Friday, October 28, 2016

Freedom, Not Fear

I saw the lights of the pick-up truck in the cool, dark morning long before it drove past me. Heading south toward the intersection of the street and the park, I assumed the driver was a groundskeeper or the like. It's not unusual to see someone unlock the bathroom facilities or head on the park path toward the club path in the early morning.

But as I made my way to the outer edges of the park on a pre-dawn run – a solo outing that life necessitated – I was a bit surprised to see that the truck didn't turn right into the park and nor did the driver stop at the bathroom facility. With each step I took, I waited to see the headlights come toward me and the driver leaving the area, certainly having made a wrong turn.

Unnerved. Unsettled.

I could feel a heaviness grow in my abdomen as I passed the truck, parked off the road and under some trees – beyond the parking area, beyond the baseball diamonds, beyond anything notable. Even in the middle of the day, there are few reasons to park there. And yet, there was the truck.

My breathing grew labored, my pace quickened and my chin took up residence on my shoulder. "This is it," I thought. "This is it."

I shouldn't have ran this way, I chided myself. I should have headed north on the road alongside the park. I should have stayed in the neighborhood. I should not have taken this section of trail that is unlit and leading away from the park. I know better.

I just needed to get to the cut off, where I could slip from the trail onto a sidewalk that led me into a tony neighborhood. A safe neighborhood. A place where I would never think to look over my shoulder.

But as I got closer to that spot, I saw something in the distance. I couldn't tell if it was the fear that, at this point, had consumed me. I didn't know whether it was an animal, a shadow, a tree.

Soon, I knew. I knew it all.

It was a man, the driver of the truck, walking with his dog. He stepped aside and said hello, allowing me to pass.

I wanted to ask what he was doing there, why he was out walking in the dark, but he would be entitled to ask me the same. I had no more right to be on that trail than he did.

Dorothy Beal, whom I met years ago at Hood to Coast and have kept in touch with via social media, recently penned a post for about what it's like to be a female runner {read it HERE}. The piece paints a frightening image of being followed, harassed, objectified and scared – things that are all too familiar. The stories, the attacks, the fear. And it can change how you run. It can change you.

But as I read the piece, and let it be said that I respect her perspective, all I could think about is that it's a terrible way to feel. I want to feel freedom when I run, not frightened.

And it's a choice I have to make every time I head out by myself.

When I pass someone on a park bench as I run on the outskirts of downtown during lunch, I don't think about him noticing my phone or pricey watch. I refuse to picture him jumping from the bench and grabbing me. Sure, it could happen. However, I think about why he's there. It could be sad or sinister or completely harmless. Just as I have a right to run and feel secure, he has a right to be there and not to be criminalized.

When a passing driver honks, I take a deep breath and keep my composure and pray for his sanity. If my sweaty self is what he thinks is worthy of such actions, then he needs help.

When I pass a man who looks like an "undesirable," ruffled and scuffled, I take a deep breath, continue at my pace and wave. He is a person. He is someone I do not know – and that should not make me scared. It should make me open to accepting his story and his circumstances.

Maybe it's my stepfather who led me to this perspective. Rough around the edges with a gruff voice and thick beard, he would have been someone that made me scared to pass on the street. He didn't dress in fancy clothes, he didn't drive a nice car and he didn't have the best social skills. But there wasn't danger there; there was love and generosity. The other things were created by circumstance – tours in Vietnam, life as a prisoner of war, abuse in the VA system. His experiences were ones no one should ever have to live through and yet he did, and it's no wonder he was the way he was. It would not have been fair to him for someone to boil him down to a demon with male genitalia. It would not be fair to make him a rapist or a thief or a killer.

And, yes, it's not fair that we live in a world where things have happened to make us feel like we don't have any other option. But I am creating one.

So this week, as I ran along the trail and under a bridge, I didn't speed up or head to the trail spur when I saw someone up ahead. I lifted my hand, put a smile on my face and brought the words "Good morning" to my lips. I said a prayer for him and for myself that the day would treat us kindly.

And I continued on.


  1. I love this. I think there's a balance between running smart (being aware of your environment, choosing when/where you run, wearing a light) and running free. I agree with you - I try to say hello to people I pass and not assume they are "up to no good."

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  3. These are some of the same things I tell my husband every morning I head out for a run in the dark. I refuse to allow myself to be scared. I run smart (no headphones, running light, aware of my surroundings) and try to think about everyone's personal situation instead of demonizing them. Thanks for putting my thoughts and words to the page!

  4. Great post! I think we've all been there at some point. I've altered my route before to avoid that troubling feeling from my gut!