At 16 miles, this week was my longest long run yet, and the first one longer than a half marathon – and I wanted to do it on a trail, so I went to Tipsaw Lake in Hoosier National Forest. The trail is not 16 miles long, so I had to run around it three times to get my total miles. I don’t really care for doing loops like that because it could be monotonous; that was not the case for this run. Three loops turned out to represent the three stages common in most long runs – but with a wilderness twist.
Stage 1: Battle of the Spiders
Trail running does not equal road running. They are two distinct activities, requiring a different mindset, often different shoes, greater balance, and an understanding of technique for going up and down very steep hills. These and a few others are points most beginning trail runners will find out easily by searching the web. But I’ve never seen someone warn of another pitfall of trail running: the wildlife. Imagine if a stranger were to come running through your house, training for a marathon. What if they came barreling through your bedroom and kitchen, knocking down your counters and cabinets, bashing your plates to smithereens. That’s what I was doing to the eight-legged denizens around Tipsaw Lake early Saturday morning. As soon as I got out of the parking lot and into the woods, I was running through very large, very strong spider webs one after another. I stopped after two webs and looked around. Gigantic spiders had their beautiful webs strung up absolutely everywhere. Spiders with fat bodies the size of a quarter were sitting in the middle of each web, their freaky legs sticking out in eight unnerving directions. When I approached the webs cautiously, the spiders panicked and took off, leaving empty webs in their wake. I ducked around one or two, but quickly tired of that. I finally picked up a branchy stick and held it in front of me while I ran. Ultimately I ended up with two sticks moving up and down while I ran through the woods, capturing spiders and webs all along the way. I’ve never had to run through so many webs before, and it wasn’t so great. Spiders don’t really bother me, but webs feel weird. Ashley was coming from the other direction, so I knew that once I caught up with her, the way would be clear back to the beginning. I wonder what it was like for her to see me running along the trail in front of her, swinging two spider-ridden sticks up and down?
Stage 2: The Glory
Any long run has a certain point that is just fantastic. The blood is flowing, I’ve hit my stride, endorphins are turning my thoughts into butterflies and rainbows…in short, it’s delightful. It’s probably what keeps me pursuing long runs week after week. That middle part that feels so good. That’s what the second loop was. Everything felt great. Aside from a few enterprising spiders, I had a clear trail. The woods are always so beautiful, and the weather was fantastic. I barely felt the miles going under my feet. I started thinking “I should just do four loops. Four loops would be great. This feels so good. Look at the pretty mushrooms!” I started planning my next marathon, thinking about how to make it better and different. Where would I go? What would I experience! Running is so great. Before I knew it, I was back at the car, refilling my water to head out for my third and final loop.
Stage 3: The Fatigue
I thought of a joke during my third loop.
“A man walks into a bar. Fatigue is sitting at a table and waves at the man. The man turns around and leaves because Fatigue sucks.”
It’s not a very clever joke, but my mind was addled. Most of the lakes around here are man made, so they have a long, grassy dam that goes across the back. When I got on Tipsaw’s dam for the third loop, it just started hurting. It’s a very grassy dam, so it’s difficult to anticipate what’s going to happen to your feet when they land because you can’t see the ground. Just tall grass hiding little holes and dips that send your feet every which way. The magical endorphins wore off, but I had to keep going. I had been anticipating this feeling, though, so I sort of welcomed it. Nothing happens when you’re comfortable. Growth and endurance are built when you keep pushing even though it hurts. I dug deep. I started asking myself why I was out here. Why did I get up so early on a Saturday to come out and run three times around the spider lake of doom? I could have spent Friday night eating pizza, having a beer, and watching a movie. That would have been great because I love all those things. But here I was, running on tired legs up and down hills. I decided that I’m doing this because it’s what I’ve decided to do – as easy as that. It’s sort of like the reason I became vegetarian. There wasn’t a big moment that changed my life view, it was just a decision to make a change and stick to it. Having made the decision, it did change my life and put my priorities in different places. I’m happy to face these challenges head-on, too. The challenge of dealing with injuries and pain brought on by something I decided to do on my own. When we face challenges, we grow our character to adapt and respond to them. Every day, every week of running and working out at the gym throws another challenge my way, but I’ll accept it. I’m looking for them anyway.