Peaceful training in the colorful Sierra
By James Raia
Outside Online correspondent
t's been several years now, but I still can't figure it out. On weekdays, the hardest thing for me to do is get to my office before 9 a.m. But on weekends, when I've made arrangements to meet friends two hours earlier than that for a long trail run in the Sierra Nevada foothills, it's no problem. I don't even need an alarm clock.
Perhaps my dilemma has little to do with misdirected priorities or laziness, but rather my sheer enjoyment of running in the mountains. And for northern California trail runners, there's nothing quite like a serene morning or late afternoon spent along the Western States Trail.
I have numerous friends who live near several trail access points in Auburn, the famous former gold-mining city. For them, nirvana involves little more than venturing into their extended backyards. Many of us, however, willingly make the 30-minute drive to not only reap the benefits of hill workouts but to train in peace.
One of the foothill area's most popular routes for runners, hikers, or equestrians begins at the parking lot and horse staging area called the Auburn Dam Overlook. Upon arrival, even after only a half-hour freeway drive, you can step out of your car into drastically different weather conditions.
In the fall, when the leaves begin to change colors, there's often a chill still in the air on Auburn mornings. Occasionally, thin layers of frost, and even snow, can freckle the landscape.
Nearly countless trails encompass the area, but one of the most popular routes is the 15-mile circuit known as the Coffer Dam Run. There is also a 10-mile version.
Although the longer trek can be done in either direction, my friends and I usually begin the three-hour journey along a tree-lined, singletrack canal trail. After about 20 minutes, we take a sharp left-hand turn and proceed a couple of miles downhill into a rocky canyon where the Coffer Dam was once located.
After a brief rocky but flat section, we begin to make our first steep ascent along dirt and gravel single and double-track trails to the fire station in the small rural community of Cool. Multicolored leaves blanket the trail, so thick they force us to carefully watch our footing.
Some local runners train on the course alone, but since mountain lion sightings have been routinely reported in the area, solo journeys are discouraged. I have never seen a cougar on this course, although deer, foxes, wild turkeys, vultures, hawks, and a variety of snakes are common.
After refilling our water bottles at the fire station and taking a quick break for such trailrunners' delights as chocolate chip cookies, cold potatoes with salt, or pretzels, we begin the return trip. Sometimes we retrace our steps, but more often we progress along a singletrack route that meanders through a shaded downhill stretch that eventually leads to an old mine crossing called No Hands Bridge. This is one of the most popular stretches of the annual Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run.
Either way, our journey takes us back to the parking lot at the Auburn Dam Overlook. After a few minutes of cooling down, rehydrating, and sharing tales of the day's efforts, the return trip to Sacramento awaits. And serenity is once again exchanged for freeways, fast-food signs, and the hurried reality of the valley.
James Raia is a journalist and long-distance runner in Sacramento, California.