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The Trouble With Being Good

I developed a staunch moral compass as a kid—at least when it came to running. I never cut switchbacks - until I raced across the Alps.

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Andreas and Jenn showing solidarity on their run across the Italian Alps.

This article appeared in our January 2015 issue. Want more? Subscribe to Trail Runner.

I like a good dose of mischief. Like the time I got chased by the cops for calling one “penis-for-brains.” Or when—as a young idealist—I worked for the Nader campaign and found myself implicated in election fraud.

But no infraction has ever felt as thrilling as the first, that long-ago summer day in Virginia.

“Let’s have a slingshot war with cherry tomatoes!”

What’s more tempting to two bored kids than bright red explosions? My mom had asked my brother and me, aged 12 and 10, to pick tomatoes while she was at work. Less clear is why I wanted to stage the war inside the house. Was it because we had two staircases, connecting our house into a loop track—a perfect arena for ambush? Or was it an early intuition, later to return to disrupt my trail-running mindset, that it’s fun to err on the side of mischief?

My mother came home to find her beloved garden stripped bare and her house splattered red. Even our 17-year-old cat, Squeaky, had been targeted. I’ve never been so terrified as when she stood in the foyer and roared, “Jennifer!” as if channeling an African lion. To this day I have anxiety dreams before big races, in which the course is a thousand loops around the house I grew up in, and I’m being chased by wild animals.

For what it’s worth, my mom did OK. I might have a wise mouth and a poor understanding of voters’ rights, but I did develop a staunch moral compass—at least when it comes to the important stuff, like running. I’m a regular Girl Scout. I don’t cut switchbacks. I don’t make excuses after bad races. I even think smoking dope in an ultra is cheating.

Or, at least, I didn’t cut switchbacks. Then I raced across the Alps for eight days with Andreas.

“We een Italy. Ees trah-dee-shun,” he coaxed from a shortcut below.

“It’s wrong and it erodes the fragile landscape,” I answered, staying true to the established trail.

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We had just crossed the border from Austria to Italy, Andreas’ homeland, and he was chomping at the bit. Three teams cut through the rocks following Andreas’ path, overtaking us. By the time we descended a thousand meters to the valley floor, I’d lost count of how many places Andreas and I had given away.

By the next aid station we were barely speaking. I scanned the table for anything appetizing amid the weird European spread. Sausage, cheese, chocolate cake, cucumbers. And, of course, the most Italian-y food of them all: tomatoes. I popped one in my mouth.

When in Rome, I thought.

I looked at Andreas and nodded. I was in.

The first time I cut a switchback, I felt dirty. Ashamed. But all guilt evaporated as we slashed down the mountainside.

I considered that not only was I in a different country and subject to a new code of conduct, but I went one step further and reasoned that the Europeans had held the same ethic of mountain travel for centuries, and their trails were just as pristine as any American trail I’d ever run. Every scree field we skied and log we leapt was as fun and carefree as—dare I say—nailing a sleeping cat with a tomato.

Later, Andreas asked why I had changed my mind. “Why you decide to run Ee-talian style?” I told him about the bowl of tomatoes, and the memory it brought back.

“Ah, yes. The pomo d’oro.” He winked.

He explained that the suffix “oro” is the Italian word for “gold,” and “pomo” means apple. Hence pomodoro.

When the tomato was introduced by the Spaniards returning from America, it became the centerpiece of cuisine. For a country as food-centric as Italy, this made it as valuable as gold. Yet tomatoes belong to the nightshade family, from which hails many poisonous plants, and at first it had been taboo. A red temptation, a forbidden fruit.

Andreas laughed. We had five more days of racing through the Italian Alps, and after a rough start had finally found our stride.

“Apple ees—how you say?—naughty by nature. Like all dee best things.”

Jenn Shelton lives in Durango, Colorado, and is back to being a goody-trail-shoes.