I worry the bloated dead porcupine on the shore will explode the moment I decide to run past it. The waves are jostling it around and the aroma of decaying carcass enters my nostrils. After a second of gagging, I manage to push through and carry on down the road towards what could be my demise, or otherwise known as “jogging”. Running by myself in wild Alaska, is idiotic, terrifying, and somehow addicting.
Today my goal is to make it past the one-mile mark, where I thought I would have a heart attack yesterday; I barely made it back to the lodge and had to soak my legs in the frigid lake Iliamna (to ease the shock). I even gave them a little pep-talk:
“I know you haven’t moved in over a year during college, but you can’t fail me now. Stay with me!” When I realized I could fish all night afterwards, and still walk the next day, I wanted more of it.
This morning I found an old disc man in the closet and swiped a John Mayer CD from the kitchen. Maybe the song, ‘Your Body is a Wonderland’, will distract me from calculating all of the ways I could die today while running (bear attack, moose trample, Native Alaskan’s shot gun, porcupine explosion, and death by a year of lethargy)? I don’t know what is calling me to do this, but I know that my need to run has something to do with this new person growing from these experiences- she is braver, tougher, and sick of the side of herself that is always afraid.
Before I made my way to Dead Porcupine Shore, I turned back to get my friend’s yellow lab, Nelly, for the run. She is a wise companion and if I got lost in the bush she would be able to lead me home, hopefully. My friend put special shoes on her paws to protect her from the gravel road. She took huge steps at first, which made me snicker; I won’t be the only awkward jogger today.
We pass the carcass and I climb a hill that takes us away from the village. I’m jogging as fast as a healthy grandma, but feeling like I was matching the pace of an Olympian. Nelly is trailing right next to me, doing a sort of quick walk that mocks the persona I am trying to muster. I look to my right and fixate on the glory of the clear sky reflecting in the lake. The air is pure and I’m alone, which for a moment fulfills me.
Around the next corner I look back and realize I can no longer see the lodge in the distance. [You know when the background music changes in a movie to let you know things are getting freaky? Play that now]. Thick Alder bushes encase each side of the road, which provides convenient places for a bear to stumble out unexpectedly; so in order to scare potential bears away, and in between gasps for air, I sing along as loud as I can with Jonny:
“So we keep waiting
Waiting on the world to change (deep breath)
We keep on waiting (gasp)
Waiting on the world to change”
I make it past the Alders, without being mauled, and then we come to an old run down mill. The sheet metal siding is rusty and falling down. I’ve decided it is most likely the local meth lab- or I picture a rabid moose hiding in the shadows, snarling and ready to trample. Nelly is trailing along next to me, but she does not seem afraid so I try not to be. I’m not as cool and collected as she is and I start to second guess my idea to run alone…John Mayer isn’t helping either.
My fight or flight instinct kicks in and I move my legs as fast as I can. I do a full on ‘running for my life’ sprint for about a quarter of a mile to make it past creepy mill, and then I have to fold over to catch my breath. I hear a truck coming; I pretend to tie my shoes so they don’t know I’m exhausted and could easily be stabbed or kidnapped. I do the ‘old stretch routine’, like I could be running but I choose to stretch, because I’m a professional. Nelly barks and I throw out a neighborly wave while the native Alaskan just stares at me.
I’ve passed my mile marker goal point, but now I’m not sure I want to go back through all of the danger zones. My legs aren’t shaking yet and my dog is not even panting. So after staring out at the wilderness, I take a deep breath of gratitude, say another prayer for my life, and decide I have the guts to finish this 3 mile loop run. A float plane flies over; it’s our guests coming back from fishing, which means I have to bust it back to the lodge in order to get ready to serve dinner. Fast forward to the song, “Bigger than My Body”, time to rock out to the only music I have:
“Someday I’ll fly
Someday I’ll soar
Someday I’ll be so damn much more
Cause I’m bigger than my body gives me credit for”
After a while, I notice that I’m actually just running and my lungs are ok, and my legs are ok, and I’m not afraid. I feel like God is pumping life into my soul and duct taping my legs together so I can miraculously keep running. I get real high on something and start spouting out thoughts of: I’m going against the grain and valiantly doing the opposite of what my survival instincts tell me to, and winning! I’m running my heart out in Alaska!
Nelly and I cruise through town as I awkwardly handle my giant disc man and tie my sweatshirt around my butt to try to keep it from bouncing out of control (now I’m around people so I have to care about my butt bouncing apparently). The village is comprised of a bunch of trailers, apartments, a few box-type houses and a gas station. A girl on her bike stops and stares at me like I am the strangest thing she has seen that day.
We make it through the loop and my legs start to wobble as we go down the hill towards the Dead Porcupine Shore again. This time, there is a gathering of what looks like native Alaskan teenagers at the shore, handling gill nets and loading up their boats.
My lack of prior interaction with the village socially immobilizes me- I’m not sure what the proper thing to do here is: should I stop and say ‘hi’? Or do they hate us and I should just run by like a snob, (a white, horrid, snob)? I don’t have to decide, as I look down to see Nelly breaking from formation and sprinting into the water where the group was netting Salmon. I run over as fast as I can (healthy grandma speed), while taking my ear phones out and hoping they speak English. I’m yelling at the top of my lungs,
Nelly is half way out to the middle of the net when she looks back briefly and then keeps swimming. What a traitor, we just had an awesome run together and now she is going to just leave me? She gets out to the end of the net and starts swimming in circles. A teenage boy points and says,
“Ya…I’m so sorry, I don’t know what she is doing”, I respond.
I think she is going after their salmon they have caught in their nets, but she could also be stuck in the net at this point. My face is bright red with embarrassment as we all stand on the shore watching my dog swim in circles, in circles, in circles…
“You come on boat and get it?”
“OK, yes, please”, I responded nervously.
I jump in the young fellow’s boat and we putter out to free the traitor from the net. I get close to her and lean over, panicked that she is stuck and I will have to ask this young man to cut her out of their net. But no, she is not stuck; she is just swimming in circles like a little freak show.
I call her on the boat and she looks at me like she has never seen me before. I reach in to grab her leg and the young chap comes over to help. The boat rocks from the chaos and I almost fall in. I grab her collar and once she is in the boat she shakes all over the kind, valiant, boatman/hero.
“I’m so sorry! Bad dog, Nelly!”
He speeds to the shore and I see his friends are all laughing hysterically at me. I yell that I’m sorry (because when people don’t speak your language if you yell really loud, they are more likely to understand).
“I hope my dog didn’t mess up your Salmon Harvest Time”.
They keep laughing and saying things that I can’t understand. So I wave, smile some more and grab my disc man, my wet dog (who has lost her expensive shoes in the water), and briskly walk towards the lodge. After a few moments of anger-walking, I start laughing almost uncontrollably.
My friend was a bit peeved about losing Nelly’s shoes, but the fact that I was soaking wet gave him a good chuckle. After I told my story to my lodge friends, I slipped my shoes off and waded out into the freezing lake again to ice my exhausted legs. I stood there, staring out at the beautiful Alaskan scenery and noticed a giant smile on my face. A smile brought on by a hard run, defying death, and then having a much needed belly laugh.
I didn’t die today, and I wonder what will happen on my run tomorrow?
“So we are going to keep doing this?” my legs asked.
“Yes, yes I think we are. And suck it up- we’re going fishing tonight too. Life is going to be much different from here on out, legs. If I can run by myself in the Alaskan bush, I think I can do almost anything”.
Happy New Year, friends! This story was from a while back, but it has been on my mind. I am hoping that (above) crazy runner will show up more often this next year and remember the thrill that comes from hard work, taking risks and really having a deeper faith that God will give the power needed to conquer anything. I ended up running almost every day for the rest of the summer and lost a ton of weight because I was so terrified, I had to run fast (maybe I need to hire someone to chase me).
Live life to the fullest, even if people think you are strange. Oh and John Mayer is doing fine and Nelly went on to mother two of my dogs. She is doing great and still a bit mischievous. 😉 Happy Adventuring!