Savage Race Recap: Blow-by-blow part 3

Disclaimer: This is the third part of a race report. If you care about continuity, the first part is here, and the second part is here. If you think that running and obstacle course races are endeavors fit only for the insane, well, you might not be wrong, but feel free to skip this entry. If you’re intrigued by all this, you can find lots of pictures and in-depth descriptions of these obstacles at Savage Race’s website.

This entry concludes the (maybe too) lengthy detour I took to talk about this race. Regularly scheduled programming will resume.

The first half of the course, despite its challenges, has been a kids’ gloves introduction to the course. In the second half, the gloves come off immediately. Mile four begins with the craziest ascent I’ve ever seen on a running trail. We’re leaning against the hill itself for support in climbing the hill; ropes and pickaxes wouldn’t go amiss here.

Then we turn around and come right back down it; apparently we climbed that monster for the sheer hell of it, and if that isn’t a perfect metaphor for this race, then I don’t know what is. Our next obstacle is a dunk into ice water — there’s literally a refrigerated truck next to two pools, and as I go under, I can feel the cubes clinking off my dome — which, frankly, comes none too soon in the ninety degree heat.

Then there’s more pain: we pick up lengths of 4×4 and sling them across our backs to carry them a quarter mile across more rolling hills. Why? Because we can. We’ve already run a 5k and covered an elevation gain of something like a half mile, given and taken; why not slog some lumber while we do more of the same? And then we shimmy sideways across railings not unlike the ones you stand in while you’re waiting for your turn on the American Scream Machine, and if you haven’t fantasized about doing that, well, then maybe you’re reading the wrong race report.

The obstacles come fast and furious now; the first half of the race gave us maybe three challenges per mile, but we’ve got twenty more to cover in the last 2.5 miles, which means a lot less running and a lot more scrambling. “Wheel World” pits us against rotating garden spigots that leave a lot of racers twisting and spinning helplessly in space before splashing down in defeat, but a simple application of my old maxim — momentum matters — carries me through the obstacle. Instead of attacking it head on, I roll into it sideways off the launch platform, and the rotation carries me cleanly across.

Then it’s up a culvert on an incline which shifts to a decline when you’re halfway across. The culvert is too narrow to crawl on hands and knees but too slick to commando crawl. I inch forward like a slug until it tips and spits me out into the dirt, my abs burning and my knees bruised.

Then a climbing wall; not up, but across, and it’s leaned backwards at a fifteen degree angle. This is my first failure: I just don’t have the grip to hold myself up and I stumble off into the dirt. But here’s the thing about that: at this point in the race, people are failing obstacles left and right, and there’s no shame or anger in it. You just dust yourself off and truck on. A point of training to return to for the next time.

Now another crawl under barbed wire, but this one through the thickest, soupiest mud yet; we come out the other side looking like the Michelin Man hosed down in brown goop. It clings and clumps to us as we mount the hill for the next challenge: a simple ramp. Except, thanks to the mud, it’s impossible to climb the thing. Even the rope is slick with the mud of hundreds of previous runners trying to summit this thing.

At this point, you can barely finish an obstacle before you’re on to the next. A twenty-foot climb followed by a terrifying leap into a deep pool. A diabolical jagged monkey bars over murky water. (This one puts me in the drink halfway across.) An inclined traverse around telephone poles that you have to hug like the college girlfriend that’s looking for a reason to dump you. A maze-like series of ropes and rings that drops racers like a series of particularly bad habits. (I slip off the rope almost immediately, with burns on my pinkie and ring fingers to show for it. Never in my life have I injured my pinkie finger, until today, but there it is.)

And here, again, I’m forcibly informed of the key difference between an OCR and a road race. Road races, and to a lesser extent, trail races, are a more or less linear challenge. The difficulty goes up predictably with the distance, and the race gets harder the farther you go. The effort wears you down, but you know what distance and pace you’re capable of. But with OCR, the challenge is on an exponential curve: they save the best (most challenging) obstacles for last, but by the time you get to them, you’re gassed out by the previous obstacles and/or the viciousness of the run itself.

I’ve now failed three obstacles and I’m almost a half hour behind my predicted finish time. And in a strict running race, that would be shattering. But here? Today? Staring down the final obstacle — a fifteen foot quarter-pipe, mud-slick from failed attempts to summit it and topped with hooting, cheering savages who’ve already made the climb — well, earlier I likened the event to a bacchanalia, and while there are no chemicals involved, we’re all drunk at this point. The falls on earlier obstacles don’t matter, the bruises on my knees, shins, and elbows are irrelevant, the mud caked in my eyebrows and the stubble on my scalp is totally off topic. I don’t care about the burning in my calves from the relentless ups-and-downs of these murderous hills. Every runner who makes the top of this ramp does so to a chorus of cheers and howls, and every one who fails and slides back to the earth meets a sympathetic groan.

But I’m tapped. I’ve got nothing left. The six miles of the run and the ridiculous crescendo of the obstacles have left me a pile of sentient Jell-o. I can no more make it up that ramp than I can sprout wings and ascend into the heavens. But I lower my head and charge at the ramp anyway.

I grab at the rope. My fingers seal around the knot, strangling it. Somehow, I fling my arm upward and catch the next know, and creep higher. But that’s it. I’m done. The ledge is right there, but I can’t reach it. I cry out, or at least I think I do. On the ledge above me is some guy I don’t even know, and he’s shouting at me like I’m Rocky. Grab that ledge. You can do it. Grab it. Come on! He could help me, but he knows — as I know — that it’ll mean that much more if I can make it on my own.

And I do. My fingers catch the ledge, then a hand has my forearm and I’m being lifted upwards over the edge. I tumble onto my back and stare up at the sky for a moment.

It’s a clear, beautiful Georgia afternoon. Wispy blue clouds, postcard blue sky. The roar all around me goes dull.

I’m acutely aware that this afternoon would have been a gorgeous one whether or not I had put myself through the wringer of this race. But somehow, the air is a little sweeter, the breeze a little cooler, the sky a little bluer.

But there’s no time to rest. I get to my knees and turn around to offer a pay-it-forward hand up to a few other racers climbing their way up after me. High-fives and slaps on the back abound. Then, it’s over to the other side of the wall — a slide right back down into (you guessed it) more muddy water. And there’s the finish line. Somebody puts a medal around my neck. A bottle of icy water is shoved into my hand. Half of it goes on my head, half of it goes down in a few greedy gulps. It tastes like the untamed glaciers of the Arctic.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about this race, a lot more than I usually bother to write about running. (Partly that’s because fitness isn’t really the focus of my blarg here, but partly that’s because there’s really only so much you can say about running.) But I think the race deserves a bit of time and reflection. It wasn’t just an event, it was an experience. I’m not going to say I’m a better person because of it — that would be shallow and too easy, I think — but there’s an ineffable sense of accomplishment swirling around me after finishing this thing, even almost a full week later.

There’s something primal about it that no amount of running or hours spent in a gym can replicate. Running, jumping, crawling, climbing — these are things our bodies evolved to do, and the creature comforts of this modern life have allowed too many of us to forget we can do them. Savage Race was a test in a way I’ve never been tested. It’s a bit like life, really: it throws a challenge at you, beats you up, bruises you a bit, knocks you in the mud. Then, if you come through to the other side, it says, “okay, you handled that. Now how about this one?” And it repeats, on and on until you drag yourself across the finish line, or until you tap out, give up testing yourself and walk the rest of the way home.

I’m happy to say that, even though I didn’t complete every obstacle, I tried every one. And my run may not have been pretty, but life ain’t pretty. We all get a little dinged up, a little scraped and bruised along the way. We all get a little dirty. Sometimes it hurts. But you can still run the race with a smile on your face.


Savage Race Recap: Blow-by-blow part 2

Disclaimer: This is the second part of a race report. If you care about continuity, the first part is here. If you think that running and obstacle course races are endeavors fit only for the insane, well, you might not be wrong, but feel free to skip this entry. If you’re intrigued by all this, you can find lots of pictures and in-depth descriptions of these obstacles at Savage Race’s website. Now, onward!

For a guy who runs mostly roads, it’s challenging enough going off-road. The footing isn’t as sure, the hills are ubiquitous, and you have to watch your every step for roots and rocks and, in this case, horse sharknado. From speaking to a few finishers before my wave started, I know enough to know the hills are going to be nasty, but I’m still not prepared. The first half mile of the course takes us down from the start line, up over a tree-lined hill that we couldn’t see past before, down again across the inline toward the lake (which has us leaning sideways to keep our balance), and back up again to get into the woods proper. As we roll down into another valley, we have to cross this tiny stream of runoff,  just wide enough to be unhoppable. Racers are hesitating and trying to pick a dry footing across. I shake my head in wonder. This is a mud run, isn’t it? And I pile ahead, right through the stream, kicking up spray and mud in my wake, and I hear the splashing of other feet right behind me. I immediately wish I hadn’t, though — mud run or not, running in wet shoes is not fun, and with all the hills and cambers, my feet and toes are sliding around and raising blisters already.

Despite all that, I can feel myself breaking the first rule of racing: don’t go out too fast. I can’t help it, though — the adrenaline is surging, I hear the light tromping of feet all around me, and there’s a cool breeze through the shaded paths, so that even at ninety-plus degrees outside, the running feels like heaven.

But we’re at the first obstacle: a pair of fences made of widely-spaced two-by-sixes about eight feet high. I don’t break stride — from my run I hop onto the fence and climb it like a ladder, toss my legs over, and drop to the ground. One down, and while it was hardly a challenge, I’m exhilarated. Then it’s through another patch of trees, and I see barbed wire stretched low across the ground. I’m preparing to drop to my belly when I see another racer lay out sideways in front of the obstacle and begin to roll through the dirt. Well, that looks a lot easier than commando crawling, so I follow suit. What I don’t notice is the downhill grade in the second half of the obstacle, and by the time I roll out the far side, I’m not so much rolling as tumbling. Clear of the barbed wire, I sprawl out and watch the sky spin crazily overhead for a few seconds before I stumble to my feet. I’m not the only one spun like a top, but we master it and truck on.

It’s a hot minute, fully a half mile of hills and trees, before it’s obstacle time again: another field of barbed wire. Didn’t we already do this? No, this one’s different — in addition to low-slung barbs, this one has lanes marked off with wire as well. No rolling through this one — it’s time to crawl. As I’m shimmying along, I hear the inevitable skritch of a snagged shirt and torn skin; the guy next to me just popped up too high and paid for it. Meanwhile, on my other side, there’s a commotion of rustling grass and a cloud of dust as another guy rolls past like Wile E. Coyote on rocket skates. Basic training comes in handy, it seems.

A bit further on, there’s a deceptively simple-looking set of chest-high pommel horses that must be vaulted; I clear them pretty easily with a half-cartwheel, half barrel-roll over the top, but I see lots of folks getting tossed on their backs as they hit the far side, or unable to get a grip enough to clear them at all. What’s easy for one is never easy for all.

Just after the start of mile two is the first obstacle that looks truly imposing, the strangely named “Venus Guy Trap.” If you’re picturing the jagged, toothy plant laid open for a fly, you’re not far off; this is a set of two ramps at 45 degree angles facing each other across a mud pit. You must first climb up the seven-foot back of the ramp (and the lip hangs well over the support, so you’re really dangling), navigate down the one ramp, tromp through the mud, and then do the same thing in reverse, except now you’re slippery from the mud. I watch a few people attempt it before trying my hand; some can muscle right over the edge, others can’t even get their hands on it. Well, hell. You got me, and I got you, right? I step up to a struggling racer, make a platform of my hands, and offer a boost up; figuring if I invest some karma now, it’ll be there for me when I need it later. I boost three people over the first lip and then turn around for my own attempt, and here I’m surprised again; turns out I can make the climb just fine. Not exactly graceful, but I clear the edge and roll down the ramp with no trouble. That’s the first daunting task, but it won’t be the last.

But here, again, this race is shaking up my preconceptions. Because there are people in the race who are clearly not physically fit enough for an obstacle like this, and I’ve been wondering just what the hell they were thinking, signing up for this thing. Case in point: there’s an older guy I’ve been gaining on for the last quarter mile who I finally catch up to at these two ramps. He’s overweight, too, and clearly struggling already just from the run, even though we’re only two miles in. To add to the indignity, his shirt is torn from the barbed wire a half-mile back. But he’s not in it for himself; he’s here to support his daughter. As they approach the obstacle, he wordlessly hustles up to the base of the climb and goes into a wall-sit, offering her both his knee and his shoulder to help her get to the top. Once she’s over, he hoofs it around to the far side to meet her on the other side. And suddenly I feel a little bit like an a-hole for being so judgey — everybody comes to this test for their own reasons. And the family that runs obstacle courses together…

The next mile has a handful of challenges that look tougher than they are — there’s what looks like a giant Swiss cheese wedge and a traverse across chain-link fences suspended over murky water, both of which are easier than they look. Then a few that are designed to make you uncomfortable and literally cover you in mud and muck: these are ditches with barriers submerged in the water/mud that you must crawl/swim/claw your way under to advance. If dignity was intact before this point in the race, it’s gone now — we are all unidentifiable orange-brown foot soldiers tromping off to new discomfort.

But in the midst of all that is another challenge to the spirit: one of the simplest obstacles yet, but a doozy nonetheless. This one is simply a free-standing wall eight feet high that offers no handholds or footholds. Nothing but upper body and scrambling feet will get you over — and maybe a leg up from your fellow racers. But I clear this one on my own as well, surprising myself again in the process.

We’re through eleven obstacles now, and three miles into this six-mile affair, and I’m already noticing changes in myself and the other racers. Not nearly as many people are running in between obstacles; myself included. I’m still jogging the straightaways and the descents (where I can manage it without risking a catastrophic tumble), but anything more than a gentle incline has me walking, and the course is stingy with anything gentle, even leaving the obstacles out of the equation. The walking is not terribly surprising, though. What’s surprising is that as the obstacles get tougher (and make no mistake, there’s a pretty steep difficulty curve the farther you go, which is actually kind of cruel … you might say SAVAGELY cruel, okay, I’m sorry, I won’t make that joke again), the people attempting them get fewer, and the camaraderie among those that fling themselves into the maw strengthens. Kind of like a chinese finger trap — the harder you work against it, the stronger it becomes. Those of us who try every obstacle get more determined, we help each other more, and when we succeed, there’s back-slapping and high-fiving and primal screams all around.

There’s a high in all this. As much as my body hurts more and more the further I go, there’s a sort of euphoria settling in. It’s not a runner’s high (although to be fair, I’m not sure I’ve ever actually experienced one of those in five years of running). The pain doesn’t disappear and give way to magical feelings of well-being and serenity. The pain is there, lurking in the back of the mind like a murderer hiding in the basement in the latest slasher flick. But who cares about the murderer in the basement when there’s a crazed, endorphin-fueled party going on upstairs?

I’m starting to see why this OCR has become such a thing. I came to the race alone, but now I’m recognizing the faces of the handful who are on the same pace as me. We’ve become almost a family flung together in this gauntlet; we kvetch and moan about the brutal hills, we encourage each other in the run-up to each new obstacle, we wait with hands outstretched as each of us muscles through the next struggle. I don’t even know their names, but I know their shouts of jubilation and their groans of agonized defeat.

And I’ll hear a lot more of both in the second half of the course.

Concluded here.


Savage Race Recap: Blow-by-blow part 1

Disclaimer: I ran my first obstacle course race this weekend, and it was awesome. I gave a sort of holistic overview of the whole race from this past weekend, and that overview is here. But it occurred to me that one, I left out a lot of what I was thinking during the race, and I wanted to get those thoughts down. And two, if you’re reading this and thinking of signing up for a race, having a blow-by-blow account might be more helpful to you than some unfocused, broad thoughts on the whole thing. So what follows is that account of the whole run. It might take a couple of posts. Skip at your pleasure!

It’s 10:30 on a Saturday morning, and I’m walking through a cow pasture.

I parked the family van in the grass after driving it a half mile down a gravel drive in rural Dallas, GA, and now I’m following the crowds of people toward the top of the hill. The low sound of birds gives way to the drone of human voices the closer I get to the staging area, and before I know it I’m surrounded by people: musclebound men and women who’ve already run and finished the race, and some more moderately dressed folk (like myself) who have yet to run. Some of them look as uncertain as I feel — other first-timers, I suspect — others swagger around the commons, lounge around the tables and the food trucks, or stretch casually by the starting line. Some are individuals. Some are friends. Some are co-workers. Some are families.

This is Savage Race — a mass of humanity about to embark on six miles of pain in the backwater hills of suburban Atlanta. All of us have spent the past months if not years training for the event, but how do you train for an event that has you crawling through mud, jumping like a lunatic from a twenty-five foot height into murky water, vaulting over walls and fences, and slithering under barbed wire?

I’ve previewed the course and the obstacles dozens of times in the months leading up to now, but being here is different. Down the hill there, at the bottom of the pasture, I can see racers on the course trudging up and down a series of rills with long wooden beams across their shoulders like Jesus on his way to the crucifixion. In a little gully off to the side is another leg of the course that features a series of grooved telephone poles that ascend toward a cowbell. I watch a few racers clamber adroitly across the maze of poles and whack the cowbell triumphantly; I watch several more slip off the second pole, unable to find a foothold, and walk on, shaking their heads in frustration.

At the top of the hill is the big one: the monstrous sixteen-foot quarter-pipe ramp outfitted with knotted ropes and smeared with mud from the failed attempts of would-be climbers sliding back down its face. That’s Colossus, the final obstacle on the course, and it’s flashy, but it’s far from my mind.

I’ve been at the gathering areas of dozens of races, and the atmospheres are as varied as the events themselves, but the central area for Savage Race is a unique animal. It’s part tailgate, part wildlife retreat, part bacchanalia. There’s the usual array of merchandise tents, packet pick-ups, and volunteer stations. Then there are the tents set up by participants and their cheering stations, complete with kegs and captain’s chairs and college logos. There are food trucks and a surprisingly well-stocked beer stand (attached to every participant’s bib is a voucher for a free brew, which they rightly advise you to detach now and store safely, as it is likely you’ll lose it on the course). And then there are the people.

The participants at any road race tend to be a fit bunch, but this goes a step further. About a third of the men are shirtless, and would look right at home in a promotional spot for 300. The women, alike, are dressed to show off their gym bods, many with their bib numbers inked on their shoulders (pictures during the event are sorted by bib number, so this is a good way to find your photos even if your bib is hidden, say, underwater, in a shot). Lots of beards. Lots of tattoos. Lots of skintight clothing. Superhero shirts and custom-made group tees: Bailey’s Badasses, for one. But there’s a fair contingent, like me, a bit more modest, watching from the fringes, trying to take this all in.

The course is set up in a strange, almost clover-like arrangement, so that the runners pass again and again near the central area. As such, you’re often in view of other obstacles on the course and other participants in various stages of distress depending on what particular pain they’re undergoing at the moment. So it’s a lot to take in. But there isn’t much time for that, now. My heat departs in five minutes, so I make my way to the starting corral, where I line up next to a couple of guys dressed in Dragonball shirts and wigs and a dude who looks like a black version of the Rock. Suddenly, I feel very out of my depth.

There’s an announcer at the starting line, which is a novelty. He asks how many are repeat racers, five-time racers, and finally, how many Savage Virgins are with us today, to a chorus of WHOOOOOO’s each time, and I throw my lot in with that last. He tells us what we already know: that the next six miles are designed to test our limits, to punish us, to show us what we’re made of. He invites us to stare down the people in the corral with us, to see which of them each of us is going to beat to the finish. I keep looking at the Rock (this is the last time I’ll see him — he leaves me behind early) and the Dragonball guys (surprisingly, I’ll see them again and again throughout the event), and feel pretty confident that I’m going to be in the bottom third of this particular heat, but who cares? We’re all shouting and laughing and high-fiving and chanting “you got me, and I got you,” and even though I’m the kind of guy who stays silent when Gene Simmons comes onstage and demands are you ready to rock???, I’m hollering and shouting myself hoarse with the rest of the Savages. It’s all very cult-ish, all very for those about to rock, we salute you.

And then we move to the starting line, and the gun sounds, and the waving, sun-baked grass stretches out before us.

And we run.

Continued here.

Lose Yourself on the Trails

I’m a creature of habit and routine. (As are we all.) The only way things work in my life is if they find a way to fit into the routine. That goes for writing, obviously (which is one reason I haven’t written much lately: because the school year is almost out and that’s basically like tax time for an accountant). But it’s true for running, too.

Any exercise routine needs … well, it needs routine if it’s going to work. You can’t just squeeze it in when you get the chance, because who ever really feels like running three miles just because? (Well, aside from lunatic runners like myself.) The routine is what keeps you honest on a day like today, when I shut off my alarm and laid my head back down instead of getting up to go run, and then 15 minutes later the guilt took over and I suited up for a couple of miles anyway. And my routine works because it’s simple and accessible: I just step out the front door and go. If it wasn’t that easy, I wouldn’t be a runner.

And I live in the suburbs, so the runs are routine, too, even if I change up my route. There’s no danger of getting lost. No chance I’ll be unable to find my way back. When you’re in town, even one that isn’t familiar to you, there are landmarks everywhere marking the safe path. Buildings. Street signs. Rusted out shopping carts in the ditch. You can see these things and construct the path that brings you back.

Which is awesome, but let’s agree, pretty boring, too.

Which is why every runner should take it to the trails every once in a while.


I could go on about the physiological benefits to running on trails (dirt is softer, ergo easier on the legs and feet; the uneven surfaces force you to recruit more stabilizing muscles and result in a better workout; the roots and rocks in your path force you to be present and focused on what you’re doing), but that’s not why I like trails.

I could also extrapolate on the mental benefits of the trail (studies show that proximity to nature confers clearer thinking and reduced stress levels; the smog is replaced with the flowery, earthy scent of nature; and let’s not underestimate the value of not having to dodge traffic), and those are great, but they’re not my favorite thing about trails.

I like trails because you could get lost out there. Even on the well-cultivated, clear-cut trails at the parks and preserves near my house, there are side trails and detours and twists and turns not marked on any map that, were you to ignore good sense and plunge in unprepared, could turn your one-hour excursion into a two-hour one, at the very least, or a three-day-weekend surprise-camping-trip at worst. Landmarks are few and far between if they exist at all. What you’re left with is a boundless sea of green all around with a tiny ribbon of dirt that swerves off into the thicket. Not much way of telling where you’re going, nor of telling where you’ve been. One tree looks much like another, and when the canopy grows together over the top of the trail (as it does on most of the trails I frequent), you don’t even have the sun to help you navigate.

You’re lost, except for the blind trust that you’ve read the map correctly (which, let’s be honest, you probably haven’t).


And this is the best part! Because this is when you realize that for all that humanity has tamed the world and the wilderness, there are still great stretches of it everywhere, just waiting to swallow you up. Which is — wait for it — just like writing.

You start your project with an idea. Maybe you map it out deliberately and painstakingly, or maybe you just jump in and start writing. One way or another, you take those first steps off the well-cultivated road and pretty soon it’s nothing but identical trees in every direction but for the tiny scrap of trail disappearing behind you and stretching off into more trees ahead. And your cultured, educated brain tells you that it’s not so far ahead that the trail should jerk hard back around to the right — the way back to civilization — but all of a sudden the path dips and bends off to the left.

Was that the way? Or are the woods playing tricks on you? Suddenly you’re filled with uncertainty, and you think you’re heading in the right direction, but all you really have is your hope. That, and the tiny bit of story you just wrote and the tiny bit you can see from where you stand. Every now and then you break through — the canopy parts and you can see for a stretch down the river or across the valley — but in moments, it’s all swallowed up again in the green maw of the forest.

As runners, I think we have to leave behind what we know and go get lost every once in a while. Partly for the benefits it confers, but mostly because running is one of the few sports that encourages us to enter and explore the world all around us in its natural state.

And as writers … well, I think as writers we should maybe spend more time lost than found.

Happy trails.

Trail Fail Becomes Trail Win

The wife and kids have been out of town for almost a week, and daddy has been able to get a lot of things done. Lots of writing (on the novel, if not so much around here), lots of things around the house (knocking a few things off the ol’ honey-do), lots of things I don’t normally get the chance to do.

Like trail runs.

Living in suburbia and working a more-or-less typical 9-to-5 schedule, then coming home and being a daddy, I don’t have a lot of time to get away. I love running for its simple step-out-the-front-door-and-go nature, but of course, stepping out the front door gets me to only a limited number of possible routes I can run. There’s the mall loop, which I’ve completed more times than even bear counting. There’s a slightly longer circuit that takes me around the local strip malls. Then, on the weekend, I stretch that loop out and roll through downtown, over to the train tracks and past a bunch of mom n’ pop businesses over closer to the railroad tracks.

But I’ve run all of those routes dozens, if not hundreds of times. My feet practically slide into their own custom-made grooves in the pavement. Not much adventure there, outside of dodging the traffic, of course. So the chance to switch things up without having to hurry home for my daddy responsibilities is too tempting to pass up.

We have some good parks and good trails around here, and I’ve run several of them during races and the occasional weekend sneak away, but not nearly regularly enough. There’s nothing quite like trading in your roadside stomps for covered bridges…


Cascading rapids…


And enough greenery to make you feel like hugging a tree, or maybe eating one:


So I’ve set off for a few of them over the past few days. And I’ve learned a few things.

First of all, trails are hellish and heavenly on your feet. Hellish because you hit all kinds of rocks and roots and bumps and sudden drops and hidden steps and any number of obstacles that you don’t hit on the roads. I’m embracing my minimalist shoes again when my feet feel fit (which has been a lot, lately), so I really feel all the bumps in the road. The trails are leaving me with hot spots in my feet — not pain, but soreness and tenderness — which is actually rather a good feeling despite the discomfort. Like a scar after a knife fight, sort of a badge of pride, a proof that I was there and I went through something. Then again, the trails are heavenly, because there’s none of that non-compactable asphalt or concrete underfoot. It’s all dirt or grass or a lush, springy bed of fallen pine needles and leaves pillowing my feet along, like the fingers of angels ferrying me to happiness. Sweet and sour.

Second of all, and more importantly: with trails, you have to know what you’re doing. I checked out maps beforehand and figured I knew pretty much what I was looking out for — the trail goes in such and such general direction for about a half mile, then follows the river for a bit, then cuts back inland toward the rocks shaped like a couple of donkeys humping — but the problem is, when you’re out there surrounded by nothing but green, one donkey hump rock looks pretty much like another, and judging distance is about as easy as cross stitching blindfolded. (Is that hard? It sounds hard.)

Long story short, I got lost. Day 1 I got a little lost and increased my estimated distance by about a half mile, running 3.7 when I meant for a little 5k. That’s no big deal. Saturday, though, I was aiming for 4 miles and ended up running almost six. Which is fine if I’m in shape, which I’m not, because I’ve been nursing my plantar-fasciitis beset right foot back to health. Not only did I increase my mileage spontaneously, but I did it over some of the toughest terrain around: the riverside trails of Sweetwater Creek State Park. Now, there’s beautiful scenery to be seen, and in fact, you’ve probably seen some of the terrain I was running on…

That’s the New Manchester Mill Ruins, and Katniss and what’s-his-beak make an appearance there when they’re in District 13 in Mockingjay, Part 1. (Let’s not talk about the nonsense of splitting any of the books in that series into two movies. Let’s just not.) The trails at Sweetwater go past this relic and up and down some sheer rock faces as they follow Sweetwater Creek past rapids and on into lonely meandering stretches of the river. Really, really gorgeous area.

And I got so lost. My first warning sign was these stairs:


It’s hard to get a sense of scale, but I’m pretty sure those stairs are equivalent to a seventeen-story building.

I had just gotten finished climbing what felt like a 30 degree incline for about a quarter mile up — so steep and so long I was literally pushing my knees down with my hands to keep going — when I realized I had absolutely no idea where I was or which way was back. Luckily, about that time, a guy and his dog (seriously) came running through a field of brilliant sunny daffodils. He and his pup are regulars, and he was able to point me back to relative civilization: “Oh, just go that way for about two miles, and you’ll see the signs guiding you back in.” This, when I was already at the 4 mile mark for my 3-and-a-half-mile run.

Well, not to belabor the point, but I did make it back. My feet were trashed from six miles in my minimal shoes and I was sweating like the traditional whore in church, but man, there’s something to be said for the journey. I ran almost six miles and did some serious hiking for at least an additional mile in there, and it was simultaneously the toughest workout and most rewarding and enjoyable running experience I’ve had, maybe since I ran my first half marathon. Just pure fun and happiness, despite how beat-up I was afterward. I’ve heard the term “runventure” before, and I always thought it was a little dumb and ridiculous, but this particular run, I think, qualifies.

Anyway. Point is, if you’re going to go running a trail — especially if you don’t usually go running trails — maybe bring a map.

Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, maybe don’t.