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March 21, 2012

Signs of Trouble?

"You don't know what it's like, you don't have a clue -
If you did you'd find yourself doing the same thing too -
Breaking the law, breaking the law -
Breaking the law, breaking the law ... "

- Judas Priest, "Breaking the Law" (video after post):

*On the very remote chance that this post is read by somebody who is influential and bored enough to hold me accountable for what I’m going to describe, I’m gonna go ahead and slap a disclaimer here to say the following post is a work of fiction. At least as far as you can prove.


For the overwhelming majority of my day to day life, I try to be an upstanding member of society; it’s only when I’m running that I have a tendency to skirt around the rules.

(OK, maybe when driving also – but that’s a separate story.)

My disobedience is typically justified – to me, anyway – for one of two reasons: 1) the rule simply doesn’t make any sense, or 2) I’m too senseless to care. (Additionally, it’s worth noting that my wife recently described me as a “screw the establishment” guy, which probably factors into this little story as well. But that’s as far as I’m going with the psychoanalysis.) During any given run I embark on, it’s quite likely that I’ll break the rules for at least one of the reasons I mentioned above – and if the run is long enough, both of those reasons can easily come into play. Allow me to explain – and who knows? Maybe in a similar situation, you’d find yourself doing the same thing too.

Here’s an example of reason #1: a signpost at a trail entrance to the Fort Ord open space in Salinas - as seen at 3:30AM. A handful of these prohibitions were installed over the past several months, to crack down on … I’m not exactly sure. I’ve done pre-dawn runs here for at least 10 years prior to the existence of these signs, but apparently this year it’s against the rules. I’m not quite sure what happened in the off-season, but now my activity presumably makes me some kind of menace.

At first I thought it was a liability thing – like if someone happened to be mauled by a mountain lion in the middle of the night, he (or his surviving family) might turn around and sue the Bureau of Land Management who oversees the open space. However, you’re equally likely to suffer an animal-related trauma at midday – and for the record, my running group’s most recent mountain lion sightings out here have been around lunchtime - especially when you consider that rattlesnakes are generally still sleeping at 4AM. So you can’t really use liability as a rationale.

Then I thought perhaps the neighbors had an issue with people scurrying around behind their houses in the dark. This one seems a little shaky as well, because there’s really only a couple of streets that border access points to the public trails, and it’s not like I’m making a whole lot of noise when I’m shuffling by their homes. If someone happens to hear me, I’m almost positive that they were already awake when I got there. And once I’m past the houses, there are literally thousands of undeveloped acres where I can’t bother a soul; I could lead a marching band out there at 4AM without being noticed.

(The whole idea begs another question, of course: who’s going to enforce a “no running in the dark” rule? Will there be a graveyard patrol roaming the trails throughout the night? Will someone chase me if I run past an entry point one morning? Come to think of it, that might be kind of nice – I wouldn’t mind some company out there every now and then.)

Most of the time I’m not even using my headlamp when I pass the homes, which speaks to the appeal of running in Fort Ord in the dark; the trails are so wide and the landscape so open that I can run almost exclusively by moonlight. I wear a lamp just in case I wander into some heavy tree cover or tricky single track, but for the most part it stays off – and as soon as the first sliver of daylight peeks over the Gabilan mountains on the far side of the Salinas Valley, I tuck the lamp in my pocket for good.

A few hours and several miles later, I often encounter another type of sign that I disregard:

It says, “DANGER.  DO NOT ENTER. This site is being investigated for ordinance and explosives.” Sounds pretty convincing, huh? I’ve written before about how Fort Ord is one giant munitions dump, with shells and casings lying around pretty much everywhere you look. The great fear, of course, is that some of the ammo on the ground is still live, which could obviously create a huge bummer for anyone unlucky enough to trip a landmine or step on a grenade somewhere.

The Army is gradually going through and clearing every square mile, but it’s an extremely laborious and time-consuming process that could take 20 years or more to complete. In the meantime, it’s not uncommon to find one of these signs on a seldom-used trail, basically warning you that there’s no guarantee you’ll make it through the next section in one piece.

Under normal circumstances, that’s enough reason for me to find another trail – but sometimes at the end of a long run I’m just looking for the most direct route to my end point, and my glycogen-depleted brain dismisses whatever risk might be involved. Last week, I found myself here at roughly mile 24, knew I was at least 7 miles away from my car, then looked at my watch and calculated that I had to be at work in about an hour and a half. Taking the long way around wasn’t an option, so I headed directly past the sign and into the unknown; I figured that if I blew up, at least I’d have an excuse for not showing up at work. At the time, that reasoning made perfect sense.

By the time I return to my car, I’m a law-abiding citizen again: the sun has come up to officially “open” the trails, and the paths that guide me home have long since been cleared of any danger underfoot. And if anyone official-looking should happen to ask me where I’ve been, I’ll probably just reply that I’ve enjoyed another beautiful morning on some of my favorite trails.

But as far as I’ll officially say on the record, this whole story has merely been a sleepy dream.

Although I haven't technically broken any laws, this song seemed appropriate considering that I haven't gotten around to posting my 80s metal playlist yet. I'll still try to get to it sometime - but until then, rest assured that this one made the cut.

Judas Priest, "Breaking the Law" (click to play):

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Nathan Seibt 3/22/12, 12:47 AM  

I've always worried they'd see my car in the parking lot of such spaces and ticket it or something.

Anonymous,  3/22/12, 5:12 AM  

It's the Freedom of the run! :)!

wes 3/22/12, 5:52 AM  

I run past ordinance crews out here in Tobyhanna St. Park all the time. I just say hi and keep moving they could care less where I'm going :)

Matthew 3/22/12, 6:03 AM  

I understand the danger signs, but I guess I would think that the clean up crews are driving on roads that are free of ordinance. Stay on the roads.

David 3/22/12, 6:38 AM  

I'm also worried that they would ticket my car. So, when I do run at the trails at night I get dropped off first. Of course this is very inconvenient... hopefully I can figure out another way this year!

jeff 3/22/12, 7:17 AM  

we have the same issue with several of our local wilderness parks. they say that the trails don't open until 7am and rangers we've encountered will say that "nature needs to sleep". that logic doesn't make any sense, as national parks are open 24/7 and what about the nocturnal animals that might be disturbed when we run by during the day?

i think it is purely a liability issue. they don't want to staff the location 24/7 and if something were to happen in the park, they'd have to organize a rescue or support. i'm of the mindset that when i engage in a run, i am signing a mental waiver that places all responsibility on myself for my actions. i don't fault you at all, and i [this comment is a work of fiction] frequently participate in the same type of lawbreaking.

Jeff Gallup 3/22/12, 7:36 AM  

Understandable... on a similar note, I've been climbing the Manitou Incline in Manitou Springs CO twice a week since last summer. It is not legal to climb it and is posted as such. Of course, thousands of people break the law all year round, and it gets crowded in the summer. I generally go in the dark too, but that to avoid any crowds and get a workout in before work. A lot of time and work has going into legalizing it, and looks like they are close now. Somehow, it just won't be the same after that I think :-)

But wow... that ordnance sign is a good one... would get me to think twice!


John Nguyen 3/22/12, 9:17 AM  

A couple years ago, they closed some parks in San Jose to "save money" on Mondays (they're still closed on Mondays). Alum Rock Park also closed on Presidents Day, a federal holiday, when I got there to run. I was training for my first 50-miler (AR50) at the time. A ranger stopped me and gave me a ticket! I ended up paying a $359 fine! But before that I contacted the Mercury News and they ran a story on me! The article was named "Scofflaw jogger meets the long arm of the law". I ended up starting a blog dubbing myself the "Scofflaw runner"! Sounds to me like I'm not the only scofflaw runner out there! Too funny. Too bad the Mercury News article is no longer online. It was the all the comments that followed that article that were really interesting! The majority of people sided with me. My wife sided with "the law" though!

The original article is gone (unless you get access to the mercury archives), but this "urban legends" site posted the article, if you're interested in reading it.


I'd like to run in parks at night too... But once bitten, twice shy!

Anonymous,  3/22/12, 4:26 PM  

Better be careful. You don't want to join that other well known ultra-runner stuck in the slammer.

Jeff 3/22/12, 6:55 PM  

This all reminds me of when Fat Cyclist was fined for throwing a rock off a cliff at White Rim. The only reason he got caught was that he posted the video on his blog.

Donald 3/22/12, 9:42 PM  

Thanks for the comments, all! About my car: I park in a public shopping center and run to the trail access point, so there's no risk of getting a parking ticket.

@Jeff (#1): I agree wholeheartedly. We all need to assume personal responsibility for anything that goes wrong out there.

@John Nguyen: I remember that story! I didn't make the connection between your blog name and your well-publicized brush with the law. I still can't believe that actually happened - what a travesty.

@Anon: that's cold. And I shouldn't comment any further.

@Jeff (#2): Maybe I need to be more careful about the fictitious stories I post here, huh?

Andy Emerson 3/23/12, 1:29 PM  

We have a trail that a large group meets twice per week before it "officially" opens. However, we have permission to be there before it opens. A police officer has stopped a few times that wasn't familiar with the permit and asked who was in charge. I run on the trails at other times before they open and have not encountered any problems. I think the police have better things to do. These kinds of ordinances are really not for our protection. They are made up by people that don't run and don't have a clue.

Bad Runner 3/28/12, 7:33 AM  

Donald - great post as usual, but I have one editorial comment. As a professional writer, you should know that "begs the question" is not synonymous with "raises the question."

We have a similar issue in one of our local state parks in Indiana - the front gate opens at 7am, which is too late for some weekend long runs. The park is accessible via another set of trails that have a non-regulated trail head. On one occasion the solution to our "early" start was to simply pay the park ranger the normal park entry fee.

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