How a Road Runner Learned to Stop Fearing Snakes and Embrace Joy on the Trails

gordoncoverBy Gordon Harvey

August in Alabama. The heat is unrelenting and the humidity unbearable. I was being dragged through the Talladega National Forest along the Pinhoti Trail near my home in East central Alabama and I felt like I was going to die.

I was not a trail runner. The road was my domain. I considered trail runners to be a special kind of nuts. Why in God’s name would anyone want to run on dirt, over stumps, past snakes, and through spider webs? What kind of warped idea of fun was this?

I was then in the early stages of my weight loss journey and beginning to reclaim my health. In 2007 the doctors discovered that extremely high blood pressure had afflicted my 5’8″, 262-pound frame: I was a stroke waiting to happen.

Fear took the first ten pounds off of me. Running and eating healthy did the rest. I started a podcast and a blog to share my journey to running my first marathon in 2009 at Disney.

By the time I ran with Mark, I was still over 210 pounds but healthier than I had been in a while. Now I’m 100 pounds lighter and no longer take blood pressure meds. I have a level of good health that the bigger me thought impossible to ever attain.

Mark was a trail runner, had run several 50Ks, and was training for a 50 miler. He was a friend and a listener of my podcast. Mark wanted some time on the Pinhoti and convinced me to come along.

I thought I was going to die. The climbs, the humidity, the total concentration on the trail, the spider webs… it was killing me. After we finished, we shared a meal, I said goodbye to Mark, and I decided I’d likely never set foot on that trail—or any trail—again.

A year later I found myself pacing a friend at Burning River 100. Part of a crew, my segments on the trail with him was only six miles at most, but I found myself running at night though the Cuyahoga National Forest. I loved it. I enjoyed the traveling caravan atmosphere of the crews as we went from aid station to aid station along the course. This was exciting and alluring, but I never considered myself a trail runner. Six miles on a trail does not a trail runner make. I was a marathoner helping a friend: the roads were my home.

From November 2010 through December 2012, I raced six marathons, two half marathons, a 70.3 triathlon, and a bunch of shorter distances. I grew as a runner, but was mentally wasted.  My mind was mush from the never-ending, self-inflicted pressure to get faster with each training cycle. I needed a break.

So I signed up for the Mt. Cheaha 50K. I figured, “Hey, I can run a marathon easy now, so a 50K should be no biggie, right?”

Yeah, right…

I hit the same trail that Mark dragged me along to four years earlier. I bought new gear and shoes. Trail running was so different than anything I expected.

Mind. Blown.

The 2009 experience was such a blur that I couldn’t process it, nor did I choose to remember much of it, but spending hours on the Pinhoti Trail system and running ultramarathons has taught me a few things about trail running, about being a runner, and about the way I have to approach life.

First, it’s all about time.  

I learned not to stress over how many miles I did or did not get, but to appreciate time on my feet, time on the trails, time away from civilization.  After my first big training run on the Pinhoti, I struggled to come to terms that I had been on the trail for three hours but had barely covered 14 miles. Geez, I can run a marathon in not much more time than that. I freaked.

I was used to accumulating tons of miles in short period of time. What was wrong with me? I had to learn that when I am on the trail, time is my friend—not miles. Time away from everyday life and the bustle that it has become. Time for peace.

Second, trail running is a journey to a different world and an experience of body and mind.  

On the road I can zone out, listen to music and let everything fade away. The trail has stumps, rocks, snakes, and bears. It also has tremendous beauty and an otherworldly atmosphere.

I have to stay alert so I didn’t face plant every ten steps, or step on a snake (more about snakes later), but I also let my mind soak in what is tantamount to crack for the senses: the sound of water rushing through a stream, the birds chirping in the trees, the crack of a limb as it comes underfoot, the crunch of fallen leaves as I run, the way the snow creaks under my feet.

Third, I learned to embrace being me on the trail.

Marathoners can compare themselves to other marathoners. Most courses are not terribly different. They have pavement; they have aid stations. Oh, sure, there may be some hills here and there, but it’s easy to make comparisons.

Trail is different. No two trails are alike. I have friends in Northern California who run on soft dirt paths with not a lot of technical terrain. Here, we run on sharp rocks and small round rocks that move as you step on them. We climb a mile straight up on our hands and knees.

It is futile and not a bit smart to compare myself to others, even in the same race. I have learned to appreciate who and what I am as a runner at that given moment. Races are more fun that way. Life is more fun that way.

Fourth, trail runners feel like family.

There’s something fundamentally different about trail events compared to road races and triathlon. The former seems so collegial, so welcoming to all runners no matter if they run fast like Rob Krar’s beard or slow like my bald head. Before races, we all gather together at the start with no elite corrals, no waves. Just us. Waiting to run.

At the finish, we all commiserate over that blasted hill at mile 28 or complain about the sadistic nature of the race director who is there laughing along with us. It’s like being with family. I love that I can interact with trail running elites on Facebook or through their blogs. I love that they’re so accessible and accommodating to people like me. That’s a far cry from road racing elites who have one-sided conversations with us, primarily to sell us something or thank a sponsor.

Don’t get me wrong, trail elites have sponsors and do need to earn their ride, but they talk to us. They say hi to us. And we don’t have to win a contest or buy their shoe for them to do acknowledge us. I love that.

Fifth, I learned to embrace the fact (still dealing with this a bit) that snakes are more afraid of me than I of them.

While I don’t always believe this, I am internalizing it more and more. Snakes. Yes, I know there are creatures on the trails that are imminently more dangerous and aggressive than snakes. Bears and crazy redneck hunters are the biggest danger around here. Nothing gives you a little pucker more than seeing a bear warning sign as you get to a trailhead, or to hear a nearby shotgun blast during hunting season. But for some reason I’ve fixated on snakes. Maybe it’s all the images of rattlers that trail runners post on Facebook? I guess if I saw more bear selfies, I’d fear them more.

I’ve learned that if I pay attention and don’t treat every stump as a venomous aggressive snake-monster whose sole mission in life is to kill me, then I will be OK. I’m still working on this. That’s one of the advantages of being a slow trail runner: all the leaders have cleared the spider webs and scared the snakes away from the trail.

It’s funny. In 2007 I told my brother-in-law that I would never run a marathon. Shorter races were fine by me. “I’m a 5K guy,” I’d declared.

Since then, I’ve run 10 marathons and three 50Ks and am about to do my first stage trail race, a few more 50Ks, and a 50-miler in March. My mind has already started to mull over something I swore I’d never in a million years think of doing: a 100.

Why? I think it has to do with the unknown. The adventure. The question of how much can I accomplish. Moving to the uncharted territory of my running life and then going a little farther in mind and body and distance. I figure if I can lose a hundred pounds, I can run a hundred miles? No matter the distance, the trails are calling.

To paraphrase Forrest Gump, trail running is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gong to get. But boy, does it taste good.

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Stay tuned for my next book: Daughters of Distance