Shutting off trail running snake paranoia

Here’s a running improvement made during injury rehab: Thanks to a little brain rewiring project, I realized the other day while jogging the cross-country course with Colleen that I’m no longer paranoid about the possibility of encountering a snake on the trail.

To be clear: We didn’t actually see a snake, and I’m not sure how I would’ve reacted if we had.

The difference is simply that I wasn’t crippled with paranoia the whole time — which not only makes for a more enjoyable run but makes it more likely that I’ll venture off the pavement more often in the future.

The brain rewiring itself was a pretty simple fix, in retrospect. But getting to the point where I recognized the specific problem took several weeks – long enough for a meandering conversation about why my nephew fears spiders but not snakes to jell in my brain.

On that Fourth of July hike to Abrams Falls in the Great Smoky Mountains, I was picking Riley’s brain, trying to figure out how his perception differed from mine. At the time I couldn’t understand why on the one hand he said snakes didn’t bother him, but then admitted that on one occasion – when he was startled at the lake the previous summer by a fat black snake all coiled up and aggressive looking near his foot — he did feel momentarily “creeped out.”

Retreating briefly to summon his brothers and a cousin, that spike of tension turned into curiosity and excitement as they captured and killed the snake, which they then dissected. There was a moment there where he could’ve legitimately experienced fear; he could’ve been bitten. But that brief flicker of tension never rose to the level of fear, and it wasn’t strong enough to imprint that emotion on either that specific memory or on his opinion of snakes in general. Most of the snakes he’d encountered in his 16 years had been harmless garden snakes, and so that was the image that came to mind whenever he heard the word “snake.” Whereas spiders tended to startle him by crawling on his arm or dangling in his face, the appearance of a snake simply aroused his curiosity.

My default setting of a snake, on the other hand, was of a big, fast aggressive blue racer. I’d had a couple of encounters with these as a young child. In the most memorable encounter, at a relative’s pond, my Uncle Dan somehow grabbed hold of the speedy snake and dashed its head against a tree. I was horrified by both the snake’s aggression and the violent act that ended its life. And this image, rather than of the slow, small garter snakes I’ve seen much more frequently over the years, is the one that remained stuck in my brain.

Consequently, for the next 40-odd years, whenever I was required to walk through ankle-high grass or a woods or any other place where a snake might be lurking, I would go into red-alert mode. I can’t tell you how many trips to the compost bin in the far corner of our back yard I avoided over the years – or how many times I made excuses not to do a trail run, no matter how much I might’ve wanted to enjoy the scenery and soft surfaces.

So how did I manage to change this default setting? The biggest thing was realizing what the problem was. Then I simply visualized clicking on the image of a more benign-looking snake, much the way you’d change a default image associated with a bank account. After that, every time I walked or jogged through grass or the woods, I’d focus on the new image, imagining a small garter snake scrambling to flee in its pitifully slow gear as my thundering feet approached.

This new mindset acknowledges the possibility of getting bitten – any animal might bite if it feels threatened – but it doesn’t skew the potential danger way out of proportion to the actual risk.

It feels like a huge improvement. It will be interesting to see how this works out the next time I actually see a snake for real.

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