Dancing with risk

Leadville 100 mountain bike race, Colorado.

(Originally published in The Sewanee Mountain Messenger. Reproduced by permission.)

Spying what appeared on radar to be a break in the rain, I decided to get out for a trail run. The prospect of being out without getting soaked appealed to me; plus, I really needed to get away from the computer.

Among the stories I had read was that of a man who died during the famous Leadville 100 mountain-bike race in Colorado. A year younger than me, he had ridden Leadville nineteen times previous, and had suffered an apparent heart attack on a steep climb, at altitude, in the Rockies. Today’s world being what it is, the predictable conversation began across the internet - ‘he died doing what he loved’ versus, well, various negative things, including that the man was apparently selfish somehow for dying as he did.

Venturing out on my usual trail, I quickly learned that I had guessed wrongly. Not even a half-mile in, the world suddenly became dark and ominous. The white noise of water moving through trees ramped up, and the staccato dripping became continuous rain. The woods closed around me as thunder rolled out its casual menace overhead, and I began glancing around for lightning.

Being in the woods, I knew, was the best strategy for avoiding being struck — except, of course, sitting in my house. I reached the opening where the Cross stood, high and solitary, a perfect lightning rod. Skirting around the parking area, I planned to avoid the overlook, until a dramatic visual caught my eye: a sharp bright strip of white cloud stood out from the gloom behind the plateau which extended away to the right, while at the same time dark cloud swept up the side of the cove. I was tempted for a moment to take my phone out of its Ziploc bag for a photo, but thought better of it and turned back for the woods.

Pondering how foolish I would seem if I managed to get myself zapped, I headed back, dancing around puddles and keeping my weight balanced over my feet so I wouldn’t lose traction. Seeing a thin straight crease in the orange sand of the trail at my feet, I wasn’t totally sure - was it a tire track, or a rivulet cut by runoff?

Relaxing when the thunder rumbled far off to the south, and then tensing as it broke directly overhead, I hugged the wooded edge of the lacrosse field in a meager attempt to minimize lightning risk, and picked up the pace across the last open field on my route before finishing back in my neighborhood.

Once I was back home, placing my dripping running stuff out to dry on my back porch, whatever risk there might have been instantly vanished as though it had never existed. A run in the rain had happened. End of story. If nothing happens, then there wasn’t anything to worry about anyway, yes?

Until there is. Until the 20th race becomes the last race. Until random lightning strikes on a trail, or at the Cross.

We’re always dancing with risk. Sometimes it’s just a little more obvious.