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!