It’s Thursday Mystery Run, which means anything goes on the trails. Tonight does not disappoint. Everyone shows up at the meeting spot, ready to run. But wait. Not yet! The leader assigns me and another guy as designated drivers, so now I’m piling confused runners into my van, heading to a newly disclosed pin drop. I can’t drive and talk, which my husband probably should have told my passengers before they left with me. Twenty minutes into what should have been a five-minute-drive, I get cop-talked onto the right road and arrive at the true start of the run, testing the good will of some runners before we’ve even begun. No apologies. It will be a good story later. The other vehicle pulls up, more runners pile out, grips are stretched over trail shoes, buffs are adjusted and the adventure run begins.
I don’t get to be part of the mystery run tonight, relegated to driving to the finish point and waiting for weary and hopefully smiling runners to emerge from trails farther along the river valley. As I watch headlamps disappear into the trails, I’m left with a wistful melancholy, sighing deeply before turning the vehicle around. Still, I’m comforted by the anticipation of knowing I will get to hear great tales from the trail afterward.
Not disappointed, after the run, I learn about mishaps and misdirections, even a fence climb in the dark! I listen to glowing stories of epic views, triumphant challenges, a gleaming ribbon bridge reflected on glistening water, and the eery awe of a row of lights bobbing and weaving along ridge lines.
For some, this type of run – confusing, unclear, not-much-of-a-plan, treacherous at times – a run like this would be unappealing. Why would anyone head out to an undisclosed location and wander around in dark trails without any set distance or pace or plan? For those used to predictable and clear and certain, this is a way-out-of-your-comfort-zone run. But for trail runners who thrive on discomfort, runs like this make our hearts beat quicker, hushing our egos and compelling us to move beyond the familiar.
What trail running does well, if we let it, is keep us present. Wben I used to run roads, most of my runs were about getting through them, the accomplishment of the finished work. Was my pace consistent? Should I test my negative splits on a long run? Have to finish with 5 minutes of strides. Check, check, check. Getting in my head was the way I got through the runs. The reward was the finish(ed) product.
Trails are different. They bring us out of our heads and into the world around us. The views connect us with nature and others and something intangibly more. If one could hold the hand of the Divine, this might be how it would feel. Trail running brings us – or should bring us – into the awe and excitement of the present. This is why I love Mystery Runs and wrong turns and mis-steps and “wow, that’s gonna be a great story!” moments. I’m out of my head and in the moment. The present, imperfect and unpredictable, is the reward.