Estimated reading time — 7 minutes
I enjoy running quite a bit. It might come off as a bit odd to say, but it really is important to me. I found my love for it back in high school, when I ended up drifting aimlessly onto the cross country track teams. Joining was less of an active choice on my part and more of a settling. My parents wanted me to be more like my football and academic all-star brother, and I just wanted them off my back. Running seemed like the easiest choice. It was less of a skill-based sport and more a test of endurance, which is something I thought I had plenty of, given all the hour-long lectures I’ve sat through. Of course, it wasn’t easy like I thought it would be. Much like any sport, it required a lot of dedication and hard work. Blood, sweat, and tears, and all that jazz. Given my general attitude towards life at the time, most would expect that to put me off. But surprisingly it didn’t. I loved it.
It was less about the racing, competing, and all that, and more about the simple act of running. Of just getting out there and moving your body. It was really hard at first, when you have to build up your stamina and become capable of running long distances. However, the feeling of your body improving, of becoming able to go farther for longer, is very satisfying. Plus, just having that ability to run miles and miles is incredibly freeing in a way. Something about being able to travel without relying on anything but yourself was a very positive factor in building up my self-worth. Having a more dependable body made me feel like a more reliable, complete person. By the time graduation came around, it was a part of my identity.
If there was one part of it that I wasn’t particularly fond of, it would be the occasionally nasty weather. In particular, timing a run outdoors during the summer can be a bit of a pain. When it comes to spring or fall, you can pretty much go out for a run whenever. For winter, it’s less about timing and more about conditions. You can always bundle up a bit to keep the cold at bay, but whether or not surfaces will be icy or under thick layers of snow is definitely something to be concerned about. However, in no season are your windows for going out for a run more limited than during the summer months. If you live in an area where you have comparatively mild summers, this may not be the case for you. However, if you live in an area where the temperatures often go above 100°F and death from heatstroke is a common occurrence, then you’re probably able to relate. In weather like that, if you want to manage a run outside, you either need to go out in the early morning or late evening, or just find a decently shaded area and hope for the best. Sure, you could just go to an air-conditioned gym and run on a treadmill, but it just isn’t quite the same, you know?
Thankfully, when it came time for college, I ended up at one with a beautiful campus with extensive jogging and bike paths, which were in a well-shaded, forested area. On top of that, my schedule ended up organized in such a way that I had plenty of time free in the mornings and evenings on most days. Overall, I was in pretty good shape to be able to run outside in any season, even in the hottest days of summer.
If it weren’t for what happened that one day, it would have been perfect.
I was a bit late getting out of the dorm for my run that evening. I had to meet with my professor after class to go over my plan for the final project, and the meeting ended up running a bit late. It was getting close to sunset by the time I got back from class and finished changing into my workout gear, but I decided to go out on a run anyway. Missing a day was a bit of a pet peeve of mine, and I figured that, if I ran quickly enough, I’d be able make it back before the sun set completely. I was right about that. I did manage to get back before the sun finished dipping below the horizon. However, there was one thing that I neglected to factor in: that, in dense woods, it would start to get really dark long before the sun set completely.
I was about halfway through the last leg of my six-mile loop when it really started to set in. I could barely see my own feet hit the pavement, let alone the path ahead. It was then that I realized my mistake. However, I was well beyond being able to do much of anything about it. I was about a mile and a half away from getting back to the relatively well-lit campus, but it wasn’t like there was a way for me to cut the run short at that point. I was already on the quickest way back. The most I could do was run a bit faster. Sighing, I picked up my pace a bit, hoping that I could make it back to campus before I lost all traces of light. I wished then that I hadn’t left all my devices at home and opted to enjoy the sounds of nature rather than music. At least then I could have had something to light my path.
Unfortunately, I didn’t quite make it. When I was still about half a mile out, the forest had finally become pitch-black, without even the light of the moon piercing through the thick canopy. I couldn’t even see my own hand in front of my face. I didn’t really mind it so much, though. It did feel a bit unnerving, but running without sight was also a sort of fun, new experience. Sort of like showering with the bathroom lights off. Sure, running in the dark was a lot riskier in comparison, but the maintenance staff did a good job of keeping the trails clear, so I was in little danger of tripping. Also, at that point, it was pretty much a straight shot to campus. I felt relatively safe.
That is, until I wasn’t.
It came upon me as a sort of feeling. A general sense of something being amiss. I was more or less certain that it was just my imagination playing tricks on me. All the same though, I certainly wasn’t having fun anymore.
0.4 miles left.
I found myself shivering a bit, and not because of the cold. I found myself thinking back on the time I wet myself in a haunted house at five years old. The pure sense of fear that I felt back then in that moment seemed deeply similar to what was presently creeping up my spine as I ran through those woods. The rapid beating of my heart, already quickened by the exercise, pushed fearful adrenaline through my system ever quicker. I picked up the pace.
0.3 miles left.
I almost couldn’t hear the sound of the branch snapping over the pounding of my heart and rush of my breath. It came from somewhere off in the woods behind me and to my left. It was a perfectly normal sound to hear in the woods. Completely innocuous. Probably just a small animal in the underbrush. However, being as anxiety-ridden as I was in that moment, it may as well have been a gunshot. Reason was leaking rapidly from my mind. I felt certain that whatever had made that noise was coming for me. I was running full tilt now.
0.2 miles left.
I heard a second set of footfalls.
Where once it was just the rhythmic smacking of my sneakers against the pavement, suddenly there was an accompaniment. It seemed that whoever, or whatever, was behind me was trying to match my pace as best as they could, but it was ever so slightly offbeat. The sound seemed to be getting closer. I broke into a dead sprint. So did they, dropping any pretense of stealth.
0.1 miles left.
I could see the exit. Where the last of the trees parted, giving way to the well-manicured lawns of the campus grounds. It was so very close, a distance I could cover in less than a minute at a light jog. I couldn’t take much comfort in that, though. Whatever was chasing me was right at my heels. They were so close that they might be able to reach out and touch me. With this proximity, I started to notice things. Little details that seemed to only terrify me further. The scrape of claws against pavement with every step. A wet stench of rotting meat. A breath of hot air that coated my back in a vile humidity. I was just a few more strides away from escape, but those last steps might as well have been a marathon. I felt like a rabbit, desperately trying to outpace a set of ravenous jaws. It was so close.
3 steps… 2… 1…
I broke free of the woods, losing my balance and tumbling off the path and into the grass as I went. Stunned, it took me a few moments before I scrambled to my feet, fearful of whatever had been chasing me following me into the light. But there was nothing there. Nothing but the pitch-black entrance to the trails. The way the light hit the trees made it seem almost like a dark tunnel leading into the depths of a mountain, or the great, gaping maw of some massive beast. Intimidating, yet harmless. Whatever had been chasing me was gone. Perhaps, it was never even there.
I stumbled to my feet, out of breath yet full of relief. I chuckled a bit to myself and glanced about, thankful to find that no one was around to catch sight of my foolishness. Having fully convinced myself that I had simply imagined the whole thing, I headed off towards my dorm at a limping jog. It felt like I had pulled a calf muscle during my tumble.
It wasn’t until I got back to my dorm room and started stripping down for a shower that I saw them. A series of small, thin incisions in my right calf. Arranged in the shape of a semi-circle, they were about an inch deep and steadily oozing blood. It was almost as if I had been bitten by a small shark with a mouth full of razor blades.
With that incident, in addition to the several disappearances that occurred out in those woods over the next few years, I was pretty much done with running on those trails. I stuck to using the treadmills at the school gym for the rest of my time at that college, even during the daylight. It just felt safer that way.
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