Lessons I Learned Running in a Hurricane
Going for a run as Hurricane Sandy bore down on his home taught one runner a few key lessons.
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“Of what can we be certain except this—
that we are fertilized by mysterious circumstances?”
—Antoine de Saint-Exupery, French pilot and philosopher
It was 9:30 p.m. on a Thursday and the eye of Hurricane Sandy had stalled somewhere above our home. Toilet paper and milk had been wiped from all the grocery store shelves in a hundred-mile radius. Our basement had flooded. Dogs howled. Baltimore was in panic mode.
Sandy had originated midway between Jamaica and Panama, in the Caribbean Sea; wreaked havoc in Cuba and the Bahamas; then set a course out to sea as she trended up the Eastern seaboard. But as she swirled off the shores of North Carolina, she bee-lined left and headed straight for the Baltimore-Washington metroplex and made landfall.
We were battening down the hatches. But not all hatches are good.
“What are you doing?” my wife asked me. The me who was sitting on the couch lacing up my running shoes. “There’s a f*&king hurricane out there,” she reminded me.
I love a woman who curses.
I turned toward our bay window and looked out. She wasn’t wrong. But did she think I didn’t know there was a hurricane? I mean, did she think I was an idiot?
Lesson one: Avoid questions whose answers you’d rather not know.
“And aren’t you injured?” she asked. Right again. She’s good. My tib-fib joint had been yelling at me over the past few months.
She sure was looking at me like I was an idiot…a gaze at once loving, dismissive, and curious. But I didn’t have time for self reflection.
I was headed to Loch Raven, the reservoir where Baltimore gets its drinking water. The surrounding area includes about 30 miles of trails: intertwining firetrails, fisherman single track, outlaw mountain biker novelties and random paths created by teenagers trying to find a party spot, which most of the time ended in a firepit and broken bottles. It’s no Lake Tahoe, but there’s no better trail than the one down the street.
The hills there are short but fierce, too long to sprint and too short for the granny gear. Shade is plentiful, swimming always an option. Best of all are the trees–the same trees I climbed as a child. Every glance at their birch bark takes me back to being eight years old. I often get bleary eyed just thinking about them.
My shoes laced, I peered outside. Our trash cans had already blown down the block, likely denting a few cars on their way. The maple tree out front was stuck in a permanent lean from the relentless wind. The rain probably could have filled a five-gallon bucket in minutes, before the wind blew it over.
So, my wife is glaring at me, our two kids are at home, and all I’m thinking is…these are the best running conditions I’ve seen in years.
I meant that. Desperate people do desperate things. Just ask Lieutenant Dan. When you need an injection of the rawness of the mountains or anything resembling wilderness, but you live in Baltimore, you make an extra effort when the elements are right. I, for one, wasn’t going to miss the party.
Lesson two: Never miss a good party.
In December of 1874, John Muir decided it was a good time to climb a tree. He was rambling about the Yuba River, seeking out tributaries, when a storm blew in. He found himself a stand of 100-foot Douglas Spruces and started climbing.
It was December, so it must have been cold, but it’s hard to say, since Yuba City is at an elevation of 59 feet, but I’m speculating. In any case, a ten-second Google search reveals that Muir hiked in wool trousers, high-top leather boots, a shaggy bowtie, vest and top hat. We can safely assume that getting wet in his attire would have ruined his day, unless the sun came out in full force and warmed him up. The Sierras are sunny, but still.
Today, we think nothing of rain when running in the mountains. We are protected. We run right through it with our snazzy breathable fabrics and our Gore-tex windbreakers. But that wasn’t the case for Muir. Entering the storm instead of taking shelter was an act of short-sighted indulgence. The conditions were just too good not to climb that tree.
He needed to party. (See lesson two.)
Shoes on, I mumbled something irresponsible to Christy and she went upstairs. I got up and shut the front door behind me. By the time I got to my car, 30 feet from the porch, I was drenched.
Good, got that over with.
There was no traffic on the drive — not that there would be at 9:45 on a Thursday night. Already, Mother Nature had made her point; every low point on the landscape was now a pond, broken branches strewn all over the place. The roads had a charming abandoned quality to them, like those towns you see in zombie films.
A curious thing happens to roads in East Coast storms. They become buried by detritus and turn back into trails. It’s a remarkable transformation.
Trails, as I was about to learn, turn back into paths, or rather, the forest floor. Nature reclaims herself in these moments when we are not looking. Perhaps she knows we will clean it up, but secretly hopes we will forget about some parts.
At 9:54 p.m. I left the house. The rain pounded my windshield so hard it felt like the glass was going to break. I got a kick out of my futile windshield wipers trying as hard as they could before learning I could see better without them. At 10:10 p.m. I arrived at the “trailhead:” an abandoned church parking lot. I crossed the road, standing in the middle of its four lanes for a moment, soaking it in, and getting soaked.
Within minutes I stepped off the pavement and into the forest. A quote popped into my mind: “I now walk into the wild,” written by the late Christopher McCandless, focus of Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild.
But let’s not overstate it. He was going into Alaska, I the fringes of Baltimore County.
The trail was wide and rocky, and I learned immediately that running in this much water is analogous to running in the baby-pool section of your local swim club, except the bottom is irregular cobbles and you can’t see in front of you. I was forced into a pathetic trot, which was great, because I was injured.
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Pathetic trotting aside, it felt like the most genuine “run” I’d ever experienced. Running not as in striding along on a sunny day in short shorts looking confident and beautiful like a catalog model, but rather as a sense of animal freedom, a moving through landscape and letting it move in you. So much of running is performance and metric-based, that just running for running’s sake can feel like an act of rebellion.
Lesson three: Running simply for a Strava upload isn’t running—it’s leveraging your body for data.
Immediately, I took off my shirt–I’m not sure why I even brought it–and shoved it in the back of my shorts. This worked for a second until I realized that the bobbing of wet cotton inside more wet cotton was annoying, so I wedged my shirt into a tree in a spot I’d remember on the run back.
When it rains in Colorado, where I live now, the temperature drops. It doesn’t do that in Baltimore. In fact, the opposite is the case; East Coast rain keeps you warm and comfortable. It makes running in the rain fun. Mountain rain makes me feel robbed of this basic joy.
I reached a junction about a mile into my run, faced with the choice of singletrack fisherman’s trail or wider, rockier firetrail that circles the reservoir. On a dry day, the singletrack option is soft and springy underfoot, carpeted with generations of pine needles. I opted for that.
The reservoir had flooded the fisherman’s trail entirely. I mean, the trail was gone. So I backtracked and chose the other option, hearing a tree crash to earth behind me. I had heard the thunderous booms already, but this one was close. Like an old man lowering into an armchair, it moaned before it hit the ground.
Normally, running on a firetrail is like walking down the sidewalk. It can be boring, made up of über-efficient straight paths. Antoine de Saint-Exupery would write of roads that they “avoid the barren lands, the rocks, the sands. They shape themselves to man’s needs and run from stream to stream,” concluding that, “We have elected to believe that our planet was merciful and fruitful.” Firetrails are not like that.
The wind was howling, the rain sideways. I was running in puddles. I would like to say I was Zen about it, that hurricane “running” was just as great as any other run in the woods.
Running in a hurricane feels like survival. This wasn’t merely biomechanical, it was existential.
Lesson four: Firetrails are the truth tellers of the forest: trails without cosmetics. For this reason, they are superior.
After another two miles or so, the trail started to disappear, the landscape turning into unadulterated forest. In architecture, going from gray to green–tearing up concrete and putting green in its place–is difficult practically and administratively. Here, I was witnessing it first hand, a storm-bomb rendering the place uninhabitable, if just for a few hours.
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I should have turned around, as my pace had been forced into small hops. Jump over branch, find passable trail, try not to sprain ankle, etc. My shoes were so heavy and sodden I could barely tell where my feet stopped and the earth began. But even through the slog I was having too much fun. The rain on my shoulders was pure delight. The splash of each step made me smile. It was dark, but not just darkness.
Lesson five: When the student is ready, the master appears.
Then it found me. I turned a corner and two piercing red eyes froze me in my tracks. I stopped breathing. I shined my light and the scattershot illumination revealed a sodden little raccoon. He was as still as a statue. We stared at each other like foes in an old Clint Eastwood movie.
I couldn’t discern if it was being aggressive, confused by nature’s wrath and the moving Darwin award that was me, or if it had wandered from its den, its tree felled by the storm. And then, it dawned on me— the raccoon was safer in plein air in a hurricane, driven from the comfort of its home. I, at the same time, was also driven from my home, evicted by a different type of storm. One of complacency. I needed a shakeup from my day-to-day life, and I found it when the world felt like it was tearing apart. I wasn’t running to anything, but rather from.
After the raccoon, I turned around. I felt like it was protecting me, like a gatekeeper, warning me to not pass. I woke up the next morning injury-free, which of course only lasted for a few months, but whatever barriers I had erected inside of myself had come down. Letting the rain fall, as it were, was the new name of the game.
Lesson six: Not all hatches are good.
Francis Sanzaro is the former editor-in-chief of Rock and Ice, Ascent and Gym Climber magazines. Find him on Twitter and Instagram.