There are some days during the course of preparing for an Ironman that you just don’t feel like training. Yesterday was one of those days for Melissa and I. It was the long run day for our training week – a scheduled 12 miler – the last long training run of our Ironman France preparation before going into taper next week. The minute I walked through the door after work yesterday, I could tell Melissa was feeling the same way I was – in a word, lazy. Neither one of us wanting to be the one to bring up skipping a long run though, we sluggishly changed into our running clothes and prepared for the workout. We had decided, for a change of pace, to run at Umstead State Park rather than our typical route starting from home, around the Raleigh’s Crabtree Creek Greenway.
Umstead had been the sight for most of our night-time winter runs earlier in our training, back in December and January when 6pm start times were well after dark. We did those runs, slipping surreptitiously into a closed Umstead, joined at times by a handful of other scofflaws, nocturnal runners and mountain bikers, and ran from start to finish with the aid of headlamps. Nighttime is different in Umstead, and you get the feeling that you are being watched as you run along the moon-splashed white-sand fire roads. From time to time, a wondering headlamp beam would catch eerie, glowing orbs floating just beyond the tree line – light reflected by the eyes of deer, sometimes as many as five or six, as if standing around the water cooler, discussing things that deer discuss. Sometimes it was foxes or possums, and you knew that once the gates closed, wildlife quickly reclaimed dominion over the park and you were their guest.
Our breathing and the crunch of gravel beneath our feet was the predominant sound, broken only by the occasional rustling of squirrels in fallen autumn leaves – this always sounded too big to be squirrels – because everything sounds like a bear at night in the woods. It was a little creepy the first time or two we did those runs in the dark, but after a while it was just peaceful – our own little nighttime universe. As we ran through corridors of towering, shadowy pines, our paths lit by jumpy headlamp beams and a harvest moon, we felt fortunate, unfailingly happy and energized. Afterward we would reward ourselves by stopping for a Starbucks latte, which we shared on the drive home. As much as we complained about the June timing of the France race, which necessitated heavy training through the cold and dark of winter, our nighttime runs are some of our favorite memories.
And so, our dread of the impending twelve miler was offset somewhat by the novelty of returning to Umstead – this time in broad daylight – to complete our last long run where we had done so many before. We parked at the bridle trail parking lot, near the Glenwood Road entrance, donned our fuel belts with water and gels, did a quick stretch and started out by around 6:15 pm.
Within a half mile we had worked past the inevitable stiffness, settled into a good rhythm – not fast, but steady – and were starting to feel better. Our earlier dread of the run seemed to drain away with our perspiration, evaporating in the pleasantly cool evening air. I had decided to run without a shirt, most assuredly not out of vanity – I rarely even shower without a shirt – but because I knew that after three miles, a shirt would be so sweat-logged and heavy that I’d regret it. This turned out to be a major tactical error, as the horse flies in Umstead seem to be driven to levels of unfathomable fanaticism by the appearance of pasty white back flesh. This I judged from the dozen or so dive-bombing bastards that always seemed to land in a biting frenzy just beyond slapping reach. I was taken aback by the aggressiveness of the little buggers and despite myself, was impressed by the way they would follow me for a hundred yards or more, buzzing my head like bi-planes in the old King Kong movies. They hounded my every step, dodging increasingly frantic slaps as I pirouetted about, arms flailing, trying in vain to swat them. Viewed from afar by animals just beginning their evening stirrings, I must have looked like a real jackass. Melissa, meanwhile, having smartly applied bug spray, ran along unmolested and despite the rolling eyes, was entertained, no doubt, by my struggles.
Almost finished with the run, around the 10.5 mile mark, horse flies in retreat and enjoyment restored, we ran across a baby deer (there must be another name for this besides “baby deer”), who was curled up in a ball as if sleeping. It was tiny, and in the fading light, we didn’t even recognize what it was until we had almost passed it. It was right in the middle of the trail and had not been there when we passed this point on the way out earlier. It did not seem at all phased by us as we stopped and walked closer to examine it, staying absolutely still. We wondered if it was dead from the perfect stillness it maintained, though there were no apparent injuries and its eyes were open. As we got right up next to it, I could see it was breathing, but it continued to remain completely motionless, even as Melissa poured some water for it. We wondered what to do – we had never run across anything like this before. Had it been abandoned? Should I pick it up, make our way back to the car and drive it to a wild animal clinic? (this option was quickly eliminated as I flashed back to the deer scene from the movie “Tommy Boy”). It was now 8:30 and the park closed at 9. Though we were worried about it getting run over by mountain bikes, we hadn’t seen any in quite a while, so we decided to run back to the parking lot where we would inform a park ranger.
About a half mile down the road we ran into a ranger driving in the opposite direction. He had already received a report of the deer and was driving out to check on it. He informed us that often, when the mother goes foraging for food, the baby deer (I really need to figure out the proper word) will lie motionless in that way until the mother returns. It was unusual for them to do so out in the open like that, but still, was nothing to be concerned about. Relieved that Bambi was likely ok, we finished the last mile and arrived back at the car by 8:45 or so. We were nicely tired, yet rejuvenated in spirit as always, by Umstead’s magical qualities. We were happy to have completed our run and proud that we didn’t wimp out when it would have been so easy to have done so earlier.
As happens sometimes, those workouts you dread the most – the ones you teeter on the brink of skipping, when every fiber of your being tells you to blow it off and treat yourself to a little dinner and TV – those are the workouts that turn out to be the best of all. It was a reminder that in Ironman training, as in life, perseverance is key, and that half the battle is just finding the strength to show up.
Three weeks and counting until Nice…