Wednesday, April 1, 2009

After Three Decades of Running Alone in the Woods, I Am Still Learning Lessons

I couldn't wait to run after work today. I am starting to get over my cold, but I didn't think I should push my luck with the planned fast paced workout. So I parked on the side of the road in Parsonsfield about an hour before dark and headed out into the woods for an easy run. I hadn't run on these particular trails in about 10 or 15 years. They were never what I would consider well maintained and they are still in pretty rough shape. Tonight there was snow, slush, ice, and mud in equal amounts. When I was still married and my kids were young these trails were regularly used for my evening runs. I'd tear through as fast as I could while Jeff read the kids their bedtime stories. My goal was always to make it home in time to say good night to the kids.

The first few miles were a little nostalgic. I was talking to myself saying things like, "oh, here's the spot where that old rabbit hunter called me a Woods Nymph," and "here's where I found that huge heavy moose antler and ran 4 miles home carrying it!" and "I remember seeing a black bear in the berry brambles along this stream one time while I was walking in here with Shawna." I hate being nostalgic, it depresses me.

Then the trail turned into a bog. Trails change over time, it's no secret. But it surprised me to find it wasn't the way I remembered it. I should have turned around and retraced my steps because it was getting dark. But by now I was on a trip down Memory Lane and I had to see it through.

I started to bushwhack around the bog. Does anyone feel a recurring theme coming on? Yes, I lost the trail. But in addition to the usual going off trail, it got dark, it started to rain, there was no cell phone signal, and I had left my light in the car. But...I did have on a reflective vest for some reason. At least I wouldn't get hit by a car out there.

It's that damned explorer gene I have. I blame my father. I can't just stick to the beaten path, even when it is the wise thing to do. So I tromped around in the woods looking for the Fred Morrill School where I was determined I should eventually come out. There were no moon and stars visible, I couldn't see any house lights anywhere, and I couldn't hear any traffic. I started to get a little scared when I came upon some footprints in the snow. Bending down and squinting at them, I realized they were mine... heading in the same direction I was currently walking. It occurred to me that I was doing the proverbial "walking in circles" that all the idiots who get lost in the woods do. I hate to admit it, but I came close to panicking for a minute or two. I started walking and running in no particular direction. I just wanted to get out of there.

I have been known to be "lost" before. I even have a little quip about it below my profile picture on this blog. Often, people who agree to run with me in the woods find themselves exploring new routes and running twice as far as they had planned to. They joke, "don't run with laurel, she'll get you lost for hours!" But we were never really "lost" on those runs. We might have been traveling over unknown trails but we were heading in a set direction and knew pretty much where we would eventually come out.

I was only worried for a few moments before I realized that I wasn't really lost. I stopped moving so I could clear my head. I told myself that I wasn't an idiot so first, I should stop walking around in circles! I had been spending time in the woods since I was very young.I knew where I was in a map in my mind and I knew how to walk in a straight line in the woods. I was fine. These were the same friendly woods I ran through so many times in the past. I had allowed the dark, the rain, and the poor footing to distract me. I couldn't see much, but I could hear a stream. I kept it to my right and followed it. It was simple, but if I hadn't calmed myself down I might still be out there running around like an idiot in my ridiculous reflective vest. The stream eventually brought me back to the bog where I had originally gone off course. From there I followed the trail back to my car.

I was out there for 2 hours and 54 minutes. Lessons learned:
1. I should always carry a light if there is a chance I will be out on the trail after dark.
2. I need to make sure someone knows where I am (I had called home to tell Dan to let Bart out because I was stopping for a run before coming home, but stupidly did not tell him where I was running.)
3. I should save the bushwhacking and exploring for days when I have an unsuspecting sucker, I mean running friend, along for the run.
4. I need to stay calm and think things through whenever I am in a tight spot.
5. No matter how benign or familiar the trail is, I have to be prepared to keep myself safe.


  1. Laurel
    You are an explorer at heart. Explorers don't get lost,they explore! All good lessons to follow, especially #2, and always tell someone approximately how long you plan to be out there. If you ever invite me for a run in the woods, lesson #3 will imediately pop into my head ;.) Stay safe, Dan

  2. Laurel, I know this is long for a response but I wrote this about a trail run and thought you might get a kick out of it.


    I don't get frightened too often. In the last 50 years of my life, (I don't count the first one) I can only remember being really scared maybe a dozen times... I mean scared enough that you think it is surely the end of your world as you know it and actually can smell death knocking. Tonight would turn out to be one of those times.

    I had planned on running track last night but I ended up working late. I figured I would make it up tonight. Well I didn't feel like running around that black circle for 2 hours and besides it looked like rain was coming. On my way home, I decided to run in the woods instead. I love running in the woods and a light rain doesn't affect you as much there. There is a place called Pineland that used to be a home for the Mental retarded and now it is a huge complex. Some rich lady bought it and refurbished it. Now they grow vegetables and process milk, beef, all types of stuff. It is pretty much a working community farm. Anyway there are trails all through the woods and I have run a bunch of cross-country races there. There are literally 20 miles of trails going in all different directions, so plenty of variety.

    I decide my workout will be 60 second sprints. This helps develop speed and trains the body to run on lactate as a fuel. Usually lactate will build up in the muscles and cause cramps as you use the standard ATP fuel from oxygen. So the thing to do is sprint extremely hard for 1 minute then walk until the heart rate is below 120, then sprint 1 minute again. You do this as long as you can stand it. It helps build speed and trains the body to recover faster.

    Well, I'm in my fifth or sixth sprint and I hear this strange noise.......Kind of a deep, hollow, raspy but loud noise. Suddenly I "feel" a presence. I stop, remove my head phones and froze in my tracks. The woods seemed to vibrate as the raspy sound engulfs me again. This time much louder and surely much closer. A lump forms in my throat and I can't seem to force it back down.

    It was a strong feeling, I knew something was there. Something was in the woods. I was sure of it, suddenly, it was totally quiet. no birds, no wind but just eerie silence, well except for my heartbeat which was trying to pound it's way right out of my body. I looked at my watch, wow it read 240 HR. That can't be right? My max is about 190. At 240 I would probably be dead...I look around, scanning the woods. all I see is shadows. My heartbeat is so loud now that it seems to be echoing through the woods like a dog whistle and chanting "here boy!"

    I feel hunted. Something was watching me and I racked my brain to figure out what to do. I assum by the noise, it had to be something big, like a bear or moose. At that moment I heard rustling to the left of me. I turn quickly and stare into the trees. The normal calming essence of the woods has now turned to pure fear. I am struck by the image of the mean trees in The Wizard Of Oz. Their branches appear to be reaching toward me. It seems so dark now. Was it always this dark? Were the shadows always this scary?

    My world was slipping from me as I vision some animal using me to progress his own life. No one knew I was here. How would they know where to look? My brain went into overdrive. I am sure it has it's eyes locked on me and I am so sweaty....To a wild animal that would be the smell of supper. I thought about how it made me feel when I could smell a big juicy steak cooking on the grill......hhmmn, Is that how a sweaty human smells to some hungry animal?

    I find myself disappointed as my instincts are telling me wise procedures, no escape. I know I can't run, as I just stopped sprinting so my energy level was low. I vision in my mind trying to outrun a bear or moose...I don't think so, I'm just not that fast. I look around quickly. What could I hide behind? Again I am disappointed. I am a man, I should be looking for a weapon, instead I am thinking retreat....You dummy, my brain screams, you know wild animals can smell fear! My thoughts start wandering. So what smart thing pops into my head? I have merely minutes to live and I think about the donut I decided not to eat earlier. Dam, I wish I had eaten it now. It looked so good....deep chocolate all covered in white powder. I wish I had it now, plus it would make a good desert for the meal I was going to be. (Hey, can I help it if I like to please?)

    You know it is funny, I always thought my life would flash before my eyes and I would contemplate my shortcomings. Instead I wish I ate that damn donut! Again that raspy noise penetrates the silence! I turn and look to the left...I see shadows moving.....I fully expect a huge stupid moose to come pounding out of the woods and stomp his hoofs through my body. I would be no match for a 1000 pound moose. They are a strange animal, instead of getting scared and running away, they get mad and run toward you. I guess they aren't too worried because of their size. It is not hard to vision the damage those large hoofs would do as they tenderized my body for a tasty supper.

    Suddenly, I hear a loud rumbling and rapid pounding...bushes rustling......I can feel the earth rotating under my feet and the air becomes extremely heavy...I feel every breath...Long slow in...long slow out...why can't I catch my breath. why is it so loud....when would someone find my mangled body, crushed into the dirt of the trail and hardly recognizable? A galloping sound struck my ears and it was disappearing! It ran away! It was gone and the shadows faded.

    I wipe the sweat out of my eyes....Now I am glad I didn't eat that donut. The threat is gone and so is the fear. Why was I so scared? This is crazy. Was it really almost the last second of my life? Was I over reacting? I finished my run, 3 more miles and when I came out of the woods, A guy was running in.....would I read about him in the morning? Should I warn him? I stop and turn just in time to see him disappear into the woods.

  3. Yes Dan, the part about letting someone know where I am running and when I should be back is very important and so basic, but I somehow got out of the habit.

    Pathfinder, that story made me laugh! I have had a few times out in the woods where I have spooked myself like that. One terrifying time I made the mistake of reading a book about bear attacks the night before a long solitary run through the Sandwich Range. For a few heart racing miles I was convinced a bear was tailing me, it turned out to be another trail runner who was trying to catch up to me to introduce himself. When he finally caught me he was impressed by how fast I was traveling. I didn't tell him I had been running on adrenaline!