Cadillac. Moonlight. Magic.

The moon, photo courtesy of Rob Thomas.

The moon, photo courtesy of Rob Thomas.

There’s nothing like kick starting your running habit by jumping off the couch and doing a nearly 10 mile run up and down the highest point on the North Atlantic seaboard. At night. In the winter.

The last 6 weeks have been a rest period for me. Rest initiated by a taper for my last big race of the year, compounded by a wicked cold that settled in my sinuses and lungs, a snow storm that knocked down trees across my local trails, rapidly shortening day light hours and rapidly increasing load at work, finalized by the realization that although there are people out there who can sustain a high training volume seemingly indefinitely, I am not one of them. Rest it is. I’ve run once a week maybe, for the past 6 weeks. I’m streaking, right to the couch.

For a while it felt good and right. Then it didn’t. I started to feel the aches and pains and stiffness that come from inactivity. Work persisted though, as have the long nights and short days. My mind has been back on running, but my body hasn’t gone along for the ride. Then last week, the invitation came across my screen to join a group planning a run up the Cadillac Mountain Auto Road in Acadia National Park, the night after the December Full Moon. I said I’ve always wanted to do one of those runs. I said there’s no time like the present. I said yes.

Last night the skies were clear and the temperature was low. The wind was blowing and I thought to myself “this is either going to be really great, or really really bad”. My friend C and I rode down to MDI together, inventorying our clothing and footwear and post run hot drinks. We parked in the dark at the gated park road entrance, and I realized that by not being able to drive all the way to the base of the auto road, my accounting of the length of the run was off, and that it would be longer than the 6.5ish I had been planning on. I took a deep breath and pulled off my warm puffy jacket, and quickly slipped on my thinner running layers, multiple hoods, neck gaiter and hat. Soon after, we headed out into the darkness.

The road was a bit icy, and I was glad to be wearing a pair of yak tracks over my sneakers. All you could hear was the crunch crunch crinkle crinkle tap tap of various metal traction footwear devices as we made our way along the crusty pavement. With a thin coating of snow, and the moonlight in the sky, it was easy to see where you needed to go, and though I had my headlamp, there was no need to put it on. By the time we reached the start of the auto road proper, the pack of runners had opened up and spread out, as people warmed up and found their pace. My pace was decidedly at the back of the pack. Couch time may have allowed my body to recover and rebuild, but it didn’t do anything for my speed. C and I made our way up the long straightaways of Cadillac’s road, and the moon peeked over the shoulder of the mountain bringing the snow covered landscape into sharp focus. We’d been told that after we came around the sharp corner by the waterfall the wind would be bad, and it was. It blew straight down that stretch of road, directly into our faces. It was a cold winter wind that forced you to cover your skin and draw your hands into your jacket sleeves, and gave you an ice cream headache from the outside, even through your wool hat.

The higher on the mountain we ran, the more of the moon we saw, until we came around one open corner and the view across Frenchman Bay stopped me in my tracks. The full moon shining on open ocean and the lights in the distance from off shore islands made me feel small and alone and so very alive. The whole coast of Maine presented itself in that shimmering silvery view; stretched out in front of me was a glory I would never have seen had I not been running up a mountain under a clear December sky filled with moonlight. C and I talked about the times in our lives when we were not sure we would ever be able to run again, to do anything as wild again as run into the cold stark beauty of a moonlit night, and how thankful we were to be there in that moment, doing that thing we once thought we might not be able to do. It makes it hard to say no, when the opportunity arises, and the capacity is there. There’s no reason to say no, when every thing says yes.

We made it through the last switchback, with its multiple false corners, and came up on the flats that lead to the summit parking lot, catching up with the rest of the crew who were looping around, taking the short few steps through the snow drifts to the summit plateau before regrouping and heading back down. C and I hung with the big (fast) dogs for a while—its easier to keep up when you aren’t fighting gravity, and when they gradually pulled away we kept up our quicker pace. We were probably half way down the mountain when one of C’s slip on running shoe ice creepers came off, and she realized that the other one was missing, slipped off somewhere on the mountain above us in the dark. It occurred to me that it was likely buried in that one snow drift at the summit we had stepped through on our way to the tippy top, and as we turned around to head back up the mountain on an ice creeper rescue mission, I heard my internal GPS recalculating the distance once again.

It quickly became clear that I wasn’t going to run all the way back up Cadillac, so I let C go ahead and I continued on at a walking pace. As her headlamp advanced further ahead of me and then disappeared, I realized I had not felt so alone, yet so ok with it, in a long, long time. As I walked into the shadows, and back out into the moonlight, the snow less crunchy now and my footsteps quiet, I thought about my time and place at that moment. One person on the mountain above me, many more below me on the road headed down and in the houses whose lights I could see all around along the roads and shorelines. In the space stretched between those people, the person above and the ones below was me, one infinitesimal being, one small spot of living warmth moving through the cold and dark. The not knowing was exceedingly freeing, not knowing what would happen to C, not knowing what I would do if she didn’t come back. Perhaps that is the essence of true adventure, not knowing what you are going to do until you do it.

I walked up until I got cold, and I mustered the strength to run again, continuing to nearly the top, when I saw C’s silhouette moving towards me. Ice creeper rescued from the snowdrift, we headed back down the mountain, to find the big (fast) dogs waiting to make sure we made it safely back, (bless them).

Today my legs gave me the final calculus; the run was much longer than I had promised them it would be. But I’ve missed the stiffness and soreness that comes from adventure, it’s so much better than the ache that comes from sitting at a desk or lying on the couch. The tightness in my legs today served to remind me of how much fun that was, of how alone doesn’t always mean lonely, and how resilient our remarkable bodies are, able to carry our warm flesh into dark and moonlit places, over snow and ice and up mountains, to fly our souls out over the Atlantic born on north west winds. I’m already dreaming of the full moon in January. I hope it’s clear that night.



Sarah O'Malley

About Sarah O'Malley

Sarah is a science educator, naturalist, writer, tide pool fanatic and burgeoning obsessive trail runner. From personal experience she believes strongly in the restorative power of contact with nature, especially experiences that make your heart beat a little faster or get your hands and feet dirty. She lives on the Blue Hill peninsula with her husband and two dogs.