I Am the Horse
creative nonfiction by Charles Dodd White

My friend Oakley is driving us through the freezing predawn for what will be, at forty-five years old, my first marathon. We spent the previous night at an interstate side Days Inn, sitting around watching retread episodes of Family Guy while we methodically hydrated. This seemed reasonable at the time, two grown men giggling at fart jokes while swilling jugs of sports drink.

We’re headed for South Mountain State Park in western North Carolina, what everyone says is a wild and beautiful territory with steep hiking trails and stark waterfalls. Nature itself on nature’s terms. I’m sure they’re right. It’s one of the reasons I’ve agreed to this endeavor against my better sense. If I have to run for hours on end, it needs to be in the woods, out where Walt Whitman’s “blab of pave” is nowhere in sight. Otherwise, I’d go nuts. The deadening rhythm of shoe sole on concrete is one I associate with the conditioning runs in the Marine Corps, another life in another galaxy. Neither of which I’ve never been terribly eager to revisit.

But in the past few months, I’ve learned the pleasure of slow runs on trails. You see things when you run that wouldn’t otherwise cross your path. Barred owls coming off their roosts in August. Spooked deer in the first cool mornings of September. The good strong blue light of deep winter. As we drive the back country roads, Oakley mentions that those who don’t run think that trail runners fail to come to nature as they should, that we are blind to the small perceptions that makes an outdoor life matter. I admit, even a few months before, I was one of these doubters. But since later summer, I’ve learned that a clean run through technical trails requires a patience and attentiveness that I never needed when hiking. There is no room for distraction as you high step through root systems or clamber over a spill of loose stone. You must be locked into the moment, and when you are locked in, you must feel the trail as much as see it. You trust it to take you where you need to go.

We come into the borders of the state park and take the upper forking road. There are few reliable signs out this far, so we’re relying on Siri’s calm and spooky omniscience. The addle of rising hours before normal has been sharpened with four cups of hotel coffee, so I’m inside the paradox of a fugue state where a lightning bolt of nervous energy has shot through the middle.  I’m concerned that we’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere in the nightscape; I mention this a few times. Many times. Enough that I’m sure it’s become annoying. But Oakley trusts his digital map, and a few minutes later we see the telltale sign of a chain of taillights as the other arrivals queue and keep interval on the only road into the park. I shut my mouth for a minute.

While I’d like to think that my silence is proof of my readiness and ease, I know the slow grip of panic when it gets a firm hold. The sudden reality of what I’ve agreed to do (what I’ve actually paid money to do) has taken up prime real estate in my gut. I know that I’m underprepared. The last couple of weeks in December have been wet, washing out the trails I regularly train where I live in Knoxville, Tennessee, so I’ve run less than I should for a race of this length. My middle-aged body isn’t ready, and clearly my middle-aged mind isn’t either.

It’s hard to say why I decided to start running trails. Partly, I wanted to extend my hiking habits, make my time hiking less strenuous when pushing through a climb. I’d been intrigued to learn about a hybrid of trail running and backpacking called fastpacking and I had spent several hours while I trained thinking about running the hundred-mile circuit of the Tour du Mont Blanc, covering twenty miles a day on my feet through France, Italy, and Switzerland, and staying overnight at high altitude alpine huts along the way. But perhaps there was a less romantic motivation as well. I remember walking one day at the riverside park and as a runner passed me on the greenway, it occurred to me that I was likely never going to do certain things with the second half of my life. A marathon—something like that was simply out of the question. A few steps later, I realized that it didn’t have to be. As simply and unceremoniously as that, the idea took hold.

For me, the fear in a long run is in breathing. Everyone has their own demon that chases them on a run. For some, it’s the sharp pain of a cramp, for others it’s the legs failing when exhaustion becomes practically personified, but my personal devil is when the lungs fail to catch up with what the rest of my body is doing. I worry about it before I’ve even taken the first step. I think a large part of this is because before I took up trail running, most of my running life was when I was a young Marine running in a cadence-driven formation. If you haven’t done this yourself, you’ve seen it enough times in the movies to know what I mean. A tight gathering of troops led by a sergeant, singing back and forth as their feet strike the deck in metronomic unison. Some poor soul bearing the extra weight up front of a company guidon while the rest of the platoon pounds along the road oblivious to their weirdly claustrophobic positioning to one another. If you lose your breath, it becomes torturous to keep the rhythmic motion of the column.

When I was a in the military, I was in the bottom half of my running peers because I ran under compulsory circumstances only. I had no heart, as they say. The only pleasure I took in a formation run was when it ended. Still, I didn’t realize how good I had it at the time. At bootcamp, I ran the three-mile physical conditioning run in a little over nineteen minutes. Even by the end of my four-year enlistment, I could run that same distance well under twenty-four minutes, a time that seemed positively glacial then and which earned no respect from the other Marines in my company. Now, though, to run three miles under even twenty-five minutes, would feel truly athletic. To put it directly—the young, they don’t know how good they got it.

. . . one of the race organizers is stoking a fire in the big stone fireplace. Its warmth is so welcomed that I tug off my gloves just to get my fingers as much direct exposure as I can. Within a few minutes, the fire does
that ancient magic it’s known for, and a small group of strangers congregates there beside us.

It’s even colder than I feared when Oakley parks and we go to check in and receive our numbered bibs. Still dark, the other runners are figures in an impressionistic painting, their foggy breath writing faint cursive above their heads. The only lights are from the other cars hunting spaces at the desolate end of the lot and the overhead shining dully from the rafters of the picnic shelter. The check-in table has a line, so we ease down to the other end where one of the race organizers is stoking a fire in the big stone fireplace. Its warmth is so welcomed that I tug off my gloves just to get my fingers as much direct exposure as I can. Within a few minutes, the fire does that ancient magic it’s known for, and a small group of strangers congregates there beside us. It’s not long before easy conversation starts, and we begin discussing the race ahead. One woman in her late middle-age fastens her bib to the leg of her sweat pants as she proudly tells us that she was the last finisher of the marathon distance the previous year.

“It’s steep, though. At the end. My God is it ever!”

A couple of others who have run the race before chuckle.

“Careful,” her male companion cautions her, grinning at me. “You don’t want to run off any of the new guys!”  

A few minutes later, the sun breaks through the trees and we have the benefit of daylight. More runners arrive. While I make a couple of tours of the parking lot to promote blood flow, I see several vehicles sport the oval decals of mileage numbers completed. Driving around town you might commonly see what I’m talking about—the 13.1 for a half-marathon or a 26. 2 for the complete marathon, a significant milestone for many runners. But here, I’m seeing numbers I can’t really remember glimpsing that often. Several 100 kilometers and even a few 100 miles. The idea of running a hundred miles on my feet makes me slightly dizzy. I take this as a positive sign—not all reason has fled.

It’s about time for Oakley to line up for the start to his race. He’s an experienced ultrarunner, so he’s running the 50 k, roughly another five miles longer than the standalone marathon. When he talks about long distance, you can see the gleam of the fanatic in his eye. He keeps a meticulous count of the mileage he’s covered, the elevation gained. He’s actually a competitor in a race, not a mere finisher like me. We all have to draw the line at how much pain we’re willing to bear for the sake of an idea, and Oakley’s threshold is much further than mine. I wish him luck, see the start called, and watch the group trot out and turn into the woods, their legs flashing between the tree trunks until each of them has gone on to do what brought them here. I know I still have a half hour to wait, and the thermometer is still stuck in the low twenties, so I head back to the car.

I give myself some head space while I let the next half hour pass. I’ve run the course in my head several times, watched a couple of YouTube videos of other runners on this course with a GoPro strapped to their heads while they discussed its challenges, so I don’t feel like I’ve gone into things completely blind. I’ve also tried to prepare myself philosophically. The videos efficiently edit out the hours of pain I’d rather not contemplate at length.

By the time we line up for the marathon, the temperature has risen to a balmy 23 degrees. Most of us are in running tights or light weight jogging pants. The only exceptions are those that plan to move fast enough that they will stay warm. In short, only the fastest are comfortable bearing skin.

When we start there’s a convivial air among the pack. We are all conspirators in a chancy endeavor, and it makes for a better way to spend the first couple of miles, trading jokes and encouragement. We’re through a stand of woods quickly and mount a gravel road wide enough for four people to run abreast. Unlike the predictable rhythm of a military formation, the sound of our footfalls is an extravagantly undisciplined clutter of noise: shoe soles slap, kicked gravel dribbles, water bottles joggle in hydration vests, their contents sloshing. We are no company of soldiers, but a quickening carnival of fools drunk on the freezing air.

Once we’ve had enough distance to string out and settle into the pace groups that suit our individual ability and conditioning, we come to our first water crossing. It’s a creek perhaps a dozen yards across but the stream is higher than any of us would like, rising to just below the knees of those who venture into it ahead of me. There are some rocks that provide a way to get across, but they’re slick with a thin glaze of ice, and for every person who makes the crossing successfully, another slips and hits the water full on. When they get to the other bank, sucking cold air and chattering, they don’t look exactly like the people they were on this side of things.

“Best way is to run through it!” someone cries.

And that’s all we need to drive us across.

It’s not as bad as I fear. I recall one time years before when I fished the Tuckasegee River in January and slipped from the rock where I was casting. The electric jolt of hitting the water was enough to end my cold weather angling for the next several years, but today’s crossing is energizing. 

Once the miles begin to pile up, running becomes as much a meditative art as anything else. This is what attracts me most to it in this point in my life. The sheer improbability of finding a kind of contentment in the midst of such grueling work is what makes distance running such a rewarding undertaking for the couch potato class. It’s always available to you. It’s a simple matter of putting one foot in front of another and letting the natural process of your body improve over time. The commitment to training makes all the difference because that’s where a runner truly discovers their heart. Oh, that elusive runner’s heart. Out there on the trail with the ambient sounds and the urge to move forward despite the predictable waves of pain. That’s where you find the passion for something that appeals only to the very foolish and the very wise.

The first big grade is hell, and it makes you feel like the land itself has launched an attack on your resolve. It goes on for a couple of miles and I envy those who trudge past me with the aid of trekking poles. By the time we crest the top ridge, we’re over five miles deep and I’ve lost my keen awareness of the cold. The muscles are warm enough to feel like they glow, but I realize this is when I need to begin consuming calories or risk a crash. I’ve trained to eat when I don’t want to, and that’s what I do with a cookie bar. I know it’s best to rely on actual food rather than the calorie rich gels and gummies that are marketed for endurance athletes.

In my training for the marathon, I’ve read of other races far longer than my effort at South Mountain. I’ve learned than the holy grail for many trail runners is the hundred miler, that same hundred miler denoted by those little oval bumper stickers. The whole idea of running such an insane distance began with a horse race started in the 1950s—the Western States 100. Things changed when a man named Gordy Ainsleigh toed up next to a bunch of other long range critters. When the race organizer asked where his horse was, old Gordy fixed the man with a steely gaze and declared, “I am the horse.”

Well, that might not have been exactly how it went down, but that’s the drama I like to imagine, and that’s the spirit I decide I need to adopt for the next twenty or so miles. Theatrics, I’ve learned, are as much a part of running mad through the woods as anything. 

I cross the finish some seven hours from the time I began. At the end of the day, the elevation gained, and the steps logged tell little of the experience. There’s only the immediate promise to never do it again, followed closely by the dream of next time pushing for a greater distance.

Who knows? Maybe there’s a hundred miler still out there somewhere with my name on it.

Charles Dodd White is the author of four novels and a short story collection. He has received the Appalachian Book of the Year Award and the Chaffin Award for his fiction. He lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he teaches English at Pellissippi State Community College. His memoir, A Year Without Months, is now available from West Virginia University Press.