Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The dark side of the moon run

Corny though the sentiment may be (yeah, I saw it on facebook), it’s nonetheless true that you’re never too old to try something new for the first time. A couple months back I wrote about my first ever nighttime trail run, on a camping trip in Wisconsin. It was a difficult run for a lot of reasons. New experiences sometimes hurt.

A lot has happened since then. I did not get to experience my first ever ultra marathon; instead I swapped that for my first ever overnight stay in a hospital (early days on earth notwithstanding). That was far less fun than the nighttime trail run, but I guess I must have enjoyed it still because I extended my stay a week and a half. Come for the IV drip, stay for the chocolate pudding.
Yesterday I experienced my first ever Moon Run. On full moon nights, it isn’t werewolves that prowl the forests; it’s Buffalo. That’s the name of my trail running group, and they’ve been doing Moon Runs for years, and even though I’ve been with the Buffalo for a while, I somehow never managed to get my act together to go running at 9pm through a dark trail without any lighting save the round, glowy orb in the sky. That’s the rule: no flashlights, no headlamps, no miners’ caps. You run through the dark—and I do mean dark.

The five-mile trail was one I’ve run scores of times, but nearly always in one direction. For added fun, the Buffalo do Moon Runs in the reverse direction. It just wouldn’t do to run a familiar course in the dark, so ratchet up the disorientation factor a notch and turn something you know like the back of your hand into something that feels like mad scientist types amputated your hand—your whole arm, in fact—and installed a half-alien, half-robot limb with a wacked-out mind of its own. (Hmm. There is that suspicious, gruesome scar on my arm. I’m onto you, mad scientist types.)
When we run the trail in the daytime in the usual fashion (counter clockwise), the first mile is pleasantly shaded by woods while the last mile is out in the open. Most runners hate that last mile; in the summer you get flambéed by the sun and in the winter the wind rips all the heat from your body and carries it off into the next county. Running the trail in reverse at night, the first mile was a thing of beauty. Clear skies meant the moon, huge and bright, guided us on our way. The world looks different in moonlight, soft and lovely, shadows playful rather than sinister.

Of course, you know where this is going: at some point you have to enter the woods. Oh my goodness, how many horror stories begin with some dumbass entering the woods on the night of a full moon. There didn’t even need to be any werewolves or bogeymen out there; simply reducing your sense of sight to almost nil was enough to get the adrenaline-saturated juices flowing. An added bonus: while the part of the trail in the open is relatively straight (another reason runners dislike it), the part in the woods pretzels all over the place, crisscrossing itself, doubling back, suddenly ending in a T-shaped fork such that if you aren’t careful, you’ll really end up in the woods. Then you’ll never find your way back; you’ll have to build a house there and live off the land. It could be worse, but I’d miss pizza too much.
You can’t see. You’re running on uneven, unfamiliar ground. There are all sorts of things underfoot to trip you. Frogs and cicadas are laughing at you. Who the hell ever thought this would be fun?

It is fun. Hugely fun.
There’s a cartoon about running that’s making the rounds. You’ll know what I’m talking about if I say one word: blerch. (It’s a real word now, anyway.) This cartoon is screamingly funny and spot-the-hell-on when it comes to why runners love running. In fact, it illustrates this so perfectly and winningly, I almost don’t see the point in ever writing about running again. Almost. There is an aspect of running that isn’t covered by the blerch cartoon (and that’s not a defect; after all, this was one runner’s view, not everyone’s, since not everyone has had to face killer hornets in Japan).

In Wisconsin, I did the nighttime trail run alone. It was, as I said, not a great run for me; my head was in another place and my body was, well, pretty much all over the place, including sprawled on the ground several times. At the Moon Run, I ran with some buddies and a dog named Toby, whose canine instincts urged him to try to lead us to safety even though he, like me, had no idea where we were going. He would dart ahead and then slow a bit, looking up at me with what I suppose he hoped was a confident, reassuring glance, before falling back and letting the veteran Moon Runner take over. I knew just how Toby felt. Running, as the blerch cartoon writer and many other runners know, is an experience glutted with emotion. At its best it can make you feel strong in a way you never thought possible. You can do this. You can do something you never thought possible, and you can do it all by yourself. It’s a surprise that will hit runners in the strangest moments, and when it does hit you truly feel invincible. I am strong. I can get through this. I don’t need anybody’s help.
But there’s another surprise in running, and that is how much you benefit from the help of others. Most of the time you do not ask for this help; it is simply given freely, without fuss. A runner sees you, hails you, runs alongside you for a while, keeps running with you, all the while saying nothing about the fact that you were clearly struggling and almost ready to stop when they showed up. This has happened to me many times over the years, by many different people. Sometimes it’s a friend, sometimes a person I barely know, and sometimes—well, as they say, it’s complicated. Each time the result is the same: we run, and we feel good. It’s not complicated at all.

That last mile? Amazing. Greatest mile ever. Thanks, guys (you too, Toby).
I can’t claim that my life has been particularly hard. Yeah, there’s been stuff. Everybody’s got stuff. A lot of my stuff I’ve had to deal with alone, and when I emerged from it, I felt the hardness of those experiences ended up hardening something in me. I look at the world and think, I don’t need your help. I can do this by myself. Here’s the thing, though: if you do decide to help me anyway, if you do run by my side, I will be happy and grateful, and the run will most likely be even better for both of us.



  1. Great write, Letitia. Fun read. Toby was a trooper.

    1. Thanks! Hope the skeeters didn't getcha too bad.

  2. Fun to read, Letitia. It sounds like it was a gorgeous night.

    1. Thanks, Jason - it most definitely was that!