One of my biggest worries this summer is getting lost. Unfamiliar as I am with most of the roads, I can just imagine myself making a wrong turn, running ten miles in the wrong direction, and having to retrace my steps, basically wasting a whole day of running. This wasn’t a fear I had until about six weeks ago. I had never gotten lost running before, and I never anticipated doing so. So when I left for a 12-mile workout at 4:30 one Sunday morning, I planned to return in less than 90 minutes.
I had done this particular route once before, doing a loop northeast of campus and ending by turning right on Nassau Street that would take me back to my dorm. Around mile six, just as I expected, the road I was on intersected Nassau Street, and I turned right, anticipating two or so miles back to campus. In the darkness, however, I was unaware that I had crossed Nassau two miles earlier and was approaching it from the opposite direction. I should have turned left.
I didn’t start worrying until mile eight when I expected to recognize some of the buildings and businesses. No matter, I thought, I probably just underestimated the distance. At mile nine I was actually concerned, so I decided to run another mile, and if I didn’t see any building I recognized, I would turn around and cut my losses; 20 miles wasn’t so terrible. Turning around at mile ten was a scary feeling, as I was committing to the fact that I was indeed lost. What if I were only half a mile from a business I recognized? But I made a 180 and told myself I was going to retrace my steps until I arrived home.
As I was retracing my steps, I saw the Delaware and Raritan Canal Towpath, a popular running and bike trail. Great! I thought. I know exactly where I am now. If I turn right on the towpath, it’s only five or so miles back. So I turned right, this time expecting to be back to campus around mile 17, happy to save myself three miles. That is, until I came to mile 17 and was still on the towpath. Again I thought I had underestimated the distance and decided to keep going. I passed another runner heading the opposite direction at mile 19 (it was around 6:20 now) and flagged him down.
“Excuse me,” I said, “if I keep going this way, it will take me back to Princeton, right?”
“Um, no. That way will take you to New Brunswick and Rutgers. Princeton is the other direction.”
Wonderful. I thanked him and continued towards New Brunswick. Now I knew exactly where I was and how to get back. I had turned the wrong way on the towpath. The shortest way back to campus was 12 miles, which would have put my total for the day between 31 and 32 miles. Having no food or water, that was not a trip I wanted to make on foot, so at the next intersection of the towpath and a road, I turned right, hoping to find a police station. At an intersection I asked someone if he knew where the nearest police station was, and after making sure everything was okay, he pulled up directions on his phone. The nearest station was three miles in the opposite direction I wanted to go. He also pulled up directions back to Princeton. I thanked him and decided not to head to the police station.
I checked a church and fire station to see if anyone was around. At 7:15, no one was. But for some reason, before leaving town, I decided to check the church once more. This time I saw a vehicle parked in the driveway. A gentleman was planting flowers along the side of the building. I asked if he had a phone I could borrow, as I was going to call someone for a ride back.
“Sorry, I didn’t bring my phone with me today,” he said. “Is there somewhere you need to be?”
“Well, long story short, I went for a run, made a wrong turn, and need to get back to Princeton.”
“Oh, I can get you back to Princeton! Where in Princeton do you need to be?”
“Yeah, I can get you to Nassau Street!”
Yes! I thought. Thank you, sir!
Then he said, “What you do is continue down this road for about six miles, turn right at the stoplights, and the road will turn into Nassau Street in two or so miles.”
Lovely. I knew how to get to back, I just didn’t want to do it on foot. I thanked him and started jogging away. At mile 22.7 my GPS watch died while I powered along, my pace dwindling as I became increasingly sore and hungry. About a mile later I told myself there was no way I was going to make it back on my own power, so I made one of the craftiest decisions of my life. I faked an injury. The next vehicle to pass saw someone in a neon yellow runner’s vest hobbling along the side of the road. They pulled over.
“Do you need a ride somewhere?”
The family that pulled over was headed the same direction for a 5k race. As I rode back we had a good laugh as I told them about my eventful morning. When they dropped me off I thanked them for their kindness and started jogging the 1.5 miles back to my dorm. It was then that I realized I had left out the part of the story when I faked the injury. I can only imagine what they were thinking as they watched me jog away without a limp. To the nice family who took the time to help me out one Sunday morning, thank you, and yes, I recovered quickly.
Besides being a good story to tell and sparking a fear of getting lost again, this unexpected marathon taught me two things. 1) On long runs, always carry identification and some money for food, and 2) If I can “accidentally” run a marathon with minimal training, perhaps this run across the U.S. is possible!
That morning I got back to my room at 8:15, perfect timing because I had promised a friend I would run 2.5 miles with him at 8:30.