The first rule of trail running is:
Don’t fall down, roll your ankle, fall off the cliff, get hit by descending mountain bikers, crash into the random Japanese tourist doing shinrin-yoku or forest bathing, get eaten by a bear, molested by bees, or run face first into that tree branch that you should have seen coming.
Sounds easy enough.
I've run in the deserts of the Southwestern States and the Middle East. I've run on pavement and dirt trails all across the world. I've run marathons in Texas, D.C., New Mexico, and Hawaii.
I've never run on trails like these: East Coast forests in the coastal plain, right at the height of autumn, with soft dirt paths surrounded by endless trees.
We had planned to explore a new trail every weekend, but quickly subsumed to our three favorites.
And, as we ran deeper into autumn, we watched the world change around us.
Everywhere we looked, the leaves were aflame with vibrant oranges and yellows; many had already fallen and cushioned the ground in a blanket of wet, brown tetrahedrons of dead leaves.
They also hid the ankle breaking rocks and roots. But, in the end, we both survived.
Trail running in these forested paths has been a lesson in life and change. As the autumn wore on, the forest transformed before our eyes. Our first runs were through a forest aflame with the early days of fall, the leaves under our feet still wet and cushioning every footfall. The walls of trees were still thick with their vibrant garb, hanging thickly and obscuring both vision and sound from carrying far. Squirrels rustling through the leaves moved unseen and nearly silent apart from their intermittent chatter or light crunch in a pile of dead and dried debris.
As the months wore away, the air cooled and the land drifted towards its long sleep. We exchanged shorts, t-shirts, and hats for warm caps, tights, and jackets. The ground hardened, and the leaves that had wetly cushioned our footfalls before now crackled loudly with every step. The acrid smell of sawdust permeated each breath; thousands of leaves ground to powder under the feet of passersby. Each carefully placed step of a squirrel now echoed through the brush, sharp staccatos rebounding off the bark and magnified through the forest. Bird cries shrieked through the treetops. Intermittent wafts of wood smoke drifted from barely hidden homes fighting off the morning chill.
Soon the first freeze came and the forest became both silent and louder simultaneously. The denuded trees loomed silently over the path, their palette of splendor stripped but revealing other wonders previously hidden. Behind their exposed façade lay quiet homes, tucked into the hillsides; a meandering, icy stream, occasionally crashing over frost covered rocks; and dashing squirrels, their leaping and bounding through the woods now laid bare for the passing eye. Birds, previously hidden, now flaunted their colors through the treetops. Woodpeckers, brightly adorned, flitted from tree to tree. Scarlet cardinals darted between branches. The ground became hard, the leaves crunched sickly underfoot, everything coated in a thin layer of ice. Formerly trustworthy ground became slick and treacherous with ice. Sucking patches of mud became uneven patches of frozen earth.
Change happened swiftly even during a single run. As the sun rose, the ground changed, ice thawed and became slick, wooden footbridges dried out. The air became less harsh, snowflakes giving way to sunshine and warmth.
As with life, change is constant. Before, I had thought upon winter as a time of dying trees and bare, forbidding woods. Now, I understand a little better just how a forest can fall asleep, while also coming to life.
Winter isn’t about things ending; it’s about life transforming and changing. All it took was a little trip to the East Coast to watch autumn fall to teach me a little about life.