It was these circumstances which served as the backdrop for this evening's foray into exercise. I opened the front door and emerged from the dried, cooled air of the house and waded into the heat and wetness which was this summer midwestern night. It was nearing eleven o'clock and was dark, but immediately I knew there was something different going on. The sky was lighting up on a sporadic basis from bursts of lightning throughout the surrounding countryside. Black storm clouds embroiled the sky, and yet there was no threat of rain or other precipitation. This was good old fashioned summer-time heat lightning. Knowing this really meant that the lightning was just far enough away not to hear it, did not change the spectacular lighting effect that this natural fieworks show was producing. The intermittent cracks lit up the entire sky which then alternated to complete blackness due to the clouds blocking out the stars and moon, and of course the total absence of city lights. The random strobing of light created a very eerie mood as I stepped out on to the gravel driveway and started my watch.
I normally like to think I'm manly enough and experienced enough to deal with some creepy flashes of light and running in the dark in the middle of nowhere, and I reminded myself of this self-affirmation as I headed out. More than once. One time, out loud. As I turned out the front drive the wind started to blow. The appearance of wind commonly serves as a source of dread for me due to the extra strain of trying to run into it, however this time it was the wind's partner that elicited this sinking feeling. The wind was talking. More specifically it was howling. It wasn't like the howling of a hurricane or the 70 mile per hour wind of Eastern Colorado this sounded like a crazed animal. It sounded like a pack of wild monkeys were screaming from the bushes. My logical mind told me that the tunnel of the dirt road surrounded by immense trees and undergrowth was to blame, but together with the darkness and the lightning I was starting to feel a little bit on edge.
"You're not a city slicker!" I told myself. I've been out in the woods backpacking and hunting many, many times. This wasn't going to affect me! I've run in the dead of night many times. I've run past drug dealers in the park, and crazed semi-truck drivers, and stalkers and all sorts of craziness. "This is no big deal, just keep running, you wuss!" I plunged on, planning to try and cover a few miles as part of my progressive testing of the knee with increasing mileage. As the road curved and started to go up a hill I flicked on my headlamp to better guide where I was going. Normally I would just prefer to let my eyes adjust to the dark, but with the lightning flashes it was a no go. As the beam emerged I noticed out of my peripheral vision that it seemed a little bit dim. Upon closer examination I realized that instead of drained batteries, the light was being dimmed out by a swarm of tiny insects. I realized the strange sensation I had been feeling since the start of the run was the huge perpetual cloud of gnats and other critters smacking into my shirtless form. Strange. The other thing that accompanied the appearance of this air force of flying critters was the buzz. If you've ever lived in this area of the country you know the summer "buzz". The crickets and cicadas and who knows what else were putting out a cacophanous drone from all sides of me. As I ran durther down the road the combination of storms and darkness and wind and now bugs had put my mind into a strange cycle of imaginative dramas all working out an end of some fantastical horror.
I don't watch horror movies. But now I found myself in one. My current surroundings were acutely similar to many different films and other media forms that seemed to bear striking resemblances to my current surroundings. The flashing light made me think of some old Alfred Hitchcock film where the light reveals strange individuals emerging from the dark. My brain upon hearing the drone of insects and since I was running next to corn fields brought back some bizarre version of the first X-Files film and killer mutated bee attacks. The next film that had cause to rise from my subconcious was the Children of the Corn. At this point in my run I was strongly considering turning around and calling it a mile. I was already pulling an occasional 'Crazy Ivan' and doing a complete turn around every now and then to spot any strange individuals who might be stalking me in the dark. It was during one of these quick spins that the beam of my headlamp passing over the stalks of corn caused a quick flash from within the tall plants.
(Not literally, just my heart, the rest of me kept running) There were two blue jewels floating in the corn, glowing with the reflection of my headlamp. These were eyes. Following me. I ran faster. The eyes followed me. My head was turned, and rotated to stay locked on those burning blue eyes. In the course of an instant I have instantly created and concluded a thousand different scenarios for what I would do when the crazed mutant beast charged me from the field. None of them really had a great ending. At the last second the eyes turned away and a large creature bounded away leaping through the corn field. I kept running. I've never actually seen the movie Children of the Corn but I have some strange memory of children with strange burning eyes emerging from large fields of corn wielding scythes and such. My logical mind said, "Coyote" since there are large numbers of them in that area. My feet said, lets try a new pace.
Following this I ran up a hill and saw a solitary structure in the distance through the trees and wind and lightning. It was a farmhouse. You know the farmhouse, with the crazed inhabitants waiting for shirtless runners to come by at 11:00 pm and perform all manner of strangeness upon? The strategy for this situation is obvious. I would run like a ninja! Silently my feet moved over the gravel and dirt. Never in the history of running has a 200+ lb man over 6'4" tall moved so quickly and quietly over such uneven ground. In my mind I was a whisper, and I knew I had to be. If any sound emerged and upset the horrific denizens of the farmhouse, only my freaked-out and ever imaginative mind could behold the outcome. I clicked off the headlamp (probably should have done that before I stared directly into the front window) and raced by. Through these epic skills of stealth, I narrowly escaped certain destruction at the hands of those maniacs in the farmhouse.
The mind is a funny thing. Its ability to imagine and visualize things, even imaginary things is immense. And at this point in time, my mind was motoring through bizarre stories and images like a runaway freight train. One of the ones that was stuck in my mind was related to an actual event that had happened a few years ago at this same house in Iowa. It had been Christmas and of all things my Mother said she needed help with a possum in back of her house. Perplexed I asked further and she said there was a rabid, half-starved possum right outside the back of her house and she was hoping I would go shoot it with a shotgun and put the creature out of its misery. I found this a little hard to believe, but being the dutiful son I loaded the shotgun and proceeded to the back door. Did I mention it was dark outside? Just as I went to open the glass, sliding door, the white face of a bedraggled, evil, sick looking possum pressed itself up against the glass. I did have the safety of the twelve gauge on, thankfully for the door. I wound up putting the creature down, it was clearly diseased and very sick, but it was a somewhat disturbing mental image of that face, looking at me, even in death seeming to say, "What have you done?"
The rapid rush of mental images and memories was interrupted at this point. Ahead of me along the road, I saw a very black shape. It was near the side of the road, and my logical mind said, "tire" and "log". The logical mind was soothing, calming, of course things appear on the road. This is what happens. Objects, nice simple things show up on roads all the time. This is normal. Then, as I ran closer the shape morphed. Then the shape moved. Then the shape moved towards me. The logical mind had no response. As I got closer (and started drifting to the other side of the road) I realized this was no longer in the norm of roadside experiences, (you know like a nice, pleasant hitchhiker with an axe in his backpack, or a driverles semi truck forcing you off the road)
IT WAS A POSSUM.
It was at this point that the logical mind went off cowering in some deep dark corner of my brain. As I ran by, the possum stopped and stared. It turned its head quickly to keep up with my blazing speed as I ran past (right, you know what I mean) maintaining its burning glare, with its illuminated eyes of gleaming blue burning into my soul. It was clear what was happening to me now. I was being stalked by a ghost possum!
In my return to running I have not normally engaged in a lot of speed work, however at this point my motivation to sprint was at an all-time high. All-out exertion down the lonely dirt and gravel road seemed like an excellent training choice for the forseeable future. It wasn't until I had sprinted past the ghost-possum farther down the road, and could no longer see those terrible blue eyes and white, pale face (still sprinting backwards in the Crazy Ivan position) that I realized the true desperation of my current situation. Not only had the tormented form of this diseased animal I had killed come back from the grave to haunt and torment me, not only was I surrounded by all the elements of any freak-out horror movie, storm, darkness, strange sounds, crazed cicada singing, howling wind, coyotes or more likely children of the corn with farm implements stalking me, and farmhouses of doom, there was still one painful truth that I had only now realized.
I still had to turn around and go home.
I remember very little of that return. Of the fact that I set a PR for the distance covered there is little doubt. Mostly I remember pulling into the driveway, breathing heavily, foregoing any stretching which might prolong my time outside, and striding rapidly to the front door. For some reason I paused as I reached for the front door. There was an attempt to regather myself and prove my manliness. I reached down, put on my shirt, and intentionally stayed outside at least a full three seconds longer than I had to as I looked furtively about. As I gathered my thoughts and my manliness, my logical mind made one last comment as I strode powerfully and with purpose in through the front door.
"No one saw that, right?"