Eight hundred miles away from San Francisco and six miles from my parent’s house there is a place called Tiger Mountain. It’s my happy place.
I go home to see family, of course, but running the trails behind Issaquah High School has become my homecoming ritual. When I lace up my sneakers and trace the familiar loops in the forested hillside, it’s like touching home when my shoes touch the dirt.
A foot injury has me on hiatus from running for a few weeks, so I’m extra wistful for this place. These photos are from December. I’ll bet the trails look equally damp right now, but flush with spring instead of wintry leaves.
I hardly started out as a runner; I was a ballerina—and, for a while, a chubby ballerina at that. But running is one of those activities you can grow into as you grow up, and cross-country is the kind of sport that lets you come as you are. I showed up as a high school freshman after missing the cut for varsity volleyball the year before. When the upperclassmen showed us the ropes at Tiger Mountain for the first time, I was nervous.
“You ready for Heartbreak Hill?”
The fast veterans took off up the incline, while us rookies labored uphill, staring at the rocky and pine-needled trail and wondering how much further up? I surely walked a few paces.
Near the top the team regrouped, then passed through a wooden gate and up Adventure Trail to the high point—a spot where the canopy of pines and cedars opens to let the pale sunshine through—before we plunged down a corkscrew of single track, dodging ankle-biting rocks and brushing past sword ferns.
“This is Big Tree Trail. Watch out for the roots!” the upperclassmen shouted.
And later: “Salute the bus!” as we ran past the vehicle’s metal carcass alongside Bus Trail.
Tiger Mountain has welcomed me in drizzle, in sunshine, and nearly always lost in thought. Those trails kept me busy when I trained for cross-country in college, for marathons, and for my sanity. Eventually I learned that our Heartbreak Hill was named after a more infamous original across the country, and in my mid-twenties I faced it myself in the Boston Marathon.
Every time I round that first curve uphill from the parking lot, I’m running in step with my earlier selves. I remember my earlier worries and the memory that each footstep on the springy pine needles lightened their weight. Those hills speak with conviction: You’re stronger than you think you are.