For one of the supposedly busier trails into the Denver foothills, the parking lot is quiet. I look up at the clouds and feel the wind. Rain definitely seems to be on its way, but it’s too fall-like for a thunderstorm. Maybe with the warm summer behind us, the slightest sign of rain has kept everyone inside. Ignoring that I’m rationalizing my adventure into Waterton Canyon with ominous weather looming, I cross the main parkway and hit the dirt road.
The wind whips in my face as I pass a group of three hikers bundled in raincoats. I wave hello, realizing that I’m just a bit crazy heading the wrong direction. But there’s still no sound of thunder or any flash of lightning, it’s only rain. I can handle a little drizzle, especially to continue my trail running training with at least some discipline.
The Waterton Canyon dirt road is a perfect place to run with its smooth, level surface, and a gradual incline. The canyon walls and the river offer a scenic refuge from the heavy breathing, the pounding of knees and ankles, and the pain that running sometimes becomes. Between the view, and my awareness of the weather, I’m able to run in a meditative state, away from everything that’s not in the canyon.
At the 2-mile marker I contemplate turning around . . . but I feel good, and the weather is about the same. I push on to 2.5 and go through the same decision making process. A fisherman rides by me on a bike, comes to a stop near a large pool, and wades into the river. He’s certainly not worried about lightning.
By marker 3 I can see my end point beyond the diversion dam on a straight stretch of road. I pick-up the pace a bit to finish the uphill strong and then take a short pause at the 3.5-mile sign as another hiker passes me headed down the canyon. He saunters along, far less worried than the fisherman on the bike who at least has the safety net of the bike’s speed to escape any change in the current storm.
With another sip of water I begin my pace out of the canyon, slow and steady. But just past the waterfall at the diversion dam, I hear a low rumble. Turning around to see if something came over the dam, my attention is brought immediately back to the sky above. A loud, crackling boom reveals that the skies are not so quiet anymore. The voice in my head wasn’t wrong. This “quiet fall storm” is filled with electricity.
I pick up my pace, but try not to move too fast. I want to conserve my energy if I really need to move. Moments later, I see a flash on the horizon near the mouth of the canyon, 2.5 miles away. The fisherman is still casting in the water, which I find a little odd. I begin contemplating my options: his bike is unattended . . .
A dry side canyon offers taller willows and cottonwoods, I could wait things out there . . .
With the next lightning, these options fade away. My pace picks up, not dictated by any conscious decision, but by some survival instinct. Returning to mile marker 2, (that lovely little spot I contemplated turning around at thirty minutes ago), the lightning and thunder are going pretty steady. If I’d turned around here earlier, I’d be in the car and halfway home.
The rain comes down harder and the wind picks up. I look overhead to see that I’m now under the darkest clouds in the area. Cottonwoods and side canyons still offer a refuge. I consider a short story I submitted to a contest in which the character gets caught in a similar mountain storm, strips naked, and attempts to hide from the lightning, only to eventually frighten himself into running down the high-alpine talus field in the buff.
I know that everything I’ve ever read recommends finding a safe spot and staying put, but the lightning portion of the storm appears far off, and my car seems like the surest bet for survival. I opt for picking up the pace, and remaining clothed. At mile marker 1, I run even faster; can I sprint for the last mile?
As I round out of the canyon, I see the plains to the south where the lightning is actually hitting the ground: the storm picks up energy and electricity as it moves away from the foothills. The rain pounds down harder, soaking my clothes. My adrenaline burns. I return to my breathing and make one last push. I don’t recall running three back-to-back miles at this speed and then finishing with a sprint. But I’m not worried about times, or splits, or my average mile pace. I want to be back in the safety of my car.
In the parking lot, car after car of teenagers from the local high school pull up, blasting their radios. They look a bit worried dancing to Pink’s latest single, but their coaches shout orders at them about where to gather, and in what groups. I sit down into the comfort of my car, glad to be away from the imminent danger, but I contemplate why the cross-country team now heads out into the same threats. I wonder what they would have thought had they passed by me, hunkered under a cottonwood tree up the canyon.
I suppose it’s best that I ran for my life . . .
Some people have pointed out that I seem “a little too afraid of lightning” in this post. When I was ten, my Dad and I were caught near the top of Mt. San Jacinto in Southern California in a lightning storm. One strike happened just a quarter mile from us. The electricity in the air, the smell of ozone, and the youthful dance with death stayed with me through similar storms in the Sierra, in the Utah desert, and now here in Colorado. I suppose it’s less of an out-of-control phobia or fear and more of a respect for the power of nature.