I had merely shrugged. At this point, I felt little to lose. It was the last day of the year and I was determined to round up to 2100 miles.
But the loom of the last long run held on tightly as I drove away from the house. Heat, humidity, concrete sidewalks, and residual fallout from too much, too soon encroached so fiercely that I pulled the plug 4 miles short of my goal. I couldn't remember the last time I had run less than I set out for.
And here I was heading out to run on hilly, muddy trails with no other reason than my own OCD.
As I approached the entrance to the park, I saw a few cars parked alongside of the road. The gate was closed. A moral battle ensued. I didn't want to be out there if I wasn't supposed to, but how are the trails closed?
Determination got the better of me and I put on my trail shoes and pack. I forgot how heavy this thing was. How was I running in 90 degrees with this stupid pack?
Gunshots from hunters rang out in the distance at the actual moment I pressed start on my Garmin. I couldn't help but wonder if this was supposed to be some sort of omen. I mindlessly felt for my whistle and knife. And then I smiled to myself when I realized the stupidity of feeling protected from piece of noisy plastic.
Trotting down the first section of the trail, I miraculously feel fresh. I hit the fire road and hug the shoulder as a massive truck meanders down the road. The man waves to me out the window and I nod back. At the turnoff, I feel a sense of relief as I head down the familiar path.
The ground is littered in leaves and pine needles. I am surprised the earth has absorbed most of the water from the heavy rains. Only a few monstrous puddles to splash through. Since I've resolved to going slow and getting muddy, I take great joy in going right through the middle of the pools.
Going up the first climb on the blue trail is not unlike any other day. I walk a bit and run a bit. When it levels out closer to the top, I nearly stop dead in my tracks. All summer long, the vegetation hid the view. I feel like it's my little secret and yet, I yearn to share it with someone. I was expecting it to be far less beautiful without all the greenery, but the quiet stillness of winter is stunning.
Gleefully, I hold tight to the moment. I don't expect the ease and enjoyment to last all 20+ miles.
I descend down following next to the waterfalls and creek beside me. The trail gets a little dicey towards the bottom as it has become a small creek itself. I step carefully and make my way to the red clay section. Trees have fallen and with the foliage gone, the path becomes indiscernible at times. I retrace my steps to stay on the trail.
There is a section that reminds me of the Sound of Music. Big rolling hills of waist high grasses. Crisp, blue skies. There's more power lines than Von Trapp children, but for the Georgia boonies, it'll do.
Somewhere along mile 4-5, I hit a groove so hard that I am almost startled when I snap back to reality. Lost in my thoughts, trucking along at an easy pace. It is pure zen.
Down the big fire road to the river, I feel my quads burn from neglecting hills for 4 months. I want to run hard down the hill, but the price to pay is steep.
I strip off my shoes and socks and wade into the river. I yank my shorts up even higher as the water line threatens to touch the bottoms. It is cold and fast-moving. If the temperatures outside were about 15 degrees cooler, this decision might be terrible.
I climb, climb, climb to the top of the next section. Back into the woods, I run along the crest of the hill. Cell service is pretty non-existent, but I hear a message ping. With a view of the river a few hundred feet below, I see Steve and Jenster reminding each other about Hinson Lake in a group message. I didn't need a single ounce more of mojo at this point, but I scrambled on happily with my heart full.
I skip, hop, climb, walk, run, and giggle all the way to the turn around. My lungs and legs are constantly working. The trail turns into a small stream again.
I stop to eat a snack on a log. I decide I like black cherry GU Chomps much better than the raspberry ones.
As I retrace my steps after the turn around, I rejoice in the satisfaction that I will get those 2100 miles. The only way to get back to my car at this point is to finish the run.
The light in the afternoon sky is new and different. In the summer, I begin at sunrise and finish when the sun is nearly overhead. I have no desire to see the afternoon sun in the summer. But winter is different. The light hangs low in the trees and echos shadows as I twist and turn on the trails.
I wait for the last few miles to feel hard. I didn't eat enough before I left and now all I can think of is how badly I want a hot dog. A hot dog? A hot dog. But despite my growling stomach, everything else feels perfectly happy. I'm happy. I can't think of anything else I'd rather be doing right now.
I'm almost a little sad when I get to my car, but that satisfied exhaustion hits me hard.
For the next few days, it's like I've fallen in love again. I think about the trail all the time. I replay the sunlight dancing through the trees. I long to hear the soft forest floor rustle beneath my footsteps.
I think I've finally become a trail runner.