It was, admits Sharon Grant, getting to be something of a ritual.
Each morning, at the same spot on the trail, the coyote would be waiting. Grant would run by. The coyote would be waiting. Grant would run by. The coyote would keep his distance. Then, judging the distance to be great enough, the coyote would break into a trot, following Grant dutifully up the trail.
"He'd start following along about 20 yards behind me," Grant said. "I'd stop and turn around and he'd stop. Then as I turned around to run again, he'd run again. He'd follow me for a while, then, poof, off he'd go. That must have gone on for four or five mornings in a row."
Grant's off-road experiences haven't been limited to coyotes. Running through the trails of Ventura County, the Agoura Hills resident has had brushes with deer, bobcat and, of course, the requisite rattlesnake.
"Everybody always asks about rattlesnakes," said Grant, who like most trail runners, regards the reptiles with a casual familiarity. "They'll usually hear you coming and scoot away. If not, you just wait for them to make their way across the trail."
Fact is, Grant and a small cadre of dedicated Ventura County trail runners revel in a world most of us miss.
"It's kind of ironic," said Jack Nosco, a 27-year-old Thousand Oaks firefighter and trail stalwart. "The normal Joe goes in and out of work every day and doesn't even know all this exists."
Indeed, many of Ventura County's finest trails and strangest sights are no more than a hill's sweep from the taco stands and car dealerships that line the freeway. Nosco still breathlessly recalls a chance encounter with a golden eagle, a bird so rare that National Park Service personnel currently estimate that there is only one golden eagle in the 150,000 acres that make up the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
"It settled down on a tree branch and we just stood and watched it," said Nosco, who was running with a friend in Sycamore Canyon, a part of the recreation area near Newbury Park. "It was so beautiful. I just remember thinking, 'Ninety-nine percent of the people will never get to see this and here it is right in our own back yard."'
After three years of trail running, Nosco reckons there are still a host of trails he has yet to discover.
"There are probably more trails in this area than you could possibly run on," said Nosco, who believes Ventura County offers trails second to none. "I know there are a lot of trails I've never even set foot on."
According to trail runners, the appeal runs deep. Unfettered by noises, fumes and crowds, accompanied only by the sound of wind, cricket and bird, time melts away. In fact, it is of no consequence at all.
"I threw my watch out," said Jim Pellon, a 39-year-old structural engineer and 11-year veteran of county trails. "It doesn't matter how long I'm out there, because when I'm on the trails it's fun. If a run takes longer, so what? You're just out there on the trails having more fun."
Though Pellon, Grant and Nosco all run trails to train for ultra-distance running races of 50 to 100 miles, they recommend trail running to anyone with an urge to stray off the beaten path. They offer newcomers a few suggestions: Run with a water bottle and, on longer runs, carry snacks. They also recommend that novices start slowly--rugged off-road terrain, with its steep ups and downs, can test muscles you didn't know you had.
FOUR FAVORITE RUNS
These areas offer a multitude of scenic, intriguing or rugged trails. All directions are from Ventura.
* Sycamore Canyon
Take the Ventura Freeway to Wendy Drive. Turn right on Wendy Drive to Potrero Road, take another right. Drive about 1 mile on Potrero. The parking lot and entrance to Sycamore Canyon is on your left.
There are more than 100 miles of trail, from easy to rugged. One popular 8-mile run takes you on a relatively flat trail through the canyon to the beach. Or take on Old Boney Trail, a series of switchbacks climbing to a spectacular panorama.
* Wildwood Regional Park
Take the Ventura Freeway south to Thousand Oaks and exit at Lynn Road. Take Lynn Road for about 3 miles to Wildwood Regional Park.
Easily accessible and scenic, the area offers a variety of trails, some winding through dense foliage.
* Ojai and environs
Take the Ventura Freeway north to California 33 to the Los Padres National Forest or take California 150 through Ojai. A wealth of trails, some within the city confines, offer infinite options. Trails in the Los Padres area become increasingly rugged, leading to terrain that encompasses desert, forest and spectacular canyons.
* Thousand Oaks
Take the Ventura Freeway south to the Hampshire Road exit and turn right. Take a right at first traffic signal. Road dead-ends at trail head. The main trail hugs a ridge that offers a panorama of the Conejo Valley. For the fit and adventurous, a 10-mile jaunt will take you to Newbury Park. Various offshoots and loops offer shorter alternatives. Many trails are very hilly.