Run-Ins: Encounters On The Trail

[Editor’s Note: In this article, Ian North, who lives, works, and trail runs around Atlanta, Georgia, writes about real-life ‘run-ins’, those odd, hilarious, and meaningful encounters we runners sometimes have with each other and random strangers on the trail.]

To Ryan Metzler, minimalism seemed like a great approach to running. With a trail 10k coming up, he could leave home wearing only his high school PE shorts and get in a quick training run. The lack of shoes and shirt would help him strengthen his feet, learn sustainable form, and stay cool. Since the sun was already down, he didn’t need to worry about sunburn.

To the police officer who spotted Ryan in his headlights, minimalism looked like the sort of activity that he was out to apprehend. The fact that this barely-clothed, sweaty, shoeless runner was 6’ 6” with unkempt hair and a patchy beard did little to reassure the officer.

Ryan heard a call over his shoulder, saw the headlights slow, and kept running. He heard the officer shout something. It took him a moment to realize that he was being stopped for questioning. He looked over at the cruiser, and walked to the officer’s window.

“I said, ‘Who you running from?’”

“Oh, I’m just out for a run,” Ryan told him.

“You chasing someone or running away from them? Been doing some drinking? Where are your shoes?”

Ryan explained the biomechanical principles behind barefoot running. He hopped around for balance as he lifted his right foot to point out where the arch was and which muscles were activated when he ran without shoes. As a final, friendly gesture, he mentioned Born to Run and suggested that the officer read it.

The officer stammered for a minute, thanked Ryan for the recommendation, shrugged, wished Ryan a good night, and resumed his patrol.

Ryan’s training style is understood and heavily debated within the running community. There are factions who think it’s a harmful fad, and other runners swear it’s the only way to run without injury. To the officer, it just seemed bizarre. And potentially criminal.

The fatigue, dirt, effort, travel, time, blood, and undersized shorts that accompany trail running all seem wonderful to runners. They’re honorable. They’re symbols of our wholehearted-and-bodied pursuit of our own limits. They also have the added benefit of creating run-ins with non-runners. These encounters can connect us with local culture, highlight our strange obsession with the fringes of endurance, and serve as fuel for funny stories which we exaggerate and refine as we tell them to our running friends at races, parties, and training groups.

* * *

We love a sense of place. That’s why we leave the paved areas and travel through woods, ruins, cliffs, rocks, forest roads, creeksides, and ridges. Sometimes, whether we plan it or not, we get a sense of place by running into the people who live in the area. Sarah Graley moved from the Washington, D.C. area to the suburbs of Atlanta in Georgia. She found a trail 20 minutes from her house and began running there regularly.

A few weeks into her training, as she crested a particularly long climb, Sarah saw the ruins of a chimney, and beside it, a bench. Two hikers sat on the bench and watched her jog by.

“Hey,” one of them called out.

She turned to face them, happy for a chance to pause. The man who had called to her wore khaki hiking pants and a button-down shirt. Both looked like retirees. They smiled.

“You run all the way up that mountain?”

“Not to the top. I’m running around.”

“The whole way?” they asked. Both looked shocked.

“Yeah,” she said, kicking her knees up, keeping her legs warm.

“I recognize you. I seen you runnin’ before!” one of the men said. The other man, seated beside the first, clarified, “Yeah. Most of the women ‘round here, how do we say this politely?” He looked over at his friend, who shrugged, before he continued, “Well, they a bit thicker, y’know?”

Sarah laughed. “I guess.”

“You training for something?”

“Yeah. A trail race in Chattanooga, Tennessee.”

“Well, good luck to ya’!”

Sarah thanked them and turned to go, eager to descend the hill.

“Hey!”

She turned again.

“Have a good run. Nice talkin’ to ya’.”

Both men smiled friendly smiles, and waved at Sarah as she resumed her run.

Sarah told me about this run-in later, over the phone. She was glad to have a story to tell. I laughed in recognition through the whole thing. The unhurried, friendly conversation of strangers is one of the best things about living in Georgia, but it can cause odd friction with the haste of a runner in training.

* * *

Some moments connect us with regular, local life, and some remind us that we can’t categorize people easily. Last year, I had a fairly ordinary run-in with a hiker who turned out to be an unusual sort to be alone on a wilderness trail known for bears, roots, rocks, and steep ascents and descents.

I had been climbing steadily for over a mile, and the heat and humidity were getting to me. The Coosa Backcountry Trail in north Georgia is a favorite for runners in this state because of its sustained climbs. I rounded what seemed like a switchback to find that I was only turning to climb the mountain at a higher angle.

I saw a hiker tap the trail with his walking stick and stand on a rock a few yards up the climb from me. He faced the view to my right, an expansive spread of hills all thick with forest and glaring pale green in the sun.

“How far from the top?” I asked.

He turned toward me, “Which way did you come from?”

It seemed an odd question, but I pointed back down the hill and said, “That way.”

He pursed his lips and shook his head. I waited for him to respond, but he stood there facing me until I resumed my walk.

“Beautiful day for a hike,” I told him as I passed. “Have a good one.”

“You too,” he said.

A few minutes later, after replaying the encounter in my head, I realized that the hiker had been blind. He couldn’t tell which way I came from, and my pointing didn’t help clarify my direction. He had faced my direction without looking at me. I wondered how well he knew the trail, and if he came this way often. I thought about snakes and precipitous drop-offs. Suddenly, my run seemed way less extreme. I couldn’t imagine doing it without seeing where I was going.

* * *

Our need to meet other humans is sometimes so strong that we see non-runners where they couldn’t possibly be. My brother Eric North recently told me about a run-in with a spooky, impossibly located hiker. I was there, too, but I didn’t see anyone.

“We were climbing these really steep, sharp switchbacks, and I was behind you and Charles,” he remembers. “The undergrowth there was really thick and about two feet tall. Around the next switchback, there was a sort of ridge with some tall bushes. I was sure I saw this figure wearing yellow moving on the other side of the bushes. It was more than a glance. I looked and saw him. I think he was white.

“I asked you and Charles if you had seen anything, but neither of you did. When we went around the switchback, and there was no trail where I had seen him. And he had seemed to be moving faster than us. And he wasn’t there at all.”

I listen to his story and tell him, “That’s an interesting one. I think it fits what I’ve been thinking about, how we need company so bad that sometimes our brains make it up. But I don’t know. Charles and I were there.”

“Yeah. And I heard him, too. He really spooked me.”

“I know what you mean. It’s spooky.”

These encounters don’t tell us what’s factual. They’re condensed relationships, passings of strangers on common ground. They help us see ourselves and the environment in a new way, reorienting us enough to give birth to stories. And when we swap these stories, they become shared life between runners, a warm connection made of weird experiences in a fringe pursuit.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

Everyone has a ‘run-in’ or seven that they could share from their time on the trail. Let’s hear it! Use the comments section to write a short story about a ‘run-in’ you’ll always remember. We’re looking for hilarity, soulfulness, and stories that are just plain odd. And since we’ve all had *those* kinds of ‘run-ins’ too, might I politely remind everything to keep everything PG-13 or better? :) Thanks!

There are 32 comments

  1. Jim

    Went running in a national forest not too long ago(don't worry, there was no shutdown) and came across some hunters shooting grouse, or at least trying too. This trail was 24 miles round trip. Saw them on out route and on way back. I stopped the 2nd time to chat. It was a cool but sunny day and they looked me up and down noting how covered in mud I was and I was in shorts. They asked "do you hunt?" "did you see any grouse out there?" Because they had the guns I said that my family does and I haven't seen anything. We said our so longs and see-yas and I took off down the trail. My family doesn't hunt and I just kicked up a flock of grouse a mile back.

  2. Vern L

    It was 1996 or so. We'd just moved into our new house in Temple Terrace, Florida – beside Tampa. I was working all day and was enjoying late evening runs around the golf course and housing area. It was about midnight. I hadn't heard a thing all run, it's a sleepy little town. Very sleepy. We lived smack in the middle of retirement central, to be honest.

    I came around the bend at the bottom of the hill that borders the golf course. It was a couple hundred meters of medium grade climb. I ran on the street, right down the middle. About half way up, at the darkest section, I heard the most hideous and gut-wrenching SCREAM like a banshee from the depths of hell. I froze solid. I couldn't figure out whether it was like the scream of an infant, or an animal dying. I decided it was human, but there weren't any lights on in the houses around me. I was too afraid to move. I'd never been so scared as an adult in my life.

    My eyes moved around to everything I could see, and I saw nothing that could be the cause for the shriek. I stood there for a full ten minutes, wondering if should keep going. Maybe someone needed help, but I sure couldn't guess where they were.

    I started walking slowly, hoping the new perspective would change what I could see. As I walked I saw up on a telephone wire, two very large owls. They were massive. I'd never seen any even a quarter of that size before.

    Apparently it was the owls. Would they be screech owls? I'll go look it up now.

    So, if you're running and hear the worst scream you've ever experienced – far worse than anything a horror movie can whip up – look up and try to find the owl. It's something I'll never forget!

  3. JRB

    This last Summer I was running 1 Mile hill repeats on the Sterling Pond Trail which is a very popular day hike to a beautiful mountain pond. Most of the people I passed were really encouraging and cheered my on as I passed. One woman gave me a very funny look when I passed her on the way up during my first repeat. When I passed her on the way down she again gave me the "evil eye", I just shook it off and didn't really think about it. About 10 minutes into my second repeat I passed the lady again on my way up. She started yelling at me this time, demanding to know why I would be going up for a second time and why I insisted on running. I started to explain to her that I was training for an upcoming trail race but nothing I said seemed to satisfy her. So I finnally said, "Look I left my shirt up at the pond and need to go back and get it" and then her entire attitude changed. Thankfully I didn't pass her on my third repeat

  4. Mic

    Splitting my time between Mountain biking and trail running; I'm often torn; do I ride or do I run?

    On this one particular day I chose to ride and ran across a guy that unquestionably was a trail runner.

    I had been on a group mountain bike ride that day and this runner stood to the side of the trail to let us pass. He appeared to be a big guy with a nice warm and welcoming smile. This is very rare for the area. I didn't know him but later came to realize that it must have been Mike Broderick – as he even lived near to the trail and lake. Many know him and I didn't although that brief encounter as refreshing. I'm sure he is not forgotten.

  5. Bonnie

    The people I meet on the trails is one of the reasons I love trail running! There’s the Bulgarian man that joins me for a run from time to time. I have no idea what he is saying to me but he seems really excited and happy. His energy is contagious. There’s the random guy at Pisgah that called me a beast, and yes I took this as a compliment. It’s also the people you pass day after day. The friendly smiles, waves and sharing of experiences. The ease of being at home around people you don’t know but would miss if they weren’t part of the daily scenery.

  6. NJY

    One early summers morning I was making my way up the Champney Falls trail to the summit of Mtn. Chocorua in the White Mtns. The light was beautiful and all was quiet, padding along quietly as you do as a runner I rounded a switchback to be confronted ahead by the naked back of a guy. So engrossed was he in what he was doing he never heard my approach. As I got closer I saw he was posing naked for a camera set up on the trail in front of him and was happily clicking away with the remote. I passed by him on the narrow trail and gently advised him to watch the bugs didn't bite. I swear he launched vertically 3 feet off the ground!

    On my way back from the summit I based him again, fully clothed looking like any other hiker except for the bright red face and embarrassed attempt at a "hello" in response to my 'Hi".

  7. Rich Gordon

    Some years ago I had a Border Collie named Chelsea, and I often ran her around a short trail loop not far from home. She was like Rain Man: extremely rigid in her routine. One day Chelsea suddenly broke from the main trail up a side trail we almost never took. I followed her, finally coming up behind the dog near the crest of a hill. Chelsea was in full Border Collie stalk mode: crouched down, head forward, moving with all stealth. As I crested the hill behind her, I finally glimpsed her prey: a couple bumpin' uglies on a blanket spread out behind a car. I hung back to see what the dog had in mind. I figured she was gonna give one of 'em the wet-nose. Instead, she crept up to within about a yard of the couple (who were completely oblivious to the dog's presence). Chelsea paused, then suddenly gave a sharp bark at full volume.

    The guy launched backwards off the girl, ran around the car and hoppped into the driver's seat. The girl screamed, first at the dog, then at her boyfriend, who had started the car.

    The dog turned around and came back to me with the tail wag turned to eleven! I nearly pissed myself laughing so hard. I never knew a dog could have a sense of humor, much less play a practical joke! I'm guessing that may have been a turning point in the couple's relationship….

      1. Bryon Powell

        Why is i my brain wants to read this comment as, "Having had amorous relations in the woods with a Border Collie and a sense of humor, I love this story!" You have a sense of humor, too, right? ;-)

  8. Harry

    i was almost "that guy." I was out for an early Sunday morning run on my favorite single track on the first warm day of spring. I was wearing nothing but shorts, shoes and a handheld and I got to wondering what it would be like to run naked. Seemed like the perfect time to try it. So I peeled my shorts off but after about a quarter mile concluded that there's a good reason for the Coolmax sling inside the shorts. Just as I pulled those shorts back on, about 12 mountain bikers came screaming down the trail at full blast. I can only imagine the mishap that might have ensued had my nakedness startled one of the lead riders. Worse, two of them worked in my office. Multiple disasters averted!

  9. Jamie

    A few months ago, I was running along one of my favorite trails here in Boulder. Lost as I was in my own little world, I looked up to see a young buck, with just a few points on his antlers, in the middle of the trail a couple yards in front of me. The look in his eyes seemed to say "What are you doing here? This is my trail!"

    It was one of the more surreal experiences of my trail running life.

    A few days later, along the same trail, I came upon just the foredleg of a deer. Clearly a mountain lion kill. I hope it wasn't the same buck.

  10. Mike E

    This last weekend I was on the Colorado Trail from Waterton Canyon. On a desolate stretch of single trak, I saw a hiker a few turns ahead of me so I started to clear my throat and shuffle my feet, trying to make as much noise as possible. When I was about 10 feet behind him he still hadn't moved so I bade him a "good morning." I scared the bejeezus out of him, full on Kramer freak out, arms and hiking poles flailing, jumping in the air and landing on the side of the trail. This was funny to me but he was incensed, 'that's why I sing to myself when I'm out here, so people know I'm coming." Still giggling, I tell him "dude, I made as much noise as I could, sorry to startle you." He was still mad, I laughed quietly to myself for the next mile or so.

  11. Logan

    Being from Oregon I am not only attracted to the trails but also to of course University of Oregon Football, actually to the point of obsessiveness.

    Last year, while living in Phoenix, early one morning I had decided to go to a classic in town Peak, Squaw peak, for my morning fix. As I was jogging down one of the off the main drag trails to connect with the summit trail I pass a middle aged gentleman with a younger athletic looking girl, heading down the trail towards the parking lot. As I neared the two I glanced up at the last second catching eyes with the guy. After a quick nod something caught my attention and as I quickly scanned my memory bank it dawned on me. 'That's Chip Kelly!' I quickly turned to verify my eyesight and saw the portly man heading up the trail.

    "Hey Chip!" I yell down the trail. Sure enough he turns and acknowledges me.

    My god I thought, I just found the newly crowned Philadelphia Eagles head coach and newly stepped down University of Oregon Ducks head football coach, aka a god like figure in the city of Eugene, on some odd ball trail in Phoenix, Arizona. I could not believe it. Turns out he was in town for team meetings. I grabbed a quick picture and chatted for 5 mins.

    That was a day I will never forget.

  12. Too Embarrassed

    I was running late spring, on a trail in Southwest PA. I run frequently there, and there are usually a few hikers there. I start my run, and less than a mile in I see a hiker. I pass him, go out another 4 miles or so and turn around. I am coming back and I start to feel some intestinal pressure. About halfway back I see my hiker, who is also turning around. I keep going and realize that the discomfort will require me to make a stop along the trail. I go way off the trail, and take care of matters – there is still snow on the ground so the leaf situation was interesting. I try to make it quick because i didn't want to run into this hiker again. He was fine, but he probably thought I was some kind of weirdo. So I hurry up, get back on the trail and start hoofing it back.

    Even in the cold, I sweat like crazy. So I am running and I swipe some of the sweat from my face and I think something smells funny. In my haste to get moving, I didn't realize that the back of my hands had gotten "dirty" and I just managed to smear it all over my face, practically right up my nose!!! I cleaned up using the snow as well as I could on my hands and on my face, but I thought as worried as I was about running into this other guy, imagine running into someone with crap all over their hands and face. That would've been a story.

  13. sputnik TrailHead

    I think I had that exact same conversation with an officer at about 1am

    in my neighborhood.  I was out for a 3 mile barefoot sprint and working

    hard when he pulled up beside me, yelling and sounding worried.  I

    didn't have a flashlight, and was in a white t-shirt and mesh shorts.

    I'm sure I looked like I had been chased right out of bed.  Gave me a

    chuckle.

    Once he knew I was doing this on purpose, the officer was quite nice and

    asked my opinion of 5-fingers.

  14. luke

    Running on a dirt road trail and I see a lady with two dogs up ahead (no leash, supposed to have leash) I say "coming behind you", she says "they're nice and won't bite"….so I run around them. The small one nips at my leg pretty good…I just say "really!" and keep running. The next week in the exact same spot I see the exact same lady and same two dogs. I approach cautiously walking, and she says "they're nice and won't bite"….I say

    "you told me that last week in this same spot and your nipped my leg right here, see?…remember?" …she just stared at me like I was a ghost (I am pale).

  15. Paul in Ireland

    Running along a single track in Ireland with the inevitable rain Coming down, when an old farmer in an old LandRover pulled up and asked if I needed a ride anywhere. I said thanks but no, and explained i was out for a run. He clearly didn't get it. I passed him again a few hours later and he just shook his head in disbelief. I guess all non-runners think we are nuts.

  16. Steve L

    One time while running up a fairly steep and rocky section of trail I encountered a man and women hiking down, both 50+ in age, dressed in jeans and boots. This section of trail had a couple of routes so I was able to keep running as we passed. Without missing a beat the man(smiling)says "well that's not as fast as I was going when I ran up here." The way he said it was so funny, I laughed out loud.

  17. Duane VanderGriend

    It was a beautiful sunny spring morning and I was 6 miles into a 10, running with headphones in with the music a little loud but the endorphins were flowin and I was feelin the peace. I glanced left and saw a dark Doberman closing on me fast, rear legs bunching up under her chest in her haste, with another one coming. Looking just like her, but about 30 yards up the driveway behind her. Instant adrenaline and I was pissed and scared all at the same time. Time slowed down as I circled 180 and stopped facing her. Thinking…shit…no! ..it was peaceful…why is that dogs mouth making that clicking noise with its teeth in between barks inches from my balls. The feelings welled up in a screaming aaggh out of my mouth and I dropped my left shoulder back and swung my right fist sideways against her left eye. She yelped, turned and ran away as number two came in. Same deal with my brain musing that a dogs teeth are really noisy when their mouth is snapping open and closed in barks by my balls. Rolling my shoulders back from left to right yet recovering from the first swing I dropped my right shoulder and punched that one like the first but with my other hand. I was still screaming loud aghh's. Looking up as that one yelped and ran too, there was a guy running out the driveway towards me and he stopped as dog two passed him going the other way. His mouth was hanging open and his eyes were big and it looked like he thought I was a crazy man. I lifted my arms towards him in the, "really, are you serious shrug?" and turned and continued on my run.

  18. Jeremy

    Running in Haiti

    I got back into running while living in Haiti. I ran with friends on cattle trails that snaked through the hills and higher pastures. Most of our run ins were with animals, but we also had some memorable run ins with people.

    One time a horse galloped at us with purpose. Thankfully there were a few thorn bushes in between us a her, because she had fury in her eyes. We immediately slowed down and veered off before the thorn bushes gave way to open pasture, which would gave this angy horse an opportunity to deal with us. Thankfully the horse stopped her charge. As we looked back we saw the reason for her fury; we had been running right towards her baby.

    Another run in was with a couple of Haitian cowboys who couldn't understand why we were running and tried very hard to sell us one of their horses. We negotiated for a while to see how low of a price we could get for a horse before continuing our run.

    Last Haitian story. As we were finishing an early morning run we heard gun fire in the gulch that we had to drop into to get back to the Samaritan's Purse base. We slowly hugged the ridge to avoid stray bullets and looked out to see a group of UN soldiers out in the hills enjoying artillery practice. We worked hard to get their attention so that we could make it through the gulch without getting shot and went over to talk to them and see if they would let us shoot a little. Turned out they were from Brasil. I spoke a little Portuguese, and we got into a great conversation. Unfortunately they didn't let us shoot with them.

  19. CJ

    I was trail running with 7 others and two dogs in Alaska. We talked a lot about what to do if we saw a bear and how we would "stand our ground" and pull out our bear spray. "Never run" we all agreed. 5 miles in and many piles of fresh bear dung sighted, the dogs started acting funny and sniffing at the bushes ahead. The lead runner walked over to take a peek, then at the speed of light came running back screaming "it's a bear!!!!". We all took off 100 mph in retreat before we stopped to look behind us. There sat up a very tired looking small black bear the size of our dogs. It looked around completely dumbfounded never even standing up. We had a good laugh and ran around the slumbering bruin. What a bunch of trail running wimps! Thank God we didn't encounter a big "Brownie" or we all would have had heart attacks then and there!

  20. Maxwell Ferguson

    I once was stopped by a PCT thru hiker when running along it. He saw my Salomon S Labs 5 pack and wanted to know where to get one. It had just been released and despite its "fit no one except Killian" sizing was essentially sold out in America. He went on to explain he was from Israel hiking the PCT and had wanted the pack since he became aware of it. In Israel apparently Salomon products are not sold due to tensions in the region and elsewhere. I offered that I couldn't give him the pack or sell him mine because I needed it to get home and not die. He did however venture into my store weeks later to chat with me.

  21. Jason

    My house sits just about one mile from where Matthew Shepard was killed. I frequently run the fence line trail and recently someone put a yellow ribbon on the fence where he was found. Every time I run by now I try to think about how I can be a better human being. It is funny how a small piece of yellow ribbon blowing in the Wyoming wind seems to be sending a message from Matthew to man kind to be compassionate to one another.

  22. max

    "can't do what you don't do" said I to a couple of college girls who said they could never run up a hill I came up on. At the time it was the best reply I could come up with while feeling like a freak show, again.

    All of my favorite runs are those where I don't see another soul all day, it's just me and the mountains.

  23. Michael

    One of the funnier moments was in the Tim Olson interview from UTMB where he talked about the 3 goats running with him for over half an hour. That would definitely be interesting.

    As far as my run-in with a stranger, it was more inspirational. I was doing one of my training runs that crossed over 3 small mountains. Over the first one and on my way up the trail to the 2nd one, I got stopped by some tourists asking how to get back to the trailhead. After giving them the directions, they apologized for stopping my run, but I didn't mind. I just said I'll run with this guy here as a man was running up the trail to us. We exchanged pleasantries and talked about running and such as he had just started within the last year.

    After a few minutes he told me why he started running. His son was killed in a four-wheeler accident and running was one of his son's passions. He told me how he had lost over 80 pounds since taking it up and now knows why his son loved it so much. We parted ways as I came to the second mountain, but it gave me strength to get to the top. I pass him from time to time nowadays. He only runs about 4 miles, but he runs every day and has a smile on his face whenever I see him.

  24. PutMeBackOnMyBike

    Well, I've been on both sides of this fence. Out mountain biking with my wife on the Cotton Brook Trail outside Stowe, VT, I commented to my wife on the rather strange shorts that the hiker up ahead was wearing – sort of furry, almost hairy. After she'd finished laughing and calling me a muppet, she pointed out I was in fact looking at a very hairy, naked hiker's bum. I could only think about the Mosquitoes – they were eating us alive, and we had clothes on ! On the other side of the fence, before we were married, my wife and I had a picnic out in the hills, and it was a nice day and the wine was pleasantly buzzing, and getting carried away in the moment, we ended up experiencing our "first time" together, much to the surprise of the pack of mountain bikers that shot past us mid-way through the entertainment !

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