Burning the Midnight Oil

When I am broken (once a year) I become excited about trail running. Usually something on my torso or arms is broken or strained. I am a fragile person and oftentimes rock climbing or ice climbing or carpentry break something and I have to switch gears. Last year I broke three ribs, and began running a lot on the trails around my home.

Limping across the Moats or Presidentials on Viacodin feels pretty good though, provided it doesn’t wear off to the point of feeling the ribs again.

When I go onto glaciers a strange thing happens: I dream of running through the New England woods. I squirm in my harness, shackled to my partners by a rope. I dearly love alpine climbing, but no matter how light you go you end up needing lots of gear; moving in a rope-team, either simul-climbing up easy terrain or belaying pitches or stomping across some snowy glacier is wonderful and the act of mountain climbing, of beginning at the bottom and simply going up, is the most wonderful thing to do that’s polite to talk about. Our trip to Canada had been good.

But invariably I dream about running because you just need shoes, and because it’s so goddamn safe! No crevasses or being brained by rockfall or being pinned down by storms.

In New Hampshire (Westerners, don’t laugh!), there are 48 mountains over 4000 feet. After blowing my shoulder out in Canada a few weeks ago I’ve decided to run the ones I’ve never done: (20, to be exact.) But with work, it’d have to be mostly in the evening, when the October and November cool turns cold, and running in the woods by oneself without cell service could actually turn pretty bad.

I ran the Hancocks, among a few others, this week: a regenerative introduction to the safe, healthy mountains of New England.

“Where are you going again? Which ones?” Alexa asked.

“The Hancocks, on the Kanc. Will you remember? I will be home at nine.”

“The Hancocks?” Alexa sniggered. “I think I’ll remember.”

John Hancock, the first Governor of the commonwealth of Massachusetts, would have been proud to know that, at 5:22 P.M. on a Wednesday, his parking lot was full of Massholes. They stared at the leaves, which were admittedly very beautiful and are secretly one of the reasons I live in the New England countryside, but I always wonder why people from southern New England decide their leaves don’t look as good when they die and make the pilgrimage—usually at 10 mph—to the winding roads of New Hampshire. People have just been staring at leaves since Adam and Eve, I suppose.

I changed from sawdust-covered work clothes discreetly in the bushes, stuffed a liter of water and some fig newtons and a headlamp into my little running pack, and started jogging up the ten mile loop. After being in the Canadian Rockies it was difficult to suppress the primal fear of grizzly bears we had cultivated there, but there were no grizzly bears in New England. For that I was thankful. If I had to fight a grizzly bear, it’d be like the Revenant except that I would have lost and the Revanent would have ended two hours earlier. Though that wouldn’t have been such a bad thing.

The streams felt healthier than this summer during the drought and the leaves, much to the chagrin of Hancock’s fellow Massholes, were gliding down off the trees and sweeping themselves onto the trail. I once dated a woman from California who claimed she hated being hemmed in by trees but I love it, coming from New England, and it felt good to be bundled in such a familiar, small little landscape.

After the second stream crossing I came to a steep part and I put my headlamp on to better see the rocks and roots and where the trail would go. Here for ten or twenty minutes or so it would be slow going, and I tried to pace myself so as not to burn out my legs. All of a sudden another trail runner came barreling down with a little black dog in tow. I breathlessly greeted him as he passed me on the way to the parking lot.

“Wow! Burning the midnight oil, huh?”


Although I couldn’t tell what he had said, and at first, it had sounded like this:

“Going into the night alone, huh?”

Which sounds like a Marvin Gaye B side, but it also made me angry. Who the hell was this guy, in his spandex, to judge me? Sure, I was going into the night alone, but I had a headlamp, for christsake.

Whereas you, (I began chastising the specter of the now-long-distant-trail runner), seem to be hurrying so as not to end up running in the dark. And c’mon man, I’m on a trail in New England! I doubt I’m more than an hour from a Dunkin’ Donuts, even if I did break both my legs! And shit, last week, on Mount Temple, we gained the ridge-line at eight p.m. Ryan and Sam and I had climbed 4,000 feet and it was getting dark and the ropes had tried pulling me down as they’d sagged in the snow. The terrain was so easy but I was so tired and thirsty. We had gotten to the ridge, and up and over the summit was the only way home. We’d contemplated sitting down in the dark with the bivouac tarp over our heads but the wind scoured the ridge-line so we put Ryan (the least fragile) in front and kept going. Two hours later, after post-holing around cornices, I dug a trench onto the little summit cornice with my ice tool and popped up and hooted that it was over, and we were on the summit, and we should really take a break to melt some snow, but the words were all lost in the wind, and we would have another four hours before getting back to our car, which was still far away. The lights of Lake Louise taunted us in the distance.

Now, running on the little ridge between the North and South Hancocks, safe and sound, the mist came up and enveloped me, and the wind picked up a little bit as the trail snaked around thick little spruce trees. I made it to South Hancock around seven. I ate a dinner of fig newtons, sucked down some water, put on a jacket, and started picking my way down the steep trail to the parking lot. Alexa would start to worry if I didn’t hurry back home. I picked up the pace and started thinking again about those glaciers and snowy peaks and corniced ridge lines and realized that those moments—no matter how much I wish to be home during them—are the ones to live for, and being up on that ridge with Ryan and Sam is something I won’t soon forget. And as I began running just a little bit faster, I started thinking about the next snowy mountain, and how I ought to run faster still. Around this time I realized my poor fellow runner was simply offering words of encouragement.

Suddenly, a root snagged me from underneath the leaves and an instant later I had fallen down hard. I popped onto my bad shoulder and shredded my knee on a rock. Picking myself up and shaking like I have seen dogs do when they have tumbled over all their limbs, I thought I should probably pay more attention to the Hancocks, and shuffled the last half-mile to the car. It was good to be back home.