By Whitney Waters

A Human Animal

I’m on mile 14 or so, coming downhill on a single-track trail, and the partly cloudy skies give way to rain. The mud is caked on my shoes and splattered up the back of my calves. Scuff marks on the insides of my ankles from where my shoes scrape against the insides of my legs with each slippery step. At first, I avoid the puddles, stepping tentatively around them. But soon I realize it’s hopeless. I plow straight through them, letting the cold water soak into my shoes, my socks. The rain filters through the trees, but it still wets my hair to my face, my clothes to my skin, like the fur of a wet animal. Tapping cold pricks against bare shoulders as the rain comes down harder and harder. My skin attempts to wick it off, but my clothes have reached a point of full saturation. The mud has been washed off now. My skin and shoes are sleek and clean, and the water beads up and runs over me. I am water-dwelling, amphibious.

I turn onto a gravel road and continue downhill toward the parking lot. Something pings around my feet. At first I think I’m kicking up bits of rock, but then I realize that small brown toads are jumping through the puddles and into my path. I manage to dodge them as they dance around me, inviting me into their watery world. My legs are springy, feet jumping in and out of puddles in time with the toads.

When I return to my car, I toss my water-logged shoes into the trunk. My bare feet are soft and beginning to wrinkle. I drive home and peel my soggy clothes from my skin, tossing them on the tile floor of the bathroom. The hot water runs over me, bringing my body temperature back to normal. I dry off, change into something warm and dry and comfortable. I am human again, newly so.

In the past two years, Asheville has received record rainfall. I love a rainy run on a nice summer or spring day: the raindrops on eyelashes, on shoulders, the mud puddles, the smell of it on grass. But this winter has been hard. The trails have turned to mush. The local park has flooded almost weekly now, being as it is by a river. On a day where the temperature is in the 30s or 40s, the rain can get inside your skin and chill you “to the bone” as they say here in the south. And that’s what it feels like– nothing can warm you. On these days, I’m often one of a very few brave souls out there on the trails. It is elating. It is vindicating. And that feeling of a hot shower and dry clothes afterwards is that of intense pleasure.

I think there’s a word for this, in some language—this juxtaposition of sensation, heightened by opposing extremes. A popsicle after a hot, humid run. A grassy repose after 7 hours on the trail. Pushing one’s body into discomfort and feeling- really feeling- all of the discomfort and all of the pleasure. We spend so much time in climate-controlled spaces that sometimes I think we forget what it feels like to be truly soaked by rain, chilled to the bone, soaked in sweat and grime. To really feel the weather. And to really feel exertion in the most extreme sense.

We like to separate ourselves from nature with walls and ceilings, with windows that give us a glimpse into the outside world without being able to feel the air. We define what nature is supposed to be like and try to control it. Even as I sit and write this, I’m indoors and immobile. The very nature of the word “indoors” as opposed to its opposite “out-of-doors” is a strange concept. We have invented these doors, these enclosures, as a way to separate ourselves from nature, to control it to a degree, as we often do in so many ways. I’m not suggesting that we all abandon our homes and live outside or that we spend all day in a downpour or a blizzard with no shelter. But to keep ourselves enclosed at all times, as so many of us do, is a disservice to the soul.

Running long distances is demanding in any respect, regardless of weather. Running over 30 miles in intense heat and humidity asks a lot of the body. I’ve run ultra marathons where the last couple of hours are spent dragging myself through eighty degree temperatures and high humidity, guzzling water that will never quite satiate my thirst from all the sweat I’ve lost. My clothes hang heavily from my body and drip down my legs as if I’d been swimming. My face is streaked in salt, my hair hardened into crystalized clumps.

People run in far hotter conditions than this. They seek out this misery. Badwater 135, which proclaims itself the world’s toughest footrace, goes straight through Death Valley. I’ve never run in the desert, never had the rubber on my shoes melt on hot asphalt. But running in Appalachia in the summer brings its own challenges. It’s all about what our bodies are accustomed to, and mine will never adapt to these hot, humid days fully. But I run anyway. I struggle through the summer, mostly by bribing myself with a dip into a cold creek at the end, and that makes it (almost) worth it. Sometimes I just lie in the shallow creek, rocks against my back, and water flowing over top of me as it would over a turtle’s shell.

Western North Carolina has a variety of trails, ranging from steep and technical to meandering dirt and gravel. I’m fortunate enough to have access to many of these trails within 20-30 miles of my house. These gentle rolling mountains pass through all four seasons, though they often ricochet between seasons. Warm days in winter. Snow in March. North Carolina weather is unpredictable. In the spring, rhododendrons bloom. I run through their spiral tunnels that create a shadow mosaic on the trail floor. It feels endless, and I am encapsulated. The sun spreads over the mountains, creating pockets of hot and cold air, shade and heat, depending on what side of the mountain you’re on.

I’ve seen a lot of wildlife out here over the years: snakes, bear, deer, turtles, lizards. I usually run with my dog. As we approach a trail, her tail begins its rapid motions, and she yips in excitement. She darts up and down the steepest of embankments, leaping with the grace of a deer. I slog behind her, ambling like a bear, smiling. I try to mimic her grace, to allow my feet to intuitively find their way down technical trails, to find joy in my surroundings—the sights and smells of the mountains, even on days where my body struggles with each step.

The winters here can be pretty mild, but due to the mountain elevation, we do get the occasional snow-storm. In North Carolina, a snow-storm usually means somewhere between 6-12 inches. Snow is probably my favorite weather condition to run in. It can be difficult, especially in the type of wet icy snow that is common here. It’s like running in cold, slippery sand. Your feet sink in, slip around in search of a stable surface. This makes running uphill particularly calf-burning, breath suckingly painful. I’m usually covered in sweat from the effort of it, despite the below freezing temperatures.

But snow running is also beautiful. On days with even a modest amount of snow, I’m usually one of the few brave people out there on the trail. Quiet and solitude and fresh tracks. My dog bounding through the white landscape, pure energy and joy. The ground beneath is irrelevant. The roots and rocks are engulfed in soft snow. The trails I run on every week become transformed.

Running is an integral part of my snow day ritual, just as it is of pretty much any other day. When I return from running, I strip off my soggy socks, my clothes, and I engage in those cozy snow-day pleasures: blankets, soup, hot drinks. These things would not be the same without the experience of immersing myself in snow. 

I haven’t run on a treadmill in probably a decade. This is not a point of bragging; there is almost no weather condition so extreme (in North Carolina at least) that would make running outdoors more miserable than running on a treadmill. (The caveat I submit here is legitimately dangerous extreme weather events, in which case, I usually just take the day off.) Quite the opposite: I enjoy running in all weather. Sure, I’ll admit I’m not always eager to get out the door when it’s pouring rain and 40 degrees outside or on a windy, twenty-degree evening. But I’m (almost) always glad I did. Once I’m moving, I enjoy the sensations—of my body moving, or the rain or sun or wind on my skin.

Running is a physical and mental escape, a stress relief tool that has become especially important as I go through grad school. The copious amounts of reading and writing begin to weigh me down throughout the day, and I feel like a caged animal. I crave the physical effort of my legs and lungs, the release of movement. Sometimes I think through whatever I’m writing at the time and gain clarity on exactly what it is I want to say. Sometimes I don’t think about it at all and return with my brain feeling refreshed and my body energized and tired at the same time. As my feet trace over roots, rocks, and streams, my mind begins to relax as well.

I breathe in the mountain air, let it fill my lungs, allow the sun, the rain, the snow to saturate my skin. To be out-of-doors is to be alive, fully animal and fully human.

Whitney holds an MA in English Literature from Western Carolina University and works part-time at Jus’ Running. She can be found running with her dog and friends at the nearest trail.