by Michael Keshigian

I enjoy running. No doubt about it, though, at times it eludes any rational explanation. Circumstances like the cold, heat, crowds, running partners, etc., initiate different emotions and responses, but the ritual does have a way of raising my life to a more satisfying level.

That sense of well-being, nonetheless, doesn’t come easily. The obvious benefits are balanced by sprinklings of injuries, stomach cramps, heat exhaustion, and periodic bouts of mental anguish. Even contemplative moments, mid-run, oscillate between creative thoughts and the huge, punishing question of why. But provided I pound the pavement for enough miles, exercise euphoria eventually sets in. This past summer, though, I had an experience that stifled my commitment for quite a few weeks.

I was on vacation near New Hampshire’s largest lake. The morning was warm, with a fresh Winnipesaukee breeze under a cloudless blue ceiling, when I spied a path through the woods. I had noticed the opening off the bike path I ran the day before and contemplated exploration. With the sun bearing down and a cool breath at the mouth of the heavily wooded entrance, I succumbed to temptation, rationalizing that no matter how deep I ventured, the path undoubtedly would lead to a recognizable place.

The quiet, primordial calmness of the forest immediately captivated me. Civilization lurked only feet away, but the sensation of being transported to a different time and place overwhelmed me. As peacefulness and serenity embraced me, the off-road experience exhilarated me. The deeper I traveled, the more pleasantly remote and detached I felt. My soul eased into tranquility while I became part of the scene. Except for the occasional stump or rock, I believed I had found the ultimate running trail.

Time stood still. The air reverberated with nature’s music: rustling leaves, chatting squirrels, chirping birds, and barking dogs. Barking dogs! What the heck with barking dogs! I panicked. Instinctively I picked up my pace, running to elude their detection. Perhaps they missed my scent. As luck would have it, though, the faster I ran, the louder and closer the barks became. I envisioned a couple of hungry, foaming Dobermans in pursuit. Running faster than any marathon contender, I whizzed by trees, shrubs, and bogs. Branches and needles were pricking, cutting the skin on my thighs. I ran wildly, no longer following the path. Like a man possessed, I scrambled further into the thickets, deeper into the darkness. The dogs were getting closer, the barks louder. What if they caught me in here?

With their thrashing nearly upon me, my fear increased. I didn’t know what to do, for they would soon certainly catch me. Suddenly, a whistle! A man-made, piercing whistle. I sensed doggy departure, but my heart was thumping so loudly I couldn’t distinguish retreat from pursuit. Sweating profusely I dove into a patch of undergrowth, hiding in case the dogs were still about. I dared not even blink, frozen motionless like a terrified deer. Incredibly, though, the dogs were gone. As quickly as they approached, they had disappeared.

I lay in the thicket for what seemed an eternity, allowing myself security by the cover of the forest. My body pulsated the entire time. Ten minutes went by before I regained my composure and propped myself up on my knees. I smiled sheepishly, surviving a runner’s worst nightmare. The magic of the forest began to return while I nuzzled under its shelter. With the horror of the dogs fading, though, a new terror lurched into my vision. My nuzzling took place in a bog of poison ivy.

I bolted out of the woodland, heading back quickly to the bike path, never happier to sense the hot asphalt beneath my feet. Still tanked on adrenaline, I dashed back to my room, hoping the shower would wash away the experience. Too late. Less than a week later, I endured an extremely severe reaction to the ivy. It took four weeks to clear up the irritation and erosion on my skin, including doctor’s visits and antibiotics. Not only did the disfigurement cause embarrassment, the incessant scratching tortured me daily. I’ve long since corralled my itch for woodland runs.