Thursday, November 15, 2007

Lions & Tigers & Bears (Oh My!)

Now that I'm officially in my "off-season", for the most part I get to do what I want (in work out terms. No bank robbing for me, streaking through the streets, or watching the entire Lord Of The Rings Extended Trilogy + special features again, thank you very much!). Sure, I'm running my last half-marathon of the season next weekend, but it's more for fun. A final "hurrah" for the 2007 season. It's a chance to do a new race, visit a local venue (a mere 30 minutes away), go fast, and enjoy the stress-free residual speed left over from last weekend's taper (before it finally wears off).

Today dawned beautiful, crisp, cool, clear, and windy. I enjoyed a great breakfast of scrambled eggs + ketchup (natural mellowing agents), a ruby red grapefruit, new Quaker Apples & Cinnamon hot cereal, and a very large cup of coffee with french vanilla creamer (okay - a few large cups of coffee with creamer! Note the plural). I guess that's one of the things I love about the off-season, or the week after a big race: the post-race high continues on for a few days, and I get to really relax and enjoy life. Same thing after a long run or difficult workout, I suppose. A great sense of accomplishment after a tough physical exertion - practice OR race - is ten times better when followed by a hearty breakfast or big meal. Nothing starts out the day like a great run in the pre-dawn light, followed by a great cup of coffee overlooking the misty forest.

Today, however, I went straight for the breakfast and skipped the run. What can I say? It's the off season!

Around noon or so, the weather was still beautiful, the air was still crisp, the blue sky was still cloudless, and I could stand it no more. Temptation was calling my name... I needed to go outside. I needed to experience a true Florida fall afternoon. I needed to be one with nature!

"I'm going for a run!" I declared out loud.

Nathaniel was sitting in the ugly green recliner and reading one of his helicopter flight manuals. He simply paused, smiled slightly and gave me a wary look. Tabbitha, who had lost the battle for the recliner, was curled up on the couch, pretending to be asleep - but her perked up ears gave her away. I should have been on the couch, getting work done or reading, but I was stir crazy. It's not like my season is totally over I negotiated, I'm still running next weekend, so it's not like a teeny, weeny, tiny, little run would do much harm...

But I was also concerned. Dude - it's been a long season. I just raced last weekend. My body is tired. It needs a break. Hell, I need a break.

But it was SO beautiful outside... and I really didn't remember the last time I ran in the afternoon when the temperature was below 62 degrees. Deal time. Here we go.

Running fast wasn't a priority. Enjoying nature was... the end of the season meant that time off would be critical after this weekend... so, perhaps a trail run? YES YES YES!! SHAZAM!

15 minutes later - after trying to get Nathaniel to go with me(he declined the run because he was hungry and didn't feel up to it. I promised the pace would be of the leisurely sort, more of a pleasure cruise and a chance to enjoy the beginning of the fall color change, but he would hear nothing of the sorts and instead reached for the stir fry, yogurt, and left over German Chocolate USMC birthday cake) - I was bumping along the road, headed to the trails of the University of West Florida. I briefly contemplated wearing a long sleeved shirt - slow pace + wind + 62 degrees + living in Florida = low cold tolerance - but dismissed it after a brief flashback to high school Nordic skiing. If I could handle a 10 degree windchill and snow at the tender age of 16 while sporting a sports bra and spandex biking shorts, surely I could survive a 45 minute jaunt through the autumn Florida woods.

Right before I set off on the trail head, I reminded myself the main reason why trail running was acceptable today. Sure, the woods were beautiful, the trees were (finally) changing color, and I was truly looking forward to the opportunity to be outside. However, the real reason lay in the knowledge that: me + trail running = potential for serious injury. Okay, that doesn't sound right. Too bad it's true. In all honesty, I love trail running, but I tend to be a bit of a klutz. The uneven terrain, random roots, dry twigs, unseen objects in the path (rocks, small animals, shoelaces, big feet - those kinds of things), in the past have caused me to rub noses with the dirt on more than one occasion. Therefore, since careful contemplation after a particularly embarrassing incident where I took brief but spectacular flight after tripping on an extremely large tree root in front of several witnesses, my new equation has become: me + SLOW trail running (allowing for careful observation of my surroundings) = SAFE, injury free run. Much better!

I set off on the trail, and was immediately a happy camper. Yours truly made the right call. No worrying about heart rate, no worrying about honks from passing cars, no worrying about looking fat in my running gear (no one around) - it was just me and Good Old Mother Nature. After three minutes of running parallel to Campus Drive I hung a left at the red trail marker and headed down the trail towards the creek bed and the trail system on the west end of campus. The path took a steep turn, and I navigated the downhill with caution. The deep sand and occasional large rock had me watch my footing like a hawk. I made my way slowly around the sharp right handed turn and was greeted with an unexpected sight. The bridge that crossed the creek was no longer there. Great. Normally, this wouldn't be that big of a deal. But for some reason, our little creek had flooded, was flowing quickly, and was surrounded by muddy banks. A very thoughtful person/persons had set up a crude bridge for crossing. It consisted of a few large tree trunks over the creek, and several smaller branches perched slightly above the mud.


But this is Mother Nature. Trail Running! Sheesh! Quit being a wimp and go!! What did you expect?

I looked at the tree trunk bridge. It looked stable...

I then turned my attention to the mud flats after the bridge. The smaller branches had been sunk into the mud part way, and the path looked pretty well established. There were several spots where an errant trail runner/walker/hiker like myself had obviously misstepped: deep foot prints and one that looked suspiciously like a derriere, were embedded in the dark mud. My shoes look really new still, and it would be a shame to get them all dirty...

I sighed. No use in stalling. I had done worse. I could always get new shoes, or at least do my best to clean these up. I was also concerned about my car keys, which I was carrying. I don't like leaving them in the car, or hidden somewhere around the car, so I usually just carry them with me. I had a brief vision of tripping in the mud or falling into the creek and dropping my keys into the rushing depths of the water. Don't want to go down there!

And then I remembered the sign, posted prominently at the trail head. It read: You may encounter wildlife on these trails. Beware of poisonous snakes and alligators.

Even better. Now, not only did I get to worry about muddy shoes and misplaced keys, but there may be alligators lurking in the water. The creek was, after all, pretty deep. I tried to forget about everything I've learned about alligator attacks on Animal Planet. Aren't they opportunistic predators? They go after the one animal dumb enough to isolate itself from the herd. Great - here I am, isolated and alone, keys in had, worried about getting mud on my new shoes, and trying to figure out the best way to balance on a 5 inch wide tree trunk, 15 inches above rushing water. Real smart, Marit!

And then a tiny voice quipped up, "Relax! It's 60 degrees, and they're probably dormant. They don't like cold weather... how many alligators did you encounter in Minnesota, huh? None! It's fine: the overnight low was 39, and they're probably sleepy and slow. Just go fast and you'll be okay. This tree trunk crossing is exactly what the past 2 years of core work, stability, and balance was for. Now GO!"

Taking a deep breath, gripping my keys, and with sweaty palms, I inched slowly across one log. And then onto another. And then another. Finally I made my way onto the mud flats. Inch by inch, grabbing a tree trunk for support while trying to ignore the butt indentation off to my left, I made my way slowly to the other side. Just a little more... aha! I had crossed. Yippeeee! (Now, where's the audience when you've actually done something cool?)

I looked down at the watch, pressed the "Start" button, and was off.

I soon encountered more sand, but the trail widened out and for a few seconds things were going great. All of a sudden, I saw a bit of movement about 6 inches away from my right foot. I turned my head over my shoulder to see what it was. Immediately I stopped running, and paused my watch. A quick glance confirmed that I had only been running for :30 seconds since my successful tree bridge crossing. Lovely: at this rate my 45 minute run would take a full hour.

And then I saw the snake.

I held my breath, I paused, and slowly crept forward. Whenever I see snakes, I try to figure out what kind they are. After a nasty encounter with a rattlesnake out in California with Nathaniel (we were trekking through a canyon, he saw the snake, but I didn't - but I was scared shit-less - and kept thinking that there were snakes behind every cactus bush. Our particular snake had its rattler going and was about 10 feet away from us under some plants. I kept hearing Jeff Corwin's voice discussing how perfect the Southern California terrain was for rattlers. Again, too much Animal Planet. We made it out okay, but since then I've never wandered off a trail.) - I'm always curious. Most of the snakes that I see nowadays are the non-venomous kind: they have no venomous sacks and a pretty harmless. This one was different. It had a distinct triangle shaped head, a sure sign that it's cheeks (do snakes have cheeks?) held venom sacks. I immediately jumped back when I realized it was a poisonous one, and my movement triggered a defense response out of the snake. Before I knew what was happening, the snake whipped around and slithered into the tall grass. It was gone before I knew it.

And thankfully I had used the bathroom just before my run, because I would have made a mess and my shoes, which I had so carefully managed to preserve while navigating the creek crossing, would have been ruined.

As I continued on the run, I wondered what else would happen. What other obstacles, what other fears would I face? How would I handle myself? In time with my foot strikes, I started thinking, "Lions and Tigers and Bears - Oh MY! LIONS AND TIGERS AND BEARS - OH MY!"

But it didn't matter. I was determined to continue on, finish out my run. This was fun, and really - the creek was a confidence booster and the snake was really neat. Things could be worse. Sure, I wasn't devoured by an alligator or bitten by a snake - but what would the chances of that be anyway? I had a tremendous sense of accomplishment from navigating the creek, and it's not all that often that you get to see a triangle-head shaped snake (except for Animal Planet).

I guess sometimes fear itself is much worse than our actual fears: once we push beyond our limits, out of our comfort zone, we realize that things weren't as bad as they seemed. And next time things will be okay because we've already overcome said obstacle.

The rest of the run went really well. I managed to keep a decent pace, but not pull a klutzy move or trip over a rock. The woods were beautiful, the winds light, and I was happy just to be outside enjoying myself. When I looped back to the car, I had to cross the creek bed (again). I looked for my snake-friend, but didn't see it (for which I was a bit happy). After making sure that there were no alligators in sight (doesn't mean they're not there... just not visible), I confidently made my way across the tree bridges. Really, not that bad. I was still scared, but I also knew I would be okay: because I had done it before and it was just a matter of getting through it.

The same can be said about my off season. I'm a little nervous about it, fearful of loosing my fitness, getting really out of shape and gaining weight. But, as with other challenges, I realize the fear of these things happening is much worse than actually becoming slightly deconditioned or putting on a few pounds (it is cooler, after all). Life will continue on, my off season is just another element to my overall training program. And instead of looking at it with trepidation, I'll try to look at it as another opportunity. It's a new venture, a new challenge. Life is boring with the same old, same old, day in and day out.

We all deal with fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of what's lurking around the next bend, fear of what we can't see. Fears of the Lions and Tigers and Bears. We all have trepidation: that's just a part of life. I guess the key is to take a deep breath, acknowledge these fears, and move forward. No sense in stalling. Just like Dorothy, Toto, the Scarecrow, the Tinman, and the cowardly Lion did, move forward and continue on your journey. Because that's what life is about - the journey. Fear is a part, but not the deciding factor.

Just goes to show that we all have our own tree trunks to cross, and our own mud flats to navigate. I just prefer to do mine without alligators and snakes.

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