Monday, August 2, 2010

On the trail

If you run through the woods long enough you’re going to run up on a snake now and then. Trail running in the South, particularly in summer, is basically a roving, high-speed surprise party for snakes. The surprise is also on you, of course, but it’s important to remember that the snakes are similarly off-guard.

I trail run every day that I have access to trails, and I’m aware of the presence of snakes, though I typically hear them more often than I see them. They make a different kind of rustling in the grass than legged animals. I occasionally come upon nonpoisonous snakes frantically squirming across the trail, as eager as I am to put the encounter behind. Venomous varieties tend to hold their ground, as if to say, come on, mofo -- I don’t have to run. Fortunately, I don’t see as many poisonous ones on the mountain bike trails at Butts Park, near Clinton, Mississippi, where I often run. I did come upon a copperhead last week that stayed put, right in the middle of the trail, until I backed up far enough that it apparently felt comfortable continuing on its way.

Such encounters provide food for thought while running. At the farthest point on the trails I’m about three miles from my truck, and I’ve often wondered what would happen if I got snake-bitten that far out, when my heart was already racing. “Keep calm and seek immediate medical attention” doesn’t really work in such a scenario.

The experts no longer advise applying tourniquets or trying to suck the venom out. Tourniquets hold the venom in place, which can destroy tissue and result in serious localized damage. Still, I wondered: Might not a temporary tourniquet be a decent fallback position to enable a victim to get back to his truck before he passed out? When I queried a local herpetologist he responded with a firm no. Take your cell phone with you, he said. You could just as easily break your leg, be attacked by a pit bull or suffer heat stroke, and you should be prepared.

Whatever. Anyone who runs trails in the South knows that carrying a cell phone is out of the question. You do not want any unnecessary encumbrance as you leap across roots, fallen logs and creeks, and electronics don't do very well when subjected to copious amounts of sweat. For better or worse, it’s just you and your sodden shorts and shoes. Given that, I asked the herpetologist, what exactly should I do if I get bitten? Keep calm and seek immediate medical attention, he said. Seriously, I said -- that’s the best you can do? Well, he said, just keep in mind that a healthy person isn’t likely to pass out from the bite of a cottonmouth, copperhead or even the kinds of rattlesnakes we have in Mississippi during the time it would take to walk back to my truck. Initially, you’re just going to be in a lot of pain, he said. Most useful was his observation that snakes take a second to get into position to bite, and as a result, rarely bite even when stepped on, assuming the person steps away quickly. Since I’m running, I’m likely to be out of range before the snake even thinks about biting, he said. I pointed out that a friend of mine’s daughter got bitten by a copperhead while running, though it turns out she was the second runner, the first runner having alerted the snake.

I was able to test the surprise theory, to my own surprise, on Saturday, when the temperature was hovering around 100 degrees and I figured any self-respecting snake would be burrowed deep in his hole. As I was running through the woods along a creek, on a section of the trail that’s crisscrossed with tree roots, I noticed that one of the roots had what appeared to be a different surface pattern. It was one of those split-second observations; I watched as my right foot landed beside the root, and noted that it was, in fact, a water moccasin. My foot landed no more than two inches from the snake, which was stretched out, but I was already two strides down the trail before I reacted. The same went for the snake.

When I stopped and turned back to see what the snake would do, it seemed to be trying to figure things out. It started making its body kind of squiggly, just barely flexing, which told me that what the herpetologist had said was true – the snake needed a second to get angry and defensive. Then, to my surprise, it slithered off into the grass.

My first thought was: Damn. Two poisonous snake encounters within a week. My original theory – that by having come upon the copperhead I had diminished the odds of another encounter – was obviously way off. It now looked like the odds were pointing toward more snakes. Yet I actually felt more confident as I resumed running because the snake had not reacted nearly as quickly as it had in my imagination, when it had lashed out like a growling, hissing, prominently-fanged monster from the Temple of Doom. In reality it was just trying to get up with what was going down.

I have a healthy fear of poisonous snakes, but if you’re so risk-averse that you can’t do anything, what’s the point? So it was that yesterday, the day after the moccasin encounter, I was again running on the trails when the heat index reached 111 degrees. I thought of the herpetologist’s admonition, which the weather service has been repeating for the last few days, about putting myself at risk for heat stroke.

In summer I try to pace myself between “heat stroke” and “horsefly,” and unfortunately the necessity of slowing down in response to the 111 thing meant the horseflies could catch up with me. Their strategy was to fly into me at top speed, hoping, I suppose, to become entangled in my fur as I zipped past. Because I do not have fur, what resulted was a ridiculous and annoying exercise. At one point I passed another runner waving his shirt like a horse switches his tail, and wondered: Do horseflies bite snakes? Snakes would seem to be extremely vulnerable in this regard, which is a satisfying thought.

I had expected the trails and the adjacent park to be empty due to the heat, but I passed two runners and about 10 mountain bikers, and even the Indian cricketeers were out there doing whatever it is they do in the big field – “playing a game” seems a bit of a stretch when it comes to cricket. Anyway, I know what you’re thinking: Who would run through snake- and horsefly-infested woods when it’s 100 degrees? Well, there are a few of us. I like to think we’re the kind of people who would be useful to our post-apocalyptic tribe, which is the way I’ve been measuring people’s worth lately, if that tells you anything. Would you want someone in your tribe who whines? No. Steals? Maybe. Waits back at camp to evaluate your reports and/or tend to the wounded, cook and gossip? A few. Is capable of running through extremely hot, snake- and horsefly-infested woods, whether of necessity or for the sheer joy of it? Mos’ definitely. We, the trail runners, are learning the lay of the land, and we’re learning the truth of snakes and horseflies, for better or worse.

My position is, never listen to anyone who warns you to stay in an air-conditioned room, as the weather service has for the last several days. Just use your head. Live in your world. Drink plenty of water. If you run, slow your pace. If necessary, cut back on your distance. And spend as much time as possible in the shade, which is, of course, where the snakes are. But do not stay in that air-conditioned room any more than you have to.

You can play golf, ultimate Frisbee, or cricket, but just get out there. For me, there’s nothing like running through the woods, jumping creeks and fallen logs and yes, the occasional snake, to make me feel alive. Along the way, I’ve learned that the idea of danger is sometimes worse than the reality. When the weather service warns you to “limit your time outdoors,” ignore them unless you’re frail. You’ve only got so long to explore the world, and part of the time it’s going to be hot and there are going to be horseflies and snakes, so just do it, as they say. You’ll spend plenty of time burrowed down in your hole later on.

1 comment:

  1. Well put, sir. I have been preaching this same message for years to much of the same response. I am really glad I did not see any snakes out there Saturday. It would have made it all the more challenging to be out there. Plus, I was not moving or thinking very fast as the afternoon, miles, and heat began to take their toll. I have never consumed that much fluid on a single run. That stream almost looked inviting on my last lap. It was a happy surprise to stumble across your blog this morning looking for the history of Butt's Park. See you on the trails. -jeff