Be careful out there


On being cautious without running scared

When I decided to take up running late last May, the most common response I had from many of my women friends was the reminder-“Be careful of your knees.” I thought about my knees a lot as I plodded down the streets of my suburban neighborhood every morning, and by about midsummer, I realized they were probably going to be just fine. I started to feel much stronger, more energetic, empowered in my newfound physical activity, waking at 4:50 a.m. to get outside before the rest of the world, feeling like I owned the street.

As I grew more comfortable with the physical act of running, I was reminded of other running risks: Running in extremely hot weather, for example, required certain precautions, as did running in the rain. Over the course of four months, while on foot, I have been nearly hit by cars, chased by dogs, and honked at and shouted at through open truck windows more times than I care to remember. I’ve learned to plan, to react, to sidestep and ignore in response.

But even with the occasional dog and the jeers from the road, I have felt, happily, for the most part, safe.

Over the last few weeks, though, I’ve become more cautious; my worries have shifted. Summer in itself is gracious-the warmth, the slower pace, the easy early morning light all make early morning and late evening outside activities not only pleasant, but possible. But as the end of August crept up, I hadn’t thought about the fact that daylight would be arriving later and later, while my work hours and commute time remained unyieldingly the same. I hadn’t considered how I might feel as a woman, running alone in the early morning dark, until I found myself one morning doing just that.

At first I was cavalier-I’ll just start my run later, I reasoned. I bumped up my start time, synched up to the sunrise at 5:30, 5:50, and finally to 6 a.m., as late a start as I could take. Armed with my keys in one hand and a cell phone in the other, I began my new routine, a cautious jog down the shadowy sidewalk, navigating by way of streetlights and sticking to well-traveled thoroughfares.

On only my second week of this schedule, a car slowed next to me, a single man in the car, passenger window open. We made eye contact and I kept moving, watched the car cruise ahead and disappear around the corner, only to circle the block and repeat the encounter, once again slowing as it pulled up next to me.

My sixth sense went into overdrive. I pulled out my cell phone, ready to hit 911 on my speed dial. There were houses in back of me, I knew, all easy enough to make a bolt to for a possible escape. I tried to gauge which front door might be the most responsive to early morning pounding, remembered reading somewhere that people respond more quickly to shouts of “Fire!” than shouts of “Help!” All of this sped through my mind in a split second. Then the car screeched away with an unnecessary gunning of the engine, leaving me alone on the sidewalk.

Mine is, fortunately, one of those “what if” stories, barely even a close call. Nothing happened. I was untouched, unharmed. But as I continued home, I found myself intent on catching the sound of a car slowing down behind me, straining my ears for a rustle in the bushes or keys jangling and the sound of distinctly non-running shoes. I deliberately crossed the street to avoid a wooded area, felt compelled to run in the road against the traffic rather than on the hedge-lined sidewalk.

I reached home, exhausted, but fine, knowing if I were to continue running the only time available to me were those early morning hours. While I had spent weeks “being careful of my knees,” I had somehow missed the boat on simply being careful, and that would have to change; my headphones would need to be left at home, my ID carried at all times, a whistle or noisemaker invested in, an occasional running partner found.

Rather than empowered, this particular run left me feeling entirely different than why I normally wake up to pull on my shoes and sweaty clothes each morning. It felt, instead, like a wake-up call to my own self-admitted complacency about safety, a call far less about the hazards of being a runner, I’m afraid, than about the hazards of being a woman.

Tami Mohamed Brown lives in Bloomington with her family.