By Joe Nuss

I usually don’t recover from a run with a glass of wine but, after tonight’s run, a trail run no less, believe me, a glass of wine is warranted. In fact, it wasn’t until I started on this second glass of Pinot Noir that my nerves were in such a state that I could actually write this and share my incredible run— a run that started around 7:15 pm and only concluded just a few minutes ago. Before I get to the run, however, let me first preface it by sharing with you a peculiarity of my personality, a peculiarity only because I have no reason now, nor ever in the course of my life, for acting in such way but, nonetheless, I always do.

Even as a small child I possessed this habit— this habit to ruthlessly blame myself for all the bad things that happened to me. If, by chance, there was no immediate cause and effect leading up to the unfortunate incident, I would backtrack through my actions leading up to the occurrence until I found a moment where I did something I wouldn’t normally have done. In doing so, I would then believe that that was where I went wrong, whether the moment had any direct correlation at all to the bad thing that happened. Which brings me to tonight and the moment on the trail where I simultaneously ran through a late night thunder and hail storm and recounted the day’s events that lead me to a ravine near the Mountains to Sea Trail by Falls Lake.

Now, being blessed with the opportunity to work from home as I need, I do my best to put in a solid day of work. Today was no different. I had all intentions of taking Harper, my dog, on a trail run by Falls Lake well before work but, at the last moment decided to change direction and drive to the coffee shop where I might run into some friends who run a race registration site who could set things in motion to deliver a check to my son’s elementary school for the 5K fundraising event I produce. Little did I know that hours later I would backtrack to this very moment as the point where the course of my day was diverted to something terrible.

I did, in fact, run into my friends and wound up staying at the coffee shop longer than expected. I returned home for lunch with a plan to eat the amazing tabbouleh I made from Brandon McDearis’ recipe along with some grilled chicken, pita bread, and tzaziki sauce only to find that my wife took it all to work. So, instead, I had a tomato and avocado sandwich, which was not nearly as filling as the tabbouleh and chicken. After picking up my son from school, I was absolutely starving and ate a peanut butter sandwich under the notion that the family and I would all eat dinner together around 8pm after my daughter got home from soccer practice. But, because of yesterday’s rain, the soccer fields were closed. That meant my daughter would be home at 5 pm and Sandi at 5:30, which meant dinner at 6. At 6, however, I would still be full from the peanut butter sandwich. So, I worked through dinner and finally, at 7pm, changed over and drove to the trail to do the run I should have done earlier in the day with Harper.

Silhouette of branches on the sky background.

The first half mile or so from the trail head is particularly well-shaded, even in winter, because of the pines. After that, the trail skirts a cove on the lake that lets in more sunlight, tricking the mind into believing that the first half mile is just as light as where you are on the trail at the moment. It is not and certainly would not be so on the “back” portion of my “out-and-back” run. I didn’t consider this as the evening was cooler than I expected and I was having a particularly good run: good pace, low heart rate. When I reached the junction leading to Anne Wilkerson Park, I did something I wouldn’t normally do, I turned towards the park, which lead to another junction and a low-to-the-ground sign post indicating directions to the Mountains to Sea Trail (where I just came from) or the Forest Loop in the park. Or, I could just go left, into the park. I went left and was soon in an open field. I realized then, that because it was hard to see in the open meadow it would be harder on the trail, especially the last half mile, which was particularly well-shaded. I turned around and began running for the trailhead with a bit of urgency.

I entered the woods again and, as things tend to do in changing light, the trail looked different. The temperature suddenly dropped. The wind picked up and as such, made it hard to tell whether the sound of rustling leaves was caused by the wind or squirrels; probably not deer as deer tend to step slowly and not rustle the leaves until scared. The wind swirled wildly and a dark cloud of rain blocked all but the faintest remaining light. The leaves crunched slowly and the hair on my arms stood up. My mind revved with childhood fears of darkness and depraved horror films I never should have watched. But, the sound of leaves crunching slowly remained. The sound was inconsistent with the wind and the likeliness of deer, or any other animal for that matter moving about this close to a storm. Ahead at the trail junction sign, however, there was clearly a deer. But, then IT moved. IT stood up. There was no white tail; there was no bounding movement away from me. Something absolutely not afraid of man stood up and turned to face me…

CRASH! A bolt of lighting struck by the lake and so shook me that I stopped in my tracks and then when I tried to start up running once more, I tripped over a root and nearly face planted were it not for a reflexive hand thrust out in front of me to brace my fall. Laying flat on the ground I could feel in the darkness dirt and debris in the opened wound of my hand. I managed to sit up just in time for a flash of lightning and to see that IT was gone. I sat on the ground, pinched the bridge of my nose and took a deep breath. I reeled in my imagination. It must have been a trick of light, or maybe a deer, a deer grown used to people amidst all this development.

Still sitting, I pressed my hands to my face, breathed deep and then clasped my hands behind my head and slowed my heart rate with a long exhale. My watch showed a little after 8pm. Clearly, I overestimated daylight on this first day of Daylight Savings. It would be safer just to walk. I could see the trail junction sign right in front of me… but it was pulled out of the ground! There WAS something! Whatever IT was had tried to remove the sign. IT deliberately wanted to fool me. Perhaps to lead me in the wrong direction to… to…

I ran. I freaking ran.

I tripped and stumbled and ran but, never seemed to reach the cove I knew was a half mile from the trailhead. Did I turn the wrong way? Did IT really trick me? Crap. I stopped and hoped for a flash of lighting to help me see the way. There was none. But, it did begin to rain. Maybe I tapped into some sort of survival instinct, I don’t know. But I was certain I could hear the sound of rain on water separate form rain on dry leaves. I must be going in the right direction. I ran.

Soon, I slipped on the same system of above-ground roots that I normally slipped on in the daylight. I could tell be the descent that I was nearing the bridge over the creek the fed into the cove. I crossed the bridge and ran the short flat by the creek below the ridge where I had just come from. Lighting flashed once more and for certain I saw it. I saw IT. Illuminated against the sky above the ridge was a figure; a figure NOT an animal. It moved with ease down the ridge. In my mind I began to calculate time. Time for it to cross the bridge and catch up to me versus the time it took for me to get to my car at the trailhead. I wish I had Harper with me. Dogs would know about dealing with this… I was certain I would have a better chance if my dog were here. I sprinted up the hill from the creek bed but, whatever it was didn’t turn towards the bridge but, instead just floated across the creek. No way I’d make it to the car…

I ran with my eyes on the creature until another flash of light… a flash of light not thunder, but the reaction of my brain to the crashing of my cheek and eye socket against a tree.

My daughter Claudia is flicking her finger against my forehead. It hurts. Why is she doing that? Why is she flicking her finger against my forehead while I am sleeping. It’s wet. It’s raining. I am laying in wet leaves and mud. I am not sleeping. My daughter isn’t flicking her finger against my head… it’s hail. I’m laying on the ground by the trail in a thunder and hail storm. I ran into a tree. I tap my Fitbit and see that it is almost 9:30pm. I feel for my iPhone on my arm strap and pull it out. Messages from Sandi…. where are you? are you okay? text me. call me. please call me now! I’m worried. joe, please call me.

The light on my phone reveals that I’m in a ditch, a ravine maybe. It looks more like a ravine carved out by the recent storm water running off the slope of land surrounding the lake. There is no tree nearby, though, which is weird, because I remember running into a tree. I swipe up on my phone and see the Flashlight icon and point my finger to tap it when something jerks my heel. I suddenly realize that my back is exposed to the earth… my shirt is rolled up on my back as if I have been dragged to this place. I try to tap the Flashlight icon once more but, before I can tap it I am jerked by both heels this time. Something has my feet! I fumble to tap the Flashlight icon again at the very moment I feel hands with sharp finger nails around my ankles squeeze tight and begin to pull me into the ground. My finger points to the Timer icon— the wrong icon— but I manage to catch the Flashlight icon and flip my phone towards my feet… two shining eyes illuminated in a large hole the creature is trying to pull me into… I scream a silent helpless nightmare scream and kick. IT lets go and swipes at my ankles with dagger claws once more but, I am too quick. I scramble to my feet and begin to run but stop because it giggles, no, snickers with profane confidence as if it let me go rather than me escape…

I ran through the pelting hail, rumbling thunder, and strobe-like lightning storm before reaching my car and speeding away from the trail head. I speed to the Harris Teeter parking where I rest my head on the steering wheel and catch my breath.

“Be Back Soon”. I text this to my wife not knowing what else to say.

I know that I’m going to get some wine. But, before I do, I sit in the car and think…

At 7pm I changed over to run. Dinner was ready at 6 but, I didn’t eat. Sandi got home to make dinner at 5:30. Claudia was home at 5 because the soccer fields were closed because of yesterday’s rain…

When I finally get back home, everyone is asleep except for Harper who has that, “you should have taken me on a run” look in her eyes. I realize that was the point in my day where things went horribly wrong.