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An Interesting Thing I Learned About Snakes and Life While Trail Running

June 22, 2019

 

You discover things while trail running. And I don't just mean things like, "Peanut butter granola and Gatorade are two tastes that do NOT go well together," or "Wow, I never knew my body could chafe in those places." I mean things that are actually, truly interesting.

 

Like the lesson I learned last summer. 

 

It happened midway through my run, on a single-track trail winding up a rocky hill. As I cleared the top, high-stepping over the stones, I heard a distinct rattling sound ahead to my left. 

 

R-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t. 

 

There are timber rattlesnakes in Connecticut, but I run in Fairfield County, which is generally outside their range. A rattler was unlikely. Still, I didn't need a venomous bite from some restless snake visiting from up north. So I stopped dead in my tracks and peered ahead, cautious.

 

Staring back at me...

 

...was a black rat snake, a totally different, completely non-venomous species that does NOT have a rattle, doing something I never knew rat snakes did: It was vibrating the tip of its pointy tail, knocking a rapid-fire tempo against the dead leaves on the forest floor. 

 

R-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t. 

 

Now, why would a rat snake do this? I had a theory, sure enough verified by Google when I got home, and here's the answer: Because it made me stop. The rat snake mimics the sound of an actual rattlesnake as a deterrent to predators (and pesky trail runners). We hear a rattling-type noise by our feet, and our survival instincts kick in: Get the hell out of here. Even though we're safe.

 

The rat snake has life-hacked evolution.

 

So, that's a pretty nifty nature lesson. But one aspect of running I love is that even such small learnings can often be extrapolated into larger, more meaningful insights about living our lives. What can we learn from this strange tale of a snake-pretending-to-be-a-more-dangerous-snake?

 

I think of all the times in my life I've thought I heard a similar "rattle" – the sound of my own fears calling out a warning as ahead of me loomed relationships, fatherhood, projects at the office, races, college financing, deadlines, social events. My anxious brain can turn any of those into a deadly snake lurking in the grass. Even as I write this, I have a work presentation tomorrow that is chattering a loud, dire R-t-t-t-t-t-t-t in my head. I imagine the worst outcome – failure, embarrassment, doom – and want to turn, sprint in the other direction to avoid the bite.

 

And yet... I press on. The moment comes, I round the bend... and none of those things are rattlesnakes. Just harmless pretenders, shaking their tails to sound scary. I run by, unscathed.

 

That's the real lesson here. When your insecurities make ugly noise, ask yourself: Is there really a danger, a legitimate reason to fret, or is this just a non-rattlesnake playing a trick?

 

I'm glad I didn't fall for the bluff. I would have missed so many beautiful miles of the trail.

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© 2018 Vincent Zito