Running trails in New York from late September to late November bears some similarities to snake handling:
- It produces an exhilarating rush brought on by confronting your mortality;
- It makes you suspect a little bit of divine back-patting every time you do it successfully; and
- There are actual snakes involved.
In leaf-drop season, the exposed dirt trail you ran every day all summer long has suddenly (and it is sudden, make no mistake) disappeared under a foot of dead leaves. The things that used to concern you on the trail (e.g., I’m tired, I’m thirsty) now seem so trivial in light of this new paradigm.
Where is the trail? It’s right in front of you, of course, and you know that trail is studded with half-buried rocks; a treacherous, ankle-turning dry streambed; and countless rooty elbows jutting from the soil, waiting to trip your fool self. Only now, you can’t see anything because the trail is cloaked in a foot-deep carpet of pretty leaves. And everything looks level and happy and safe. But you know better; you’ve seen the trail naked.
You set out anyway, of course. Why? Because it’s fall in New York and crazy leaf-peepers drive a hundred miles upstate just to get a look at this much natural beauty, damn it. Because running through leaves beats raking them off your lawn or clawing them out of gutters. And mainly because this is your trail; you’ve run it hundreds of times.Where else will you run? The road? Where you’ll have to brave heart-seizing honking from well-meaning friends, teenage drivers at dusk, and those idiots who swerve at runners for fun? You’ll take your chances with the natural perils on the trail, thank you.
In the leaf-drift, you must run the trail like a speed ladder, with high knees and intense focus. You may allow yourself to enjoy the crunching of the leaves under your feet but not at the expense of your foc– (what was that under there?–that seemed a little too crunchy. . . .) The air is crisp and chilly, a welcome change from the humidity of late August. You take a deep breath–and decide to ignore the intense aroma of weed coming from behind the old ice house. Whoever is smoking back there has heard you crunching from a mile away, and he must be more afraid of you than you need be of him. You keep running, taking shallow breaths. (Can you test positive for pot in second-hand smoke? you wonder.)
Oddly, considering how noisy you are–a bipedal creature weighing perhaps 105 pounds fully dressed and burdened with iPhone, water bottle, and soaked in the sweat 3 miles of leaping and a thousand imagined orthopedic disasters–you fail to hear the footfalls of the 885-point buck that crashes out of the woods onto the trail, nearly butt-checks you, and thunders away, curling his lips in a sneer.
You compose and console yourself with plans to apply for a no-limits hunting license next fall and visions of venison chili, and run on, knees to your chin, eyes on the treacherous ground. . . .
. . . Which is how you almost fail to see the guy several yards off the path, well into the woods, holding a pointy, pointy shovel. You note that he does not fail to see you. (What the hell he is doing in the middle of the woods? Why is his shovel so pointy?) You find yourself suddenly able to sprint at Olympic speed and thanking Mary, Joseph, and Every Saint Who Ever Lived (even though you are not Catholic) for the pepper spray pinned to your waistband. You realize two things as you run on: you have the will and the capacity to fight to the death in preservation of your life, and you are definitely going to PR this run.