AS I RUN THROUGH THE WOODS in Hell, Michigan, I am conscious of only three things:
The horizontal blue ribbons marking the trail,
My beautiful, brand-new sparkling engagement ring,
And the fact that, aside from my lime-green running shoes, I am completely naked. It is the first time I’ve ever really thanked god that I have small boobs.
Arms, ones that look uncannily familiar, rise in the air as a voice, one that sounds alarmingly like mine, yells out, “as god intended” with such magnetism I can hear it echo in other voices behind me.
But this moment isn’t the beginning, nor is it the end. It really lies somewhere in the middle, wedged between memory and reality. The beginning occurs roughly ten hours earlier, when I began the day with some sun salutations on a tiny alcove next to an algae-coated pond. I can hear Ruth and Michelle giggling in the tent, but I don’t check in. I am heady at the moment, locked in mental solitude. I eat a fist-full of Nutella, drink two bottles of water, and take off on a warm-up jog. I feel good; I feel loose. Finally, I drop a pre-run deuce (very important to do before distance running), stretch out my quads (also important), and head up through the campsite to the starting line.
This is my first official half-marathon. I am running the aptly named “Hippy Half” at a weekend-long camping, yoga, and running extravaganza known as Run Woodstock. Michelle, Ruth, and I drove up the night before and set up a rather impressive camp using only the light from my headlamp and a trillion stars. I am neither pumped or nor scared; I mostly feel neutral. Empty.
I don’t think I even hear the call to start, I just feel the runners starting to move en masse, hundreds and thousands of crazy bastards, just like myself, ready to conquer some of Michigan’s toughest trails. We loop the campsite before hitting the woods and I see Michelle and Ruth, clapping for me with outstretched arms and proud, goofy grins, making their way up for the start of the 5-mile race.
The first few miles are easy trails, paved and pampered. Once we hit mile four the real digging begins. Running trails isn’t like pounding pavement. It takes balance, instinct, and, most of all, strategy. You have to trust your feet to think on their own, avoiding the roots that stick up and holes that drop down. When the trail narrows you’re bound to bottleneck, single-filing behind runners, joggers and the oh-so-sassy power-walkers (how those hips sashay!). These are the moments when you let your lungs catch up to your legs, think about your breath, expanding and contracting, in and out, slowing down, and then when the trail widens a bit you break away, you haul ass, like your mom is tearing after you with a switch in hand, and you just go, go, go, thinking about nothing but your heart because, at this point, the only thing you can hear is it thundering against the inside of your skull. That’s how I run trails and, mad as it may seem, I love every second of it.
This morning I have wings. The beauty of these woods and the communal love for running proves to be an endless supply of fuel. At every turn I am met with something new, cheering on a 100k runner or admiring a top-down view of rolling green, that makes me want to sing. A man says to me as I pass him by: “You run with a smile.” We run together for a while, our feet falling at the same time, kicking up dirt and grinding roots till we come to a big hill and he lags behind. Hills are my thing; I feel like I’m floating even as my thighs burn. When I make it to the top I can tell I’m still smiling. Mile ten goes by and I look at General Garmitron, a Garmin GPS watch that shouts in angry analog beeps when I go too slow, and, holy shit, it’s been less than an hour and half. That’s under a 9-minute mile. That’s almost 7 miles per hour for ten fucking miles and I feel like I am the goddamn boss of the woods. I can feel the bliss of it in every cell in my body. Every foot strike, every muscle, every tendon works in rhythm to push me forward. I am immortal, I am, and I know, now, that I can truly accomplish anything, only I laugh at the thought because this race is no longer a goal, not any more. Now it’s just simply existing as I was meant to exist, and there is an indescribable amount of joy in discovering that. I feel connected to everything, as if I am an extension of the world rather than a visitor, not just some person among the trees but an animal among the wild and this is good, this is amazing, because this is where we began (where we belong). The trees line my path like Roman columns and I jump over fallen logs and scramble up hills as if this joy has made me weightless, which it has until mile 12, only one more left, when I metaphorically face plant into a brick wall. All of the sudden my feet are heavy. My arms are concrete. My breath weighs me down. The trail becomes a river, deep and wide. I’m sinking, oh god, I think, and I know I’ll still make it, but now it’s a struggle. I try to cling to the bliss I felt earlier, but I can feel it melting away.
“Pick it up, socks.”
It’s the man who likes my smile. He calls me socks because I’m wearing knee high blue socks plastered with stars – pink, green, and yellow – partly to be cute, but mostly because trails have tall grass and tall grass has thorns and bugs. He pats my back. Sets a pace. His gentle words push me hard and I pick it up until I crest a hill and see the finish line for the first time, a monument to these glorious tendons and bones. I hear some yells, some claps. I see a clock that reads two hours.
Then I see a face.
This face is so familiar to me that I’m initially not surprised to see it, but then I remember that he was not in the car when we drove up. I remember setting up the tent and joking with Michelle and Ruth about how much it would suck if your friends all had cool superpowers, like flying and invisibility, but yours is just growing mold, and his laughter wasn’t among ours, because he wasn’t there. But now, here he is, at the finish line of my first half-marathon, a man who so earnestly loves and accepts me for who I am that he drove six hours in the dead of night to surprise me in the woods of Hell, Michigan, with a diamond ring and a bended knee.
Of course, I say yes.
Later that day we set up another tent (the love tent, if you will) and walk through the woods in a light drizzle to the local village for ice cream and pizza. We take pictures, crossing-the-threshold-style, in front of a rock that reads “Welcome to Hell,” and I am thankful, not for the first time, to have found a partner whose sacrilegious sense of humor parallels my own. I’m not a sentimental person, despite my earlier soul merging with the woods, and I’m not traditional, either, but I’m flooded with sappy thoughts of hearts and kittens and unicorns, forever-y things that make girls swoon, but usually make me puke a little in my mouth. I look up at Jon and I say:
“There’s a natural run later on today, just before sunset.”
He turns a little red.
“Come on.” I tug at his arm. “How many couples can say they got engaged and then ran naked through the woods?”
That seals the deal.
Our campsite neighbors, Luke and Jamie, and some sweet girl, whose name I forget but whose toenails ripped off later in the night, energetically join us in our nudist adventure. It’s their voices that echo “as god intended” and their voices that coax dozens of naked runners to raise their glasses in a toast to our engagement. In the middle of the woods, in a corner where no one would think to look, naked runners gather around an open bar (hydration is important) and reward ourselves for our rebelliousness. Luke, his naked body lean and long, like a robe hanging on the back of a bathroom door, clambers up on a keg or a cooler and raises a plastic glass in our honor, and voices chorus and yell and I smile at Jon and try not to look at all the vaginas and penises that are congratulating us. Instead I look at Jon’s hat, a black fisherman’s hat with this tiny brim that I hate beyond words. I flick the brim and he smiles, knowing that I hate the hat and, because I know he knows I hate it, I love him all the more for wearing it.
But this moment, remember, is the middle. It would make a fine end, no doubt, and maybe I should stop here, but the night carried on. Naked running turned into naked swimming, and a proverbial nudist take over of Run Woodstock. No one seemed surprised and no one, not once, ever told us to put our clothes back on. For once I don’t obsess over the thickness of my thighs or the dimples in my butt. I don’t care that my breasts have lost some of the elasticity of youth. Everyone around me is a perfect formation of flaws, so different and yet the same; the honesty is beautiful. We’re all connected by this feeling of liberation inside and out, and I feel like I am at mile ten all over again.
The water is cold, so, obviously, a naked campfire is the next logical choice. We roast s’mores and grilled cheese sandwiches, drink beer and wine, and laugh and sing. A group walks over. Their approaching faces are just shadows in the fire, but I can tell they’re clothed, and I can’t stop giggling at the array of possible thoughts that are sure to bombard their minds.
“Hey, can we join your campfire?” The last three words fade as reality sets in. “You’re, uh, you’re all naked.” They bow out gracefully perplexed and, even though I think we’re a good-looking group, quite possibly a little disgusted.
Jon pulls over Michelle’s yoga mat and sits down, propping one leg up and resting his arm on his knee, still wearing that awful hat, his naughty bits dangling down like a sleeping monitor lizard.
Jamie leans over to me and with a drunken chuckle says, “You said yes. You said yes to that hat.”
I laugh with Jamie and make a mental note to buy Michelle a new yoga mat. I look around and realize that we have somehow traveled out to the farthest corners of the universe. The green pond is now an expanse of blankness and the stars are fighting for elbowroom in the sky. We all take turns playing with the fire and then people start pairing off. Jon and I crawl into our tent, one so big I can (and do) spin off a cartwheel or two. We lay down, zip up, and my head finds its usual spot, a subtle indentation between his chest and his shoulder.
We open one of the window flaps so we can spy on Michelle and Ruth, left fireside with the two naked Adonises, feral with adrenaline and naive with youth. Everything about this day was a surprise, yet nothing was unexpected. The universe often gives absurd adventures like this, if you know where to look, and I am always looking. I can hear the campfire crackle and the unzipping of a tent. Jon sighs and kisses my forehead and, in this moment, I’m as close to lifting the veil, to seeing the true nature of myself and the world, as I have ever been. Maybe as I will ever be.
SARA PALMER is working on her master’s in creative writing at Indiana State University. She received her bachelor’s in journalism from the University of South Florida, with an emphasis on news editing and visual communications. She fuels her passion for creative writing as social media guru, tech writer, freelance editor and graphic designer. Her master’s thesis is a collection of short stories that focus on modern (and sometimes morbid) restylings of traditional legends and myths. In her spare time (haha) she teaches yoga, runs trails, and is desperately trying to finish up the second season of Breaking Bad. You can find her on Twitter: @papaconquista