It was 2:30 in the morning, and I couldn’t get comfortable. My legs had an odd, yet vaguely familiar feeling in them, like I couldn’t fully extend them. Then it occurred to me this strange phenomena was muscle pain.

Apparently the running hiatus over the holidays had taken its toll.

Monday was my first run of the new year. I had been gazing out my window periodically, watching the farmers cutting down trees in Snail Forest. I was hesitant to run while they were there. It wasn’t that I didn’t want them to think I was crazy, as it is much too late for that, it’s just that I didn’t know how slippery the road was, and I didn’t want to do a faceplant right in front of them.

By the time the kids finished their schoolwork, the farmers had vacated the forest. So, I donned my new neon green jacket and set out at a brisk walk.

After ¼ mile of warming up, the paved portion of the trail came to an end. I could either follow the road to the left, or continue forward, along a packed path blazed by tractors.

Since I don’t enjoy running on the narrow country roads, recently made even narrower by enormous amounts of unplowed snow, I opted for the road less traveled.

I followed the tractor path until suddenly, the marks veered off to the right, in a direction I didn’t want to go.

I had run this path enough times to do it blindfolded, and the snow didn’t look too deep, so I kept going forward. I was quickly punching through the crunchy crust up to my ankles. I worked on getting my knees up, which was fun until I punched through snow up to my knees.

My heartrate skyrocketed. I briefly thought of what it would be like to call in an airlift on my iPhone, or if that was even possible: “Hello? Can you send a helicopter to the country road next to the line of apple trees?”

I stopped running and walked through the snow like a show pony with a high-stepping trot.

After a quarter of a mile, I arrived at the cutoff for the tree-lined road. The snow had melted, exposing the gravel below. It was another crossroads: I could turn left towards town and traffic, or I could continue deeper into the countryside. Ahead of me, the only thing to distinguish path from field was a rambling swath of deer tracks. 

The deer are a sort of talisman for me—they have been known to encourage and inspire me at moments when I felt like giving up, and now their tracks appeared, leading me forward.

As long as I followed the tracks, no matter how wildly they swung from one side of the path to the other, I could run without stumbling. As soon as I took a more “direct” route, I plunged into snow past my ankles.  

As I ran, I felt a sense of reverence, as I realized the only tracks visible would be hoofprints punctuated with Mizuno tread. No tractors, no boot prints, nor any tell-tale sign of dogs—just the deer and I, running across the snowy hills.

Upon reaching the muddy farm road, I saw a large group of deer, more than I’d ever seen in all my runs, standing nobly at the top of the hill.

Every day you wake up at a crossroads: you can grab a box of highly processed factory food, punch a hole in the cellophane, toss it in the microwave, and eat it while sitting in front of the TV; or you can experiment with new recipes, learn to throw together whole foods, so you have adequate energy for your workout, which there’s no doubt you will do.

Few travelers choose to follow the healthy road because with every uncomfortable step, there is the chance you may fall on your face.

While the easy path is more comfortable, the challenging path yields the most satisfying, most enduring rewards.

As for me…

“I took the road less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”

Robert Frost was right.