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Running Scared: What Do You Do To Protect Yourself When You Workout? [Or: How do you deal with fear of the unknown??]

Posted Aug 19 2013 2:12am

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Forget night swimming REM, night running has always been my favorite nocturnal sport. There’s just something about running through an unlit night, the inky blackness completely obliterating my body until I feel incorporeal. Dispossessed. Airborne. In the sense of flying, yes, but also that I feel born of air. I’m elegant in ways that I never can be in daylight. I’m light and quick through the dark, a sure-footed sprite.

That is until I trip over a tree root and face plant.

Oh and did I mention that I like to do my night running set to Orff’s “Carmina Burana” or Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite? (Lie: It’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King”. Of course it is.) Very very loudly. And with no reflective gear, save the glow of my pale legs? And preferably in the mountains or the forest? It’s the closest I get to real magic.

It’s probably also the closest I get to really putting myself in danger too which is why I’ve not done it in years. And that’s a travesty because I used to love it.

The mountain lion is what killed it for me. (Not literally although that would make for a more exciting story! … And then I DIED.) In college, I used to run at night through the mountains, geekily imagining myself to be a wood nymph or whatever until a mountain lion started showing up on the trail. I’d never seen him but after he pounced on a couple of runners – nobody died thank heavens – signs began popping up all over the trail telling runners to steer clear, not run alone, wear a paper mask on the back of your head (seriously – it was something about cougars only attacking from behind so if you had a face on the back of your head you were safe?) etc. Not long after that a girl from another college went for a run in the foothills and never came home. At first it was thought to be a random kidnapping but after they found her body in a dumpster, it was discovered that she was murdered by her lying piece of work husband. Even though I knew cougar attacks were very rare and even though I wasn’t married to a murderer, it was still enough to put me off running alone at night for good.

But when we moved to Colorado, the mountains tempted me. So near to my home! So full of trails! So wildly beatiful! And so also a murder crime scene. We’d heard of the Jessica Ridgeway case last year all the way in Minnesota. It was national heartbreaking news. (You can read about it  here , if you’re not familiar with the case. TL;DR: Sweet little girl kidnapped on her way to school, brutally murdered.) But I hadn’t realized that it had all happened so close to my new home until one day a friend and I went running through her memorial park. Turns out I can point to the place where they found her body from my front porch. Our neighbors remember the police tramping through their yard and dredging the nearby pond looking for her. Every time I think of it I start shaking. And a terrifying footnote to the case was that prior to abducting the 10-year-old girl, the killer had tried to grab a young woman running alone on a nearby trail. (She fought him off and escaped unharmed.) That kind of makes me want to throw up.

Now. I get it. Bad things happen everywhere. The teenage boy (being tried as an adult) who did this particular crime is safely locked up. It’s a one-off. It’s sad but it’s done. He can’t hurt me or my kids or anyone else here. And yet it still shook me. I feel things like this very deeply. Part of it was my own escape from my abusive ex-boyfriend who, if you recall, threatened to kill me in a very grisly manner. But it goes deeper than that. I don’t even remember the first time I learned that this world is a less safe place to live in if you’re a girl. Thanks to some early heartbreaking events in my childhood – which I won’t detail as they involve the abuse of someone very close to me and that is not my story to tell – I was disillusioned very young. And it’s been a lesson that’s stuck with me – above and beyond individual horror stories – in a very visceral way. It’s hard for me to feel safe. It’s very easy for me to feel unsafe. This hair-trigger panic – I know it’s annoying, both to me and to my friends. But maybe it serves a protective purpose? That’s the thing about dodged bullets – you rarely know how close they’ve passed you by. You only know if you get hit.

And yet there are so many possibilities on a night run, of which tragedy is only one. In the realm of danger I’m far more likely to be hurt by my own stupidity (see: tree roots, uneven pavement, untied laces). There’s the risk of getting hit by a car or dangerously dehydrated or lost or even of snapping your Achille’s tendon in a marathon, like my dad did. Oh and all the animals! So many ways to get hurt! And yet. The vast majority of us runners are just fine. It’s all about what you find an acceptable risk.

Me, I probably draw the line a little closer than most people would. (Come on, it’s me! Paranoia would be my stripper name!) But I have kids that need me to come home so risk is something I don’t indulge in much. These days I basically don’t run alone. If I do end up solo one morning I stick to busy roads in neighborhoods I know. I still listen to music (so I don’t have to listen to the sound of my own breathing!!) but I keep my volume down low. I take my cell phone. I plan for water. I stay on sidewalks and wear bright colors. I give dogs a wide berth. If I’m coming out of the gym, I keep my head up and pay attention in the parking lot.  I take Krav Maga .

And I always run in daylight. Even though it doesn’t feel at all like flying.

What, if any, precautions do you guys take when you run or workout? Anyone else gotten overly spooked by a crime story? How do you balance risk in your workouts? And what’s your verdict: do you always run the same route so your loved ones always know where you are or do you always vary your route so that psychos can’t follow you? (I hate it when safety tips are mutually exclusive!!)

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