Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Millisecond Trail Running Adventure:

Or, How a Runner Defies Gravity Mid Stride

There's a county-maintained trail just a few miles from my house that serves as my go-to spot for a Saturday long run. It's my favorite run of the week. And, I'm always looking forward to it the night before. The trail terrain is a mixture of wide, loosely packed rocky roads and some technical single-track. It's not an especially challenging trail. But, it's near my house and makes for a very enjoyable run. Despite being so close to area subdivisions and a highway, the fact that the trail follows a portion of the Neuse River makes the trek feel comfortably remote.

As a kid growing up in Colorado and, for a couple of years anyway, North Carolina, I spent countless hours exploring the fields and forests near my parents' home searching for wildlife. Yes, I was a geek. I memorized field guide images, watched nature shows on PBS, and, before I entered adolescence, I'd aspired to be all kinds of -ologists (marine biologist, herpetologist, ornithologist, etc.).

So, being out in a natural area nowadays always brings about the nostalgia for my exploratory days of childhood. Obviously, that's one reason I find trail running so appealing. My senses are challenged in a pastoral manner, a welcome contrast to my weekdays in front of the computer. This all proved doubly true on a particular Saturday last April.

It was a crisp morning after a week of unseasonably warm days. I was running along the technical portion of the path, leaping rocks and roots, listening to the rustling leaves, and really enjoying mile four of my nine-mile run. The early morning sun shined intensely through the tree canopy, creating areas of intense contrast on the forest floor. I allowed myself to take in the scenery, glancing from the trail to the forest, being distracted by the lizards and squirrels dashing through the leaves.

Copperhead (not my photo)

I passed a clearing to the left and looked from there to the trail again. My eyes adjusted to the contrasting shadows among the leaves. And, I suddenly recognized the shape of a snake stretched out across the trail beneath me. It wasn't just any snake. It was a big, fat copperhead!

The ideal image of a runner in action would show the runner with both feet off the ground—one leg bent with the knee pointing forward, the other leg extended behind the runner just after the toe pushes off. This is the sought-after "floating" picture described and appreciated in many running groups. Imagine me in this position, floating above the ground between strike and toe-off. Now imagine me lifting both legs from the knee up to my hamstrings, thereby increasing the distance between me and the snake by at least twelve inches. I didn't know I had reflexes like that.

Given my history of seeking out and catching snakes when I was a kid, I'm not bothered by snakes. I wouldn't even be bothered by a venomous snake like the copperhead I met on that trail. But, the fact that I didn't see the snake until I was right above it really alarmed me. Hence, the rush of adrenaline and miraculous levitation over the trail.

When I finally landed on the ground who-knows-how far away from the copperhead, my pace increased a bit. I was thankful that I'd not had the misfortune of actually stepping on the snake. But, I was concerned over the fact that I would have to return over that same portion of the trail in just a few minutes so that I could get home.

I kept thinking, "I'll be such an idiot if I get bitten by this snake on the second pass. I'll be such an idiot, such an idiot..."

Luckily, the snake wasn't there on my return trip. Perhaps my heavy stomping on the way back scared it away. Perhaps it was just as scared of being stepped on as I was of stepping on it. Either way, I'm glad he moved. And, I'd rather not see him again.

So, what have I learned from this little adventure on the trail? Watch out for snakes. But, don't let it keep you from running!

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