Now that triathlon season is over and open-water swimming is finished (last swim: October 5th), it's time to head into the woods.
Bugs disappear. Leaves crunch. Vistas appear. And, at least for a while, trails reveal. Whether I'm trail-running or mountain-biking, at this time of year, the cool weather means the grassy plants that otherwise hide trails in the heat of summer do a retreat. I was biking in South Royalton, Vermont, about three weeks ago, for instance, and unexpectedly came upon a network of single-track trails that had been hidden from me all summer. At Oak Hill in Hanover, New Hampshire, I came upon a Class V road for the first time this fall that took me far from the outer reaches of the Outback loop.
Fall means not only that training demands drop slightly, but that a series of happy suprises await the enterprising athlete. Sunsets against color leaves. Deer bounding down the hill just ahead of my mountain bike. Geese flying in formation to warmer climes, their cries echoing across a valley as I descend a hill.
It's really great. All of September and the early part of October -- when it's still warm, colorful, and in the midst of turning from one season to the next -- become workouts of color and surprise. The woods beckon and delight, and there seems to be no end in sight to the happiness.
Until, of course, it does change. Each year, the shift from friendly fall to freezing fall is different. Last year, it came in early October. This year, it came only five days ago.
Here's what happens. Temperatures drop from an avg of 50-60 F during the day and 40-50 F at night to at least 10-15 degrees cooler. The difference means everything. I move from wearing short shirts and pants (whether running or biking) to long shirts and sometimes even running tights. Today was typical. I awoke to 32 F, went mountain biking at 48 F, and got home from the ride in the darkness with temps already at 45 F.
After living in the Upper Valley for 13 years, I've learned to pay strict attention to the temperature and wind in terms of how to dress for exercise. For instance, last week, I ran in 45 F weather under cloudy conditions and with a wind at 20+ mph. The response? An outfit more sensible for winter than fall -- hat, gore-tex jacket, running tights, and a long-sleeve shirt.
Which means these forays into the woods become something else. Instead of a frolic amidst the leaves, it becomes a slight struggle against the oncoming cold and darkness. It means being really aware of when sunset occurs or disciplined enough during the workday to schedule a workout during the day. Oh, and then there is this: the trail disappears once the cold arrives.
The arrival of steady cold weather also means there is another reality with which to reckon: most of the leaves have fallen. And with it, those once-revealed trails disappear. Good luck trying to find your way on a single track trail once 90% of the leaves have dropped. The trail is filled with mis-direction and sometimes disappears altogether. I'll never forgot pursuing a single-track trail on Oak Hill late in the fall only to find myself atop a hill, surrounded by deer, and no sense of how I had gotten there or how to return. Trail turns to woods. What seems like the next step forward is anything but.
But even when the weather shifts, it's hard to resist the call of the woods. Maybe it's the fact that the woods will be impossible to ride and run for most of the winter, assuming snow cover is decent. Maybe it's because even late into Fall, sometimes as last as Thanksgiving, the views and colors and smells are so incredible.
It could also be this simple truth: in the fall, the woods show their true colors. It's not yellow, red, and orange of the leaves, but the capacity for the woods to both reveal and hide. Maybe this is why hunting primarily occurs at this time of year. This is a tantilizing time, full of joy and mystery. A person enters from the civilized world of roads, sidewalks, and street lights to find what? Trees, paths, hills, leaves, and special views.
It usually ends for me around Thanksgiving. A final run, a last mountain-bike ride. Near-full winter gear for both efforts. Once the first serious snow falls, it's pretty much curtains for the woods, save the trails cut and groomed for cross-country skiing.
I've got at least five weeks to go. And wouldn't miss it for the world.