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The Inconvenient Truth of Trail Running

We should never talk about this, but I will. Because we have to. Because we all have personal experience with this.

Because it’s inevitable that nothing ruins a perfectly good trail run with the gradual and growing need to defecate. Yes, that’s right, I am going to write a column about having to poop in the woods.

I love trail running. I love everything about trail running, except that I loathe this topic. I loathe casual references to poop. I loathe poop humor. I loathe when trail running friends reference it in any way, at the trailhead, out on a run or at breakfast after a morning run. I especially loathe poop discussion, even with my doctor.

But here it goes.

This happened long ago, in a place not so far away. The stories are true, but names of the characters have been changed to save them from embarrassment, but please don’t ask me for more details. You might know who I’m talking about.

The stories are true, but names of the characters have been changed to save them from embarrassment, but please don’t ask me for more details.

A few years ago, I was running with a well-known runner who might have once graced the cover of this magazine when she slowed her gait and said, “I have stop and pee. Why don’t you run ahead and I’ll catch up.” Let’s just call her Jess.

No problem, Jess, I thought. We were heading uphill on a hot day and I knew I’d be moving slowly and no need to worry about leaving her behind. Jess was faster than me, and I knew she’d catch up quickly.

Only she didn’t.

I slowly slogged up a steep part of Boulder’s Mesa Trail and veered right where the Bear Canyon Trail continued toward the north side of Bear Peak, which was the intended destination of that run. I looked back but didn’t see my friend, but figured Jess would arrive soon.

After five more minutes of slow running over rocky cobbles, I stopped because I had to pee. I walked off trail and sort of stood halfway behind a skinny tree, looking both ways so as not to be seen by any other trail users. But I really figured that Jess would come running up in pursuit of me and, while discreetly peeing at the side of the trail wasn’t a big deal, I was trying to be respectful about nature’s call.

But when I was done peeing, I was surprised not to see her. I decided to slowly backtrack my steps to try to find her. Maybe she continued up Mesa Trail. Maybe she bumped into someone she knew. Maybe she … ?

My thought tailed off inside my head as I continued back down Mesa Trail, not wanting to think anything bad but still wondering what could have happened to her. I ran back to the bend in the trail where it crossed over Bear Creek, the last place I saw her.

I looked up the creek into the brush and saw Jess, standing in the creek as she appeared to be pulling up her shorts. It looked like she had just been skinny dipping, but why would she do that? In a moment, she appeared and walked back out on the trail. It was clear that her shoes and shorts were soaked from being in the creek, but I didn’t say anything.

“I think I’m done for today,” Jess said. “I don’t feel great, so I’m going to head back. Let’s meet up for another run again soon.”

OK, I said as she backed away and began heading back down the trail we had run up 15 minutes earlier. I sensed something else was wrong, but didn’t want to ask. Besides, the sight of the viscous matter that was dripping from her light blue shorts down the back of her right leg into her darkly saturated right sock told me more than I wanted to know. As she humbly ran back to her car at the trailhead, I hoped she had a towel or T-shirt to sit on as she drove home.

I know, TMI! Yup, sorry, I shouldn’t have told that story. But, hey, as much as that’s awkward poop talk—which I loathe more than you!—and now I’m not retelling as silly poop humor—which I really loathe more than you!—we’re all lying if we somehow try suggest we’ve never been there.

Because we’ve all been there. And always at the least opportune times, it seems.

While I’m at it, here’s another awkward story from the trails. A few years ago, a friend of mine was running the Leadville 100, hoping for a top-20 overall finish. Let’s call this guy Mike.

My buddy Mike said he felt great and was ready to rock as he walked to the starting line in the cold pre-dawn conditions dressed in royal-blue split shorts, a white tank top, white arm warmers and black gloves. As he took off with the front group, I hopped in my car and headed to the May Queen aid station at mile 13.

It was still chilly when, to my surprise, Mike came through among the first 10 runners looking good but maybe a bit cold. He asked for a cup of coffee to warm up, pounded it, grabbed a muffin, ran passed the porta-potties and headed out along the Colorado Trail toward the back side of Sugarloaf Mountain.

As the sun started to fill the morning sky, I drove ahead and waited for him at the Outward Bound mile-25 aid station. I was there in time to see the first runners come through and wondered how Mike was doing. Several more runners ambled on in, then several more.

Finally, I saw Mike running up the road on the approach to the aid station. His stride looked good, but something looked different. I just couldn’t tell exactly how.

I’m not telling these stories to embarrass anyone or be sophomoric about this unfortunate situation. Like I said, it happens to everyone. At the worst times.

He stopped briefly to refill his hydration bottles and grab some snacks in a quick pit stop. I was gathering his stuff and asked him where his other arm warmer was.

“I had to sacrifice it,” he said. “I had an emergency coming down the Power Line trail.”

Oh, geez, I said, as I felt my face turn to a grimace.

“I was going to try to turn it inside out and carry it with me, but I just couldn’t,” he said, suddenly showing a look of repulsiveness on his face as he fished into his hydration pack. “I was going to bury it under a big rock, but I figured that would be wrong because leaving the arm sleeve there would be littering. So I dumped my energy chews into another pocket and I put it in this baggie.”

With that, he handed me said baggie, which appeared to contain a wadded up white arm sleeve coated with, ahem, human waste, and turned to continue his race. There seemed to be a spring in his step.

I’m not telling these stories to embarrass anyone or be sophomoric about this unfortunate situation. Like I said, it happens to everyone. At the worst times.

And so here I am, on the verge of a new low point of my journalism career.

One morning while visiting a friend’s lake house in Michigan, I went out for an early run with the intent of looping some country roads with an old rail trail before heading back for a day on the water. My goal was to leave the house early, quietly, so as not to wake anyone else—and that meant not using the bathroom—and be back just about the time everyone was waking up.

Scrambling around, I tried to find a smooth rock and big leaves that weren’t crawling with bugs or full of stingy nettles, but there wasn’t much around at all, just loose dirt, plants with tiny leaves and a few sticks.

Things were going great until about a mile in, ugggh, I felt nature’s call. I knew I had to take care of this situation, but that meant getting to the trail with the hopes of having any privacy.

I was on a barren stretch of trail and had no choice—none whatsoeve—to pull off the trail and let nature run its course. Scrambling around, I tried to find a smooth rock and big leaves that weren’t crawling with bugs or full of stingy nettles, but there wasn’t much around at all, just loose dirt, plants with tiny leaves and a few sticks.

Arggh!

About 30 minutes later, I completed my run, walked back into the lake house to find it bustling with energy and the smell of breakfast.

“Hey, how was your run?” my friend John asked, handing me a cup of coffee. “Why did you wear only one sock?”

Brian Metzler was the founding editor of Trail Runner magazine and now serves as a contributing editor.