Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Lost Runner

"Hey Ellen, have you seen Joyce?"

"No," Ellen called out, looking up at me. "Isn't she with you?"

I was leaning on the railing of a trail overpass by National Airport on the Mount Vernon Trail, where a secondary footpath winds around underneath it heading back under the GW Parkway into Crystal City. Ellen was directly below me.

She was leading the main body of the leisurely runners in the half-marathon training program I direct. I had been vainly scrutinizing the tops of the heads of the runners passing by below me to see if Joyce was with them. She had vanished.

This was my responsibility. We were on an eighty minute run this Saturday morning, while the rest of the runners in the Program were doing nine or ten miles elsewhere with the rest of the coaches.

I had actually started out with the runners who were doing nine miles, happily leading that group while clipping along at a nine-minute-per-mile pace, talking with the two lead runners in it while two more coaches accompanied the rest of the strung out group. Half an hour later, Ellen had run past us going the other direction, having taken a different route with the slowest group of runners. I counted them as they went by. There were ten in her group, and she was the only coach.

I told the two runners with me where the turnaround point for them was and turned to pursue Ellen's group, telling the other two coaches that I was leaving them as I ran by. I soon overtook "Joyce," who was the caboose in Ellen's group. I ran with her for awhile and then ran up ahead to where H and N were running together doing twelve-minute miles. Soon Ellen came back down the trail towards us with the main group, having already reached their turnaround point.

The three of us turned and fell in with the main group. I ran with Ellen for awhile. We passed by Joyce, who was still outbound, and I called out to her and signalled for her to turn around and fall in with the main group right behind us. I thought I saw her turning. I ran on, chatting with Ellen.

After half a mile, I could see that the group was getting strung out again behind us so I trotted back looking for the end runner. I passed by the compact main group but didn't particularly scrutinize them. I passed by H and N, and said I'd catch up with them. I kept going back, looking for Joyce, whom I presumed would be in the back.

I reached the turnaround point. No Joyce. There were no runners anywhere. I could see pretty far down the trail, maybe a quarter mile. Where was she? I was stumped.

So my logic went like this. Maybe when she turned, she fell in with the main group and unexpectedly kept up with them. Then when I went back looking for the most far back runner, expecting it to be her, I didn't notice her within the main group when I went by it.

Yeah, that had to be it, I thought. I couldn't keep on running outbound on the notion that not only hadn't she turned when I signalled her to, but she had also run past the turnaround point. There were other possibilities, of course, but the Mount Vernon Trail is a well-used, patrolled recreational pathway, very open in this part, and I didn't think Joyce had stashed a car down here for a secret getaway.

So I ran back to catch up with the group. It was a long hard run because I had fallen very far behind it. It was many long minutes before I saw H and N again, far ahead.

But now from atop my vantage point on the overpass, I could see that Joyce had indeed gotten away. I was both annoyed and anxious. I emphasize repeatedly to trainees that it is protocol for slower runners in a group to turn around when the main body comes by them on the return, and not to continue on to the turnaround point. That way the coach doesn't have to hang around for a long time after the run, waiting for the slowest runner to return. Sometimes I think no one is listening.

There was nothing to do but return to the finish and wait for Joyce to show up. Or not to show up. In my experience, they always come back eventually. But I was majorly annoyed with myself for not continuing to look back to carefully observe her actions when I told her to turn around when we last went by her. I had made an assumption. My bad. My very bad.

Joyce wasn't magically back when we returned. We waited. Her boyfriend, who had run with another group, confirmed that she didn't have her cell phone with her. It was a little early to start driving around looking for her but I could tell that Ellen was uncomfortable with the situation.

Twenty five minutes later, here she came. She had proceeded on when the main group came back upon her, and then proceeded to go even further out when she missed the turnaround. She got lost.

But she got back eventually, as I thought she would. A coach's nightmare in the meantime.


Danielle in Iowa said...

Glad she made it back!

But really, I am often the caboose and I try and make a pretty good point of knowing exactly where I need to go so that I can't get lost...

Of course, I also live in a small town in Iowa, not DC, so getting lost is harder :-)

jeanne said...


no, people don't listen. ever.

glad you found her, and waited for her!