Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Night falls. So do I.

Fear of the dark. Fear of falling. Fear of being so lost you’ll never find your way. Worst of all perhaps is the fear, not of being alone, because there can be great comfort and solace in solitude, but of being alone when you’re lost, in the dark, and you’ve fallen, and there’s no one to pick you up, no one to find you, no one to light the way back, no one there when you need it most.

All this and deer ticks, too.
I did my first night trail run over the weekend, nineteen miles through the woods of southern Wisconsin. This is a beautiful part of the region at a beautiful time of the year, trees topped with dense clouds of green and lakes that are see-to-the-bottom clear. At least that’s what you get in the daytime; it’s obviously a little different at night, but still beautiful, a tradeoff for a sky swirling with stars.

I was eager to try night running as a changeup from the usual and as a way of adding to my running repertoire, so I went up north with a bunch of runner friends to camp and hit the trails. Camping and running and lots and lots of beer—all promising of a good time. Of course, a group of oddballs with extreme hobbies and personalities to match, not to mention some rather tangled history and soap-operatic backstory in common, all spending several days in close proximity also promises a certain degree of tension and subtle underlying drama. I can tell you right now, drama isn’t nearly as fun to be part of as it is to watch. I am sure Claudius and Gertrude would have loved the play Hamlet arranged if it hadn’t ended up being about them. In my case, there were moments I wanted to throw my hands up and bellow to the wilderness, “Are you not entertained?” I am sure the wilderness was.
Some things hurt too much for words. Distance trail running is not one of them. There are plenty of words for that, though the four-letter variety get repeated rather a lot at times. Let’s just say my first excursion into night trail running lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. No, scratch that, I can tell you exactly quoi: grace, speed, finesse, balance, and sense of direction. I tripped, I stumbled, I fell. I lumbered and lurched. I trudged up hills, and then, in defiance of the sacred aphorism about what goes up, trudged up more hills. None of that sounds particularly unusual for trail running, but the darkness made me feel like I wasn’t just running on a new trail but on a new planet.

The funny thing is, even though I felt a great roil of emotions out there, fear wasn’t one of them. Yes, it was dark, and I couldn’t see what was around me, or ahead of me, or behind me. There were sudden, strange noises, and looming shadows, and long stretches where I seemed to be the only person in existence. But it wasn’t scary. I didn’t know where I was, or where I was headed, and I could only look as far as the next few steps illuminated by my light. So I took those steps. And then the next ones. In that way I made my way through the dark.
I finished a good hour slower than a friend who ran the exact same course at the same time. That part didn’t bother me: I don’t run to go fast; I run to go somewhere. Sometimes in the process of going somewhere you get beat up really hard, but most of the time that’s OK, because you do feel stronger afterward. Other times, though, you get really, really tired of things being hard. You wish just once the pleasure did not always have to be mixed with pain. I wish I could say that this run changed something for me, made me feel stronger and more confident about my running, my life, myself. I’m sorry to say that running isn’t the cure-all you might want it to be. Sometimes you run because you don’t know what else to do. You aren’t afraid, just tired and hurt, and you go on not because you want to overcome the hurt and emerge victorious but merely out of a sort of weary resignation. The world goes on; you can stop and fall and stay lost in the dark forever, but instead you choose, such a choice as it is, to go on with it.



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