closures forced people to find alternative forms of entertainment. The trails were their answer. Our trails.
Now we shared problems with walkers, hikers, stroller pushers, and bikers. The newbies on the trail didn’t understand trail etiquette and accidents were inevitable. Two local papers ran articles stating that a hiker had been struck by a mountain biker. He was lifted over the handlebars and into the bushes landing at the edge of a cliff. The victim is undergoing physical therapy and is expecting a knee replacement.
Convinced we were the next victims, we decided our next run would occur on the most desolate of trails. One week later, we met at Santiago Trail. Inhabited by coyotes and mountain lions, the environment deters mall-types.
Santiago appears similar to the Serengeti with its twisted, charred tree trunks, scrub bushes, and dried out stems protruding from parched earth. A hawk swooped down and perched on a branch; he clung to his prey with his talons. He pulled the meat apart with his beak. Our presence was insignificant to the majestic bird.
Brenda and I ran along Santiago’s deserted path talking. The crunch beneath our shoes remained quiet and we kept our conversation at low tones out of reverence for the stillness of nature.
A churn moved by us without warning. Gears shifted with a clunk. A gust of wind blew by ruffling my clothes. I trembled. A mountain biker zipped past us so close, I thought he hit me.
I moved my hands and arms instinctively to cover my head. A few seconds later, I surveyed my body for scratches or blood. Nothing. My mind went blank. I couldn’t stop shaking.
Brenda momentarily placed her hands on my arms in a motherly gesture. Something about my mental state ignited her and a split second later, she turned to yell at the biker.
“Idiot! Watch where you’re going?!” She yelled.
The biker slowed.
“No! Move out of MY way!” He yelled.
Brenda and the biker exchanged a few more colorful words and the biker moved on. I watched the mountain biker move further away in the distance. My voice came out in a whisper.
“I hate them,” I said.
“I wish Disneyland would reopen. All these people would leave our trails!” Brenda said.
Days later, dark clouds loomed. The breeze tussled my ponytail. My sunglasses shaded the worry in my eyes. My hip tugged and tightened. Each stride was shorter than the last. My eyebrows furrowed together. My entire left leg tight. I hobbled home.
Once home I tried heat. Stretching. Bengay. Nothing worked. After decades of running, I knew healing this injury would take patience and time. It would take physical therapy, acupuncture, and yoga. Now way past my running prime, the healing process would take much longer. My body needed a cardio workout with less pounding. My heart and soul needed my trails. An idea began to form, and I sent a text to my friend Sita, also an injured runner.
We met on Saturday. The spring morning clung to the winter chill. Our meeting was both familiar and strange. Four total friends. Brenda and Mirza congregated near their cars. Meanwhile, Sita and I unloaded bicycles for our first ride together. Riding would keep me on the trails, even injured. Prior to the mountain bike boom, I purchased a bike to ride with my husband and later our children. Decades ago, mountain bikers were rare and polite.
We made an odd group. Two runners and two bikers. We spoke in our familiar circle, except Sita and I straddled our bikes. I buckled my helmet, and we rode off on the hard-packed path while a familiar churn emanated from our tires. We entered Carbon Canyon Regional Park together but soon the running pace became too slow. Sita pushed forward and on instinct, I followed. Together we left our friends behind.
The ride was so reminiscent of our running days when we spoke about our lives and future plans. The geese were out in full force between the paved road and their lake. One goose lifted his head and glared at us.
We biked into the wild of Chino State Park. The path was wide, and rabbits scattered into the legions of wildflowers at full bloom, a rarity for a chaparral trail.
A familiar churn of extra tires filled the air and soon several mountain bikers were upon us. A baritone voice boomed.
“Morning,” We answered.
On the bike we were visible. On the bike we were their species. The path meandered into an incline. We remained on a twisted uphill trail and into a canopy of trees that shaded our climb. We shifted into the lowest gears and crested the top of the path. Streams of sweat ran down my neck. We stopped to rest and take in the view of Four Corners.
The terrain was flat and spread in all directions. The golden grasses were transformed into a carpet of green hills. A hue, a chaparral trail holds only for a geological millisecond. We marveled at the view and took selfies with the beauty as a backdrop.
Four Corners was sprinkled with bikers and runners separated only by sport. Bikers rested against the benches under the wooden canopy. We regarded bikers from a distance because of the pandemic.
Ten minutes later, we began our descent on the hard packed earth. Even though the shock absorbers took the brunt of each bump and dip, I rose from my seat. Our speed increased purely from gravity. The wind hit my face and ruffled my long sleeves. Never, in all my road or track racing had I ever felt this speed. Playful. A dance with danger. This adrenalin was different. Fun. New. As I approached the twisted trees and their canopy, I noticed a runner. Her back was plastered against a tree. Her hands covered her face. Fingers splayed. Now, how could she possibly think I would run her over?
Reader, this is how I became the enemy.